Sunday, July 24, 2022

Dear Dad

Sermon for July 24, 2022

Luke 11:1-13

Last Sunday, we heard Jesus telling worried and distracted Martha that her sister, Mary, had chosen “the better part” by sitting and listening to Jesus rather than serving an impressive meal (Luke 10:42).  Today, we find Jesus living out his own advice and spending time with his Father in prayer – something he does often in the Gospel stories.  Well, if Jesus needs to carve out time to stay in touch with his heavenly Parent, we probably need that, too.  In fact, one of Jesus’ followers gets this and asks him, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1).  And Jesus’ response is what became the Lord’s Prayer.

Of course, we hear that as referring to a formal, set prayer we’re supposed to offer.  In our Episcopal tradition, the Church has included that prayer in just about every act of public worship.  And it’s key for many of us individually, too – starting our mornings, or ending our nights, or maybe both. 

I wonder, though, if Jesus’ answer to that disciple might have been as much about how to pray as it was about what to pray.  How are we supposed to engage the eternal sovereign of the universe?  What’s God looking for?  I think that may have been what Jesus had in mind.

So … how should we pray?  Well, I thought I’d ask God directly and see what comes from that.  For me, the best medium is writing, so I wrote God a letter.  Here goes.

Dear God,

It’s been a while since I’ve written.  I’m sorry about that – not in the sense of regretting a sin but in the sense of regretting that I haven’t made the time.  I always feel better when I set aside time with you, but I wonder how it makes you feel, as the heavenly parent.  In my own life, I feel blessed when my kids want to talk to me.  It says that, despite everything, our relationship is still there.  Does it work that way for you, too?

Anyway, you taught us to pray using this lesson we call the Lord’s Prayer.  It is a comfort, and I’m grateful for it.  When I don’t know what else to say to you, those words fall into place.  At the same time, I have to admit that I often don’t think much about what I’m saying as those words fall into place.  So, let’s see what happens if I do.

Jesus told us to begin by naming you as “Father” (Luke 11:2).  Honestly, I don’t know that “father” is how I see you.  I don’t think of you in terms of gender, but that’s not the point.  Instead, I think “father” means that you want me to remember that you’re not just some abstract cosmic force; you’re my parent in the best sense – the creator and authority figure, yes, but also the one who always shows up and listens.  You care about what I care about simply because I care about it.  How crazy is that?  And, like a good mom or dad, you also move me forward, helping me see that whatever I’m getting wrapped up in is not the ultimate reality.  Maybe that’s why some of the people writing the Gospels remembered Jesus adding the words “in heaven” to that opening address of “Father.”  Our reality isn’t the scope of your reality, and that’s good to keep in mind.  But the downside is that your heavenly position can make us forget that you’re with us right here, right now, too.

Then there’s that line, “Hallowed be your name” (Luke 11:2).  With that, I think Jesus ask us to remember there’s a big difference between you and my own parents, even at their very best.  When something is “hallowed,” it means that thing is set apart as holy, signifying a reality that’s eternal and divine.  But we aren’t the ones that make something hallowed.  Like the battlefield at Gettysburg, you are hallowed not by any act or remembrance that we can offer but because of the offering you make.  Like the soldiers on that battlefield, you give yourself to us and for us; and that self-giving nature ironically sets you apart from us, makes you holy.  In your gifts to us of life and love, you pour yourself out, the living sacrifice you ask us to emulate.  So, even though you’re there with us in every experience, you’re also set apart from our experience, always reminding us that your love is just that much more than we can comprehend.

Then you ask us to pray, “Your kingdom come” (Luke 11:2).  Now, why would you want us to ask for what you already intend to do?  Maybe because prayer isn’t about getting you to do something; it’s about getting us on the same page with what you’re already doing.  Now, I’ll admit that when I say, “Your kingdom come,” there’s a part of me that’s really saying, “Come on, Lord, bring on the big ending.”  There is so much to lament, so much to grieve in this world you’ve given us … and the thought of you swooping in to set the world to rights is pretty darned attractive.  But praying for your kingdom to come reminds me that your reign and rule over our experience happens on your timeline, not mine.  And it reminds me that we humans aren’t just props on your cosmic set.  We’re your kids, people you’re always forming more and more into your image and likeness.  And the way we grow into who you’ve made us to be is by being the change you’re seeking in the world now.

OK.  The next line is, “Give us each day our daily bread” (Luke 11:3).  This one may be the hardest one to pray without my fingers crossed.  Because, if I’m honest, I want a lot more than my daily bread.  I want plenty of bread, and I want it for a long time.  Like the people of Israel, I don’t want to have to trust that the manna you provide today will be there tomorrow; I want to gather up a bunch of it right now so I can rest easy in the future.  But, of course, this petition isn’t about bread.  It’s about trust.  Well then, sure, God, I can get on board asking for help with that, because trust is something I definitely need.  So, give us what we need for today … and help us take a breath, knowing that you’ll come through tomorrow, too.

Well, God, then we come to the daily work of forgiveness, and there’s a lot in these lines of your prayer.  If you’re telling me to ask for forgiveness every day, that means you know I’m going to turn away from you every day.  But still, you’re there.  And still, you want to have this conversation.  On one level, that’s shocking: Why haven’t you written us off long ago?  But on another level, that’s parenting: You know your kids will mess up, but you want to have the relationship anyway.  So, you ask us to come back to you, even though we’re sure to turn away again. 

But that’s not all.  There’s a powerful lesson here about how we deal with each other, too.  Your grace is free, but it’s no free ride.  To the same extent that you forgive us, you expect us to forgive each other.  And it’s not just forgiveness in the abstract you’re asking for.  You want us to “forgive everyone indebted to us” (Luke 11:4) – which says to me that forgiveness is going to cost me something.  Come to think of it, that probably shouldn’t come as a surprise.  After all, freeing us from our sin certainly cost you something.

And finally, we come to this: “Do not bring us to the time of trial” (Luke 11:4).  That seems weird: Why would we think our loving parent might be the one bringing us into trial?  Well, some of the people recording these stories of Jesus expanded that line to say, “Do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.”1  OK, that gives the request some context.  But it’s hard for us postmodern folks to take that seriously.  We’re much too sophisticated to think there’s an evil overlord out there somewhere, stirring up harm for your children.  But then again … just follow the news for a few days: people shooting children in schools, people shooting each other on the streets, nations invading other nations without even the pretext of justification, comfortable people knowing other folks suffer but not really doing much to change it.  Well, we may not be threatened by a red devil with horns and a pitchfork, but we are certainly threatened by evil that takes us “where [we] do not wish to go” (John 21:20).  So maybe we need to pray such an archaic prayer simply to remember that there are indeed spiritual forces out there that do not wish us well, and that we’d be smart to turn to you instead.

Well, God, I’ve got to wind up this letter now.  As always, it’s time to get on to the next thing.  But thank you for the chance to remember the craziest truth of them all – that you’re asking me to reach out more.  I should be the one appealing for an audience with you … but it turns out, you’re already there, waiting.  All I’ve got to do is knock – or sit down and write a letter.

1.       See Matthew 6:13. The NRSV notes that this addition also appears in some ancient manuscripts of Luke.

Scout Sunday: Hearts First, Hands Second

Sermon for July 17, 2022 

Celebration of the Centennial of Scout Troop 16

Luke 10:38-42

(Past Scoutmaster David Banks spoke first.) Thanks, Dave, for that reflection on the Scout Oath and Law.  Yes, “trying to do our best to do our duty to God” … indeed, that’s both Scouting’s call to young people and Jesus’ call to each of us.  The Scouts here at St. Andrew’s have 100 years of practice in trying to live out their Oath and Law.  And, as Dave said, it’s good to have summary statements like that to help us remember how God asks us to live in complicated times.  Jesus boils down the Jewish law and the prophets’ teaching to this simple, two-commandment rule: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.  Everything else – our Catechism, our church’s statement of mission and purpose, the signs outside about passing God’s peace – they all flow from these two commandments: Love God and love neighbor.

Where it gets messy, of course, is putting that into practice.  Last Sunday, we heard Jesus state this summary of the Law only to have a lawyer test him by asking, “OK.  Who is my neighbor?  Where’s the boundary of love?  How far do I have to go?”  So, Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan, teaching the lawyer and the crowd two things they didn’t want to hear.  First, everyone is your neighbor, especially anyone in need.  Second, even the last person you’d expect to see as a hero, even a hated Samaritan, is actually the one following God’s ways when they do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8).  And to make sure we don’t miss it, Jesus tells us to “go, and do likewise” (Luke 10:37).

Well, that seems clear enough, right?  But then, because even the clearest teaching gets tricky in real life, the scene shifts to today’s Gospel reading, the story of Mary and Martha – a great exploration of what it means to do your duty to God.  After telling the lawyer to “go and do likewise” in loving and serving his neighbor, Jesus comes to Mary and Martha’s house for dinner.  They welcome him, and Jesus gets settled – and Mary cools her heels, just sitting there with Jesus, soaking up what he has to say.  Meanwhile, back in the kitchen, Martha is fuming, getting more resentful by the minute as she takes up the slack and does all the work of putting on this amazing feast she’s orchestrated for the traveling VIP. 

For centuries, people (like me) have been identifying with Martha in this story and remembering all the times we were left holding the bag … to rescue group projects at school, or finish work assignments, or put on family events.  Someone has to be the responsible one and get the dishes done, but why does it have to be me?  Right?  So, we Marthas would love to hear Jesus backing us up on this.  Surely “go and do likewise” would apply in this situation.  “Don’t you care, Lord, that those slackers have left me to do all the work myself?”

But like Martha, we doers can easily miss the point.  Loving God and neighbor doesn’t mean meeting the expectations I’ve set for myself and other people around me.  Loving God and neighbor means putting the other first.  In the story, did Martha ever ask whether Jesus wanted a big, complicated meal?  Would he have preferred some chips and a drink on the porch instead?  Maybe so, because clearly what Jesus is valuing here is the heart that’s listening to him.  “Mary has chosen the better part,” Jesus explains (Luke 10:42).  It’s not that Martha’s work isn’t valuable.  But our hearts have to be shaped for love before the rhythm they beat is loving service.

So, back to the Scouts and their Oath and Law.  Scouting isn’t about laying down rules that young people have to follow, expectations some authority figure mandates they have to meet.  Scouting is about forming young people so the choices they make honor God and country, help other people at all times, and steward themselves as people made in God’s image and likeness.  Scouting seeks to form youth into people who serve in love, knowing that good acts spring from good hearts.

I think that’s where Jesus is going with us Marthas, too.  When we’re worried and distracted about our obligations, even our holy obligations, it’s easy to miss the point of those obligations.  Jesus wasn’t coming to Mary and Martha’s house to eat the best dinner they could prepare.  Jesus was coming to Mary and Martha’s house to bring the presence of God, the reign and rule of God, directly into their midst.  Preparing a great meal for the traveling VIP was a lovely gesture, but what the VIP wanted wasn’t their meal.  What he wanted was their hearts.

I think he’s working on us the same way.  If we see our faith as being all about following rules, we inevitably get stuck worrying and arguing about which rules are right.  And if we do actually follow them, it’s probably about trying to earn our way into heaven … and maybe about showing up someone else in the process.  I think Jesus is asking for our hearts instead – not because he doesn’t value our service but because the heart work has to come first.  As Dave Banks said just a few minutes ago, channeling his inner Mary, “It’s God’s awesome majesty that demands our deepest reverence.  It’s God’s power that fills each of our hearts with His love.  It’s what God asks of us that makes us better people.”  The heart work has to come first, even for Marthas like me, because when Jesus has our hearts, he knows our hands will follow.


Sunday, July 3, 2022

Listening to Enemies

Sermon for Independence Day, transferred -- July 3, 2022

Matthew 5:43-48

Today, we’re celebrating Independence Day (one day early) – not just a national holiday but a feast day on The Episcopal Church’s calendar, too.

As you may have learned in Confirmation class or our Discovery class, the United States and The Episcopal Church share some parallels in their origin stories.  In both cases, the presenting circumstance was conflict – and lots of it.  By 1787, the 13 new states faced differences that had been obscured by the unifying force of revolution.  Would the large states get to bully their way past the smaller ones on policy questions?  Would white Americans be allowed to keep enslaving other humans – and, if so, how would the enslaved people be counted in determining representation?  You probably remember all this from high-school civics class, but what we may not feel is the sense of division and conflict that burdened the founders.  Drawing up the Constitution had the potential to be less like a committee meeting and more like survival of the fittest.

Two years later, also in Philadelphia, representatives of what had been the Church of England were meeting to figure out how to be the Church of England when you’re not in England anymore.  But their issues ran much deeper than simply editing out the prayers for King George and the clergy’s oaths of allegiance to the Crown.  Their divisions were similar to the ones playing out among the founders two years before.

There were two basic positions about how the ex-Church of England should govern itself.  High-church leaders in the Northern states mistrusted popular governance and wanted bishops to retain control.  Many of them had also been loyalists in the Revolution, something the patriots hadn’t forgotten.  At the same time, lower-church leaders in the mid-Atlantic and Southern states wanted to do away with bishops and hang onto the considerable power wealthy laypeople exercised in the parishes of the South.2  

In both conventions, church and state, the conflict was about power.  And, in both conventions, that conflict was resolved through compromise.  The people building a new government and the people building a new Church chose to solve problems along with those who opposed them, rather than vilifying them and seeing them as enemies.  Now, what they created certainly wasn’t perfect – especially the U.S. Constitution’s continuing slavery and counting enslaved people as three-fifths human.  Thankfully, a revision process was built into the system, too.  But both the American Constitution and The Episcopal Church came into being because people who disagreed with each other took on the discipline of listening, finding common ground, and compromising for the greater good – even if what they built wasn’t perfect.

“Perfect” … that’s a word we heard in today’s Gospel reading, too – and a scary word for those of us who are recovering perfectionists.  This call to be “perfect” concludes a truly challenging reading in which Jesus tells us to love even those we can’t imagine loving – our enemies.  

Now, it might be easy for us to write off today’s reading, thinking, “Well, that’s a nice idea, Jesus, but you’ve gone too far this time.  We all know we can’t be perfect – it’s impossible.  So, loving our enemies can just fall into the category of a Scriptural bridge too far.  If I can’t do it, why try?” 

Sorry, but we don’t get off that easily.  The Greek word translated here as “perfect” doesn’t mean error-free.  It means “whole, complete, [or] mature.”1  And working toward that kind of perfection, the journey of growing into “the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13) – that’s definitely on our assignment list.  In fact, you could argue that, for Christians, it is our assignment list.

Striving for that kind of perfection was also at the top of the list for the founders of the country we celebrate today.  Being whole, complete, and mature as a nation – forming a “more perfect union” – that’s the Constitution’s primary reason for being.  It says so, right there in the Preamble.

So that journey of forming a more perfect union, or the journey of becoming whole and complete and mature in following Jesus – what does a journey toward perfection look like?  I think the founders of our nation and our Episcopal Church – maybe even Jesus himself – would say that becoming more perfect starts with listening to the people you don’t want to hear.  It’s the most fundamental way to honor the humanity of someone you’re tempted to write off, someone you’re tempted to dismiss as your enemy.

And listening is hard work.  These days, it’s countercultural work because we live in a nation of uncivil discourse.  But we did some of that hard work of listening here last year, offering a class on civil discourse and then a series of listening sessions.  Parishioners with vastly different points of view came together over six evenings not to debate but simply to listen to each other’s perspectives on racism, immigration, gun violence, inclusion of LGBTQ people, and care of the environment.  We asked participants not just to name their positions but to talk about their core beliefs, ethics, and values.  We asked them to share the dreams or ideals that informed their positions, or maybe the fears underlying them.  And people did it – they took the challenge of being vulnerable both in their sharing and in their listening.  I think the folks who came found it to be a great experience.

And now, we’re going to try it again.  In this moment, we find the day’s national and local events presenting us with a need to listen like maybe never before.  The topic du jour is abortion.  Not only has the Supreme Court overturned Roe, but the half of us who live in Kansas have the responsibility to vote in a few weeks on Amendment 2 to the state constitution, which would specify that the document contains no right to abortion.  So, on Thursday, July 21, we’ll offer a listening session designed by members of our Advocacy Discernment Committee, including past junior warden and professional counselor Ann Rainey, and me.  We’ll follow basically the same model we used in the series last spring.  We’ll share the vision for this exercise and set some ground rules.  Then you’ll be invited to speak for a limited period of time, maybe three minutes, to share your perspective on abortion policy and, specifically, Kansas’ Amendment 2.  Now, I know this kind of experience, even just me talking about it now, might be triggering for people who’ve had to wrestle with whether to end a pregnancy.  But know this:  There won’t be debate.  There won’t even be discussion.  What there will be is a space for holy listening, for honoring the point of view and the full humanity of people who think differently about a tremendously important issue.

I’d like to start that process now, actually, with a little modeling.  I want to share what I would say if I were getting up to speak at this listening session.  It’s something I can share simply because of my experience in this heartbreaking and beautiful role of priest and pastor.  So, here goes:

I don’t have particular expertise about abortion or reproductive autonomy.  I’ve also never had to consider the issue personally, so that’s a perspective I definitely can’t speak to.  But one of the things that grieves me about the abortion debate, and most of the rest of our public discourse, is the way we reject nuance.  We are much more comfortable living in the land of “this or that,” of “right or wrong.”  And I think this obstructs our journey toward becoming whole, and complete, and mature – as individuals, as a Church, and as a nation. 

Over the past two years, I’ve talked with three couples who were considering ending a pregnancy not for any of the reasons often presumed in the abortion debate – not as contraception, or because of financial limitations, or because of the drastic changes a child brings into your life.  Instead, these families were considering ending a pregnancy because testing had revealed that, once born, the baby would not survive more than a brief time.  The problems included genetic anomalies causing critical organs not to develop fully.  In each case, the parents had to weigh the consequences of carrying to term a child who would not live long at all, and then compare that with the tragedy of choosing to end their pregnancy.  None of the couples considered this lightly, and each was devastated by their situation.  The couples made different choices, two ending their pregnancies and one carrying the fetus to term.  But they had the ability to exercise the choice that they had discerned God was leading them to make.  In my view, public policy that doesn’t take into account situations like these is public policy that needs to listen to the nuance of lived experience, especially now that we know so much about a baby before it’s born.

Well, there you have it – one example of what I hope will happen in our listening session on July 21.  And I hope you’ll consider taking part.  Alongside the Fourth of July fireworks and music and hotdogs this weekend, I think listening to people who completely disagree with us is a great way to celebrate the American experiment of representative democracy – and to celebrate the American experiment of The Episcopal Church.  As Abraham Lincoln said of us at Gettysburg, so we are living now:  We are a “nation conceived in liberty” but “engaged in a great civil [conflict], testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”3  And so, my prayer is that we would choose to keep pressing toward perfection, toward being whole, and complete, and mature, guided both by our Savior’s voice and “by the better angels of our nature.”4

  1. HarperCollins Study Bible, 1868 (note).
  2. Hein, David, and Gardiner H. Shattuck, Jr.  The Episcopalians. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004. 52-54.
  3. Lincoln, Abraham. “The Gettysburg Address.” Available at: https://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/gettysburg.htm. Accessed July 1, 2022.
  4. Lincoln, Abraham. “First Inaugural Address.” Available at: https://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/1inaug.htm. Accessed July 1, 2022.

Formation for Transformation

Sermon for June 26, 2022

Luke 9:51-62

Yesterday, more than 30 St. Andrew’s people went to St. James United Methodist Church on the Paseo to take part in Connecting Community, the first installment of what I hope will be an ongoing project.  All day, people from St. James’ neighborhood and beyond could come by for help with the needs of day-to-day life – things like groceries, and diapers, and clothing, and washing their clothes at a laundromat – in fact, apparently 420 loads of laundry!  I’m sure we’ll be hearing stories for a long time about the experience of standing alongside new friends from St. James and serving people together.

But why did we do this?  Why do we do things like the Connecting Community event, or the Free Store at Christmastime?  Why do parishioners serve at the Kansas City Community Kitchen or St. Paul’s Pantry?  You know, a critic could rightly point out that even if we held yesterday’s event every week, we wouldn’t be solving the problems that afflict so many in our community.  Giving people diapers or food or clean clothes is certainly a kindness, and Jesus blesses that.  But it doesn’t solve the larger issues – neither the particular challenges specific individuals face, nor the systemic limitations of opportunity resulting from more than a century of legal discrimination and educational failure in our communities of color.  So, if our outreach work isn’t solving those problems, why are we doing it?

To look for an answer, let’s look to today’s Gospel reading.  It begins a new, long section of Luke’s story in which Jesus and his followers move from their home base in Galilee, in the north, down to Jerusalem – the centerpiece of the Jewish world and what will become the “trailhead” for the disciples’ mission to the rest of the world.1  Jesus starts out with his face “set toward Jerusalem” (Luke 9:53), apparently resolute and focused.  Passing through the land of the Samaritans, historic feud partners for the Jews, Jesus is rejected by people there; and the disciples James and John want to channel their inner Elijah and call down fire from heaven.  Not only would that seem out of character for the Prince of Peace, but Jesus also doesn’t have time to get bogged down in judging those who won’t follow his ways.  They’ll find judgment enough later on.

Then the story keeps moving as Jesus engages people on the road, people who do heed his call to live under God’s reign and rule.  One person pledges to follow Jesus wherever he goes, but Jesus warns him that following this path isn’t just an intellectual exercise.  It means following Jesus in a life that offers less predictability and less comfort than what the animals get. 

Then another person catches Jesus’ attention, someone open-hearted enough that Jesus invites him along for the journey.  The man says yes, but “first let me go and bury my father” (9:59) – not a delaying tactic but an obligation if he wants to follow the Fifth Commandment about honoring our parents.  But Jesus stops the man short, saying the call to follow him takes precedence even over this: “Let the dead bury their own dead,” he says, “but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God” (9:60).  We don’t know which path the grieving son decided to take. 

Finally, another person agrees to come with Jesus on the journey but asks for permission first to go say goodbye to his family – the very least we might expect from someone about to abandon his household.  In fact, it was allowed by Elijah in the first reading today when he called Elisha to succeed him as Israel’s lead prophet.  But, again, Jesus takes the hard line: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (9:62).  Yikes.  So much for warm-and-fuzzy Jesus who likes to cuddle lambs and babies.  There’s no time to waste, he says, and no room for anything less than unswerving dedication to God’s ways and God’s priorities.

But if you keep reading in Luke beyond today’s story, you find that this unswerving journey … isn’t.  The story does not take Jesus and his community on a direct path from point A to point B.  Instead, they wander around Judea for 10 chapters – healing people, confronting opponents, teaching how God’s reign and rule stands in contrast to the systems and priorities we usually follow.  It takes them a long time to get from Galilee to Jerusalem for the confrontation we know as Palm Sunday.  So, did Jesus get lost?  Or distracted?  I don’t think so.  His face is still set toward Jerusalem, but he’s also got a lot of work to do to help his friends and followers set their faces toward the kingdom, too.

I think it’s just as hard for us to hear Jesus as it must have been for the folks trudging across Palestine.  After all, when people who disagree with us say ridiculous things and undermine the values we hold dear, we might silently wish for a little heavenly fire to rain down, too – but then Jesus rebukes us, not them.  We, too, would balk at leaving behind the comfort and predictability of our lives to follow a Way that runs counter to most of what the world values.  We, too, would feel the need to go bury our father and honor that relationship before we followed our heavenly Father’s path.  We, too, would want to share a final good-bye with our family before heading out for God’s kingdom with no return ticket home.  Neither we nor the folks following Jesus along those dusty roads are ready to hear what he has to say. 

So maybe that’s why that trip to Jerusalem changed from an express train to a whistle-stop tour.  Like the people of Israel a thousand years earlier, wandering in the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land, these followers of Jesus found they were there for the journey as much as for the destination.  They were on a path of formation, even a path of transformation.  Most of them weren’t yet ready to keep their hands on the plow and never look back.  They were just beginning to learn what plowing was all about.  And Jesus was guiding this journey of discovery not as a flight engineer but as a pilgrimage leader, casting the vision of God’s reign and rule, and then inviting them to find it along the way.

We’re pilgrims, too.  And like all pilgrimages, our journey isn’t about physical distance as much as it is about boundary-crossing.  Jesus was inviting his friends and followers to step outside the patterns they knew and put God’s priorities first – to try out kingdom living, and see what relationships they might build, and see how the experience would change them … to see if, perhaps, God’s priorities would take root, and change their hearts, and reorient their lives.

And so, we come back to yesterday’s Connecting Community event, or our work at the Kansas City Community Kitchen, or St. Paul’s Pantry, or the Free Store.  We are not holy social workers.  Neither do we have the power to transform broken social structures on our own.  We are pilgrims, crossing boundaries as we follow Jesus step by step more fully into God’s reign and rule.  We’re being formed to embody God’s priorities just that much more deeply today than we did yesterday.  We’re being formed to be transformed – disciples learning to be apostles, fellow workers with Christ sent out to draw others in, and change their hearts, and thereby change the world by prioritizing those whom Jesus raises up.  Growing into the measure of the full stature of Christ (Ephesians 4:13), we speak, and we work, and we vote, and we serve – and in doing so, we witness for what the kingdom can look like on earth as it is in heaven.

In our pilgrimage, the greatest formative power comes from relationships – opening ourselves to someone we didn’t know, opening ourselves to someone else’s story, opening ourselves to someone else’s vision of the world.  That’s what I hope the Connecting Community event was and will be: a doorway that brings us alongside other pilgrims taking their own long and winding road with Jesus to Jerusalem.  

We come together to bless the community not because we can fix it.  We come together to bless the community because doing so helps to fix us. 

1.       New International Study Bible, 1872-3 (note).


Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Stand Up to Stand Down

Sermon for the diaconal ordination of Jean Long

Jeremiah 1:4-9; Acts 6:2-7; Luke 22:24-27

June 11, 2022

We gather today to begin something that’s been underway a long time now.  In a few minutes, Jean Long will come up here, and Bishop Diane will offer ancient prayers, and lay hands on her, and make her a deacon in God’s Church … at least for a season.  That will begin what the prayer book calls a “special ministry of servanthood,” the hallmark of the diaconate.  And yet, for anyone who’s known her more than five minutes, Jean Long has been living servant ministry for years now.  I don’t think I’ve ever known someone more deeply wired to serve, and her ministry here at St. Andrew’s and in diocesan youth work has revealed that over and over again.

But this special ministry of servanthood will also be a new chapter, separate and distinct from what’s come before.  At least that’s the Church’s hope for what we sometimes call the “transitional diaconate.”  I’m afraid that often, this part of the process toward the priesthood can be just that – part of the process, a box to check, a step to take on the way to somewhere else.  Honestly, that’s what it was like for me.  I came out of seminary, was ordained a deacon, and took charge of a small congregation, serving as a priest in every way except absolving, blessing, and consecrating.  If there’s theological integrity in serving as a deacon for a season, that ain’t it.

So, it begs the question … why do people on the path toward priesthood serve as deacons first?  Probably “because the canons say so” isn’t the best reason.  Here’s another possibility.  It might just be that serving as a deacon helps you remember whispers of God’s call that the priesthood might tempt you to forget.

One of those whispers is the call to serve “all people, particularly the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely,” as the prayer book puts it.  As Jean already knows very well, people will come needing love who can be the hardest to love, and when you’ve got a full schedule of everything else, serving that challenging person you weren’t expecting can take more than everything you’ve got.

But the reading today from Acts reminds me that “all people” includes not only the hard to love but also the hard to see.  The propers for today begin this Acts reading at verse 2 of chapter 6 – an interesting choice because it edits out the presenting circumstance for choosing not just seven people for servant ministry but perhaps these specific seven, too.  Here’s the verse we missed, chapter 6, verse 1:  “Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food.”  Then comes the material we heard about needing to set aside people for the ministry of diakonia – which, in Greek, could mean “waiting on tables” or “keeping accounts,” either of which could make sense here.  Then it goes on to name the people raised up for this special ministry of servanthood – at least several of them people from the group whose widows were being neglected.  The seven raised up for this ministry have Greek names.  Now, we don’t know with certainty how many of them were Hellenists, Greek-speakers only; but most likely several of them were.  And the symbolism matters for us, I think.  I imagine the apostles weren’t trying to discriminate against the Greek-speakers.  They just weren’t seeing them.  So, what do you do about that?  Raise them up into leadership.  From the start, diaconal ministry has been about helping the Church see those whom we’re tempted to miss, bring them into the circle, and let the Holy Spirit change us all.

What else can the priesthood tempt us to forget?  How about this: The truth that my voice and God’s voice are not the same.  We heard about that in the reading from Jeremiah today.  There, the young prophet-to-be hears God’s call and says, “What?  You’ve got to be kidding.”  Perhaps that might ring true for some of us.  But the Lord reassures Jeremiah that he won’t be tapping his own resources as a prophet.  “You shall go to all to whom I shall send you,” God says, “and you shall speak whatever I command you.  Do not be afraid of them … [for] now I have put my words in your mouth.” (1:7-9)  In parish ministry as a priest, the temptation is great to speak easy words, words that won’t stir up the folks who are looking for a chance to be reactive.  We know we aren’t called to take the easy way out; so sometimes we overcorrect and lean too far the other way.  We figure my passion must be God’s passion and my righteousness must be God’s righteousness … and we let ’em have it.  Jeremiah reminds us, especially those called to parish leadership, that neither silence nor the Gospel of Me will suffice.  I think when the Good News calls people on all sides to hear a word they hadn’t considered, those are truly words the Lord has put in your mouth.

OK.  There’s at least one more way diaconal ministry can help tune the ears of priests-to-be toward God’s countercultural call, and we heard about that in our Gospel reading today.  At this point in the story, it’s Maundy Thursday; and Jesus has just instituted the Eucharist, the ultimate sign of divine love fully present in the here and now.  He’s given his friends this sacrament so they can remember his paradigm – that self-giving love is, in fact, the reign and rule of God on earth.  If that’s true, then ultimate power comes from the absence of power, the giving up of power … which turns the disciples’ understanding of power on its head.  And you can see why.  All around them, they see power as a function of status.  In the imperial world, power flowed from the one named as Caesar.  In their religious world, power flowed from the ones named as high priest or members of the council.  Even in their own circle, power flowed from the one named as Messiah, God’s anointed king.  And if the Messiah is sitting with them delivering his farewell address, you could understand why his followers might jump to the question, “Well, who has enough status to take over for him?  Which of us is the greatest?”

It’s an opportunity for Jesus to give his friends some parting instruction.  Exercising God’s power has nothing to do with status.  Exercising God’s power has everything to do with authority.  And in the kingdom Jesus is inaugurating, authority has everything to do with the last thing the world would expect: servanthood.  I don’t think Jesus is telling his followers it’s wrong to exercise power.  They can’t help but exercise power.  They’ll be filled with the Holy Spirit, the ultimate power; and that power can’t just lie fallow, with the followers of Jesus twiddling their thumbs and waiting for him to come back.  Instead, they are to lead just as Jesus led – from the bottom up, from alongside “the least” and the broken, from a place of servanthood.  Status has nothing to do with authority, for it is from the bottom up that the power of God bubbles to its boiling point.  And to the extent that we followers of Jesus lean on the status conferred by titles and categories, we might do better to lean on the everlasting arms instead.   

So, why do those who are further ordained in the Church need to be deacons first?  Because that diaconal identity is the soil from which any further ordained ministry must grow.  It boils down to this: Without a servant’s heart, a Christian cannot lead.  So, no matter your order of ordained ministry, you’ve always got to be a deacon.

As we often hear, deacons bridge the Church and the world.  Deacons carry the word of God to a world not always ready to hear it.  Deacons carry the concerns of the world to a Church not always nimble enough to pivot the way the world needs.  Deacons carry the mantle of servant leadership in the stole across their chests, leading not from a seat of power but from the power of service, themselves outward and visible signs of self-giving love. 

Well, Jean, it’s time to stand up and embrace the call to stand down.  As you take these diaconal vows without having to cross your fingers behind your back, here’s my prayer for you:  May you tap the self-giving heart God’s already given you.  May you trust God’s words put into your mouth and heed the call to share them.  May you see those whom the Church may miss and bring their experience into view.  And may you live into Christ’s power and authority by being nothing less than the person God’s already formed you to be – a servant who leads with true power, that power that gives itself away.

Sunday, June 5, 2022

Escaping Grandfather's Mansion

Sermon for Ascension, transferred. May 29, 2022

Acts 1:1-11; Luke 24:44-53

There are times when words fall short, and this week is one of them.  On Tuesday, an 18-year-old entered a fourth-grade classroom in Texas and started shooting children and teachers.  Twenty-one are dead, 17 are wounded, and countless others are scarred for life. 

I don’t want to have to talk about this today.  I don’t ever want to talk about this kind of atrocity again.  After Uvalde, and Buffalo, and all the other places whose names we’ve been hearing in the news this week, I want to be done talking about shoppers massacred in grocery stores or fourth graders gunned down at their desks.  I have no words to make this better.

Yet, at the same time, there are moments when words must be spoken, regardless of how they fall short.  For when we are lost, wandering in the darkness, we need to remember who we are, and whose we are, and what that means for us.  So, let’s start by offering God our pain and our compassion for the people of Uvalde through this prayer from the Episcopal bishop of West Texas, David Reed.  Let us pray: 

O God our Father, whose beloved Son took children into his arms and blessed them: Give us grace to entrust your beloved children of Uvalde to your everlasting care and love, and bring them fully into your heavenly kingdom.  Pour out your grace and loving-kindness on all who grieve; surround them with your love; and restore their trust in your goodness.  We lift up to you our weary, wounded souls and ask you to send your Holy Spirit to take away the anger and violence that infect our hearts, and to make us instruments of your peace and children of your light.  In the Name of Christ who is our hope, we pray. Amen.1

So, I’m tempted now just to read the names of the victims and have us sit here through several minutes of silent lamentation.  But in this tragic week, we also marked a peculiar major feast of the Church, the feast of the Ascension, as well as Memorial Day weekend.  Now, the ascension of the resurrected Jesus might seem to have nothing at all to do with this tragedy our nation is bearing.  In fact, the cynics might look at this odd juxtaposition of events and holidays and conclude that, indeed, Jesus must have ascended back to heaven, because he sure as heck isn’t preventing the carnage we inflict on each other here.  First, of course, that cynicism reflects bad theology, because God has never been in the business of preventing the carnage we inflict on each other.  Instead, God inhabited our world as Jesus Christ, inaugurating a kingdom of love in contrast to the kingdom of sin and violence that surrounded him – in fact, allowing himself to be sacrificed to sin and violence, in order to defeat them by rising from the grave.  Jesus isn’t about dragging us out of the kingdom of death.  He’s about giving us a different reality to choose – the reality of the reign and rule of God.

In fact, the feast of the Ascension reminds us God’s contrast reality isn’t just a nice idea, a vision of peace and harmony to comfort us.  This contrast reality is the present, active dominion of the Prince of Peace.  The central claim of the Ascension is not that Jesus up and left, heading back to heavenly tranquility.  The central claim of the Ascension is that Jesus is Lord of the Universe, our cosmic CEO, the one to whom our glory and our allegiance must go.  Now, it’s true that we’re empowered by our Creator with free will, the ability to turn against the king, because love cannot be commanded.  But we turn against the king at our own peril – individually and as a broken nation. 

What we see around us is the consequence of the perspective I talked about last week: Seeing ourselves as independent actors, each with the correct answer to any given question and the right to exercise our beliefs as we darned well see fit.  Well, liberty is certainly a gift from God, but as St. Paul said, “Take care that this liberty of yours does not become a stumbling block” to others (1 Corinthians 8:9).  We’ve come to believe so deeply that we are right, and others are wrong, and we can do whatever we want that we’re losing our memory of how to care for one another, how to nurture the common good.  I believe this is our particularly American affliction of original sin: that deep down, we each think we know best and have the right to act on it.  And the more we act that way, the less we can see Jesus beckoning us to follow his reign and rule instead.

Seeing the reality of Jesus’ heavenly reign can be tricky.  In fact, our world conspires against it, turning God’s reality on its head.  To flesh that out a bit, let me share an image I think I’ve mentioned before. 

As a kid, growing up in Springfield, Missouri, my family went to Silver Dollar City just about every year.  At this 1880s-style amusement park, one of the earliest attractions was a funhouse called Grandfather’s Mansion.  The stairs make you lean at odd angles, and the hallways tip you sideways, messing with your equilibrium.  Portraits on the wall change from the faces of kindly elders to demonic monsters depending on where you stand.  You sit on what looks like a level bench and tumble into the person sitting next to you.  You turn on a faucet and watch the water run uphill. 

But maybe the most compelling sight is looking through a window into Grandfather’s bedroom.  Literally everything in it is upside down – a bed on the ceiling, with the bedspread hanging upwards; a chandelier sticking up from the floor; a water pitcher and bowl stuck to a dressing table hanging from the ceiling; and a clock running counter-clockwise, with a long pendulum sticking up from the bottom, arcing back and forth in the air.

As a kid walking through Grandfather’s Mansion, I first found the place deeply disorienting, even frightening; and I wanted to get out because I was afraid of what twisted reality I might encounter next.  But if you spend enough time in Grandfather’s Mansion, your equilibrium sort of adapts, and you can make your way through the off-kilter hallways and down the tipping stairs without much stumbling.  And with repeated visits, of course, Grandfather’s Mansion becomes familiar territory.  You don’t even need to think too much about readjusting your equilibrium to get you through this upside-down world.

I believe we’re living in Grandfather’s Mansion.  More to the point:  I believe we’re choosing to live in Grandfather’s Mansion.  We’ve spent so much time in Grandfather’s Mansion we think it’s reality, that clocks run backwards and water runs uphill.  And it’s long past time for us to make our escape.  This nation of disfigured priorities, this land where me being right matters more than us being safe – this land is not our home.  Jesus, our true Lord, invites us to remember that we are citizens of a different land, a “heavenly country” (Hebrews 11:16) – which specifically does not mean just a promise of peace in the sweet by and by.  It means a responsibility to follow the Prince of Peace here and now, in the twisted reality we’ve created, turning toward his reign and rule instead. 

What would that look like?  It would look like our leaders taking those rituals of failure I mentioned last week and transforming them into kingdom moments, seizing God-awful times like this week and redeeming them by choosing to turn in a different direction. 

Here’s a tiny example.  There was an article in the Star on Wednesday, buried a long way down the feed.  It wasn’t full of emotion or conflict – no police lights or scandal involved.  It was a guest commentary from Bob Boydston, the retired sheriff of Clay County with 34 years’ experience in law enforcement.  Here’s the title of his article: “Don’t say we can’t fight school shootings. Clay County and North KC schools have a plan.”  And the article outlines that plan.  It focuses on achieving what could actually be achieved in this moment, first steps that could make a difference. It would put retired law-enforcement officers into schools at all levels.  This enhanced protection would be funded by taxes on firearms at the points of importation, manufacture, and sale, as well as taxes on video games about killing people.  This tax revenue would also support stronger state mental-health services.2

I raise up this proposal not because it’s “the answer” to gun violence.  I raise this up because it’s one escape window from Grandfather’s Mansion – people coming together to do what they can, in this particular time and place, to reduce gun violence and make people safer.  Now, if we asked the Prince of Peace, our cosmic CEO, whether this is enough, Jesus would say, “Of course not.”  But it’s something – a step toward prioritizing the safety of the vulnerable, putting the well-being of the community ahead of the demands of the extremes.  That sounds to me like a turn toward the reign and rule of God.

We’ve got to start climbing out of Grandfather’s Mansion sometime.  And we’re not going to find the way out by staring up to heaven, like the disciples watching Jesus ascend.  Ultimately, Jesus will return “in the same way as you saw him go into heaven,” as the angels say in today’s reading (Acts 1:11); and we might want to think about consequences for those who ignored his directions now.  Because the Lord of the Universe, our CEO, has already issued his orders for dealing with evil as we await his return in glory.  He’s deputized you and me.  As he said in the reading from Acts and in today’s Gospel, you are his “witnesses” (Luke 24:48; Acts 1:8).  You are the proclaimers of the reign and rule of God in the here and now.  Both the principles of our American democracy and the principles of God’s kingdom point us in the same direction on this one:  We the people bear responsibility to end the madness of one mass shooting after another.  We were not given this nation to turn it into a land where the clocks run backwards and the rivers run uphill.  We are citizens of a better country – and it’s time for us to insist on it.  Because, at the end of the day, we are truly citizens of an even “better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:16) – and it's time for us to act that way.

1.      “West Texas Bishop David Reed requests prayers following Uvalde elementary school shooting.”  Episcopal News Service., May 24, 2022.  Available at: https://www.episcopalnewsservice.org/2022/05/24/west-texas-bishop-david-reed-request-prayers-after-uvalde-elementary-school-shooting/. Accessed May 27, 2022.

2.      Boydston, Bob. “Don’t say we can’t fight school shootings. Clay County and North KC schools have a plan.” Kansas City Star, May 25, 2022. Available at: https://www.kansascity.com/opinion/readers-opinion/guest-commentary/article261769427.html. Accessed May 27, 2022.


Say Yes, Trust, and Rejoice

Sermon for the ordination of the Rev. Rita Kendagor

May 28, 2022

Rita, it seems like a long journey that’s brought you here today.  I went back into my email and found a message about us meeting in December of 2017 because you were hearing God nudging you toward ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church.  It wasn’t exactly a predictable course for someone from the Pentecostal tradition with a long career as a clinical social worker.  But of course, as we celebrate today, your journey’s only just begun.  

That journey of ministry is different for each of us, and it’s a journey each of us takes – not just the people who wear the funny clothes.  We each encounter different challenges, different growing edges, different joys.  So, I wouldn’t dare stand up here and tell you what lies ahead.  But maybe some friends of ours we’ve heard from today can give us some signposts, things to watch for along the way.

One of those friends is the prophet Isaiah.  I can only begin to imagine how Isaiah must have felt receiving this vision we heard about in our first reading.  It’s tremendously inspiring and, at the same time, enough to make you never pray for divine guidance again.  We don’t know the backstory, whether Isaiah had felt stirrings of a prophetic call before, or whether this vision just came out of the blue.  But come it did. 

Isaiah is minding his own business, doing whatever he does in the service of the Temple’s worship life, when all of a sudden, faith gets real.  The presence of Yahweh fills the Temple not just spiritually but physically, the heavenly throne ensconced right there in the Holy of Holies.  It would be as if Jesus were suddenly standing behind the altar on a Sunday morning, serving us Communion:  It’s one thing to believe in a theological truth; it’s another to see it come to life before you … and, for Isaiah, including giant flying cobras known as seraphs, too.  No wonder he’s afraid.  Isaiah also knows he has no business standing there in the Lord’s presence, that neither he nor his people can claim the holiness required for that royal audience.  So, a giant flying cobra picks up a blazing chunk of coal and touches Isaiah’s lips with it.  I’m sure that wasn’t frightening at all. 

But in the midst of this holy terror comes a voice Isaiah knows deep in his soul, the voice of God speaking the last thing Isaiah expects to hear: words of invitation.  “Whom shall I send,” Yahweh asks, “and who will go for us?” (6:8).  It’s not a command.  It’s a request.  The power that shaped all creation and shakes the Temple’s foundations now speaks to Isaiah … and asks for his help.  And Isaiah, probably astonished to hear any words coming from his own mouth, speaks for each of us who’s ever heard God calling in the night: “Here am I,” he says.  “Send me.” (6:8)

As we head down this twisting road of ministry, taking one blind curve after another, here’s the signpost I see our friend Isaiah pointing out: that the sovereign of the universe does not compel our service.  Instead, God invites you, Rita, and all of us, to say “yes” – not just once, but over and over again.  Like Moses at the burning bush, like young Samuel lying in the Temple, like Mary visited by the angel, Isaiah stands before God and says, “Here am I.”  Here am I.  It’s the best news God gets to hear, I think – when a beloved and gifted child says, “Yes.  Here am I.”  And today, we honor that holy “yes” once again, as Rita hears the divine whisper, or sees the burning bush, or dodges the giant flying cobras and says, “Here am I.  Send me.”

We also got to hear from another friend this morning – the Gospel writer John, giving us another signpost along this twisting path of ministry.  John’s telling the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 and then arguing with the religious leaders for the next 38 verses about what the miracle means and who the miracle worker is. 

Before the material we heard today, the religious leaders have asked Jesus what they’re supposed to do to perform the works of God and thereby receive “the food that endures for eternal life” (6:27).  Now, hit the “pause” button just a minute:  Does their way of thinking feel familiar to anyone else here this morning?  Come on, ‘fess up.  “Good morning, God.  Fr. John reporting for duty.  What works do you have on my list today?  Give me today’s assignment.”  Yes, yes, it’s God the Supervisor –not my best God, but the one I default to, I’m afraid.  And with ordination, I think the temptation to see God as our supervisor only gets worse. 

Anyway, the religious leaders want to know how they’re supposed to earn eternal life.  Jesus instead offers to give them “the bread of God … that … comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (6:33).  They say, “Great!”  And he says, “OK; It’s me.  You’ve seen me, but you don’t believe.” 

And, by the way, the kind of belief Jesus has in mind isn’t the kind of belief we tend to think about.  This isn’t just nodding our heads and agreeing that something is intellectually true.  This is a form of the word pistis in Greek.  In its verb form, it drives your whole life.  It’s really not the same as “believe” in English.  It’s more like “trust,” or even better, “stake your life on.”  “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry,” Jesus says, “and whoever stakes their life on me will never be thirsty.”  I think that’s the signpost our friend John has for us today along the twisting path of ministry:  Keep on coming to Jesus, and keep on trusting in Jesus.  For the bread of life is there, and you can stake your life on it.

Finally, this morning, we got to hear from our friend Paul, in his letter to the Philippians.  Now, good ol’ Paul can be a bit of a curmudgeon, grumpy at this person or that group for missing the mark as we figure out how to live in this new world order that Jesus’ resurrection has begun.  And as we struggle to get it right, as individuals and as congregations and as a Church, I worry that if Paul were here with us today, he might begin his teaching with, “You foolish Episcopalians….”  You can fill in the blank for yourself with your favorite example of how we miss the mark. 

And for those of us in ordained ministry, I fear Paul’s critique might be particularly scathing.  When we’re tempted to make ministry be about us, Paul reminds us to “let the same mind be in you that was in Jesus Christ, who … emptied himself … and … humbled himself … on a cross” (Philippians 2:5-8).  When we’re tempted to get discouraged by the slings and arrows of outrageous parishioners, Paul reminds us that he’s already suffered “calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, [and] sleepless nights” (2 Corinthians 6:5).  And when we’re tempted to divide off into “us” and “them,” following the culture’s siren song, Paul reminds us to “love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.” (Romans 12:10) 

So, what does Paul the curmudgeon have for us on this ordination day?  “Rejoice,” Paul exhorts.  Wait, what?  “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, rejoice.” (Philippians 4:4)  “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (4:6).  Rather than trying to sort everything out on our own, rather than accepting the pressure to be outstanding, rather than seeing every day in ministry as a performance evaluation – focus on where you see the power of God at work, Paul says.  “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever us just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (4:8).  Give your needs to God, Paul says, and give yourself a break, and this whole ministry thing will go much better for everyone.

Rita, these readings capture you so well.  You bring to the Church a prophet’s voice, a believer’s trust, and a contemplative’s heart.  Thank you for offering yourself, for saying “yes” when you heard God calling in the night.  Now, it’s traditional at this point for the ordinand to stand to receive a “charge” from the preacher, so I suppose we should honor that.  Rita, here is the best I’ve got for you:  Keep saying yes to God, despite how scary the call may be.  Keep coming to Jesus, and keep trusting in him with everything you’ve got.  Do not worry, but in everything, with prayer and thanksgiving, tell God what you need.  Rejoice always – and know that, just as we rejoice along with you today, we’ll be here to work alongside you tomorrow.  And through it all, through it all, through it all, know this: that “the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:9).