Sunday, March 18, 2012

4th Sunday in Lent Year B

4th Sunday in Lent
March 18, 2012
When I was working at Stewpot Soup Kitchen in Jackson a number of years ago, one of my favorite times of the day was 11:30 to noon. We would have a daily chapel service during that time that anyone could attend just prior to the noon meal. And that service was always an eclectic mix of volunteers who had come to serve the noon meal, staff members, and community members or clients, the homeless, the elderly, the mentally ill, the poor, and the downtrodden. We would sing several songs to start the service, and then Don London, who was the staff musician would often say some words of encouragement to everyone gathered before we got into the day’s reading and the homily.
One of Don’s favorite verses that he liked to quote often is John 3:16, and he would always quote the King James Version: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” And then Don would ask the same question, and the first time I heard it, I had no idea what he was asking. He would ask, “How many ‘whosoevers’ do I have in here today? Raise your hand if you are a ‘whosoever’? He was asking us to raise our hands if we were someone who believes in Jesus.
And that’s great. And I would raise my hand with everyone else, every time. But I’ve learned a lot more since then, and I’m not sure any of us really knew what we were signing onto when we were raising our hands.
Because for so long now, churches have taught that belief or faith is all that matters, that what we are doing when we say we believe in Jesus is signing onto a set of beliefs or dogma about who he was and what that means for how we are going to spend eternity after we die.
The early church taught that faith isn’t about signing onto a set or system of beliefs. It is choosing a path and following it, choosing a path that you would be willing to stake your life on.
But did you know that in the gospel of John, the noun “faith” is completely absent? But the verb “believe” appears more frequently in John’s gospel than in any other New Testament writing?i
So what is being talked about in today’s gospel isn’t a noun. It’s a verb; it’s an action; it’s a response on our part to the action and the Word of God.
Here’s another way of saying this: For God so loved the world that everyone who acts, responds to him may have eternal life.
For the gospel of John, the opposite of belief is not unbelief. The opposite of belief is disobedience. For John, to believe is to obey. And obedience implies listening.
It’s important also, as we hear these words anew this day, to hear the cosmic scope in these words: For God so loved THE WORLD….not individuals. So that everyone (or whosoever) believes, responds, acts, obeys participates in eternal life. God isn’t just concerned with the salvation of individuals. God desires the salvation of the whole world, and God offers no limits in that salvation and restoration.
It is in our obedient response that we participate in God’s saving act for the world.
I read a meditation this week by the Episcopal priest Michael Battle, and he was talking about the church. He writes that the definition of the church is “the community of all persons whose spirituality reflects their experience of God’s reign which, in turn, they make present in the world. In other words, the church reflects God’s experience in the world.”
And what is God’s experience in the world? It is our passage from today: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
Battle continues, “Becoming God’s experience in the world will continually entail a process of becoming more and more like God. [That is the obedience part I was talking about earlier.] How do we know how God behaves? God has made it easier on us to answer this question because God gave us Jesus. We practice better behavior [obedience again] as the church [and as individuals] when we follow Jesus’s way, truth, and life.”ii
What does it mean to follow Jesus’s way, truth, and life? It is when we give our lives to the way of love, the way of obedience, the way of self-giving, the way of forgiveness, the way of compassion and justice for all God’s people; we follow the way of Jesus when we give our lives to the way of gratitude, the way of generosity, the way of sacrifice, the way of healing, the way of reconciliation; we follow the way of Jesus when we give our lives to the way of death (especially death to the self), and we follow the way of Jesus when we give our lives to the way of resurrection.
When we follow this way of Jesus, we don’t have to wait for eternal life to begin after we die. We are choosing and participating in eternal life in the here and now.
And that, my friends, will not only change our lives—make them richer and fuller, but it will change this world that God so loves.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
How many ‘whosoevers’ do I have in here today? Raise your hand if you are a ‘whosoever’?

i.These ideas are from the Exegetical perspective from Feasting on the Word Year B Vol 2 for Lent 4 by Joutte M. Bassler. P 121.
ii.CREDO meditation for March 16, 2012 by the Rev. Michael Battle. Found at

Funeral homily for Betty Lou Watkins Daniels

Today we gather together to celebrate the life and witness of Betty Lou Watkins Daniels. I’ve known Betty Lou since I came to St. Peter’s by-the-Sea almost 3 years ago. I don’t really remember the first time that we met, but I do remember the day that our relationship changed and shifted. She had come in and talked to me before about different things that were bothering her, and she had shared with me when she was diagnosed with cancer. But our relationship was very much how she lived her life: ON HER OWN TERMS! She would let me check on her occasionally via email or phone, but she did not want me to come visit her, so months went by when I couldn’t seen her. But then she got really sick from the chemo, and she went into the hospital, and I showed up and caught her at a particularly low moment, and we talked about life and death and faith and hope. And I said to her, “Betty Lou, this not seeing you is just not working for me. I feel like I cannot adequately care for you via phone and email, and I really need to be able to come see you every once and a while, so I’m just going to come see you—show up at your house, whether you allow it or not.” (Can you imagine! It must have been the Holy Spirit giving me the courage to say such bold words to her!). But then she said to me with all the grace and dignity of a queen, “I will allow it.”
After that, I visited with her once a week, and we laughed alot, and we cried a little. I tried to get her to tell me stories about her life, especially her work for the FBI, but she never would. We talked about our struggles, and we shared our joys and our triumphs. And on the days she felt too sick to talk, Susie and I prayed with her, and we sang to her. She let me in, and we became friends. She was such an interesting mix of compassion, tenderness, strength and stubbornness whose like I have never seen.
Today, I want to share with you a brief reading from the Gospel of John. (John 11:21-27)
“Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’ (pause)
Betty Lou believed. But you see, believing isn’t just about giving intellectual assent (although that is certainly a part of it.) Believing is about what you give your life to, whether or not you give you life to the way of Christ. So when Jesus asks Martha, “Do you believe?”, he is also asking her “do you give your life to things that are of God? Do you give your life to the priorities of God?” Do you give your life to the way of Christ? That is what John’s gospel means when he talks about believing and living in belief. Belief is whether or not a person obediently gives his or her life to the way of Christ and to the priorities of God.
And what Betty Lou gave her life to was justice and reconciliation—working with the FBI during the volatile civil rights era, making so many different and diverse friends during that time and beyond, and working for so many years as a respected member of the legal community here. Betty Lou gave her life to the arts, to music and theater and to helping make the world a more beautiful place. Betty Lou gave her life to helping and ministering to other people. I was visiting another member of our church a couple of weeks ago, and he said, “You’ll never guess who I got a card from the other day…Betty Lou. That woman is sick and dying of cancer. I can’t believe she would take the time and the energy to send me a card!” She gave her life to ministering to others. Betty Lou gave her life to family, both her natural family and those whom she adopted as family, especially to Tom, whom she called her adopted son. Betty Lou gave her life to the way of Jesus Christ our Lord.
Back in October, I went to visit Betty Lou one day at home, and she said to me, ‘Susie and I want to give you something. We found these bracelets, and they have meant so much to me during this time, I want to share them with special people.’ I opened the bag, and the card said it is a Christian character bracelet. Here is what the card says: “Life may bring us joy one moment and sorrow the next, but in Christ we are more than able to handle whatever may come… And then there are several different scripture references. And the bracelet says: “Faith” “Love” “Wisdom” “Grace” “Courage”. These are the virtues that Betty Lou gave her life to, and it was in that giving that she became the exceptional person that we all know and love. And what a gift she has been to all of us. We will miss her terribly.
But we do not sorrow as those without hope, for we know that in the giving of her life to the things that are of God, in her belief, Betty Lou is even know feasting at the heavenly banquet with Bob and her parents and those she has loved who have gone before her. Because we know that death is not the last word. In the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, God has proven once and for all that God’s love is stronger than anything. It is stronger than sickness and cancer; it is stronger than grief and sadness and loss; it is stronger than anything and everything. That is what Jesus’s resurrection proves to us, once and for all: that God’s love is stronger than anything, even death. And so even though we are sad she is no longer with us, we rejoice that Betty Lou is no longer suffering, and she is now living into the fullness of Christ’s resurrection in eternal life.
I had been at St. Peter’s for a few months, when I called Betty Lou up and asked her if we could use some of Bob Daniel’s memorial money to buy a keyboard for the church. She agreed graciously and then she came up to me on the day of the event at which we were using it, and she asked me to sing the hymn that I had written about in that month’s newsletter. She told me that she had really been missing Bob, but when she read the words to that hymn, she had felt better because it had reminded her of him. So I did what everybody I know did whenever Betty Lou Watkins Daniels requested something of you, and I said, “Yes Mam!” and hopped to it!
The hymn is number 482 in our hymnal and it is called “Lord of all hopefulness” It’s one of my favorite hymns because it is asking God to be present with us in all the different times of our days and in all the different times of our lives, and it asks that God might grant us the virtues of joy or bliss, strength, love, and peace—many of the virtues in that bracelet, virtues that Betty Lou gave her life to. The words are
Lord of all hopefulness, Lord of all joy, whose trust, every childlike no cares could destroy, be there at our waking and give us, we pray, your bliss in our hearts, Lord, at the break of the day. Lord of all eagerness, Lord of all faith, whose strong hands were skilled at the plane and the lathe, be there at our labors, and give us, we pray, your strength in our hearts, Lord, at the noon of the day. Lord of all kindliness, Lord of all grace, your hands swift to welcome, your arms to embrace, be there at our homing, and give us we pray, your love in our hearts, Lord, at the eve of the day.
And then there’s the last verse, which is especially appropriate for our dear Betty Lou on this day.
(Sing last verse): “Lord of all gentleness, Lord of all calm, whose voice is contentment, whose presence is balm, be there at our sleeping, and give us we pray, your peace in hearts, Lord, at the end of the day.”

Sunday, March 11, 2012

3rd Sunday in Lent Year B

Lent 3B
March 11, 2012
The Christian writer Anne Lamott once wrote, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” And that is truly the temptation with the gospel reading for this the 3rd Sunday in Lent, isn’t it? Today, we have John’s account of Jesus’s purging of the temple. And it is tempting to imagine what it would be like if Jesus were to purge and scourge all the institutions (and people) that we each think need a little spring cleaning, fine tuning, or even major overhauls. (After a weekend full of phone-calls from Mitt Romney, I personally would be in favor of Jesus going after the current political process, with special attention to the robo-call system.) But that is not what happens in this story.
There are some key points in the telling of this story that are unique to the way that the author of John tells it, which are important for us to note.
First, John differs from the synoptic gospels (that is Mark, Matthew, and Luke) in where he places this story in the chronology of Jesus’s life and ministry. The synoptics place this story of the purging of the temple at the end of Jesus’s ministry, after he has come to Jerusalem and is about to die. This act of Jesus is “the final straw that breaks the camel’s back”, and it is what motivates the powers that be to eliminate him.
For John, this story takes place at the very beginning of Jesus’s ministry. Jesus goes to Jerusalem as a pilgrim to participate in Passover. And his cleansing of the temple is Jesus’s first public act in the gospel of John. (He’s turned the water into wine at the wedding at Cana, he’s called the disciples, and then he cleanses the temple).
Another key point that is unique to the telling of this story in John’s gospel is that Jesus doesn’t refer to the temple as being a “den of robbers” as he does in the synoptic gospels, (referencing how the money changers are defrauding the poor); instead, Jesus’s critique in John’s story is that the temple has become “a marketplace.”
When Jesus enters the temple in Jerusalem, he finds livestock for sale in the court of the Gentiles. The sellers of the livestock were fulfilling an important purpose in the function of the Jewish religion. The people who came to the temple were in need of unblemished animals which they could use to make a sacrifice to God, and they were not able to bring their own animals on the long journey and keep them unblemished. But the animal sellers had set up in the court of the Gentiles, which was the only place in the temple into which Gentiles could enter. So, in fulfilling an important purpose for the spiritual life of the Jews, the animal sellers had created a zoo in the one place which was holy for the Gentiles.
One commentator writes of this passage: “Last Sunday’s text focused on the Lenten question, ‘What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus?’ Today’s text focuses on the question, ‘What does it mean to be the church of Jesus?’…Entering the temple, Jesus discovered how deceiving appearances can be. While the place appeared to fulfill its function, closer inspection revealed that it had forgotten its purpose. …The ways of the world invade the church gradually, subtly, never intentionally, always in service of the church and its mission.”i
Last fall, I got to hear a man named Brian McLaren speak at our clergy conference. McLaren is known for being one of the leaders in the Emergent Church movement, whose focus is on making the church relevant in the lives of people in this post-modern world that we live in. Several things that McLaren said came to mind, as I was spending time with this story of Jesus scourging the temple. McLaren talked to us about how people don’t come to church to find religion. They come to church to find spirituality. People come to church to find and encounter God. It is the role of the church to provide a place for that encounter. And it is also the role of the church to give people the tools, the exercises, the support so that they may encounter God in their lives, in their work, in their families, and during the rest of the week, beyond Sunday morning. ii
What does it mean to be the church of Jesus? For us, it means being a resurrection community; a beacon of hope and healing in a world full of deep pain and suffering. It means offering people hope and healing in their own lives and equipping them to encounter God in their everyday lives, in the most mundane of tasks, in the joys, and in the great upheavals. It means nurturing in people the gifts of joy and gratitude so that they may live the good news of the resurrection in their daily lives.
What would Jesus clean out, overturn, etc, in the life of our own church? And let me just clarify. By church, I don’t mean the building; I don’t mean the vestry or the priest or the choir or the Sunday school or even the Sunday services. By church, I mean all of us together. By church I mean all of us who have decided that walking this way of faith is much more meaningful when we do it together.
So what would Jesus clean out, overturn in the life of all of us who walk this way of faith together? Anything that impedes and distracts us from our purpose of being a resurrection community, a community of mutual support and nurture that is even richer for our diversity and our differences.
What would Jesus clean out, overturn, in our own hearts and souls and faith? What aspects of our own being need to be purged so that we may deepen our relationship with God and with other people?
“John’s Gospel continually warns us against the danger of misunderstanding—thinking we understand Jesus, when the Jesus we think we understand is a Jesus of our own design, a Jesus with whom we are quite comfortable. But what if there is more to his words than we are hearing, more to his will than we are doing?” iii

Readings for today are found at:

i.Gloer, W. Hulitt. Homiletical Perspective. Feasting on the Word. Year B Vol 2. Ed. Bartlett and Brown Taylor. Westminster John Knox: Lousiville, 2008, pp 93, 95, 97.
ii.From my notes on Brian McLaren’s presentation to the Clergy Conference of the Diocese of Mississippi in October 2011.
iii.Gloer, W. Hulitt. Homiletical Perspective. Feasting on the Word. Year B Vol 2. Ed. Bartlett and Brown Taylor. Westminster John Knox: Lousiville, 2008, pp 93, 95, 97.