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.