Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Sermon; All Saints' Sunday; Year A 2017

So I apparently posted this to the wrong blog.  Here's the sermon from earlier this month:

Today marks the one-year anniversary of my first Sunday at St. John's, of my first experience of this congregation at worship, and of your first experience of me as the incoming Rector of this parish. I say it this way intentionally because the role of rector is position-based, while the role of priest is relational-based. One year ago I did not arrive as your new priest, I arrived as your new rector. And I say it that way because any fool can be a rector, but it takes a special kind of fool to be a priest.

A rector is defined within the Constitution and Canons as a person elected to have full authority and responsibility for the conduct of worship and the spiritual jurisdiction of the Parish, subject to the Rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer, the Constitution and Canons of this Church, and the pastoral direction of the Bishop.

The Rector shall also at all times be entitled to the use and control of the Church and Parish buildings, together with all appurtenances (that means, “accessory;” I had to look it up) and furniture, and have access to all records and registers maintained by or on behalf of the congregation for the purposes of all functions and duties pertaining thereto.

In other words, it is a necessary position in this church so that we can function as a church. You don't necessarily need ME as much as you need the position.

A priest, though, and your priest in particular, is something different. A priest is one who is called to not only proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but is one who will love and serve the people among whom the priest works, caring alike for young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor. A priest is to preach, to declare God's forgiveness to penitent sinners, to pronounce God's blessing, to share in the celebration of the Holy Mysteries, and to perform other ministrations entrusted to him or her.

During the course of 2015 and 2016 the parish and Search Team did their due diligence and decided that a guy from Oregon should be the 28th Rector of St. John's Parish. And I'm sure they hoped that I would become your next priest. Of course, they may not have known there was a difference; but maybe they did. That search ended with an offered and accepted call, a cross country move, arriving in the office on November 1, and our first worship experience together on All Saints' Sunday.

Over this past year I have officiated at several funerals, baptized three children, led one confirmation class, and officiated at one wedding. I have tweaked the Sunday liturgy and I have added daily Evening Prayer. Which reminds me, tonight is the annual solemn Evensong service at 5 and you are all welcome to come back and worship again in that ancient service. I have made uncounted hospital visits, dropped in at homes both announced and unannounced, called people on birthdays and anniversaries, Rambled 13 or 14 times, and generated 52-ish Wednesday Words. Some of this I got right, some of it I've gotten wrong, but I've always tried to give it my best shot.

There are other things that have happened over this past year that we have shared and which we may or may not remember, but the point to all of this is that being your priest is much more than being the Rector of St. John's. As I said, it takes a special kind of fool to be a priest; and Joelene, Cece, and I were probably more than a little foolish when we agreed to live on the other side of the country. But it has been good, there have been no regrets, and I will be happy to continue to be considered your fool.

I've touched on a few things about this past year, but it's important for you to know that the three of us have enjoyed getting to know the area, the people of this parish, and people in other walks of life. Cece found a job, has met some people, and made a few friends along the way. Joelene also found a job and is making friends in and around church. I, as you know, got hooked up with the local officiating group and have spent the fall working games with a good bunch of guys. And, most importantly, I'm getting to know you all better every day.

One way this “getting to know you” manifests itself is at the Communion rail. I realize that I can now call most of you by name without seeing your name tag (that doesn't mean you can stop wearing them). But I'm also learning more about you in deeper ways. As I move down the rail I know who has been sick and or hospitalized, who is having family difficulties, who has been hit with tragedy, who is experiencing good times, who has just received a blessing, who is happy, and who is sad. I carry all of these joys, sadnesses, trials, tribulations, celebrations, and sometimes more, with me every day. And on Sunday morning I see all of this played out at the Communion rail.

It can be a burden, yes, but it is also an honor and blessing to be let into your lives in such a way. This is the role of a priest. If you want a visible symbol of that role and of the office of priest, look at the stole. The stole is used to wrap the hands of newlyweds at the marriage blessing. The stole is used to cover the sins of the penitent. The stole is worn like a yoke. So when Jesus said, “my yoke is easy and my burden is light,” the stole is the visible symbol of what he meant.

But it is not only personal, family, or spiritual issues that identify you to me; it is also what you offer to the life of St. John's. When I move down the Communion rail I also see fellow ministers who feed the hungry, visit the sick, show hospitality, sing out joyfully, help to maintain this beautiful house of worship, and so much more. We are, all of us, the ministers of St. John's Parish and the face of God in this place.

We are all in this together, you and I. We all stand with, support, and encourage one another. We are not only the face of God in this place, but we are also the physical representation of all the saints of the faith, of those who came before and of those who will come after. As the Collect says, “We have been knit together in one fellowship in the mystical body of Christ our Lord.”

And today this brings up a question: Who are the saints of God? Well, you could look at our opening hymn – one was a doctor, one was a queen, one was a soldier, and one was slain by a fierce wild priest. You could also run down a list of them: Ambrose, Benedict, Cecilia, Francis, Hilda, Julian, Laurence, Perpetua, Polycarp, Peter, Andrew, James, John, and more. Great people of the faith who dedicated and sometimes lost their lives for the sake of Christ.

A friend of mine who is also a priest and a USAF chaplain had a quote up on his Facebook page in honor of All Saints' Day. It's a quote by Br. Robert L'Esperance, SSJE, and it gives one of the best definitions of a saint that I've seen:

Saints were men and women who understood the challenges of living the
gospel in the context of their own places and times. They are remembered
because they lived it with imagination and devotion. They used what they
had been given to live their lives into the freedom of the kingdom.

Men and women who understood the challenges of living the gospel in the context of their own places and times. I would like to think that is us.

We have particular challenges facing us today in the living out of the gospel that weren't there 25, 50, 100, or even 10 years ago. Our challenges today will not be the challenges of our children. What are some of those challenges facing us today?

In the midst of the pledge drive, Fred would want me to mention finances. But that is always the case. What other challenges do we face?

Some challenges include: How do we effectively communicate with people who live within our sphere of influence? Do we know what God wants us to do? How are we spending our time? Do we have an adequate level of outreach? Do our neighbors know we are here? Do we offer deep, meaningful worship? Do we offer worship other than Sunday morning? What is not our Average Sunday Attendance, but what is our Average Weekly Impact?

These are some of the challenges facing us today. Are we up to the task? Are we ready to live as a saint of God in today's world? To co-opt and paraphrase a lyric from Sir Paul, “I look around me and I hope that it's really so.”

Over the past year we have come to know each other a little more deeply. Over the past year I hope I have come to be seen not just as the 28th Rector of St. John's Parish but as your priest. Over the past year I have hoped and prayed that this trend will continue for many more years.

This is a holy and good place that I'm proud to be a part of. This is a holy and good place that my family is happy to call home. This is a place that is learning to live life as a saint of God.

And really, that's what the celebration of All Saints' is all about: Remembering that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses and remembering that we have been knit together in one fellowship in the mystical body of Christ our Lord.

Today we celebrate All Saints' Day. We remember those who came before and those who are among us now. We are all saints of God. Let us face our challenges together, let us live with imagination and devotion, let us live our lives into the freedom of the kingdom, and let us never forget that we all bear the image of Christ on our souls and that we are God's representatives and messengers here and now.


Sunday, November 12, 2017

Sermon; 23 Pentecost/Proper 27A; Matthew 25:1-13

We are coming to the end of the Season after Pentecost, or Ordinary time, and Advent is fast approaching. The end of the Church year is only two weeks away. If we didn't know that by looking at a calendar, we might have an inkling of it by the selection of gospel texts.

Keep alert. Stay awake. The bridegroom is coming but we know not when. The season of hopeful anticipation is at hand.

All of that said, I find today's parable of the ten bridesmaids to be one of the most difficult to deal with. We have a story of ten bridesmaids waiting for the bridegroom to arrive so they can celebrate with the new couple. They all fall asleep. Then, when the time comes, five of them will not share their oil with the other five, forcing them to go look for supplies in the middle of the night. When those five eventually come back, they find themselves locked out of the party to which they were originally invited.

I find this parable to be more depressing than hopeful. But this is what we get as we near the end of Jesus' ministry on earth and his refocusing on the end times: stories of who's in and out, stories of inclusion and exclusion. So what can we take from this parable for our lives today?

The first thing we need to avoid is saying that this parable is clearly about “X”, because as soon as we do that there are valid points and questions to the contrary. And then we begin asking, “If it's not about “X”, then what is it about?” The best we can do is to put forth possible and plausible interpretations.

Two possible and plausible interpretations is that this parable is about 1) doing the works of ministry and the works of the Church continually, and 2) we need to look beyond and ahead of ourselves. These are not two separate interpretations as much as they are two interpretations that are deeply intertwined.

In the first interpretation, the burning lamps represent our works of ministry. Notice that all ten women had lamps. The story implies that all ten lamps were lighted when the women originally went to meet the bridegroom. And all ten lamps were lighted when the ten women all fell asleep.

In this interpretation, the lighted lamps represent our works of ministry. As Christians we are called to work for the gospel. Last week we made promises to this effect: Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people? These are the works of the gospel and these works are the lights of our lamps. As Christians we are called to do these things in a variety of ways and to infuse ourselves with these actions and attitudes in such a way as they become part of our lives, whether we are awake or asleep. Let your light shine at all times.

But then we get the differentiation between the five foolish and five wise. And here I want to put my own spin on the story. This interpretation incorporates both part of the first interpretation – doing the works of the gospel – with where we are right now in the life of the church, and particularly our parish.

The five foolish bridesmaids brought no oil, while the five wise bridesmaids did. All ten had lamps that burned while they were awake and asleep. All ten, in that respect, did the works of the gospel (see above). However, the foolish looked only at the short-term, only to the here and now, while the wise looked to the long-term beyond the here and now (where we are right now).

Right now we are officially wrapping up our pledge drive today. That doesn't mean we will stop collecting pledge cards, but it does mean that the official drive is over. This always seems to be a tense time for certain people as we try to budget for the upcoming year and/or as we try to get a handle on expenses. And everywhere I've been there is always a push to cut costs or programs in order to meet expenses. “We need to focus on ourselves until we get the budget under control.”

This, my friends, is short-sighted and foolish. For this is exactly what the five foolish bridesmaids did – only focused on themselves in the here and now, without planning for the future, without bringing extra oil.

I received an article in my box a few weeks ago from the Washington Post about churches needing to do business differently than they've always done it. This article stated that that meant mergers and closures. And while it seems to be all doom and gloom (maybe like today's parable), two things jumped out at me. One was that death always leads to resurrection. But that's a topic for later.

The second was the statement, “shrinking outreach into the community [leads] to a membership slide.” By focusing only on ourselves, by not bringing that extra oil that allows us to go beyond what we only have in our lamps, we are being foolish.

The five wise bridesmaids had oil for their lamps and burned that oil so their lamps were lighted when they were both awake and asleep. But they also recognized that at some point they would have to provide light beyond what their lamps could provide in the here and now. They would have to prepare for the long-term and carry extra oil. This is the mark of the wise, looking beyond the here and now. We must not be so focused on cutting costs and programs and budgets that our lights only shine for the short-term. We must recognize that we need to plan to have our lights shine in the long-term.

The extra oil represents long-term stewardship and mission. How we care for this place, our stewardship, allows it to be a beacon to those around us. How we do the works of the gospel, our mission, allows people to see the light of Christ in their daily lives. The extra oil of the five wise bridesmaids represents our ability and our willingness to look beyond the short-term, beyond simple cost-cutting measures that allow us to keep our doors open. It may be that that extra oil not only allows us to be part of the party, but that it allows us to host the party.

As we wrap up our pledge drive, let's not be foolish and only light our lamps for the short-term, but let us continue to be bold in Christ and foolishly wise by preparing for the future and carrying extra oil for the works of the gospel. Otherwise we may just end up discovering that we weren't doing the work of the gospel, we were simply maintaining our club. And maintaining our club is not what Jesus is asking us to do.


Sunday, October 29, 2017

Sermon; 21 Pentecost/Proper 25A; Matthew 22:34-46

“Teacher, is it lawful to pay taxes or not?”

If you were here last week you will recall that this was the question asked of Jesus by the Pharisees and Herodians. As I said then, this was a way of doing theology – ask a question and see where it took you. Whenever we talk about God we are doing theology. So asking questions about everyday things and trying to discover where and how God is working in those everyday things makes sense, and it makes us theologians.

The problem with that question, though, was that the Pharisees and Herodians had already figured out how they were going to deal with Jesus depending on how he answered. That is not doing theology. That is trying to fit God into a gotcha box to be used against other people. That is using God as a weapon. And it is something we need to pay attention to and avoid doing ourselves.

Today we seem to have another “theology on the ground” question.

“Teacher, which commandment is the greatest?”

But this really isn't a theological question as much as, in the words of Admiral Ackbar, “it's a trap!” Because here again we have an expert in the law trying to force Jesus' hand to pick one or the other and leaving him open to attack. There are something like 613 laws that Jewish rabbis concluded were in the entire Torah, and the expert is asking Jesus to pick the one that he thinks is the most important.

To turn the tables, this would be like me asking you, “Of the 600 or so rules, which is the most important rule in football?” Within this congregation I am the expert on high school football rules. I am the lawyer. And probably no matter which rule you pick, I will be able to counter with something else – and a better explanation of why it's more important.

It's a trap.

But as usual, Jesus is up to the task.

The first mistake is to assume that there is only one. Jesus will counter with two and combine them in a way to draw a new focus. The first and greatest is this, 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.'

This is a direct quote of Deuteronomy 6:5. Deuteronomy is essentially a record of Mosaic law. Where the law shows up in bits and pieces in the other books of the Pentateuch, such as interspersed with stories of the Exodus, ritual and liturgical rubrics, and a recounting of desert wanderings and censuses, Deuteronomy is like that wall of legal books in a lawyer's office. So when Jesus recites that passage, he is really saying, “Let's look at what the law says.”

And if you think about it, this goes back to last week's question: Is it lawful to pay taxes or not? Whose image is on the coin? Whose image is stamped on you?

We bear the image of God. We are the image of God in the world. The coin belongs to the emperor; we belong to God – our selves, our souls, and our bodies. Is it no wonder that the first commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind?

But then Jesus goes further. He follows this up with, “And the second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This, as we all know, is the Golden Rule. It appears in many religions and is the maxim for altruism, whether religious or not. It showed up in ancient Egypt, India, Greece, Persia, and Rome. It's part of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and more. Jesus wasn't the first to say it.

What he does, though, is to take this well-known law of reciprocity found in the world and merge it with the Law of God. And on these two laws – Love God with everything you have, and love your neighbor as yourself – hang ALL the law and the prophets.

Love God. Love your neighbor. These two commandments cannot be separated. These two commandments are the basis and the support of everything else. And you cannot claim to follow one while ignoring the other.

Plenty of people claim they love and follow God. Yet those same people push to restrict access to health care, both physical and mental. They allow for the increasing rise in prices of prescription drugs. They work to reduce feeding programs and infant care. And they continue to treat women's bodies as property to be controlled.

Claims of, “I love God,” are followed by actions that continue to place profit over health, allowing corporations to roll over individuals, shunning/blaming the homeless while refusing to pay decent wages. Or are followed by actions driven by hate and jealously, working to marginalize and minimize those of different color, gender, age, or sexuality.

What does God require? To do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly.

As I look around our society today as a whole, there are plenty of people who claim to love God while at the same time treat others poorly at best or hateful at worst. We as a society are missing the mark. We as a society are sinning greatly.

I may not be able to do anything about the larger picture, but I can ensure that in here we will love each other as we ourselves want to be loved. And maybe that will cause us to love those outside our walls. Maybe that will cause us to rethink how we treat those who differ from us – racially, politically, religiously, sexually.

The word common to these two commandments that Jesus quotes is, “Love.” To love God is to love our neighbor. To love our neighbor is to love God.

And if we get this wrong, the whole law that these two commandments support will come crashing down around us and we won't stand a chance.

We know which are the greatest commandments. The question is whether or not we are obeying them.


Sunday, October 22, 2017

Sermon; 20 Pentecost/Proper 24A; Matt. 22:15-22

After several parables of landowners treating latecomers the same as the early risers, tax collectors and prostitutes entering the kingdom of heaven, tenants being evicted and replaced, and a king destroying a city only to invite all the survivors to the banquet, the Pharisees have had enough. They call a secret meeting to figure out how to trap Jesus and get rid of him – not unlike a parking lot Vestry meeting trying to get rid of the priest. And on top of that, they invite their arch-enemies, the Herodians, to join them – because nothing brings enemies together like someone they perceive as being worse.

“Tell us,” they ask, “is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”

When and how do we talk about God? I'm going to guess that the majority of people here only talk about God on Sundays. And even that could be debatable since we really don't talk about God – you listen to me talk about God and we recite ancient words; but talk . . . not so much.

There are, of course, the various Sunday school classes that take place. My wife and Paul Mackey have the teens in J2A talking about God on a regular basis. And a few adults have been talking about God, the Devil, and Bob during the adult forum. For everyone else, when do you talk about God?

When we talk about God we are engaging in the act of theology. When we talk about God we become theologians. You don't need a PhD or a seminary degree to do this; all you need is to have a conversation. Unfortunately our conversations tend to be limited to Sundays.

Almost every week I receive a rules test, along with everyone else in my officiating association. Questions like . . . It's 3rd and 7 for A on the A-33. Running back A24 takes a hand off on his 27 and runs to the A40 where he is grabbed by the facemask by a B player and fumbles the ball and B41 recovers at the A42. During the run, A67 blocks a B player below the waist at the A34. After the play the B coach comes onto the field to inform the covering official that he missed seeing an A player grab the facemask of a B player. Whose ball is it and where?

That is football theology, and we officials practice it every week. What if we Christians practiced our theology like that on a daily basis? Not necessarily to get it right, but to simply talk about God and maybe see where God is working on a daily basis. And not designed to trap people in “gotcha” scenarios, but to expand our vision and understanding of who and how God might want us to handle situations or behave in our daily lives.

Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not? This was a way to do theology. This was a way to challenge our ideas of God, ask questions, and see where God was on a daily basis.

Unfortunately it was also designed as a “gotcha” question. It was a question to which the Pharisees already knew the correct answer and was only being asked to prove how right they were and how wrong Jesus was. We need to avoid “gotcha” questions if we are really interested in discussing God and learning how we and God are active participants in each others lives.

And when we discuss God, when we become theologians, one of the most important topics we can discuss isn't some contrived gotcha question, or some pithy, “If God can do anything, can God make a rock so big he can't lift it?” question. One of the most important questions we can ask has to do with the interconnectedness between us and God. How do we relate to God? How is God manifested in our lives? And a good place to start is in the beginning.

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.”

What does it mean to be made in the image of God? In his letters, John says several times, “God is love – if we do not love our neighbors whom we see, how can we love God whom we don't see?” Love God. Love our neighbors. This is the image of God. God shows perfect love in the union of the Trinity. Jesus showed what it looked like to live in perfect relationship and harmony with God.

We were created through the power of love by God in his image. We are the Lord's possession. We are the imagio dei, the image of God on this earth. And because we are the Lord's possession, because we have been stamped with his image, everything we have – our selves, souls, and bodies, belong to God.

Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?
Whose image is on the coin?
The emperor's.
Then give to the emperor the things that are the emperors and to God the things that are God's.

In the Toy Story trilogy Andy wrote his name on all of his toys, in particular Buzz and Woody. That name let them know who they belonged to; and in the end, it was that name that called them back home, and it was that name to whom they gave themselves.

The emperor had coins stamped with his image. That image let the people of the empire know who they were subject to and that their financial transactions eventually went to support the emperor.

We, however, are more than financial transactions. We have been stamped with the image of God on our selves, souls, and bodies. Like Buzz and Woody belonged to Andy, we are the Lord's possession.

This question about paying taxes goes much deeper than simply participating in the financial transactions of the state. This question requires us to answer whether we belong to the state or whether we belong to God.

Do we place the state first, or do we place God first? Whose image is stamped upon us?

How we answer that question will ultimately determine the shape of the world to come.


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.