Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas Day 2011 sermon by Mother Valori+

Lectionary: Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14(15-20)

Note: This sermon was extemporaneous and therefore, is in audio only.

The Vigil of the Nativity Midnight Mass and Baptism sermon by Mother Valori+

Sermon by Mother Valori+
Lectionary: Lectionary:Isaiah 9:2-7, Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20

Hallelujah! Hallelu – jah: Who knows what this means? It translates from Hebrew, Greek, and Latin as praise, joy, thanks – to God.

Hallelu = Praise, joy, and thanks
Jah = the first half of Yahweh, the Hebrew name for God

As we celebrate Christmas tonight, we sing out our Hallelujahs because when the Word became flesh,
and chose to be born just like we are born, Love came into the world in a whole new way – and transformed it – opening boundaries, welcoming into loving relationship all whom the world feels justified in keeping out.

Today, Love comes again, this time into our hearts, our bodies, our thoughts, and our lives
in a whole new way - and transforms us if we give our consent as Mary did; if we seek the Savior as the Shepherds did.

There are discussions in religious circles about the change that love brings. When a person is baptized, or confirmed, or ordained is there a real change in that person, or is it a symbolic change?

I don’t know the definitive answer. What I do know is what my experience has been about my own Christian journey and the journeys I’ve shared as priest, pastor, and friend. Whenever I talk with people about this change – the change that Love brings - I hear that there is something real, something actually felt by the person. They know it in their bodies, not just as an idea.

So tonight as we journey with one of our own beloved friends to the waters of Baptism, let’s see for ourselves. If we open ourselves to the movement of the Spirit – will we feel the change that Love brings to Larena? Will we feel it ourselves as we say again our Baptismal vows?

The power of these prayers is endless, eternal. Each time we renew our Baptismal vows, the power of those words washes over us just as the waters of Baptism did for us once before. When we remember
that we have promised to proclaim the Good News, to seek and serve Christ in ALL persons, to strive for justice and peace, respecting the dignity of every human being, we have the opportunity to remember our passion – the passion Love brings into our hearts the Love who is Emmanuel, God Incarnate who is born in us again tonight.

This passion continually guides us as individuals and as members of this church community. It shows us how to be a level-er of highways. It reminds us to get up and go to the valleys in order to raise up all who are there offering tender care for their wounds, welcome to the excluded, food and clothing to those who need, and friendship to the lonely and friendless.

The passion that Love brings sends us out to the mountains where the rich and powerful reside, to bring them down to the leveled highway, to set them free from the tyranny of attachment (to money, power, reputation), and to give them courage to trust, relieving them of their fear that tries to tame the HS
to restrict Her movement in the world– because hers is a movement of freedom and salvation for ALL.

Love has come into the world again- which means God isn’t through with us yet. God continues to be steadfast in love, generous in grace, and lavish in blessing because we are God’s beloved ones – all of us – the young and the old, the strong and the weak, the rich and the poor… (BCP, 531) “…all, all, all, all, all, all, all” as Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu is known to have said.

We are all imperfect, and we all make mistakes. But we are also all forgiven. We are saved by the One who comes to us tonight as a baby and sanctifies us by his Holy Spirit.

Hallelu – jah! Praise, joy, and thanks be to God who has done this for us, who is doing it again now, and who will do it eternally – until there is no more of it to do.

Now let us stand together and sing Hymn #297 as we process to the Baptismal font, and drench ourselves once again in the passionate love of God in Christ who calls Larena now into the household of God.

The Vigil of Christmas Family Service, 2011 sermon by Mother Valori+

Sermon by Mother Valori+

Lectionary:Isaiah 9:2-7, Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20

Note: The sermon at this service was extemporaneous and therefore in audio only.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Radical Truth of Christmas

VMS+ article submitted to The Shelby Star for Dec, 2011:

A few years ago I saw a television commercial that asked the question: “…who’d have thought the biggest thing to ever happen to you would be the smallest?” The visual was a parent holding a baby, and the tag line was: “Having a baby changes everything.”

For Christians, the biggest thing to ever happen in the history of human experience came to us in the form of the least - a baby. Yet this baby, conceived in Mary’s womb by the Holy Spirit of God, changed everything. Sometimes, however, we pass through this holy season, caught up in shopping, parties, and decorating, and we forget to allow the transformative truth of Christmas to penetrate our hearts and minds, the truth St. Paul said so well to Titus: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.”

In a speech calling for Christian unity and inclusion, Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, “Jesus did not say, ‘I if I be lifted up I will draw some… Jesus said, ‘I if I be lifted up will draw all, all, all, all, all. Black, white, yellow, rich, poor, clever, not so clever, beautiful, not so beautiful, gay, lesbian, straight. It’s one of the most radical things… All belong… All are meant to be held in this incredible embrace that will not let us go. All.” The radical truth the Archbishop is pointing out is the nature of the extravagant love of God, recounted for us over and over again in Scripture, and finally, most definitively, revealed to us in the birth of the Messiah.

Luke affirms this in his telling the Christmas story. The first to hear of the birth were the shepherds in the fields. We need to remember that back then, shepherding was a despised occupation. They were scorned as shiftless, dishonest people. Shepherds didn’t bathe much so they didn’t smell good and worse yet, they were ritually unclean, which means they wouldn’t have been allowed in church. And this particular group of shepherds to whom the angels appeared, was the lowest of the low. These were the shepherds working the grave-yard shift.

But God, who sees differently than the world does, chose these shepherds to be the first to see the light, the glory and presence of God, which “shone all around them” when the angel spoke. And the angel proclaimed “good news of great joy” to this lowly audience: the birth of the Savior.

And this is good news for all people! Including them! Including us!

The good news of Christmas is a present reality, not just an event in ancient history that we remember together. Christ is being born in us today, now - when we, like Mary, give our consent, when we, like the shepherds, seek the Savior. In this holy season, we are called to remember that God came to save each of us and all of us. Remembering that, we can respond with love to the God who loved us first, to the God who loved us enough to become one of us, sharing our vulnerabilities and making them strong, and welcoming in all whom the world would keep out.

God took the form of the smallest and the least and changed everything. That’s why we sing out our praise: “Glory to God in the highest heaven! For unto us is born a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Advent 3B, 2011: Rejoicing in the God of surprise

Lectionary: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Canticle 15; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

En el nombre del Dios, Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

Today is Gaudete Sunday, otherwise known as Rose Sunday. It is a day of comfort and reprieve, a day to rejoice in the joy of the Lord, even as we practice our Advent preparations. This is a day dedicated to Mary, the theotokos, the God-bearer, co-creator with God.

On this day we hear an important transition in our gospel reading. The last prophet of the Old Covenant prophesies the introduction of the one who will usher in the New Covenant. That one is the child of Mary and the Son of God – the embodiment of a reality we share, but often forget.

Though the male leadership of the early church struggled mightily against calling a woman the “mother of God” we have little trouble with that concept today. We know and enjoy that Mary was pregnant with God. What we sometimes overlook is that the presence of God for Mary led her to real physical and spiritual transformation.

When a woman becomes pregnant, she has to change her everyday habits and begin to care for her body knowing that it is no longer hers alone. It is shared. Suddenly, she has to be aware of what she eats, what she drinks, and how she moves.

For Mary, the time of her pregnancy would also need to be a time to redefine herself. No longer would she be just Mary, daughter of Anna and Joachim, cousin of Elizabeth, and betrothed of Joseph. Now Mary would be the mother of a son, and not just any son. All generations will remember Mary as the bearer of the Messiah of God into the world.

Imagine how this must have impacted her spiritually! No wonder she left her hometown to stay with her cousin Elizabeth for several months during her early pregnancy.

I wonder if, in her private prayers, Mary ever asked, why me? In giving her “yes” to God, Mary had to sacrifice her good reputation. She would be forever remembered as the young woman who got pregnant before she got married, which in her day, could have led to severe punishment – even death. I wonder, as she prayed in those first months of her pregnancy, if Mary ever said to God what I’ve heard many others who face long-term difficulty say: I wish God didn’t have so much faith in me. I’d rather not have to be this strong.

I wonder what it was like to feel the presence of God “kicking around in her” as the Rev. Katherine Bush once said. Any woman, feeling her baby move within her womb is amazed and excited. But imagine what it must have been like to know that that movement within your body is God!

Only our God, who is truly a God of surprise, could have begun the final chapter of the plan of salvation in this way. I’m sorry – but I have to wonder why Mary and Elizabeth, their spouses, families, and friends, didn’t walk away from these unfolding events figuring they weren’t hearing or understanding God correctly.

It brings to mind the song Judas sang to Jesus in the rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar, as Jesus was being led to his crucifixion: “Every time I look at you I don’t understand. Why you let the things you did get so out of hand? You’d have managed better if you’d had it planned. Why’d you choose such a backward time and such a strange land?”

As God’s plan of salvation continued to unfold, it led to a very surprising outcome, certainly not the outcome that was expected or desired. God could see how redemption would come from the cross, but Jesus’ mother and the other followers were shocked and dismayed. In JC Superstar, Mary Magdalene sings what that felt like then - and still feels like for many of us today as the plan of God unfolds in our own lives: “I’ve been living to see you. Dying to see you but it shouldn’t be like this. This was unexpected. What do I do now? Could we start again please?”

God’s plan often leads us onto, what to us, are surprising pathways, pathways that seem wrong or disastrous in our eyes. That’s why the author of the epistle to the Thessalonians reminds us to: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; [and for heaven’s sake] …Do not quench the Spirit.”

Remembering that the Holy Spirit is often represented by flames and fire, this plea is vivid! Do not quench the flames of the Spirit. Do not put Her fire out! Trust and pray.

In all circumstances, be comforted by the promises of our merciful God who brings good news to the oppressed, comfort to those who mourn… to God who soothes the brokenhearted, brings freedom to all who are held captive, and clothes us in salvation and righteousness.

Do not quench the Spirit who speaks as much through prophets today as ever before. Remember Evelyn, the woman who prophesied to me at convention? Who are the prophets of God speaking to us today? Are we listening?

Test everything, the epistle writer says. Test it in the community. God will affirm the truth there.

And listen to the prophetic voices present in the community – it might surprise you to learn who they are: the children among us whose haven’t learned how to doubt God yet; the simple-minded who are pure in heart; the elderly who have gained wisdom; the one who opens their heart in prayer (which could be any of us). Do not quench the Spirit!

Live together in a community of love, that is, in the righteousness of God. Be co-creators with God of a world in which the justice of God, described in Isaiah, becomes a reality. And God will sanctify the community entirely, keeping us sound in body, soul, and spirit, because, as the epistle writer says, “the one who calls you is faithful, and will do this.”

As I said in my December newsletter article, our community of faith is sharing a common pregnancy during this Advent season. That means we have to change our everyday habits in response to the new life being formed in us, and begin to care for ourselves in ways we haven’t done before. Like Mary, we have to redefine ourselves in light of this new life. We can’t even envision what that means, but we don’t have to – we just need to go forward in faith, rejoicing in God our Savior.

On this Gaudete Sunday, we (meaning us individually and as a community) stop for a moment, and together magnify the Lord. That means we give God and God’s plan of salvation a bigger portion of our attention in our everyday lives. We choose to redefine ourselves in light of the new life God is forming in us, marveling as that life kicks around in us, and praying continually to keep ourselves open to the many surprising ways God will bring about the plan of salvation in and through us.

Let’s close by saying again the prayer from our candle-lighting service in the blue booklet:

Loving God, we open ourselves to you, trusting that this is how you made us: you created us for joy-filled hearts and lives. Show us the creative power of hope. Teach us the peace that comes from justice. Fill us with the kind of joy that cannot be contained, but must be shared. Prepare our hearts to be transformed by you, that we may walk in the light of Christ. Amen.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Advent 2B, 2011: Drenched in the Spirit of God

Lectionary: Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8

En el nombre del Dios – Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

Back in the day, I was a smoker. Both of my parents and two of my sisters smoked. Most of my extended family smoked. One of my uncles even worked for a cigarette manufacturer. Smoking was a big part of our experience of family, of life. To this day, the smell of a stuck match conjures up pleasant childhood memories for me.

When I was pregnant, I couldn’t smoke. It made me ill. But as soon as my daughter was born, I was back at it.

Years later, my daughter asked me to quit smoking. She was old enough (she was five) and smart enough to know that she didn’t want me to get sick or die from it.

I tried quitting… often. In fact, seven times before I finally succeeded. The reason I couldn’t quit all of those times was because I really didn’t want to quit. I liked smoking.

I tried to quit for my daughter’s sake, but that didn’t work. I tried to quit because of the potential damage to my health, but that didn’t work. I tried to quit because I was about to marry Steve and he didn’t smoke – but that didn’t work either.

One day as I prayed, it occurred to me that I had to prepare the way for my quitting. Instead of cutting back or quitting cold turkey, instead of anti-depressants or nicotine gum, what I needed was to prepare a path of grace ahead of my quitting, a path built by prayer.

So that’s what I did. In September of 1987, I began asking all of my praying friends (and some who didn’t pray, but I thought might do this for me) to pray with me beginning Oct 1 – not that I would quit smoking, but that God would grant me the desire to quit.

My goal was to start the new year, 1988, as a non-smoker. Steve and I were getting married in April of that year, and as much as I wanted my new life with him to be smoke-free, it had become clear to me that, on my own, I couldn’t forsake this habit. I knew that in order to quit, something deep within me had to change and in order for that to happen, I had to prepare a path of grace and let God act in me before I tried to do anything.

On December 31, 1987 I smoked my last cigarette. When I awoke on January 1, 1988, I was nervous and a little doubtful that the path I had prayerfully prepared would be enough. But it was, and I haven’t smoked since.

The lesson I learned from that experience is one many of you may recognize still lives in me and in how I minister and serve. You will often hear me recommend the prayerful preparation of a path of grace before doing anything.

In some of the reconciliation conversations I am currently having here and in the diocese, this is my approach: to pray first and for as long as it takes, waiting patiently while God works to bring all involved back into righteousness (right relationship).

When I say I recommend a prayerful preparation, I mean that we agree to set a time to pray together – to set an alarm on our phones, and to heed that alarm. To stop what we’re doing and pray together, knowing that our prayers are ascending to God as one voice – connecting us one to one another and to God, drawing us into righteousness and into the graciousness of God.

As the psalmist reminds us, in the graciousness of God: "Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other." (v10) To kiss is to behave like family. Back then, only family greeted one another with a kiss. This is where we get our liturgical practice of passing the peace. It used to be called the “Kiss of Peace.” The practice of it establishes us as family, which is a deeper, more connected relationship than friendship.

The psalmist continues: "Righteousness shall go before him,and peace shall be a pathway for his feet." (v13)The path of grace is a path of peace. When we get back into right relationship with God, ourselves, and one another, we will know peace.

In today’s Gospel, John the Baptist calls the people of Israel to prepare paths of grace, and make them straight, he says. There’s no circumventing the truth with John the Baptist.

John prophesied to a people in exile – not the forced kind of exile that the people Isaiah prophesied to suffered. John’s listeners were in a voluntary exile – much like we are today. They had so cultivated their lives and their culture that they had come to believe they were in control – or at least could be if they wanted to be.

They had become self-centered and self-reliant and didn’t even realize they had exiled themselves from God. They felt righteous, at least according to their own measures. It was to these that John prophesied. John’s voice was heard crying out in the wilderness because the wilderness is a place that is uncultivated, uninhabited by human beings.

Cities are created by human beings. We build them. We order them. We have control over them - or at least we think we do.

Around the country in places like Atlanta, Miami and even in the mountains of NC you can see walled and gated communities, and perfectly manicured yards and streets. It’s all very neat looking and private. If you don’t live in a certain sub-division, if you don’t have the password to get through the gate, you can’t get in. Sometimes, you can’t even see in because of the walls. It’s safe – or so it seems. Actually, many experts say that these communities are not safer, that it’s a false sense of security they offer, and that, in fact, many of these walled and guarded communities experience higher than average rates of crime.*

The wilderness, on the other hand, is uncultivated, untamed by humans. It isn’t neat or safe - and it doesn’t claim to be. The wilderness is empty and pathless. It’s the part of the garden (hear the symbolism of that word) devoted to wild growth. There are no walls, no gates, no manicured streets in the wilderness. The wilderness is eternally as it was created by God, and we humans have no control there.

That’s why it’s in the wilderness that the voice of the prophet cries out: Repent! Change your habits! Change the way you’re thinking! Change the way you’re living! That’s why it’s in the wilderness that the prophets - then and now - urge us to prepare for rebirth. That’s why it’s in the wilderness that we devote ourselves to wild growth - un-manicured, untamed, and uncontrolled by human expectations or convention. But growth like this requires faith in the God of our salvation.

John used the powerful symbol of water to make his point - ritually bringing people into and out of the birth waters again, outwardly drenching them, cleansing them of the habits or ways of living that they couldn’t forsake on their own, and forming them into a new community – a community of hope.

‘I have baptized you with water,’ John said, but the one who is coming after me, the one who is truly powerful, the one whose sandals I’m not even fit to untie – that one will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."

Which brings us to us: in our Baptism, we have been brought into and out of the waters of rebirth and drenched in the Spirit of God. By our Baptism, we have been formed into a community of hope, a community that works together to forsake whatever disrupts right relationships – with God, with one another, and with ourselves - and strive to live in righteousness and in peace.

As a community of hope, we are the voices that can speak tenderly to the exiled among us. I’m thinking of those exiled by the disease of addiction, of those who have exiled themselves from our community and languish in anger or un-forgiveness. I’m thinking of those living in the exile of poverty, unemployment, or discrimination.

As a community of hope, we faithfully devote ourselves to wild growth, resisting the temptation to tame it, manicure it, or control it - leaving it in the hands of the loving God who Created us, who Redeemed us, who Sanctifies us, and who sends us forth as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.

As we enter this second week of Advent, I pray we truly commit ourselves to preparing pathways of grace, (set your phone alarms if you have to!) pathways that will lead us to be transformed by God, so that we may walk in the light of Christ and finally, be found by him to be at peace.


* Sources:, › City-Data Forum › US Forums › Washington,,,,

Friday, December 2, 2011

Rector's Dec newsletter article: A Seed is Planted

I love this time of year, and no – I’m not a shopper. Ask anyone who knows me. Shopping is not my thing. What I love is this period of time between the knowledge of a new thing about to come and its coming.

I remember, when I became pregnant with my first child, that I couldn’t wait until I could wear maternity clothes so everyone would know what I knew – that a new life was being formed in me. By my third child, I couldn’t wait to get rid of those maternity clothes, but that’s another article :)

Advent is the time between the prophetic proclamation of John the Baptist and the Nativity - the knowledge that new life was coming into the world and the coming of that new life. A transforming moment in this story happens at the Annunciation to Mary – the moment Mary gave her consent to God to serve as the God-bearer and bring the Word into the world.

I have often wondered what Mary felt as she carried this new life in her body - new life that was different from anything anyone had ever known; new life that would change all life forevermore, but especially hers. She knew that her life was going to change and take a direction she had not imagined, and for which she couldn’t fully prepare. She knew that the hope of her people – in fact, the hope of all people – was being formed in her womb. Bearing that hope to the world would require much from Mary: humility, courage, faith, perseverance, and a life prayerfully devoted to the will of God.

The same is required from us today. Each year as we cycle through the liturgical calendar, we come to this place at the end of the year, when the cultural frenzy (focused mostly on shopping) hits us. Our lives get extremely busy with parties, gatherings, and yes… shopping. At the same time, the church season calls us to slow down, to wait, to listen with expectation for the new thing God is doing in our lives.

A seed is planted in us each Advent. Our practice of Advent is meant to nurture this seed so that it bears fruit in us, and through us into the world. We may not be giving birth to the Incarnate Word, but we are just as much bearers of God today, and the demand on us is the same: humility, courage, faith, perseverance, and a life prayerfully devoted to the will of God.

We know, here at Redeemer, how scary and uncomfortable change can be. Over these last couple of years, we have experienced being called to change more than we want to at times, and less than we want to at other times. We have been experiencing a rebirth here and it continues to carry us forward into new life.

As much as we’ve accomplished – which is a LOT – our liturgical calendar tell us it’s Advent again, so we know that God isn’t finished with us yet. God is once again planting a seed of hope in this community of faith that needs nourishing so that it can bear fruit in us, and through us, into the world. As we wait together in this common pregnancy, I offer you this prayer-poem written by my vestry at St. Mary’s in Cadillac, MI. It was shared at our last meeting together and it inspires me still. I offer it to you as an Advent meditation:

"Hope is a state of mind not dictated by what appears to be:
a promise
built on faith.
We look beyond the fear,
and begin to trust what we do not yet know.

We must listen with love,
for though we prepare and plan
and strive to organize,
God will take us in a new direction,
a re-birth beyond our comprehension.

With prayerful work
we can
be true to who we are
as we trust and continue in God’s love
and become truly ourselves."

May God bless us and lavish grace upon us as we practice our Advent together, nurturing the seed that has been planted in us, that we might joyfully consent to bear its fruit into the world in the year to come.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Christ the King: Loved, protected, cradled, connected

Lectionary: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Psalm 95:1-7a; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46

En el nombre del Dios, Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

Note: Story of my first interview here at Redeemer by the vestry – in the Main Parish Hall. Tour of our amazing kitchen… Q: “Who are you feeding?” A: No one.

It was clear, a little over two years ago, that the talent given to Redeemer (as we heard last week in the parable of the talents) had been buried. During its time of wounding, Redeemer had to look inward – to protect and preserve all that was good and holy about this part of the body of Christ - and it did a beautiful job of that. Even in the midst of the wounding, there was a closeness, a sense of family here at Redeemer.

As often happens, though, this closeness became clique-ish over time. Once there was no longer any threat of harm, the means used here to cope and survive a difficult moment in our history had become dysfunctional - stealing the life it was originally employed to preserve.

But then God offered renewal and rebirth. Now Redeemer is putting our gifts to use and producing many talents for the King. Now we are answering Christ’s call to feed the hungry, satisfy those who thirst, clothe the naked, visit those imprisoned by sin or suffering, and welcome the stranger.

We do this through our various missions and ministries: The Shepherd’s Table and Food Pantry, our relationship with the Boys and Girls Club, Operation Christmas Child (serving poor children in our area) Operation Santa Claus (serving those in our community with mental illness), our Red Cross Blood drives, AA and Al-Anon (serving those imprisoned by the disease of addiction) our Prayer Shawl and Rosary ministries, Christian formation, our liturgies and liturgical ministries, and more…

We are a church. We are a reflection of the fullness of Christ who is all in all - which is what KING means for us. Christ the King is the ultimate authority, the one who loves, rescues, feeds, comforts, and commands us to do the same.

We gather today to worship our King and share Holy Communion. And we have been given the great gift of blessing the civil marriage of Brian and Larena Cherry, and consecrating it as a holy union, a covenant.

The covenant of marriage is for us a witness of the kind of bond Christ has with us – the church: an intimate, loving, self-sacrificing bond in which the other matters most. These two reflect in their marriage union our identity as a church family our identity as people of God. We too are called to be intimate, loving, self-sacrificing and to make the least of those among us matter most.

Dar Williams (one of my favorite indy artists is as I’ve mentioned before) describes this living, flowing bond of love, like this: “If you're lucky you'll find something that reflects you, helps you feel your life, protects you, cradles you, and connects you to everything.” (Dar Williams, “Hudson” Album: My Better Self)

Now THAT is church… and that is what Redeemer is strong on becoming. We don’t shy away anymore from the fullness of life – we feel it! The good and the bad! We can do that because we know we are protected in the love we have for one another - love that is grounded in our Redeemer. This love, manifest in the body, the church, cradles us, strengthens us, and connects us to everything else in creation; to everything that went before, is now, and will come to pass.

We are a church. Holy, consecrated, and ready to risk it all to find and serve the least among us using every gift we’ve been given in order to do that.

After our service we’re going to meet downstairs for our Ministry Fair and lunch. We’ll also be packing boxes for Operation Christmas Child and our Youth will be making Christmas cards which they will sell next week at our Advent Festival in order to raise money for their mission work. We will also have our Stewardship in-gathering, collecting the pledges of our tithes that will support our work as church in the coming year.

It is my prayer, as we prepare for our new year together (which begins next week – Advent 1), that we break ourselves open and widen our walls, so that we might be the kind of church that truly and actively welcomes all…

so that God might rescue the scattered sheep of our fold and restore them to us (as promised in Ezekiel)…

so that God might continue to build us up with new family who are looking for a place where they can be loved, protected, cradled, and connected…

so that we might have that many more hands, that many more hearts, that many more gifts to use to answer Christ’s command to serve the least, inside and outside our gates, who are members of our family.

Then when we come to our time of our judgment, we can run joyfully into the arms of Christ our King who will say to us with a warm smile, and open arms: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world…” Amen.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Pentecost 28A, 2011: Serving the One we love most

Lectionary: Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18; Psalm 90:1-12; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30

En el nombre de Dios: Padre, Hijo y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

As most of you know, we have just arrived home from our annual diocesan convention at Kanuga. There were many meaningful moments at convention this year, as there usually are.

Bishop Taylor’s opening address was inspiring (I’ll say more about this later), our worship together was a lovely blend of the traditional and the new and the language in all of our liturgies was gender-inclusive which I appreciated very much. Our featured speaker, The Rev. Dr. David Gortner, spoke to us skillfully about the “e” word (evangelism) identifying it as a Spiritual Practice, much like prayer or lectio divina. It’s an approach I liked very much.

I had the privilege of being trained to lead one of the break-out session groups where participants learned and practiced how to enter into deeper discussions about God with people we don’t know (which is what evangelism is). Business on the convention floor was conducted with civility, and our work sessions were productive and stayed on schedule.

Committee reports reminded us of how much good work is going on and how many good people we share this work with around the diocese. All in all, it was another wonderful experience centered around our new diocesan vision statement:

Walk in the way
Widen the walls
Wake up the world

In his opening address, the Bishop spoke of the need for change in the church on every level. If we are to Walk in the Way, + Porter said, we have to remember that we walk together and that we share what we have. A “take care of your own first” mentality may be safe, and sensible, he said, but it isn’t who we are. It isn’t our calling.

If we are to Widen the Walls, + Porter said, we will have to be church in a new way. We will have to let go the things we love, in order to serve the one we love most.

The Bishop asked us to be intentional about making the Episcopal Church in WNC look more like the people in WNC. Look around, he said. We’re mostly older and white. And he asked us to begin to find ways to invite younger people and Spanish-Speakers into the fold.

And if we’re going to Wake up the World, +Porter said, we have to be the agents of hope in hard times – and these are hard times. We have to know our Scripture - which means taking seriously our commitment to lifelong Christian formation.

We need to be willing to rock the boat like Jesus did, +Porter said. We need to be a community - and we need to have a heart for justice. Being justice-driven, +Porter said, affects our everyday lives: where we shop, what we eat, what we throw away, what we say about one another and how we treat each other. And it means having a theology of generosity in our stewardship.

I am inspired by the elegant simplicity and evangelical power of our new vision statement:

Walk in the way
Widen the walls
Wake up the world

There were many meaningful moments at this year’s convention and I’d like to share just one of them with you because it was for me an incarnation of this new vision for our common life. In the break-out session I led, there were nine people. The purpose of the break-out session, as I mentioned earlier, was to practice evangelism, using a tool that would help us enter into deeper conversations about God with people we don’t know.

As the leader, I had to share my story first, and use my story to teach the people how to use this tool. Next the group split up into three groups of three, each playing their part in the process, and told their own stories to one another. At the end we gathered back into our larger group and discussed the process.

As we walked back to the convention hall, one of the women in my group caught up with me and we began to chat. I had mentioned in my story that I am Latina. In her Spanish accent, she asked me where my family was from.

I told her that my mother’s family came here from Puerto Rico and Spain. No way! She said – me too! It’s a rare thing to find another Latina of that specific combination so we enjoyed uniqueness of our shared heritage.

As we walked along that gravelly path, my new friend (her name is Evelyn) began to speak prophetically to me. I listened to her carefully, and look directly at her as she spoke. When she finished, I asked her if she had ever spoken prophetically before. She said she hadn’t.

"Well, you are now," I said, "and it’s a powerful gift you have." I thanked her and we went our separate ways.

The next day, during the break in our business session, Evelyn found me at our table. When I turned to look at her, I felt the power of her prophetic gift again. She didn’t speak at first – she just handed me a rock.

When I took it, she explained its significance - referring to a sermon from Morning Prayer where the preacher reminded us (as I reminded this congregation recently) that we are all Peter (remember Petros) the rock upon whom God builds the church, . She told me that when I fulfilled the call she saw on me she would be there for me and with me. Then she gave me her contact information.

This experience was, as I said, an incarnation of our diocesan vision for me. A woman I didn’t know, connected with me in a powerful way through a gift of the Spirit she’d never had before because we were Walking in the Way.

Her prophetic gift compelled her to not only tell me, but to promise to be with me as we Widen the Walls to people of our common heritage: Spanish-speakers.

And the prophecy she shared with me was this: that I am being called to be the instrument God will use to bring our Hispanic sisters and brothers in Christ in this part of the diocese into the presence of God and into the care of our Episcopal community through Spanish language liturgy. In other words, to Wake up the World of the Spanish-speakers who need a community of faith
and the English-speakers who need to do church in a whole new way.

One thing I didn’t hear the Bishop mention in his address was that, in order to be able to Walk in the way, and Widen the walls, and Wake up the world, we must have the kind of faith that runs without necessarily knowing where to; the kind of faith that knows and truly believes the promises we profess; the kind of faith that expects the best from God, from one another, and from ourselves; the kind of faith that truly knows God.

This is what the parable of the talents is really about. While it uses money to tell the story, and the designers of the lectionary saw fit to put this in during budget development time, the parable of the talents really isn’t about money. It’s about faith.

It challenges what we know and experience with God. Who is God to us and how do we relate to God?

When the king in the parable (God) unleashes his wrath on the slave with one talent who buried his money out of fear (which was a common practice back then – you know, since they didn’t have banks), we cringe at the unfairness and meanness of his response. “So you knew, did you, that I that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter?”

You don’t know me at all! (Remember, this is a parable - and this is the part where Jesus is blasting the Jewish leadership again.) You projected onto me (God) the qualities and character of your own leadership. YOU have been harsh and fearsome.

You don’t know me at all, Jesus says. You only know the God you created in your own image.

How can you fear your God who has loved you since “before the mountains were brought forth or the land and the earth were born”? How can you be afraid of your God who has consecrated you, set you apart for holiness?

How can anyone of us today doubt the love of God who came to live among us and died for us so that we would never have to be afraid again?

If we truly knew God, we would expect the best – from God, one another, and ourselves. And we would Walk in the Way, and Widen the Walls, and Wake up the World in order to serve the one we love most. Amen.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Pentecost 20A, 2011: Run without stumbling

Lectionary: Joshua 3:7-17; Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37; 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13; Matthew 23:1-12

Note: Today was the Piedmont Deanery pulpit swap. I celebrated and preached with the good people at St. Peter by the Lake in Denver, NC. The Rev Miles Smith celebrated and preached with my peeps at Redeemer, Shelby. I thank the people at SPBTL for their warm hospitality and inspiring worship. It was such a pleasure sharing the Lord's Day with you!

I preached extemporaneously (from a few notes), so no written text today. The Holy Spirit chose to make the sermons similar, but unique, so both are included here on my blog.

Here is the sermon from the 8:30 service:

Here is the sermon from the 10:30 service:

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Pentecost 19A: Make us love what you command

Lectionary: Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18; Psalm 1; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46

En el nombre del Dios, Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

Living in covenant relationship with the Almighty can be a challenge. That’s why we prayed in our Collect that God might increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity.

Being a follower of Christ means being pushed beyond our comfort zones on a regular basis, and trusting that God is guiding us in every circumstance we face. It means remembering the promises of God and embodying hope in the face of earthly injustice. It means responding with love in the face of hatred or fear. It means being awake and constantly alert so that we can notice and serve the needs of our neighbor – even when that neighbor feels like our enemy.

I have to admit though, I struggled with the wording of the second half of our Collect: “make us love what you command” so that we may obtain your promises. Is this implying that unless God forces us to, we won’t love what God commands? ‘If you make me, I will get the prize - and I want the prize. So, you do the work and I’ll take the goody.’

The truth is, we do struggle to love what God commands. For example, we know that God’s justice always includes mercy, that God delays justice to allow for repentance, and we’re grateful for that when it is our sin God is judging and redeeming... but then… we also want anyone who hurts or betrays us to be punished – or at least be held publicly accountable – so that everyone will know the truth, and our sense of justice will be satisfied.

You see, for most of us that is the prize – satisfying our sense of justice. But for God, the prize is the reclamation of a lost soul.

Another example: we know that Jesus was an innocent victim, murdered by the religious and politically powerful of his time. His trial, conviction, and execution weren’t fair. It seemed, at least to those experiencing it then, that evil was triumphing over good, that hope was lost.

In the face of similar injustice today, most of us don’t die as willingly on our crosses as Jesus did on his. The cross is the place where the self dies for the sake of the other, and we have been commanded to take up our crosses and do just that. That’s why I say that loving what God commands can be a struggle. And it truly is a challenge living up to the responsibilities of covenant love.

In today’s story from the Gospel of Matthew, a second group of Scriptural experts asks Jesus a question meant to test him - to trip him up: what is the greatest commandment? Jesus answers by holding up the divine command for covenant love.

Quoting first from Deut 6:5, which is also the second line of the Shema, a prayer his listeners would have prayed every day, Jesus holds up what our part of covenant love with God looks like: we are to love God: totally – with all our hearts, minds, souls.

Then he completes his answer by quoting from Leviticus, holding up what covenant love with one another looks like: we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. Ending with this quote, Jesus reminds them (and us) of God’s command, spoken through Moses, that we are to be holy, for the Lord our God is holy.

Jesus then asks the religious authorities a question of his own – one that went directly to the preconceived notion most people, including the religious leadership, had about the Messiah. How can the Messiah be David’s son and his Lord? This was an impossibility in the cultural understanding of Jesus’ listeners.

As I’ve said before, I don’t think Jesus asked these questions to win intellectual battles. His purpose was to open the minds of the listeners, to reveal to them the shocking reality that their thinking and assumptions might be inadequate.

And it worked. The leadership was confounded, and no one dared to ask Jesus any more questions. This is probably one of our greatest challenges as well – letting go our preconceived notions and inadequate assumptions about how God might be acting to redeem right now.

One of the reasons I like a Christus Rex (bloggers: see the pic of the cross with the risen Christ as the body on it) is that it visually forces us to go beyond our imagination, to go beyond what makes sense in our thinking. The gospel writers tell us of a resurrected Jesus who was unrecognizable to his closest friends (at least at first), who could do something as spectacularly unexplainable as walking through locked doors, and something as mundane and unremarkable as eating fish with his friends.

The Christus Rex illustrates for us the truth that we can’t understand the resurrected Christ by our thinking. We can only know him by our faith.

The work Jesus began in today’s gospel – that of undoing preconceived notions - continues in us today. What do we think about the Messiah? And in what ways might our thinking or assumptions be limiting God’s redeeming work in the world right now?

For the early Christians, God’s redeeming work was limited by their understanding of inclusion. The issue then was circumcision. Did a person have to be a Jew, and therefore circumcised, in order to be a Christian? In the end, the answer was no.

Years ago, when I was a teenager, my family was moving into an exclusive, gated community. The covenants were such that the home-owners association could “interview” prospective home-buyers before they could close the deal on the exorbitantly expensive homes they wished to purchase.

After a series of interviews, my family was “approved” and invited to a celebratory afternoon tea to welcome us. One of the neighbor ladies graciously apologized to my parents for the “grueling” admission process. “We have to be careful to keep the wrong kind from getting in,” she said. “I’m sure you understand.”

My mother, always a bit devilish in the face of elitism, responded innocently, “No,… what do you mean?” “You know” the neighbor lady said, “the blacks, the Puerto Ricans… we have to be careful that the wrong kind don’t get in.”

“Oh,” said, my mother, who is Puerto Rican. “Too late – we’re in!” And we left the party.

From which neighbors are we being careful to protect ourselves? Will we take down those barriers and invite them into our friendship, our church, our lives? Who are the lost souls we can help to reclaim by offering forgiveness and mercy, trusting in God for justice? Will we take up our cross and die to self for the sake of another? Are we willing to hear and answer cries of our suffering and needy neighbors and embody hope for them?

In the providence of God, we have an opportunity to live out our covenantal responsibility to neighbor at “Connect, Commit to Change” next Saturday at the Cleveland fairgrounds from 10 am to 2 pm. We also have the pleasure of honoring one of our own today, Drew Rogers, who has met these responsibilities in a real and important way. We’ll do that together at his Eagle Ceremony after we share the peace (at the 10:30 service)

Till then we continue to pray: increase in us, Lord God, the gifts of faith, hope, and charity – and make us love what you command – that we might commit ourselves totally to you in covenant love, and be holy, as you, O Lord our God, are holy. Amen.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Pentecost 17A: Everything is ready

Note: There is no audio this week - the operator (me) failed to operate correctly. Thankfully there is text to share!

Lectionary: Isaiah 25:1-9; Psalm 23; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14

"Many are called, but few are chosen." Such an ominous ending to a pretty harsh sounding story. And I always get nervous when Jesus sounds ominous. So did the Pharisees and Scribes to whom Jesus was directing his remarks.

This was meant to sound ominous. Jesus was deliberately pointing to evil that was present, and reminding his listeners of the impending disaster that would follow for those who were complacent and self-reliant rather than faithful.

The parable of the wedding banquet is a transitional story in the Gospel of Matthew. It’s the last teaching Jesus does in the temple before his conflict with the Jewish leadership escalates to its climax…his crucifixion. This parable is also only found in the Gospel of Matthew, and it is in keeping with the author’s overriding purpose: to show that Jesus is the Messiah… that in Jesus, “God has begun to fulfill the promises to Israel.”

From the beginning, God called the people of Israel into covenant relationship so that through them the good news of salvation might be brought to the whole world. Remember God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis: “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. (Gen 12:3) And in Isaiah: I will give you as a light to the nations that my salvation may reach the ends of the earth.”” (Isa 49:6)

In the parable of the wedding banquet in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is announcing that this promise, and the purpose of the covenant with Israel, is being fulfilled. In Jesus, God’s plan of salvation is about to break out of the House of Israel and reach the ends of the earth and the Jewish leadership doesn’t want to hear it.

They, like many today, have grabbed hold of God’s grace as if it were theirs to own and to give to those whom they choose. They could not imagine the overwhelming graciousness of God’s generosity.

In addition, they had become so accustomed to being ‘the chosen,’ that they had become complacent, even hypocritical, about it. Figuring their salvation was assured, they sat back and ignored the rest of what being in covenant relationship required of them. They were called to be “a light to the nations,” to be imitators of God in the world, to reveal God’s grace to the world by the example of their lives.

In today’s reading, Isaiah describes God as: “…a refuge to the poor, …to the needy in distress, a shelter from the rainstorm..”. (Isa 25:4) But the religious establishment Jesus is confronting were far from imitators of that description of God, and Jesus slams them for their lack of compassion, their lack of justice, and the arrogance of their self-satisfaction. It is a harsh confrontation.

But as harsh as it is, Jesus is actually doing what God always does… making room for repentance… giving the Pharisees and Scribes the chance to make a new choice. So Jesus uses words and images that have deep meaning to his listeners, and leave very little doubt about the message.

For example, a banquet is symbolic language for the kingdom of God. The first set of slaves sent out with invitations to the banquet represent the ancient prophets of Israel. Those receiving the invitation represent the chosen people of Israel. The invitation is the call of Israel into a covenant relationship with God. But, the parable says, …they would not come.

So more slaves (that is, prophets) are sent, this time with the message: the king is still waiting for you, “everything is ready…come to the banquet.” Still, the chosen do not come.

When they finally did respond, their response was insolent and violent. They mistreated - even killed - the slaves (the prophets). The king (God) is enraged by their actions, so he sends his armies to destroy them and burn their city. Remember, fire is the traditional symbol for judgment.

Some commentators have noted that this reaction by God seems a bit overdone. It is - it’s supposed to be. Rabbis commonly used exaggeration to make a point; and Jesus, the rabbi, was making a point here: by their actions, their lives, the chosen ones had shown themselves to be unworthy.

So finally, the king (God) sends out a third group of slaves. These are meant to be understood as those followers of Jesus who will soon go out telling everyone they meet about the new age being inaugurated in Jesus, the Messiah of God.

This third group is told to go out into the streets. The original Greek of this word translates as ‘thoroughfare’…which is a road that is open at both ends. Go out beyond the boundaries, Jesus says, and gather all you can find …the good and the bad… and invite them to the banquet. For Jesus’ listeners, ‘the good’ meant the Jews, and ‘the bad’ meant the Gentiles …and both were to be invited.

But then the parable takes a darker turn. The king comes upon one of the new guests, who, though he did respond to the invitation, is not wearing a wedding robe… and this brings a disastrous response from the king. The king commands that the guest be tied up and thrown out into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (Sound familiar? These are words commonly used to describe hell).

Why was this poor soul cast out into hell? Well he made two mistakes. First, he failed to honor the king by doing what was expected of him as an invited guest. Guests at weddings in those days were expected to wear wedding robes. It was a symbol of inclusion. It also allowed the host to identify anyone who might have snuck in and crashed the party.

In addition, “vesting” or putting on new clothing, represents putting on a new identity. Think about Baptism, Confirmation, and Ordination. In the parable, the wedding robe is the symbol of a new identity, a converted life, a life that reflects the mercy, compassion, and love of God in the world. Refusing to wear the robe means being unwilling to be converted. That was the guest’s second mistake.

This part of the parable is a warning to the new guests, the New Covenant guests - us. We are the Gentiles Jesus foretold would be invited to the banquet. As such, we are now included among the chosen… those called to be a light to the nations and bearers of the good news in our world.

As chosen people, we are called to honor God… remembering that our salvation is God’s gift, freely given. We can’t earn it, and we don’t own it.

We can and must, however, respond to God’s invitation and put on the robe of our new identity, and our lives must reflect that identity. The living out of our Baptismal vows must happen in the world, not just in our words or our intentions.

That’s what Confirmation is for us – an anointing for mission. This afternoon at 4:00 the Bishop will anoint 12 new missioners who have chosen to answer their call from God to serve as part of the Redeemer family. These 12 have spent time discerning their call from God. As we welcome them, I ask the rest of us to ask ourselves: What am I doing, in my ministry at Redeemer to relieve the distress of the needy in our world? How do I, as part of the Redeemer family, do my part to “still the song of the ruthless”?

Is Redeemer a shelter in the storm? Do we provide a refuge for those in our world who are excluded or oppressed? Do we stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves, or speak for them when they have no voice… even when we risk being excluded ourselves because of it?

The message in Jesus’ parable is clear: the chosen will be known by their actions and their lives, not just by their words, or their intentions.

We have received the king’s invitation. The feast has been set for us…and everything is ready. Now we must make our choice. Will we put on our wedding robes, convert our lives, and live as God’s chosen?

This isn’t a choice we make just once. It’s a choice we make continually…throughout our lives… in order to convert whatever still needs converting or needs converting again.

The choice is ours. "For many are called, but few are chosen."

Friday, October 7, 2011

Doing Justice

Doing Justice

Prior to being clergy, I served as a shelter director and advocate for victims of violence. One little girl I served, a 4-year old named Lizzie (not her real name), suffered from fits of rage, something often seen in children who witness or suffer extreme violence at a very young age.

Lizzie’s rages were triggered by sounds, smells or events that connected her to memories of her abuse. Doctors and therapists were brought in to treat Lizzie and they instructed us on how to immediately interrupt her violent behavior while rewarding her good behavior.

Well, we tried. For weeks, every time Lizzie went into one of her rages, we did they said but Lizzie wasn’t responding. In fact, her violence toward herself and others was increasing.

One afternoon, as I was talking with Lizzie’s mom in the shelter, a little boy came in from playing outside and slammed the door shut behind him. Lizzie, who had been playing quietly on the floor in front of us, ran to the corner of the room and curled up in a fetal position. A rage began to overtake her. Lizzie’s mother responded immediately, but Lizzie would not be comforted. She began trying to hurt herself, running at full speed into the furniture. Lizzie’s mother, totally overwhelmed, sat down on the floor and began to cry.

I caught Lizzie in my arms as she ran across the room, sat down on the floor, and began to rock her in my lap. I spoke softly to her, telling her that she was loved. Lizzie punched at me, even bit me on my arm, but I continued to hold her and softly speak words of love to her. Eventually, Lizzie stopped struggling and rested in my arms, her breaths short and sharp from her tantrum. Then she looked up at me, her eyes still puffy from crying and asked, “Am I a good girl?” “Yes, darling, you’re a good girl.” A moment later, Lizzie was asleep.

That was the last fit Lizzie ever threw. By the grace of God, I knew in that frantic moment that what Lizzie needed was the assurance that she was loved. Being only four years old, Lizzie lacked the words she needed to describe how the violence she had witnessed and suffered made her feel. She was too scared to tell anyone that she thought she must be to blame for the nightmare she lived, and she was too vulnerable to speak her greatest fear – that she wasn’t loved. So instead, she acted out.

This reminds me of the woman in the parable of the unjust judge (Lk 18:1-8). To those who listened to her with earthly ears, she was an annoyance. But to God she was a beloved child, and God acted swiftly to bring about justice for her. God cares deeply about the powerless, the vulnerable, and the abused, and so should we. (Mt 25:40)

October is Domestic Violence Awareness month. Last year, the Abuse Prevention Council (APC) here in Shelby, provided shelter to 287 women and 173 children. They advocated and filed for 827 orders of protection to keep these women and their families safe from their abusers.

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that:

· an estimated 1.3 million women are assaulted by their intimate partners each year.

· boys who witness domestic violence are twice as likely to abuse their own partners and children when they become adults.

· 30% to 60% of those who abuse their intimate partners also abuse children in the household.

· the cost of intimate partner violence exceeds $5.8 billion each year, $4.1 billion of which is for direct medical and mental health services (Source:

As people of God, we are called to open ourselves to hear the pleas of those in our midst who suffer. More than that, though, we are required to act, to do justice. (Micah 6:8)

How can we do that? We can be the mouths that speak love and offer hope to victims of abuse in our area. We can inform ourselves about domestic violence, and support the APC and their efforts to rebuild the broken lives of the women and children they serve, volunteering our time, talents, and expertise to strengthen their services. We can be the place where the grace of God touches the wounded children of God. We can, and we must.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Pentecost 16A: God's will, God's fruit

Lectionary: Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80: 7-14; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46

Lectionary: Isaiah 5:1-7 Psalm 80: 7-14 Philippians 3:4b-14 Matthew 21:33-46

Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve…

These words from our Collect are very comforting… especially in the face of difficult times. We live in a world where some people wonder if they’ll ever feel safe or secure again. Terrorists are still terrorizing all around the world. Worldwide stock markets remain nervous and erratic. There is a new discussion about whether college is worth the cost, which is exorbitant anymore (believe me, I know this – and I think it IS worth it) and our elderly wonder if their retirement savings will last as long as they do.

When faced with problems as big as this we need to know that God is big enough, loving enough, and involved enough to help us. Praying to God for that comfort is a right and good thing to do. We pray asking for mercy, for help. Some people even pray for money, or victory for their political candidate or sporting team.

Praying for specific things like that is fine. Ask and you shall receive, as the saying goes. But the true benefit of prayer is that it re-sets our minds and our hearts by bringing us into the presence of God and aligning us to God’s will – not God to our will.

It is in prayer that we remember that God, who created the whole universe and all that is in it, is the strength that covers our weakness, and is always ready to pour upon us an abundance of mercy and forgiveness. But in difficult times, people are often very aware of their unworthiness and they get fearful. ‘If we follow all of the rules,’ they say, ‘if we’re really good and do everything just right, God will look upon us favorably and spare us from this trial. It’s a tempting, but fruitless endeavor.

We don’t buy God’s love and mercy with our good behavior or pious living. God’s love is already ours – as promised over and over again in Holy Scripture and proven beyond all doubt in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, our Savior.

If our behavior is right and good it’s because we are living into the truth about whom we are – God’s beloved, redeemed children. Right behavior is not the way to faithfulness; it’s the fruit of it. As Mother Theresa of Calcutta has said, “If you know how much God is in love with you, you can’t help but live your life radiating that love.”

But we are a faithless people. We judge ourselves and others despite all of the commands not to, and while we may have convinced ourselves that our judgments carry the weight of God’s will, it is actually our will, not God’s, being done.

God provided everything that was needed to bring about shalom: a fullness of harmony between God, God’s people, and creation. As we read in Isaiah: “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?” (Isaiah 5:4)

But the reality confronting Jesus in today’s Gospel, was anything but harmonious, and the parable of the wicked tenants is a scathing judgment by Jesus against the religious leadership and their followers – the Jewish people. In this parable, the absent landowner is God. The vineyard is a common metaphor for the nation of Israel. The slaves represent the prophets (whom the Jews tended to kill) and the tenants are the people of Israel and their religious leaders, who kill even the landowner’s son – the Messiah.

What should this landlord do with these tenants? Jesus asks. ‘They should suffer a miserable death,’ the leadership replies, ‘and the land should be leased to someone else – someone who will give the owner the fruits of the harvest.’ Jesus has led the religious leadership to declare judgment on themselves – and when they realized it, they were steaming mad!

There are three things I want to hold up about this parable today. First, in the continuing revelation of Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus has, by this parable, identified himself as the son of the landowner (God’s son) and predicted his death at the hands of his own people.

Secondly, Jesus identifies himself as the cornerstone. By quoting from Psalm 118, which the religious leadership knew very well, Jesus points to the amazing things God is about to do through him, namely: open the gates of righteousness, overcome death, and bring salvation to the whole world.

Finally, like the parable of the two sons (which we read last week), this parable is inclusive. Jesus doesn’t condemn the tenants to exclusion from the kingdom of God, but he does take from them their work tending the vineyard and gives it to another people (the word here is ‘nation’ – and would have meant ‘Gentiles’ to Jesus’ listeners).

This new people (the Gentiles) will produce fruit for the owner to harvest. Notice that, once again, no one is booted out of the kingdom, but the unclean, sinful ‘others’ are not only brought in, they are given the responsibility of the care of the kingdom.

Now before we get all confident about our status as this new people, we might take a look at how well we – those to whom this work has been given – are doing? How much fruit are we producing for God’s harvest? How many souls, who are hated by culture, have we loved and welcomed into this house, into the family of God?

Well, if you’ve ever been here on a Wednesday during the Shepherd’s Table and Food Pantry ministries, the fruits of Redeemer’s care for the kingdom are pretty evident. And last night I attended an organizational meeting of Neighbors for Equality, a grass roots organization originating from Boiling Springs whose larger purpose is to support and protect the rights of Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender people among us.

Kingdom fruits. Shalom.

Here’s the challenge churches and church communities face: we love our church. We love our church family. We love and our church’s habits. But when we work to create or maintain a church that fits our design, our plan, then we are just like the chief priests and the Pharisees in Jesus’ time and we can expect the same results.

God is the owner of this vineyard, not us. We are simply called to be fruitful servants, and if we want to know how to be fruitful servants, we have a great example in Paul in his letter to the Philippians. In three simple phrases, Paul shows us how to get there: First, he says, we come to “know Christ and the power of his resurrection.” (Phil 4:14) Then, “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, [we] press on toward the goal…” (Phil 3:13-14) trusting that “Jesus Christ has made [us] his own…” (Phil 4:12)

We come to know Christ by praying, individually and in community asking for what we need, but more importantly, aligning our wills to God’s will. And leaving the past behind us, we move forward by allowing God to make the changes that God needs made in us, individually and as a community, so that we can press on toward the goal of shalom – or as we often say it, the reconciliation of the world to God in Christ.

We belong to God who is the strength that covers our weakness. And God is always ready to give us more than we desire or deserve. In return, we have to use the gifts God has given us - being as generous to those who have been judged unworthy as God is to us pouring upon them an abundance of mercy and forgiveness.

We must live the truth of who we are: God’s beloved, redeemed children. Amen.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Pentecost 15A, 2001: Dancing with God

Lectionary: Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32; Psalm 25: 1-8; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

En el nombre del Dios, Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo.

Recently, Steve and I went to the first ever clergy-spouse-partner retreat hosted by our Bishop and his wife at Kanuga. The first night after we shared dinner together, we did something radical for a group of priests – we danced! Yep! We danced – some of us well, some not, but we danced – and had a ball.

Dancing has always been important in my family of origin. My parents were amazing dancers – they could do the fox trot, the rhumba, the Lindy, the waltz – and they did it all with such style! My three sisters and I all learned and practiced these dances at every wedding and family celebration (and with our big family, we had a lots of practice!).

My father was a great dance partner. He never criticized us while we were learning. I remember being little, maybe 8 years old when Dad invited me onto the dance floor to learn the waltz. He put his hand out to me and said, “Come on. This is a waltz. It’s time for you to learn it.” I was hesitant because I’m the sort of person who would rather learn something in the privacy of my home rather than in public. But Dad, whose confidence in himself and in me was unwavering, simply waked me out to the middle of the dance floor, put my left hand on his arm which wrapped around my waist, and took my right hand into his up high. He leaned in close and with a smile I loved so much, said to me, “Just relax, lean back into my arm, and follow me. Look only at me. I will lead you. Trust me.” I did exactly what he said. We glided around the floor in what felt like a fantasy to me. When the music ended people were applauding. I looked around and noticed that everyone had cleared the dance floor. They were all standing around the edge applauding and cheering us! My Dad was beaming.

For me, the journey of life as a child of God is like dancing with my Dad. God, whose love for me is unwavering, will lead. All I need to do is relax, lean back into God’s arms, and trust. “Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation.” (the refrain from our chanted psalm)

In the gospel lesson today, members of the Sanhedrin, a group of high court judges who were the most learned, “faithful,” and powerful in the Jewish community, want to know by what authority Jesus is teaching and ministering. Is it by God’s authority or his own? Jesus offers them a trade: I’ll answer your question if you answer mine. If you can tell me by what authority John baptized, then I will tell you by what authority I teach and minister.

The question put these judges in a quandary. If they say John the Baptist acted on God’s authority, they condemn themselves for not following him. If they say John baptized on his own authority, they risk the wrath of the crowds who believe John to be a prophet of God. Finding themselves between the proverbial rock and hard place, they answered, “we don’t know.”

Fair enough, Jesus says. Then I won’t answer your question. Many commentators and readers of Scripture love to applaud Jesus for out-smarting the chief priests and elders, but I really don’t think that was his goal. Jesus wasn’t about winning intellectual contests. He was – and still is – always about reconciliation of the whole world to God, which he accomplished in all humility and obedience “to the point of death - even death on a cross. (Phil 2:8)

The members of the Sanhedrin, however, were not of that same mind. They were concerned with their own interests, namely, their power, authority, and reputation – like many of us are. The stories of people who put others’ needs before their own, or people who are humbly obedient, are rare. I think of the news story last week about the people who risked their own lives to lift a burning car off of a young motorcyclist and drag him to safety.

Then I tried to remember the last time I saw a news story about someone who was humbly obedient. How many shows currently on TV or in the movies extol the virtues of humility or obedience? How many paparazzi follow celebrities who are humble or obedient? Are there any celebrities who are humble and obedient?

So it isn’t just the chief priests and elders – it all of us. Humans have to work at living humbly and in true obedience to God. That’s one of the reasons we do this thing called “church” together.

Back to the gospel: we need to remember that the chief priests and elders are not Jesus’ enemies. They are, like us, people of God and part of God’s plan of redemption. So Jesus responds to them as he responds to all of us who struggle to live faithfully: with respect, with a teaching, and with an invitation.

“What do you think?” Jesus asks them, honoring that they are learned in these things. A father (a common reference to God in rabbinical stories) asks his two sons to work in the vineyard (a symbol for the kingdom of God). The first son refuses to obey his father, but later repents of that choice and goes to work in the vineyard. The second son agrees to obey, but fails to follow-up. Which one, Jesus asks, did the will of his father? The answer is obvious to the listeners: the first son.

Then Jesus concludes his teaching with one of the most comforting, inclusive statements in this gospel: “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” (Mt 21:32)

How is that comforting? Well, notice that Jesus does not exclude the second son (that is, the members of the Sanhedrin) from the kingdom of God. Instead, he invites them to lay down the burden of their own authority and rest in the mercy of God.

Jesus says, “Truly I tell you…” which is Scripture-code for “Listen up. This is important.” The ones you, who claim to have authority, have judged unworthy - the tax collectors and prostitutes, those whose sin is out there for all to see like the first son in the parable - these will be the first ones into the kingdom of God because they know they are sinners, and they are willing to repent.

But you who believe you have it all right and don’t need to change, you who pretend to obey while you sin in secret, you will find yourselves bringing up the rear, where you surely will learn humility.

Notice that no one is being booted out of the kingdom of God for being wrong or arrogant or misled. That isn’t God’s way. As God reminds us through the prophet Ezekiel: “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone… Turn, then, and live.” Turn and be humble. Turn and be obedient. Return to God and live. (Ezek 18:32)

When we gather each Sunday for worship and Christian formation (and we should ALL be gathering for worship and Christian formation), we come to know God who is revealed to us in Scripture, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers – sung or said. We come to be in the presence of the One who assures us that we will not be booted out of the kingdom for having made a mistake or losing our way.

We come to be freed from the burden of carrying our own authority; and we come to rest in God’s mercy.

We come to dance with God.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Pentecost 13A: Seventy seven times

Audio only - no text today. We did a children's sermon and demonstration instead. The demonstration involved a beach ball with "Jesus loves you" on it (3 times). The ball represented the grace of God and the rector tossed the ball to/at the children. The children held folded papers in their hands which represented sins to be let go, specifically forgiveness that needed to be received (for something we did or didn't do) or given (for something done to us).

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Pentecost 12-A: The Forgiveness Factor

En el nombre del Dios, Padre, Hijo y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

High on the list of things I love about our Prayer Book are the Collects. In today’s Collect we heard: “Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts…” because when we rely on our own strength we stand alone, but God, whose love and faithfulness are steadfast, promises to be with us when we remember, proclaim, and exercize God’s mercy.

When the Israelites heeded Ezekiel’s warning to repent of their sin and return to God, they sank into despair, “Our sins weigh heavy upon us [they said] …how then can we live?” Their sins weighed heavy on them, as one commentator put it, because they did not remember God’s mercy, and so they feared “being at the mercy of God.”

But, as Ezekiel reminded the Israelites, God takes “no pleasure in the death of the wicked” but desires “that the wicked turn from their ways and live…” And God will wait patiently, providing us time and room to repent, to turn from our ways.

Jewish theologian, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, said: “There is always a dimension of God’s pervading affection where compassion prevails over justice, where mercy is a perpetual possibility.” Or as my daughter Jessica once said it: “The thing about God is the forgiveness factor.”

Grant us, O Lord, to remember your mercy as a perpetual possibility, to trust in the forgiveness factor with all our hearts…

God’s mercy is something we hope for in regard to our own sin, but do we hope for it as much for the one has sinned against us? Or do we wait, and wish, and watch for God’s punishment to fall on those who have wronged us?

What is our response to sin? What should it be? This is a particularly poignant issue as we approach the 10th anniversary of 9-11. The answer can be partially found in the video series on YouTube called: “The Forgiveness Series.” I’ve linked this on my blog: I’ll put it on our Facebook page too.

The Forgiveness Series is a documentary done in small parts interviewing first responders, individuals who lost loved ones in the terrorist attacks, and regular folk on the street, and asking them about forgiveness. One of the videos in the series is about Cheryl McGuinness, whose husband was a pilot on the plane that was hijacked and flown into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Cheryl said she knew what her response to the evil that day had to be: she had to forgive – for herself and for her children.

Here are a few other comments from people in that video: “The first step in forgiveness is deciding you want to do it. It can take years…” “Getting even is utterly weak. It’s the easiest thing in the world to do. To rise above that takes a lot of strength…” “What usually happens is that people carry around anger in such a way that they are crippled by their own anger…” “Forgiveness is really a gift you give to yourself. You free yourself of anger and resentment…” “…[Forgiveness] doesn’t mean you condone what was done, it doesn’t mean you want that person back in your life. It simply means that you no longer carry with you this polluting force that really poisons you.”

Studies have shown that holding onto anger and resentment in our minds and in our lives, affects our bodies. “Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you…like Cheryl did… with all our hearts…”

It remains a temptation, when we’ve been sinned against, to want revenge, to imagine God smiting our enemy and smiling on us as we watch them being punished for hurting us. But God’s wrath, as presented in Scripture, is always bound together with grace and mercy making space for repentance and restoration of life – for everyone.

Our wrath must be like that too.

Our beloved Episcopal Church, which is part of the world-wide Anglican Communion continues to struggle to find a way to live in communion with itself and with Anglicans throughout the world. Parts of the Anglican communion, even parts of the Episcopal Church, are using divisive terms like ‘schism’ and ‘excommunication’ and using Scripture to justify their position. In fact, this part of the Gospel of Matthew is often used to justify the excommunication of members from the body of Christ.

So let’s review Jesus’ instruction to us on how to respond to sin within the church. First, Jesus says, go to the person who sinned against you and meet with them privately. It’s possible that they don’t know they offended you or they don’t realize how offended you really were. Tell them when you’re alone so they’re not humiliated… because a humiliated person is more likely to be defensive than repentant.

If the person doesn’t listen, go back – and bring two others with you as witnesses so that you won’t be misinterpreted (this was a common practice in Jesus’ time). If that doesn’t work, take your complaint to the church. Seek the prayerful help of the whole community in restoring right relationship – because that’s the goal – restoring right relationship.

And if all else fails, Jesus says, let them be to you “as a Gentile, and a tax collector.” Now the Gentile and the tax collector were, in that culture, iconic examples of people living outside of community. That’s why this verse has so often been interpreted as biblical warrant for excommunication.

But it’s important to remember how Jesus himself treated Gentiles and tax collectors… remembering especially that the gospel we read today, is the Gospel of Matthew, who was a tax collector until Jesus called him to follow him.

So what does Jesus mean by this? If a person is outside of community, work to bring them in. If a person refuses to be reconciled, how many times do we offer it? In the verse that follows what we read today, Jesus says, “seventy times seven times” or in other words, as many times as it takes.

In some cases reconciliation is begun by our choice to forgive, to loose the sin, but accomplished by God, long after we have moved on or even died, because ultimately, reconciliation is the work of God (remember what Jesus did on the cross). Our partnership with God simply calls us to do our part – to loose the sin.

If we look at the body of Jesus’ teachings, we see Jesus calling his followers to be humble, to be welcoming to all, and to persevere beyond reason so that “everyone might come within the reach of [Christ’s] saving embrace.” St. Paul reminds us that Christians are called to live in harmony with each other to go beyond what is expected, reasonable, or even logical, in offering forgiveness and seeking reconciliation. That is, after all, what Jesus did for us.

When Jesus says, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” he is warning us, like Ezekiel warned the Israelites, that whenever we cling to sin, it will always lead to death. If we bind a sin on earth by withholding forgiveness (which means we have judged that sinner unworthy of grace) or by falling into despair (which means we have judged ourselves unworthy of grace) then that sin will continue to wield it’s negative power in our lives, leading us to despair and death – the ultimate in being lost.

But if we choose to loose any sin here on earth, it is loosed in heaven. In our Rite of Reconciliation of a Penitent, (BCP, 451) after the penitent has made their confession and received absolution, the priest says, “Now there is rejoicing in heaven; for you were lost, and now are found; you were dead, and are now alive in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Loosing sin opens the way for God’s grace to restore life. Christians are called to unbind sin by meeting it with forgiveness, to respond with love and do no wrong to one another, to overcome evil with good… over and over and over again.

This is not a call to become doormats for the wicked. It is a call to trust God with all our hearts
and to persevere in that trust beyond reason like Jesus did until every single one who is lost – is found and restored to life.

Today we will gather at our chancel and release whatever sin we are holding onto in our bodies and souls during our time of our healing prayer. Today we can loose the sin the continues to wield it’s negative power in our lives, and we can be free of it… remembering that we have already asked God to grant us the grace of trusting in God with all our hearts, trusting the ‘forgiveness factor.’

“Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts….”