Sunday, August 31, 2014

"The God Who Is" a sermon

“The God Who Is”
St. Thomas’ Episcopal, Richmond
Year A, Proper 17, Aug. 31, 2014

Last week I got the chance of a lifetime, and it was nothing I deserved, it was nothing other than a gracious and generous gift.  It was offered.  And without thinking, I accepted and I am so glad I did.

Before school starts on Tuesday, this last week was the only chance that I knew that we could take the girls out of town while it was still summer.  Stephanie, the kids and I ran down to Nags Head for a few days.  After grabbing dinner in Manteo on Monday night, I took the kids to see the marina in Wanchese just down the road.  While driving around, I saw a beautiful fishing boat jacked up on blocks.  The name emblazoned on the side was “Jesus Freak.”  I was on vacation, so I slammed the brakes, backed up the van, and made Stephanie take my picture.  Some of you may have seen her handiwork and my vacation-hubris on Facebook.  Just after the picture, what is not shown was the owner of the boatshop walking out and asking if he could help me.

I was a little embarrassed, but apologized for being in his driveway, but that I was a priest and needed to get my picture with the boat named Jesus Freak.  He laughed, and said the owner would have loved that and that his other boat is named Salvation.  Then after chit-chatting for a bit, he asked me if I would like to see a boat he had just finished that was down in the water.  Now remember, this is around 6 p.m. on a Monday night.

He said to follow him in his truck.  We went just a block away, and there in the water was a beautiful 62’ fishing yacht.  No expense had been spared.  Every detail was custom, and gorgeous.  There was not a wasted inch in the 62’.  The kind man asked my daughter how much she thought it cost, and she said, “$2,000.”  We all laughed, and I said she needed to add a few zeros.  Before all the detail work, it was $2 Million dollars, and after much, much more.

We were out riding around, not even thinking of getting on a boat, when we were surprised by grace and given a gift I will never forget.  Only time I will be able to get on a multi-million dollar yacht like that.  It came out of nowhere, and for an hour we were given a detailed, room-by-room tour and it was astounding.

Moses was about his business as a shepherd, when grace broke in on him.  He was doing his work, when he felt the need to turn aside and “look at this great sight.”  His plan did not include burning bushes and the angel of the Lord, but it happened and he was astounded.  The call of God came when it came, and it was not planned.  It probably wrecked Moses’ calendar.  It was not convenient.  Like the TSA at the airport, he had to take off his shoes.

This was when God broke through to Moses.  He had been in hiding for decades after he committed murder in bout of righteous indignation, and he ran for his life.  He settled far away from Egypt, and planned to live a simple life where no one would know him, and no one would ask him to go back to Egypt.  

But God had other plans.

On July 13, I talked about the general call of God, the call that goes out to any and all.  That call to be good, help others, and to love God with all you have.  Today, however, we are looking at the specific call of God, that person-to-person call, or deity-to-person call, where God steps in and messes up our calendars and calls us to the last place on earth we might expect to go.

The call of God can be all manner of things.  It can come from an off-hand compliment from a stranger that affirms a quietly held idea we have been keeping secret and safe inside our minds, but once vocalized we have to ask if it could be God talking through that person.  The call from God can come from deeply held desires, that we wrestle with for years.  The call of God can be just a part of who we are.

I shared this in the coffee and conversation interview with me during Lent, and I apologize for the repeat.  Growing up, all I ever talked about was being a minister.  Really.  Now there were age-appropriate delusions around what type of minister I would be.  At 4 I was going to Africa to be a missionary, mostly because I wanted to see lions.  At 7, I was going to be the first chaplain on the space station like in 2001: a space odyssey.  By high school, I had it more refined and reined in, but it was still there.  I was surprised at my high school reunions, that people actually stopped me and asked if I became a pastor.  When I said yes, they said I was the only person they knew that actually became what he always said he would become.  The call of God does not have to come from a burning bush.  And it certainly does not have to be about becoming a priest or deacon.  What it has to be about is that piece of the puzzle that you can fulfill in way that no one else can, to the glory of God.  You are uniquely qualified to do what it says in the Lord’s prayer.  “On earth, as it is in heaven.”  Your call is to make this place a bit more like heaven, to the glory of God.

Like Moses, though, we come up with many excuses why this must be some mistake.

3:11 But Moses said to God, "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” 12 He said, "I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain."

I love God’s proof here, “You will know that it was me who did this calling thing when it is all over and you are back here at this mountain with everybody.  Then you will know.”

This call of God is call of faith.  We have to take that step, like Indiana Jones over the abyss, and trust that there is solid ground to catch us.  Even though we have to take this step alone, we do not have to go it alone.  One of the wonderful and exciting things we do as a church is our discernment committees for those who hear God’s call to vocational ministry.  That is something that our Diocese does exceedingly well.  Coming from a place where that was far less established, and people who were really struggling often found out mid-seminary that the ministry was not the call of God, I have seen how not to do it and am very glad of the deliberate and intentional nature of the process here.  When we respond to the call of God, we step out on faith.  But how do we know it is God who is calling us?

3:13 But Moses said to God, "If I come to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' what shall I say to them?"  14 God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM." He said further, "Thus you shall say to the Israelites, 'I AM has sent me to you.'"

These verses of Scripture, are some of the most pivotal in the Bible, and the few minutes we have here I cannot do them justice.  But the name God gives for Godself is “I AM.”  The Hebrew here is ambiguous, and God is who God is, and all the permutations of the past and future tenses.  I am who I was, I am who I will be.  I was who I am, I was who I will be.  I will be who I was, I will be who I will be.  In other words, God is God, yesterday, today and forever.  And also what he is saying to Moses is that he is the God who is.  And that is the call we want to hear.  When we hear that call, from the God who is what have we to fear?

But that being said, it does not mean the road is easy.  Moses still had to go back to Egypt.  As Jesus put it in our Gospel reading, speaking to his disciples and to us today, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”(Matthew 16:24-25)

We are called to follow down roads that are not the easy and broad streets, but the hard and narrow.  We know what the cross is, but I find it fascinating that people so often miss the possessive pronoun.  “Their cross.”  We are called to take our cross and respond to God’s call for us.  We might have to do something that scares us, like go back to Egypt or go to a neighborhood we were always to told to stay out of.  We might have to do with less, monetarily or in social standing.  We might have to move.  Susan and Rick, thank you for hearing and responding to God’s call.  Richmond is not the mountains of New Hampshire.  But God who was there, is here, too.

I was glad I stopped my car on Monday to see a boat.  A simple picture became something far greater.  I am glad I heard God’s call from my earliest years.  Moses is glad he stepped aside to see a marvelous sight.  Though it can be scary, the call of God is the greatest of gifts and our highest aspiration.  No matter the call we receive, the God WHO IS, the great I AM, will be with us all the way.  Amen. 

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Jesus Did What? A Sermon for Hard Times

Jesus Did What?
St. Thomas Episcopal, Richmond
Year A, Proper 15 August 17, 2014
(Genesis 45:1-15 and Psalm 133 ,  Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32  •  Matthew 15:10-28)

This is not an easy week to get in the pulpit.  The news from Ferguson, Missouri is weighing on my mind.  The cultural tidal wave over the death of Robin Williams.  This week we are emotionally stretched, confronting the worst in our society.  Maybe the worst in ourselves.

I was sitting at the car dealer waiting for my State Inspection.  CNN was playing.  It was Friday morning, and the Ferguson police chief was about to announce the policeman’s name who shot Michael Brown.  A man who looked like me was getting upset by the coverage and was talking back about how anybody who reaches into a police car should expect to be shot.  “Did they report that?” he kept asking.  There were three of us in the waiting room, and he repeatedly directed his questions to me.  I looked at the only other person in the waiting room, who was African-American and my heart asked, “How are we any different from Jesus’ day and time?”  I silently kept writing this sermon, while I tried to chew on this situation in the waiting room, and in Ferguson. 

In the Gospel reading we see Jesus voice the cultural expectations of his day.  It can shock us.
So, what are we going to do with today’s Gospel reading?  There is no easy way to read it.  Jesus comes across as rude or uncaring.  Or Jesus is playing some game with the Canaanite woman.  Or something else.  We do not know.  We cannot know what was in Jesus’ heart, or maybe a better question to ask why the Gospel writer of Matthew included it.  

This is the gift of the lectionary, and maybe the curse, as well.  We are gifted with the task to wrestle with some Scripture that we would rather not touch.  But this is not true to the full picture of Jesus, nor to the forebears of our faith that wanted us to see this side of Jesus and his ministry.  And during this week of bad news, where can we see the Good News in this passage, and can we see it for our day?
We can easily be guilty of hearing this story with very different cultural ears.  If you are sitting next to someone of the opposite sex, raise your hand.  If you are near someone who is not your family, raise your hand.  You might be next to someone of another nationality or background.  If so, you are coming to this story from a very different world, from a very different time.

This woman was not letting go of her hope for her child.  She was needing something unavailable from anywhere, or anyone, else.  She would not back down or let go.  Like a bulldog with a locked jaw, she was holding on to what she wanted.

There was little interaction in this culture of women and men.  There was little interaction in this culture of different cultures or ethnic origins.  Clear lines of division were drawn.  When visiting Palestine in the 1995, I experienced this.  I was in a group of men and women from seminary, and we were invited to a Palestinian home.  We had dinner in the home, the men in the living room eating on the sofas and chairs, while the women were all crowded in the kitchen, standing.  It is a very different world still.
In Mark’s telling of this story, he identifies the woman as a Syrophoenician, instead of a Canaanite as in Matthew.  Whatever population, she was not Jewish.  And in her need of deliverance for her daughter, she crosses the cultural divisions and gender inequalities to beg of Jesus.

The disciples, were feeling the rub of these cultural breaches.  "Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us," they said.  Not only was she a woman, a Canaanite, but she is loud to boot.

Now, I would argue that what Jesus is about to do is, in this context, unbelievably loving.  Unbelievably counter-cultural.

His response to the disciples, not to her, is a reminder of his mission: "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."  His mission is clear and focused, and this is not “in his job description.”  But she falls at his feet and begs, “Lord, help me.”

Now here we hear Jesus say something that seems so out of our pre-conceived notion of him.  "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs."  Jesus here is expressing a straight-forward cultural understanding of the culture and the time.  And ouch, it hurts us.  I am not justifying.  But that Jesus took the time to acknowledge her, and even more, that he took the time to interact with her would have been seen and heard as revolutionary to the people around him, and to those in the cultural milieu.  But boy, it is hard for us to hear today.  When we use the term of a female dog as a curse, it throws our cultural fuel onto the fire that is already lit.

To Jesus’ words, the woman retorts, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table."  She reaches through the boundaries, barriers and hindrances to redirect the conversation to what she is about, her mission, to see that her daughter is healed.  She was not letting go.

So then Jesus answered her, "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." And her daughter was healed instantly.

Now, we have to see and view this interaction, in a world impacted and changed by the Gospel, and still in need of transformation by the Gospel, we hear the words as harsh.  And we come to the natural question of “Why?”  But I want to invite you to think of this, and many other hard situations differently.

When I was in graduate school, one of the great lessons we repeatedly brought up in Group Dynamics and Reflective Practitioner training was to avoid asking the Why question.  If you ask someone the Why of a situation, they may be able to tell you, but most do what they will do without the reflective practice of wondering and acting upon reflection.  Many of us, too many of us, react rather than reflectively respond.  It seems that the confrontation with the woman urged him to go beyond the obvious and direct response of NO! to listen and respond to the woman and her pleading request.

I do not think that Jesus was testing her, to see if she had the “faith” to get healed.  In fact, he complements her faith, her faith in him as a healer, and her faith in him stepping beyond the cultural chasm between the two.  This was not a test of her faith.  The Why is not in play.  The Why-Would-He-Even-Listen-To-Her is the way many early hearers of this story would have asked.

Jesus, at the beginning of today’s Gospel reading, gives a teaching on being clean, what makes one clean or unclean, and it also went against all of the common assumptions of his disciples.  

Dietary laws, out the window.  All the “Thou Shalt Not” partake laws are dismissed.  What goes in does not make one unclean, but rather what comes out of our heart.  The laws, from Jesus’ view, was not a test to see how “righteous” one could be, but rather, a protective barrier from things that could harm oneself or others.  The laws themselves had become harmful and a form of harming others in the struggle for the “Holier-than-thou” awards.
This woman was not less-than because of her birth, or what her cultural identity was, and Jesus when allowing himself to hear her, sees that her faith and her drive for a healing for her daughter is so beautiful he is wrenched from the normal approach to things and responds to her faith.

If only we could take the time to do this as well.  But instead we play games. Oh yes, these games of interaction still take place, sadly.  We judge, and rank, and rate, and categorize because it comforts us, or helps us prejudge so we do not have to think.  I think that a lot of that is happening in Ferguson, in the media, and maybe even here today as I bring this situation up.

When we ask the Why question, we are playing a game with our response.  When one of my children does something foolish, it is so easy to ask, “Why would you do that?”  #1- duh, they are a child.  #2- If I expect to hear anything other than, “I don’t know.” than I am the fool, not them.  Children by definition explore and learn about the world by asking what will happen if I do this?  BZZZZZ.  We all know the results.

But if I start with the Whats, I can begin to see the Whys.  This applies to my kids and even to our reading for the day.  What did Jesus say and do?  What did the woman in need of healing for her daughter say and do?  It can even apply to the awkwardness in our day and time.

  • When the man was going on from a perspective of white privilege at the car dealer, what was I thinking and feeling?  
  • What about this made me so uncomfortable?  
  • What could I have said to diffuse his anger or the uncomfortable situation in the waiting room?  
  • What made him think I would share his opinion and the other man would not?  
  • What could I have said to confront his perspective that would have spread light and not more heat?
My immediate response was to ask, “Why are you acting this way?”  In my head, I should say.  Ah, the Why question that puts us in the position of power to assume we are right, or know what’s best.  Asking the what question can shift the perspective and the response radically.
  • What is happening here?  
  • What triggered that action?  
  • What am I thinking and feeling right now?  
  • What can I do to spread light and not heat?  
  • What can I do to share and receive Grace?
What came out of Jesus, at first glance, his words about dogs, is harsh.  But look at what he did.  Look at how his actions spoke of what was in his heart.  What, not why.

What will we do with this horrible week?  What will we do with the choices Robin Williams made?  What will we do with the ongoing tragedies in Ferguson?  May God help us, and in doing so may we share Grace.  Amen.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

"How Will They Know?" A Sermon for VBS Sunday

This is a very short sermon, as it is given in a gaggle of children around me on the floor.  It is a celebration of a great week of Vacation Bible School at the church this week.

Year A, Proper 14 August 10, 2014
St. Thomas’ Episcopal, Richmond, VA
“How Will They Know?”

We have had a great two weeks here at the church.  We had mini-mission camp, and then Vacation Bible School.  We have learned so much and we have played so much.  And all the adults are exhausted, but in a good way.

One of my favorite things this week was walking around and seeing good things happen no matter where I looked.  People were learning Bible stories: Abraham and Sarah welcoming strangers, the Good Samaritan parable, Zacchaeus and Jesus, the story of Abigail and David, and the shipwreck of Luke and Paul on Malta.

We learned lots of memory verses, too.

Matthew 25:35
For I was hungry
And you gave me food,
I was thirsty
And you gave me something to drink,
I was a stranger
And you welcomed me.

Leviticus 19:18b
You shall love
Your neighbor
As yourself.
Or Matthew 7:12a
In everything,
Do to others
As you would have them do to you.

These are good words, and they share good news.

I was already told by one of the moms here that somebody was about to get into it with a playmate who was not sharing well, and they heard one of you say, “Choose peace.  Choose peace.  Choose peace.”

Looking at all the work done here this week, I think of how it seemed impossible to pull off.  I am sure a lot of us thought it, but not once did I hear anybody say, “Can we really do this?”  Remember, I did not come on board full time till less than two months ago.  Perspective on this helps.  But all the folks rallied, simplified, and made a great week for the kids.  It was a beautiful thing.  Like Peter, sometimes we have to step out of the boat so that something miraculous and wonderful can happen.

One of the best sermons I ever heard was by Dr. John Kenney, the Dean of the School of Theology at Virginia Union, just down the street here.  He preached on this passage, and said that too often we talk about how we need more faith in Jesus.  He points to this passage, and Peter has faith in Christ to ask to get out of the boat.  He has faith in Christ to walk on water.  When he sees the wind he gets scared, and even then he has faith in Christ to call out for help.  The problem, according to Dr. Kenney, was that Peter did not have faith in what he could accomplish in Christ.  Peter’s problem was that he did not have faith in himself.  How many of us are in the same boat as Peter?

We have to stretch out of our comfort zones to share what is most precious.  St. Thomas’ did that this week. From the Romans reading for today:
10:14 But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?10:15 And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!"

Teachers and workers, think on that today.  You have beautiful feet.  You brought the good news all week long.  As a priest, and as a dad, I could not be more thankful.  Amen.

Friday, August 1, 2014

A Eulogy for Patrick Cobble

A Eulogy for Patrick Morrow Cobble (1980-2014)
St. Thomas’s Episcopal Church, Richmond, VA
July 31, 2014

There is no adequate way to sum up a life in a few minutes, and there is no adequate way to name our sorrows this day.

Today we come to grieve.  Today we come to remember a young man.  It was said of Patrick by his twin Andrew, that he was an old soul, kind, tender-hearted, too sensitive for this world.

We come together in this church as a way to remember Patrick.  We bring our faith with us when we ask the tough questions.  God is big enough to handle our questions, whether they are whispered or screamed in agony.  God, no matter our approach, accepts us as we are.  God was familiar with the pain of life.

In Isaiah 53, it is prophesied of Jesus:
Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account.

Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

We come today to lay our burdens down.  We come today to grieve.

We grieve today for what has happened.  We grieve for our loss.  We grieve for the questions we cannot ask.  We grieve for the answers we will never have.  We grieve today for Patrick.

Theatrical by nature, Patrick was attracted to the stage.  He was in a Disney movie at 7, and caught the bug early.  Even most recently cast as lead in a play with the Drifting Theater Company heading to New York City, and many other roles through the years.

He was not just theatrical on stage, but off as well.  Nancy shared a memory of New Year’s Eve when he was about 7, where he came out with sport coat, white shirt and bow tie with a towel over his arm to serve the sparkling cider.

Or the time he jumped out of a barn loft with just an umbrella, because he had seen it in a Batman movie.  He was quite the character, and held onto the child-like literalism deep into his years.

Always imaginative, as a child he assumed that the Dairy Queen must be married to the Burger King.  Could it be any other way?  And this did not stop; his poetry is left behind in pages of journals and scraps of paper.  His sensitive soul met his imagination and birthed words, words of his soul.  One of his English teachers said that he was the most gifted writer she had ever taught.

Patrick was more than just an actor, tender-hearted, and a writer, I was deeply moved by an email from a friend of Patrick’s and of Nancy’s, neither of whom knew they formed a triangle until the memorial in Tennessee last week.  From an email that was sent, a story was told by a young woman who showed the depth of Patrick’s care and compassion for her when in a very dark time.  In it she said of Patrick: “he was the best friend to me at a time when I really needed one.”  Would that would be said of all of us.  He was a deep and true friend.

While his path took him to several philosophical and religious ideas, he was baptized in the church.  His spiritual self pondered the souls of trees.  He questioned how we could be so active in the destruction of this world, the only one we have.  These questions worried him.  He could not understand why they did not worry more of us.

Last night, Nancy found a quote he left on his Facebook page, from Emilie Autumn in a novel: “You," he said, "are a terribly real thing in a terribly false world, and that, I believe, is why you are in so much pain.”  (The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls)  We have to ask if this question from the novel was Patrick speaking to himself of himself.

Patrick’s questions and longings are over.  And we have choices to make.  Will his questions haunt us?  Will our questions haunt us?  The Whys?  The What-ifs?

It is my prayer for Patrick to be at peace.  It is my prayer for all of us to be at peace.  In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”  We pray today for Patrick, and entrust him to God’s loving hands.  We entrust him to the dwelling-place in the House of God reserved for him.

But what of us?  We came today to lay our burdens down.  We came today to grieve.  We looked ahead to Jesus, who would know our pain.  In closing, I want to look ahead to the end, the very end, from Revelation 21:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”

Lord, we thank you for the life of Patrick Morrow Cobble.  We pray for Nancy, Andrew, and all of his family.  Like the beautiful Antheriums at the altar today, we remember the beautiful vitality of this man, and may that beauty remain in our hearts and minds as we entrust him to your loving care.  In the name of Jesus, the lover of all our souls, Amen.