Monday, September 26, 2016

I Saw Jesus on TV

Not literally, mind you, but I saw Jesus on TV. I do not even know the show. My wife had been watching food shows on PBS on Saturday afternoon, and I had been going in and out of the room. When I was in I was reading a magazine or playing on my phone. But while I was sitting there, something caught my attention.

It was a farmer, and he was showing how to gather seeds from his vegetables. When I started watching he was showing the proper way to gather sunflower seeds from a sunflower. He had a sunflower and an empty cardboard box. That was it. He explained how to add salt, if you want salted seeds when you eat them. He reminded not to add salt if you planned on planting them the next year.

He then moved on to tomatoes. Showing how to leave them out to get to the seeds, and let them ferment so they will grow. He showed how to cover them so the birds do not get to them. It was so simple, but something I had never learned in my four plus decades on this earth.

Then he went on carrots. I had never seen a carrot seed in my life.

Living downtown in a townhouse, I do not have much of a yard. A big part of that is by choice. But this moved me in a deep and profound way. His leathered skin from the scores of years in the sun, his calloused hands so lovingly picking out the seeds he had harvested. It was beautiful. And then he shared his wisdom on top of the knowledge he had just imparted.

"I think everyone should grow something," he said."Even if it is just one thing. Grow it to have something you grew, and let at least some of your crop go to seed so you can do it again next year. And when I share some seed, people ask to pay me, I say, 'Naw. You share with someone else. You give to them to pay me back." And that's when Jesus broke through for me.

I have always wrestled with the idea of Grace verses Works. Theologically I am firmly in the Grace camp, but dealing with those who live firmly in the tit-for-tat existence of this world, explaining Grace to them is a foreign language. Grace is a different programming language, and it just does not compute. But this man, with his seeds gave me a clue to that Abundant Life that Jesus talked about in John 10:10.

Some people are in the planting stage, just like in Jesus' metaphor of his parable of the Sower. Some are at the point where they are growing their own produce, and enjoying the fruits of their labor and the joy of their garden. But maybe Jesus, through the wizened gardener, is calling for us to go one step further. He wants us to go to seed. He wants us to produce enough for us, and then to make enough to sustain us next year and share with someone else so they can get in on this Abundant Life, too.

On Resurrection Day, Mary confused Jesus for a gardener, and on Saturday I did, too. I saw him on TV, showing me how to gather sunflower, tomato and carrot seeds. And he invited me to that Abundant Life. Earlier in John 10 Jesus says his sheep will know his voice, and I think I heard it on PBS last Saturday.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

On the Way of Grace: a sermon Year C Proper 21

“On the Way of Grace”
Year C Proper 21, 25 September 2017
St. Francis’ Episcopal, Manakin-Sabot, VA

Proper 21 Collect:
O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity: Grant us the fullness of your grace, that we, running to obtain your promises, may become partakers of your heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Amos 6:1a, 4-7
Alas for those who are at ease in Zion, and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria.
Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall;
who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music;
who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!
Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile, and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away.

Luke 16:19-31
"There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.' But Abraham said, 'Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.' He said, 'Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father's house-- for I have five brothers--that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.' Abraham replied, 'They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.' He said, 'No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.' He said to him, 'If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'"

I remember hearing a story from a friend about going into a church, and seeing in the entryway a huge banner: “You have arrived!” Now, I hope and trust that what they meant to say was “You made it. We are glad you are here!” But when I hear the phrase, “You have arrived!” it sounds like you have made it to your destination, that you have nowhere else to go, that you have nothing else to do, nothing more to learn, no more growth is needed. Rest.

Had I seen that banner hanging in a church I was visiting, I would have turned around and walked out the door immediately. What I look for in a Church is not a bunch of “arrived” people, but a bunch of people en route. In the early Church, people who followed Christ did not call themselves Christians. In fact, the name Christian was an insulting, derisive name that got slapped on Christ’s followers in Antioch, the city in Syria. It literally means “little Christs.” Little Messiahs. People were making fun of these people running around trying to help people and save them from their troubles. The term that people used in the Church to describe themselves was followers of The Way. The Way. You see, our faith is to be on the move, on the go. We follow Jesus, and he shows us The Way. When we think that we have it made, that we have arrived, we have left The Way. And there is nothing I think that would make Jesus sadder.

It was the same way when Jesus was alive. He was always fighting the mindset of the religious leaders that people “had arrived.” You see, back then, people understood it that when they had a lot of things, they were “blessed by God.” And the more you had, the more God loved them and how they were living.

Has it really changed all that much? Last week I heard a North Carolina congressman say that people were rioting in Charlotte because they were not successful. Actually I think they were rioting because someone got shot. Now, I am not getting political here, and please do not hear it that way. But I am pointing out that the attitude that some are blessed and “better,” and others are not blessed and “worse,” is still with us. People still are looking at the wrong things to keep score. In fact, our Gospel reading starts just a few verses after Jesus said this in verse 15: So Jesus said to [the religious leaders], ‘You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.”

When we think we have it made, when we feel we have “arrived,” could it be an abomination to God? I think maybe. In response to this attitude, Jesus tells this story.

There is a rich man. Now notice that he is not even named, but what he is wearing is mentioned. The rich man wears purple, a highly expensive cloth that had to be died in a the juice of a squashed mollusk. It cost a fortune because they were such little boogers, but hey, he was worth it. And outside the unnamed Rich Man’s door lay a diseased beggar named Lazarus. Now the name Lazarus means comes from Elazar, which means God is my Help. So the Rich Man feasts on daily banquets, and poor Lazarus starves just feet away. Then, they both die. The Rich Man is in Hades, not hell, but Hades, the place of the Dead. And even though he is just in the Afterlife’s holding cell, he is in torment and in want for just a drop of water. And then just like Lazarus could look in the doorway to the courtyard where the Rich Man feasted, the Rich Man could look across a great chasm and see Lazarus resting on the bosom of Abraham. Now that phrase, resting on the bosom of Abraham comes from a very different culture. People did not sit at a table, they reclined. Tables were low. This phrase means that Lazarus was seated at the place of honor, reclining next to Abraham at the great banquet that is to come. You see, their places have been reversed.

Now, too often people see this as a view of what heaven is like. I do not think so. I think that this is a story, and Jesus was a storyteller. In fact scholars have found very close parallels in Jewish and Egyptian parables, wise stories told to make a point, like Aesop’s Fables. They are not to be taken literally, but an attempt to set up a premise to make a point. We get in trouble when we take parables as literal, the metaphorical as historical.

When I was in seminary, I had opportunity to go to Israel and Palestine for a missions and history trip with several students and a professor. While we were on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, the same road used since Jesus’ time for the most part, we got to see where Jesus’ temptations took place and the setting for one of his parables. What was a path in Jesus’ time, is now paved. It is still the Wilderness. Nothing is out there. About the midway point, though, our tour guide stopped the bus and pointed out a building. “This,” he said, “was the inn where the Good Samaritan brought the injured man.” My fellow seminarians jumped to the windows to take pictures. It struck me, “Uh, it was a parable.” Not to mention the two room shack did not look 50 years old, much less 2,000. You see, we all want to make the fictional literal, even a bunch of seminarians.

The parable today, I think, speaks to the listeners about themselves more than what the afterlife is like. This is a story. A very poignant one, and I do not think the premise is that poor people go to heaven, and rich people do not. I think the premise comes in how Jesus ends it. It is how one lived, not how one was blessed.

The Rich Man begs for someone to go back and warn his brothers of what is to come. The chasm is fixed there, in the Afterlife in the story, but it is not yet fixed here on this plane of existence yet. We can still make a change, we can still make a difference on this side of death. But Father Abraham, the one speaking for the way things are, says that even if someone came back from the dead they would not listen.

I do not find it accidental that the one telling this story is the one who came back from the dead, later in the story at least.

And think about it. What would keep someone from listening to this one risen from the dead. You would think that that would grab someone’s attention. Father Abraham says that if they did not listen to Moses and the prophets, they would not listen to the Resurrected One either.  And what keeps someone from hearing something new, and changing their ways?

They feel like they have already arrived. Remember that horrible piece of bad theology we all seem to have a hard time shaking, the good are rewarded and the bad are punished.  Those that are like the Rich Man feel that they are complete. They have nothing else to learn. They have no new ways to grow.

One of my life mottos comes from the Michelangelo, the great Renaissance painter and sculptor. A man of immense genius, he strove to always improve. According to story, someone asked him at the age of 83 how does one live a good life. His response was just two words: Ancora imparo. That is Italian for “I am still learning.” This man of immense genius, was still striving and growing, he was changing and learning. He was still learning to have a good life, and he had a good life because he was still learning.

I heard someone say this week that they never planned to retire because when you retire you die. I think there is more to it than that. I think when we stop growing we die. One of the great lines from The Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufresne, the main character, said, “I guess it comes down to a simple choice really. Get busy living, or get busy dying.” And it comes down to us as the same choice.

Jesus calls us to life and growth, and to share that ability with all of God’s children, like the Rich Man could have done for Lazarus. The quickest way to suffering is stay where we are, fat and happy.

The prophet Amos, that we read earlier, shared the same message:
Amos 6:1a, 4-7
Alas for those who are at ease in Zion, and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria.
Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall;
who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music;
who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!
Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile, and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away.

The revelry of the loungers. We were not made to sit on our tuckus. We are people of the Way. We are meant to be out and about. We are meant to be on the Go.

And when we are out and about, learning and growing, we do not just do it for our own ends. We have been blessed to be a blessing. We are blessed to make a difference in others’ lives. We have been blessed to live fully and give fully the fullness of the Kingdom of God.

A story is told, a true one, of one of my favorite authors, Tony Campolo. He was asked to speak at a Missions Conference. Just before he spoke, the moderator got word that one of the Missionaries was in great need, and needed $5,000 I think it was. Unannounced, she asked Dr. Campolo to please pray for the need to be met. He said, “No.” She was taken aback, and assumed he was joking. She asked again. He said, “No, but what I will do is this.” He reached into his pocket, took out his wallet, and emptied the contents of all his cash. He went and set it on the edge of the stage. The moderator laughed and thanked him for making his point. He said, “No” again. It was not a metaphor, he pointed at her and told her to do the same. He then told the ushers to go and gather all the cash from the attendees. They did. After this spontaneous collection they counted it up, and there was over $15,000, triple the need. It was then time for him to speak. The moderator glad she was off the hook. Dr. Campolo went to the lectern and said, “Don’t ask God for a nickel, when he has given you a dollar.” He sat down, and did not say anything else. I heard later that they did not honor his contract for his speaking fee because he did not speak, but I think that his message screamed, and the conference showed that they still did not get it.

We have been blessed to be a blessing. In closing, I saw a great bit of TV yesterday. I have been thinking about it ever since. My wife had on some food shows on PBS, and I will be honest, I was not paying attention. I had a magazine, and bounced between that and my phone. But one thing did rivet my attention. On one of the shows there was a farmer, leather skin from being out in the sun for decades, calloused hands, with a wisdom in the eyes. His drawal was beautiful, and his pace deliberate. He was talking about how to get seeds from your vegetables, how to store them up so you can use them next year. He started with Sunflowers, he said it was the easiest. And it was. I saw it. I could do that. Then he went to Tomatoes. Not as easy, but I could do that. Then he went to Carrots. I had never seen a carrot seed before. I live in Cary Town, and I am not a farmer. But was has stayed with me is this, and it fit so well in my sermon I added it in this morning when I got up, it having been stuck in my spiritual cud all night. The farmer said this, “I believe everyone should grow at least one thing that they eat. Even if it is just one thing, and then get it to seed, so you can do it again next year. When I give someone seed, and they ask me if they can pay me back, I say, ‘Naw, you show somebody else. You pay it back to them.’”

In our spiritual lives, I think we all can do that. Some of us are at the planting stage, hoping to grow. Many of us are at the Growing stage, enjoying the benefit of where we are. But like the old farmer said, We’ve got to “show somebody else. You pay it back to them.” Jesus calls us to go beyond the Growing stage, where we have arrived. He calls us to go to Seed, to grow to the point where we and others can benefit from our growth. We pay God back for the Grace we have received by paying it forward, and helping someone else get on the Way of Grace.

We have been so blessed, but God is not finished with us yet. I pray that you never feel like you have arrived. Go out, boldly. You are the Light of the World. You are the Salt of the Earth. Jesus came and made his life an offering and sacrifice to God. Go and do likewise.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

A Convoluted Way of Asking Who Are You?: a sermon Year C Proper 20 18 Sept 2016

“A Convoluted Way of Asking ‘Who Are You?’”
Year C Proper 19, September 18, 2016
St. David’s Episcopal, Aylett, VA

Luke 16:1-13
Then Jesus said to the disciples, "There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property.
So he summoned him and said to him, 'What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.'Then the manager said to himself, 'What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.'So, summoning his master's debtors one by one, he asked the first, 'How much do you owe my master?' He answered, 'A hundred jugs of olive oil.' He said to him, 'Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.' Then he asked another, 'And how much do you owe?' He replied, 'A hundred containers of wheat.' He said to him, 'Take your bill and make it eighty.'

And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

"Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?

“No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth."

I will be the first to  admit, this is a messy and convoluted text we are digging through this Sunday. But when we filter it through today’s collect, the reasoning becomes a bit more clear. Collect for today:
Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

We see the set-up for the story, there is a manager of a large estate, who has really messed up. He is getting fired, and there is nothing he can do to save his job. He is going to be out.

Please note, this is why people are told to leave the premises immediately after cleaning out their desk when they get fired. Sticking around for any length of time leads to problems.

But you have to give it up for the manager. Shrewd. There is no other word for it. The manager was about to get fired, but he not powerless. He had misused the owner’s money, so while still possible he abused his remaining power to his benefit. “You owe my boss, let’s reduce that while we can.” The unspoken part to those he was letting off the hook for the whole amount is: NOW YOU WILL OWE ME. And that social debt, just like a monetary one, gives him some power. He knew who he was and what he was willing to do (or not). He did not want to have to leave the world (and the lack of calluses) that a white-collar job allowed him. He did not want to end up on the street corner begging. He knew he was going to create a string of debts to him that he could milk for all it was worth for the rest of his life.

If you ever saw the movie Schindler’s List, you know that through the brave acts of Oskar Schindler hundreds of Jews were saved from the Holocaust. He is uplifted as one of the Righteous in Israel. The part of the story that was not told in the movie was that after the war when he was older, he actually lived off the graciousness of those he graciously saved. Like our manager in today’s Gospel reading, he took advantage of a debt owed.

We may see this as being snaky or shady, but psychologists repeatedly have shown that this type of social indebtedness is a very real thing. Next time you go to a restaurant and they offer you a sample of anything, know the intended outcome. We were in Oliver Garden last week. They offered us a sample of a wine that “paired” with our meal. I did not want a glass that night so I declined. My wife got a Pinot Grigio. I did not say anything, but just watched. After her taste, the waitress (who was very good at her job of taking care of us and up-selling for the restaurant) came back and asked my wife if she wanted a full glass. Of course my wife said yes. She felt obliged. Smart waitress at Olive Garden, smart manager in the story. I scratched your back, now you scratch mine.

Now we get to the part of the story where it gets really hard to understand exactly what Jesus is saying here in verses 8 and 9:

And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

Okay, admittedly, this is a hard and weird statement. Is Jesus saying he wants his followers to be crooked and shady? Many have had a hard time with Jesus saying this for centuries. Some of the most respected commentators in history have even questioned if our Lord even asked this. Some speculated there had been some type of scribal error.

You see, there are two types of parables, the ones where we should be like the people in them, and ones where we are shown how much better God or God’s way is. This is the second type. The manager is praised for his wits, not his actions. Christ’s followers are encouraged, not to be crooks, but to be shrewd and wise like the manager, for God’s Kingdom. We are to use what God has given us and use it well. Think of the Parable of the Talents. Each of the servants given a very sizable amount of money was expected to have something to show for it. The same here. Jesus expects us to do something with the blessings we have had showered upon us.

Wicked wealth only lasts so long. It runs out. What will we invest our lives in, things that last eternally, or things that run out? Also, I believe Jesus is saying that whatever we start with, even wicked wealth, it can be redeemed and transformed. God can make lemons lemonade, or junk into a masterpiece.

Yesterday, my daughters finished up their Arts and Crafts for the State Fair. We dropped it off. My youngest entered a category called Trash to Treasure. She is always finding stuff in the recycling bin and making, well, what she calls art. To her it is. I think Trash to Treasure is a more apt name. But is God any different? God can take us, even us, and make us saints. Grace.

Back to Jesus,  verses 10 to 12:
"Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?

What will you do with what you have? Will you cling to it, afraid to let anyone even see it? Or will you use it? If you have a hammer but always keep it in the toolbox, is it even still a hammer? If you own a Masterpiece painting that all the world knows, do you hang it in your closet to “keep it safe,” or do you loan it out to a museum so all can look on in awe? When the Church holds onto God’s love instead of giving it away, are we being the Church?

You see, you have been entrusted with a Masterpiece, created by the Master of the Universe. Go, look in a mirror, and see God’s handiwork. And God has empowered and enabled you to change the world, today. Really. A word today can change a life. A kind act can give someone hope. God believes in you, and entrusts you with this power and responsibility. What will you do today?

How will I use what God has given me? To quote the old Sunday School song: “Hide it under a bushel? NO, I’m gonna let it shine!” We have been blessed to be a blessing. William Temple, the 98th Archbishop of Canterbury, put it this way: “The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.” We are not just told, we are commanded by Christ to give ourselves away, just like he did.
And now to the last hard bit in today’s Gospel passage, verse 13:
“No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth."

I used to have an app on my phone. I played it for hours. It was fun, but after a while, I noticed that the point of the game was to get a higher level so I could play more to get to a higher level, so I could play more… Once I came to that revelation I was angry, at myself and the stupid game, but then I laughed. I had been a slave to that app. I kept “feeding the monster” so that I could “keep feeding the monster.” Jesus confronts the primary fallacy of our culture, and his. We think that money will give us happiness and fulfillment. Nope. It won’t. You would think after 2,000 years we would have figured this out. Do we work for money, so that we can make more, so we can make more… Do we keep “feeding the monster,” or do we serve God? Do we use our money (and time and talents) to further God’s Kingdom or ours? Which one of those will last?

This season with the election and accusations flying the use and abuse of power and money seems to be more prevalent, and worrisome. What is a follower of Christ to do? What is our responsibility? These are hard questions, but if we see who we are in God’s eyes first then the what to do seems to fall into place. Franciscan Mystic Richard Rohr puts it this way: “When you get your,'Who am I?', question right, all of your,'What should I do?' questions tend to take care of themselves.”

So today as we come to Christ’s table, what are we to do? And coming back to Rohr’s quote, it all depends on who we are, or whose we are. When we get the ‘Who am I?’ question right, we know what to do.

Are we Republicans or Democrats first? I hope not. Are we our job or our role in our family first? That one is getting harder to answer. Or, are we a beloved Child of God first, a full member in the Kingdom of God first? How we answer that question makes all the difference. Amen.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Welcome readers (Part Deux)

Greetings, friends.

This is the second opportunity to write for this year, and I am glad to do it. Staying connected to God daily is important. Jesus said, "Seek first God's Kingdom, and God's okaying of you, and everything else will fall into place." That's how a seminary professor of mine (Glenn Hinson) translated that famous passage and it has always stuck with me.

Blessings on your journey. Check things out. Let me know what you think. Love comments and feedback. Most of what you will find here are sermons, and a few commentaries. If you have a personal question, my email is

Peace be yours!

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Knew You'd Find Me: a sermon Year C Proper 19 11 Sept 2016

“Knew You’d Find Me”
Year C Proper 19, 11 September 2016
St. David’s Episcopal Church, Aylett, Virginia

We are designed and built to be in relationship. We are made to be together. There are a rare few who can survive in isolation. Most of us need to be with others. It is a need. We have evolved, or are designed, however you want to put it, to be with other people.
Fifteen years ago, today, I was serving a church a mile from the Pentagon in Arlington. It was a beautiful day, clear skies, the type of day when you remember why God made Virginia. After the tragedies of 9/11, I remember how people had a desire to be close, to be together. That week we opened up our church for prayer, and many people who had never set foot in our church, or probably any church in years, came in to be with God or at least other people. Together. We are made to be together. It is one of the responses to things like the insanity of that day 15 years ago.

Life can be cruel, and life can be harsh. If you ever wondered about the harshness of life in institutions like orphanages, studies looked at children who were orphaned or abandoned newborns in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Because of staggering numbers in the large institutions, the babies received minimal physical contact. It had a lasting effect. There was nothing caring about their care. They got their physical needs met, but none of their social and emotional needs met. Many of the babies died. They did also notice that many were for life stunted in their emotional and social development, and that even many of the facial muscles of the babies did not develop fully, and that the muscles around the mouths and the eyes that express emotions were affected. Horrifying in its implications. We are made to need each other.
Think about it, a baby is in need of everything. They are reliant on us, and require so much care. And we willingly give it. Babies are a bundle of hopes and dreams, of need and fulfillment. So much in such a small package. If you ever wondered if God made us to be in relationship with other people try tickling yourself. You cannot do it. It is impossible. Try it. Go ahead.
I’ll wait.
But have someone else, poke you in the ribs, or run a feather on your bare foot, and we cackle. We are wired to be with others.
And I believe we are made to be with God. All of us. There is nothing in the Universe that God wants more than you. Jesus paints pictures here in Luke 15 of a God who seeks and treasures that which is missing. The stories told today are the first two of three in Luke 15, but they all point to one thing: “God loves you.”
And when I say you, I mean more than those sitting in this church listening to me this morning. That is what is so scandalous about what Jesus is saying here. Remember how it started. He was eating, drinking, and God forbid, maybe even enjoying himself with those that were seen as Outsiders, but worse than that, Untouchables. Tax Collectors, traitors to their neighbors siding with the foreign invaders, the Romans, and other sinners, people deemed unworthy of being in relationship with from most people’s standards. And yet, here Jesus was. In their midst again. So called prophet, and yet by society’s standards he could not see what was obvious. These people were UNWORTHY of contact from decent people.
And so he tells three stories, though only two are included in today’s stories. The Lost Sheep, The Lost Coin, and The Lost Son (Also called the Prodigal Son) are the summation of Jesus response to the Pharisees and the Scribes, the Church-y types that were judging Jesus’ social habits. And each of these stories provide a different nuance.
All three describe the seeking nature of God. God seeks out a way, any way to be in relationship. God desires nothing more. The Shepherd, the Housewife, the Father are diligent and determined. That is established.
But we, like the Pharisees and Scribes, need to see the point that Jesus is making here. How much say did the Coin have in being lost? I mean really, how much free will does a coin have? None. Zip. Nada. Sometimes, we, like the coin, find ourselves lost. We did nothing to make it happen, and we can do nothing to remedy our situation. I can think of a lot of people in the same boat. Through no fault of their own, through no sin of commission or omission, they are lost, apart from the life-giving and soul-sustaining relationship that is in God. But God still seeks them out. God loves them, too.
What about the Sheep? This lost sheep, who is doing what sheep do. Should it have stayed with the flock? Of course. But it is a sheep, not known for their innate brilliance. This missing sheep of the 100, the 1%, finds itself lost and alone. It probably just followed its nose, and then some more, and then some more, and finds itself a long way off, with no clue on the way back. Did it have Free Will? Well, yes. It made choices, and could be said to be a self-made situation. And even though it is to blame, does the Shepherd turn his back on it. NO! He turns his back on the ones who have their act together, not to forget them or ignore them, but they do not need more blessings of his company. They need to be reunited with the one whose fellowship is missing, and so that is what the Shepherd does. He is the good Shepherd. No one gets Lost on his watch. Even when the Sheep was dumb, and put himself in this situation.
And today I will mention only, the third story, the Lost Son. He was not dumb, he chose to be lost. It was not mindless (like the coin) or accidental (like the sheep). This was a Sin, a deliberate decision to break fellowship. And yet, even there, the Father goes running at the first chance he has to welcome him home.
You see, we were made for relationship. Philosopher Blaise Pascal put it this way:
“What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself”
[This is from page 75 of Blaise Pascal’s Pensees (New York; Penguin Books, 1966).]
We ought to be in relationship with God. We ought to be in relationship with each other. There is no other way to be to be who we were born to be, created to be. Fearfully and wonderfully made to quote the Psalmist. And there is none beyond redemption. There are none unworthy or undeserving from God’s perspective. St. Paul reminds us that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. And found a way to bring us home. He longs for that. He seeks us, even when we do not realize it. There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God, nothing we did, nothing we could do, nothing we could imagine. God loves us. Period.
One day about 6 or 7 years ago, my youngest daughter get separated from our family while at Target. She was just a toddler. We were standing there, and we looked around and she was gone. Just gone. We had not moved. We had not left her. It was baffling. To complicate the matter, she did not speak well, and when she did, only we could understand her. Luckily my wife was with me. I told her to look around, and hold onto our oldest, and I ran to the front door of the store in case someone had grabbed her. In moments like that, every irrational fear comes, and it is hard to keep one’s head. I truly ran, and when I got to the front of the store I scanned around looking for her. She was so short, she could go through clothes racks, and spotting her in them would be impossible. I was about to call for an employee for help in the search when I see her coming down the aisle, fast and deliberate. She was headed right for the exit, thankfully all by herself. And when she saw me standing at the exit, she broke into a grin. “I KNEW YOU WOULD FIND ME!” She laughed and smiled. I could have killed her, and love her to death all at the same moment. All the adrenaline needed a place to go. She had wandered somehow from the back corner of the store, to the front door with no one stopping or slowing her. My only guess is she was heading for the car. Oh my. My heart still races thinking about it. But nothing, and I mean nothing, could have kept me from finding her. She was my baby, and I love her. I love her more than I can say. Always have, and always will. God loves everyone of us even more than that.
This morning, God is still seeking. God is still wanting to be with us in relationship. But my guess is that God is not here. We are probably the 9 coins, or the 99 sheep. We are the brother that gets to inherit everything.
In fact, according to these stories, God is probably not focused on us here this morning. He is worried about the guy who got into bed two hours ago after an all-night bender. He is worried about the poor young single mother who wondering who is going to watch her children tonight when she has to work, while she props herself up to care for them after working all night last night. God is seeking the elderly person who wonders if anyone remembers that they are even still alive. God is worried about those in the wars that came from 9/11 15 years ago, the soldiers and victims on both sides in these endless wars.
In all of our lostness, we can be found. God will not stop as long as it is possible. For God’s love never fails.
So with that in mind, who needs God’s love this week? Who did you think about when I was preaching today? Who did God remind you about? Who would be the last person in the world you could think of? Maybe you can help out the Shepherd and reach out to them this week, and remind them that the Good Shepherd loves them, and hopes to get them back in his fold. Maybe you can be the Shepherd’s Crook that reaches out and helps bring them home. God help us to see with God’s eyes, and reach out with God’s love. Amen.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Worth Every Penny & Every Second: a sermon Year C Proper 18 2016

“Worth Every Penny & Every Second”
Year C Proper 18, 4 September 2016
St. Mary’s Episcopal, Colonial Beach, Virginia

Luke 14:25-33
25 Now large crowds were travelling with him; and he turned and said to them, 26 ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28 For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30 saying, “This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.” 31 Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33 So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.
At the end of June I took the time and effort to do something selfish, just for me. I did bring my wife, but mostly so I could go. I try not to do that too often, but I wanted to be part of something I really felt like I would adore. I was right. I did.
Growing up in Newport News, and graduating High School in the late 80s, a local boy made it big. Bruce Hornsby was from Williamsburg and got onto the national music charts with a song, That’s Just The Way It Is. Loved the song, loved the whole album. Even more, it was with a bit of pride that he was from just a few miles away from my house and was making it to the big time.
Jumping ahead to 2016, I saw on Facebook that Bruce Hornsby, still in Williamsburg by the way, was going to sponsor his own music festival called Funhouse Fest and it was to be right next to Merchant’s Walk in Colonial Williamsburg. He had a great line-up with a bluegrass night, a rock and roll night, and a jazz night. Because he is so musically fluid, refusing to be put into a single genre, I knew it would be a great few days. So I got my tickets, tried to convince a bunch of friends to join in the fun. My wife and I knew it would be three days of this would be too much for the kids to handle, so we got tickets for the whole thing just for us, and got single day passes for them to see the Rock and Roll night. That was the Saturday and had the most acts in the line-up. In fact, Bruce Hornsby was closing with two full albums in order as they were sold. And the close of the night was going to be the album that made him famous.
Now I had done my job as a father, training up my daughters in the way they should go. And part of that was introducing them to the classics, my classics anyway, including That’s Just The Way It Is. After sitting and listening to hours of music, my youngest daughter was leaning against me on our blanket when that song came on. She knows it and really likes it. Now Bruce had toured with the Grateful Dead and knows how to put on a show. And jam he did, taking a three-minute pop song and stretching it into a 15-minute concert jam. It was amazing.
As the applause were dying down, my youngest daughter looked up at me, and said, “THAT WAS WORTH EVERY PENNY AND EVERY SECOND!”
You see, I had told her she was going to love it, and after all the hours and all the music, what I had promised came true. You see, my daughter had faith that what I had told her to expect would be. And when it happened, it meant more to me than the concert itself. I loved that she loved it. She was right. It was worth every penny to me. It was easy for her to say, though, she did not have to pay the price. But you see, I did, and her sheer joy meant the world to me.
So what does that have to do with Jesus? The text today is admittedly one of the harder ones to preach on in the Lectionary. Do you think it is accidental that this one coincided with the end of the summer when attendance might be light, and the preacher might get away with skirting the issues? [smile]
All that being said, I think that the hard part for us is not the intent but the rhetoric Jesus uses. He is making a statement using hyperbole. We do it especially well here in the South. We exaggerate to make a point. In isolation it sounds impossible. Who hates their mother? Even those that say they hate their mother deep down, at some level, love their mother? How could Jesus say this?
All of these stories in the Gospel reading are about counting the costs. It is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called Cheap Grace vs. Costly Grace. Jesus is calling us to Costly Grace. If you follow Jesus, that needs to be #1 in your life. If you build a tower, you make sure you can finish. If you wage a battle, you make sure you can win. Jesus talks about hating to make the point that this can have no equals. The cost is everything, but the gain is more. It is worth every penny, and every second, as my daughter would say. It is not that we love those in our lives any less, but that we “seek first the Kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.” Sound familiar?
It is like when I first had a baby. I did not know that I could love anyone or anything so much. It was beyond my comprehension because I had nothing to compare it to. But then I had another child. Did my love for my oldest lessen? No way. I just learned that I had the capacity to love even more.
Now let’s add Jesus to the mix, and what do we get? The more and more I drive into the Kingdom of God, the more I see that I am a better husband, and father, and person. I “hate” them in comparison to the Kingdom, but remember this is from the same guy who says we must love our enemies. If we are supposed to love our enemies, how could we possibly see that we are supposed to hate anyone, especially those that are closest to us. We just need to see things in context. Compared with God, who resides in first place, anyone or anything is secondary.
This is where the book of Philemon (yes, the entire book of all 21 verses) is used in our Lectionary readings for the day. This is where the rubber hits the road. In this very short letter, Paul brings up the issue of Philemon’s runaway slave, Onesimus. Paul reminds Philemon the role that Paul has played in his life, bringing the Gospel of Jesus into his life and the wealth of joy and meaning that this brings. In light of this recognition, he asks that Philemon not only not be punitive to Onesimus, but even more. Paul says that he should welcome Onesimus back not as a slave, but as a brother, a free and welcome brother in Christ. Paul even says that Philemon feels he is owed anything that Paul himself will pay it. Not Onesimus, but Paul himself.
Philemon is asked to do what Jesus himself demands of his followers, and Paul asks of his convert Philemon. Count up the cost. A slave had no rights. He was chattel, property, and anything that happened to a slave was at the will or whim of the owner. Runaways could be branded or tattooed on their foreheads with the letters “FUG,” short for fugitivas, runaway. Joints or bones could have been broken so that running away was impossible in the short term or drastically hindered in the long. But Philemon is asked to put his money and business behind his relationship to Christ. And Paul does the same, letting Philemon know that he will pay any expense that is owed. Money is nothing compared to their relationship to Christ, and their mutual relationship in Christ. And Onesimus is now added to the mix, and Philemon is asked to treat him the same way he would treat Paul.
Paul is asking a lot of him. Jesus is asking a lot of every one of us. Everything. That is the cost. Every single bit.
But the promise that we have to take on faith, is that it is worth every penny and every second. And we will only know when we come to the end. Like Moses at the burning bush, he was promised that all would take place and he would know it was true when he came back to worship God on the holy mountain. Like Moses, we are asked to go a long way before we see if the promises will come true.
So think about it. What is keeping you from committing wholly to Christ? Whatever it is, the promise is greater than any temporary gain. All are welcome. All are called. But even Jesus said few would make it on the narrow path.
This morning I had to get up a bit earlier than normal to make it here on time from Richmond. Now, deciding to do the service from my living room was not an option. Getting up later, was not an option. Having half the gas in my car to make it was not an option. Driving only to Fredericksburg was not an option. I had to fully commit to make it where I wanted to go. It was an all or nothing proposition. I had to fully commit. The same it is in our walk with Christ. How many times do we not make sure we have taken care of our spiritual needs to do what we have to do this day? How many times do we think that we can get around to it later? How many times do we plan to take it in steps, when Jesus calls us to “Come, follow me.” He does not mean later, or when we get around to it. He means here. He means now. But do not worry, Jesus promises, it is worth every penny and every second. Thanks be to God.
Lord, we believe. Help our disbelief. May we be true to your invitation, and may we entrust all the blessings of this life into your caring hands, so that we may relish in the richness and fullness of our lives in your Grace. Amen.