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.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Pentecost 6A, 2017: Nothing is wasted

Preached as supply at St. John's, Charlotte - a truly wonderful faith community! I had so much fun there!

Lectionary:Isaiah 55:10-13; Psalm 65: (1-8), 9-14; Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9,18-23

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

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

I love turkey vultures. That’s right… I said I love turkey vultures. Most people consider them ugly with that wrinkly red skin on their heads, and gross because they eat dead, rotting road kill.

It’s true, they aren’t beautiful like an eagle, or elegant like a hawk – until you see them in flight. The wingspan of this raptor is 5 ½ feet long with white-tipped, finger-like feathers that spread out and touch the wind. They rarely flap their powerful wings, choosing instead to ride the thermals and updrafts with effortless grace and wisdom.

The turkey vulture has one great weakness, though: it’s feet and talons are weak, so it can’t swoop down to grab and kill prey like hawks and owls do. That’s why it feeds on already dead animals, which seems like a disgusting way to have to go, and makes one wonder what eternal sin they are being punished for – (I don’t believe in that…) but in reality, turkey vultures serve an immensely important role in the big picture of creation.

They have powerful digestive juices that allow them to eat the dead animals without getting sick, thereby saving other animals from the spread of dangerous infections and harmful bacteria. Their featherless heads, while not classically beautiful, allow them to eat their food without picking up harmful bacteria or infection.

Sunlight also helps disinfect their heads and feathers, so in the mornings, turkey vultures gather in great numbers, raise their heads and lift their wings, and allow the sun to cleanse them of any remaining bacteria. It’s an amazingly beautiful sight – these magnificent birds doing their sun salutation.

The scientific name for turkey vulture is cathartes aura, which means ‘golden purifier.’ Isn’t that beautiful? Ancient Greeks considered them symbols of heaven and earth, spirit and matter, good and evil – all in one physical body.

I see them as the perfect illustration of St. Paul’s discussion in today’s portion of the letter to the Romans. Life and death, flesh and spirit – all transformed in us because of our relationship to Jesus, the Christ – or as St. Paul said it, “the Spirit is life because of righteousness.”

Righteousness. Right relationship.

Since, as Paul says, “the Spirit of God dwells in” us, we have life in our mortal bodies through that spirit. We are dead and alive – all in one physical body.

From the turkey vulture we also learn that what we might consider to be waste is actually a valuable part of God’s life-giving plan and evidence of the interconnectedness of all creation. We may judge road-kill as waste, but the turkey vulture sees it as dinner! And by being itself, and doing what God created it to do, the turkey vulture contributes
to the health and well-being of the earth and the creatures of God who live on it.

There is no such thing as waste in God’s economy.

As we heard in our reading from Isaiah, everything created of God has a divine purpose and will not return to God empty, but will accomplish that for which God has created it. Everything… everyone has a divine purpose, even those we might judge as worthless, or gross, or useless, or bad. That, I think, is the point of the Parable of the Sower.

There are many approaches to understanding this story. Some see the Sower as God, sowing seed extravagantly, freely, almost wastefully, in areas where God knows it can’t take root and grow. Others see us as the sowers, called to imitate God’s extravagance by sharing the Good News we know.

Still others see us as the seed which has been sown. Some of us grow shallow roots that fail to sustain us in times of trouble. Some of us are choked by the thorns of culture and die. Some of us grow in good soil and produce abundant fruit.

Then there are those who see us as the soil – footworn hardened paths that can’t receive a seed; or rocky ground too shallow to sustain life; or so crowded with thorns that anything that takes root is choked and dies; or land that is nourished, cared for, and ready to receive seed.

All of those interpretations are fine with me, but the one that compels me today is the one that focuses on the Sower who, if we hold the Sower to be God, wastes nothing.

Yet the parable seems to indicate otherwise. So how do we understand this?

If the Sower is God, then God scatters the seeds of life extravagantly, freely, on hard, rocky, thorny, and fertile ground alike. In God’s economy then, the plants that grow, no matter where they are planted, are valuable and part of the interconnectedness of all that is.

What if we suspend our typical judgments of those plants and open the eyes of our hearts to discern God’s purpose for them?

A young woman I know was born in rocky soil. Her parents were drug addicted and her family was the picture of dysfunction: abusive, uneducated, constantly in and out of jail. This young woman was subjected to abuses of every kind at home and left as a teenager hoping to find a better life. But she was unprepared – she’d never learned the basic things so many of us take for granted, like how to read, how to brush her teeth, even how to use a chest of drawers to store clothes. She also never learned or saw modeled how to earn money legally or how to be in a relationship that wasn’t abusive or exploitive.

But this young woman, as abrasive and repulsive in appearance and behavior as she was, is a child of God with a divine purpose. So is the homeless person begging at the street corner, or the addict panhandling on the sidewalks uptown, or the lapsed believer, or the person obsessed with money, power, and prestige.

They are all seeds sown by the Sower. How, then, does a follower of Christ respond?

Well for one thing, we don’t condemn. St. Paul writes that “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” which to me, means everyone, since Jesus, as the second person of the Trinity, is the one “through whom all things are made.” Isn’t that what we say in our Creed?

Who then, can exist apart from him?

We all may be at different places in our understanding and awareness of this, but that is our truth. It isn’t about what we believe, but who we are – created and beloved of God.

We can also respond by setting our minds on the Spirit of God who dwells in us, and letting our weakness be the place God connects us one to another. This is the principal behind AA – alcoholics helping other alcoholics to find healing and wholeness.

This is also what connected me to the young woman I mentioned. I knew the abuse she lived because I had lived some of it too. This enabled us to connect in a real way and begin a journey of healing from which both of us benefitted.

When we connect with one another, weakness to weakness, the power of God’s healing love works powerfully through the faithful to transform death to life.


Perhaps we can respond by bringing our fertile soil, along with some water, and fertilizer to their plot and share from our riches. Or maybe we transplant them somewhere that has more fertile soil, provided they want that.

Not everyone is privileged to have been sown into fertile soil, but everyone is beloved of God and has a divine purpose. And the beauty of life in the Spirit of God is that everyone can be made whole, reconciled by the power of Jesus Christ
and his glorious resurrection from the dead.

That is the Spirit who dwells in us, therefore, we are the means by which God accomplishes this in the world today. It is our responsibility, therefore to know and own our weaknesses; to know and own our divine purpose… and that is why we gather together each Sunday: to worship God in community, to partake of holy food which transforms us bit by bit into holy people, and to discover how the unique gifts God has brought together in this community – St. John’s, Charlotte - are meant to be used to connect “out there” and bring God’s transforming love to all, but especially those beloved ones sown in hard, rocky, or thorny soil.

Let us pray.

God of love and creator of all, give us the grace and courage to go to those who were planted in hardened, rocky, or thorny soil, and share with them the truth of their value and belovedness. By your Spirit may we see beyond any ugliness, abrasiveness, or repulsiveness and recognize the goodness which you proclaimed is in all you create,
that we may be co-creators of life, right here, right now, by the power of your Holy Spirit which dwells in us, through Jesus Christ our Redeemer. Amen.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Pentecost 5A: To love is to obey Jesus' commands

Today I was given the gift and privilege of supplying againat St. Mark's, Chester, SC. I love this community! Today'ssermon was extemporaneous, so no text. The audio is posted below.

Lectionary: Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67; ong of Solomon 2:8-13; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

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

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Pentecost 4, 2017: Welcoming News

Preached as supply at St. Mark's, Chester, SC. A wonderful small church with a big heart!

Lectionary: Genesis 22:1-14; Psalm 13; Romans 6:12-23; Matthew 10:40-42

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

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

Story: Christ the King Episcopal Church, Valdosta, GA – Fr. Stan White… Y’all will welcome anybody!

Jesus broke bread with Gentiles and sinners, women, and others who were outcast in his culture. His ministry was characterized by humility and hospitality, mercy, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Boldly proclaiming a new revelation of God’s mercy and forgiveness, Jesus freed people from the bondage of their sins, and from the bondage of those who sinned against them, and expanded the boundaries of God’s kingdom to include the least and the lost, the outcast and the outsider.

But it cost him dearly. Living out God’s call can – will - cause us some discomfort, insecurity, even fear.

But seeing the effect of the good news we bear on those who need to hear it is worth whatever it costs. Have you ever seen that- the moment someone is “struck by grace” as theologian Paul Tillich calls it?

It’s that moment, we realize that God loves us with an incomprehensible love… and suddenly, Tillich says, "…a light breaks into our darkness and it is as though a voice were saying: 'You are accepted…accepted by that which is greater than you'

…After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe better than before. But everything is transformed."

That is our good news! We are accepted, loved, and entrusted by God to be bearers of this good news as light that breaks into the darkness of the world.

And so we gather each week for Holy Eucharist, holy food for holy people as theologian Gordon Lathrop said. By this nourishment of Word and Sacrament we are strengthened for our work which, is to spread the unity we enjoy, to enlarge the boundaries of God’s kingdom; or as our Catechism says: "to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ."

But this certainly isn't something we can do on our own – it's something we must do in community. Theologian and Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright says, there are no individual Christians. Christians are by definition, a body – the body of Christ in the world.

Our gifts are meant to work together to bring the will of God as it is in heaven also on the earth. What we do and how we do it has an impact in heaven and on earth.

Why? Because, as Jesus said, “The Father and I are one.” This reflects a basic tenet of our faith: that God is Trinity in Unity.

God is not just one in substance or person, but also one in activity. What Jesus is doing is what God is doing is what the Holy Spirit is doing.

We believe that by his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus reconciled us to God. That means we and God are one in Jesus, the Christ. So what Jesus is doing -- is what God is doing -- is what the Holy Spirit is doing -- is what we are doing…

In today’s gospel, Jesus says: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” Since we are eternally in the presence of God, heaven is here on earth – in us! Therefore, whoever welcomes us welcomes God into their lives.

This is a powerful truth, which is why St. Paul cautions us to remember that we have been set free from the power of sin and live as instruments of right relationship. Every little mercy we offer, “even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones” matters because we are offering the “free gift of God” to them, and that gift is “eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

And so, we take our nourishment of holy food, and go to those people in the places to which they’ve been banished by culture, places we may not find warm welcome; but we go anyway because the gift we bear is so great and so motivating, that we can’t help but share it.

Share it – not force it. That’s an important difference. The word Jesus uses is welcome. To welcome is to receive with pleasure not to acquiesce out of fear or force.

There’s enough of that in our world already. Our world is replete with people who need the good news we have to share.

Think about someone who has been criticized or abused to the point that they can’t see their gifts anymore? We, who are the body of Christ, must go to them, meet them where they are, and be willing to walk with them from that darkness into the light of truth.

Or someone who sees themselves as so useless, or ugly, or unimportant that they believe they have no purpose? We, who are the body of Christ, must go to them, meet them where they are, and be willing to walk with them from that darkness into the light of truth.

Or someone who has become so filled with hate and contempt that they no longer care that they have no hope? We, who are the body of Christ, must go to them, meet them where they are, and be willing to walk with them from that darkness into the light of truth.

It’s a hard thing to do – entering someone else’s nightmare – and it’s scary at first, until you witness the power of God’s redeeming love. Then nothing is ever scary or impossible again.

When we live like we believe in the power of God’s redeeming love, then every darkness becomes a place where the light and the truth of Christ that lives in us can shine.

We are the place where heaven illumines the earth! We as individuals, and we as the church, and everyone, including the least and the lost, the outcast and the outsider – everyone is welcome. Amen.