Saturday, July 19, 2014

A Welcome Table for All

Sermon for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost, July 13, 2014, at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene. Proper 10A:  Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

          Three Sundays and three sermons left, and it seems to me my last opportunity to preach the Good News of God proclaimed by Jesus and at work among us by the Holy Spirit, in the images we have held up most of these ten years we have been together.  I’m talking about the three images from our Mission Statement:  We are

A healing place for souls
A school for justice
A welcome table for all

          Just a reminder, and for the record, these images arose out of a visioning process in which the whole parish participated in 2005.  Those of you who were here then, do you remember the “Dream Team” who led the process?[1]

I am going to start with the image of the Welcome Table.  It came from a hymn that is on our regular “play list,” “I’m going to eat at the Welcome Table (LEVAS II #).  The parable of the sower will help me get there, along with two sermons on this parable by two of the great preachers of our time, Barbara Brown Taylor, and Fred Craddock.

          It may not seem so obvious how the parable of the sower leads to the inclusive image of the welcome table.  In fact, Jesus’ interpretation of it seems to head in the opposite direction—an exclusiveness based on whether or not the seed of the Word will grow in you or not.

          Another great preacher of our day, Barbara Brown Taylor, points this problem out.  She recalls seeing this parable enacted in the musical Godspell and says

Watching all of that, I had the same response I always do to this parable:  I start worrying about what kind of ground I was on with God.  I started worrying about how many birds were in my field, how many rocks, how many thorns.  I started worrying about how I could clean them all up, how I could turn myself into a well-tilled, well-weeded, well-fertilized field for the sowing of God’s word.  I started worrying about how the odds were three to one against me—those are the odds of the parable, after all—and I began thinking how I could beat the odds, or at least improve on them, by cleaning up my act.[2]

          Of course, this anxiety is caused mostly by Jesus’ interpretation of the parable rather than the parable itself.  But this exclusivist anxiety is common both in the Bible and in the church.  There seem to be two different paths, an exclusive path in which the world is divided into saints and sinners, worthy and unworthy, a path that has dominated much of the church’s history, or an inclusive path which many would say is foreign to Scripture, but many of us are now saying is the real golden thread of the Scriptures from beginning to end, often hidden and subversive, however.

          When Fred Craddock preaches this parable he admits that the interpretation of the parable does indeed head in the direction of those who seem to be good, fertile Christians and those in whom the Word just does not seem to grow.  But then he has this say:

If this parable did not have an interpretation and all I had was the parable itself, this is what I would say:  First of all, please do not ever give up on anybody.  Please.  The plain fact is that I do not know and you do not know whether there will be any growth.  So let us not be selective, saying, “Oh, I think I will put a seed here.  This looks like a good one, but I won’t put a seed there—no use fooling with him.”  No, spread the seed.  Let it go on the path and the weeds and the thin soil.  Randomly scatter the good Word of God and do not try to predict what the result will be, because you do not know….This is God’s business.  This is Christ sowing the seed for goodness sake.  And what do we know?  We don’t know anything.[3]

          That is one of the great keys to the truly inclusive church.  The humility to say, “This is God’s business.  We don’t know anything.”  And because we acknowledge that we do not know anything, we assume that God is working with all of us, “us” being whoever walks in the door and gathers here on any given day, whoever they are, whatever their circumstances today, yesterday or tomorrow.

          Everyone who walks in the door (and whether they have walked in the door thousands of times or just once does not matter at all—that is true hospitality), everyone who walks in the door we assume, because we do not know any better and never will, everyone who walks in the door we assume is a child of God with a story to tell (and to be listened to) that is part of God’s story, a wound that needs our compassion or a cause for joy and gratitude that needs to be joined to our joy and gratitude, and gifts to give that are different from anybody else’s.

          And what we say when we are at our best is not, come and be like us because it doesn’t matter how different you are from us.  That is not what we say.  Thinking that is the message of the inclusive church—that we are really all the same—is a fatal flaw.  No, we say bring your difference, join it to ours, the more difference among us the better.

          Bring your devilish birds, your thin soil, and your weeds.  We have all brought our own version of these things, but we have discovered that together we are fertile soil.  Together we make this table welcome, and the only criteria for remaining among us is that you do not try to tear the Table down, which is to say, you do not try to separate anyone from the love of God we know in Jesus, in whom there is now no condemnation.

          The song we sing about the Welcome Table dreams that we will eat at it one of these days.  What we proclaim is, today is the day.

[1] Again for the record, the members were Chris Cleveland, Bruce Colburn, Allan Cuseo, Donna Davis, Madeline Gamble, Aaron Kane, Sylvia Kannapel, Ebo Ocran, Chuck Smith and Carter Williams
[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, The Seeds of Heaven: Sermons on the Gospel of Matthew (2004), pp. 25-26.
[3] Fred Craddock, The Cherry Log Sermons (2001), p. 23.

Friday, July 04, 2014

God is a Giver Not a Taker

Sermon preached on the Third Sunday after Pentecost, June 29, 2014, at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, Rochester, NY.  Proper 8A:  Genesis 22:1-14; Matthew 10:40-42

          The Bible is the record of a people’s struggle with their relationship with God, so it never should come as a surprise when the struggle that is portrayed is difficult, causing us to enter into our own struggle if we are to grow in relationship with God as our ancestors did.  We would prefer that the Bible was a clear set of guidelines, filled with direct answers to life’s questions, and in one sense it is these things, but only in very round-about ways that cause us to question, “What is really going on here?” and “How does this relate to my own relationship with God and how I live out that relationship in the world?”

          Although it may be one of the most difficult stories in the Bible, the story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his own son, is a case in point.  We are tempted to think that the point of this story is that we should have as much faith as Abraham, such willingness to follow God that we would obey God at whatever cost.

          But I am not sure that is the point at all.  The clue to the real point of the story, as it frequently is, especially in the Torah, is found in the name of the place where the action occurs.  The place name is often the answer to the question posed by the story.

          In this case, Abraham calls the place, “The Lord provides,” “Yahweh yireh,” or, what may ring a bell for you, using an anglicized form of Yahweh, “Jehovah jireh.”  I learned a little song in college based on this text that has stuck with me all these years.

Jehovah jireh, my provider,
whose grace is sufficient for me, for me, for me
Jehovah jireh, my provider,
whose grace is sufficient for me
My God cares for me
According to his riches in glory
Jehovah jireh, my provider,
whose grace is sufficient for me

          The question posed by this horrific story is a simple one about the nature of God.  Is God a giver or a taker?

          The answer is a subtle one, but very important.  The story wants us to understand that everything belongs to God.  As much as anything else, that is the fundamental, bottom-line message of the whole book of Genesis.  Everything was created by God and therefore everything belongs to God.  Because of that, God could demand anything from us, even something as dear to us as our own life or the life of one we love.

          Having made that crystal clear, this story and the entirety of the biblical story, wants to also make it clear that it is not the nature of God to take from us, as if God needed constant, tangible proof of our obedience or even the sacrifice of human life to appease him.  No. The nature of God is to create, not destroy, to give, not to take.  “Yahweh yireh,” “Jehovah jireh,” “The Lord provides.”

          That means that the question this story poses to us is not whether or not we are willing to prove our faith in God by meeting impossible demands.  The question posed by the story is both, “Will you accept my provision?” and “Will you share in my provision to the world?”  Will you be a people who provides?

          Which brings us to this morning’s brief Gospel reading, in which Jesus poses essentially the same question, in the form of a very pragmatic statement, “Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones…will not lose their reward.”

          For those of us who live in a land of abundant water, and modern refrigeration, this may seem like no big deal.  But Jesus is speaking in a cultural context where water was a very precious commodity, fresh water even more precious, and cold water most precious of all.  Jesus is asking us to give not out of our abundance, but out of our scarcity.

          What are some ways in our own context might we express what Jesus is asking of us?  One example, I think, would be in terms of time, something that often feels scarce to us.  “Whoever gives even a moment of time to listen to one of these little ones will not lose their reward.”  Whoever takes the time to share in my providing for the well-being of the world will not lose their reward.

          Who are these “little ones” of whom Jesus speaks?  Scholars have long debated the issue, but I think this saying links directly to the Gospel writer Matthew’s most remembered story.  “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?”  And the reply is, “Truly, I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”[1]

          The Gospel is not an abstract idea, or a particular philosophy of life, or the particularities of how you get into heaven.  The Gospel is something as simple as a cup of cold water to one who thirsts, an ear and a moment of time to one who needs to be heard, any gesture of giving that is in itself a gesture of God, the God who provides, who is a giver and not a taker.

[1] See Matthew 25:31-46.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Grief, Grace, and Gratitude

What follows is the text of the letter sent to all active members of Two Saints such that by this morning (Sunday, June 29) almost everyone knew of my decision to resign as rector of this great parish.  My last Sunday will be July 27, 2014, with a Farewell Celebration on Saturday, August 2 at 5 pm to which all are welcome.

                                                                        The Nativity of St. John the Baptist
                                                                        June 24, 2014

My sisters and brothers at Two Saints,

            This letter is to announce my resignation as your rector due to my continued health issues.  Know that I do this for my own sake, but also that of the parish.  It is heartbreaking for me to leave you.  I love you deeply, and will continue to do so, but I cannot in all honesty give you the level of leadership you need.

            Over the past four months I have had to come to terms with the fact that, although I have significant gifts to give to parish ministry, I also have limitations.  The latter statement may seem to some of you that I am giving up the struggle against my illness, but that is very far from the case.  The reality is that in order to live with bipolar disease (and living with it is my only option), I must do so from a position of honesty and clear-headedness.

            I have loved my time as your rector, and I believe with all my heart that we were called to work together, and, in doing so, have, by the grace of God, accomplished much.  I admit that I have made mistakes along the way, and to those of you who have been on the short end of those mistakes, I offer my profound apology.  But overall I rejoice in our time together and am grateful to God not only for my ministry with you, but also your ministry to me.  Ironically, the depth of our relationship has been one of the factors in giving me the courage to do what I must do.

            It is human nature to attempt to find out what or who is “to blame” when something unexpected like this happens.  I want you to know that the factors that led to this point are many, and no single one of them is to blame.  Assigning blame will not get you or me anywhere positive.  And such, I trust I have taught you consistently, is not the way of God with us.

            As I leave the accomplishments with which I am most pleased are four in number:

v  I do believe we moved beyond the “merger period” and into a future-oriented sense of purpose and mission.  In doing so we loved each other across many lines of difference, and maintained, if not increased, our witness to the church and the world that inclusiveness is a deeply gospel value.

v  I believe we took great steps in empowering our members for ministry both within and beyond the church, including changing the climate of vestry such that members were more willing to serve and happier doing so, increasing formation opportunities such as Education for Ministry, and taking steps to be more inclusive of children in our overall life as a parish.

v  We have worked with our building to make it more accessible and flexible which is vitally important for our future.  We have done so not instead of mission but in order to enable it.

v  We proved to ourselves that we could get a handle on parish finances, reduce dependence on endowment and increase our level of personal stewardship.  And these things were accomplished, I believe, not out of guilt, but out of a strong commitment to the parish’s future.

At this point I do not know precisely what is next, but Bishop Singh, Canon Cicora, and I are in conversation about what form of ministry could use my gifts while providing a setting that also is realistic in terms of my limitations.  I ask your prayers.  You will remain in mine always.  The Vestry and I will announce soon the schedule of my departure.  I do plan on being with you at the Altar for the next five Sundays at least.

Glory to God, whose power working in us can do more than we can ask or imagine.  Glory to God from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever.

            I am, and always will be, yours in the love of Jesus and the communion of the Holy Spirit,


Tuesday, June 17, 2014

25 Years a Deacon

25 years ago today Bishop Frank Griswold, then Bishop of Chicago, ordained me and several others as deacons at St. James' Cathedral, Chicago.  I'm grateful to God for the gift of ministry and especially today am remembering and giving thanks for all those who believed in me 25 years ago.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Maya Angelou, 1928-2014

It's Sacred; Church
Everything in God's world is sacred.  Trees and
toads and little girl's eyes. Grandfather's hands
and the murmuring voices of lovers.  Sacred.

A poet's dream, almanac compilers and rocks that
look up at the moon.  Sacred.  Everything can be
church and anything can be church.

Church was the first place where I came
child to spirit to Christ.  "Suffer little children
to come unto me, for such is the Kingdom of

Literally, church introduced me to my very first
friend.  Louise and I both thought the preacher
talked too long, Mrs. Sneed sang too loudly and
Brother Williams got too wild when he prayed.
We both giggled at the same time and cried just
as piteously when we were chastised.

Every time I feel the spirit, I know I am
immersed in the essence of church.  That know-
ledge changes my voice.  I speak more softly and
choose my words more carefully.  There are more
"yes, ma'ams" and "no ma'ams" and "yes, sirs" and
"no sirs" in my conversation.

Out of my heart, out of my brain, more "thank
yous" slide across my tongue.  I am blessed.
I am in church.

Church is not the luggage I bear, nor the cloak I
wear.  It is neither the hat I sport, nor the shoes,
which carry me around my world.  It is not my
destination, nor my place of departure.

I cannot define the breadth and depth and width
and height of church, but church can define me
always.  It slides the skin over my muscles and
allows my lungs to inspirate and fill so that
"Hallelujahs" like rain come from my mouth,
"Hallelujahs" fall like rain from my lips.

Church is where I go when I want a certain ful-
fillment, and church is where I don't have to go
because it is always with me,
holding me up,
propelling me forward,
sustaining me.

When I think about church and remember that
church and I are one, I am reminded that  every-
thing in God's world is sacred.

2003, Dr. Maya Angelou

Friday, May 02, 2014

"Comely Being:" For Festus

There be three things which go well, yea, four are comely in going: A lion which is strongest among beasts, and turneth not away for any; a greyhound; an he goat also; and a king, against whom there is no rising up. Proverbs 30:29-31 (KJV) 

Festus on the day of his arrival at 56 Vassar St., Labor Day, 2008
Our beloved greyhound Festus died on Wednesday (April 30, 2014) at the age of ten years, three months, of complications from bone cancer.  Like most greyhounds, Festus was a beautiful dog, and as gentle and sweet a dog as you would ever meet.  One assumes Proverbs calls the greyhound “comely in going” for its truly incredible ability to run like the wind.  We actually never saw that in Festus.  For us, his “comeliness” was in his being.

John adored Festus and usually took him for his walk before bed.  They wouldn’t do more than around the block, but it would take a good half hour because Festus, though at one time he may have run nearly 40 miles an hour, walked at great leisure. He knew thousands of smells in the blocks around our house and liked to check in with as many of them as possible every night.

Festus was ready to love everybody, or, rather, he was ready for everybody to love him.  There was not an anxious bone in his body.  My favorite picture of him will always be lying in the middle of my parents’ living room floor on Christmas Day, all 80 pounds of him with those long, delicate legs splayed out, with utter madness swirling around him, and he never flinching.  He was just happy to be there, happy to be.
Letting him go was excruciating.  He was only in our life for five and a half years.  It was only two weeks from diagnosis to one of his legs more or less spontaneously breaking.  He was in such pain, we had to help him on his way.  My last words to him were the warning that he where he would wake up he would have to learn to lie down with rabbits.

He was a dog with a history, so here, for the record, it is:

Odd Festus was born January 20, 2004 in Melbourne, Florida, the son of sire Dodgem By Design and dam Odd Drew (“Odd” being his family name, more or less).  He was the fourth born of a litter of eight.  Odd Drew would eventually have 38 children.  His lineage can be traced back 34 generations to the 1820’s to a sire named Pilot and a dam named Kitty in the United Kingdom.  The male line moves through Australia before arriving in the United States in 1962.  His damline moved from the UK through Ireland until arriving in the US in 1981.

Festus ran in 153 races on three Florida tracks.  His first race was September 12, 2005, a race he won.  His last race was February 12, 2008.  He won 16 races in his career, placed 15 times, and showed 19 times.  His fastest time was recorded May 17, 2006 at 30.52.  His career average time was 31.49.  In his retirement years he volunteered on several occasions for the Rochester Greyhound Rescue Organization, especially at the Park Ave Fest.

If you “google” “Odd Festus,” the first two entries will lead you to information about him, including a record of all his races and a complete history of his line.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Sermon Break

To all who occasionally read this blog, I want you to know that there won't be any sermons for a few weeks. I am on medical leave.  I may be writing once and awhile to reflect on my experience, but no sermons.  Peace to all.