Sunday, August 28, 2016

Breaking the Cycle, a sermon Year C Proper 17

Year C Proper 17
28 Aug 2016, St. David’s Episcopal, Aylett, VA
“Breaking the Cycle”

Listening to the news lately has been discouraging. The earthquakes in Italy, the floods in Louisiana, the non-stop coverage of this election cycle. My daughter stopped me the other day to complain about how bad the world is getting. I think that she is paying attention to the news more, instead of hearing Blah Blah Blah. She is paying attention, and listening in, and in doing so she is seeing what a state of affairs we seem to find ourselves in.

And then Jesus comes along in today’s lectionary reading and tells us to do things exactly opposite from how we seem to be about them. The world teaches us do unto others before they can do unto you. Jesus calls us to a different place and a different standard of interaction.

Jesus calls us to do the exact opposite of what we are taught, or what might be our natural inclination.

If you ever watched the sitcom Seinfeld, one episode had George Costanza do the exact opposite of what he would normally do. If he normally would look out for himself, he put himself last. If he normally turned right, he would turn left. At the end of the episode, he learned that to be successful in life he needed to be the Anti-George. When he did things against his nature, he found, that he actually got what he wanted and the success he craved. Do not hear me saying that Jesus is like George, and God forbid, that George is like Jesus. What I am saying is that for us to be who we desire to be in Christ, maybe we can rethink what we do and how we do it, and listen to our Master and Lord.

To set the stage, Jesus is at a banquet and sees people jockeying for positions of honor at the head table and nearby. Then he breaks into a story, that is a mirror for the very situation he is in. People scrambling, looking out for number one. Because, hey, if you do not toot your own horn, who will? (What the world teaches us anyway.) And Jesus gives a suggestion. Be happy that you are at the banquet. Head over to the corner at the back, and find that last seat in the room. Be content. And, if the host wants you to be honored, they will come and find you and you will be moved up to the head of the hall and placed in the seat of honor. But if you do it the other way around, put yourself amongst the elites, and someone more elite than you comes in you will find yourself humiliated and moved to the back of the class.

This seems simple, but it is oh so hard to do. We live in a society where people are famous for BEING FAMOUS. They have done nothing, they have accomplished nothing, they are celebrated for being celebrated. It is the embodiment of titillation. God help us. Our media is filled with the distracting and mollifying. When we were watching the Olympics happen the last two weeks, I showed my kids the best in the world at things. They had sacrificed and worked unbelievably hard to make the impossible real. Right before the Olympics came on though, a gossip show, celebrating the worst in people and in our society came on. The stark difference was shocking. Even in the Olympics, when someone chose to tell a stupid lie to get more attention, airtime, significant airtime, was devoted to that instead of what we were there to see. I can only picture Jesus shaking his head. We need to hear this story today more than ever.

If you ever wondered what Hollywood was worried about, no matter what people like to claim as the conservative or liberal causes they uphold, look at their biggest night of the year. The Academy Awards, the Oscars, is all about the glamour and the glitz, forget about the awards. There is a show just about people showing up. Grown adults are commenting on who is wearing who, and who is showing up with whom. If you ever thought about what the show is about, there are people whose job it is to fill seats. When a star gets up to give or receive an award, a professional seat filler comes in and looks the part. They were a tux or a fancy ball gown and take up space. It is all about appearances. Jesus says to fill the seats, but not with wanna-be celebrities. Jesus’ message is very different.

The message of the Gospel is a simple one, so simple that it takes most of our lives to try and live out. When I was asked during the ordination process by the Committee on Priesthood to sum up my understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, instead of my normal, long-winded responses, I said a word, a single word.


Then I waited. They looked surprised at the brevity of my answer for a moment, and then I was asked if I would like to unpack that at all. My response was, “If I say anything more than Grace or I take anything away from that I have cheapened and lessened the Gospel.” That gift of God’s unfailing, unquestioning, all-accepting love of us how we are and where we are is the good news that the world is hungry to hear. And in today’s reading, Jesus is showing us how to live lives of Grace, living out his radical, world-changing Gospel in how we treat others and how we treat ourselves. Put others before us, and allow others to put us before themselves. Grace is a two-way street. We both give and receive. However, it is not transactional, like this world teaches, do this for me and I’ll do that for you. Quid pro quo. Tit for tat. Jesus teaches us to break the cycle of transactional relationships, just like he did for us. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

He ends his first story with a line that is echoed in another parable in Matthew. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Matthew uses this when he has Jesus tell story of the flashy Pharisee praying in the Temple, and the wretched sinner who cannot even look up to heaven. Here we are given the same lesson, but it is not theoretical in the third person. It is directed to us. He is telling us, his disciples to behave this way. And the Great Reversal continues, the humble will be exalted, the last will be first.

But then Jesus moved on. He did not stop at those that merely attended the party, but he included those of us who throw the parties, too. He taught us to invite those who would not have been on anyone’s guest list. He invited us to be, well, like him. He reached out to us when we were yet sinners, and died for us, Paul reminds us in Romans. He wants us at his party, he wants us to celebrate with him forever.

When we come to his table today, that is one of the things I personally celebrate and applaud. Every time I come to his table I rejoice that even one such as I am invited, welcomed and loved by the host. I chose to become Episcopalian for that very reason, Christ says WHOSOEVER WILL come. Now we puts disclaimers, caveats and exceptions on that sometimes. God forgive us. But Christ does not put any ifs, ands or buts on his invitation, and encourages us to go, and do likewise. “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

In our choice of seating, and in our choice of guests, we have a decision, will we be like this world arguing and fighting over who is the best and who is a little better in the pecking order, or will we be like the one who took on himself the humble form of a servant so that we might see what Grace looks like in action.

In closing today, please know that I wrestle with what I have asked just like we all do. I get petty at times. I look out for number one at times. And daily Jesus calls and I try to answer. And hopefully, prayerfully, this ol’ heart of mine will become more and more like Christ’s one choice, one decision, one day at a time. Even the early church, many of whom saw Jesus in the flesh wrestled with this. In our Hebrews reading, the Preacher there discusses our common call and how hard it is.

“Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, ‘‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’ So we can say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?’ Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.”

As true today as it was then. God help us in our following of you. Amen.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

100 Blogposts and Counting

Just noticed that my last post was my 99th since I started this three years ago. I will be changing the name soon, as it is no longer accurate since I left St. Thomas'. We'll see what it goes to, but the redirect will still get you here no matter where we land.

In my time, I have noticed a few things. I love to write, and this has been the prime to the pump that I always needed. I am about halfway through my first book, and excited that a dream of mine is about to come to fruition.

Also, I need to put up more than my sermons on here. I will keep doing that, and several of you are loyal readers of those and this way you can keep track of me and the family in another way. But my commentaries and observations are often more widely read than the sermons, and should probably be doing more of that.

Writing for the national devotional was a great boost to my readership, and I have another week of entries coming up in two weeks. I will announce more on that on Facebook and on here.

Lastly, I like having a record of my sermons and thoughts, my own searchable place of what I have said and what I have stood for (and against). As a preacher, it is a great help to remember if  I have already used a story or quote too recently. It is like having a much more accurate brain at my disposal.

Tomorrow I will be posting blogpost 101 with my sermon at St. David's, but glad I could take a second and say thanks for reading and continued blessings on your journey, fellow pilgrims!

Friday, August 26, 2016

What does it mean to believe?

This evening I finished watching one of my all time favorite movies with the family. I remember the first time I saw it at the Byrd Theatre in Richmond, sitting near the back on the right. I had sneaked off to catch it having heard good things back in 1996. I was seconds late, and missed just a bit of the dramatic pullback through space/time that is the opening shot to Zemeckis' Contact.

The profound thing for me about this story is how it plays with the idea of belief. There are portrayals of all kinds of belief, naive, aggressive,  fundamentalist, wishy-washy, etc. And in it all, even when it condemns some forms of faith, it upholds "a different sense of standards" from proof in a logical or scientific way, as well as affirming that it is after the same outcome, Truth.

Another affirming thing, that pushes against a phrase I have heard too often, was about finding our own answers. Too often I have been rubbed wrong by the phrase, "Find your own truth." If it is true, it is not up to debate. I like the intention, but the meaning of the words gets in the way. If we seek our own answers to the big questions, then we are finding our response to our understanding of Truth, instead of making a claim that there are multiple truths. Philosophically I have always had a time with that.

Belief and Knowledge (reminder that the word Science means knowledge) are both seeking at what is most real, what it Truth. I hold to my beliefs, because my experience has led me to cling to these, whether from family of origin, tragedy, heartbreak, or theophany, we all hold tight to our beliefs for as long as we can. They are deeper than thoughts. Lots of thoughts run through my mind all day long, and only a few are rabbits that I chase. Beliefs are the Operating System for my choices and actions. They are the underlying motive for what I do. Lots of people claim beliefs that never show up in their daily actions, and none of us can stand that hypocrisy.  And language stills gets in the way.

There are two German words for knowing. kennen and weissen. If you weiss something, it is like a fact. I know 2 + 2 = 4. Ich weiss 2 + 2 = 4. That is one level of knowing. Then there is kennen. This is reserved for people and places. I know my wife. I know my kids. I know my neighborhood. Ich kenne Sie. I know them. I love that one can kenne a city, the beautiful, living, breathing, breeding things that they are. Sometimes in conversation I will use the words "head knowledge vs. heart knowledge." When we know something down deep, down in our gut, we kennen it. Belief is like that. For good. For bad. That is why it is so hard to make a change.

Living a life of belief is hard when one does not understand. It seems crazy or irrational from the outside. Being a person of faith makes no sense to those for whom faith is nominal or non-existent. In college a good friend, in a sincere attempt at helping me asked how could I waste all I had going for me by working in the Church. From his perspective it was an absolute waste. From mine, I could not think of anything higher, better or more worthy. (Interesting that even with all the water that has passed under this bridge I still feel the same way.)  And maybe it is as simple as James puts it, "Faith without works is dead." Our faith cannot be just mental adherence to a concept. We daily have to make our choices shown by our actions and lifestyle that we mean what we say, and that we practice what we preach.

For me that is what belief comes down to, evidence and experience pile up to the point where I have to shape my life in such a way that this "concept" lives itself out in me. I can know something and not have it impact me. I can know deep down something and if I do not act on it, some part of me dies.

In my favorite novel, Les Miserables, that is the case. Jean Valjean, the main character, after robbing a bishop of his house silver is set free by the victim of his crime by the bishop saying it was a gift, and tossing on two expensive candlesticks to boot. Valjean is dealing with this attack on his anger and cynicism when a boy's coin rolls up against his foot on a deserted country road. His old self takes hold, and he puts his foot down on it and no matter the boy's protests will not move an inch to help him. Once the boy leaves in tears, he picks up the coin and remembers the bishop's words about the expensive silver. "I have bought your soul." The guilt and built-up rage of twenty years erupts. The bishop's actions went directly against the "every-man-for-himself" belief that unjust years in prison had taught him. His experience of Grace went against his beliefs. Something had to give, and at that moment, after his inhumanity to the boy over the coin, Jean Valjean was saved. It is a lot cleaner in the movies and the musical, often the bishop's actions were enough. But belief is not like that. In Contact, the inquiry into her voyage was the turning point. She had to name that her belief was greater than her knowledge. Her head was overruled by her heart. Her experience coupled with with what little evidence she had, would overrule whatever they brought against her. She chose to live by her Belief, which she saw as a greater Truth. As did Jean Valjean, as the rest of the novel points out. As do I, I hope and pray.

Belief is the human spirit at its best. It can be manipulated by the human heart at its worst. But maybe that is the price we pay as we journey toward Truth, to the best of our ability.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Mid-August Check-in

Two weeks into this next adventure, and no clarity yet, but much appreciation. The time at camp, as usual, was a blessing. Seeing these young adults give so much and love so much is always a sight to see. I was honored to be with them. Also, I got plenty of time to be alone and think and pray. Repeatedly I felt that the course ahead will be one of grace and security, even though it feels like I'm walking a tightrope in the dark at times.

I do not think that my feelings of comfort are delusional. I have found a few things to apply for in the last few weeks, and have been given some side gigs that can help bring in some supplemental income. I have two sermons scheduled coming up, and celebrating at one of those. My ability to be a priest continues. Almost daily I am meeting with friends, catching up, or listening. And as I look to today, I am thankful. As I look to tomorrow, I am hopeful. When I choose to look back, I can see time and time again that when things were darkest the land was being prepared for the harvest to come.

So there it is, once again I get to practice what I preach. Once again, I get to watch things come together that I could not finagle even if I tried. Once again, I get to live a life of faith. My heart, still being converted daily by the indwelling Spirit, is beating less rapidly as it finds its rest in God.

Prayers appreciated, as always, and still, I am open and running to YES whenever I can. Ask. I may very well say yes.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016


On August 1 I became officially unemployed. I had resolved that I would do what I could do to remain a priest. (Once priested, for the most part, always priested.) But I do not mean the condition of being a priest, but rather an active priest, doing priestly things. My prayer was, and remains, that God would open doors for me to keep doing and being who I am, but not for my sake, but to be who I am in Him.

In my final days at St. Thomas’, I put out an invitation on Facebook. It was a simple thing, an open invitation for people to openly invite me to do whatever: coffee, lunch, celebrate, fill-in-the-blank. I was delighted, as some invites did come, mostly from friends looking out for me. I was invited to celebrate communion at a retirement home at the end of the month. And I had a church call about preaching and celebrating Labor Day weekend. It was a go.

On the end of the first day of unemployment, I did get a call to come back up to camp to be the Chaplain to the Staff at the camps where I serve, and I could not be more excited. It was out of the blue, but a natural fit. I am a priest, and the mountain needs a priest to celebrate and give spiritual comfort to a bunch of people pouring themselves out 110% to these kids. So it is a hand-in-glove fit.
I asked in my prayers for a way for me to run to yes. I believe that something bigger, better, bolder and beautifuler (I know, I know, more beautiful, but I was going for parallelism), will happen. But it all starts with me living by faith, and living into that faith.

The other night I had a tender moment with my daughter. She had been little Miss Attitude all day. When she finally felt comfortable with being honest, she let me know how scared she was. I had said in my final sermon that I knew we would be okay, and that my family was not scared. She took it to heart. She was upset that she actually was scared, and I had told people she wasn’t. I let her know that that was okay, that what I had “preached” was the truth as I knew it. I also let her know that there is a difference between feeling scared and acting from our fears. I feel scared. We have months of savings, plans for next steps, and a lot of friends working on our behalf. I have a bevy of bishops (our blessed three in the Diocese of Virginia) who have encouraged me in this time in their own way. My feelings are fleeting, my faith is one of years of seeing God’s handiwork at play. It has been tempered by triumphs and tragedies. It was forged in years of boom and bust. And now we have an opportunity to practice what we preach, again.

Even in writing this, I am reminded, that the first day I was unemployed I was called and asked to come and be priestly. If I was not open to what the Universe was going to open up I could not have said yes and arrive in 21 hours. (Thanks to my dear wife and in-laws who enabled this to happen, too.) But the Spirit is opening doors I cannot imagine. I have to believe that. We have come too far too fast for this to be anything more than a speedbump.

So if you have need of me, as a buddy, or a pal, or a priest, remember I am your friendly, neighborhood Priest-at-Large and look forward to doing what I can, while I can, as soon as I get back from camp anyway. Thanks God for all the reminders for the times when I am like your disciples repeatedly were, O ye of little faith.