Journey in Faith

Sermon Preached at St. Mary's (Stone Harbor)
September 23, 2007
Proper 20C

Perhaps one of the most common metaphors for talking about our faith is that of a journey. We talk about our spiritual journeys, our faith journeys. My list of books to read includes such titles as The Sacred Journey, A Journey with God in Time, The Journey into God, Strength for the Journey, Bread for the Journey. Tomorrow night, I’ll be facilitating the first of a five session course called Journey in Faith – there’s a sign-up sheet on the bulletin board in the Parish Hall, by the way (shameless publicity stunt, I know!). The point is that journey is a common metaphor for our life as Christians.

This is not surprising when you consider many of the early stories of our faith. Abraham left his homeland to follow God’s call. Moses led his people out of Egypt into the wilderness and from their they journeyed into the promised land. Jesus traveled from place to place teaching and healing. The very core of our faith – our sacred texts – are stories about journeys. Huston Smith in his book Why Religion Matters cites Rainer Marie Wilke’s description of God as more of a direction than an object for our devotion.[1] And I think that’s right. When we think of God as a direction we avoid the temptation of confusing God with other objects we desire – money, power, status, and so forth. God is not an object, but is rather the primary direction – the true north on our compass – on our journey in faith.

The story Jesus tells his disciples in today’s gospel is confusing. A dishonest manager has not been collecting his master’s debts as he was hired to. Upon being caught, he makes an effort to collect from the debtors by greatly reducing the amount they owe – in one case by as much as 50%. Now, when we might expect his master to be angry with him for cutting these debts so significantly, instead, we are told, “his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.”[2] Then, as if to make the story clear, Jesus says to the disciples, “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”[3] Huh?

Here’s how I’ve begun to make sense of this confusing story in Luke’s gospel. Squandering his master’s property is certainly unethical and deceitful and the manager is not commended for this behavior. When he is called to task, he wonders to himself, “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.”[4] The manager, for all of his dishonesty is not concerned about the person he has betrayed nor is he concerned about the debtors he has cheated. No, he is worried about himself – his status in society and his reputation. Then there is the epiphany and the manager announces, “I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.”[5] Now, we may continue to question his motives – is he still more concerned about his position and reputation than he is about the wrong doing he has been engaged in? Probably. And, in the actions that follow, the manager does, in fact, make friends of the debtors – that is, he maintains his place within the society. But, he does this by greatly reducing their debts and, for this action, he is praised by his master.

At the moment he is praised by his master, the story has taken a turn. Because I think that in order to make sense of the story, the master at the end of the story – the one praising the manager – cannot be a reference to the master, the rich man, at the beginning of the story. I think that the master commending the manager at the end of the story is, in fact, Jesus and he is commending him for his attempts – regardless of motive – at a redistribution of wealth. The reading from the prophet Amos would certainly support this reading. Amos does not mince words, “Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land. . . The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob; Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.” Other passages in the gospel of Luke would support this reading as well. The Song of Mary, for example, says, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty”[6] and the many stories of Jesus sharing a meal with society’s outcasts – the sinners and tax-collectors of last Sunday’s gospel reading.[7] So, while the manager’s behavior is still not 100% on track with God’s intention for humanity, he has made a turn for the better. Instead of having wealth as his master, the manager has found his compass and is headed in a new direction – toward Christ, his Master.

The Opening Collect for this morning calls us to do the same. “Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure.” Money, power, and status are powerful object gods in our culture. But they are not to be confused with the Triune God of our faith journey. A God who calls us again and again to repent – to change directions, to continue our journey towards the love of God and away from the temptations of “earthly things.”

The word repent is itself a journey word, a word of choice and movement. Often when we think of the word repent, we associate it with guilt or shame or an easy “I’m sorry.” But Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemman says that the word “repent” implies a “sustained, long term resolve to act differently.”[8] In today’s gospel, we are invited, like the manager, to turn away from the false gods of material possession and social status and to make a commitment toward Jesus’ call to use these possessions and our status to bring about justice in the world – a “sustained, long term resolve to act differently.” This is the repentance we are called to today; for “no slave can serve two masters.”[9] We can’t serve both, but we can and are invited to use one in service of the other. Once we have turned our lives toward God, we can begin to discern the new vision God has for us. Our commitment to and our belief in this new vision of God’s reign will carry us on a journey in faith along a path that will lead us in the direction of God’s mission for justice in the world.

[1] Huston Smith, Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief, (San Francisco: Harper, 2001), p. 6.
[2] Luke 16:8.
[3] Luke 16:9.
[4] Luke 16:3.
[5] Luke 16:4.
[6] Luke 1:53-54.
[7] Luke 15:1-10.
[8] Walter Brueggemann, Reverberations of Faith: A Theological Handbook of Old Testament Themes (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002), p. 170.
[9] Luke 16:13a.


Feast of Theodore of Tarsus

Sermon Preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church
and at St. Barnabas-by-the-Bay Episcopal Church
Feast of Theodore of Tarsus, Archbishop of Canterbury, 690
September 19/20, 2007

“No one serving in the army gets entangled in every day affairs; the soldier’s aim is to please the enlisting officer.” This sentence from the second letter to Timothy caused a mixed reaction in me this week. On the one hand, as we are a nation in the midst of war in Iraq and have enlisted women and men serving in places throughout the world and here at home, I am not particularly fond of military metaphors in religion. Of course, such metaphors occur throughout Scripture. And, our hymnals contain hymns with such references. Perhaps most familiar is “Onward, Christian soldiers.”[1]

I have a strong preference for peaceful negotiations. And, I would prefer that we sing hymns like #572 more often:

“Weary of all trumpeting, weary of all killing,
weary of all songs that sing promise, nonfulfilling,
we would raise, O Christ, one song;
we would join in singing that great music pure and strong,
wherewith heaven is ringing.”[2]
So, I struggle with the implicit violence in the image in 2 Timothy; but, as I said in the beginning, the image causes a mixed reaction within me. So, on the other side of the coin, I appreciate the message behind the image. As our own denomination – and that of so many churches today – seems to be so perilously close to dividing over issues of the proper role of women in the church and human sexuality, I appreciate the image’s clear message of single-mindedness of purpose: “No one serving in the army gets entangled in every day affairs; the soldier’s aim is to please the enlisting officer.”

The House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church began meeting today in New Orleans with a number of important agenda items including assisting in the ongoing rebuilding efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and discussing poverty and hunger relief (the first of the eight Millennium Development Goals). Yet, the agenda item that will most likely receive the most media attention and perhaps the most attention by the House of Bishops is our response to the communiqué issued out of the Primates meeting in Tanzania last February which called our House of Bishops to:

(1) “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) “confirm . . . that a candidate for Episcopal orders living in a same-sex union shall not receive the necessary consent unless some new consensus on these matters emerges across the Communion.”[3]
The communiqué gave the U.S. House of Bishops until September 30th to respond. The document also goes on to say that if we do not agree to comply with these requests 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.”[4]
Single-mindedness of purpose: either Albert Schweitzer or Steven Covey, depending on who you ask, once said, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”[5] And on this first day of the House of Bishops meeting in New Orleans I have to ask myself, “what is the main thing and are we keeping it the main thing?” or are we instead, as the letter writer warns, getting “entangled in everyday affairs”?

This morning, we are celebrating the Feast of Theodore of Tarsus, Archbishop of Canterbury in the late 7th century. The state of church affairs in England at the time was pretty contentious as there were two strains of Christian tradition at odds with one another – the Celtic Christians from Ireland and the Church of Rome. These tensions, combined with England’s devastation and near destruction by the plague, led to a church in dire need of strong leadership and reform – a unifying force. Enter Theodore of Tarsus, appointed by Rome as the Archbishop of Canterbury on March 26, 668. Through his gifts of grace and wisdom, he brought the struggling church in England back under control. As one historian writes,

“His profound learning, wisdom and experience set the archbishop head and shoulders above everyone else in the country, and his counsel was often sought. . . During his twenty-one years as Archbishop of Canterbury he had done more for the Church in England than any of his predecessors.. . . . His wise leadership gave great strength to the Church and inaugurated what may be regarded as one of the most brilliant centuries in its history.”[6]
According to the early eighth century historian, the Venerable Bede, “Theodore was the first archbishop whom all the English obeyed, and possibly to no other leader does English Christianity owe so much.”[7]

I don’t know a great deal about what Archbishop Theodore did – that is, what strategies he used. But what is clear from the recorded history of the time is that he did not cut off one part of the church in order to save the whole; instead, he found a way to keep both the Celtic Christians and the Roman Christians involved and connected so that the church emerged united and stronger than it had ever been before. I have grave concerns that the Anglican Communion is becoming entangled in everyday affairs and losing sight of the main thing of our faith which is to “please the enlisting officer,” that is Jesus Christ. Our Catechism teaches us that “The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ”[8] The Catechism also teaches us that one of the ministries of a bishop is “to act in Christ’s name for the reconciliation of the world and the building up of the Church.”[9]

This morning I invite you to join with me in prayer throughout the meeting of the House of Bishops asking that our Archbishop Rowan, our Presiding Bishop Katherine, our Bishop George, and all the members of the House of Bishops be granted the wisdom and grace of God’s servant Theodore of Tarsus to keep the restoration of all people to unity with God and the reconciliation of the world at the forefront of their minds as they conduct their business from today through the 25th of September. And may each of us continue working together “to establish unity where there is division, and order where there has been chaos.”[10]

[1] Sabine Baring-Gould, “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” The Hymnal 1982, (Church Publishing: New York, 1982), 562.
[2] Martin H. Franzmann, “Weary of All Trumpeting,” The Hymnal 1982, 572.
[3] “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.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Stephen Lien, “The Main Thing,” Sermon Preached at Brentwood Presbyterian Church on July 25, 2004 accessed online on September 18, 2007 attributes the quote to Albert Schweitzer. Quoteworld.org, on the other hand, attributes these words to Stephen R. Covey.
[6] J. R. H. Moorman, A History of the Church in England, 3rd edition, (Morehouse Publishing: Harrisburg, 1980), 24-5.
[7] Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, translator not clearly indicated (but it seems to be L.C. Jane's 1903 Temple Classics translation), introduction by Vida D. Scudder, (London: J.M. Dent; New York E.P. Dutton, 1910) Book IV, Chapter 2, accessed online at Internet History Sourcebooks Project, editor Paul Halsall (1997), on September 19, 2007.
[8] Book of Common Prayer, p. 855.
[9] Ibid.
[10] “Theodore of Tarsus,” Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2006, (Church Publishing: New York), 387.


Overflowing Love at God's Table

Sermon Preached earlier today at
St. Barnabas-by-the-Bay Episcopal Church
Proper 19C

My grandmother – my mom’s mom – was a storyteller. My mom and my sister and I would be sitting on the scratchy green sofa in her living room listening to her tell the same stories again and again. I have vague recollections of her telling us about her pet lamb she had as a little girl. I remember my grandmother referring to herself as Peggy in these stories – something I couldn’t imagine because everyone I knew called her by her proper name, Marguerita. She’d talk about picking strawberries and walking to school and on and on she’d go. And, I confess, as a child, I wasn’t very good at listening. Once Grandma got going on tale after tale, I sort of checked out. I’d trace the pattern on the sofa with my finger or I’d pick at a piece of lint I found or I’d daydream because, quite frankly, Grandma’s stories bored me. I didn’t know any of the people; I didn’t know any of the places. And I didn’t understand what I might find of interest in the stories, so I didn’t even bother trying. And today, I wonder what I might have missed – if only I had been paying better attention.

There are at least three parables in Luke’s gospel that are familiar to most of us – the story of the lost sheep, the story of the lost coin, and the story of the lost – or prodigal – son. And each of these parables remind me a bit of my grandmother’s story telling – or rather, they remind me of my inability to listen well to something I’ve heard so many times before. Because these three parables are stories many of us have been hearing since we were in church school, we don’t have to wait for them to roll around in the lectionary on a Sunday morning. They are some of the earliest stories many of us ever encountered in the church. Perhaps you’ve acted them out in skits in Sunday school or have been invited to retell them in modern form at a Bible camp. They are stories we’ve heard told countless times, like my Grandmother’s stories.

Of course, I’ve mentioned three parables from Luke’s gospel, but in today’s reading we only get two of the three - the lost sheep and the lost coin. The story of the Prodigal Son was read during one of the Sunday’s in Lent this past year. In any case, the two stories today have a common theme. Some of us know the stories this way: something valuable gets lost, we should look for it, and when we find it, we should rejoice; others of us, perhaps would tell the stories this way: we are what is lost, God will look for us and when we are found there will be rejoicing. But in either version, we have a pretty simple plot line, not too many twists and turns, and we might, therefore, be tempted to say, “oh, I know this one”. And so I always get a bit nervous when these stories appear in the Sunday lectionary because I’m fearful that you might be tempted, like I was with my grandmother, to simply turn off your attention switch for awhile and begin playing with a piece of lint on the pew cushion. So, all of this to say, there might be a new gem in the stories for you today, so I encourage you to stick with me!

I was at a Bible study earlier this week and we were reading these two parables – the lost sheep and the lost coin – and someone in the group said, “The real challenge is that God wants us to rejoice over the return of the bad guy.” And suddenly, I had a new insight into the stories – that’s how it happens some times – and I nearly jumped out of my seat with excitement because I realized that No!, in the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, there is no bad guy. In the parable of the lost son, there is a bad guy – or at least a son who has been less than obedient. Even the son knows he has not done the right thing when he says, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”[i] And if we’d been reading that story – the story of a lost and found son – then one might say, yes, God wants us to rejoice over the return of the bad guy. But in today’s stories – sheep and coins – there is no bad guy. The one sheep that is lost is no different than the other 99 sheep. It’s not a bad sheep, it’s just lost. In fact, any one of the 100 sheep could have been lost and we are told, the shepherd is the one who lost the sheep in the first place. So there is no judgment and there is no distinguishing between that one lost sheep and the other 99. Likewise with the coin. The one coin that is lost is no different than the other 9 coins. It’s not a bad coin, it’s just lost. Each coin has the exact same value – it could have been any one of the coins. And again, it is the woman who has lost the coin. There is no judgment and there is no distinguishing between that one coin and the other nine.

In the story of the prodigal son there a number of potential roles that you and I might take. We can play the part of the older son or of the slaves in that story. There is a way out of the hot seat for us; we don’t have to assume we are the prodigal son. But when we are talking about sheep and coins, my friends, we’re it. The only other actor in the play is the Shepherd or the woman and it is safe to say that in both instances that leading role is taken by God. And so we come to realize, you and I, that the lost coin and the lost sheep are us. There is no distinguishing and there is no running away from it. All of us together, wandering in this wilderness, sometimes grumbling like the Israelites, sometimes celebrating our common life together, but all us in this together.

Are you with me so far? Now let’s consider the reason Jesus was telling these two parables in the first place. Luke’s gospel tells us, “All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying , ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”[ii] In answer to this grumbling, Jesus tells the Pharisees these two stories. Two stories that set all of humanity on equal ground: tax collectors, sinners, and Pharisees are all bundled together in one lot – the human race – and not one of them is counted as more important than the rest. And, what’s more, not one of them is counted as less important than the rest. The Pharisees had become convinced that they were better than – more righteous than – the tax collectors and the sinners. But Jesus reminds them that they, just like the tax collectors and the sinners, are simply sheep. By not accepting their place in God’s economy, the Pharisees exclude themselves from Jesus’ table fellowship. A fellowship that is open to all – no matter who you are, what you do, or where you come from.

Jesus’ message is clear, all are welcome to the table. And the gospel message is clear that the only ones who are not enjoying the feast on this day are the grumbling Pharisees and scribes. But it is their own grumbling, their own feelings of superiority that separate them from the table and from fellowship with Christ. They have become the lost sheep. But even in this state – especially in this state – they are loved by God. However, until they recognize this, they will not be open to God’s overflowing[iii] love, they will not be able to enjoy the same kind of welcome experienced by the sinners and the tax collectors.

Each one of us is one of God’s sheep. And the gospel is clear: all of the sheep are equally valuable to God. When we are lost, God will not cease looking for us until we are found. And once found there will be great rejoicing at the table of the Lord. The table that is open to all – no matter who you are, what you do, or where you come from. Because God’s love is that extravagant. Believe it!

[i] Luke 15:21.
[ii] Luke 15:1-2.
[iii] The author of the first letter to Timothy writes, “and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” (I Timothy 1:14).


Table Manners

Sermon Preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church (Stone Harbor, NJ)
Sunday, September 2, 2007
Proper 17C

Those of you who have already had the opportunity to eat a meal with me can say with certainty that I lack certain table manners. To be sure, I know to put my napkin in my lap, to avoid chewing with my mouth open, and to resist the temptation to reach across my dining companions in an effort to get another helping of potato salad – even if they are persisting in talking, completely oblivious to my desire for seconds! Yes, I’ve got the bare minimum covered; but, if you are looking for expertise on what to do with the myriad forks that often appear at formal dining events or a quick guide to which bread plate is yours – the one to your right or the one to your left, rest assured, you’ll be much better off asking anyone but me!

There was a time when we were all a bit more cultured and, no doubt, there are many here today who longingly wish such times were upon us once again. But alas, with the advent of fast food dining and the near elimination of the daily family gathering around the dinner table, I suspect those days will not be returning any time soon – if at all. You’ll have a better chance to observe good etiquette watching reruns of “Leave it to Beaver” on TVLAND (channel 37 at my house), than you will in most American homes.

So, given our lack of propriety around meals, is it any surprise that we encounter so many questions and sticky-spots when we come together to celebrate the Eucharist – the central feast of the Christian faith? Is the flat surface an altar or a table? Should we use hosts or a loaf of bread? What kind of wine are we supposed to use? Who should receive communion – all who have been baptized, including infants; only Episcopalians; only adults who “understand” the full meaning of the Eucharist? Speaking of which, is the Eucharist a memorial? A sacrifice or an offering? And who should serve the bread and the wine? What should be done with the leftover consecrated wine? The list of questions goes on and on.

In Jesus’ time, table rules were well-understood. Everyone knew who should be on the guest list and the most honored guest knew precisely where they should sit. Likewise everyone knew who would not or, in any case, who should not be invited to the table – the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. In fact, the book of Leviticus singles out this group in some detail.[i] Here’s a bit of that colorful passage:

“No one of your offspring throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer the food of his God. For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, one who is blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, or one who has a broken foot or a broken hand, or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a blemish in his eyes or an itching disease or scabs . . .”[ii]
and so forth. A couple of verses later, some clarification is offered that these persons may, in fact, “eat the food of his God;” however, it is to be done away from the altar so that they do “not profane” God’s sanctuary.[iii] In some of those early Jewish communities – notably the community at Qumran - these persons were not even allowed entry into the community – let alone the opportunity to share a common meal. So, it not hard to imagine that there may have been people in Jesus’ time who had never enjoyed a grand meal like the described in this morning’s gospel lesson.

This then is the backdrop against which Jesus’ words are spoken: “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors. . . But when you give a banquet invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”[iv] In light of the admonition in Leviticus and the clear understanding of social status in the culture, just imagine the outrage this statement must have caused – issuing such a statement against decades – perhaps centuries – of “common wisdom”! What host, if he were a good host, would even think of inviting these outcasts to enter their home – let alone to dine with them at the table? And, yet, that is precisely what Jesus tells them they are to do. What’s more, he tells them that in doing so, they will be blessed – to be sure, this blessing will not come from the host’s relatives, rich neighbors, and friends – but, in fact, by God “at the resurrection of the righteous.” And, in talking about the meal they are about to share on that Sabbath day in terms of the heavenly banquet to which we all will be invited, Jesus makes vivid the connection between that future time of God’s inclusive reign and the time in which we find ourselves to day. Laurence Stookey, a seminary professor in Washington DC, describes the Eucharistic feast as a meal in which you and I are united across time – connected with one another and with all the faithful who have gone before us. [v] So the Eucharist connects the past with the present and with that future time in which God’s reign will be fully upon us.

Yet, when we celebrate the feast, it is not merely a memorial meal nor is it simply a matter of looking forward, expectantly waiting for an even better meal. Rather it is an opportunity and an invitation to live as if God’s reign is fully upon us now. To dine together as if God’s radical inclusivity – an inclusivity which breaks down all boundaries and divisions - is already a part of who we are today. Who are we called to welcome to the feast? Who are the blind, the lame, the crippled and the poor in our time and in our communities? And how will we invite them in? As we are all full members of the body of Christ, which of us should issue the invitations? And when these others join us, how will they be received? Will the seat of honor be given to them, or will they be asked to sit in the back where they won’t perhaps be quite as noticeable? These are the questions about table manners that we, as the Body of Christ, are invited to consider each time we gather to eat the bread and drink from the common cup. And in this way we are being “faithful to the heavenly vision (no matter how incomplete the result)” and offering “our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.” [vi]

[i] Thanks to R. Alan Culpepper for pointing out this passage in light of the gospel reading in “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), 287.
[ii] Leviticus 21:17b-20.
[iii] Leviticus 21:22-23.
[iv] Luke 14:12b-13.
[v] Laurence Hull Stookey, Eucharist: Christ’s Feast with the Whole Church, (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 1993), 107-8.
[vi] Stookey, 107-8.