Sunday, September 30, 2012

18th Sunday after Pentecost--Proper 21B sermon

18th Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 21B Baptism of Bradley Black and 50th anniversary of James Meredith’s enrollment in Ole Miss A letter to Bradley Michael Black upon the occasion of his baptism. Dear Bradley, Today is an important and auspicious day in your young life. Today is the day upon which you are baptized into Christ’s body. Today is the day when you will be sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever. Today, your parents and godparents and family are accepting, on your behalf, that you already belong to God. They are offering God thanks for your belonging, and we are all making promises that we will walk with you, teach you and learn from you about what it means to live as those who belong to God, no matter what. In our gospel reading for today, this day of your baptism, we see Jesus in an extended conversation with his disciples. These disciples have been fighting about who is the greatest among them, and Jesus has taught them a new definition of greatness—that greatness isn’t found where the world places it but rather greatness is found in service and care for others. In our reading for today, John reports to Jesus about an outsider, one who is not a part of their group, who has been casting out demons in Jesus’ name. John reports that he and the other disciples tried to stop him, but Jesus tells them not to. He tells the disciples, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Think about that for a minute, and the difference in what Jesus is saying: “Whoever is not against us is for us,” as opposed to how we normally hear it: “Whoever is not for us is against us.” The first, makes people into allies and opens up the way of belonging. The later makes people enemies, outsiders. And that’s really what today is all about, young Bradley. It is about remembering that God calls all of us to belong; God calls all of us to be insiders in the kingdom of God. Today, your family and friends are saying “yes” to God on your behalf. We are saying, “Yes he does belong to you God, and we are so very grateful!” But Jesus warns us of the flip side of that, even as he warns his disciples. The temptation is, once we have accepted our own belonging, to say to others, “Sorry, but you don’t belong like we do. We are in, but you are out!” Jesus says that is putting a stumbling block in front of “these little ones,” and he offers the disciples a stark, shocking warning against doing that. Another person put it this way: “every time you draw a line between who's in and who's out, you'll find Jesus on the other side."i In addition to your baptism today, little Bradley, we have something else going on in the life of our diocese. Our bishop has asked us to commemorate this 50th anniversary of James Meredith’s enrollment in Ole Miss and to also remember solemnly the resulting riots that took place. All across the diocese (and in the Methodist and Roman Catholic churches in Mississippi as well), we will be offering prayers for “racial healing, understanding and renewed commitment to reconciliation.” We will be remembering a time in the life of our state when some people were so focused on their own belonging that they put a stumbling block before others who were equal inhabitants in the kingdom of God. We will renew our own baptismal covenant, where we promise God that we will “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves” and that we will “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being”. Today we will also “repent and return to the Lord”, confessing to God the times when we have not paid attention to our own and others’ belonging to God; we will confess the times when we have, in fact, put a stumbling block before one of God’s little ones. And so today we remember; we renew our own baptismal covenant; we pray that our own belonging may never be a stumbling block to another who also belongs to God; and we give thanks to God for you, sweet Bradley, who belongs to God and who helps us to remember Jesus’s call to care for all the little ones in God’s kingdom. Your sister in Christ, Melanie+ i. Duane Priebe, Professor Emeritus at Wartburg Seminary quoted on the blog

Sunday, September 23, 2012

17th Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 20B sermon

17th Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 20B September 23, 2012 I can certainly relate to the disciples this week, as I’ve been wrestling with my own thirst for greatness. This week I got to perform on stage at the Hard Rock with some of our fabulous people dancing along side me, and for 4 glorious minutes, I got to be a rock star. People were screaming and cheering us on. (Of course, it was mostly all the St. Peter’s people in the audience…) But still, it was AWESOME! And really, we can all see where they’re coming from. They’ve seen a lot of things happen in their relatively brief time following Jesus. Peter and James and John have just come down the mountain with Jesus after witnessing his transfiguration where they encounter the rest of the disciples arguing because they have not been able to cast out a demon in Jesus’s absence. They have, once again, failed miserably, while Peter and James and John got to go off on a special errand with Jesus. Then Jesus drops the bombshell on them about how he’s going to be killed and then three days later rise again. But the disciples don’t understand and they keep silent because they are afraid to ask him. Then they all go into a house, and Jesus asks them what they had been arguing about on the way, and again, they are silent because they do not want to tell him that they have been arguing about who is the greatest. And notice that Jesus does not rebuke them for wanting to be great. Instead, he teaches them a new definition for greatness. It’s not the rock stars, those who can cast out demons, those who speak eloquently, those who have money or political clout, those….fill in the blank with your own definition of greatness here…That’s not what it means to be great, he tells them. The greatest are the ones who give themselves away in service to others. Then he brings forward a little child, an example of the complete opposite of greatness in that time, one who is completely powerless, and he tells them that whoever welcomes the powerless are also welcoming him. So much for my dreams of pursuing my career as a rock star… Our lesson from the Epistle of James is an interesting companion to this week’s gospel lesson. The writer of James is writing to remind his listeners of who they are, what are the central characteristics for the individuals and for the whole community as followers of Jesus Christ and, even more importantly for James, as people who are in right relationship with God. And what characteristics does he say should be at the heart of their community? He encourages them to be peaceable, and he praises the characteristic of gentleness. The writer of James also writes that when there is conflict, when something is going on inter-personally or even in a church community, it is because of the cravings that are at war within us. There’s an old Native American proverb that speaks to this. You may have heard it before. “An old Cherokee told his grandson: ‘My son, there is a battle between two wolves inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, jealousy, greed, resentment, inferiority, lies, and ego. The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness and truth. The boy thought about it and asked, ‘Grandfather, which one wins?” The old man replied quietly, ‘The one you feed.’” Which wolf have you been feeding lately? Has it been the one that is consumed with your own desire for power, greatness, building up your own ego? Or is it the one that is focused on peaceability, gentleness, and service to God and others? All of us have a good mix of both in our hearts and in our lives. And yet, we are called, as we gather here week after week after week together, to ask for forgiveness from God for how we have fallen short, and to get out there in that world and try again this next week, to be more of the people God is calling us to be. One way of doing this is to intentionally cultivate gentleness in our lives. So how do we do that? First of all, we pay attention to the models of gentleness that we have in God, who again and again proves to be “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love”, and we look to the model of Jesus, who gives himself over to God and to others again and again and again. Second, we pay attention to those around us who remind us of the value of gentleness. Maybe it is little children? Maybe it is your pet? Maybe it the still, quiet sound on a mild, sunny day? This week, I was reminded of this call to gentleness in a most mundane little way by my child and our dog. We have an old Golden Retriever named Izzy, and Izzy has trouble getting around on our wood floors. She often gets stuck wherever she lies down, and then she barks at me to come pick up her rear end, so she can then come lie down wherever I happen to be in the house. The other day, I was moving around a lot, and Izzy kept getting stuck and barking at me to come get her, and I just stopped doing it, because I was tired of having to stop what I was doing and go pick her up. Finally, after Izzy has been barking for a while, Jack, while still playing with his toys, said to me, “Aren’t we supposed to be nice to Izzy?” And I looked at my 4 year old child, and I remembered who I am supposed to be, and I went and picked the dog up again. Find what feeds your gentleness and pay attention to it! The calls to gentleness will not be great signs, flashing lights in the sky. That’s not how gentleness works. So we have to really pay attention to our lives. And when you forget and resume your focus on your own ambition or ego or desires, let it gently remind you of how you are called to be in this world, how we are all called to be together as the body of Christ. May we each remember this day and this week that the way of gentleness and peaceability is the way of belonging to God and in the kingdom of God and the beginnings of eternal life and something so much greater than ourselves.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

15th Sunday after Pentecost--Proper 18B sermon

15th Sunday after Pentecost--Proper 18B September 9, 2012 I ran across a quote this week that I found to be especially pertinent. It is a quote attributed to Richard Hooker, who was one of the most influential theologians in the development of the Church of England, our parent church. This quote says, “I pray that none will be offended if I seek to make the Christian religion an inn where all are received joyously, rather than a cottage where some few friends of the family are to be received.”i. (read it again). This quote is quite striking in the contrast between what Hooker is saying, and what is happening in today’s gospel reading between Jesus and the Syrophonecian woman. Our gospel story is a somewhat confusing and even somewhat embarrassing snapshot of Jesus. It is a story in which we see his fully human side, and we see that, even in his divinity, he is capable of change, especially when it comes to how he understands his own ministry on earth. Let’s look at the story. Jesus is trying to catch a break. He’s gone inside a house out in the middle of nowhere to try to recover from the demands of his ministry, and even there, he is pursued. He’s tired, perhaps a little irritable, and then he has to deal with this impertinent woman who is demanding healing for her daughter and yet who does not even belong to his people, the people to whom he is sent to proclaim the gospel. And so he calls her a dog and refuses to heal her daughter. But then something fascinating happens. The woman doesn’t retaliate with other name-calling or fancy rhetoric or statistics. She absorbs the insult, and then she reflects the good news of Jesus’s own ministry right back to him. With a deeply rooted humility, she claims her place of belonging in the heart of God and in the good news of God’s kingdom. There is such deep good news in today’s gospel, despite the uncomfortable parts! Each of us, I believe, longs for belonging. We were all created to be lonely for God, longing for God, longing to make our home in God. Often times we run around and try to fill that longing with other things—money, achievements, things, good works. But ultimately, only God can fulfill our longing for God. When we spend time with God (in prayer, in worship, in silence), we discover our true belonging in God. (I believe that this is what Jesus was searching for in the beginning of our gospel story.) When we spend time with God, then God whispers back in our hearts, “You are enough; you belong because I have created you; nothing you can do or not do, be or not be, buy or not buy can change that you belong; but you must put your trust in me and not in yourself—in what you can do or not do, be or not be, buy or not buy. You are enough and you belong.” When we regularly spend time with God and we dwell within that awareness of (and gratitude for) our belonging, then we are free to invite others into that belonging as well. It becomes our great delight to share that belonging with others. We recognize that belonging in God is not limited to whom we think should belong; we all dwell within the Good news of God’s kingdom where all may find belonging and home. But when we are out of touch with God, we are also out of touch with our own belonging, and then we are more inclined to try to keep others (especially OTHERS—those who are different than us) from belonging as well. If you look around this church this morning and think in your secret heart that there is someone who does not belong here, belong to God, then that is a first sign that God is calling you back, to spend more time with God and to get reconnected with your own belonging within God. My favorite poet, Mary Oliver, has written a poem that articulates all this beautifully. It is called Wild Geese You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile the world goes on. [Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain are moving across the landscapes, over the prairies and the deep trees, the mountains and the rivers.] Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again. Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting – over and over announcing your place in the family of things.ii God loves you just as you are. You are enough. You belong to God, and we all belong here together. May we all give our hearts fully to that this morning, and be grateful. “I pray that none will be offended if I seek to make the Christian religion an inn where all are received joyously, rather than a cottage where some few friends of the family are to be received.” Thanks be to God! i. I found this quote in a picture posted on the Facebook page for Calvary Episcopal Church in Memphis, TN. ii.from Dream Work by Mary Oliver published by Atlantic Monthly Press © Mary Oliver.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

14th Sunday after Pentecost--Proper 17B

14th Sunday after Pentecost--Proper 17B September 2, 2012 Wow! What a week! We’ve had much anxiety and a pretty decent sized mess, and we have much to be thankful for. I like the way that the reading from James says it today: “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change…” It reminds me of something we sing every Sunday, in which we remember that all good things are from God “from whom ALL blessings flow.” As we give thanks in this moment for who we are and where we are, let’s sing together now: Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Praise God from whom all blessings flow. Praise him all creatures here below. Praise him above ye heavenly host. Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.” We give thanks today that God cares for each and every one of us and for the whole world, more than we could ever ask or imagine. And it is in the context of God’s abundance, God’s generosity, that we hear the words of letter of James, urging us to be “doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like…” It is in the context of God’s abundance, God’s generosity (and our gratitude) that we hear the words of Jesus this morning as he talks about the difference of what is inside and what is outside, how it is not what is outside which is impure but what is inside. Jesus is once again talking about the difference between choosing religion over choosing God. But in this passage, he makes it intensely personal. The last two Sundays I have preached, I have felt called to preach about some difficult subjects: gossip in the church and the times when we choose religion or rules over God or loving God and loving other people. Both times I have preached these two sermons, I’ve had people come up to me and talk about their neighbor, and so today I want to be perfectly clear. This week, Jesus is talking about each and every one of us. This week, Jesus is talking about you. He is talking to you. And he is inviting you to grow in your faith and in your relationship with him by examining the sins that are to be found, not in your neighbor’s actions. He is inviting you to examine the sins that are to be found in your own heart. Take a moment and remember us all singing together about God—from whom all blessings flow. Take a moment and think about the abundance and generosity of God. And now take a moment and think about some scarcity that has come out of your own heart, maybe this very morning, about someone else. That is what James is talking about when he urges us to be doers of the word and not just hearers. It is what Jesus is talking about in today’s gospel. Only Jesus knows exactly what is in a person’s heart, and he is inviting you to walk with him in a thorough examination of what is impure in your very own heart. I read a series of questions this week that gets to the very heart of this issue, and I will share them with you now, and then we will spend some time with them in silence. “‘For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’…As you judge the world around you where do you find blame for all the darkness that seems to engulf us? How might the anger and disappointment you feel about the darkness and disappointment around what is happening be an evasion of looking at what is within your own heart? What would you have to give up in order to search out the evil intentions in your own heart? What might be the first question you pose to yourself?”i What parts of your heart need to have the Light of God, the giver of every perfect gift and the Father of lights, shined upon them? Where do you fall short of loving God with your whole heart and mind and soul and loving your neighbor as yourself? God loves and redeems even that, if you are brave enough to uncover and examine it, if you are brave enough to offer it. i. By Bill Dols written in Bible Workbench Issue 19.5 September 2, 2012 p 55.