Sunday, October 17, 2021

Leggo the Ego: A Sermon for Christ the King, Proper 24 Year B

 


The weirdest thing about my transitional diaconate has been the bouncing back and forth between two parishes in the same city. It's been hard to keep track of who is who, and to keep in mind what is happening in the life of the two places. I have a much better grasp of St. Barnabas, and that's not saying a lot because it seems like every week, I learn some other details that I had not known before. The one thing I do know about Christ the King is that it is a parish moving into new life in so many ways. Working with a small group of parishioners to craft the Prayers of the People has been enormously helpful as has been having a supervising priest who is generous in sharing with me about life inside this parish still recovering from the death of their founder and only pastor. 

The Gospel of Mark 10:35-45 is the primary text from which this sermon was born...with a little side of Job 38 with God's answers to Job's lamentable lament.

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James and John, the Sons of Thunder. I mean!!

Did you hear what they just said?

Did you hear what these two blessed disciples have asked of Jesus?!

“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”

“Hmm…kay…What is it you want me to do for you?”

“Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”

I mean!!

Here’s the thing: this request comes after Jesus has…one more time…told them what’s about to happen to him.

I know we didn’t read this part of the Gospel today, but I want you to hear what immediately precedes James and John’s burning desire to be on the right and the left of Jesus:

Here’s Mark’s gospel…chapter 10…verses 32-34

They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.’

OK…so that’s what they just heard. And now they make this request?

Jesus just said:  

“There’s a showdown coming. The bullies are going to give me over to the Empire, and the tyrants of the Empire are going to put me through hell, kill me, and then I will rise again.

And you want to be where?!”

(And for those of us who know how this story goes…we know that the ones who literally will hang on Jesus’ left and right at Calvary are the condemned criminals…the outcasts…the powerless of society).

This is the third time Jesus has told the disciples in Mark’s Gospel what is going to happen when they finally reach Jerusalem.

And still… these two sons of Zebedee don’t seem to be hearing what Jesus is saying. He has been trying to tell them “I’m not the kind of leader who wants political power. I am not going to march you into battle with swords and spears. I’m leading a different type of revolution.”

He’s not into domination. He’s into service to others.

“Whoever wishes to be first must serve all.”

One time when I went to Atlanta with my wife, she was attending a conference of some kind and I was tagging along for the fun of a short holiday…I decided to go visit Ebenezer Baptist Church where the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his family had served.

It was a weekday mid-morning, so there weren’t other people around. In the sanctuary of the church, they had a recording of Dr. King’s sermon, which he called “the Drum Major Instinct”, playing on repeat.

I took a seat in one of the pews and listened as his voice boomed in the space. Some parts of the recording had shown the wear and tear that happens to reel-to-reel tape and so there were some garbled moments and skips. But it was his voice and his preaching. And the scripture text was this same one we heard this morning from Mark’s Gospel.

King described that the phenomenon at play with James and John is the same Drum Major Instinct…that need to be at the front of the parade…that has plagued all of us forever and a day.

So while we may want to scoff at these sons of Zebedee, if we were really honest with ourselves, we are just as likely to succumb to this need of our ego.

The ego expresses need when we see the advertisement that tells us how our lives will be so much better with this or that product.

Our ego is what drives us to want to be better than somebody else. It’s the ego that leads to the need to dominate other people.

On a much bigger scale…it’s what keeps the nations battling to be the top dog.

It’s all part of that Drum Major Instinct.

But King also pointed out that Jesus didn’t condemn that instinct. Rather Jesus praises that instinct…if it is reordered and redirected toward service.

The mark of true greatness is not about us having the nicest house and living in the best part of town.

True greatness is rewarded and recognized in the way we strive for justice for the disinherited…

the way we feed the hungry…

the way we treat people struggling to make ends meet.

That’s what Jesus wanted James and John to understand.

“Follow me into being a revolutionary for peace and love and justice and your greatness will be seen in the eyes of those who are seeking kindness and equity.”

That is the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves.

I’ve been talking as if James and John were just arrogant fools who didn’t get the message the first time

or the second

or third time about what it means to be on Jesus’ left and right in glory.

But what if they did understand it?

What if their request is born out of a place of realizing that he’s serious about the confrontation he is about to have with the Empire in Jerusalem?

What if James and John aren’t making their request out of arrogance, but out of fear or need for security?

This is something a commentator raised and I think it’s an interesting thought and so much of it depends on how we read this story.

Again…if we look at what’s in that short section before this exchange with James and John…we read that Jesus and the disciples are “on the road heading to Jerusalem” and Jesus is “walking ahead of them and they were amazed…and those who followed were afraid.” (Mark 10:32b) 

If James and John are followers and are afraid, what is that fear?

Are they wanting to flank Jesus, maybe be his loyal protectors against viciousness and cruelty in Jerusalem? Provide Jesus security and in turn secure themselves?

I’ve seen this behavior before.

There are people who feel God is in danger and they must defend God against whatever perceived attack might be happening against the Almighty.

But I hope we have seen in the reading from Job, God is quite capable of handling all complaints and anger and vitriol any one of us might spew at God at any point in time.

I have enough confidence that my Creator is a lot bigger and stronger and infinitely more patient, powerful, and wise than me and as Proverbs says, there’s nothing new under the sun, so God can take care of God’s self.

But fear and that need for security is a big motivator for us. And just like arrogance…it can deceive us into taking actions and making decisions that ultimately keep us from fully living into our baptism to follow Jesus.

Fear of others is what leads to gated communities.

Fear of others is what keeps us from providing public transportation.

Fear is what keeps us in these polarized places of us and them.

Fear is what picks up a gun to settle an argument. 

But fear is the opposite of faith. And the one phrase that gets repeated over and over in scripture, in both the Old and New Testaments: “Do. Not. Be. Afraid.”

Once more…Jesus tells John and James and us: true greatness is not to be found by sealing ourselves off from one another. True greatness comes in seeing each other and serving each other as children of One God.

As Dr. King noted in his sermon…the best part about this type of servanthood is that doesn’t require special training, or extra schooling.

And I will add one does not need to be ordained.

Ordained leaders can be icons that you look to for an example of service. But we are all called by Jesus to serve each other and our community with a heart full of grace and a souls fueled by love.

As we prepare to enter our new church home downtown what does service look like for Christ the King Episcopal Church?

What are the needs we can meet?

Who are the disinherited we can invite in?

How can we live into our Baptismal Covenant as we ‘strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being?’ (BCP, 305).

May we resist the temptation of arrogance or fear as we seek out and serve those looking for loving-kindness.

And let the church say…

Amen.

 

Monday, October 11, 2021

Live Free, Happy, and Out

 



It has been more than 30 years since I "came out," first to myself, then gradually to my family and friends.  In fact, I think I have been out so long that I'm not sure where the closet is any more. And I smile and celebrate when I see queer folks much younger than me who have no problem being demonstratively queer in ways that I would not and, because of the stigma, could not be when I was their age and struggling with my sexual identity in the 1980s. 

Still, I know that there are places in this country and many around the world where being an L, G, B, T, Q, or any variation on those will lead to ostracism, or even death. So for those of us who can be out, hooray! And keep your light shining for those who still live in the shadows yearning to leave their closets. They need to see you and know that, one day, they can be with you.

A prayer for this National Coming Out Day:

O God of love, we give thanks for our lives, for our loves, for our spirits set free from the bondage of pretending to be someone or something we are not; continue to walk along side us, march with us when we seek justice, cry with us when we face opposition, and keep our hearts rejoicing in the knowledge that we are your beloved queer children, and set us as lights for others still seeking to find their true selves. In your Holy Name we pray. Amen. 



Sunday, October 10, 2021

Letting Go of Attachments: A Sermon for St. Barnabas, Proper 23B

Christ and the Young Rich Ruler by Heinrich Hofmann

There are things you are taught in seminary, such as theology and Biblical scholarship and research. 

But they couldn't prepare me for some of the challenges of parish ministry, especially strong opinions about koi ponds. St. Barnabas has had a koi pond on its property for more than 20 years, and its been both a source of peace and vexation. Our vestry has reached the end of its rope with the necessary care of the koi, but it is a feature of a garden that was built in memory of a beloved Sunday School teacher. There was never an official dedication, and instead, another beloved member with a yen for the outdoors and landscaping paid for and designed the pond herself. This week has been spent with our vestry clerk researching all of this information and me searching for any family member who might be able to fill in the history, and drafting a letter to the congregation (which now needs to be rewritten given all of our new information uncovered from the past church records) seeking help from anyone who would like to make "Koi Care" their ministry. All this while crafting another letter for kicking off a stewardship campaign. And writing a sermon, interestingly, reflecting on attachments that get in the way of our commitment to living into our call to Christian service and mission. Hmmmm....

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 Main text: Mark 10:17-31

“How hard will it be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”

If we look closely at this statement, we see that it is not worded as a question. In fact, in our text from the N-R-S-V translation, this was a declarative statement from Jesus, complete with an exclamation point.

“How hard will it be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”

Of course, Jesus then answers this statement with another famous declaration, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” In other words, it is impossible for a rich person.

Now, it can be easy I’m sure for many of us who don’t have the fortunes of an Elon Musk or a Jeff Bezos to stay focused on Jesus chastising the super rich. It’s always so much more fun to see Jesus scolding others and not realizing that his imperative is directed at us.

So I would like to invite us to think a little bit more about this passage…and the meaning here of “wealth” and “rich.” I’m not talking about money and stock portfolios.

Rather “wealth” and “rich” could mean anything that we take as “things,” the comforts of life living in the western world.

This story is often referred to as “The Rich Young Man.” That would be true if we were reading Matthew’s account (Matt 19:20). If our lesson came from Luke, this character would be called “a certain ruler” (Luke 18:18).

But unlike Matthew’s “young” man or Luke’s even more lofty “ruler,” Mark’s version tells us that this is “a man.” We learn throughout the exchange that this “man” is someone who obviously has some level religious devotion and clearly has a lot of possessions; hence he’s labeled “rich.”

I think it’s important that Mark hasn’t established that upfront. Here…he’s “a man.”

“A guy”

“A dude”

He’s more “one of us” than a “one of them.”

This man comes running (I love Mark! Everything is immediate, fast-paced!) This man has something singular on his mind, something  important to ask. And he wants to put his matter before this incredible rabbi he’s been hearing about, and so nearly breathless he asks,

“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life.”

Wow! What a bold question!

What. Must. I. Do?

What feat of great strength or extraordinary effort must I put forward to gain favor and enter the kingdom of God?

The question reveals so much about this man. Somehow, he has gotten the impression that eternal life with God requires him to put a spotlight on some feat or skill that proves his worthiness.

And he thinks that flattery will buy him an instant answer, maybe one that confirms his self-identity propped up by his many possessions.

Jesus decides the best course is to begin at the beginning.

“Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.”

Jesus is letting this guy know, “I’m not some post-doctoral scholar here who’s gonna drop pearls of wisdom on you, buddy. And if you came here for a simple ‘to do’ list for eternal life, you’re in for a rude awakening.” He then gives him the various commandments that this man ought to know and be adhering to in his life.

And as one commentator notes…Jesus specifically highlights a commandment that is not explicit…telling the man “You shall not defraud.” Definitely a zinger and questioning the way this man came to be so rich in the first place.

The man clearly is not satisfied with this answer. His self-centered desire is for Jesus to give him some sort of silver bullet, or a golden nugget that will answer his question.

The man puts up a protest.

“I have kept all these since my youth.”

“Come on, Jesus! I’ve done all the stuff, but I don’t get it. Nothing is different. When I am going to get eternal life?!”

Then Jesus looks at him. He sees him from the top of his head to his toes. And---this one is only in Mark’s Gospel—Jesus loves him.

“Love” here is not a romantic or sensual love. A quick look at the Greek reveals that this “agape” love is a spiritual love and God’s desire for us to be in right relationship with God and neighbor. Jesus can see that there are “things” getting in the way for this man.

Buddhism labels these “attachments.” And in a similar way, this man has so many “attachments” that he can’t even really live into the commandments. And this is when Jesus gives the man the only answer that will satisfy his question.

You must give up all your attachments, your things, those items that you believe define you. Give them away to the poor, the ones who are the have-nots. Once you have let go of all of that, you will be free and then you must follow me.

Walk my path.

Care for others.

Help the helpless and the disinherited.

Challenge those who will not do right by widows and children.

This, dear friend, is the answer to your pressing question about eternal life.

And that’s when we see the true colors of this man. In his free will, he turns and sulks and walks away.

He has too much. And he can’t let go.

Even if it means helping someone who has nothing.

Are we really surprised?

As I was contemplating this passage, I was reminded of a phrase in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book, “The Cost of Discipleship.” Bonhoeffer was the Lutheran scholar and pastor who was killed by the Nazis for plotting to murder Hitler during World War II. He says the call to discipleship comes down to a two-pronged statement about obedience.

“Only a person who believes is obedient, and only a person who is obedient believes.” (D. Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship).

If we are going to follow Jesus and respond to His call to be disciples of his word and his mission…be “obedient” … we must first let go of our attachments and making excuses for why we need this or that to happen for us to really believe.

There is such a temptation to set conditions…expectations…before we make a real commitment to live and follow the teachings of Jesus.

We keep wanting to have a God who conforms to our image, confirms our biases, meets our demands. Those with means can fall prey to the false belief that somehow having wealth shows how much God loves us.

Not to get too far down a rabbit trail here, but I hear a lot of that in Job’s bitter complaint we heard this morning. We can hear in his words the sorrow of one who had possessions…and can’t understand why bad things have now happened to him.

And yet, even though Job is complaining (and if we had heard the horrible advice of his friends about his particular calamities, we’d understand why he was so distressed at this point), he demonstrates a greater faith than this man in Mark’s gospel.

Unlike the rich man, Job, now having nothing, is oddly free.

He is free of “things” that prevent him from turning to God, even in bitterness, to make himself heard. The mere fact that he can do this shows that he has, despite everything, remained obedient to God. Job turns toward God; the rich man turns away.

The call to us in discipleship is first to be willing to see how our “things” …our wealth…those identities and possessions that make us “rich” …can get in the way of us having a real relationship with Jesus. When we hold onto “things,” we are not really able to follow Jesus into the places that He needs us to go or meet the people and problems of the world he desires for us to address.

For Jesus, the entry into eternal life…is not an academic issue or something requiring a focus group.

As followers of Jesus…eternal life is experienced when we let Jesus transform our hearts…and see our true mission is to care for others, treating one another with respect and dignity.

How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.

How hard it will be for those with attachments to “things” to be free enough to be in a life-giving, life-affirming relationship with Jesus.

How much easier it will be for us to feel the joy of eternal life when we make that first difficult step to stop holding back pieces of ourselves from God and hanging on to our old ways and attachments.  

How much richer our lives will be when we allow ourselves to be transformed by God’s deep love for us and this planet, so that we can offer that same love to each other.

 

Monday, September 27, 2021

A Feline Farewell

Reunited after three years of seminary
 


Valkyrie “Kyrie” Gage aka Rivkah bat Chava v’ Shoshanah

July 1, 2002-September 23, 2021

I am heartbroken to post that our beloved sweet and very loving cat, Kyrie, has crossed over the rainbow bridge to be reunited with her dog pal, Sammie, her true love, Boris, and to find her Nana Gage, who she adored and liked boys as much as she did. She probably does not want to see her brother Ziggy, so we won’t go there and the sister she never met, Pepita, wouldn’t want to meet her.

We “poached” Kyrie at Railroad Square one night during a run of the fall Faust cabaret. Her G-dmother, Dr. Sherri Kasper, was in the cast and helped to capture this tiny gray kitten that chased a bug into our dressing room. Her Aunt Beatrice and Uncle “Mr. Boy” Matt took her to our house after we were introduced to this little creature, pounding her paw through the dilapidated beer box that was serving as her makeshift cage. Her feisty nature was the signal that we had found a new cat.

Kyrie started out quite feral. She did not want us to talk to her or touch her and if we picked her up, she would try to swat us in the lips. Gradually, once she was over the insult of having been removed from Railroad Square and provided an 1100-square foot house with beds and chairs and other luxuries, she allowed the “tall one” (who would later become “Christian mommy” or “Shabbos Goy”) to interact with her. I would sit outside to do crosswords, and she would wander around the yard and then eventually sit with me and let me touch her.

It was only after we made the fatal mistake of adopting Ziggy, a lanky orange boy cat who was the perfect annoying little brother, that she learned to be truly affectionate. She saw how Ziggy would get things because he loved to sit in our laps and ride on my shoulders. Shortly before his sudden death, Kyrie came to me one night, let out a mournful meow (she normally just trilled) and jumped in my lap, allowing me to pet her for an hour. She wanted me to know that she knew how to be a lap cat, too, and that I was forgiven for bringing Ziggy into the fold. Following his death, she became very affectionate toward both of us, and enjoyed when I would carry her around the house in my arms or on my shoulder and let her look at the world from a higher angle.

When she was young, Kyrie liked to have me roll rocks down the driveway so she could chase them. She was very good at batting them down and loved to hop like a rabbit when she got particularly excited. She was an excellent huntress, and once treed a raccoon. For a time, she would play with a miniature dachshund named Patty. Patty’s owner would bring her over to the house and the two of them would do sideway ninja runs across the back of the furniture in the living room and wrestle and tumble around on the floor.

When Isabelle converted to Judaism, I made a promise that we would raise Kyrie to be Jewish. This was in response to the question that had been posed to Isabelle about how she planned to “keep a Jewish household living with a non-Jew (aka me).” Kyrie enjoyed sitting with her “Jewish mommy” when she would listen to practice recordings of the Temple Israel cantor as Isabelle was learning her Torah portion. Kyrie never quite understood rules of kashrut, believing that the rules did not apply to “mountain lions” (she was small, but believed herself to be bigger). For years, Isabelle made Kyrie’s cat food to counter all of her peculiar ailments that we suspected might have a connection to her diet. This might account for her longevity.  

She always seemed to enjoy listening to the sounds of Hebrew…and would often walk out on me during Christian services the minute we started to recite the Apostles or Nicene Creed or the Lord’s Prayer. She never understood, nor did she appreciate, my absence to attend seminary. She finally made her displeasure known when she peed all over my first-year notebooks (thankfully, she waited until AFTER I took the General Ordination Exams!)

Her decline started about two weeks after her 19th birthday. We had lots of suggestions of what might be happening, but in the end, it is unknown exactly what made her go downhill so quickly. And this last week has been very difficult to watch her lose all interest or ability to eat. As hard as it was to make the decision to have her put down, it is the best decision.

We are going to miss her very expressive little thumb tail, her trilling which in these last few years developed into full-throated meows, and how she was always wanting to greet us and anyone who visited. If they happened to be men, well, that was all the better in her world. Isabelle and I are grateful to Sherri and The Animal Hospital at Southwood.

Zichronah livracha. May her memory be for a blessing.

 

 

Sunday, September 26, 2021

The Need for Prayer: A Sermon for Pentecost 21B at St. Barnabas

 


This was a terrible week in my life. A post to follow this one will explain it a little more, but I had to finally say "good bye" to my beloved cat, Valkyrie "Kyrie" Gage, who was one of the most loving animals I have had in my life. It broke my heart to leave her to go seminary. And I was just happy that she hung on long enough to have a couple months together once I got home. That said, I simply could not wrap my mind around the Gospel for this week, and I had to prepare to lead a vestry retreat the Saturday before at St. Barnabas, so this sermon had to be written in a day and be what it was going to be. Certainly, I needed a lot of prayer; I imagine others did, too. And as I joked, "If you want to talk to me about cutting off your hands or gouging out your eyes, we can do that at another time." 

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One of my friends and mentors once told me years ago that one should always preach on the Gospel. That’s the only text preachers should focus on for their sermons. Fortunately, I went to seminary and my Homiletics professor…Homiletics is the preaching course…told us we do NOT have to preach on the Gospel every Sunday. In fact, she encouraged us to break away from that mode of thinking that the Gospel is the only text we need to hear about. Thanks be to God for that! Much as I love all four of Gospels for different reasons, and much as I can get into Mark and would love to one day stage a dramatic reading of Mark’s Gospel because it so action-packed and dramatic, I found myself this week reflecting on and being deeply drawn to our reading from the Letter of James.

As just a little bit of context about this reading: for some reason, the committee that assembled our lectionary readings decided to hit the fast-forward button…and skipped us past the first half of James Chapter Five that set the stage for why James has chosen to end this wisdom letter with a statement about prayer. Briefly, what we have not heard this morning is that in the preceding 12 verses of Chapter Five, James calls out the rich and those who exploit laborers and then turns his attention to the ones being oppressed reminding them not to lose hope in their place of suffering.

And so we start with today’s reading:

 “Are any among you the suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.” (James 5:13-14).

Prayer is our avenue for being in dialogue with God…both with and without words. We tend to pray at times of suffering or illness, and James is reminding us here that at times of joy and celebration, we should also pray with music and songs. Lift up our voices in Hallelujahs for the birth of a child…a new life-giving work opportunity…recognition of accomplishments. Those are the times to sing to the Lord a new song…rejoice in God and call upon God’s name!  In fact there’s the old adage that those who sing songs of praise are praying twice.

Music can be a helpful way to enter prayer because it speaks to the right side of the brain, that center of our creative activity, and doesn’t require words. It can be a potent and powerful way to pray with those who have suffered a stroke or are living with Alzheimer’s slowly stealing their memories. More than once when I was doing my chaplaincy at Hebrew Home in Rockville, Maryland, I found the best way to communicate with residents was to sing with them. There was one African-American woman who had had a stroke. She didn’t talk much at all, but would nod her head yes or no, or she might tell me “my back” and then make a face to indicate that her back was hurting. I decided to try music with her. And I figured a woman of her age, she was in her 80s, I couldn’t go wrong with suggesting I play some Mahalia Jackson singing “Precious Lord.” On this particular visit, I pulled up the YouTube video on my phone, and we started listening to Ms. Jackson’s soulful rendition. I looked at this resident and sang along with the recording. And this lady, who had not said much at all on my other visits, joined with me in singing along with the video. We became our own duo in her room, praying for God to take our hand and help us stand.

 I have been talking about songs of praise and thanksgiving, and music can sometimes be the simplest way for some to express themselves when they are feeling too broken inside for words. It can also aid us when we feel our prayer life is dry.  

I’m talking about those times when we pray and we just aren’t sure that God is listening. The 16th-century Carmelite mystic John of the Cross termed this the “Dark Night of the Soul.” We’re in the Dark Night of the Soul times when we pray but feel nothing in return. Our prayers may feel like “Blah,” just rote and mechanical.

Or maybe we are in anguish, and we pray but we still are left feeling restless and hopeless and we wonder if we’ve been abandoned. The psalms are full of such prayers, including the one Jesus quoted from the cross, Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”

For John of the Cross, this is not a time to believe that prayer is worthless. Rather this is the time when our faith is actually experiencing a growth spurt because it is being put to the test. When we are in the Dark Night, the demand of us is the ability to develop patience, which requires sometimes slowing down, relaxing our minds, and breathing through the time of trial we are in. It is a time of letting go of the attachment that we will get an answer to our prayers. We tend to want to fashion God not only in our own image, but to meet our own ends and our own desires and to do it right now. John of the Cross, and his fellow Spaniard Teresa of Avila encourage us instead to not be attached to a particular outcome of our prayers. The attachment becomes a distractor and even blocks us from having a real dialogue with God. Developing an openness gives us the chance to move through the darkest parts of the Dark Night to discover the awe and wonder of God’s constant presence around us.

Now in letting go of a fixed outcome…we are not going to satisfy that 21st century need to have God immediately text back a thumbs up or smiley emoji.

But God may show up to us in the face of a friend or even a stranger treating us with love, kindness and dignity when we’re under stress. Or simply in being able to get a good night’s sleep and wake up with a clearer mind to put toward whatever had been weighing us down the many nights before. That may be the beginning of a prayer being answered.

If individual prayer is good, then bringing our individual selves together in community to pray corporately for the needs of our world and others is especially important. Giving voice and acknowledgement to what is happening around us and placing that before God serves as the reminder that there is a Source of strength, courage, compassion and mercy that is greater than ourselves.

Our corporate prayers don’t make things happen. By lifting up our hearts and minds to God in prayer, putting our intentions out there in a Godward direction, we are trusting God to hear us and meet us. And in making this a communal activity, it draws us closer to one another, and creates bonds that are deeper than the superficial and quirky things that make us different. And in our world today, where there just seems to be so much anger and strife, putting aside our differences to pray may be a way for us bring the temperature down and start to see each other again as children of God.

One thing in the James letter that I think needs to be addressed is the talk of “sin” in connection with being “sick.” In this case, we’re seeing that James was a man of his First Century time when disciples believed that people became physically blind or disabled because they “sinned.” I think we now know that disability is not a sin and I also trust we know that microbes that cause viruses infect people…no matter who the people are or how often they pray. But if we look at this in another way… when people are sick or ill…it does result in a separation from their church community, and that can feel like a separation from God. And the most common short-hand definition of “sin” is “separation from God.” This is one of the reasons it is so important for us to remain informed about who in our membership is not here because of an illness. 

Physical and social isolation has been such a constant since March 2020 that we might have become numb to the pain it causes. And this separation brings shame on the person who is sick as if they have control over a virus or any ailment that has got them down. This is why James says it is so important for the elders of the church to go out and meet the person at their sick bed. Elders can mean clergy, but it can also mean longtime members or others who have a leadership role in the congregation. This past week, I have seen evidence that this is happening at some level in our own community with texts and emails alerting me to a problem with one of our members. And it seems there is an interest in making this even more a part of what we do here.

Finally… bringing people back who have gone away. James maintains helping the person who has wandered off from the community not only helps the wanderer; it will “cover a multitude of sins.” This odd ending to the letter leaves room for some reflection for us. Lots of people have wandered off because COVID hit and caused a lot of fear and caution and maybe even confusion about being open. We are open. But how will people know that? And how will they know how they will be received when they come back? The only way for them to know that we’re thinking of them is to invite them back to be part of our community.

A community that worships and prays together is one that grows stronger, healthier and more vibrant. And praying helps to shape what we believe and demonstrate in our interactions with others out in the world. May the love of God…Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, grow in you through regular dialogue with God in prayer.  

 

 

 

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Keeping Anxiety at Bay: A sermon for 20B at Christ the King, Valdosta



Last Thursday, Christ the King closed on their new building at 110 McKey Street in Valdosta. The location is only a few blocks from where they used to be on E. Central Avenue. It is a big deal for this congregation. Their founder and only rector, Stan White, passed away at the end of December last year during COVID (although he did not die of COVID). It has been a process of grieving, which involved letting go of their old building, and worshipping in a borrowed space from Christ Episcopal Church across from the Valdosta State campus. They also discovered that they have a lot of work to do to tighten up the accounting practices of the parish, much of which has already been started under their interim. So, this unusual parish, known for their mass reception into the Episcopal Church (the whole congregation had been under the Assembly of God Church when the Rev. White took them en masse into the Episcopal Church in the late 1980s) has been through a lot. And they're about to embark on some more steps in their journey. 

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Before I get into the Scripture we just heard, I want us to take some time with the words from our Collect of the Day…that prayer which basically summarizes all our intentions for this Sunday…

“Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now while we are placed among things passing away to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God, for ever and ever, Amen.”

These days…I think it’s pretty tough to keep our minds on the heavenly…and not be anxious about the things that are earthly.

We are still living with the pandemic and COVID variants and that has made people more anxious and irritable.

Racism still persists.

Classism and social inequity continue.

And there are lots and lots of other earthly concerns that pull our minds away from things “heavenly.” Jobs, mortgages, football…(I know that’s another religion, but still…)

I have friends who are sensitive to the seasons and with the Fall Equinox coming…they know that summer is over…we’re heading toward the months when it gets darker earlier in the day…and that affects their mood.

The church has its own earthly anxieties as vestries grapple with what to do about budgets and property. Fortunately, for us, we now have a new building and we are taking the steps toward calling a new rector. That’s an exciting prospect filled with opportunities…that may also cause some anxiety. The way “things always have been” may need to change. The new means sometimes having to let go of some of the old. And so it is a good reminder that we have here in the collect that even as things happening around us may cause us to feel anxious and as though the earth beneath our feet is rolling and rocking like we’re in an earthquake, that’s the time to double-down on our need to look to God…fix our hearts and minds and souls on the Source of Life and Love to keep us from falling apart.

          As l look at our readings for today, I can definitely see anxiety written all over the disciples’ reactions in our Gospel.

It’s not surprising, really, that they might be feeling anxious. They are now on their way to Jerusalem, and Jesus has told them, yet again, that there is going to be a clash between him and the ruling authorities…he is going to be killed…and he is going to rise again. They don’t get it. Or maybe they don’t want to believe it. And they have already seen how Jesus dressed down Peter for protesting this prediction about Jesus’ fate and none of them want to be called out in the same way.

Still, the thought of this leader, this Messiah, not understanding that he’s their knight in shiny armor who’s going to burn it all down and save Israel from the iron fist of the Roman Empire is causing them to be anxious.

I mean, if Jesus dies, what happens next? What are they going to do? Who is going to be in charge and take his place? And they start murmuring with each other. Comparing notes on who has the greater status.

Is it Peter, the extrovert who called it correctly that Jesus is the Messiah?

“No way!” say James son of Zebedee and his brother John: he called us the Sons of Thunder, that makes us the greatest.

“Oh, doubtful!” scoffs Thomas, “I’m analytical and loyal. I’m the greatest!”

“You’re all wrong!” chimes in Andrew. “Fisher of people. I’m bringing ‘em in! That makes me the greatest!”

 The jockeying for position…the desire to be the most important…the first…that’s all such a product of the human ego. Our fragile egos crave the attention…and that’s what the world has taught us to seek. We all want that blue ribbon, the first place award and all the accolades and recognition and power and prestige.

And if someone else gets rewarded? If someone else is the winner? That’s when our ego starts to become anxious…and quiver and shake and worry: what becomes of me if this other person gets the recognition?

You may have heard the acronym FOMO: Fear of Missing Out. Missing out on the next best thing or being the first to get the latest gadget that is supposed to make us happier. The FOMO phenomenon contributes to our dis-ease and keeps us from living into the present moment.

That is so much of what is going on with disciples as they bicker over this idea of “Who is the greatest.”

Jesus is aware that something is going on with the disciples…kind of in the same way that mom’s have eyes in the back of their head, y’know. And that’s when he, just like a mom, wants to know “What all were you arguing about?” He doesn’t really have to ask because he already knew what was going on.

They still have not understood that he is not a Messiah of Might and Fight but a Prince of Peace and Unconditional Love.

And he knew that, once again, he was going to have to use an illustration to make his point. And so he takes up a child in his arms.

“You see how I am holding this child? How I am welcoming this child? This child who depends upon the kindness of strangers? To align yourselves with the vulnerable and not worry about being the most popular or powerful…that’s what I’m talking about when I talk about greatness.”

This is an important contrast as Jesus and the disciples head on their way to Jerusalem for a confrontation with an anxiety-producing Empire, a system which props up fearful men such as Pontius Pilate to govern using every means necessary to thwart anyone who dares to challenge the status quo.

For Jesus, true power comes in throwing their lot in with the children, widows, those on the margins…the least and the lowest. Welcoming them and serving them and lifting them up is the sign of real greatness.

What a wonderful image and message for us to embrace here at Christ the King!

As we move back into the downtown area into our new place that stands along buildings with ballrooms and the Chamber of Commerce and the Court House…our presence will serve as a reminder that amidst all these earthly powers sits at the heart of the city a sanctuary of compassion and mercy. A house of worship for all comers.

A place where greatness is derived from our service to the people who are looking for kindness and seeking to find some peace.

Our place can serve as an oasis where—as one of our former presiding bishops once said—those seeking Christ can “fast on fear…and feast on faith” (++A. Lichtenberger), a faith which encourages thoughtfulness and stewardship of the gifts we’ve been given.

I hope we’re all excited about where we’re going…even if we may have some lingering fears about the changes it will bring. Because God is still working God’s purpose out as we move into this next phase.

May we have the courage to lay down our own anxieties as we trust in the Spirit’s guidance and welcome this next step in the journey. And let the church say….Amen.

 

Monday, September 13, 2021

"Who Do You Say That I Am?" A Sermon for St. Barnabas Proper 19B

 

 

 


I don't really think this one needs much of an introduction. This was the day after the world marked the 20th anniversary of the 9-11 attack on the World Trade Center, Pentagon, and the failed attempt to hit the U.S. Capitol. I made no mention of it in the sermon. We did remember the event in our Prayers of the People.

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Prayer: Almighty God, give us wisdom to perceive you, intellect to understand you, diligence to seek you, patience to wait for you, vision to uphold you, a heart to meditate on you, and life to proclaim you. Amen.-St. Benedict

         “Who do you say that I am?”

Before we get going too deep into what I am going to offer this morning, let’s just take a moment to pause and reflect on that question.

“Who do we say Jesus is?”

If we think about Jesus…what are the words we use to describe him?

What is the mental image we have of him?

How do we relate to him?

I think the way we answer that question will speak to the how we see ourselves as we live and move and interact with others out there in the world.

I had this question posed to me once. It was asked rather pointedly, “Who is Jesus Christ?”

The person who asked it was a bishop from a state south of here…and it was asked, as I said, in a very pointed way.

My honest answer and the one that I stand by to this day was, “Jesus Christ is the greatest liberator from oppression ever.”

My vision of Jesus is the one who breaks down closed doors, flings open our minds, enters into the dark corners of our hearts and brings us light and walks with us during our times of trouble to remind us not to let our fears overshadow our joys.

Such a Jesus helps me to feel connected to all that is around me and know that even what I see is only a fraction of the greater picture.  Whether it’s other people or the natural world there is always so much more…more than fine gold and sweeter than honey in the comb.

“Who do you say that I am?”

We hear Peter’s answer to that question.

Peter, the extrovert, the one who can hardly contain himself when the light bulb goes off in his head, we can imagine him grinning with almost a raptured look of awe and wonder when he announces, “You are the Messiah!”

Messiah, for Peter and the rest of disciples, is the one who is going to restore Israel’s glory and set them free from being under the thumb of the Roman Empire.

It’s an interesting side note that this whole scene takes place in Caesarea Philippi, which was one of the centers of power of the occupying Romans in Galilee. In the looming shadow of Roman Empire…here’s Jesus asking his followers…the powerless outsiders…who do you say that I am?  

Peter gets it half-right that Jesus is the Messiah, but he gets it all wrong about the type of Messiah Jesus has been called to be. None of the disciples…despite having traveled all throughout the countryside with him... have picked up on the simple stuff.

Jesus has not used force in any of his interactions, not even when he was exorcising demons and certainly not when he was healing a hemorrhaging woman or the deaf or the blind. Their expectation was that a Jewish Messiah was going to lead an uprising, taking names and kicking some proverbial Roman butt.

But that’s not the way of “The Way” of Jesus.

Jesus is about a different revolution…about speaking words of love and wisdom, challenging the authority to get back to the basics of caring for the poor, liberating people from those habits and patterns that keep them captive, giving them eyes to see the people around them and freeing them from oppression.  I can almost hear the Beatles tune…”You say you want a revolution…well, you know, we all want to change the world…but when you talk about destruction, don’t you know that you can count me out…”

Because of that…because he was using a non-violent way of living and being and speaking…Jesus knew he was going to face opposition. Authority doesn’t like being questioned…ever. And tyrants don’t want troublemakers, especially if they are making what the late John Lewis called “good trouble.”

He probably didn’t know that his first opponent would be the eager beaver Peter! Peter gets angry and scolds Jesus for not being down with the revolution plan. And Jesus throws it back in Peter’s face: get behind me Satan! We aren’t going to change the world with more violence! The divine struggle is in the heart, in the soul. Will you love and see each other as beloved children of God?  And if we’re going to believe that Love really wins, Peter, will you do as I do? Go into those places where people are hurting and feel forgotten to remind them that they are never alone, and that no outside force has the power to define who they are in the eyes of God?

After putting Peter straight, Jesus turns to the crowd and offers the greatest challenge: if you want to be one of my followers, you need to take up your cross and follow where I’m going.  Into a confrontation in Jerusalem which pits the power of Love against the purveyors of Fear. This is the call of discipleship.  “Who do you say that I am?” leads to “Will you follow me?” This invitation to follow as Jesus’ disciple has echoed over time and space to reach us today, two thousand years later.

We are commanded to follow him into places that will confront our comfort zones.

Challenge systems that oppress and demean people of color,

people who are low-income,

people who are disabled.

Ask the questions of why some places are labeled “good neighborhoods.”

Look around and say, “How can I make this a better, more beloved community?”

Right now, our Jewish relatives are in the midst of what are called the Days of Awe, the period between Rosh Hashanah and the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. These are days in which Jews throughout the world are called on to do some self-examination and to consider the path they are on and what things they may have done or left undone that they need to account for to have their names written in the Book of Life.

I think a question such as “who do you say that I am” requires us to do our own examination and consideration of what it really means to choose life. As we ponder the question it should lead us to yet-another: who am I as a Christian, a self-proclaimed follower of Christ?

How do I live into the path of discipleship?

Have I misunderstood the expectations of what it is to be a follower?

Do I think Jesus is a nice guy, quiet and docile?

Or is Jesus a radical seeker of justice and a social reformer or something else altogether?

Does he only come out to play with me for an hour on Sunday morning and the rest of the week I just stick him back on the shelf?

However each of us answers this question of “Who do you say that I am” we are probably like Peter only getting the half of it.

The discovery of knowing who Jesus is comes as God keeps working out God’s purpose in us with new people, new encounters, new experiences, new life turns…and not being afraid to grow and change.

Perfect love casts out fear.  Stay strong. Keep the faith. And continue to explore and dialogue with Jesus:

“Who do you say that I am?”