Eyes Wide Open Seeing Nothing

Second Sunday of Advent - Year A - Isaiah 11:1-10, Matthew 3:1-12
Sermon Preached at St. Barnabas by the Bay Episcopal Church (Villas, NJ)

December 5, 2010

To hear this sermon, click here and download the audio file.



A Time to Prepare

Today is "Black Friday" - a day when millions of Americans will spend millions of dollars on gifts for millions of people and, at the end of the day, millions of people will still be without the many, many things they need

- clean water
- shelter
- clothes
- healthy food
- access to education

The list could go on. . .

Two years ago, Andrea and I discovered The Advent Conspiracy - a group of Christians who committed themselves to preparing for the Christmas Season in a different way - by worshipping fully, loving all, and giving relationally.  Several Advent Conspiracy videos have been made in the years since The Advent Conspiracy first launched. Today, this one caught my attention:

Christian educators. . . this DVD provides a great resource for a series of formation classes during Advent. We used it at St. Barnabas - Villas and St. Mary's - Stone Harbor last year and a number of people commented on its effectiveness.

Yes, I recognize the irony of suggesting a purchase on Black Friday. But then being a Christian has never been simple. . . .

Blessings to all for an Advent filled with expectant hope and prayerful preparation.

Pastor Debra+


Christ IS Risen

Christ the King Sunday - Year C - Jeremiah 23:1-6, Luke 23:33-43

Sermon Preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church (Stone Harbor, NJ)
November 21, 2010

To hear this sermon, click here and download the audio file.


Deuteronomy 30:15-20 (NRSV):

15See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.


The End is Coming. . . but We're Here Now

Proper 28 C - Luke 21:5-19
Sermon Preached at St. Barnabas by the Bay Episcopal Church (Villas, NJ)
November 14, 2010
To hear this sermon, click here and download the audio file.


Comprehension for the Sake of Truth

Sermon preached on the Feast of Richard Hooker, Priest (1600)
November 3, 2010

Being a Christian today is not easy. On days when you or I might be tempted to forget that truth we have only to look to The Christian Century or scan the headlines of Religion Online to be reminded of the conflicts that divide our churches: sex abuse scandals, the blessing of same sex unions, disputes over property ownership, disagreements concerning the appropriate response or non-response to illegal immigration and immigration reform – just some of today’s “big” issues that threaten the unity of the Church. And, in many places, there are also congregations that struggle daily with issues which, while they may not make national headlines, are just as painful for those involved. Some of these issues might feel “silly” or “unimportant” – the equivalent of our domestic disputes over the right way and the wrong way to load the dishwasher or which way to put a new roll of toilet paper on the dispenser. But, underlying these seemingly inane conflicts are often much deeper issues – issues we may not even know how to name – deeper issues that can cause hurt and pain, anger and frustration within a congregation for years to come.
Being a Christian today is not easy. And, if history is any indication, there have been relatively few times – if any – in which Christians have had an easy go of things. The Feast of Richard Hooker which we celebrate today leads us back some 400 plus years to another painfully divisive time in the life of our Church.

Richard Hooker, a priest and theologian, served the church under Queen Elizabeth I. The church of this era was riddled with controversies and divisions. Some of you may recall a bit of this history: Roman Catholic until approximately 1534 when Henry VIII declared himself supreme head of the church in England, the church became even more Protestant under the reign of Edward VI’s Regency Council only to return to Roman Catholicism under Mary I – so-called “Bloody Mary” for her burning at the stake of nearly 300 religious dissenters – and ultimately a return to a kind of Protestantism in 1558 under Queen Elizabeth I. This religious flip-flopping in a period of just 3 decades left the country largely divided and left most lay persons greatly confused. On the one hand were the Romanists or Papists – supporters of Queen Mary; on the other hand, the Puritans, Genevans, or Separatists – all of whom had been largely influenced by the Protestant reformers on the continent.

This is the chaotic religious and theological backdrop in which Richard Hooker found himself when approached by Archbishop Whitgift and Queen Elizabeth “to describe the emerging Elizabethan settlement to the warring Puritan and Roman parties."[1] A settlement which Elizabeth and her parliament believed and intended to be a middle way – the via media which is the basis for our Episcopal tradition even today.

But even the tumultuous Reformation did not mark the beginning of challenges to the unity of the Christian Church. Today’s epistle reading from Paul’s 1st letter to the believers in Corinth, is his response to some of the painful divisions emerging in their community.

Like most of the early churches, the Corinthian believers struggled with differences between the Gentile converts and the Jewish believers – issues over circumcision and non-circumcision, dietary restrictions, and marriage to non-believers. But, an even bigger problem in Corinth - and the primary issue which Paul addresses in this letter – is the emergence of a relatively small group of wealthy believers who began to use their wealth as a claim to power and privilege over and against the other believers. To be clear, their wealth was not the issue; after all, the community relied on their generosity for the provision of the bread and the wine and their very homes as places to gather for prayer and table fellowship. But it apparently did not take very long before corruption set in. Paul writes in chapter 11 of this letter to the Corinthians,

“When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you!”[2]  
What follows in Paul’s letter is a reminder of the way things ought to be, a description of the way in which the community ought to gather in the name of Christ.[3]

So it would seem, there has never been an easy time to be a Christian. The challenge in any age seems, at least in part, to be the necessity of living in the world and living into the kingdom of God at one and the same time. J. Paul Sampley, Pauline scholar at Boston University School of Theology, refers to this as the “already and not yet” of God’s reign. You and I are daily reminded of the “not yet” – a glance at the evening news, many of the interactions at our places of work, and sadly, yes, even in our churches – all highlighting the culture of the “not yet” – a culture ruled by the wisdom of humans. It is a culture where the majority rules, where might makes right, where individual wealth and status and power frequently become corrupt and trump any notion of the common good. The chant of the “not yet” world is “I’m number one! I’m number one! I’m number one!” and the voices of numbers two and three and so on down the line, are drowned out by the roaring of the crowd. This is the world that Christians have lived in since the coming of Jesus. It is the world in which the Corinthians struggled to be faithful followers of Christ in the early 1st century, the world in which the English Church and government struggled to be faithful followers of Christ in the 16th century, and the world in which you and I continue to struggle to be faithful followers of Christ in the 21st century.

But there is another way. Paul offers a reminder of this alternative way to the Church in Corinth, a reminder that remains true for us today. And that way can be found, not by pursuing the wisdom of humans, but by pursuing the wisdom of God. Paul writes

“we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory . . . these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God . . . .”[4]  
Paul continues,

“Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny. ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ.”[5]  
Even though we live in the “not yet” of God’s reign, in the brokenness of the world with all its hurts, the Spirit can and does reveal God’s wisdom to us, allowing us to choose the path we will follow. Dr. Sampley frames the choice this way: “one can walk according to human standards (1 Cor. 3:3), that is, in the old age or world. Alternatively, one can walk or conduct one’s life according to the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:25).”[6]  For the believers in Corinth, Paul expresses his concern that they are slipping “back to their old behavior”; that is, the types of behaviors one might expect from those who have not received the spirit of wisdom. And so Paul reminds the believers that the “already” of God’s reign, as it pertains to the community of faith, “rests in their being in Christ, in their life of faith.”[7]  God’s reign is already present through the death and resurrection of Jesus and the believers already participate in this new way through the prayers and the breaking of the bread.

Paul tells the believers – those in Corinth and you and I, by virtue of our baptisms – that we already “have the mind of Christ” – a bold statement indeed! But Paul asserts that when we allow ourselves to be guided by the Spirit, we are already united in the same mind. This means, that we know what is going on around us; we know what matters – that is what is of primary importance to new life in Christ; and, we are then able to choose to live in accord with God’s purposes for us.[8] It sounds so simple. And yet, the very fact that our denominations and individual congregations continue to experience conflict suggests that the application of this simple instruction is no easy task – and, as we’ve already seen, it has never been an easy task.

Richard Hooker addressed the challenge in his cultural context through his multi-volume classic of Anglicanism, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. How effectively he navigated the troubled waters of his time is evidenced by the words in our opening collect today:

“O God of truth and peace, who raised up your servant Richard Hooker in a day of bitter controversy to defend with sound reasoning and great charity the catholic and reformed religion: Grant that we may maintain that middle way, not as a compromise for the sake of peace, but as a comprehension for the sake of truth.”
This is no matter of simply saying “can’t we all just get along; can’t we just agree to disagree.” No. “. . . [N]ot as a compromise for the sake of peace, but as a comprehension for the sake of truth.” Richard Hooker scholar, Michael Russell, points out that the word “comprehension” here

“does not mean the passive inclusion of everyone under one big tent simply tolerating each other. . . [but] rather . . . the effort to dig beneath the battling points of view to find the deep structure of truths that actually unites all the parties.”[9]  
While this language offers a helpful way forward, I would suggest a variation for our post-modern context: having the willingness to listen beneath and behind and through the anger, the frustration, the loud silences, hurts, confusion and pain until the deep structure of unity in Christ might be revealed in our communities. You and I live in a spirit-poor world – a world that bubbles over with just example after example of the “not yet” of God’s reign. To this spirit-poor world, we are uniquely positioned to proclaim spiritual richness, uniquely positioned to practice spiritual richness as we stop and listen to one another and, more importantly, as we stop and listen for God’s Wisdom as it is revealed to us – yes, even today - by the Holy Spirit “for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.”[10]

Today, as we break the bread together, we are called to remember that this table and this meal are but a foretaste of the heavenly banquet which “God has prepared for those who love him” and an example of the “already” of God’s reign that holds ultimate power over every instance of the “not yet” we might encounter and in which we might participate.[11] You and I, my brothers and sisters in Christ, already “have the mind of Christ.”[12]

[1] Michael B. Russell, Hooker’s Blueprint, p. 1.
[2] I Corinthians 11:20-22.
[3] I Corinthians 11:23b-26.
[4] I Corinthians 2:7, 10.
[5] I Corinthians 2:15-16.
[6] J. Paul Sampley, Walking between the Times: Paul’s Moral Reasoning, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1991), p. 15.
[7] Ibid., p. 19.
[8] J. Paul Sampley, "The First Letter to the Corinthians: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, vol. 10, p. 821-2.
[9] Russell, p. 1.
[10] I Corinthians 2:10b.
[11] I Corinthians 2:9b.
[12] I Corinthians 2:16b.


Sermon with no name

Proper 25 C - Luke 18:9-14
Sermon Preached at St. Barnabas by the Bay Episcopal Church (Villas, NJ)
October 24, 2010

To hear this sermon, click here and download the audio file.


All Scripture is Inspired by God

Proper 24 C - 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Sermon Preached at St. Barnabas by the Bay Episcopal Church (Villas, NJ)
October 17, 2010

To hear this sermon, click here and download the audio file.

Herbert W. Chilstrom, "The Issue Behind All Issues: The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible," Hein Fry Lecture, (Northwest Synod of Wisconsin, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 2006).  The entire lecture can be accessed online here.
"An Outline of the Faith," Book of Common Prayer can be accessed online here (or on pages 845-62 of your prayer book).
The 1801 Articles of Religion are printed in the Book of Common Prayer, pages 867-76 or can be accessed online here.
The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral 1886, 1888 is also available in the Book of Common Prayer, pages 876-78 or can be accessed online here. [in my sermon, I mispoke when I indicate that this document came out of a General Convention of the Episcopal Church; in fact, it is a document which was prepared by the House of Bishops of The Episcopal Church in 1886 and then, a modified version was passed by the Lambeth conference - a gathering of bishops from around the Anglican Communion - of 1888.].


Praying Outside the Box

Proper 23 C - 2 Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19
Sermon Preached at St. Barnabas by the Bay Episcopal Church (Villas, NJ)
October 10, 2010
To hear this sermon, click here and download the audio file.


New Jersey Episcopal bishops respond to Tyler Clementi

I was blessed for many years to not know hatred first hand. While I was not popular as a child, I did not feel hated. I was in my mid-twenties before I recognized that I am a lesbian. Perhaps that is why I made it through primary and secondary school - and, indeed, college - without taunts or bullying.

It was not until a few years ago that I encountered hatred directed at me firsthand - hatred because of my sexual orientation. A local newspaper chose my arrival in a small community as an opportunity for what they called "editorializing" and what I considered a violation of intimacy (see the joint response of Bishops Beckwish and Councell for a good description of "intimacy" - New Jersey Episcopal bishops respond to Tyler Clementi). But here again I was blessed because my partner and I were quickly surrounded by people who loved us - though they did not know us - and by people who wanted to assure us that even in this small corner of the world hate did not have the upper hand. For weeks, whenever I put on my collar and appeared in a public place, I was confident that I knew the thought going through the heads of passers-by: "that must be that gay priest" (after all, I was also one of few collar-wearing female clergy persons in the area).

As time passed and as I continued to go about my daily life as best I could - and, I hope, as God had called me - the pain of that cruelness gradually subsided. I will never forget it. Perhaps it is odd, but I've saved those newspaper "editorials" as a memorial of sorts - a memorial to the loss of my naivete. No, I will never forget the hatred and I will always carry with me a greater awareness of the evil in our world.

But - and this is what I want everyone to hear (particularly those LGBTQ persons out there who are convinced there is no hope) - THERE IS HOPE. The love that surrounded my partner and me, the communitis of faith that continues to live out their vow to respect the dignity of every human being, and the sure and certain confidence I have that I am a beloved child of God - exactly as I am - prevail. We sometimes have to look very hard to find hope - we have to actively pursue it (especially in parts of our world where the closet seems to be the safest place to live). And in this way technology - the very tool used to spew hate - can also help us find community.

In the days since the tragic suicide of Trevor Clementi has travelled the social networks of our lives, countless links to resources of hope, healing, and help have appeared. I don't pretend to offer anything "new" or "unique" here; and yet, I think it's important to keep these resources out and available - especially in these times.

This is an incomplete list:

My local faith communities offer space where ALL are welcome. We do not always witness to this understanding completely, but we are on a journey towards acceptance and are truly committed to respecting the dignity of every human being:

My local community
  • GABLES - "the gay group doing good things for the entire community"
The wider community
You are never alone. Please reach out in hope.


A Nation and Its People in Exile

Proper 22 C - Lamentations 1:1-6; Psalm 137; Luke 17:5-10
Sermon Preached at St. Barnabas by the Bay Episcopal Church (Villas, NJ)
October 3, 2010

To hear this sermon, click here and download the audio file.

In my sermon, I reference Bede Jarrett. He was a popular English Dominican who lived from 1881-1934(1937?).  The actual quote which I was attempting to parapharase is: 
"The world needs anger. The world often continues to allow evil because it isn't angry enough"
(as it appears on "Free to Grieve," Weekly Seeds (a service of the Congregational Vitality Initiative, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ). This quote is from Bede Jarrett's The House of Gold: Lenten Sermons.


Did Anyone Get a Ten-Spot?!

Sermon Preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church
19 September 2010 / Proper 20C (Luke 16:1-13)
To download an audio version of this sermon, click here.

Imagine walking into church one day – or the grocery store or your child’s school or a local pub – I guess what I’m trying to say is location doesn’t matter. But for the sake of expediency, imagine walking into church one day and receiving a $1 bill.[i] Your reactions of course might vary. Maybe you’d look around you to see if someone had dropped it. You might wonder if it was a mistake; if perhaps you’d been mistaken for somebody else. Then, as you saw the confused looks on other faces, you’d perhaps begin to realize that everyone received a bill. Weird. What does it mean? Are we supposed to give it back? Maybe we are supposed to give it to someone else? Are we supposed to put it in the offering plate? Is it ours to keep? What did we do to earn it? And, for some of us, the smart-aleck ones (and we know who we are), we might wonder, did anyone get a ten-spot?! And, in this state of wonderment and confusion, our questions go unanswered as we focus our hearts and minds on worshipping our God.

I think for the Pharisees and the Scribes and, most likely, the disciples too, being with Jesus caused this same kind of confusion. And Jesus’ parables were meant, at least in part, as a response. Last week, we heard the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin- how the shepherd will hold nothing back to seek out the one lost sheep and upon finding it will carry it back to the flock; how the woman will search diligently – moving furniture and lighting lamps – until she finds that one lost coin.[ii] We heard these stories and understood them to mean that God’s desire to be in relationship with us is so strong that he will risk it all to bring us back – to take us back – to reclaim us as children of God. When we heard last week’s parables, we intuitively knew that the stories were not about sheep or about lost coins at all – they were about God’s relationship with God’s people.

This week’s reading offers a greater challenge for contemporary readers – and perhaps it did for Jesus’ followers as well.[iii] Here we have an odd store of a rich man and his manager. The manager has been accused of squandering the rich man’s property and so he is being fired. But before he leaves the job, the rich man wants an accounting of his management. We don’t know for certain, but this is how many of us believe this business system worked: the business owner earned his money by selling for a profit, much like business owners in our own society make their money. The manager, however, made his money directly from the customers by collecting even more. In other words, the manager was not paid out of the owner’s profit. So, when the manager sits down with the customer who owes 100 jugs of olive oil and tells him to make it fifty, it is likely that the owner is still receiving his full profit. It is the manager who will go away empty handed - making nothing on the transaction. Likewise when he tells the customer who owes 100 containers of wheat to make it eighty, it is likely that the owner will still receive his full profit. Again, only the manager will go without payment. And so the owner commends the “dishonest” manager for his shrewdness; after all, the owner has received what is his.

This commendation for dishonesty and shrewdness is what typically throws modern readers for a loop. What are we to make of it? On the one hand, it is possible that Jesus’ point in telling the story is to condemn the manager for his financial dishonesty. The concluding line of today’s reading points in that direction: “you cannot serve God and wealth.”[iv] But, I think there is something greater here. The Rev. Thomas Brackett, the Episcopal Church Center’s Missioner for Church Planting, suggests an alternative reading. For Brackett, a new reading of the parable is available to us if we understand the facts of the story to be already familiar to the people of Jesus’ time - the equivalent of a local headline – “Dishonest Manager Fired by Rich Man.” Unfortunately for the contemporary reader, MSNBC, Fox News, and CNN have all gotten hold of the facts and each has put their unique spin on the story and now we have the story as it appears in Luke’s Gospel with facts, opinions, and multiple layers of meaning thrown in for good measure – all of which makes it difficult for us to figure out Jesus’ point.[v]  

But we do have some clues. In the first place, the story appears immediately after the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the prodigal sons.[vi] Each of those stories was told to answer the Pharisees and Scribes anger that Jesus had the audacity to forgive sinners, the audacity to take on himself a role – that of forgiver of sins – that only belongs to God. Today’s gospel begins by telling us that Jesus is talking to the disciples; however, if we read just one verse beyond today’s pericope we are told, “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him.”[vii] That one verse, in my mind, makes all the difference as it connects this story to the previous three suggesting that as those earlier stories were not about sheep and coins, so this story is not about money and its management.

All of these stories are about grace and forgiveness. Today’s parable tells the story of a manager who squanders the owner’s property showing dishonesty and shrewdness, acting without regard to social mores, without regard to laws. And, it is the story of Jesus who, in the eyes of the Pharisees and Scribes, is squandering what is God’s – that is forgiveness - without regard to social mores and without regard to religious laws. Mores and laws which would, in the first place, Jesus has no right to dole out forgiveness and, in the second place, would say that sinners - tax collectors and prostitutes, you and me – are most certainly not deserving of such forgiveness. It is a story of Jesus squandering forgiveness – showing reckless abandon - in showering all people with mercy, with grace, and with love.

Do you remember the manager’s response upon learning that the owner is about to fire him? He says to himself, “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg” - there is absolutely nothing I can do to earn my way.[viii]  And isn’t that the way you and I feel when we face God’s amazing love? For there is absolutely nothing you or I can do to earn our way into God’s heart, into God’s kingdom.

A couple of weeks’ ago, Pastor Mark Marius from Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Wildwood introduced me to a song called “Mystery of Mercy” by Caedmon’s Call. The verses speak powerfully of our role in the salvation story:

I am the woman at the well, I am the harlot
I am the scattered seed that fell along the path
I am the son that ran away
And I am the bitter son that stayed.

I am the angry man who came to stone the lover
I am the woman there ashamed before the crowd
I am the leper that gave thanks
but I am the nine that never came
And, with the same conviction, the refrain speaks powerfully of God’s role in that same story of salvation:

My God, my God why hast though accepted me
When all my love was vinegar to a thirsty King?
My God, my God why hast though accepted me
It’s a mystery of mercy and the song, the song I sing.[ix]
There is absolutely nothing we can do to earn our way into God’s heart. We are not strong enough to dig and we are ashamed to beg. So, how can we respond? What can we do? Our questions go unanswered as we focus our hearts and minds on worshipping our God – a God who squanders love on sinners like you and like me with reckless abandon.

[i] In fact, parishioners at St. Mary's this morning did receive a $1 bill in their bulletins.
[ii] Luke 15:1-10.
[iii] Luke 16:1-13.
[iv] Luke 16:13.
[v] Thomas Brackett, “Jesus the Rogue Rabbi,” Day1 (a ministry of the Alliance for Christian Media) accessed here on 14 September 2010.
[vi] Luke 15.
[vii] Luke 16:14.
[viii] Luke 16:3.
[ix] Caedmon's Call, "Mystery of Mercy," Back Home (2003).


Sinners Rejoice

Proper 19 C - 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10
Sermon Preached at St. Barnabas by the Bay Episcopal Church (Villas, NJ)
September 12, 2010

To hear this sermon, click here and download the audio file.

"Mystery of Mercy,"  Back Home (2003), Caedmon's Call


The Cost of Following Jesus

Proper 18 C - Jeremiah 18:1-11; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33

Sermon Preached at St. Barnabas by the Bay Episcopal Church (Villas, NJ)
September 5, 2010

To hear this sermon, click here and download the audio file.


2nd Annual Blessing of the Backpacks

Click here to read the article from The Press of Atlantic City (thank you Caitlin Dineen and Danny Drake).

My comments:
This is a story about people: those who receive and those who give. As we began our collections of backpacks and school supplies this year, I began contacting schools. As a result, I received this response from Mary Margaret Lynn, Principal at Ocean Academy:

We would be very happy to participate in the Backpack Blessing on August 29th. I attended last year, and Ocean Academy was very grateful to receive 16 fully stocked bags! The students who received these packs were so delighted! Many of them never had brand new backpacks before, let alone a bag stocked with all those goodies!!!! So please keep us on your list of recipients of the bags. Sixteen bags was a perfect number...just enough. And we will trust your judgment with regard to the contents. You did a great job last year! I am looking forward to seeing you in August! Hopefully, it will be as beautiful an evening as it was last year!
I also received a phone call from Mona L. She wondered if her son, Matthew, could receive a backpack. I assured her that yes, we would definitely set one aside for him. He was at the blessing Sunday night and announced, “I’m glad it’s green – it’s my favorite color.” Pamela called. Her son, a 17 year old with autism and a degenerative disk disorder also needed a backpack, “but, could we get one with wheels?” As for supplies, she said, “we don’t need much – just some loose leaf paper and ‘clicky’ pens; we’ll use the folders we have from last year.” Pamela didn’t have enough gas in her car to pick up her son’s backpack, but rest assured he will get it – filled with loose leaf paper, ‘clicky’ pens. . . and new folders and binders. Two students from Maud Abrams were at the blessing Sunday night. They heard we were giving away backpacks that night and wondered if we had some for them. We did. After the blessing when we all came inside to eat a hot dog dinner, the two of them were on the sofa, uneaten hotdogs on the table in front of them, excitedly going through their new packs. “Look! It’s even new stuff inside!” one of them exclaimed. It’s a story about receiving.

But friends, it is also a story about giving, about generous hearts, about giving even when it seems there may not be enough to go around. I cannot tell you how many parishioners from each church came up to me and said, “Pastor, I can’t give very much, but I want to help” as they placed a $5 bill in my hand. Bev Larson sent letters to local businesses asking for donations. Mysteriously, a case – a CASE – of Crayola® crayons appeared in the church office - a local Stone Harbor business man wanting to give something back. Herr’s Food, through its Herr’s Has Heart program was able to supply us with more than 500 bags of chips at $0.12 per bag. All they asked in return was for a photo of the event. Andrea Nowack contacted Gaiss’ Deli in Villas and connected with one of their “meat guys” Ed Dworchak who is also a parishioner at St. Barnabas. He donated 200 hot dogs. As I was shopping for additional supplies to “round out” our collection, the manager of a local office supply company waived the 3 per customer limit on rulers so that we could purchase 39 rulers at one penny each (I have 13 separate receipts, each for $0.03 as evidence of her generosity). At Wal-Mart, as I was loading my shopping cart with markers, another shopper commented, “Oh, a teacher’s work never ends.” When I explained that actually I was shopping to fill nearly 100 packs with school supplies for local children she smiled and said, “What a nice idea.” About 5 minutes later, she came looking for me to give me $5 – “just a little something to help.”

This is a story about people: those who receive and those who give. And it is a story about blessings. We were blessed this year by two coordinators – Bev Larson and Andrea Nowack – who worked tirelessly behind the scenes to make sure we’d have the publicity we needed before the event and the food we needed at the event. We were blessed by Pastor Tommy, his wife, and their youth group from a church outside of Buffalo, New York who just happened to be at the This ‘n’ That Thrift Shop doing a service project, when we pulled up with our car full of packs and supplies. In just over 1 hour, those helping hands prepared 55 packs for distribution. And we were blessed again when a donation of 25 packs and bags of school supplies came in on Friday from Offshore Getty (Villas) and Dina Ziemba and her kids (Meg, Stanley, and Jennette) just happened to be at The Branches and volunteered to fill those packs the next day . . . and blessed again by the grandchildren of Doris Dorsett who also just happened to be at The Branches on Saturday and offered to help the Ziemba family.

In 2009, a handful of parishioners from St. Mary’s and St. Barnabas gathered at The Branches to brainstorm about an event that both congregations could get involved in, an event that would involve the community, an event that might fill a need, and an event that parishioners from both churches could share. We discussed the number of blessings that occur in area churches – blessing cars, blessing bikes, blessing animals, blessing food baskets, and then it hit us – why not bless backpacks!? Better still, why not collect backpacks and school supplies for area children and then hold a blessing of the backpack event at The Branches. And we did.

In 2009, we collected more than 70 packs, filled them with school supplies and distributed them to the elementary schools in Lower Township, to Ocean Academy in Middle Township, and to several area social workers. This year, things got bigger. We collected 96 backpacks, enough supplies to fill them all, and a little more than $500 in cash donations which were used to buy more school supplies and to adopt a classroom. Supplies were distributed once again to the three elementary schools in Lower Township, to Ocean Academy and to Glenwood Avenue Elementary (Wildwood), Crest Memorial (Wildwood Crest), Catholic Charities, Caring for Kids and The Arc of Cape May County.

But, it isn’t about the numbers, it’s not even about the backpacks; it’s about the people and God’s generous spirit flowing through those people – this is a story about blessings!


It's Your Call

Proper 16 C - Jeremiah 1:4-10
Sermon Preached at St. Barnabas by the Bay Episcopal Church (Villas, NJ)
August 22, 2010

To hear this sermon, click here and download the audio file.

The section in the sermon which references the incarnation was inspired by a comment in Lesser Feasts and Fasts on the Feast Day of William Porcher DuBose.


I Love To Tell The Story

Today's reading from Hebrews with its "sound byte" list of stories of faith led me to a sermon about the importance of Biblical literacy.  My iPod, as it turns out, was not charged and I, therefore, did not record the sermon; however, I thought it might be nice to provide a link to some of the "classics" of our faith as delimited by the author(s) of Hebrews:

  1. "By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned." -- The Exodus as told in Exodus 13:17 - 14:31 (larger context is the story of the Hebrews enslaved to the Egyptians, the story of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, and the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, and their entry into the Promised Land -- Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and the early chapters of Joshua (the book of Leviticus which falls between Exodus and Numbers is primarily devoted to the laws received in the wilderness)). [a great novel which "retells" the story is Zora Neale Hurston's Moses, Man of the Mountain.]
  2. "By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days." -- The battle for Jericho as told in Joshua 5:13-6:21 (larger context are the battles of conquest to secure the Promised Land for the people of God and the division of the land amongst the Hebrew peoples -- Joshua)
  3. "By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace." -- a prelude and postscript to the battle of Jericho which shows how God's plan for salvation is worked out through the most unlikely of persons as told in Joshua 2:1-24,  6:17-25 (for larger context, refer to #2 above)
The judges "ruled" over the people from the time of entry into the Promised Land (c. 1200 BCE) until the formation of the first Kingdom of Israel (c. 1050 BCE).
  1. . . . "time would fail me to tell of Gideon" - the fifth judge of the Hebrew peoples. His story is told in Judges 6 - 8. He is, by his own account a member of the weakest clan in Manasseh and he is, also by his own account, the least important in his own family; thus continues a scriptural theme of God working through the least likely of persons.
  2. "Barak" -- advised and accompanied by Deborah, Israel's 4th Judge, (clearly an oversight by the author(s) of Hebrews to omit her name!) to march to Mount Tabor with 10,000 troops to fight against Sisera and his Canaanite army and free the Israelites as told in Judges 4:4-5:31

    As an aside, as Sisera retreats and takes refuge in the house of Jael, he is killed by Jael, "Jael the wife of Heber took a tent peg, and picked up a mallet; she crept up softly to [Sisera] and drove the peg into his temple right through the ground. He was lying fast asleep, worn out; and so he died." (Judges 4:17-22). My friends, this is the stuff great movies are made of !
  3. "Samson" (the 12th Judge) - his story can be found begninning in Judges 13:1 when his birth is foretold. Like many biblical heros, Samson is born to a barren woman (cf. Sarah and Hannah). His story is made up of some of the great story telling devices - riddles, intrigue, and betrayal at the hands of Delilah as told in Judges 16:4-31. His full story: Judges 13:1 - 16:31.

  4. "Jephthah," the son of Gilead (the 7th Judge) by a harlot, fled from his family in the land of Tob where, some time later, he is sought after by his father's people - the very persons who had persecuted him - to lead Gilead's army against the Ammonites. Jephthah becomes the 8th Judge and judges in Israel for six years before he dies.  His story is told in Judges 10:6-12:7

  1. "of David" - the Great King who, like so many, was not without his shortcomings!  His exciting story including his fight with Goliath (1 Samuel 17:1-58), his long and deep friendship with Jonathan, his visit to the witch of Endor (a great read on All Hallow's Eve, 1 Samuel 28:3-25), and the many stories of his reign as king are told beginning in 1 Samuel 16:1 and continue through the remainder of that book, through 2 Samuel, and are concluded in the early chapters of 1 Kings (1:1-2:11). He was king over Israel for 40 years.  Many of the psalms are attributed to King David. [a great song which has at its root a portion of David's story is "Hallelujah" - I'm partial to the Rufus Wainwright version.]
  1. "and Samuel," the son of Hannah who is dedicated to the Lord before his birth. (Hannah's song, which is likely a model for Mary's Magnificat in Luke's Gospel, can be found in 1 Samuel 2:1-10). Samuel is the last of the judges and a great prophet. He is teacher and mentor to Saul, consecrates Saul as King but later parts company with Saul for Saul's disobedience during the revolt against the Philistines.  Samuel remains obedient to God and is sent by God to Jesse of Bethlehem to find David, God's chocen king.  His story is told in 1 Samuel 1:1-25:1. 
  2. "and the prophets" -- the author(s) of Hebrews does not name any individual prophets, but the Old Testament is filled with great prophets - the major prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel) and 12 minor prophets (Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zaphaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi) - each of whom has an entire book attributed to them. In addition, the prophets are a part of the stories that fill 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles.
"Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God."

AMEN. Thanks be to God!

What Matters Isn't Matter

Proper 13 C - Luke 12:13-21
Sermon Preached at St. Barnabas by the Bay Episcopal Church
Villas, August 1, 2010

To hear this sermon, click here and download the audio file.

[My apologies for the delay in posting this]


Just One of the Gang AND Uniquely Qualified

AKMA Adam writes in response to the NY Times article on Clergy-Burnout that this issue (like so many before it) is much more complicated than presented (now, in fairness to the NY Times . . it was an Op-Ed piece, not a scholarly article). A portion of AKMA's response follows (full text available here).

"Once it became conventional wisdom that clergy were not vaguely superhuman angelic beings who deserve special treatment by virtue of their sanctity, many people hopped directly to an opposite point of view: that anybody whatsoever should have an equal say on any ecclesiastical topic, regardless of the depth of their familiarity with the nuances of theological or ecclesiastical knowledge. While it’s OK to laud a specialist or scholar who advocates your point of view, woe to the clergy leader, or scholar, or well-trained layperson from some other side. Any unwelcome appeal to depth may be denounced as authoritarian; any unwelcome appeal to authority may be denounced as tyrannical.

"Likewise, clergy who knew that the old 'yes, Father' model was corrupt rushed to assert their ordinariness. There’s nothing special about ordination, they assure people; we’re just one of the gang. This both denies the basis for a theology of calling and trivialises the training that the seminarian/divinity student-cum-minister has just devoted a great deal of time and money to pursuing. Both these reasons tend to undermine the standing of the minister relative to the congregation. If she’s just one of the gang, and the rest of the gang wants levity and feel-good nostrums, then who is she to oppose us? If his training doesn’t equip him distinctively to lead the church’s deliberations, why listen to him at all?"
As one who finds herself [nod to AKMA here] utilizing the "one of the gang" assertion from time to time, I feel compelled to offer at least a summary defence.  In the first place, the Catechism which begins its section on ministry with the life, work, and witness (perhaps some redundancy here) of the laity.  Second, the order for the sacrament of baptism indicates that the oil of Chrism used invites (enables?) the baptized to "share in the royal priesthood of Jesus Christ" and the congregation's words of welcome ask the newly baptized to "share with us in [Christ's] eternal priesthood."  So when I emphasize, from time to time, my one-of-the-gang-ness over and against my uniquely-priest-y-ness, it is with the intent of raising up the ministry of all - the priesthood of all believers.

Having said that, however, AKMA's comments provide a corrective lens to that "ordinary" assertion by reminding that if clergy are, by virtue of baptism "no different" than any other baptized Christian, they are, by calling, by ordination, by vocation, nonetheless uniquely "set apart" for a specific ministry, a ministry which relies upon (depends upon?) said clergy's academic and vocational preparation.  A double-edge sword for  as clergy emphasize "ordinary," lay persons hear "just like me." And, as lay persons hear "just like me" they also hear, "I'm just like the clergy" - i.e., uniquely qualified to offer opinions (often stated as truth) about liturgics, sacramentology, scriptural authority, homiletics, music in worship, etc. even though I may not have (and typically do not have) the academic or vocation background to support those views.

First aside: I was watching the History Channel yesterday and was horried by the "so-called" experts who were "proving" that human beings actually are the genetically-engineered creation of extraterrestrial beings.  Reading the "fine print" under the names of these experts, one in particular caught my eye: "Radio Host." Really? The credential "radio host" was sufficient for this individual to appear on the history channel as an expert on human origins? It is any wonder then, that we (collectively) find it acceptable to be "experts" on any number of topics for which we have no academic or vocational preparedness?

Second aside: I wonder if the recent seminary financial woes are, at least in part, due to this cultural shift in understanding the vocation of the priesthood.  As more and more lay persons discount the unique calling of the clergy, they, in effect, discount the value of said clergy which, indirectly begins to erode the value (both in terms of dollars and content) of the specialized training received.


When Asking, Seeking and Knocking Lead to Frustration

Sermon Preached at St. Barnabas by the Bay Episcopal Church
Villas, NJ
July 25, 2010
Proper 12C - Luke 11:1-13

To hear this sermon, click here and download the audio file.

Some Resources on Prayer:

Harold M. Schulweis, "To Whom We Pray ad For What" in For Those Who Can't Believe: Overcomung the Obstacles to Faith (New York: Harper, 1994), pp. 29-43.

Margaret Guenther, The Practice of Prayer, vol. 4 in The New Church's Teaching Series (Cambridge: Cowley, 1998).

*Richard J. Foster, "The Discipline of Prayer" in Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth (San Francisco: Harper, 1998), pp. 33-46. [For those who are interested, there is also a companion workbook to this book suitable for individual or small group study].


Who Is My Neighbor?

Sermon Preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church
Stone Harbor, NJ
July 10 and 11, 2010
Proper 10 C - Luke 10:25-37
To hear this sermon, click here and download the audio file.

We live in a litigious society. If you don’t believe me, just Google the phrase “have you been injured in an accident” and see what you find. I found 60,400 results most of which seemed to be links to lawyers and law firms from around the country. To quickly narrow the search, add New Jersey” to your search and you’ll have just under 10,000 results to sort through. We live in a country that is so fearful of - or perhaps obsessed with - lawsuits that we even have laws about how to be a good neighbor. Consider New Jersey P.L. 1963, c.140 – the so-called Good Samaritan Act. According to this act:
while a person is under no obligation to “provide emergency assistance at the scene of an accident, a person who chooses to do so may be held civilly liable if he or she is found to have acted in a negligent manner.
To encourage individuals to render assistance at accident scenes . . . New Jersey’s ‘Good Samaritan Act’ provides immunity to (1) any individual, including health care professionals; (2) the members of volunteer first aid, rescue and ambulance squads and (3) municipal, county and State law enforcement officers, who in good faith render emergency care at the scene of an accident or in an emergency or who, in the case of volunteer members of first aid, rescue and ambulance squads, transport the victims of an accident or emergency to a hospital or other facility for treatment.”(a)  
We are a nation obsessed with laws. So, you and I should be quite comfortable with the beginning of today’s Gospel reading. A lawyer asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus, knowing the man is a lawyer, responds, “What is written in the law?” In other words, “you are the lawyer, you tell me? What does the law say?” And, sure enough, the lawyer responds with the law as it is written in the great law books of the time - Leviticus chapter 19, verse 18 and Deuteronomy chapter 6, verse 5: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus affirms the lawyer and adds, “do this and you will live.” I suppose the story could end here and we’d have a simple reminder of good Judeao-Christian ethics. Obey the law.

But the story doesn’t end here, does it? No, it continues with the lawyer asking yet another question, “and who is my neighbor?” “Who is my neighbor?” And this is the question upon which the entire pericope turns. It is the climax of the story. Because the lawyer’s perspective on “neighbor” and Jesus’ perspective on “neighbor” are very different.

In the book of Leviticus, where it is written, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” the context is very clear that “neighbor” means a fellow-Israelite. In fact, the full expression is “You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD” (b)  And this law is placed in the midst of a series of laws on what it means to live a life of holiness - to be God’s chosen people, set apart from the other nations. The lawyer understands what it means to be a good neighbor from the perspective of these holiness laws. And now we know that the lawyer is trying to trap Jesus, trying to publically accuse Jesus of violating the law. Just last Sunday we heard the story of Jesus sending the seventy out in pairs to cure the sick and to proclaim the kingdom of God. In that story, Jesus tells the seventy, when you arrive in a town, do not move about from house to house but instead “Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide. . . . eat what is set before you.” Eat whatever is provided?! Really?! From the lawyer’s perspective, this man, this Jesus, who claims God’s authority for himself, who gives that authority to his followers, has no understanding of the holiness code at all. He is a teacher who does not know the law – the very basics of the faith!

Jesus is prepared. And, as he does so often, he tells a story. This time the story of a man who has been left for dead on the side of the road by a band of robbers. Soon, a priest comes down the same road. But when he sees the man, he crosses to the other side. Likewise, a Levite, when he sees the half-dead man lying there, he crosses to the other side.

Let’s pause for a moment to consider how Jesus’ audience might have heard the story up to this point. In the first place, they would certainly be very sympathetic to the victim at the side of the road. It could have been any one of them. The passageway between Jerusalem and Jericho “was notoriously dangerous. It descended nearly 3,300 feet in 17 miles. The road ran through narrow passes at points, and the terrain offered easy hiding for the bandits who terrorized travelers” (c).  And so, Jesus’ audience, upon hearing this story, can immediately sympathize with the plight of this traveler – an “innocent victim of random violence and brutality” (d). 

And yet, in light of the lawyer’s challenge to Jesus, this audience now has the holiness code at the back of their minds. Has the law of purity caused these religious men – a priest and a Levite – to cross to the other side of the road? Is the threat of contact with the blood of another human being – or worse, the threat of contacting a dead body - such an abomination so as to require the utter disregard for a person in need – to require, in fact, that one cross to the other side of the road? Perhaps. But I wonder if the ancient laws of hospitality – also a part of the ancient legal code - would have played a part as well? Early nomadic tribes needed assurance of safety when passing through foreign tribes and the best guarantee of safety was to offer that same assurance within one’s own tribe. Deuteronomy reminds us that “the great God, mighty and awesome . . . executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and . . . loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (e).  To be sure, the Jews in Jesus’ time were no longer nomads; however, the laws which came from this period – whether pertaining to ritual purity and holiness or hospitality and neighborly relations - still applied.

So we can safely assume that the listeners would have had great sympathy for the victim at the side of the road; but it is less clear how they might respond to the action – or lack of action – on the part of the priest and the Levite.

Back to the story. . .

Along this same road, comes a Samaritan. In the second century BC, the Jewish high priest John Hyrcanus I destroyed the Samaritan sanctuary on Mt. Gerizim where the Hebrew patriarchs had worshipped God. And while this was not the beginning of the disregard the Jews and Samaritans had for one another, it certainly intensified the hatred (f). So, as Jesus’ tells the story, you can imagine perhaps some booing or hissing in the audience as the Samaritan is introduced for the first time. As the audience quiets down, Jesus says, “when [the Samaritan] saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds . . . Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.” As Jesus ends the story, he turns his attention again to the lawyer and says, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer responds, “The one who showed him mercy.”

When you and I hear this story today, it is easy to put ourselves in the place of the Samaritan. We are Christians. Of course, we would stop and help the stranger at the side of the road. But a careful reading of the story today and a look at our focus on laws suggests to me that we might learn more if we put ourselves in the place of that early first century lawyer asking Jesus, “who is my neighbor?” Because the answer Jesus gives does not, in the end, redefine who our neighbors are – for the law is clear that even strangers in our land are our neighbors – but instead redefines what it means to shower our neighbors with love. The answer Jesus gives suggests that knowing the law is not enough. The answer Jesus gives suggests that obeying the law is sometimes not enough. The answer Jesus gives stretches us to an uncomfortable place where we have to consider whether the law sometimes get in the way of our doing the right thing, whether the law sometimes becomes an excuse to protect us from doing the right thing, or whether the law sometimes shields us from even seeing an opportunity to do the right thing.

Jesus calls the lawyer and each of us to see the world in a new way – to re-imagine the world.
  • Jesus calls us to imagine a world in which our enemy – whether that is the Samaritan on the road to Jericho or the terrorist in Afghanistan, Iraq or Pakistan – can becomes one’s teacher. 
  • Jesus calls us to imagine a world in which mercy wins over legalism every time – so that we don’t need to ask if we are safe under the law – whether that is the law of holiness or a “Good Samaritan Law” - because the love of Christ will naturally spill out of our lives into all that we do. 
  • Jesus calls us to imagine a world in which we choose to stay on the same side of the street as the wounded, the sick, the outcast so that we can purposefully touch the broken places, work to make them whole, and, in the process, find ourselves to be healed, renewed, and forever changed.

(a) Extract from NJ law: P.L.1963, c.140 (C.2A:62A-1 et seq.).
(b) Leviticus 19:18.
(c) R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Volume IX (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), p. 229.
(d) Culpepper, p. 229.
(e) Deuteronomy 10:17-19
(f) Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, (New York: Doubleday, 1997), p. 57, 78


When Opportunity Knocks

Sermon Preached at St. Barnabas by the Bay Episcopal Church
Villas, New Jersey

6th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 9) - Year C

July 4, 2010

To hear this sermon, click here and download the audio file.
For the Scripture readings, click here.