Easter 7, Year B, 2015

In November of last year, the advice columnist known as “Dear Prudence” received a heartbreaking letter. A twenty five year old woman wrote in to ask advice about what she should do about a gift her dying mother had given her ten years earlier. Her mother, sick with cancer, wrote her daughter a beautiful letter for every adult occasion in her life she could imagine—graduation, wedding, birth of her children. The mother intended these as an opportunity for her daughter to know how loved she was, but now that the daughter was an adult, these letters hung over her head and made it difficult for her to get closure over her mother’s death. She wanted to know what Prudence thought she should do—read all the letters now and get them over with, or honor her mother’s wishes and open them one by one.

Adult parent child relationship are complicated, aren’t they? This young woman’s mother never intended for the letters to upset her, and Prudence assured the young woman that her mother would just want her to be happy, whether that meant reading the letters or putting them away indefinitely.

Whether a parent is dying or just sending a young adult child off into the world, the parent has to wrestle with what it means to care for and direct this person while still giving him or her the independence to make their own choices and mistakes. We live in an age in which parents are so involved with their children they have a hard time letting go. My college professor friends all have stories of parents calling to argue about a grade their 19 or 20 year old got on a paper. Sending a child out into the world is really, really hard. Learning to let go is even harder.

Over the last few Sundays, we have been reading parts of what is called Jesus’ Farewell Discourse. In the Gospel of John, before Jesus is killed in Jerusalem, he spends three chapters telling his disciples everything he wants them to know before he dies. All the things we’ve been preaching about the last few weeks—the images of the vine and branches, abiding, keeping the commandments—all of these are from this long speech Jesus makes. He also prepares them for the coming of the Holy Spirit. He wants them to know everything they need to live life as followers of God after he is no longer with them.

Yet, Jesus knows that he could talk his disciples ears off and it still would not prepare them adequately for what is about to come. He loves them and he is genuinely concerned about them, but he knows he cannot control them.

So Jesus prays. Today’s reading is the prayer Jesus prays immediately after his farewell discourse.

He has poured every ounce of love and wisdom into his disciples that he can, but now he turns to the source of all that love and wisdom. We get to eavesdrop on this incredibly tender and intimate prayer. Jesus acknowledges that every word he had to give his followers belongs to God. And even these beloved disciples belong to God. He then says “I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.”

Isn’t that tender? Jesus knows his followers have been changed by being around him. They are no longer aligned with the values of the world. They have become Jesus people, more concerned about loving God and neighbor than following the rules. Jesus knows that this transformation puts them at real risk. Jesus knows that people will hate them for it. Jesus knows that the evil spiritual forces in the world will do their best to take back these men and women from God. He does not pray that his disciples will have radical success and change the world. He does not pray that they would glorify his name and make him the most popular God in the land. He prays for their protection. He has come to really love these people. He does not want to leave them. He worries what will happen to them after he’s gone.

We are in the season of graduations and I think of all the men and women saying similar prayers for their children. Hoping their children will retain their integrity and sense of selves as they go off to college or work or the military. Hoping their children will be kept safe physically, but also spiritually and emotionally. Hoping they will choose career paths that will lead to lives of integrity. Hoping they will find romantic partners that will treasure and honor them.

There is something so poignant to me that even Jesus, God incarnate, faced the same limits of control that we do. Even he could not guarantee that the people he loved would be safe and secure. Even he, at the end of the day, had to turn to God and pray for God’s intervention in the life of his beloved friends.

This is part of the finitude of being human. We cannot control the people we love. Even when they are still in our homes! No matter how clearly we see the choices our family or friends should make we cannot force them to make those choices. All we can do is share our best wisdom, set appropriate boundaries, and pray.

But those prayers we pray are not just the last result of anxious people! Jesus wasn’t praying to his Father just to blow off some steam. Jesus trusted his Father completely. He knew that his Father loved the disciples as much as Jesus did. He also knew that the Father was preparing to send the Holy Spirit, as a comfort and advocate for God’s people.

We live in an uncertain world. The people we love will make bad choices and will have bad things happen to them. But they are never alone and we are never alone. God loves us and is with us no matter what happens in our lives. And he is with the people we love.

The young woman who wrote to Dear Prudence had lost her mother, but she was surrounded by love. She described a doting father, caring siblings, and referred to her own upcoming wedding. Her mother faced her own finitude, but other people were able to carry out the holy work of loving this young woman.

And that’s the other piece of this puzzle, isn’t it? Because God uses us, the Body of Christ, to love one another and help one another now that Jesus has ascended. The Holy Spirit gives us the power to take care of each other and love people who aren’t even in our family.

The online community Togetherrising, which is a group of people moved by the writings of Glennon Melton, had their annual Love Flash Mob this week. Glennon had her readers nominate the people they see who are heroes in their community and Togetherrising raised $250,000 from her readers to make these heroes’ dreams come true. My favorite story so far is the story of a nine year old girl named Hailey, who for four years has been devoted to caring for homeless people. Her work started with giving a homeless person a sandwich, but ballooned into keeping a garden for homeless people so they could have fresh vegetables, and raising money for and building temporary shelters for homeless people in her community. Her mom said that she would not want anything material for herself, so all the money raised in honor of this child is being poured back into building ten additional shelters for homeless people in her community. Now, just imagine all the families of these homeless people, some of whom must be terribly worried for them, or even feel guilt that for whatever reason cannot help them. They may have no idea that God is working through this nine year old child to give their loved ones help that meets them where they are and conveys that the universe still deems them worthy of respect, dignity, and love.

You are not the only person who is in charge of helping and loving the people you love. God is at work in creative, surprising ways. Your people will have friends, mentors, spouses, counselors, pastors who will do the work of God in their lives. The burden of their success or even their safety is not on your shoulders. Keep praying for your people, keep loving your people, and know that Jesus joins you in prayer and trusts in God’s radical all encompassing love.

And look around, because God may be calling you to be the Body of Christ for someone else’s special person. God may be calling you to be the answer to a frantic, hopeful prayer. You are part of God’s radical, generous love story.

Thanks be to God!

Amen.

Easter 5, Year B, 2015

Seventeen years ago, the Coen brothers released a movie called The Big Lebowski.  The plot of this movie is incredibly complicated and not necessary to rehash here.  In summary, a dead beat named Jeffrey Lebowski is confused with a millionaire named Jeffrey Lebowski and all kinds of hijinks ensue.  The dead beat Jeffrey Lewbowski calls himself the Dude and is as laid back as that name might connote.  He is unshaven, probably unwashed, and a total slacker.  He has no apparent job, and his only serious relationship is with his bowling buddies.  In short, he is not particularly admirable.

And yet, this character became a cult sensation.  People LOVE the Dude and people still quote his famous line, “The Dude abides. . .”

“The Dude abides.”  This, I think is the core of what is loveable about Lebowski.  Abide here not only describes his endurance of this farcical plot, but his attitude about life.  He is not here to act, or accomplish.  He exists merely to abide.  And this slacker attitude is so counter cultural to everything we are taught to be.

From the moment a doctor puts us through an APGAR test when we are born, we spend our lives being measured.  We take tests to get into Kindergarten.  We are measured at every well visit and told how we compare to other children.  We take standardized test after standardized test and then once we are thrust into the adult world we still compare ourselves with others—but now we compete over race times, and salary, and promotions.  We are taught to work hard and achieve.  And so the Dude enchants us with his extraordinarily laid back approach to life.  He becomes a fantasy of another way to live—one in which we have no responsibilities, no one against whom to compete.

The idea of abiding is both enticing to us and makes us nervous.  We don’t know how to abide, but we suspect if we started to abide, we might never get off the couch again.

And yet, here in the Gospel of John we have Jesus telling us to do just that.

Well, Jesus tells us to abide, but Jesus’ idea of abiding is pretty different from the Big Lebowski’s.  Where the Dude’s abiding is not rooted in anything beyond his own desires, Jesus’ idea of abiding is about deep connection with God.

Jesus envisions himself as a vine tended by his Father.  He envisions us as branches in the vine.  With this image he invites us to “abide in him, as I abide in you”.  Branches, of course, don’t just lie next to a vine.  The substance of the vine becomes the substance of the branch.  The same water and nutrients that pour through the vine, pour through the branches.  The vine doesn’t boss the branches around, the vine provides everything the branch might need to grow.

The branches don’t just sit around enjoying slurping up all the vine’s nutrients, either.  The branches produce fruit.

In our life of faith, we can take the messages we receive from our culture and think that to love God we have to constantly be producing something.  We have to retreats, and mission trips, and outreach projects and fundraisers.  We have to put up billboards and bake for coffee hour and make a million crafts for VBS!

But the picture of the life of faith that Jesus paints for us in this parable is not one of frantic work.  Jesus paints a picture of a quiet, nurturing relationship in which we are so connected to Jesus through prayer that our lives start to change and we start to bear fruit.

Bearing fruit is not about producing frantic actions on our part, but about shaping our character.  The Apostle Paul writes that these fruits are:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  Staying connected to the vine through prayer, allows the Holy Spirit to shape us.  Abiding leads to a rich spiritual life.

This development of a spiritual life can lead us to right action.  Instead of frantically “doing” to get the world’s approval, when we abide, we are able to discern what actions are in line with God and which are just the little ego strokes we like to give ourselves every so often.

Abiding in God can give us deep courage.

I have been so struck this week by what is happening in Baltimore as you start to dig below the surface media coverage.

If my city was experiencing the tensions Baltimore is now facing, it would be sorely tempting for me just to stay inside and bar the doors!  Ignoring huge problems seems like a reasonable solution to someone not abiding in Jesus.

But so many people are showing the fruits of the spirit in Baltimore.  Teachers and principals at area high schools are trying desperately to make their student feel heard and safe.  Community centers threw together spur of the moment day care centers for families who had to work despite schools being closed Monday.  Children and adults were out on the street first thing in the morning, cleaning up and claiming their community. Clergy and faithful lay people who have been out on the streets for days, marching and praying and offering communion to anyone who will have it.

I imagine many of these souls are people who abide.  I imagine many of these people deeply know the love of God and have had their character shaped by a lifetime of prayer and Christian community.  They know that loving God always results in loving people.  Being a branch means being connected to the vine, but also reaching out to all the other branches.  Every branch is connected to the same vine.  We all belong to each other.

As you know, a handful of us here at St. Paul’s have been taking an enneagram class with Sarah Tremaine.  The enneagram is a map of the human condition, in a way, and each of the nine personality types has some very particular disconnect with God.  A particular way in which their branch doesn’t quite connect with the vine. What has struck me about the class is how the way to heal that disconnect is universal—be in prayer and meditation.  The way that prayer and meditation is shaped may look slightly different for each of the nine types, but the core to healing is connection with God.  Whether you are being blocked by your fear or your perfectionism, or your inability to follow through, or the way you bulldoze through life—whatever your issue, abiding with God, reconnecting with the vine, will help you become more whole and more balanced.

I am the type of person who is always convinced a new organizing system is going to help whatever feeling of disconnect I am currently experiencing.  Surely a new system for my closet or a new way to file papers on my desk will make everything better!  But when huge issues like an earthquake in Nepal or unrest in Baltimore come up, I feel truly overwhelmed.  Target does not sell a single thing that can help the thousands of families who have lost loved ones or people who feel hopeless and marginalized.

But this image of a nurturing vine and loving vine grower can be so helpful and healing to us in big crises.  Because even if we can’t directly solve institutional racism or rescue hurting people, we can stay connected to God, who will lead us to help in the small ways we can.  And by staying connected to God, we also somehow stay connected to those strangers who are suffering, since they are branches on the same vine, after all.  Our prayers reach them, and theirs reach us.

So, abiding is not the work of slackers.  Abiding is the deep work of people who want to break through their own unhealthy patterns and connect to a deeply loving God.  Abiding is for those who have the courage to connect deeply to fellow human beings, even those very different from them.  Abiding is for those humble enough to realize that their own frantic actions or passionate Facebook statuses are not going to solve the world’s problems.

Abiding is for us.  God’s gift to a people who he loves.  May we ever be his fruitful branches.

Amen.

Easter 4, 2015 (Preached at Amherst Presbyterian Church)

Good morning!

It is such a treat to be at Amherst Presbyterian Church this morning!  Having the family all get into one car on Sunday morning is a rare experience for us.

While it can feel like Matt and I have two very different congregations, or flocks, being here with you on Good Shepherd Sunday is a great reminder that really we are all, Presbyterian or Episcopalian, part of Jesus’ one big flock of sheep.

When we think of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, we often think of the story from Luke, in which Jesus compares himself to a shepherd who has a flock of 100 sheep, but when one goes missing, he drops everything to find that sheep.  That passage gives us a feeling of deep security—that no matter what happens to us in our lives, we know Jesus will stay with us.

But our passage today is getting to a slightly different aspect of the Good Shepherd.  And our story really begins at the beginning of the 9th chapter of John.

The Pharisees are shocked, SHOCKED, I tell you, because Jesus has healed a blind man. As you know, Jesus was all about taking people who had been exiled from their flocks by disease or demon possession or blindness and healing them so they could re-join community.

The Pharisees, rather than delighting in the blind man’s return to his flock—his return to community—are immediately suspicious and begin a line of inquiry into the healing.  First they are convinced he’s lying, and after interviewing him twice and confirming with his family that he had been born blind, they are so annoyed by the claims he makes about Jesus, that they exile him once again and force him to leave the city.

Usually when Jesus heals someone, we never hear from that character again.  But in this instance, Jesus is so outraged by the Pharisees’ treatment of this man, that he seeks the exiled man out and has this deeply profound conversation with him, in which he reveals that he is the Son of Man.  Jesus treats the man, not as someone who should be exiled, but as someone who is special enough to understand Jesus’ divine nature.

And when the Pharisees start huffing and puffing again, Jesus tells this story about the Good Shepherd.

He compares the Pharisees to a hired hand.  The Pharisees are supposed to be taking care of God’s people, but somehow along the way they have lost track. They have become more interested in rules than in welcoming all people to God’s flock.  If a true threat comes to attack the sheep, the hired hand will run away.  The Pharisees, despite their best intentions, do not have God’s people’s best interests at heart.

Jesus goes on to say that in contrast to the unreliable hired hand, he is the good shepherd.  He foreshadows his own death when he explains that the good shepherd is willing to lay down his life for the sheep.  Jesus is utterly and totally committed to his flock.  Whether he is tracking down the formerly blind man, or walking towards his death in Jerusalem, the Jesus of the Gospel of John is completely in control and completely loving.

This love he has for humanity isn’t rooted in how wonderful we are.  After all, we are the kind of people to berate a blind man for being healed!  Jesus’ love for us is ultimately rooted in the love he has been given from his Father. Jesus is able to love us, because his Father loves him and his Father loves us.  Jesus invites us into that loving relationship as we become members of his flock.

In fact, it is in the Gospel of John where Jesus instructs his disciples to “…love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”  What makes our Christian communities distinctive—or what should make our Christian communities distinctive—is the love we have for one another.

We follow a shepherd who sought out and welcomed every kind of person.  The wealthy, the poor, the old, the young, the healthy and the invalid were all invited to follow Jesus.  Jesus broke down the barriers between people and God, but also broke down the barriers between people themselves.  The Good Shepherd’s flock now truly contains every type of person you could imagine from communities across the world.

Including people who are different from the mainstream in our flocks can be challenging.  We are more comfortable with people who look like us, who have stories to which we can relate.  But just as Jesus always looked outward to gather in more and more people into his flock, we too are called to open our minds to who belongs.

In 2003, at Trinity Episcopal church in Torrington, CT, the Rev. Audrey Scanlan and Children’s minister Linda Snyder got a phone call from a parishioner who had a son with autism.  Bringing his son to a regular church service was proving extremely challenging.  His son did not have the executive function to sit quietly for an hour and changes in light and sound could be deeply upsetting to the child.  Audrey and Linda worked with the family to create a church service to which this child and his friends could be fully themselves.  One in which they were not required to sit still and in which the liturgy was simple, hands on and consistent.  The service was a huge success.  Many families in the community who had felt completely isolated from church, finally felt welcomed back into the flock.  Audrey and Linda published a curriculum called Rhythms of Grace and many churches across the country now use programs like it to welcome to church members of the community who ordinarily would not feel comfortable or welcome in a church service.

Providing a way for children with autism to worship Jesus in a safe environment is the way Trinity Episcopal Church decided to live like Jesus’ flock.  But each church community has its own set of opportunities.  If Sweet Briar does close, Amherst will undergo a transformation over the next few years.  You don’t know who will buy the property, what kind of people will be moving to town or what their needs might be.

But our Good Shepherd invites us to keep our eyes open and our hearts welcoming.  Just as we take care of each other in love, we also reach out in love, ready to incorporate whoever needs us into our life together.

The Good Shepherd will lead us—whether we are here at Amherst Pres or up the road at St. Paul’s Episcopal.  All we have to do is follow.

Amen.

Easter 2, Homily for Celtic Service, Year B, 2014

Poor Thomas.

The disciples have been huddled together for a week, terrified after Jesus’ body has been missing from the tomb.  Thomas is out picking up some sandwiches or getting a breath a fresh air and misses Jesus’ visit to the disciples completely!

When he gets back they are all abuzz with their amazing encounter.  Thomas is skeptical.  Or maybe Thomas is just protecting his heart.  He is grieving Jesus, he misses his friend.  It sounds way too good to be true that Jesus could be alive.  He wants evidence.  He wants to put his hands in the holes that pierced his side.

And yet, when Jesus reappears, all of Thomas’ defenses fall away.  Once he encounters the living, resurrected Jesus, Thomas doesn’t need proof.  It is enough for Thomas to be in his Lord’s presence.  Encountering the living God eliminates all his skepticism.

We live in a skeptical age.  We live in an age where we just assume someone will eventually hack into our email or steal our credit card number.  We assume all celebrities will eventually disappoint us and we just wait for our heroes to fall.  We live in a culture that chews up half truth and scandal for breakfast every morning.

We arm ourselves with cynicism and sarcasm and dark humor, because we believe it protects us from our grief and fear.  We grieve the loss of the world’s innocence and we fear for our own well being and the well being of those we love.

Thomas’ good news, is our good news, too.  Jesus is resurrected.

The light defeats the dark.  Love wins.  No matter how hard the forces of darkness, death and despair try to attack us, ultimately Jesus’ light and love will defeat them.  Sometimes that light may seem like a tiny flicker in a pitch black dungeon, but by the end of time that flicker of light will illuminate all of creation.

And we get to help spread that light by living lives that are full of joy and hope and trust—the antidote to our skeptical age.

At Trinity Episcopal Church in Princeton I met a lovely woman from India who was a Keralan Christian.  I had never heard of such a thing, but it turns out that when Roman Catholic missionaries arrived in Kerala, India in the 1480s to evangelize the local population, they found a thriving Christianity already present.  No one in the Roman Catholic world had any idea this Christian community existed.  What a moment of holy surprise for these priests to realize that Jesus had over 1000 years on them in Kerala!

The Keralan Christians trace their faith all the way back to a missionary disciple named Thomas.  Thomas’s moment of faith in the upper room transformed his entire life. Legend has it that our Thomas traveled thousands of miles during his life, joyfully sharing his faith in Jesus across the world.

May Thomas be our guide as we discover with delight, over and over again, the power of the real presence of Christ in our lives.  And like Thomas, may we share that delight with others.

Amen.

Easter, Year B, 2015

Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome are grieving.  They are expecting their Jesus, the one they loved, to be in a tomb.  They are going to anoint his body and prepare him for a proper burial.  They are coming because they love him.  They are coming to do right by him.

But Jesus is not there.

So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

The original ending of the Gospel of Mark does not give us the resurrection we expect. There is no resurrected body.  There are no alleluias. Jesus is just. . .gone.

Jesus is on the loose.

This is, and this should be, terrifying to the women who have come to anoint him.

When a person is nailed to a cross, and pierced with a spear, when his blood flows out of his body, he ought to die.  The rules of biology and logic demand death.

The women who loved Jesus expect death.

And Jesus experienced death.

But not for long.

From the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel of Mark, God has been rewriting the rules.  At Jesus’ baptism, the heavens tear open, the Holy Spirit descends, and the Father’s voice booms over the crowd, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased.”

God the Father announces to the crowd, and to us, that everything about life as a human being is about to change.  God breaks into human history in a new way and reclaims us for his own.

Now, humans tried to control that holy in-breaking.  Some tried to control the in-breaking by ignoring Jesus.  Some tired to control the in-breaking by insisting Jesus follow the rules.   Some controlled the in-breaking by turning Jesus over to the authorities.

Those authorities helped control the situation even further by killing Jesus.

But when God decides to reclaim his people, not even death can stop him.

God the Father resurrects his Son, changing every rule.  Jesus is on the loose.

Thousands of years later, we haven’t learned this lesson.  We still think we can control God’s in-breaking in our lives.  We still think we can pin Jesus down.  We set aside one day a week to worship him.  We celebrate his birthday in December.  We give him a week in the spring to remember his death and resurrection.

But Jesus doesn’t do well in confined spaces.

Jesus is on the loose in your life.

Before Jesus’ death and resurrection, we were owned by sin and death.  They were our masters and we were forced to do their bidding.  But God defeated sin and death through Jesus’ resurrection and now we belong to God.

You may think you can control Jesus by setting aside Sunday to think about him and going back to your real life the rest of the week, but good luck with that.  The God who created the Universe is reclaiming you. The God who broke through the heavens, and became a human being is reclaiming you. The God who defeated sin and death is reclaiming you.

Jesus is at loose in your life when you brush your teeth in the morning.  Jesus is at loose in your life when you write your Facebook status or balance your checkbook.  Jesus is at loose in your life when you commute to work, when your boss gives you a dressing down, when you turn on your television at night.  There is no moment in your life that is apart from Jesus and his Father who raised him from the dead.

Think about that for a moment and now tell me that the ending of the Gospel of Mark doesn’t just about sum up your reaction.

Terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

The idea of Jesus loose in our lives is terrifying.  At any moment he could ask us to reconcile with someone we loathe, give away the money that gives us security, humble ourselves when we want to advance.  How can we know this mysterious resurrected Jesus has our best interests at heart?

The author of the Gospel of Mark gives us a little clue about this mysterious resurrected Jesus to calm our anxiety.  The heavenly messenger at the empty tomb tells the women “. . .Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

Why Galilee?

If you turn to the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark, you’ll see that Jesus first arrives on the scene in Galilee.  Mark is pointing us back to the beginning of his Gospel.  The resurrected Jesus is the same Jesus that taught and healed and exorcised demons.  The Jesus that is on the loose in your lives is not some zombie, not some spiritual Santa Claus, spying on you in judgment. He is the Jesus who loved men, women, and children; brought wholeness out of brokenness; and spoke truth to power.  He is the Jesus who loved Peter, even through Peter’s betrayal.  He is the Jesus who loved us so much that he wanted to identify fully with our human experience and was willing to die, so that we might be united with God.

This is the Jesus who is on the loose, loving us, healing us and bringing us eternal life.

And for that we can heartily say,

Alleluia, Christ is risen!

Good Friday, Year B, 2015

Good Friday is a day that exposes us.

The rest of the calendar year we can imagine that we are one of the disciples, lovingly following Jesus, doing our best to live as God wants us to live.

But on Good Friday we remember.

We remember that before human beings could be united to Jesus, first we had to be exposed.

We had to be exposed as traitors, like Judas.  We had to be exposed as cowards, like Pilate.  We had to be exposed as fair weather friends, like Peter.  We had to be exposed as murderous and gullible, like the crowds.

We had to be exposed as people who would sacrifice their own God in order to ease their anxiety.

On Good Friday we think about Jesus on the cross, and we shudder because we aren’t so sure we’d be one of the faithful women who stays by his side even through death.  We are afraid we’d be a member of the crowd.  If Jesus were killed today, we might just be one of the internet commenters sure that if he had just followed the rules, just done what he was supposed to do he wouldn’t have been killed. We would shake our head, and found a way to blame him for his own death.

Good Friday exposes us as complicated people.  We love God, but are too broken to follow him perfectly.  We are Christian, but we are also sinners.  We are redeemed by God, but we are still anxious, judgmental, addicted, selfish, controlling and out of control.

You would think Jesus would wash his hands of us.  Any rational God would roll his eyes and walk away from humanity as a lost cause.

But Jesus does not walk away.  In the Gospel of John, Jesus calmly walks toward his own death.  Jesus never loses control.  Jesus knows he will be betrayed by these disciples who loved him, even Peter who swore up and down that he would be loyal to the end.  Jesus knows the crowd will betray him.  Yet, calmly and in confidence he continues to follow his Father’s will and stays connected to humanity, even at the cost of his life.

God sees all of us.  Everything about us is exposed to God.  He knows every nook and cranny of our hearts and minds.

The miracle is that God sees all the worst parts of us and still treats us with unlimited love and affection.  He remains loyal to us, even though we are disloyal to him.

God looks right at us, full on, and asks us to follow him–just as we are, broken and all.

If you go back and look at Jesus’ speech to his disciples before his death, he does not spend the speech berating them for their sinful natures.  No, his speech is full of encouragement.  He doesn’t blame the disciples for his impending death. He tells his disciples when he goes to be with the Father he will prepare a place for them.  He assures them that they will never be alone, because he will send the Holy Spirit as an advocate for them.  He reminds them that their job is to love one another.

Even when he encounters them after his resurrection, Jesus does not seek recrimination for his death.  He says, “Peace be with you.” and then he sends them forth into the world.

Good Friday exposes us, but God calls us his own and wishes us peace.  He liberates us from our sin, he offers us freedom from the broken parts of our souls that hold us back.

This Good Friday, as you sit exposed before God, may you experience God’s peace and love.  Amen.

Epiphany 4, Year B, 2015

First, a note to thank Eric for covering for me last Sunday! It is a great gift to work with a rector who completely understands your need to stay home with a feverish pre-schooler. And thank you all for all your concern. Charlie is just fine, thankfully.

This sermon was written for last week’s lectionary texts, when I was originally scheduled to preach. I encourage you to open your bibles to 1st Corinthians, chapter 8 from which this sermon springs.

On December 27th, a few days after Christmas, the Rt. Rev. Heather Cook, bishop Suffragan of the Diocese of Maryland, hit bicyclist Tom Palermo at 2:30 in the afternoon, killing him. She initially fled the scene, and then returned a half hour later. News of this hit and run has been all over newspapers and social media, especially when it was revealed Bishop Cook’s blood alcohol content was .22, which is the equivalent of having consumed at least ten alcoholic beverages. More questions emerged when it turned out that Bishop Cook had been arrested for a DUI in 2010 with a BAC of .27. This DUI had been revealed to the search committee for the Diocese of Maryland, but was not revealed to the larger Diocese.

This whole awful situation has raised many, many questions. Why did she agree to stand for election when she clearly needed help? Why did the search committee not see her previous DUI as a red flag? But Mike Kinman, Dean of the Cathedral of St. Louis has the most interesting question, I think. He writes:

 The right question is everything. And the right question is this:

 What does this say about us?

 What does this say about the family system of the Episcopal Church?

 He goes on to say:

I believe our church is an addicted family system. That should be no surprise since our entire culture is an addicted family system. We are addicted not just to alcohol and drugs but to pornography and media and even the dopamine hit we get when we check if someone has liked our Facebook status.

And one thing we know about addictions … we will use every power of rationalization and misdirection we have to defend them, because we are convinced we need them and it terrifies us to the core to have them named and challenged. They are in every way the anti-Christ. They are a power counter to Christ to which we give power every bit as profoundly as we promise to give Jesus. And there is no way we can give our lives to Christ fully as long as they have us in their grasp.

Phew. Instead of locating the problem solely on Heather Cook’s shoulders, Canon Kinman encourages us to look at our entire church’s relationship with alcohol and addiction. But what do we have to do with Bishop Cook’s problem? We don’t even know Bishop Cook, right?

Believe it or not, Paul’s conversation with the Corinthians about idol meat can help us here.

Yes, I know you have been waiting your whole life to hear what Paul has to say about idol meat and today is your lucky day!

Here is the situation at Corinth: You have a new Christian community mixed up of all kinds of different people. A group of “elites” has started to act in really snotty ways. They arrive at communion before everyone else and eat and drink up all the good bread and wine, they think their spiritual lives are way better than everyone else’s, and they happily eat food that has been sacrificed to idols.

Why would Corinthians even be eating meat sacrificed to idols? Corinth was a diverse town, and there were lots of people for whom worshiping their gods meant sacrificing an animal to their god. After these animals were sacrificed, there would be big social feasts in which the animals would be consumed as part of the meal.

The conflict in the Corinthian Christian community was whether it was appropriate for Christians to eat the food at these parties. After all, it had been sacrificed to a God that was not the Christian God.

The Christian leadership in Jerusalem had decided that there was nothing a person could eat that could defile them. But this was a really, really new idea. The Corinthian elites understood this concept and so thought eating the meat at these parties was no big deal. But there were other people in the community for whom the idea was just horrifying. They had recently become converts and eating the idol meat was just too yucky for them, felt too close to worshiping false gods. The elites thought these conflicted people were stupid, basically, and appealed to Paul to share his knowledge with them.

But Paul turns things around on the Corinthian elites. He tells them that “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” He goes on to say that while the Corinthian elites were technically correct in their understanding of the issue, their knowledge didn’t really matter. What was important was that this issue was becoming a real stumbling block in the faith of the other Corinthians. Paul tells the elites if they sin against members of their family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, they sin against Christ.

The members of the church at Corinth belonged to each other, whether the elites liked it or not. Their welfare as a community hinged on the well being of every member, not just the “knowledgeable” ones.

I believe alcohol may be the Episcopal church’s idol meat. I came to the Episcopal Church after a brief flirtation with more conservative Evangelical traditions. At my first Wednesday night supper at St. James’ Episcopal church in Richmond I was totally stunned and, thrilled frankly, to see wine being served at a church dinner. It was my first clue that the Episcopal Church understood that one could lead a holy life without following all the “rules” so dominant in more conservative traditions. We can dance and play cards and enjoy a beer. I love the freedom of the Episcopal church. I also really enjoy a glass of wine! But I have also been in parishes where police had to be called because of public drunkenness at a church party and where a rector had to wrestle keys out of the hands of an inebriated parishioner. This week Episcopal Relief and Development announced a contest for Dioceses to raise the most money for relief efforts. The prize? A Beer Tasting at General Convention for the winning delegation. The culture of alcohol lives at every level of our church life.

Bishop Cook is far from the first cleric to be an alcoholic. And I’d hate to see the statistics of the numbers of clergy who use alcohol unhealthiy, even if they are not technically alcoholics.

I think Bishop Cook’s arrest is a wake up call for every Episcopal parish. In the spirit of Canon Kinman’s essay, I ask you to help me think about our parish’s relationship with alcohol. I floated a case study about a recovering alcoholic in the ethics Adult Forum I did a few months ago and the general sense was that it was the sole responsibility of the person in recovery to manage her own sobriety. But I think the apostle Paul would argue with us. I think he would ask us to take a hard look at our life together and really look at whether we are causing stumbling blocks for any one in our parish life.

I would love for anyone planning a church function—whether that be a Lenten supper, Ladies’ Night, or a parish retreat—to think really carefully about how alcohol is used in the function. Are parishioners being pressured into drinking? Is alcohol in the foreground or background of the event? Are there elegant alternatives to alcohol? We can probably do better than powdered lemonade.

If you are an alcoholic or recovering alcoholic, I invite you to share with me how you have felt safe or unsafe in our church setting. What can we do to make church a place where you feel respected and supported? Since the nature of recovery is often that those in recovery are anonymous, please feel free to send me anonymous letters if that would be more helpful to you.

This conversation may raise your anxiety levels, especially if you or someone you love in in trouble with alcohol or other addictions. But Canon Kinman has words of encouragement for us around the good news of Jesus Christ:

But the good news is we are people of Jesus Christ. And we are people who put our whole trust in Jesus’ grace and love. And we are people who believe in Jesus’ saving power. And so we are people who need not fear any question — no matter how deeply it convicts us. On the contrary, we are people who must welcome the hardest and most convicting of questions, the questions that reveal the deepest truths, for we truly believe the truth shall set us free.[1]

And to that I add a hearty, Amen.

[1] Kinman, Michael, http://cccdean.blogspot.com/2015/01/the-right-question-about-bishop-cook.html

Christmas 2, Year B, 2015

Happy Second Sunday of Christmas!

We still have two days left in the Christmas season and today we turn our attention to the other nativity story. We have spent plenty of time with baby Jesus, angels and shepherds the last few weeks. That nativity story, the one with which we are so familiar, is from the Gospel of Luke.

Today’s story of the nativity is Matthew’s version of Jesus’ birth. And it is very different. While Luke’s story of the nativity is appropriate for, say, ABC Family channel, Matthew’s version is more of an HBO situation.

In Matthew’s version, angels don’t appear to any shepherds. Instead, three Zoroastrian priests, wise men who study the stars, have observed a strange star they have never seen before. They somehow figure out that this means that the child who will be King of the Jews has been born and so they travel to Jerusalem to find him.

When King Herod and the rest of Jerusalem hears of their inquiries, their reaction is not to throw open their arms to welcome this holy infant. Instead, they are thrown into fear.

And isn’t that a painfully honest human reaction?

King Herod likes being in charge. The people of Jerusalem like stability. They’ve had enough conflict. The last thing they need is a new king jockeying for power. A new king is not necessarily good news.

These wise men will not be dissuaded, though. Even though Herod tries to gain their trust so he can find and eliminate this threat to his power, the wise men outsmart him and go visit Jesus anyway. But when they visit him they bring three very strange gifts.

First, they give Jesus gold, which symbolizes his kingship. They recognize his authority, even if the world doesn’t.

Second, they give him frankincense, which symbolizes his divinity. These wise men, who aren’t even from the Jewish tradition, recognize that the Christ child is of God.

Finally, they give Jesus myrrh. Myrrh was traditionally used in the burial of the body. This third gift is almost a foreshadowing of how Christ will be received into the world. Instead of a joyful birth narrative, here we have three strangers both worshiping and grieving God born into the world.

And immediately following this passage, we get the horrible story of the slaughter of the innocents. Herod, hoping to eliminate the threat in his kingdom, orders all children younger than two years old murdered.

Jesus is born into a vile, vile world. A world in which thousands of children are sacrificed for no reason other than one man’s quest for power.

We recognize this world, because it is not that different from our own. We are too familiar with the way murder and killing destroys families and communities. We have experienced it in our own town and watched protests around the world. We have mourned Hannah Graham, Alexis Murphy and Robin and Mani Aldridge. We have mourned with black communities and with police officers. We have watched in horror as Boko Haram and ISIS have terrorized our brothers and sisters to the east.

We live in an adult world filled with violence and pain. We need a God that can handle complexity, handle our sin, and see the good in us despite all the evidence to the contrary. We need a God that can handle those in power, whose goodness can overpower the evil of the corrupt.

And so Matthew gives us his nativity story. A story that reminds us that God knew exactly what he was doing. He was sending his Son to be born in a world filled with corruption and violence. But God didn’t fight corruption and violence with political power or more violence. Instead, he chose an ordinary faithful girl from a faithful family. He chose an ordinary faithful fiancé, who would do the right thing even when his first instinct was to back away.

And together Mary and Joseph managed to birth the Son of God into the world. And protect and raise the child with all the strength and wisdom he would need to do his terribly difficult job.

Even in the midst of a vile and corrupt world, with God’s help ordinary people managed to birth light into the world.

No matter how overwhelming our world may seem, with God’s help we too can bring light into the darkness.

My sister, Marianne, spent part of a summer in Sierra Leone doing teacher training a few years ago. She made some good friends there and keeps in touch with them through Facebook and email. I have been so struck by friends of hers like Samuel Sesay, who sent his family to the US so they would be safe, but stayed behind to help serve his community. He tells stories of so many faithful Chrsitians facing the darkness of this terrifying disease, but remaining home so they can deliver supplies, help enforce quarantines, and lead worship services for communities in real crisis. Christians like Samuel are bringing light into darkness. Hope into what must feel like a hopeless situation.

What’s wonderful to me is how many of you are the faithful people of our generation, birthing light into the world every day. Bringing Jesus with you as you parent, grandparent and foster parent. Bringing light with you as you care for an aging spouse. Bringing light with you as you interact with patients, clients and students. Bringing light with you as you pray for peace and fight for justice.

Bringing light into the world is hard work. But it lightens our load when we remember that it is not our job to generate the light. We are not mice on a wheel trying hard to create enough energy for God to show up.

God is already here, waiting to bring love and light into our lives.

No matter how dark it might appear to you, God is here, ready to share his light with you.

Thanks be to God.

Advent 4, Year B, 2014

God the Father decided to come down to earth and encounter his creation. Now, how to do it? He could show himself directly, but then ran the risk of so overwhelming human beings that they wouldn’t be able to process what they saw—or worse be killed by the power of being in the direct presence of God. He could just boom loud messages from the sky, but that might frighten humans so much they would obey out of fear. Instead God decides to send his Son, the Beloved, part of himself, to become a human being. The vast, cosmic God, creator of the entire universe, decides to send his Son to unite to a single human cell in a particular woman’s uterus and become a person who is entirely human and entirely divine.

And for this moment to happen, there had to be one particular woman to bear this divine child.

Mary is often lifted up for her willingness to bear this life, this desire to please God. But if you read the text carefully enough, you’ll see she isn’t really given a choice. The Angel Gabriel tells her what is going to happen:

 Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.

Mary acknowledges her role in the matter, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” The word servant here is actually the word doule which is more accurately translated slave.

In the Gospel of Luke, the power of God is non negotiable. God chooses Mary and Mary concedes that she belongs to God.

This concession of Mary’s, this acknowledgement of her position before God is not the enthusiastic response we remember from the Christmas story. We remember the Magnificat, of course. But before Mary can rejoice at what God is doing, Mary has to acknowledge that she belongs to God, completely.

In our baptisms, we acknowledge that we belong to God completely, as well. And when we first realize that we belong to God completely, it can be sobering. We are called to follow God all the time, at home, at work, with our friends, with our enemies. Once baptized our lives are completely reoriented. Our lives become a vehicle for God’s grace to be enacted in the world. Our lives are no longer for our own pleasure, our own enrichment, but now belong to God.

Mary doesn’t stay in a place of resignation, of course. The Angel Gabriel encourages her to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who is also experiencing a miraculous pregnancy. Mary visits this older cousin, and Elizabeth’s joy shakes something loose in Mary. Mary is able to take a step back and rejoice about the miracle that is taking place within her. Mary sings the Magnificat as she realizes her discipleship will birth God’s grace and love in the world.

God’s grace and love continue to pour into the world, but now, we baptized replace Mary as the people who carry and birth God’s grace and love into the world.

Even those of us who were not looking for God, who do not seek to be Christ-bearers, we are all chosen by God to do his work.

That work can seem overwhelming in a world that seems to devalue holiness, a world that wants to turn God into a commodity that can be shaped to fit any argument. A world where the rich and poor get more and more isolated from one another. A world in which hundreds of mothers in Pakistan and Nigeria are mourning their dead and missing children this week because of hatred and violence born out of a misunderstanding of who God is.

And yet, despite our bleak landscape, we join Mary in singing the Magnificat. We take a stand with Mary and with her holy child. We sing because we know that despite everything, Christ is alive in the world. We sing because God’s power is at work in ways we cannot see. We sing because our God is one that grieves the loss of those Pakistani children and is even now surrounding the missing in Nigeria with his love and care. We sing because we believe there are powers greater than those who wield death and grief. We sing because we believe love will conquer all. We sing because love already has.

And when we understand ourselves as being part of God’s great love for the world, suddenly the burden of discipleship is lifted. We do not follow Jesus because God requires it. We follow Jesus because we cannot help ourselves: because Jesus brings light to a dark world, because he heals our torn bodies and hearts, because we want to be part of bringing light and healing to a world we love so much.

May the Spirit fill us with Christ’s light and love so we can join Mary in bringing God to the world.

Amen.

Advent 2, Year B, 2014

I need you to do something for me.

I need you to do a mental wipe. I need you to forget all about Angel Gabriel, and pregnant Mary, and sweet baby Jesus in the manger.

This Sunday, we begin the Gospel of Mark. And Mark, my friends, has no time for baby Jesus. Don’t worry, the creators of the lectionary are gentle folk and you will hear part of both Luke and Matthew’s account of the infant Jesus once we get to Christmas. But for now, I ask you to join me in a world that has absolutely no interest in the nativity.

The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

The earliest Christians had letters from Paul telling them about Jesus, but the Gospel of Mark was the very first biography of Jesus. In fact, because of the way Mark phrased his opening line—the Good News—or the Gospel–of Jesus Christ—everyone began calling these biographies of Jesus Gospels.

So, the very first time many people heard the story of Jesus, was through Mark’s words. And Mark has an urgent story to tell.

Mark has no time to waste. Mark is not interested in Jesus’ life before his baptism, before his public ministry. He wants to get right to the point.

The point, for Mark, is that God is breaking into the world in a new way. God is going to shake up the world and set it right again, through Jesus.

But before he gets to his point, before he gets to the Father breaking in to Jesus’ baptism to declare his love for his son, Mark takes a beat and gives us some context.

He introduces us to John the Baptist, the man God chose to prepare the world for God’s in-breaking. John is this very Old Testament prophet-like character. He wears really strange clothes and eats strange foods. He grabs your attention. Mark compares John to the messenger in a passage from Isaiah. John the Baptist is like one who is the wilderness shouting, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

This reference to Isaiah roots Mark’s readers into a narrative that continues from the Old Testament. God is breaking into the world in a new way, but this God is the same God who has broken into the world before. This is the same God who walked in the garden with Adam, and showed Moses his back. This is the same God who sent an angel to wrestle with Jacob, and who lifted Elijah into heaven. God breaks into our world over and over and over again.

I listen to NPR most mornings driving into work, and this week they were doing an end of the year funding pitch. The host said something like, “This year we have brought you stories of the Malaysian Airline jet crash, violence in the Ukraine, Ebola, the rise of ISIS, Ferguson and alleged sexual violence at UVA.” The litany of news stories took my breath away. It has been a really, really hard year. And they didn’t even mention the climate change tipping point we may have reached this summer or this week’s lack of indictment in Eric Garner’s death.

It can seem sometimes, that God has left the building.

We talk about God breaking into the world, through the birth of Jesus. We also talk about how we wait for Jesus’ return. Where does that leave us in the meantime? We feel like John in the wilderness, hoping people will repent, hoping God will show up.

Jesus hasn’t left us. After his death, he baptized those faithful disciples in the upper room with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit blew through that early church, as Peter, James, Paul and all the other early Christians figured out what it meant to follow God after Jesus’ ascension. Following God has never been easy. But the Holy Spirit continues to blow through the life of faithful communities, uniting us with Christ and the Father, so we can do God’s work of love and reconciliation in the world.

God broke into our world through Jesus and taught us what it means to live in a Godly manner—with humility, joy, love, patience, self-giving. And every Sunday we enact our faith at church. We hear Scripture and a sermon to remind us who God is and who we are. We repent when we confess our sins together. We pray for God to make the world a better place and to help us make it better. We encounter the living Christ in the Eucharist, and then we take that living Christ into the world with us.

Eric shared a quote from Stanley Hauerwas this week from Hauerwas’s book Hannah’s Child that resonates here: “The way things are is not the way things have to be. That thought began to shape my understanding of what it might mean to be a Christian – namely, Christianity is the ongoing training necessary to see that we are not fated.”

The power of God is alive and well in us and in spite of us. We are not doomed. God is breaking in.

This week religious leaders including our own Archbishop Justin Welby, Pope Francis, a representative for His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, a representative of Thich Nhat Hanh, leaders of both Sunni and Shiite Muslim groups, leaders of Jewish and Buddhist groups and many more gathered together to stand united against human trafficking. I cannot imagine the logistics needed to get nearly every highest level religious leader in the same room. Frankly, they looked strange these men and women. They each wore their traditional garb, so the picture is full of clothes that evoke other eras and places. Clerical collars, cassocks, saris, and at least five different kinds of religious hats. They reminded me a bit of John the Baptist, actually. They weren’t afraid to be anachronistic, they weren’t afraid to grab our attention, to tell us to repent, to point us to God.

In a year where the news seems incredibly bleak, these souls, with all their differences, with all the bloody history between the groups, got together and declared the goodness and worthiness of human life. No one is property. Every life matters.

I’m not sure what our ecumenical and interfaith friends would think of this, but I can’t help thinking of this meeting as an Advent gift to us. Here is a sign that God’s spirit lives. In the middle of a disintegrating world, a historic moment of unprecedented unity. A moment when God broke in to say, “If I can make this happen, I can make anything happen.”

Mark is right. The gospel message is urgent. The world needs to know that God has broken into the world in order to love us and in order for us to love each other. If we don’t know that deep in our bones, if we don’t treat everyone we meet like we believe they are beloved, next year’s news stories will be as bleak as this year’s.

We who carry Christ into the world, who help facilitate God’s in-breaking into the lives of those around us, have an enormous responsibility. Will we take up John the Baptist’s mantle and make a way for God in our world? Will we join the evangelist Mark and share the good news of God’s in-breaking? Will we be the hope for which we have been waiting?

May it be so.