Monthly Archives: May 2017

Sermon for May 14, 2017: Being in Relationship 2 (preached at Grace Episcopal Church, Martinez, CA:)

You can listen to the sermon here:

Today we heard about St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr.  Stephen was a Hellenistic Jew who was converted to Christianity by the apostles and appointed a deacon in Jerusalem.  The fact that he was already considered an outsider made it exponentially more dangerous to preach about Jesus -and Stephen knew it.  But he did it anyway and, according to the writer of Acts, he died for his witness.

But why?  Couldn’t he have just dialed down the rhetoric a bit?  Preached to more receptive converts?  Moved to a less hostile town?  We may admire his courage, but we can’t help but wonder about his common sense.  What would compel someone to knowingly put himself in a life-threatening situation if he didn’t have to?  But people do.  Not just ancient, seemingly remote people like Stephen– but saints in our own time.  We can pick up a newspaper or go online today and be inspired by Christians who die for refusing to renounce their faith.  But would we could we –do the same?

It’s hard to know.  I don’t know if the disciples fully knew what they were getting into when Jesus tried to talk to them about who he was and what would happen when he was gone- when he went to a place he called, “his Father’s house” – to his true “home.”

We all have our own ideas about what “home” means.  For many of us “home” is associated with a place, but for others “home” is a person or a state of being.  I sometimes say, “Home is where the husband is” because we moved so many times as a result of Gary’s military career (and because I love him).  For young people, “home” is often the place where the people who have raised and nurtured them can be found –be they mothers- or fathers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, or beloved mentors.  Home, Robert Frost said, “is the place that, when you have to go there, they have to take you in…Home is the primary connection between you and the rest of the world.”[1]

But where was Jesus’s home?  That’s what Thomas wanted to know – where was Jesus going?  And how were they going to find him?  But when Thomas asked, Jesus told the disciples that they already knew the way, because he was the way.  He told them he was the way they have been allowed to know God.  He told them that he was their home.

Those are probably the most confusing directions ever.  Thomas asked Jesus where to go and Jesus instead told him how to live.  He told his disciples that God’s kingdom is not a physical place but a state of being, a relationship -that God’s household is a dwelling made not of cloth or bricks, but of mutual loyalty and love.  It is a committed relationship grounded in faith and located in the collective soul.  “Know me,” Jesus tells them.  “Love me.  Trust me – and you will be part of God.  And, what’s more, if you do that, you will have power like mine.  You will have power greater than mine.  I will show the world the glory of God – through you.”

That’s an astounding idea if you think about it.  If you believe in Jesus, you will have the power of God.  Think how that promise resonated with the poor and oppressed people who followed Jesus.  Think how that belief has sustained demoralized and subjugated people for thousands of years since.  I think Jesus’ promise of power is one of the primary reasons that Christianity grew so quickly.  I think it’s the reason that people are still willing to die for it.  I think it’s the reason that people are willing to kill for it.  Because people – Christians –think they can harness the power of God.  But I don’t think it works that way.

My husband and I once took a trip to South Korea by Military Airlift Command.  MAC flighting was a great way to travel to places you could never afford to go.  Basically, you packed your bag and showed up at an air force base where you could watch a board of posted flights.  When you saw somewhere you wanted to go, you got in line and, if you were lucky, you got on a plane – and you got home the same way – or hoped you would.  This particular trip started out well, but when we got to Korea, we found out that there were a lot of people who were considered a higher priority for placement on a return flight than us joy-riders.  So, every day we packed our bags, checked out of our hotel and went to the base.  And every day we didn’t get a flight, returned to the hotel, and checked back in again.  Now, this was before ATMs and cell phones, so after a few days we found ourselves down to about ten dollars in traveler’s checks and living off Dunkin’ Donuts and granola bars, so we were thinking about paying for a flight back home.  The next day we went back to the base and met a young couple who were in the same predicament as we were.  When we told them we were thinking of buying plane tickets to get home, the young woman said, “Didn’t you just tell me you are Christians”?  “Yes,” we said.  “Then why aren’t you praying”? she inquired.  “We are praying,” I said, “but we’re not necessarily expecting God to get us on a MAC flight.  He probably has bigger things to worry about.”  “Well,” she huffed, “I guess you don’t have much faith, do you”?

I’ve thought about that incident many times over the years.  She believed that I lacked faith because I didn’t believe that God would provide what we needed.  But it wasn’t that I didn’t believe that God could provide what we needed.  I just didn’t think I had the right to decide if what we really needed was to get on a MAC flight.  (And for those of you who can’t stand to not hear the end of a story, what God ultimately provided was a new, promotional direct flight from Seoul to San Francisco, complete with a meal and hot towels and a credit card to pay for it.  Amen).

So what was different in our approach to prayer?  Was one of us right and the other wrong?  The writer of John’s gospel provides a very comforting answer.  He tells us that Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”  Believe in God.  Believe in mebecause you know me.  I am willing to do anything for you.  We are in a relationship and because of that relationship I will always answer your prayers as is best for you.

I think anyone who is in a committed relationship can understand this.  Whether it’s a romantic partnership, parenthood, or a treasured friendship– sometimes you do things just because the person you love asks you to.   How many times have you gone to a movie that wasn’t appealing to you?  Or spent the night cleaning up after a sick person?  Or gone to church when you had no interest in learning about religion or even God for that matter?  That’s love.  And Jesus’ love for us opens the door so that we can find our place in God’s household.   Allowing himself to be bound to this sinful earth and its imperfect inhabitants in the form of Jesus is God’s priceless gift to us.

But what are we willing to do for God – and is there anything we really can give to God?  Peter’s answer is the same as the gospel message – believe.   “Grow into salvation…Come to him…Let yourselves be built into a spiritual house -” let yourself be built into God’s house.  God wants us to be part of him.  That’s all – and that’s everything.  Because I have started to believe that our good and bad behavior matter less to God than whether we accept her divine love and share it with others.  God asks us to open our eyes and see – see and believe that such complexity and beauty cannot be random.  To acknowledge that the challenging, confusing, and amazing people with whom we share our lives are not just replicated DNA.  To admit that there are places inside of us that cannot be filled by earthly things.  God asks us to accept what has already been given to us.  God asks us to believe.

For many people, that’s nearly an impossible task.  Many people can’t even imagine such a belief.  So we must imagine it with each other.  We may have to imagine it for one another.  We must keep showing and telling each other what we see and what is in our hearts.  We must, like Stephen, gaze into heaven and allow ourselves to be emptied of fear and filled with the Holy Spirit.  The power that comes with being in relationship with God is not the power to know things or have things or even be things.  It is the greatest and most important power of all – the power to love others as God loves us.  And that is worth dying for.  AMEN.

[1]Frank T. McAndrew (August 3, 2015), “Home is where the heart is, but where is home”? Psychology Today,  https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/out-the-ooze/201508/home-is-where-the-heart-is-where-is-home

Sermon for May 7, 2017: Who are We? (Preached at Grace Episcopal Church, Martinez, CA)

You may listen to the sermon here:

This past week I attended a gathering of clergy where we talked about our concerns and hopes for our various parishes and the Episcopal Church as a whole.  Although it was not the stated topic of the day, our conversation eventually drifted – as it so often does – to the subject of “how do we bring people back to church.”  Eventually, someone introduced a topic that is the bane of many clergy: Sunday morning youth sports.  Most priests have at least one family in their congregation – and often many – who are not seen at church for long stretches of time because one or more of their children plays some kind of sport on Sunday mornings.  “How,” moaned one of my colleagues, “do we make church more meaningful and valuable than soccer”?

The thing is, I don’t think the real issue is whether people think church is more important than soccer.  I think that sports are just the thing that families do on Sunday mornings now.  In the 20th century, families went to church.  Now they go to youth sports.  And for a lot of people, church didn’t have much meaning anyway, which made it easy for them to switch when there was a shift in societal values.  So, for me the question is not how we make church more meaningful than soccer – or anything else.  The question is how we communicate that church is meaningful – that it is valuable – that it is invaluable.  The question is how we tell people who we are.

But first we have to know the answers to those questions.  According to John Nielson, “The question of identity is important to everyone. So much of our life is framed by the struggle to truly understand who we are and why we are here.”[1]  The same thing is true of institutions.  It was certainly true of the fledgling Christian community we have been reading about during this Easter season.  We have heard from the authors of letters of Paul, Peter, the Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel of John, all trying to explain what “the Way” – the original name of the Jesus Movement – was all about.

By most accounts they were pretty successful.  Not only did they sextuple their membership as the result of one apparently fabulous sermon, but they also attempted to live harmoniously by sharing both their material and spiritual lives, with the result that they continued to grow.  Theirs was an idealized lifestyle – one that has resurfaced again and again under different names over the many years since – communes, kibbutzim, socialism, and “intentional community” – all have been repeatedly tried with great hopes, but most, including that of these earliest Christians, have failed.  It seems that human beings are simply not evolved enough yet to successfully share everything.

Luckily, the growth of Christianity was not dependent on the manner in which its disciples lived.  Nor was it about being willing to suffer for our religion, despite the way our reading from Peter has often been interpreted.  The text does not say that we as Christians should seek out suffering in order to identify with Christ.  The author’s message is simpler than that.  Suffering, he says, happens.  It is present in our lives from birth – and it is a crucial part of rebirth – and rebirth is what becoming a Christian is all about.  Membership in the body of Christ necessitates the radical alteration of who we are.  And, as anyone who has tried to drastically change their body or behavior can tell you, transformation can be painful.  It requires enormous strength and motivation.  So, when Peter tells us that enduring suffering is good, he is not saying that pursuing it will make us like Jesus; he is saying that when we are struggling with it, Jesus is present with us, as our example and our reward.

To know Christ is to know the Good Shepherd, the gateway to salvation.  Some scholars have suggested that the twenty-third psalm, familiar to many of us as a poem of comfort, is better described as a Song of Confidence, because in its six short stanzas it reminds of us of what we will find in the course of our transformation.  It describes what it means to be reborn in the image of the true God – a God who revives not just our souls, but our “whole selves,” a God who “hounds” us with kindness, whether we want it or not – a God who fully knows us –enough to call us by name –enough to lay down his life for us.  It tells us how to recognize the Way of Jesus and to follow it.

Are we, like the early Christians, devoted to God’s teaching?  Do we make time to pray together, to break bread together, and to enjoy fellowship with one another?  Do we listen for the voice of Jesus as he calls us by name?  Are we willing to suffer for justice, to resist abusing when we are abused, and threatening when we are threatened?  Who are we?

These are some of the questions that your faithful vestry reflected on yesterday at our annual retreat.  Our goal was to review the amazing work done during the interim, when parishioners were asked to think about who we are as a community and our hopes and dreams for the future, and then to synthesize that  input into a formal mission statement and vision for Grace Episcopal Church.

Like the early Christians, your vestry members prayed, heeded the apostle’s teaching, broke bread together and shared fellowship.  They listened for Jesus’s call for Grace Church and considered what the greatest strengths and desires of this community might be.  I asked them to do this foundational work so that we can move forward together with a strong sense of identity.  A mission statement expresses who we are.  It describes the heart of our community, “our unique and strongest gifts for ministry… [and provides us with] a tool to communicate the personality, passion and purpose of [our] parish… [It will hopefully] energize and provide direction to [those of us who are already here, as well as create] an invitation for those seeking a community like [ours].[2]  A vision statement, on the other hand, is aspirational.  It helps us decide who we would like to be and what mark we would like to leave on the world.  I believe that in the best spirit of collaboration, the vestry accomplished this task and I am pleased to share these statements with you.  Our mission statement: “Grace Episcopal Church: working together to welcome, support, and serve all God’s people. “ Our vision statement: “We strive to be a vital, loving community.  We believe in practicing the way of Christ.  All are welcome at God’s table.  We grow spiritually by offering help and hope to all we meet.”

I am most grateful to be part of this vision for the future of our community and I encourage you to support our mission and to tell others who we are “with glad and generous hearts, praising God” and securing “the goodwill of…people,” so that “day by day the Lord [will add to the] number of those [being] saved.” AMEN.

[1]John W. Nielson, (May 17, 2012), “Who am I”? in The Les Mis Project: Finding the Gospel in the music of “Les Miserables,” https://thelesmisproject.wordpress.com/2012/05/17/who-am-i/.

[2]Linda Buskirk, (January 6, 2012), “The value of a mission statement,” Episcopal Church Foundation: Vital practices for leading congregations, http://www.ecfvp.org/blogs/937/the-value-of-a-mission-statement.

Sermon for April 30, 2017: Be known to us Lord Jesus (preached at Grace Episcopal Church, Martinez, CA)

You may listen to the sermon here:

    

All churches have traditions.  I’m not talking about the formal customs and procedures of religious practice.  I’m talking about the unofficial rituals that make a certain church our parish home.  And while most of these aren’t written down anywhere and their origins have usually been lost to history, they are nonetheless entrenched in the culture of the parish.  They are, in their own way, sacred.

I knew I had encountered my first Grace Church Martinez unofficial holy law of obligation when I asked why we have pancake breakfasts during Lent instead of Easter season.  “Isn’t that,” I inquired with innocent concern, “backwards”?  “Well,” I was told (gently but firmly), “I don’t know about the theology of it, but to me Lent at Grace Church is the smell of pancakes.”  And I, knowing that church doctrine is no match for the aroma of maple syrup and sausage, shut my mouth and said grace.

The truth is that for many of us food and God are inextricably linked. One of the very first conversations between God and human beings was about food.  After God strongly suggested to the first people that they not eat from one particular tree in the beautiful garden where they lived, they went right ahead and did it anyway, leading to all kinds of trouble – but also providing us with the comforting knowledge that we are certainly not the only p unable to resist attractive but forbidden foods.  We are also not the only people who miss food when we are deprived of it.  After God released them from lives of slavery in Egypt, the Israelites tried to mutiny because they were hungry – and when God gave them something to eat, they promptly got angry because they didn’t like the taste of it.

We do God a disservice, however, when we focus on biblical stories in which God’s people were deprived of food, because there are many, many more tales in which God provides food for the people.  God not only sent manna to feed the Israelites in the wilderness, but he also dispatched a raven to feed his prophet Elijah, Abigail to provide for David, and Joseph to be sure that the people of Egypt had enough food stored to survive a seven-year famine.  Ours is a generous God, a god who has continued to provide physical and spiritual food for the human beings she created and loves, despite the fact that we have been ungrateful for them – despite the fact that we have rejected them – despite the fact that we have often destroyed them, including God’s own child, Jesus, the unblemished sacrificial Lamb, the perfect spiritual food which we, in our anger and fear, despised, rejected, and crucified.

That’s what Peter was trying to help the people of Jerusalem to understand – and it “cut them to the heart” when they realized that they had misunderstood and rebuffed God’s mercy. This passage is not about how “the Jews killed Jesus.”  It is not about the collective guilt of the people of the city.  Peter was not there to condemn the group – why would he bother?  He’s there to offer forgiveness and salvation to each individual person.  Jesus is the Lord, he tells them, the Messiah whose mission was not thwarted but fulfilled by his sacrificial death.  Jesus is the one they were waiting for, and, miraculously, they could still be part of it – part of a new life, a life free of corruption and fear.  All they had they to do was not throw away the gift they have been given.

It’s all we have to do too.  I recently read an article touting the effects of a miracle drug that can, “improve the physical and mental health of millions of Americans – at no personal cost.”[1]  That drug is religion. Long-term research suggests that although “the draw for many may be meaningful liturgy, perhaps a sense of forgiveness and ultimately, salvation,”[2] that’s not all regular church attendees are getting.  Churchgoers (as opposed to non-churchgoers) are more optimistic, less depressed, have a greater sense of purpose, exhibit more self-control, are less likely to smoke, and more likely to have a stable marriage.”[3]  And, just to be clear, these benefits are related to church attendance, not individual spirituality.  These findings fly in the face of what Jeff Paschal calls, “shallow, privatized, and individualized faith characterized by statements such as…’What I believe is between God and me’; ‘I am spiritual, but I do not practice organized religion’; ‘I am Christian, but I practice my faith by myself by being a good person.’  For too many church members, faith has become little more than mouthing the words ‘I believe in God and in Jesus’ as some sort of magic formula.  There is [no] public and communal dimension of thanksgiving and responsibility.”[4]

Yet, as today’s scripture readings so clearly tell us, it is exactly the public and communal aspects of the early Christian church that drew people to it, so much so that three thousand people were baptized in one day.  That seems impossible today – but I’ll tell you something.  I don’t think it is.  Because I think that people need something to believe in now just as much as they did then.  Human beings need something to give them strength, and something to share – and I believe that “something” is God –whether they know it or not.  The job of regular churchgoers is to show them.

One of the most beautiful practices we have here at Grace is when I invite forward those who would like to share the joys and sorrows of our lives together by disclosing a struggle or offering a thanksgiving with the group. This opportunity – to hear that one of our sisters only needs one more chemo treatment, or that a long-awaited heart transplant has occurred, or even that one of our friends is still struggling but remains hopeful – is an incalculable blessing – the same blessing that brought people to Jesus and to the movement that still bears his name.

That is what true Christian hospitality is all about, demonstrated over and over by Jesus in life and confirmed in his death.  It is the way in which Christians are supposed to be known – by our willingness to provide not just for one another, but to anyone who asks. Each time we break bread in community, whether it’s pancakes or wafers or granola bars; whether it’s in liturgy or fellowship or on the street- we are known to one another – and Jesus is known to us.

“One early, cloudy morning when I was forty-six,” Sara Miles writes in Take This Bread, “I walked into a church, ate a piece of bread, took a sip of wine. A routine Sunday activity for tens of millions of Americans—except that up until that moment I’d led a thoroughly secular life, at best indifferent to religion, more often appalled by its fundamentalist crusades. This was my first communion. It changed everything. Eating Jesus, as I did that day to my great astonishment, led me against all my expectations to a faith I’d scorned and work I’d never imagined. The mysterious sacrament turned out to be not a symbolic wafer but actual food—indeed, the bread of life.”[5]

 

That is the lesson and the promise of the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus; that “Jesus will meet his beloved ‘in the breaking of the bread.’ [That] the hospitality of…traveling companions [will become] the doorway to grace… [This requires] trust and hope…Hospitality expresses deep vulnerability; welcoming a stranger is always risk,”[6] but it is the way in which we are asked to demonstrate our faith, our gratitude and our understanding of God.  It is the way in which God opens our eyes to the gifts that he has given us and the way in which we learn to accept those gifts.  That bread is a miracle.  Take it. Eat it. Share it.  And be known in it.    AMEN.

[1]Tyler J. VanderWeele and John Siniff (2016), “Religion may be a miracle drug,” USA Today online, https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2016/10/28/religion-church-attendance-mortality-column/92676964/

[2]Ibid.

[3][3]Tyler J. VanderWeele and John Siniff (2016), “Religion may be a miracle drug,” USA Today online, https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2016/10/28/religion-church-attendance-mortality-column/92676964/

[4]Jeff Paschal, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Third Sunday of Easter), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 408.

 

[5]Sarah Miles, (2008), Take this bread: a radical conversion, [New York: Ballantyne].

[6]Molly T. Marshall, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Third Sunday of Easter), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 422.