Hunting the Snark – Sermon for 9/13/2015

If you’re familiar with Jabberwocky, or Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, or Through the Looking-Glass, you know Lewis Carroll used his tongue and his pen to create some of the most creative literary work of the 19th Century. You might not know that he was also a deacon in the Anglican Church! In 1876, he completed a “nonsense poem” called “The Hunting of the Snark.” It has driven readers and critics a bit wacky trying to figure out its meaning ever since it was published. The poem was a wildly creative piece about an imaginary creature whom Carroll said was indescribable, although he spent more than 500 lines describing his 10 characters’ frustrated search to find the Snark.

The Hunting for the Snark, a poem by Lewis Carroll that follows the search for an elusive fantasy creature named the Snark.

The Hunting for the Snark, a poem by Lewis Carroll that follows the search for an elusive fantasy creature named the Snark.

In modern times, it’s a whole lot easier to find the snark. You don’t even have to hunt for it – get on the Internet for less than a minute, and you’ve found snark, and unfortunately, there’s a lot of Christian snark out there. Of course, I’m talking about today’s meaning of snark – “snark” happens when someone is really good at using their words to cut another person down. You have to have a really sharp tongue to be good at snark. And snark happens best in the presence of an audience, who gathers to watch the fun of seeing somebody verbally destroyed, like sharks smelling blood in the water.
The irony did not escape me this week that anyone preaching on James 3:1-12 in our lectionary today is attempting to use their tongue to address the issue of how Christians should not use their tongue. James is speaking specifically about teachers, and he includes himself as one of them. But today, I encourage you to think beyond the traditional classroom model of teacher and students. If you profess yourself to be a Christian, then you are, in effect, a teacher of the faith in your community. Like the impact of what a parent says and does in front of their child – as teachers of the faith, what we say and do in front of others teaches them what a Christian is. Whether our words are witnessed by other members of our local faith community,  or witnessed in our wider community, what comes from our tongue teaches the people around us who we really are – and what a Christian truly is.
Last week we talked about our actions. That faith without works is dead. A faith life alive with both good words and good works is the true living faith of those who follow a true living God. This week we receive a reminder, a warning really, from James that good works of faith do include the actions of our tongue – actions that have either the gift to build others up, or the capacity to tear them down. James says that choosing to use our tongue to endanger the status or character of another person or group of people has an effect on the speaker spiritually, staining our own body, whether our target is aware of our snarky destructive behavior or not.

No matter how good a person we are, or how long we have been practicing the Christian faith, one of the hardest things we do is to control our own tongue – to avoid speaking violence or hate against another person, particularly those who have wounded us, or who wish us harm. James says that with our tongue we bless the Lord our Father, and then with that same tongue we curse others. When we curse others, we are cursing the creations that God made in the likeness of God himself.
Why is it so hard to control our tongues?
Probably because our tongue is both so easy to use, and holds so much power. Have you ever noticed that one of the easiest ways to bond with a group of people is to get together and talk about something you’re all passionate about? That’s a wonderful thing – when it’s being used for good. When we gather in group Bible studies, or healing prayer circles, or catching up with each other for updates on the people we care about. Our tongues carry words of encouragement and joy and comfort. Words of God’s grace, compassion, and love.
But it isn’t always that way. We aren’t always at our best as Christians. There’s another way that we bond in groups, when we slip into our Christian snark, sharing gossip disguised as news, giving judgments disguised as advice, or participating in the dismantling of the character of a person or a group of people.
James gives us three metaphors for the great power a tongue wields. Our tongue is a bridle, whereby merely pulling a comparatively small amount of pressure on the tongue of a huge horse, the rider can control the direction and behavior of the entire massive animal. Our tongue is small but holds the power of a tiny rudder, that with the slightest turn can control the direction of a huge ship sailing in the water. Finally, James offers up a startling image of both the power and the danger – the tongue is a small ember that holds within it the potential energy to set roaring fires ablaze.

Do not try this at home. Or at church. Or anywhere, basically.

Do not try this at home. Or at church. Or anywhere, basically.

Throughout Pentecost, we have heard Scripture tell us that it is what comes from inside us, what proceeds from the heart, that matters. When ugliness and hate and anger comes out of us, it is the tongue that is the agent of that destructive force. James says it is a fire that is kindled in hell. The word Jesus uses in the New Testament for hell is Gehenna, and those reading a letter from James would have known that the name is derived from that of a valley south of Jerusalem. Since ancient times, the valley had taken on a reputation of being cursed as the site of nightmarish evil and firey horror, where pagans sacrificed the lives of children to their false gods, where ancient Jewish kings burned and destroyed pagan offerings, where the bodies of criminals and other unclean things were disposed of.
James makes his point well. Not a place a faithful follower of God wanted to find themselves.
If you’re like me, you’re feeling the heat a little bit by now. James’ warning is pretty harsh, particularly for preachers and teachers! But he gives us some breathing room. James says we all make mistakes and nobody is perfect. But he also says make no mistake about this: if you are going to stake your claim under the banner of Jesus Christ, then you had better make sure that you are living and teaching the truth of the Gospel, without traveling outside the teachings of God’s love and grace, his mercy and forgiveness that is offered to the everyone, regardless of who they are.

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Beware of using the same tongue that blesses God in his house on Sunday morning and then turns and speaks words inciting hate and bitterness and violence Monday through Saturday. That’s where the snark is. Those are the fires of hell that, if allowed to burn from Christian hearts and mouths, damages the church’s ability to do mission work among unbelievers, burdens the fragile faith of new believers, destroys churches and consumes communities.
Tragically, our tongue can silence the Gospel message in us. When we look with Gospel truth at ourselves, we see the cross we most often pick up and carry is in fact our own cross, and not the cross of Jesus. Jesus says in our Gospel lectionary today, Mark 8:27-38, “’If you want to be my followers, you must deny yourselves, and take up the cross and follow me.” The cross of Christ invites us to set aside our nature and put on God’s nature of compassion and love and self-sacrifice.
How do we know the difference between his cross and ours?
The cross of Jesus is completely self-sacrificing. Our cross has a self-serving agenda.
The cross of Jesus sits beside thieves, prostitutes, lawbreakers, sinners. Our cross stays comfortably near the crosses of those who look and act like we do.
The cross of Jesus suffers for the sake of the world, the entire world. Our cross suffers for those who deserve it.
The cross of Jesus dies as a pure sacrifice for a broken world. Our cross struggles under the weight of its own woundedness.
The cross of Jesus is Resurrected to new life in God. This is, blessedly, where our cross meets and becomes one with God. This is where we are Resurrected, and Reconciled, and Renewed to eternal life through the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
How exciting is that?! How wonderful! Nothing else in this world even comes close to being as good that Good News!
This is the message we have received.
This is the message was are sent out to deliver to the world that needs so desperately to hear it.
This is God’s message for the world: I love you. You are forgiven. I want you all to be one with me. This is the message that should be on our tongues.

Missional Communities and God’s Dream/Sermon for Aug. 23, 2015

This has been the week that a lot of parents are sending their children off to college, many for the first time. Our son is already in college and now soon to go back to school, and tomorrow our daughter is continuing her high school career. It hit me this week that my husband and I in being there for the big starting days of our son’s academic career, stood as witness to the days that began to change his worldview. As we dropped him off at preschool for the first time, and later dropping him off at college for the first time.

The big experiences change our worldview, but we still see them through the lens of our choosing. Image: iStock.

The big experiences change our worldview, but we still see them through the lens of our choosing. Image: iStock.

The big transitions in your life may have involved sending a child off to college, or maybe it was something else, like moving away from your parents, getting married, or going off to boot camp. Whatever your big events have been, they sparked a change in your worldview – for better or for worse, you never looked at things quite the same way again.
Other times our community worldview changed, globally or nationally or locally. The Renaissance, Industrialization, the Great Depression, Pearl Harbor, 9/11, the Internet, Smartphones. All changed our worldview. And you can’t change your worldview without spinning the globe around a bit. These experiences are new, and unsettling, and scary. And different, and exciting, and – new.
The worldview was changing fast for the disciples of Jesus in today’s Gospel reading from John. It must have felt a little like their globe was spinning. Jesus is teaching in the Synagogue at Capernaum, and guess what, like us deep into Pentecost, they are getting yet another lesson on bread. Bread, bread, bread. But not just any bread – Living bread! And Jesus is asking them to eat his flesh and drink his blood.
There’s an interesting story about King David described in First Chronicles and Second Samuel. David and his army are fighting the Philistines, who have overthrown David’s home town of Bethlehem. At one point David starts talking about how good it would be to have a nice long, cool drink of that great Bethlehem well water – a well currently under siege by the Philistines. So three of David’s best soldiers go out and break through enemy lines, sneak into Bethlehem, hit the well, and bring their king back a big cup of his favorite water.
According to N.T. Wright, David knows that he can’t drink the water – because it would look like he was profiting from the death-defying work of his soldiers, who risked their life-blood for him, and that would be tantamount to drinking their blood – breaking a Jewish law against it, while at the same time making him look like one spoiled ruler. So he poured the water out onto the ground as an offering to God.
Jesus goes David one better. Jesus hopes that those around him will profit from his blood sacrifice. He invites us into the profit, into drinking his blood so that our life may be in him, and that he will raise us up on the last day.
The bread and the wine we take together in the Eucharist are a foretaste of the ultimate moment when our worldview changes, when into our vision is the fully revealed Kingdom of God. This is our peek into the eternal banquet already in progress around the throne of God. This is our reminder of the power of the Holy Spirit that is in us – of our Communion with God, the source of all power and love, and with the angels and archangels and the saints who have done their good work and gone on before us. This is the worldview we share, and are called to share with the world.

Worldview changes are unsettling. But God's Creation thrives on the unsettled messiness of searching, discovery, and growth.

Worldview changes are unsettling. But God’s Creation thrives on the unsettled messiness of searching, discovery, and growth.

Exactly how that communion happens is one of God’s holy mysteries. But we know this is where we encounter Jesus Christ, because this is where he asked us to meet him. The disciples didn’t have it figured out any better than we do. And they weren’t too happy about it. “Eat your flesh? Drink your blood? Eternal bread? This is hard stuff!” they said, complaining. “Who can deal with that?”
Jesus gives them a little something to think about – “Oh, you think accepting that is tough? What if you saw the Son of Man going right back up to where he came from?”
He’s telling his disciples that if they think wrapping your brain around what he’s said so far is hard, they’d better pace themselves, because there’s a lot more coming – his trial, death, resurrection, and his astounding ascension are still ahead.
Jesus calls them to quit trying to rationalize what he is staying to the exclusion of their faith in what he is doing. It is our spirit that gives us life, the eternal part of us God has created in us and through which Jesus reconciles us to the Father. Our spirit is what feels the authenticity of the love of Jesus and the presence of the Holy Spirit. The flesh by itself won’t get you anything, Jesus says. God lives in you through the Spirit.
A number of disciples, following Jesus in addition to the original twelve, can’t accept his teaching, and they leave. This Messiah they encounter is not the stuff of their legend. He is not the Mosaic superhero King of the Jews casting down the Romans, and restoring the Jews to political power. The words and actions of Jesus offer a worldview they refuse to consider. And so they leave.
Jesus, knowing full well what is to come and how each of the twelve disciples will act, ask those remaining whether they will also go, offering them a chance to affirm their belief. “We won’t. You hold the words of eternal life,” they say.
The transforming, eternal worldview is God’s dream for us. A dream of the Word of God made flesh and walking among us. A dream that we will follow in the footsteps of Jesus and walk humbly, and carry his peace and grace and mercy into the dark places where hope and love and justice live outside the door.

The re-Evolution of God's Kingdom happens in and through relationships.

The re-Evolution of God’s Kingdom happens in and through relationships.

More than 2,000 years later, his Church the Body of Christ continues to wrestle with accepting God’s worldview. As our communities change shape and evolve around us, we struggle to adapt. We are losing our vision for how to live into God’s dream for his world, and the question before us is this: Will we have the courage to adjust our worldview, and keep working toward that Kingdom dream, or will we walk away because it’s too hard?
Yesterday, three members of our congregation and I attended a Missional Community Workshop with Bishop Doyle in Houston. If you’ve never heard the term “Missional Community” before, you will. It is in short, a satellite faith community of a larger sending Church, a community of Christian service that exists completely outside the main Church. Missional Community offers people a different place to plug in and experience the love of Jesus, and to discover what it means to serve him together right inside their own neighborhood.
Our bishops and our new Presiding Bishop-Elect Michael Curry are on fire to move the Church ahead quickly into the future so that we can unleash the power of the laity and the clergy that God has already given us through his Holy Spirit. We have to have the courage as a Church to get out of our own way. This worship space we are in today is sacred and beautiful – but it was never meant to be the end. We are meant to take what we experience here and go out and make more of it, and on and on.
What does that look like? How are we going to do that? If you’re confused by it all right now – that’s ok. One of the first things to understand about Missional Community work is that it can’t be tightly defined. God’s work cannot be boxed in to a definition because he is always doing a new thing.
Here’s the important thing to know today: if St. Paul’s wants to be a church that does the best we can for our congregational vitality, if we want a future where we don’t just survive, but thrive in God’s dream for us, then it is going to take some courage to take a good look at who we really are, and who our neighbors really are. We need to listen to them and with them about what they need, and what missional work makes sense for us in our community. It will take courage to adjust our congregational worldview, and transition our church culture according to those truths.

Image: Missio Dei Church.

Image: Missio Dei Church.

I want to be really authentic and very vulnerable with you, and say that right now, I don’t know what this means for us. I don’t know if this is something we are going to be able to do – or something enough of you will want to do. I don’t have any agenda or pre-conceived notion of what this kind of future would look like for St. Paul’s. This is very new to me. I don’t know where Missional Community will take us. I don’t know where it will take each of you. I don’t know where it will take me.
I do know one thing: God is with us. And knows our hearts. He knows the uncertainty and the excitement that the calling of the Holy Spirit causes in us. He know how it sounds when he asks us to live on his flesh and blood. But he knows how we benefit from life in him, and he asks us to have faith Because if you think where he’s taken us already is really something, wait until we see him lifting us up into God’s dream for us.

Visit St. Paul’s Episcopal Church online here.

Now is the Time: Charleston and the Secret Meeting Sermon 6/21/15

Now is the time. Last week when Bishop Jeff Fisher was with us, we were queued up with the choir for procession, listening to the choir sing the Spirit Song, “Jesus, Come and Fill Your Lambs,” when one of the choir members got my attention and pointed to the small clock posted about the entrance to the worship space. The hands were spinning out of control. They hadn’t been doing that just a few minutes before, as I was nervously checking the time, wanting my first visit as priest from a bishop to go p-e-r-f-e-c-t-l-y. I got the Bishop’s attention and pointed toward the clock. We both chuckled and smiled. We were entering God’s time. Today again we enter God’s time. Today we are getting into the boat, pulling away from shore and heading into deep water. Deep ocean I’m going to tell you about the first time I met Ben Bythewood. I always hoped that some day it would be the right time to tell this story about the young former mayor of Woodville, Texas, but I never imagined it would be this soon. And I never imagined that it would be because of this set of circumstances. A couple of weeks ago, nobody imagined that Ben would go out on a cruise with his cherished wife Amy – one of my high school classmates – and that on that cruise, the Lord would take him home. This past Wednesday night, nobody imagined that a young man would kill nine people in a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. Nobody imagined that our personal lives, our community and national lives could get so stormy…that the wind could blow so hard, the water could come into the boat, and we could be so shaken in sorrow and fear. Nobody imagined. But now Ben is gone, standing face to face with his Creator, beside the nine from Charleston. And this is the time. The time is now.

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The Hon. Ben Bythewood, former Mayor of Woodville, Texas, and a true man of God. May he rest in peace and rise in glory. Photo: Ben’s Facebook page.

I was standing with Amy and Ben at a gathering at Woodville Methodist Church as we were meeting each other and making introductions for the first time, and suddenly Ben – the huge, tall bear of a man he was – leaned in and whispered to me. He said, “Can I ask you something?” Not having any idea what he was going to say, I said, “Sure.” He looked fearfully to his left and his right and leaned in further, and in hushed whispers, asked me if I’d be willing to be part of a gathering of a few local ministers to begin an effort to work together on race relations in Tyler County. I was brand new to St. Paul’s and Woodville, and I really had no idea what the state of racial relations was in Tyler County, but I knew my answer: yes. Ben whispered that he’d have his secretary call me. A few weeks later, about the time I thought I had imagined it all, I got a call from Ben’s office, inviting me to “the meeting.” Soon after, I went to the meeting. It was a mixture of black and white ministers and some regional officials. We had a meal and spent time telling our stories – about our raising and our backgrounds, being honest with each other, and vulnerable to each other, about our upbringing and life experience as it related to racism. Then the tenor of the meeting changed. We talked vaguely about what areas we might be able to have an impact on. “You know we need to get into the schools!” We talked about it, but we didn’t really know what the next step was. We prayed together. To be very honest, it felt like a weak effort and I went away disappointed. I’m not sure what I expected, but it didn’t feel very glamorous to me. I wish I’d made time to have this conversation with Ben. But now is the time to have it with you. And for you to have it with each other. And for us to have it with this community. The time is now. Our scriptures today remind us that whether you are facing Goliath or facing the storm, the nature of God’s power is hidden in the appearance of weakness. God works his mighty power through what seems small and vulnerable. Empires cannot stand against the true power of God. The empires of violence and racism cannot stand against the true power of God. In Samuel, it seems like Goliath is an insurmountable force, but David goes to meet him in the storm of battle, not with the heavy armor of Saul but just as he is, just like Jesus was when he got into the boat – armed with faith, walking in the way of the One True God, believing that God is working in the world.

Illustration by The Beke.

Illustration by The Beke.

In Mark, the disciples are afraid of the storm and rush to wake up Jesus, desperately asking, “Don’t you care that we’re about to die?” They don’t yet understand that God is already at work. He is already on the boat with them. So to show them again, he rises and calms the storms. Jesus is the King of all Creation, and the power to calm the storm is in his hand. God is at work stilling the storm. Are you listening? Or are you still, like the disciples, stuck at “Who is this?” God is already in the boat with us, and he is at work stilling the storm. How, where? He was on that cruise ship – blessing Amy and surrounding her with helpers who supported her and her family. And when she got home, he was there in the outpouring of love from this community to shield her and hold her up through these difficult days. God is at work in that beautiful, bright blue-eyed grandson she holds that looks so much like Ben. God is at work calming the storm. God was at work when that 21-year-old man from Charleston stood up before a judge for his arraignment, and one after another, family members of his victims stood with heartbroken voice and said, “We forgive you. We forgive you. Every fiber of our being is aching, but God says to forgive. Turn to Jesus. We forgive you.” As people sank to their knees outside that hearing and outside Emanuel AME, as they stand this morning inside church after church across the country and hold hands and embrace in peace, as we sing and pray, God is at work calming the storm. I wish Ben were here today, because I would apologize to him. First I would apologize for thinking that he didn’t accomplish much at that meeting. I would apologize and beg his forgiveness, and God’s, for failing to have enough faith to see that the nature of God’s power is hidden in the appearance of weakness. I went away disappointed because I didn’t realize that God was at work in that group of pastors who felt helpless, but who still had the courage to come together and start SOMEWHERE. I see it now. Thank you Ben. May we have the courage to continue what you started. Now is the time to go out into the storm and face our Goliath. Now is the time to stand up for God’s justice, to love with his mercy, and to walk humbly with him when we find ourselves being Goliath. This week our bishops have put out a call for us to pray for Charleston, and for priests to speak a call to action from our pulpits. I share these words from Bishop Doyle with you: “Now is not the time for a cowardly church but a proclaiming missionary church which is at work offering a vision of a kingdom that is being built and a reign of God underway. Now is the time for bravery and commissioned missionary work where our hands join the hands of God to still the storm of the world and to heal the sick, help the blind to see, and the poor to have good things. “Now is the time for our voices to join the voice of God and still the storm around us. It is our opportunity as missionaries to name God in the world putting down the forces which seek to destroy God’s creation and the creatures of God.” God is at work. Now is the time.

McChurch and Community Engagement

Advent 1 Sermon at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Woodville, Texas:

It’s almost a given on the first Sunday in Advent, this first Sunday after Black Friday, that many congregations are hearing sermons today railing against greed and consumerism. For weeks we haven’t been able to get away from Black Friday advertising, or news stories on people fighting over big screen TVs or camped out in front of stores. I was determined not to be that priest who came in here and laid an Advent sermon on you about how this time of year we all spend too much time thinking about buying stuff, and not enough time thinking about God. Consumerism bad – God good. Sermon done.

But then I saw a story about a church branding agency trying to raise $1,000,000 to partner with any church willing to let them build a McDonald’s inside of it. It’s called – get ready for this – the McMass Project.

The project logo, believe it or not, and a link to the indigogo website, in case you're still struggling with whether to believe it, or not. (Image from indiegogo.com)

The project logo, believe it or not, and a link to the indigogo website, in case you’re still struggling with whether to believe it, or not. (Image from indiegogo.com)

Honestly, when I first read about it I was a little McNauseous. For us as Episcopalians, let alone for our sister Eucharistic tradition churches, to take the name of a sacred rite like the Mass and to use in a commercial venture mixing Happy Meals and the Holy Sacrament, seems like an abomination. For a while, I mourned the loss of people’s value for the sacred.

The prophet laments in Isaiah 64 that in our perception of God’s absence we have turned to sin. We have failed to call on God and to take ahold of him. Is it God’s fault for not showing up in the way we want him to? This Advent we’re not waiting for God to show up and shake the mountains. We’re waiting for a helpless infant in a manger. That hardly seems like a reasonable answer to our world’s desperate need for a visible God. And it didn’t seem like an answer for the nation of Israel, searching for hope after their sacred Temple is destroyed and their people are scattered to the winds.

The prophet’s cry in Isaiah resonates in its desperate call to God, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence – as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil – to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!”

That’s the kind of Old Testament presence of God you get hungry for when you’re thinking about today’s Christianity determined to act as if in into exile, melting down its gifts and trading them in for a golden calf – or in this case, the Golden Arches – while violence and suffering surround us and God seems silent and busy on his mountain.

It’s never good to get worked up about something that you haven’t bothered to read all the way through, so I kept reading the McDonald’s project’s proposal. According to them, the problem is that churches are failing at an alarming rate across the country – as many as ten thousand churches a year shut down. People are leaving churches in droves – three million people a year in the United States walk out the door after failing to find something to which they feel a connection. The solution, according to the project developers, is that churches need to innovate. The idea for what they call a “perfect partnership” is to combine churches, well-known for being community-centered organizations, with McDonalds, well-known for bringing in droves of people. A store in a good location becomes more valuable over time the more money it makes. Put the two together, this group claims, and you will create a self-sustaining, community-engaged, popular church.

The project's recipe for keeping churches sustainable, community-engaged, and popular. (Image from indiegogo.com)

The project’s recipe for keeping churches sustainable, community-engaged, and popular. (Image from indiegogo.com)

As much as I hate the idea of a McChurch – I have to admit they’re not completely wrong: churches ARE dying off, and people ARE leaving. And churches are known for being community-centered organizations. Or at least, they used to be. This is where the road divides between us as the Church, established by Jesus as his Body in the world until his return, and those who would package and sell our Christian identity like so many boxes of chicken nuggets.

It is our Christian identity of the church as community-engaged that we need to reclaim for God, in every way we can. Not by selling ourselves into a profit-making business partnership for financial survival, but by partnering in the community, serving and engaging so deeply and so consistently that our identity becomes indistinguishable from this community. When that happens, no one will be able to think of Woodville without thinking of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and a community dedicated to living for God.

That is the kind of relationship the people leaving the church in droves are hungry for, not for French fries. They are hungry to learn about and experience a kind of spirituality that is molded into a deeply meaningful and deeply satisfying Christian lifestyle. As it says in Isaiah: Still God, you are our Father, you are the potter, and we are the clay. We are hungry to be molded more and more into the image of God in which he has made us. In Advent, we learn to wait not for the mountains to shake, but for the manger to be filled. Faith is trusting not in huge signs from God, but from a God who knows about the strength that is found only in being vulnerable to each other – to risk everything we are to love someone else.

Advent is the time for waiting. But I can’t hardly wait because we’ve got a new church year in front of us. We have a new year with new opportunities God will be asking us to take him up on! But first, we have four weeks to ponder, to hope, and to recommit ourselves to living our identity as Jesus followers, and as his community-centered Church. It may seem like a long wait, but in just four Sundays Christmas Eve is coming, and it won’t be Mac-This or Mac-That. It will be the Mass of Christ, when we celebrate the ultimate moment that God became engaged in our human community.

 

On Ferguson, the Church, and What We Believe

“We’ve got a long way to go to get there, but I think we stand a chance if we are willing to be open to what we say we believe.” – Catherine, St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church, Morrow, Georgia/Episcopal News Service

What follows is a sermon I preached to my rural East Texas community Episcopal church in August, at the height of the racial uprisings in Ferguson, Missouri. As the nation waits tensely again this week for legal decisions, and Missouri communities gather offering peace and shelter, I encourage all pastors to redouble their efforts to preach peace and unity from their pulpits, and for all Christian people, particularly my Episcopalian brothers and sisters, to live what we say we believe:

Twenty years ago while a student journalist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis I became familiar with racism, and with Ferguson, the neighborhood located directly north of campus. Ferguson has stayed in the national eye these last few weeks as racial tension, violence, and calls for peace continue to be heard in that neighborhood. Twenty years ago, the racism I witnessed was also deeply troubling. The Missouri Ku Klux Klan was by its own description attempting to get stronger and more powerful by attracting more affluent and well-educated members by attempting to sponsor programming on the university radio station. The station refused to cooperate, and so the klan sued the state of Missouri in federal court to try to force the station to take its money, and read a promotional underwriting statement for the klan on air. At the federal courthouse in downtown St. Louis I had the opportunity to interview the leader of the Missouri klan. Someone might be tempted to be sympathetic to his cause, as long as that someone hadn’t bothered to educate themselves on 150 years of klan history. When listening to voices in controversial moments in time, people of good faith should be careful to listen and feel for the presence of that deeper grace generated through the love of Jesus Christ. That grace will reveal the sinful from the just.

From a St. Louis art exhibit promotion/maatology.blogspot.com

From a St. Louis art exhibit promotion/maatology.blogspot.com.

The most telling thing in that interview happened in the last couple of minutes of our conversation. That’s when it became clear that what he was saying and what he was doing were two very different things.
Jesus talking to his disciples in Matthew 16 asks them to describe who the people of Caesarea Philippi are saying he is. Caesarea Philippi is an interesting location for this conversation to take place. Located about 25 miles north of the Sea of Galilee, Caesarea was the center of worship for a number of pagan gods, the local community attraction being a huge natural spring feeding the Jordan River. Jesus and his disciples traveled there after an encounter with the Pharisees and Sadducees, who had teamed up to trap him, demanding he show them a sign to back up his claim of power. Instead, he makes a bold move for justice, confronting them in return, naming them as evil and unfaithful followers of God, who could understand the signs of impending weather, but who failed to recognize all the signs of their own hoped-for Messiah. And so into this atmosphere of blindness and accusation by God’s own people, into this town filled with pagan worshippers, Jesus puts the question to his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” The response varies – some say Elijah, some say John the Baptist, or Jeremiah. Then Jesus asks Simon directly, “Who do you say that I am?”

"Who do you say I am?"  - Jesus

“Who do you say I am?” – Jesus

Simon’s answer is you are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. This very interesting answer brings together both Hebrew and pagan traditions to claim Jesus’ kingship, the titles acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah. In Hebrew that is the royal title of “anointed one” and the Son of God, another Hebrew title for royalty. Son of God was also used by Greek leaders, including the first Roman emperor Augustus, as a title of divine authority. Of course, we have inserted here that Jesus is son of the Living God. Not a cold pagan statue, or some pagan God in some undead netherworld who has to be charmed into appearing – a living God who walks among his people and gives them eternal life.

"You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God." - Simon Peter

“You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” – Simon Peter

Jesus renames Simon as Peter, a play on his name, which means rock, and names him as the rock he will build his Church on. To be more exact, Jesus proclaims not Peter himself, but his faith, as God-inspired. Not the result of any experience Peter has had of his own effort, but that his faith is built by the work of God himself. The kind of faith God establishes in Peter is the faith that Jesus names as the foundation of the Body of Christ, the living Church that will remain on earth after his death, resurrection and ascension. The living Church that is charged with loving in his name and building the kingdom until Jesus returns to complete his work in the remaking of Creation.
To his Church represented by Peter, Jesus leaves the keys of the kingdom and the authority to act in his name with heavenly power. The keys of the kingdom is the knowledge inspired by God in Peter, the understanding Jesus leaves with us that he is the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed one through whom we are reconciled to God in his sacrifice and through whom we have access to eternal life.
Our authority is the power of God lived through the Church to the world. The keys and the authority – these are the tools of our Gospel mission. What we say, and what we do. Holding the keys to the kingdom means we have a responsibility to say to others that there is a saving grace in knowing Jesus Christ. Having authority means that we have a responsibility to do actions that build up the kingdom – to do acts of love, mercy and justice in the world in his name.
As members of God’s holy, catholic and apostolic Church, what we say is as important as what we live. What we live is as important as what we say – because in both of those things, as representatives of the Church, we are speaking for Jesus Christ. We are living for Jesus Christ. In all places, at all times.
With the events in Ferguson and what seems to be a growing racial divide around the country, there is a growing call from within the Church for us to use our voices and our actions to live what we claim to believe – the love of Jesus for everyone, everywhere. Some of the hardest conversations we have and most challenging actions we take are in the course of race relations here in East Texas. Yet Jesus calls us to say and to do words and actions of justice, mercy, and grace – in all places, at all times. This week there were a lot of words and actions in Ferguson, words and actions of hate and peace.
Be reassured that God is with us in these difficult days – he never leaves us nor forsakes us. I want to close with some encouraging words of grace I came across in an Episcopal News Service story this week. It is a quote from a woman named Catherine who is a member of St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church in Morrow, Georgia, near Atlanta:
“My hope lies in the fact that I believe in the church we have a chance. Celebrating Holy Communion is so important because it reminds us that we’re committed to something bigger than ourselves. I believe the church is the place where we can develop real dialogue, real trust and model a different way to be with one another. We’ve got a long way to go to get there, but I think we stand a chance if we are willing to be open to what we say we believe.”
May what we say, and what we do, be what we believe.

Read, mark, and inwardly digest.

Dear fellow Episcopalians: Read, mark, and inwardly digest.

 

 

Forgiveness and the Everlasting Gobstopper/Sermon Sept. 14, 2014

“So shines a good deed in a weary world.”
This is my favorite Willie Wonka movie quote, from the 1971 version with Gene Wilder, not the newer version with Johnny Depp. Sorry to any Johnny Depp fans out there, but he just can’t hold a candle to Gene Wilder’s version.This line happens at the very end of the movie, after a little kid named Charlie Bucket from a desperately poor family loses a contest to own Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory on a technicality, and gets yelled at good by Wonka to boot.

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On his way out of the factory, Charlie gives up his one last chance to save his family. In his hand is the Everlasting Gobstopper, one of Wonka’s new secret formula candies. Charlie could easily sell that candy to Wonka’s rival and ruin his business. But Charlie doesn’t do it. Even though he’s been treated badly, Charlie refuses to take revenge – he sets the gobstopper on Wonka’s desk and walks away, forgiving the anger and the injustice of the technicality. Wonka picks up the candy and says in a quietly moving voice – like only Gene Wilder could pull off – “So shines a good deed in a weary world.”
– Interesting side note, that quote is actually a line from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice about one lone candle burning in a dark hallway: “How far that little candle throws his beams. So shines a good deed in a weary world.”

In this long season of Pentecost following the birthday of the Church, we move today into Jesus’ teaching on Christian forgiveness. This is the last in the series of teachings to the disciples at Capernaum that make up a kind of employee manual for the kingdom, on the life and relationships within faith communities, and how Jesus expects those who follow him to behave toward each other. Last week, we talked about the community guidelines for handling sinful behavior between Christians, and the power God gives to the Body of Christ to make those decisions when we gather in his name. We follow that up today with Peter, coming to Jesus with a challenging question about sinful behavior and forgiveness, “Lord, how often should I forgive another member who sins against me? As many as seven times?” Jesus answers, “77 times,” or as some ancient manuscripts say, “70 times 7.” Either way, whether it’s 77 times or 490 times, it’s a crazy number that realistically would never happen – Jesus is making a point by using this ridiculous number to say that our forgiveness should have no limit. There is no end to God’s forgiveness, and so there should be no end to ours.

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Last week, we heard a very structured and tightly numbered process on church discipline and accountability in community. But our call to forgive each other has no limitations. The same Church empowered with accountability has its power checked and balanced with a requirement to offer forgiveness – a reminder that the love of God guides every single part of a faith community’s life. The love of God guides even our struggles with one another.
Jesus underlines the importance of this requirement to forgive in telling his disciples the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. A king forgives his servant a ridiculously large debt, 10,000 talents. 10,000 was the largest Greek number, and a talent was the largest currency unit. That ridiculous amount of debt was something the servant couldn’t pay back even after working thousands of years. This servant who was forgiven a massive amount of debt fails to show any mercy to a fellow servant who owes him a comparatively tiny amount – 100 denarii, or about 100 days wages, and throws his fellow servant into jail. The king hears of it, and throws the unforgiving servant into jail. This is the same thing, Jesus says to the disciples, that my heavenly father will do to you if you do not forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart.

Evidently, forgiveness is pretty serious stuff. Jesus makes a couple of things clear here: as sinners redeemed by God, we have been forgiven a debt that is bigger than we could ever hope to repay; so God expects us to be forgiving to others, and to really mean it, and if we don’t, he will hold us accountable. This is evident in the prayer of all the faithful that we say every Sunday, and in the Daily Office every day, the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us…” Matthew’s version of the Lord’s prayer in the Sermon on the Mount explains it in a little more detail, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

Forgiveness is pretty serious stuff. How many of you want to be forgiven by God – show of hands? Yeah, that’s pretty much everybody. We know that we do, but HOW do we about forgiving each other, especially when someone has never apologized for their behavior, or who has done something really terrible to us? Maybe that person’s not even alive anymore.
We are called simply to forgive. But forgiveness is not simple. Forgiving someone doesn’t mean pretending like what they did didn’t happen. In fact, it’s the opposite of that – forgiving someone means being honest about what has happened, then choosing to let go of the power that someone’s else’s sin has over you, by letting go of your anger and the desire for revenge. This can take time, prayer, and if the hurt is traumatic enough, we may need the help of a professional to guide us toward healing.

We are called by God both to forgive and to enact justice in the world. But forgiveness and letting go does not mean giving up justice. Jesus was very clear on the dangers of an unforgiving heart, but he was also clear about consequences for those who deliberately endanger the faith of vulnerable Christians, and those who continue to willfully sin against others in the Body of Christ.

We are empowered by God’s forgiveness. Because he forgave us first, our ability to forgive is therefore not dependent on the other person. We don’t have to wait for them to apologize. If they do it’s definitely nicer for us, and good for their soul if they do – as Jesus said, if they respond to accountability, then we have regained the one back into our faith community – but whether they are ever sorry or not does not matter to our call to forgive them. They don’t even have to be alive for us to forgive them. Forgiveness is a choice that is completely dependent on us discovering our own freedom in being a servant of God’s grace to others. When we make the choice to forgive, we are empowered by the healing grace of God at work in us.

Forgiveness is a spiritual practice, and like all spiritual practices, it takes time and regular work to get good at it. If you’ve been through something really difficult, and you don’t feel comfortable facing forgiveness in that right now, start by practicing forgiveness in smaller things. As you strengthen your forgiveness practice, you can begin to work on forgiving the big stuff. Don’t worry, God will make the journey with you. It is your willingness to have a forgiving heart he is looking for, not how perfect you can be at forgiving.

Charlie Bucket discovered that while he may have lost the contest, he ended up winning the chocolate factory and saving his family. Because he was able to let go of the way the world expected him to react, instead holding on to a commitment to doing what was right, he ended up getting everything he needed. Each time we let go and embrace the choice to forgive, we receive the grace of God that we need, and a sin-weary world sees a little more of the shining light of Christ.

"So shines a good deed in a weary world." - Willie Wonka

“So shines a good deed in a weary world.” – Willie Wonka

Get Out and Start Walking – Sermon Aug. 10, 2014

Yesterday, Steve and I had the chance to take a tour of a B-17. During World War II, my grandfather flew on one of these airplanes. I’d heard about B-17s all my life, and seen them in photos and the movies and on old news reels, but I’d never actually been in front of one in person. For some reason, I’d always thought they were pretty huge, but they’re not. You know it couldn’t have been too big, because this one landed at the Angelina County Airport in rural East Texas, not exactly a military or commercial-length landing strip.

The "Texas Raiders," a B-17 in the Commemorative Army Air Forces that we toured when it visited Lufkin, Texas.

The “Texas Raiders,” a B-17 in the Commemorative Army Air Forces that we toured when it visited Lufkin, Texas on Aug. 9, 2014.

My grandfather was a second lieutenant and the navigator on a B-17, and I got to go underneath the cockpit area and stand for a while in the little space overlooking the windows toward the nose, where he would have sat during missions on the left side at a small wooden desk, working with his maps to keep the plane on course.

My grandfather's "office" space, the navigator's desk.

My grandfather’s “office” space, the navigator’s desk.

What struck me as I stood there was how he and the crew must have felt as they got into that plane day after day, facing this hard, and uncomfortable, and dangerous work, knowing they were going into harm’s way. They were all so young, men in their early 20s, mostly. There were pretty much ordinary guys, with families waiting for them back home. So, how did they do it? Where did they find the courage?
In Matthew 14 we have twelve disciples who Jesus has compelled to get into a boat and go around to the other side, while he breaks up the huge crowd they’d fed in the miracle of the loaves and fishes we heard about last week. I’m sure the disciples didn’t want to be parted from him, or to leave him alone without any support. But the Scripture doesn’t say he asked them politely, or begged them, or gently hoped they’d get into the boat. It says he made them get in. The crowd goes home and the disciples are in the boat, and he gets back to the solitude and prayer that he’d been heading for when the crowds found him. He spends the better part of the night on the mountain, and meanwhile a storm has whipped up and blown the disciples’ boat from the shore out into the sea, and they can’t get back to Jesus because the wind is against them.
This is like their experience in Chapter 8 when the disciples are together in a boat in a storm and their ship is getting swamped and they all think they’re going to die – but Jesus is with them, although he’s asleep, and they wake him up and he said then, like he says in today’s story, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” Then he calms the wind and the sea with a command, and the disciples wonder what kind of man he is, that he can control the elements. Did you catch that? They wonder what kind of MAN he is. Not whether he’s God, but what kind of man he is.
In today’s story Jesus blows any kind of doubt about who he is out of the water – literally. The disciples spot him walking toward them across the water through the storm. They are terrified. It is storming, but they’re not afraid of the water. They think what they see is a spirit of some kind, Jesus’ ghost, or possibly some kind of evil that is heading toward them, and they’re stuck with no Jesus to wake up and help them this time. Jesus calls out to them, immediately, “Take heart.” In some versions it reads “have courage.” Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid. This “it is I” phrase Jesus uses here is the same translation of the Hebrew name God uses for himself in Exodus 3 with Moses in the story of the burning bush when he says “I AM who I AM,” “tell them it is I AM who has sent you.” Jesus is in the storm, telling the disciples exactly who he is and who has sent him. “I AM God. This is who has sent me. Don’t be afraid.”

My favorite wall hanging in my office space at church. Jesus, walking on the water toward his disciples in the pre-dawn light, perhaps already calling to Peter, "Come!"

My favorite wall hanging in my office at church. Jesus, walking on the water toward his disciples in the pre-dawn light, perhaps already calling to Peter, “Come!”

Peter, always the one to push the envelope, asks Jesus to further prove who he is. If that’s you, call me out into the water, he says. And Jesus says, “Come.” Peter gets off to a good start, but as soon as he pays more attention to the situation than to the Savior, he starts sinking, and calls out for Jesus to save him. Jesus immediately reaches out a hand and pulls him up, asking, like he did before, “Why do you doubt, You of little faith?” They climb into the boat together and the wind dies, and the disciples, finally, understand – at least at this moment – and worship him as the Son of God.
We live our lives in an ocean of change. One day things are calm, and suddenly, without any warning, we may find ourselves in the midst of a storm. There are storms we face on the outside, caused by circumstances or people beyond our control, or storms happening within ourselves. There are storms that happen in our families, our church, our community, and sometimes, you may feel like you’re sinking. How do we handle that? How do we get up every day and keep doing this hard and uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous work of living in this stormy world? God is always with us, and we can be sure that when we cry out to him, Jesus hears us, immediately. And his Holy Spirit comes to comfort us, immediately.
Those men on that B-17 – they did it because they shared a common goal. They were ordinary guys, who were bound together in a mission to fight for freedom and to make the world a better place, especially for the families they were hoping to get back to. Some of them made it, and some of them, like my grandfather, didn’t. Surely some of them, probably most of them, were scared at times, but they still answered the call to serve. God was always with them.

The disciples were ordinary folks who answered an extraordinary call to serve, and God empowered them for ministry.

The disciples were ordinary folks who answered an extraordinary call to serve, and God empowered them for ministry. He still calls – and empowers – his disciples for extraordinary things today, if we’re willing to get out of the boat.

The disciples were ordinary people – fisherman, tent-makers. They were regular guys who had families waiting for them back home, but they were bound together in a common mission. They had all answered Jesus’ call to ministry. They were at times also called to face ridicule and even death. They had to go out into real storms, more than once, and they were scared, and some of them handled it better than others – but they were never abandoned by God.
We are the Body of Christ. We are the Church. We all have gifts for ministry, but we are also all ordinary people, people who come from regular jobs and regular lives to answer God’s call to serve, and this binds us together in a common mission to love others in the name of Jesus. Sometimes we handle our mission to love others well, and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we find ourselves faced with heading into a storm. Even then, God is with us.
Notice in both storm stories that Jesus doesn’t make everything peaceful first and then says, “Everything’s all right now, I’ve fixed it. You can look.” No, it’s still storming and the wind is still blowing when he reveals himself and says, “Don’t be afraid, I am God, and I am here with you.” It’s not until after he immediately comes to comfort us that he calms the storm. God is sovereign over all creation, and nothing will stop him from working out his purpose – even the worst of storms.

The truth is that sometimes we don’t have the courage to get out of the boat. Years ago, a pastor named Ernest Campbell said “the reason that we seem to lack faith in our time is that we are not doing anything that requires it.”
Like Peter, Jesus is calling to us to get out of the boat and to start walking. He calls us to walk into places and situations in our church and community ministries that require faith, because they require us to be uncomfortable, and to take risks for the sake of the Gospel. The key to finding peace in the storm is in understanding that we don’t take our comfort from situations. We don’t take comfort from trying to keep everything perfect. We take our comfort from God. We have a God who reveals himself to us when we are scared, who hears us when we call out to him, and who reaches out and pulls us back up to safety first, before he ever stops to calm the storm.

I read something interesting this week on the phrase “you of little faith.” When Jesus said in both disciples’ storm stories, “Oh you of little faith, why do you doubt?” what if we look at the phrase not as a negative, not as saying they don’t have much faith, but as a positive, like the story of the mustard seed. True faith is so powerful that all it takes to do a great thing is to have a “little faith.” Peter had just enough faith to step out of that boat and start moving toward Jesus, and that’s the same guy, this guy who started sinking, who became the rock that Jesus chose to build his church on. That gives me a lot of hope, because even if we fail in our faith at times, just getting out of the boat can make a difference in God’s Kingdom. If we will focus on having just a little faith, then we have all we need to start walking.

I told you it was my favorite. Look again: Could this be Peter, walking toward Jesus? Is it you, answering Jesus' call to get out of the boat? Have courage, start walking!

I told you it was my favorite. Look again: Could this be Peter, walking toward Jesus? Is it you, answering Jesus’ call to get out of the boat? Have courage, start walking!

The Bad Seed (Spoiler: God Wins)

Sermon on July 20, 2014 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Woodville, Texas:

In the late 1950s the “Bad Seed” was one of the most famous scary movies of its time, and it has become a classic. Based on a book and play about a child who seemed to be a sweet little girl with pigtails and ribbons who was from a nice family, but in reality she was a serial killer from a scary family. That phrase, the “bad seed” entered popular culture as an expression to describe someone who was trouble, an evil person mixed in and growing the-bad-seed-posteralong with the good seeds, but who wasn’t going to produce anything you would ever want. One of the creepiest things about that movie was during the ending credits, a voice came on and could be heard asking moviegoers as they left not to reveal the surprise ending to folks who hadn’t see the movie yet.
We’re still making our way through the rows of planting parables. Last week we heard about the Parable of the Sower and the different kinds of ground where Jesus was planting the Gospel seed. Today we have the Parable of the Weeds growing among the wheat. Jesus gives us another example to help us understand his kingdom and how it works: The Kingdom is like a landowner who plants good seed for wheat, but weeds are discovered growing with the wheat revealing that an enemy has sneaked in and mixed bad seed in with the good seed. The master’s servants wanted to go pull the weeds out, but the master won’t let him. He points out that the act of pulling the invasive plants will damage the good crop. The weed Jesus uses as an example is a grass that grew all over Israel, called darnell. Darnell would tangle its roots around the roots of the good plants, making it impossible to remove without damaging the wheat. And it was hard to separate them because darnell mimicked wheat – when they first start growing together, it was really difficult to tell them apart in the field. Darnell starts out wheattares1looking just like wheat, until it comes to harvest time, when the darnell puts out a lightweight seed head that stands straight up. Harvest time is when you can really tell the difference between the darnell and the wheat, because the wheat produces a much more robust and ripened seed head full of grain that is noticeably heavier and bent over with the weight of its fruit.
The second reason the landowner wouldn’t let his servants pull out the darnell was because it wasn’t their job. That was the work reserved for the reapers, the professional harvesters who would know how to collect and separate the darnell and the wheat properly for a good harvest.
Two more planting parables go by before Jesus’ disciples who are trying to absorb all this come to him and ask, Ok, what the heck’s up with this Parable of the Weeds? Jesus quite plainly describes it for them: he is the sower, the field is the world. In the world there is good and evil, and evil is caused by the devil; the harvest is the end of this world as we experience it now, when Jesus will send his angels to do the job he had given to them – weeding out all the sin and those who are evil, and casting them out, leaving the good and righteous resurrected in God’s perfected Creation – which will be so glorious to see that the people in it are described by Jesus as “shining like the sun.”
Our nice agricultural series seems to have taken a turn to the dark side, suddenly, we’re in a biblical version of The Bad Seed. Things that are sweetness and light, the children of God and God’s work, are all mixed around and tangled up with evil brought about by the devil’s work. We get a somewhat frightening vision of the end times, of angels going about the grim side of angelic work – sorting out the evil from the good, and shucking out the evil to be consumed in God’s fire.

This is the point that I'm hiding behind my popcorn.

I’m 43, and this is pretty much what I still look like when watching scary parts of movies. Everyone knows you’re safer behind the popcorn.

This would be right about the time in the movie that I’d be hiding behind my popcorn, because I’ve discovered over that years that during a scary movie, you’re much safer if you watch the bad scenes from between your fingers.
But this is not a movie. This is Jesus using a story to tell his disciples, and us, that for those who choose to follow him, and who practice Christianity as his Church, will not have it easy. This parable is an acknowledgement that as we go about our work for God in this world, we will encounter evil. One of the hardest questions we may struggle with, and certainly unbelievers ask and use as an excuse to reject God – is, why would a loving God allow bad things to happen?
This is not heaven, this world is not yet the full and perfected Creation. Jesus in his incarnation and resurrection began the work of the Kingdom of God, and is continuing that work in us every day until he comes back to complete it. Until that time, until our resurrection, we are transformed souls that belong to God, yet we live in bodies that age, in a world where things go wrong, in a place where sin exists, and evil happens. Until Jesus returns to separate out evil from God’s creation, we will continue to be mixed up, the good seed and the bad. We struggled with that reality again this week as the world witnessed the tragedy of nearly 300 violent deaths on a Malaysian airliner, and the war and conflict that continues to surround that tragedy, may they rest in peace. As Jesus told his disciples then, and as we hear his words today, we co-exist with evil, and it will continue to be with us until the end of the age. This is why his Gospel of love and reconciliation is So. Desperately. Needed.

This is also a warning not to overstep our bounds as Christians. We are to love the Lord our God with everything we are, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. We are to work for righteousness and justice, and to be godly in our life and work, holding each other accountable in love to those standards.But following in the steps of Jesus can become a slippery slope if we give in to evil preying on our sinful, prideful nature, when we forget ourselves and our mission, and slip across the line from justice into judgment – and we must be careful because judgment is God’s territory, not ours. Jesus is very clear in describing his parable to the disciples – he will decide what is righteous and unrighteous, and he will assign the work of pulling the weeds to his angels, not to the children of God.
When you think about it, there is a lot of mercy in that. Primarily because God relieves us of the burden of deciding who are his children and who have turned away from him, and he gives us freedom by assigning us a mission to love everybody equally in his Name, and to let him worry about the rest. There is also mercy here because while we Christians belong to God, we remain a part of this sinful world, and while we may be quick to judge others, we are not God, we do not know the mind of God, and we might get it wrong. And unfortunately, we all have plenty of experience adding to the “causes of sin” that Jesus describes the angels removing like weeds, in addition to those evil-doers. While we know we are children of God sanctified to him through the sacrifice of Jesus – we have not yet become fully who God originally created us to be. We still look forward to that great Day when Jesus will fully reveal his kingdom.
Until that time, we still live in a broken world, and we will continue to wrestle with our own sin. Scripture describes that battle within us in several places, Matthew included – in Chapter 18 Jesus warns us that there will be temptations growing within us, bad seed that we will have to identify and cut out like the darnell weed, because at times we are at risk through our own behavior of becoming a stumbling block to the Gospel work of our brothers and sisters in the faith. In Matthew 18 even one of Jesus’ closest friends, Peter,

Everyone knows you're safer in a scary movie if you hide behind your hands.

Everyone knows you’re also safer in a scary movie if you hide behind your hands. Photo: SparkLife

becomes a stumbling block to him, and Jesus calls out the evil in him, saying “get behind me Satan!” That makes me want to hide behind my hands again, worrying about what God thinks of me when I mess up. But what gives us courage and hope is that Jesus did not condemn Peter for that slip of faith – in fact, he went on to use Peter and the other disciples to found and grow his Church. So we can be confident as Christians not to be too quick to judge others, or ourselves. God is our judge, and in his mercy, he continues to love us, forgive us and reconcile us to himself – Jesus said in John 10 that he has given us eternal life and no one will snatch us out of his hand. In our theology we believe salvation is not just one single event in time, but it is an ongoing process – beginning when we become a Christian at our Baptism, continuing throughout our life until we stand before Jesus in our resurrected bodies.

 

No surprise plot twist at the end - Jesus wins.

No surprise plot twist at the end – Jesus wins.

That is why no matter what evil we encounter in the world, even within ourselves, no matter how thick the weeds get, we don’t have to hide our eyes or even to be scared, because there is no surprise ending – we know how this all ends – God wins. God wins! And that’s why we can say with confidence, I have been saved, I am being saved, and I will be saved. Amen.

 

The Coach’s Perspective

Lots of different kinds of people need Jesus, and they need him in lots of different ways. That thought remains with me as the conversation warms up among Episcopalians about our church language, and its inclusive or exclusive nature (read more about it here).

While a city editor at a community newspaper earlier in my bi-vocational career, my work included coaching writers. Frustrated reporters would come to me for help when particularly struggling with a story. Bogged down and writing in circles, they had climbed so deep inside their own experience, they had temporarily lost contact with the one ability every good news writer possesses: seeing things from the perspective of the reader. That is to say, writing as if the person reading the story doesn’t know what you know, and hasn’t seen what you have seen – because in reality, chances are they don’t, and they haven’t.

Here’s a technique that usually solved the problem: I’d ask a reporter to imagine they were home at the end of the day, relating to their friend or spouse what they’d witnessed. Very often, the first few words out of their mouth became the lead, the first sentence in a news story. Those initial words were usually the foundation on which they were able to build a stronger, clearer story structure.

It worked because they began to look at telling a story not as artificially rebuilding an experience, but as the evolution of an experience into the ongoing work of figuring out what a certain event means, and its impact on community life, related in terms that have no concern for maintaining social barriers. It works because it’s in our nature to want to communicate in ways we can understand and be understood, an expression of the God who is in us, who desires to know us and to be known. As a writer, if you stay connected to the reader’s perspective, it doesn’t matter whether you use simple or complex language, as long as you remember to take the reader along with you. Hard or easy, no one wants to read a story that makes no effort to address what they care about. We are all different, and we all need Jesus in different ways. The common link is that, differences or not, we all need him.

Differences can be important. It is important for me, as a foreign-born American child of two Caucasian-American parents, to listen and attempt a level of understanding about the impact of shared language on a community which includes various cultures. Before we get to cultural concerns, the Episcopal language discussion begins with an evaluation of churchy terms. Is the room you enter before reaching the worship space a foyer?cab57aa105cf6028fe7c8c6934f01a7c Nave? Vestibule? Lobby? Is it a worship space, Nave, Sanctuary, or just “the church?” After the temporal discussion, we move to the more difficult to put a finger on: How do we talk about what we call mission, without forgetting the very different historical experience of Native Americans and other people around the world, who have suffered at the hands of missionaries? How to integrate that into the different experience of those for whom mission holds important meaning to their historical identity as Christians, sent into the world in the name of Jesus?

It is certainly true that some language is exclusive to some cultures, and must be considered in the wider appeal and sensitivity of the Church. As both a female and a member of the clergy, I certainly appreciate gender-inclusive language in Scripture and liturgy, and have become so accustomed to it in the majority of my Episcopal community work that I feel with some difficulty its absence in other settings, evoking the lack of it in the Scripture and worship of my younger years in a different denomination. I can only imagine the pain of a native culture struggling to feel at home in a Church it cherishes, the same entity historically responsible for some of its cultural wounds. From these discussions unspoken questions emerge: “Whose experience matters more?” “What ground am I called to give up in preserving the dignity of other human beings?” “How do I find a comfortable space in the ground that remains?” “How do we achieve groundlessness?”

We are Episcopalians. Throwing our arms open wide and inviting others to join us is what we do. Gathering to sit at the table with those whom the world shuns is what we do. Kneeling in unity beside those who are different from us, to be fed together from God’s table is what we are called to do. Surely there is room in our broad and creative Church for both those who find beauty and acceptance in simplicity, and those nourished through the dance of complex language. Surely there is common ground for those whose cultural experiences are opposite but whose Savior sacrificed himself to bring all into communion with the Father.

Go Green Hands Collaborative Tree
by Karen Cappello

We are Episcopalians. We are the people of the Middle Way. As I heard Bishop Jeff Fisher say last week when he visited my church at St. Paul’s, Woodville, in the Diocese of Texas, “We are the Church of both-and.” Catholic and Protestant, male and female, struggling and free, we are all one in Christ Jesus.We are all different. And we need Jesus in different ways. But we all need him. Examining the changing experience of our shared language expressions in the Church is fine, as long as we don’t go so far in charting and languishing in our linguistic differences that we forget to approach everything we do from the perspective of the people who need the Gospel story we have to tell. We can focus on our differences, or we can work for unity strengthened by standing together and holding up the world’s needs to our Lord, inviting everyone to be a part of the varied and beautiful ways to experience Jesus.

 

One Bread, One (Ceramic) Cup

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Somewhere in my training for priesthood, a teacher told my class there are three professions that attract people with the biggest egos: acting, journalism, and the clergy. Also being a former journalist, I figure my next stop is either Hollywood or humility training. The professor’s warning jangled in my head at my new church this morning as a broadly smiling member named Lou handed me a shiny coffee cup. “Hey, check out your new mug,” he said. Vaguely remembering hearing a conversation a few weeks before by members planning to restock the supply of St. Paul’s personalized coffee mugs, I looked down, noticing a large Episcopal Church shield covering the side of the mug. “Nice, looks good,” I said. “No, look at the other side,” he said, expectantly. I rolled the cup over in my hand, lines of text coming into view. A welcome, the church name, our Internet site, e-mail address and phone, and, finally, at the bottom in BIG BLUE lettering clear as day, was my name, “Rev. Ashley Cook.”

A couple of nervous reactions dashed through my head. “Oh no, what did you guys do?” I said to him, half-teasing, half-mortified. They had ordered a lot of mugs, he said. A LOT. Soon to finish my studies for priesthood in bi-vocational ministry, I’d only been assigned to the small, rural church in the deep pine forestland of East Texas for four short months. Egotistical is a label and a trait clergy have to guard against, and it probably wouldn’t help in that department if folks thought I’d put my own name on our mugs, I thought.

But then I took a second look – at Lou’s face, not the mug. His warm expression, his nodding approval, his big smile. These were signs of welcome, and I’d almost missed them. These were indications of a congregation ready to share both themselves and their new clergy with the wider community. Ironically, I’d almost let my ego about trying to control other people’s impressions of me overtake the open invitation to build a relationship with my congregation. Lou and his wife Carol, among the most faithful members at St. Paul’s, would shortly be celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary in the service that morning. The mugs were a symbol, I realized, of a congregation in it for the long-haul, stepping forward in faith to offer their part of a commitment to a long-term pastoral relationship. Swallowing my ego, I gripped the cup tightly, suddenly very conscious of its meaning. “Thank you, so much,” I said to Lou.

People are drawn to the Episcopal Church because of its connectedness. We are the people of One Bread, One Cup, as we say of our Communion practice of kneeling together to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, in the form of wafers and a shared cup. We are the Church expressing the transformational love of God, who draws all people to himself in Jesus Christ. And yet, a symptom of rural church life is that small mission congregations often go unconnected for years, without the guidance and pastoral care of having their own clergy, being fortunate if they have a series of well-meaning but short-term supply priests. Seldom having an opportunity to settle into a focused pastoral relationship, congregations may begin to feel neglected. Out of that neglect can grow a reluctance to evangelize, to build relationships in their community, or to foster a pastoral relationship when a newly assigned incoming clergy finally does arrive on the church doorstop. Bi-vocational clergy support in rural areas remains in short supply, which challenges the Church to re-imagine rural church structuring. It could be that an answer lies in our own connectedness.

To their credit, I received a warm and enthusiastic welcome on my arrival to St. Paul’s in September, from both the congregation and the local ministerial alliance. Still, there were questions asked of me regarding the longevity of my stay, most who asked assuming I was only placed there for training purposes, and that I would leave after graduation in June. Any reluctance to committing a lot of resources and energy to my arrival would certainly have been understandable. While it was yet unclear in their minds whether this would be a long- or short-term relationship, my experience of Episcopalians and their neighbors in East Texas was still that they are loyal and tightly-knit, whole-hearted and generous in their welcome. This innate spirit of strength and hospitality speaks of what may very well be the as-yet untapped full potential in small churches to creatively host and flourish God’s presence in their communities.

This morning as I looked at Lou, smiling at me over a new coffee mug, it was this welcoming gesture that reminded me of the Holy Spirit’s work in bringing us all together, to glorify God and to build up this corner of his Kingdom. Putting my worries aside, I thanked for Lord for his mercy, and heartily embraced the congregation’s tangible commitment to sharing ministry at St. Paul’s, evident in the shiny stacks of coffee cups now gracing the Parish Hall.