Feasting on Our Name

Did I ever tell you that Mrs. McCave
Had twenty-three sons and she named them all Dave?

Well, she did. And that wasn't a smart thing to do.
You see, when she wants one and calls out, "Yoo-Hoo!
Come into the house, Dave!" she doesn't get ONE.
All twenty-three Daves of hers come on the run!

This makes things quite difficult at the McCaves'
As you can imagine, with so many Daves.
And often she wishes that, when they were born,
She had named one of them Bodkin Van Horn
And one of them Hoos-Foos. And one of them Snimm.
And one of them Hot-Shot. And one Sunny Jim.
And one of them Shadrack. And one of them Blinkey.
And one of them Stuffy. And one of them Stinkey.
Another one Putt-Putt. Another one Moon Face.
Another one Marvin O'Gravel Balloon Face.
And one of them Ziggy. And one Soggy Muff.
One Buffalo Bill. And one Biffalo Buff.
And one of them Sneepy. And one Weepy Weed.
And one Paris Garters. And one Harris Tweed.
And one of them Sir Michael Carmichael Zutt
And one of them Oliver Boliver Butt
And one of them Zanzibar Buck-Buck McFate...
But she didn't do it. And now it's too late.[1]

Dr. Seuss wrote this story and it has always been a favorite of mine – especially on the Feast of the Holy Name which is properly celebrated on the 1st of January - but, sadly most of us will be watching The Rose Bowl that day and will, therefore, miss the opportunity to celebrate this other great victory.

Each of us is given a name – a unique name chosen for us by parents. Some of our names embarrass us because they seem too big for us ("Sir Henry Michael Carmichael, IX" - my apologies to anyone with this name (a quick Google search revealed no matches)), too small for us ("Dot" - a favorite nickname of a handful of my parishioners (and, by the way, it seems to suit them just fine)), or perhaps just a little bit out-of-date ("Bertha" - my great-grandmother's name). But, regardless of the origin or how we feel about it, each of us is given a name.

Dr. Ysaye Barnwell is a singer and composer and also a member of my favorite a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey In The Rock. One of her compositions seemed particularly right for this occasion. It is called "We Are."

For each child that's born
a morning star rises
and sings to the universe
who we are.

We are our grandmothers' prayers.
We are our grandfathers' dreamings.
We are the breath of our ancestors.
We are the spirit of God.[2]

A morning star sings to the universe who we are. God has given each of us a name. And that name, is Child of God. And so on this day when we celebrate the holy name of Jesus, we celebrate also our own adoption as children of God.

[1] “Too Many Daves,” Dr. Seuss – One Cool Cat section of The Savage Garden website (author: David B. Aeschliman) available here (accessed on December 29, 2009).
[2] “We Are,” Lessons (1993). Lyrics obtained online on December 29, 2009.


Messiah-ship without Easy Answers

Sermon Preached at the Celebration of Ministry at
St. John the Evangelist - New Brunswick, New Jersey
Mark 10:35-45     For an audio file of this sermon, click here.

First of all, let me just say what a great privilege and honor it is to have been invited to preach at the installation of my good friend and former Seabury classmate’s installation. Fr. Matthew and I spent 2 years together at Seabury Western in Evanston, Illinois and, perhaps most significantly, 2 weeks during that time on a 10 day trip to Omaha, Nebraska observing the “real world” of “real ministry” being done in “real time.” Looking back on those 2 years – and specifically on those 2 weeks – I must admit “watching the real world being played out by others” was a lot easier than “living” in the real world as one of the participants. But, I must quickly add, being one of the participants has been much more fulfilling – if not more exhausting.

I refer to that time in Nebraska because it was part of a class Fr. Matthew and I took on leadership in the church in the 21st century. Required reading for the course included Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership by Howard Gardner; Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading and Leadership without Easy Answers - two books by Ronald Heifetz; and Eugene Peterson’s book, Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness. Leadership on the line, leadership without easy answers, staying alive through the dangers, unpredictability – truly, it is amazing that any of us wanted to be ordained after that class! And yet, despite the scary titles, here we both are.

The books for this class were not your typical “how-to” manuals on leadership. They included no top ten lists of characteristics that make up a good leader, no presentation of the three simple steps to guarantee the future growth and success of your church. Instead, they were filled with stories. I cannot speak for Fr. Matthew, but for me there was some level of frustration in that class on leadership. I wanted the “how-to” manual – I was sure there was some “expert” I could emulate in order to ensure my future congregation’s success – or, at the very least, some steps I could take to ensure that my congregation – whoever they might be - would find me likable despite my human failings! Instead, there were stories. Stories of leaders like Margaret Mead and Pope John XXIII, stories of J. Robert Oppenheimer and Martin Luther King, Jr. and we were left to figure it all out.

That frustration in seminary has proven to be one of the most lasting gifts I received. Because, my friends, our context is always changing. The people are always changing – individuals change and grow, some move away, others die, still others are born. Members rotate off of vestries, new members climb on board. The mission field is always changing – there was a time when “everyone went to church on Sunday morning” – or at least it seemed that way; today’s churches go head-to-head with Starbucks, the New York Times Crossword puzzle, kids soccer matches, a day at the beach, and more. The economy today is different than it was even two years ago. Unemployment rates fluctuate, house values fluctuate, and our population is much more transient than ever before. Many of us communicate by e-mail, text messages, Facebook and MySpace updates, and tweets. The average attention span for children is approximately 1 minute per year of age up to a maximum of around 20 minutes for adults. For those who are used to “concentrating” on instant media, attention spans may be as short as 15 seconds. In other words, some of you are no longer listening to a word I’m saying – are you with me? The point is, with all the change going on around us, having a list of leadership skills or a list of guaranteed steps to success is going to leave us unprepared as soon as the context for which that list was prepared has changed.

And so we have stories - stories of individuals who have led governments, businesses, families, churches, baseball teams; stories of persons who have made a difference in the lives of others; stories of those who have succeeded and stories of those who have failed. No lists of easy answers, no road maps to follow; just stories. Ronald Heifetz, the founder of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, shares this story about his time as a student in the Master Class of Gregor Piatigorsky, the great Russian cellist. He writes:

“We cellists would play a phrase of Brahms or Shostakovich, and Piatigorsky would launch into a story that seemed at first to come from nowhere with no apparent relevance to what we were doing. In time, he would often land hawklike on his subject. But sometimes the challenge of finding the connection was ours. If we looked hard, we could usually discern his intent, or find our own lesson beyond his intent. We had to take responsibility for our learning.”[i]
In today’s gospel reading, James and John ask Jesus “to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And Jesus responds, “What is it you want me to do for you?” I imagine the two – James and John – a bit sheepishly, but quickly, before they lose their nerve, saying, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Name us as your Vice President and Secretary of State. We want to be your “go to” guys. We want to be successful. We want others to look up to us. We want others to see how important we are. We want your importance to rub off on us. And before we start to shake our heads or roll our eyes - mocking them for their foolishness – perhaps, it would be more honest, if we admitted that we too might have asked for the same. Or, at the very least, admitted to being like the other disciples who became angry that they didn’t think to ask it first.

Mark’s gospel tells a story – a carefully crafted drama - that places this incident in a specific context. This drama begins at the end of chapter 8 with the healing of a blind man at Bethsaida. Immediately following this healing, Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” He follows this question with another, “. . . who do you say that I am?” And Peter, often the spokesperson among the twelve, responds, “You are the Messiah.” What follows then are a series of events and conversations in which Jesus explains what his Messiah-ship is about. In fact, Mark records three occasions between that healing in Bethsaida and the passage we heard this afternoon, in which Jesus tells the disciples that the Messiah, the Son of Man, must suffer, must be rejected, must be treated with contempt, must be betrayed, and killed before he will in three days time, rise again.

In the two verses which precede the story of James and John making their request, Jesus and the disciples are on the road leading to Jerusalem and Jesus says, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.” And what happens next? “James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”

Three times Jesus speaks to them plainly about contempt, rejection, betrayal and death. And three times, Jesus’ disciples miss the boat; three times they do not hear what he has to say. Because, my brothers and sisters in Christ, those disciples - James, John, Peter, and the others - those disciples had already read the manual that included the keys to effective leadership in the early first century. They knew the characteristics of a “good” Messiah. They knew them because they lived under the rule of the Roman Empire and the head of the Roman Empire is the Caesar and the Caesar – is also referred to as “Divine, Son of God, God from God, Lord, Savior of the World, Redeemer, and Liberator.”[ii] The Roman Empire’s Caesar, by the way he lived his life, provided the model of leadership that the disciples knew and expected from Jesus, the Son of God in their midst:
  • the Caesar had authority over Rome’s civil government
  • the Caesar had authority over the Roman army
  • the Caesar had the authority to declare war, to ratify treaties, to negotiate with foreign leaders and
  • the Caesar had authority over the religious institutions
In short, the Caesar was a God and who wouldn’t want to sit at his right hand? According to the leadership manual of the time – the manual the disciples knew - if Jesus was truly the Messiah, he would have been preparing to “lord it over” the Herodian king in charge of Galilee and he would have been preparing to play the “tyrant over” the Roman prefect who controlled Jerusalem and Judea. He may even have been preparing to wage war against Rome to liberate – to ransom – the lives of his people from the tyranny of the Roman Emperor. And if this is the story you have known all of your life, it would be very difficult to hear – let alone understand – a counter-story like the one being offered by Jesus. No wonder the disciples kept getting it wrong.
The disciples were a bit like Ronald Heifetz in those early days learning to play the cello. The disciples, attempted to follow Jesus, to live the life he would have them live when, in the midst of their travels, Jesus would launch into a story or a teaching that, to the disciples ears, seemed at first to come from nowhere with no apparent relevance to what they were doing. From time to time, Jesus might land hawklike on his subject. But most of the time, the disciples struggled to find the connection. If they looked hard, they could sometimes discern his intent. But the prevailing story of the time was a story of the virtue of power – a power as powerful as the Rome itself, an empire that spanned from modern day “England to Africa and from Syria to Spain,” an empire in which “one in every four people on earth lived and died under Roman law.”[iii]

This afternoon, we come together to celebrate new ministries here at St. John’s in New Brunswick - a new ministry for Fr. Matthew and a new ministry for each of you. All of you come to this time with expectations and hopes, with fears and perhaps some anxieties; all of you come with stories of leadership – leadership that has worked and leadership that has failed. These stories have come from the context of your lives. Perhaps some of your stories come from the corporate arena, other stories come from around the kitchen table, some of your stories come from committee meetings at church – here at St. John’s or at a congregation you have experienced in the past. Whenever we come together, our stories come together. We don’t tell these stories in words because these stories aren’t written down. Instead, we live these stories as we live our lives. We “embody” our stories.[iv] We are our stories. We bring our stories to life by the way we communicate with one another, by the decisions we make about the use of our resources, by the kind of hospitality we offer to stranger and to friend. Everything we do in life is an embodiment of the stories we have learned – whether they have worked well for us or not!

And today’s gospel offers us a choice – as it offered the disciples a choice. We can continue to live our lives by the cultural values of our time or we can take up the story of Jesus as our own. Kenneth Carder, a professor at Duke Divinity School, writes:
“Everybody wants to be somebody. Since the dawn of history, human beings have been trying to move up the scale of importance. The clincher used by the serpent to tempt Adam and Eve was ‘when you eat of [the tree of good and evil], your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ (Gen. 3:5). Henri Nouwen says that ever since then, we have been tempted to replace love with power. . . power over love, control over the cross.”[v]
So at this turning point in your congregation’s life together, as you bring your stories together and embark upon new ministries together, I invite you to consider which stories you will embody, which stories you will rely on to carry you into the future.

Today’s gospel is clear. The story of Jesus is one of self-emptying love, a love so powerful that it lets go of all power and takes on justice, a love so ambitious that it lets go of all ambition and takes on generosity, and a love so strong that it lets go of all strength to take on joy. This afternoon, we come together to celebrate the new ministry of Fr. Matthew and a new ministry for each of you at St. John’s. Each of you comes to this time and this place with expectations and hopes, with fears and anxieties and each of you comes with stories. We don’t tell these stories with words; instead, we live these stories as we live our lives. What will be your story? Which story will you embody? What story will you show to the world as you witness to the self-emptying love of Christ?
If we look hard, we can usually discern Christ’s intent . . . but we have to take responsibility for our learning.

[i] Ronald A. Heifetz, Leadership without Easy Answers (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994), 6.
[ii] John Dominic Crossan (from Victory and Peace or Justice and Peace, published by Living the Questions).
[iii] “The Roman Empire,” PBS (2006), website accessed on October 23, 2009.
[iv] For the notion of embodied stories, see Howard Gardner, Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership (New York: Basic Books, 1995), 9.
[v] Kenneth L. Carder, in Synthesis for Sunday, October 18, 2009.


Reinventing Episcopal Church Women

Speech delivered to Atlantic District ECW (Diocese of New Jersey), September 8, 2009

The Mission statement for the 2006 – 2009 Episcopal Church Women National Board is “centered in congregations, the Episcopal Church Women (ECW) empowers women to do Christ’s ministry in the world.” Since 1871, women of the Episcopal Church have been organizing what were once known as Women’s Auxiliaries and later became local chapters of Episcopal Church Women. From its very beginnings, the ECW has been noted for their fundraising – both for their local congregations and also for the greater community and the world through the formation of the United Thank Offering.

For many decades, the Women’s Auxiliary or ECW were the only way in which women could readily participate in “real mission” and “real ministry” within the church. However, in the mid-to late-60s women began to be ordained as deacons (although they were not officially recognized by the national church as deacons until 1970). Then, in 1976, the church officially began to recognize the ordination of women to the priesthood – including the “so-called” irregular ordinations of 11 women in Philadelphia and others in Palo Alto. It would be another 13 years until Barbara Harris was elected as the first female bishop in 1989. As I was verifying these dates, I found this interesting tidbit:

“The General Convention reaffirmed in 1994 that both men and women may enter into the ordination process, but also recognized that there is value to the theological position of those who oppose women's ordination. It was not until 1997 that the GC declared that ‘the ordination, licensing and deployment of women are mandatory.’”

1997! - fully 21 years after the national church allowed for women’s ordination to the priesthood! Our church can be painfully slow sometimes, can’t it?! And, of course, we all can remember just 3 years ago when Katharine Jefferts Schori became the first woman to serve as Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church and the only national leader of a church in the Anglican Communion who is a woman. At the time her election was announced I was serving as curate at Church of the Transfiguration in Palos Park, Illinois. And the Rector, Fr. Lane Hensley and I, put up a huge banner declaring, “It’s a girl!” decorated it with pink and white balloons and posed for a picture that we hoped would be picked up by the local media. It was not. But it didn’t matter because the glass ceiling for women seeking ordination had finally been shattered – at least in the United States.

But what does all of this have to do with the ECW? I think that as soon as other alternatives to ministry became available to women – whether that was through ordination, or through positions in local congregations as wardens and vestry members, the ECW was no longer the only work for women in the church. For a while, the impact was not felt, but I suspect most of your congregations have ECW groups that are facing one or more of the following struggles:

  • Difficulty finding enough volunteers to staff all of the programs and projects you’ve always run
  • Difficulty recruiting new members and/or young members of your congregations to see the value of being an active participant in ECW
  • Difficulty raising the money you once raised through bake sales, church bazaars, and dinners
  • Difficulty keeping your chin up and your energy and enthusiasm to keep on going on

And here is the bad news: continuing to do the same thing the same way year after year after year when the context is no longer the same will only result in more of the same difficulties, frustrations, and disappointments. But there is good news as well. That good news can be found in the words of the Mission Statement for 2006 – 2009: “Centered in congregations, the Episcopal Church Women (ECW) empowers women to do Christ’s ministry in the world.” Your mission has not changed – but the context has. Women and girls today have so many opportunities, so many choices and so few Christian role models to guide them.

Our baptismal covenant calls us to “continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?” How does your local ECW live out this call? Do you incorporate Bible study and prayer into your regular meetings or does it easily get pushed aside so that you can have a shorter meeting focused on the important matters of the next fund raising event? Do you invite a clergy person to your meetings occasionally to celebrate the Eucharist with you? Have you shared your spiritual journeys with one another – either formally or informally?

Our baptismal covenant calls us to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” Does your local ECW actively seek out the “others” in your congregation – let alone in your neighborhood? When you are planning your next event, do you have a phone list of church women that you divide among your members to ensure that all women are personally invited to participate or do you just assume that they’ll read the announcement in the church bulletin or newsletter or hear your announcement in church and know that you actually mean them?

Our baptismal covenant calls us to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” What injustices do you see in your local community or county? What can your ECW do to get involved? How can you be a voice of justice and peace?

Women and girls today desperately need role models. Having a female presiding bishop is an amazing thing and for those girls who even know what that means, it may be inspirational. But, for the most part, you are the women that people know. You are the women that other girls and women see in the supermarkets, in the workplace, at school board meetings, at the library, at coffee shops, and in the pews at church. You have an incredible and an amazing opportunity to be the hope in some young girl or woman’s future. You have the ability to be an inspiration, to make a difference . . . because you are empowered to do Christ’s ministry in the world. The Episcopal Church Women “centered in congregations. . . empowers women – each and every one of us – to do Christ’s ministry in the world.”

There are ECWs that are thriving, that are growing, and that continue to make a tremendous difference in the lives of women and girls. They are groups of women who realize that the next church dinner can be a parish-wide event because they can no longer run it alone – nor do they need to run it alone. They are groups of women who realize that with so many options available to young girls and young women, that unless the ECW is doing and offering something that is very different and very powerful in their lives, these girls and women will seek opportunities elsewhere. ECWs are thriving when they are connected to the emotional hurts and hopes of their communities and are working together to find new ways to heal the hurts and celebrate and encourage the hopes. There are, for example, ECWs that actively lobby their representatives at the local, state and national level to ensure that gun control laws keep guns out of the hands of school age children; there are ECWs that become actively engaged in community drug resistance and education campaigns; there are ECWs that sponsor local food pantries not only with monetary donations, but with their time and energy. There are as many ways for ECWs to be thriving and relevant communities of faith for young girls and women today as there are needs in our local communities.

You are those ECWs, you are those women, and I am confident that with God’s help you can continue to be the strong, thriving organization you have been since 1871 when the Emery sisters formed the first Women’s Auxiliary. The Episcopal Church Women are “centered in congregations and are empowered to do Christ’s ministry in the world.”


Sunday is the Beginning

Sermon Preached on Sunday, May 24, 2009 at
St. Barnabas by the Bay Episcopal Church (Villas, NJ)
Easter 7B (John 17:6-19)

In this morning’s gospel, we are given the unique opportunity to eavesdrop on a most intimate prayer – Jesus’ prayer on the night of the last supper. In this prayer, Jesus stands in a between-time place – preparing to depart from the world and, at the same time, preparing to return to the Father who sent him. And as we listen to his words, we learn something about his hopes and expectations for those who will continue to carry the message in his name.
“They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”[1]

Jesus prays for his followers and he sends his followers. The Greek word for those who are sent is “apostle” and so this prayer is, in essence, Jesus’ prayer for the apostles – for the first twelve and, through them, to each and every one of us who proclaim the name of Jesus as Lord, to each and every one of us who are sent by God to proclaim the message of salvation to the world.

John’s gospel was written sometime between 70 and 100 – some 40 to 70 years after the death of Jesus. And so the words of Jesus’ prayer give us some insight into the gospel writer’s concerns for this early Christian community. The so-called Johannine community, for whom the gospel is written, knows something of what happens to those who are sent out – Stephen was martyred in the year 34 or 35. James, the son of Zebedee, was murdered just 10 years later and 20 years after that – around the year 67 – both Peter and Paul are martyred. So, in the late 1st century, this Christian community is staying at home! And can you blame them? . . . It’s a mad world out there! But the gospel writer reminds them, through the words of Jesus’ prayer, that the mad world is, in fact, the world into which they are sent. Jesus knows very well the perils of the world - “the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world. . .” but, nonetheless, he prays, “I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.”[2] John’s gospel reminds the community that staying in the comfort of one’s home is not living an apostolic life; it is not living life as a faithful follower of Christ.

New Christians or seekers sometimes ask, “How do I read the Bible”? (This question usually comes after they’ve already started at the beginning of Genesis and made it up to the first long genealogy and thought, “e-gad, are you kidding me? I can’t read this whole book!”). I almost always suggest the Gospel of John. When long-time Christians ask the same question, I send them to the same place because, as Leon Morris says in the introduction to his commentary on John,

“John is like a pool, in which a child may wade and an elephant may swim. It is most simple and profound; it is for the beginner in the faith and for the mature Christian. Its appeal is immediate and never-failing.”[3]

But there is another reason to go first to John’s gospel. And that is because of our own tendency to be comfortable Christians, stay at home Christians, or, as David Zersen, former President of Concordia University in Austin, Texas describes us - “couch-potato do-gooders!”[4] Now our reason for being stay at home Christians is not fear of persecution – though there are many countries in the world today where the risk of religious persecution remains a very real threat.[5] Many of us come to church to escape from the harshness – the hardness – of the world. We long for a place where we can forget about the job we have lost, a place where we can seek healing for the cancer recently diagnosed, a place where the abusive and broken centers of our hearts, our homes, our communities, and our world can be set aside for a time, can be forgotten as we lift our voices in song and prayer – extolling the wonder and majesty of our God. And somewhere along the line, we have been taught or have come to believe that the time we spend in church – seeking comfort and solace– that that one or two hours a week is what it means to be a Christian and we forget that being a Christian means being an apostle – being a sent one – one who is sent out into the world – into the heart of the brokenness to share the Christian hope with the world.

Eucharistic Prayer C expressly prays that we not forget our place in the world as Christians:

“Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal. Let the grace of this Holy Communion make us one body, one spirit in Christ, that we may worthily serve the world in his name.”[6]

. . . strength and renewal that we may serve the world in Christ’s name. We gather for worship so that we might be strengthened and renewed for our ongoing mission in the world.

Sunday morning is not the end of our commitment as Christians; it is the beginning! We gather for worship so that we might be sent out once again. We hear this message also in our post-communion prayer: “And now Father, send us out to do the work you have given us to do, to love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.”[7] And, my friends, there are so many ways to love and to serve; so many ways to be active apostles in the 21st century – visiting one of our parishioners in their home or long term care facility, canvassing a neighborhood for donations for our food pantry, hosting guests at The Branches, cleaning up a section of the beach, volunteering at the thrift shop, calling friends you haven’t seen at church for a while, offering to pick up groceries for a neighbor. To quote David Zersen again,

“It would be good for our buns, and our whole body, if we found more active forms of stewardship . . . Many are the ways in which we can be ‘sent ones,’ apostles for the Lord, giving credence to fuller meaning for our Christian community.”[8]

Let this Sunday morning not be the end of our commitment as Christians; let it be just the beginning!

[1] John 17:16-18.
[2] John 17:14b, 15.
[3] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans (1985)), p. 3.
[4] David Zersen, in “That They May Be One,” Synthesis (May 24, 2009).
[5] For example, Christians in India live in fear of some of their more extreme Hindu neighbors and The Standard Report reports that Christians are serving prison sentences for their beliefs in more than 40 countries around the world (Dale Linder-Altman, “Religious Persecution in the 21st Century,” July 17, 2007 available online).
[6] Book of Common Prayer, p. 372.
[7] Book of Common Prayer, p. 366.
[8] Zersen, ibid.


At the Cross-Road

Sermon Preached at St. Barnabas (Villas, NJ)
March 8, 2009 - Lent 2B

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.[1]

I don’t read a lot of poetry, and yet, whenever it snows, this poem by Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken,” always comes to mind. And yes, I do know that the poem is actually about the woods in autumn! In any event, it’s hard to believe that just a few days ago, I was thinking of this poem as I walked my dog, Gabby, through the back yard and looked out through the snow-covered woods. And yet, there it is: one day the ground is covered with new-fallen snow, parents are pulling their children down the street on sleds, and the sound of shovels scraping walkways echoes up and down the street and seemingly, a moment later, the snow is gone, crocus can be seen bravely peeping out of the ground and yesterday, I even saw my first robin – the true harbinger of spring.

Sudden transitions often catch us off guard – boots, hat, scarf, and mittens on Tuesday; tennis shoes and a t-shirt on Saturday. I imagine Peter was quite caught of guard by his conversation with Jesus which we heard in this morning’s Gospel. To set the stage for what we heard read, we need to back up a few more verses in the gospel. Jesus begins the conversation by asking his disciples,

‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.”[2]

Why does he order them not to tell anyone? Because Peter has answered the question correctly – Jesus is the Messiah! In Matthew’s version of the story, Jesus responds to Peter saying, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!”[3] With or without the blessing of Jesus, Peter must have been feeling pretty good to have gotten the answer right. In the first place, the disciples are notorious for their repeated misunderstandings of Jesus’ intentions so to finally get one right – that’s got to feel pretty good. But, even more than that, if Jesus is the Messiah, the Lord, then this group of disciples is about to become pretty important. Why? Because in the 1st century, there was only one person who used the title “Lord” and that was Emperor Augustus. Coins which bore Augustus’ likeness were imprinted with the words “Savior of the world.”[4] So, if Jesus claims to be the Messiah, the Lord; surely he must be planning to overthrow the Roman Emperor and, if he is successful, wouldn’t you want to be one of his close friends – one of his disciples?

So imagine Peter’s shock when Jesus begins to talk about the “great suffering” he will undergo, when he talks about being “rejected by the elders, the chief priest, and the scribes,” when he talks about being killed. Of course, Peter rebukes him! Can’t you just hear him?

“Jesus, look, you just said you are the Messiah . . . the Lord, the next Emperor. Augustus didn’t become Emperor by being killed; so, let’s forget all this talk about suffering, rejection, and death. We need to raise an army – maybe some of those 4000 people you fed will join us – and let’s prepare for war!”

At which point, Jesus turns on him and shouts, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Peter’s head must be spinning. “Two roads diverged in a wood” and the disciples are at the crossroads. The Rev. Scott Hoezee, Director of the Center for Preaching Excellence at Calvin College, writes, “[the disciples] want to stick with Jesus and be his followers while at the same time insisting that Jesus follow them down the path they want to take.”[5] They want Jesus to follow them down the path of power, of status, of wealth. But Jesus has other plans – he insists on taking the road less travelled - the path to the cross. And what a crisis for these disciples! They want to follow Jesus, they want to stick with him, they want to remain his devoted disciples and they will do anything for him, go anywhere with him . . . except there.

And is that so difficult for us to understand? Don’t we all want to follow a charismatic leader who promises new hope and new life? Don’t we all want to stick close to just that sort of person? But when that person starts saying things like, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”[6] How many of us might start to back away . . . wait a minute, I thought this was about new hope, new life, salvation. What’s all this talk about cross-bearing and losing my life? I’m not so sure about this anymore.

My brothers and sisters, we stand with Peter at this crossroad every day. This cross-road – the road to the cross - is the Christian life. On Ash Wednesday, we were invited “to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”[7] Examining the crossroad, choosing the road to the cross, involves a great deal of prayer and self-examination. And, as we learn from Peter in today’s reading, it also can involve some costly mistakes. And so, as we began our worship this morning, I invite us to pray again,

"O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ your Son; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”[8]

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

[1] Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken,” The Norton Anthology of Poetry, 3rd edition, eds. Alexander W. Allison, Herbert Barrows, et. al. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1983), p. 913.
[2] Mark 8:27b-30.
[3] Matthew 16:17.
[4] “Introduction: Jesus through the Ages,” Saving Jesus: A Revolutionary Exploration of Jesus Christ for the 3rd Millennium (Living the Questions, 2006).
[5] Scott Hoezee, “This Week at the Center for Excellence in Preaching: March 8, 2009,” Calvin Theological Seminary.
[6] Mark 8:34b-35.
[7] Book of Common Prayer, p. 265.
[8] Collect for the Second Sunday in Lent, Book of Common Prayer, p. 218


God is still speaking . . .

Sermon Preached at St. Barnabas by the Bay Episcopal Church (Villas, NJ)
Epiphany 6B (2 Kings 5:1-14), February 15 2009

Bell rings.
A song.
A song.
Go Home.
{repeat next week}

I don’t know about you, but sometimes for me worship becomes a series of steps that are so well-rehearsed and well-known that I sometimes forget to participate. I mean, of course, I show up! I’m the priest after all. Someone has to hit the “Play” button of our Sunday morning worship. Somebody has to make it all start. But once it begins, I can step back a bit. I can even daydream a little. In the Episcopal Church, our liturgy – with all its beauty and with all its well-thought-out depth of meaning and balance between the Word and the Sacrament – with all of that – our liturgy can become deadly. Our liturgy – our songs, our prayers, our worship of God – can become empty. Our liturgy can become so comfortable (I know that’s hard to believe for those of you who are new to the church), but really, our liturgy can become so comfortable that we forget. We forget that we are here, not because of some obligation – or worse – not because we can think of nothing better to do on a Sunday morning; no, we are here because we want to worship the living God of our faith.

The living God of our faith – a God who can shape us, a God who wants to shape us, a God who shows up every Sunday morning at St. Barnabas and each week at churches, synagogues, and mosques around the world hoping and praying that this will be the week that we will remember why we are here, that this will be the week that we will remember that God is here, that this will be the week we remember that our worship is not about “getting it right” – hitting all the right notes, praying all the right words, wearing the right thing, being seen by the right people – in short, that this will be the week we remember that our worship is not about us. Our worship is not about us. It is about God. And week after week, God shows up to transform our lives, to show us that the God of our faith is indeed a living God. And week after week, we hit the “play” button of our Sunday morning worship and sit back expecting absolutely nothing.

In this morning’s Old Testament reading, we heard the story of Naaman – a great man! – the commander of the army of the king of Aram. Despite his greatness, we learn, however, that Naaman, has leprosy. At the urging of his wife, he travels to Israel to be cured. And through a series of messages from the king of Aram to the king of Israel and from him to Elisha, the man of God, Naaman receives a message from Elisha telling him “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” And Naaman gets angry because surely for such a great man as himself, Elisha would come and meet him personally. Surely for this wonderful commander of the army of the king of Aram, Elisha would “come out, and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy!” And Naaman almost leaves Israel without a cure because of his pride. But for the humble and wise words of his servants, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” And so, for these wise words, Naaman does what Elisha bid him do and he is cured. Naaman’s pride gets in his way of hearing God speaking through the words of Elisha. Naaman wants a great show worthy of his importance, worthy of his place in the world. Naaman wants God on Naaman’s terms and is unable, at first, to accept God’s grace and God’s healing, on God’s terms. Naaman’s pride gets in his way.

When we come to worship, what gets in our way?

While we were on vacation this past week in the Berkshires, we drove past several congregational churches – The United Church of Christ – one of the most prevalent Christian denominations in Massachusetts. And at most of these churches, a huge banner hung outside that said, “God is still speaking, are you listening?”[i] What a powerful statement – “God is still speaking!” and what a powerful question – “Are you listening?”

As a priest – as a leader of a worshipping community - I need constantly to be aware of the passion at the heart of what we do when we gather for worship. I also need to be aware that my role in worship is just that, a role – one role among many. Anthony has a role as well and, of course, the choir, the readers, the servers, the altar guild, the sexton. . . and on and on . . . each has a role. But in this one hour on Sunday morning, my role, the priest’s role is not the primary role. Does that surprise you?

In the middle of the 19th century, philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard described worship as a theatre where the congregation are the chief actors, the priest is the prompter and God is the audience.[ii] According to Kimberly Long, a Presbyterian minister and a presenter at the Calvin Symposium on Worship I attended at the end of January, the best models of worship – like Kierkegaard’s - clearly show the congregation as the primary actors and the priest, the presider, as the servant of this assembly. [iii] Let’s think about this. You are gathered here this morning – not randomly. You didn’t each get out of bed today and get in your cars or decide to take a walk with no sense of your destination. No, you purposefully made a decision to come here, to be at 13 W. Bates Avenue for this service of worship. You came here with the intent of being a community, assembled for the work of worship. And my role, my role as priest or presider, is to be a part of that community, to be a part of the assembly gathered for the work of worship; and to be called out from that community to facilitate, at times; to lead, at times; to prompt, at times; to announce, to rejoice, to celebrate, to worship. I am here to assume a role as your priest and to remain authentic to who I am and to offer you the best that I have and to worship – just as each of you, are here to assume your roles as worshippers, as authentic selves, offering the best that you have – as we come together as a community to worship the living God of our faith.

On my part, there have been times when I have failed in my role. Times when I have gotten in the way of our ability to worship together by letting the words become just words, by getting overly confident – so poised, so polished, so charismatic (well, maybe not that much!), by getting bored because I’ve said the words so many times. . . . by excusing myself from worshipping by saying, “I can’t worship while I lead worship.” In short, by forgetting that what we are doing here, right now, together. . . is not about me.

What are some of the ways in which you have fallen short in your role, in your role as worshippers who intentionally come together to actively engage the living God of our faith? Are you here because you feel obligated? Are you here because you need to talk to someone that you knew would be here this morning? Are you here because you could think of nothing better to do today? Are you here because your mom or your dad or your friend made you come and, in reality, you would rather be curled up in bed? Sadly, I think many of us have forgotten why we are here, have forgotten what worship is about. Because, just as worship is not about me, my friends, it is also not about you. Our worship is about the living God – the living God who is here with us, in this place, right now, wanting nothing more and nothing less than the opportunity to transform our lives. So are you here because you feel obligated or are you here because you desire nothing more and nothing less than this life-changing encounter with God?

“God is still speaking . . . . .
are we listening?”

[i] According to the United Church of Christ’s official website,

“the Stillspeaking Ministry was initiated in 2004 as a proclamation, identity and communication effort designed to: Speak to the alienated, the un-churched and those seeking a spiritual home; Let people know that “No matter who you are or where you are on life's journey, you are welcome here."; Embrace a common brand and theme that would enable the United Church of Christ to be instantly recognizable to those both within and outside the denomination. . . . Since Stillspeaking was launched, more than 2,500 churches, representing 60% of all United Church of Christ members, have joined the Stillspeaking movement.”

[ii] Søren Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart is To Will One Thing, Trans. Douglas Steere (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1948) pp.180-181.
[iii] For my discussion of Kierkegaard, “best models” of worshipping communities, and the role of the presider, I am grateful to Kimberly Long’s worskshop at the Calvin Symposium on Worship 2009, “Leading Worship with Style and Grace,” January 31, 2009, Grand Rapids, Michigan.


First Impressions

I arrived in Grand Rapids, Michigan a couple of hours ago. And, I must say, "it's great to be home!" Now, let me explain. I've never been here before. But, from the woman working at the information booth who helped me get in touch with the shuttle service for my hotel, to the security guard who let me stay inside to stay warm (it's 20 degrees here - more on that in a moment), to the shuttle van driver who, as it turns out is from Jersey (LBI) but was transferred out this way for work, to the woman who delivered my calzone to my room, I have experienced nothing less than good-old fashioned midwest hospitality - i.e., HOME.

As for the temperature - 20 degrees (with a windchill factor resulting in an 8 degree winter experience) - this too is reminiscent of home. Oh, and there is snow on the ground - measurable snowfall (10 - 14 inches, by my estimate). The type of snow that might result in a nice, quality snowman - one that is white when it is finished except for the colorful scarf that is added.

Now for those of you in South Jersey thinking, "uh-oh, we're going to lose her!" - FEAR NOT! There is something quite charming about a South Jersey snowman (you know the type: more brown and black than white - from the leaves that are strewn about the ground - lasting for less than 48 hours). And, South Jersey has its own kind of hospitality - after all, everyone knows you - or knows someone who knows you - and people drive without honking their horns or making rude hand gestures (at least most of the time). And, my churches - have I mentioned lately that I love St. Barnabas and St. Mary's? Like all churches, each has its quirks but those too are part of the charm. So, South Jersey is my home, but this trip has brought back memories of HOME.

I'm here for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship Symposium which begins tomorrow morning. I'll be attending a number of workshops on a variet of topics from "Youth, Worship, and the Seven Second Attention Span" to workshops on fully including persons with autism and/or other disabilities into worship. Several years ago, when I was in the ordination process, I read Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down by Marva Dawn. I lent my copy to a colleague in Chicago - never saw it again. Nonetheless, it remains with me and Marva Dawn will be preaching on Friday evening and will be leading a workshop that I will attend ("Preaching to Expose the Principalities and Powers"). Let's see what else --- "Moving Word, Moving Worship" offered by Rosanne Barton-DeVries who promises to get all of us on our feet dancing (and I don't think she means the chicken dance).