Sunday, January 31, 2010

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany Year C sermon

4th Sunday after the Epiphany Year C
January 31, 2010
The Christian writer, Ann Lamott, has a line in one of her writings that beautifully captures the spirit of today’s readings which are actually a series of confrontations. She writes, “God loves us exactly the way we are, and God loves us too much to let us stay like this.[1]
First, in Jeremiah, we hear the story of God’s call to the prophet. It is a call that God made when Jeremiah was in his mother’s womb, and even when Jeremiah resists the call, protesting that he does not have the gifts needed to fulfill God’s call, God confronts Jeremiah and explodes his understanding of his own limitations. God promises to be with him and to give him the words that he will need.
In the epistle reading, Paul is confronting the people in the church in Corinth. It’s especially important to remember the context of this most familiar part of this letter (which is often associated with the love between husband and wife because of its frequent reading at weddings), so that its true meaning does not become hidden or over-sentimentalized. The church in Corinth to which Paul is writing is a church in conflict. They are doing real and potentially destructive harm to one another in their in-fighting. Out of this specific context comes Paul’s famous hymn to love. One critic has even suggested that Paul is deliberately attacking as worthless the gifts that the church in Corinth prides themselves on: speaking in tongues, prophetic powers, strong faith, knowledge and the giving away of possessions, and he is confronting their unloving behavior to each other by offering them his definition of what love really is (in contrast to their own actions).
In Luke’s gospel, we see Jesus confronting the people from his own hometown. Our story goes back to the reading from last week, where Jesus has come straight from his baptism and temptation in the wilderness and returned to his home town of Nazareth in Galilee. He began to teach in their synagogues and is spoken well of, and then he returns to Galilee and things seem to be proceeding along the same path. Jesus gets up in synagogue and reads from the scroll that is given to him from Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor. Then he rolls up the scroll, gives it back and says to them, “ Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Where our reading for today picks up.)
Even then, the people were amazed and spoke well of him. They were proud of him and ready to claim him as their own, home-town hero. It is Jesus who deliberately changes the tone and offers a challenge and a confrontation to the crowd in Galilee, in what must have seemed to them like a tongue lashing out of left-field. He confronts and challenges the people’s most basic understanding of who they are and what their relationship is with God. To the people who have survived so much—exile in a foreign land, oppression under foreign rulers, persecution—a people whose only resource has been the security of their status as God’s chosen people and the promise that their relationship with God is unique and special, to those people, Jesus points out that God respects no boundaries among people. God respects no nationality, and he points to scriptural examples of when God has acted through God’s representative and has interceded for and saved a non-Israelite. Jesus fully embraces his role as prophet and is pointing to the radical inclusivity of God, and the people seem to feel that somehow devalues their national and cultural identity and their own special relationship with God. Or, as theologian Peter Gomes writes, “The people take offense not so much with what Jesus claims about himself, as with the claims that he makes about a God who is more than their own tribal identity.” The congregation has certain reasonable expectations of God that have been learned over generations, and in one instant, Jesus takes those expectations and turns them on their head.
Even our collect today has the potential to issue a confrontation. The words seem simple: Almighty and everlasting God, you govern all things both in heaven and earth: Mercifully hear the supplications of your people, and in our time grant us your peace…” Much has happened to people in this parish and in our greater community these last few weeks. Many people are dealing with the reality of aging parents, debilitating infirmity and end of life issues. People have experienced the sudden and unexpected deaths of friends and prominent members of the greater community. People are dealing with their own personal illnesses and difficulties. In the midst of all of this, do we really believe that God is “Almighty”. What does that mean for us, when we are in the midst of suffering and loss? One of my dearest friends suffered a miscarriage this week. That is not the way that she hoped her life would turn out, and it is not the way I would have hoped her life would turn out. Why do all sorts of horrible things happen if God is, as we say in this prayer, almighty?
In times of difficulty, our faith and our understanding of God are confronted, and we are invited to enter into dialogue with God, our sacred texts, and our tradition. We are invited to dwell with the God who gives his Son up to death in the last chapters of all our gospels, and even if we are not given answers there, at least, the mystery of suffering will be named. In all different events of our lives, God confronts us…life confronts us, and we realize that we are called to question and to mourn the loss of our expectations; we are called to self-examination and to search for meaning beyond our own lives and our selves. It is especially in times of conflict and distress that our beliefs and understanding and faith are challenged and confronted and it is often when we grow the most.
So, how are you being confronted by God this morning? Are you, like Jeremiah, being confronted by God and challenged to take up God’s call to you, even though God’s call does not seem to fit into your vision of how your life should turn out and what your gifts are? Are you being challenged by God to do more than you think you can do? Our Deacon Scott issued this challenge for us last week, to do more than we think we can do to help feed the hungry in our community.
Are we, like the Church in Corinth, being challenged and confronted about those areas of ministry that we cherish in our congregation, being challenged to investigate whether those ministries are really being offered in the true spirit of love? Are we being challenged and confronted to further discern our purpose and identity? I believe we are. Are you being challenged to examine which areas of your life that you pride yourself on may or may not be rooted in the love that is from God?
Are we, like the people in Galilee, being challenged by God to expand our understanding of who God is beyond an idea of our own tribal God and to not limit God and God’s radical abundance and inclusivity by our own expectations and understandings of God?
Are we, along with all who suffer, being challenged and confronted this morning about our expectations of God and of how our lives and the lives of those we love are supposed to end up?
In his book, In the Name of Jesus, RC priest Henri Nouwen writes about the challenged that Jesus issues to Peter in John 2:18: “When you were young you put on your belt and walked where you liked, but when you grow old you will stretch out your hands and somebody else will put a belt around you and take you where you would rather not go.” This is Christian maturity, says Nouwen, the ability to relinquish power and control and even expectations and to be led where we’d rather not go—to “the unknown, the undesirable, the painful places.”
“God loves us exactly the way we are, and God loves us too much to let us stay like this.”
How are you being challenged and confronted this morning? Where are you being called to go?
[1] As quoted in the article Critical and Faithful in The Christian Century January 9, 2007 p.5.

Oh when the Saints....go marchin in

Many have requested a posting of the original collect that I wrote and prayed in church last week when the New Orleans Saints were playing in the NFC championship. I've yet to get my hands on a pic of me in my stole, so if you've got one, send it my way.

Here's the prayer.

O Almighty God, who hast promised thy grace and mercy to all those who BELIEVE: Send thy Holy Spirit to enliven the hearts of all thy saints, that they, and we with them, may join in that glorious company of the saints in light and find the fulfillment of all our many hopes in thy kingdom where there is no sighing nor suffering nor sorrow but rejoicing, an NFC title and even a Super Bowl victory to the glory of thy name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Epiphany IIC sermon

The Second Sunday after Epiphany-Year C
January 17, 2010
A letter to MaryHelen Smith/Miriam Ozerden upon the occasion of her baptism.
Dear MaryHelen/Miriam,
I am writing you this letter because you will probably not remember this very important day in your life, the day of your baptism. This day is the beginning of a journey for you that you will follow into and through your own death. You will journey through valleys and over mountains; your way will be both smooth and rocky. Sometimes you will dance and rejoice along the way and at other times you will feel so weary and heartbroken that you don’t know how you can go on.
As your community of faith, your parents and godparents, your family and all the people of St. Peter’s by-the-Sea will soon pledge to do all in our power to support you in your life in Christ beginning this day and every day into your future. What that means is that, on the days when you cannot remember some very important things about yourself and your relationship with Christ, we will remember them for you and we will remind you of their truth.
We will remember that you are God’s beloved, chosen by God and called by name before you were even born. In your baptism, your parents and godparents and all of us are embracing that for you; on your behalf, we are saying back to God, “yes, she is your chosen and beloved, and we thank you for choosing her,” and we will help you discover your own grateful response as you grow.
We will remember that God’s promises for Israel are also true for you; that “the Lord delights in you.” Even when times seem to be difficult, God will not forsake you. And if there are times in your life when you cannot believe it, then trust us, and we will believe it for you.
We will remember God’s promise for you, of God’s steadfast love and the promise of refuge in God, and we will remind you when you forget.
We will remind you that God gives each person different gifts through the Holy Spirit for the purpose of building up the common good, and we will try to help you discover your gifts that you may share them with us and with all the world.
We will teach you about Jesus and about the stories of the faith, how his glory was revealed to be a glory of ridiculous abundance in his first miracle at the wedding of Cana, and about how his ridiculous abundance continued even into dying on the cross for the sins of the whole world and then in three days, destroying the power of death with the power of God’s love in the resurrection. And you will have much to teach us of these things as well.
We will walk beside you as your brothers and sisters in Christ as we all seek to follow Jesus and as we seek to be his agents of healing and reconciliation in this needy and broken world.
During those times in your life, when darkness weighs upon you like a tomb, we will hold up the mirror before you that you may once again see that the light of Christ, our Savior who is the light of the world, shines within you and will light your path into the dark.
We will help you remember that every time that you lift your shining face to God with your hands outstretched to receive the bread and the wine, that you are being fed the body and blood of Jesus who loves you, so you may go out into the world to share that love with others.
We will remember this for you, and for ourselves, and for all the beloved of Christ, because it is who God calls us to be, it is what it means to be Christ’s body, the Church…those who remember and proclaim the good news of God’s transforming love to others and to the whole world.
And you will do this for us and for others as well.
And so the Epiphany blessing is appropriate for you, MaryHelen/Miriam, this day as well as for all of us: May Christ the Son of God be manifest in you, that your light may be a light to the world. May it be true this day, and every day into your future.

Peace, Melanie+

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Rector's Report for St. Peter's by-the-Sea Annual Parish meeting

Rector’s report 2010
2009 was the year that you chose me, and I chose you. Last summer, the Diocesan Canon to the Ordinary, David Johnson, told me he was sending me the search packet from St. Peter’s by-the-Sea, and he asked me to give St. Peter’s some serious consideration. “It’s a great church”, he told me, “and I think y’all would be a good match.” And he was right.
But even beyond that, it’s nice to be chosen. It makes one feel loved and appreciated. And these last few months, I believe that we have all basked in that glow of being chosen by the other. The bishop has made it official: we belong to one another. You all have offered such a warm welcome and full inclusion to me and my whole family, and for that I offer you my deepest gratitude.
I’m excited about all that is already going on at St. Peter’s by-the-Sea, and I have some dreams and some goals for our work together in 2010.
1. Increased involvement in outreach. With our new deacon’s appointment official, I hope that he will begin to challenge us to become more aware and responsive to the needs in our community. Starting today, we begin a commitment to help make and give out sandwiches to homeless and hungry people through Feed My Sheep. A few months ago, the Rev. Kurt Burge, who is currently serving as the interim at the First Christian Church down the road from us, approached us with a need. He said that Feed My Sheep does not currently feed people on the weekend. One church has started making lunches for people on Saturdays, but there is no food available on Sundays. So Kurt asked if we’d be willing to partner with the other downtown churches which include his church, First United Methodist church, and Grace Memorial Baptist church and each take one Sunday a month to make 30 bag lunches which are comprised of 2 sandwiches, chips, fruit, and a drink, and to take them down to Feed My Sheep to hand out to people who show up on Sundays looking for food. We will be responsible for every second Sunday of the month, beginning today. Gini Fellows and the outreach committee are providing the sandwiches today, and in February, the young people in confirmation class will be doing it. After that, we are asking that the different groups of the parish be responsible for one month each, and Scott will be putting that schedule together soon.
2. I hope that we will be able to buy a new playground for the church during this next year. After our last playground equipment was damaged and partially removed, I asked the Sunday school committee to make a recommendation to the Vestry for a new play system, and I hope that will come to fruition in the coming months.
3. I have already begun work to appoint a stewardship committee that will meet and function year-round. Stewardship is not something that we need to be focused on once a year as we plan our budget for the next year. Instead, how we use the gifts that God has given us is of vital importance in our discipleship, and I hope that this committee will help us learn more about that and incorporate it more into the common life of our church.
4. We have one of the best-kept secrets in Gulfport in the Aidan Sullivan community children’s choir. Through the gifts of JT and Debbie Anglin and Donna Hutchins, the few children we have participating are learning so much and have an enormous amount of fun while doing it. I cannot begin to tell you the enormous potential that I believe lies in this group! But one thing that I can say is that it needs full support from the people in the church, especially the people with children in those age groups (K-6). It needs for parents to see it for the amazing gift that it is, and it needs for the parents and children to make it a priority and a commitment—to put it on the calendar as you would a sports practice or a scouts meeting and then to show up for it, every week, like you would do with other organizations that you value. Everyone says that formation and offerings for children in the church is important, and here is our chance. But we have to make it a priority among competing claims.
5. Increased visibility in the community through special programs. We’ve already got one concert scheduled for March that will be a presentation by the Spirit of Southern choir from USM. I hope that we will have other offerings for the community such as more concerts, lectures, even an idea that is surfaced called Red Bean Mondays which would be lunch for members and down-town business professionals coupled with a brief presentation. I want us to be visible, and even more importantly, I want our doors to be open so that people who aren’t normally in St. Peter’s will have the opportunity and the invitation to discover what a wonderful, vibrant community of faith we have.
6. In 2010, I want us to pray more, both corporately and individually. As people of faith, prayer is possibly the most important activity that we engage in. I hope to have some different types of services available for us to pray together in worship, such as the festive choral evensong with which we will mark the feast day of our patron saint, Peter, next Sunday at 7pm. If you’ve never been to an Evensong, then you must make plans to attend. It is one of the rarest gifts of our Anglican heritage. Also, I hope to explore Taize style worship during Wednesday nights in Lent, and we will have a full component of Holy Week services including the return of the biggest and best service our prayer book has to offer: The Great Vigil of Easter. Also during Lent, we will be having a Centering Prayer group on Monday mornings before work followed by a light breakfast.
7. Last, but certainly not least, I hope and plan that 2010 will be the year that we as a parish articulate a vision for who St. Peter’s will be in the future. We’ve already begun discussing this at our small group gatherings this fall. Our Vestry will consider if further at our annual retreat in February, and we will implement a plan to pray and vision about who we are being called to be in this next year, in the next five years, even into the next fifty years.
It’s exciting stuff, and our work together has only just begun. We have each chosen the other for our gifts and talents. May God be with us and we seek to live more fully into who God is calling us to be.

First Sunday after Epiphany

First Sunday after Epiphany—Baptism of our Lord Year C
January 10, 2010

“Thus says the Lord… ‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine…Because you are precious and I love you…. Do not fear, for I am with you.” In the words from our Old Testament reading today, the prophet Isaiah reports God’s words to the people of Israel, a people taken from their home in God’s promised land and once again enslaved and in exile in Babylon. This poetry of the prophet seeks to reassure a people on the precipice of extinction, a people in grave doubt of their future because God seems to have abandoned them. They had come through the waters of the Red Sea when God rescued them from enslavement in Egypt. They had been established in Israel, the promised land, and named as God’s chosen people. But things are bad again for them, and they are afraid. In the words of the prophet, God commands the people of Israel to cast aside their fear by saying that fear is unnecessary. First, they have been redeemed by God. Now according to the laws of Israel as written in Leviticus (25:47-49), to be redeemed means to be bought out of human bondage by one’s kin, a close member of the extended family. So when God says that God has redeemed Israel, God is freeing them from enslavement (to fear) and is asserting a close, familial relationship with God’s people. Therefore, they belong to God….no matter what. Nothing can happen to destroy their purpose, their destiny, which is to be in relationship with God and to do the work that God gives them to do.
‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine…Because you are precious and I love you…. Do not fear, for I am with you.”
But these words could have just as easily been written for us, as fear and anxiety have run rampant through our parish these last few weeks….fear about what will be funded in a budget and what will be cut; fear about what this means for us as a church; fear about what it means about who we will be. In a little while, during our parish meeting, you will hear more about this and about the journey your Vestry has been on these last few weeks as we have worked to prepare a budget for this year. It has been an amazing journey, and I commend the Vestry for being willing to wrestle with tough questions and for being willing to consider new ways of doing things. They have all worked hard and faithfully out of a deep sense of commitment to the work of this church. One thing that I have learned in this process is that the opposite of fear isn’t always courage. The opposite of fear isn’t always faith (although it can be both of those). Sometimes, the opposite of fear is thanksgiving. In our conversations, we were reminded of all that we have been given, all the aid and assistance from the greater church and the diocese in the past. And I think that remembering made us thankful, and it helped us cast aside our fear and move forward.
Today, in addition to holding our annual parish meeting, we remember and mark the baptism of Jesus on this first Sunday after Epiphany. I can think of no more appropriate time to have a parish meeting as Jesus’s baptism helps us remember our own baptisms and the promises that we made or that were made for us. Today, we will once again recommit ourselves to those promises, but first, I want to talk about the overarching meaning of baptism that is found in Luke’s gospel. All three synoptic gospels have an account of Jesus’s baptism, but Luke’s account has two unique characteristics that I think are very important. First, in this account, we don’t get to see the actual baptism of Jesus as in Matthew and Mark. Instead Luke tells us that Jesus is baptized with a whole bunch of other people, and it is after his baptism when Jesus was praying that the heavens open up and the Holy Spirit descends upon him. It is as if the manifestation of the Holy Spirit is directly related to Jesus’s existing relationship with God. He prays, and the Holy Spirit comes. Second, the voice from heaven speaks directly to Jesus in Luke’s account. Instead of speaking to the crowds like in Matthew and saying, “This is my beloved Son…” the voice in Luke speaks to Jesus and says, “You are my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
In our baptism, we, too, are marked as God’s beloved, God’s redeemed, who no longer have to be enslaved by our fear. In our baptism, it is as if each one of us also stands before God and God looks at you and says, “You are my child, the beloved, whom I call by name. And I am proud of you.” And like well-mannered children we say back to God, “Thank you.”
So as the beloved and the redeemed of God, what will our thankful response be? My friend Jennifer Deaton, who preached at the deacon’s ordination yesterday, shared a poem in her sermon that gets right to the heart of what our thankful response as the beloved people of God must be; in fact, I think it is one of the clearest articulations of God’s call to the baptized that I have ever heard. The poem is called “The Work of Christmas” by Howard Thurman.
"When the song of the angels is stilled, When the star in the sky is gone, When the kings and princes are home, When the shepherds are back with their flock, The work of Christmas begins: To find the lost, To heal the broken, To feed the hungry, To release the prisoner, To rebuild the nations, To bring peace among others, To make music in the heart."
That is our thankful response and the call of God to God’s beloved: To find the lost, To heal the broken, To feed the hungry, To release the prisoner, To rebuild the nations, To bring peace among others, To make music in the heart." It is who we are this day, and who we will work to be in the future. May the Lord who redeems us and calls us to do these things, give us the courage and the gratefulness to perform them.

Christmas II sermon

The Second Sunday after Christmas Year C
January 3, 2010
Today’s gospel reading may seem like a strange choice for the second Sunday after Christmas. The wise men have come and gone and then Joseph has a dream in which God’s angel (or God’s messenger --for that’s what angel means) appears and tells him to take Jesus and Mary and flee to Egypt where they will be safe from the wrath of Herod. So Joseph does as he is told, and the Holy Family flees to Egypt. In the meantime, in a part that we don’t read today, Herod discovers that the wise men have not come back to tell him the whereabouts of the Christ child, as they had promised, but they have, instead, sneaked out of town using an alternate route, and Herod is enraged. And he orders his soldiers to kill all male children ages two and under in Bethlehem. This is what our tradition calls the slaughter of the innocents, and it is definitely a dark chapter in the story of the birth of Jesus, that so many other boys were killed because of one tyrant’s rage and fear. Then our reading picks back up after Herod dies and Joseph has another dream where God’s messenger tells him that it is safe to return to Israel. There are many echoes in this reading that harken back to Israel’s history and sacred story. Once again, we have a Joseph who is favored by God and who receives messages from God through dreams. We have young male children slaughtered by a power-crazy king, just like how Pharaoh ordered all the male babies born to the Israelites enslaved in Egypt to be killed upon birth, but Moses was spared. We have a flight to Egypt when things become difficult in Israel, and then a return to the promised land after a few years of exile in Egypt.
But I think that this somewhat disturbing story has even more to offer us in these last days of the Christmas season. It serves as a reminder to us that through the gift of Christ’s birth, God remains with us, and that God continues to speak to us in many different forms and fashions.
A few years ago, I read a wonderful book called Natural Spirituality by a woman named Joyce Rockwood Hudson, and in this book, Hudson writes about all the different ways that God still speaks to us, ways that we are invited by God to grow more deeply in our spirituality: through our dreams, through music, through seemingly random conversations…all of these can be God’s messengers to us in our lives. Even that mindless tune that you catch yourself humming inexplicably at some point in your day, that can be a messenger of God. I will never forget when I had an experience that verified this, just after I finished reading Hudson’s book. I had taken Mary Margaret to pre-school that morning, and our brief time in the car had been a delightful time for us, as we talked and laughed and inter-acted with one another. Then I got to the office, and things just started to go downhill…you know what I’m taking about….when a perfectly good day just inexplicable goes South. I was frustrated and irritable, and I was walking from my office back to the kitchen to get a cup of coffee, and I caught myself humming a tune. I focused my attention on what the tune was and discovered that it was the “Itsy, bitsy Spider”;for a moment, I was puzzled as to why I would be humming that song, and then I remembered that MM and I had been singing that on our way to school. In that one, brief, message, that one revelation, God helped me to reconnect with my joy, and everything else that was going on became much more insignificant.

“There is a story of a child who was taught a sacred tune in his native village. When he grew up and went out into the world, the rabbi said to him, ‘Don’t forget the tune. But if you do forget it, then come right back home and learn it all over again’…Our whole world shines with sacredness and we have forgotten how to see it; we have to learn from children, artists, and primitive peoples for whom it has not yet become necessary to put God into a sort of isolation hospital” (Monica Furlong)

This Christmas season, may we remember that our whole world shines with sacredness….all around us are God’s messengers who whisper to us or even proclaim boldly the message of God’s love for us, if we will but listen and trust and follow…

Christmas eve 2009

Christmas Eve 2009
Have you ever noticed how many of our major Christmas carols sing about Silence? There is, of course, the ubiquitous Silent Night, which we will sing later in the service. And silence also features heavily in “O Little Town of Bethlehem…”(Say the first verse and then sing the third verse of O Little Town of Bethlehem (78). Silence. It’s fascinating to me, this Christmas carol emphasis on silence, because it is certainly not a characteristic that I would identify with our modern celebration of Christmas. (Any of you with young children or grandchildren can testify with me that this is true.) We are bombarded with Christmas carols in all of our stores, even the grocery store. We are bombarded with expectations (our own and those of others), with food to prepare, family obligations to meet. Silence at Christmas time is possibly one of the most foreign concepts that we as a modern people experience.
I also think that silence was pretty foreign at Jesus’s birth, those many, many years ago. Childbirth is hardly a silent endeavor, and Jesus is born into a stable (or even worse, some scholars think that it was actually a cave…can you imagine how loud livestock sound in a cave?). He is born into an occupied country, with soldiers everywhere and a mad king who is immediately out to get him. There is little silence or peace in any of that. And then the shepherds in the fields who may have had some silence initially, but whose night is spit right open by the overwhelming glory of a blinding light and a multitude of heavenly host proclaiming that God is now present on earth. No. I doubt that there was little silence there either.
So how is it appropriate for us to sing our Silent Night tonight? Where is this silence of which we sing?
Perhaps the silence is part of God’s gift for us this night? Our God who chose to work so unobtrusively those many years ago, by offering the gift of God’s very self, lifting earth to heaven and stooping heaven to earth, the silence is found in the union of God and humanity in a newborn, peasant baby. We come here tonight looking for the assurance that we can have this silent night, holy night, a time when we can leave all our worries and preoccupations behind us and we can believe, just for a few moments, that all is right with the world. That is, I think, what we seek in the silence, and what we sing about this night.
And the good news is this! It is not only for this one night that this gift of Silence and love is offered. It is offered to us every day of our lives. God has been and continues to be present in this world, in humanity, in the person of Jesus Christ, and we receive God’s gift of silence into our hearts and lives every time we pray; every time we receive communion; every time we open our hearts by loving. This silent gift is available to us whenever we choose to receive it, on this holy night and every moment following.
Sing verse three again….