Sunday, October 15, 2017

Sermon; 19 Pentecost/Proper 23A; Matthew 22:1-14

Here we go again with yet another brutal and damning parable that lends itself to replacement theology. But while the earlier parables required thoughtful interpretation to come to the conclusion that Christians could also find themselves in trouble if we don't live appropriately, today's parable is explicitly direct at and inclusive of us latecomers into God's kingdom.

In today's story we have a king who wants to throw a wedding banquet for his son. In this story he is not an absentee landowner coming to collect his share of the produce. Here he is an active part of the lives of his subjects and works to bring them all into the party. Like the other parables we have heard, the villagers want no part of what the king is asking/offering.

And like the earlier stories, the king turns to others who will participate in an appropriate manner; previously by throwing out the existing tenants and today by sending out his army to totally destroy the city and kill the inhabitants.

And here we need to pause, because there are two issues we need to address. First is that, in this time and place, the king is ultimately destroying his own property. Maybe not the smartest move. And the second is a scholarly thought that this story indicates Matthew was written after the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans in 70 c.e. The thought is that this story was a Christian interpretation of events in the life of Judaism – again a supersessionist form of theology.

Despite that, now we move to a place where all are invited, both good and bad. This can be a reference back to Jesus' claim that even “the tax collectors and prostitutes” will come into the kingdom of God. It can also possibly reflect the all-inclusive theology found in Acts. We now have a scene where the king has filled his banquet hall with all manner of people.

And this is where the parable becomes pointedly directed at Christians. Yes, we believe that God's invitation and grace have been extended to all people, both good and bad, equally. But here we have Jesus telling us directly that it is one of these new people, it is one of the people picked off the street to join in the banquet, it is one of the late comers, it is one of us, who is suddenly bound hand and foot and thrown into the outer darkness.

If the other parables hinted at it, this parable is explicit – God has expectations and just because we've been invited doesn't mean we have a free ride. What is going on here where a person who accepts a last-minute invitation is tossed out for failing to live up to the dress code? Not everyone keeps a spare tux or gown handy in case they receive one of these last-minute invitations. And on top of that, the king asks him how he got in. Um . . . you invited him! It seems that the king is really to blame here.

But those are surface concerns and we need to look a little deeper. This isn't just a parable, but an allegory in which everything stands for something else. We need to follow this through to the end, and that's exactly where this portion of the story takes place – the end.

The king is God. The son is Jesus. The banquet hall represents the Church. The good and bad people who are invited in represent all those brought into the Church through its evangelistic mission – “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” The wedding robe/garment represents the Christian life. And the ejection from the banquet hall into the outer darkness represents the final judgment at the end of the age.

That wedding robe essentially represents the good fruit we talked about last week. The wedding robe signifies that our baptism really is a significant change in our lives, or should be. Loving God, loving our neighbors, living in peace, unity, gentleness, with self-control, and an outward focus that clothes the naked, waters the thirsty, welcomes the stranger, and feeds the hungry is the fabric of our wedding robe.

When we accept the invitation to come to the party we are also accepting the responsibility to behave as if we belong here. When we accept the invitation to eat at the heavenly banquet, we also accept the responsibility to live with a sense of awe and wonder, a sense of thankfulness and joy, and a desire to see that others partake of this feast.

In some sense it's a little like when I say, “The Lord be with you.” __________________, and that lackluster response follows. One possibility is for me to give you another chance and say, “Act like you want to be here!” Another possibility would be for me to say, “If you don't want to be here, feel free to leave.” So let's do this again: The Lord be with you. ____________________.

In a biblical sense, though, this parable is a prelude to Matthew 25:31-46 in which Jesus tells of the separation of the sheep and goats. Those who feed, clothe, welcome, and visit are welcome to stay at the banquet, while those who do not are removed. It also looks back to Matthew 7:21-23 where Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my father.”

We invite all. We welcome all. But with the acceptance of that invitation are expectations. Those expectations are to bear good fruit. Those expectations are to proclaim the gospel. Those expectations are to work for justice and peace. Those expectations are to respect the dignity of every human being.

Ultimately I don't think this story is meant to scare the hell out of us. Instead, I think it's meant to encourage us to live as if we were clothed in a wedding garment fit for a feast.

So, as we move forward in our faith and out into the world, I want to encourage you to see Christianity as the fabric of your life; something you put on every day and live like you mean it. And to borrow a phrase from the Rite of Confirmation: May the Holy Spirit, who has begun a good work in you, direct and uphold you in the service of Christ and his kingdom.


Sunday, October 08, 2017

Sermon; 18 Pentecost/Proper 22A; Matthew 21:33-46

Once again we are confronted with angry passages about the failure of Israel to hold up their end of the covenant with God. Or maybe it's about their desire to control what God has given them for selfish purposes and gain. The problem, though, is that the parables we have been hearing recently with the theme of replacements eventually gave rise to something called supersessionism; a theology stating that Christianity is the full and complete revelation of God that replaces and eliminates Judaism. As you might expect, this can have catastrophic consequences for Jewish people.

Using this theology it is easy for us to say that we are the new chosen people. It is easy for us to say that we are better or more special than others. And when we begin thinking that way it's not beyond imagination that we become overly possessive of what we feel is rightly ours, even to the point of resorting to violence in order to keep it. But again, using this parable as a story about Jews losing favor with God and being replaced by Christians is a convenient way for us to dodge our responsibilities as Christians. In other words, we cannot look at biblical texts meant for a specific audience and think we are off the hook.

This parable was not only directed at the religious leaders of Jesus' day, but it is directed at all people down through the ages who put their own self-interests above the mission of God. And with that in mind, I think the key line in this passage is this: “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces fruits of the kingdom.”

Jesus talks several times about producing good fruit. Obviously in this parable, but also in the parable of the sower and a few others where he says that bad trees don't produce good fruit, and vice-versa. But even though he talks about his followers or the children of the kingdom producing good fruit, he never actually says what good fruit is – only that we will know it when we see it.

For guidelines on what good fruit is, we need to look elsewhere, and there's probably no better place to look than in Paul's letter to the Galatians. The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These are the fruits of the kingdom. These are the behaviors that come about when we love God, love our neighbor, and have a kingdom mindset.

Paul sets those traits over and above bad fruit: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. Whereas the behaviors above, those kingdom behaviors, or the fruit of the Spirit, are outwardly directed, these behaviors, what Paul calls the works of the flesh, are inwardly directed. They are all about us. And this is where we get into trouble. This is where we run the risk of being removed from the kingdom and having it given to others who will produce good fruit.

There are a few things on that bad fruit list I want to address.

Idolatry: There are lots of ways to define idolatry, but basically it is the worship of a thing over and above that which it represents. Worshiping the Bible over and above God. Worshiping the flag over and above the best ideals of the country. Some people view icons this way, as a worshiping of a picture or statue over and above God. We need to ask ourselves what we are worshiping and if we are more attached to the thing or to what is behind the thing.

Envy and Anger: These two things often, not always, but often, go hand in hand. We become envious of what someone else has, or for what we don't have, or for a perceived entitlement that we think is undeserved, and that enviousness can lead to anger. That anger can take many forms. Maybe it's anger at having to treat people equally. Maybe it's anger at not being able to spout racist or misogynistic views in public. Envy and anger can be very deep-seated and, if left unchecked, can explode in hateful and deadly acts – like deciding to shoot people in a movie theater, elementary school, or outdoor concert.

The people in the vineyard were put there to care for it and see that it produced good fruit. Instead, they idolized their position to a point where they forgot who was the source of that vineyard. And then they became envious and angry to the point of abusing and killing those representing the landowner – God.

It's easy to allow the works of the flesh to gain control because it's easy to care only about ourselves. It's easy to focus on me, myself, and I without regard to others. But we are not called to follow an easy path. We are called to do the hard work of producing good fruit. We are called to express love, patience, generosity, and self-control.

It has been my experience that, for the most part, we here are producing good fruit. However, because we are imperfect humans, we also occasionally fall into the trap of being inwardly focused. But I also think that we are self-aware enough to know when we fall into that trap and are self-assured enough to say, “I think we missed here.”

Let us continue to look beyond ourselves. Let us continue to produce good fruit. Let us continue to use these parables not as proof of our goodness, but as a warning to stay focused on the mission of God over and above the catering to our own selfish desires.


Sunday, October 01, 2017

Sermon; 17 Pentecost/Proper 21; Baptism of Rafael, Alexandra, and Randel

Today we welcome three new people into the household of God. Today we baptize with water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, three people and seal them with holy oil marking them as Christ's own for ever. Today we sign the adoption papers for Rafael, Alexandra, and Randel. Today these three young people take their first steps in their walk with Christ. Today their journey begins.

As with any first steps there will be stumbles and falls. As with any journey there will be joys and disappointments, awe-inspiring vistas and boring scenery, wrong turns, set backs, sorrows, and joys. These are things we have all experienced, and things we continue to experience. Some of these will be shared and some of them will be specific to each child.

As I've said, baptism is that act by which we are adopted into the household of God. Today's lessons don't really lend themselves to baptism, but there are a few things we can take away. The Collect for today makes a petition that, through the fullness of God's grace, we may run to obtain God's promises and become partakers of a heavenly treasure. I like that imagery, especially for today.

Paul often talks about the promises of God, beginning with the patriarchs and being fulfilled in Christ's resurrection. Through our baptism we also become partakers of those promises. Beginning with our baptism we run to obtain those promises.

Baptism, though, is not the finish line. Baptism is the starting line. Baptism is where our Christian journey begins, not where it ends. Those who are baptized are grafted into the body of Christ. Those new members will draw strength and nourishment from this body – from us, from the Church, and from Christ himself.

During today's service all baptized Christians will renew their own vows by reciting the Baptismal Covenant. Do you believe in God the Father? Do you believe in God the Son? Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit? Those, along with five other behavioral questions outline what we believe are how we should live lives grounded in the gospel. We should use this covenant as the basis for everything we do – from regular worship to respecting the dignity of every human being.

In the passage from Philippians Paul lays out his form, of sorts, of a baptismal covenant. Be of the same mind, have the same love, do nothing from selfish ambition, look to the interests of others. Do these things because this is what Christ did. He didn't see himself as better than anyone, but he humbled himself and became obedient. And because of that obedience, God exalted him.

Our baptism doesn't make us better than anyone else. Our baptism allows us to empty ourselves, to have all our sin washed away, to be cleansed, and to be reborn as an obedient child of God.

That sinless bit, though, may not last long; but being sinless isn't the point. The point is that we have been reborn as a new creation in Christ. If you haven't noticed, new creations begin small – a seed, a sapling, a puppy, a baby – and grow over time.

Today we welcome three new creations into the world. Today we welcome three new members into the household of God. Today these three young people – Rafael, Alexandra, and Randel – begin their journey of running to obtain God's promises. Today these three people's lives will be bound together in the life of Christ who took the form of a human to show the rest of us what a life lived in total relationship with God could look like. Today these three people's lives will also be bound up with us, the parishioners of St. John's, as we help them along on their journey.

Today we celebrate a baptism – three of them, actually. Today would be a good time to reflect on your own Christian journey. Today would be a good time to re-read the Baptismal Covenant – how are you doing at regular worship, honest repentance, evangelism, loving your neighbor, and working for justice?

Baptisms are a time for celebration, but they are also a time to remember that they come at the beginning of our journey. And for that reason, they are a good opportunity for us to hit the Reset button as we continue running to obtain the promises of God.


Sunday, September 24, 2017

Sermon; 16 Pentecost/Proper 20A; Matthew 20:1-16

Today's gospel passage is one of those familiar ones that we think we hear more often than we actually do. The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who hires laborers first thing in the morning at the going daily/hourly rate. He must have been pushing to get the crop in because he goes out again and again at 9, at noon, at 3, and at 5 o'clock to find workers, promising to pay them a fair wage. At the end of the day he lines them up, the last hired to the first hired, and pays them all the same wage. At which point the first hired praised him for his generosity and wished that all business owners were so good to their employees . . . Not.

We know otherwise. The first hired complain that they should have been paid more based not on their original agreement with the landowner, but on their self-comparison to the last hired. From there all sorts of opinions and interpretations are birthed as to the meaning of this parable.

This has been described as a parable of justice, a parable of injustice, a parable of financial equality, a parable of human behavior, a warning against greed, a parable about Christians and Jews, and so much more. But the area I want to focus on today is grace, and not necessarily the grace of the landowner.

The ancient Christian tradition is to interpret this parable as the relationship between Jews and Christians. In other words, Jews have been God's chosen people since the calling of Abram way back in Genesis 12. They have been working for the kingdom of heaven essentially since the beginning. Comparatively speaking, Christians have been working for the kingdom of heaven only since 5 o'clock. Nevertheless, we are all graced with the same reward, and this generosity of God has been the cause of Jews complaining to God about Christians.

We need to be careful here. Because while that is one way to understand the parable, it is an interpretation that feeds into dissension and mistreatment.

This parable of the generous landowner is, I think, Matthew's version of the parable of the Prodigal Son over in Luke. In that parable the younger son leaves home, falls into poverty, returns home as a self-described slave, but is instead welcomed back with full restoration and a party, while the older son pouts outside. The father explains to the older son that it's not about where we have been, but it's about being restored.

In today's parable we have people who work all day (the older brother) and people who have hardly worked at all (the younger brother) being paid the same (welcomed back), the all-day laborers complaining they deserve more and the landowner (the father) explaining it's about his desire to see all people treated equally (full restoration).

And while both parables may have been told to the Jews with an eye toward the acceptance of others, we can't leave it there. We can no longer say it's about Jews and Christians and their attitude toward us.

We can no longer say that because we have been at this long enough now where we have become the all-day laborers. We have become the older brothers. This parable is a parable directed at those of us who have been working for the kingdom of heaven a long time and the grace we either extend to, or refuse to offer, those new people in our midst.

We just had a ministry fair not too long ago. During the fair we were all asked to list our talents and interests for areas we might be willing to serve. Those blue sheets were collected and collated and will be passed out at upcoming vestry and commission meetings with the instruction to make use of those people. As a volunteer, there is nothing worse than offering your time only to be ignored.

There are a variety of ways to sabotage a church, and this is one of them. There are any number of organizations or ministries in a parish that develop into fiefdoms – groups run by a select few who become territorial and resistant to newcomers and change. These fiefdoms do good things, but they may also work overtly or covertly to keep newcomers at bay. Requiring people to attend meetings for five years before allowing them to actually participate, giving people a job and then redoing it “correctly,” constantly pointing out what they did wrong, rebutting any new idea with, “We tried that six years ago and it didn't work,” are all ways these fiefdoms maintain control and reject new people.

But we aren't working to maintain individual fiefdoms – we are working for the spread of the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who actively seeks out people to come into his presence. The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who ensures that all people are treated equally, no matter when they showed up. The kingdom of heaven can be contaminated by people more interested in their own status than by the overall grace extended to all people.

As we work for the kingdom of heaven in the larger picture, and for the life and mission of St. John's in the immediate but smaller picture, we need to keep this parable in mind. It presents us with an image of both grace and selfishness. The image of grace comes from the landowner who wants to see everyone cared for, valued, and treated fairly. The image of selfishness comes from the all-day laborers who decided they are worth more simply because of their tenure.

This parable gives us a choice of behavior – that of segregating people by tenure and controlling our own personal fiefdoms, or that of recognizing we are ALL working for the kingdom of heaven regardless of time served and extend grace to all who enter our doors.

As we move forward, the way we treat and incorporate, or not, new people will determine how St. John's is viewed – as a loose affiliation of separate and selfish fiefdoms, or as a unified and grace-filled representation of the kingdom of heaven.


Sunday, September 17, 2017

Sermon; 15 Pentecost/Proper 19A; Matthew 18:21-35

Today's passage from both the Hebrew scripture and the gospel have to do with forgiveness. In the first lesson we hear of the final reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers. You may recall that, years earlier, the older brothers had tossed their spoiled, uppity younger brother into a dry well, debated about killing him, then sold him into slavery and passed him off as dead to their father.

“What if he still bears a grudge against us?” they ask. Um . . . ya' think??

So the brothers concoct another lie, telling Joseph that their father begged for forgiveness on their behalf. It's hard to tell from this passage if the brothers were reconciled because of the false edict from Jacob, or if Joseph really would have forgiven them no matter what. But the result of this story is that forgiveness wins the day.

Today's gospel also addresses forgiveness. Peter asks, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how many times should I forgive? As many as seven?”

Many translations have Peter asking how many times he needs to forgive his brother, not another member of the church, leading some people to postulate that Peter and Andrew had been arguing, or that this was intended to focus more on family issues. But the point is the same, how many times are we supposed to forgive a person who has hurt us? According to Jesus, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

One of the things we need to know about Matthew is that he is making the case for Jesus as the fulfillment of God in the Hebrew scriptures. He is arguing that this Jesus-movement thing is not a new religion, but a fulfillment of the Hebrew faith. We see this in the beginning of his gospel where he opens with the genealogy, or genesis, of Jesus. His first two chapters of the life of Jesus are, essentially, the story of Israel. Generations and dreams and the killing of infants and escapes into and out of Egypt all tie Jesus to the history of Israel. He also does this subtly in other places, like today's passage.

Do I forgive seven times? No, seventy-seven times. This also goes back to Genesis. There was a seven-fold vengeance placed on anyone who killed Cain for his killing of Abel. And Lamech proclaimed a seventy-seven-fold vengeance on anyone who attempted retribution against him for his murder of a young man. Matthew has Jesus going back to the Hebrew scripture and saying the level of forgiveness will be equal to or greater than the vengeance that was proclaimed.

Okay – enough Bible study and back to this issue of forgiveness.

Forgiveness is often misunderstood and it can never be forced. The line, “You're a Christian so you have to forgive me,” comes to mind. There seems to be a belief that forgiveness is simply granted because Jesus said so. But this does nothing to rectify the problem and places the onus all on the victim.

If I leave here and slam into Bill's car, and then say, “Sorry, please forgive me,” without doing anything about it, I'm not so sure bill has to forgive me. In the Rite of Reconciliation, the sinner can be asked to perform acts of penance or to make restitution as part of the act of forgiveness.

The disciplinary rubrics state that if a priest knows of a person who is living a notoriously evil life, they are to withhold Communion until repentance and amendment of life has been made.

Repentance, amendment of life, and forgiveness all go hand in hand. But does forgiveness REQUIRE someone to repent and change? That is a tricky question. Do I, as a priest, offer absolution on the condition of repentance, or do I offer it on the promise of repentance? That's a deep discussion.

But when talking about forgiveness, here's why I think Jesus throws out seventy-seven and why he tells the parable of the unforgiving servant.

Forgiveness, at its core, is about ourselves. Forgiveness doesn't mean we have to become best friends with those who have hurt us. Forgiveness doesn't mean we have to remain in a business partnership with someone who cheated us. It doesn't mean a woman needs to marry her abuser or rapist.

What it does mean is that we have to get to a point where we are not controlled by the hateful or hurtful actions of the person who caused us pain. Forgiveness means that we have reached the point where we can move on with our lives.

The best thing I've ever seen on forgiveness was a movie called, “Diary of a Mad Black Woman.” In short, a woman learns her lawyer-husband has been having an affair. She learns he had children with the other woman, then he throws her out of the house, all the while planning to marry his mistress. The next day he gets shot, leaving him crippled. The mistress leaves this now broken man, and the scorned wife becomes his legal caretaker. By the end of the movie it looks like they have patched things up and are ready to move forward together. Instead, she takes off her wedding ring, basically says, “I forgive you,” and walks out.

Forgiveness is about being able to live your life in such a way that you don't allow those who harmed you to continually harm you. It also means that we don't focus all our energy looking for revenge or payback. And if that takes seventy-seven times, so be it.

Otherwise, if we don't forgive others, we will end up living in a prison of our own making – just like the unforgiving servant in Jesus' parable.

Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. The question we need to be constantly asking is this: Are we seeking forgiveness, or are we seeking revenge? How we answer that question will determine how we live our lives.


Sunday, September 10, 2017

Sermon; Feast of St. John the Evangelist (tr.); 1 John 1:1-9

Feast of St. John the Evangelist (tr.)
1 John 1:1-9

Welcome to the annual St. John's Day Celebration and Ministry Fair. For those who pay attention to such things, the Feast of St. John is celebrated on December 27, but we received special permission from the bishop to transfer the St. John Propers to today. And, yes, I have to ask. But technicalities aside, “Welcome.” Welcome back the music at 8 a.m. Welcome back to our choir. Welcome back to our Sunday school teachers. Welcome back everyone who has been on vacation. And welcome to any and all visitors. Welcome to St. John's and today's festivities.

This congregation takes its name from St. John the Evangelist. I don't know why that name was chosen or assigned, because it's not like there is a shortage of parishes named St. John's in these parts. But let me venture a guess.

I would guess that the reason for taking on this name is because of the beauty of both the fourth gospel and the three letters attributed to author whom tradition calls John. The fourth gospel and those three letters are beautiful pieces of literature.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.
All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.
God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.
This is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.

Add to this their high christology and theme of love that runs not only through these writings, but as the overall theme of the New Testament, and it's no wonder why St. John is a popular patron.

And I believe with my whole heart that this particular parish of St. John's reflects the best of our patron Saint. The beauty of the gospel and letters are reflected in the beauty of this space. From the steeple to the altar, we gather in a beautiful space. The beauty we see here can seem other-worldly. The beauty of this space breathes holiness. The beauty of this space is the first thing that reminds us we are in the presence of God and that we are standing on holy ground.

But there's an old saying that goes, “Beauty is only skin deep.” And that can certainly be true of any parish that relies solely on its building.

Joelene and I attended another church last Sunday. The building was certainly beautiful and easy to find (if you were walking and didn't have to maneuver around closed streets). When we walked in it felt like church, if you know what I mean. But that was the extent of it. Nobody greeted us. The Peace was obligatorily and enthusiastically shared, but the singing and congregational responses were lackluster. Nobody spoke to us as we filed out the door. And the priest did nothing more than say, “Good morning.” It was, in my opinion, a beautiful church on the outside, but one that lacked any depth of beauty.

We also have a beautiful space, as you've noticed. But we also have an inner beauty that goes much deeper than the steeple and/or altar.

We value the people who worship here. We strive to include people in a variety of ministries. We will greet you as you enter and, if we don't recognize you, do our best to not abandon you either as you try to figure out the Episcopal book shuffle or as we invite you downstairs for coffee hour. We try to treat outsiders and visitors as we ourselves want to be treated, with dignity, respect, and a smile.

This beauty will also be reflected in the ministry fair as people serve, and are encouraged to serve, for the mission of the Church. Everything we do is geared toward fulfilling that mission of restoring all people to unity with God through Jesus Christ. In-reach, outreach, and ministries of all kinds look to reflect the kingdom of God in the here and now, and it is a beautiful thing.

In the words of St. John, we declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen, what we have touched – that our fellowship is with God the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. The fellowship found here among the people and within our ministries reflects the fellowship of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

And this is the message we have heard and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. In this building the beautiful light from God shines. In our people and in our ministries, the light of God through Christ can be seen. This is a place of inner joy, beauty, and light. This is a place where the presence of God dwells in all things – yes, even in Vestry meetings.

And in case you think I am painting an overly-rosy picture of the goodness of this parish, let me say that we are not perfect. We have disagreements and arguments. We don't always get it right. I've made my share of mistakes over the past year. But what I've noticed about this congregation is that we do acknowledge our sins and shortcomings, and we do work towards forgiveness and reconciliation.

This parish embodies all that St. John represents – love, light, honesty, and a high christology that acknowledges the fully human aspect of Christ that is joined with the fully divine glory of the godhead. This parish represents the beauty reflected in the writings of St. John – both in its physical beauty and deeper down, in the beauty of our soul.

Today is our St. John's Day Celebration and Ministry Fair. I encourage you to take in the beauty of it all and consider how you might reflect the beauty of this parish in thought, word, and deed.

We are St. John's. We are named for a Saint who wrote of light, life, and love. And I will testify to all these things because I know they are true.

Will you?


Sunday, August 27, 2017

Sermon; 12 Pentecost/Proper 16A; Romans 12:1-8

I don't preach on Romans very often. In fact, I believe this might be the first time I've done so. One of the basic reasons for this is that Romans is a long, carefully worded document from Paul focusing on basic Christian tenets, a Jewish/Gentile divide, as well as an attempt to garner support for his mission. Good or bad, this long letter has probably done more to shape Christianity than any other piece of scriptural writings.

Because of both its content and its length, it is difficult to use as the basis of a sermon series. Add to that the way the lectionary chops it up, and you would do a grave injustice to it. Romans is much better suited to an in-depth study than a series of sermons.

That said, today's passage was just too good to pass up – especially given where we are as a parish right now.

In two weeks we will celebrate St. John's Day and hold a ministry fair. During that time you will get to see all of the different ministries we offer. You will also have the opportunity to sign up to participate in as many of those ministries as you choose. Along with that, though, please remember that it's not quantity, but quality. If you only sign up for one thing and do it well, that's preferable to signing up for many things and doing none.

The Ministry Fair is also the lead-in to our annual pledge drive, as this event focuses on the time and talent portion of what we pledge to the life of St. John's. It is through our time and talent where the work of ministry is done. Our time and talent are the visible incarnations of our pledge to the church and to the mission of God.

As we move forward as Christians, Episcopalians, and members of St. John's, we need to continually ask ourselves, “Who is God calling us to be?” and, “What is God calling us to do?” Maybe we are called to increase the Community Cafe one Saturday a month so that we serve people on both the 2nd and 4th Saturdays. But that particular decision will only happen when we spend time discerning God's call for us, when we look at the time and talent offered, and when we evaluate the increased financial base something like that will require. But that's just one example. Maybe we are called to expand our relationship with Bester, or increase our involvement with Micah's Backpack, or maybe we offer an Evensong service one or more times a week.

All of this gets back to what Paul has to say in this passage from Romans, and it is all tied to the question of priorities. There are, of course, exceptions – I will never ask anyone to choose between paying their pledge and buying food or necessary medicine. But in general, where is your faith and your parish on your personal priority scale? Are we presenting ourselves as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable, to God?

The Church, and by extension our parish, can only be identified by its people. The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity in God through Christ. How that happens, though, is as wide and varied as the people who make up the body of this holy institution.

We are one body with many members, and not all members have the same function. Each of us have different gifts, and those different gifts allow us to do many different things.

This is, I think, both the blessing and curse of St. John's. It's a blessing because we do a lot of stuff. I've said this before, but that was one of the things that originally attracted me to the parish profile. There is a lot going on here. And, as I said in the newspaper article that ran shortly after I arrived, this is a place that gets it. You understand that “church” isn't just what happens between 8 and Noon on Sunday.

But it's also a curse in that because we are a fairly large congregation there may be a tendency to think, “Oh, someone will take care of that.” It's a curse in that it's easy to hide in a large congregation. It's easy to think that we can simply write a check to pay for a particular ministry.

The reality is, though, that a few people do most of the work, and they could use help. The reality is that we are not as financially sound as people might think, and the amount of money we have is strictly based on how much you pledge and donate.

How might we combat this curse? I'll give you a sneak peak of my upcoming Ramblings – I think we might need to think small. Here's what I mean by that.

When I was in Montana I served two small congregations. One of them was in the big town of the valley with a population of 700, and when I arrived they had about a dozen members – all women, all but one over 70 years old. By the time I left, their membership had increased to about 45. But this isn't about that increase, it's about what they do.

That parish maintains their old building. A new roof went on while I was there, and they just did the 10-year re-oiling. They've made other improvements like new carpet, repairing stained glass windows, painting, and installing a new furnace. They've opened up their parish hall for community events and after-school programs. They coordinate a community worship service once a year. They involve the community in Holy Week events. They run a wood bank where they harvest, cut, stack, and deliver wood to those who can't afford to heat their homes. They participate in the meals-on-wheels program. They can do all this and more because EVERYONE participates. Everyone utilizes their gifts and talents as different members for the benefit of the one body.

As we prepare to move into the pledge drive season, it is a good thing to acknowledge all that we do. But I also stand with Paul when I say, “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice to God.” Yes, we are a large parish. Yes, we do a lot. But everything we do is the result of the work and gifts of individuals. It just may be that in thinking small we will accomplish much greater things.