Sunday, August 29, 2021

Living Our Faith in Troubled Times: A Sermon at St. Barnabas, Proper 17 Year B


This past week has been really terrible in the world. 

The United States withdrawal from Afghanistan has been fraught with danger and bombings that killed civilians and soldiers outside the Kabal airport. The COVID Delta variant is spreading like wildfire, especially in Florida and South Georgia. Parents in Florida actually had to bring a lawsuit against the Governor because he has been threatening to withhold education funds from school districts that mandate mask wearing inside public schools. Friday, a judge in Leon County found in favor of the parents because Governor Ron DeSantis does not have the constitutional authority to override the decisions made by local school boards. And the rare, and present, danger of COVID breakthrough infections claimed the life of my friend and longtime civil rights and social justice advocate Agnes Furey. As one might imagine, the shock and pain and hurt of losing a person who lived her life as close to the Gospel as any person I have ever known devastated many in Tallahassee and only further upped the anger and resentment that is boiling over about people who are willing remaining unvaccinated against COVID.  

In a climate of anger and division the Sunday lectionary readings gave me something to think about, especially as I looked at the Letter of James laid alongside the Gospel lesson from Mark. The gorgeous love poetry of the Song of Solomon added the perfect balm for the past week. 


Texts cited: Song of Solomon 2:8-13; James 1: 17-27; Mark 7:1-8;14-15; 21-23

Prayer: Blessed God who caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant us so to hear them , read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life. Amen. (Collect for Proper 27 aka "The Lee Graham Collect")

There are some weeks when the Sunday lectionary readings are hard and complicated…like what we’ve been hearing from the Gospel of John all month. There are sometimes when I know I want to just pull the covers up over my head and avoid what’s in the readings. And then there are weeks like this one where things all seem to fit together well…even if the ultimate lesson is one that makes us pause to take it in and know…” Yeah, we need a refresher course in what it means to be a Christian.”

 I imagine y’all are familiar with the cartoon Hagar the Horrible, the one with the guy who’s a Viking and his wife Helga. A friend who serves on the school board in my Florida county posted a Hagar cartoon.

Hagar has come through the door.

He has arrows sticking out of his helmet and shield. His sword is bent, and his brow is sweaty and he’s announcing into the room “I’m home from battle!”

In the next frame, Helga steps out of the kitchen. Her face is bruised. Her nose is bandaged. Her dress is disheveled. There are stars floating around her head as if she’s taken a few blows to her brain.

She leans on a cane and says, “I’m home from the school board meeting!”

It’s really come to this now. We live in a world where serving on a school board…an elected office where you’re charged with making decisions to aid the learning and protect the students and employees in public schools…makes you a target for abuse. And all because of a requirement to wear a mask while in school. 

I heard on the radio about a woman who is a school board member up in a small county in southern Indiana. She now has a baseball bat by her door underneath the photos of her grandchildren because she’s been threatened by her neighbors.

And while I haven’t visited her town, I am sure there is no lack of churches…and those who consider themselves regular church attendees…happy to praise God on Sunday…while beating up a child of God serving on a school board the other six days of the week.

This is the type of hypocritical behavior that gives Christianity a bad name.

And this is what our letter from the apostle James…the just leader of the church in Jerusalem... is talking about with his mirror analogy.

He says that if we hear the right prayers without doing the right actions in our lives…that’s no better than looking at ourselves in the mirror and admiring how good our hair looks…and then walking away and forgetting about that fantastic coiffe we just saw in the mirror.

This is an important tenet in Judaism…one which has been passed along to us from our Jewish parents…that the prayers we say, the words of Scripture we hear, the hymns and songs we sing are not just to be mouthed. We are to sit with them and study them…and take them into our hearts to do the work of transformation. With that new heart…we are led back out into the world to do action of our prayers “to show forth God’s praise not only with our lips but in our lives” (BCP, 101).

This is the same idea that Jesus was driving at in this exchange with the Pharisees. This is so much more than disciples having grubby hands when they’re eating. Jesus isn’t dismissing the Pharisees for their commitment to the ritual of handwashing; he understands the significance of following the tradition of the elders. What he is saying is that if they’re washing their hands without feeding the poor, releasing the captives, and taking care of widows and children then their handwashing isn’t much more than a mechanical function. There are portions of this passage from Mark Chapter 7 which the lectionary diviners left out, probably to keep the narrative easier to follow and not complicated by details relevant to First Century Jewish worship. But the bottom line is that if the ritual act doesn’t point the person toward doing the act of caring for all of God’s creation…human, animal and mineral…then it is an empty gesture and a sign of an empty faith.

The same applies to us. If we come here week after week and say all the right prayers and do all the right gestures, but then do nothing to make life better for another person or (worse) actively engage in activities that hurt someone or something in God’s creation, then it renders our prayers and praise meaningless. It reminds me of a bumper sticker I once saw: if going to church makes you a Christian, does going to the garage make you a car?

This is not the same idea as “I have to do good things in order to be on God’s good side.” We don’t earn frequent good person miles with God; God’s grace has already been extended to us. This isn’t about us doing anything for God’s love. This is about us doing acts of kindness because we know deep inside us that God did such acts of kindness and so much more for us already. This is about us letting these prayers and these Scriptures we say and hear shape our outlook and guide our wills.

And what a beautiful starting point for us in this inner work than our first reading today.

If we look at the reading from the poetry of the Song of Solomon, we get a glimpse in these five verses of God as the lover, calling and beckoning to us.

God whispers to us, the beloved, “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.”

Such words, such loving and tender words, spoken to us now in our world swirling with anger, division, and discontent. Bullies and soul-crushing reports on the nightly news.

“Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away”

Come away, my beloved child: I am your God who so loves you. I am the love that will not give up on you. I am the love that will make it possible for you to love one another even in the face of rejection.

“Arise, my love, my fair one…and come away”

Now what if we have been hurt by someone? What if we have felt the sting of betrayal? What if we are carrying around the scars of our life that make it hard to love? I don’t think there’s a person in the world who hasn’t known some level of suffering. And those wounds left untended…untouched by God…can manifest in ways where we hurt others. I’m not talking just about physically abusive behavior, but even the dismissive ways we speak to one another because someone dismissed us. Or spread gossip about someone because a part of us is insecure and wants to feel a level of self-righteousness. This is all part of the human condition stuff…and is a symptom of the hardening of our hearts brought about by being in the world.

The challenge for all of us is to remember that all those hurts inflicted on our souls are not the definition of who we are. They are only part of us, not all of us. We can turn these hurts to God’s good purposes when we use them to inform how we deal with each other in that compassionate way…that way where we understand the other because we have been through the fires of Hell and back, too.

With prayer, Scripture, and music as the tools that God uses to reach us in our worship to shape us and prepare us for the week ahead, we can learn the practice of listening…being slow to anger…and be prepared to exercise the true religion of caring for those around us.

In the name of God…Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.   


Sunday, August 22, 2021

The Weird Difficult Path of Eternal Life: A Sermon at Christ the King (John 6:56-69)

It's the oddity of my journey as a transitional deacon that I am serving in two parishes; hence I am preaching three weeks in a row. Last week, it was St. Barnabas. This week, it was Christ the King. 

A word about this congregation: back in the late 1980s, the Rev. Stan White took the extraordinary step to take his entire Pentecostal congregation with him into the Episcopal Church. There was a mass confirmation service, an instantly, Valdosta, Georgia, gained a whole new Episcopal Church. The music is straight up Gospel. People clap, snap, sway and pray with hands lifted to the heavens. It is a much different experience for this Episcopalian with more Anglo-Catholic leanings! 

Their interim rector, who is my supervising priest, has perfected the art of preaching without notes or a script. I am not that person...and I felt the need to apologize to the assembly that I wasn't going to engage with them in the same way. I also wanted them to know that I don't say "Amen" at the end of my sermons because that "Amen" is their confirmation that they've heard me. Good news: everyone was able to roll with my differences. Even if it may have felt a little weird....

And so speaking of weird things…John’s Gospel with bread that is flesh and blood…and now Jesus has added “Spirit” and “Life” into the mix!

I wasn’t with y’all last week, but Mother Galen has already noted that the “bread” is metaphorical. And in fact…Jesus isn’t advocating for cannibalism with eating his flesh and drinking his blood.

Rather…this is the importance of having a deep and intimate relationship with him. That puts us in a similar deep and intensely intimate relationship with God.

Our Evangelist John has a point he wants to make about Jesus: he is the Word made flesh. And by consuming…or bringing Jesus into our selves…really having faith in him…we will be transformed.

And here’s the kicker: that transformation will enliven us…and give our spirits life…so that we might do the work of Christ in the world…to bring good news to the poor…release to the captives…and freedom to the oppressed.

We might even start to sense how we are interconnected with each other and that the spiritual world is not removed the material world around us. It’s a little bit like what God tells the prophet Ezekiel when God talks about replacing the heart of stone with a heart of flesh.  

For our Evangelist John…there is no other way than to go all in with Jesus.

We are to…as we say over the water at a baptism…be buried with Christ and brought through death to resurrection…having been reborn by the Holy Spirit (BCP, 306). That’s what it means to be a member of the Christian faith…sealed and marked as Christ’s own forever.

And that sounds a little weird…us dying and being born all at once. One of the brothers at St. John the Evangelist up in Boston, MA,  Br. Keith Nelson, describes this as “the paradox of Christian faith…a collision of opposites.” We must die to our own self-interests in order to be made fully alive in Christ. This is how we abide in him as he abides in us.  

We see how well THAT went over with Jesus’ followers back in the First Century!

They grumble…“This is hard, man.”

“Nah, that’s OK. I think I’ll be on my way now.”

“Thanks for the fish…….and the bread.”

Jesus…laying claim to all of us…not just that part of us that shows up on Sunday for prayers and the praise is a frightening proposition.

And fear…the enemy of hope…is almost like the “go-to” emotion of our fragile egos that don’t want to give up any ground to make room for God!

To really live into this call to be a Christian means we must align ourselves to see others in the same way Christ does: as God’s equally beloved children.

Even the person who is irritating us by how long they are taking in the check-out line or doesn’t see eye to eye with us politically.

How many times do we fail to recognize that love and grace is extended to us let alone someone else?!

We have a God who loves in abundance…will even lay down his life for us…calls on us to do the same and give up our self-centered ways to look out for those who are being left behind.

This teaching was hard for the disciples of the First Century…and it is very hard for us too. Just like then…people turn away from this light and go back into their darkened corners.

It’s not that we don’t WANT to follow Jesus. But to be in relationship with Jesus? A love so high we can’t get over it or so wide we can’t get around it? And wants our whole being to be infused with that great a love? Again…our fragile egos start to quiver and shake…and wonder “What happens if I let go? Who am I if I don’t separate myself from the other?”

To live into our calling to be Christ-like…hence Christians…means we won’t be popular.

We are called on to see ourselves as deeply reflected in the eyes of the other and the world around us…and to care and not look away.

We should suffer when we see images of frightened Afghanis clinging to an American aircraft taking off from Kabul…or our own citizens beating police officers at the nation’s capitol.

We should weep at the thought of Haitians already reeling from one earthquake and the assassination of their president…suffering yet another earthquake.

We should have concern for the healthcare workers stretched thin and worn-out from saving people’s lives from COVID.

And…we should also be moved in our innermost being when we gaze upon the way a South Georgia sunset paints the sky with blues, and yellows and orange over tops of grassy fields and live oaks.

I think it’s one of the curious things that happened over time in Christianity that we came to read words about the “spirit” and the “flesh” and concluded that Jesus was against the human body. Somehow we came to read these words as “Spirit” is good. “Flesh” is baaaaad.

I think it’s part of the centuries-old struggle for people to understand Christ’s full humanity and full divinity…which led to a lot of infighting and accusations of heresy back in the Second Century.

We keep wanting to rationalize the nature of Jesus with our limited understanding of the holy in a way that makes sense to us.

One of our earliest church fathers, Irenaeus (eye-reh-NAY-us), wrangled with those insisting that Christ had to be either a full human or some ethereal spirit being but he could not be both. Irenaeus was a firm believer in Jesus being both/and…both fully human and fully divine…both the eternally begotten Son and a human baby born to Mary (it’s that collision of opposites again!) For Irenaeus …flesh and spirit were not separated in Jesus…and they aren’t separated in us.

He said, “Spirits without bodies will never be spiritual men and women. It is our entire being…that is to say…the soul and the flesh combined by receiving the Spirit of God that constitutes the spiritual man (or woman).”

God isn’t seeking for us to live apart from our bodies. My goodness: God became incarnate!

God is seeking to become one with our spirit so we can live more fully into our deep interconnection to God’s creation. If we live in this way…there is hope that we will begin seeing the world in a different, less monochrome way.

Driving between here and Tallahassee, I have been listening to the Pulitzer-prize winning fiction “The Overstory” by Richard Powers. I am not far enough into it to give much away, but it is a story involving humans and the trees.

And as the human affairs go on…the trees are having a much longer and richer life that the characters are not seeing or understanding.

Powers novel is about how we have become so separated from our natural environment that we don’t really know anything about it, how the trees are communicating with each other through their root systems. He says that is the “root problem” with us…(pun very much intended). We miss so much because we only comprehend the material things we see without understanding the spiritual that is taking place under our feet…or in the air moving through the swaying branches.

Again…I haven’t gotten beyond the opening chapter of the book, but I sense there will be an awakening in some of the characters to their connection to the trees that have marked their lives. And perhaps their outlook will shift as their spirits become awakened to their place in God’s created order.

Perhaps as we move on from this part of John’s Gospel…(yes, we’re moving on. We are going back to Mark next week!)…perhaps we’ll contemplate what it means to be so deeply infused with the Spirit of Christ that we begin to sense what it means to be transformed by Jesus. Maybe we’ll start to see ourselves as God’s hands and feet in this world as we meet our neighbors on the street or at our jobs.

Being Christian in the circumstances and climate we’re in today is not easy. But we are called to meet the demands and the injustices of the world in our flesh and blood…and we can do so with a transformed spirit that exudes peace and love.

Live into the belief that there is a “Perfect Love that casts out fear.”  

This is our hope.

This is our light.

This is our strength.

May this be so and let the church say….




Monday, August 16, 2021

The Challenge of Living Bread: A Sermon at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church

On the road to Valdosta, GA, through Jefferson County, Florida.

Below is the text for my first sermon at one of the two congregations I am serving in Valdosta, GA. St. Barnabas Episcopal Church has been without priest for more than 18-months, and I am now serving as the Deacon-in-Charge. It's a challenge to love and serve people in a city 80+ miles away. And I am only quarter-time, which makes this task even more difficult. Hence, I was feeling all the pressure of (1) hoping to make a favorable impression and not bore the mighty congregation of 20 to death; (2) rolling in some teaching about Scripture while preaching (which is my tendency anyway but feels especially important when there is no Christian Education program happening) and most importantly (3) hoping that something in the sermon might touch someone and give them something to think about for the week. Adding to my difficulty: the Gospel text has imagery that sounds weird...and is pointing to the Eucharistic feast. Sadly, as Deacon-in-Charge, I can't preside at the table, and this congregation only gets Eucharist once a month when a supply priest comes in. Ah, the joys and confounding nature of church!


Sermon for Sunday August 15, 2021

Good morning! I’m happy to be back with you this morning…though I have to say…I wish I had picked a Sunday with a less complex and even troubling…Gospel passage. The more I poured over this sixth chapter of John, the more I realized that inch-by-inch…Jesus is revealing to the crowd two things: One: God has come down from heaven to feed them in a way that satisfies more than their grumbling tummies. This food brings them eternal life…and two: it comes from taking in Jesus…who goes to the cross…and becoming so changed by him that our ways are more loving and less self-involved.


So let’s unpack all this…and see where go.

To begin…imagine for a moment what it must have been like for this crowd to hear these words about bread and flesh and blood. Remember this whole thing begins with the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand.

They were fed. But the crowd did not disperse. They want more. They’re still hungry.

“A-ha!” says Jesus, “Yes, you are hungry and thirsty!”

Jesus knows the crowd understands bread. They know about the manna in the wilderness. They have bread and wine as part of their ritual of celebrating the fruits of the earth.  

But now Jesus is reinterpreting the meaning of bread and what it represents.  

This bread has come down from heaven.

This bread is the living bread.

In fact…this living bread which has come down from heaven is flesh. And blood. His flesh and blood.

And we must eat and drink this flesh and blood to have “eternal” life.


What in the world is he talking about?!

Eating his flesh?! Drinking his blood?!

It’s a weird thing even for us to contemplate and may conger up images of zombie movies.

But if we get stuck here…and stay fixated on literal things…the stuff of actual bread…real flesh and blood…we’ll miss his point.

Jesus is saying he is the incarnation of God…the “living bread” that has “come down from Heaven” and has entered the world.  This hearkens back to the opening lines of John’s Gospel:

“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God” (John 1:1)…and “the Word became flesh and lived among us…” (John 1:14)

The Word…God…has become flesh and blood…Jesus.

Jesus…God is living among us.

Now, this idea of God being with the people is not new. The stories from the Old Testament speak to the idea of God traveling with the Israelites throughout their wanderings in the desert.

But here comes Jesus taking that idea one step further.

This isn’t just God being with the people.

Jesus is now saying to have eternal life…to have our deepest yearnings met…we must eat…or bring God…into our bodies so that our very flesh and blood becomes vibrant and alive and intimately infused with God and transformed from the inside out.

Jesus is talking about an intensely intimate relationship with God. That level of intimacy…where we give up ourselves…our self-interests…not hold back anything in self-preservation and allow God into our lives to transform us?

That’s a struggle, isn’t it? And it’s not easy.

I can see it playing out in our global community.

On the one hand…I hear the report about what’s happening with the warming of the planet. We feel it…don’t we…and certainly our famers can understand how the increasing temperatures is leading to greater and greater challenges for their crops and livestock.

Worldwide…this is going to have dramatic effects on people…leading to more mass migrations…which leads to more tensions over land and where people can live.

All of this grieves me deeply…maybe it grieves you, too.

And then I get in my car…and stop at the gas station…to drive home. I’m certainly not about to walk here from Tallahassee!

As St. Paul might say, “I do not understand the things that I do. I don’t do the things that I want, but what I do is the thing that I hate.”  (Romans 7:15) And so  I am driving and grieving…while contributing to the very thing that’s causing me to grieve…and hurting others on the planet.

But I still see some hope…even in this tension of a serious environmental threat.

I see it if I look to the way Solomon…a man taking over as king…turned to God in prayer, seeking transformation.  

He doesn’t ask for riches or things to make himself comfortable; he desires wisdom.

He wants his heart and mind to be infused with that spirit which moves throughout the Hebrew Scriptures…to be closer with the One who knows our all in all…so that he could make good and right decisions for the people.

Truthfully, Solomon already had enough wisdom to know to ask God for wisdom. Because Solomon knew he could not do this task of leading the people without God.

And we see how that delighted God!

And so I wonder if…we had the wisdom of Solomon…what it would be like if we became vulnerable and humble enough to pray to God for deeper wisdom?  Ask for the way to let go a little more of our self to make room for God to transform us?

Might it lead us to make changes in how we live and move and have our being?

Are we able to be vulnerable enough to let God so deeply into our souls…our minds…our bodies that we might feel genuine satisfaction of hunger and maybe even accomplish more than we can ask or imagine?

I believe such transformations…and internal shifts…are possible…especially if we commit to making prayer not just something we do in church on Sundays, but as a regular habit. Prayer doesn’t have to be elaborate…or doing pew aerobics as I like to call it. It can have words…like praying the Lord’s Prayer. Or it can meditative…praying a favorite phrase of Scripture as a way of grounding us and centering us during times of crisis. This regular engagement in prayer has certainly helped and transformed me. I remember a time when I was at a county commission meeting in Tallahassee. There was an issue the commission was debating that was hotly contested and tempers were flaring. I mean, it was getting personal and ugly. And I found myself dipping into the words of one of our collects in the back of our Book of Common Prayer:

“O God the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies; lead them and us from prejudice to truth; deliver them and us from cruelty, hatred and revenge. And, in your good time, enable us all to stand before you; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

I must have prayed that at least a half dozen times that night. And what it did for me is center me back into God in a way that I could look at the people “on the other side” with more compassion. And it showed. One of the TV stations grabbed me for an interview…as well as someone from the other group. And when I saw the video later, I was struck that my demeanor was calm, and my face was relaxed. My opponent on the other hand was scowling and the anger was palpable. I credit God and my prayer for making me lighter and making me look good on TV.

We all have that ability to be a person others see as radiating the love of God. We can all pray like Solomon and seek the wisdom that brings our hearts and minds closer to God. And the more we allow God into us…allow God to claim and reshape all our being…the brighter we will shine for others who are still searching.

Ideally…we would be having a Eucharist…so that we can physically partake in this moment of John’s Eucharistic discourse…with bread and wine…the body and blood of Christ…and experience bringing God into our bodies.

But we what we do have is God in our midst…through our prayers and our worship.

We do have God dwelling in us which can be seen in the ways each of us in this community care for one another and have concern for each other. Through our prayers and worship, we can continue growing in our relationship with God and giving Jesus a chance to renew our hearts and minds as we meet the challenges before us.  

May our lights keep shining brightly so that others may see and come to know God in Christ through us.

+ In the name of God…Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.