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.