Maybe This Will Be The Christmas. . .

Sermon Preached Christmas Eve 2008
St. Mary's (Stone Harbor) and St. Barnabas-by-the-Bay (Villas)

The man I knew as Grandpa when I was a young girl was actually my mother’s step-father. Grandpa Stanley was a second-generation Polish-American. He had siblings – I don’t know how many and I never met any of them. He was a man of few words, a not-particularly successful small dairy farmer in Wisconsin; really there was nothing extraordinary about him – except his birthday – or, I should say, his lack of a known birthday. He thought he was born in January, but the only date he had was the date of his baptism which was late in February. So, just to be safe, we celebrated once on January 16th (a month before his baptism) and once on February 16th (in case he was born and baptized on the same day). It always puzzled me as a child. How can you not know when your birthday is? How bizarre is that? My mother tells me that a lot of people “back then” didn’t know their birthdays. But, that doesn’t seem right to me because, to be honest, he’s the only person I ever knew who didn’t know.

Oh, unless, of course, we consider Jesus of Nazareth. Because, we don’t really know when he was born either. Last Sunday’s reading tells us that the angel visited Mary in the sixth month. Is that the six month of the Jewish year – in Hebrew, the month of Ellul? If so, then this visit took place sometime in September and, approximately 9 months later, Mary gave birth to Jesus in June. Or, maybe the reference is to the six month of her cousin Elizabeth’s pregnancy. If that’s the case, Jesus could have been born at any time of the year.

The question of the year in which he was born is a little up in the air as well. On the one hand, our reading from Luke’s gospel tonight mentions a decree of Emperor Augustus. Historians know that Augustus reigned from 27 BC to 14 AD and that during his reign, he ordered three census – 28 BC, 8 BC and 14 AD.[1] But, here is where things get a little messy. Luke’s gospel also refers to Quirinius, the Governor of Syria. Quirinius was governor from 6 until 7 AD. To complicate matters further, Matthew’s gospel refers to King Herod who ruled Judea from 37 BC until 4 BC.[2] Then there is the matter of the star of Bethlehem – just what was this star and when did it appear? Astronomers have suggested that the “star” of Bethlehem was actually the very rare coming together of three planets - Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars which occurred in early 6 BC.[3] So, just when was Jesus born? In 8 BC when Augustus ordered his 2nd census? Or, was it during Quirinius’ reign – sometime between 6 and 7 AD? Or was it in the year that the planets aligned – 6 BC?

Some try to make all of these numbers work out so that we have a precise year for the birth of Christ. But, even if we do settle on a precise year, we still have to wonder about the month and day. June is the most compelling option and yet we celebrate Jesus birth on December 25th. Was this some terrible mistake in the early church? Not at all! In fact, there is nothing coincidental in our celebration of the birth of Jesus on a date that falls close to the winter solstice – the shortest and darkest day of the year in the northern hemisphere. The prophet Isaiah writes,

The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light;
Those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.[4]

The winter solstice – Charles Price and Louis Weil, two past members of the Episcopal Church’s Standing Liturgical Commission, following in the prophet/poet’s footsteps, put a more poetic spin on the winter solstice suggesting “that the light has been born. . . . the principle of the return of life in the spring has been asserted, in spite of all appearances.”[5] That the celebration of Christmas occurs 4 days after the winter solstice has to do with an error in the Julian calendar which was corrected in the 18th c.

In the ancient Mediterranean world, fertility celebrations were common at the time of the winter solstice. The Christian celebration of the winter solstice is not an attempt to develop these fertility celebrations further but rather to provide a theological corrective – that we are called not to celebrate “the birth of light in the sky but rather the birth of the Son of God, the light of the world.”[6] A birth that occurred at just the right moment. A time when the people of Judea lived under the oppressive Roman Empire, a time where persecution could come at any time and in any place, a time when “shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. . . [are] terrified” by the sudden appearance of a stranger – who, thanks be to God, turns out to be “an angel of the Lord” bringing at last a message of good news – “Do not be afraid.”

There is an old story about a rabbi who asks his students, “when does the night end and the day begin?” One student suggest, “is it when you can tell the difference between a sheep and a dog?” “No,” says the rabbi, “that isn’t it.” Another student asks, “is it the moment when you can tell the difference between an olive tree and a fig tree?” Again the rabbi, says, “No, that isn’t it. The moment when the night ends and the day begins,” says the rabbi, “is the moment when you can look at a face never seen before and recognize the stranger as a brother or a sister. Until that moment,” the rabbi concludes, “no matter how bright the day, it is still the night.”[7]

Jesus was born into this world centuries ago, in a moment of time that desperately needed to experience the light of God, the very presence or God-with-us-ness of God in the flesh, the promised one – “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” - whose authority would grow as he grew until the people would know “endless peace.” Born into a world of darkness . . . this Jesus, this light.

The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light;
Those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.[8]

Nancy Hastings Sehested, co-founder of an ecumenical congregation in North Carolina, writes:

“Since the beginning, God has paced the corridors of heaven, burning with the hope that we would see the world as God sees it. God made gardens. We did not get it. God sent floods. We did not get it. God sent prophets. We did not get it. God sent laws. We did not get it. Finally, finally, God sent flesh, God’s own flesh, so maybe we would get it.”[9]

Elizabeth Alexander has been asked by President-elect Barack Obama to compose and read a poem for his inauguration on January 20th. When asked about this task by The New York Times, Alexander said, “Writing an occasional poem has to attend to the moment itself, but what you hope for, as an artist, is to create something that has integrity and life that goes beyond the moment.”[10] As Christians, we claim that the birth of Jesus continues to hold meaning today, that the birth of Jesus is not just a story or poem for one moment in time, but that it is instead, a story that “has integrity and life” even today.

And each Christmas we are invited to welcome this good news. Amidst the darkness of our own world – economic turmoil, wars, extreme poverty and hunger, and countless injustices – amidst this darkness, maybe we will get it. Maybe we will get that God’s own flesh came and dwelt among us so that we can let go of the hold the darkness has on us. A darkness that grips us whenever we see another human being, not as brother or sister, but as “white or black, male or female . . . friend or enemy, us or them.”[11] A darkness that grips us whenever we assume that “there will always be terror in the Near East . . . that there will always be a rapacious Pentagon and an underbelly of poverty.”[12]

Maybe, just maybe, this will be the Christmas when we will take into our hearts, the poetry of that first Christmas. Maybe this will be the Christmas, when we can open our minds to the possibility that Jesus continues to hold meaning today, that Jesus’ birth “has integrity and life” even today. Maybe this will be the Christmas when we recognize ourselves as “the people who have walked in darkness.”

The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light;
Those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.[13]

[1] Richard P. Bucher, “Caesar Augustus, Quirinius, and the Census,” Our Redeemer Lutheran Church (Lexington, KY) accessed online on December 24, 2008.
[2] “Herod the Great,” Wikipedia [o.k., I am embarrassed!] accessed online on December 24, 2008.
[3] Gary A. Becker, “StarWatch for the Greater Lehigh Valley,” (December 19, 1999), accessed online on December 24, 2008.
[4] Isaiah 9:2.
[5] Charles P. Price and Louis Weil, Liturgy for Living, rev. edition (Morehouse: Harrisburg, PA), 2000, p. 164.
[6] Price and Weil, p. 164-5.
[7] Story adapted from Jim Forest, “Be Not Afraid,” Preaching the Word accessed online on December 23, 2008.
[8] Isaiah 9:2.
[9] Nancy Hastings Sehested, “A Love We Can Touch,” Preaching the Word, accessed online on December 23, 2008.
[10] Elizabeth Alexander, “Quote of the Week,” Sojomail , December 24, 2008.
[11] Jim Forest.
[12] Walter Brueggemann, “A World Available for Peace,” Preaching the Word, accessed online on December 23, 2008.
[13] Isaiah 9:2.


Yes We Can. . . But Not in California

I am ecstatic about the election of Senator Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States of America. I was briefly disappointed that I had moved away from Chicago some 15 months ago - but then I remembered the traffic, the pollution, and the fast-pace of life and got over it!

However, as delighted as this presidential outcome makes me, I am equally disgusted by the passage of Proposition 8 in California.

One step forward for human rights. . . one step back.

As so many baseball teams like to say, "Maybe next year. . . "


Talking and Walking in Christ Jesus

Sermon Preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church
Stone Harbor, NJ
Proper 21A
(September 28, 2008)

I never knew my great-grandmother Bertha because she died when I was an infant, but I do know she made the best shortcake biscuits in the world. I know this because she passed the recipe down to my grandmother who passed it down to my mother who passed it down to me. And, not wanting you to feel left out, I’m going to pass it along to you: baking soda, baking powder, flour, buttermilk, and butter. Can you smell it? Can you taste the flaky biscuits? Of course not! Reading a recipe – even holding up the ingredients – is not the same as actually preparing the dough and baking the biscuits and passing them around to be shared. In order to truly share the best shortcake biscuits with you this morning, I need to actually follow the directions in the recipe. It is not enough to simply read the words.

In this morning’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, the message is much the same. For Paul, there is an intimate connection between our theology and our ethics – between our understanding of God and our behaviors. To put it in more colloquial language, if you are going to talk the talk of Christianity, you’ve got to walk the walk. We cannot simply read a recipe about how to be a Christian. We must be willing to follow those directions. But what are those directions? Paul tells us that Christ’s attitude of self-emptying – an attitude of serving others without regard for self-interest even to the point of death on a cross – that this attitude, is one which those who claim to be “in Christ Jesus” must take on. We must be willing to “look not to our own interests, but to the interests of others.”[1] Morna Hooker, a British theologian and New Testament scholar, refers to this attitude as one of “mutual concern and service” – a stark contrast to more contemporary attitudes of competition and one-upmanship.[2]

Do you remember the question “What would Jesus do?” It was popular in the 1990s and was often abbreviated on t-shirts, bracelets, and bumper stickers as WWJD. But, here’s something I learned this week - the phrase actually originated in 1896 with the publication of Charles Sheldon’s novel, In His Steps. In the book, a preacher encounters a homeless man who challenges him to take seriously the imitation of Christ. The homeless man says to the preacher:

“I heard some people singing at a church prayer meeting the other night,
‘All for Jesus, all for Jesus,
All my being’s ransomed powers,
All my thoughts, and all my doings,
All my days, and all my hours.’
and I kept wondering as I sat on the steps outside just what they meant by it. It seems to me there’s an awful lot of trouble in the world that somehow wouldn’t exist if all the people who sing such songs went and lived them out. I suppose I don’t understand. But what would Jesus do? Is that what you mean by following His steps? It seems to me sometimes as if the people in the big churches had good clothes and nice houses to live in, and money to spend for luxuries, and could go away on summer vacations and all that, while the people outside the churches, thousands of them, I mean, die in tenements, and walk the streets for jobs, and never have a piano or a picture in the house, and grow up in misery and drunkenness and sin.”[3]

That same homeless man might tell us today that it is not enough to come to church on Sunday mornings to listen to Scripture, to join our voices in prayer, to sing hymns, to recite the Creed, and to break bread together if none of these activities are going to change the way we live our lives during the rest of the week. It is not enough to proclaim the meaning of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection if it isn’t going to change the way we live our lives. If we focus only on the exaltation of Christ, we have missed the point. In addition to the exaltation of Christ as Lord, we must also acknowledge “the renunciation, and the service, and the willing obedience” that are equally part of the Christian story.

So again, I ask, how are we to walk the walk that is Christianity? There are some who will tell us exactly what it means. They will tell us what people we should welcome into our churches, they will tell us what kinds of decisions we must make about our healthcare and the healthcare concerns of others, they will tell us that there is a right way and a wrong way to punish criminals, they will tell us exactly what our children must be taught in school. They will tell us all of these things – and more – in the name of Christ. And they have every good intention in their hearts.

But Paul’s letter to the Philippians and the teaching of countless contemporary theologians and apologists will say that the Christian life is not one that can be lived by a simple rule book of rights and wrongs for every situation. Instead there is what Hooker calls “a first principle – the self-giving love of God” and that is all we have to guide us.[4] Is it enough?

What does the attitude of self-giving and servitude look like in our day to day lives? Here at St. Mary’s we have a number of ways in which we attempt to live this attitude out.

  • We have the ECW who will be dining together this Thursday evening to talk about, among other things, how to best use the money they have raised for the outreach needs of our community.
  • We have the New Members Ministry in the midst of the Pantry Shelf Neighborhood Outreach program, inviting our neighbors in Cape May Court House to return bags of non-perishable food items to us today and going back to the neighborhood after church to pick up items from those who were unable to join us this morning. This food will be delivered to the United Way First Call for Help Food Pantry at the Baptist church in Wildwood to be distributed to those in need.
  • We have the Addiction Support Groups which meet here at St. Mary’s during the week and the groups facilitated by Fr. Ron and Sandra at The Branches each Thursday evening.
  • We have the This ‘n That Thrift Shop and Furniture Annex which provide clothing, household items, books, furniture, and more at low prices all to benefit the affordable housing needs of Cape May County.
  • And, we have The Branches with its twice weekly open hours for people to just stop by for coffee and conversation – each week people who are lonely, people who are tired, people who just want to share a story with someone, people just like you and me stop by to visit.

These are some of the ways self-giving and servitude are shown in our community and there are, I’m sure, countless other examples that I have missed. But, there is no rule book. There is only the principle of the self-giving love of God as our example. And using this as our guide, there is no guarantee that we’ll always do the best thing in every situation – no guarantee, in fact, that we are always doing the right thing. But what matters in each case is that we are committed to approaching each situation with the attitude of self-giving and servitude which Jesus modeled for us.[5]

In a few moments, we will stand together to say the words of the Nicene Creed. These words serve much the same purpose as those words in Paul’s letter to the Philippians which recount the mystery and the miracle of God’s incarnation –

“Christ Jesus . . . though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”[6]

These are words that affirm our beliefs and these are words which motivate us to action. They are at one and the same time a statement of our faith and a “demand to live in a certain way.” They are the talk and the walk and they are an invitation for you and for me.

[1] Philippians 2:4-5.
[2] Morna D. Hooker, “The Letter to the Philippians: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Vol. XI, p. 516.
[3] Charles Monroe Sheldon, In His Steps, Chapter One (accessed online at http://www.ccel.org/ Christian Classics Ethereal Library).
[4] Hooker, 516-7.
[5] Hooker, 517.
[6] Philippians 2:6-11.


Wall Street and the MDGs

Today I had hoped the world's attention would be focused on the United Nations and the Millennium Development Goals (the MDGs). We are beyond the half way point in time and not nearly that close in terms of results in eradicating extreme poverty around the world by 2015. But today's media attention is focused, instead, on the Wall Street crisis.** I do not mean to be crass, but it seems to me that the Wall Street crisis is yet another high-class problem that pales in comparison to the millions of people around the world living in extreme poverty.

There was some irony when at this morning's Eucharist at St. Barnabas - Villas, NJ, we celebrated the Feast of St. Matthew - you know the tax collector who accepted Jesus' call to "follow me?" Trying to hold that in the tension between Wall Street and the MDGs, we simply sat in silence for a few minutes and then prayed for healing.

The reading from Philippians for this Sunday is an important reminder that our theology and our ethics cannot be separated. I hope that we can all remember this as we write to our law makers, vote in November, and accept the call to follow Jesus in acts of mercy and justice, daring to believe that one person's actions can, indeed, make a difference in the world.

**A Google news search found articles on the MDG summit at the UN from Uganda, China (x 2), Nigeria, and Ireland in the top 5; Australia, United States (x 3), United Kingdom make up the top 5 on Wall Street crisis. That, in and of itself, sums up the situation.


Festival of Renewal

What follows is a summary - in a less structured manner - of this morning's sermon themes (preached at St. Barnabas - Villas).

The lectionary reading from the Hebrew Scriptures today comes from Exodus:

This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the LORD; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance. (Exod. 12:14).

The first day of school, the first day of Sunday school - a time of new beginnings. Last week I talked about the many times we celebrate the "new year" throughout the year -- Advent 1, New Year's Day, and back-to-school. Today, I explored the unique aspects of the "day of remembrance" described in Exodus - a day when each family will obtain a lamb and each will receive according to the number of persons to be fed. God's economy. Not an economy that says your family of 10 paid 25% while our family of 3 paid 75%, therefore, 1/4 for you, and 3/4 for us. No, an economy that says, you will receive enough for your family of 10 and I will receive enough for my family of 3 - the payment is not the issue. Having enough is the issue. God's economy.

I explored the meaning of partnership - our partnership with St. Mary's - Stone Harbor. In our society's economy, St. Mary's, by rights, should be the leader in our partnership - they should call the shots, have more than us, and dictate the direction we will move in. However, that is not what is happening. We are living into God's economy - an economy that calls partners "companions." The word's etymology:
1297, from O.Fr. compaignon "fellow, mate," from L.L. companionem (nom.
companio), lit. "bread fellow, messmate," from L. com- "with" + panis "bread." Found first in 6c. Frankish Lex Salica, and probably a translation of a Gmc. word (cf. Gothic gahlaiba "messmate," from hlaib "loaf of bread"). Replaced O.E. gefera "traveling companion," from faran "go, fare." [emphasis added; source: Online Etymology Dictionary]

Companions in ministry - persons who share bread together, who witness together, who share stories together. God's economy. Several years ago the Episcopal Church published a document called Companions in Transformation. It was a resource on global mission, but has proven helpful as I've considered the partnership between St. Mary's and St. Barnabas - a partnership of "unequals" in society's economy; but a partnership in Christ in God's economy.


At work amidst human trickery

A few days ago, I was reflecting on the myriad of kingdom images Jesus provided for his listeners (the Gospel reading for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost). I had hoped for some feedback from my readers; but, having none, I went instead down the path of the Old Testament reading in which Laban agrees to sell his youngest daughter Rachel to Jacob in exchange for 7 years hard labor. After 7 years, Jacob "takes" Leah in a wedding night ruse plotted by Laban and then serves another 7 years for the right to take Rachel as well.

I looked at several commentaries this week including the ones in Sojourners magazine and The Christian Century and also followed some conversation on the Gen X Clergy listserv and so I cannot recall at the moment who pointed out the irony (or if, perhaps, in a moment of genius, I myself came up with the idea - not as likely) that this text is being read in the midst of the Lambeth Conference (for related reading consider pp. 27-33 of this pre-Lambeth reading).

Here we have a text (referring now back to Genesis 29:15-28) that, on a literal reading, could be used to justify polygamy - a practice that is under question in Texas in light of the child abuse scandal and a practice among some Mormons in Utah and other [I confess to not knowing enough about Mormonism to know whether or not this is a "reputable" website, but I provide the link nonetheless]. Now polygamy is a practice that the Anglican Communion considers to be contrary to God's plan. I want to be clear that I am not in favor of polygamy - primarily for its tendency (or potential tendency) to be abusive to the women in these relationships (it is rare indeed hear of a matriarchal-based polygamous marriage - such relationships tending to be labeled "promiscuity" in our society being yet another aspect of the inequality of gender that lingers). However, I find it interesting that we read "against" Scripture on this issue and insist on reading "into" Scripture issues regarding the acceptability or lack of acceptability of homosexual practices. Shouldn't Biblical literalists at least be held to a standard of consistency?

Now for those of you sometimes attend St. Barnabas in the Villas and missed out on today's sermon, you should be aware that this is not what I preached about. Instead, you are being treated to one of my more internal, quiet rants. This morning's sermon instead focused on how God can work through and around human deceit and weakness to get God's job done! As Paul writes in his epistle to the Romans:

". . . neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else [including human deceit, weakness, foibles, etc.] in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Rom. 8:38) [text in italics are words of this author, not St. Paul].


Thy Kingdom Come: Ponderings for this coming Sunday's lectionary readings.

The gospel for this Sunday has a myriad of images for the kingdom of God. . . it is like a mustard seed, it is like yeast, it is like a treasure in the field, it is like a valuable pearl. And, early in the week, my mind is swirling in all of these images. Following are some of my thoughts - more random (or, at least, less polished) than usual. But, I am always interested in my readers thoughts; so, if any of this strikes you, please feel free to send a comment.

Thought A: In the first place, the sheer multitude of images - of mini-parables - seem ultimately to obscure the issue, not elucidate it! Instead of understanding what Jesus is saying, I want to find the common thread - in what way are a pearl, a mustard seed, a hidden treasure and yeast similar? Perhaps if I could identify the similar element, then I would have a clearer understanding of what God's kingdom will be like.

Thought B: Maybe Paul's letter to the Romans will be more helpful. He writes,

"we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God."

In the Lord's prayer, we say, "Thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven." What a prayer! We don't even know what we are asking for and yet we ask for it - many of us every day. Why?

Thought C: Maybe the multitude of images are to remind us (a) that we can only see glimpses of the kingdom - for some of us we'll see it as the yeast that, once mixed with the flour, cannot be separated and together (yeast and flour) accomplish more than either can accomplish alone - and (b) that despite our inability to see clearly, we yearn for it so deeply that we pray for it daily.

Thought D: Don't worry about the kingdom that will come. Pay attention to the here and now - to the aspects of the kingdom that have already come.

Other ideas?


Turtles and Patient Endurance

What's on my mind as I think about a sermon for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost?

Last week as I drove across Stone Harbor Boulevard near the Wetlands Institute, several adults (one dressed as a turtle) held signs reminding passers-by to "slow down for turtles." And, in this part of New Jersey, it is not uncommon to see a motorist pull over by the side of the road to help (i.e., carry) a turtle across the busy streets. As I reflected on these small acts of human kindness I thought once again on our unique capacity for empathy. Not only can we have feelings with and for other humans, but also for all sorts and species of God's creatures.

And yet. Another curiosity struck me: Why is it that many of us - myself included - are frequently drawn in to news stories about atrocities committed against animals - drawn in, in some cases, to the point of tears - but we watch the evening news as we eat our dinners, not unaware, but somehow less viscerally moved, by what we see there - the violence of wars, the catastrophic effects of storms, the senseless acts of violence committed human against human - brother against brother and sister against sister. Why does a story about a puppy being beaten by its owner evoke tears and a story about an elder being abused by his own son or daughter not (mind you, it does disturb me greatly, but I am not pulled to that same physical response)?

Some years ago I read a book by my college philosophy professor, Dr. Loyal Rue - By the Grace of Guile: The Role of Deception in Natural History and Human Affairs - in which Rue suggests that deception is at work throughout nature. Moreover, he writes that deception is not, in and of itself, a bad thing - in fact, it is a natural thing - a survival thing. For example, brightly-colored butterflies are deceptive by nature as they blend in with the flowers off of which they feed, thereby protecting themselves from preying enemies. And even human beings, use deception (and self-deception) to protect ourselves on a psychological level.

What does this have to do with the turtles that we stop for, the abused animals we shed tears for, and the human beings killed, maimed, and abused that we do not shed a tear for? Perhaps it is not so much that we don't shed a tear, but rather that we dare not shed a tear. Is our inability to viscerally respond to human atrocities actually a deceptive tactic we use to protect ourselves from the overwhelming nature of these atrocities? I have known people who feel very strongly - people whose families shelter them from "bad news" because they are fearful that they will not be able to cope. And, the people I have known who do, in fact, feel with and for every victim of every atrocity that they hear about are literally paralyzed by their grief, paralyzed by their emotions. Perhaps we deceive ourselves by not feeling so that we can survive, so that we can continue to move forward.

In this Sunday's reading from the letter to the church at Rome, Paul writes, "I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. . . . We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves . . . groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies." And yet, we are not ground down by these realities - we dare not be ground down by them - we sustain ourselves in the "hope for what we do not see" and, indeed, "we wait for it with patience." Rather than becoming paralyzed by the many injustices around us, we continue to move forward out of the hope for what will be - the promises of God.


What Can One Person Do?

Sermon to be Preached at St. Mary's, Stone Harbor on Sunday, May 25, 2008
Pentecost 2A

As I read this morning’s gospel with its easy moral, “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things [food, drink, clothing] will be given to you as well” I began to imagine how very differently it must be heard in places around the world who have so very much less than we do.

Earlier this week, UN Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro spoke to the Economic and Social Council special session on the global food crisis. Due to the increase in the price of rice and wheat over the past 12 months – an increase of 74 per cent for rice and 130 per cent for wheat – another 100 million people will be driven into deep poverty bringing the total number of persons facing acute food shortages to more than 930 million.[1]

Eight years ago, at the 2000 UN Millennium Summit, 189 heads of states (including the United States) committed themselves to a set of eight time-bound targets – the Millennium Development Goals - that, when achieved, would end extreme poverty worldwide by 2015. In 2008, we are just beyond the half way point to 2015 and all progress made to date on eradicating extreme poverty and hunger – the first of the eight Millennium Development Goals – all progress, according to Secretary-General Migiro, will be “virtually wiped out” because of this food crisis.

I wonder how 930 million hungry people might hear Jesus’ words today? Do not worry about food or thirst or clothing but strive instead “for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” How do the guests of the food program in Wildwood hear those words today? And in light of these 930 million hungry people how are we to hear Jesus’ words anew?

Episcopalians for Global Reconciliation’s Executive Director, Mike Kinman, reflected on this question in his newsletter column this week. Father Kinman’s words struck a chord with me and I’d like to share them this morning. He writes

“'Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink.’ Well, thanks a lot, Jesus! Easy for you to say. In fact, easy for me to say! Even in the worst case scenario I can imagine for my life, the truth is I am never going to starve. Because even if I lost everything, I have family and friends with means and privilege who would never let that happen to me or my family.

But I am a person of privilege. What about the 854 million people who suffer from hunger every day. Where is the Good News for them? Aren’t these words of Christ’s just a slap in the face? And then it hit me: The answer to that is up to us.

There are times when the words of Christ are for our ears, and there are times when the words of Christ are for our lips. And there are times like this, where they are for both.

‘Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink.’ These words convict and liberate me at the same time. They convict me in the life I lead surrounding myself with much more than I need to survive. They convict me of my life of wasting energy and resources worrying about tomorrow. They convict me of not trusting the abundance with which God has surrounded me.

At the same time, Christ’s words liberate me. They free me to recognize that I don’t need to lead a fearful life. That I don’t need to spend my time, energy and resources building up security for myself. That I can live a life of joyfully letting go of my wealth knowing that if I ‘strive first for God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, all these things will be given to (me) as well.’

And freed by Christ’s words in my ears, I can go to the world’s hungry with Christ’s words on my lips and say, ‘Do not worry about what you will eat or what you will drink -- because I’ve got your back!’ ‘Do not worry about what you will eat or what you will drink -- because I have enough for both of us.’ ‘Do not worry about what you will eat or what you will drink -- because God has charged me with the joyful privilege of fulfilling that promise in your life.’

This Sunday's Gospel only makes sense if we hold it in one hand and the stories of rampant hunger in the other. It's the difference between feel-good, pop religion and a call to conversion that will open our hearts and heal the world.

Christ's words are difficult to hear, because they do convict us. Christ's words are beautiful to hear, because they will liberate us. But most of all, when we let Christ's words enter through our ears and change our hearts and finally emerge on our lips, they are a song of hope ... for us and for the world.”[2]

“I’ve got your back!” “I have enough for both of us.” “God has charged me with the joyful privilege of fulfilling that promise in your life.” What can one person do? What can one congregation do? The answer to those questions – What can one person do? What can one congregation do? – form the backbone of the ONE Episcopalian Campaign to be active participants in the fulfillment of the Millennium Development Goals.

Many of you took part in our Lenten series that looked at the complex issues of poverty in depth. During that series, each session concluded with the question, “What can you do?” and the answers were provided in 4 categories: (1) organize; (2) advocate; (3) pray; and (4) educate.[3] One of the items of feedback we received after the series ended was that folks felt that there were not enough concrete ideas or that it didn’t seem like some of the suggestions – like writing a letter to the editor – would really making an impact on the problems. And perhaps that is one of the areas where we often get stuck. My small action will do so little. . . so, why bother?

Why bother? Just ask Aubrey Clark. She is a six-year old girl in Georgia wanted to help the children she had heard about at St. Marc’s School in Haiti who went to school hungry each day. At first she thought about sending food but quickly realized that the packaged meals might be inedible by the time they arrived in Haiti. So she decided it was better to send money. Aubrey and other children from her church now sell hot cider on the Parish Hall porch on the first Sunday of each month. On the very first Sunday in business, Aubrey’s cider project raised $60 - enough money to feed three children for an entire school year.[4]

Why bother? Just ask Jane, a parishioner at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Honoye Falls, New York. Inspired by a sermon preached by The Rev. Dahn Dean Gandell in which he said, “Nobody has to do everything, but everybody needs to ‘do something’” and that it costs only 37 cents a day to feed a person, Jane went to a local Chinese take-out restaurant and asked if she could purchase carry out containers. She labeled each with a reminder that 37 cents a day can save a life and gave a container to each family at her church asking them to put 37 cents a day into the container and return the container to the church at the end of the summer. The money that was collected was shared with Episcopalians for Global Reconciliation and Joining Hearts and Hands, a group the parish supports in Kenya.[5]

Why bother? Ask Gail and Dory from St. Barnabas who bought 10 hoagies at our sale yesterday and wanted none of them. They wanted us to give them to people who were hungry in our community. Why bother? Ask the volunteers who came to St. Barnabas at 6 a.m. yesterday to make 480 hoagies – including those 10. Why bother? Ask Gail at St. Mary’s who had the idea of distributing them to families living at a Rio Grande motel. And why bother? Ask Anthony, a volunteer at the Furniture Annex, who agreed to deliver the hoagies to tenants at the motel. A handful of people, working together, for just a few minutes, fed 10 people one meal.

Why bother? Because one person, one congregation can perform a relatively small action that will have a dramatic impact on the lives of others. One person, one congregation at a time, we can help the world get back on track with the Millennium Development Goals, ensuring that poverty and hunger are, indeed, eradicated by 2015. As Father Kinman wrote, “There are times when the words of Christ are for our ears, and there are times when the words of Christ are for our lips. And there are times like this, where they are for both.” Let our prayer be that one day soon, all will be able to say that what we eat, what we drink, and what we wear is enough and to know that all has been provided by the grace of our God who works wonders of abundance in the smallest of human actions. What can one person do? What can one congregation do?

[1] “Progress towards Millennium Development Goals at risk of being wiped out, warns Deputy Secretary-General in remarks to special meeting on global food crisis,” ReliefWeb 20 May 2008, accessed online on May 24, 2008.
[2] Mike Kinman, “"Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink," What One Can Do -- The EGR Newsletter‏, May 23, 2008 (received via e-mail).
[3] The curriculum we used for the series was The Episcopal Church Office of Government Relations and The ELCA Washington Office, God’s Mission in the World: An Ecumenical Christian Study Guide on Global Poverty and the Millennium Development Goals (Augsburg Fortress Press, 2007). It is available online from Episcopal Books and Resources.
[4] “Haitian Hope Project,” St. Francis Episcopal Church in Macon, Georgia accessed online on May 24, 2008 and John Mark Parker, “Aubrey Cells Cider,” Episcopalians for Global Reconciliation, November 14, 2007 accessed online on May 24, 2008.
[5] Dahn Dean Gandel, “What One Person Can Do,” Episcopalians for Global Reconciliation, August 24, 2007 accessed online on May 24, 2008.


Creation and Evolution: Do We Have to Take Sides?

Sermon Preached at St. Barnabas, Villas
Trinity Sunday, May 18, 2008

Where do babies come from? It’s a well-known truth that babies are delivered by storks. And not just human babies. If you’ve ever seen the movie Dumbo then you know that even baby elephants are delivered by storks. According to a National Public Radio report, this legend about storks bringing babies goes back to pagan times – a time when civilizations depended on high birthrates for their survival. It seemed that when the storks’ returned in the spring, there was an increase in the number of births and so the two events became linked. “Many people in Europe still associate storks with good luck and look forward to the birds’ return each spring.”[1]

The question of where babies come from is linked to that other question – where did we come from? Or, how did the world begin? The story of creation that we heard this morning is one of multiple biblical attempts to answer that question (another creation story appears just one chapter later in Genesis, there is a reference to creation in the book of Job that implies creation occurred in one morning, another in the book of Proverbs where Lady Wisdom creates at God’s side, and still another in the opening chapter of John’s gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”). But the creation story that opens the book of Genesis is perhaps the most well-known account and the account which is so frequently at the center of school board debates and court cases despite the myriad ways in which the story has been contradicted by scientific theories since at least the 18th century when Carl Linnaeus realized that the animal kingdom appeared to be a family tree and developed the system of kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species to classify animals by shared characteristics.

Now let’s back up for a moment. How can a scientific theory contradict a story? Unless we consider story-telling to have the same social role as scientific theory – that is, unless we assume our stories are attempting to answer the same question that our scientists are trying to answer – then we are dealing with apples and oranges. Going back for a moment to our question, “Where do babies come from?” Depending on the age of the person asking the question and our relationship to that person our answer may vary. For example, we might say to a 4-year old, “you came from your parents who love you very much” or “you came from the hospital,” or “you came from inside your mother’s belly.” Each of these could be considered truthful answers to the question, “where do babies come from.” And yet, we would all agree that none of them are scientific answers. None of them include a biological explanation of human reproduction.[2]

When we look to a text like this morning’s creation story and expect it to answer a scientific question – or worse – assume it is, in fact, a scientific account (despite all evidence to the contrary), we have missed the point. Harold Schulweis sums up the situation this way:

“The Bible is not geology. The Bible is concerned with the spiritual implications of an event, not with its physical cause and effect. . . . There is hardly a verse in the Bible taken verbatim that is exempt from embarrassment. Take the statement: ‘And God said, ‘Let there be light.’’ If God speaks, does it mean that God has a larynx? In what language or dialect does He speak? Did He speak these words before the creation of the universe took place? How could light have been created before the fourth day when the sun and moon and stars in the firmament of the heaven were created? Blinded by the literal text, the symbolic meaning of light and of the spoken word is invisible.”[3]

If we would spend even a fraction of the time and energy that is spent arguing creationism vs. evolution at school board meetings and in courts of law, instead discerning the spiritual implications of a story about a God who creates with the word and who chooses to set human beings apart from all of creation to be made in God’s likeness, then we might be a bit closer to understanding the reason for which the story of creation was recorded in the book of Genesis in the first place. Briefly, let’s consider these two implications: Creation by the Word and Humanity Created in the Image of God.

Creation by the Word. The creation myth which perhaps had the greatest impact on those who wrote the story in Genesis was the Babylonian myth, Enuma elish. In this Babylonian creation story, the great God Marduk fought the great God Tiamat and out of the dead remains of Tiamat, Marduk formed the heavens and the earth.[4] Instead of this understanding of the created order coming out of war and anger and instead of the heavens and earth being formed out of the dead corpse of a fallen god, the ancient Hebrew story of creation found in Genesis makes clear that God – the One God – created the universe out of harmony, out of simple words – “Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good.” God said it, it became, and it was good. That is the Judaeo-Christian formula for creation and it leads us directly into the next spiritual implication of the creation story.

Humanity Created in the Image of God. “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” It is such an easy thing to look at one another and assume that we are learning something about the nature of God. We often speak and act as though the text says, “humankind created God. . . in the image of humankind.” And it comes as no surprise then that our children draw pictures of God with a nose, hands, arms, eyes, and flesh. But, my friends, we have it backwards. The text clearly says, “God created humankind . . . in the image of God.” And what do we know about this God? At this point in the text – in these first verses of Genesis – we know that God creates and that what God creates is valuable and good. We learn something important about humanity created in God’s image – we are, at our best, valuable and good and we are called to create – to be co-creators with God. Moreover, that which we create, when we create out of our godlike-ness, ought also to be valuable and good. Other stories throughout Scripture will remind us of the many, many ways in which we can and do fall short of this goal; but this story of creation makes it very clear that, at our created core, we are valuable and good in the words of God.

Has our scientific knowledge come so far that the spiritual truths contained within this story of creation are all but invisible - lost in the incongruities between a cosmology of the 4th century BC and that of the 21st century? Can a new creation story be written that maintains the spiritual implications of the old in a casing that is more relevant to today?

John Polkinghorne is a noted theoretical physicist who played a significant role in the discovery of the quark [qu-ork]. Polkinghorne was ordained as an Anglican priest on Trinity Sunday in 1982 by the Church of England. In 1986 he wrote a book called One World: The Interaction of Science and Theology. And this is his attempt at a creation story for today:

In the beginning was the big bang. As matter expanded from that initial singularity it cooled. After about three minutes the world was no longer hot enough to sustain universal nuclear interactions. At that moment its gross nuclear structure got fixed at its present proportion of three quarters hydrogen and one quarter helium. Expansion and further cooling continued. Eventually gravity condensed matter into the first generation of galaxies and stars. In the interiors of these first stars nuclear cookery started up again and produced heavy elements like carbon and iron, essential for life, which were scarcely present in the early stages of the universe’s history. Some of these first generation stars and planets condensed in their turn; on at least one of them there were now conditions of chemical composition and temperature and radiation permitting, through the interplay of chance and necessity, the coming into being of replicating molecules and life. Thus evolution began on the planet Earth. Eventually it led to you and me. We are all made of the ashes of dead stars.[5]

As for me, I’ll take the scientific inaccuracies of Genesis for the wealth of spiritual implications that continue to instruct my faith. But I will also remember that the question, “where did I come from?” has more than one answer and that perhaps our role as grown-ups is to make sure we remember both the story of the stork and the story of human reproduction when we talk to our children.

[1] Frances Wood, “Storks Bring Babies,” BirdNotes®Transcript-592 (© 2008 Tune In to Nature.org 02/22/06 (Revised Nov. 2007) accessed online on May 17, 2008).

[2] The use of this technique to introduce learners to the notion of “types of truths” comes from Carla E. Fritsch, “Workshop 5: In the Beginning,” Understanding Scripture: Adult Workshops (The Center for Learning, 1992), 27.

[3] Harold M. Schulweis, For Those Who Can’t Believe: Overcoming the Obstacles to Faith, (New York, Harper: 1994), 66.

[4] Virginia Hamilton, “Marduk, God of Gods: Apsu and Tiamat the Creators,” In the Beginning: Creation Stories from Around the World (San Diego, HBJ Publishers: 1988), 78-85.

[5] John Polkinghorne, One World: The Interaction of Science and Theology (London: SPCK, 1986), 56 in Sallie McFague, The Body of God: An Ecological Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 43-44.


Salvation as a Journey, Not Only a Destination (Easter 6A)

Bible study at The Branches – the center of our partnership with St. Barnabas in Rio Grande - ends each week with a brief service of Night Prayer or Compline. Typically we use the service found in the Book of Common Prayer, but last Monday, we instead used a service adapted from John McQuiston’s Prayerbook for the 21st Century – a book that is unique for its use of images, images that are grounded in panentheism. Pan – everything; en – in; and theos – God. In other words, panentheism means “everything in God” (this is not the same as pantheism whose adherents claim that everything is God). Marcus Borg, always able to boil complex matters into something more palatable describes panentheism as “God is all around us and within us, and we are within God. . . . God as ‘beyond’ and God as ‘right here.’ God is more than the world. . . Yet God is present in the world.”[1] So what are some of these panentheistic images for God? God as Intimate Father, as Mother, as Wisdom, as the Divine Presence, or God as Journey Companion – the pillar of fire by night and the cloud by day – images that welcome us into relationship with God.[2]

What makes panentheism so compelling? Well, in the first place, its most common alternative in the church is supernatural theism – a theology firmly rooted in expressions that imply God is wholly Other, a being “elsewhere, out there and not here” - always beyond reach who (almost magically) enters the cosmos momentarily from time to time.[3] Panentheism, on the other hand, allows for a more intimate relationship with God speaking as it does of a God who is right here, right now, among us and with us while, at the same time, acknowledging that God is, of course, completely other. God is not one of us – God is the source of all being, intimately connected with us for we and everything around us is in God.

Today’s Gospel lesson strikes me as a great example of panentheistic theology. Jesus tells the disciples, “You know [the Father], because he abides with you, and he will be in you. . . . I am in my Father and you in me, and I in you.”[4] This is not a description of some future point of arrival – I recognize that Christ is the Savior, my Savior, and, I wait for the day of salvation. Salvation understood this way follows the first definition found in The Oxford English Dictionary: “the saving of the soul; the deliverance from sin and its consequences, and admission to eternal bliss.”[5] No, when Jesus says, “he abides with you, and he will be in you”, Jesus seems to be talking about a journey – not a single point in some yet to be determined future. I need to say very clearly that I am not saying there is no afterlife. What I am saying is that I can know with certainty very little about that after life and I struggle to accept a notion of God that says my time on this earth – no matter how short or how long – is simply a time of waiting for “real life.” No, I am clear that this life, the one you and I are living right here and right now, is “real life” – or at least a portion thereof - and it is a life that is imbued with meaning and purpose by the God in whom “we live and move and have our being.”[6] What does this mean? In the first place, it means that salvation is not just an event that happens on some last day, presumably after we have died. Acts of God’s saving grace can and do happen in the here and now. Our salvation is a journey and we are called to be active participants in that journey.

Marcus Borg in The God We Never Knew writes about several ways people have experienced God in the here and now. The first category of experiencing God in the here and now is what Borg calls “ecstatic experiences.” These include visions, mystical experiences, near-death experiences, and dreams. In each of these, the person reports that the experience is

“’more’ than the visible world of our ordinary consciousness. . . the experiences have a noetic quality to them – that is, people who have them consistently say that they involve knowing (and not simply a feeling). They involve a vivid experiential sense of seeing or encountering or becoming aware of another layer or kind of reality.”[7]

Biblical examples of such experiences include Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush, the many visions recorded by the prophets.[8] But such ecstatic experiences are not limited to Biblical times and, indeed, many persons – 50% of Americans according to one study – report having had at least one ecstatic experience in which they became more aware of “an alternate reality, the numinous, the sacred, a world of spirit.”[9]

Another category of experiencing God in the here and now – and one which you hear me speak of more frequently – is a simple awareness of God’s presence or, as Borg calls it, “the dailiness of God:”[10] A young child exchanging a freshly picked marigold for the communion host at the altar rail – demonstrating in that small gesture more about her understanding of thankfulness and self-offering at the Eucharist than most adults – including those with seminary training - can ever understand or a sense of clarity about an important decision that seems unmistakably to have come directly from God.

While the first type of experience – the ecstatic – may seem to be beyond the reach of many of us (though I suspect we might be surprised how openness to these experiences can, in and of itself, be a precursor to having such an experience), this second type of experience – simple awareness of the dailiness of God - is available to us all. One of the ways we do this is through our weekly worship together. At the very least, the liturgy is designed to enable us to experience the presence of the living God through word, through sacrament, through song, through community – through the engagement of our senses. At its best, the weekly liturgy shared in community helps us to open our hearts and our minds to God’s presence throughout the week. Seen in this way, our time together is like a practice session for living in the world and living in God at one and the same time.

But for most of us, once a week practice is just not going to cut it. Unlike the ancient Israelites whose very culture was steeped in the belief that God was active at all times and in all instances, making it impossible to think of God not acting through the course of history, we have access to a world of many cultures, steeped in religious pluralism, and in a country that continues to struggle with its own identity as it pertains to the separation of church and state. For these reasons, we have to be deliberate in our efforts to experience God at work in our lives; we need to strip off the cultural baggage of eyes that do not see, ears that do not hear, and minds that do not understand.[11]

There is a website based in the UK called Rejesus which offers a version of daily prayer that provides an interactive approach to the daily office. I have begun incorporating some of its liturgy into the noonday prayer service offered at The Branches on Wednesdays.[12] One aspect of the liturgy which I particularly like is the beginning prayer which invites us to focus our thoughts and attention on God and our life by asking us to think about our situation or mood through a series of questions. Questions like “What can you be thankful for?” And “What dreams and hopes can you share with Jesus?” encourage us to think intentionally about God’s presence in all aspects of our daily life. And, when exercises like this are practiced regularly, they can open our hearts to an experience of God – to a journey with God - in the here and the now wherever “here” is and whenever “now” is. Where is God in your journey?

[1] Marcus J. Borg, The God We Never Knew: Beyond Dogmatic Religion to a More Authentic Contemporary Faith, (San Francisco: Harper, 1997), 32-3.

[2] Borg, 73-75.

[3] Borg, 33, 46.

[4] John 14:17b, 20.

[5] In Borg, 156.

[6][6] Acts 17: 27-28.

[7] Borg, 37-8.

[8] Borg, 38.

[9] Borg, 38, 52 (note 23).

[10] Borg, 39.

[11] Mark 8:18.

[12] Rejesus accessed online on April 22, 2008.


Horton and Stephen

I've often read this story of Stephen and "assumed" that the reader is supposed to identify with Stephen. . .but I was struck this week by the possibility that we are not the Stephens of the story but rather, those who would throw the first stones.

On Sunday, I am going to try to make a connection between Horton's ability to hear the Who's down in Who-ville and Stephen's ability (openness) to seeing the hand of God at work. Both Horton and Stephen share what they have - not the gift of sight or the gift of hearing, but the object to which those gifts point - the glory of God (well, the glory of the Who's - a bit of a stretch here) - even while they are being persecuted in the hopes that the others' eyes and ears will be open to the greater truth they wish to reveal. Horton Hears a Who provides us with an alternate ending to the stoning of Stephen. Not because we can change history but because we can change ourselves.

Now, as an aside --- the 1970 MGM cartoon version of Horton Hears a Who is much better (IMHO) than the current cinematic version with the voices of Jim Carey et. al. Better quality, truer to the text, and a lot less expensive (available at most public libraries as opposed to the $24.50 we spent for 2 of us to see Horton, eat popcorn and share a soda).


Without Notes

More and more, I have been preaching without notes (something I was absolutely 100% certain - and I said so many times in seminary - that I would never do). Turns out (a) I enjoy it and (b) my parishioners seem to prefer it. Huh! Go figure! I guess John A. Dally was right. . . not a surprise (his being right).

Part of what has allowed me to risk being vulnerable in this way is the love I have for my congregation and the joy I have in being with them on Sunday mornings. I suspect when/if I go to another congregation, I'll be back to a text - at least for a while. I also know that there will be occasions when I'll want that text in front of me (sometimes my thinking just gets too convoluted for even me to keep it organized in my head!).

Anyhow, that leaves me pondering. . . what do I do with my blog? Suggestions anyone?


Going Out with Indescribable and Glorious Joy!

Sermon Preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church
Easter 2A (March 30, 2008)

Diana Butler Bass, a Senior Fellow at the Cathedral College of the Washington National Cathedral in DC published a book in 2004 called The Practicing Congregation: Imagining a New Old Church. In it, Butler Bass builds on the work of Brooks Holifield and provides a description, in broad strokes, of the history of American congregations from 1607 to the present. So, for example, from 1607-1789 the American religions landscape and the American civic landscape were largely synonymous. One entered the church by virtue of being born. In other words, you were, by birth, both a citizen of the town and a member of the town-square church. After the Revolutionary War, the landscape changed a bit as the church became viewed as a Voluntary Association – multiple denominational churches competed for members by focusing on personal salvation and personal piety. In the late 19th century, at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the church was viewed largely as a civic organization with the parish hall replacing the sanctuary as the focal point for the gathered community. These “social congregations” as they are dubbed by Holifield and Butler Bass, remained the norm until the post-World War II period when churches began to market their programs and worship services to specific groups of individuals. This is the period in which the non-denominational and mega-churches began to emerge and to flourish. It is also the first time that religious persons – in large numbers –could meaningfully be described as “shopping for a church” as they left the denomination of their birth in search of a better fit for their interests or needs. Congregations of this period are referred to as “participatory congregations.”

Holifield’s description of congregations stops here, but Butler Bass contends that today’s church – the church which has been emerging since the 1990s - is entering a new age –an age that is and will continue to be shaped by the postmodern replacement of the enlightenment’s notion of verifiable truths with an embrace of diversity, ambiguity, and contradiction. Unfortunately, those churches, writes Butler Bass, that “continue to be controlled by the worldviews of either social or participatory churchgoing . . . will experience conflict and decline” because the worldviews which support these structures “are passing and becoming increasingly less culturally tenable.”[1]

I wanted to quote just a bit of today’s reading from I Peter here, but I have to confess, I simply couldn’t find a piece to leave out. This is amazing stuff:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith - being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire – may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”[2]

Does this sound like a social club? Like an invitation to join what Butler Bass refers to as “the religious equivalent of Rotary or the Chamber of Commerce”? Hardly! This is an invitation to experience new birth – a new birth “into a living hope, an inheritance, that is imperishable, undefiled and unfading.”[3] And isn’t that what our celebration of Easter is all about? It is not about celebrating our acceptance into a club whose only requirements for membership are an ability to pledge 10% of our income and a willingness to show up on Sunday mornings for an hour of worship that requires little from us beyond an occasional amen and a nod in the middle of the pastor’s sermon to make him or her think you are listening! Indescribable and glorious Easter joy begs for intentional participation and authentic practice.

In today’s gospel we hear that the disciples have locked the door for fear of the Jews. And yet, despite this locked door, Jesus enters the room, stands with his disciples, and greets them: “Peace be with you.” Though the disciples wanted to protect themselves – to close their doors against those outside – Jesus came in, passing through the locked door, breaking down the physical boundary. Throughout his life, Jesus demonstrated his willingness to break through boundaries – boundaries of purity and of righteousness, boundaries of gender roles and status – and now, even after his resurrection, Jesus continues to demonstrate the importance of breaking through boundaries – this time, by passing through a locked door.

When being religious means little more than going to church on Sundays, we have become like those early disciples. We have locked the doors of our faith. The world continues to change outside the doors – but we are afraid to go out because we are no longer confident that our religious claims are relevant outside these four walls. Or maybe we are afraid to go out because we fear that doing so will somehow change what we do on this side of the door. But the bottom line is this. Jesus came to go out into the world. After greeting the disciples, he tells them, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” He sends them out – out of the locked room, out into the world filled with their fears. In the same way, Jesus calls us out. We are a sent people. We are called to do more than provide the best worship experiences inside these doors. We are called to do more than provide the best Sunday School for our children inside these doors. And we are called to do more than invite people into our building to participate in our programs. No! We are called to move outside of these walls – to march out these doors – and engage the community and the world that exist just on the other side.

People in our community are asking questions, seeking deep meaning; but the church has become only one of the myriad places they go in search of the answers. More and more people tell us they are “spiritual not religious” – a clear sign that something the church is offering is no longer relevant to the lives of many people. For these persons, self-help books, the latest health trends, or another mocha latte offer a quick spiritual fix. But, what these quick fixes do not offer – and those of us inside the doors of the church know this to be true – is the permanence and depth of the Gospel. What these quick fixes cannot do is provide new birth into a living hope, into an inheritance, that is imperishable, undefiled and unfading.

You and I have already received the promise of new birth, the promise of the Gospel. But for those outside who are seeking, those who are out there asking questions, who will bring them within sight of this Good News? This is a question for us all. Who will bring them within sight of this Good News? Let us open wide the doors of this church and accept Christ’s invitation to go outside rejoicing with an indescribable and glorious joy!

[1] Diana Butler Bass, The Practicing Congregation: Imagining A New Old Church, (Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 2004), pp. 15-20.
[2] I Peter 1:3-9.
[3] Butler Bass, pp. 61-2.


Goodbye Guilt, Goodbye Fear, Good Riddance

Sermon Preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, March 22nd and St. Barnabas-by-the-Bay Episcopal Church, March 23rd (Easter Vigil and the Sunday of the Resurrection)

“To see Christ is to see God and all of humanity. This mystery has evoked in me a burning desire to see the face of Jesus.” These words of Henri Nouwen begin a chapter on his experience of Andrew Rublev’s icon of Christ – an icon which Nouwen says has brought him “closer than any work of art to ‘seeing Christ.’” But, even for all the time he has spent looking at this icon, he admits, it will never be enough, because, “in the presence of this holy face I am still blind.”[1]
The Gospel reading for Easter morning – no matter which gospel we hear it from – always tells of the women’s first encounter with the risen Christ. Each gospel differs slightly in the details, but Matthew’s gospel takes the cake for the being the most sensational.

“And suddenly, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.”[2]

If all three gospels were filmed, Matthew’s would no doubt receive the award for the best special effects.

Playing favorites is probably poor form and yet, I really do prefer Matthew’s account – and not just for the special effects! It just seems that Matthew gets the drama right. In the first place, in light of the earthquake and the unexpected appearance of an angel, the guards are so afraid they begin to shake and then pass out cold. The women are also afraid though they manage to keep their heads about them. Fear and trembling in the face of an earthquake and an angel are not particularly surprising – you and I would likely react similarly (I suspect I’d be out cold with the guards!). But then, as the story continues, the angel of the Lord tells the women that their Master, their friend, is not dead – “'He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’”[3] “So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.”[4]

In Frederick Neidner’s reflection on this passage in The Christian Century he asks us to consider how we might react if a recently deceased loved one were to appear before us. I imagined my grandmother and grandfather once again sitting in their recliners in their condo in Vero Beach, Grandpa repeating something they had both just heard on the television and Grandma responding, as if on cue, “how ‘bout that?” And, if I were there to witness this exchange once again, I imagine I’d be overjoyed. But Neidner’s reflection called me up short because he continued,

“When we die, most of our sins die with us. When someone else dies, so do the wrongs held in secret between us. Should a loved one return from the grave, memories of our failings as parents, spouses, and other shameful specters would once again walk the earth.”[5]

Perhaps if my grandparents returned they would instead remind me of the times that I didn’t call them, didn’t send them letters or cards, didn’t come to visit.

So this morning, we have an image of the guards outside the tomb of Jesus. Why were they there? What were they protecting? Perhaps they were worried about the possibility of body-snatchers - thieves who would take the body away in the night and claim that a miraculous resurrection had occurred. Or, perhaps, as Niedner suggests, they were instead guarding against the possibility that he would, in fact, rise from the dead and stand before them in judgement – or worse, seeking revenge. For the guards taunted and mocked Jesus in his final hours, the guards cast lots for his clothes – if Jesus truly were to rise from the dead, they would have a lot to account for. And what of the disciples? Those not-so-faithful followers of Jesus who in his final days and hours were unable to stay awake with him in the garden, who betrayed him, denied him, and ultimately locked themselves in a room out of fear? They too might have reason to fear Jesus’ return.

And here is the great miracle of that Easter morning: suddenly the risen Jesus meets the women and says, “Greetings! . . . Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”[6] He calls them “brothers.” He does not call them traitors. He does not call them cowards. He does not call them liars nor does he accuse them of abandoning him in his hour of need. No, he calls them “brothers.” All of their sins have been buried in the grave. Jesus returns, but their sins do not. And the promise of the resurrection for you and for me? Brothers and sisters, all of our sins – those things we have done and those things we have left undone – all of it - buried in the tomb forever.

Growing up in the Presbyterian Church in Wausau, Wisconsin, several of us would gather each year at sunrise on Easter morning on the top of Rib Mountain. Nick Smith would play his guitar and we would all sing this Avery and Marsh song,

Ev’ry morning is Easter morning from now on.
Ev’ry day’s a resurrection day, the past is over and gone.
Goodbye guilt, goodbye fear; good riddance!
Hello, Lord! Hello, sun!
I am one of the Easter people. My new life has begun!

Today, I imagine the two Mary’s as Jesus greets them. Their fear evaporates because now they see the face of Christ. Returning finally to the Rublev’s icon of Christ, Henri Nouwen writes,

“It seems as if Jesus comes down from his throne, touches our shoulders and invites us to stand up and look at him. His handsome, open face evokes love, not fear. He is Emmanuel, God-with-us. . . . We still feel awe, but it is an awe enriched by joy, the same joy that filled the disciples when they recognized their risen Lord.”[7]

“Awe enriched by joy” – fear evaporates, we stand up, and we see a face of compassion, of forgiveness, and of love. And, from now on, every day is a resurrection day, the past is over and gone.

[1] Henri Nouwen, “The Icon of the Savior of Zvenigorod: Seeing Christ,” Behold the Beauty of the LORD: Praying with Icons (Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1987), 45,46.
[2] Matthew 28:2-4.
[3] Matthew 28:8a.
[4] Matthew 28:8b.
[5] Frederick Niedner, “Living by the Word,” The Christian Century (Vol. 125(5): March 11, 2008), 21.
[6] Matthew 28:9-10.
[7] Nouwen, 52.