January 1, 2017


The Feast of the Holy Name

            The University of Tennessee’s football season came to an end on Friday evening with a 38-24 victory over the University of Nebraska. In case you don’t me that well, I grew up in Knoxville, going to Tennessee games with my dad. And even though I attended college at Middle Tennessee State University, the tradition of Tennessee football continues on in my family. My dad and sister still go to every home game. They get there early enough, along with 30-40 thousand of their closest friends, to watch the marching band parade to the stadium. We did that when I was young, and my sister, 13-years younger than me, continues the tradition with my dad. Since I cannot be there in person, my dad calls me as the band is marching. I always have to be aware of the kick-off time so I’ll know when to expect that call. And in those 90 seconds, everything else just kind of stops. I even pulled over during a bike ride once to make sure I got to hear all of it. There is just something about Traditions, isn’t there?
            We are finishing out a six week season, starting with Thanksgiving, filled with Tradition. Families that always make *this dish* every Thanksgiving; people who have to watch a particular movie to make it feel like the holiday season; some families have long-established and unwritten rules about who gets to place the star/angel/whatever on the top of the Christmas Tree. In some ways it’s hard to believe that Christmas was a week ago. But yet, it was, because here we are on January 1st, New Year’s Day on secular calendars, the Feast of the Holy Name on religious calendars. January 1st brings with its own set of traditions. We eat certain things, make certain resolutions, maybe that’s the traditional day people start taking down the Christmas decorations. Later this afternoon, my family will enjoy our New Year’s Day tradition: an early dinner spread of appetizers as we enjoy a little late afternoon football. It will be a little different this year since it’ll be the Panthers game and not the Rose Bowl, but still a fun tradition, and one that we stumbled upon by accident.
            The other holy day we observe this morning, The Feast of the Holy Name, is steeped in Tradition that is no accident. In the 17th Chapter of Genesis, God made a covenant with Abraham, that every male child in his family, both servant and free, would be circumcised on his 8th day of life. Later, as it’s recorded in Exodus and Leviticus and Numbers and Nehemiah, God says that every first born male child shall be dedicated to God. This is to serve as a reminder of the cost to the Egyptians for holding God’s people captive for so long and mistreating them. Eight days after the child is born, he is presented by his father (the mother is ritually unclean and cannot enter the worship space) to the religious leader, receives the sign of God’s covenant with Israel (circumcision), and is formally named. Luke remembers this occasion with just a few verses in the overall narrative of Jesus’ birth, but it gives him the opportunity to talk again about the importance of the Temple. Remember, in the story of birth of John the Baptizer, the Temple plays a central role in that story, too.
            So, why is all of this important? Why do we remember the 8th day of the Baby Jesus’ life?
            Mary & Joseph are keeping with the Laws of Moses and presenting this holy child, a first-born male, to God. And they name him Jesus, just as the Messengers of the Almighty told both of them separately to do. This short little scene in Luke’s Gospel serves as a reminder of several important things. For starters, why God chose Mary and Joseph in the first place. Their faithfulness and dedication to God’s laws would certainly be an environment from which faithful Jews would expect to see the Messiah emerge. Matthew’s Gospel records Joseph as a righteous man. In the same vein, it reminds us of Jesus’ Jewish-ness. It reminds us that Jesus was born into a faith Tradition, to two parents who were committed to making sure he was a part of that Tradition. Luke does a masterful job of making Jesus appealing to an incredibly wide audience. But we cannot, nor should we forget the ancient tradition into which Jesus was born and raised and the context in which he taught. Luke does a good job of reminding his readers that Jesus was often found in worship at the synagogue. Take Luke 4:16 for example: When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. A careful reading the context clues in each of the Gospels finds Jesus celebrating other Jewish high holy days with his disciples. One of the roles of Jesus’ earthly ministry was to clarify why it was we have certain traditions and how we should honor God within those traditions.
            There is something important and incredible about Tradition. I say that fully aware that I am 40-year old, white male, who is the senior minister of a mainline Christian denomination. I hold the belief that Tradition is important and incredible, but not infallible, because it has the potential to be life-giving on so many levels. We are a part of a 2,000 year old tradition based on the life and teachings of someone who was an active part of a 4,000-year old tradition. We are part of a Tradition that helps share the life-changing Gospel of Jesus Christ in both the words we use and the actions we take.
On this first day of the week, on the first day of the year, you have chosen to make yourself a part of that tradition, too. Maybe this is what you always do. Maybe you are turning over a new leaf in a new year. Either way, we are grounding ourselves for the week to come, giving us perspective on where who we are and whose we are. We have chosen, like Mary and Joseph, to remember that in putting God first, in our week and in our life, we are submitting ourselves to something bigger than us. For Mary & Joseph, participating in this ritual tradition was an expression of their deepest awareness of God’s presence in their lives and their commitments, both public and private, to that same God.

Like Mary & Joseph, we are a part of something bigger than ourselves, more ancient than we can imagine, participating with others who recognize the mysteries of life and the power of the Almighty. As we move forward into 2017, remember where God is and what God is doing in all of our Traditions.

December 4, 2016

Plowing the Field

Advent 2A, December 4, 2016

In 1942, Clarence Jordan and his wife Florence, along with another couple (Morton and Mable England) began what they affectionately called a “Demonstration plot for the Kingdom of God.” It was a farm in Americus, Georgia, about 130 miles due south of Atlanta on US Hwy 19. Koinonia Farm as it came to be called was, essentially, a commune. But the people who came there spent time developing community life on the teachings and principles of Jesus. People of all types, men, women, black, white, foreign & native born, all worked side by side, ate side by side, and shared in the profits of the farm. They prayed together, worshiped together, and studied Scripture together too. There was not a distinction among them. 

At least, not on the farm itself. As I said, it was the 1940s in rural Georgia. After the War, various groups tried various measures to get Koinonia Farms to stop doing what they were doing. There were protests and boycotts, firebombs and bullets, even night time visits from the Ku Klux Klan. But in all of those hardships, Clarence Jordan and his farm family responded with non-violent resistance and prayer. They found new avenues to sell the fruits of the labors. They used other networks, long before mass media, to tell their story. And in all of that, Koinonia Farms grew. As the threats of violence passed, they focused on the poor quality of local housing and began a project to build decent, affordable homes for our neighbors. Linda & Millard Fuller were part of Koinonia Farms at the time, and from that local effort to build homes came Habitat for Humanity. And Clarence Jordan told the story of Koinonia Farms in multiple ways before his unexpected death in 1969. One of his lasting legacies is a series of books called The Cotton Patch Gospel in which he translates the New Testament from the ancient Greek into the South Georgia vernacular of his people. Gainesville, GA, is Bethlehem; Atlanta is Jerusalem, just to give you a hint of his geography. 

Who, really, would have thought that in little old Americus, Georgia, there would be such a place that will celebrate its 75th anniversary in 2017. An ongoing community that seeks to show what the Kingdom of God can and should look like, in much the same way the prophet Isaiah talked about a few thousand years ago. Clearly humanity is still working on it, but every now and then we get a glimpse of that peaceable kingdom as it prepares the way for God’s reign to be seen. What makes Koinonia Farms so different is how counter-cultural it was. Clarence Jordan grew up in a mainline, Protestant denomination and graduated from seminary in that Christian tradition deeply rooted in the culture of the era. The first groups that took issue with Koinonia were not the Klan or the White Citizens Councils; it was other Christian places of worship. In a time when most churches in the Deep South supported segregation, either explicitly or through their silence, they saw this “demonstration plot for the Kingdom of God” as a direct threat to them and their understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Jordans had a friend from India, a recent convert to Christianity, visiting with them, learning with them on the Farm. They took him to church with them on Sunday. The Jordans saw nothing wrong with this, of course. Here was a friend, a follower of Jesus, and they wanted to show off their church. The other members of the church saw a person of color and, while they let him worship with them since he was a friend of the Jordans, they were pretty clear they didn’t like it. 

A few years ago, the Jordans son, Jim said in an interview with Christianity Today magazine: When it became clear in the South that the old ways were not going to last forever, and the strong resistance started, Koinonia became a symbol for the change and the lightning rod for the opposition. 

When the systems begin to shift and change, it makes people incredibly uncomfortable. We can see this play out in smaller ways like our own household or our workplace or local churches. I mean, have you ever encountered a loyal grocery store customer after they find that the tomato sauce is now in a different place? We see this level of discomfort and angst when systems we have known for a lifetime start to shift, when it appears that “the way things have always been” might not “always be” in the next generation. It goes way beyond tomato sauce or who is going where for the holidays. It means we have to take a long, hard, and often uncomfortable look at what God is doing. Our words from Isaiah and John the Baptist today address some of this shift. One of the things I adore about both of these prophets is their inability to mince words. Isaiah proclaims the coming of a new Davidic King. Christians have plugged Jesus into this story somewhat retroactively. We can see what Isaiah was talking about, but the likely hood is that Isaiah couldn’t envision someone like Jesus; he was talking about a new King to be like or better than David, a man after God’s own heart. It wouldn’t be easy, and it would certainly disrupt the system that had evolved since David was king. The images of predator and prey lying peaceably together brings up images of the Garden of Eden, but it is also meant to serve as an image of kingdoms no longer at war, no longer seeking each other’s land. Not an easy habit to break! While Isaiah was prophesying somewhat abstractly about the future, John the Baptist was, well, being John the Baptist. Normal everyday people are flocking to him to see what his message is all about. And those in religious power, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, come to him as well. Only, they seem to be on the fringe of the crowd to see what he might say next. He sees them and says, “You brood of vipers!!” I doubt they smiled and said, “Oh, he’s talking about us…” 

This Wildman of the Wilderness, John the Baptizer, got himself into more than a couple of troublesome spots with people for speaking truth to power. He starts off that way today with his “brood of vipers” comment, but he keeps going. Did you see that? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 

He’s saying that God doesn’t care what has happened in the past. God doesn’t care who your ancestors are or were. What have you done today that is going to help bring peace to the world and God’s Kingdom on earth? Because that’s our job. John the Baptist was not the Messiah, and he was not, by his own admission, the one Isaiah was talking about either. But he pointed the way, and laid the groundwork for Jesus to proclaim the Kingdom of God has come near. Clarence Jordan carried on the work of John the Baptist and Isaiah by literally preparing the Earth for this peaceable Kingdom that Isaiah foretold. There’s only one John the Baptist. There is only one Clarence Jordan. And there is only one of you, too. Our call, our job, is to prepare the way for Christ, and that happens in many, many ways. The Church of course is people who sometimes occupy a building, not a building sometimes occupied by people. This Church, you, do a pretty amazing job of reaching out to relieve, to the extent we can, the suffering of those in our community and beyond. The bins in our Reception Area for Religious Community Services, Interfaith Refugee Ministries, and Merci Clinic are always overflowing. When there is an individual need, this church responds. The Christ Church Trust recently gave away over $70,000 for local agencies who are serving the most vulnerable of God’s children here in New Bern. The Gospel writers told the story of John the Baptist. The stories of Koinonia Farms and Habitat for Humanity have been well told in many ways, and RCS, Merci Clinic, and Interfaith Refugee Ministries all have powerful stories to tell, too, about what happens when people of faith look to answer Jesus’ call to a better way of life and a better way to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. As Christ Church, we have a story to tell, too. We have a story to tell about the ministry that happens here in these historic walls, but we have a story to tell about the ministry that happens OUTSIDE these walls, too, and the people of Christ Church who help make New Bern it’s own little “demonstration plot for the Kingdom of God.” We live into and live out our Baptismal promises all the time, and in doing so, we are pointing the way to Christ. The problem is that we are either too humble to talk about them, or we don’t know the whole picture enough to tell that story. 

Former Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori talked many times, including from this pulpit in 2011, about how the true impact of a church should not be measured by how many seats are filled each week, but by how many lives are transformed in the community. It is my hope that one year from now, the first Sunday in December 2017, we will be well on our way to telling the story of how Christ Church, New Bern, impacts this community and makes a difference in the lives of those we encounter. It’s an effort that will take all of us, not just gathering the stories and images to be told, but to share those stories with our friends and neighbors. When we do that, when we tell the story, not of how great we are, but of how we serve Christ by serving others and tending to those on the margins of our community, we point the way to Jesus and show others what Christian community means. 

And that, my brothers and sisters, is called Evangelism. 


 Extra Sources: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2005/marchweb-only/32.0a.html 

October 2, 2016

Faith is an Action Verb

Proper 22C, Year B

Yes, it's a noun, too. But for faith to really work, it has to be a verb. An action verb.