Sunday, April 29, 2018

Easter 5B, 2018: Unifying fire

Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 22:24-30; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8

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

I had a conversation the other day with a friend who was processing the Scripture for their sermon for today and they asked me: What does “abide” mean to you?

It was a good question, so I’d like to ask it of you and offer a portion of this sermon time for a holy conversation on what it means that we abide in God AND that God abides in us.


Years ago I burned my arm from here (wrist) to here (near shoulder). First, second, and third degree burns. The pain was indescribably awful, and as I read today’s gospel I wonder…who could love a God like that? I couldn’t.

So what about that last bit of the gospel where the branches that bear no fruit are thrown into the fire and burned? Many, many people hear that as a threat: If you’re bad child, God will punish you in a torturous way.

Doesn’t our epistle from John say that there is no fear in love? That perfect love casts out fear?

Is it possible to love and not fear a God who threatens to burn you up if you don’t produce? So how do we understand Jesus’ words about the branches being thrown into the fire?

The answer is found in the lager narrative of our love story with God. Where else in the Bible do we hear about fire?

• Exodus 3:1-6 – (Story of the burning bush) Moses saw that the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed…. Then God called to Moses out of the bush saying: ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’

• Exodus 13: 21 – (God’s guidance of the Israelites in exile) The LORD went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night.

• Exodus 24:17 – (Story of God giving Moses the 10 commandments) Now the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel.

• Deut 5:24 - And you said, “The LORD our God has shown us his glory and his majesty, and we have heard his voice from the fire.

• Luke 3:16 - John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

• Acts 2:3 – (the story of Pentecost) They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.

Fire, in Bible-speak then, is the presence of God, who our epistle from John teaches us, is love. And the narrative of our love story with God, that is, our Scriptures, illustrates for us that God’s love surrounds us when we are afraid, guides us when we are lost, and transforms us when we need renewal, giving us new life, like the legendary phoenix who is consumed by fire only to rise again.

Sharing in the presence and passion of God results in our knowing that we are connected, to God, and to one another, bound by the eternal love of God. Knowing that truth means we will no longer be able to separate ourselves into groups of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ or even us and God. We will live in the unity of the abiding love that is God. When we live according to that truth no one will have to tell us to be honest, or gentle, or humble in our dealings with one another.

We will bear this fruit because we will know that the root we spring from is God and our words, choices, and actions will demonstrate the character and nature of God who abides in us.

Living in this way, we don’t fear for our lives. Instead, like Jesus we surrender ourselves to God knowing that God’s plan of salvation is for the whole world.

Like Mary, Jesus’ mother, Peter, John, and all who call themselves disciples of Jesus, the Christ, we give up our expectations for what our lives might be and give ourselves fully to God whose plan, we know, is so much more than we can ask or imagine.

And we walk steadfastly in the path God sets before us knowing it leads to eternal life that is, life in the eternal presence of God, trusting as that plan is revealed to us over time, and remembering that though there were awful, devastating moments along the way for Jesus, Mary, Peter, John, and the other disciples - and that there will be for us too -the Good News in our Scripture today is that God abides in us and we in him, so all will truly be well as Dame Julian of Norwich famously said.

When we are experiencing the pain of divine pruning (which in a church setting often means letting go “what we’ve always done,” or relinquishing our perceptions about people in our past or present) we rejoice and cooperate with the divine Love at work in us, preparing us to produce more fruit.

When we see our withered branches (which in a church setting may be in the form of favored ministries or events, or even persons who for whatever reason can’t move into the new life God is leading the church) when we see them being thrown into the fire we rejoice and cooperate with the divine Love who is doing its transforming work, so that like the phoenix, they and we will rise again into new life.

The Good news of our salvation in Jesus Christ is that resurrection is always God’s response to death - every kind of death –including: the death of a ministry, a habit, a friend, an idea, a self or other-perception, or control…

New life is God’s response to all death and healing is God’s response to all wounds. We can, therefore, offer ourselves and our lives fully to God, not out of fear, but anticipating the new life God is waiting to give us.

So rejoice, beloved ones. Be joyful. There is no nothing to fear, no one or no thing to avoid – only new life to embrace. Amen.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Easter 4B, 2018: Abiding with our Shepherd

Lectionary: Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-1

(Note: if the above player doesn't work on your device, click HERE for an alternative audio format)

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

In the Gospel story from John, Jesus claims himself as the Good Shepherd. He does this using a familiar figure of speech not meant to be complete or all encompassing, just meant to make a point: I am the Good Shepherd – those others who have been leading you (meaning the Jewish leaders and religious authorities) are thieves and bandits, stealing your trust and robbing you of the abundant life offered by God.

The Good Shepherd is a favorite and enduring image of our Redeemer’s relationship with us (pictorial images of Jesus carrying a lamb over his shoulders) even though most of us today don’t have much real experience with sheep or shepherds.

But it was a familiar experience in Jesus’ time. Back then, sheep roamed freely during the day, but at night the shepherd found a place to enclose the sheep to protect them from predators and from running off and getting lost.

Most shepherds put planks across the gate to keep the sheep from walking back out during the night. But the truly devoted shepherd would lay himself down across the gate and sleep there. That way no sheep could leave and no predator enter without his knowing.

Of course, lying across that gate meant the shepherd was left vulnerable to whatever predators might show up. Jesus was claiming to be that sort of shepherd – the one who is willing to lay his life down for his sheep.

Incredibly, many Christians have taken this beautiful passage which is filled with comfort and loving assurance and turned it into something coercive and exclusive: If you don’t believe in Jesus that way I believe in Jesus, you can’t come in. The gate will be closed to you.

But Jesus makes clear, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.” You are in my flock. They are outside of it, but they are mine too. I will call to them and “they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

The Good Shepherd continues to call sheep into the fold today. We are not yet all one flock, and it’s up to us right now to do our part to get closer to that goal.

We must, therefore, continually ask ourselves, how freely our gate is opened to those whom God calls to join us? And in what ways do allow Jesus to speak through us today – out there? Remember, Jesus went out to the cities and villages to heal the sick, welcome the stranger and set people free from the power of sin in their lives.

As one of my favorite theologians, Winnie the Pooh says, “You can’t stay in your corner of the forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.”

Likewise, we must go out and enter into relationship with those who are lost or suffering, who are crying for safety, for nourishment or comfort, or just companionship. We must go to them and share the good news that God is always there with us, showing us the way to healing and restoration and protecting us from whatever threatens to harm us.

When the chaos of life swirls without and within us there is our Shepherd, always nearby, ready to show us the way to the verdant pasture beside the still waters where a feast has been prepared for us.

Picture it with me, using the 23rd Psalm as our narrative. We’re tired. We need to rest and let the world turn without us for a while. Or we’re breaking under a burden that has become too heavy to bear. Or we’ve never really believed we were of any value to anyone, including God. Or we’re lonely, isolated, or exiled by those most important to us. Our hearts and our heads are heavy. We are weary.

Then we hear the voice of our Shepherd inviting us to come – to nourish our bodies, rest our minds, and fill our souls. We look up and see tables set out on a flat area in the grass. A babbling creek runs along one side emptying into a pool as smooth as glass. A great green pasture spreads out in the other direction.

The tables are covered in fresh, white cloths. The flames of the candles on the tables dance in the soft breeze but never go out; and the tables are decorated with vases of fragrant flowers and herbs.

The sumptuous food is laid in the center of each table; and there are goblets of water and wine, already full, at every seat – and there are lots of seats – because eating a feast in the realm of God means being in community.

It’s a family meal where no one is lonely, no one is left out of the conversation, and everyone has plenty to eat. Our cups are running over, and joy abounds.

Then, to prove just how much we matter God anoints our heads with oil -something usually reserved for kings and queens. At that moment, when the oil touches our foreheads, we feel the power of God’s love enter us and course through our bodies like light breaking into darkness.

As the peace of God fills us, we close our eyes, lift our faces heavenward, open our arms and our hearts, and receive the grace God is lavishing upon us.Then we understand… We understand that the goodness and mercy of God will accompany us, every moment of every day of our lives. We understand because God abides in us and we in God, for ever and for ever more. We understand that we have nothing to fear and everything to gain by living lives of love; not just in word or speech, but in truth and action.

Let us, therefore, ask boldly for what we and our neighbors need, then faithfully receive all that God is ready and waiting to lavish upon us, and put to use all we are given for the glory of God and the welfare of God’s people.

As we prepare to share our Holy Communion, our earthly version of the feast described in Psalm 23, we open our hearts and minds to hear the voice of our Shepherd calling us by name, bidding us to eat and drink as we’re made into one body, one Spirit in Christ. For it is only in the realm of God that can we be totally and uniquely who we are, and at the same time, one with all that is, all that was, and all that ever will be.

Let us pray…Grant us, O God, to follow where you lead, remembering that we can lack nothing and have nothing to fear, because we abide with you forever. Amen.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Easter 3B, 2018: Chidren's sermon - Jesus' peace

Our sermon for Easter 3B at St. David's was a children's sermon called: Jesus' peace.

It was conversational as well as a teaching so there is no text. A couple of pictures were referenced and those are attached, along with a pic of the Jesus' peace pendants each one received.

The children's "homework" was to give a pendant to someone this week and tell them the good news of Jesus' peace. Thanks to the children - who were awesome - and the parents for caring about the Christian formation of your childrren!

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Easter 2B, 2018: The gift of graceful living

Lectionary: Acts 4:32-53; Psalm 133; 1John 1:1-2:2, John 20:19-31

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

The Second Sunday of Easter is such a lovely day for the lectionary. Our readings today show us the beginning of and the means by which life in the spirit of Jesus moved from his original followers to the whole world including us today.

The letter from John describes how the Good News of the resurrection of the Christ burned like a flame in the hearts of his followers. The book of Acts speaks of the fast-growing Followers of the Ways, which the church was originally called, as "one heart and soul," sharing with those who did not so "there was not one needy person among them…" They really did that: they sold their homes, gave it to the disciples and said, distribute this as is needed. Pretty remarkable.

The psalm affirms that people who live together in unity are richly blessed with life - words of comfort to the newly emerging church as it experienced increases in numbers so huge, in the tens of thousands, that they struggled to keep up with incorporating all of the new converts. A problem any church today would love, right?

But all of this happened because of the faithfulness of those first disciples who were afraid, confused, and doubted, but they stayed together as a community, and as a community moved from their unbelief to belief, each in their own time and in their own way.

This story of Jesus' appearance to his followers in the locked room is important because it reminds us that unbelief is part of the life of the church. Think about it, Jesus had been telling his disciples (go back through the reading of the passion) over and over again that he would be killed and would rise again on the third day, and that this was part of an overall plan by God for the redemption of the world.

So the time comes, the trial happens, and not one of them remembered; not one believed - at first. So, God met them where they were and led each one gently, lovingly into wholeness.

Remember how tenderly Jesus called Mary's name at that tomb opening her eyes and her heart to the truth. And in today's story, Thomas, poor Thomas, spends a whole week with his friends saying 'I don't believe it,' and Jesus appears and doesn't get mad at him or scold him or embarrass him, but goes up to him and gently offers him what he said he needed in order to believe.

This is our model for witnessing today: to meet people where they are and build bonds of community because this is where Jesus comes, to the body of Christ, and meets us, and gently and lovingly leads us to where we need to be - to our wholeness and to truth.

In this resurrection appearance to his followers Jesus gives the members of this new community the grace to live harmoniously, and he did it by breathing on them.

In the same way that God breathed life into the first humans in the story in Genesis, The Christ breathed new life into his followers saying, "Peace be with you." This isn't just a word of comfort to them, it's a gift of wholeness, the word is shalom. Shalom is being given to them. Because this new life wasn't just a new way of being or living or behaving - it's the very substance of the Jesus' own Spirit covering them, filling them, uniting them, making them one body, one spirit in himself.

This was their moment of reconciliation to God in Christ and it's a synergistic moment: they are the exactly same as they were, only completely different now. Their humanity has been united to Christ's divinity and now they have to learn and get used to how that changes everything.

So as Jesus sends them off into the world they have locked themselves away from, he warns them that whatever they forgive is forgiven in the unity of God - on earth as it is in heaven - and what they hold unforgiven is held unforgiven. In other words, they now have the power to create unity or division, to be partners in redemption - in the reconciling work of Christ in the world - or to be instruments of death.

As one commentator says, "if members of the community forgive one another their sins, those sins are forgiven and the community is living from and in the Spirit of Jesus; but if members of the community harbor grudges and resentment toward other members who have sinned against them, then those sins remain to spoil the bond of unity, and the Spirit of Jesus is no longer resident in the community." (Williamson, 283. Source:

It's up to each one in the community to do their share building the bond of love. When one member of the community struggles the others rally around to support them so that the bond of unity in the community isn't spoiled and the spirit of Jesus continues to live in them.

It's a choice. It's our choice, and in the community of Christ we call the church the choice of every individual affects the whole community. In the early church, the members lived together as family. Now remember, for many of these people, becoming a follower of The Way meant being cast out from their temple community and probably the company of their blood-families. The church became the only family they had, so preserving harmonious relationships in this new family was paramount.

As a commentator says, "These new Christians are living as brothers and sisters - as family. They are taking care of each other - making personal sacrifices to help each other considering the well-being of Christian brothers and sisters above their own personal welfare in many cases. To live in that kind of harmonious community makes it possible to drop one's defenses - to assume the best of one's neighbor instead of the worst - to resolve differences without rancor - to live without fear of physical danger or financial catastrophe or personal rejection. It is a level of graceful living that humans seldom achieve. When they do achieve it, it is usually because of a common commitment to a higher ideal - or by the grace… of God." (Rev. Richard N. Donovan, ret.)

Sound familiar? This has to be one of St. David's greatest strengths: a harmonious community… graceful living. Whatever the source of it, this parish is truly blessed. You have practiced how to live in the spirit of Jesus as a harmonious community for years. It's a gift of your life together with Michael+, and now you are being sent from the safety of this home into the to the world, which has apparently lost the ability to live in harmonious community, small or large.

That means finding the way to transition life at St. David's as it has been to life as it will be now in Christ which will present its own challenges to this community. But I'm not worried. I see your gifts. I hope you see them too.

This is why you'll hear me continually say: never (ever) underestimate the power of the small church. What is lived here so easily, so naturally is the very thing God seeks to use to transform the darkness of the world into the light of Christ: graceful living.

I say that because, as we saw in today's gospel, God has a history of doing just that: sending the transformed members of the small community out from the safety of their home into the world to show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith.

Our impact today could be no less astonishing than was the impact of those first disciples.

Let us pray: Fill us, Triune God, with love that flows so abundantly that the world is drenched by it everywhere one of us goes. Give our small community the grace to recognize and let loose your great power within us: the power of graceful living, living in the spirit of Christ as a harmonious community. We trust you to show us the way and commit to go where you lead, in Jesus' holy name. Amen.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Easter-B, 2018: Our family story

Lectionary: Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; Acts 10:34-43; John 20:1-18

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

We gather today as the family of God to hear our family story, the story of how we became who we are, Christians… followers of Jesus Christ.

Every family has stories which we tell and re-tell at picnics and funerals, reunions, and holiday dinners. Sometimes, we sit around the kitchen table looking at pictures in those books we called "photo albums" before the digital age.

One of my family's stories was about my Poppa, who came to the US from Ireland and kept his family fed by bootlegging whiskey and being chauffeur to a rich family in NYC. This and other stories taught me of my Poppa's ethic for hard work and devotion to family.

And there's the story of my Puerto Rican Mamacita, who would snap green beans in the local market to test their freshness. When the store owner would try to stop her, this tiny but fierce woman would respond with the only sentence she knew in English. It started with "Shut up you…" but it ends a cuss word, so I won't finish it.

Mamacita was a mother bear, fiercely protective of her daughter who emigrated with her, and she was tough as nails, even though her life as an immigrant was difficult and lonely.

Our family stories fascinate, educate, and delight us. Some of them make us laugh, others make us cry, but they all help us understand who we are, where we came from, even why we look or act like we do.

These stories ground us in the present, give meaning to our past and point us toward our future. It's why we tell them over and over, generation after generation.

And that is exactly what we do every time we gather as the family of God in church. Each time we gather for worship and re-tell the stories of our faith, the words and images in them become part of our very essence.

Over time, they begin to live deep within us. This is why I encourage the presence of our children in church.

At every celebration of Holy Eucharist we hear the stories of our forebears in the faith who are the source of our identity as a people of God, followers of Christ, and pilgrims on an eternal divine journey into unity.

These stories show us how those who came before us did their best -succeeding AND failing in their "growing up" in the faith. They weren't perfect, and neither will we be, but when we fail God redeems and another generation witnesses it and is transformed.

The family story in today's gospel from John carries us once more on that journey we've been practicing all Holy Week: from shock and horror to joyful songs of praise.

When Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb before sunrise and sees the stone already rolled away, we share her moment of panic, then her devastation and helplessness as she weeps outside the empty tomb.

Then, when Jesus approaches Mary but she doesn't recognize him, we hear our inner voice call out to her: 'He's there, Mary! It's OK. Look - It's him!'

We know the story, though. We know that Mary is going to recognize Jesus once he speaks her name, but we still share her surprise which leads to joy, and we exhale our relief with Mary as she prays his name: "Rabbouni."

Connected once again to the love that is the life of the world, Mary suddenly understands everything differently. Her emptiness is filled. She has been prepared to serve, and when Jesus sends her to tell the others, which flies in the face of all the norms of their culture, she goes anyway - trusting in the path Jesus is setting before her and her part in it.

In this new covenant inaugurated by Jesus our Savior, those who, like Mary, were excluded and marginalized in the world are now included, respected, even honored in the household of God. All of the privileged hierarchies of the world have been brought low and leveled out by this new covenant.

Even privileged Peter finally came to understand, albeit a bit later, as we heard him preach to the Gentiles saying: "I truly understand that God shows no partiality."

No one is excluded in the kingdom of God and nothing on earth can hold us bound anymore …except us. We can refuse to go where God sends us. We can take the new thing God is presenting to us and re-form it into that old thing we know and want to have again.

That's why Jesus immediately cautions Mary not to hold on to him. It isn't about my returning to you, Mary (he says) it's about my returning you to God.

In Jesus' resurrection humanity is reconciled to God in a new and everlasting unity.

Theologian and Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr says: "In Jesus, matter and spirit were presented as totally one. Human and Divine were put together in his ordinary body, just as in the rest of humanity. That's Christianity's core and central message!"

Teresa of Avila describes this divine unity as complete and permanent, saying, "it is like rain falling from the heavens into a river or spring; there is nothing but water there and it is impossible to divide or separate the water belonging to the river from that which fell from the heavens." ("Interior Castle," 235)

It is a simple, profound, impossible truth - and it is our family story.

So, as we celebrate this holiest of feasts today, remembering how we came to be who we are and trusting Jesus and the path he is setting before us, let us renew the vows of our Baptism - found on page 304 in the Book of Common Prayer.

Cullowhee Cmty Sunrise Easter service,2018

At Cullowhee Baptist Church. Audio only. No text available.