Sunday, September 16, 2018

Discerning the Way of the Cross

PROPERS:         PROPER 19, YEAR B   
TEXT:                 MARK 8:27-38

ONE SENTENCE:        To take up the cross in Jesus’ name requires an                                                  examination of conscience.

            Jesus is talking with his chosen band of friends – his small group of disciples – in the gospel lesson today.  It is in such quiet, sacred conversations that deep truths are shared.

            Some years ago, I was a deputy to the General Convention of the Episcopal Church.  The convention is like congress – divided between an upper chamber, the House of Bishops, and a lower chamber, the House of Deputies.

            The House of Deputies, of which I was a part, was approaching a momentous vote. The choice was not simple or easy. There was great tension for those wrestling with their consciences.

            I was feeling somewhat righteous and flippant.  I had told myself, “There is no wrong time to do the right thing.” Damn the torpedoes!  Full speed ahead!

            My Bishop was a man of integrity and insight, and a dear friend – Duncan Gray III. I trusted him explicitly.  I shared with him my leanings on the vote, and added these words: “At least that is what my conscience is telling me to do.”

            He looked me in the eye, and speaking words which showed the depth of his wisdom, said, “Remember, your conscience can be fallen, too.”

            Your conscience can be fallen, too.  All elements of human nature have the potential to be subject to the fallenness of creation – touched by human pride, mistake, or sin.

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            Jesus tells Peter and the others – and he tells us – to take up your cross and follow him.But it is not easy. It should not be approached flippantly. It will seldom be our default response. It may demand a price – a heavy one.

            I am reminded of that scene from the movie Mashwhen Major Frank Burns and Major Margaret O’Houlihan are drawn toward each other in lusty temptation and give in with the words, “God’s will be done!”

            That oversimplifies but characterizes the temptation to view our wayas God’s way. Following the way of the crossis not automatic. It requires sacrifice and is frequently very difficult.

            I have recently read a book, D-Day,by the late historian Stephen Ambrose. The moment-by-moment, pounding-heart tension of the Allied troops landing on Omaha Beach is palpable.  Many of those young men knew that they would never see another sunrise, but they gave their last full measure of devotion.  That was their way of the cross.

            Likewise, is the young seminarian who entered into sainthood on August 20, 1965, Jonathan Myrick Daniels.  He stepped into the way of a truck driver-sheriff’s deputy’s shotgun blast to save the life of a young girl in Hayneville, Alabama. 

            Those are dramatic examples.  However, seldom are our choices so dramatic or clear-cut.  So, it is necessary for us to examine our consciences, deeply, to see if we are serving selfor serving the God of our worship.

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            I was a young college sophomore at Ole Miss when I first encountered Professor Goberdahn Baghat.  I was politically active and thought I had the world figured out.  The options we considered in his course, International Relations,were simple and straightforward – at least in my mind.

            On our first essay test, he disabused me of those notions.  My grade reflected my superficiality of reasoning. The world is much more complex, he seemed to be telling me. You need to give it more thought.

            Dr. Baghat started me on a pathway that would continue for years to come. That pathway could be named critical reasoning.  It is the thoughtful, measured evaluation of situations, and the resulting course of action, which is usually more complex than merely saying, God’s will be done.

            An aside:  Have you ever noticed how often your easy perception of God’s will happens to coincide with your wishes?

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            Take up your cross and follow me. A commentator on this passage wrote: “Jesus is not talking about the suffering that is simply part of life in a broken world -- everything from annoying neighbors to serious illness to natural disasters. Neither is he telling us to seek out suffering or martyrdom. Jesus himself did not seek it, but he foresaw that it would be the inevitable outcome of his mission.”

            This all means that we are to do two things, in taking up our cross and following Jesus:

·     First, we are to discernwhat we are called to do – recognizing that our human tendency is going to be different from the way of the crosswhich we are called to follow.  That means looking past the superficial, tempting, easy answers which are so alluring. Discern.

·     Second, we are to act with commitment– taking Robert Frost’s Road Less Traveled. Seldom will that mean that we will storm Omaha Beach, step in the way of a shotgun blast, or literally carry a cross along the Via Dolorosa.  But it may well mean that we pay a price.

What we receive – and what we are called to live – is notcheap grace.  Jesus paid a high priceand he calls on us to follow the same path.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Eternal Life -- More to Consider

PROPERS:         PROPER 14, YEAR B   
TEXT:                 JOHN 6:35, 41-51

ONE SENTENCE:        Eternal life is about more than life-after-death; it                                                involves a quality of life in the here-and-now.     

            Teddy Roosevelt was the 26thPresident of the United States – and the youngest ever to serve as the nation’s chief executive.

            He had been a sickly-child, suffering from asthma and debilitating fears. He grew to become “a force of nature” – strong, vital, energetic and courageous.

            His eldest child, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, once said of him:  “He wants to be the bride at every wedding, the corpse at every funeral, and the baby at every christening.”

            Roosevelt had overcome his fears by confronting them.  When he had been bullied as a child, he took boxing lessons. If there was something which provoked his fear, he found that acting like he was not afraidultimately overcome the fright.

            To put it succinctly:  Teddy Roosevelt was a man of action.  He believed that action – behavior – authenticated belief.

            Roosevelt articulated that viewpoint early in his career, when he was police commissioner in New York City.  He said, “I have always had a horror of words that are not translated into deeds, of speech that does not result in action.  I believe in realizable ideals and in realizing them, in preaching what can be practiced and then practicing it.”

            In other words, our lives should manifest our beliefs – otherwise, words are empty.  Walk the walk; don’t just talk the talk.

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            A recurring theme in our gospel lessons the last few weeks has been the bread of lifeand its gift of eternal life. Jesus’ own words about the bread of lifeand eternal life are there in our gospel lesson today:

“Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven.” 

            I think, on some level, we know the meaning of Jesus being the bread of life. We certainly do not comprehend it in all its mystical dimensions.  But we know that our lives are changed by his presence in our lives and hearts.

            But, really, do we?

            So often, the gift we are given by taking the bread of lifeeternal life, is not fully appreciated.

            It seems that much of the civil religious culture of our society has reduced eternal lifeto a single concept: life after death.And that isa profound part and a deep hope each of us has.

            It is, indeed, that – but so much more.

            In our baptisms, we become fully children of God.  That gift of adoption comes with meaning that has eternal ramifications.  But we need to realize this dimension to that adoption: We have entered into eternal life at that moment.

            Our baptism – and our renewal of our baptismal vows – comes with vows that should have meaningful impact on our lives.  The change in status we acknowledge in our baptism means that life should never be the same.

            Yes, there are eternal aspects to our baptism and entry into eternal life. We lose so much of the power of eternal life if we see it as only beyond the grave.  It should mean something to us now.  We have already entered into eternal life.

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            Let me share Teddy Roosevelt’s words once more:

“I have always had a horror of words that are not translated into deeds, of speech that does not result in action.  I believe in realizable ideals and in realizing them, in preaching what can be practiced and then practicing it.”

            The Bread of Lifeshould nourish you – so that you can nourish others.  You should embrace eternal life– so that you may share that life with others.  Your life should be touched by the hand of the Holy One – so that you may touch others. Your life should be transformed – that you may transform the lives of others.

            When we do that – when we walk the walk and not just talk the talk – eternal life actually expands.  And life beyond the grave – so much a part of the Christian hope – becomes lagniappe; that is, something extra.

Monday, July 30, 2018

A Sufficient Gift

PROPERS:         PROPER 12, YEAR B   
TEXT:                 JOHN 6:1-21

ONE SENTENCE:        Gifts which we return to God have a miraculous way of being sufficient.       

            Imagine the scene. See it in your mind’s eye.

            Five-thousand people are gathered on a grassy hillside – a hillside which descends from the highlands into the deep blue waters of the Sea of Galilee.

            The mass of people had gathered in this spot because they had heard that this remarkable teacher from Nazareth would be there.  Being largely a spiritual but not religiousgroup, they wanted to hear what he had to say.

            They were a mixed group – tradesmen, fisherfolk, people seeking to eke-out a meager existence.  The Hebrew name for this great, unwashed mass of common folk was am ha’ aretz – people of the land.

            Their formal education was either negligible or non-existent.  They lived from day-to-day, from hand-to-mouth.  The teachings they would hear would be grounded in their everyday world – of seeds dying and taking root; of the life of grief, hunger, homelessness, and illness; of the oppressiveness of the Law and its minute requirements; of their belovedness in the eyes of their Creator.

            Yes, they would hear all this – either that day or in some subsequent teaching by this young rabbi.

            But, first, they were hungry.  Before he could feed their souls, this teacher would need to fill their empty bellies. And therein lay the problem.

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            The Feeding of the Multitude is a miracle that is found in each of the four gospels.  The versions in Matthew, Mark, and Luke are remarkably similar.  The account in John’s gospel is somewhat different, but that should be expected.  John’s source of the tradition is different from the other three, and also later in being written.

            There is a variety of explanations for the miraculous feeding of the multitude – from a mere five barley loaves and two fish.  It is interesting to note that all the accounts have the same basic result – the multitude is fed and12-baskets-full are remaining.

            There is, of course, the interpretation that Jesus – simply and miraculously – multipliedthe loaves and fishes. That is the interpretation that is most frequently accepted.

            Another interpretation is that the crowd, seeing the five loaves and two fish offered as food, reached into their knapsacks and withdrew their own food – and offered it, too.  The point is that generosity begat generosity.

            The scripture really doesn’t disclose what happened.  And it really doesn’t matter.  The reality is that the people were fed by Jesus.

            We have John’s version before us today.  It is very similar to the accounts in the three synoptic gospels.  Except one thing.

            In John’s gospel account – the one we hear today – there is a boy.  And that boy has five barley loaves and two fish – an insignificant amount for such a large crowd.  But that boy gives all of it – all the food that he has – to Jesus.

            Jesus says simply: “Make the people sit down.” Scripture tells us: “Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted.”

            After the five thousand had eaten their fill, the remains were collected – 12 baskets full.  All this from a meager offering of five loaves and two fish.

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            A book of theology was written entitled,“In Memory of Her,”as a memorial to a woman in the Bible who had shown profound faith in Jesus.  I think that a book could also be written entitled, “In Memory of Him,”as a testament to the young boy who gave his five loaves and two fish.

            He is memorialized in scripture.  Look at what he did… and what was the end result.  He gave allthe food he had… likely five rounds of pita bread and two small smoked fish… and five thousand people were fed.

            How it happened does not matter.  The end result was the same.  God’s work was done.

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            There is a message for you and me:  Whatever we give… when we give out of faith and selflessness… will be sufficient.

            God will take our gifts… and here is an important point: which we offer backto him… and use them for his work. Those offerings are to be given back to God with hearts of gratitude and without strings attached.  We give our gifts and we let go of control.

            We are unlikely to memorialized like the young boy, and remembered down through the ages.  But our gifts from hearts of generosity and faith will bless and multiply them in ways we cannot imagine and may not see.

            Whatever we offer… whether in the offering plate or in the food to needy families… God’s purposes are served.  The gifts we offer, from the small to the great, will be sufficient for the purposes of God.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

That Old Time Religion

PROPERS:         PROPER 11, YEAR B   
TEXT:                 EPHESIANS 2:11-22

ONE SENTENCE:        We inherit a faith perspective; we determine whether it matures in light of experience and learning.         

            Years ago – and by that, I mean decades – my family would gather around my great-grandfather’s piano in his living room. We would form a semi-circle around the dark-wood upright piano.

            My aunt would play the piano as we all joined in singing one of my great-grandfather’s favorite hymns: Gimme that Old Time Religion.

            It was not even the version that is in some traditional hymnals today.  The version was from 1907, and it included some verses that are not used today.  It included verses such as, “It was good for the Hebrew children,” AND,“It was good for the prophet Daniel,” AND,“It was tried in the fiery furnace.”

            Those lyrics assume that the faith of the Judeo-Christian tradition did not change in more than 3,000 years – from the time of the prophets until today. 

            But it had.  And one of the most remarkable changes was being highlighted by the Apostle Paul in the second lesson today.

            Paul is addressing the young church in Ephesus in the letter today.  He reminds them that they were once outside the covenant community.  They were not Jews.  They were known as “the uncircumcision” – Gentiles, part of the great unwashed pagan masses that populated the known world outside of the tiny land known as Israel.

            As Gentiles, they did not follow the Law – which was assumed to be the pathway to righteousness.  It was the central tenet of the Hebrew faith, and had been for many centuries. Righteousness was understood by adherence to the Law.

            That was the old-time religionat that point. Then the theological foundations were shaken.

            From Paul’s perspective, that old-timereligion was transformed in the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus.  Becoming a new creationin Christ was all that mattered – for all people.  In Paul’s words from the Second Letter to the Corinthians: “The old has passed away. Behold, the new has come!”

            That was the central tenet in Paul’s theology – relationship to God through Jesus. Righteousness not by the Law, but by faith in the Risen Lord. And that understanding for Paul was enormously costly.

            Paul was born and Jew and reared a Jew.  He had loved and embraced the Law.  He was a Pharisee – a devout student of the Law and of Jewish traditions. He spent great energy and efforts in persecuting the young church – a group which represented apostasy to him. We are told in Acts that Paul held the coats of those who stoned Stephen, the first deacon.

            But Paul’s world changed.  A blinding light knocked him from his horse as he traveled to Damascus to persecute the church there.  That moment was captured by the 17thcentury Italian master Caravaggio in his depiction of that scene.

            Paul was struck blind, of course, and he experienced the voice and presence of Jesus.  And his old-time religionstarted to give way.  He spent several years in study, prayer, and conversation as he became aware of the transformative nature of Jesus Christ’s life, death and resurrection.

            This one-time Pharisee and advocate of the old-time religionbecame the greatest of all Christian missionaries.  

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            Paul’s spiritual journey has something to say to us – each of whom would be considered, in first-century terms, as Gentiles, “the uncircumcision.”

            The journey – the spiritual pilgrimage – can be captured in two words: embeddedand deliberative.  Embeddedand Deliberative.

            Paul was born into a certain tradition.  He was educated in those ways.  His upbringing reinforced that understanding of faith.  The culture and people around him upheld that belief system. 

All those elements combined to give him an embeddedtheology.  A rock that he could hold onto.  Solid ground.  An old-time religionhanded down to him by culture, family and religious institutions.  And it served him well.

Until… until… that trip to Damascus.

In that brilliantly lit moment, Paul’s theological foundations were shaken.  His life-long grounding trembled.  Things could never be the same.  Old assumptions were cast aside. He could not ignore what he had seen and heard.

He began to build a deliberative theology.

Because of his faith, he saw things differently. Over the course of years after being knocked off his horse, a time replete with study, prayer, worship, and conversation, Paul claimed as his owna new way of seeing the world, and a new way of seeing God’s work in the world.

Paul moved from an embedded theology, one he had been given, to a deliberative theology, one which was given to him, too, but by revelation, study, and prayer.  Even to the point of death in Rome, he never flinched from his new religion.

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            There is no simple or easy way to move toward a deeper faith.  It must come from the grace of God.

            I saw that movement in my father, as his life unfolded. His faith was different as an 80-year-old than it was in his younger years. 

I have seen it in my own life.  While I have not been knocked off a horse by a blinding light, I can name instances in which I have been pushed in a specific direction by encounters with the Holy One.

            We all hold tightly to elements of our embedded theology– it is part of who we are. But Paul gives us an example of how our understanding of God, the world, and our relationship to our fellow hu

Monday, July 9, 2018

To Be Given

PROPERS:         PROPER 9, YEAR B    
TEXT:                 MARK 6:1-13

ONE SENTENCE:        Henri Nouwen’s description of the Christian life as being analogous to the four-fold Eucharistic action encourages us to share our blessings with the world around us.
The following sermon was preached extemporaneously
and this text is an approximate recreation of that sermon.

            I had originally planned an entirely different sermon for today, but I encountered something very rare and remarkable: a constructive item on social media.

            As I reflected on that posting – shared on Facebook by Ronnie Miller – and prayed about the essence and truth of that posting, I decided that the message of that post would be the thrust of my sermon today.

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            The post shared by Ronnie was written by a young woman, who was one of his Facebook friends.  It was based on a true experience of this young woman.

            It seems that this young mother was in a store with two sons – one older and one younger.  The store was something like Dollar General Store.

            The older boy had a package of glow-sticks in his hand.  The younger child wanted one of those glow-sticks and was fussing loudly in protest.

            The older boy gave the younger one one of the glow-sticks – and that placated the young one for a few moments.

            However, the older boy took the glow-stick back from his little brother – which elicited more crying from the young one, now empty-handed.

            The older brother took the retrieved glow-stick in his hand and bent it.  If you know glow-sticks, it is the bending or breaking which activates the lighting the stick provides.

            The older brother gave the now-lighted glow-stick to his little brother and said: “I had to break it so that the light would shine.”

            There is great truth a Christian wisdom in that story.

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            I was reminded of a book I had read many years ago.  It was written by a Dutch, Roman Catholic priest, Henri Nouwen, and published in 1992.  He died in 1996 at age 64.  But he wrote prolifically.  My favorite book of his is entitled, “The Wounded Healer.”

            But this Facebook story reminded me of another book, “Life of the Beloved.”  It is a compilation of Nouwen’s letters to a young friend, who was either an agnostic or atheist.  The letters were Nouwen’s efforts to explain to this young man the value and meaning of the Christian life.

            Nouwen was a deeply reflective priest, and he had expertise in psychology, pastoral theology, and spirituality.  His letters focused on what is called the four-fold Eucharistic action. If you follow what we will be doing around the altar in a few minutes, you will see those four actions.

            The four Eucharistic actions which Nouwen described as being present in the Christian life is what we do with the bread at the Holy Communion.  The bread is taken, blessed, brokenand given. Taken, blessed, broken, and given.

            Nouwen said that those are analogous to the Christian life.  We, too, are taken, blessed, broken, and given.

            First, each of us is takenby God – as his own.  This is primarily done through baptism as we are adopted by God as his children.  We are allchildren of God, and he takes us as his own. Like the bread, we are taken in his hand and are held there.

            Then we are blessed.  Each of us has been blessed in remarkable ways.  I don’t know what your life has been like, and I do not know how you see your life.

            I used to be very active in politics.  I was acquainted with a national political leader who had been hurt very badly as a young man.  That experience could have either made him open and compassionate or bitter and resentful. His choice was bitterness and resentment. He could not see his blessings – which were many.

            Perhaps your life is led you to be bitter and resentful.  But let me say this:  We have allbeen blessed in amazing ways. If you are here today, you have been blessed – to be in this church, in this community, in this state, in this nation, in this world.

            Next, we are brokenby life.  Let me be clear:  I am not saying that God breaks us. Life experience, as part of human existence, breaks us.  That brokenness may come in the form of a relationship gone awry, a death, an illness, a divorce, a lost job, or maybe chemical dependency.

            Whatever manifestation the brokenness comes in, we are allbroken in some significant way.  It is the price of human existence.

            The challenge for us is how that brokenness affects us.  Do we dwell, wallow, in that brokenness, or are we open to the resurrection which God offers us?

            A long-time element of my own personal theology is something I call existential redemption.  It means that no matter what life deals us, God is seeking to bring new meaning, new purpose, new hope, new direction to our lives. 

            The great 20thCentury theologian, Paul Tillich, called it the new being.  It does not negate the pain of the loss, death, or experience, but it does give us hope for the future.

            Finally, after we have been taken, blessed, and broken, we are given.  We become the bread of life for the world around us.  We become what the Roman Catholics call their final communion before death, viaticum – provisions for the journey.

            Keep in mind that Jesus is the ultimate model of these actions.  He was takenas God’s own, he was blessedin his ministry (while also blessing many others), and he was brokencompletely on the cross on that first Good Friday.  

But two days later, he was resurrected and given anew to the world of his creation.

            We are now given to that world.  Just as Jesus sent his disciples out two-by-two in the gospel lesson today, he sends us out to be food for the hungry, companions for the lonely, comfort for the grieving, and hope for those in the grips of despair.  We, who have been taken, blessed, and broken, are givento the world around us.

            Just as we take, bless, breakand give the break at this altar, our lives reflect the actions of the Eucharist.  We are meant to feed a hungry world – in many different ways.

            Our call is to give ourselves, out of the experience of being taken, blessed, broken, and given,to God’s children.  And that means allpeople.  We are allGod’s children.