Ascension on da strip!

On Friday night, Dec. 21st, a group of ten from St. Mary's and St. Barnabas car-pooled up to Church of the Ascension in Atlantic City to experience our first ever Hip-Hop Mass. And, my friends, if ever you have the opportunity to experience the Eucharist Hip-Hop style, I urge you to do so.

Guest preacher, Pastor Gary Melton, explained in his sermon the "rationale" for bringing hip-hop into the church. Hip-hop is typically associated with gangs, violence, drugs, sexual promiscuity, etc. - and all of this is glorified by hip-hop culture. By bringing hip-hop into the church, Christ can use the medium for good. Christ enters the darkest places of our lives (after all, the Christ child was born into a dark, dingy, smelly manger and out of this dark beginning, redeemed the world. I'm not doing justice to Pastor Gary's words. But the impact truly was profound.

The local media picked up the story. Not only did it make the front page of the Atlantic City Press on Saturday, but a local television station reported as well. To see the video clip, click on this link and then, just below the headline, you can push the "video" button.

To Poppa T (a.k.a., The Rev. Timothy Holder) - Word! (After the dismissal at St. Barnabas this morning, one of the teens who was with us in Atlantic City, shouted out, "Word!" --- a great moment!)


Dusting Off Radical Hospitality

Sermon Preached on Advent 2A at
St. Barnabas-by-the-Bay Episcopal Church

“Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” These words from Paul’s letter to the Romans seem so simple, so straightforward, so obvious, that it may seem odd that I want to focus on them this morning. And yet, there are many ways in which we can show welcome or lack of welcome to another and some of them more subtle than others. Welcome involves more than just greeting a newcomer at the door, for example – though, to be sure, that is important. Welcome is about more than inviting a new person to join us for an upcoming dinner, Bible study, or other event – though, again, this is important. Showing welcome is about a way of being in the world and in our church. A few years ago, I kept encountering the phrase “radical hospitality” and it was used to express the type of welcoming that Christian congregations are called to share. I haven’t heard that phrase in a while, but I am more and more convinced that we need to dig it out, dust it off, and try it on again.

The word ‘radical’ suggests an action that is extreme or revolutionary, a bold step that goes well beyond the ordinary and expected. And ‘hospitality,’ – well, we all know what that means; it is simply another way of saying ‘welcoming.’ But note that in the word ‘hospitality’ there is no qualification. We are not being invited to welcome only those who are like us or those with whom we agree. We are not being invited to welcome only those who are the same age as we are or those who have the same amount of information and knowledge as we do. No, there is no qualifier on the word hospitality. Now Paul uses the word “welcome” and he does qualify that word. The early Christians in Rome was being invited by Paul to “welcome one another . . . just as Christ has welcomed you.” There’s the qualifier: to welcome as Christ welcomes. Talk about radical hospitality! Because who are some of the people that Christ welcomes? Sinners, children, tax collectors, prostitutes, the sick, the lame, the paralyzed, the lepers, and the list goes on and on. All are welcomed by Christ “for the glory of God” and that is the kind of welcome – the kind of hospitality which we are invited to extend.

Consider John the Baptist. In the reading from Matthew he is described as one who “wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.” This description is that of a vagrant – a wild man. Even the food he ate – locusts and wild honey – are the foods of the poorest people – of the vagabonds wandering in the desert. That remains true even today. In parts of Nigeria, for example, where local crops have been devastated for the past several years by the locusts, the locusts themselves have become a major part of the daily diet. They are typically fried in oil and served up with a side of hot chili powder as a dish called, “desert shrimp”.[1] So John the Baptist, a poor man in the wilderness, is the one God chooses to announce the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus, the man whose very ministry will involve showing hospitality to all people, but especially to social outcasts – those who had experienced the least hospitality – the coming of Jesus is first proclaimed by such an outcast, John the Baptist.

This is no coincidence. Scripture – both the Old and the New Testaments – are filled with descriptions of hospitality and its importance. In Deuteronomy we read, “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”[2] In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” and “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”[3] And, in the book of Hebrews, we find, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”[4] Time and again, Scripture reminds us of our responsibility to show hospitality and gives us story after story of Jesus stretching the boundaries of acceptable behavior by persistently inviting into his circle those that have been cast aside by others in society.[5] “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”

Now at this point I feel a need to emphasize that last bit of that command from Paul’s letter to the Romans: this is done “for the glory of God.” We are not interested in being welcoming so that we can get more people in the pews. We are not interested in being welcoming so that we can get more money in the offering plate. We are not interested in being welcoming so that we can be the most popular church in town. No, welcoming is core to who we are as Christians. The church is the Body of Christ and each of us are members of that Body. And the mission of the Church – and this comes right out of the catechism at the back of the prayer books – “is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”[6] As a church, as the Body of Christ in the world, we have a mission to bring people into relationship with God through Christ. Welcoming and hospitality are about God, not about us. And welcoming and hospitality are our responsibility, our calling, from God.

So, what might our own efforts at radical hospitality look like? First, we need to continue doing those things that we already do – welcoming new comers when they come to worship with us and inviting them to join in upcoming events and activities of the church. But this is not extraordinary hospitality; this is not radical hospitality. For our hospitality, our welcoming, to be radical, we have to do more. Robert Schnase, a bishop in the United Methodist Church includes a chapter on radical hospitality in his book, Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations. After reading it this week, here are just a couple of suggestions that I think we can implement at St. Barnabas without a great deal of difficulty – but it will only work if we all work together:
  • Don’t wait for people to come to us; instead, go out and invite them to join us. Oftentimes, church folks like to think this is the primary responsibility of the priest. But I’m here to tell you that I don’t know nearly the number of people outside of the church as you all do . Why? Because I spend the majority of my time inside the church. You, on the other hand, interact with people all the time who are outside the church – they are your neighbors, your colleagues at work, your friends at the community center. When is the last time you told them about your church? You’ve told them about great movies, about books you’ve enjoyed, about stores you like to shop at, and restaurants you like to eat at. Now, just go a step further and tell them about the church you like to pray at. At this fall’s convocation, Bishop Councell and his staff gave us four simple words to use to start those conversations: “I love my church.” Imagine who could be served if each one of us, this week, used those four words on one person – “I love my church.” If they look at you cross-eyed, move on. But maybe, just maybe, they’ll ask you why and then you’ll have an opportunity to tell them about the way in which God is working through you and the other members at St. Barnabas to do a new thing in the world.
  • Here’s another one: when someone new comes into the church, make a point to find out their name and then, if you see that they haven’t had a chance to meet a vestry member or myself, walk them over to one of us and introduce them by name. While you’re at it, try to see our church through their eyes. What questions are they asking? What things are so obvious to us as “insiders” that it never occurs to us that it might make no sense at all to someone new. The BCP, the ECW, narthex, the what? Let’s all work together to avoid using jargon when we talk about our church. The prayer book – its black, the women’s group, the back of the church – now doesn’t that make a lot more sense to someone who is new?

Two simple ideas: first, tell one person this week that you love your church and second, look at the church and everything about it through the eyes of a newcomer. To be sure, this is only a beginning, but it’s a very good place to start. Radical hospitality – “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”

[1] Senan Murray, “In Pictures: Desert Shrimps,” BBC News accessed online on December 6, 2007.
[2] Deuteronomy 10:19.
[3] Matthew 25:35, 40.
[4] Hebrews 13:2.
[5] Robert Schnase, Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, (Abingdon Press, 2007), p. 13.
[6] BCP, 855.

What greater present can we ask for?

Sermon Preached on Advent 1A (December 2, 2007)
At St. Barnabas-by-the-Bay Episcopal Church (Villas, NJ)

How many of you have completed your Christmas shopping? Is there anyone who hasn’t started yet? For many of us, the beginning of Advent, marks the start of the last minute shopping sprint as we count down those precious few weeks and days before Christmas arrives and eager faces sit around the Christmas tree waiting to open gifts thoughtfully purchased or prepared and carefully wrapped by loved ones. Department stores have count down signs, many homes have Advent calendars, and even our churches have Advent wreaths with candles that help us calculate the time between now and Christmas. Each year I feel as though Advent is becoming more and more about presents and less and less about being present. And each year, it becomes harder and harder to do anything about it. How do we resist the pull of Christmas which now begins shortly after Labor Day and live into the hope and expectation of the Advent now? How do we not prepare for Christmas and instead stay present for Advent?

Truly there are no easy answers. Because it is no longer just the secular pulls of Christmas that threaten to pull us away from the present. In fact, living outside of the present has become a year-round phenomenon. With the advent of TiVo, we can now watch our favorite television shows anytime we have the time. Time, one of the last vestiges of God’s creation untouched by human hands is now being controlled by humans as our lives spin more and more out of control. And yet, each year in churches around the world, these four Sundays before Christmas that mark the time of Advent, invite us to be counter-cultural, invite us to live fully in the world, fully in time, fully present in the present rather than focusing on the presents (that is, the gifts) that will be under the tree.

What does it mean to live in time? Well, one thing we know from Scripture is that God works in time. God is not a God of the instantaneous. The promises of God unfold over time. The first story of our Scriptures is that of creation and we are told that God created the heavens and the earth in six days and, on the seventh day, he rested.[1] Modern-day science tells us that this is not an actual description of how the world began and while I know those early Israelites didn’t know what we know about science today, I also know they didn’t understand their stories of creation to be precise descriptions of how those events unfolded either. The fact is, there are many stories of creation within our Bible and each of them varies in terms of details and emphasis, suggesting that each serves a unique purpose in the unfolding story of the people of God.[2] And I would suggest, that one of the primary purposes of that first creation story with its repetitive refrain, “And there was evening and there was morning” is to emphasize that the God of our faith is a God who works within the constraints of time. And another thing we learn from this same creation story is that we, human beings, are made in the image of God. We are called to work and live within the constraints of time.

In this morning’s first reading, we read from the prophet Isaiah about God’s promise to establish a house “as the highest of the mountains. . . raised above the hills,” a house so magnificent that “all the nations shall stream to it [and] many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.”[3] You and I are invited to move ever closer to the mountain of God. But this trek up the mountain will take time. If any of you used to watch Star Trek, you may remember that a popular mode of travel between the space ship and other planets was the transporter – “beam me up, Scotty” – a nearly instantaneous relocation device. At one moment Captain Kirk is on the space ship, a moment later, he is on the surface of a planet many miles away. Our Advent invitation to “go up to the mountain of the LORD” does not work this way. Instead it is a process in time.

This process of living in time, rather than attempting to control time, challenges us. It is hard to live our lives without being overwhelmed by the past or anxious about the future and yet, this is precisely what the season of Advent, and, in fact, everyday life in Christ, calls us to do. Two weeks ago, we heard these words from the gospel of Luke:

“When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus said, ‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’

They asked him, ‘Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?’ And he said, ‘Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, `I am he!' and, `The time is near!' Do not go after them.”[4]
In today’s gospel reading from Matthew, a continuation of this conversation, Jesus reminds the disciples that no one knows “about that day and hour” – “neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” and he gives the disciples some practical, though not easy, advice: “you . . . must be ready.”[5] Being ready is about living life in the present, living an Advent life, a life fully committed in the here and now to Christ, to living in the body of Christ, in the Christian community, always moving toward the mountain of God. Paul describes it this way, “Let us. . . lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day.”[6]

I began this morning by saying that the beginning of Advent is, for most of us, the start of the last minute shopping sprint as we count down those precious few weeks and days before Christmas. In light of all that I’ve said, I realize I may not sound a whole lot different than the Grinch who Stole Christmas right out from under the noses of all those Whos down in Whoville. So let me clarify a bit now. I am not suggesting that you all stop buying gifts – or return the gifts you’ve already bought. I’m not suggesting you wait until Christmas day to put up your Christmas lights, your tree, and all the decorations that make your home look and feel more festive. Instead, I am suggesting that you do these things with an eye toward what they are –trappings. They are the trappings of a predominantly secular holiday that has come to coincide with the season of Advent of the Christian year. And, in the midst of it all, make time and space for the observance of Advent - a season that is marked by living in the present - neither being overwhelmed by the past nor anxious about the future. Advent, a season focused on being filled with all confidence and hope that God will, in God’s time, bring us to that glorious mountain where the peoples “shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks” and where the nations “shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”[7] What greater present can we ask for? “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!”[8]

[1] Genesis 2:1-2.
[2] E.g., Genesis 1:1-2:3; 2:4-25; Wisdom 8:4-6; 9:9; Sirach 24:1ff; John 1:1-5; I Colossians 1:15-18; Hebrews 1:2.
[3] Isaiah 2:2-3.
[4] Luke 21:5-8.
[5] Matthew 24:36, 44.
[6] Romans 13:12b-13a
[7] Isaiah 2:4b.
[8] Isaiah 2:5.


Committed to the Here and Now

Sermon Preached November 18, 2007
St. Mary's Episcopal Church - Stone Harbor
Proper 28C

There was a skit on Sesame Street that I really loved as a kid. It went something like this. One of the grown-ups, maybe Luis, is sitting on the steps of 123 Sesame Street reading a story to the kids. After awhile, one of the Muppet monsters walks by carrying a sign that he reads aloud – it says, “The end is coming.” He keeps on walking, but then returns again in a few moments. This goes on for quite awhile. The children giggle a little bit each time the monster comes by, but Luis keeps reading the story and they, for the most part, continue to listen. Finally, Luis reaches the end of the story, and – perhaps you’ve already guessed it – the monster walks by with a new sign that he reads which says, “The end is here.”

Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot about the end – specifically the date, December 21st, 2012 because this is the date on which many are expecting the end to occur. Last July, The New York Times Magazine featured an article by novelist Benjamin Anastas called “The Final Days” in which he explored some of the mystery of 12-21-12. Apparently the present day popularity of this prediction centers around something called the Harmonic Convergence – a 1987 gathering of people in a number of locations around the world – including Stonehenge, Mount Shasta, and Central Park. The Convergence was promoted by José Arguelles, the author of a number of “books about the Mayan cosmos and his experiences with telepathically received prophecies.”[1] Arguelles got the word out that the convergence was “an earth-changing event requiring 144,000 participants . . . to free the planet from the dissonant influence of Western science and synchronize with the ‘wave harmonic of history’ set to culminate in 2012.”[2] And in a way that only our modern technological advances would allow, people did gather for the Harmonic Convergence and the media did cover it extensively and soon the year 2012 had taken on a significance of mythic proportions.

And here, I confess, I am quite a skeptic. After all, people have predicting the end of times since the beginning of time and, so far, they’ve all been wrong. The early Christians thought that the second coming would occur in their life time. “Christians in Europe attacked pagan territories in the north to prepare for the end of the world at the first millennium; the Shakers believed the world would end in 1792” and the Jehovah’s Witnesses have offered more than their share of predicted end times: 1914, 1915, 1918, 1920, 1925, 1941, 1975, 1994 and so far, we’re still here.[3] In more recent times such end time predictions have led to the tragic deaths of many including The People’s Temple, founded by The Rev. Jim Jones; the Order of the Solar Temple in Switzerland; and the Heaven’s Gate cult in California.[4]

We live in a culture that has a preoccupation with the end times. But Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel warn us, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.”[5] O.k., that’s fine, but how will we know who we should believe and how will we know when that time is truly near? Those to whom Jesus was speaking in the temple were wondering the same thing. “Jesus said, ‘. . . the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’”[6] And this statement begged the question: “When? When will that day come?”[7]

Jesus’ answer had two parts. In the first place, he gives them a list of events – wars, insurrections, “nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom,” earthquakes, famines, plagues, dreadful portents, and “great signs from heaven.”[8] These things are typically associated with end times in the Scriptures. In the book of the prophet Isaiah it is written, “I will stir up Egyptians against Egyptians, and they will fight, one against the other, neighbor against neighbor, city against city, kingdom against kingdom.”[9] The book of the prophet Ezra, from the Apocrypha, says,

“So when there shall appear in the world earthquakes, tumult of peoples, intrigues of nations, wavering of leaders, confusion of princes, then you will know that it was of these that the Most High spoke from the days that were of old, from the beginning. For just as with everything that has occurred in the world, the beginning is evident, and the end manifest.”[10]
But what is different about the list provided here in Luke’s gospel are the words Jesus adds – a bit of a surprise: “When you hear of” these things, he says, “do not be terrified” because “the end will not follow immediately.”[11]

So just when those in the temple are thinking he is about to tell them when the end will come, he stops short and says “do not be terrified.” And here is the second part of Jesus’ answer. The reason they are not to be terrified is that, when the time comes, they will have “an opportunity to testify” – an opportunity for which they are not to prepare for, Jesus promises, “I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”[12] And with this simple phrase, it comes into focus why we should not worry ourselves about the end of time. Knowing when the end of time will come will in no way prepare us for it. Because, in that moment, there will be nothing for us to prepare. God will provide us with the words we need in the moment.

Jesus then refocuses his questioners from concern about the end times to concern about the present time reminding them that it is by their endurance that they will gain their souls.[13] And what is this endurance that we are called to? Endurance is about life in the present, a life fully committed in the here and now to Christ, to living in the body of Christ, the Christian community, always working toward fulfilling the promises made at our baptism:
· To continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship
· To persevere in resisting evil
· To proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ
· To seek and serve Christ in all persons
· To strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being.[14]

When we do these things we will come to recognize that the monster’s warning that the end is coming will do nothing to provide sustenance or direction for the present and that being focused on following Christ in the here and now, living in the story of the our present days, will leave us nothing to fear when that future time does come. Because Christ will give us the words and the wisdom we will need in that moment and our endurance now will have gained us our souls.

[1] Benjamin Anastas, “The Final Days,” The New York Times Magazine, July 1, 2007 accessed online on November 15, 2007.
[2] Anastas.
[3] Anastas.
[4] “When Devotion Means Death,” BBC News: Africa, March 18, 2000 accessed online on November 15, 2007.
[5] Luke 21:8.
[6] Luke 21:6.
[7] Luke 21:7.
[8] Luke 21:9-11.
[9] Isaiah 19.2.
[10] 2 Esdras 9:3-5.
[11] Luke 21:9.
[12] Luke 21:13b-15.
[13] Luke 21:18b.
[14] BCP 304-5.


God is a God of the Living

Sermon Preached November 11, 2007
Proper 27C / Veteran's Day

A couple of weeks ago, we heard in Luke’s gospel, a parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector. Now today, we are introduced to a group of Sadducees. Just who were these people and why were they so often critical of Jesus’ ministry? The Pharisees and the Sadducees were two of the best-known Jewish sects. They were around since at least the 2nd century BC and their influence was felt until the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD[i]. The Pharisees were primarily concerned about the right practice of Jewish law. That is why in the reading two weeks ago, the Pharisee was described as one who was praying, tithing, and fasting – all associated with the proper observance of the Jewish law. As it relates to this morning’s reading, one of the differences between these two groups of Jews that is important to understand has to do with their understanding of death and the after life. The Pharisees “believed in the resurrection from the dead and the existence of spirit beings such as angels and demons.” In contrast, the Sadducees, “denied the resurrection of the dead, as well as the existence of spirit beings. The Sadducees believed. . . that the soul dies with the body. Therefore, they taught that there were no rewards or punishments after death.”[ii] And, for the Sadducees who had everything they needed and then some in the present life, they really didn’t need an after life. They saw that all they had now was evidence that they were insiders with God – a 1st century Prosperity Gospel.[iii] Because the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection, their question to Jesus in today’s gospel was really just an attempt to trick Jesus.

They present a scenario in which a childless woman is widowed, and, according to Jewish custom, the dead man’s brother is to marry the widow in an attempt to “raise up children for his brother.”[iv] This practice is described in the book of Deuteronomy:

“When brothers reside together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her, taking her in marriage, and performing the duty of a husband’s brother to her, and the firstborn whom she bears shall succeed to the name of the deceased brother, so that his name may not be blotted out of Israel.”[v]
The Sadducees then take this scenario to an almost ridiculous extreme suggesting that the woman remains childless with this brother and, in fact, with each brother until she has, in fact, been married to all seven and still dies childless. Now, they ask Jesus, “In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be?”[vi]

The Sadducees expect that Jesus will not have an answer for them which will, in their estimation, prove that the resurrection of the dead is not a reality. But instead, what Jesus tells them is that God “is God not of the dead, but of the living.”[vii] God is a God of the living. Death and resurrection are not about reward or punishment. The resurrection is not about making up for the inadequacies of this life. One commentary says that resurrection is:
“a declaration that God’s love will not be thwarted, not even by death. . . . [Jesus] resurrection is the declaration . . . that those who stand for God cannot be defeated, even by death.”[viii]
So, for Jesus, the Sadducees question reflects their ignorance about what is important. For God is not ultimately interested in marriage, in mother- and father-hood, in brother- and sister-hood, but rather, God is interested in life which can only be fully known and fully experienced through our relationship with God, not through relationship with other persons. “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage,” Jesus says.[ix] This is the way life is. But those who live in anticipation of resurrected life understand that, flawed as our human relationships may be, they are just fine as long as our first priority is on our relationship with God in Jesus Christ.[x]

Today is November 11th – Veterans Day - a date set aside to celebrate the day on which the Germans signed the Armistice in 1918, marking the conclusion of World War I. It was President Woodrow Wilson who in November of 1919 issued his Armistice Day proclamation, in which he wrote,

“To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country's service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nation.”[xi]

It would, however, be nearly two decades, 1938, before Congress passed a bill that that set aside each November 11th as a civic holiday promoted “to the cause of world peace and. . . hereafter celebrated and known as Armistice Day.” Sixteen years later, in 1954, Congress passed an act to change the name to Veterans’ Day and President Eisenhower invited all U.S. citizens to take time on this day to remember “all those who fought so gallantly” and to rededicate ourselves “to the task of promoting an enduring peace.”[xii]

Veterans’ Day only occurs on a Sunday every 6 or 7 years and is, in fact, a civic, not a religious, observance. Yet in light of President Wilson’s original intentions for Veterans’ Day as a time to “show sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nation,” in light of President Eisenhower’s urging to rededicate ourselves “to the task of promoting an enduring peace,” and in light of our promise, made in the Baptismal Covenant, to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being,” I think it is appropriate to make mention of the holiday today and I invite you, at this time, to name those whom you know that have lost their lives serving in our military. . . . Since March 19, 2003, when the United States entered Iraq, 3,168 American military have lost their lives in Iraq[xiii]. Among the dead are Benjamin D. Tiffner, Lui Tumanuyao, Christine M. Ndururi, Kevin Bewley, Daniel J. Shaw, Carletta S. Davis, John D. Linde, Derek T. Stenroos, and Adam J. Muller who died in Iraq this week.[xiv]

Into your hands, O God, we commend these our brothers and sisters, as into the hands of a faithful Creator and most loving Savior. In your infinite goodness, wisdom, and power, work in them the merciful purpose of your perfect will, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.[xv]

Jesus says, “. . . the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”[xvi]

This reference to the story of the burning bush is meant to remind the Sadducees (and us) of that great moment in which God first reveals himself to Moses as the great I AM – “God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM.’”[xvii] One commentator points out that this “is not who God WAS but who God IS. God has no past tense. The dead who die in the Lord are not lost to God the way they are to us, trapped as we are” in the time constructs of our own making.[xviii] Instead, God is a God of being, a God of presence – a God, not of the dead, but of the living, a God of the living and resurrected Christ. And, it is “this notion of God’s ultimate victory in Christ that ought to give us courage to stand for peace even at the cost of our lives.”[xix]

[i] Bryan T. Huie, “Who Were the Pharisees and the Sadducees?” Here a Little, There a Little (March 16, 1997, revised March 13, 2007) accessed online on November 9, 2007.
[ii] Huie.
[iii] “Proper 27 – Year C,” Preaching Peace accessed online on November 9, 2007.
[iv] Luke 20:28.
[v] Deuteronomy 25:5-6.
[vi] Luke 20:33.
[vii] Luke 20:38.
[viii] Preaching Peace.
[ix] Luke 20:34a.
[x] “This Week in Preaching: Luke 20:27-40,” The Center for Preaching Excellence (Calvin Theological Seminary) accessed online on November 9, 2007.
[xi] Quoted in “Veterans’ Day,” Miami-Dade County Public Schools accessed online on November 9, 2007.
[xii] “Veterans’ Day.”
[xiii] “American Military Deaths Since May 1st, 2003,” Anti-War.Com accessed online on November 9, 2007.
[xiv] Anti-War.Com.
[xv] Adapted from The Book of Occasional Services, 2003, (New York: Church Publishing, 2004), 176.
[xvi] Luke 20:37-38.
[xvii] Exodus 3:14.
[xviii] “This Week in Preaching: Luke 20:27-40.”
[xix] Preaching Peace.


Hearts Set Afire for God

Sermon Preached at St. Barnabas-by-the-Bay
Today - Proper 25C (22nd Sunday after Pentecost)

The nature of our prayer came to my mind this week as I was reading the short prayer of the tax collector in today’s gospel: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”[1] The normal prayer stance of the early Jewish church was with arms outstretched toward the heavens ["orans"], but this tax collector, so ashamed by his sins, could not even bear to look up to heaven and is instead, beating his breast. In stark contrast to this short, impassioned plea to God, is the prayer of the Pharisee who offers thanks to God: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”[2] At first glance, we might be tempted to assume that fasting and tithing are not the kinds of activities which interest God, but this reading would be to miss an important point.

The praying Pharisee is not being criticized by Jesus for his spiritual practices. In fact, fasting and tithing – the two practices the Pharisee lifts up in his prayer and the prayer itself – are all practices that the early Jews believed were central to faithful observance – central to what it meant to be righteous - and Jesus, in this parable, is critical of neither.[3] In fact, the Episcopal Church has similar practices, certain patterns of behavior that we consider to be part of faithful or righteous living. The clearest example comes from our Lenten observance which is ushered in Ash Wednesday with the following words: “I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”[4] So, it is not the type of spiritual practices in which the Pharisee engages that trouble Jesus and make the Pharisee the target of this particular parable.

But instead it is the first portion of the Pharisee’s prayer that Jesus raises up as problematic: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” Even the description of the Pharisee points to the issue: “The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying.”[5] The Pharisee has assumed that his position sets him apart from all others – from those sinners over there – and elevates him to a place of superiority. New Testament scholar, Alan Culpepper, writes,

“The Pharisee asks nothing of God. He presumes, rather, that he is not a sinner and that his fasting and tithing are ample evidence of his piety. The Pharisee gives no evidence of either humility or contrition before God. . . . Those who trust in their own righteousness will regard others with contempt, and those who regard others with contempt cannot bring themselves to rely on God’s grace.”[6]
In short, the spiritual practices the Pharisee is following – prayer, tithing, and fasting – have become meaningless because they are no longer rooted in a life of relationship to God and others.

I sometimes wonder if the same thing happens to us. We are particularly at risk because of the words of our prayer books. It is easy when we are repeating words written on a page or words long ago memorized to become so comfortable that we lose focus, we stop paying attention. We risk forgetting about our complete and utter reliance on the gracious God of our faith. For all that we are and all that we have come first from God. And when we lose sight of our dependence on God, we run the risk of cutting ourselves off from God’s grace – not because God withdraws this grace, but because we have withdrawn ourselves and are no longer receptive to the grace that is before us.

This week, I was reading a collection of essays on prayer and came across this Hasidic parable in an essay by the Jewish spiritual storyteller Yitzhak Buxbaum:

“There was once a king who so loved music that he directed his musicians to play for him each morning. The musicians came to the palace and performed, not only to obey the king’s command, but also because they loved and respected the king and valued their chance to be in his presence. So every morning they played for the king with enthusiasm and delight. For many years all went well. The musicians enjoyed playing each morning for the king, and the king enjoyed listening to their music.

When, at last, the musicians died, their sons sought to take their places. But, alas, they had neither mastered the musical art of their fathers nor had they kept their instruments in proper condition. Worse still, the sons did not love the king as did their fathers. They just blindly followed their fathers’ custom of arriving each morning at the palace to perform. But the harsh sounds of their music were so offensive to the king’s ear that after a time he ceased listening.

Then, several of the young musicians developed a renewed love and reverence for the king, however pale compared to the love and reverence of their fathers, and they realized that the king had stopped listening to their uninspired music. Although they wanted to perform to honor the king, the small group recognized that their inadequate skills made them unworthy to play before him.

So they set about the difficult task of relearning the forgotten art that should have been their inheritance from their fathers. Every day, before coming to the king, they spent time tuning their instruments. Upon entering the palace concert room and hearing the racket of the other musicians, they sought out an obscure corner for themselves where they could play undisturbed. They also remained long after the other musicians had departed, so that they might improve their skill. And in their homes they continued to practice and to struggle with their instruments as best they could.

The king was aware of their efforts and was pleased, for even though they did not play with the same talents as their fathers, still they strove, to the best of their abilities, to once more bring pleasure and joy to the king. Thus was their music received by the king with favor.”[7]

In the parable, the music, when disconnected from the relationship with the king, becomes only so much noise bringing pleasure to neither the musicians nor the king. It was only when this connection, this relationship, began to be restored that the music began once again to be a delight to player and king alike.

Our churches spend a great deal of time considering what prayers we should say, what words we should change and what words should remain the same. We worry a lot about what kind of music will bring people into the doors of our churches. And those of you who have spoken with me about these matters, know that I believe these things are very important. However, unless and until our relationship with God and with one another is on the right path, no words and no music will ever be able to open our hearts and minds to the magnificent grace of God.

At the top of your bulletin each week, I have been including a prayer for your use before worship and I hope each of you has had a chance to see it there and perhaps to pray it on occasion.

“O Almighty God, who pourest/who pours out on all who desire it the spirit of grace and of supplication: Deliver us, when we draw near to thee/you, from coldness of heart and wanderings of mind, that with steadfast thoughts and kindled affections we may worship thee/you in spirit and in truth”[8]

Kindled affections – hearts set afire for God. That is the prayer of the tax collector, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner! And, with our arms stretched out toward heaven, let it be our prayer as well “through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Amen.

[1] Luke 18:13b.
[2] Luke 18:11b.
[3] Michael Joseph Brown, Bridgette D. Young, and Shively T. J. Smith, “I'm Better Than You! - 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Proper 25, Year C” Out in Scripture accessed online on October 27, 2007.
[4] BCP, 265.
[5] Luke 18:11a.
[6] R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Vol. IX (Luke / John), (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 1995), 342, 343.
[7] “The Parable of the King’s Orchestra,” in Yitzhak Buxbaum, “Praying for Real: Hasidic Teachings,” The Power of Prayer, edited by Dale Salwak, (New York: MJF Books, 1998), 188-9.
[8] BCP, 833.


Bound to God

Sermon Preached at St. Mary's, Stone Harbor
Proper 24C - October 21, 2007

Last Monday night at our Journey in Faith class, we discussed a fictitious scenario - Joe’s dilemma. The story went like this:

“As assistant department manager, Joe has become aware that his boss, the department manager, has recently been submitting to the divisional general manager monthly reports that “stretch the truth” so as to make the department’s cost performance record look better than it is. Joe disapproves, but is not in a position to protest, so he keeps silent. Then his boss is sent away for two months on temporary assignment to another city, and Joe takes over as acting manager. If Joe submits a 100% accurate report for the months he manages the department, it will make his performance look poor and hinder his chances for promotion. He will also have to account to his boss upon her return. Such a report could stimulate an investigation from above that would reveal his boss’s tampering with the truth, but blame placed upon her might rub off on Joe, her right hand man. On the other hand, Joe doesn’t feel right about following precedent and deliberately distorting the truth.”[1]
Most of us would be quick to jump in with advice for Joe; in our experience we know just the thing he should do to get himself out of this tricky situation. And some of us, when we have a dilemma of our own, are grateful when our friends quickly jump in with their suggestions and clear solutions to a situation which seems to baffle us.

In some ways, it can be comforting, I suppose, to know that your dilemma has an easy answer – that you were just too close to the conflict to see the clear way out. And, as I read the story of Jacob this week, having the discussion of Joe’s dilemma still in my mind, I couldn’t help but wonder if Jacob hoped for just such a helpful friend to come along – someone who could tell him how best to ensure a successful outcome for his upcoming meeting with his brother Esau who is coming to meet him with 400 of his men.

You may recall that Jacob and Esau have a troubled past. From before their birth, the Lord told their mother Rebekah “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided.”[2] The twin boys could not have been any different from one another – Esau, we are told, “was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents.”[3] Now, as Esau was the firstborn of the twins - the eldest - he was entitled to certain birthrights. One day he came in from the fields and was hungry. Jacob, who had been cooking, offered to give Esau some of the food he was preparing in exchange for those birthrights and Esau agreed.[4] Later, when their father “Isaac was old ad his eyes were dim so that he could not see,” asked Esau to go out and bring back some choice meat for his father so that he could receive his father’s blessing before he died. Rebekah, having overhead this request, has Jacob kill a lamb from their flock so that he can trick Isaac and receive the blessing that rightfully belonged to Esau. Jacob, therefore, receives his father’s blessing through trickery and deceit. Now, for Esau, this is the final straw in their ongoing conflict and he vows to kill Jacob at the first opportunity he gets. Hearing of this, Rebekah warns Jacob and Jacob leaves home and goes to her brother .[5]

And this is the last encounter between Esau and Jacob for the next 20 years – where today’s reading picks up.[6] As Jacob returns to the land where Esau has been living, it is for very good reason that he is fearful. Even sending his messengers ahead with the news of his wealth which he is presumably willing to share with Esau may not be enough to heal the brokenness between these two brothers and so Jacob, understandably “was greatly afraid and distressed.”[7] After ensuring his family’s safety – by sending them across the stream at Jabbok – Jacob “was left alone.”[8] With all of this history, you can perhaps imagine Jacob lying there on the banks of the Jabbok praying for someone to come along to tell him just what he should do to ensure the meeting with his brother Esau goes well or, if not well, then to tell him what strategy would ensure he would come out on top in any battle. But that is not what happens. Instead, God appears, as a man, and together they wrestle until daybreak.[9]

One might ask, “What kind of answer to prayer is this?” You might even wonder, “Is it an answer at all?” Terence Fretheim, Professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary, has this to say about the encounter: “Jacob prays for deliverance from Esau; [but instead] God delivers Jacob from God.”[10] In the morning, Jacob will still need to face his brother Esau for that conflict has not been resolved in this all-night struggle with God; and so, on the surface, we might presume that Jacob’s situation has not changed. But this, I believe, is the gift of this reading. Because it gives us an example of one of the ways in which God is with us, wants to be with us. Jacob has always played by his rules – trickery and deceit – and, to date, those rules have served him well. But Jacob’s fear comes precisely at a time when he doubts that his quick thinking is going to be enough in the face of Esau’s approach with 400 men. Jacob is vulnerable. And it is in this moment of vulnerability that God comes to him – not to solve the problem, but to wrestle with him, to remind Jacob that they are bound to one another. Think of that wonderful image of Jacob, literally holding onto God, refusing to let go of him unless he receives a blessing. Jacob alone has the power to release God – because God has chosen to be human in this encounter; yet God alone has the power to grant a blessing. Thus they are bound together. This is a God who does not want to swoop down from heaven and make everything better for us. This is, instead a God who wants us to be mature in our faith, and promises to wrestle with us until dawn as we struggle to determine the right course of action. And it is a God who ultimately promises us that whatever decision we make and whatever the outcome, the bind between us and God is secure.

Charles Wesley wrote a hymn based on this story called “Wrestling Jacob.” I’d like to close with just a few of its verses:

COME, O Thou Traveller unknown,
Whom still I hold, but cannot see,
My company before is gone,
And I am left alone with Thee,
With Thee all night I mean to stay,
And wrestle till the break of day.

Yield to me now – for I am weak;
But confident in self-despair:
Speak to my heart, in blessings speak,
Be conquer’d by my instant prayer,
Speak, or Thou never hence shalt move,
And tell me, if thy name is Love.

Contented now upon my thigh
I halt, till life’s short journey end;
All helplessness, all weakness, I,
On Thee alone for strength depend,
Nor have I power, from Thee, to move;
Thy nature, and thy name is Love.[11]

God promises us that whatever decisions we make and whatever the outcomes, the bind between us and God is secure.

[1] Setting Our Hearts: Progressive Faith for a New Era, Teachers’ Manual, edited by Kathleen Pakos, (Cambridge, MA: The Center for Progressive Christianity, 1998), p. 42.
[2] Genesis 25:23a.
[3] Genesis 25:27.
[4]Genesis 25:29-34.
[5] Genesis 27:1-28:2.
[6] Genesis 31:38.
[7] Genesis 32:7.
[8] Genesis 32:22-23.
[9] Genesis 32:24.
[10] Terence E. Fretheim, “Genesis: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Vol. I, (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 1995), 569.
[11] Charles Wesley, “Wrestling Jacob,” The Oxford Book of English Verse accessed online at Digital Poets Society, on October 20, 2007.



Sermon Preached at St. Barnabas-by-the-Bay
October 14, 2007
Proper 23C

Imagine a road blocked by a fallen tree. Not just a small branch that you can drive over or move out of the way – but an old tree with a thick trunk lying across the entire width of the roadway. Now imagine you are in your car or bike and you encounter this obstacle. You might call the police department to let them know of the problem so they can send someone out to take care of it. Or, if it is in your own neighborhood, you might gather together with some of your friends and, with the help of a chainsaw, get it moved out of the way. Or, maybe you’ll turn around and find another route to your destination. So, there are all kinds of things you might do when you encounter this road block, but what I expect none of us would do is just sit there, waiting for someone to come along and notice the problem, and move it out of our way.

Or, do you remember that wonderful encounter between Dorothy and the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz? Dorothy and Toto are following the yellow brick road and they come to a crossroad. Dorothy speaking as much to herself as to Toto, I suppose, says, “Now which way do we go?” And a voice responds, “Pardon me, this way is a very nice way.” Dorothy, a bit surprised, says, “Who said that?” and Toto barks at the scarecrow hanging on a post. Dorothy replies, “Don’t be silly, Toto. Scarecrows don’t talk.” And then, the scarecrow, pointing in the other direction says, “It’s pleasant down that way, too.” At this point, Dorothy inquires of Toto, “That’s funny . Wasn’t he pointing the other way?” To which the scarecrow replies, “Of course, some people do go both ways.”[1] Still surprised by a talking scarecrow, but now also frustrated by such an unhelpful guide at the crossroads, Dorothy does not sit down and end her journey, convinced that she will never make it to the Emerald City. Instead, after a bit of song and dance, she, the scarecrow, and Toto continue on a path that they hope will ultimately lead them to the Great Wizard; and, indeed, it does. What a different story we would have had, if Dorothy instead just sat down or turned back the way she had come, convinced that there was no point in trying to reach the Emerald City – the obstacle was simply too great.

Now maybe this sounds a bit farfetched to you. Of course, we don’t just stop in our tracks or turn back when we encounter a roadblock or a challenge. That would be ridiculous and yet, for most of us, at one time or another, this is precisely what we do. Because, for you and I, many – if not most – of the roadblocks in our lives are not physical obstacles. The roadblocks in our lives are rarely as obvious as a tree blocking the road or the intersection of two paths. Instead the roadblocks we encounter throughout our lives include obstacles that we often cannot see and obstacles that we may not even be aware of.

Consider Namaan, the commander of the army of the King of Aram, in this morning’s reading from the book of second Kings.[2] Namaan suffers from leprosy and wants nothing more than to be healed of this dreadful disease. So, upon the advice of his wife’s servant, he travels to Samaria to see the great prophet Elisha who may cure him of his ailment. Upon arriving at Elisha’s house, he is greeted by one of Elisha’s messengers who tells him to go and “wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” Infuriated that the great prophet himself did not come out of the house to greet him and annoyed by the simple instructions – if all he needed to do was wash in a river, wouldn’t the rivers of his own country have been sufficient? He begins to leave for home – still suffering from leprosy. There are obstacles in his path to healing. In the first place, his pride: Namaan is convinced that because of his status – the commander of the army in his own country – he ought certainly to be greeted personally by the great prophet. Next, his anger: Namaan becomes so angry by this perceived lack of welcome and the too simple solution – go wash in the Jordan – that he is ready to return home. Has he forgotten that the reason he came to Israel in the first place was not to meet Elisha but to be healed? It is only at the wise urging of one of his servants that Namaan acquiesces and does as the messenger tells him to do and we are told, “his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.”

What are some of the obstacles in our lives – in our individual lives and in our life together in community – that prevent us from seeing the reign of God breaking through in our lives, in our homes, and in our congregation every single day? How is it that we seem so able to see and focus on the proverbial cracks in the ceiling and the very real financial concerns of St. Barnabas and yet are so often blind to the wonders of the vibrancy of the children in the Sunday School, the quiet work of the altar guild, and the countless persons fed at our breakfast and dinners each year? Cynthia Bourgeault, an Episcopal priest, contemplative, retreat leader, and spiritual director, suggests that this is not uncommon because so often we serve as our own obstacle – we keep ourselves “fearful and imprisoned in our own skins, unable to reach out to the bottomless vastness of divine love.”[3] In other words, you and I, like Namaan in today’s story, are adept at creating our own obstacles – our own emotional and spiritual barriers.

What are the obstacles you create? Are they the pride and anger of Namaan? Are they fear and insecurity? Whatever they are, we need to find a way to break these barriers down so that the vision God has for us may be restored and renewed in our hearts and in our minds, so that we can see clearly the love God has for each of us, and so that we can move forward in ministry with all the enthusiasm of the psalmist who wrote, “Hallelujah! I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart.”[4] Breaking down the barriers, moving past these obstacles, this is holy work and it is work that God calls each of us to do. One way we can begin to do this is through prayer. Those of you familiar with 12-step recovery programs, may recognize in this the seeds of Step Seven: “Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.” It is a prayer that ultimately can help us “to move out from ourselves toward others and toward God.”[5] One prayer suggested by the 12-step program goes like this:

“My Creator, I am now willing that you should have all of me, good and bad. I pray that you now remove from me every single defect of character [every obstacle] which stands in the way of my usefulness to you and my fellows. Grant me strength, as I go out from here, to do your bidding. Amen.”[6]
If you tend to be a more visual person, let me share another prayer with you. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, an Episcopal priest and writer, tells the story of an Easter Sunday sermon she recalls in which the preacher suggested each of us is entombed and we need to ask God to roll the stone away from the entrance of our tomb so that we might be more fully ourselves, more able to see God’s ways in the world.[7] I invite you to try this when you are praying. With your eyes closed, imagine yourself in a dark tomb and see the stone blocking the way out. Imagine that your fear, your anger, your insecurity, your worries – whatever your obstacle – imagine that obstacle is the stone and boldly ask God to give you the strength and the courage to move that stone away.

Whatever prayer you choose, one of these or one of your own creation, remember that you are doing holy work. And remember that holy work is often hard work. For most of us, it has taken years and years of practice for our inner obstacles to become as solid and as resistant as they are. So you will need to be patient with yourself and you will need to be open to unusual answers to your prayers. Namaan’s obstacles were so powerful that he was willing to return home still suffering from leprosy – completely forgetting that the whole reason for his trip to Israel was to be healed. Yet, God sent an unusual answer to Namaan’s prayer for healing. That answer came first in the form of Elisha’s messenger who provided simple instructions – go, wash in the Jordan – and then in the form of Namaan’s servants who offered guidance in humility – “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it?” - so that Namaan could receive the healing that he sought. Restored to health, Namaan was able to see God clearly as he proclaimed, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.” And this, my friends, is ultimately the Good News: God wants to bring about healing and restoration in our lives, in our communities and in our world. God will work through the obstacles we put up[8] – those seen and those unseen – so that we can glimpse God’s reign breaking into our lives this day and every day. Pray for it!

[1] “Memorable Quotes from The Wizard of Oz (1939)” on IMDd: The Internet Movie Database, accessed online on October 13, 2007.
[2] 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c.
[3]Cynthia Bourgeault, “Hobbling (Walking, Flapping) North,” in Heaven, ed. Roger Ferlo, (New York: Seabury, 2007), p. 65.
[4] Psalm 111:1a.
[5] Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, (New York: Alcoholics Anonymous® World Services, 1981), p. 70, 76.
[6] Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism [commonly referred to as “The Big Book”], 4th edition, (New York: Alcoholics Anonymous ® World Services, 2001), p. 76.
[7] Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, “When Heaven Happens,” in Heaven, p. 75-6.
[8] Sharon Benton, Mark Lee, and Ken Pilot, “Thriving on the Edge,” Out in Scripture Commentary (Human Rights Campaign, October 14, 2007) accessed online on October 9, 2007.


We Can Bless a Cat, but Not Our Family. . .

There was a portion of Psalm 37 that begged for my attention during worship on Sunday:

7 Be still before the LORD *and wait patiently for him.
8 Do not fret yourself over the one who prospers, *the one who succeeds in evil schemes.
9 Refrain from anger, leave rage alone; *do not fret yourself; it leads only to evil.
As these words washed over me, I became very nervous about this sermon. So, I opted for honesty with the congregation and told them that I was concerned about my sermon in light of the psalm and hoped that we would all hear a bit of Good News from God seep through some of my anger. I also assured them then (and for any who are reading now) that any anger and frustration I expressed in my sermon was not aimed at them. In fact, to the contrary, I am very proud of the folks at St. Barnabas both for their welcoming reception of me and for the way in which they have handled the un-asked-for local media attention (here and here and here).

Sermon Preached at St. Barnabas-by-the-Bay
on Sunday, October 7, 2007
Proper 22C

On Thursday, I traveled to Trenton for the annual Clergy Homecoming Day. For me, this was the first opportunity to meet face-to-face with many other priests in the Diocese of New Jersey. It was a great day – a lot of happy reunions, a lot of new faces, a lot of good conversation. All in all, a positive experience. And today, I want to share with you some of the information discussed because I think it is truly important that we stay abreast of what is happening at the diocesan level just as I think it is critical that the bishop and his staff be kept aware of what is happening at the congregational level.

Most of the meeting was spent discussing the recent meeting of the House of Bishops in New Orleans at the end of September. The bishops were there with two primary agenda items: one, assisting in the ongoing rebuilding efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and two, responding to a document issued by the meeting of Primates last February.

In the first place, Bishop Councell shared with us that each diocese was invited to come to the meeting in New Orleans with $10,000 for Katrina relief efforts. A total of $931,000 was collected from the participating dioceses. Bishop Councell was excited to tell us that $12,000 of that total came from the Diocese of New Jersey and these monies are already providing food, water, shelter, and medical supplies in the Gulf Coast area.

With regard to the second agenda item at the meeting, I’d like to provide you with some background before I share Bishop Councell’s reflections. First of all, a primate is the chief archbishop or bishop of a province of the Anglican Episcopal family of churches – in the United States that title belongs to The Most Reverend Katharine Jefferts Schori. Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori and her equivalents throughout the Anglican Communion met in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania last February. At the conclusion of that meeting a document was issued directed to the Episcopal Church in the United States. In it, the Episcopal Church of the United States was asked to comply with two requests.

  1. In the first place, we were asked to “make an unequivocal common covenant that the Bishops will not authorize any rite of blessing for same-sex unions in their diocese[s] or through General Convention;” and
  2. In the second place, we were asked to “confirm . . . that a candidate for Episcopal orders [that is, bishop] living in a same-sex union shall not receive the necessary consent unless some new consensus on these matters emerges across the Communion.”[1]
This document went on to say that if we do not comply with these requests by September 30th our relationship with the rest of the Anglican Communion will be “damaged at best, and” that this will have “consequences for the full participation of the Church in the life of the Communion.”[2] When the House of Bishops met in New Orleans last month, Archbishop Rowan Williams was invited to speak to the House on these matters. The end result of the week-long meeting was – in a nutshell - that the House of Bishops agreed to comply with these two requests.

Bishop Councell, at his meeting with us on Thursday, indicated that he believes the House of Bishops took an important step to staying in communion with the rest of the Anglican provinces in the world; however, he was clear that it did so at a cost. A cost that he himself, must not bear, but a cost that must instead be born by the gay and lesbian members of our communities.
As I was hearing Bishop Councell speak on Thursday, I had this morning’s reading from the prophet Habakkuk in mind. Because the cost that Bishop Councell spoke of is the cost of justice.

This cost is being paid by New Hampshire where The Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson, a partnered homosexual, serves as that diocese’s ninth bishop. The cost is being paid in Illinois where The Rev. Tracey Lind is one of three women and the only openly gay candidate among eight nominees on the slate for the 12th bishop of Chicago. And the cost is being paid here at St. Barnabas-by-the-Bay Episcopal Church where you have boldly called a partnered lesbian to serve as your vicar and where I have had to say ‘no’ to blessing the union of same-sex couples and where I have witnessed the pain of some members of our congregation who are afraid to tell you that they are gay for fear of being excluded or told they are no longer welcome here by someone literally or figuratively waving their prayer book in the air [note: this actually happened a few weeks ago when a former parishioner came in 5 minutes before the 8 o'clock service waving his prayer book and proclaiming the "sure and certain hell and damnation of those who followed the teachings of The Rev. Debra Bullock who lies with a woman. . . " and on and on he went -- really this is stuff made for the Vicar of Dibley! But, in all seriousness, I pray for that man every day because his pain is very real.]

And for those among us who are not yet decided on the issue of homosexuality - and please know that you are not alone - let me assure you that there are other issues that have been dealt with in the same way – dealt with by rejecting. Extra-marital affairs, pregnant teenagers, children who steal, spouses who abuse their spouse and/or children, women and men who are gripped by alcohol, gambling, narcotics or other addictions. And just when the church is called to be a place of healing, forgiveness, reconciliation, support and unconditional love; instead, we become a place of secret-keeping and deceit. A place where those who need our love and welcome the most are afraid to come into our doors or, if they do venture in, they are afraid to share their story, for fear that they will be pushed away and no longer welcome in the one place that promised, “All Are Welcome Here!” So they sit in the silence of their pain. And I wonder with the prophet Habakkuk:

“O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you, ‘Violence!’ and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails.”[3]
Old Testament scholar, Theodore Hiebert, reminds us that Habakkuk’s words of concern for social justice combined with his daring to argue with God certainly do not ease the pain of the suffering in the here and now, but what they do offer is a model for “dealing openly and honestly with the discrepancy all persons face at one time or another between the facts of human experience and the ideals and visions of religious faith. . . out of a passionate search for the ways of God in the world.”[4] And that is truly what each of us is called to do. We are called to be open and honest about the discrepancies between our lived experience and our understanding of the faith. We are invited to struggle with God when we don’t understand. And, like Habakkuk, we are invited to trust that God’s promise is ultimately reliable – that God still has “a vision for the appointed time . . . wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.”

[1] “The Communiqué of the Primates’ Meeting in Dar es Salaam 19th February 2007,” (Anglican Communion News Service), p. 10 accessed online on September 19, 2007.
[2] Ibid.
[3] From Habakkuk 1:2-4.
[4] Theodore Hiebert, “Habakkuk” in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Vol. VII (Introduction to Apocalyptic Literature, Daniel, and the Twelve Prophets), (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 1995),p. 633.


Content with the Gospel of Christ

Sermon Preached on September 30, 2007
at St. Barnabas-by-the-Bay Episcopal Church
Proper 21C

There’s a gospel being preached outside these walls that promises God’s favor if you just ask for it. And God’s favor is clearly spelled out as material success – God will give you all kinds of advantages - the right car, the right house, the right teachers for your children in school, and all the finances you need to ensure that your life will be easier – if you just ask for it and believe that it is what you deserve as a child of God. Critics of this gospel refer to it as the “prosperity Gospel” because it teaches that God wants us to be financially prosperous.

Joel Osteen is the pastor at Lakewood – a mega-church in Houston, Texas and he is considered to be a leading proponent of the “prosperity Gospel.”[1] In a sermon he calls “The Favor of God,” he preaches:

“God wants to make your life easier, he wants to assist you and give you special advantages. That’s what his favor does. . . . When you really learn how to tap into God’s favor, you’ll have a tremendous advantage. God’s favor will cause you to be promoted even though you weren’t the most qualified. . . . God’s favor will cause our children to get the best teachers in school. All kinds of advantages come when we learn to walk in God’s favor. . . . God’s favor is bringing . . . . promotion, increase, success . . . The more you thank God for his favor, the more of his favor you’ll see. . . . God has favor coming your way. . . . He wants to help you get the best deals in life . . . the best sale, the right house, the right car. . .”[2]
and his sermon continues along this line for quite awhile. In addition to “The Favor of God,” Osteen has preached sermons with titles like “Financial Prosperity,” “Living a Life of Excellence,” “The Power of Right Associations,” and “Going from Believing to Expecting.”[3] Now I’m not drawing your attention to Joel Osteen because I think he needs to be exposed for some wrong-doing; though already it should be clear that I do not agree with his theology. Instead, I want you to explore with me the gospel we read this morning and discover for yourselves some of the dangers of a prosperity gospel and the hope in the Gospel of Christ.

In the first part of today’s gospel, we are introduced to two characters – a rich man and Lazarus. First, the rich man: the rich man is not just “kind of rich” but “really, really rich”.
We are told he wears fine linen and is dressed in purple – a color of clothing that the Roman government limited to people of high status. The more purple you wore, the higher your social status.[4] He lives in a gated home. One wonders if this gate was to keep him safely inside or to keep those, like Lazarus, safely outside. He eats well. And now, Lazarus: this poor man is not just “kind of poor,” but “really, really poor.” Instead of living in a home, we learn that he lays outside the rich man’s gate. Instead of eating well, he longs “to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table” – he is not asking for a sumptuous feast for himself; he simply wants the scraps from the table. Instead of being told about his clothing, we are told he is covered with sores and, as if to add insult to injury, we learn that the dogs come and lick his sores. One commentary wondered if these same dogs did, in fact, eat the scraps from the rich man’s table.[5]

Now, the prosperity Gospel would preach that the rich man was rich because he had God’s favor and Lazarus was poor and covered with sores because he had somehow displeased God. The Old Testament book of Numbers might support this understanding because of a passage that reads, “you will undergo punishment for your wrongdoing.”[6] And, in fact, about 2000 years ago when Jesus first told this story, many of his listeners would have thought precisely the same thing. Certain then that the rich man will be in heaven and Lazarus in hell, what a surprise Jesus’ listeners must have had when they discovered Lazarus “carried away by the angels to be with Abraham” and the rich man “being tormented” in Hades.[7] And what a puzzle for the prosperity Gospel for how do we reconcile the God who will promote us even if we are not the most qualified with the God who condemns the rich man to an afterlife of perpetual torment and raises up the outcast, Lazarus to spend eternity in the bosom of Abraham? My friends, the answer is simple: we cannot.

Now I want to be cautious at this point, because the take home message is not that having money is a bad thing. To be sure, the letter to Timothy says, “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” (note: it does not say, “money is the root of all evil.” – a subtle but important difference: “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil”). The love of money is the problem. The passage from the letter to Timothy began this way, “There is great gain in godliness combined with contentment.”[8] Contentment - being satisfied, having enough, being full. The Greek word for contentment (au-TAR-keai) is a word that carries with it a sense of cherishing simplicity and accepting the hand that has been dealt to you by nature or by fortune.[9] And the rest of this morning’s reading from the letter to Timothy expounds upon what this means. Those who do not have a great deal are called to be satisfied – content – with what they do have – food and clothing. They are not to pine after riches; instead they are to “take hold of the eternal life.”[10]

For those who already have money – “those who in the present age are rich” – the message is much as it was in last week’s Gospel. Last week we heard, “no slave can serve two masters.”[11] Having money is not a bad thing; however, in order to safeguard against the temptations of worshipping – of loving - money, we are encouraged to use our money to further God’s work in the world.[12] By using the gifts God has given us to further God’s work in the world, we are pleasing God. We have Moses and the prophets. We have the story of Lazarus and the rich man. And, we have the cross and the resurrection. What more do we need in order to turn our lives toward God? “Grant us the fullness of your grace, O God, that we, running to obtain your promises, may become partakers of your heavenly treasure.”[13] Amen.

[1] “Meet the Prosperity Preacher,” Interview of Joel Osteen by William C. Symonds, Boston Bureau Chief of BusinessWeek, May 23, 2005 accessed online on September 29, 2007.
[2] Joel Osteen, “God’s Favor,” Streaming Video (#354) accessed online on September 29, 2007.
[3] Jackie Alnor, “Joel Osteen: The Prosperity Gospel’s Coverboy,” The Christian Sentinel (June 2003) accessed online on September 29, 2007 and Joel Osteen Streaming Video Quicklink accessed online on September 29, 2007.
[4] Culpepper, 316.
[5] Culpepper, 316.
[6] Numbers 14:34.
[7] Luke 16:22, 23.
[8] I Timothy 6:6.
[9] James D. G. Dunn, “The First and Second Letters to Timothy and the Letter to Titus,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Vol. XI (2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1& 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon), (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 1995), 828.
[10] I Timothy 6:8, 12.
[11] I Timothy 6:17, Luke 16:13a.
[12] I Timothy 6:18.
[13] From The Collect for Proper 21.