Last Epiphany, Year A, 2017–Final Sermon at St. Paul’s, Ivy

“Lord, it is good for us to be here!”

Jesus has started getting real with his disciples. In Chapter 16, Matthew tells us that Jesus has started warning them that he will undergo great suffering. This has the disciples on edge. Ministry has been exciting so far—following Jesus around, watching miracles, learning from a great teacher. They have become comfortable in their new routine of moving from place to place following their teacher and friend. But now, Jesus is kind of ruining it with his dark talk.

Peter even confronts Jesus about this. You can just imagine him pulling Jesus aside, “Come on man, you’re being a real downer. Let’s just go make some blind people see, okay?” Jesus looks right at him and says, “Get behind me, Satan.”

So, things have been a little tense. Maybe the disciples are second guessing their choices to drop everything in their lives to follow Jesus. Maybe things are getting a little too real for them.

Whatever the reason, God arranges a huge gift for Jesus, Peter, James and John. They hike up a mountain and suddenly Jesus becomes transformed. The disciples see the divinity with him and suddenly they also see Moses and Elijah flanking him. To gild the lily, God’s voice breaks through and says, “This is my son, The Beloved” Whatever doubts they have had are suddenly washed away. THIS is the transcendent experience they hoped for when they began following Jesus.

And when we have a transcendent experience, we want to bottle it, right? We want to stay in that moment of connection with God. We want to make it our every day. Peter does, too. He makes the generous offer to set up three tents so Jesus, Elijah and Moses can hang out indefinitely. It’ll be great! They can invite the other disciples up the mountain and then they can just party there for the next fifty years or so.

Lord, it is good for us to be here!

But if Jesus and the disciples stayed on the mountain, God’s good news for people would never have spread. We wouldn’t know how much God loves us or how we all belong to each other.

Jesus is going to suffer. The disciples’ lives are going to get dangerous. They cannot avoid the hard part of their ministry. But the experience of the transfiguration also transforms the disciples so that they will have the strength to carry on even through difficult times.

The trip up the mountain was important. The trip up the mountain was renewing. But the trip up the mountain was never meant to be permanent.

Jesus is not a top of the mountain kind of guy. Sure, he goes up periodically to get renewed, but he always comes back down again. He spends his time in the midst of human beings experiencing all the pain that comes with being human. He is Emmanuel—God with us.

This is the God who chose to be incarnate. He is 100% divine and 100% human. He can experience the glory of being in the presence of Moses, Elijah and God the father. But he doesn’t choose to stay there. He chooses to be with us.

If I leave you with anything from our four years together, this is what I want you to know: Jesus is with you. Jesus is not up in the clouds looking down on you in judgment. Jesus isn’t off on a mountain somewhere communing with the Saints. Jesus is here with you in this sacred space.

Lord, it is good for us to be here.

And Jesus is not just here with you. Jesus is out there with you. Jesus is with you when you brush your teeth, when you wrangle yourself and your family out the door, when you walk into your office, when you are in the grocery store, while you’re driving, when you greet a stranger, when you’re doing every ordinary and extraordinary thing you do in your life.

Jesus does not run away when things get hard, either. Whenever you or someone you love is suffering, Jesus is right alongside of you. He is not afraid of your pain. He is not turned off by your mistakes. He is with you to remind you that you are deeply loved, just as you are.

Jesus isn’t with you just to make you feel good. Jesus wants more than your affection. Jesus wants you to be his disciple. Jesus wants you to change your world by following him in all those ordinary and extraordinary moments of your life.

[At the 10:30 service] today we will our baptismal vows—those promises we make when we decide to follow Jesus. We promise to renounce the demonic, evil and sin. We promise to trust that Jesus loves us and to follow him. When we walk this path, God transforms us. As we get closer to Jesus, we don’t sin less, necessarily, but we realize it sooner. And we have more courage to ask for forgiveness and to work for reconciliation. We have more energy to reach out to those who are in need and to fight for justice. But it all starts with that knowledge that Jesus is already with you.

When we realize that Jesus is with us always, suddenly it is good to be everywhere! We don’t need to stay in our transcendent spaces if the transcendent goes with us. The beauty of the incarnation is that every place in our life is holy, no matter how mundane it may feel. A cubicle becomes holy when Jesus is there. A hospital bed becomes holy when Jesus is there. A grocery cart becomes holy when Jesus is there. You bring the transcendent with you and you can offer it to the world as a gift.

One of the gifts of being your priest has been these little glimpses of how you bring Jesus into the world. I have seen patients who offer kindness to their nurses, even though they are in pain. I have heard many stories of ministry happening at the Harris Teeter. I have seen a chef collecting unused produce from his colleagues for our food pantry. I have seen doctors taking extra steps to care for their patients. I have seen those who have walked through the experience of loving someone with Alzheimers mentor others going through the same thing. I have seen parents doing their best to raise children who contribute to the world. I have seen teachers create a safe and loving space for their students. I have seen you loving people who are difficult to love.

You, cooperating with Jesus, make it good for people to be where you are.

Lord, it has been good to be here. It has been good to be here with Eric and the rest of your church staff who work so hard every day. It has been good to be reunited with Allison and with those of you who had been at Emmanuel. It has been good to meet some of you for the first time, and have the privilege of walking along side life with you. It has been good to be with you at bedsides and weddings, in yoga and Sunday School classes, around lunch tables and over coffee.

Thank you, Eric, for inviting me to serve here. And thank all of you for your many kindnesses to Charlie and to me. It is always a challenge when a priest moves on from a congregation. This has been a stressful year in the world and it is hard not to carry that stress with us wherever we go. We will miss each other and saying goodbye brings anxiety. One way you can honor the relationship we have had in this transition is to take the words Ra often says at the end of our church yoga class to heart:

“Offer compassion to yourself and others. Every one is doing the best they can with what they think they know with where they are from.”

Jesus is with you. Jesus is with you in staff meetings, and vestry meetings, and in every conversation you have here at church. He will show up for you. It is good for you to be here.

May God bless you, your ministry in this place, and your ministry in the world.

Amen.

Epiphany 6, Year A, 2017

Choose life.

This is Moses’ final message to the Israelites. Moses has been called by God, led the Israelites out of Egypt, wandered around with them in the desert for forty years and now, now finally, they are about to cross into the promised land.

But what Moses knows, and what the Israelites don’t know yet, is that Moses won’t be joining them. He is 120 years old and is dying. He has been with these people for so long and put up with so much from them. He has put up with their whining for better food, for their worshiping of a Golden Calf, for their longing for a past in which they had been enslaved. And yet, Moses still loves them. Moses wants what is good for them.

So Moses asks them to choose life.

He sets before the Israelites a choice: choose life and prosperity or death or adversity. Easy choice, right?

But choosing life hasn’t been an easy choice for the Israelites, because in this context choosing life means choosing God’s law. And choosing God’s law means worshiping God above everything else. Worshiping God means no longer creating idols—either literal ones like the Golden Calf or metaphorical ones like money, or how we look, or our families.

But Moses has seen what has happened to Israel when they have chosen other idols. He has seen them struggle, seen them wander in the desert and he wants more for them. He wants them to be able to settle down in the land of milk and honey. He wants for them to live at peace with God and with one another. He wants them to prosper.

God’s laws—from the Ten Commandments on—were always meant to be good for people. They were meant to give us boundaries on our life to help us live in peaceful community. Worship God. Do not murder. Do not take what does not belong to you. Honor your family. Don’t lie. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t even have lustful thoughts towards another person’s spouse. All these boundaries are good for us. And Jewish law has always been situational. The Israelites renegotiate the Covenant with God twice once they reach Canaan and rabbis were famous for deeply examining and arguing and working with Jewish law to apply it to new situations as they arose. God’s law is ancient, but it is flexible and it is meant for our good.

The law helps us make good decisions when our instincts are telling us otherwise. I ordered a new duvet and set of shams from West Elm a couple of weeks ago. I was surprised when I received two boxes. When I opened them, I realized they had accidentally sent me a double order: two duvets and four shams. My first reaction was joy! It was a bedding jackpot! I was mentally storing up the extras so I would have a bonus set. But then, sadly, the law kicked in. I reluctantly looked at the return slip and sure enough there was an option to return things because the store accidentally sent you extras. Keeping the bedding would have been stealing. (Even though, to be clear, it was totally the company’s fault.)

Now I don’t think death would have come upon me had I kept that bedding. But, if we live inside the boundaries of these laws, we are less likely to harm others and ourselves.

When God’s laws are broken, the pain from that break spirals out affecting not only the person who broke the law, but their families and friends, too. While breaking God’s law may not kill us, it can mortally wound our relationships.

If we are able to be clear about what God desires for us, it can help us resist those moment’s of temptation. What do I really want when I click on that old girlfriend’s FaceBook page? Connection? How can I get human connection in a more appropriate way? What hole am I feeling when I covet my neighbor’s new chandelier? How can I feel content in my own life?

But of course, we don’t always choose to stay within the law. When I’m talking to little kids about this, I describe our sins as building blocks that we put up between ourselves and other people or God. When we covet, when we cheat, when we steal, we lay block after block and eventually, we stop being able to relate to the person we are harming at all. We depersonalize them in order to justify our behavior.

The good news is, there is a way to knock down those blocks and start to build the trust that leads to life.

When we take responsibility for our actions and understand how we have harmed others, and sincerely ask for forgiveness, we put the people we have harmed in the position where they can forgive us, and begin to tear those blocks down. Now, it is a risk, because you will not always be forgiven. Sometimes you have broken the law so badly that the relationship cannot be repaired. Or sometimes, the person you have harmed may be putting up blocks of their own out of pain and anger.

Because God decided to take pity on us, and send us Jesus, it is now so much easier to ask forgiveness of God. We don’t save up money for any sacrificial animals. We don’t have to travel to the city to find a Temple and a priest to absolve us. All we need to do is turn to God and ask his forgiveness, and because of Jesus’ defeat of human sin, God will forgive us. Every time.

No matter how far down a path of death we have traveled, God always offers us life in exchange. And I say this at least once a year, but I think Alcoholics Anonymous gives us just a perfect example of what this transformation can look like. You acknowledge your weakness, acknowledge you need God, ask forgiveness to those you have wounded and in step eleven: “[Seek] through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.”

If we stay connected to God through prayer, we are more likely to stay in the behavioral boundaries that God desires for us and that lead to healthy and happy relationships.

And those in AA don’t go it alone. AA only works because its members work the steps in community. They have accountability through sponsors. The closest we have to sponsors in the Episcopal tradition is godparents, and I think we would do well to really claim that tradition. I don’t have an actual godparent, but Beth Wharton has acted as my god parent on more than one occasion! And Charlie doesn’t have godparents, because he was baptized in the Presbyterian church, but he’s had at least a dozen of you function that way for him. It is good for us to have church people we know so well that they can help us check in with ourselves to make sure we are on track. But that means we have to be honest with each other about what is going on in our lives!

I promise you, no one in this room has a perfect life. No matter how attractive they are. No matter what kind of car they drive. No matter how happy they seem. Everyone here struggles with something. Because it is hard to be a person! It is especially hard to be a decent person trying their best to follow God.

Just like Moses stuck by the Israelites, Jesus sticks by us. He is on our side, ready to invite us into life. He’s ready to guide us into a way of life that gives life to us and to those around us.

May we accept his invitation.

Amen.

 

 

 

Epiphany 2, Year A, 2017

We know Jesus’ debut really well right?

We definitely have his birth story down. We read it every year. If our kids are of a certain age, we may even have the pageant script memorized! We know how Jesus came on the scene.

But what about his adult debut? We know he gets baptized, of course. We could probably give a pretty clear description of how he comes across John the Baptist in the wilderness and asks to be baptized. We might even remember that the heavens open for a moment and God’s voice booms down, “This my son, the beloved. With him I am well pleased.”

But what about Jesus’ first public words in each Gospel? How does he present himself?

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus comes out of his experience of temptation in the desert, goes right to the temple, unrolls a scroll and begins to read, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me!”

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus comes out of the desert and proclaims “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

These are all dramatic proclamations of Jesus’ identity. He is telling the world who he is, and what he stands for. Today though, we aren’t reading from those Gospels. Today, we are reading from the Gospel of John.

In the Gospel of John, we get a slightly different story. Jesus’ baptism happens off-stage. We just get John’s word for it that God spoke and called Jesus his beloved. Two of John’s followers overhear John saying that Jesus is the Lamb of God. This makes them curious, so they start to secretly follow Jesus. Can you picture them staying a few paces back, occasionally slipping behind a tree when he looks around? Eventually Jesus stops, turns around, and speaks his first public words. But these words aren’t a profound declaration about who he is. He asks a question, “What are you looking for?” Another translation might be, “What are you seeking?”

These are Jesus’ very first followers. Can you imagine? He now has literally a billion followers, but once there were just two. Two curious men willing to sneak around to follow someone they knew to be of God. Two men willing to be impolite, willing to drop whatever their plans were for the day. Two men willing to be out in the wilderness listening to John the Baptist talk about God. We laugh at their bumbling attempts to tail Jesus, but they are the genesis of a movement that would change the world.

What were they seeking? What are we seeking? Why do we come here week after week to sing old songs and pray old prayers and eat the same meal we eat every single week? Do we come to be soothed by traditions that are familiar to us? Do we come to see people we love? Do we come to encounter the Divine? What are we seeking?

Andrew and his friend don’t have an answer to Jesus’ question. They ask a question in return, “Where are you staying?” Where does the Lamb of God stay? Does he rent a motel room? Stay with a friend? Does he carry a tent with him? Maybe they are really wondering how on earth the Lamb of God dwells with us. How is the presence of God able to stay here, with us? How does that even work?

Jesus invites them to “come and see”. It is his first invitation. In the other Gospels he tells his disciples to “follow me,” but here the invitation has a lower level of commitment. He responds to their immediate question. He doesn’t force them into anything. He simply invites them to see where he is staying. That initial invitation is the beginning of a huge change in the world. Andrew runs off to grab his brother, Simon. Simon, who becomes Peter, who becomes the rock of the church after Jesus’ death. In these very initial moments of Jesus’ ministry, the church is being born. By following Jesus, these disciples get to be part of history.

Jesus’ invitation to Andrew and the other disciple, still stands. “Come and see.” Whatever you are seeking: comfort, forgiveness, joy, meaning; Jesus invites you to come and see what following him will do to your life. Now, be warned, you may not get what you intend. The disciples end up being so devoted to Jesus they each ultimately died in his name.

We may not literally die from following Jesus, but we will be called to die to ourselves. For when we come and see what Jesus is up to, we see that following him isn’t that easy. When we follow Jesus we have to look at ourselves honestly. That’s not easy. When we follow Jesus we have to love other people. That’s not easy. When we follow Jesus we are supposed to put God’s priorities over our own. That’s definitely not easy.

But Jesus knows following him won’t be easy. In his book The Ragamuffin Gospel, Brennan Manning writes,

For those who feel their lives are a grave disappointment to God, it requires enormous trust and reckless, raging confidence to accept that the love of Jesus Christ knows no shadow of alteration or change. When Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy burdened,” He assumed we would grow weary, discouraged, and disheartened along the way. These words are a touching testimony to the genuine humanness of Jesus. He had no romantic notion of the cost of discipleship. He knew that following Him was as unsentimental as duty, as demanding as love.

“Come and see.” It is a simple, life changing invitation.

We all have different levels and interests in faith, but this Epiphany we invite you to “Come and see”. Wondered about contemplative prayer? You don’t have to be an expert to come. You don’t have to have prayed a minute in your life! Just come on Mondays at noon and join our prayer team. They’ll teach you what you need to know.

Curious about how it feels to worship God in a different kind of service? Come and see our Celtic service. You may encounter a part of God you’ve not experienced before.

Want to get to know God better? Come and see the bible study for Education for Ministry group? Both work to equip you for a deeper faith by educating you about what we believe about God.

There are many ways to encounter Jesus in this place. Wherever you are, he extends an invitation to you. Come and see.

It will change your life.

Amen.

Advent IV, Year A, 2016

In the Gospel of Luke we get the annunciation from Mary’s point of view. We get the Angel Gabriel and Cousin Elizabeth and the Magnificat. We tell Luke’s version of the story every year in our pageant. Luke’s version appears in Christmas cards and children’s books. But Luke’s is only one version of our Christmas story.

The Gospel of Matthew has a different story to tell.

“Mary was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.”

In the Gospel of Matthew, Mary’s annunciation happens off stage. Mary initially is a problem to be solved, not the heroine of the story.

In one of the first scenes in the Sound of Music, the nuns are gathering to express their concerns about their flighty postulant. Maria has been off spinning in circles on top of mountains again and they are tired of her shenanigans. The nuns sing, “How do you solve a problem like Maria?”

I imagine Joseph singing the same tune about Mary! How is he, a faithful Jew, going to go forward now that he has found out that his fiancée is pregnant? He knows that, according to the law, he has the right to dissolve the marriage. In fact, the correct legal thing to do would be to have a public tribunal, where Mary would be be shamed publically. She has been unfaithful, clearly—despite all this crazy talk about the Holy Spirit—but he doesn’t want to shame her, so he plans on dismissing her quietly.

But God has different plans for Joseph. God understands that Mary’s situation is a huge gift, not a problem, and that Mary is going to need Joseph to fully live out her call to be Jesus’ mother. While God has given Joseph the law as a tool, he is calling Joseph beyond the law to love and risk.

So, in the Gospel of Matthew an angel appears to Joseph, not to Mary. Just like his namesake, Joseph has an incredible dream given to him by God. And in the dream an angel appears before him and reassures him that Mary’s story is true, that this baby is of God and will save humanity. The angel tells him to marry Mary—and so Mary is able to fulfill her call.

Joseph is a vital part of Mary’s story. Joseph gives Mary the legitimacy she needs to raise Jesus. Joseph gives Mary and Jesus protection. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Joseph also gives Jesus lineage. The savior must come from the line of King David, and Joseph does. So Joseph, though not his genetic father, becomes Jesus’ legal father and bestows the line of David upon Jesus.

Joseph is the often-unheralded backdrop of Jesus’ ministry. We don’t hear much about Joseph later. This is his one really heroic act as far as we know, but in cooperating with God he allowed so much goodness to come into the world.

Joseph’s movement beyond the letter of the law to an act of great love and trust also gives us a preview of how Jesus is going to live in the world. Over and over again, Jesus shows that God gave us the law as a tool to love each other and love God better. Joseph’s story begins to give us a glimpse of who our savior is going to be.

We each have a call from God—to serve him in some particular way. And each of us needs the cooperation of our family and communities to make that call happen. I think back to Maria from the Sound of Music. She thinks her call is to be a nun, because she loves God so much. But it takes her cloistered community and a family of children to help her live out her true calling–to be a loving mother who helps a family to heal through music and has the courage they need in a time of danger.

Joseph gives us a model of how to respond when God is calling someone we love to something we don’t understand. We can get ideas about who the people we love are and what is best for them. We want to keep them safe and close to us. But sometimes God calls people to risk—to love people we wouldn’t choose, to move to parts of the world far from us, to make less money so they can serve the world. It can be tempting to want to corral and give advice and keep our people safe. But Joseph shows us a different way forward.

Joseph was willing to believe God was doing something miraculous through and with Mary. Joseph was willing to take the risk of public shame and humiliation by marrying someone who carried someone else’s child. Joseph was willing to trust that God was calling him beyond the letter of the law to an act of love and faithfulness. Joseph was willing to be Mary’s partner on a terrifying and exciting adventure, to give up his own ideas of what his future might hold so that he could serve God.

And this risk was its own end. When you list biblical heroes, Joseph isn’t at the top of the list. He never slayed a giant or led people out of Egypt. He probably died before Jesus’ public ministry, which is why we know so little about him. But he had the privilege of living with the Son of God, and watching him grow up—an experience that must have been incredibly moving. The part of Jesus’ life that Joseph affected is hidden from us, is something he and Mary kept in their hearts. And perhaps that intimacy with our Lord was enough of a reward for Joseph. As Christians, we talk about having Jesus in our hearts, but how Joseph and Mary must roll their eyes at us, for they know Jesus in a way no one else ever will, in all of his vulnerability and humanity. They taught him how to toilet and brought him to Temple for the very first time. They told him his first stories, and fed him his first loaf of bread. They taught him to love his neighbor, and gave him space to pray to his Father. They literally made a home for the living God in their hearts and in their house.

This final week of Advent, we are invited to make a home in our heart, too. We may not be called to rock the infant God to sleep, but God does choose to be born in us. God chooses to dwell in us and transform us. God chooses us. May we follow Joseph and say yes to God’s call.

Amen.

Proper 24, Year C, 2016

I was an uptight little girl. I liked order. I liked to know what was happening. I was never totally convinced my very competent parents had everything under control. And so, one of the refrains I heard over and over again as a little girl was, “Sarah, stop NAGGING.”

To nag, I learned was unattractive, annoying, and pushed people away.

What a delight, then, to find a parable in which Jesus is telling his male disciples that faith sometimes looks like a nagging woman.

In the world of the parable, there is a man in power that is so disconnected from God and God’s justice that he even says, “I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone”. He owns that he is not a good guy, certainly not interested in helping a widow. But this widow, a vulnerable woman, has been wronged. And she is not going to give up. She comes to this unjust judge over and over and over again. She nags him unrelentingly. And so, finally, he gives in. She wears him down and she wins justice.

And if you read the Bible, especially the Old Testament carefully, you’ll see this is how Biblical women operate. Women in the Bible don’t have a lot of political or social power. They can’t own property, they can’t decide where they move, their stories are dictated by the men in their lives. People without power are not always able to get things done directly. People without power have to manipulate and subvert power in unexpected ways. Biblical women working behind the scenes, on the margins, brought to bear our faith story the way we know it.

My favorite example of this is how Rebekah, mother of Jacob and Esau, manipulates her sons and her husband into making sure her favorite child, Jacob, gets the birthright. Do you remember the story? Esau is the very hairy firstborn who gives up his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew. And then Rebekah convinces Jacob to put on a goatskin to trick his blind father into thinking smooth skinned Jacob is hairy Esau. She is incredibly pushy—and God uses her to get the heir with whom he wants to work. Jacob is the chosen one, and God uses Rebekeh to make that happen.

Rebekah is not the only example. In one of the weirder stories in the Bible, God comes to kill Moses, but his wife Zipporah, intervenes by touching a piece of their son’s foreskin to Moses’ feet. Mysteriously, this makes God relent and Moses continues his work. I do not recommend trying this at home.

Years later, when the Israelites are trying to move into the Promised Land, Joshua sends two spies into Jericho to check things out. They get discovered and prostitute named Rahab hides them on a roof under some stalks of flax.

Over and over again, women in the Old Testament use their cunning to do the work of God. Biblical women are not passive or compliant. Biblical women and tough and smart and very, very creative

And Jesus holds us this kind of nagging persistence as a model of how to pray. He says, “and will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.”

When life gets hard or scary, when you’re not in control of a situation, sometimes it can be tempting to give up. But Jesus wants his followers to hold on and and keep asking for what they need. Jesus wants us to nag God in our prayers. Jesus wants us to tell God when we know something isn’t right, when we face injustice, when everything seems out of whack.

We can get the idea that to be a Christian woman means to keep our mouths shut, to be helpful, to be compliant. There are parts of the Epistles that can be read as an instruction for women not to teach or speak up in church.

But Jesus doesn’t seem to agree with that interpretation. Jesus surrounds himself with faithful men and women. In the Gospels of Mark and Matthew there is a great story of a Canaanite woman who pesters Jesus and is so good at arguing that he finally gives in and heals her daughter even though she is not Jewish. Jesus is dear friends with sisters Mary and Martha. And in all the Gospels, Mary Magdalene is the first person to see the resurrected Jesus. Jesus honors women and relates to them as individuals. Jesus knows they are an important part of God’s Kingdom.

God is still using nagging women to do his work. Mother Teresa was a notorious pain in the neck. She would berate officials until they gave her the permits or money she needed to do her work. In Ireland, working behind the scenes, mothers led the way in the peace treaty that stopped IRA violence. They persisted in building relationships across religious lines when no one thought it possible. Women in Chicago began movements to set themselves up on street corners after violent episodes to offer hugs and love to young people in order to stop cycles of violence.

These courageous women remind us that lives of faith sometimes look fierce. These women remind us that sometimes seeking God’s justice on earth can turn you into an annoying nag. Or, as the writer Rachel Held Evans would say, “A Woman of Valor.” And these women of valor are role models for each of us, whether we are men or women, to never give up on the idea that our world can look more like the Kingdom of God. Jesus knows that faith is going to be difficult for his disciples. He knows faith is difficult for us. He wants us to hang on, to stay invested, to stay in communication with God even if we are frustrated or want to give up.

So, hang in there. Keep nagging God. Keep knocking on his door. God is listening.

Amen.

Proper 22, Year C, 2016

Have any of you ever watched a live debate on a channel where they track audience response? Below the candidates talking, there are several lines representing different groups of voters. When a candidate says something the audience likes, the line moves up. When a candidate says something the audience doesn’t like, the line moves down.

I think sometimes we get fooled into thinking faith works the same way. Like, when I am praying in the car in the morning, my line goes way up! But then, if I get stuck behind someone driving slowly, that line goes way down. When I’m leading worship, up! When I’m feeling anxious about the future, the line goes down.

I have had multiple parishioners over the years approach me because they are concerned that they are not faithful enough. Perhaps at one point in their life they felt very close to God, but now they feel their faith dimming.

Anyone who has this concern is in good company. Mother Teresa struggled with this. St. John of the Cross struggled with this. Fearing the loss of faith is a tradition as old as the disciples!

Our Gospel lesson this morning is a perfect example. Jesus has just said some really challenging things to a large group of his disciples. He’s said things like, “It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble. “ Can’t you imagine everyone’s eyes getting a little bigger when they heard that? I know I would feel a little nervous!

A group of the apostles—those disciples closest to Jesus—come up to him and tell Jesus, “Increase our faith!” They don’t want to have a millstone hung around their neck! They love Jesus. They want to be faithful! They want Jesus to zap them with faith. They want a doubt proof, mistake proof shield of faith so they will be sure to be pleasing to God.

Jesus goes on to tell them this famous anecdote about the mustard seed. He tells them if they just had the tiniest amount of faith that they could stare at a tree and make it leap into the sea. Now, I will confess something. I have tried this. Periodically, I’ll just stare at an overgrown bush in my garden really hard and imagine it tearing itself from the ground. News flash: This has never once worked. While I would very much like gardening to be a Mary Poppins like experience where all the weeds dance themselves out of the ground, gardening remains hard labor. Jesus here is using a bit of hyperbole. One might even say he is being sarcastic.

The disciples miss the point. The amount of faith a person has does not matter. What matters is who the faith is in.

If your faith is in the one God, who created the universe and inhabited a human body and whose spirit dwells in our hearts—if our faith is in that God, the tiniest amount of faith is enough. Because faith is not about us being superheroes. Faith is God using ordinary people to do his extraordinary work.

Jesus drives home this point in the story of the slave and the owner. Now, this is a very first century story. This story of household slaves is a little horrifying now that we understand liberty and equality as so important to being a human being. But, at the time, wealthy people had slaves who would work for them for a set period of time, and then earn their freedom. But keep in mind that Jesus’ apostles were not wealthy. Many were Galilean fishermen. So Jesus telling this story to them is like me starting a story by telling you, “You know how when you have a maid and chauffeur and a cook. . .” You all would be rolling your eyes at me! Jesus’ point is that someone who is staff doesn’t expect to be celebrated, they just do the work they are hired to do.

Jesus tells his apostles this parable as a way of saying, “You are overthinking this faith thing. Don’t worry about your level of faith, just do the work of a faithful person.”

Most of the time, Jesus sounds like a wise philosopher, but every once in a while, Jesus sounds like an exasperated mom. “Stop whining about all the homework you have to do, and just do the homework! If you had just started the homework when you started whining, it would be over by now!”

In the same way, Jesus doesn’t seem that interested in our anxiety about faith. We are not central to our own salvation! God does all the work of salvation. We are simply recipients of the hard work of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. However we feel about our faith is irrelevant. We are beloved by God and in God’s good graces because God says so, not because we feel faithful.

When God looks at us, he sees our faith meter as completely full, because Jesus has done all the work he need to do to make it so.

So, we can relax. But relaxing does not look like sitting on the sofa the rest of our lives. Relaxing looks like living the life of faith. Breaking bread together, serving the poor, doing our best to live lives of courage and integrity, forgiving those who hurt us, seeking justice, being kind. The life of faith is not easy. Following Jesus is not easy. But we don’t have to complicate it with anxiety about how God sees us.

Whatever your current level of faith, it is enough to serve God. You don’t to wait until you know more or feel more. You can start right now. I was so impressed by our youth a few weeks ago when they were packing up the bags for the food pantry. Many of them had never done it before. We gave them only the most minimal instruction. But they knew it was an important job and so they figured it out! There were twenty people in our tiny food pantry and so there was much shuffling around and trying not to bump into each other. But no one complained, they just did the work of faith. They served God in a new way. And I was impressed by the grown ups, too. The “experts” stepped back and allowed a little chaos. They did not try to micromanage. That might have been the bravest act of all!

There are things about living a life of faith that scare or intimidate us. But our God is so big. He has done all the work for us. So when God calls us to something new in our life of faith—new friendships, new leadership roles, new life adventures—we can have confidence that we are enough, our faith is enough. We don’t have to be a bible expert to teach Sunday School. We don’t have to have perfect pitch in order to sing in the choir. We don’t have to have been a CEO to serve on the vestry. We don’t have to have gone to seminary, to talk with a friend about God. Our experience with God is enough.

Now, God is not going to leave us where we are. We will continue to grow in our knowledge, and maybe even our faith. But we won’t be any more saved or any more loved than we are right in this moment. This is the paradox of the life of faith: God has done everything for us, but God can do great things through us.

I invite you to release any lingering doubts you may have about how God feels about you. Say your confession when we get to that part of the service and then really, listen to the absolution. Nothing stands between you and God. Not even your doubt is powerful enough to get in God’s way.

And then, when you hear, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord,” go out there and get to work!   You have all you need.

Amen.

Proper 19, Year C, 2016

One of the images that burns in my mind when I think about September 11th, 2001 are the walls covered in posters of people who were missing. So many people died at once, and the crime scenes were so chaotic, that it was sometimes weeks before people confirmed whether their loved ones were dead or alive.   Walls in New York were covered in handmade posters with the faces of people who were lost. Their families did everything they could to find the people they loved so much. Some were successful right away—finding their loved ones in a hospital, and some kept on looking, but never stopped until they knew for sure what had happened.

That image has stayed with me this week, because our Gospel text is full of images of people looking, searching, for something precious. Jesus is surrounded by tax collectors and “sinners” who have heard about him and are fascinating by the things Jesus is saying about God. The Pharisees are horrified that someone who claims to be delivering messages from God is surrounding himself with tax collectors, who take advantage of the people of God on behalf of the Roman Empire and by sinners, who you know, do sinful stuff.

Jesus responds by telling the story of the shepherd, who has lost one sheep, leaves the other 99 sheep and searches until he can bring the lost sheep back to safety. He goes on to tell a story about a woman who loses a coin and turns her whole house upside down to find it. He then tells the story of the prodigal son, which the lectionary saves for another day.

There is no one so lost that they are outside the bounds of God’s grace. A couple of weeks ago, when we did the backpack blessing, I told the children that with God, they get infinite do-overs. A couple parents laughed/shot me dirty looks, because this is not particularly helpful ammunition to give a grumpy seven year old. I want to be clear that it is God who gives the do-overs, not people. No human being is willing to give us infinite do-overs. Our teachers won’t give us infinite do-overs, our siblings won’t give us infinite do-overs, even the most loving parent eventually has to draw a line. It’s not good for human beings to give us infinite do-overs. Sometimes people drawing the line on our destructive behavior is what finally gets us to make better choices.

But even if we have alienated every human being in our life, even if our parents have cut us off, God is still patiently waiting for us and as soon as we want to, will help us start a new life in God. In fact, if we are to believe Jesus’ parables, God isn’t just patiently waiting, God is turning over couch cushions looking for us. God is looking behind every hedge and under every rock. God isn’t sitting around waiting for us to get all our answers straight. God isn’t waiting for us to pull ourselves together. God is looking for us right now. Exactly the way we are. He longs for us.

There is a story out of Denmark, reported by Hanna Rosin of the NPR Podcast Invisiblia, that made me think of these parables.  This is the story of those who were lost, and how a community found them again.

One day, in the Danish town of Aarhus, police got a frantic call from parents whose teenage son had gone missing. While they started to look into the case, they got another call. And then another. In all, it turned out dozens of teenagers and young adults had disappeared. The police investigated and found that these young people had been lured by ISIS to Syria, along with thousands of other European young adults. Rather than recruit directly through mosques, ISIS recruited through social media and peer to peer recruiting. Some parents had no idea their children were being radicalized until the day their children disappeared.

Now, in the rest of Europe, police reaction to this recruiting was to get even tougher on terrorism. Countries forbid travel to Syria, threatened to take away passports, declared those who had left enemies of the state. None of this seemed to work. Young Muslim people felt so alienated that the call to travel to Syria and help build an Islamic State seemed attractive to them. They wanted to belong.

Belonging. Belonging is what the Aarhus policemen decided to use as a tactic to solve this problem. Instead of warning young people that they would get in trouble if they went to Syria, Hanna Rosin reports that:

They made it clear to citizens of Denmark who had traveled to Syria that they were welcome to come home, and that when they did, they would receive help with going back to school, finding an apartment, meeting with a psychiatrist or a mentor, or whatever they needed to fully integrate back into society.

Instead of punishing radicalization, the police officers tried to fight the roots of radicalization. They apologized to young people that had been arrested on bogus charges. They followed up with these young people and found them mentors, jobs, health care. Instead of treating them as lost causes, they treated them as people who wanted to be found.

Since 2012, 34 young people have left Aarhus for Syria. Six were killed and ten are still there. 18 have come home and met with these police officers, as have more than 300 other radicalized youth from Aarhus. Since the program started very few young people have left Aarhus. Last year, it was only one person. The engagement is working. One young man said that while he always felt like an outsider in Denmark, now he feels Danish.

In the years since 9/11 our country has gotten more and more polarized. Public discourse has almost entirely broken down. But these images of God searching out the lost give us hope. If God can look for us no matter how broken we are, if we can fully feel the joy of that kind of love and forgiveness, perhaps we can reach out to those around us in love. Rather than judging those different from us, perhaps we can seek them out, too, remind ourselves that their difference does not mean they are cut off from God’s love that flows through us.

The God we worship is a God who seeks the lost and then gathers them into community. As members of Christ’s body, we are invited into this gathering, both as the invited and the inviters. The police in Aarhus give us a great example of how that might look. Instead of cutting off troubled young people, they invited them back into their communities and made sure they had deep connections. I guarantee you, their experience was not easy. But it was important to preserving their community, and so they did it.

Today we begin/began Christian Formation, and I can’t stress how important this is for you and for your families. Christian Formation is not just about educating ourselves and our children about God. Christian Formation is an opportunity for us to connect to one another and to God. It is a change to be brought into community, and to give yourself the bonds of connection that will see you through hard times. One of our college students told his parent that he’s not sure what he believes about God, but he knows that the people of St. Paul’s love him. He knows that because he was an active participant in our life together. He knows that because he showed up and was willing to be gathered in. We hope that sense of church as a place of love will continue with him his whole life and ultimately draw him to God. We hope that every child who grows up in St. Paul’s has that same sense. We hope each adult who enters our doors feels that love.

But your clergy and staff cannot do it alone. We need you. We need your presence. We need your leadership. We are so grateful every time someone volunteers to chaperone or teach or plan a reception because each of those encounters creates another bond, another chance for people to feel connected.

If you are new to St. Paul’s, we invite you to join us in the courtyard this afternoon at 4:00. We want to form those bonds with you, too. And September 25th and October 23rd, Eric will be leading a Welcome Class including a tour of the church at the 9:30 hour. It can be hard to enter a new church. People are often embarrassed to reach out to a new person in case that person is not new! But we are committed to helping you find ways to connect, both to people and to God.

God wants every single one of us as part of his community. He wants us to be gathered in, together. He wants each of us to know him deeply. And he will keep looking for us until we do.

Thanks be to God.