Monday, December 5, 2011

Prepare the Way of the Lord: Advent 2 Year B

In my office, I have two icons of John the Baptist. They sit between the two chairs across from my desk where they cannot be ignored. As I sit listening and talking with people, they remind me to think beyond the present. They call me to pay attention, to take notice of God’s presence and work among us.

Both of these icons are special to me.  One of them is handmade, or hand-prayed, by a dear friend.  Bright colors frame John’s face and his eyes are turned away: a reminder that John looks for someone else.  The other is the first real icon I ever saw of John that touched my heart. Most of icons of John are fairly predictable: wild hair, strange robe…In this icon, the image focuses on the path in the desert. Indeed, John seems to blend in with the wilderness around him.  The images remind me, again, that John never sought to draw attention to himself. Instead, John’s life and ministry does not serve him; he serves God. 
In my faith journey, I’ve never really spent a lot of time studying John.  He’s only mentioned several times in the Gospels. And, despite the importance of his ministry, he has always struck me as a peripheral character; his purpose to bring authenticity to the story. So, in the past, I’ve always rushed over him, in a hurry to get to Jesus.

Yet, John’s ministry is as vital to us as Peter or James or Paul. John stands at the intersection of the Hebrew Scriptures and Jesus’ ministry.   Like Elijah, Isaiah and Jeremiah, he is a prophet calling the people back into relationship with God. 

Before John, the prophets called Israel back to the covenant and the law.  By the law, the people knew God’s mercy. This time, God does something different. John’s call to repentance prepares us for the revelation of God’s mercy that fulfills the law.  

Ever since Eve and Adam ate that single piece of fruit, creation has been in a state of decay. Rather than satisfying our original purpose to reveal God, humanity becomes separated from God. From this point forward, God seeks to return creation to its original purpose. There was the flood, the ark and then a covenant with Noah. There was the call and a covenant with Abram and Sarai: the promise of a great nation in response to their fidelity. There was the great Exodus, the liberation from Eygpt; along with 40 years in the wilderness, the gift of the law and the Promised Land. Yet, none of these manages to fulfill God’s intent: to bridge the gap, to re-unite creation with its Creator.  Indeed, it is as if the chasm continues to grow.  Yet, God’s desire never changes. Humanity begins with love and this Love continues to work on our behalf. 

So, God does something new. God comes among us as more than a prophet, more than a king. God comes as one of us. God comes with all of that love wrapped up in a package that looks very familiar.

But, we’re not there yet. This moment, Christ’s arrival among us, is still to come.  No, we are still somewhere in between then (the past) and then (the future).  Today, we stand with John: waiting and preparing for the moment when Christ comes.


Mark’s Gospel does not include a “Birth Narrative.”  There is no census in Bethlehem, no angels visiting in dreams. Instead, Mark begins with Isaiah,  “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way…”  We often, for obvious reasons, associate these words with John. They come right before his introduction in the Gospel and they seem to describe John’s ministry.

And, something I read this week, as I prepared for this sermon, got me thinking.  What if these words from Isaiah aren’t really about John?  What if they refer to the Gospel itself?  What if it is the Gospel that prepares the way, that straightens the path, for Christ to in our lives?  We often imagine that John is “the one” who prepares the way for Jesus. We imagine that he is the fulfillment of this passage from Isaiah.  And it is true that John prepares the way for Christ.  The question I’m asking, though, shifts our thinking ever so slightly.

John is one character in a very big story.  And his role is essential to the story.  John is not the first to proclaim Christ’s coming and he’s not the last.  And, as John announces Christ’s coming, he acts, he gets to work: he calls people to repentance, listens to their confessions and baptizes them.

Mark does more than paint a portrait of John as the one who points the way for Jesus.  Mark offers us our first example of discipleship: John is an example of what it looks like to prepare the way for others to follow Christ.


When I consider my life, it occurs to me that each event has led me to this place, this moment.

I remember moving from North Carolina to Louisiana. I was a freshman in high school and not a big fan of the family move for my dad’s new job.  But, as you know, teenagers don’t have many options in this situation and, so, off I went.

Turns out, one result of this move was a hinge in my vocation and ministry.  Because of my church community in Louisiana, I embraced a call to ordained ministry.  Some mentors in my life at the time helped me put this vocation on my horizon.  They guided and walked with me as I maneuvered the path towards ordination.

And now, years later, I continue to experience the influence of that community in my life.  Every time I preside at the Eucharist, I remember their support.  When I share my story, my faith journey, I know that that support prepared the way for me to experience Christ.

When I ponder this, when I imagine, that each moment and person served a purpose, I am amazed.  I could not see it at the time.  And now, I see, the people and places strung together reaching back generations leading us here to this moment.

Time, though, does not end here.  It stretches forward into the future reminding me that we are all part of a greater story: a reminder that we are all part of a larger purpose.

Can we imagine that our lives are woven together for a purpose?
Can we imagine that our life together is a sign of God’s mercy and grace 
for each of us
Can we imagine that we have a role in God’s work in the world; that our ministry will prepare the way, straighten the path for someone else to experience Christ?

John did.  John imagined that the work he did made a difference in God’s kingdom. He imagined that his life is a vehicle for others to experience Christ.  He stood at the edge of the wilderness and called the people of Israel into a particular way of life.  He did not do this for his own sake, his own ambition or self-satisfaction.  He was a prophet for the sake of God’s kingdom and God’s work in the world.  He took seriously the call of Isaiah and prepared the way for God’s work in the world.
John’s ministry is also our own. We are all part of God’s story.  We all have a role to play.  

We are all messengers of God’s grace and mercy.

Thanks be to God!

Friday, December 2, 2011

Tear Open the Heavens and Come Down: Advent 1 Year B

It’s our reading from Isaiah that really spoke to me this week. I am struck by the image of a prophet appealing for God’s intervention.  Haven’t we all been there: yearning for God to intervene in our lives? And I take great comfort in the knowledge that one of the greatest prophets had those feelings. 

The book of Isaiah spans over several centuries and periods during Israel’s history. Isaiah tells the story of Israel during war, devastation, exile and, eventually, return to Jerusalem. Isaiah, though, is a prophet, not a historian. The foundation of his storytelling is theology: connecting God and God’s activity to God’s people. So, the prophet often finds himself in the middle, triangulated between God and the people. 

There are many themes in Isaiah’s prophecy: the primacy of The Law, caring for the weak, the justice and judgment of God.  And, Isaiah has one final resolve: to return Israel’s reliance and faith to God no matter their circumstance. Isaiah knows that when Israel depends fully on YHWH they will know the full compassion and mercy of God.

Our reading this morning falls in the third section of Isaiah. Written during the fall of Babylon, it chronicles the return of God’s people to Jerusalem. This particular section focuses on conflict within the community: Israel’s internal turmoil rather than external politics. 

And their internal conflict has everything to do with their relationship with God. During their exile from Israel, the people felt abandoned by God. And so, they abandon The Law, God’s way. Feeling lost and defeated, they begin to practice the religion of their conquerors. As they return to Jerusalem, they continue to worship other gods, continuing to ignore The Law, to ignore YHWH.  These practices create great divisions and break down the community of Israel. They forget to care for one another, putting their ways before all others.  Isaiah knows there is only one solution: God’s intervention. 

So, as we read in our text today, Isaiah cries out for God’s intrusion into history.  He appeals to God as Creator and Father to show God’s self to the people. Isaiah believes that once Israel knows that God is with them, they will return to God. 
Oh that thou wouldest rend the heavens, that thou wouldest come down, that the mountains might flow down at thy presence…O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence…
How will God intervene? God will leave the heavenly throne and establish God’s self on Earth.  With this act, God will bring peace, justice and righteousness for God’s people. This is the ultimate intrusion of God in history. It is exactly what Isaiah asks of God today.  

It is no coincidence that we read this text on the First Sunday of Advent. Advent is the season when we prepare for the coming of God’s son: Jesus, the Messiah. This is a two-fold event. Of course, we celebrate the first coming of Christ: Jesus’ birth into the world. During Advent, though, we also prepare for Christ’s second coming.

I know, I know: we rarely, if ever, talk about Jesus’ second coming.  We associate this event with strange cult figures who declare the end of the world. Or strange images from Revelation of winged and multiple-eyed creatures.  Our reading from Mark’s Gospel doesn’t help. Which one of us yearns for the day when the sun and moon will darken, stars will fall from heaven and the Son of Man will come on clouds of power and glory? Which one of us is ready for that day?

Let’s face it:  we prefer to focus on the baby Jesus instead of the heavenly One.  The baby Jesus is easier to celebrate. Everyone loves a baby, especially one who doesn’t keep us awake at night.  To focus on Jesus’ second coming requires us, in the words of Mark, to keep awake. To prepare for Christmas during Advent,
allows us to focus our attention on the past: that time when God came among us.  The call of Advent, though, also requires us to look at our present and future.  Advent asks us to imagine that God did more than act in history.  Advent reminds us that Christ is human and divine, a precious child and a heavenly king. 

This is good news. We need both.  Christ’s humanity is a sign of God’s care and compassion for creation.  Christ’s power and glory is a reminder that He is more than one of us.  He is also One with God.  He is the bearer of God’s kingdom: God’s peace and justice for all creation.  Jesus’ coming among us binds us fully to God: through his humanity and divinity.

Take a look around us. Our world is full of problems: hunger, poverty, injustice, disease, and war.  And there’s no doubt that we seek to cure these ailments.  We depend on science for our cures, government for our conflicts and entertainment to soothe us. We give money, collect food, volunteer, offer a listening ear and friendly advice.  Still, even with great confidence in our strength, we cannot solve these problems. It seems there will never be a time of peace, justice and well-being.  Yet Advent stands as a reminder that God has intervened before and will come among us again.

Isaiah has his time, his moment of asking for God’s intervention.  Advent is our time, our moment to ask for God to perform awesome deeds once more, to “tear open the heavens and come down.”

And so, Advent is a time of hope.  It is our time to remember how Christ’s birth began a new era and brought a new way of life.  It is our time to believe that God will act in history again.  We say our prayers; we decorate our homes; we sing comforting and soothing carols.  We volunteer more, collect more food and go to Church more often.  This is all watchful living: participating in and recognizing God’s actions in in our world. And these are all expressions of our yearning for God’s presence among us.  This yearning is a sign of confidence and trust in God.  Christ’s life among us was one of healing and mercy, the revelation that this is the heart of God.  When Christ comes in power and glory, the heart of God will rule creation.  This is the root of Christian hope: that one day God will come down from the heavenly throne and establish God’s self in creation.

May Advent make us ready to receive Christ among us: as a precious child and as “…the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory...”

Peace be with you this Advent,

Monday, November 21, 2011

Christ the King, Baptism and an Advent Fair All Before Noon

Happy Monday!  It's officially my day off, only today I'm breaking my own rule: I'm working on my day off.  I know, I know: not always the best choice.  Here's the thing though, I have Vestry (our church governing board) and two days off at the end of the I'll spend today writing some sermons and a Rector's report.

A RECTOR'S REPORT!  YIPPEE!  I never imagined I'd be a Rector, and, even when I did, I never imagined I'd love it this much.  The last few weeks have been FULL.  We had our Stewardship Campaign, Annual Meeting and a Baptism.  My days are full of bulletin editing, pastoral calls and hoping that I'll not make too many whoopsies (stolen from Bishop Knudsen).  And I love every minute.  Never in my life have I embraced such a challenge.  And somehow, I find myself boldly stepping forward into each new day, wondering what might happen.  I'm not sure how to say all this in a Rector's report (they usually include an attendance report and ministry updates).  Maybe I don't need to.  Maybe it's enough to show up at Vestry, give thanks for everyone sitting around the table and pass out my one page.

I don't have a sermon to post from yesterday (I have posted the last two).  We had a Baptism yesterday...and it was wonderful (have I mentioned I love ministry at Trinity Church)!

There are few, if any, words to describe the privilege of offering thanks for the water of Baptism, receiving a small child into your arms, and bathing them  in the name of Christ.  There is great mystery and power in our sacraments.  And this was never more true for me than yesterday.  The water was warm and clear.  The mother handed me the child with trust and grace.  And as I held the child, poured water on his head and anointed him with oil, the presence of God was palpable: The Risen Christ was there.

After the Baptism, I gathered the children (all girls by the way!) at the front.  Together, we began to imagine Christ as King.  The children reminded all of us that Christ is a King who takes care of us.  Certainly, I felt Christ's love as I lifted the baby up and presented him to the Church: he is a child of God and, no matter what, Christ will care for him.

After Church, many of us gathered in the Parish Hall for coffee hour.  There were a few remnants of our Advent Fair on the tables: felt Advent Wreaths, clothespin creches and Advent calendar garland.  As I drove home, I realized that I'm not ready for Advent.  I suppose few of us are.  It's a reminder to take a moment, somewhere between Thanksgiving and Black Friday, to begin to get ready.  Maybe it's as simple as placing four candles on the table, while giving thanks for Christ's ministry among us.

All of this happened before noon.

I spent the rest of the day trying to be mom and wife: Girl Scouts, grocery store, crafts, chores, dinner and bedtime.  Trying is the operative word there.  If I feel inadequate to be a Rector, I feel even more inadequate as a parent and wife.  I find I move from moment to moment with an intense emotional struggle trying to discipline and love my children all at the same time.  It's exhausting.  And, of course, the Sunday before Thanksgiving the grocery store was packed (what was I thinking!).  By 8pm, my husband and I found ourselves laying on the couch letting our minds and bodies rest.  And that night, as I fell asleep, I gave thanks for all of it: Christ who cares for us, Baptisms and Advent Fairs, wild children and tired husbands.
All in all, it was a good day: one more day of life in the faith lane...Thanks be to God! 

What would Jesus do: Proper 28 Year A

The Parable of the Talents comes at a crucial moment in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus is in Jerusalem. He has cleared the temple and argued with the Pharisees and scribes. Moreover, he has denounced them and foretold the destruction of the Temple. At the end of this section of Matthew’s Gospel, the chief priests and elders are plotting Jesus’ death. Jesus stands at the precipice of Holy Week. 

Today’s parable is part of a series of stories and images describing the coming of God’s kingdom. The disciples have asked him when God’s kingdom will come and Jesus tells them how.  He tells the disciples stories of hostility and conflict. He warns them that the Temple will become a place of worship for other gods. He speaks of persecution and false Messiahs. Then, he tells four stories: comparing the faithful and the unfaithful slave, the parable of the ten bridesmaids, the parable of the talents and the separation of the sheep and the goats. Each one of these images does more than describe the coming of God’s kingdom. They seek to prepare the disciples for time between their present and their future.

Today’s parable speaks directly to how the disciples should live while they wait for God’s kingdom. It is not a story about money. It is not a story about gifts. It is a story of transformation.

Here are the facts of the parable. There are three slaves; each entrusted with money from the master.  Two of the slaves invest and double their money. The third slave buries his money.  It appears that he buries his money out of fear of the master.  The master rewards the first two slaves for their success and punishes the last. 

Scholars often say that this parable is a straightforward allegory. Jesus is the man. The disciples are the slaves. The property is the Gospel and mission of God’s kingdom. Therefore, Jesus entrusts the disciples with the task of spreading the message of God’s kingdom. There is more, though, to the parable than the allegory. 

Let’s consider the last slave and his predicament. During the time of Jesus, burying money was an acceptable form of protection. This was especially important if the money was stolen.  If the money was buried right after receipt, the slave was absolved of responsibility for the lost money.  Plus, the only way to increase your wealth, at the time, was by fraudulent means.  Anyone seen increasing their worth was suspicious and dishonorable. 

By burying the money, the third slave seems to protect the money, his life and place in the community. The irony is that in his effort to protect his life and the talent, he suffers the greatest consequence.  Hiding and hoarding the talent does not protect or sustain him.  Instead, the third slave seals his demise. 

There’s another important detail. A talent equals almost 6000 denarii;  so, the first slave receives the equivalent of around  30,000 denarii. This is a small fortune; frankly, it’s unimaginable.  What master would entrust a slave, nay three slaves, with a small fortune?
The parable is more than allegory. It is hyperbole, an utter exaggeration. 

Imagine the disciples. They’ve come to Jesus with a serious question, “Tell us when God’s kingdom will arrive.” He’s answered them with apocalyptic images and no definite answer or timeline.   Then, he tells them these four stories: each one ending with harsh judgment. 

Of the four stories, this one supports a life fundamentally different from what the disciples know. The amount of money alone would have grabbed their attention. Then, punishing the one who buried the money is shocking. Together, these exaggerations invite the disciples into a profoundly different way of life.

Remember, this all begins when the disciples ask Jesus to tell them when God’s kingdom will reign. Jesus’ answer to the disciples paints a gruesome picture. He speaks of false messiahs, war, famines and earthquakes. He warns the disciples that they will be tortured and put to death. He calls for their watchfulness, to be ready for the kingdom to come at any moment. None of this is very enticing or resembles a positive marketing plan. Instead, these descriptions resemble a warning: discipleship is demanding and challenging.  If the disciples want to participate in God’s kingdom, their whole lives will undergo dramatic change. The disciples never get an answer to their question; instead, they receive a challenge to live differently.

This is the point I’m trying to make. When the disciples hear this story, they hear something different than we do. We expect that the slaves will invest and double the money of the master. We are surprised when the one slave buries his treasure. For the disciples, it is the other way around. Jesus uses this parable to teach and encourage the disciples to take a risk that will alter their lives.

Jesus gives the disciples, anyone who follows Him, a great treasure: the Gospel.  The Gospel is the way, the truth and the life about God and God’s relationship with creation. This is primarily a life of grace, mercy, forgiveness and peace: Jesus’ life personifies these characteristics.   The Gospel of Matthew shows clearly how Jesus’ way gets Him, and those who follow Him, in trouble.  The Pharisees and scribes, the religious authorities, do not trust or support Jesus. Jesus also threatens the authority of the Empire. His way always works for the dignity and justice of every person, especially those at the base of society:the sick, widows, and slaves. As Jesus gives them the power of God’s kingdom, He undermines human power and authority.  If the disciples choose to follow His way, God’s way, they must also live this way: eating with sinners, healing the sick and working on behalf of the slave. Jesus died because of His way of life. And Jesus warns the disciples that they will also face persecution, torture and death. The temptation, then, to hide the gift of the Gospel is strong.

Now, let’s be honest: we do not face physical persecution, torture or death for our faith. None of us will lose our lives, today, for being Christians. 

And, being a Christian still changes our lives. Other than Jesus, our Baptismal Covenant is the best model, for how we are changed. It reminds us that proclaiming the Gospel with our lives is no easy task. It requires forgiveness as the core of all we do. It challenges us to respect the dignity of EVERY human being, and seek and serve Christ in ALL persons. It dares us to work for justice and peace. To live this way is akin to looking like a fraud because we invest our treasure instead of burying it. Being a Christian means we do things differently than the way we’ve always done them.

The Parable of the Talents invites us to make a choice. I will confess I do not really appreciate the parables tactics. I’m never fond of anyone being sent into outer darkness. And the weeping and gnashing of teeth always makes my teeth hurt. Yet, the end, the end that bothers me so much, is essential. Yes, the disciples take a great risk when they share with others the treasure they’ve received. There is a greater risk: denying and losing our relationship with God. The Parable invites us to embrace the gift of the Gospel despite the risks.

We are all in a constant state of transformation: learning and becoming more of who God calls us to be.  None of us reaches a state of perfection. The parable does not demand that we reach some goal. Instead, it asks us to try; to follow Christ even (or especially) when it means doing something differently.

I want to end with a prayer adapted from a blessing I heard this week from Bishop Knudsen: 
Almighty and eternal God, giver of life and creation, we ask for your grace that we may never sell ourselves short.  Give us this grace that we may risk something big for something good, remember that the world is too dangerous now for anything but Truth, and too small for anything but Love.  And so, we offer ourselves to your service through your Son, Jesus Christ Our Lord.  Amen.

An Ancient Story, Our Story: Proper 27 Year A

Well, here we are. Today is our Stewardship Ingathering. Today, we gather up our pledges and offer them to God. It is an important day in our life together. It is an opportunity to choose to serve God through the ministries of Trinity Church.
For a moment, let’s turn our hearts to an ancient story.

Once upon a time in a land far, far away there lived a man named Joshua. On this particular day, he offers his last speech as the leader of Israel. His goal: to remind them who they are and renew their commitment to YHWH. He begins with the great ancestors: Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob, Rachel and Leah.  These nomads traveled the land searching for and finding God.  In their wandering, they discovered God’s mercy, faithfulness and justice.  And, no matter how many times they turned away, God was always there. Then, there is Moses, the one who led them through the Red Sea  and out of slavery in Egypt. 

Joshua remembers Moses. Most likely, he sat at Moses’ feet, learning the ways and wisdom of God from the prophet. Moses anointed Joshua the leader of Israel and commissioned him to lead Israel into the Promised Land.

This was no small task: occupying the Promised Land. Joshua led the people into battle.  His skills as a soldier and warrior led the way. Joshua, though, is also an expert in the law. Like Moses, he is a prophet, reminding the people that their life means nothing without YHWH. 

As Israel made their home in this new land, they were tempted to accept and follow other gods. Their journey with Joshua is not only about land; it is also about their relationship with YHWH; it is a test of their faithfulness.

Joshua tells the story of the Israelites to remind them of their salvation. God has brought them into a new life, a life free from slavery.  This is a new beginning and it is all from God. So now they have a choice: “Now therefore revere the LORD, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River, and in Egypt, and serve the LORD…”  The Israelites must leave behind their other gods, the gods forsaken by their ancestors. In exchange for their new life, they must serve only YHWH.

The Israelites respond with a resounding yes, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the LORD to serve other gods,…” they say, “…Therefore, we…will serve the LORD, for he is our God.” It seems to be a forthright, honest answer. Joshua, though, does not accept their quick response. He challenges them, “You cannot serve the LORD, for he is a holy God.”  Joshua knows that serving God is not an easy choice.  It requires more than words, witnessing miracles or conquering the land. To serve YHWH, the people of Israel must return their hearts to YHWH.  To say yes to God demands their fidelity in all things, forsaking all others gods. They must do more than say yes; they must live and follow ONLY the way of YHWH.

The story of the Israelites is not so different from our own. Each one of us comes from a long line of ancestors whose stories influence our own.  The stories of our families offer reminders of God’s work in our lives and the world around us. Trinity Church also has a story to tell, a history that offers a reminder of God’s faithfulness to us.  It’s important to remember these stories, to put our lives in a larger context. The leaders of Israel often invited the people to renew their covenant with YHWH.  We, too, must take a moment and renew our own faith.

What is our covenant with God and how do renew our promises, our relationship, with God?  

At our Baptism, there are two primary events: our lives are bound to God and we are bound to one another.  The water of baptism signifies a new birth into the life, death and resurrection of Christ. This means that God’s mercy and grace are a guarantee; they are sure and certain. This new life is the one thing we all have in common. Because we are all members of Christ, we are members of each other. This is how we become Church; our faith unites us.

The gift of Baptism does not require a response. Yet, as our faith matures, we do respond. As we begin to claim our faith, we do respond to God’s gift of grace and mercy. 

Our Baptismal Covenant defines this in two ways: our beliefs and our way of life. As Christians, we claim One God who is our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. This claim means we forsake all other gods’ power in our life.  This means that before all other things, we follow Christ. It influences every aspect of our lives;
it influences the way we live. We become more and more inclined to forgive, to work for justice and peace, and to serve others. Our Baptism does more than declare what we believe, it is the beginning of a way of life.

We renew this Covenant, the Baptismal Covenant, every time we baptize. Several things happen during this renewal. First, we remember that we are not alone. We renew the Baptismal Covenant as a community.  This is a faithful reminder that the journey of faith is more than an individual experience. We make these promises together; we are a people of faith and a community of faith. Second, the response to each way of the Covenant is: “I will, with God’s help.”  It is akin to Joshua questioning the Israelites. It is a faithful reminder that these are not easy promises; this is not an easy way.  It is by the grace of God that we are able to be faithful. At the end, a remarkable thing happens: we find that, once again, we are bound to God and one another.

Today, Joshua renews Israel’s covenant with YHWH. Then, he places a stone in their midst as a witness to their promises.  This is a common tradition in Ancient Israel, akin to building an altar in a holy place. 

We do not have a Baptism today.   Yet, today, we make a promise.  Our Stewardship Ingathering is one way that we renew our commitment to Christ’s life in our midst. As members of Trinity Church, our ministries are an outpouring of our Baptismal promises.

Our pledges of financial support are witnesses to the ongoing ministry of Christ in our midst. Generations of faithful parishioners created a way for us today.  They made a choice to serve God here, in this place. Today, we make the same choice. And our pledge cards are our witnesses. As we place them on the altar, we make a choice: to serve God here, in this place. 

If you’ve made a pledge to Trinity Church. Thank you. Thank you for your support and trust. 

If you’ve not made a pledge, I ask you to explore the ministries of Trinity and your life here.   I hope you’ve found a safe, inviting place to experience Christ in your life. I hope that you’ve found a way to express your own vocation and ministry here. I hope you will reconsider and make a pledge as a witness to your life in Christ and Christ’s work here.

No matter what: I hope we all leave here refreshed, renewed and ready to serve God with our whole lives.  This is who we are: faithful stewards of Christ’s body, the Church.  May God grant us the strength and courage to serve God in all that we do.    

Friday, November 4, 2011

This is Stewardship: Proper 24 Year A

I’m a huge WUKY listener. Before that, I listened to KERA and KXT.  And there’s always WWNO.  Now, with the internet, I can listen to any of them whenever I want, depending on my mood. Sometimes, I even listen to KSKA. These are all public radio stations and each one is different. I’m currently in love with WUKY because I love the music. 

There’s only one problem: pledge drives. I yearn for a button on my radio that allows me to skip the pledge drive. Y’know, one that says, “I’m excused because I already made my pledge.” There is no button, however. Instead, twice a year, I faithfully listen (or sometimes I don’t).

I can almost hear the conversation:
I love church. Right now, I attend Trinity. Before that, I was a member of Christ Church.  I grew up, though, at Christ the King. And sometimes I attend The Presbyterian Church. I like them all for different reasons and, most Sundays, I always feel uplifted, ready to take on the week.  There’s only one problem: Stewardship. It’s so uncomfortable talking about money. I always put something in the plate. I know churches have to raise money and we should all give. It’s just not why I go to church.
Now, maybe I’m just being a cynic. Or maybe I’m projecting my own frustration onto congregations.  Maybe some people really enjoy talking about stewardship (if so, I’d love for you to be next year’s Stewardship Chair; let’s talk).  My cynicism is my own frustration that stewardship and money have become so mixed up: Annual Giving campaigns synonymous with Stewardship campaigns. 

Like you, I’ve heard many stewardship sermons. Most of them were inspiring. Even if uninspiring, they were always right; it is our responsibility to care for the church.  Today, I add my voice to the mix. Perhaps my words will be inspiring; at least, I hope you agree with me that we are stewards of the church. Today, I offer my first stewardship sermon.

I find it ironic, that, of all days in the lectionary, today is the day Jesus is confronted about taxes. The Pharisees and scribes are upset. Jesus has just told three parables that essentially describe all of their negative character traits. In the parable of the two sons, they are the unrighteous son who forsakes his commitment to his father. In the parable of the wicked tenants, they are the tenants who deny the authority of the landowner. Then, in the wedding banquet parable, they are unprepared for the coming of God’s kingdom. Each description has one root problem: the Pharisees and Scribes are corrupted by their authority and power. This critique does not make them happy. More than that, Jesus threatens them: the crowds give him authority and he claims this as the authority of God.  They respond to Jesus’ critique with trickery. Rather than confront him themselves, they send in their disciples and some Herodians (political friends of Herod).  There are so many levels of trickery here, I can’t keep track of them all. What it comes down to is this: whatever Jesus says is wrong and, therefore, a rebel.  If the Pharisees and scribes can entrap him as a rebel, then they can easily get rid of him. 

Only, in typical Jesus fashion, he turns everything around. He asks to see a coin. Here’s the thing: the coin bore the image of Caesar. In the Roman Empire, Caesar was divine. The Pharisees, then, felt that carrying the coin and paying taxes was idolatrous. The Herodians, meanwhile, were pro-tax, pro-Roman.   The simple fact that they carry the coins makes them idolaters in the minds of the Pharisees. Except, now they are their allies. And, when the coin is revealed, Jesus, once again, exposes the corruption of the Pharisees.

The point of the Gospel is not really about taxes; it’s not why the disciples and Herodians ask the question and it’s not why Jesus answers. The Pharisees and scribes find their authority in telling people what it means to be faithful to Yahweh. This way, their way, centers on the law: the Torah’s 613 commandments. Jesus’ way follows one law, one commandment: love the Lord your God with all your heart, your mind and your soul. He responds to the question about taxes in the same vein: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  Now, I cannot pretend to fully understand Jesus’ words here. Indeed, I believe I am only beginning to understand them. And, I understand enough to know that if we believe God is the creator, then all of creation is God’s. It doesn’t matter, then, what we give to the emperor.  What matters is how we return our lives to God. The point of the Gospel is how we live a life of faith, a life that follows God’s way.

This is how I understand it. My life is not my own. God gave me the gift of this life and my faith, my belief, requires me to give this life back to God. There is no correct percentage or amount.  Instead, my purpose, my vocation is to serve God with my whole life. This is path of discipleship; it is also stewardship: caring for something that does not belong to us.

Church is one of the places where we go to experience God. We experience God in our families, in our community and in our worship. Maybe one of the readings suddenly speaks wisdom and discernment in our lives. Maybe a smile, handshake or hug during the peace reminds us we’re not alone.  Maybe when we receive the bread and wine, we experience God’s grace and mercy in our lives. We may claim these things (wisdom, community, mercy) as our own. Or we may understand them as gifts from God. If we understand that they are gifts, then we know that they are God’s and we are stewards of them. As stewards of God’s gifts in our lives, we must offer them back to God. How do we return these to God?  We offer our lives as a vehicle for others to experience God’s gifts in their lives.

Over the next few weeks, you will receive several pleas to support Trinity financially. I hope you will make a pledge to our operating budget for 2012. I hope you make a pledge not because you “should” or always have. I hope you pledge because somewhere or sometime along the way, you experienced God’s grace here.   I hope you make your pledge with the confidence that Trinity will offer that experience to someone else. It may sometimes feel that Stewardship is like an annual giving campaign: give in order to receive. This is not an annual giving campaign. This is Stewardship: giving as an offering to God with hope that the gifts we receive here will grow for the sake of God’s kingdom.

Did you hear the one about the King and the Wedding Banquet?: Proper 23 Year A

This is what I imagine: a feast, a table full of glorious food.  There is roast lamb and potatoes, plates of olives and hummus, tomatoes, cucumbers and cheese. The table is set for hundreds, thousands, of guests. The host sits, waiting anxiously for the guests. Only no one comes. The hall is empty. 

Can you imagine: the food wasted, the host disappointed and discouraged; not once but twice. 

Now, if you or I hosted a party and no one came, we might get angry or disappointed. A king, though, that is a bit different, kings are powerful, they demand attention; they are used to getting their way. 

And in today’s parable, it is true that the king is snubbed. It is also true that the king is attackedhis slaves are “seized, mistreated and killed.”  I do not know one king who does not respond to violence with violence. 

The king in today’s parable is embarrassed and abused.  In his anger, the king attacks his new enemies. The king uses his power to react, to punish those who insult him.

This is what I imagine: the king strides into the castle, sweaty from battle.  Throwing his armor towards his slave, he gives the next command, “Go into the city and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet."  The slave cowers as he backs out of the room in anxious obedience. 

The twist of the parable comes at the very end. From the beginning, the story seems to follow a script we all know: banquets, kings and the drama of kingdoms. Then, the unexpected happens; the king sees something we do not: a guest without a wedding robe. As the king strides forward, the possibilities are endless: maybe he will offer him a robe; perhaps there will be hand-to-hand combat. The man, though, is speechless. The king does more than throw him out. He condemns him.  The parable leaves us wondering what just happened and why; what does it all mean. 

For the last three weeks, we have listened to some difficult parables, especially the last two. Last week’s images of the landowner and his tenants along with this week’s image of the king disturb me. 

In the context of every day storytelling, they might be normal, average characters. In the Gospels, they could offer insight into God’s way in the midst of the culture. In Matthew’s Gospel, their aggression and violence seem contrary to Jesus’ acts of mercy.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve studied many commentaries on these parables. I find none of them satisfying.  Here’s why: each commentator turns these parables into specific allegories.  These allegories pair each character with a known historical event. They also pair the main figures, the landowner and the king, with God. Read in this way, these parables are not portraits of God’s mercy or forgiveness. Instead, they portray God as one who seeks vengeance on all who rebel against God’s kingdom. 
Now, this may be true: God may be vengeful and destroy those who rebel against God’s kingdom.  I realize that the reading from Exodus does portray God’s anger at the Israelites. However, the Exodus reading also portrays the mercy of God. I believe that God’s mercy and love for creation gracefully overcomes wrath, vengeance and anger.

So, I do not easily accept the commentaries I’ve read. Instead, I want to challenge them.  I want to imagine the other interpretations and meanings of the parables.

This is the purpose of a parable: to invite us into God’s story. Every good story entices the reader or listener to imagine ourselves in the story. Over time, our place in the story shifts and changes. A story with only one meaning is one-dimensional and, eventually, we outgrow those stories. Jesus’ parables are multi-dimensional;
they leave space for us to find ourselves in the story, even as we grow and change.

The parables are also part of a larger story, the story of the Gospels. Many of the parables are in each of the Gospels. However, rarely are they in the same order or surrounded by the same material. For example, a story, much like today’s, appears in chapter 14 of Luke’s Gospel. Yet, in Luke’s Gospel, the parable focuses on those who accept the invitation to the banquet. In fact, in Luke’s Gospel, there is no man without a wedding robe, no weeping and gnashing of teeth. Luke wrote his Gospel for wealthy Gentiles. He focuses on humility and generosity, care for the poor and sick.  Matthew, on the other hand, is writing for a Jewish community exiled from the Temple and synagogue. He focuses on how Jesus’ teachings weave together with the law and the prophets. The parable, then, takes on a different character and meaning in each Gospel.

In the context of Matthew’s Gospel, one thing is clear: these parables are for the Pharisees and the scribes.  We know that under the Pharisees and scribes the law had become unbearably strict.  In many ways, the Pharisees and scribes commitment to the law outweighed their commitment to God. The path of salvation, from their perspective, is only through the law; they have forgotten the mercy and forgiveness of God. 

The Pharisees and scribes are the ones the people turn to for access and understanding of God. However, because of their corruption, instead of leading people to God, they have become barriers.   When they confront Jesus on his authority, he uses these parables to confront them

Imagine this. What if the Pharisees and the scribes interpret themselves as the landowner, tenants or king? Would they delight in hearing themselves portrayed with such uncontrolled violence and aggression? What if the man without a wedding robe is Jesus? What if the disciples, and all those who the Pharisees and the scribes reject, are the slaves? What do these parables reveal about us? 

We know that there were selfish landowners who denied their tenants enough fruit of the land to live. We can imagine that these tenants would eventually lash out at those tyrants and reject their authority. We know that there are kings who snubbed by the elite in their kingdom and suffered rebellion. We can imagine that these kings, in their self-righteousness, would reject the guest who can help them. We can imagine that our selfishness and self-righteousness stand as barriers to our experience of God. 

This is what I know. 

Every Sunday we prepare a simple meal of bread and wine. It is not fancy or extravagant. This meal is the same meal Jesus shared with his disciples. It is the same meal where he offered his life to them that they would experience the grace of God. Every Sunday, we invite Jesus to our table and he comes. Every Sunday he meets us here, clothed in the grace and mercy of God. I know that sometimes we cannot accept his offer of grace; that there are barriers, stumbling blocks, things in our lives that keep us from accepting God’s grace. I also know that Jesus is still meets us here, he still comes to the banquet, every week. I know he is ready to transform our lives with the gift of hope and the wisdom of God’s mercy.

Thanks be to God!

Letting God Fall In: Proper 22 Year A

Let’s go back to the beginning; all the way back; back to Genesis: “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth…” What follows is the story of creation: water, land, sun, moon, animals, plants,
and, of course, Adam and Eve. This is not just any beginning. This is our beginning. 

Like any good story, there is a twist. Something goes wrong and nothing is ever the same. From the moment Eve and Adam eat of that fruit, creation presses onward yearning for God. 

So the story, our story, grows.  We tell stories of our ancestors surviving floods and raising buildings to reach to God. We remember how the Israelites wandered in the desert and the Law given to Moses. We listen as the prophets and the people struggle with the call to follow the law, to love God. It is all one story: the story of God’s people. 

The people of Israel are central to this story. Indeed, their story takes up the majority of the Hebrew Scriptures. Their story begins in Exodus.  There they escape captivity in Egypt and wander the desert for forty years. Along the way, a lot of things happen, a lot of things. And Moses is a central character.

Moses is so important he gets his own book: Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy is 34 chapters long and it is Moses’ last speech. 

The people of Israel stand at the edge of the Promised Land and Moses is dying. Here he tells the story, at least three times, of Israel’s relationship with YHWH.  (It is akin to listening to your grandfather tell you the same story three times in a row: you feel compelled to listen despite the high potential for boredom.) 

(I know, right now you’re thinking, “Wait.  Did we read from Deuteronomy?  
What did I miss?”  Trust me, it’ll all come together…I hope.) 

In chapter six, Moses says to the people, 
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.  Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house  and on your gates.
 These are perhaps some of my favorite pieces of scripture; they are the reason that we still find tiny scrolls, mezuzahs, attached to the doorways of houses: they contain the first verse of what I just read.  This is the shema y’israel prayer and is centerpiece of morning and evening Jewish services. The tradition is to touch the scroll as you pass the doorpost. It is a reminder of the first commandment, the great commandment. This is the core of Israel’s life: follow this commandment and you find YHWH.

Last week, I had the pleasure of being with Brother Curtis Almquist. He is the former superior of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, an Episcopal Order in Massachusetts. It is my privilege to say I’ve known Curtis a long time; I’ve learned a lot from him. His lectures were on failure, disappointment, silence and solitude. 

Curtis began his talk on failure and disappointment with these verses from Deuteronomy. He wondered the impact of placing the Torah, the shema, on our hearts. He said, “The Torah is laid on our hearts so that when our hearts break, God will fall in and we will remember.” And it is the re-membering, the rediscovery of whose and who we are, that heals the broken heart. 

Failure and disappointment, then, are not the end, they are invitations to experience God in our lives.
I mentioned last week that Paul’s letter to the Philippians is a letter of friendship. Paul had a special relationship with the community in Philippi. While establishing The Church in Philippi, Paul experienced dramatic persecution. 

Acts 16 tells us that the authorities dragged Paul, along with Silas, into the marketplace. There they were attacked, flogged and imprisoned. Of course, this is not the end of Paul’s story. Instead, the jailer is converted, Paul and Silas are set free, and many came to believe in Christ. After Paul leaves Philippi, an extraordinary thing happens: the people begin supporting him financially and he accepts their support. The Philippians community was extremely poor and it is uncommon for Paul to accept financial support. His acceptance of their gifts indicates a particular relationship: they appear to be the fruits of their friendship.  

Paul’s letter to the Philippians, then, is a deeply personal and letter. Paul speaks frankly about his own life and faith.  He writes, 
For [Christ’s] sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him…I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death…
Before his conversion, Paul was the ultimate Jew. He followed every word of the law; his belief in the law as the path to salvation was so strong, he persecuted those who did not believe. Then, something happened, and everything changed. Paul became zealous for Christ: he gives his entire life, empties himself, on behalf of Christ. 

Chapter 9 of Acts tells the story of how Paul’s life changed. The moment, though, that stays with me,
is the moment when Paul is relieved of his blindness, 
And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored.  Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
This is one of those moments in life, one of those dramatic shifts, when nothing is ever the same.  Somewhere along the way, Paul’s enthusiasm for the law was corrupted.  His passion was fueled, not by God’s way, but by Paul’s way: his confidence and self-righteousness. Then, during those three days of blindness, Paul’s heart breaks and God falls in. He begins to remember who and whose he is.

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.  
Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart...” 

Who are you? Who am I? 

We are children of God, created by God with vision and purpose. 

Along the way, our lives will twist and turn, every life does. Scripture tells a story of a God who never leaves us, no matter what. God consistently remains actively at work in our world and our lives. In the words of Brother Almquist, “God is very frugal and wastes nothing.”   We are part of God’s story and our hearts will break. The good news is that when they break God will fall in; we will remember who and whose we are. We will return and find new life through the grace and mercy of God.

Thanks be to God!

Mutual Love and Friendship: Proper 21 Year A

Last weekend, our vestry held a four hour working retreat. We were led by a colleague and friend, The Reverend Ron Pogue, Interim Rector of Good Shepherd in Lexington. We choose to have this retreat for one reason: we are still in transition. 

Our current vestry has been frozen for two years. In other words, there’s been no election of new vestry members during the search for a Rector. This means that some of our vestry members have served for four years. Their leadership was especially vital to the life of Trinity during the interim: ensuring the most basic aspects of our life together continued. Now, as they transition off the vestry, we do not want to lose their input. Now is the time to capture their knowledge, wisdom and discernment for the future of Trinity.

We began with the usual “getting to know you” games and then Ron asked us an interesting question: If Trinity’s doors were permanently locked, closed permanently, what would the community miss? Of course, we know what we would miss. The twist of the question is what the community would miss. Said another way: how does our community, Danville/Boyle County, know us? 

It’s an interesting question. For me, it evokes more questions. How do we, Trinity Church, want to be known? Who are we as a community? What inspires us to open our Red Doors, not only on Sundays? Who does God call us, Trinity Church, to be? 

My guess is that right now, today, if we passed out slips of paper to answer these questions, there would be many answers. And each one would be sufficient, satisfactory, accurate.  As the vestry sought to answer this question, we sought to be faithful: faithful to our Church and faithful to God.

I don’t usually preach on all three readings. It’s an intimidating task: drawing a connection between three readings written over a period of thousands of years. Yet, as I studied this week’s readings, I found at least one consistency. Together, our readings paint a portrait of God and call us deeper into Discipleship.

Let’s begin with Exodus. 

Over the last few weeks, the Book of Exodus has described Israel’s slavery and escape from Egypt. We witnessed Moses and the burning bush, the feast of the Passover and the parting of the Red Sea. 
Now, we hear the complaining of Israel. Last week, they were desperate for food. This week they want water. We may laugh or chuckle at their whining, but we can’t really blame them. How many times do we find ourselves in the same position? The irony is that God always provides exactly what the Israelites,
what weneed. God’s provisions may be unexpected: a light, flaky frostlike substance for food and water from a rock.  Nonetheless, the readings remind us: God is reliable; we can trust God for all our needs

Then there’s Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Like most, if not all, of Paul’s letter, the letter to the Philippians is a letter of support. Paul’s basic aim is to unite the belief and practices of each community he serves. 

For the people of Philippi, Paul focuses on the value of friendship.  This friendship is the bond we have with Christ. Our experience of Christ’s love, God’s grace, binds us to one another. This is not a new theme for Paul or for us. In his letter to the Philippians, thoughfriendship is where spreading the Gospel begins. This kind of friendship requires two things: love of Christ and love for one another. This love urges them to grow and be transformed by Christ. It also makes them a bold proclamation of the Gospel. The community, then, must have two core values: following Christ’s humility and living in mutual love. 
These core values are centered in the person of Christ. The hymn found in the middle of today’s passage is an ancient hymn, a song of the early church. It emphasizes Christ’s humility and obedience. The root words for the Greek word obedience mean to listen; it’s opposite is to be deaf.  Obedience, then, requires us to listen, to hear and follow God’s call.  The hymn makes it clear that Jesus is a humble leader.  He sets aside his desires and listens for God. He earnestly seeks to remove all the barriers, including humanity’s deafness, to follow God. Paul makes it clear that we must do the same. We must set our selves aside, our desires, setting aside every barrier in order to hear and follow God. This includes putting the needs of others before our own, living in service to one another. This is Discipleship: living in mutual love and friendship for the sake of Christ and the Gospel. 

We do this by the sharing of the Spirit and following Christ’s humble leadership. 

This brings me to the Gospel. Today we have another parable, another story of God’s kingdom.  It is the story of one son who says Yes and does nothing. The other says No, then changes his mind and goes. 

The parable is told in the context of Jesus’ confrontation with the Pharisees and the Scribes. (This portion is excluded in our reading today.) They, of course, are trying to entrap Him. And, He, in turn, entraps them. 

The Pharisees and Scribes question Jesus’ authority; He turns to the authority of John.  The Pharisees and Scribes, protecting their authority and power, will not answer Jesus.  And Jesus tells this parable.

The parable is rather easy to interpret. God calls each of us to participate in the work of God’s kingdom.  There are some who claim to participate; yet, they are deaf to God’s activity in the world. And there are others who, initially balk at the call, then something happens. They become witnesses to God in their midst and full participants in God’s work in the world. Jesus makes it clear: by their refusal to participate in His life, the Pharisees and scribes are aliens of God’s kingdom. Those who follow Christ, who are transformed by Discipleshipare bearers of God’s kingdom. 

Together, then, these three readings are guides for our community. Like the people of Israel, we must trust GodGod has already given us all we need and this will not stop.  As we grow and are transformed, God will continue to give us all we need. 

Meanwhile, we must root ourselves in the humility and love of Christ. Our humility is a reflection of God’s grace known to us in the love of Christ. This love will transform us as we seek to serve others and make us bold as we proclaim the Gospel. Finally, the parable reminds us that even our “No” can be transformed. As we witness God’s work, our faith will grow and we will hear God’s call in our lives.     

The Vestry will be working over the next few months to make space for us to listen. They will work to ensure that our parish runs smoothly: consistent worship, budget and ministry. It is our hope that this consistency will remind us to rely on God and draw us closer to one another. From there, we hope that we will do more than hear the call into the vineyard. It is our hope that this work will call us deeper into God’s purpose and align us closer to God’s way. And we hope that you will join the Vestry in this work. I know some of you already have.  Maybe you’re called to serve in worship, serve on a committee or lead a fellowship event. There are many ways to share your faith and proclaim the Gospel.  And God calls us each to be full participants and witnesses to Christ’s love in our midst. 

Finally, it is Christ’s love that will care for us, bind us to one another and transform us.  It is Christ’s love that will guide us into the future.