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.