Sunday, June 22, 2014

A Sermon: "Letting Go"

“Letting Go”
Year A Proper 7 June 22, 2014
St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church

There are some Sundays when the sermons flow.  I read the lectionary, and immediately something comes to mind.  An image, an idea, a “word from the Lord.”  I really believe that the Holy Spirit is at work right now.  I trust that what I am saying is at a prompting from the Holy Spirit.

Also, I trust, you are chewing on what I am saying, even if it is “Where is he going with this?”  Some weeks are easy and immediate.  This week was not.

As I read through the lectionary readings for the umpteenth time, it struck me that it was a time for a priest to make a confession.  I have a hard time with today’s readings.  Every one of them is a hard one.  There is no easy one in the bunch. 

Some Sundays, I can use an easy one to slide into a harder passage.  But not this week.

Look with me, if you will.  In Genesis we have Hagar being banished by Abraham at Sarah’s encouraging so the Sarah’s son Isaac will not have to share his inheritance with Hagar’s son Ishmael.  Now if you remember how this all transpired, Sarah encouraged Abraham to take Hagar, who was Sarah’s handmaid, and produce an heir.  Remember, this was all Sarah’s idea!  But then out of worry, she banishes them to likely death.  They are sent out into the arid land with a wineskin of water.  And eventually Hagar and Ishmael run out of water, and fully expect to die.  Such a loving act!

Or we could look at the Romans passage, where the Apostle Paul makes an argument for dying to sin so that we can live in Christ.  With the dying metaphor, and all the back and forth on sin, it also is a hard place to start.

Then we get to Jesus.  It is like a compilation album in chapter 10, The Greatest Hits of Instructions to Those Being Sent Out.  Matthew almost seems to have taken several remembered lines from Jesus and brought them together for Jesus’ followers commissioning.  But even though these are rules for the road, to our ears when we hear about not loving Father and Mother, Son and Daughter, or taking up our own cross and following, I know I get wrangled. 

So what are we going to do this Sunday?

Instead of spinning and making this all easy, today we are going to talk about letting go.  In the children’s time I told the story of a little boy clinging to what he had, not knowing he was missing out on something greater because he could not let go of the little he had, nor could he envision something so much better that he would forget about what he held onto so tightly.

Sometimes we have to do exactly that.  We hold onto what little we have because we cannot see that something greater is just beyond our sight.  And not letting go can lead to disaster.

In a previous job, I used to be the recruiter for a seminary.  It was my job to drive around to colleges, set up times to meet with professors and chaplains, talk with pre-ministerial candidates, and tell them the benefits of my school.  Often several seminaries would organize these trips together so that we could get a bigger draw and meet with more people.  One of the other recruiters was named Mac, and he drove a twenty-year-old diesel Mercedes.  And he loved that car.  On a joint recruiting trip, we were between small Kentucky college towns, and the fastest way to get from one to the other was over backroads through the country.  Mac was running late, and when he was an hour late for our meetings at the next college we all became a little worried.  When he finally arrived he told us this story.  While holding on to his coffee, he was coming over a ridge, and abruptly on the other side the road curved.  They did not have the blaze orange warning arrows to redirect drivers.  Well, because he was already late, his speed was such that he did not follow the curve but went straight into the yard of the mobile home situated there.  He hit his brakes, but the wet Kentucky bluegrass caused him to slide sideways with his rather hefty twenty-year-old Mercedes diesel made from solid steel.  Sliding sideways over the grass, he hit the mobile home with such force it knocked it off its foundation.  He was a bit shaky after all of this, and looking down he noticed that he was still holding his coffee cup in his hand.  He also shared that maybe his priorities were a bit out of whack.  A wrecked but drivable car, a stranger’s house sustaining serious damage, but his coffee is unspilt.  He was clinging to the wrong things.  How much are we like Mac?

Jesus tells those he has called, “Listen up, if they called the teacher the devil, what do you think they are going to call his followers?  What do you expect?”

Later he goes on, “Do not fear those that can kill the body but cannot kill the soul...”  He does not mince words, when you go out, you do not need to fear death.  This is graduate level faith here.  We are not talking about “love everybody” level.  We are talking about the costs of discipleship, and it can be hard things to hear.

“Present me before others, and I will present you before my Father.  Don’t, and neither will I.”  Ouch.  Okay.

We need to let go of our worries, about how others see us, about how we are going to fare.  Like the Adidas ads I see all over the World Cup games, “All in or nothing.”  They could be Jesus’ words instead of a slogan for shoes.

Jesus said: "10:34Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;  36 and one's foes will be members of one's own household.
37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38 and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.
39 Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

These are hard words.  Very hard words.  Jesus asks of those who follow, to make this their first priority.  Here he emphasizes this with images of infighting amongst those closest to us, but he has put it this way in another setting: “Seek first the Kingdom of God and God’s righteousness.”  (Matthew 6:33)

This is and must be our first priority, and if it is there is a promise, “all this shall be added unto you.”  Or, as one of my seminary professors translated it, “And everything else will fall into place.”

Does this make the path easy?  Of course not.  We still hold onto those things that bring us meager comfort because we forget the better that is to come.

Paul’s whole argument in the Romans’ passage is about letting go.  “Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?  By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it?”

We have to let go of those little comforts we cling to so closely.  Some of those things are good things, family, comfort, entertainment.  Some of those things are our addictions or sins that we have a hard time releasing.  If it is not Christ, we are called to give them over to him.

Notice I said give them over to Jesus, not let them go.  If it is addictions or sins, obviously those are things we need to drop.  But Father or Mother?  Spouse?  Children?  These are the very gifts of God.  Do we drop them?  As Paul said, “By no means!”  But as we entrust them to Christ, and put Christ first, how could they be in better hands?

A story is told of children during World War II who were placed in refugee camps after having been orphaned in the horrible destruction.  They had food, good care, and a safe place to sleep, but sleep often would not come.  The children, despite all the care, were not able to let go of the terrors that had put them in the refugee camps.  Those who cared for the children were at a loss, until someone came up with the idea of giving the children a piece of bread with which to sleep at night.  The children held onto those rolls of bread, and sleep was finally able to come.  The children held in their hands a promise that tomorrow would be okay.

They were children, and the clung to the bread because they emotionally could not understand that tomorrow they would receive the same tomorrow.  They could not see the promise.

For children this makes sense.  But are we children as well?  Do we cling to those things that bring us momentary comfort because we do not see the promise of tomorrow?

And what of the situations where we do not choose to let go of something?  What do we do when we are told that things are being taken away?  The moving and unjust story of Hagar and Ishmael is a perfect example of this.  She did everything that had been asked of her!  No matter how unjust we see it.  She did all that was asked of, or forced upon, her.  

What about our situations?  When we lose a job because we did the RIGHT thing?  Or we come home, and our spouse tells us that what we has assumed was a lifetime promise is over?  When a child is tragically taken from us?  Where is God in those situations?

God is even there.  Hagar had set the child Ishmael down so she did not have to see him die, and wandered a distance away, when she then hears God’s words from an angel and sees the well right there.  God is even there at the end of her rope.

From today’s Psalm:
86:10 For you are great and do wondrous things; you alone are God.

16 Turn to me and be gracious to me; give your strength to your servant; save the child of your serving girl.

These are hard words, but necessary words.  We have to let it go.  Whatever it is that clings too closely.  Whatever it is that prevents us from growing deeper in Christ.  The great reversals of Jesus promise a future different from the world we are living in.  The meek will inherit the earth.  The last will be first.  The seekers will become the finders.

We need to let go because something greater than we can possible imagine is coming down the road.  We hold onto things that are distractions at best, life-crushing sins at worst.  Of all the great reversals of Jesus, no challenge is greater, nor is any promise.

39 Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.


Tuesday, June 10, 2014

What I Learned at AJC: a reflection on the last 4 years

Tomorrow is my final day at Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School.  It is a bittersweet day.  I was asked to write up my reflections of my four years there, and forced myself not to think about it till I sat down to write it out.  This is what came out...

What I Have Learned at AJC

I have been in the doubly burdensome role of being a teacher and a preacher to the students and staff at Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School.  Both come with their own hesitancies and intimidations.  I will have no way of knowing how long any of my lessons will last with any of those who have heard me teach or preach, but I do know that the lessons that I learned will stay with me for a lifetime.

Probably the first lesson I learned during my first year was how to pray.  I have been blessed in my life that even though times have been tight, my family has never been in the position of deep need or want.  Even more, we have never been in position of being unsafe or in fear.  My first year, I remember during prayer requests some of the kids thanked God for waking them up that morning.  Having heard their stories of shootings and other situations around their homes, what had often been a cliche when I had heard it before became an honest and sincere prayer of thanks that the student had been given another day of life.  This touched me in a profound and soul-altering way.   I will never pray the same, and some of my white middle-class privileged assumptions have been pushed to the wayside.  For that I will always be thankful.

You never hold back on love.  Sometimes the most loving actions are to say, "No."  Sometimes the most loving act is to hold people accountable.  Being a strict, but fair, teacher of high standards gives a gift that too often these students have not had.  Would it be easier to be the nice teacher that had an easy class?  Of course.  Would that help anybody in the short or longterm?  No.  And the kids would not respect my teaching or my preaching either one.  Grace comes with grade book sometimes, and to love the kids the best that I can, I had to create a rigorous environment that drove them to be the best that they could be.  My love came out in hard books, and clear, consistent, and hard work.

Lastly, I would have to say that the troublesome issue of race is still something this country and the Church need to continue to work.  I had homeroom with the same group of students for three years, and in the third year of our time together my group of guys (from 6th through 8th grades) and I were able to laugh and joke about stereotypes and differences.  They could ask me about being white, and I could learn from them about being African-American.  They asked me about why white people all looked alike, and why we have funny names.  But it took three years to build trust and the benefit of the doubt so that we could get to a point of honest and mutually-respectful dialogue.  I learned how far we have come and how far we need to go when I was reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with my 7th grade boys and after about 50 pages one of the students asked who was on the front cover.  The front cover showed Huck and Jim, an escaped slave.  I responded to the question, "Huck and Jim."  The student asked, "Huck is the black guy, so who is the white kid?  Did they have white slaves?"   I said, "No, our slavery was based on racism.  The white kid is Huck, and the black man is Jim."  But then to keep learning, I asked, "So what made you think that Huck was black?"  The student said, "Because he says the N-word all the time.  I have never heard a white person say the N-word."  Wow.  Our society has gotten better, obviously, but that things had been turned on their head to that extent, that this classic novel written to fight racism was now confusing because the white people that this student had had interactions with did not use that word.  I learned a lot that day.

Prayer, love without limits but very clear boundaries, and continuing dialogues on race are all things that I will carry with me, both as a man and a priest.  This time has shaped me, deepened my spirituality and my prayer life, and drawn me closer to God and my neighbor.  "Who is my neighbor?" was asked of Christ.  Anna Julia Cooper School could be a modern answer to that ancient question.  We are all each others' neighbors.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Sermon: Pentecost "Happy Birthday!"

Happy Birthday!
St. Thomas Episcopal, Richmond
Year A, Pentecost 2014

Happy birthday!  Really, happy birthday!  In a decade and a half, give or take a year or two, we will be two millennia old.  And when someone or something is in their one-thousand-nine-hundred-and-eighties, do we really need to quibble over a year or two?
Today is the birthday of the church, Pentecost, the 50th day since Easter.  Pente- five, pentecost, fifty in Greek.  People had arrived in the Temple from all over the world, Jews, believers in this desert God who were not Jewish, God-fearers they were called, for the Shavuot, the festival for the reception of the Law.  It was seven weeks since the second day of Passover.  After the giving of the 10 commandments, to know how to be good and in favor with God, what we see now is the fulfillment of the prophets, that Israel would be a “light unto the nations.”
In a small room, the remaining apostles and followers of Jesus were in prayer, when the Holy Spirit came upon them in power and glory.  It is described as tongues of flame resting on their heads.  And with that, they were sent out.  And preaching with vim and vigor, they went amongst those that were gathered at the Temple and spread the Good News that the Messiah had come.
People understood them in their own tongues.  No matter the stripe, people were brought into the Church.
A few weeks ago I spoke to the Holy Spirit, and how much I appreciated the emphasis in our church of the indwelling of the Spirit.  In a moment we will pray the Holy Spirit to surround and indwell Camille at her baptism.  It is a big day.
Now I apologize if this seems simplistic, but I wanted to make sure we were on the same page about the Holy Spirit and the Church, especially because of Pentecost and the baptism we are about to have.  If you could all do me a favor and open up your prayer books.  They are the smaller ones with the red covers, probably, and the cross on front.   And then turn to page 852.  I am going to read the Qs, the questions, and if you could read the As, the Answers.
The Holy Spirit

What is the Holy Spirit?
The Holy Spirit is the Third Person of the Trinity, God at 
work in the world and in the Church even now.

How is the Holy Spirit revealed in the Old Covenant?
The Holy Spirit is revealed in the Old Covenant as the 
giver of life, the One who spoke through the prophets.

How is the Holy Spirit revealed in the New Covenant?
The Holy Spirit is revealed as the Lord who leads us into 
all truth and enables us to grow in the likeness of 

How do we recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit in 
our lives?
We recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit when we 
confess Jesus Christ as Lord and are brought into love 
and harmony with God, with ourselves, with our 
neighbors, and with all creation.

The Holy Spirit is God at work in the world and the Church even now.  This is not a there-and-then thing, this is a here-and-now thing.  The Spirit leads us into the likeness of Christ.  The Spirit brings us into a place of harmony with everything, God, ourselves, others, all creation.  This is the rest of the story.  This is to be continued.  This is the sequel.  This is what comes next.  
And what comes next is the Church, how we move forward with Christ’s work in the world.  So what is the Church.   Please turn to page 854 and 855.  Read with me “The Church.”   

The Church

What is the Church?
The Church is the community of the New Covenant.

How is the Church described in the Bible?
The Church is described as the Body of which Jesus 
Christ is the Head and of which all baptized persons are 
members. It is called the People of God, the New Israel, 
a holy nation, a royal priesthood, and the pillar and 
ground of truth.

How is the Church described in the creeds?
The Church is described as one, holy, catholic, and 

Why is the Church described as one?
The Church is one, because it is one Body, under one 
Head, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Why is the Church described as holy?
The Church is holy, because the Holy Spirit dwells in it, 
consecrates its members, and guides them to do God's 

Why is the Church described as catholic?
The Church is catholic, because it proclaims the whole 
Faith to all people, to the end of time.

Why is the Church described as apostolic?
The Church is apostolic, because it continues in the 
teaching and fellowship of the apostles and is sent 
to carry out Christ's mission to all people.

What is the mission of the Church?
The mission of the Church is to restore all people to 
unity with God and each other in Christ.

How does the Church pursue its mission?
The Church pursues its mission as it prays and 
worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, 
peace, and love.

Through whom does the Church carry out its mission?
The church carries out its mission through the ministry 
of all its members.

The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.  How? Through the ministry of all its members.  
Ah, the ministry of all its members.  The Holy Spirit in us gifts us with things that only we can do.  All of our gifts work together for what needs to happen and take place as God works in the world.  Today we are also asking you to Claim Your Ministry, and the cards are handed out.  We will gather those at the the Thanksgiving time.
There is an economy of God that is beyond our comprehension.  This is an economy where there is no waste.  This is an economy where every need is met, but often we need to open our eyes to see them.  This is an economy of blessings.  We are blessed to be a blessing.  We are blessed to change the world.
Think about it, on that first Pentecost did the disciples stay in that upper room saying, “Wow, cool flames?”  No, no, no, no, no.
They immediately went out.  They went out and met people where they were, and held nothing back.  They were so enthusiastic that people thought that they were drunk.  But others heard their words, and took them to heart.  I have been at the immersion cleansing tanks outside the doors to the Temple mount where many baptisms probably took place that day.
As we read in the Catechism, “The Church pursues its mission as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace, and love.”  We come to this altar for solace, but we also come seeking strength to go out.  
As joyful as these balloons are, it would be a sin for them to stay in here.  I would come in Wednesday for the Contemplative service and it would be sad, just sad.  A roomful of dead or almost dead balloons that were happy for an hour, and did not get used for the best in their limited lifespan.
When you leave, make sure that their is not a balloon left.  You have my permission and encouragement to take one home.
What would be an even greater sin, though, is for each of you to go out of here today and not remember that you are apostolic, you are being sent out to change the world.  You do it through prayer and worship.  You do it when you proclaim the Gospel.  And remember what St. Francis said, “Preach the Gospel at all times.  When necessary use words.”  You change the world when you promote justice, peace and love.  Go out, balloon in hand, and that sight alone might bring a spot of joy into someone’s life.
You have been blessed to be a blessing.  You have been sent to change the world.  Happy birthday!  Share that joy!