Sunday, December 17, 2017

Sermon; Advent 3B; John 1:6-8, 19-28

Once again we hear the story (or part of the story) of John the Baptist, but this time it comes from the gospel of John (referred to as “the fourth gospel” from here on out to avoid confusion between John and John). In this version there is no camel-hair clothing, no locusts and wild honey, no frantic calls to repent or accusing the Pharisees of being a brood of vipers. There isn't even a reference to “the wilderness,” since all this takes place in Bethany, across the Jordan. So the image of John in the fourth gospel is very different from Mathew, Mark, and Luke. It is, by comparison, rather tame. But although tame, it is still vitally important.

Today's gospel passage is important because it tells what John's role is and how he lives into that role.

John came as a witness to testify. In the fourth gospel that is his main function. He does baptize, but that is secondary to being a witness and testifying to the light. Sometimes we get so caught up in the wild, confrontational, earnest and urgent portrayal of John that we miss this aspect of his life. And if we miss that part, then we miss the implication it has for our own lives as well.

Let me ask a question: What is a witness? A witness is more than just seeing an event. A witness is one who serves as a legal observer, who provides evidence or testimony in court, or who signs a legal document. A person who is a witness is more than a person who watches the action or is a simple bystander. A witness helps create the framework of a story. When I sat on the jury for a medical malpractice case, the witnesses helped us determine the guilt or innocence of the doctor on trial.

A witness, in essence, relays to others what they have seen or known as honestly and truthfully as possible, and with the understanding that they are accountable for that testimony. John is a witness who testifies to the light and truth of the story. And today's passage is John's testimony.

Please state for the record of this court your name. Who are you?

I am John, son of Zechariah, a priest of the order of Abijah, and of Elizabeth, a descendant of Aaron. I have come to prepare the way of the Lord. I am not the Messiah.

If you aren't the Messiah but have come to prepare the way, are you Elijah?

I am not.

Are you the prophet of whom Moses foretold?


Then who are you? Tell us.

I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord.”

If you are neither the Messiah, Elijah, or the prophet, why do you baptize?

I baptize with water to prepare people for the Messiah's coming. One among you whom you do not know is coming after me and I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.

In this exchange we have John as a witness testifying to the light, to Jesus. And not only testifying to Jesus, but removing himself from the spotlight. This is equally important.

In their commentaries on this passage, a variety of Church fathers write that those who came to John were anticipating the coming of the Messiah and that they would have gladly crowned him with that title. The line of questioning indicates they were not only cautious about making such an important assertion, but also that they were doing their due diligence. And Augustine writes that those who questioned John were so impressed by his grace that they would have believed whatever he said.

That is, of course, one man's interpretation. If we assume Augustine was right and that the questioners would have believed whatever John said, then John is our ultimate example of what it means to be a witness for Christ.

The history of Christianity is full of examples of people in positions of authority who use that authority to say, “I am he.” Oh, they may not say that outright, but their behavior and words certainly indicate otherwise. People who claim that they have the only correct interpretation of scripture. People who condemn those who differ from themselves. People who build large followings only to have them fall away when they themselves retire or die.

John does none of these things. As for interpretation, he simply testifies to what he believes is true, and lets others decide for themselves. As for condemnation, John does no such thing here; he only encourages people to look further. As for building up a large following, John points his followers away from himself to Christ.

The John of the fourth gospel has a lot to show us. During this Advent season of preparing for the coming of Christ, let us follow John's example by
remembering that we are witnesses for Christ, always testifying to the light;
offering people the opportunity to explore our claims for themselves; and
remembering it's not about us, but it's always about Jesus.

May we go from here as witnesses for Christ, testifying to the light.


Sunday, December 10, 2017

Sermon; Advent 2B; Mark 1:1-8

Last week we heard from Mark's “little apocalypse” and Jesus' promise that his words will not pass away even though heaven and earth will. Today we move from a focus on the last days to the very beginning of Jesus' ministry according to Mark.

Mark doesn't give us any genealogies or birth narratives. He doesn't give us any shepherds or kings. He doesn't give us any angelic announcements or choirs from on high. If Mark were buying Christmas gifts for Jesus, he wouldn't give him a 23-and-Me DNA kit because Mark doesn't care where Jesus came from, he only cares where he is going. And in Mark, Jesus is going to Golgotha – but I don't want to get ahead of myself.

So here we are on the Second Sunday of Advent and at the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As I pointed out, there is no prologue to the gospel. There is no easing into the story of Jesus with birth narratives or genealogies. Mark immediately jumps into the story by abruptly declaring that this is the beginning of the good news. If you read Mark's gospel, you will notice how things move abruptly and happen immediately. In fact, Mark uses the word “immediately” more than Matthew and Luke combined.

But even with Mark's immediate focus, he still must prepare his readers for what is coming. And in order to prepare for what is coming, we must look both backward and forward. That back-and-fore looking requires us to hear the story of John the Baptist; and this is the only pre-Jesus story Mark gives us.

This is the beginning of the good news, or the beginning of the gospel. In order to see the beginning of the gospel, we look back to Isaiah: “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight'.”

Mark attributes that quote to Isaiah, but it's really a conflation from three sources: Ex. 23:20, Is. 40:3, and Malachi 3:1 This is why some other ancient sources don't attribute the saying solely to Isaiah, but to “the prophets.” Either way, Mark is looking back to reflect on what's coming.

We are doing the same thing – looking back to look forward. We are preparing to look forward by looking back.

Advent is the season of expectation and hopeful waiting. Advent is the season of preparation. We are expectantly and hopefully waiting for the coming of Christ, and we are preparing for his arrival. We prepare by putting up trees and decorations. We prepare by sending out Christmas cards and letters. We prepare by displaying creche sets and marching Mary and Joseph and the wise men on their respective journeys to Bethlehem. And, hopefully, we prepare for his arrival in a way that changes us.

This was the point of John's ministry – to urge people to prepare for the imminent coming of Christ, to make significant and lasting changes in their lives, and to be baptized as a symbol of that change.

So we look back to the arrival of Christ and prepare for his coming again. We look back to his imminent arrival that we celebrate on December 24 & 25. We hope that our preparations today will change us and prepare us for his next coming.

The danger we face, though, is becoming too backward-focused. We can spend too much time focusing on the manger and not on his arrival. We can spend too much time trying to arrange the creche set “just so” that we don't work to properly arrange our lives. We can spend too much time remembering the gifts the wise men brought that we neglect to share the gift of the gospel with those around us.

This, as you might expect, has implications not only for Advent and Christmas, but for us as we move forward. We can look backward to “the good old days,” while not recognizing that these are the good old days. We can spend so much time looking back longingly to how things used to be that we neglect to see how things are now, or how they could become in the future.

So yes, we can look back. But let us not look back with sentimentality about the way it used to be, but let us look back to prepare for the future.

Look back to the prophets to see a messenger that prepares the way of the Lord. Look forward to the coming of the Lord by understanding that you are God's messenger. Look back to the birth of Christ and the hope that instills. Look forward by preparing to offer hope to the world through your actions. Look back to the way things were. Look forward to the way things could be by helping prepare the next generation of faithful people.

In today's gospel, Mark is looking both forward – the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, and backward – as it is written in the prophets. In this season of Advent, we are also looking both forward – as we prepare for the coming of Christ, and backward – as we celebrate a coming that has already taken place. But we can't look so far forward that we decide our actions have no impact; nor can we look so far backward that we refuse to act now.

This may be why Mark is the perfect Advent gospel. Know where we have come from, but also be prepared to put our faith into action right now. We can't afford to spend all our time reminiscing about the good old days. Neither can we spend all our time worrying about a future that seems to be in jeopardy and who might save us.

Our time is now.
God's time is now.
This is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
You are part of that story; and in understanding both what came before and what is yet to come, you are called to act now.


Sunday, December 03, 2017

Sermon; Advent 1B; Mark 13:24-27

As I said at the beginning of the announcements, “Happy New Year!”

Today is the First Sunday of Advent, the first Sunday in the liturgical cycle, and the first Sunday of Year B. Unlike most New Years that begin with hopes and dreams of prosperity and improvements, with promises or vows to turn over a new leaf, or with promises to take on goals for personal betterment, the new Church year begins with a dire warning about the end of days. Instead of promises of betterment, we hear promises of destruction, of a darkened sun, of falling stars, and dire warnings about the unknown hour of the master's return.

Happy New Year?

Chapter 13 of Mark is traditionally called, “The Little Apocalypse,” mainly because it is short. Mark 13 is the extent of apocalyptic writing in the gospel. It is set up by the disciples commenting to Jesus how grand the temple was. Jesus basically replies, “Not one stone will be left; all this will be thrown down.” And in a private moment with the inner circle – Peter, Andrew, James, and John – he is asked, “When will all this take place?” And here Jesus goes off on his apocalyptic rant.

In the part of the chapter we didn't hear today, Jesus talks of false prophets and wars, of famines and earthquakes, of trials and tribulations, of beatings and betrayals, of the desolating sacrilege, and of all sorts of other mean, nasty, horrible, ugly things. And from what we did hear, a darkened sun and falling stars, heaven and earth passing away, and a warning to keep awake and stay alert.

The end is coming. Happy New Year.

This little apocalypse is particularly interesting to me right now because I'm watching a video series on the Book of Revelation that is put out by Trinity Wall Street. If you also would like to watch it, you can go to the “About Us” tab on our website, click on Education, and there's a blurb with a link.

In that series the Rev. Dr. Michael Battle says that because Jesus is the alpha and omega we cannot read Revelation in chronological time from Point A to Point B. Instead we must read it in kairos time, or God's time, recognizing that God is the beginning and ending, the ending and the beginning. “How,” he asks, “is God being revealed through the imagination of the Apocalypse?”

We can ask the same thing with regard to Mark's little apocalypse: How is God being revealed through the imagination that is being presented to us today?

While we may know enough to not read Revelation as a chronological road map to the end days, and while we might apply that non-chronological view to Mark's little apocalypse, we might let our imagination run wildly dark when reading these pieces of scripture.

We have probably all heard or read some of those imaginative dark interpretations. The end is coming based on the generational timeline of Revelation and the state of Israel being created in 1947. The end is coming because the ratio of ships destroyed in WWII is the same as the ratio of ships destroyed in Revelation. The end is coming because Apache helicopters look just like the locusts mentioned in Revelation. The end is coming because nuclear war between the US and insert-enemy-of-the-day here will result in a darkened sun. And no, I am not making any of this up.

I want you to notice something: All of those interpretations focus on the death and destruction of not only the world, but of those whom the interpreters deem unworthy or evil. All of those interpretations are, in essence, revenge fantasies based on a made up chronological time.

But what if we used a different focus for our apocalyptic imagination?

In Revelation we are given a vision of a new heaven and a new earth. A vision of God dwelling with his people and a place where death, mourning, crying, and pain are no more. A place where the tree of life grows for the healing of nations.

In today's gospel passage we are also given some dark and terrifying images. There are those who would interpret and use these images in order to strike fear into the hearts of people or, worse, to use this apocalyptic vision to define whom God destroys and whom God welcomes into life.

Again, what if we used a different focus for our apocalyptic imagination?

In the beginning of this chapter Jesus says that not one stone of the temple will be left; that all will be thrown down. And toward the end of the chapter he says, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” While this may seem dark and terrifying (all will be thrown down, all will pass away), I think we can employ a positive imagination here.

In this life, all created things pass away. Civilizations fall into ruins and are eventually forgotten. Buildings collapse. Old neighborhoods change. People die. Heaven and earth, as created things, will pass away. But the word of God will not pass away.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. Everyone who hears these words and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on a rock. Then they remembered his words.

For thousands of years people have seen signs of the coming of the end of the world all around them. Every generation has faced famines and wars and false prophets. It isn't too hard to see visions of the end in the world around us today – politically, socially, economically, ethically, spiritually. But rather than panic and build fallout bunkers in our basement, or rather than ignore the signs and bury our head in the sand, we must continue to stay awake and keep alert. Do not put your faith in the signs and times of that which will pass away. Rather, put your faith in the enduring word of God which will never pass away.

If we hold fast to the words of Christ, if we put our hope in the words of Christ, if we obey the words of Christ, then we just might be able to help usher in a time when people receive healing from the tree of life, drink from God's living waters, and create a place that is better today than yesterday and better tomorrow than today. Through the imaginative and enduring words of Christ we can see our world in God's time, where God is Alpha and Omega, first and last, beginning and ending, ending and beginning.

Happy New Year. This Advent, how will your imagination reveal God to the world?


Sunday, November 26, 2017

Sermon; Last Pentecost/Proper 29A; Christ the King Sunday; Matthew 25:31-46

Today is the Last Sunday after Pentecost, otherwise known as Christ the King Sunday, or the Reign of Christ Sunday. Whatever we choose to call it, today signifies and celebrates the reign and supremacy of Christ as King over all creation. This is the day, specifically, when we recognize what Paul wrote in both Romans and Philippians that “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess” that Jesus Christ is Lord. And while this is a relatively new feast on the Church calendar, it is appropriate that we celebrate it here on the final Sunday of the Church year; because, really, this is what we've been working toward for most of the year.

The Church year can be broken up into two cycles – liturgical time and ordinary time. Liturgical time consists of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, and the Day of Pentecost. These liturgical seasons focus on specific events in the life of Christ and/or the Church.

Ordinary Time focuses not on an event, but on the life of Christ and our becoming disciples and apostles by learning what it means to live in communion with God through Jesus' example. It is during this time that we work at deepening our relationships with God and each other. This time is ordinary not because it's boring, but because it is representative of how we are to live our lives each day, every day, day after day, week after week.

And this is where it all leads – to Christ the King Sunday. Our daily and weekly journey with Christ over the past six months should have brought us to a point where we can say honestly, truthfully, and with conviction, “My Lord and my God.”

Today, like the previous several weeks, we are confronted with an end-time parable. Once again we hear a story of judgment, of who's in and who's out, of who's included and who's excluded. Unlike some of those earlier parables, however, where the exclusion seems random at best and vindictive at worst (“You didn't bring enough oil or the right kind of clothes? Too bad for you; out you go!”), today's parable is neither random nor vindictive but a matter of fact.

“Teacher, what is the greatest commandment?”
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. And the second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

“Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“What is written in the Law?”
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

In Matthew, Jesus is asked to state the greatest commandment. In Luke, Jesus is asked about eternal life and it is the questioner who gives the, “Love God, love neighbor” answer. In these two gospels we are given two different reasons for giving the the two greatest commandments. Everything comes down to this – love God, love neighbor. Today's parable shows us what this looks like.

But it's not only from Jesus' teachings that this parable draws, it also draws from the prophet Micah, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” In today's parable, Jesus not only reaches back to the Law, but he reaches back to the words of a prophet to show what those words look like when put into practice.

The words of Micah and the Summary of the Law are reflected in this, the last of Jesus' parables. This parable appears only in Matthew and it occurs during Holy Week, roughly two days before his arrest. So not only are we at the end of the season and the Church year, but this story is told near the end of Jesus' life on earth. And what have we learned during this time of discipleship? Have we deepened our relationship with God? Are we closer to living lives in accordance with God's will?

I would hope so. And on this Sunday I would hope we are closer to both proclaiming Christ as King and living as our King desires.

In the latest issue of the Anglican Theological Review, Stephen Fowl, author, professor of theology at Loyola University in Baltimore, and parishioner of our cathedral, writes, “Scripture is dependent on God's desire to draw us into ever deeper communion . . .” This parable today exemplifies that desire.

At the end of days the Son of Man will hand down a final judgment. Those who provided him food, drink, hospitality, clothing, healing, and companionship will be welcomed into everlasting life. Those who did not will not be welcomed but banished. And then the wondering and rationalizing will begin. “When did we see you . . . We never saw you . . .”

The response is biting – “Whenever you did or did not do it to the least of these, you did or did not do it to me.” The Summary of the Law and the words of Micah come back to roost on this day of judgment: Love God, love neighbor, do justice, and love kindness.

For the group who should have known better, they were too busy looking for signs of the physical presence of Christ that they missed doing what God requires of us. This is the downfall of religious people of all stripes – that they, and we, look for evidence of Christ's actual presence before we perform the works of Christ.

Another way of saying it is that we only do good when we believe Christ is watching us. That's a problem. If that's how we behave, then we really haven't learned anything in our journey with Jesus to this point. If that's how we behave, then we really haven't incorporated the Law or the words of Micah into our hearts. If that's the way we behave, then Jesus really isn't our King. Our king has become anything and everything else that takes precedence, or is more convenient, over doing the works of God.

The works of God are to feed, clothe, heal, visit, and show hospitality. The works of God are summarized by the command to love God and love neighbor. The works of God are stated in the words of Micah to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly. These actions ultimately, as Stephen Fowl alluded to, help draw us into deeper communion with God.

Today's parable shows that when we take the words of scripture seriously and to heart – love God, love neighbor, do justice, love kindness – we behave in ways that feed, clothe, visit, heal, and show hospitality to the least of these. When we read scripture in such a way that leads us to have compassion toward others, those acts of compassion allow us to enter into communion with them. When we enter into communion with others, we are also entering into communion with God. And when we are drawn deeper into communion with God, we are more open to seeing God in the world around us, rather than waiting for some sign from above that he is present.

On this last Sunday of Ordinary Time, on this Sunday when we celebrate the reign of Christ the King, this parable is indicative of how we are to act toward Christ and his creation. As disciples, apostles, and subjects, our King is telling us what he requires: Love God, love neighbor, do justice, love kindness.

By doing this we will be seeing the face of Christ in others every day. By doing this we will be serving the will of God. By doing this we will be able to say honestly, truthfully, and with conviction, “My Lord and my God.”

If we wait for Christ to appear before doing these things, we will end up on the wrong side of the aisle. By waiting for Christ to appear before doing these things, we end up serving only ourselves and our selfish ambitions.

Today is Christ the King Sunday. Whom do you serve?


Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Sermon; 24 Pentecost/Proper 28A; Matthew 25:14-30

Once again we get a story from Jesus having to do with the kingdom and the end of the age. Once again we get a story about judgment, who's allowed to be part of the kingdom, and who is excluded from the kingdom. This story happens to be the third in the series – the first about a master who returns to find his slave taking advantage of his absence, the second about the ten bridesmaids, and now today's story of the talents.

Our pledge campaign this year was based on the idea to “Be Bold in Christ.” As it so happens, this idea is also the underlying message of today's gospel story. A man leaves his estate and calls three servants to run it in his absence. He gives each one a number of talents – five, three, and one – each according to his ability.

First, we often get sidetracked by that term, talent. It has been used over the ages as a way of talking about our personal gifts and talents. But first and foremost it was an amount of money – an exceedingly large amount of money. One talent was approximately equal to 20 years of day-wages. Thinking about it this way tells us that the slaves received enough wages for 100 years, 60 years, and 20 years. So not only was the master exceedingly wealthy, but he also trusted these slaves with his own personal wealth.

Second, notice that the master didn't give an equal amount to the servants, but gave amounts “each according to his ability.” Getting back to seeing the word “talent” as our own personal gifts and skills, it's important to remember that we are not all given an equal number of talents. Some of us can do five things well, some three, and some only one thing. But remember, this isn't about how many gifts or talents we have, it's about the fact that God knows what we can do and what we can handle, and gives us an appropriate gift at the appropriate time. This isn't about comparing gifts, it's about faithfully using what gifts we have.

Third, what the previous two observations – that the master gave huge sums of money and that he gave each according to his ability – lead us to is that the master trusted the servants with that money. Also notice that the master never actually told the servants what to do with it; only that there is an assumption (based on the end) that these three talented people would do something with it.

In essence, we have large gifts being given to people of varying abilities and an unstated level of trust that those abilities will be put to use in the utilization of their gifts and talents. With no instruction, order, or mandate, two of the three servants took bold steps to double what they had been given.

Whereas the first end-time parable, which we didn't hear, focused on religious leaders, and last week's could be said to have a focus on long-term mission, today's parable focuses on us. More specifically, it focuses on whether or not we want to take bold steps for God.

All of us have been entrusted with talents. All of us have been given gifts of great value by the Lord of the estate. We don't all have the same gifts, it's true. And it's also true that we don't all have the same abilities. But we all have been given gifts and talents.

As an example, I was talking with a parishioner after services last week. This person was commenting on how beautifully the flautist from St. James played. They went on to make the comment, “she has more talent in her little finger than I have in my whole body.” And while I understand the sentiment, with all due respect, that is not true.

This person made the mistake of comparing one talent with a perceived lack of talent. One is not better than another, just different. There are things this person can do, and do much better, than the St. James flautist can do. We all have been graced with an abundance of talent, each according to our abilities. For instance, there are people in the choir with fantastic voices, but that doesn't mean you would want them to preach; and you certainly don't want me singing. I shudder to think what this parish would be like if we were all fabulous flautists.

So even if we think of ourselves as the servant with only one talent, that is still more than no talent. And, as we learn from today's parable, we have a responsibility to put that talent to use.

Today this parable is about stewardship and boldly doing the work God calls us to, to boldly use our abilities and put our talents to work.

The flip side of being bold and stepping out to use our talents is reflected in the third slave – that of having an attitude of fear. Despite no indication anywhere in this story, the third slave is fearful of the master. That fear paralyzes him. That fear causes him to not act, even in a minimal way. That fear causes him to hide his talent.

For us, this is not the time to be afraid. This is not the time to bury our talents for fear of what might happen. But this is the time for us to make use of the gifts we have been given. This is the time for us to step out boldly in the name of Christ and put our talents to use.

As our pledge drive comes to an official conclusion, and as we move forward as Christians and as a parish, this is the time to consider this question: How will you be bold in Christ?


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.