Sunday, December 31, 2017

Resolutions of Gratitude

Sermon from Sunday, Dec. 31, 2017
John 1:1-18; Galatians 3:23-25,4:4-7

Well, it’s a week after Christmas Eve, a week since the miracle of Love coming down to us.  That miracle is just the start, of course; in the Gospel stories about Jesus, we hear about lots of miracles.  In fact, we hear about miracles so often that they almost seem commonplace.  “Blah, blah, blah; the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the dead are raised; blah, blah, blah….” 
But what we don’t hear is what the formerly blind man or the healed woman is doing a week later.  My guess is that, after those miracles, the people involved were still trying to process it all, trying to make sense of some incredible thing that had happened.  They probably looked back to the stories of their tradition to help them understand why and how God had healed them.  And they probably asked the question, “OK, God – now what am I supposed to do?”
That’s what we’re doing here this morning, too.  Last Sunday and Monday, we heard about astounding things.  A virgin gave birth to a king, “and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:33).  Angels appeared to a bunch of frightened shepherds, singing God’s praises and telling them God’s anointed king was lying in a feed box in a dirty stable.  Just as amazing, the shepherds went to Bethlehem and found the baby just as the angels said.  The Son of God has come into our world to save us.
So, last Sunday was the time for praise and awe; today is the day for theological reflection.  And to help us with that, we’re given the prologue to the Gospel of John.  Though it may not have sounded like it, the Gospel reading this morning is John’s version of the Christmas story.  John never mentions the baby or the shepherds or the kings or a virgin giving birth.  Instead, John begins his story long before that: “In the beginning” – back to the Book of Genesis, the book of beginnings. 
“In the beginning was the Word,” John says.  Not the written word, not the books of Scripture that we read, but the Word, the Logos, the power through which God created the universe and holds it in order.  All things came into being through this Word of God; and without it, life simply would not be.  When God said, “Let there be light,” (Genesis 1:3), it was the Word of God that brought the light of life to the universe.  Without the Word, darkness would overcome the light every time.
And this divine Word through which God creates and recreates everything “became flesh and lived among us,” John says (1:14).  It’s like imagining all the power and light and heat of our sun being bottled up in a single light bulb.  In that one baby in the manger, in that one man teaching and healing in the villages of Galilee, John says we have seen the glory of God’s creative Word, “the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth” (1:14).  “No one has ever seen God,” John admits.  But this human being, who seems so normal at first glance, this human being “is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart [and] who has made [God] known” to us (1:18).
So, in the clear light of the week after Christmas, we can see a little better just who this miracle baby really is.  But that’s not all.  John takes it one step further and answers the question that has to come eventually for anyone who considers actually believing the Christmas story.  And that question is this: So what?  OK, maybe the Word of God has come to take flesh and dwell in the world.  Maybe this baby is exactly who John says he is.  But what difference does that make?  What’s in it for me?
In a nutshell, here’s the difference it makes: It means salvation.  And that means complete healing.  It means a second chance to be who we were created to be in the first place, when God made us in God’s own image.  We turn away from that and reject the identity God has in mind for us.  We turn to ourselves and our own desires, even to the extent that when this true light of God came into the world in Jesus, “the world did not know him.  He came to what was his own,” John says, “and his own people did not accept him.” (1:10-11) 
And so it is with us.  We see the light of God breaking into the darkness around us, and we hear the Word of God calling out to us; but too often we choose emptiness of our own making.  We seek the happiness of the moment.  We measure our value by how we look or how perfect our lives seem.  We grow up damaged by our childhoods, having watched the people we love hurt themselves and each other, and we swear we’ll never be like them.  But then we live out the pathologies we’ve learned anyway, and we add to them a new one – the pathology of shame as we see the ways we fall short, too.
But because of that baby in the manger, because the Word of God became flesh and dwelled among us, saying “no” to God doesn’t have to be our final answer.  Every year at this season, we get another chance to open ourselves up and let the Word of God take flesh in us.  To all who receive him, John says, to all who believe in his name, Jesus gives power to become children of God, to be reborn not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of people, but reborn of God (1:12-13).  The Word became flesh and dwelt among us so that we could see what we were missing – and choose that instead.
Years ago, I saw a church sign at Christmastime that read, “Remember: It’s Jesus’ birthday, not yours.”  In a sense, of course, that sign was dead on.  We need to hear the call to get over ourselves and remember that Christmas isn’t about how many presents we get.  But in another sense, that sign missed something important, because Christmas actually is about us.  This celebration of Jesus’ birth is also a celebration of our rebirth as the creatures God intended us to be: God’s children and heirs of eternal life.  Here’s how Paul puts it in the reading from Galatians this morning: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, … so that we might receive adoption as [God’s] children [and receive] the Spirit of his Son into our hearts…” (Galatians 4:4-6).  When we bring Jesus into our hearts and into our lives, when let the Lord actually govern us, then God breathes new life into us, filling us with the Spirit we were made to enflesh. 
And as we stand here at the threshold of a new year, we have the perfect opportunity to put that new life into action.  It’s resolution time.  Now, I know resolutions are notoriously hard to keep, and I am just as guilty as anyone else of resolving to work out or lose weight and then losing my resolve after a couple of weeks (or less) – and then feeling worse about myself than I did before.  But this year, I’m taking a different approach.  I’m committing to ride an exercise bike.  That doesn’t sound much different than most resolutions, but here’s where I think the difference lies.  I’m not just doing this because I think I “should.”  I’m doing it as a thank-you gift to God for the new life of love I’ve been given, for being God’s child redeemed by Love itself. 
So, here’s my New Year’s wish for you: that your resolutions might not hang over you with the weight of unfulfilled promises, but that they might serve as offerings to God in thanksgiving for who you are – a beloved child giving a gift of gratitude to the parent who loves you more than you can imagine.  In this new year, may you live boldly as God’s new creation, and may the true light that enlightens the world flash like fire from your eyes.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Crazy Love

Sermon for Christmas Eve 2017
Luke 2:1-14

This is a night of crazy love.  In the midst of everything else you have on your heart and mind tonight, I’d ask you to stop for a moment and consider whether this makes any sense at all:  In a particular historical moment, specifically while some guy named Quirinius was governor of Syria, the Creator and Sovereign of the Universe decided it was a good idea to experience being human in order to save humans from the powers of sin and death that beat us down.  And not just that:  The Creator and Sovereign of the Universe decided the best way to do that was to be born to an unwed teenaged peasant oppressed by a foreign empire, in a day when medical infrastructure looked like pieces of cloth wrapped around a baby screaming in a barn.  This is how the Creator and Sovereign of the Universe decided to experience human life in order to save us: from the bottom up, from the inside out.  The theologians call it the doctrine of the Incarnation, but I call it crazy love – love that bends our minds even as we come here tonight to bend our knees.
I’ve had some glimpses of crazy love in my life.  Mostly, they’ve come from my parents.  My parents are older now and slowing down, but what I remember is love they drew from a well whose depth I can only hope to fathom.  My mother raised four kids, working as a teacher through several of those years; yet what I remember is her presence – reading to me every night, playing games, taking me to the library or the zoo, encouraging me to ask questions and explore.  My father was a university dean, doing the thankless work of administration with such taxing honor that his colleagues gave him the nickname, “Spike the Just.”  Yet, I remember him being there with me when he came home from work, playing catch in the backyard.  On a wall in my house is a fading photo from about 1970 of my father and me sitting at a campfire we’d built on a cold Colorado morning, warming our hands in mirror image and grinning the same grin that says, life doesn’t get any better than this.  In every way imaginable, my parents have given themselves to the four of us kids, then and now.  Being their child has been like living the last scene of the movie It’s a Wonderful Life.  And when I’ve told them how I feel incapable of ever paying them back, they say, of course, that’s not the point.  The point is to pay it forward with my kids … and with the world around me.  It’s crazy love, accounting that only makes sense in God’s economy.
Here’s what I’ve learned from my parents:  Their unconditional love is a glimpse, a sacrament, of God’s unconditional love.  And what that means, as hard as it is to say it out loud, is that I hold immeasurable value in God’s eyes.  There is nothing and no one that matters more to God; nothing and no one that stirs God’s heart more deeply.  And the same is true for you.  I don’t care who you are, or what you’ve done, or what you haven’t done – it is the truth, the fundamental truth of this holy night, that God loves you immeasurably.  Like any parent, God’s disappointed in you sometimes.  God’s heart may even ache tonight, wishing to see you coming down the road back home.  But God never gives up on you.  And you never cease being worth all that crazy love.
And you know, the same is true about the person sitting next to you.  And the person sitting down the pew.  And the person sitting on the couch back home.  And the person sitting at an empty bar, with no one to go home to.  And the person sleeping on the street, freezing tonight.  And the person lying in an Alzheimer’s unit.  And the person running away from the cops.  And the person crying because she can’t afford to buy her daughter a Christmas present.  God loves each of them a million times more than my parents love me. 
That is the gift of Christmas: love you can never earn, and love you can never repay.  All you can do is love someone else in return. 
Deep down, we all know that.  But what does that love look like? 
Our cherished images of Christmas tell us the story, like Christmas cards hanging on the doorways of our lives.  Think about A Christmas Carol, with Ebenezer Scrooge seeing the emptiness of his life, receiving the gift of a second chance, and finally sending the prize turkey to Tiny Tim and his family.  Think about It’s a Wonderful Life, with the self-sacrificing George Bailey wanting to kill himself for a life insurance payout but finding his friends rallying around, and showering him with love, and showing him he’s the richest man in town.  You know the story, told a hundred ways:  Life shortchanges you, or you shortchange others.  You feel your heart held captive, and you start to lose hope.  You can’t even see what redemption looks like, and you can’t imagine it coming to you.  And then God acts.
In the great, cosmic story of redemption we hear tonight, God announces divine action through angels visiting shepherds, with the whole host of the heavenly army turned into a glee club, stepping aside from the battle against sin and death to let a tiny child do the work instead.  And in that child, God comes as the true emperor, the one to show that Caesar is a cheap fraud, the one to free us from the power of evil and sin and death, vanquishing those powers at Easter.  But God does it in the last way anyone would’ve guessed.  In the words of the ancient carol we’ll hear in a few minutes, “This little babe so few days old is come to rifle Satan’s fold; / All hell doth at his presence quake, though he himself for cold [doth] shake.”  In the deep mystery of love, God sends a little child to do a conqueror’s work.
Though it’s crazy, it’s a pattern of love we can trust and from which God calls us to act.  Love is what changes the world.  Love is what frees us from the disfigured shadows of ourselves that life can turn us into.  Love is what changes the heart of Ebenezer Scrooge, and warms the heart of George Bailey, to live into the fullness of whom God’s created them to be.  Love comes from people we don’t expect to see, in places we don’t expect to find them, to fill holes in our hearts we never knew were there. 
That happened to me at the Free Store this Wednesday – and I imagine most of us who went there to give out clothes and talk to clients could tell our own story of unexpected love that came down that day.  One of our volunteers introduced me to a client.  The man looked at me and asked, “Can I trust you?”  And I said, “Well, if you can’t, I might as well just go on home now because trust is pretty much all I’ve got to work with.”  So the client replied, “I have a little feedback about this project, for you to consider for next year.”  And I thought, “OK, what did we do wrong…?”  But the man said, “Everything here is great, and I really appreciate it.  But next year, put out an offering box so we can help out, so we can give back.”  Then he handed me six dollars and said, “Here.  Use this as your first donation toward next year.”
That is God’s crazy love, a divine mystery we come to know best through flesh and bones.  Through people no better than ourselves.  Through the divine mystery of Incarnation: that the very essence of God’s being, love itself, comes to dwell among us and within us, stirring our stiff hearts to remember, form deep within our divine DNA, that we were created by Love for love.  In fact, the instrument of choice for accomplishing God’s grandest and most eternal purpose is … you.  Just as God comes into the world as a baby shivering in the cold, so God comes to you tonight, aching to be born anew.  And in your mundane flesh and bones, in your sometimes cold, cold heart, the Word takes flesh and dwells among us once again.
My parents were right.  I can never pay them back.  I can never return the love they’ve given me.  But I can take that love and show up for someone else, thousands of times over.  None of us can fix the world, but we can love it, one child of God at a time.  We can show up when someone is sick.  We can stay in relationship when our selfish hearts tell us to run.  We can show our children what it looks like to love, no matter what.  We can talk to a stranger who lives on the street.  We can get to know someone God brings into this church.  We can follow God’s lead, on this holy night, and love the world precisely as we find it, one broken person at a time.  As crazy as it sounds, that’s how Love saves the world today.  God wants nothing more than to share your life, and shape your heart, and take your flesh, and be born tonight, in you.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Road Trips to the Wilderness

Sermon for Dec. 10, 2017
Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8

On Monday, I drove to Springfield to see my parents.  The day began in some anxiety.  I felt like I needed to go see my parents, that this was an important time for me to show up, not just talk on the phone.  At the same time, nine hours of driving and chatting and driving some more was a lot of time to be spending at a pretty busy season of the year … to say nothing about all the e-mails I haven’t been returning in any kind of timely way.  But I needed to take a road trip, so off I went.
Actually, I like driving.  I like having the space to listen to NPR and take in the wide-open countryside.  There are days when my perspective becomes pretty small, I’m afraid – only looking a couple of feet in front of me at a computer screen or a few more feet across the table at the other folks in that hour’s meeting.  It was good to look out farther, into the open space of late-autumn-into-winter, across the west Missouri countryside.
It was a dark day, as so many days are this time of year.  Clouds hung low in striations of slightly different shades of gray.  Bare trees poked into the gray; naked branches reaching up like black capillaries, the trees’ darkness broken only by a few ghostly gray trunks of sycamores among the oaks and hickory.  The ground added a little contrast – fields of short, light-brown grass, with slightly darker brown prairie grasses waving in the wind above it.  It all looked like an Andrew Wyeth painting, and just as cheery.
Though you’re never more than a few miles from a gas station and convenience store on this route, it was easy to imagine the landscape around me as wilderness.  Wilderness looks different in different geographies – sometimes dense forest, sometimes rugged hills, sometimes barren desert.  For me, the wilderness was west Missouri in early December, rolling by outside my car.
There’s something about the wilderness.  Sometimes it calls to us; sometimes it scares us to death.  But always it’s potent – a place of revelation, if we’re willing to let God be revealed.
A couple of our readings for this second Sunday of Advent take us to the wilderness.  There, in the windswept desert landscape of Judea, with rocks and dust all around and just a meager stream running through it, we come upon John the Baptist.  He’s there to “prepare the way of the Lord [and] make his paths straight” (Mark 1:3).  He calls God’s people to “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” and “people from the whole Judean countryside and … Jerusalem were going out to him … confessing their sins” and marking their repentance with a rebirth in the River Jordan (Mark 1:4-5).  Hearing this story may seem like an odd way to prepare for Christmas.  Here we are – shopping, trimming the tree, going to parties, minding our holiday business – and we run smack into a prophet dressed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist like the prophet Elijah from Israel’s history, eating locusts and wild honey rather than smoked salmon and Christmas cookies.  John the Baptist and his wilderness can certainly get in our way this time of year, like a drive through the west Missouri countryside we don’t have time for. 
But God puts John the Baptist into Advent for a reason, of course.  He is indeed preparing the way for the coming of the Messiah in the Gospel story, with John acting in Elijah’s role to signal the beginning of the end of the age.  But John the Baptist is out there in the wilderness for each one of us, too – waiting for us.  There’s something to the fact that John the Baptist sets up shop out in the desert, away from busy Jerusalem, away from the demands of every day.  John the Baptist doesn’t come knocking on our doors, delivering introspection and repentance like an Amazon box, left for our convenience.  Instead, John the Baptist makes people come out to the wilderness to find him.  And the amazing thing is, they go – “all the people of Jerusalem,” the Gospel writer says.  Sure, it’s hyperbole, but it makes the point:  Even the busy people of Jerusalem knew they needed a road trip to the wilderness.
And what happens there?  Is there something mystical and magical about the wilderness that lets us find God in a way we typically can’t?  You hear people talking and writing that way sometimes, and we might hear it in today’s Gospel story, too – all those people, heading to the wilderness in search of God.  But I don’t think that’s how it works.  At least that’s not how it works for me.  In the Andrew Wyeth landscape of a December west Missouri, God didn’t make some dramatic personal appearance.
So, what is it about the wilderness then?  Why do our Scriptures and our hearts take us there?  I think the first reading this morning gives us the clue.  Because in Isaiah’s poetry, we don’t hear about the people entering the wilderness to find God.  We hear about God entering the wilderness to find God’s people.  In this reading’s historical moment, the people of Israel are in exile, held captive in Babylon after erring and straying from God’s ways like lost sheep over the centuries.  But now the time has come, says a voice from heaven.  “Comfort, O comfort my people,” the heavenly messenger tells the prophet.  “In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” (Isaiah 40:1,3)  The mountains shall be plowed down, and the rocky valleys shall be filled, and God will come across the desert toward Babylon to lead the captive people back home.  “The Lord God comes with might” to “gather the lambs in his arms” and set them free, the prophet says (Isaiah 40:10-11).  The people aren’t heading to the wilderness to find a God they’ve lost.  God heads into the wilderness to find the people God loves and longs for. 
But the irony is that the people had to lose something they held tightly before they could receive the healing return that God wanted to offer them.  It took the loss of their freedom and control during 50 years in exile before the people were ready to hear that they had served their term and their penalty was paid.  They had to lose the illusion of self-sufficiency, the conceit that they knew best, in order to make space for God to act.  And once they let it go, God came to bring them home.
I don’t know what you may need to lose this Advent, what you might be clinging to, but I’ll bet there’s something God’s asking you to let the River Jordan wash away.  For me, I think it might have to do with wanting to see things fit together neatly, wanting to see my work all sewn up.  I remember, three years ago, talking with a priest in Manchester, England, on my sabbatical, the Rev. Nick Bundock.  Nick and I were having lunch at a lovely spot in his church’s neighborhood, which reminded me so much of Brookside it was a little eerie.  We were talking about the challenges of parish ministry, and how to engage with people in the neighborhoods around our churches, and how to deal with impossible expectations … in other words, how to do this work faithfully.  Nick said, “You know, I spent a long time thinking my call was to sort things out for God.  God would show me some problem or challenge, and I would think, ‘I’ll take that on; let me manage that one for you.’  I think I’m finally realizing,” Nick said, “that God isn’t asking me to sort everything out.  God’s asking me to be there and help while he takes care of it.”  I felt like I was looking into a mirror across that lunch table.  But three years later, I’m still guilty of thinking I’m supposed to sort out the mess for God rather than working with God to love people through it.
That’s probably what I need to take to the River Jordan this Advent.  That’s probably the wilderness I need to open up for God to enter.  Because, like I said, it’s not so much about us going to the wilderness to find God; it’s about us inviting God into the wilderness we ourselves carry.  It’s about us preparing the way of the Lord in our own hearts and souls, making the rough places a plain so that the glory of the Lord may be revealed within them.
So, where’s your wilderness?  Finding it is not necessarily an easy journey, and my hunch is that you don’t have time to take it.  But this Advent, go ahead and take a road trip to find your wilderness.  Give yourself the early Christmas gift of looking honestly at your life and asking yourself, “Where do I need healing?  Where do I need grace?  Where am I trying too hard?  Where am I too scared to try hard enough?  What am I hanging onto so tightly that I can’t open my arms to the Lord who’s waiting there to embrace me?”
My guess is that, once you find your wilderness, the King shall come precisely within it.  As I left Springfield on Monday afternoon, the darkness of the day was just as deep as it had been that morning.  The browns and grays were all still there, the trees standing lifeless and the fields painted dirty beige.  Or, at least they were until the clouds gave way for a few moments.  And as they did, the Son repainted the scene.  The edges of the gray clouds were lit with pink and purple; and the dirty beige fields blazed gold; and the darker beige prairie grass blazed orange; and the sickly gray sycamore trunks shone silvery white.  And in the wilderness, the glory of the Lord was revealed.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

The Most Compelling Witness the World Has Ever Known

Sermon for St. Andrew's Sunday, Nov. 26, 2017
Matthew 4:18-22; John 1:35-42; Romans 10:8b-18

Here’s your bit of Bible trivia for this St. Andrew’s Sunday: Scripture gives us not one but two stories about how Andrew met Jesus and what Andrew did as a result. It’s something I love about Scripture, actually – that these two stories conflict with each other, and yet, there they are, right alongside one another in the Bible.
One is the story we just heard, from Matthew (and it’s in Mark’s Gospel, too). Jesus has been baptized and anointed with the Holy Spirit, and he’s spent 40 days in the wilderness struggling with Satan. Now he’s begun his public ministry, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (4:17). And as he walks by the Sea of Galilee, he sees a couple of brothers, Peter and Andrew, out fishing. Now, these guys must have heard Jesus preaching earlier, because they aren’t zombies, just following anyone who tells them to. But when Jesus makes the invitation, he sets the hook in these fishermen: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” (4:19). And “immediately, they left their nets” and began to follow him (4:20).
So that’s the story we heard today. The other version of this event comes from the Gospel of John. Again, John the Baptist is there, naming Jesus as God’s anointed. And again, soon afterward, Jesus is walking by, and two of John the Baptist’s disciples set out to follow Jesus instead. One of these two was Andrew; the other isn’t named. They ask Jesus what he’s doing and where he’s going, and Jesus just looks back at them and says, “Come and see” (1:39). So, they do, and they spend the day in the presence of the Son of God himself. When that amazing day is over, Andrew runs home to share what’s happened with the person he’s closest to, his brother, Peter; and he says to Peter, “We have found the Messiah!” (1:41). This is why, through Christian tradition, Andrew is remembered, first and foremost, for bringing the renowned St. Peter on board. And it’s why, in our windows over the altar, we see Andrew to Jesus’ right and Peter to Jesus’ left – a little editorializing about pride of place for the guy, as the collect this morning puts it, whose claim to fame is that he “brought his brother with him” (BCP 237).
Of course, after the Gospel stories, Andrew didn’t just fall off the map. In fact, depending on which traditions you want to believe, he went all over the map. Different traditions say Andrew brought Jesus’ good news to Ethiopia, or to Ukraine, or to Russia, or to Greece, where he was martyred on an X-shaped cross. Even in death, Andrew was still on the move as his remains were reportedly taken to Scotland, which is why he became Scotland’s patron saint. And that explains why a bunch of people in Kansas City are wearing tartans and listening to bagpipes as they celebrate this day that honors a Palestinian fisherman.
So, other than giving us a chance to enjoy pipes and drums and tartan, what does all this mean for us? Where are we in these two stories of St. Andrew?
I think both stories of Andrew’s call matter for us because they call us along two different dimensions of our journey as Christians: to be disciples and to be apostles, to put down our fishing nets to follow Jesus and to bring someone along with us. God has created us for both aspects of our calling, for discipleship and apostleship – wired us to follow and wired us to invite. That’s not just true about religion but about all of our life in community. When someone or something offers us compelling answers, we’re more than happy to be led out of our darkness and into the light. And when we find that those answers work for us – whether to lose weight, or grow our portfolios, or find a like-minded community – when the answers work for us, we’re very happy to invite others to come with us, and see.
Next Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent, as well as the official conclusion of our season of stewardship. We’ll gather the pledges we’ve received so far and bless them as a foretaste of all that we’ll receive – pledges of money, certainly, but also pledges of time and talent through the parish survey we recently sent out. And because next week is the first Sunday of Advent, it will also be New Year’s Day, at least as far as the Church calendar is concerned. We’ll start a new cycle of Sunday readings and begin our season of spiritual new beginnings, the time when we prepare ourselves to receive the gift of Emmanuel at Christmas – God-With-Us to dwell in the dirty stables and hang on the crosses of our own lives, sharing everything we live and know and giving us eternal life anyway. It’s a great time for resolutions, as we prepare our hearts to receive our Savior.
So, with the stewardship season winding down and the Church’s new year on the horizon, here’s your call, as a spiritual descendant of St. Andrew. Here’s your call, as a steward of all the amazing gifts God’s given you. Here’s your call, as someone stepping into Advent’s preparation for God to be with you, at your side and in your heart. Your call is nothing less than Andrew’s call: to be both a disciple and an apostle. Your call is to follow Jesus – as Paul’s letter to the Romans reminds us very directly, “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (10:9). And, your call is to invite others along on your journey. As Paul also puts it in Romans, “How are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?” (10:14-15) Our call is Andrew’s call, from both of his stories: To leave our nets and follow, and to bring someone along with us.
Now, when I hear someone say something like that, what comes to mind for me are all the reasons why I think I can’t do it. I’m not good enough to consider the Lord of the universe my friend and companion. I’m not really willing to give up everything to become all religious and lose the things I love about normal life. I’m not compelling enough to bring someone with me to some churchy event … and on any given Sunday, I’m not sure what I think about every word we pray in worship anyway.
If you identify with any of those feelings, I think you’re in good company. But here’s the thing. First, you are good enough – God says so. Second, you don’t have to become a nun or a monk or some crazy church person who wears crosses and Bible verses on your t-shirt. And third, you are the most compelling witness the world has ever known.
It’s that last one that makes you stop short, right? How can that be? Well, it’s all about context, and opportunity, and relationship. Here’s what I mean. St. Peter was St. Peter, for God’s sake. He healed people with only a word; he converted thousands by preaching Jesus’ resurrection; he did all that despite his own religious leaders’ attempts to silence him with beatings and imprisonments; he ended up dying a martyr’s death in Rome. Talk about a disciple and an apostle! A person like that would never have listed to me.
Well, probably not – unless, of course, I also happened to be his brother. Andrew didn’t quote Bible verses at Peter, or preach some inspiring sermon to him, or write a theological treatise to teach him the mysteries of God. Andrew simply brought his brother with him to experience something Andrew found compelling on his own journey. Andrew could make the ask because he had the relationship that counted.
So, on this St. Andrew’s Sunday, let me give you this challenge: Ask yourself, what do I find compelling about this journey of relationship with God, and who might I invite into it? There is no single answer to that question; in fact, there are scores of answers to that question. I know of a parishioner who recently started a new AA group that meets here, and its attendance doubled in the first few weeks. I know of a men’s group that had a conversation, over Bible study and beer, about who they might invite to come and join them. I know of a music program that offers prayer and praise, both Sunday mornings and two evenings a month, rivaling the best vocal music in the city. I know of outreach ministries that bring healing to people in our community and change lives for more than 400 kids at a school in rural Haiti. I know of a partnership with the Roasterie that’s providing our own St. Andrew’s Blend coffee, which we’ll enjoy on Sunday mornings here and which we’ll serve in the new HJ’s youth and community center rising up across the street. I know, and see, people before me here today who find some of their life’s best and deepest relationships through this family of St. Andrew’s, reveling together in times of joy and holding each other up in times of pain. There’s a lot that’s compelling about this journey with God that we’re taking together. And some piece of it would be authentic for you to offer as a way to invite someone else to come along, too.
You don’t have to give up your life entirely. You don’t have to become a street-corner preacher. God isn’t asking us to take ourselves out of the world we know. Instead, God’s asking us to connect the world we know with the kingdom Christ calls us to see coming near. Just interrupt your fishing long enough to get to know this Jesus we’re following. Just make an invitation to someone you know to come along and experience something that feeds you. Just leave your nets, at least for a while, and bring someone with you. Because, for someone out there, you are the most compelling witness the world has ever known.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

10,000 Thank-Yous

Sermon for Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 23, 2017
Deuteronomy 8:7-18; Luke 17:11-19

You’ve probably heard the claim that anyone can become an expert at something by practicing it for 10,000 hours.  Now, apparently other experts say that isn’t exactly true, that all the practice in the world isn’t going to let me nail a base stealer at second like Salvador Perez does.  Fair enough.  But still, all that practice is certainly going to sharpen your skills.  If you practice a foreign language for 10,000 hours, you can become pretty proficient in it.  If you make 10,000 fancy meals, you can become a pretty fine chef.  Practice may not make us perfect, but practice does make us different.  Practice changes us, forming us for good … or for ill.
So, this is Thanksgiving, not just our national day of eating and self-reflection but also a feast on the Episcopal Church calendar.  It seems this isn’t just a historical remnant of Abraham Lincoln’s gratitude for Union victories, nor a sanctified day of overindulgence, nor the calm before the storm of Black Friday, our national feast of consumerism.  This is Thanksgiving, when our readings, at least, call us to pause, to marvel at all that we’ve been given, and to reflect on where it all comes from. 
It seems we humans have a deep need for this kind of reorientation, given that Moses’ admonitions to the people of Israel ring perfectly true to us 3,000 years later.  Standing before the Israelites as they’re about to cross over the Jordan into the Promised Land, Moses gives his valedictory address, his last chance to guide the people as his own life is ending.  Moses paints a lavish picture of the abundance they’re about to receive.  He says, the Lord is bringing you into a land of flowing streams, wheat and barley, grapes and figs, pomegranates and olives, iron and copper; “a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing.” (Deuteronomy 8:7-10).  Interestingly, the Europeans who came to these shores saw this land of the New World in similar terms and, on their best days, blessed God for it … even as they also took it away from the people they met … again, like the Israelites.
Anyway, Moses’ point isn’t just that the people’s time in the wilderness is over.  His point is the responsibility that comes along with such astonishing blessing.  “When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them,” Moses says, “…then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery….  Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.’  But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth….” (Deuteronomy 8:12-18)  And when you remember, Moses says, let that memory guide you into the practice of faithfulness:  “[K]eep [God’s] commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes…,” Moses says (8:11).  Remember, and follow God’s ways.  Remember, and live by God’s love.
So, this is Thanksgiving, here to remind us of the same truth Moses saw: Our blessings are not our own.  Our blessings are on loan to us from God, and God expects us to pass them along, to steward the incredible abundance we receive and then share it, both with the people around us today and with the future yet unborn. 
What do we need to do in order to be formed into those people God longs for us to be?  What does Jesus ask of the lepers whom he heals, bringing them out of the darkness of exclusion and into the blessing of relationship?  He asks them, simply, to say thank you.
It’s no accident that our lives of prayer and worship are focused on giving thanks, especially for we who are blessed with this rich Anglican tradition of ours.  Every Sunday, in fact, we celebrate Thanksgiving.  You may have missed it, in the same way a fish doesn’t notice the water in which it’s swimming.  But every Sunday, and right here this morning, we gather at God’s altar to celebrate Thanksgiving.  It even says so in the Prayer Book, both in English and in Greek.  This is a congregational-participation sermon, so please get out your prayer book and turn to page 361.  Look about a third of the way down the page, where we begin to offer the prayers that invite Jesus to come into our midst in the bread and wine of Holy Communion.  There, you’ll see the title of this section of the service:  “The Great Thanksgiving.”  The priest says, “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God,” and the people respond (go ahead, respond): “It is right to give him thanks and praise.”  And the priest continues, saying, “It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you….”  Every Sunday, we celebrate this Great Thanksgiving, and we offer it as the centerpiece of the larger service of Holy Eucharist.  That’s the Greek word I mentioned before, eucharist.  Know what it means?  That’s right – thanksgiving. 
Of course, there are many ways we each fall short, every day.  Like the people of Israel, we aren’t always so good at keeping God’s commandments, ordinances, and statutes, which is why we offer a confession most Sundays, in addition to our thanksgiving.  But I believe God isn’t looking for perfection from us.  I believe God is looking for us to be continually formed as followers and witnesses of Jesus Christ.  And a huge part of that formation is the spiritual practice of simply saying thank-you.  Saying thank-you to God 10,000 times may not make us experts in being followers and witnesses of Jesus Christ.  But I’d say it’s a pretty darned good start.
So, here’s your Thanksgiving challenge:  As you begin each day, and as your end each day, make it a practice to say thank-you to the source of your being and your blessing, the source of light and life.  Our Anglican tradition has recognized the helpfulness of that daily practice by giving us the gift of the services of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, which I would certainly commend to your use.  But even if you’re not ready for that quite yet, let me recommend to you one piece from Morning and Evening Prayer.  It’s called the General Thanksgiving, and it’s a treasure for the way its language both delights our ears and shapes our hearts.  I told you this was a congregational-participation sermon, so let’s finish it up by offering together the General Thanksgiving, found on page 101 of the prayer book:

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 with our lives,
by giving up ourselves 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.

Choosing Hope, Not Fear

Sermon for Sunday, Nov. 12
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

Thank you, Steve, for that compelling witness about your stewardship journey.  You know, in seminary, when they teach you about talking with a congregation about the annual pledge campaign, the experts typically wouldn’t suggest that you do that on the Sunday following a horrifying church shooting.  But you know, that’s the world in which we live now.  For many of us, especially those of a certain age, we remember fondly a time when the church doors were left unlocked 24 hours a day so that neighbors could come in and pray.  In my church growing up, Christ Episcopal in Springfield, I remember where I was standing, as an acolyte ready for the procession to begin, when the service was delayed because of a problem in the chapel, which you entered by an exterior door.  It turned out that one man had killed another there, and the priest had to go administer last rites before presiding at the Eucharist.  That was 40 years ago, and the doors have been locked at night ever since – even in Springfield. 
Nostalgia makes us long for the “good old days,” whenever we might locate that time in our minds – a time when mass shootings were something we couldn’t fathom rather than something we struggle to prevent.  But last Sunday’s shooting during worship in Sutherland Springs, Texas, jolts us right back to the present moment.
When we see violence like that, it’s tempting to go down some dangerous roads.  We might begin to see threats everywhere we look and wonder whether we should even walk down the Trolley Trail or take kids to the park.  We might begin to believe we must take matters into our own hands and be ready to drop an active shooter wherever we might be … even at Jesus’ altar.  We might even begin to believe the two most pernicious lies the world tells us – that we are hopeless and that we are alone.  When we begin to believe those lies, the powers and principalities of darkness win.
I cast it in those terms intentionally because, as we look back on our past as followers of Jesus Christ, we notice that the apostle Paul found himself in a world just as threatening as ours, albeit for very different reasons.  Paul lived as a Jew, an ethnic and religious minority surviving at the whim of the Roman Empire, which taxed the living daylights out of its subjugated peoples and executed their leaders, like a certain Jesus of Nazareth, when they began saying challenging things.  But the danger came from the other side, too: Paul and his Christian communities also endured persecution from the Jewish authorities, who saw this Jesus movement as a threat to their authority and power. 
In Paul’s world view, the conflicts he and his communities faced were reflections of cosmic struggles taking place in a realm we can’t see.  Violence and persecution were the consequence of standing on the side of God’s realm of light and life, which Paul believed was battling and triumphing over the powers of darkness and death.  Jesus’ resurrection and his reign as Lord were the decisive blows against the powers that wield “hardship or distress or persecution or … peril or sword” (Romans 8:35).  From Paul’s perspective, the struggles he and his communities faced were part of a mopping-up action that would soon be brought to its fulfillment when Jesus returned in glory – which Paul expected to happen any day.
So, writing to the Christians in Thessalonica, Paul urges them to remember where they stand in this cosmic conflict.  “We do not want you to … grieve as others do who have no hope,” he writes.  “For just as Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. …  For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and the sound of God’s trumpet, [the Lord] will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise. …  Then we who are alive … will meet the Lord … and be with the Lord forever.” (4:13-16)  When Paul writes about the “coming of the Lord” (4:15), he’s using a technical term in Greek for a state visit by the emperor,1 so he’s making a very clear statement about who’s really in charge – and it’s not the emperor.  Despite the struggles of the moment, Paul says, do not join those “who have no hope” (4:13).  “Encourage one another” instead (4:18).
Of course, the “principalities” and “powers” (Ephesians 6:12 KJV) look different in their presentation now.  Today the “hardship and distress” comes to us in a litany of shootings: Sutherland Springs and Las Vegas and Charleston and Orlando and San Bernadino and Virginia Tech and Killeen and Aurora and Columbine and Sandy Hook Elementary.  And we feel a growing sense of impotence to stop such madness, getting caught on the horns of a dilemma between gun control and constitutional rights, rather than seeing gun violence as a public-health crisis, one every bit as serious as tuberculosis or polio were, and just as much within our capacity to address.  Instead, we see hardness of heart defeating the common good.  But if the apostle Paul were standing in this pulpit today, I think he would tell us the response of the Christian community remains the same.  When the powers and principalities of the world threaten us, choose against them.  Choose community and hope over isolation and fear.
What does that look like?  I read an interesting post from my seminary this week. The writer was struggling with just these questions – when 26 people die going to church, how in the world can people of faith respond in a meaningful way?  But the post noted that “when violence intrudes into the places we thought were safe, one thing that can make a huge difference is knowing we’re not alone,”2 a reality we embody by reaching out rather than drawing in.  We stand with Christians across the centuries, and stand against the power of violence, when we make the choice to stand together: when we grieve deep loss, when we gather to pray, when we visit someone who’s sick, when we cook for a friend, when we work for social change, when we act to help light overcome the darkness.  The impact of these actions may seem tiny compared with the impact of hundreds of bullets.  But I think Paul would tell us to “encourage one another with these words” and actions “so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:18,13).
And though it may sound self-serving to say this, I will say it anyway because I believe it to be true:  We also take a stand for light overcoming darkness when we build the capacity of a church family to be light in the darkness.  Yes, we are in an annual pledge campaign, and I would want you to fill out a pledge card in any case.  I would want you to be on that journey Steve talked about, taking the next step in a spiritual practice of giving, seeing your giving as a connecting point with God potentially just as strong as the prayers you offer in bed each night or the meal you serve to a person who’s hungry.  Those things would always be true.  And, in the midst of the darkness we see around us, I ask you to turn in a pledge card as an act of solidarity and an emblem of hope.  Making a pledge, you put on the “whole armor of God” (Ephesians 6:13) – the belt of truth, the shield of faith, the breastplate of righteousness, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit of love.  Making a pledge, you “equip the saints for the work of ministry [and build] up the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12), within this church family and for the world.  Making a pledge, you choose hope over fear.  And right now, there is nothing your heart, or the world, needs more.

1.       HarperCollins Study Bible.  Note on 1 Thessalonians 4:15. 2223.
2.       Minnix, Gina.  “Refusing to Let Violence Take Us Over.”  Sowing Holy Questions, Seminary of the Southwest, Nov. 8, 2017.  Available at:  Accessed Nov. 10, 2017.

'Thy WIll Be Done' ... but by Whom?

Sermon for All Saints' Sunday, Nov. 5, 2017
Revelation 7:9-17; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12

Today, we’re marking All Saints’ Sunday – a time we celebrate the countless faithful people who’ve loved God and loved their neighbors in this first chapter of eternal life.  A little later, we’ll remember those we’ve buried from St. Andrew’s since last All Saints’ Sunday, giving thanks for the witness of their lives and rejoicing that those lives continue in God’s heavenly country.
And today, in what may seem like an odd juxtaposition, we also celebrate the sacrament of baptism, welcoming a new child of God into the family, Ella Rose Mitchell.  It’s not just the circle of life we’re remembering with this.  The deeper, and deeply unlikely, truth is this:  As baptized people, you and I share the same call as the saints who’ve gone before, as well as the same promise of eternal blessing.  This day is about all the saints – including the one sitting next to you and the one you see in the mirror. 
That reality may be hard to accept.  But the Feast of All Saints is here to tell us the truth that our lives are more than what we see, day to day.  We got a beautiful glimpse of that reality from our readings this morning – the end game, what our faith and practice as followers of Jesus is leading us toward.  In this life, what saints experience can feel like dubious blessing – being broken in spirit, hungering for righteousness, practicing mercy, being pure in heart, struggling to make peace, even enduring others’ ridicule and disdain.  But that dubious blessedness will come to its fullness in a future chapter of eternal life, when we “hunger no more and thirst no more” as God guides us to “springs of the water of life” and “wipe[s] away every tear from our eyes” (Revelation 7:16-17).  We are ever walking a bridge between who we are and who we will be, in the fullness of God’s time – and in so doing, we have the opportunity, as saints, to evoke heaven among us and point others toward it. 
Every Sunday, even every day for many of us, we offer a prayer whose implications ought to make us stop short:  We pray, “Thy kingdom come; thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  It’s a beautiful petition, but I wish the Gospel writers had used active voice in remembering Jesus’ words in the second clause.  “Thy will be done” … OK, by whom?  Who is it we’re imagining doing God’s will to bring about the kingdom, God’s beloved community, here on earth as it is in heaven?  Now it’s time to look in the mirror once again, because the answer will be staring you in the face. 
So, how do we saints do that?  What is God’s will, and what does it look like for us to do it on earth, as it is in heaven?
Of course, the promises of the baptismal covenant flesh out our call, and we’ll renew that covenant again this morning.  But what ties those promises together?  What’s the bottom line?  Well, it’s the Great Commandment, of course – to love God with all our heart and soul and mind strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  But given the way we use the word “love,” we can quickly hear that as a command to feel a certain way about God and our neighbors.  That’s not it.  Maybe it’s just my bias, but I don’t think God is nearly as interested in how we feel as in what we do.  Loving God and neighbor is about building relationships.  That’s the work of a saint, including the one you see in the mirror.
So, I want to tell you about some saintly relationship-building that’s happening around here.  You can see it in the work of our Vestry leaders, staff, and clergy.  You saw an example last week, as the Endowment Commission sponsored coffee hour and invited you to join the Legacy Society – just one of many commissions and groups setting up shop in the Jewell Room to help you to get involved.  Staff and parishioners have been reaching out to parents of our youth to invite them into the fun of youth ministry.  Deacon Bruce, Elaine Crider and I did a series of trainings for lay pastoral-care givers, to get more of us actively into the work of loving one another.  Mtr. Ezgi is inviting younger adults and parents into Bible study, or a young-adults group, or gatherings for recently married couples and baptismal parents.  We’ve brought back Holy Happy Hour, as well as the Happy Hour Concerts. 
And soon, you’ll receive an invitation to take a parish survey.  Part of that effort is about keeping the database as clean and useful as possible.  But many of the questions ask you to share feedback and think about how you might like to get engaged in something fun and meaningful.  I hope that, from the information we get back, we can put together several groups of people with similar interests and affiliations – dinner groups, or movie groups, or book groups, or (our collective personal favorite) wine-tasting groups.  The point is to help us do the work of saints, which is building relationships.
You can also see St. Andrew’s saints building relationships through the service they offer.  I am deeply tempted to start calling out specific people, but I also know I’d leave out more saints than I could name.  But just a few collective examples:  How about the ladies of Simply Divine?  As you know, Simply Divine will be closing soon; the last hurrah (and final sale) is next weekend.  In the shop’s decades-long run, the Simply Divine ladies have created a fun and welcoming space for parishioners to come together, and they’ve strengthened many community ministries with thousands of dollars in grants each year.  And all of that came from the hearts and hands of ladies who’ve been willing to give of themselves for the kingdom’s work, and I appreciate them very much.  Here’s another example: the choir, who offered that amazing Bach Cantata last weekend.  You can’t imagine the hours of service they give to help us grow closer to God, but they also build community together as they do it. How about the members of the Outreach Commission and the parishioners who come out to throw parties for moms and kids at Rose Brooks, or work with kids at local schools, or provide warm clothes for hundreds of people at the Free Store, or build relationships with our partners in Haiti?  All of that is kingdom work, building beloved community among our own family and with the world.
And then, there are the dollars that help make relationship-building possible.  Coming together for worship takes lights and heat and bulletins, not to mention Saint Robert Tillman and Saint Mary Sanders, here nearly every Sunday to meet your needs.  In addition, hosting book studies and prayer groups and meetings and community organizations takes a building that keeps the heat in and the water out.  You all know it takes dollars to fund the people and the infrastructure for ministry here.  And I want to tell you about the giving of a few saints whose examples inspire me.
I know staff members who give to the church that pays them, because they believe in the work we’re doing and because they love the people who are doing it.
I know one parishioner who began this year offering a generous pledge, more than mine, certainly.  For next year, it’s quadrupled.  The church has made a difference in this person’s life, and now this person will make a huge difference in our ability to bring more people together.
And I want to share with you something about our Vestry members.  This year, every Vestry member had a pledge turned in within the first couple of weeks of the pledge campaign.  That’s servant leadership – and it doesn’t stop there.  I asked the Vestry members if they would let me know whether they practiced tithing, giving 10 percent of their income toward God’s work in the world.  Five Vestry members are at or beyond that point in enabling God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. 
You don’t have to be there yet.  Not many of us are, honestly, but that’s OK.  It starts with making a pledge.
Actually, I guess there’s a step even before that:  Walk into the Narthex after worship today and simply let someone take a quick Polaroid shot of you to put up on the door to the parking lot.  That door is a growing icon of the company of saints in this place, the household of God into which we enter in baptism, the family of God we know as St. Andrew’s.  As our reading this morning puts it, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are” (1 John 3:1). From our newest saint this morning, little Ella Rose, to those of you who’ve been here across the decades, we are God’s family in this place, trying to do the will of our heavenly parent, which is to love, with flesh and bones on it.  We are St. Andrew’s, and we are here to build relationships, one saint at a time.  And as the Feast of All Saints reminds us, every saint matters.  There is no “us” without you.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Holiness of Humility, the Glory of Grace

Sermon for the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation
Oct. 29, 2017

Today, we’re celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. The famous date is actually October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther posted his 95 theses against Church practices of his day.  It’s not entirely clear whether he nailed those 95 theses to the door of Wittenburg Castle or the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenburg; or whether he never nailed them to anything but simply sent them to his archbishop in Mainz and published them to others. 
In any event, Luther was protesting the selling of indulgences, which theologically were said to shorten a sinner’s time in purgatory and practically raised a lot of money for the institutional Church.  The deeper issues were about sin, redemption, and religious authority.  For Luther and the later Protestant reformers, we are justified by faith in God’s grace alone, not by good works.  Scripture, rather than Church tradition, is the source of divine revelation.  And all baptized people have direct access to God’s grace because they’re part of the priesthood of all believers.
Luther’s protest focused a movement that had been building for years before and would continue for years after.  What we call the Reformation had been coming since 1378, when the Western Church was torn by schism and three would-be popes claimed the title.  The movement picked up steam in 1414, when Jan Hus was burned at the stake for condemning the sales of indulgences and for arguing the papacy was a human institution – and then, a year later, when John Wycliffe was declared a heretic for translating the Scriptures into English and for criticizing the clergy’s pomp and privilege.  And the movement would grow beyond Luther’s 95 theses to include the work of others, especially John Calvin, from whom would come the Reformed tradition, including what we know as the Presbyterian Church.  Like Jan Huss and John Wycliffe, Luther and Calvin believed in the power of grace alone to bridge the gap between sinful humanity and the righteous God who loves us; and they believed that people must be able to hear and read God’s Word, and offer the gift of worship, in their own languages.  The reformers also took the movement in different and competing directions.  There’s an old joke that “divisiveness was Protestantism’s greatest gift to Christianity,”1 and sadly there’s truth to that.  Certainly, without the Reformation, the religious shopping mall we know as denominations simply wouldn’t exist. 
The Reformation opened a couple of other huge doors to the future, too.  One was the question of authority.  Where do we look for truth, in church matters and in everything else?  If three politically motivated bishops can each claim to be the true pope; and if reforming priests can start pointing out the Church’s corruption; and if printing presses can mass-produce new ideas; and if scientists can observe that the earth actually revolves around the sun, not the other way around; and if different churches can read the same Biblical texts and find different meanings in them – if there is no longer a consensus about who holds the truth, then to whom should we listen?  Where does authority lie?2
The answer came from the other door to the future opened wide by the Reformation:  the power of individualism.  Luther came to see that, just as salvation didn’t come from following Jewish Law, it doesn’t come from following the rules of Church tradition, either.  Salvation comes from recognizing that I “have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), and only faith in Jesus Christ heals my sinfulness and lets me share in God’s righteousness.  Well, if that’s true – if my salvation depends on my faith in Jesus Christ – and if books can now be produced with machines rather than parchment and pen, then I need a Bible in my home; and my children need to learn to read so they can get right with God, too.  And if Luther was right about the priesthood of all believers, then I don’t need a priest or a church hierarchy to do the work of reconciling me with God.  I can do that myself.  And if there are multiple ways of worshiping God, then I have the power to choose which one is right for me.  With the Reformation, it became the individual’s faith that mattered … and, ultimately, the individual who chose which path of truth to take.3
So, you may be wondering, why are a bunch of Episcopalians celebrating all this?  If you know your Anglican history, you know that we are a tradition of the Reformation, too; but we took a different path that led to a different place.  For us, the break with Rome came first, followed by the theological reflection – and bloodshed – of reform.  It’s important that the name of our vehicle of reformation is the Church of England, rather than the “Henry-ites” or the “Cranmer-ites.”  We’re named for a nation, not an individual, because for us the break with Rome was about power and sovereignty first, theology second.  But reformation did happen in England, too: worship in the people’s language, administration of both bread and wine to the congregation, and an ongoing argument about just how reformed our worship should be.  The vestments we’re wearing today illustrate what Anglican clergy would have been wearing in the mid-1500s – and over the years, there were great arguments about how “popish” our vesture and liturgical practice should be.  The more Protestant among us thought even a white surplice was too much, arguing for no vesture at all and no ornamentation at the altar.  It wasn’t until the Oxford Movement in the 1800s that stoles and chasubles, vesture from the early and medieval Church, began to make a return. 
We Episcopalians and other Anglicans around the world see ourselves as “catholic and reformed.”  We are part of Christ’s universal Church, in succession with centuries of tradition that’s come before us, proclaiming the ancient creeds, centered in sacramental practice.  And at the same time, we’re reformed – reliant on God’s grace alone, knowing God as revealed in Scripture, and living out the priesthood of all believers.  Our Book of Common Prayer unites these paths, focusing us on the sacraments, calling us back to the Creeds, giving us Scripture for daily and weekly hearing, and empowering lay people as the primary ministers of the Church.  The catechism tells us the orders of ministry are lay people, bishops, priests, and deacons (BCP 855); and the order of the orders matters. 
So, there you have it: catholic and reformed, finding our authority in Scripture, and tradition, and reason; reveling in the mystery that “both/and” can be true.  That’s the Anglican via media, the middle way – a good, if messy, path to walk.
So, what do we do with all this history, as we celebrate the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s protest movement?  Here are two primary take-aways from the Reformation for me.  The first is our call to the holiness of humility as broken individuals and as a broken Church, both in need of God’s grace.  “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,” said the Son of God, “for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29).  Follow my way, says God’s Incarnate Word – made flesh in a dirty stable, living among the poor and oppressed, dying the worst death imaginable.  The way of the cross is the only way Jesus calls his Church to take, in Luther’s day and in our own.  The Church needs humility perhaps more than anything else, especially in an age when people have embraced the gospel of the individual to such a degree that there is no common narrative, just the truth of my own story.  But the real truth is, people need a bigger story, even if they don’t realize it; and the Church has that story to offer, if it can do so with clarity and humility rather than entitlement and judgment.  Good News from a humble heart is the very best news there is.
Here’s the other take-away I see for us in the Reformation.  If humility is our call when we look in the mirror, and when we look at our Church, and when we look at our society, then the other side of Jesus’ call is to acknowledge where power and glory truly lie.  Power and glory abide with the God who stoops down in an act of divine humility to share power and glory with even such as us.  To those who have faith in Jesus and who aspire to the faith of Jesus (Romans 3:26), that divine glory is in sight, if we can get ourselves out of the way long enough to look for it. 
In fact, in just a few minutes, we’ll hear from a mighty apostle of that deep truth, one who certainly could have reveled in his own talent.  Johann Sebastian Bach is arguably the greatest composer in Western history; at one point in his life, he was cranking out a cantata a week of the kind of quality we’re about to hear.4  But Bach also attended the same school Martin Luther attended as a boy; Bach served in and composed for Lutheran churches all his life; and he had all of Martin Luther’s writings on his library shelves.  So, it’s no great surprise that, at the end of his magnificent manuscripts, Bach did not simply sign his name or his initials.  He also wrote the initials S.D.G., which stand for Soli Deo Gloria – “to God alone be the glory.”5 
It is perfect, I think, that we celebrate the Protestant Reformation, and our own ongoing need for reform, by hearing Luther’s words set to Bach’s music.  Together, they bring us the complementary truths of the holiness of human humility and the glory of God’s grace.  To bring those truths together, let me leave you with Luther’s words; you’ll have Bach’s tune in your head soon enough:

Did we in our own strength confide,
Our striving would be losing,
Were not the right man on our side,
The man of God’s own choosing.
Dost ask who that may be?
Christ Jesus, it is he.
Lord Sabaoth his name,
From age to age the same.
And he must win the battle.

1.       Tickle, Phyllis.  The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why.  Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2008.  46.
2.       Tickle, 45-48, 55-56.
3.       Tickle, 45-46, 50-51.
4.       “Johann Sebastian Bach.”  Available at:  Accessed Oct. 28, 2017.
5.       Swett, Jonathan.  “Johann Sebastian Bach.”  Available at:  Accessed Oct. 28, 2017.

Downward Mobility

Sermon for the Feast of St. Francis, transferred, and pet blessings
Oct. 8, 2017 (posted late)
Matthew 11:25-30

As we gather this morning to celebrate St. Francis and bless our pets, I’m going to confess a sin to you, a sin for which all you good dog owners can hold me in contempt.  I bless my dog, Petey, with cheeseburgers.  Petey seems to have quite a fondness for cheeseburgers, and I have erred and strayed in my ways by getting into the habit of bringing him one when I stop by McDonald’s to get something for myself.  We stand there in our kitchen, and I tell Petey he needs to sit and calm down, which he sort of manages to do; and then I give him his heart’s desire.  We do this bite by bite until that disc of greasy, cheesy goodness is gone.  Forgive me, for I am a bad doggie daddy, blessing Petey with cheeseburgers.
I have a much better example of dog blessing that comes from another member of my family. When we first moved here, we got a Lab–Golden Retriever mix named Jenny.  Jenny was many times Petey’s size but also many times humbler.  Petey, in fact, isn’t here this morning to get a blessing because he doesn’t work and play so well with other dogs.  Jenny, on the other hand, was the ultimate good dog, both among other canines and with us, her pack.  She wanted nothing more than simply to be with you, regardless of whether you had a cheeseburger in your hand.  And so our son, Dan, got into the habit, as a boy, of getting down on the floor with Jenny and lying there with her to watch TV or a movie.  I imagine it was the best thing ever for Jenny, having one of the people of her pack bless her with that kind of presence, stooping down to inhabit her world. 
I don’t know whether St. Francis ever had a dog, but I’ll bet Francis would have understood what my son, Dan, was up to.  Francis of Assisi is maybe the ultimate model in Christian tradition of embracing a life of stooping down.  Some of you know his story.1  Francis was the son of a wealthy cloth merchant in Italy, born in the late 1100s.  In his early years, he lived into the very worst you might expect from the spoiled child of a wealthy family – entitled, wasteful, drunken, arrogant.  Francis got the chance to play soldier and go off to war against another Italian city-state, so he spent a lot of his father’s money to buy a horse and fine armor.  He was taken prisoner, as it turned out, and spent a year waiting for his father to ransom him.  He went back to his unsavory lifestyle until he got the chance to play soldier again, this time leaving as a knight for the Fourth Crusade. 
But, you know, sometimes – all the time, actually – God chooses the last person you’d expect and inspires that person to change.  A day’s ride out of Assisi, Francis heard God calling him to turn back home.  It must have been quite a persuasive encounter, because the arrogant man-child actually did go back home.  Again, he resumed his old lifestyle, but he also kept listening to God, who apparently also kept knocking.  Francis began to see that his life wasn’t just shallow but contrary to the call he’d heard from Jesus in the Gospels.  And one day, Francis encountered a leper – a broken, impoverished, smelly man with an awful, contagious skin condition.  The leper was the antithesis of everything Francis had valued – fine clothes, fine food, beauty, power, strength, wealth, all that.  But Francis stooped down from his horse and greeted the leper with the kiss of peace.  Contrary to everything he knew, Francis found joy in greeting that leper.  And it sent him even further along his journey. 
Francis then heard God calling to him, saying, “Francis, rebuild my church.”  He thought the instruction was literal – that he was supposed to rebuild a local broken-down chapel.  So Francis took some of his father’s stock of fine cloth and sold it to pay for the repairs.  His father had had enough; he dragged Francis before the local bishop, demanding that Francis return his money and renounce his rights as heir.  Francis took it one step further.  He stripped off his fine clothes, tossed them before his father, and renounced his connection to his family, acknowledging God as his only Father.  Then Francis left with literally nothing to begin a life of wandering service to people he would meet and preaching about following God’s call to love. 
Before long, others saw Francis’ joy in the freedom he’d found, and they joined him.  Francis organized his companions’ life around a simple rule of giving away their possessions, keeping nothing as they proclaimed the kingdom of God, and taking up the cross daily – serving the people they encountered in acts of self-sacrificing love.  Francis and his group lived the Gospel literally.  They had nothing but the joy that comes with the perfect freedom of being bound by nothing but God’s command.  They lived Jesus’ model and his teachings.  The story is told that a thief stole the hood of one of the brothers, and Francis made the brother chase after the thief to offer him his cloak as well.  Against all the world’s expectations, this movement caught on, with thousands following Francis’ model.  Eventually, he had to organize them, and the Franciscan Order was born.
Francis was all about stooping into love – which, after all, is God’s practice with us.  The Psalms say that God “stoops to behold the heavens and the earth,” taking “the weak up out of the dust and lift[ing] the poor from the ashes” (Psalm 113:5-6, BCP).  Jesus lived that out ultimately, God incarnate born among the animals and crying in the dirty straw; the Son of God who, like the birds of the air, had no place to lay his head.  When Jesus identifies who is blessed in God’s eyes, it’s not the people whose lives seem to reveal blessing.  It’s the poor who receive the kingdom of heaven, the meek who inherit the earth.  All of what we seek and value is window dressing at best.
There seems to be a pattern here.  To practice love, both God and Francis stooped down, renouncing power and possession, status and privilege.  If that was true for God and Francis, it’s probably true for us: We have things we need to lose in order to love as Christ loves us.
Like what?  Well, there are the usual targets, of course, things Francis certainly would witness against:  Consumerism, waste, and pollution that harm God’s creation.  The love of money, which “is a root of all kinds of evil and … many pains,” as the apostle Paul wrote (1 Timothy 6:10).  But this week, as we reel from the news of yet another mass shooting, it’s violence that weighs on my heart. 
In our society, violence is a commodity, whether it’s real or entertainment.  And as long as violence is profitable, we’ll keep pursuing it.  Here’s my second confession for the morning: I choose to watch violent movies sometimes; there is something in them that seems real and raw and exciting.  And at the movie theaters, I see people there with small children … because, you know, the violence isn’t real, not like a mass shooting – it’s only a movie.  Well, I don’t think you have to be a social scientist to see a connection: If violence seems normal, then violence becomes normalized.  Whether you’re talking about movies or firearms, the government isn’t going to ban something that’s both a freedom in this nation and a source of immense profit.  We have to exercise our freedom to renounce violence, and its instruments, for ourselves.  And we have to pray that God will make use of our small examples to transform other hearts, too, working with our witness as we live and narrate the choices we make.  That’s how love happens – from the bottom up.  Love is an insurgency, not a legislative mandate.
So, as God’s insurgent of love, what do you need to lose?  What binds you and keeps you from stooping low, into the experience of another?  Like my son’s example, as he got down on the floor with our old dog Jenny, it’s the stooping low that blesses those whom God places in the intersecting points of our lives.  So, here’s my prayer for us this St. Francis’ Sunday:  May we be the people our dogs think we are, and may we practice the holy downward mobility of stooping low into the kingdom of God.

1.        St. Francis’ story is taken from “St. Francis of Assisi.”  Catholic Online.  Available at:  Accessed Oct. 6, 2017.