September 26, 2004

Sermon: Church of the Redeemer, Bethesda, MD

September 26, 2004
Proper 21, Year C

So, what did you think of the lessons today? They don’t particularly beat around the bush do they? There’s not a whole lot of wondering what they mean, no matter what generation of God’s people are hearing them. Quite clearly, these passages convey a hard message about stewardship. Yes, the other “S” word.

Now wait, relax! I’m not going to talk about money this morning. I’m a youth minister. I don’t talk about money. I just know I don’t have any. So let’s hang on to this message of stewardship, put it on a shelf. We’ll come back to it in just a minute.

First: I want to tell you why I’m a youth minister. You know, it’s a question I get asked rather frequently. And I have a simple answer. “Paula, Jack, & Jonathan.” That is why I’m a youth minister. Three people who at three very important periods in my adolescence mentored and guided me, who were willing to listen, brave enough to task tough questions, and loved my awkward-self with no strings attached. They gave of themselves to the young people of our parish asking very little in return.
When I was in high school, I had a lot of questions, especially about this Jesus character. I spent hours and hours with Jonathan asking him questions about how Jesus could be full human and fully divine. At 16, it just didn’t make sense. Finally, during one of our conversations, I said, “Jonathan, I just need to know that Jesus knew what it was like to be 16.”
“Yeah,” Jonathan said, “Jesus did know what it was like. And still does. He probably didn’t always get along with his parents, had friends who changed, had a girlfriend. All that stuff.”

Suddenly Jesus made sense, and I could allow my relationship with Him to grow. All because someone took the time to listen to my questions and help me sort out the answers.

There’s another reason I’m a youth minister. The communities that developed under Paula’s, Jack’s and Jonathan’s direction provided my peers and I the opportunities to laugh & cry, to celebrate & mourn, to doubt & to believe. The funny thing is, of the 15 or 20 different people I was in youth groups with, most of us are still a part of the church. Some of us actually work for the church, but almost all of us are still connected to Christ and to the church.

Paula, Jack & Jonathan took seriously the promise made at every Baptism. It’s right there on page 303 in the Book of Common Prayer: “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ?” And we answer, “We will.” We don’t say, “He will,” or “she will” or “somebody will.” WE will. The answer is as clear as today’s Gospel message.
Speaking of today’s Gospel message, let’s take that whole stewardship thing off the shelf we put it on a few minutes ago. All of the lessons this morning are about what we do with what we’ve been given. Stewardship.

God has blessed Church of the Redeemer with some amazing young people. And God has blessed Redeemer with some bright and talented adults, too. You’ve been given a lot of gifts. What are you going to do with those gifts?

Young people need adults in their lives who aren’t their parents, fellow Christians who have had doubts, found faith, seen miracles. Adults who will be wild-crazy about them. Adults who will listen to their stories, listen to their hopes & fears, highs & lows. Adults who will listen without prejudice, without thinking that it’s the same as it was when they were 15 or 16. Because it’s not. A 15-year old today faces a far different world than I faced when I was 15 and an even different world that someone who was 15 thirty years ago. Young people need adults in their life who recognize their prophetic voice, who value the honesty and truth with which they speak.
Yes, adolescents can be scary. They speak a different language; they dress in a style that’s not like any other age demographic. Emotions are like a roller-coaster and most adults don’t understand their music. But that’s OK; you’re not really supposed to understand their music. That’s what makes it “their music.”

But young people are a gift. They are a resource that cannot be replaced. They have a well of wisdom and knowledge that is waiting to be tapped. Stewardship is about sharing the gifts God has given you. It’s also about how you grow from the gifts other people share with you. I’ve worked with thousands of young people over the past 10 years, and I’m certain that I’ve learned more from them than they could have collectively learned from me.

Stewardship is what we do with what we’ve been given and how we do that in a community of faith. As St. Paul said to St. Timothy, “They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future.”

July 25, 2004

Sermon: St. John's, Georgetown

July 25, 2004
8th Sunday after Pentecost: Luke 11:1-13

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be ever pleasing to you, O Lord our God. Amen.

Good morning! It is a true honor to be able to worship with you today and to share the Gospel message.

I want to tell you a story about me. I love riding my bike. I often go biking in the middle of the day, as a sort of re-charging time. My favorite route is to leave Church House and come down Wisconsin, catch the Crescent Trail around to River Road, take River back to Wisconsin and back to my office. It’s a fantastic workout. The only thing that makes cycling even more rewarding is being able to work on my bike myself. And while it’s rewarding to get the job done and to feel the bike ride a little better when you’re done, it is often an exercise in frustration.

One weekend while my wife was out of town, I decided that I would spend Friday evening replacing the brake pads on my bike. I had done this once before several years ago and remembered it not being that difficult of a task. I set up my work area in the living room (Lots of newspaper on the floor) and put Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark in the DVD player for a little background noise and entertainment. I took the tires off my bike (easy enough) and released the cables from the brake arms. I put the allen wrench into the socket to loosen screw that held the brake pads and turned with every ounce of strength I had. Nothing worked. They were in their so tight I didn’t think a hydraulic screw driver would have done any good. I began to think that I didn’t know my own strength since I had put them in a few years ago. I tried all four of the screws, and only one of them turned. So, I took a rest. My bike is in several pieces on the floor, and I’m sitting on the sofa watching Harrison Ford take on the Nazis in the Middle East.

After about 30 minutes, I decided to look for some grease or oil or something that might help loosen the screws. I found some WD-40 under the kitchen sink and lucky for me, it was a full can. I sprayed it on the three screws that were being stubborn and started to work them loose. Two of them came out relatively easy, but that third one… it was the most stubborn of all. So, I sprayed a little more WD-40 on it and kept fighting with the allan wrench. By this point, Harrison Ford is in a bad mood because after all he did to save the Arc of the Covenant from the hands of the Nazis, it’s going to be locked up in some U.S. Government warehouse. And I’m starting to feel his level of frustration. I glanced at the can of WD-40 and noticed that it had an important word on the instructions: “Wait.”

Do I think that the can of WD-40 was really going to work instantly? Well, no, but I wanted it to. I had sprayed it on the screws so it should work right away. Luckily, I didn’t have to wait long for that last screw to come loose. I put a little more WD-40 on there, waited about a few minutes (long enough for me to put in the next Indiana Jones movie) and sure enough, still with a lot of muscle on my part, that con-founded screw came loose and I could replace my brakes.
In our fast-paced, I-want-it-now society, we expect things to happen on our terms and in our time frame. Today’s gospel would lead us to believe that Jesus was of the same mindset, but in reality, he is saying something different. Jesus says, ask and it shall be given, search and you will find, knock and the door will be open to you. And, my friends, Jesus is right. But before he gives that lesson, he talks about the persistence of the neighbor, who receives what he is asking for not because of his friendship, but because he doesn’t let up in asking for it.

Going to God with a request one time is a lot like going on a diet for one day and quitting because that 15 pounds you were trying to lose didn’t evaporate. Searching for a truth about God for one day or one moment is like lifting weights for an hour and being disappointed you aren’t suddenly toned and firm. It takes patience and persistence. Jesus tells us right here in today’s gospel that if we continue to turn to God, our persistence and dedication will be rewarded.

There are some important things that we need to recognize in Jesus’ teaching about Prayer. First, he teaches his disciples that before they ask for anything, they need to honor God’s name and recognize that God is the one who is in control. Then, when we do take our supplications to God, we shouldn’t ask for anything more than we need. The alterative Lord’s Prayer in the New Zealand Prayer Book says, “With the bread we need for today, feed us.” Jesus doesn’t teach his disciples to ask for bread for today and tomorrow; just today. There is also an amazing piece about forgiveness, which I think tells us more about God’s nature than any other part of scripture. It’s about forgiveness. It’s about the fact that each time we pray, we are to forgive those who have done something wrong to us. It’s a tall order, but one we are not required to master the first time.

While Jesus is teaching his disciples about prayer, he is also teaching them that prayer is an ongoing thing. As Christian music artist Steven Curtis Chapman says, “Our prayer doesn’t end just because we say the word ‘Amen’”. We are called by God and taught by Jesus that our prayers must come to him in all ways and at all times and more than once. It is large and daunting task. But it is a task that we can share with others who follow Christ, as we walk with him and grow in his grace.

April 18, 2004

Sermon: Ascension, Gaithersburg

April 18, 2004, Second Sunday in Easter

In the name of the God who created us, redeems us, and sustains us. Amen.

Let me tell you a story.

When I was a senior in college, I was the adult in charge of a major youth event in the Diocese of East Tennessee. There was a youth who was also in charge. Her role was to be the leader of the other 20 young people on staff, to guide them in the shaping of this very important retreat. My job was to sign the paperwork, provide guidance and logistics, and make sure we had enough food for the weekend. Rachel, the highly talented, highly capable, incredibly trustworthy 17-year old young lady in charge of the weekend, was supposed to be bringing plastic cups and markers to decorate them with (this all part of the program of the weekend). She had said that she would be doing that. She told me in several phone conversations the months prior to the event that she would be bringing the cups and the markers.
But the week of the event, I couldn’t get a hold of her to go over the final check list. She was in the upper eastern part of Tennessee and I was in the middle part of the state. She didn’t have e-mail and this was way before every teenager got a cell phone for their 11th birthday. So, it was Thursday before the event started on Friday, I still hadn’t talked to Rachel that week, and the cups and markers were a major MUST for the weekend. So, as I was driving from Murfreesboro to Chattanooga (where the retreat was going to be) I passed 7 Wal-Marts. Now when you consider that it’s about a 2-hour drive, that is one Wal-Mart every 25 minutes. The first four Wal-Marts were easy enough to pass. But at the fifth Wal-Mart, I started thinking about those cups, wondering if Rachel had gotten them yet, wondering if we would have time to go get them if she forgot them, wondering where the nearest Wal-Mart was to where our retreat would be.
Just before I got to the 6th Wal-Mart, I convinced myself that, “no, Rachel is smart, she said she was going to get the cups and markers. She’ll do it. And if she doesn’t, this will be a good lesson on what it means to follow through and how to make do with what you’ve got.” So, I passed the 6th Wal-Mart, near South Pittsburg, TN, without even slowing down.
But there was something about seeing the lights of that 7th Wal-Mart on the outskirts of Chattanooga that made me slow down, get off of I-24, and purchase 150 plastic tumblers and about $120-worth of paint pens. I felt much better.
So Rachel and I, along with most of the other staff, arrived at the church where the retreat would be at about the same time. We were all getting out of our cars, lots of hugs and hey’s, and excitement about the weekend. And I said, I brought all the cups. Rachel looked at me, and in one word, I knew I was in trouble. “Why?” she asked. Somone in the crowd whispered, “Paul’s in trouble…”
I stammered, “Well, I tried to call you this week and…”
“I told you I was going to get them didn’t I? We’ve been planning this retreat for 6 months, and the whole time, I said I was going to get the cups and the markers, didn’t I?”
“Um, yeah, but I didn’t hear back from you so…”
“So, you thought that I would forget? You doubted me.”
“Um, yeah, I’m real sorry.”

Rachel gave me a hug and said, “It’s OK.” Then she squeezed the life out of me and said, “Don’t do it again.”

When I popped my eye-balls back in, I reassured her that I really did have complete faith in ability and leadership and I hoped that she would have faith in mine.
It was a scene very reminiscent of Thomas’s and Jesus’ encounter in today’s Gospel lesson. I like to sometimes imagine stories from the Bible, especially with Jesus and the often-clueless disciples, as a sit-com. This story I could see on Seinfeld or Friends.

Jesus suddenly shows up in the house when the doors were locked. He has to say “Peace be with you” or he would have scared the cloaks and tunics off of everyone. Then he says to Thomas, “Hey, Tommy-boy, come here. See this nail mark? See this nail mark? Look at my feet. See this big gash in my side where the Roman soldier stabbed me? See them? Go ahead, touch ‘em. They’re real.” Thomas touches them and says, “Wow. It’s really you!”

If Jesus were anyone else, he probably would’ve bopped Thomas upside the head and said, “Of course it’s me, you dip-stick. I kept TELLING you this would happen. Were you out fishing on those days?” But Jesus is Jesus, and in his way says, “It took this moment for you to believe that I rose from the dead? There are going to be a lot of people, and I mean A LOT of people who won’t get to do what you just did, and yet they are going to believe in me.”

This Gospel passage is one that should make all of us squirm on our seats. It is the story of each of us, and not our best story either. How many times in our own lives have we doubted God’s awesome power, or worse, just taken it for granted? We all have those days, or those months, or those years, where we don’t think that God is real, that God doesn’t care, or that God just-plain can’t. Jesus’ lesson to Thomas is we don’t have to see to believe that God IS acting. Even when we can’t see God’s power, even we choose not to know how God is acting in our life or the lives of those around us, we are called to believe that God is active and working. We are a community of faith, not a community of doubt.

It’s easy to lose sight of God’s works and wonder in our world. I don’t need to re-count to you the trials and tribulations that our country and our world face. It’s easy to not see God at work in the world about is. But in each community of our country and every country, God is at work. Through ordinary sinners like you and me, God is making a difference in the lives of God’s people.

Unlike Thomas who had to see to believe, I wonder how it is possible to NOT see God’s hand at work in the world about us.

March 21, 2004

Sermon: St. Mary Magadlene, Wheaton, MD

March 21, 2004 Fourth Sunday in Lent

Amazing God, take our minds and think through them; take our hearts and love through them; take our mouths and speak through them. Amen.

Good morning! I want to tell you what a pleasure it is to be with you this morning, and how honored I am to be able to worship with you and to take some time to celebrate the ministry you have for and with the young people of St. Mary Magdalene.
Today’s Gospel lesson from Luke has a lot to teach us about God’s grace. At first glance, it sounds like another great parable from Jesus, a story that could even stand on its own. And to those who heard it straight from Jesus’ mouth, it probably did stand on its own. But for us, 2,000 years later, in a different world and in a different culture, it is worth taking a deeper look.

There are a lot of places to find grace in this story and several points where there is clearly some missing grace. Many preachers have taken this story from the angle and vantage point of each character: The father, the prodigal brother, the “good” brother, the slaves, and even (my father’s favorite angle) the view of the fatted calf. It was not a good day to be a fatted calf in this story.

There is one important thing to know about this story before we look too deeply at the grace points. Jesus’ hearers knew and understood that to be the one who was feeding pigs, especially for a Jew, was to have fallen about as far as you could fall. Worse than Martha Stewart scrubbing floors in a jail house, this fella had fallen pretty hard.

So where do we find grace in this story? Where is their some grace that is missing? And who is really the lost son?

The son who left and squandered his dad’s money, we’ll call him, Jeff, comes to his senses and is willing to come back to his father and be treated as a slave, someone with no rights and no way of earning those rights. But as “Jeff” is making his way home, no doubt practicing his groveling speech to his father, (Raise your hand if you’ve ever had to make a groveling speech and practiced what you were going to say right up to the point where you had to say it.) daddy sees him off on the horizon and is so overcome with joy that he puts a ring on Jeff’s finger, a robe around his body, and prepares a huge party. Now, raise your hand if you think that Jeff deserved all that.

Of course he didn’t “deserve” it, but that’s what he got from his father: Unconditional welcome and reception. He probably wouldn’t be getting any more money when daddy went on to the great by-and-by, but he again had a place to call home.

After Jeff had been given more than enough, he spent it on “dissolute living.” One translation of the Bible calls it “wild living” and another calls it “loose living.” And yet, his father welcomed him back with open arms.

How many times in our lives have we been loose or wild with what we have been given? Maybe we haven’t spent it on parties or jewelry or other extravagances, but we all have been guilty of it at one point or another. Maybe it’s what we haven’t done with what we’ve been given.
God has given us all a share in the kingdom of Heaven. For us to do nothing with that, like other stories Jesus tells, is what breaks God’s heart.

But our God is a God of Grace and Mercy, who is willing to forgive, to love and to give us untold number of chances. Just as Jeff’s father took him back in and threw a party for him, I am a firm believer that God takes us back and throws a party (with or without the fatted calf) each time we return and re-commit ourselves to doing God’s will.

Let us not, dear friends, forget Jeff’s brother, Ben. Ben is in the field, hears the sound of a party, sees nothing on his Palm Pilot and goes to ask one of the servants what is going on. When he finds out, Ben is a little mad. I’m not real sure what he is madder about: that Jeff came home or that daddy is throwing Jeff party. Ben has every right to be ticked off that his brother gets a party for all his loose living and money squandering when Ben has been faithful and hard working and yet, daddy has yet to give him even a small goat for a small party. So who is really the lost brother? But Ben needs to see the big picture. What was lost, daddy says to Ben, has now been found; what was dead is now alive. We don’t know if this made much difference to Ben since that is where the story ends, but it leaves us with a good point: Christ came for the lost, not those who were already found.

We don’t deserve the spiritual and material gifts that God has lavished upon us, but we get them anyway. We don’t deserve God’s grace when we screw up, which we do, and then return to God. But God showers us with that grace anyway. As Mother Teresa said, “People are illogical, self-centered, and unreasonable. Love them anyway.” Some part of me believes she was pleading to God on our behalf when she said that.

I always close my sermons with a challenge. So here is my challenge for you in this fourth week of Lent: As you go about our lives this week, find at least five places where you see God’s grace in an unexpected way. Keeping our eyes and hearts open to the power of that grace will keep us mindful of God’s presence in our lives.