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.

Monday, July 2, 2018

To Heal Versus to Cure

PROPERS:         PROPER 8, YEAR B    
TEXT:                 MARK 5:21-43

ONE SENTENCE:        There is a distinction between curing and healing; one is medical and one is spiritual.

            A long-time and very dear friend is in the latter stages of what appears to be a terminal illness.  I am heartsick with the course the disease has taken.

            During the past year we have journeyed with him and his wife, albeit from a distance, as medical science has sought to cure him.  Most of those attempted cures have been poisons injected into his body, or dangerous levels of radiation being beamed to the affected area.

            Sadly, none of those attempts at a curehave had long-term effect.  He continues down a steady slope.

            I pray for him and his wife every day.

            His illness has brought to the forefront of my mind that age-old question: If Jesus said we would heal the sick, why can’t we? 

            Other questions:

            What is the meaning of the sacramental rite of unction – the laying on of hands, anointing with oil, and prayers for the sick – if they do not effect a cure?

            How do we talk so facilely about healing when it is patently obvious – with the exception of some charlatans – that we are unable to effect cures?

            And, then, today we have the gospel lesson from the fifth chapter of Mark.  Jesus does a two-fer:  a woman with long-term hemorrhaging is cured of her bleeding by merely touching his cloak, and the daughter of a leader of the synagogue is cured with two of the very few Aramaic words preserved in scripture: Talitha cum – Little girl, get up.

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            Pretty impressive.  Then, in the back of my mind, I hear Jesus’ words from the 14thChapter of John’s Gospel: 12 Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”

            What’s the deal here? My friend is a very faithful Christian. I do my best.  How do Jesus’ words and actions apply to us?

            Through the mental rear-view mirror, I look back.  The deaths I have seen over the years – the deaths of those for whom I have prayed – number in the dozens, maybe even scores.  I would be challenged to come up with even one “miraculous cure.”

            I have stood at the graveside many, many times, and intoned the words of the Book of Common Prayer: “All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.”  For my father.  For my mother. For my mother-in-law.  For my father-in-law.  For cousins.  For aunts and uncles.  And for dear, dear friends.

            For eight years, I served a parish in Mississippi.  Each Thursday, we had an 11:00 a.m. Eucharist and healing service.  It is the service I missed more than any other during my 16 years on diocesan staff.  

            We had a small but devoted group of congregants that attended the service – it ranged from about 12 to 18.  I loved those people.  I prayed with them every week.  I laid hands on them and anointed them with Holy Oil.

            Sadly, several of them have died, having lived long and rich lives.  But the question remains:  Where was the efficaciousness of the prayers?  How did that service make a difference?

            I thought.  I reflected.  I pondered.  I prayed.

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            Intuitively I knew this. But some lessons we have to learn again and again.  As I prepared for this sermon, I looked on-line for the difference between healing and curing.  One site noted this difference, which went straight to the point: Curing means "eliminating all evidence of disease," while healing means "becoming whole."

            The writer of that article said more:  One may be cured without being healed; and one may be healed without being cured.

            Jesus did both in many circumstances – and that was because his perfect love brought about not only a medical cure but would bring the people he touched to wholeness. Wholeness of mind, body, and spirit.

            I have a saying I have used over the years:  Doctors don’t write sermons, and I don’t practice medicine.  I know I am not Jesus, and the best I can hope to do is promote wholeness in those I counsel, pray with, touch, and share the sacraments with.

            A person who has found wholeness is, in the words of theologian Paul Tillich, a new being.  As Paul says in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.”  The old anger, resentment, bitterness, compulsions have given way to a striving for union with the ground of our being, the Holy One, the Creator God.

            Loving people toward wholeness – that is something we can all do.

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            Where does that leave my friend, moving inexorably – as are we all – toward death? 

            My friend who has the deadly disease began a journey toward healing more than 30 years ago. He had descended into a life of addiction, and he reached bottom.  He realized that he was broken and he was hopelessly dependent on alcohol.

            With the aid of treatment, a loving wife, dedicated friends, and others he did not know previously, he began to be healed.  He let go of control.  He released his compulsions. He trusted a power greater than himself.

And that healing has continued to this day – more than 30 years later.  He will tell you that he is not cured, but he is healed.

            And in those past 30 years he has helped countless others find healing and new life.  He has seen scores of addicts drag themselves out of the gutter and begin a journey toward wholeness.

            Through his presence and, yes, his ministry, people have been healed.  Those people, like my friend, know that they have to live with the disease, but they know they have been healed.

            And that is very, very close to what Jesus does in the gospel today.  God bless my friend.  He’s closer to Jesus than I am.

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            My friend’s life is not perfect (none of ours is), but in the midst of his brokenness, he found healing for his wounds.  He found wholeness which had evaded him for many years.

            In a short time, I suspect he will know the true fulness of life, which you and I can only glimpse through a glass darkly.

            And it was all the grace of God – the true author of healing and wholeness, who entrusts us with that same ministry.

God as a Surprise

PROPERS:         PROPER 6, YEAR B    
TEXT:                 1 SAMUEL 15:34 – 16:13                

ONE SENTENCE:        God’s movement in the world typically comes in surprising ways.        

            The 20thCentury poet, Ogden Nash, once penned a short rhyme:

                        How odd of God
                        To choose the Jews.

            His pithy little verse spoke volumes about the recurring theme in salvation history: God does the unexpected.

            Consider what our sacred scriptures have told us about the nature of God and how he has moved through history.

            We believe, as heirs of the Judeo-Christian tradition, in a God who reached down and made a covenant with a wandering shepherd, Abraham, and expanded that covenant to include his offspring, ultimately the 12 tribes of Israel.

            He selected a wandering, seemingly-insignificant Semitic people – without land or respect – to be his chosen people.

            As Paul Harvey used to say: “And now you know the rest of the story.”

            But we forget that truth from time-to-time.

            We confine God to a box, and we expected the expected.

            We fail to see God as an active, dynamic presence in the world who has shown us repeatedly – down through salvation history -- that he will do the unexpected.  He will not be constrained. The hand of the divine will not be shortened.

            Think of examples down through the millennia:

·     God, we are told, chose an iconoclastic, stuttering fugitive from Egyptian royalty to lead an enslaved people out of Egypt into a promised land full of milk and honey.

·     God chose a foreigner – a Moabite – named Ruth – to be the forbearer of Israel’s greatest king, and an ancestor of the one we call Christ. 

·     God repeatedly sent his prophetic messages – his unvarnished truth – through people without power or influence – people now known as the Major and Minor Prophets.

·     God selected a young, single woman in a remote country village of a few dozen people – all likely cave-dwellers – to be the bearer of the one we say is the Savior of the World.

·     The anointed one, the Christ, was nailed to a Roman cross, died, and on the third day rose from the dead.

·     His followers – a band of fishermen, tax collectors, and tradesmen – moved out to transform the known world.

·     And, as a final example, a passionate, fiery Pharisee who had persecuted the young church, became the most important missionary in Christian history.

What would be the pay-out if Las Vegas made odds on a story such as that?

So, we should not be terribly surprised – but we should be reminded – of the serendipitous nature of God in the story we have in the first lesson, from First Samuel.

To briefly recap that story:

·     The prophet Samuel, grieving over the unfaithfulness of King Saul, perceives a call to anoint the next king of Israel.

·     He travels to Bethlehem to anoint a son of Jesse – of the tribe of Benjamin.

·     He looks upon seven of Jesse’s sons, but God tells him that none of them is his chosen one.

·     Samuel asks Jesse if there are any others. Jesse tells him that the youngest of the sons is tending the flock.

·     Samuel sends for the youngest, and David comes from the fields.

·     Samuel sees that David is the chosen one and anoints him to be king.

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            It is so easy and tempting to put God in a box – to expect what we expect. It eases our fears and calms our anxieties.  The temptation is to rely on our expectations. We are much more comfortable with a God that can be predicted; whose actions and movements will not surprise us.

            I was in Italy this past week and had the wonderful experiences of seeing the sights of Milan, Padua, Venice, Pisa, Florence, Assisi, and finally, Rome. The great art and monuments speak of the deep appreciation for God during the past 2,000 years, especially in the first 15 Christian centuries.

            And then I remembered.  Something unanticipated transpired during that 16thChristian century. I remembered how an unknown friar in a small German monastery five-hundred years ago had turned this great and formal culture on its ear.  Martin Luther, a small cog in a very large wheel, began the Reformation. He shook the very foundations of the church.

            The Church was changed.  And we are heirs of that change.

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            As I said earlier, we are much more comfortable with God as something that is predictable, even controllable. It is our hope that if we get enough people on our side, that God can be manipulated. The outcome will be what we hope. An impossible situation will be resolved to our benefit.  

            A term which describes that approach is deus ex machina– God in the machine.

            A more accurate and faithful approach, I think, is to see God working in all things.  While, as Paul notes, we will “see through a glass darkly”, we can rest assured that all thingsare ultimately in God’s hands.  There is no place we can go, no place where life may take us, that is beyond the ultimate redeeming power of God.  As St. Paul says, “Neither height nor depth…”

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            There is an earlier story about Samuel, from when he was just a young lad.

            His then-barren mother had prayed desperately for a child.  She was given Samuel.  As an act of gratitude, she gave him over to service in God’s house. There, he assisted an elderly man Eli.

            One night, while Samuel, slept, he heard a voice call to him: “Samuel, Samuel.” Thinking it was Eli calling him, he ran to Eli’s side.  Eli said, “I did not call you, son.”

            This happened several times, and the wise and elderly Eli saw what was happening. He told Samuel that it was likely the Lord calling to him.  He advised Samuel to respond, “Speak, Lord, for your servant listens.”

            When the voice called to him again, Samuel spoke those words: “Speak, Lord, for your servant listens.”

            And the Lord spoke.  He spoke words of condemnation on the sons of Eli – Samuel’s mentor.  The words were harsh.

            The next morning, Eli asked Samuel what he had heard, and encouraged not to hold one word back.  Samuel told him what the Lord had said.

            Eli’s response was one of great faith – devastating thought the words were. “It is the Lord. Let it be as he wishes.”

            He accepted that this was the providence of God.  It was not what he had hoped for, nor was it what he expected. He knew that ultimately God would be who God would be, and that all things are in God’s hands.

            As the camp song says:

            Surprise, surprise, God is a surprise,
            Right before your eyes,
            It’s baffling to the wise.
            Surprise, surprise, God is a surprise,
            Open up your eyes and see.