Sunday, December 31, 2017

Xmas 1: Contemplating the Word

I loved celebrating as supply and preaching at St. Mary's, St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Morganton, NC. Such a great, easygoing, friendly church filled with faithful people! My sermon is below in audio and text.

Lectionary: Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 147 or 147:13-21; Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7; John 1:1-18

(Note: if the audio player above doesn't work for you, click HERE for another audio format. You will be relocated to my website)

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

I’d like to begin today by sharing with you the wise words of an often under-employed theologian: Calvin, from the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, by Bill Waterson. Calvin says, “You know what’s weird? Day by day, nothing changes, but pretty soon, everything is different.”

I doubt I’ve ever heard a better description of the journey to Christian maturity, what we like to call: lifelong Christian formation. As we enter this season of Christmas, Calvin’s wisdom urges us to step back and notice the big picture for ourselves as individuals and as a church community… taking a God’s eye view, we might say.

Thankfully our gospel reading on the first Sunday after Christmas offers us a way to do that. The language in the prologue John often sets people’s minds spinning: “The Word was with God and the word was God…” But that’s because this prologue was meant to invite us enter a mystical divine experience; but in order to do that we must step out of our comfort zones and listen anew - with open hearts, open minds, and open ears.

To facilitate this, I will share with you a prayerful translation of this Gospel which I did directly from the Greek text. Don’t worry… I’ve had it checked it for accuracy by people much better at Greek than I am, so I promise - this won’t lead you astray.

(Note: This congregation didn’t have a printed lectionary. but please feel free to look at your lectionary as I read this translation.)

1. In the first place, a living voice (a conception/an idea) happens and this living voice (this conception/idea) is God; and the living voice (the conception/idea) implies the ultimate purpose of God.

2. This existence was in the first, most dignified position with regard to God.

3. Everyone individually and all things begin to be, to appear in history on account of him and without him not even one thing begins to be or comes to pass.

4. Every living soul who begins to be and all that comes to pass through him is the absolute fullness of life and apart from him no one comes into being and not one thing comes to pass.

5. Indeed, this truth shed light on the darkness, which was due to ignorance of divine things, and the darkness (the ignorance) did not apprehend it or join itself to it.

6. A human being came into existence, sent from God, and his name was John.

7. He came to tell people about future events; and he knows these things because he was taught by divine revelation about the true and sincere light in order that those who hear him, each one individually and everyone, might be persuaded and have confidence in him.

8. He is not the true and sincere light, but he exists in order to be a witness, to implore people on account of the true and sincere light.

9. The true and sincere light is present among human beings and is the one who causes saving truth to become clear to each one, to everyone, and to all things. This true and sincere one comes into the harmonious order (the world) for human beings.

10. He is present in the harmonious order (the world), and through him the world happens but the world did not learn to know or understand him.

11. He arrives to what belongs to him, and what belongs to him does not accept him, it does not allow him to join them to himself.

12. But as for as those who take hold of his hand, who are persuaded about his true name and everything that that means, to them he gives the gift of the power of choice, the freedom to begin being children of God;

13. children who are born of his blood (his seat of life) not from human action; children who are brought over to his way of life by God.

14. And the living voice (conception/idea) began to be flesh and lived for a while among us; and we look upon him with attention, we contemplate and admire him as the unfolded fullness of God, complete and sufficient in kindness and assistance towards us and reveling everything as it really is.

15. John affirms what he knows by divine revelation and cries out in a loud voice saying, “This one exists, and his existence affirms what was said: that the one who comes after me is the one who is first in time and place and rank.”

16. Because he himself is the fulfillment, we - each one individually, and everyone as a whole- take a hold of goodwill and carry loving-kindness because of his grace.

17. While Moses supplied the law and customs which helped us live in a way approved by God, grace and a true understanding of God happened (came to pass) through Jesus Christ.

18. No one and no thing has ever seen God with their eyes and understood what they saw. It is only the presence of God, the one who partakes of the same blessedness of the founder of the family, who unfolds by teaching and reveals God. (John 1:1-18)

Our journey as Christians is a lifelong process of making the choice to live as children of God or to live in the darkness of ignorance about divine things. Our tradition is important to us in this because it grounds us, supports us, and holds us steady as the Spirit of God moves within us, leading us beyond our comfort zones into mystic union - what I call the breathing in of God; and the earthy ministries that manifest as a result of that - what I call the breathing out of God.

But the Spirit isn’t confined by any law or custom or tradition. We are justified by faith, as we heard in the letter to the Galatians. So any law or custom or tradition that impedes the free movement of the Spirit, becomes a prison of darkness which shuts out the true and sincere light of truth who is Jesus the Christ.

If we are to claim our inheritance then, we must be willing to be changed by God. I say this knowing some people hate that word, “change.” But we must be willing to be changed by God, again and again so that we can be formed into bearers of goodwill, and carriers of loving-kindness to the world in Jesus’ name.

Franciscan priest and theologian Richard Rohr says, “Change can either help people to find a new meaning, or it can cause people to close down and turn bitter. The difference is determined by the quality of our inner life, …what we call ‘spirituality’ …spiritual transformation is an active process of letting go…”

That’s what the Christmas season offers us: time and support to build our spiritual lives by practicing the spiritual discipline of letting go… stepping outside our comfort zones and letting go what we think we know about God, ourselves, and our neighbor, and making room in our hearts and our lives for the Christ to reveal to us everything as it really is.

As we contemplate the Word, the Logos of God, presented so beautifully in this Gospel from John, I pray we open ourselves to hear with new ears, that we might allow the Spirit of God free movement within us, to change us, to guide us, and to motivate us to be sincere lights of the truth in our world. Then we shall be as Isaiah prophesied: a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord… a royal diadem in the hand of [our] God. (62:3)

I close with a prayer from another of my favorite theologians – so you’ve had three today: Calvin, Richard Rohr, and Bishop Steven Charleston. Bp. Steven is the retired bishop of Alaska, retired Dean of Episcopal Divinity School, and a member of the Choctaw nation. Let’s pray his prayer together: “Give your heart to love today, not to old thoughts of who you were, but to the new idea that your kindness could change another life. Give your mind to hope today, not to the usual list of impossibilities, but to a single faith that goodness is the purpose of history. Give your spirit to peace today, not to the anger of the moment, but to the welcoming road of grace that leads to the home for which you have longed. Give your hands to the work of justice today, not in resignation but in certainty, knowing that what you do will make an enormous difference.”


Sunday, December 24, 2017

Christmas Eve, 2017: Participants in the living Christmas story

I had the privilege once again of supplying at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Chester, SC. My sermon is below in text and audio formats (two of them).

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

(Note: if the above player doesn't work on your device click HERE.

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

Merry Christmas Eve!

We gather together today to joyfully receive the gift of our Redeemer, to collectively behold him with sure confidence of his love for us and his purpose for our lives. Having prepared ourselves for this during Advent, we stand together now ready to be reborn with him, as daughters and sons of God.

It is truly a joyful moment - for us and for the whole world. The reason is, we are not passive observers in this Christmas story, or in the continuing plan of redemption. We are active participants.

We aren’t here today simply to recount the first chapter of the greatest story ever told. We’re here to live it again.

Each of us is alive and breathing and here in this moment because God wants it that way. God has sent us to participate in making manifest the will of God on earth so that everyone will come to know the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ. Each of us has our part to play, our obedience to give, and our shame to bear as we live into our purpose.

Luke’s gospel narrative demonstrates this for us through Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds. They show us how doing our part requires us to trust God’s love, to go where God sends us, and then tell the world the Good News we have to share.

Coming up pregnant prior to her marriage to Joseph, Mary could have been stoned to death for adultery. That was the law. She could have said, ‘No’ to the public shaming her pregnancy would bring her – but she didn’t. She told the angel Gabriel that she would do whatever God asked of her. By giving not only her ‘Yes,’ but her body and her life to God, Mary participated with God in bringing about the will of God on the earth.

Being a righteous man, Joseph, who was a descendant of the great King David, could have said, ‘No, I won’t go register. I won’t participate in this unfair, unholy, earthly institution which will feed the monster Roman government that occupies our land. He could have said, I won’t submit myself to the public shame Mary’s condition will bring to me.’ He could have said that, but he didn’t. Instead, he walked 90 miles to Bethlehem with his pregnant girlfriend to register as he was required to do. By doing so, Joseph publicly and legally claimed Jesus as his son, legitimating him and Mary according to earthly institutions.

Joseph’s journey also fulfilled what had been prophesied: that the Messiah would be born of the house of David in the city of Bethlehem. By going where God sent him, Joseph participated with God in bringing about the will of God on the earth.

As the plan unfolded for Mary and Joseph, it brought one degradation after another, culminating with their inability to find a decent place to lodge. We traditionally translate this problem as “no room at the inn” but a better translation, a truer translation is: “no room in the guest quarters.” (New Interpreter’s Study Bible, Abingdon Press, 1855.)

It may have been that there really was no room. The census would have brought lots of visitors to Bethlehem all at once. But given the shameful circumstance of Mary’s condition it was more likely that Joseph’s family simply wouldn’t admit them into their homes and the only place made available to them was the space where the animals were kept – a serious insult to the holy family.

In the big picture, however, the Word became Incarnate to reconcile the whole world to God. So even his place of birth demonstrates that truth that the poor, the judged, and those excluded from civilized treatment on earth are given a place of honor in God’s plan of salvation.

Which brings us to the shepherds, the first to hear of this world-changing event. The shepherds were as lowly as the manger that held the infant Messiah. The angel told the shepherds that the Messiah of God had been born in Bethlehem; a baby in a manger wrapped in bands of cloth. Well they thought about it, discussing it amongst themselves – it was a strange announcement, you know - then they decided to go see this baby.

The shame they bore? It was who they are: shepherds. They were dirty, smelly, not allowed to go into the place of worship, and not likely to be welcomed into the presence of, “civilized” people. That didn’t stop them, though. Despite the potential for rejection, the shepherds went to Bethlehem, found the baby, and made known what they had seen and been told – and everyone was amazed by what they said. Everyone. By speaking their truth despite the risk of rejection, the shepherds participated with God in bringing about the will of God on the earth.

But these events took place two millennia ago. What does it mean for us today? Why do we gather now to remember it?

In his book, “Jesus Today” Dominican priest, Albert Nolan, says this: “On the whole, we don’t take Jesus very seriously… by and large we don’t love our enemies, we don’t turn the other cheek, we don’t forgive seventy times seven times, we don’t bless those who curse us, we don’t share what we have with the poor...” (Jesus Today, Orbis Books, xvii).

Why don’t’ we? Nolan suggests that many of us believe that these are great ideals, but that actually doing them “isn’t very practical in this day and age.”

Well, I think Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds might have said the same thing in their day. Following Jesus has never been practical. Never. It isn’t supposed to be.

Following Jesus is revolutionary! And that is why we’re here today. We are the body of Christ in the world today. Our purpose is to do our part to bring about the will of God on earth.

We are all Mary, giving our “yes,” offering our bodies, our souls, and our lives to God. We are all Joseph, going where God sends us. And we are all the shepherds, proclaiming the truth we know despite the risk of rejection. We do that because the world that aches to hear it.

“Joy to the world, the Lord is come.” And he dwells in us.

May Christ be born in us today in a very real way. God knows, the world needs that.


Sunday, December 17, 2017

Advent 3 and 4, 2017: Be like Mary

I had the pleasure of celebrating our thanks with my beloved friends at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Chester, SC. Lectionary for the combined Advent 3 and 4: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 (Adv 3); Canticle 15 (Adv 3 and 4); Romans 16:25-27 (Adv 4); Mark 1:1-8 (Adv 3) and Luke 1:26-38 (Adv 4)

Below is my sermon: Be like Mary. The image attached is an icon I wrote called "First Communion." Permission to copy or use this copyrighted image must be obtained from me. Thank you.

Note: If this audio player doesn't work on your device, click HERE for a different audio format.

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

Today we are celebrating the third Sunday of Advent, known as Gaudete Sunday AND the fourth Sunday of Advent. (Reference to Advent wreath candles and rose colored vestments.)

The word 'gaudete' comes from the Latin and it means 'to welcome and to be filled with joy.' The word is an imperative, which compels us to remember that no matter what has us weighed down, brokenhearted, angry, frustrated or hopeless, we are to set that aside, just for a moment, and open ourselves to be filled with joy – joy that anticipates the saving action of God who comes with great might and bountiful grace to help us; joy that trusts that nothing is impossible with God.

On the 3rd and 4th Sundays in Advent, we pray together the Magnificat – Mary’s radical, powerful prayer of praise to God and her voluntary gift of herself - her body, her soul, and her life – to be God’s partner in the plan of salvation, the reconciliation of the whole world to God in Christ.

For centuries the descriptors most often used about Mary are: meek and mild. Mary was probably meek, that is submissive, in the same way her son, Jesus was, for example, at his trial. Jesus was submissive to God’s plan but not to the Roman prefect. Likewise, Mary submitted herself and her life to God and God’s plan, but she was anything but mild about it. She was downright courageous and probably a bit directive, as most good leaders are.

I think of Mary sitting at the cross as her son died – the men having high tailed it to safety… and the wedding at Cana when Mary solved the wine problem by telling everyone to do whatever her son told them, despite Jesus’ own reluctance to work that miracle just then. Like a good son, he obeyed his mother and the feast fairly overflowed with fabulous wine.

The Greeks call Mary “Theotokos” which means “God-bearer.” Mary opened herself to ridicule, exile, even death, so that the Savior could grow within her unmarried body. Then she birthed him into manifest reality. Hers was, therefore, the first communion – she literally gave the body of Christ to the world… making her the first sacramental priest of the Christian universe.

I think it was medieval priest and mystic Meister Eckhart who said we are all called to be ‘theotokos.’ We are all called to grow Christ within us - in our bodies, our souls, and our lives – and give him to the world. This is the ministry of all the baptized (not just the ordained) as a royal priesthood.

Be like Mary: submissive to God’s will, courageous, directive, willing to grow the Christ within you, then give him to the world.

Our church calendar offers us a rhythm of penitential-preparatory seasons followed by the celebratory seasons… Advent to Christmas and Lent to Easter… then time to rest and grow. Advent is one of the penitential-preparatory seasons. It’s a time when we, like Mary, offer to God our whole selves – our bodies, souls, and lives – as God’s partners in the continuing work of reconciliation.

It’s penitential because during Advent we summon up the courage to notice where sin exists in us and how it is manifested in our lives. For example, wherever a relationship is disrupted, there is sin. Whether that relationship is with God, another person, or our treatment of creation, sin disrupts relationship. We repent when we change ourselves and what we do in order to restore right relationship, or as the Bible calls it: righteousness.

We are the bearers of the Spirit of God in Christ in the world today. This identity is given to us in our Baptism, therefore, we like Mary, are partners with God in the reconciling work of salvation. Are we willing to be like Mary: submissive to God’s will, courageous, directive, willing to grow the Christ within us, then give him to the world?

Mary’s Magnificat was her manifesto – her public proclamation of her theology, grounded in her tradition. Think about that, this woman raised Jesus, and this is the theology he learned from her:
• that God is great, merciful, strong, and protective
• that God brings down the mighty from their places of power and lifts up the lowly
• that God feeds those who hunger and sends the self-satisfied away empty
• that God helps God’s people
• that God keeps God’s promises which are handed down through the tradition of the prophets in Scripture

This is our manifesto too. Do we have the courage to proclaim it? …to live it?

Some of us do. Look at what’s happening right now with the #MeToo movement. Women are proclaiming with courage and men in every arena of our common life are finding themselves brought down from their places of power. Women are finally being heard and acknowledged in their demand for respect, dignity, and justice.

I give thanks for this uncomfortable moment in our cultural narrative. I give thanks that racism is being called out – again; that sexism is being called out – again. Courageous people are proclaiming their Magnificat and God is acting to make all things right again, and this time, we are given the grace to see it beginning to happen.

It’s cataclysmic. Transformation always is.

By God’s great power and bountiful grace and promised mercy, everyone and everything that is out of step with God’s will, is already being transformed; and justice and peace are already being restored in our hearts, in our relationships, and in our world.

So then, we aren’t the only ones who are waiting during Advent, are we? God is waiting too. God is waiting for us to be like Mary and welcome the transformation God is already working in us.

It will be cataclysmic, but as St. Paul says, God will strengthen us until we, like Mary, can say: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Let us pray…

Stir up your power and with great might come among us now, O Lord. We welcome you. We trust you. We love you. We know we put up roadblocks. Let your bountiful grace and mercy… help us to take them down – to take down all barriers between us and you, and between us and one another. Deliver us from all our barriers to Love, so that we may be like Mary: submissive to your will, courageous, directive, and welcome the continuing growth of the Christ within us, that we might give him to the world in an eternal holy communion. Amen.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Advent 1-B, 2017: Journey into Unknowing

I ws blessed to have celebrated and preacehd for a second week at Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, NC, where the people are lovely, joyful, faithful, and welcoming. Below is my sermon.

Note: If the audio player won't work on your device, click HERE for a different audio format.

Lectionary: Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37
En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

Welcome to the season of Advent. There’s nothing like a little apocalyptic terror to get the season started, right?

I confess, I love the power of the apocalyptic language in our Scripture today. Let’s hear again from Isaiah: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down… to make your name known to [those who oppose you], so that the nations might tremble at your presence…” Then in the gospel of Mark, Jesus said, “Then they will see the ‘Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory.”

What I love is that God is so powerful in these passages! All of heaven and earth quake and tremble in the presence of the Almighty God. For some this may sound ominous, even threatening; and it is, but only to those who oppose God, that is, those who believe in their own power and privilege, and who lord that over others, for surely they will quake and tremble in the presence of the true and divine power of God.

We can be comforted by the words in today’s Scriptures, and here’s why: no matter how dark and difficult our experience of the world is, no matter how much we think we may have messed things up, Scripture assures us that the Son of Man is coming with great power and glory! Scripture assures us that God has the power and the desire to come and set things right.

We can be comforted knowing that God’s love for us is beyond anything we can imagine and for some reason, God desires relationship with us just as we are, in all our sin, our shame, and our weakness. St. Teresa of Avila describes this beautifully in her poem entitled, “He desired me so I came close.” Here is that poem:

“He desired me so I came close.

No one can near God unless He has
prepared a bed for you.

A thousand souls hear His call every second,
but most every one then looks into their life’s mirror and
says, ‘I am not worthy to leave this

When I first heard his courting song, I too
looked at all I had done in my life
and said,

‘How can I gaze into his omnipresent eyes?’
I spoke those words with all my heart,

but then He sang again, a song even sweeter,
and when I tried to shame myself once more from His presence
God showed me His compassion and spoke a divine truth,

‘I made you, dear, and all I made is perfect.
Please come close, for I

And that is what compels our Advent journey - God desires us to come close, to make room in our hearts and our lives for the light that is coming to us again at Christmas: Emmanuel - God with us. In order to do that we have to break fresh ground in the soil of our souls; and journey into the “unknowing” that state of receptive, open-heartedness to God who is beyond our understanding, our concepts, and even our imagining.

It’s called “unknowing” because, as the author of the book, “The Cloud of Unknowing” says, “since the human senses and intellect are incapable of attaining to God, they must be ‘emptied’… purified in order that God may pour his light into them… When the faculties are emptied of all human knowledge there reigns in the soul a ‘mystic silence’ leading it to the climax that is union with God…” (p 26, 27)

Our Advent journey, then, isn’t learning more about God, but less, emptying ourselves so that God may fill us. Then our unknowing strengthens and enriches our knowing and we are awakened to an awareness that Jesus is with us at all times.

It is important for us to develop the prayer discipline of unknowing because the redeeming work of Christ continues to this day, and as his disciples, we are his partners in that work. As Jesus’ disciples, we choose to step into the darkness of people’s lives bearing the light of Christ that is within us that God might transform their nightmare into God’s dream as our Presiding Bishop, ++Michael Curry often says.

As Jesus’ disciples, we choose to confront evil in the systems of the world – those systems that oppress and exploit the poor, the powerless, and the helpless, the ill, the elderly, women, children, immigrants - just as Jesus did in his time - knowing the consequences we might face and trusting the redeeming love of God for us and for the world.

This is why we must keep awake. If we are not being oppressed or exploited, it’s easy to fall asleep at the wheel and not notice that our neighbor is.

And this is the message Jesus is giving his disciples in today’s Gospel: They will see the Son of Man coming. This word, ‘coming’ literally translates as: I am come. I am here.

Before you all die, Jesus said, all these things will have taken place and you will know that ‘I am come. I am here.’ Heaven and earth may pass away but God’s word will never pass away because… He is come. He is here.

Jesus repeats his caution to his disciples: Beware. Be alert. Keep awake. Watch for what God is doing and each of you do your part in that work. The means by which God will act to redeem will surprise you. So, keep awake!

I mean, really, who could have anticipated that the redeeming plan of God would be accomplished by the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus? Certainly no one using human senses and intellect, for these, as we know, are “incapable of attaining to God.”

That’s why practicing unknowing matters. We can’t anticipate how God will redeem now any more than the disciples could then. What we can do is unite our hearts to God’s heart and surrender our wills God’s will and choose to trust in God’s power and desire to redeem the whole world.

I close today with another favorite prayer – this one from St. Brendan. I pray it will be of assistance in the Advent journey before us.

“Lord, I will trust You.
Help me to journey beyond the familiar
and into the unknown.
Give me the faith to leave old ways
and break fresh ground with You.
Christ of the mysteries, I trust You
to be stronger than each storm within me.
I will trust in the darkness and know
that my times, even now, are in Your hand.
Tune my spirit to the music of heaven,
and somehow, make my obedience count for You.”


Sunday, November 26, 2017

Pentecost Last, 2017: The power to serve

I had the true pleasure of celebrating with the good people at Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, NC. Below is my sermon in text and audio file. If the audio file below doesn't work on your device, click HERE for a different audio file format.

Lectionary: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24, Psalm 100; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46

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

Years ago, I was presenting at a conference on domestic violence and sexual assault. Those were always heavy duty conferences, as you can imagine.

One evening, a bunch of us decided to go onto the roof of our hotel to watch the sunset and restore some peace to our weary souls. We were mostly, but not all, practicing Christians. One among us, an African American woman who, it turns out, was a fabulous gospel singer, told us about her struggle to remain a Christian in light of the hypocrisy among state and federal senators and representatives, judges, law enforcement, church and business leaders whose bruised and battered wives we had to shelter, and whose children we had to tend following their sexual abuse of them.

Being mostly survivors ourselves, we knew intimately the many prisons in which most of the victims we served were forced to dwell. Telling on their abuser, or leaving them often meant risking their jobs, the custody of their children, an escalation of financial and legal abuse against them, and even their lives – since 75% of women who are killed by their abusers die when they try to leave.

Our discussion that evening was, as you can imagine, intense. Thankfully, so was the sunset. God’s glory was painted across the sky and took our breath away, leaving us in a humble, restorative silence.

Breaking the silence, one woman mentioned that she’d had a similar struggle with her faith, and her grandmother suggested that she might try singing Christian hymns replacing the word “Jesus” with the word “freedom” and see what happened. Immediately, the first woman I mentioned stood up and began singing Chris Rice’s “Untitled Hymn (Come to Jesus),” doing exactly that. I still get the chills when I think of it. Here’s how some of it sounded:

Weak and wounded sinner
Lost and left to die
O, raise your head, for love is passing by
Come to Jesus freedom
Come to Jesus freedom
Come to Jesus freedom and live!

…And like a newborn baby
Don't be afraid to crawl
And remember when you walk
Sometimes we fall, so
Fall on Jesus freedom
Fall on Jesus freedom
Fall on Jesus freedom and live!

…And with your final heartbeat
Kiss the world goodbye
Then go in peace, and laugh on Glory's side, and
Fly to Jesus freedom
Fly to Jesus freedom
Fly to Jesus freedom and live!
Come to Jesus and live.

What a gateway back to Jesus. Such a wise grandmother.

Freedom takes many forms, and when we lose it, we are truly lost – like scattered sheep - and we are dying unless or until someone intervenes. For example, some of us lose our freedom to alcohol, drugs, food, or gambling. Others among us lose our freedom to money, power, reputation, or celebrity. Still others lose our freedom to people or churches with twisted theology. Our freedom can be surreptitiously lost to mental or physical illness or to fear, hate, or hopelessness.

Finally, some of us lose our freedom because it’s stolen from us – by an abuser, a molester, or a political oppressor. This is the kind of thief specifically described by the prophet Ezekiel who said: ”…you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted all the weak animals with horns until you scattered them far and wide…”

Abuse, in all its forms, is about power… misused power… and the Good News Ezekiel offers is that God sees when the sheep, that is, the people, have been scattered by this misuse of power; and God says, “I myself will search for them… I will rescue them from all the places they have been scattered… [and] feed them with good pasture… I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep… I will seek the lost… bring back the strayed… [and] strengthen the weak…"

Then in our Gospel story, Jesus teaches us about the power we have and how we are to use it. This power is something everyone possesses; a power that has nothing to do with money, or position, or age, or ability. It’s the power to serve – a power which can only be used properly by someone in right relationship with God and neighbor. Only in right relationship, that is to say, in righteousness, can we truly see and respond to the hungry, the thirsty, the lonely and exiled, the naked and ill, and the imprisoned.

How many times have we walked or driven past a panhandler and ignored their plea for help? We may soothe our consciences saying they are addicts and we won’t support their habit; or they choose to be homeless and beg rather than work; or... or... or...

The truth is, we don’t SEE them. We judge them in order to relieve ourselves from responding to them.

The reason is, we know that once we respond, we enter into their eternal reality. There are no quick or simple fixes that allow us to get on with our lives as they were before; and we realize that in order to truly and powerfully serve them, we can’t ignore the system that holds them prisoner. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”

Just look how the recent revelations from Hollywood and politics are calling us to respond to the women who’ve found the freedom to speak their truths and finally tell on their sexual harassers – powerful men, some of whom we truly love and admire. We don’t know what we’re going to do. The system itself is under fire and, thanks be to God, transformation of the whole system seems inevitable – finally.

For “‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

We claim ourselves to be disciples of Jesus Christ, therefore, we do not have the freedom to remain unchanged, unchanging, in the face of the changes in the world around us. We do not have the freedom to remain safely inside our emotional, spiritual, and social fortresses instead of carrying the light of Christ boldly into the world he died to save. We do not have the freedom to deny the real and powerful presence of God that is in us and what that means for us, for our church, and for the world.

As poet Marianne Williamson says,

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us…

We were born to make manifest the glory of
God that is within us.

It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone…
As we are liberated from our own fear,
Our presence automatically liberates others.” (Portions read from: “Our Greatest Fear”)

Liberation. Freedom. Grant O God, that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under Jesus’ most gracious rule.

Nelson Mandela once said, "…to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others." This is hard work and we can’t do it alone. Thanks be to God, we don’t have to – for we live as a body – the body of Christ, and each Sunday we gather to be nourished by Word and Sacrament in order to carry out our ministry in the world.

So today, as we come forward to receive the spiritual food of Holy Communion, I invite us all to open our hearts as we open our hands, and receive faithfully and courageously the body and blood of our Savior Jesus Christ. As we eat the bread, let’s picture the real and powerful, loving presence of Christ being carried by the molecules of the consecrated bread into the cells of our bodies. As we swallow the wine and feel it make its warm path down our throats and our chests, into our stomachs, let us track that as the path of God’s steadfast, generous love becoming part of us – part of our very bodies and souls.

Then, when we return to our pews to pray or sing after communion, let us open ourselves to recognize how, in this very moment, God is changing us - transforming us - physically and spiritually and ponder why… For what divine purpose has God gathered together this particular group of people, at this time, and in this place?

Who are the hungry, the thirsty, the lonely and exiled, the naked and ill, and the imprisoned in our corner of God’s garden? Do we truly see them? Are we serving them?

I wonder what might happen if we were to trust the reality of the glory of God that is within us, and give God the freedom to work powerfully through us until all people are freed and brought together under Jesus’ most gracious rule?

What might happen? My guess is: it would be nothing short of the kingdom of heaven on earth. Amen.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Pentecost 21-A, 2017: Jesus' core message: LOVE

I had the joy and privilege of preaching and celebrating with my good friends at St. Thomas in Burnsville, NC. A truly wonderful community!

Lectionary: Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46

(Note: If the above audio player doesn't work on your device, click HERE.)

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

Yesterday I was at a luncheon for Pastor Appreciation Day with some incredible friends and colleagues in the Women
Pastors Alliance an interdenominational group of ordained women in my area – mostly Baptist and Pentecostal preachers, and a couple of us who aren’t. Our speaker, AME Pastor Pamela Mack, from Winston, spoke to us about “sandpaper people.” So I’ve been thinking about sandpaper people since then.

We all know sandpaper people. Here’s an example from my life: I stopped at the grocery story one day after church, still in my collar, and a man walked up to me in the fruit section and said; “What are you – a nun?” I replied, “No, I’m an Episcopal priest.” He practically yelled at me… “You’re a priest?” Women can’t be priests…it says so in the Bible! You’re sinning!” (He meant it)

I had all kind of snarky responses pop into my head, including that if he could find in the Bible where it says women can’t be ordained as priests, I’d love to see it… but instead, what I said was, “If I’m sinning, then pray for me.”

Sandpaper people can be fine, or medium, or coarse. The fine ones irritate you. The medium ones injure you. The coarse ones work to destroy you. Sandpaper people can rough us up or smooth our edges – the choice is ours. And this is the point Jesus is making in today’s gospel, which is very simply about love.

It’s important to notice that Jesus is talking to a Pharisee – a wealthy, educated, powerful man who operates from a position of power and authority in a patriarchal system. Aware that Jesus had shut down the Sadducees as we heard in the gospel story last week this Pharisaic lawyer tries his hand at entrapping and discrediting Jesus. Which commandment in the law is the greatest? he asks.

Knowing he is being baited again, Jesus uses the opportunity to speak his core message: love. Paraphrasing Deut. 6:5, Jesus says, “You shall love God with all your heart, soul, and mind.” What it actually says in Deuteronomy is: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”

Then he couples that with a portion of the law from Leviticus. I want you to hear the whole command as it is in Levticus: You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself (19:18)

“On these two commands,” Jesus says, “hang all the law and the prophets.” There is no single greatest commandment. Everything is held within the container of these two laws in relationship to each another – loving God and loving all people.

If there is a denser, more important utterance from Jesus, I don’t know what it is.

Jesus’ whole life on earth, his work and ministry, his prayers, the sacrifice of his life, his resurrection commissioning – all go back to this: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind… [and] You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

So what does he mean by “heart,” “soul,” “mind,” and “as yourself.” Let’s take a minute and look at those words because he chose these words carefully. Remember, he paraphrased Deuteronomy.

There are lots of words for love in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek – the languages of the time. The word the gospel writer chose, knowing Jesus’ intent, and remembering that the New Testament was written in Greek, is a word that’s probably familiar to you – agapāo – agape love.

This love is a deliberate act of judgment, a choice to regard the other person with respect and kindness. Agape love also gives preference to one over others. Jesus says love God this way; but also love your neighbor this way. Give God preference over all other gods; and give your neighbor preference even over yourself.

Loving a neighbor as self would be a real challenge to a Pharisee who is used to having the power to categorize people and therefore dismiss them as unimportant, unclean, or even sub-human; and “the law” would back him up. But Jesus showed us a different way. I think of the story of the woman caught in adultery, the lepers and demoniacs whom Jesus healed, and the criminal on the cross next to Jesus who was promised paradise.

We face the same challenge today. How do we treat law-breakers, women, refugees, the infirm, the homeless, the addicted, and the just plain irritating? Really. Want to know who irritates me? Sit in the left lane and don’t pass anybody. But that’s just me.

Whom do we categorize and, therefore, dehumanize? More importantly, how can we imitate Jesus’ way? Hold that thought and let’s look at a few more of Jesus’ words first.

Neighbor: This word translates as “any other member of the human race.” That’s pretty clear. Love any other member of the human race as yourself.

Heart: this refers to the seat of our compassion, the location of our moral compass.

Soul: (you’re gonna love this) this refers to the breath of God within us that gives us life. When Jesus is calling us to love with all our soul he is calling us to follow in his way. We are the other for whom Jesus gave his last breath, his whole life. If we love with all our soul, then, we are giving our life for the sake of the other.

Mind: yes, it’s thought, but this refers to our consciousness being called into active, strenuous effort by our moral affections, that is, by our heart. The word ‘mind’ then refers to the relational dynamic between comprehension and compassion – which I think is why Jesus chose this word instead of “might” as in Deuteronomy.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind… and love your neighbor as yourself.

So, let’s return to that question I posed earlier: How do we better imitate Jesus’ way of loving with all our hearts, minds, and souls? There are cases where that’s a no-brainer. Most of us who are parents or grandparents wouldn’t think twice about giving up our lives, even our last breath, for our child or grandchild. And, there are all kinds of heartwarming stories about people donating a kidney or offering bone marrow or their blood to a neighbor in need; even when they don’t know them.

Agape love is natural to us in certain circumstances. The challenge comes when we are facing sandpaper people. But our Baptism compels each of us to love and serve in Jesus’ name, that is, his way; to be people who regard all others with respect and kindness.

Everyone has a story – even sandpaper people. Being agape love in their presence means we might just hear their story and understand what choked out their love and left them hopeless or poisonous. Being agape love means embodying Christ for them through our preference for them; serving them by caring for them “gently, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children” as the writer of the epistle to the Thessalonians says, “sharing with [them] not only the gospel but ourselves, because [they] have become very dear to us.”

All people are dear to God – even sandpaper people. All bear the image of God. All deserve the opportunity to be restored to love which is, after all, our ministry as the church: to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ. (BCP, 855)

As they are restored, we are all made whole.

St. Thomas has had its share of sandpaper people. Every church has, and every church will because sandpaper people will always be with us. They may be irritating, or even destructive, but they come to us to be restored to unity with God and with us - and Jesus showed us how to serve them: by loving them with all our hearts, and all our souls, and all our minds, loving them as ourselves. Amen.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Pentecost 20, 2017: Stewardship, St.Thomas, Burnsville

I have had the privilege of serving St. Thomas, Burnsville, NC as a consultant for the last year as part of The Partnership for Renewal. This is my stewardship sermon for this amazing congregation!

If the above player doesn't work on your device, click HERE.

Lectionary: Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

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

A popular discussion online and in the news nowadays is the line between religion and politics. Should religion be involved in politics and vice versa…? It’s an issue with a long history and varied outcomes.

In the gospel reading today, some Pharisees, that is, members of a sect who practiced strict adherence to traditional and written law, kind of the religious alt-right of their time, joined up with some unlikely allies, Herodians, who were presumably members of a political party supporting the Roman occupiers. Their purpose in this unholy alliance, which continued through Jesus’ capture and trial, was to entrap and discredit Jesus; in this instance, using the issue of paying the Roman poll tax.

Here are some complications that are helpful to know.

1) The Roman poll tax was an annual head tax. Basically, this was Caesar taking money on a per-person basis and in return, he didn’t hurt or kill them. It was rather like a mob payoff.

2) It was required that the tax be paid with the denarius a Roman coin with a value akin to a day’s pay, about $100 today – not an exorbitant amount for each person, but cumulatively it generated a healthy haul for Caesar.

3) Jews held the coin to be a graven image, and therefore, idolatrous. They also held the inscription on the coin to be blasphemous. Since it was also the currency of the land, many Jews used the denarius anyway. A few, like the alt-right Pharisees, refused to use them at all, which put them in a bind: break the law of God and use an idolatrous, blasphemous coin or break the law of the land and get punished by the Roman occupiers.

This is the conundrum they brought to Jesus. Would he advise them to break God’s law or Caesar’s? Either way, he would be toast.

But this is Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, the Messiah. He knows what they’re up to and he tells them so.

Bring a coin, he says. Whose face is on it? The emperor’s, they reply. Then Jesus gives his answer and it’s theological and political genius: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Give Caesar the coin, he says. He thinks it’s his. That’s the political genius: Know the truth of your moment in history.

Here’s the theological genius: Jesus is the 2nd person of the Trinity. As we proclaim in our Creed, he is the one through whom all things are made. ALL THINGS. What things, then, are not God’s? All things, all people, all time, all activities, all of creation, all resources – everything belongs to God. Genius!

Recognizing this and living accordingly, that is, faithfully, is the very definition of stewardship. If all people belong to God, then who can we allow to be hungry, or homeless, or un-shoed in winter?

Whose physical and mental health needs can be overlooked or underfunded? If all people are God’s, who is our enemy?

We can only exclude today those whom Jesus excluded as he died on the cross – oh right, he died once for ALL as St. Paul said (Ro 6.10), so we can exclude no one.

If all time belongs to God, then isn’t it important for us to establish a harmony of rhythms of our time at work, with family, and with God in prayer?

Do our activities speak love? Are they serving the welfare of God’s people, including ourselves, and thereby bringing God glory? Do we hold the precious gifts of our earth in trust for future generations?

What about our finances? Ah, that’s the sticky one, as we saw in our gospel today. Do we hold our wealth as a gift given to us for the accomplishment of God’s purposes or do we, like Caesar, think it belongs to us for our own purposes? Jesus made the answer pretty clear, I think.

The world is a difficult place and life is so hard for so many. We don’t have to look far to find someone who is hungry, unwell physically or mentally, lonely, unemployed, or trapped in fear or anger.

We have Good News to share and the privilege and responsibility to share it – by our words and our actions. The world is desperate for the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ. Just listen to the news (only a little – it’ll make you crazy!)

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said, Episcopalians need to get busy “committing to making a practical, tangible difference…helping the world look more like God’s dream and less like our nightmare… It’s sacred work” he said.

To do that, he recommends we make these five things a priority:

1) Formation: ++Michael asks, how do we form disciples? That is our work.

2) Evangelism: that “E –word” Episcopalians cherish. ++Michael suggests that we practice a kind of evangelism “that is as much listening as sharing…an invitation, a welcome” to the church where persons can discover and develop a relationship with God and one another.

3) Witnessing: but don’t take your Bibles and go hit anybody on the head with them. We don’t do it that way. ++Michael says we need to “get out in the public sphere [and] be a voice for those who have no voice.” That’s our witness.

4) Relationship: ++Michael points to ecumenical relationships – all faiths participating in ways that bring about God’s dream; he also talks about relationships within the worldwide Anglican Communion. I would add that we need to consider our relationships within our particular church and within our diocese. Those are also vital to this.

5) ++Michael says (you’re gonna love this) we need to create structures that serve our mission. He’s talking here about institutional structures that help the church be “vessels of the Jesus movement.” (Source: The Rt. Rev. Michael Curry on Vimeo)

The reason I said you’d love that one: isn’t that exactly what you’ve done here with the Abbey? It’s important, faithful work you do here – sacred work.

The resurrection you have known within your community is already leaking out into the world through the Abbey at St. Thomas, and thank God for that! I look forward to the leak becoming a river of living waters.

The Church has traditionally supported its sacred work through an annual stewardship campaign calling on people to ‘give sacrificially’ like Jesus did for us. Over time, this has come to feel more like a Roman poll tax than a joyful offering, so let’s faithfully re-frame it.

Jesus said, “Give… to God the things that are God’s.” It’s pretty simple: we are God’s. Our bodies, our relationships, our activities, our finances, our resources, our church, our prayer – all God’s!

So don’t give sacrificially – Jesus already did that – once for all! Give until it feels really good! Give joyfully, generously, faithfully, knowing that each of you was chosen by God to be here in this time and this place, to activate resources entrusted to you to make the world here more like the dream of God.

Annual campaigns remain important. Each church needs the financial resources to fulfill its divine purpose. As you bring your annual campaign to its conclusion, Nov 1, All Saints Day, hear what St. Paul says to the Corinthians about stewardship: “it is appropriate for you who began last year… [to] finish… For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable… I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need...” (2Cor 8. 9, 11, 13-14)

We are called to participate in making a tangible difference in our world. We who have enough to eat are called to share food with those who are hungry. We who are accepted according to societal preferences of skin color, gender, sexual orientation and identity, educational or economic standing are called to build bridges of friendship and inclusion with those who are marginalized – modeling Jesus who visited with Gentiles, dined with tax collectors and women, healed the sick, the unclean, the insane, and all those judged to be unworthy.

Those who have financial means are called to take up their responsibility and support the church’s mission and ministries so that St Thomas can fulfill its divine purpose: being a living, activating vessel of the Jesus movement.

You are already witnessing how very important your sacred work is here. As St. Paul said, “the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you…” You are living proof that there is no nightmare that the dream of God isn’t already overcoming and the people in your area are seeing the truth of that embodied in this parish.

There is much you are being entrusted to do and Good News you are called to share. Give to St. Thomas generously as God has given to you. Give until it feels really good! For all things, all people, all time, all activities, all of creation, all resources – everything belongs to God.


Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Risky freedom

Good morning, friends. Just a few thoughts from my morning meditation to share...

As individuals and as a Christian community we are called to live being guided by the Spirit of God. This is true freedom, and it’s risky, because it means letting go of all the safety and certainty the law and the world seem to provide and steadfastly refusing to be divided again by gender, race, class, sexual orientation or any other worldly and ‘lawful’ distinction.

Living a life of faith means trusting that Almighty God, who is always faithful, can and will act to redeem and restore “shalom” the way things ought to be. It means working to learn how to hear God who is still speaking to us; not only in our hearts, minds, and bodies, but also in and through our varied and diverse communities.

Living in the freedom of our faith requires that we remember how we all came to have salvation. We are saved because God acted to save us, and God acted to save us because God loves us. Our salvation is a gift freely given by our loving Lord, Jesus Christ. The only thing we can actually do is respond to that gift in faith and humble gratitude, living the life of freedom we were given and opening the way for all people to do the same.

While it can be tempting to spend our lives chasing after spiritual law-breakers,” that isn’t our purpose. We aren’t called to judge. We’re called to manifest the love of God in the world. As Mother Theresa of Calcutta once said, “When you know how much God is in love with you then you can only live your life radiating that love.”

Radiate some love. It’s transforming.

Shalom. Valori+

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Pentecost 18-A, 2017: Sign-posts of faith

Lectionary: Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Psalm 19; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46

Note: If the above player doesn't work on your device, click HERE for an mp4 audio file.

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

We began our worship time together saying this: “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 so very comforting… especially now. We live in a world where we are terrorized here at home and abroad the world. In the US alone, we’ve had 275 mass shootings so far in 2017 in places like airports, nursing homes, supermarkets, and concerts. (Source: That’s almost one every day.

The latest shooting in Las Vegas left 58 dead and 527 injured… and the shooter was an American; one of our own. Each of those 58 people who were killed had family and friends who are deeply mourning the loss of their loved ones. That is what sin does – it disrupts relationships.

Theologian Karl Barth talks about sin as a state of separation from God and from one another. It is a state we can choose or let go at any time according to our free will. “…whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Mt 18:18)

In that state of separation, we objectify God, our neighbor, even creation, enabling us to erect walls between them and us; walls of judgement, discrimination, and disrespect. From behind those walls, sin happens readily, easily, and justifications for those sins abound.

In that state of separation, behind those walls of sin, we do harm, the kind discussed in our reading from Exodus: telling a lie about someone, pulling the trigger of an automatic weapon aimed at people, cheating with someone else’s spouse, scamming vulnerable populations like the elderly out of their money, worshipping at the altar of money, beauty, youth, or power, using God’s name for anything other than praise or worship.

When God gave the law to Moses to give to the people of Israel, it wasn’t meant as a checklist for behavior, but rather as a sign-post that sin has created a wall, relationships are being disrupted, and some effort will be required of God’s people toward reconciliation.

When I heard the news of the shooting in Las Vegas, I was deflated by sadness and frustration, then I got angry. I wanted to be mad at someone, to blame them for this. Yes, there is a shooter (or shooters) to hold accountable, but he is one of us, a member of our culture, our story, our humanity.

So, what do I do with my feelings then? How do I respond as a follower of Christ…as a child of God?

For me, the answer is always to go to prayer. 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 through it. Praying to God for comfort and guidance is a right and good thing to do, even knowing that God already knows our need and is answering our prayer even as we pray it.

The true benefit of prayer, the reason it is always the answer, is that prayer re-sets our minds and our hearts by bringing us into the presence and peace of God and aligning us to God’s will. It is in prayer that we experience God who created the universe and all that is in it. It is in prayer that we feel the strength of God that covers our weakness. It is in prayer that we realize we are all one, all children of the same family.

When life happens, especially when the sign-posts of sin are so apparent, we can sometimes respond with fear or confusion. Then we might bargain with God. See if any of this sounds familiar: ‘If we behave and follow all the rules, if we’re really good children and do everything just right, will you look upon us favorably and spare us from this trial, Lord?’ 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 and mercy are already ours – as promised over and over again in Holy Scripture and proven beyond all doubt in Jesus Christ, our Savior, who redeemed us by the forgiveness of our sins.

Right behavior is not the way to faithfulness; it is the fruit of it – a sign-post of faith. As Mother Theresa of Calcutta once said, “If you know how much God is in love with you, you can’t help but live your life radiating that love.”

In today’s gospel, Jesus tells the parable of the wicked tenants; a story which leaves no doubt about the sinfulness of the religious leadership and Jesus’ own people, but it also shows them the way through. So, 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, as you know, 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 terrible 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, boy were they 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. 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, this parable is inclusive. Jesus doesn’t condemn the wicked tenants to exclusion from the kingdom of God, but he does take from them their privilege of tending the vineyard and gives it to another people - the Greek word here is ‘nation’ – and would have meant ‘Gentiles’ to Jesus’ listeners. It’s important to remember that the people of Israel had stereotyped all Gentiles to be sinful, unclean, and unworthy of redemption.

But in this parable, Jesus claims that this new people, these Gentiles, will produce fruit for the harvest – and this is how he shows the way through. Notice that no one is booted out of the kingdom, and in God’s plan of salvation, those stereotyped as sinful and unworthy are not only welcomed into the kingdom, but they’re honored, given responsibility for 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 are doing. How much fruit are we producing for God’s harvest? How many souls, who are hated by culture, have we welcomed into our house, into the family of God? What are the sign-posts of our faith?

This is the challenge churches face today. We love our church. We love our church family. We love the way we do things… 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, and if we want to know how to be fruitful servants, we can look to St. Paul who says, “I want to know Christ…” (Phil 3:10) and “forgetting what lies behind” or as we might say it today, we’ve always done it this way…’ so forgetting that “and straining forward to what lies ahead, [we] press on toward the goal…” (3:13-14) trusting that “Jesus Christ has made [us] his own…” (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 God needs made in us, individually and as a community, so that we, radiating God’s love, can press on with our work: making sign-post after sign-post of faith a visible reality in our corner of God’s kingdom.

So, let’s close by intentionally aligning our wills to God’s will, and honoring St. Francis whose feast day was a few days ago, praying together the prayer attributed to him found on page 833, in the Book of Common Prayer:

Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Pentecost 16A, 2017: The fairness nerve

Lectionary: Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16

Note: if the above player doesn't work on your device, click HERE.

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

“Is thine eye evil because I am good?” That’s the KJV of that 2nd last sentence of our gospel. God asks: Is my goodness to someone else making you sad, causing you pain, or annoying you?

Why? Because they didn’t earn it?

This parable touches a nerve most of us have. I call it the fairness nerve. If a person works a full day, they should get a full day’s pay, but if they work only an hour or two, their pay should be pro-rated to the number of hours worked. It’s only fair.

Perhaps that’s true in earthly matters, but this parable from Jesus makes it clear that it is definitely not true in the kingdom of God. There are two important points here: 1) grace is God’s to give to whomever God chooses in whatever measure God chooses; and 2) grace is a gift; not something we earn.

That can be an irritating rub. Deathbed conversions, for example, really bother us. Why should someone get to misbehave their whole lives, repent at the last minute, and still get into heaven? Because isn’t it everyone’s goal to misbehave and get away with it? No. That isn’t the rub. The rub is that they don’t have to work for the kingdom ahead of entering it... like we do.

In today’s parlance: why should someone who doesn’t have a job get welfare, or citizenship, or healthcare? It isn’t fair.

Perhaps we who are Christians might look at all of this differently – from the heavenly perspective given to us in Scripture. St. Paul says, “To me, living is Christ… [Note: what the word ‘Christ’ means is ‘anointed’ to serve the people of God on behalf of God.] …If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me…” In other words, while I live, I desire to live as if I’m chosen and gifted by God (Christ) to serve God’s people.

It isn’t about getting away with anything, and it isn’t about getting something for nothing. It’s about being able to use our gifts, individually and corporately, and every minute of our lives to work to make the kingdom of God a reality on the earth.

How do we do that? The answer is in Jesus’ parable: A landowner (God) goes out to the marketplace in order to find people who have no job. He goes out early in the morning, then again at 9am, then again at noon, again at 3 pm, and finally at 5 pm. To this last group, the ones who have done no work all day, God asks, “Why are you standing idle all day?” They respond: “Because no one has hired us.” In other words, we have gifts to offer but no one will offer us an opportunity use them.

Opportunity on earth is not always fairly or evenly doled out. Neither are rewards. So for Christians, our work is to live so that God’s will is “done on earth as it is in heaven.” Isn’t that what we say each time we pray the prayer our Lord taught us?

And God’s will, according to Jesus in this parable, is to open up opportunities for each life to matter; for everyone’s gifts to be used in the kingdom of God. The landowner went out over and over again seeking those people who had no work, not because the vineyard needed more laborers, but because the laborers needed the opportunity to work…to matter… to be part of a community… to use their gifts.

People needed and God provided –as God always does.

Isn’t that what today’s story in Exodus is all about? God’s people are out in the wilderness grumbling at Moses complaining that they’re hungry. God hears them and provides for them: meat (a real luxury under all circumstances!) and manna – a staple for their survival and a leader to help them recognize this new means of their provision. These flakes were not known to them. Moses had to tell them what it was.

People needed and God provided. It’s what God does.

The provision isn’t always what we think it’ll be though. The manna God rained down on them was new and strange, and it was constituted so that they couldn’t hoard it. They ate eat as much as they needed, then stopped. They didn’t – in fact, they couldn’t – save it or store it up for later use. God provided for their need each day and their journey gave them opportunity to learn to trust that. Our journey does the same for us. See if this is familiar: “Give us this day our daily bread…”

Do you think someone witnessing this Exodus scenario would have complained that the Israelites hadn’t labored for that manna and therefore shouldn’t have been able to eat it? That’s precisely what Jesus is teaching us in this parable. People do complain just like that. They always have… and they still are.

But God is still God, providing as generously as God always does and to whom God chooses. And God chooses those who need – whether they need food, employment, love, community (aka citizenship), forgiveness, or healthcare.

People need; and God provides. And God chooses us to be instruments of that provision today.

We are God’s partners in the work of reconciliation (see the Catechism in BCP) which is why St. Paul instructs the people of the church in Philippi:, “…live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ… standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind…” That’s what church is, and what church does. Church is an unique gift from God, it’s a mystical body that binds us one to another in faith and love. It unites our spirits and provides each of us the opportunity to labor in God’s vineyard – for living is Christ, and living means fruitful labor.

I commend to you a letter our Episcopal bishops sent three days ago asking President Trump and Congress not to end DACA (The Dreamers Act). This is the church in action.

Before you cringe and complain about my preaching politics, hear what Bp. Provenzano, the author of the letter, says: “At times, the teaching and preaching of the gospel can look like it’s making a political statement when it’s really about following the teachings of Jesus. This is what bishops are supposed to do. This is nuts and bolts,” Provenzano said. “It’s not a debatable issue. The kind of protectionism being promulgated in this country is contrary to the gospel.”

As Paul says: “live your live(s) in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ."

Jesus says very clearly – in today’s parable and elsewhere in our gospels - that those who are last in the world’s estimation are first in heaven’s priority; and therefore must be first in ours. Jesus uses today’s parable to teach his followers (us) that our labor must look like the landowner’s: going out over and over, all day long, seeking out those who have need and welcoming them in.

For our God is generous and provides for those who need.

If God desires to provide for those who need, and we desire to be in sync in the will of God, then we must desire as God does. Then living truly is Christ, as St. Paul said. For we have been anointed in our Baptism; chosen and gifted by God to serve in exactly this way.

We are God’s instruments of reconciliation in the world today. We seek out the people who need, welcome them in, and God provides for them.

I have found that in the realm of God everyone wins, so living as Christ benefits us as well. Here’s how: shifting our perspective from an earthly one to a heavenly one as we’ve discussed here today, relieves us of our anxiety about earthly things. Trusting in God to provide the meat and manna to satisfy the world’s needs today, we can focus on our labor, standing side by side, in unity of spirit, working to make the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.

We labor in peace and joy and those whom we serve receive the grace of God through the labor of our hands and hearts. It is to that, as our Collect says (quoting St. Paul), that we hold fast and endure through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Pentecost 15A, 2017: The gift of being forgiving

I had the privilege today of supplying at Ascension Episcopal Church in Hickory, NC. What a deeply faithful and joyful community of faith they are!

Lectionary: Exodus 14:19-31, Psalm 114 , Romans 14:1-12, Matthew 18:21-35

Note: If the above player doesn't work on your device, click HERE.

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

When I was a teenager, I was on a swim team with my younger sister. We used to practice in roped off lanes between
the docks on our lake. During one swim practice, my sister got a cramp and began to go under. When I jumped in to help her, she – like many other people who fear they are drowning – began to fight me.

I was trained as a lifeguard and she was an experienced swimmer, but the problem wasn’t about swimming. I knew my sister could die if I didn’t connect with her just then; and surprising even myself, I called out to her: “Sissy, do you trust me?”

The question caught her attention and she stopped flailing for just a moment. I used that pause in her panic to grab her into the save hold. Once in the save hold, her head was near mine, so I could speak assurances to her as we headed for shore.

In our story from Exodus God tells Moses to stretch out his hand. When I hear this I hear God saying this to Moses: Do you trust me? Will you go where I lead you, even if it’s into the sea where you might drown? I have promised to lead my people to the Promised Land, God says. Do you trust me? Take my people with you. Some are going to fight you. They’re just afraid. Hold onto them anyway.

Isn’t that the challenge facing every church community now? Within each faith community are people in various places on their spiritual journey. St. Paul refers to them as strong and weak in faith – which I think is a teeny bit judgmental, given his later advice, but…

As the early church struggled to evolve from being exclusively Jewish to being inclusively Christian, St. Paul cautions the people to refrain from passing judgment on one another, and from despising one another, reminding them that God has welcomed them all. But then, as now, people do pass judgment; and they fight, sometimes to the point of despising one another – yes, even in church! I know it’s probably never happened here, but it does happen – trust me.

Thankfully, our gospel reading addresses this issue directly. Peter asks Jesus, “if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? times?” Seven being a solid Biblical number. Jesus answers, “Not seven… but seventy-seven times.” In other words, as many times as it takes to free yourselves from the sin that interrupts your relationship.

We all sin.

Most of us talk about sin as those things we do that are wrong or harmful. That’s partly right. Theologian Karl Barth talks about sin as a state of separation – separation from God and separation from one another. It is in that state of separation that we do those things that are wrong and harmful.

So, it’s kind of like the disease versus the symptoms. We know there is a disease by the presence of the symptoms. We can treat the symptoms, but unless we cure the disease, we are not healed. That’s why Jesus brought us redemption by the forgiveness of sin, by bringing down all barriers that separate us from God and from one another.

Jesus didn’t just treat the symptoms, he cured the disease. In his most miserable moment, his most painful, humiliating moment as a human, Jesus prayed, and his prayer takes our breath away: “Father, forgive them…”

At our most miserable moments, when we are being unfairly treated, when those with power over us are acting corruptly, is this our prayer?

Years ago I visited a place in England called the Cathedral at Coventry. The city of Coventry was bombed into near oblivion during WWII and the cathedral was destroyed. When you go to the cathedral now, you will see that they didn’t clear away the rubble from the bombing. They simply built the new cathedral and attached it to the bombed out shell with a walkway.

The very first thing you see as you walk into the narthex of the new cathedral, built into the tile in the floor, are these the words: “Father forgive.” And every day they offer Noonday Prayer in the bombed out shell. They do not forget, but they do forgive.

We all sin. We all need to be forgiven. And we all need to be forgiving.

Jesus makes this very plain in the story of the wicked slave in the gospel. The slave-owner (God) forgives the slave who begs for mercy on the debt he can’t pay. Then that same slave goes out and cruelly and violently punishes those who owe him. When the slave-owner learns about this, he becomes enraged: You wicked slave! he says. I forgave you all your debt ... Shouldn’t you also have forgiven? For your lack of forgiveness, you are condemned to the punishment of eternal pain.

The lesson here is: when we refuse to forgive, we, like that wicked slave, are the ones who suffer.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said: “Forgiveness is a choice we make, and the ability to forgive others comes from the recognition that we are all flawed and all human. We have all made mistakes and harmed someone. We will again… Each of us has the capacity to commit the wrongs against others that were committed against us.”

And so we work to forgive those who have hurt us, harmed us, betrayed us, angered us, ignored us, demeaned us, made us feel ugly or worthless or embarrassed. We work to forgive those who shut their eyes and cover their ears to the truth – to our truth – whether it’s because they can’t hear it or because they won’t hear it. We work to forgive those who should have known better, who should have loved us better, but didn’t – or couldn’t.

To forgive is to trust that God will bring about divine justice, reconciliation, and wholeness from every experience of brokenness on earth. When we try to do this ourselves, it’s like trying to save ourselves from drowning. We can’t.

Each of us will need to be forgiven at some point in our lives, and each of us will need to forgive someone else – from the heart, as Jesus said. As Episcopalians we have the unique gift of the Rite of Reconciliation of a Penitent to help us get there. (BCP, 447) I highly recommend this rite. It’s what used to be called Confession.

I often hear the penitent, say that upon hearing the words of absolution spoken, they have an experience of release and freedom that is surprisingly intense – and transforming. I know that’s my experience as a penitent.

Forgiveness is a spiritual muscle we need to develop, and that’s what we do each Sunday together at our celebration of Holy Eucharist. We need one another, and we need to share in the nourishment of Word and Sacrament regularly together because that what strengthens us and unite us. We need to eat together, pray together, and play together. We even need to disagree together.

Church is where we learn and practice forgiveness so that we can take it out into the world, because as you know, our world remains sorely divided and enslaved by sin.

I close today with a poem from Mpho Tutu, Desmond Tutu’s daughter. It’s called “I will forgive”

“I will forgive you.
The words are so small, but there’s a universe hidden in them.

When I forgive you, all those cords of resentment, pain, and sadness
that had wrapped themselves around my heart
will be gone.

When I forgive you, you will no longer define me.
You measured me, and assessed me,
and decided that you could hurt me,
that I didn’t count.

But I will forgive you because I do count.
I do matter.
I am bigger than the image you have of me.

I am stronger. I am more beautiful.
I am infinitely more precious than you thought me.
I will forgive you.

My forgiveness is not a gift that I am giving to you.
When I forgive you,
my forgiveness will be a gift that gives itself to me.”


Sunday, August 20, 2017

Pentecost 11, 2017: Audacious faith

I was privileged to celebrate and preach at a LUTHERAN service with the good people at Church of Our Savior in Newland, NC - a Lutheran AND Episcopal Church. I preached extemporaneously, so please find the audio below.

Lectionary: Isaiah 56:1,6-8; Psalm 67
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28

If the above player doesn't work on your device, you can listen HERE also (mp4 file).

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Transfiguration, 2017: Transfiguration, transformation, and the Christian life

This sermon was preached by the Partnership for ReNEWal team, Mr. Martin Darby and myself, at St. Thomas Episcopal Church as part of the continuing consultation/facilitation relationship we share with them.

Lectionary: Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99; 2 Peter 1:13-21; Luke 9:28-36

If the above player doesn't work on your device, click HERE.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Pentecost 8A, 2017: Infused with divine power

This extemporaneous sermon was preached as supply at the wonderful St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Chester, SC. Audio only
this time... the Spirit was moving!

Lectionary: Genesis 29:15-28; Psalm 105:1-11, 45b; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33,44-52

Note: If the above player won't work on your device, click HERE.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Pentecost 7A, 2017: Be open. Be willing. Be patient.

Lectionary: Genesis 28:10-19a; Psalm 139: 1-11, 22-23; Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30,36-43

If the above player doesn't work on your device, click HERE.

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

Last week, in my sermon about the Parable of the Sower, I talked about there being no waste in God’s economy. Regardless of where they were sown, all of the seeds in that parable were sown by the Sower, God, who values them and has a divine purpose for them. Our role as followers of Christ is to open our hearts to that reality and to the revelation it provides us.

Today’s parable of the wheat in the fields, a.k.a., the wheat and the weeds and the wheat and the tares, continues that theme. A farmer plants seeds in his field. Under the cover of darkness, an enemy plants weeds in that field, and it isn’t until the plants begin to grow that this is revealed.

The experienced field hands know that the logical thing to do would be to pull out the weeds so that they don’t steal soil space and nutrients from the grain. But Jesus’ parable, like all parables, surprises. The farmer instructs his field hands to leave the wheat and the weeds alone, letting them grow together. At harvest time, they will be separated by the reapers (not the field hands) and dealt with according to the will of the farmer.

You can almost hear the field hands saying: that makes no sense! We know what we’re doing! But remember, this is a parable, and it’s meant to convey a spiritual point, one Jesus wanted us all to hear.

My concern with this parable is that the spiritual point Jesus is making is often lost to a word and a phrase in the story, so let’s deal with those first. The word is: “devil” also translated as “satan” and the phrase is: “throw them into the furnace of fire where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

I grew up hearing this parable twisted into a threat of hellfire and brimstone. It isn’t, and the fact that it’s been used that way so for so long, and continues to be used that way, is a sin from which the church (meaning us) must repent.

In his explanation of the parable, Jesus identifies the farmer as the Son of Man – himself - and the seeds as the children of the kingdom. He names the enemy who sows weeds as the devil, and the weeds as the children of the evil one.

In her book, “The Origin of Satan,” theologian Elaine Pagels teaches us this: (read from the book, pp 39, 40)… That’s how the idea of 'satan' started.

Now to the phrase most people think is talking about hell… that phrase, “they will throw them into the furnace of fire where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth”… you need to know that neither Jesus nor his religion or culture at that time had any concept of hell that resembled ours. Ours was born from art and literature, specifically Dante’s Inferno and the 9 Circles of Hell. It was art – not science or theology, yet his images moved us so much, many took them as truth and continue to do so.

Biblically speaking, to be thrown into the furnace of fire is to be re-made, re-born in God. Fire is a common biblical term for the presence of God. Remember the burning bush, the pillar of fire that guided the people through the wilderness… When people have gone irretrievably off the path of the will of God, God takes them back into God’s self where they get a do-over… reborn, like a phoenix, into something new.

Is there grief? Yes! People grieve loss – even the loss of an identity which is destructive. People also regret their mistakes once they’ve realize how far they have strayed from the path of love and how much destruction their mistakes have caused.

This is why we continually repent and return to God as our Baptismal vows call us to do. Mercifully, God addresses our guilt by doing what God always does – forgive. We are given another chance – a chance to live lives of love.

Jesus told us, over and over and in so many ways, to die to self, yet when we do that we feel like we’re being punished. We aren’t! We’re being redeemed!

Now, having dealt with those two concerns, let’s look at the spiritual message in Jesus’ parable.

Among us are people who nourish life and people who destroy life. Jesus instructs us to live together without judgment. The weeds will be separated from the wheat by someone else – we are NOT called to do that in our lives. We are called to live together.

When the weeds are separated out, they will be reborn in God because that is the love and mercy of God: to retrieve all that is lost or broken or damaged and redeem it – to bring new life from death.

Our job is to let God be God. In the meantime, we can make ourselves busy by shining like the sun, drawing all who live in darkness to the brilliance of the light that shines from us – the light of Christ. To accomplish that, however, we must open ourselves to God and trust as the Psalmist does: (Read vv 11 and 22)

In that kind of openness, when we invite God in to our restless thoughts and our hearts, we realize that the God whose redemption we seek is already with us – all around us and within us, praying through us, bearing witness through us, as St. Paul says in his letter to the Romans.

God is working out God’s redemption in the world and chooses to partner with us who are open, willing, and patient vessels. Our task, then, is to find and practice ways of being open, willing, and patient.

How? By praying together in community, absorbing God’s character into our bodies and souls through Holy Eucharist. By intentionally learning the ways God is speaking in the world now – through our bodies, through our circumstances, through one another, and through creation. Everything is a teacher – all of creation conspires with God to bring about the plan of salvation. St. Paul says all creation groans in labor pains, and we are part of that creation!

Here’s what that looks like for us today… We humans have employed practices that have inadvertently done damage to creation: certain ways of mining, farming, pest, and trash management. When those practices have not honored the dignity of creation, creation has let us know – if we have ears to hear and eyes to see. For example, some of our former mining practices taught us about erosion, water pollution, and wildlife pollution. During the Gold Rush certain rivers became polluted with mercury and other heavy metals which poisoned both the fish and the people who consumed them. Mercury in fish remains an issue today in North America, Australia, Europe, Asia, and Africa (in other words, just about everywhere). (Source)

Remember when they sprayed DDT for mosquito control? It was ultimately banned, but not before we suffered consequences including breast and other cancers, nervous system and liver damage, and developmental delays in our babies. But 40 years later, the effects are still with us: 60% of heavy cream, 42% of kale, and 28% of carrots still have DDT breakdown products in them. So do 99% of people tested by the Center for Disease Control. (Source)

Remember when we handled mercury in science class in school? Remember when we used thalidomide to treat morning sickness in pregnancy?

Our intentions are mostly good, and we know so much, but not always as much as we think, and it can take years before we understand the big picture. Thankfully, creation, which includes our very bodies, will tell us when we’ve stepped off the path of life.

We can get defensive and greedy or we can get open and willing. Only when we are open and willing can we truly hear and respond when creation is telling us, ‘you veered off the path of life.’

Every lesson, every circumstance, EVERYTHING is a gift from God, who knows what we need and mercifully provides it – even before the cloud of our ignorance has lifted and revealed a greater truth to us.

What if we approach this God, our loving, merciful God, and ask God to heal our brokenness – brokenness we know we have, and brokenness we don’t yet know we have. And what if we actually trusted God’s plan of salvation to make us whole? What if we let God be God. All of us... When I say “we” I mean all of creation, and all of us individually.

What if we actually trusted God’s plan of salvation to make us whole? All of us - the wheat and the weeds. What if we did as Jesus instructed and shone with the glory that is himself within us, leaving the judgment and separation of wheat and weeds to him.

Be open. Be willing. Be patient. Trust in the love and mercy of God. Then we truly will “shine like the sun in the kingdom of our Father.” Amen.