Sunday, September 12, 2021

The Cross at Ground Zero

Sermon for Sunday, Sept. 12, 2021
Mark 8:27-38

As we’ve been hearing all week, yesterday was the 20th anniversary of 9/11.  I’m sure many of us remember that day vividly, perhaps more vividly than we’d like.  I can see where I was when I got the news, who I was with.  Ann and I were in seminary, and the whole seminary community was gathered in the auditorium that morning for the beginning of the fall term.  Someone in the back of the room got a phone call with the news that the towers had been hit, and she cried out to stop the presentation and turn on the TVs.  We all sat there, watching for hours, until we went to the chapel to pray the ancient words of the Supplication from the prayer book – “From our enemies defend us, O Christ” (BCP 154).

I imagine many of us have a story about how daily life simply stopped on 9/11 as we watched and prayed.  We were afraid.  Intellectually, we all knew that we live in a dangerous world, susceptible to evil acts.  But it’s different to watch it on TV as terror happens.

Later, the story of the day’s terror would come to be filtered through stories of the day’s heroism.  When we remembered, what came to mind were firefighters, EMTs, and police running into buildings others were fleeing.  What came to mind were 40 people on a plane over Pennsylvania who got phone calls about the attacks in New York and Washington, and realized they were the fourth missile, and chose to die saving lives instead.

Terrorism and heroism stood side by side on 9/11.  As we know, heroes don’t always make it.  Terror and chaos can seem to carry the day.  Even 20 years later, watching the chaos at the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan – with hearts aching, infuriated for those left behind at the end of a war intended to plant hope in place of terror – even 20 years later, we fear chaos might triumph after all.

With images from 20 years ago and images from just weeks ago fresh in our hearts and minds, we might well ask:  Where’s God in all this? 

Today’s Gospel reading opens the door to an answer.  As always, the disciples aren’t all that different from you and me, despite thousands of miles and thousands of years of distance.  Peter gets it, at least intellectually, that Jesus is God’s anointed king, the Messiah … whatever that meant.  It probably meant something to Peter – maybe that Jesus would defeat the Romans and rule in power and glory.  Whatever Peter had in mind, it clearly wasn’t what Jesus had in mind.  For the first time, he tells his friends what’s coming – that “the Son of man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the [authorities] …, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31). 

Many of us have heard this reading before.  As it is when we watch video of the planes hitting the towers, we know where this anguishing story is going.  But Peter doesn’t know the story; he tries to make it stop, tries to get Jesus to change the narrative.  Instead, Jesus looks terror in the eye and confronts it with love that won’t back down.  In fact, it’s the love that grows and flows from him to us.  He looks at his baffled friends and says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross, and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (Mark 8:34-35) 

Now, the disciples and the crowd are thinking, “Wait, what?  What’s this about taking up a cross?”  They knew what crosses were for; they saw the Romans crucifying revolutionaries all the time.  But they hadn’t put that together with Jesus’ story.  This is the first time in Mark’s gospel that the word “cross” appears.  For Jesus’ followers, stuff just got real.

So, where’s God when stuff gets real?  Where was God on 9/11?  Where’s God in COVID, or in a Haitian earthquake, or in a devastating hurricane, or in more than 200 shootings in Chicago last weekend?  Where’s God in the suffering we each know, the hardships that make us say, “Really, Lord?  This is what a life of blessing looks like?”

            Well, here’s where I think God is.  God’s in the Cross at Ground Zero. When the towers fell, structures and lives disintegrating in an instant, amidst the rubble and ash and twisted steel of World Trade Center 6 stood this cross.  It was found two days after the collapse by a construction worker, a man named Frank Silecchia.  He and his team were working in the pit of Ground Zero looking for survivors.  And they were beyond discouraged because they’d only found three bodies and no survivors in those two days.  Instead, what Frank Silecchia found was this cross.  The workers preserved it, and it stood at Ground Zero for about 5 years.  From there, it was taken to a nearby church and eventually, in 2011, moved to become part of the 9/11 Memorial & Museum.1

To me, this cross speaks volumes about God and human suffering, the theology of the cross.  Here’s what I mean.  Jesus faced the evil of the Roman Empire, a system that oppressed people, taxing them beyond their means and abusing them if they resisted – and he chose to walk into conflict with Rome.  Jesus faced the evil of religious leaders who put their own power and prestige ahead of the well-being of their people – and he chose to walk into conflict with those authorities.  Jesus wasn’t looking to die.  He was looking to stand for and stand with people who needed the power of God’s love to overcome the powers that beat them down.  He was looking to show the depth and breadth and height of that love, love so powerful that battling evil and death only made it stronger.  God didn’t send in the heavenly armies to vanquish Rome or unseat the religious authorities.  Could have – but didn’t.  Instead, God walked into the suffering as one of us, experiencing every loss and sustaining every blow to show that death is not the end. 

And 2,000 years later, God was there in the pit of Ground Zero. God showed up to comfort us when we were broken, to embrace us with the healing peace that surpasses understanding, and to empower us so that we might stand against evil – both the evil that surrounds us and the evil that stews in our hearts.

And in that power, God sends us out from the cross, too, because the cross is not the end of the story.  The cross is the arrow that points us to the empty tomb, to the love that defeats the power of sin and death and makes the whole creation new.  That’s a cosmic truth we’ll know in all its fullness later, when Christ restores the unity between heaven and earth that God intended in the beginning – and I can’t wait for it.  But for now, we experience this truth of love defeating sin and death when we follow the cross to the empty tomb ourselves, in our own lives, in this slice of eternity God’s sharing with us now. 

What does that look like, to live in resurrection?  St. Francis named it centuries ago.  When we’re tempted to hate, love instead.  When we’re tempted to seek vengeance, pardon instead.  When we’re tempted to divide, unify instead.  When we’re tempted to doubt, trust instead.  When we’re tempted to despair, hope instead.2  Taking up our cross and following Jesus means following him into the places others run from.  It means putting ourselves out there to love when love seems senseless.  It means showing up as God’s presence for others, pointing them toward love, too.

OK.  Maybe it’s just a coincidence that two steel beams were standing like this in the midst of the devastation.  But construction worker Frank Silecchia didn’t think so.  In fact, showing a deep understanding of the power of the cross to point to new life, Frank Silecchia spray-painted arrows on the debris at Ground Zero directing the responders there to find this cross, calling its location in the wreckage “Gods House” (sic).1  And because I have no better words than his, I will leave you with Frank Silecchia’s description of his experience finding the Ground Zero Cross and the meaning he takes from it.

[That cross] brought such overwhelming feelings to me that it dropped me to my knees in tears. …  The cross means, to me, healing, comfort – something to look toward … to comfort your sorrow, to help revitalize you.  You’ve got to remember – on that day, our faith was crushed.  And that cross, it helps rebuild our faith.  Terrorism took down the towers, but faith rebuilds our hearts.3

1.       Hampson, Rick. “Ground Zero cross a powerful symbol for 9/11 museum.” USA Today, May 13, 2014. Available at: Accessed Sept. 10, 2021.

2.       Book of Common Prayer, 833.

3.       “Remembering 9/11: The Ground Zero Cross.” From Remembering 9/11. Available at: Accessed Sept. 10, 2021.

Know Who You Don't Know

Sermon for Sunday, Sept. 5, 2021
James 2:1-10, 14-17; Mark 7:24-37

In recent weeks, we’ve heard news reports about preliminary results from the 2020 census.  In the words of the Census Bureau, “The U.S. population is much more multiracial and more diverse than what we measured in the past.”1  Now, as the Bureau says, the 2020 census gave people more options for indicating their racial and ethnic status; so, a direct, apples-to-apples comparison with past data isn’t really possible.  But still, the results do indicate what we probably knew anyway, just by experience – that our nation and the Kansas City area continue growing more diverse racially and ethnically.2

Of course, that’s only one way diversity expresses itself among us.  Even in a community like St. Andrew’s, where diversity isn’t so apparent at a glance, we differ greatly on many things – how we understand the role of government, whether the rights of the individual or the good of the community carries the greatest weight.  There are all kinds of ways we can see ourselves in contrast to “those other people,” whoever they may be.

And that takes us on the road with Jesus in today’s Gospel reading, as he goes to areas outside his usual stomping grounds and, apparently, outside his comfort zone, too.  He heads off to “the region of Tyre,” a city on the Mediterranean coast northwest of Galilee (Mark 7:24).  This location implies distance not just of geography but of culture.  The region of Tyre was not a Jewish area but was in Phoenicia, an area influenced for centuries by travelers and traders from around the Mediterranean.  We’re not told why Jesus is in Phoenicia.  He doesn’t seem to have proclamation on his mind because, the reading says, “he did not want anyone to know he was there” (7:24).  But word gets out, as it always does; and a woman from that foreign area comes to him, begging him to cast out an unclean spirit from her daughter.

This is where things get interesting.  This Syrophoenician woman not only humbles herself before Jesus; she bows down at his feet in “a posture of worship.”3  She’s heard what this powerful healer can do, and she’s assuming there’s divinity involved in his power somehow.  So, this woman has done nothing to dishonor Jesus – just the opposite, in fact.

But Jesus responds in a way we wouldn’t expect – a response that seems to run counter to what we know of him from his other interactions with people.  Whatever else might be going on in the stories of Jesus healing or talking with individuals, Jesus treats them as just that – as individuals.  He listens to them; he engages them.  He takes them seriously, meeting them who they are, where they are.  But in today’s story, for whatever reason, Jesus sees this woman not as an individual but as a category, a Syrophoenician – a member of a group that isn’t “us,” the Jewish people.  So, when she bows down to him and begs him to heal her daughter, Jesus says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (7:27).  Yes, that’s just as insulting as it sounds.  He’s basically saying, I’ve come to save the Jewish people first (which makes you wonder why he’s gone off to Phoenicia).  And, Jesus says, compared with us, God’s chosen people, you non-Jewish folks are like … dogs.4  It just sounds completely out of character.

But the woman’s response is amazing.  Having been categorized, labeled, dismissed, and insulted, she retains her faith in Jesus’ healing power, and she puts her own injury aside for the sake of her daughter’s well-being.  She says, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (7:28).  This non-Jew recognizes that even if Jesus considers her “the other,” lesser than his people, God still provides for her and all the “others” like her.  As one scholar notes, she’s the “only character in Mark who wins an argument against Jesus and, in the process, teaches him something important about the scope of his ministry.”5  In fact, from this conversation, Jesus has a change of heart.  He acknowledges the woman’s deep faith, even in a God she doesn’t know deeply; and he heals her daughter.

Now, the story doesn’t tell us how Jesus processed this interaction.  We don’t know whether he felt badly or whether he critiqued his human assumptions about God’s special relationship with the Jewish people.  But we do know what he did next.

Jesus makes his way to another Gentile area, the Decapolis, on the east side of the Jordan River.  This was a collection of 10 autonomous cities under Roman rule featuring Greek culture and religion.6  In that, the Decapolis was similar to Tyre – certainly not a Jewish area. Jesus’ journey to the Decapolis is also similar to his stop in Tyre in that people there seek him out, having heard about his divine healing powers.  Like the Syrophoenician woman, the crowd there shows great faith, bringing Jesus a man who can’t hear and can’t speak clearly and begging Jesus to heal him. 

But what’s very different here is Jesus’ response.  Even though he’s among Gentiles, he doesn’t write off the afflicted man as an outsider, someone of lower priority in God’s eyes.  Instead, Jesus takes him away so he can focus all his loving power on him.  He touches this outsider in very direct, intimate ways, putting his fingers in the man’s ears, then spitting and touching the man’s tongue with his saliva.  Jesus looks up to heaven, sighs deeply, and says in Aramaic, “‘Ephphatha’ – that is, ‘Be opened’” (Mark 7:34).  So, the man is made whole.  

And maybe Jesus is, too.  Of course, he heals the man – but he could have done that at a distance, with a snap of his fingers or a quick word.  Instead, this time, Jesus chooses to see and care for this man as the individual he is.  Jesus was fully human, after all.  I imagine sometimes he might have gotten a little too wrapped up in the macro side of his ministry – working the big picture, fulfilling God’s covenant with the people of Israel before using those redeemed people as apostles to show the rest of the nations the depth of God’s love.  And in the process of focusing on the big picture, even Jesus apparently risked forgetting the irony of salvation: that nations are saved one heart at a time.  And the person in front of you is the most important person in the world, regardless of what group they fall into.

As Jesus’ apostles in the here and now, we always have to work to remember that truth.  No one is more important than the person God places in your path.  Our challenge is to see them, especially when they’re different, when they lie outside the boundaries of what’s normal, or familiar, or comfortable for us.  We encounter that challenge as a church when someone comes who doesn’t quite fit within our categories.  The reading from James today has some specific critique about drawing distinctions based on social class – and that’s always a temptation, especially for a church rooted in social privilege, like ours.  But the more diverse our world becomes – or, more precisely, the more we acknowledge how diverse God’s world truly is – the more we have to ask ourselves, “What boxes do I put people in?”  Maybe that’s what Jesus was asking himself after his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman: “Wait a minute – what did I just do?  That’s a unique child of God standing in front of me.  Did I just make her an object instead?”

If Jesus can fall prey to that temptation, it’s safe to assume we do, too.  So, what’s our response?  Well, we probably have some sin to confess, but the point isn’t to feel badly about ourselves.  The point is to see ourselves in the light of God’s loving truth, which sometimes illuminates corners we’d just as soon keep hidden, even from ourselves.  So, ask yourself the hard question: “Whom do I put in the box of prejudgment?  What people do I see as a category, rather than as individuals?  Who is ‘them’ to me?” 

Then, after a little time and reflection, look for the opportunity – which I feel certain God will provide – to engage with someone who might have been “them” to you before.  And when that opportunity arises, offer to God a simple prayer for yourself in that moment:  Ephphatha – be opened.”

1.       United States Census Bureau. “2020 Census Statistics Highlight Local Population Changes and Nation’s Racial and Ethnic Diversity.” Aug. 12, 2021. Available at: Accessed Sept. 3, 2021.

2.       For data about racial and ethnic diversity in Jackson County, MO, see

3.       Note on Mark 3:11, The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 1834.

4.       One scholar says Mark 7:27 shows “Jesus’ desire to limit his ministry to the Jews” (note on Mark 7:24-30, The New Interpreters’ Study Bible, 1822).  Another says that “Jesus exhibits a surprisingly provincial attitude here” (note on Mark 7:27, The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 1844). 

5.       Note on Mark 7:24-30, The New Interpreters’ Study Bible, 1822.

6.       Rey-Coquais, Jean-Paul. “Decapolis.”  The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 2. New York: Doubleday, 1992. 119.

Doing the Word

Sermon for Sunday, Aug. 29, 2021
James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Last week, Ann and I drove to New York to see our daughter, Kathryn, and her fiancĂ©, Sam. Years ago, I remember my parents visiting Ann and me and saying how much they appreciated getting to see us in our “natural habitat.”  I know what they meant.  Kathryn and Sam have a good life, and it’s a joy now to be able to picture them in their home.

But more than that, I was struck by the authenticity and purposefulness of their daily life.  Here’s a small example:  Sam drinks a lot of soda, and they both care deeply about stewarding God’s creation.  So they don’t buy soda in cans or bottles.  They make their own, with syrup and a carbonating machine on their countertop.  I didn’t know that was something you could do.  It may be a small thing, but small things are what make up our lives.  And I really admire people who are able to weave their daily decisions into a cohesive, integrated whole.

I doubt Jesus thought much about soda in cans or bottles, but I do think he wants our words and our actions to align.  In today’s Gospel reading, the guys with the answers, the religious authorities, are giving Jesus trouble because he and his disciples don’t follow all the rules of ritual purity.  Now, it would be easy, at this point, to launch into a self-righteous critique of Judaism in Jesus’ day, arguing that the religion was all about law rather than grace.  I don’t think that’s true, and it misses the point.  Yes, Jewish religious practice included lots of ritual.  But that was because those practices of holiness pointed to something bigger – the integration of who we are and how we live.  The Jewish people understood themselves to be set apart, an example to other nations of what life can be like when you walk daily in the ways of the one true God.  That’s what “holy” means – to be set apart for special use in accordance with God’s purposes.  So all those Jewish rules weren’t about rule-following.  They were about creating a framework by which a person’s day-to-day life could reflect God’s purposes for the world.  

But, because people are people, of course it was tempting for ritual purity to become an end unto itself.  And today, the Church faces that same temptation to focus on itself and its own life, getting wrapped up in, “What’s the right way to worship?”  Frankly, I don’t think Jesus cares much whether our worship is more or less ritualistic, higher or lower “up the candle,” as people in the Church of England put it – whether we cross ourselves, or wear vestments, or celebrate Eucharist at every service.  Instead, what Jesus cares about is being set apart for God’s use and God’s purposes. 

So, in the Gospel reading, Jesus confronts the religious leaders for failing to live the set-apart life their rituals were intended to shape.  It’s about authenticity – the need for our words and our actions to align, the need to be “doers of the word,” as the Letter of James puts it (1:22).  Because, Jesus says, what defiles us isn’t what goes in but what comes out.  What defiles us is our hypocrisy.

Well, if we’re human, and I think most of us are, then we’ve got work to do in aligning our words and our actions.  Now, that doesn’t mean we’re going to hell because we get it wrong sometimes.  Instead, I think Jesus wants us to look hard at ourselves and ask a question.  In fact, it’s your homework assignment for the week.  Ask yourself this:  “In my life, how are my words and my actions out of alignment?”

Here’s one I struggle with.  Elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus says, “Give to all who ask of you” (Matthew 5:42, Luke 6:30).  I want to be faithful to that call, but I’m not.  I don’t give to everyone who asks of me.  In fact, on this question, we wrestle with authenticity as a congregation, too.  When people come to the church seeking financial assistance, we offer one-time help with utility bills.  That’s a good thing to do.  But if you don’t have a place to live, you probably don’t have a utility bill.  Of course, we also recognize that simply handing out cash would be problematic because, when you do that, more and more people tend to come and take it.  Recently, some of us have begun asking the question, “How can we provide a generous welcome for people in need without fostering dependency?”  We don’t have an answer yet, but I think the question is one we need to ask if we want our words and our actions to align. 

Here’s another holy question for us as a congregation.  The Church asks individuals to tithe – to give back to God 10 percent of what God gives us, as an outward and visible sign of gratitude for our blessings.  Does our congregation do the same – how close are we to giving away 10 percent of what we receive?  Well, the answer depends on how you slice and dice the giving.  We give our Outreach partners about 4 percent of our pledged income off the top.  We also give tens of thousands of dollars a year through individual parishioners’ gifts for special projects – support for the school in Haiti or Andie’s Pantry, that sort of thing.  Does that count toward a parish tithe?  I would love for us to answer this question by simply budgeting 10 percent of pledged income as direct giving to our Outreach partners – money that comes from all of us – and then see how much more we can give through individuals’ gifts.  It’s a work in progress; but this question of the congregation’s tithe is one we need to ask if we want our words and our actions to align.

Here’s another rich question of authenticity for us as a church.  Over the past couple of years, many of us have become increasingly concerned about honoring and lifting up Black lives.  I struggle with how to put that thought into practical action.  Well, recently, someone suggested to me a very concrete way to do that – by seeking out Black-owned companies for work the church needs to have done.  When we’re looking for a plumber, or a food truck, or lawn-care company, we could make a difference by hiring Black-owned businesses for that work.  How would we manage a policy like that?  I don’t know.  But it would be a good question to ask if we want our words and actions to align.

            I want to leave you with an example of what can happen when we ask holy questions like these.  As many of you know, we had a conversation over the past year about whether to fly a Pride flag at the church.  As I shared with you a few months ago, the decision was to put up the banners you see at HJ’s, which several of you have taken home in the form of yard signs:  “God loves all.  All means all.  Pass the peace.”  I think posting those signs has been a good and right thing to do – and it’s all the better when we then ask the question, “OK, what’s next?”  What’s our next step in aligning words and actions about how we’re called to love and serve and welcome all?

Well, last weekend, nine St. Andrew’s people served at the congregation’s booth at Pridefest, the first time we’ve taken part in a Pride event.  I don’t know all of what may come from our presence at Pridefest, but I do have a first-person report of the difference it made.

A stranger stopped by the St. Andrew’s booth, looked at the “pass the peace” sign and the church’s materials, and talked with parishioners who were walking the walk of loving people in our community.  This man grew up in Kansas City, though he now lives out of town; and his experience of “church” has been less than loving.  Here’s what the man had to say:

I went to a religious organization that sent me to conversion therapy when I was 15.  Part of the reason I left Kansas City was because I didn’t feel I could be who I am here safely.  It’s been a long journey finding my way back to God and to myself.  And now, I come across this sign [about God loving all].  And I started crying because [the sign’s message] wasn’t true when I grew up here.  So, for me to see a sign like this now is incredibly healing and something that needs to be shared.  So, if you’re out there and you’re queer or … nonconforming in any way, and you think that God doesn’t love you, that the universe doesn’t care about you – it’s not true….  Happy Pride!

This moment shows the difference it makes when our words and our actions align, when we live into Jesus’ vision of us as doers of the Word.  Living with integrity isn’t just about you pleasing God by practicing a good, holy life.  It’s about the effect that your good, holy, authentic life can have on others.  When you do the Word, you pass the peace.

Empower Somebody Else

Sermon for the Feast of St. Mary the Virgin, Aug. 15, 2021
Luke 1:46-55

Last week, I started out by telling you about little Mary, granddaughter of our staff member Mary Sanders.  In the clarity and confidence of childhood, little Mary wanted to take the next step after her nightly prayers.  She wanted to know God up close and personal.  So, after singing “Jesus Loves Me,” little Mary asked her grandmother, “Can we Facetime with Jesus?”

Childhood is an open window into the human heart – both when we’re at our best, like little Mary, and … other times.  When my sisters were little, my father was off for the summer working toward his Ph.D.  So my mother, who had a job and two little girls at home, asked one of her good friends to stay with them through the summer and help out.  The story is told that one day, my sister, Susan, about 3 years old, was standing by the front door late in the afternoon, with a drum-major’s baton in her hand.  My mother’s friend came in and was greeted by this proclamation from my sister:  “I’m the biggest and the best in the whole wide world!” – after which, my sister whacked my mother’s friend across the shins with the baton and ran away.

Here's another childhood example of humanity at our less than best – and this one closer to home for me.  When we were in seminary, and our son Dan was about 3, Ann and I went out on a date one night; and our friend Faith came over to watch Dan and Kathryn.  Now, Dan never really liked going to bed, and with the two of us gone, I think he saw his big chance.  Faith tried kindness and cajoling; and when that failed, she had to resort to authority, ordering Dan to go to bed.  The story is told that Dan put his little hands on his hips, and looked Faith in the eye, and proclaimed, “You’re not the boss of me!”

Well, today we’re celebrating someone who offers a contrast example to promoting our own power and authority, a temptation we all have to fight.  Today is the Church’s feast day of St. Mary the Virgin, mother of Jesus.  If we were in a Roman Catholic church, we’d be celebrating the feast of the Assumption of Mary today.  Or, if we were in an Orthodox church, we’d be celebrating the feast of the Dormition of Mary today.  Those terms relate to centuries of teaching that Mary was received directly into heavenly glory at the end of her earthly life, rather than taking the journey the rest of us take, resting in peace before rising in glory.  If it was “assumption,” as the Roman Catholics say, that would mean Mary didn’t die but was assumed physically into heavenly glory, sort of like Elijah in the Old Testament.  If it was “dormition,” as the Orthodox say, that would mean Mary died without human suffering, like falling asleep, and that she rose physically into heavenly glory after three days, like her Son.

What does the Episcopal Church say?  Well, we really don’t concern ourselves too much with the question, allowing room for people who want to hang their spiritual hats on Catholic tradition or Orthodox tradition, as well as those on the more Protestant side who know Mary from Scripture.  And there we go again as Episcopalians, being that countercultural big tent that doesn’t insist on a single right answer to theological mystery.

I guess my wiring goes in a more Protestant direction, because I think it might help us to consider Mary living the life we live.  Whether she’s Queen of Heaven or Co-Redemptrix or whatever title the Church might give her now, here’s what we know for sure: She was first a woman living in Galilee 2,000 years ago.  A peasant.  A nobody.

So, what does Scripture tell us about her?  Where does she show up?1  Well, she shows up several times across the Gospels; and I think each appearance gives us an example to follow.

She enters the story being betrothed to Joseph and receiving the angel’s news that God was choosing her, of all people, to bear the child who would be God’s anointed king.  Mary can’t believe it, but probably for different reasons than we’d imagine.  From her point of view, she may have been miraculously pregnant, as the angel said, but nobody else was going to buy that.  She’d be cast out and abandoned, without even the meager social status of a married peasant woman.  Her life, as she imagined it, was over. 

But her response to the news is the song we heard as today’s Gospel reading – that she is God’s instrument, “magnifying” the Lord’s presence on earth and rejoicing that God has chosen to upend the world’s categories and expectations (Luke 1:47).  You know – kings are supposed to be born in palaces and lord it over everyone else.  But God chose to redeem the world through “the least” (Matthew 25:40), being born among them and exalting them, removing the rich and “powerful from their thrones” (Luke 1:52).  To all who grieve that the people at the bottom seem consigned to stay there forever, Mary shows us that God chooses “the least” first.

Next, we see Mary and Joseph in the Temple, offering the appointed sacrifices for their baby’s birth and committing him, as their firstborn, for God’s special use.  There, she meets two prophets, Simeon and Anna.  And Mary is cut to the quick by Simeon’s news that this baby will be a focus of conflict and opposition, and that “a sword shall pierce [her] own soul, too” (Luke 2:35).  To all of us who fear the suffering sure to come to the people we love most, Mary shows us how to be faithful even though we know the cost will be high.

Next, we see Mary, with Joseph, raising Jesus.  Scripture only gives us one story about that, when the preteen Savior rebels against his parents and stays in Jerusalem on his own after a Passover festival.  Sure, he had important work to do, teaching his elders; but to his parents, he was a 12-year-old being a 12-year-old.  I’m sure they were scared to death when they realized he wasn’t with them on the journey home and then infuriated by his attitude: “God, Mom and Dad!  You should have known I’d be here in the Temple!  Duh!”  To all of us who get infuriated with the people we love, Mary shows us how to commit ourselves, for the long haul, to the interests of the people in our care.

Next, we see Mary trying to figure out how to navigate her relationship with her adult son.  That’s hard enough for any parent, as we try to hold our adult children gently, finding that golden mean of connection where we stay close without getting in their business.  If that’s tough for you and me, imagine that your kid’s also the Messiah.  At the wedding in Cana, Mary leans on Jesus pretty hard, telling him he’s ready for his first miracle, as if he were a schoolkid afraid to ride his bike – and telling the wedding attendants to get the miracle ready, regardless of what her Son says.  Later, Jesus is teaching and healing, taking on the religious and political authorities.  Mary and her other grown kids try to get Jesus to come in the house, away from the crowds, so they can talk some sense into him and keep him from getting himself arrested.  Jesus basically tells her to buzz off.  To all of us who can see that someone we love is on a collision course with reality but we can’t make them change, Mary shows us how to hang in there, and keep showing up, even when the person you love doesn’t what to hear what you’ve got to say.

Next, we see Mary at the foot of the Cross.  Turns out, she was right.  Jesus kept picking fights with the authorities, and now the story has gone just as she feared.  To all of us who watch the people we love pay the price for their decisions, Mary shows us how to show up in the worst times – even how to put ourselves at risk as we stand alongside them.

Finally in Scripture, we see Mary in the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles listed along with the 11 disciples who were “devoting themselves to prayer” as they awaited the Holy Spirit’s empowerment on Pentecost (Acts 1:14).  Try to imagine what that time would have been like for Mary – to watch as your son is tortured and killed, then get to be with him for several weeks after his resurrection, and then watch him disappear to fulfill God’s purposes.  To all of us who take a hit for the greater good, Mary shows us how to put the needs of the many above our own – even above the breaking of our hearts.

Here’s the pattern I see:  Mary’s life is about everybody but Mary.  At every step along her path, she chose what the Greeks called kenosis, the pattern her Son modeled, too.  Just as Jesus “emptied himself, being found in the form of a slave” and “humbled himself, [becoming] obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:7-8), so Mary poured herself out to help accomplish God’s purposes. 

And I think that pattern of Mary’s life has something to say to us and to our culture 2,000 years later.  We are unlikely to come up to someone we know, crack them across the shins with a baton, and exclaim, “I’m the biggest and the best in the whole wide world!”  But there’s a part of that 3-year-old’s self-assessment in each of us.  And, we are unlikely, when informed of limits on our freedom, to put our hands on our hips and exclaim, “You’re not the boss of me!”  But there’s a strong strand of that 3-year-old’s DNA of independence in our culture and in our own hearts.  We seem to like nothing less these days than being told what we can and cannot do.

Into that culture of independence and rugged individualism, and into our own hearts, what might Mary say?  Maybe she’d remind us, as her song this morning says, that “mercy is for those who fear God from generation to generation,” for God has “scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts” (Luke 1:50-51).  Maybe she’d remind us of her Son’s command to love God and love neighbor first and then see where that pattern leads us.  Maybe she’d encourage us to “[fill] “the hungry with good things” and to “[lift] up the lowly” (Luke 1:52-53).  Maybe she’d remind us that we’re called to live “no longer for ourselves alone but for him who died for us and rose again,” as the prayer book puts it (BCP 379).  After all, Mary’s life was about everybody but Mary.  So, I think she’d put it like this: Given the chance to exercise power, empower somebody else.


Sunday, September 5, 2021

Facetiming with Jesus

Sermon for Aug. 8, 2021 (Feast of the Transfiguration, transferred)
Exodus 34:29-35; Luke 9:28-36

At our weekly staff meeting, we begin by reading the day’s appointed Gospel selection from the Daily Office Lectionary, and then we do a little theological reflection on it.  That’s a fancy way of saying that we listen for what jumps out at us from the reading and try to connect it with the lives we’re living.  Last week, Tuesday’s Gospel reading included one of Jesus’ healing miracles – the one where it took two steps for him to restore sight to a blind man, as if the healing didn’t quite “take” the first time (Mark 8:22-33).  That story led to some great reflection on how we experience Jesus’ divine presence in our own lives … and, honestly, how we often long for his presence without quite seeing it.

All week, I’ve been thinking about a story Mary Sanders shared.  Mary, our assistant to the clergy, was telling about her granddaughter, also named Mary.  As Mary’s parents put her to bed each night, they all sing “Jesus Loves Me”:  “Jesus loves me; this I know, for the Bible tells me so.  Little ones to him belong.  They are weak, but he is strong.”  Every night, they sing that.  Well, one night recently, when Mary Sanders was watching her granddaughter, she and little Mary finished the song, and little Mary asked, “Can we Facetime with Jesus?”  Caught off guard, Mary Sanders tried to explain that’s not quite how it works, that we can’t just call Jesus on the phone, let alone see his face while we talk.  But little Mary was not to be denied, refusing to take “no” for an answer.  She kept insisting that if Jesus loves us, we must be able to be with him somehow, right?  Why can’t he come here, she asked; or why can’t we go wherever he is?  It’s not among the answers they give you in the grandparents’ handbook….

But Little Mary is onto something.  She may not have read any theology, but she understands deep in her bones what Christianity is all about.  What sets us apart from the other ways of understanding the divine is this:  It’s the doctrine of the Incarnation.  That’s fancy way of naming this crazy idea that God didn’t just create us, and love us, and call us to follow the way of love.  God became one of us, too, living out that way of love here on earth, among other humans.  “The Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood,” as the Bible paraphrase The Message brilliantly puts it (John 1:14).  What sets us apart as Christians is this claim that Jesus was fully human as well as being fully divine, that he died just as we die but then rose into eternal life so that we can do that, too, if we trust in him and follow his path.  Jesus was, and is, fully one of us as well as fully God, reigning over all creation and loving us as deeply as love can be expressed.

So, when little Mary wanted to Facetime with Jesus, she was claiming that theology of Incarnation at a deep level.  Now, the disciples in today’s Gospel reading have a little less clarity about who Jesus is.  Just before today’s reading, Jesus asks them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” (Luke 9:18).  This much his friends know for sure:  Some say Jesus is John the Baptist risen from the dead; some say Jesus is the ancient prophet Elijah, come back to prepare the way for God’s true king; some say Jesus is one of the other prophets – maybe Elisha, another miracle worker.  Then, Jesus asks his friends the real question: “But who do you say that I am?” (9:20).  Everybody’s silent until Peter blurts out the right answer whose implications he doesn’t understand: that Jesus is “the Messiah of God,” the divinely appointed ruler of God’s kingdom on earth.  OK, Jesus says; “Yes, and….”  He’s not appointed by God just to be Israel’s king; he’s the one who will rule the universe after being rejected and tortured and crucified and finally rising into life again.  His friends don’t quite get it yet, but Jesus isn’t just working for God.  He is working as God, in the flesh.

That brings us to today’s story of the Transfiguration, which comes right after this interaction.  One of the roadblocks to understanding the Transfiguration story is that it sounds as if something happens to Jesus and changes him, “adding on” to whom we’ve known him to be in the Gospel so far.  Actually, just the opposite is true.  Though his appearance changes, it’s more like something is pulled back, revealing his true self that hasn’t always been apparent.  This is Jesus in the fullness of his glory, with divinity radiating from him in ways his humanity usually contains. For all the times his friends no doubt wondered, “Who is this guy?” – now, the answer comes in the baffling “both/and” of the Incarnation.  Yes, he’s their friend.  And, he’s God’s anointed king who will suffer unbelievably but then rise again.  And, he is divine himself – fully human and fully God, all at the same time.

I think if little Mary, or any of the rest of us, Facetimed with Jesus and experienced that reality, we might never pick up a phone again.  The divine presence is more than we can bear.  There’s a reason why, on the mountain with Moses and later with Elijah in the Old Testament, God obscures the fullness of divinity, giving them only glimpses while passing by (Exodus 33:17-23; 1 Kings 19:4-13).  But even that’s enough to change Moses’ face, making him radiate holy light and freaking out the people he leads. 

God knows that, for us to learn who we’re supposed to be, we need the intimacy of relationship, even relationship with the elemental power of the universe that would literally blow our minds.  God wants us to know what Moses glimpsed on the mountain, which is God’s own heart.  Here’s Yahweh’s self-description to Moses on the mountain:  “The Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and sin yet by no means clearing the guilty,” holding us accountable for our failures to follow Love’s way (Exodus 34:6-7). 

That’s the path God wants us to follow.  That’s the beat of God’s heart.  And we keep that beat when we commit ourselves to God’s way of love, which we do in the sacraments of holy baptism and confirmation.  We promise to trust in the One God who exists as relationship; to share in the life of other people of faith; to love other people with everything we’ve got; and to turn back when we forget it’s God’s love that claims our hearts.  We’ll remind ourselves of that when we renew our Baptismal Covenant in a few minutes.  It’s important to remember and reclaim those promises because it’s so easy to lose God’s heartbeat and follow the world’s distracting cacophony instead.

For us to know God, and trust God, and follow God’s way, we have to experience love in the flesh.  So, if we can’t Facetime with Jesus, what’s our next best option?  I think the answer is still Incarnation – that God still takes human form, that the Word still becomes flesh and moves into the neighborhood.  We see Jesus when we serve one another, divine Love showing up in a casserole brought to someone in pain.  After all, as Jesus said, “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12).  We see Jesus when we choose to give ourselves away in the interest of people we don’t know, divine Love showing up at Welcome House or the Rose Brooks Center or the Kansas City Community Kitchen, or guiding policy in the interests of others.  After all, as Jesus said, “As you did this to one of the least of these who are my brothers and sisters, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).  And we see Jesus when God breaks in to day-to-day life, in those moments when Love shines through the mundane human faces we wear and reveals the spark of divinity that dwells in us all – in the kiss of your beloved, in the embrace of your best friend, in the song a parent sings to a child.  After all, as Jesus says, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

Never forget:  In our service, in our sacrifice, in our love for one another, we wear the face of God.  You wear the face of God.  Don’t put a veil over it.  Let others see that they, indeed, are God’s beloved – and that their faces shine with Christ’s light, too.

Being the Anti-Herod

Sermon for July 11, 2021
Mark 6:14-29

Today’s Gospel reading is one of the strangest of them all.  First, it’s a flashback, and we don’t come across those very often in Scripture.  Second, it’s the only reading in the Gospel of Mark in which Jesus is not the main actor or subject.1  Third, its placement is just weird.  It’s sandwiched between two stories about Jesus and his disciples doing amazing, marvelous work for God’s kingdom – miraculous work, even.  Just before today’s reading, Jesus gives his disciples “authority over the unclean spirits” (6:7) and sends them to cast out demons and heal the sick.  Then comes this flashback about the death of John the Baptist.  And just after that, the disciples return to report the amazing things they’ve done, and Jesus feeds thousands of people from five loaves and two fish.  

So, what’s going on here?  Why do we get this bloody flashback in the midst of miracles?

Let’s look at today’s story.  Herod hears about the disciples healing people with the same holy power that Jesus wields, and Herod’s afraid.  First, he’s afraid because someone else is exercising more power than he has.  Herod’s called a “king,” but he was actually the Romans’ puppet governor of Galilee and Perea … which, together, were about 15 percent of the size of the Kansas City metro area.2  So, Herod isn’t nearly as powerful as he pretends to be.  Second, he’s afraid because he killed John the Baptist, and he fears that this even-more-powerful Jesus is John the Baptist risen from the dead.  Herod is a Jew, after all, and he’s aware of God’s sovereignty at least on some level.  So, he’s afraid that God, through Jesus, is going to take him down.

Then Mark’s Gospel spends 12 verses on this flashback that shows us what a tragically broken character Herod really is.  He puts John the Baptist in prison because of his wife, Herodias, who wants John dead.  Herod and Herodias are married contrary to Jewish law, and John the Baptist has been making a public stink about it.  But despite John’s inconvenient truth-telling, Herod finds John oddly compelling.  In fact, the story says, “Herod feared John, knowing he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him” (6:20).  Herod “liked to listen to him,” the story says (6:20), probably first out on the streets, later in the protective custody of Herod’s prison.  There was something in John’s preaching that captured Herod’s heart and mind, like a story that makes you uncomfortable but draws you in anyway. 

Finally, Herod’s wife, Herodias, has had enough, and she finds a way to get rid of John by playing on Herod’s greatest weakness.  More than anything else, Herod worships his own status.  So, he throws a banquet to impress his courtiers and the local leaders, and he makes a stupid, drunken promise to his wife’s dancing daughter to give her anything she asks.  The young dancer goes to her mother, and the two of them cash in on Herod’s mistake, demanding that he bring in the head of John the Baptist as the banquet’s last dish.3  Herod has come to his moment of truth, and he fails, choosing to honor his own status over the kingdom of God.  In case you’re keeping score, that’s called idolatry.  And God’s not a fan.

So, there’s our Gospel story, the good news starring Herod.  What a poor excuse for a main character.  Well, maybe that’s why this flashback is here, sandwiched between stories of Jesus and the disciples bringing miracles to life: Herod is the anti-disciple, choosing idolatry over God’s kingdom.  And the moral is:  Go, and don’t do likewise.  End of sermon.

Or, maybe not.  Let’s do a little thought experiment.  What if Herod had made a different choice?  What if he had stood up to Herodias?  What if his dancing stepdaughter had asked for the head of John the Baptist and Herod had said, “No”?  He’d come to his fork in the road, and he could have taken a kingdom turn.  He could have stood before his courtiers and the local leaders and said, “No, that would be wrong.  It’s not worth killing someone because I made a dumb promise.”  And then, what if Herod had kept going in that kingdom direction, telling his guests that he actually found John the Baptist’s call compelling – that, as a Jew, he was interested to see how this messiah thing was going to play out.  “After all,” Herod could have said, “John the Baptist is right that the people out there need a lot more love than they’re getting now.” 

That definitely would have stopped the party.  It also would have cost Herod his wife.  It probably would have cost him his position as Rome’s puppet ruler.  But I’ll bet Herod would have slept a lot better at night.

So, why does Harold choose the path he does?  What makes idolatry a good option in his eyes?  Maybe it’s just inertia; it’s always easier not to change.  But maybe there’s more to it than that.  I think Herod is hopeless, and I think he’s afraid – afraid of where the road less traveled will take him.

We’re all tempted toward idolatry one way or another, tempted to honor something that isn’t God rather than honoring God’s claim on us.  That’s true for us as individuals; it’s true for us as a church; it’s true for us as a society.  We can always choose to play it safe and rest on how far we’ve come.  Or we can listen to the voices of prophets – people like John the Baptist – people whose truth rubs us the wrong way. 

We probably all have those people, or those points of view, that challenge us – challenge our priorities, or our place in society, or our worldview.  But even if their message is challenging, we find ourselves listening anyway because we know there’s something in there we need to hear.  Prophets don’t have to be 100 percent right about everything.  Although John the Baptist certainly gave good advice about repentance, I’m not sure I’d follow his lead in terms of wardrobe or diet, wearing animal skins and eating locusts.  But when prophets call us to turn our hearts toward God’s ways rather than following our own temptations to stay put, we can figure that’s a message we’re supposed to hear.

This isn’t just about choosing to turn from evil toward good.  It’s also about choosing to go farther instead of being satisfied with how far we’ve come.  That applies both to our own practices of following Jesus and to our journey together as a church. 

Here’s an example.  For many years, St. Andrew’s has seen itself as a strong Outreach church, meaning we care for “the least” of Jesus’ brothers and sisters in need (Matthew 25:40).  Years ago, we felt good about a partnership with a school in Haiti where we provided bare-minimum salaries to pay more-or-less qualified teachers.  Years ago, we felt good about filling backpacks with food for the weekend for kids at Benjamin Banneker Elementary.  Years ago, we felt good about donating our Christmas Eve offering to local efforts to feed hungry people.  Those were all good things to do, no question about it.  But we knew we weren’t supposed to stop there.  When we came to forks in the road, we kept heading in a kingdom direction. 

Now, we support living wages for qualified teachers at the school in Haiti and offer a hot lunch each day. Now, a number of St. Andrew’s people are putting themselves out there to build relationships with families at Benjamin Banneker Elementary. Now, we feed and clothe hundreds of people downtown through the Free Store at Christmas, in addition to giving our Christmas Eve offering away. In each of these cases, we could have chosen to rest on success.  But in each of these cases, a prophet or two had a vision of the kingdom of God made manifest among us.  And in each of these cases, we listened to those persistent voices calling us to be the body of Christ in the world even more fully than we knew how to be.

So, who is John the Baptist for you – personally and collectively?  What is a message that challenges you but that you keep coming back to hear?  As individuals and as a church, what do we need to take up, or what do we need to set aside, in order to work miracles we’d never dreamed we could?  

As followers of Jesus, and as his body living and active in the world, we bear the power to heal and cast out demons.  We bear the power to serve as Jesus’ hands and feet, passing along the bounty God multiplies from five loaves and two fish.  But to do that, we have to flip the script from today’s reading.  As Herod chose to be the anti-disciple, we’ve got to choose to be the anti-Herod.  We’ve got to choose not to rest on how far we’ve come.  We’ve got to take risks that will challenge us and maybe let go of things we’ve always clung to.  We’ve got to let the prophet out jail, and bring him to the table, and together take the banquet of the kingdom on the road.

1.      New Interpreters Study Bible, note on verses 6:14-29, p. 1819.

2.      Herod’s territory of Perea was about 550 square miles, and Galilee was about 720 square miles.  So together, their areas were about 1,270 square miles.  The Kansas City metro area is about 8,500 square miles.

3.      New Interpreter’s Study Bible, note on verses 6:24-25, p. 1819.

Catalyzing Miracles

Sermon for July 25, 2021
2 Kings 4:42-44; John 6:1-21

OK, let’s start with a pop quiz.  Who’s the most important character in today’s Gospel reading?  Right, it’s Jesus.  It’s pretty much always Jesus; but given the miracle of feeding thousands of people from a few barley loaves and dried fish, you know he’s going to take the prize in this story.  But coming in second is someone whose name we don’t even know – he’s just “a boy” (John 6:9).  This boy is the second most important character in this reading because he’s the one who catalyzes the miracle.

Don’t you wonder – what’s this boy’s story?  Jesus asks the disciples how they’re going to feed this huge crowd that’s been following them.  The disciple Andrew reports he knows about a boy who has five barley loaves and two fish.  But presumably Andrew wasn’t shaking down all the kids in the crowd to take their sandwiches from their lunch bags.  Maybe instead, this boy had come to Andrew. 

Maybe it was late in the day, and people were getting grumbly about how long they’d been out there, looking for Jesus and his miraculous healing power.  Maybe some people had pulled out whatever food they’d brought with them, while others had realized that they’d walked a long way from home without packing dinner.  Some of the folks with food probably shared a bit with the people next to them; and some of the folks with food probably figured they deserved to keep what they’d brought for themselves. 

But then came along this boy.  Maybe he’d seen what Jesus had been doing before today’s story – healing a man who’d been sick for 38 years, healing a little boy with a fever.  After all, the reading says, the crowd was following Jesus “because they saw the signs he was doing for the sick” (John 6:2).  Maybe the boy was so grateful for the healing he’d seen, and for the healing he trusted was still to come, that he came up to Andrew and said, “I know everybody’s hungry.  Here.  Take what I’ve got; it’ll help feed some people.”  Gratitude and trust can do that to you.

Apparently, this was what Jesus had been waiting for.  With the boy’s gift, Jesus goes to work, using the pattern he’d also use later, at the Last Supper, and the pattern we use in every celebration of the Eucharist.  He takes the food that’s been offered, and blesses it, and breaks it, and gives it to all who’ve come.  From that, not only is there plenty for all; there’s also abundantly more than plenty, 12 basketfuls of leftovers – all from five loaves and two fish.  Or, more precisely, all from one boy’s gift of five loaves and two fish.

If we step back from it, we might find this story doesn’t make much sense.  This miracle was not an efficient way to get a crowd fed.  I mean, he’s Jesus, after all.  Later in today’s reading, he walks on water and time-travels with the disciples across a stormy lake to reach the shore in an instant.  Faced with a hungry crowd, Jesus could have simply opened up the heavens and rained down 5,000 barley loaves and 5,000 dried fish – end of story. 

But the miracle wasn’t about fixing a supply issue.  The miracle was about something deeper. 

It seems that, most often, God prefers to work miracles the complicated way – collaboratively.  Jesus didn’t want to open up the heavenly pantry and pass out free food.  Jesus wanted someone to step up and start a miraculous reaction, an inbreaking of the kingdom of heaven on earth.  Jesus was waiting for a gift to catalyze the miracle.

That’s what had happened in our first reading, too.  The setting is back in the days of the kings of Israel, and the prophet Elisha is also using miracles to reveal God’s power.  In addition to speaking and acting on God’s behalf, Elisha apparently had priestly authority to receive people’s offerings, because a man brings him his appointed offering of “food from the first fruits” – 20 barley loaves and fresh grain (2 Kings 4:42).  The prophet directs his servant to give this gift to the hundred people who were there, suffering from famine.  His servant asks Elisha what anyone would have asked: How is this one offering going to feed 100 people?  But, the prophet says, “Thus says the Lord, ‘They shall eat and have some left’” (4:43) – and all from one stranger’s offering of his first fruits. 

First fruits … what does that mean, anyway?  Well, it means giving back to God first from the bounty God has given us, recognizing that the founder of the feast should get a tangible thank-you before we start chowing down.  Back in the day, that term “first fruits” meant literally what it says: A farmer would give to God the first part of the harvest.  Now, that’s truly an act not just of gratitude but of trust.  If you give away the first part of your crop, you’ve got no guarantee that hail or locusts aren’t coming to wipe out the rest before it ripens.  That’s why offerings of the first fruits are holy: because they’re not given from what remains once we know we have enough.  They’re given from what God provides before we’re sure how much we’ll get.

So, if you’re going to give God an offering of first fruits to show your gratitude and your trust, how much do you give?  For the boy in the Gospel story, the answer was, “All of it.”  That joyful trust he felt in Jesus’ healing presence was enough to turn his heart and his pockets inside out.  Blessedly for us, that’s more than God asks.  This is where the idea of the tithe comes from, with Scripture and tradition saying that a tenth of what God gives us is enough to show our gratitude and our trust.  “You can keep the other 90 percent,” God says.  “Just the first 10 is plenty.”

I don’t know about you, but I haven’t always been very good about that.  I can remember sitting in my car in a church parking lot 25 years ago steaming because someone had preached a message like this.  Ann and I gave to the church regularly, but I was hung up on the number.  A God who cares about the poor shouldn’t demand a regressive income tax, I thought.  Ten percent of what Ann and I had seemed like much more of a burden than 10 percent of what some wealthier person had. 

OK – we can debate the relative fairness of tax policies.  But this isn’t about a tax.  It’s about a gift.  God certainly could tax us, I suppose, demanding payment for the privilege of continuing to live.  But it’s love, not obligation, that’s on God’s heart.  Rather than being a tax, I think the tithe is there as a sacrament, a lower-case-“s” kind of sacrament.  Giving 10 percent is outward and visible enough to put concrete reality on the inward and spiritual grace that is the love we share with God.  Maybe 10 percent is the price of sacred memory, the amount it takes to bring to mind the truth that’s so easy to forget: that everything we have is a tangible manifestation of God’s love, love beyond all measure. 

Well, this much I do know:  After increasing the gifts from my first fruits year after year, I began tithing in 2015.  And I haven’t looked back since because I get to see miracles every day.  Just this past week, we had a cavalcade of miracles right here, with kids, youth, and adults coming together for Vacation Bible School.  One of those miracles is hanging here on the pulpit. The VBS kids made four quilts related to the week’s theme, that each one of us is treasured by God.  Each kid illustrated a square, and then Joy Bower put the squares together so the kids could see the quilts in process.  The squares offer all kinds of images – homes, families, flowers, pets, rainbows … and crosses.  But what they share is the message that the person who’s wrapped up in that quilt is precious in God’s eyes.  Now, once our quilting group, the Fabric of Life, finishes them up, the quilts will go to Court Appointed Special Advocates, to bring love to foster kids who definitely need to know how deeply God treasures them.

The gifts you offer to God here at St. Andrew’s – gifts of time and talent and treasure – they spark miracles like this every day.  That’s because gifts from our first fruits carry holy power.  They do more than meet a personal obligation.  They catalyze miracles.  Those gifts begin as a few loaves and fish, but they take on flesh and blood, empowering the Body of Christ living and active in the world.  God takes your gifts and uses them to work miracles of community, bringing people together in Jesus’ love.  God takes your gifts and uses them to work miracles of healing, bringing people’s bodies, minds, and spirits to the wholeness God intends.  God takes your gifts and uses them to work miracles of formation, guiding people of all ages along their walk with Jesus.  And God takes your gifts and uses them to work miracles of sustenance and opportunity – feeding, clothing, and educating the people heaviest on God’s heart. 

Sure, Jesus could snap his fingers and make all those things happen in a flash.  But he prefers to take you along for the ride.  God values your heart and your mind so deeply that God wants you to catalyze miracles.  We don’t have to work those miracles ourselves.  We just need to provide the spark, and God will do the rest.