Sunday, September 25, 2016

Sermon . . . Not

Today was my last day at the parish.  I'm taking this upcoming week off as vacation while I work on the last of the details before we leave town.  Consequently I didn't do any sermon prep this past week and decided I'd just do it on the fly.

Luckily it was an easy gospel lesson:

"Jesus said, 'There was a rich man who dressed in purple and fine linen and feasted sumptuously every day.  Outside his gate lay Lazarus, a poor man, who wished for even some scraps from his table and even the dogs would come and lick his sores'."

The parable goes on to say they both died, the rich man being everlastingly tormented for how he treated Lazarus, and Lazarus being delivered to everlasting life.

In my last sermon to the parish I said two things:  Not only are we called to care for the less fortunate among us (as the rich man clearly did not), but we are also called to SEE those who are less fortunate than ourselves.  We may not be able to help a person, we may not be able to get them off the street, we may not be able to house everybody, we may not be able to employ everyone, but we can SEE them.  We can recognize them as people.  We can, as our baptismal covenant says, "Respect the dignity of every human being."

Don't neglect to see those outside our gates.

Service was followed by a potluck brunch with some lovely parting gifts and well-wishes all around.  There were some tears.  There was some laughter.  There was the acknowledgement that we were all taking off on a new adventure.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Sermon; Collect for Proper 20C

Collect for Proper 20C

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

It's not often I preach on the Collect; I may have done so one other time, but I can't remember exactly.  As I was going through the readings for today, nothing was jumping out at me.  And, to be honest, with all my books packed away, the activity around the new chancel project, making final visitations to shut-ins, and a myriad of other things going on last week, I really didn't have the time to sit and work on a sermon like I normally do.

Packing the office.  Packing the house.  A family spat as the deadline gets closer and the stress increases.  Closing out accounts.  Filing paperwork for a new house.  Sending deposit checks.  Changing addresses.  Yes, there's a little anxiety in the Young household.

There is also a little anxiety around here.  There was the building project.  There are issues around supply clergy.  There is the attempt to locate an interim priest.  The pledge campaign is upon us.  Advent and Christmas are fast approaching.  Vestry positions need to be filled.  And the list goes on.

But as I was being pressed upon from all sides, as I was beginning to feel the pressure and anxiety levels increase, I read the Collect for today.  Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things.

Grant us to not be anxious.  To not be anxious about packing.  To not be anxious about moving 3000 miles with two cats.  To not be anxious about who will fill in on Sundays.  To not be anxious about where we go from here.

Don't get me wrong – this isn't about not having a care in the world.  This isn't about happily floating downstream letting the current take you where it will.  This isn't about not planning.  This is about being non-anxious.  One way for me to be non-anxious is to plan.

I have a list of things I need to accomplish before the move.  Utilities to discontinue.  Hotels to find.  Friends to contact.  What needs to be packed and what needs to stay.  Having that list and working through it helps keep me on track and helps cut down the level of anxiety.

Likewise John Barnard is also planning for the future and he has his own list.  He has been inundated by calls, e-mails, and conversations from people offering to be on the Search Team.  And while it's great to know that people want to be involved, that's not where you start.  John is putting together a list of supply clergy.  He, the Vestry, and the Bishop are working on the details of calling an interim.  St. Luke's needs to spend some time in evaluating where you are and where you think you need to be.  An accurate profile needs to be developed.  A lot needs to be done.  There's a list.  And hopefully that list will help ease the anxiety.

Love things heavenly and hold fast to that which shall endure.

All this will pass away.  Our anxieties and stress will all pass away.  What will not pass away is God.  What will remain is love.
How might we, in the midst of our anxieties, become un-anxious?  How might we, while living in the midst of things that are passing away, hold fast to that which endures?  One way is to make a list to keep things straight and manageable.

Another way is to pray and worship.

How often do you sit and intentionally pray?  And I’m not talking about a quick grace at meals or a parking lot prayer, but intentionally praying.  How often do you sit in silence to focus on and listen to God?

How often do you read Scripture?  Not just the good parts, not just what you get on Sunday, but how often do you read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest?  Pray the Psalms through the month.  Pray one Psalm for a month.  Find one verse that quickly centers you.  Learn what verses are saying in context.

Can you commit to participating in worship regularly or more often?  Sunday Eucharist is obviously the main worship service, but there are other opportunities.  Morning Prayer will continue; can you commit to getting up a little earlier once a week?  Can you expand that to three or five times a week?  Would the choir host a monthly Evensong service?

Prayer and worship can draw us closer to God if we let them, and if we participate in them.  Prayer and worship draw us into the holy presence of God.  Prayer and worship allow us to see what will not pass away and what will remain.  Prayer and worship allow us to hold fast to that which endures.

These are anxious times for everyone.  May I suggest making this Collect not just the Collect for today, but the Collect of our lives – or at least the Collect of the next few months.

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Sermon; 17 Pentecost, Proper 19C; Luke 15:1-10

Today isn't so much a sermon as it is a reflection.  Or maybe it is a sermon; I’ll let you decide.

For almost everyone here today this will be, hopefully, something new.  For a select few, this will all sound vaguely, or maybe very, familiar.  For those select few, all I can say is, “Yes, you have heard this before.”

Six years ago on this very Sunday I preached on this very gospel.  The situations between that day and today are eerily similar.  On that day in a small Montana parish, I was looking into the face of my future.  On that day my small Montana parish was being visited by four people from what would become my new parish.  That decision was still several weeks away, but we had a sense that both the end and beginning were near.

In that sermon I compared the two parishes, Christ Church and St. Luke's, to the sheep in today's parable.  In one sense, Christ Church represented the 99 sheep who had a shepherd that was about to leave them to go help the lone sheep that was represented by St. Luke's.  In another sense, St. Luke's represented the 99 sheep who were patiently waiting for the return of the shepherd.  And now, six years later on this very same Sunday, I find myself preaching a very similar sermon.  How's that for coming full circle?

Right now you are the 99 sheep.  Right now some of you are feeling like your shepherd has left you alone in the wilderness to fend for yourselves.  And that's not wrong or bad, it just is.

St. Luke's is entering a wilderness period.  One way to look at the wilderness is as a wild and untamed country.  A place full of lions, tigers, and bears.  Or a place full of spiders, snakes, and pestilence.  A place where you realize that really, when you get right down to it, we are not at the top of the food chain.  And if you are not prepared to wander through the wilderness, if you don't have the right equipment or the right skills, the wilderness is a scary place to be.

But being in the wilderness can have another connotation.  Ishmael, son of Abraham by Hagar, lived in the wilderness and became an expert with the bow.  The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years before coming into the Promised Land.  Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness before beginning his ministry.  In these examples, the time in the wilderness wasn't about lions, tigers, bears, spiders, and snakes, although there was probably some of that.  What these wilderness experiences were about was learning who they were.

Ishmael, son of Abraham and Hagar, scorned by Sarah, banished from the family by his father, lived in the wilderness.  It was in the wilderness that he learned to use the bow.  It was in the wilderness that he learned he could survive without his father's help.  It was in the wilderness where he learned to be his own person.

The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years.  It was in the wilderness where they learned to escape from the bondage of slavery.  It was in the wilderness where they learned to be free.  It was in the wilderness where they learned who they were as an independent nation.

Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness.  It was in the wilderness where he clarified his call.  It was in the wilderness where he learned how he could best live into that call.  It was in the wilderness where he came to terms with being fully human and fully divine.

The wilderness isn't solely a place of trials and temptations, a place of loneliness and doubt.  Those can be elements of the wilderness, but they aren't the entirety of it.  The wilderness is also a place of learning.

Ishmael learned to use a bow.  Israel learned what it meant to be free.  Jesus learned what it was to be God's only begotten Son.  St. Luke's is entering a wilderness period.  What will you learn?

How did St. Luke's get here?
What is the most important thing about St. Luke's?
What is our vision for the future?
Who do we want to become?
Who are we now?

These and many more questions are needing to be asked about the past, present, and future.  And hopefully the questions asked will generate answers that cause you to learn about yourself and St. Luke's.

The shepherd is leaving you 99 in the wilderness.  That's not necessarily a bad thing.  But before you go wandering off, or before you get all panicky about lions, tigers, bears, spiders, and snakes, spend some time in wilderness learning.

Because what you learn in the wilderness will shape how you live on the other side.


Sunday, September 04, 2016

Sermon; 16 Pentecost/Proper 18C; Jeremiah 18:1-11

This reading from Jeremiah can seem to portray God as the omnipotent potter or puppeteer who does what he wills and we have no say in any of it.  It can be read in an unfortunate, free-will absent, Calvinistic, predestinational way.  God will do what he wills with us.  God will do what he wills to us.  As Judas sang in Jesus Christ Superstar, “Everything is fixed and you can't change it.”

That is a hopeless, helpless, and careless view of God, and a view I choose not to follow.

There are a few things in this reading that indicate this is not a monstrously Calvinistic reflection of predestination.  First, notice that God doesn't dictate words to Jeremiah.  God doesn't say, “Speak these words to Israel.”  Instead, God says, “Go down to the potter's house and I will let you hear my words.”

Jeremiah went to the potter's house where he watched him mold clay.  The word of the Lord can come to us in some surprising places; all we have to do is be open to listening.  I’ve mentioned this before, but this is what I’ve referred to as, “finding the extraordinary in the ordinary.”  Jeremiah heard the voice of God while watching a potter at work – one of the most ordinary things he could have done.

And what did he see?  He saw the potter begin shaping a vessel and, when that didn't work out, shaping another.  By now we've probably all heard songs or poems or sermons about God being the potter and we are his clay.  I won't disagree with that.  But, as usual, there's more to it than just that simple, homey image.

Notice that, as clay, we don't change.  Clay remains clay throughout the process.  We remain us as we allow God to work with us.  Clay can be re-molded over and over again.  So can we, if we allow it.  Our outer nature may change, but we are still us.  Clay starts out as a hard lump, difficult to work with, and it gets easier over time.  We can be the same way.  We are a lump that God has trouble working with; but over time, it does get easier.

Maybe that's where the change comes from – the more we get used to having God work in our lives, the easier and more refined and defined we become.  Which, of course, means the more willing we are to be shaped by God, the easier it is to live into that which God is shaping us.

And finally, there's a tenderness in God's voice here.  Go to the potter's house and I will let you hear my voice.  If you live rightly, I will change my mind.  Turn and amend your ways.  There's a sense of pleading here on God's part.  There's a sense that we are in this together.  It's not all about punishment and wrath.  There is the sense and knowledge that God allows us to behave as we wish, but in allowing that free will, a sense of sadness at choosing to live apart from God.

I think this passage applies equally to us today as it was meant to apply to the people of Israel in Jeremiah's day.  First, we need to listen for the extraordinary voice of God in the ordinariness of our every day lives.  I’m reminded of that great psalm of praise here that heard the extraordinary voice of God in the ordinary of every day life:

I see skies of blue, and clouds of white
the bright blessed day, the dark sacred night.
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.

God is everywhere if we but open our eyes and ears.

Second, we are God's clay.  Sometimes we are hard to work with.  Sometimes what was planned doesn't come out just right or isn't right for a particular job or there's another thing we can become altogether.  And like clay, the more we allow God to work with us, the more easily we can be molded.

Finally, God is pleading with us to make right choices.  God is not dictating the choices we make, but God does desire we make right choices.  Sometimes those choices are easy – don't steal, don't kill, don't bear false witness.  Other times the choices we make are not always as clear.

St. Luke's is in a period of fuzzy decision making.  Or maybe I should say that St. Luke's is needing to make good decisions in a period of fuzziness.  And the only advice I can give you is this:

Listen for God in your daily life;
Allow yourselves to be molded and shaped often enough so that being formed into something new isn't a painful experience;
Understand that God really does want the best for you.

Because this reading from Jeremiah isn't a reflection on predestination, it's a reflection on being willing to hear an extraordinary God in ordinary places and allowing yourself to be molded into what God has in mind for you.


Sunday, August 28, 2016

Sermon; 15 Pentecost/Proper 17C; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16, Luke 14:1, 7-14

Let mutual love continue.  Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers.

This section of Hebrews is a listing of behaviors the Christian community was admonished and expected to live by.  Show hospitality. Visit those who are in prison.  Remain faithful to your spouse.  Avoid the love of money.  Do not neglect to do good and share what you have.

On the surface these are just good things to do.  Play nice.  Help those in trouble.  Don't steal.  Share your toys.  Maybe being a Christian really is like being in kindergarten.  But, as usual, it's more deep and more complicated than that.

At the heart of these behavioral ground rules is the idea that we are not simply living for ourselves.  These ground rules point us toward living with a responsibility to others; they remind us that we are all part of the one body of Christ, and that we have an obligation to ensure that all parts of the body are not only functioning, but healthy.  Simply put, we can't be completely healthy if we only focus on ourselves.

For us to be completely healthy, we must have both an inward and outward focus; we must examine ourselves as well as looking beyond our walls.  This section of Hebrews addresses that outside focus.  Show hospitality to strangers.  Among other things, greet, welcome, and engage people who come through our doors.  It also means we need to pay attention to how we deal with others when we are outside our doors.  Are we hospitable to people on the street or to those not like us?  There are innumerable ways to show hospitality to others.

Remember those in prison.  This was certainly a concern for a Christian community that faced persecution and imprisonment in their day.  Today, however, people's very homes can become a prison; and far too many people are trapped in these modern prisons and forgotten.  Visit our shut-ins and do not forget them.

Remain free from the love of money.  Money is necessary, but loving money becomes problematic.  If we love money, we see giving to others as harmful to us.  If we love money, we develop ways to avoid all kinds of things that could help the common good and the health of the community.  If we love money, we end up dedicating our lives not to God, but to George.

Do not neglect to do good and share what you have.  How much stuff do we have?  How much stuff do we we really need?  Can we, or are we willing to, share what we have with others?  Joelene and I are in the process of preparing for our upcoming move.  We are trying to figure out just how much stuff we can share with others.  It may be that our biggest hurdle is the belief that “we might need it someday.”

Within this passage from Hebrews is an understanding that we are not the center of attention.  It really isn't all about us – it's about the body of Christ in particular and the larger community in general.  It's about remembering to have an outward focus.

This same outward focus shows up in today's gospel as well.  Jesus is at a banquet and notices people jockeying for position in attempts to attain the important social standing.  He tells two stories – or, one parable and one piece of advice.

In the parable Jesus tells his listeners to be more concerned with others than with themselves.  Don't be so quick to make yourself the center of attention.  In fact, choose to raise up others before yourself.  There are plenty of people in society who proclaim themselves to be the greatest or best, and who are more than happy to elevate themselves to society's upper echelons.  Jesus basically says, “Don't do that.  Let God determine who are the greatest.”

Jesus makes that point even more clear when he gives a piece of advice to the host.  “When you throw a banquet,” he says, “don't invite those who are able to repay you – friends, relatives, or rich neighbors.  Invite instead the poor, crippled, lame, and blind.”

There are a lot of different directions we could go with this, but I want to tie it back to the reading from the Letter to the Hebrews.  Once again we are being told that Christianity requires us to look beyond ourselves.  Once again we are being told that Christianity requires us to look beyond our walls.  And once again we are reminded that these readings from Scripture really do pertain to us today.

To whom do we show hospitality?  How many of our shut-ins get visited on a regular basis?  With whom are we sharing our gifts and resources?  Are we feeding, sheltering, clothing, or caring for those in need?

As we move forward both in our lives and in our faith, I am hopeful that we can begin to develop an outward focus.

That's not to say that we shouldn't make time for self-care.  We do need to spend time focusing on and developing ourselves.  But a continual inward focus is not healthy.  An organization or individual with a solely inward focus is an organization or an individual that is ultimately unhealthy.  The Dead Sea is a body of water that is completely inwardly focused, there's no outward focus, no outlet.  As such, we also need an outward focus.

Another way of talking about an outward focus is to ask, “What is our mission?”

Opportunities for mission surround us and are plentiful.  This past week I’ve had three requests for fuel assistance, two people asking for a hotel room because the mission was full, one person offering to work for cash, and another looking for food because all the normal places were closed.  Add to that the needs of the students at Ft. Vannoy and there is no shortage of outside places in which to focus our energies.

What is our outward focus?  What is our mission?  Do we have one?  Do we want one?  These are just a few gospel questions that we need to be asking ourselves in the very near future.

Whatever that mission is, whatever that outward focus becomes, then, as today's closing line from Hebrews says, the sacrifice we make will be pleasing to God.


Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Teachable Moments

Yesterday I had a new official with me in the car.  Not always, but often, the conversation turns to religion in general and my job in particular.  That's especially the case when I have a newbie riding with me, or I'm the newbie and the guys want to learn about me.  Yesterday was the former.

"So will you be going to the same church or a different church when you move?"

"What do you mean?"

"Well, are you going to the same type of church, or are you going to something totally different?"

"I'll be going to the same type of church, yes."

"And what religion are you again?"

"I'm a Christian."

"Well, yeah .... but what kind?"

"I'm an Episcopalian.  So I'll be going to another Episcopal church."

Silence ....

"An Epicospahwhut?"

"Episcopalian ... E -- pih -- Scuh -- Pay -- lian ... just like it's spelled."

"And what is that?"

Here we go .... "In short, we're basically in between the Roman Catholics and the Protestants."

"Huh . . . well I knew there were Catholics and Christians, but I didn't know ..."

"Stop right there ... Catholics ARE Christians."

"Yeah, okay ... but weren't there the Christians first and then the Catholics broke off from that."

**Sigh**  I refrained from slamming my head against the steering wheel.

"Where do you attend church?"

"I go to Local Independent Conservative Bible Believing Church."

"Ah ...."

Here's hoping his grasp of football rules is better than his grasp of Religion 101.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Sermon; 14 Pentecost, Proper 16C; Jeremiah 1:4-10

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.  I appointed you a prophet.  Do not be afraid, for I am with you.”

I find these words from Jeremiah to be some of the most challenging and comforting words in Scripture.  Among other things, this passage is one of the optional first readings at diaconal ordinations.  This makes it a challenging reading.

It's challenging because, really, who am I to proclaim the Word of God?  Who am I to be a prophet?  Who am I, or how can I, live up to the expectations of God?  These are just a few thoughts running through the head of a person about to be ordained into the Sacred Order of Deacons.

But I also find it comforting.  As a deacon-to-be, I remember reading through this passage and reminding myself that this whole ordination thing wasn't my idea.  I wasn't doing it to stroke my ego.  I wasn't doing it because I had visions of grandeur.  I certainly wasn't doing it as a career move.  I was doing it because I became convinced, as were those around me, that this was something to which “before I was born God consecrated me.”  It may be a challenge, but it's comforting to know it was God's idea in the beginning.

It is also comforting to hear the words, “Do not be afraid, for I am with you.”  This is different than the angels who say, “Do not be afraid” in an attempt to calm people down.  This is letting us know that we are not alone.  It's letting us know that God has our back.  It's like when you had a bad dream and your parent says, “Don't be afraid, I'm with you.”

Besides the sentimentality of the above comforting words, it's important for us to remember that this is a call story.  God is calling Jeremiah into a prophetic ministry.  And if you remember from last week, being called by God and identifying as a follower of God doesn't guarantee we will live the life of a televangelist.  As Hebrews pointed out, it's more likely we will live in poverty, be flogged, sawn in two, or executed.  God is calling Jeremiah into a difficult and challenging task, a task fraught with opposition, persecution, and rejection.  God is preparing him for that experience by telling him, “I called you, I will give you words to speak, and I will be with you.”

I’ve said this before and I'm sure I’ll say it again, but the longer I use and pay attention to the lectionary, the more I am open to seeing God's handiwork in it.

As I said, this lesson from Jeremiah is a call story.  It is a story of God calling a person out to speak God's word to the people around him.  It is a story of that person wondering, “Who am I that God should call me?  Who am I to speak the Word of the Lord?”

And, like last week, we are asked the question: What does this passage have to say to us today?

I think a lot.

First, know that you are not in this place by accident.  Before you were formed, God knew you.  Before you were born, God consecrated you.  Just like Jeremiah was called to be a prophet, you have been called to this place.  You have a particular message to speak on behalf of God to the people of Grants Pass.

Second, just as Jeremiah was called into difficult places and difficult times, so are you called.  This is a difficult place to preach the gospel and these are difficult times.  You need to discover what it is that you love about St. Luke's and you need to find a way to relay that love to others in the community.  Maybe you can start by telling each other what that is.  Practice it at coffee hour.  Spend time learning about yourself and others.  Get comfortable with talking to people about your faith, and then go preach it.

Finally, do not be afraid, for God is with you to deliver you.  That's not to say things won't be difficult and probably stressful, but know that you have been called to this place.  You have been called to preach the good news of God in Christ.  Not only have you been called, but you are being sent out.  It may not be far, but you are being sent.

And in that calling and sending, God will be with you.  Do not be afraid.

Just as Jeremiah was called to pull down, destroy, and overthrow, you are called to pull down the walls of division, destroy the insidious nature of inaction, and overthrow the bonds of fear.  Just as Jeremiah was called to pluck up, build, and plant, you are called to pluck up your courage, build upon the bonds of affection this place offers, and plant the seeds of  love.

You and Jeremiah have a lot in common.  As Jeremiah was to speak the Word of the Lord to the people of Judah, so you are to speak the Word of the Lord to the people of Grants Pass.

Do not be afraid of that call or of that challenge, for God is with you.