Sunday, August 31, 2014

12 Pentecost


August 31, 2014

Matthew 16.21-28

+ Invariably, if you happen to come to a Wednesday night Eucharist here at St. Stephen’s, you’ll find that we will have the red paraments up. There will be a red frontal on the altar, red hangings on the ambo and kneelers, and I’ll be wearing the red chasuble.  On those occasions, take note:

That red symbolizes something not so pleasant.  It symbolizes blood. More specifically blood that was shed for Jesus.

In other words, the saint we are commemorating that night probably died a violent death as a follower of Jesus. A martyr.  

Martyrs are truly a unique lot among us Christians now days. In the early Church they were viewed as heroes, similar in many ways to sports stars or movie stars in our own day.  The word martyr actually means “witness” and they really were true witnesses to Christ, witnessing to Christ by their very deaths, by the actual blood they shed for Christ.

Martyrs also challenge the rest of us Christians, as well.  They challenge us, by their deaths, to ask ourselves that very important question: would we, under similar circumstances, be willing to give up our lives for our Christian faith?  Would we be willing to die for Christ?  If, for some reason, we were forced to either give up our faith in Christ and live or profess our faith in the face of danger and certain death, would we?  Or, just as importantly, would we be able to stand up to the forces in the world that are in such direct opposition to our Christian faith, even if standing up in such a way would mean death?  Would we be able to take to heart the words of today’s Gospel, when Jesus says, “those who lose their life for my sake will gain it.”

It might be easier to answer if we are talking only about our own deaths.  But would we be so ready if the deaths involved our children or other loved ones?

I think it’s occasionally a good thing to ask ourselves these questions, because the fact is martyrs are not just fabled personages from the far past. There are martyrs even in our own day and age.  In fact just this past week, Pope Francis called the murder of American journalist, James Foley, by ISIS a martyrdom.  Among Anglicans and Episcopalians we have lost some great modern people to martyrdom, people such as Jonathan Myrick Daniels, who in August of 1965, was shot and killed in Mississippi by a white shop owner for defending a young black girl during the darkest days of Integration. Or Archbishop Junani Luwum, the Anglican Archbishop of Uganda, who was brutally murdered by dictator Idi Amin in 1977 for standing up against oppression.

And some of us no doubt see martyrs even in someone who didn’t necessarily die for sake their faith, but simply died for being who they are, such as Matthew Shepeherd, a young, gay Episcopalian. There are people dying for their faith, even right now, this morning, in places like Iraq and Syria and in Africa.  So, there are, no doubt, people dying for Christ and Christ’s message of love in our world even as we gather together this morning.  There are people today in this world who are dying for Christ or are watching their loved ones die for Christ.

And suffering for Christ doesn’t just mean dying for Christ either.  There are many people who are living with persecution and other forms of abuse for their faith.

So, it is important to remember the martyrs of our faith.  It is important to heed their witness to us. Our Church has truly found its identity and spirit with those who, throughout two thousand years of Christianity, have suffered and died for their faith.

Hopefully, though, few of us here this morning are being called to die as martyrs.  For us who are maybe not led to die for Christ, we still have our own burdens to bear.  And that burden, of course, is the Cross.

In today’s Gospel, we find Jesus saying

“If any want to become my followers, let them take up their cross and follow me.”

While we might understand losing our lives for Jesus’ sake might be easier for us to grasp, picking up our cross might seem like a vague idea for us.  In all of this, Jesus is saying to us is that, being a Christian, as wonderful as it is, isn’t a rose garden.  

Being a Christian means facing bravely the ugly things that life sometimes throws at us.  I don’t think I have to tell anyone here what those ugly things in life are.  Each of us has had to deal with our own personal forms of the world’s ugliness.  As we look around at those who are with us this morning, most of us here this morning have carried our share of crosses in this life.  Most of us have shouldered the difficult and ugly things of this life—whether it be illness, death, loss, despair, disappointment, frustration—you name it.

The fact is: these things are going to happen to us whether we are Christians or not. Though I do have to wonder if I would still have these issues if I wasn’t a priest.  It’s simply our lot as human beings that life is going to be difficult at times.  It is a simple fact of life that we are going to have feasts in this life, as well as famines.  There will be gloriously wonderful days and horribly, nightmarish days.  We, as human beings, cannot escape this fact.

 But, we, as Christians, are being told this morning by Jesus that we cannot deal with those things like everyone else does.  When the bad things of this life happen, our first reaction is often to run away from them.  Our first reaction is numb our emotions, to curl up into a defensive ball and protect ourselves and our emotions. But Jesus is telling us that, as Christians, what we must do in those moments is to embrace those things—to embrace the crosses of this life—to shoulder them and to continue on in our following of Jesus.  By facing our crosses, by bearing them, by taking them and following Jesus, we was able to realize that what wins out in the end is Jesus, not the cross.  What triumphs in the end is not any of the other ugly things this life throws at us. Rather, what triumphs is the integrity and the strength we gain from being a Christian.  What triumphs is Jesus’ promise that a life unending awaits us.  What triumphs is Jesus’ triumph over death and the ugly things of this life.

What we judge to be the way we think it should be is sometimes judged differently by God.  We don’t see this world from the same perspective God does.  And as a result, we are often disappointed.

Yes, our burdens are just another form of martyrdom—another albeit bloodless form of witnessing to Christ.  And, like a martyr, in the midst of our toil, in the midst of shouldering our burden and plodding along toward Jesus, we are able to say, “Blessed be the name of God!”

That is what it means to be a martyr.  That is what it means to deny one’s self, to take up one’s cross and to follow Jesus. That is what it means to find one’s life, even when everyone else in the world thinks you’ve lost your life.

So, let us take up whatever cross we’re bearing and carry it with strength and purpose.  Let us take it up and follow Jesus.  And, in doing so, we will gain for ourselves the glory of God that Jesus promises to those who do so.




Sunday, August 24, 2014

11 Pentecost

August 24, 2014

Matthew 16.13-20

+ A dear pastor friend of mine recently shared some distressing news with me. He announced to me that he is leaving ordained ministry. Hearing this, I have to admit, struck me to my core.  Now, I know he, like me, has had some issues with the Church. We’ve both been kind of mavericks in the Church—sometimes flying above the radar. And, like me, he has had had his wrists slapped a few times for doing so.  So, maybe I wasn’t all that surprised, when I asked him why he was leaving the ministry, he was blunt.

“I can’t work in the Church anymore,” he said. “I don’t think the Church, with all its rules and canons and its severe punishments for trying to do the work of God, is what Jesus intended the Church be. Besides,” she went on, “Christians can be horrible to serve sometimes.”

He finally summarized his decision in this way.

“I asked myself, what would Jesus do in this situation. And the answer was clear: he would leave the Church.”

I’m not certain if I believe that last comment, but probably most of us here would say we have felt the somewhat same way about the Church at times.  There are days when we all groan when we see or hear other Christians get up and speak on behalf of the rest of us.  There are days when we are embarrassed by what some Christians say or do on behalf of Christianity.  There are days when we get frustrated when we hear clergy or other authorities pronounce decrees that, in no way, reflect our own particular views or beliefs.  And there are times when we get downright mad at the hypocrisy, the homophobia, the misogyny, the ambivalence, the silence in the face of oppression and evil and war, the downright meanness we sometimes experience from the Church.

Most of us—idealistically, naively maybe—wonder, like my pastor friend: wait a minute.  The Church isn’t supposed to be like this.  The Church is supposed to be a place of Love and Compassion.  It is supposed to be a place where everyone is welcomed and loved.  

Knowing that and comparing the ideal view of the Church with its shortcomings only make us feel more helpless, listless, angry, and disgruntled.  And sometimes we might even find ourselves admiring those people who aren’t Christian, who aren’t a part of the Church or those Christians who have simply fled the Church.

I don’t admire my friend for leaving ordained ministry. I love ordained ministry. But there are days… Let me tell you: there are definitely days.  And if I am envious of anything he is doing, I am envious of the fact that he doesn’t have to deal with all those church politics and rules anymore. There have been times when we’ve all wanted to just run away from Church and everything we find in it, especially when church politics get heated.  

And that’s all right. I personally think that’s a somewhat healthy way of looking at the Church.  Because we have to remind ourselves of one thing: What my friend is turning away from and what we are often tempted to run away from is not God.  What we are running away from is a human-run, human-led organization.  We are running away from a celestially planned treasure that has been run (and very often mis-run) throughout two thousand years of history by fallible human beings.

In today’s Gospel, we find this wonderful interchange between Jesus and Peter.  Peter, when asked who he thinks Jesus is, replies, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!”

That’s a good answer.

But, Jesus responds to this confession of faith with surprise.  He responds by saying, “I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

Of course, as you might know, Jesus is playing a little word game here with the words
“Peter” and “rock.”  In Jesus’ own language of Aramaic he would have said, “You are Kepha (Peter is also called Cephas at times in the Gospels) and on this kepha (or rock) I will build my church.”  Now, depending on who you are, depending on your own personal spiritual leanings, this reading could take on many meanings.

If you’re more Catholic minded—and especially if you’re more Roman Catholic minded—it certainly does seem that Jesus is establishing the Church on the Rock of Peter—and of course in that tradition Peter at this moment becomes essentially the first Pope.  I don’t hold to that view, personally.

On this one, I’m a bit more Protestant or Reformed minded. For people like me, it could be said that the Church is being established not on Peter himself, but on the rock of Peter’s confession of faith.

Either way, Jesus is commending the Church to Peter and to his other followers.  And this is important, especially when we examine who Peter is.  Jesus commends his Church to one of the most impetuous, impulsive, stubborn, cowardly human beings he could find.  Peter, as we all know, is not, on first glance, a wonderful example for us of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.  He is the one who walks on water and then loses heart, grows frightened and ends up sinking into that water.  He’s the one who, when Jesus needs him the most, runs off and denies him not just once, not twice, but three times, and even then cannot bring himself to come near Jesus as he hangs dying on the cross.

But Peter is maybe a better example of what followers of Jesus truly are than we maybe care to admit.  Yes, he is a weak, impetuous, cowardly, impulsive human.  But who among us isn’t?  Who among us isn’t finding someone very much like Peter staring back at us from our own mirrors?  And the thing we always have to remember is that, for all the bad things the Church has been blamed for—and there are a lot of them—there are also so many wonderful and beautiful things about the Church that always, always, always outweigh the bad.

Obviously most everyone here this morning must feel that same way as well to some extent.  If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be here this morning.  Most of us are able to recognize that the Church is not perfect.

And I think that, when Jesus commended his Church to people like Peter, he knew that, as long as we are here, struggling on this “side of the veil,” so to speak, it would never be perfect.  But that, even despite its imperfection, we still all struggle on. Together.

I love the Church and I love the people who are in the Church with me, even the ones who drive me crazy.  And I even love the ones with whom I do not agree.  Why? Because that’s what it means to be a follower of Jesus.  That is what it means to be the Church.

I am here in the Church because I really want to be in the Church.  I am here because the Church is my home.  It is my family.  It is made up of my friends and Jesus’ friends.  I am here because I—imperfect, impetuous human being that I am—am part of the Church because I love my fellow Christians, and I don’t just mean that I love Desmond Tutu and all those Christians who are easy to love.  I am here because I love even those many outspoken Christians who bombard us on a regular basis with their rhetoric and views that fly in the face of everything many of us hold sacred and dear, even though they drive me crazy and frustrate me and sometimes make me want to leave the Church at times.  I am here because I also love the hypocrites and the backbiters and gossipers.  

I love them because, let’s face it, sometimes we are those same people too. Sometimes we are the ones who drive people from the Church as well.  And sometimes we ourselves drive our own selves away from the Church.

But as long as we’re here, as long as we believe in the renewal that comes again and again in recognizing and confessing our shortcomings and in professing and believing in and what it means to be a baptized Christian, then we know it’s not all a loss.  As long as I know that I am struggling and working not to be the hypocrite or the backbiter or the gossiper (and often failing and starting over again), then it’s going to be all right. As long as I struggle to not be the person who drives people from the Church, but works again and again in my life to be the person who welcomes everyone—no matter who they are and where they stand on the issues—into this Church, then I’m doing all right.

Because the Church Jesus founded was a Church founded solidly on the rock of love.  The Church’s foundation is the fact that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God and the message to us as followers of this Son of the Living God, the Messiah—the bringer of freedom and peace—is that we must love God and love each other as we love ourselves. But the Church that is firmly founded on the Messiah, the Son of the Living God—when it founded deeply on that balanced love of God, of each other and of ourselves—then it truly becomes the Church Jesus founded and left to us.  If we are the Church truly built on a love like that then, without doubt, the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.

And as long as I’m here, and you’re here, we are going to make the Church a better place.  It will be a place where people like my pastor friend will be forced to reconsider his view of the Church.  He will be forced to realize the Church does not have to be this way. We need to be the Church from which no one wants to leave.

So, let us be the Church we want the Church to be—because that is the Church that Jesus founded.  Let us be the Church that Jesus commended to that imperfect human being, Peter.  In those moments when we find ourselves hating the Church, let’s not  hatred win out. Let love—that perfect, flawless love that Jesus preached and practiced—eventually win out.

We are the Church.  We are the Church to those people in our lives.  We are the Church to everyone we encounter.  We are the reflection of the Church to the people we serve along side.  So let us be the Church, and if we are, we will find ourselves in the midst of that wonderful vision Jesus imagined for his Church.  And it will truly be an incredible place. It will truly be the Kingdom of God in our midst.





Sunday, August 17, 2014

10 Pentecost

August 17, 2014

Matthew 15.10-28


+ Recently I have been reading an incredible writer by the name of Pema Chodron. Some of you might know who she is. She is an American Buddhist nun, who currently lives at Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia.  The book I’ve been reading, Living Beautifully, is one of those books I find myself having to read slowly. Every few pages there are nuggets of wisdom that makes one gasp. When I come across them, I have to set the book aside and ponder it.

One these nuggets certainly has been speaking to me lately. I have been, in my own life, dealing with a broken relationship—with a relative. In this case, this particular person sent me a mean-spirited letter recently. And, for a long time, I debated how to respond. My first reaction to send a mean-spirited letter right back. But, then, I came across this from Chodron,

“Once you speak or act, there’s a chain reaction, and other people’s emotions become involved. Every time you speak or act out of aggression or craving or jealousy or envy or pride, it’s like dropping a pebble into a pool of water and watching the ripples fan out: everyone around you is affected.”

I realize very clearly that the words spoken then really do have ripple effects. If we think, when we say something either on the offense or defense, that those words will not have consequences in the long-run, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.  

Jesus tells his followers—and us—in this morning in our Gospel reading—

“it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles; it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles. ”

These are words that hit home for me, and no doubt, for many of us. We were all raised reciting that little verse:

Sticks and stone may break my bones
But words will never hurt me.

The reality of the matter is that words DO hurt.  In fact words do more than hurt. They do more than just create a ripple effect. Words can destroy.  Words can tear down. And sometimes the words don’t even have to be directed at someone or something. Words spoken behind people’s backs, that we think won’t hurt them if they never hear them, hurt and destroy too.  Words are oftentimes much more painful and hurtful than sticks and stones.  And when it comes to our relationship with God, the words we say carry much weight.

In today’s Gospel we find Jesus making very clear statements:

“…what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart and this is what defiles. For out of the mouth comes” all kind of evil intentions.

“These are what defile a person…” he says.

Jesus is clear here about what makes one unclean.  The words that come out of our mouth are really only the end result of what’s in our hearts.  The words that come out of our mouths are really only little mirrors of what is dwelling within us.  When we say dumb things, we harboring dumb things in our hearts.  When we say hurtful, mean things, we are carrying hurt and meanness in our hearts. And what’s in our hearts truly does make all the difference.  If our hearts are dark—if our hearts are over-run with negative things—then our words are going to reflect that.

When we talk about something like “sin,” we find ourselves thinking instantly of the things we do.  We think immediately of all those uncharitable, unsavory things we’ve done in our lives.  And when we realize that sin, essentially, is anything we chose to do that separates us from God and from each other, it is always easy to instantly take stock of all the bad things we’ve done.

But the fact is, we can truly “sin” by what we say as well.  The words that come out of our mouths can separate us from God and from each other because they are really coming from our hearts—from that place in which there should really only be love for God and for each other. We have all known Christians who are quick to profess their faith with their mouths, but who certainly do not believe that faith in their hearts.  And, I think, we have also known people who have kept quiet about their faith, who have not professed much with their mouths, but who have quietly been consistent in their faith.  If we profess our faith with our mouths, but not in our hearts, we really are guilty to some extent.

Probably few things drive us away faster from church than those self-righteous people who shake their fingers at us and spout their faith at us, but who, in turn, don’t show love, compassion and acceptance to others. The name we encounter in the Gospels for those people who do not practice what they preach is “hypocrite.”  And throughout the Gospels, we find that Jesus isn’t ever condemning the ones we think he would condemn.  He doesn’t condemn the prostitute, the tax collector, any of those people who have been ostracized and condemned by society and the religious organizations of their times.  The ones Jesus, over and over again, condemns, are the hypocrites—those supposedly religious people who are quick to speak their faith with words, who are quick to strut around and act religiously, but who do not hold any real faith in their hearts.

The Pharisees that Jesus is having trouble with in today’s Gospel, are not at all concerned about what is in their hearts.  Their faith has nothing to do with their hearts. They are more concerned about purification rites.  They are more concerned about making sure that the food one eats is clean and pure—that it hasn’t been touched by those who are unclean.  They are concerned that they are the clean ones and they are concerned that there is a separation from those that are unclean.  They are more concerned with the words of the Law, rather than the heart of the Law.  They are more concerned with the letter of the Law, rather than the spirit of the Law.

We, as followers of Jesus, must avoid being those hypocrites.  With everything in us, we must avoid being those people.  Yes, I know: it’s just easier to stick the letter of the Law. It’s easy to follow the religious rules without bothering to think about why we are following them.  It’s just so much easier to go through the motions without having to feel anything.

Because to feel means to actually make one’s self vulnerable.  To feel means one has to love—and, as we know, love is dangerous.  Love makes us step out into uncomfortable areas and do uncomfortable things.  

But the message of Jesus is all about the fact that to be a follower of Jesus means not being a hypocrite.  The message of Jesus is that to be a follower of Jesus means believing fully with one’s heart.

This weekend, of course, we are celebrating Pride Weekend. We are saying, not just by our words, but by our actions, that we are a people of a God who is love—we are a people here at St. Stephen’s who believe all people are loved and accepted, fully and completely by that God. And how do we do that? How do we show that and preach that?  We do that by loving and accepting all people.  We do that by knowing in our hearts that God loves and accepts us all, no matter who or what we are.

To proclaim the Good News, we need to do so by both word and example.  It is to truly practice what we preach.  It is to go out into the world beyond these walls and say, “this is a place—and we are a people—wherein love dwells. That radical, all-encompassing love of a God of love.

So, let us take to heart what Jesus is saying to us in today’s Gospel.  Let us take his words and plant them deeply in our hearts.  Let the words of his mouth be the words of our mouth. Let the Word—capital W—by our word.  And let that word find its home, its source, its basis in our hearts.

When it does, our words will truly speak the Word that is in our hearts.  Let us allow no darkness, no negativity to exist within our hearts.

Let us not be hypocritical Pharisees to those around us. But let us true followers of Jesus, with love burning within and overflowing us.  As followers of Jesus, let love be the word that speaks to others.  Let our hearts be the source of our faith in everything we do in faith.  Let our hearts be so filled with love that nothing else can exist in it but love.  Let us strive to live out our Baptismal Promises with God by proclaiming “by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.”

And if we do, we will find that Good News pouring forth from our mouth and bringing joy and gladness and love and full acceptance to others—and even to ourselves.



Thursday, August 14, 2014

My first sermon, from August 14, 1994

Twenty years ago today, on Sunday, August 14, 1994, I preached my first sermon at Maple Sheyenne Lutheran Church in Harwood, North Dakota. I managed to find it in a binder full of sermons I would preach after that.


Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
August 14, 1994

Maple Sheyenne Lutheran Church
Harwood, North Dakota

Ephesians 4.30-5.2; John 6.41-51

 In the year 1266, there was once a woman in the village of Santarem, Portugal who was trapped in a desperately unhappy marriage. Her unfaithful husband neglected her and  caused her much unhappiness. The poor woman was so desperate to have her husband fall in love with her again that she went to a sorceress. The old Gypsy woman told the woman that is she brought back a consecrated wafer from Communion, the witch would heat it over a fire until it turned to powder. This powder could then be sprinkled into the husband’s food. As soon as he ate the food, he would magically fall in love with his wife again and his philandering.

This woman was a good Catholic and so, predictably, she hesitated several times, until, finally, desperate to win her husband’s love back, she went to Mass at the village church and received the wafer. But instead of swallowing it, she took it from her mouth and wrapped it in her veil, intending to take it to the sorcerer. However, within a few moments, blood began to issue from the wafer. There was so much blood, in fact, that it soon dripped from the veil onto the church floor and attracted several of her fellow parishioners who, obviously, thought she was injured.

The woman avoided the people and ran to her home, leaving a trail of blood behind her. Hoping to hide the bloody veil and its contents, she placed them in a chest in her bedroom. But during the night, a mysterious light penetrated the wood of the chest and filled the whole room, keeping both the woman and her husband awake.

Unable to hide her secret anymore, the woman confessed the secret to her husband. Because shew as filled with such remorse over the sacrilege she committed, the next morning she took the veil and wafer to her priest. She told the priest: “I have killed God!” and then proceeded to tell the whole story.

          The priest absolved the woman and took the host from her. The story of the miracle attracted attention or miles and soon people came to the village to see this miraculous wafer.

          The priest, to help preserve the wafer, encased it in wax and placed it in a locked niche for safe keeping.

          Sometime later, whoever, when he went to check on it, he saw that the wax had been broken. He then placed it in a gold vessel for exposition.

          And there it is to this day, some 700 years later, still in a state of miraculous incorruption.

          There are hundreds of stories like this all over southern Europe, which have occurred for centuries. Bleeding communion wafers. Communion wafers that have miraculously turned into human flesh. Communion wine that has somehow turned into human blood. Doctors to this day can examine these miracles and can determine, as they say, the supposed actual blood type of what they feel is Jesus.

          Lutherans no doubt are amazed and astonished at stories like this. More than likely most of us don’t even know what to think when we hear stories like this. But on a spiritual level, many of us probably fin these stories hard to swallow, no pun intended.

          When Jesus talks in today’s Gospel about being the Bread of Life, he was obviously not talking about actual bread. For Jesus, and for most of us, we know that what feeds the body is physical. What feeds the spirit is spiritual. Christ is the bread of the spirit. He is out spiritual food.

          Later on in this same chapter from the Gospel of John, Jesus confirms that belief in no uncertain terms:

          “Unless you eat the flesh of the son of Man and drink his blood, you will have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood will have eternal life and I will raise them on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood true drink.”
   

We really don’t need grand miracles to help us to believe. We have our faith in the spiritual changes that take place within us.

          Jesus is essentially telling us: look within.

          We worry often about taking care of physical bodies. When we’re sick, we go to the doctor, we take medicine, and we’re operated on if it’s needed. Partly due to our instinct as living human beings, partly due to the society in which we live, it is our prerogative to be healthy physically.

          But Jesus is telling us that we must take care and feed our souls too. We must nourish them.

          In our reading today from Ephesians, Paul instructs us to be imitators of God. These admonitions are preceded by a list of things we should do to be like God:

          We should put away all bitterness

          Wrath

          Anger

          Wrangling (or arguing)

          Slander

          Malice

We must be kind to one another

          Be tenderhearted

          Forgiving

          These are the ways to nurture our souls, to make us more like the God in Christ who feeds us spiritually. These simple ways help us to become healthy spiritually. They help us to grow in the spirit.

          And so, when we hear stories of miraculous Eucharistic events like the one of in Portugal, we, who might be baffled by such things, can console ourselves. Outward physical displays of God’s power are beautiful and wonderful in their own right, just as all our sacraments are, just as a sunset, or a thunderstorm can be beautiful and wonderful and awe-inspiring. But if it is only for the purpose of the body, without heeding our spiritual needs they are essentially useless spiritually.

          The most meaningful Eucharistic miracles take place within us, every day, in our own communion with Christ in us and each other, in our growth as children and imitators of our God.

 

 

 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

9 Pentecost

August 10, 2014
1 King 19.9-18; Matthew 14.22-33
+ Being a poet sometimes is even weirder than being a priest. As you know, my book, Fargo, 1957—the book about the tornado that struck Fargo in June, 1957—has done fairly well for a book of poems. I am amazed sometimes when I go somewhere and people say, “Hey! You wrote that book about the tornado. I read it. It’s the only book of poetry I’ve ever read.”

But the weird aspect of this is when people think, because I wrote a book about a tornado, that I’m some sort of meteorologist. People think I know a lot about the weather. I know a little bit about the weather.  But not as much as what some people expect of me because I wrote this book.  

Occasionally, though, I will get someone who will say something like this to me: “You know, when I read your book, I realized that I think there’s more to that tornado than just a tornado. I think that tornado symbolizes something.” Now, I like it when someone says something like that. They really understood my book.

Well, today, in our reading from 1 Kings and from our Gospel reading, we get storms. I know maybe a little bit about these storms.  We find, in our reading from First Kings, that the prophet Elijah is being confronted with several natural disasters actually.  First there is a storm, then an earthquake and then a fire.  And in each of them, he finds that, despite their magnificence, despite the fact that they are more powerful than Elijah himself, God is not in any of them.  He does not hear the Word of God coming to him out of these instances.  But rather, God speaks to him in the “sheer silence” after the storm.

Our Gospel reading is similar in many ways.  There too is a storm.  And this one is just as frightening.  The disciples in the boat are buffeting, they are trying to make their way back to shore and cannot because the storm’s wind is against them, and they are clearly afraid.

A word we keep experiencing in our gospel reading for today is “fear.”  The disciples see Jesus, think he’s a ghost and they cry out in fear.  And Jesus says to them,

“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Peter, audacious as he is, then gets out of the boat and starts walking to Jesus.  But when he notices the storm raging around him, he becomes frightened and begins to sink.  And Jesus reaches out his hands and lifts him from the water and stills the storm.

Again, I think these storms actually have deeper meaning for us than we initially think. Sort of like the tornado in my book.  They seem to be also symbols for our own storms in our lives. In the storms of our own lives, we often find ourselves at a loss.  We too often do unpredictable things in those storms like Peter.  We do the equivalent of getting out of a boat and attempting to walk on water.  We find ourselves venturing into areas we maybe shouldn’t be venturing.  We find ourselves doing naively audacious things.  And while doing it, we sometimes lose heart, we become afraid, and we begin sinking.

This is what storms do to us.  They sap us our energy, of our joy, of our bravery and they leave us vulnerable to them. This is also what fear does to us.  It causes us to lose heart.  It causes us to lose our joy and our gladness and our happiness.  It saps our life and our energy from us.

And that is why, during those storms, during those moments of false courage, during those times of raging fear, we need to strain into the storm and we need to hear that calm voice speaking to us with familiar words:

“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

In the storms of our lives, in the raging tempests of fear, these are the only words we can cling to.  You’ve heard say this a million times in my sermons but, the most often repeated commandment we hear throughout the entire Bible is “do not be afraid.”  

“Do not be afraid.”

Both in the Old Testament and in the New, this is one of the most repeated statements we find from God. And this commandment still holds true for us today. Fear is one of those things we all live with in one form or the other.  We live with a fear of the unstable world around us.  We live with a fear of all the terrible and bad things that life can throw in our way.  We live with a fear of the future, and all the uncertainties it holds.  And we all live with a fear of death—of all the uncertainty that awaits us when this life is done.

But God, again and again, says to us, “Do not be afraid.” Do not be afraid of the things this world can throw at us.  Do not be afraid of things you cannot change.  Do not be afraid of the actual natural storms of this life, because we have faith in the God who is more powerful than any storm that can come upon us.  Do not be afraid of the storms of this life that come from within—the storms of anxiety and fear and uncertainty, because we have faith in the God who is in control of our lives as well.  Do not be afraid of even death, because God promises us that God is not a God of death, but of life and if we trust in God and have faith in God, God will give us life that will never end.

For those of us who live in faith, we have no reason to fear.  Faith means trust.  Faith means being able to look to God, in those storms of our lives, and know that although frightening things may rage about us, with God, we can find the calm center of our lives.  As we venture out on to the choppy waters of our lives and, there, we find ourselves sinking into the storm, as we are overwhelmed by the storms of our lives, as we despair over the storm, we need to look up and see Jesus standing there.

This reminds of the greatest part of the Gospel reading for today.  In the midst of that storm, as Peter sinks into the waters, Jesus doesn’t simply stay put and raise Peter miraculously from the waters from a distance.  Rather, Jesus actually comes to Peter where he is in that storm and lifts him out of those waters.  And that is the image we can take away with us as well. In the storms of our lives, as we sink deeply into the dark waters of anxiety and fear, when we call out to Jesus, he comes to us where we are and raises us up.  And he leads us back to a place of safety.

So, in those moments in which we find ourselves sinking, in the storms of our lives when you feel as though are lost and can never be found again, remember the importance of this Gospel reading.  Let us allow Jesus to come to us and let him lift us up from the waters.  And let us let him lead  us to a place of quietness and safety, where, in that silence, we too can hear the soothing, comforting words of God speaking to us.  In telling us not to fear, in taking our hand and raising us up from the darkness of our lives, he stills the storms of our live as well. He stills the storms of anxiety and depression and frustration and all the other emotions fear brings to us.

There is a wonderful prayer from the Book of Common Prayer of the Anglican Church in New Zealand that I often pray with people I visit in the hospital or who are suffering from any anxiety or fear.  The prayer begins,

O God of the present,
O God, who in Jesus stills the storm and soothes the frantic heart,
bring hope and courage to those who trust in you.

 This should be our prayer as well.  We also should pray that the God, who in Jesus stills the storms of our lives and soothes our frantic hearts, truly does bring hope and courage to us, who trust in God.

 So, let allow Jesus to still the storms of our life and sooth our hearts when it becomes frantic.  Let us allow him to come to us where we are, out here in the midst of the storms of our lives,  to bring us to safety.  And when we do, we will find an abundance of hope and courage in our lives so that we can live our lives fully and completely—and without any fear—as God wants us to.

 O God of the present moment,
O God, who in Jesus stills the storm and soothes the frantic heart,
bring hope and courage to us—
us, who lives here, at times in fear in the midst of storm—
for we trust in you.

Amen.

 

 

Sunday, August 3, 2014

8 Pentecost

August 3, 2014


Matthew 14.13-21

+ Last week, in my sermon, we went back in time. We went back 40 years—to July 29, 1974. We visited the Philadelphia 11—the first eleven women ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church.

This morning, we’re going back another ten years before that. We’re going back to 1964. This period of time is a little more my pace. It was a bit less tumultuous than 1974. The top songs in the country on this day in 1964 were songs like “A Hard Day’s Night” by the Beatles and “Girl from Ipanema” by Stan Getz. See, nice and easy. No John Denver here. There’s no Nixon impeachment happening here.

On this day in 1964, Monday, August 3, 1964, a very famous writer died. Actually, when she died, she wasn’t that famous. In fact, in her hometown of Milledgeville, Georgia, the two novels she had published and the one collection of short stories were met with confusion. Her somewhat violent stories were not what people expected of a nice young Catholic woman. They wanted Gone with the Wind. And she gave them stories of misfits murdering people and a Bible Salesmen running off with the prosthetic limbs of a girl he seduced.

But it was today that Flannery O’Connor died of lupus at the age of 39. O’Connor, as some of you might know, has long been a major influence in my life, mostly for her writing. But O’Connor was also very deeply and devoutly Roman Catholic. And her writings on faith are as compelling as her fiction.

Earlier this year, one of her recently discovered notebooks was published. It was filled with prayers she wrote.  As I read through this somewhat candid book of prayers, I was impressed with O’Connor’s sense of brokenness. She recognized acutely her own sense of brokenness. And she worked from that place. In fact, throughout her stories and novels, the pervading sense is of brokenness.  Her characters are all broken, in a broken world. But the key consistently is: how does one use and rise above one’s brokenness?

We encounter brokenness today in our Gospel reading, but we do so only in the midst of some magical culinary experiences.  Here also we have an incredible meal.  We have a miracle involving food.  But we realize that like any truly magical culinary experience that there is more involved here than just the sharing of food.  There is something deeper, something more meaningful.  What we find happening today is something very familiar to us who follow Jesus.

This so-called feeding of the multitudes appears frequently in the Gospel readings. Six times, actually.  You know, then, that it is an important event in the lives of those early followers of Jesus if they are going to write about it six times. For us, this feeding of the multitude also has much meaning.  Yes, it is a great miracle in the life of Jesus.  But it also has meaning in our lives as well.

If you listen closely to what is happening in the reading you’ll notice that, in many ways, we reenact what happens in today’s Gospel in our own lives as Christians.  If you look closely, Jesus doesn’t just perform some outstanding miracle just to “wow” the crowds.  He also performs a very practical act.  And, as often happens in the life of Jesus, the practical and the spiritual get bound up with each other.

In our reading we find Jesus saying of the bits of bread and fish, “Bring them here to me.”

Then he proceeds to do four things.  He takes the bread and fish, he blesses it, he breaks the bread and he gives it to them. He takes, blesses, breaks and gives.  That’s important to remember. When else do we hear and do these things?  Well, at every Eucharist we celebrate together. Every time we gather at this altar, we take, we bless, we break and we give.

Of course, we commemorate the Last Supper when we do these things, but certainly, in the early Church, those early followers of Jesus remembered all those moments when Jesus shared food with them as kinds of Eucharistic events, since essentially the same actions took place at each.  They also saw these meals—these moments when Jesus fed people—as glimpses to what awaited us.  And we do too.

You have heard me say many, many times that when I talk of the Kingdom of God, I imagine a meal.  The Kingdom of God is truly a meal—a wonderfully meal with friends.  It is a meal in which the finest foods are served, the best wines are uncorked and everyone—everyone, no matter who they are—is treated as an honored guest.  And everyone IS invited.

Of course, some don’t have to come, but everyone is invited to this meal.  In a sense, that is the very reason I hold the Eucharist to be so important to my own personal and spiritual life.  What we celebrate at this altar is a glimpse of what awaits us all.  What we do here is a moment in which we get to see what the Kingdom of God is really like.  But what all of this—the feeding of the multitude, the Eucharist, the Kingdom as a meal—shows us as well is the way forward to doing ministry.

How do we bring the Kingdom of God into our midst, as we are told to do as followers of Jesus?  We do it by taking, blessing, breaking and giving.  In our case, we do this with the ministry we have been given to do.  We take what is given us to share.  We bless it, by asking God’s blessing on it.  We break it, because only by breaking it can we share it.  And we give it.

This is what each of us is called to do in our ministries, in our service to those around us. The Eucharist is the basis—the ground work or the blueprints—on what we should be doing as followers of Jesus.  Our ministries call us to feed those who are hungry.  Yes, to feed the physically hungry, but also to feed the spiritually hungry, the emotionally hungry, the socially hungry, as well.  We are called to take of our very selves, to bless ourselves, to break ourselves to share and to give of ourselves.  Just as Jesus did.

It’s not easy.  It’s not fun.  There is nothing fun in being broken. I can tell you that in all honesty form my own experience.  In fact, oftentimes, it’s painful and tiring and exhausting.  But this is what it means to follow Jesus.  And when we do these things, the Kingdom comes forth in our midst.

Our job as Christians is to let people know this one simple fact—there is a meal awaiting us and everyone, EVERYONE, is invited.  Our job as followers of Jesus is to do what Jesus does.  We are to be the invitation to the meal.  And we do this best by showing people what the meal will be like.

We take, we bless, we break and we give of ourselves, freely and without limit or qualm.  We give freely without prejudice or distinction. Yes, I know—it is a radical thought to think of such things.  But, so is feeding a multitude of people in abundance from just a bit of bread and two fish.

So, let us do as Jesus does.  Let us embody that meal to which we are all invited.  Let us take with us what we gain from the meal we share here at this altar.  And let us, in turn, bless, break and give to all those around us in need.

There is an incredible meal awaiting us.  We are catching a glimpse of it here this morning.  We who feed here this morning on what may appear to some to be little, will be filled. And those whom we feed in turn will also be filled.

"Give them something to eat,” Jesus is saying to us.

How can we not do just that?