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.