December 20, 2009

November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving Day

Thanksgiving Day

November 26, 2009

A Proclamation By the President of the United States of America

Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor--and Whereas both Houses of Congress have by their Joint Committee requested me "to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness."

Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be--That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks--for his kind care and protection of the People of this country previous to their becoming a Nation--for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his providence, which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war--for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed--for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted, for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.

And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions--to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually--to render our national government a blessing to all the People, by constantly being a government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed--to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shown kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord--To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and Us--and generally to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.

Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.

Go. Washington[1]

And here we are 220 years to the day later from when George Washington, once a visitor to New Bern, declared that we should pause to give thanks for all the blessings God has bestowed upon us. President Washington noted not only that we should give thanks, but more importantly to whom we should give thanks.

Our American tradition holds that the Pilgrims held a Thanksgiving Feast in 1621, however the first Thanksgiving service in North America was in May of 1578 in Newfoundland, and it is believed that special worship services around a theme of giving thanks were held by Spaniards in La Florida. The 1621 Thanksgiving may not have been much a religious occasion aside from saying a blessing, given the Pilgrims puritanical rejection of public religious displays. I’m sure had the Packers and Lions been playing football in 162, it would have been more important than any public worship service. It was a day of feasting, playing games, and maybe even enjoying an adult beverage or two.

It was in 1623 that the pilgrims at Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts held another day of Thanksgiving. A severe drought had wreaked havoc on the crops, and the colonists prayed and fasted for relief. Rain came a few days later, as did Captain Miles Standish, arriving with food and news that a Dutch supply ship was not far off. The Thanksgiving festival held by the colonists on June 30th, 1623 appears to have been the origin of our Thanksgiving Day because it combined religious and social celebrations.

Over the next 150 years, there were intermittent days of thanks, mostly on a local level and mostly held as autumn harvest celebrations. In 1789, Elias Boudinot, a member of the House of Representatives for Massachusetts, moved that a day of Thanksgiving be held to “thank God for giving the American people the opportunity to create a Constitution to preserve their hard won freedoms.” President Washington issued the proclamation I just read.

Days of Thanksgiving were again intermittently declared by various presidents up until 1815. It wasn’t until Abraham Lincoln issued the Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1862 that this holiday feast became a true American fixture. Buoyed by the Union victory at Gettysburg, President Lincoln called upon, again, November 26th to be a national Thanksgiving Day, to be observed every year on the fourth Thursday of November. A Congressional Joint Resolution in 1941 set the fourth Thursday of November as the national holiday for Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving is the only national religious event we have. Thanksgiving is something celebrated by people regardless of creed and culture, and an event that unites us across religious divisions. It’s a time when we many of us will enjoy a feast, large or small, to remember all that God has given us. And while we have this one day to celebrate it on a national scale, giving thanks to God is something we should never let a day or even an hour go by without doing.

It is to God alone that we owe all we have and all we are. All we have is God’s, and God gives us the opportunity to use the gifts given to us to share God’s love with the world. So as the tradition was handed to us by our forefathers and mothers, let us continue to give thanks to God, not only today, but every day let us find something, someone, some place, to be thankful for. It may not always be easy, but if we can find one thing to say thank you to God for, then we can find two. And if we can find two, then we can four, and pretty soon, our gratitude will be overflowing. May each of you have a blessed Thanksgiving, today and every day.


[1] http://www.si.edu/encyclopedia_si/nmah/thanks.htm

November 25, 2009


Since I no longer live in Washington, DC, I am going to be changing the blog to http://knoxvilleguy.blogspot.com. If you are subscribing via an RSS feeder, please make the change in your subscriptions.

Happy Thanksgiving!

November 8, 2009

The Recap Episode

Year B, Proper 27, RCL
November 8, 2009

Every so often, TV shows, mostly those with running plot-lines, like Desperate Housewives or The Big Bang Theory, will have an entire episode that doesn’t advance the plot, but really just tells you where they’ve been the past few months or weeks on the show. Have you seen one of these? They are called re-caps, and they are typically positioned as a set up to really big episode that is coming up. It serves to refresh your memory before some mid-season cliff-hanger.
I want us to have a bit of a re-cap with our Gospel lessons from the past several weeks, lets say, going back to the end of September. These lessons have been a roller coaster of teachings from Jesus, sometimes comforting and reassuring, sometimes they are difficult to hear. Since the first Sunday after Pentecost, we’ve been hearing, week-by-week, Mark’s account of the life and ministry of Jesus. Mark took a vacation in August, and we heard from John’s Gospel. Other than those few weeks, and last Sunday because it was All Saints Day, we’ve been hanging with Mark since the first Sunday of June.

So in case you don’t remember or weren’t here (and that’s OK, we weren’t taking roll), let’s recap what we’ve heard from the Gospel of Mark the past several weeks:

September 27th—We heard Jesus tell his disciples that it’s OK for other people to do ministry in his name, that no one has exclusive rights to proclaiming the Good News of Christ to the people. He immediately tells his followers (that’s us, too, by the way) to pluck out an eye ball, cut off a hand and cut off a foot because it would be better to go through life lame than to have all of our appendages and go to hell, a directive from Jesus that left his disciples thinking, “Wait. What?”

October 4th—We heard Jesus’ teaching on divorce, a difficult passage that has made many squirm in their seat, and a response that likely left the Pharisees without a rebuttal. But then we hear Jesus rebuking the disciples from blocking children who were coming to see him. “For it is such as these who are considered worthless in our society that the kingdom of God truly belongs.” Both episodes can be difficult to hear, although the part with the children tends to make us feel a little warm and fuzzy.

October 11th—The famous story of the rich man who has kept the commandments all his life (that would be the Big 10 that Moses came down the mountain with). He goes away shocked and grieving (scripture tells us) when Jesus tells him to give away all he has to the poor. And remember that the disciples, led by Peter, say, “Look, we’ve have left everything to follow you.” Jesus reminds them whoever leaves all these things behind will receive a hundred fold when they come into God’s glory. But Jesus says, the first must be last and the last must be first.

October 18th—James and John, the sons of Zebedee, ask to sit on Jesus’ right and left, leaving the rest of the disciples fuming that those two fellas thought they were so special. So Jesus reminds them all that they must serve one another. The passage from that Sunday ends with Jesus foreshadowing his crucifixion by saying, “for the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” It is the second week in a row that we hear Jesus say that the first must be last and the last must be first.

Two weeks ago, on October 25th, we heard the story of the healing of Bartimaeus, a blind beggar. The upside is that Jesus calls Bartimaeus close to him, Bartimaeus says, “I want to see,” and Jesus heals him. Bartimaeus follows Jesus along the way. The downside, we would discover if we kept reading, is that Bartimaeus is following Jesus into Jerusalem, where he will be crucified in a matter of days.

Had last week’s passage from Mark not been properly usurped by the All Saints Day lessons, we would have heard what might be the most encouraging and enlightening conversation with Jesus in all of Mark’s Gospel. A Scribe, someone who is not, by all accounts, a follower of Jesus, approaches Him, after seeing how well he has answered the questions of his disciples, and says, “Which commandment is the most important?” Jesus goes directly to the heart of Jewish worship and says, “Shma, Yisrael, Adoni elohenu, Adoni ehad. Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD is one.” Jesus then says that to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbor as our self is the cornerstone of the law. The scribe agrees with Jesus’ assessment and even says that these things are far more important than burnt offerings or sacrifices, to which Jesus replies, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

This week’s Gospel lesson makes up in tough news what last week’s lacked. So let’s go there in our mind’s eye. I want to invite you to imagine what the scene looked like (close your eyes, even, if you are comfortable). It’s Holy Week. Jesus has made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, riding on the back of a colt, with cloaks and palm fronds on the streets. He has run the money changers out of the Temple, and told the parable of the wicked tenants. He has given the “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” talk, and gone toe-to-toe with the Sadducees about what Resurrection means. We don’t know what day of the week this is, but we know it is before he celebrates the Passover dinner with the Disciples. So here is Jesus, sitting in the Temple, having been tested and grilled, and been in the cross-hairs of the Temple leaders, and he says these words about those same Temple leaders.

What do you think Jesus’ tone of voice is when he’s saying all of that? Was he shouting a pronouncement or was he subtly talking to his disciples? Was he sad? Angry? Snide? How are his eyes set? Where is he looking? What was the response by those around him?

The next scene with the widow putting her last penny into the treasury is often seen as a great example of stewardship and what Jesus really requires of us. But on the heels of saying that the scribes devour widow’s houses, is it still such a feel-good, inspiring moment? Or is it a continuation of his condemnation of the temple leadership?

One of my favorite images is of Jesus is the one that came, I believe, out of the 1960s, and is called the Laughing Jesus, and it is a profile-angle painting, with Jesus’ head cocked back, looking up towards the sky, with an expression that would suggest he’d just heard the funniest thing in a long time. That’s not the Jesus we’ve seen in our Gospels the past few several weeks. We’ve seen a Jesus who calls us to make tough choices. We’ve seen a Jesus who is demanding that we respect the dignity of every human being. We have a picture of a Jesus who puts us at a loss of words when it comes to his teachings. This is not the same picture of Jesus we have in, say, Matthew’s Gospel, where he says, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” and “Come to me all who are weary and carrying heavy burdens.”

While most of us would rather hang out with the Laughing Jesus or the Jesus who told the scribe that he wasn’t far from the kingdom of God, we, myself included, need to be reminded that its those words and statements that seem harsh, that seem like Jesus isn’t being loving or caring, that in those words, Jesus is calling us to our better selves, showing us a better way, that Jesus is begging us to remember that we are God’s beloved children, which means that we are meant for good, we are meant to be reconciled with God. If we didn’t need to hear that call, if we didn’t need that reminder, then the Word would not have been made flesh.

The reality is that we do need to hear those seemingly harsh words, to remember that sometimes WE are the scribes. Sometimes we are the ones who think we deserve to sit the closest to Jesus. Sometimes it is easier to think about ourselves than to love our neighbor. And none of us are able to constantly love God the way we should. We can wallow in that, we can give up on the goal, or we can choose to be renewed by the chance everyday to love God and neighbor a little bit more than we did yesterday.

Jesus is showing us something different, calling us to put the least among us first, calling us to look beyond ourselves so that he might increase and the kingdom of God might come to fruition right here on earth. As we approach the start of Advent, I hope we will continue to wrestle with these roller coaster teachings from Jesus, opening our hearts and minds to better love God and our neighbor.


October 6, 2009

Wrestling with Scripture

Year B, Proper 22, RCL
October 4, 2009
Christ Church, New Bern, NC

Audio version available here.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing in your sight, oh God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Several years ago when this particular Gospel passage came up in the lectionary, or maybe its twin passage in Matthew, there was a couple sitting behind me in church who had recently gotten married. They were both divorced, and this was the second marriage for both of them. As the people responded at the end of the Gospel, “Praise to you Lord Christ,” Beth turned to Nicholas and said, “Oh boy. This should be a doozy of a sermon.”

I’m not sure how it affected their psyche or their soul that the person preaching was the same one who had married them only a couple of months before.

This morning’s Gospel lesson, at least the part about Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce, as well as our lesson from Job, makes a lot of people squirm in their pews. I’ll admit: I’m one of them. But if we are really paying attention to what the Bible is saying and the stories it is telling, and in particular what the Gospels are saying to us, we should be squirming a lot more. The Scriptures are full of tough, tough passages, passages about the wholesale slaughter of human beings at the hands of God’s people, tales of neglect, tales of deceit, and stories of some of the worst sides of humanity. And then we get into the Gospels where Jesus is calling us not only to shape up, but to show us a better way. When our eyes are not turned towards God and towards building up the Kingdom of God, it is easy for us to display our bad side, both as individuals and as a society. The Bible is not and cannot be easy reading. I have a Bible that is thin and almost pocket sized. A seminary classmate commented that it was perfect because it was lightweight and easy to carry. Our ethics professor was standing there and said to my classmate, “If you think anything about the Bible is easy to carry, then you might just be going into the wrong field.” Of course they were talking about “easy to carry” in two different contexts, but what Dr. Wheeler said was exactly true. As is what Will Williamon, noted author and former dean of the Duke University Chapel, once said. “No one can preach the Gospel until they have been smacked around by the passage the hope to preach.” And if we are living out Christ’s command to make disciples of all nations, then each of us should have been smacked around by the Gospel at least once or twice.

I did a very unscientific poll on Friday and Saturday. On Facebook (that ubiquitous social networking website), I asked, “What passage of scripture do you struggle with the most and why?” Not surprisingly (since most of my Facebook friends are through the church), I got a lot of answers.

One person told me the whole Noah story makes her uncomfortable. What made Noah’s family more worthy than any other family on the earth, and where, she asked, is the grace of God for the rest of creation.

Several of my female friends said the whole “women be submissive to your husbands” thing bothered them. Someone else quoted the prophet Malachi that says God loved Jacob and hated Essau (Isaac & Rebehak’s twin sons from Genesis 25).

Several people commented that some of the laws of the Old Testament are more than they can understand, especially in light of how many of them require the death of the person who violates that law.

A couple of people didn’t cite specific passages, but noted that any use of scripture that used to oppress or demean others was bothersome to them.

One passage I’ve wrestled with is the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac. Abraham and Sarah had waited so long for a child, and finally this is the son that God had promised them. What kind of God would then say, “Take him up on that mountain and sacrifice him to me.”?

So what do we do with these tough passages? How do we look at Leviticus 19:19 which says do not wear clothing woven from two kinds of materials? I bet most of us aren’t wearing 100% cotton from top to bottom today.

What do we do with the story of the Prodigal Son, where the son who wanders and returns is celebrated, but the son who never strayed doesn’t get a party?

What do we do with St. Paul’s directive for slaves to obey their masters when the church stood up long ago and said that one human owning another human is deplorable?
What do we do with today’s Gospel lesson about marriage and divorce when nearly 50% of all marriages end in divorce? There is no evidence that suggests Christians are immune from that statistic.

Much like the face value of the words on the pages of the Bible, the answer is both simple and difficult.

We continue to wrestle. We continue to be smacked around, as Willimon says. We continue to wrestle with the text because we continue to be engaged in it. We recognize that people of deep faith have been wrestling with the Hebrew scriptures for nearly four thousand years. A friend of mine who is a Rabbi says that if you put four rabbis in a room with a passage of scripture, you’ll get at least 40 different view points on what that passage of scripture means.

It is not up to our generation to have the final resolution on what a passage of scripture means. It is up to us to continue to prayerfully discern as a faith community what the Scriptures are calling us to be and to do.

We are called to engage in a willingness to keep our hearts and minds open that God will lead us to truths we may not be ready to see or be in a place to see.

The discipline of personal scripture readings is invaluable, but the Word of God has always been intended to be read in the community of others as well. Our common search for insight into God’s will for our lives is made infinitely stronger when we engage in that search with others who are on a faith journey, too.

In a Newsweek magazine profile a few years ago, Billy Graham said that while he believes Scripture is the inspired, authoritative word of God, he does not read the Bible as though it were a collection of Associated Press bulletins. He tells a story about struggling with a piece of scripture and praying, “Lord, I don't understand all that is in this book, I can't explain it all, but I accept it by faith as your divine word.” Graham then concluded, quoting Saint Paul, that when it comes to scripture, “human beings on this side of paradise can grasp only so much. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror, [but in eternity] we shall see face to face.”

Today’s scripture lessons are tough to hear. But that doesn’t mean they can be dismissed or written off. It means we are invited and called to continue wrestling with them, trusting that God will continue to inspire us if we continue to engage the Scriptures.

September 8, 2009

Game Maxims

Year B, Proper 18, RCL, James 2:1-17

September 6, 2009

Christ Church, New Bern, NC

It is an honor to be with you this morning on what I pray will be the first of many days, weeks and months ahead. I won’t spend a lot of time introducing myself this morning, since I know that we’ll have plenty of time to get to know each other, if not today then sometime in the near future.

One thing I will share about myself today is that I am a big sports fan. With few exceptions and to my wife’s chagrin, I will watch just about any game at any time, especially if it is college football. This weekend was like a buffet of football joy. Having been born and raised in Knoxville, Tennessee, I am, of course, a die hard University of Tennessee football fan. We have high hopes for Lane Kiffin, UT’s new coach, but we’ll have to see how the month of September goes.

The most famous coach in Tennessee football history was General Robert E. Neyland. So beloved that they named the football stadium and two streets after him, Coach Neyland also developed his Seven Game Maxims. A maxim is an expression of a general truth or a principle or a rule of conduct. “If we do these seven things, we can’t help but win,” he used to tell his teams. “The team that makes the fewest mistakes will win the game.” “Protect our kickers, our quarterback, our lead and our ball game.” “Carry the fight to the opponent, and keep it there for 60 minutes.” These maxims were developed before World War Two, and have been adopted by football coaches around the country. General Neyland’s simple and true statements that players are expected to keep in their thoughts while they are on the playing field. Coach Neyland would say that none was more important than the other, and all of them led his teams to substantial success during his tenure. When each player buys into those maxims and does their best to live those maxims on the field, the team as a whole is stronger and more cohesive.

The letters in the New Testament are filled with maxims from Saint Paul in his letters, especially to Timothy and to the Corinthians. Starting with last week’s Epistle, and continuing for the next several weeks, we hear from the apostle James, the brother of Jesus, some of the most direct truths about what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ in the most sincere way possible. While my appreciation for St. Paul grew over my time in seminary, the Book of James have always stood out to me as some of the most clear and concise messages in our scriptures about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. What stands out to me the most about James is the practical nature of almost everything he talks about. While Saint Paul will sometimes go through Richmond while trying to drive from New Bern to Raleigh, James just says it like it is, in timeless language (and excellent translations from the Greek). Last week we heard him say to be doers of the Word, and not simply hearers. Don’t simply read the recipe, do the recipe. Don’t simply look at the stop sign at the intersection, obey that stop sign. This week’s lesson, building on that maxim, gives us the famous exposition on faith versus works. I would encourage you to read the rest of chapter two of the book of James. Today’s lesson only paints part of the picture, and the rest of chapter two expands on James’ views of the importance of living our faith out loud. And just as a preview, next week’s lesson from James is about keeping our tongue in check; something I am certain none of the faithful gathered today has ever had problem with.

The issues that James is tackling in the first part of chapter 2, most likely a letter to the church in Jerusalem, are in some ways what Paul was tackling with the Corinthians. In First Corinthians 11, Paul has to address the disparity that was happening at the Eucharist, where the wealthy were feasting and the poor went hungry. There was no sense of sacrifice, no thought of reaching out to those who had less, no thought of offering your second coat to the person who doesn’t have one. Paul did not take kindly to this. In a similar way, James is challenging the church in Jerusalem to think about how they react to those who might not be dressed as nicely or appear as well off when they graced the doors of the church, wherever that church might have been meeting. He doesn’t seem to think that they would treat the poorer looking visitor nearly as well as they’d treat the wealthier looking visitor. I believe Jesus had a few scenes dealing with that exact same issue, chiding those who would cast out the woman who was wiping his feet with her tears.

And in much the same vein, he is challenging them to think about how their faith is limited if they do not follow that faith with action. To simply say, “Yes, I believe in Jesus,” is not enough if you aren’t willing to reach out to those who are both poor in spirit and poor in the wallet. If someone says, “I’m hungry,” and all we say is “Well, Jesus loves you,” without pointing them towards Religious Community Services or even offering them a bite to eat, then what good is our faith?

Faith by itself is like having a great new set of tires without having the car to put them on. They’ll only get you so far. Our actions are the evidence that we are living our faith. Faith is a verb, not a noun. It is something that we have and something we do, simultaneously. Like General Neyland’s Seven Game Maxims, neither is more important than the other one.

None of these instructions from James or any of the other New Testament writers are about being better follower of Christ than the person next to you. In fact, I’d say it’s quite the opposite. It’s about being a better follower of Christ today than you were yesterday. There is this tension that we hold between our corporate following of Christ and our personal following of Christ. We live in this community, not only of Christ Church, but with Christians around the world, of a people called to a daily renewal and deepening of our individual relationships with Christ. In doing so, we strengthen our corporate bond with Christ. If we are following James’ counsel, then we will be compelled to set aside our own egos to make room for the person whose body and soul may be struggling. If we are going to not only be hearers of the word but doers, to actually live the words of Christ, then our relationship with Christ, both as individuals and as a community can’t help but grow.

I pray that as we continue to grow in the grace of God, that we will find new ways to live our faith, to care for all those who may be lacking in physical and spiritual needs, and to be doers of the Word, not merely hearers.


July 26, 2009

Two stories. One lesson.

Proper 12

July 26th, 2009

St. Columba’s Parish, Washington, DC

I started writing a letter this week to the group who helped put together the Revised Common Lectionary, which is our source for the schedule of readings we use each week in our worship. The part I like about the RCL is that we hear the Old Testament narrative as a long, week-by-week story, especially during the season after Pentecost. But my curiosity is about today’s Gospel lesson. If you have a Book of Common Prayer printed before about 2007 when the RCL was adopted by the Episcopal Church, and you look on page 908, you’ll see that the Gospel lesson for Proper 12 (today) is Mark 6:45-52. This is Mark’s account of Jesus walking on the water. The RCL editors shifted from Mark to John, and added the beginning of the narrative which is the feeding of the five thousand, and is immediately followed by an account the walking on water story. And my question is why did they do that? Both stories are equally powerful and equally famous. Both stories stand on their own as miraculous acts of Jesus, events that show his power and his glory. So why put them together and ask thousands of preachers to have some sort of consternation about which story to preach?

The story of the feeding of the five thousand is recorded in all four Gospels. And in Matthew’s, Mark’s and John’s accounts, Jesus’ stroll on the Sea of Galilee immediately follows. In both stories, Jesus has done what would have been impossible for anyone else. He has provided an amazing banquet of bread and fish out of nearly nothing and then went by foot to find his disciples as they crossed the water.

In the first miracle, Jesus provides a non-anxious presence to calm a crowd that, according to some scholars, was teetering on the edge of rebellion against their Roman occupiers. The Jews were overmatched and outmanned, and it would have been a one-sided battle. Instead, Jesus reveals his glory by giving the people what they need versus what the want. The Jews were expecting a messiah who would be a great military leader like King David, someone who would send the Romans back to Italy, or at least out of Jerusalem. Instead, Jesus gave them fish and bread. Staples of life.

In revealing his glory, Jesus is showing that he can fill our worldly and spiritual needs. But the witnesses of this miracle didn’t want to see that. They had their expectations. They knew what they were looking for, and they thought they’d found it in this guy. Instead of seeing the miracle on Jesus’ divine terms, showing that he is the source of life like he showed the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4, the people want to put their own interpretation and implications on what Jesus has done. Instead of seeing Jesus as the one who can bring about fulfillment of the complete range of human needs, the people put their expectations on him that he can do whatever they want him to do.

How often do we do that? How often in our own relationships, not only with God, with our parents, children, spouses, partners, friends or co-workers, do we put our own expectations on those relationships with the other person’s expectations as an after-thought?

He goes away to the mountain, one of his favorite retreat spots, and his disciples head across the water to Capernaum. What makes John’s account of the walking on water miracle different than Matthew’s or Mark’s is that it is told from the perspective of the disciples who are in the boat. The other stories are told from Jesus’ perspective, when he seeks them out and goes almost unnoticed at first. This time, it is the disciples who see Jesus walking on the sea, and, in a completely understandable reaction, were terrified. Unlike other Gospel stories of raging waters and frightened disciples, Jesus does not command the waters to be still. He tells the disciples, “Do not be afraid.”

Before they could take him in the boat, they were on the other side of the water. This is not a miracle for the sake of having a miracle. It was an act of glory to calm the fears of the disciples. It should be noted that there is nothing saying that the disciples were indeed calmed just because Jesus said, Do not be afraid. But one has to wonder how they felt when they saw their Lord and their teacher standing with them in the midst of the rough waters. I wonder how they felt when they found themselves suddenly in the place where they needed to be. Was Jesus with them the whole time? Had he shown up at just the right moment? Did he know that the winds were going to pick up and they’d be frightened?

What strikes me the most about this part of today’s Gospel is that it doesn’t say that Jesus got them where they needed to be. He said, “It’s me. Don’t be afraid.” The winds may very well have continued to toss the boat around, but the very real presence of Jesus got them to the place they needed to be.

On about Wednesday of this week, I stopped writing my letter to those who wrote the Revised Common Lectionary about why they would have put these two stories together. Instead, I started wondering why we had not put them together before. In this one Gospel lesson, Jesus reveals his glory to those around him, and in his glory, sharing his gifts of grace to give his followers exactly what they need.Ours is a God of abundant love, standing ready to give us what we need, if we will open our hearts to receive that love.

Let us pray: Christ, our brother, we thank you that you know our needs before we can ask. We thank you that you have given us what we have needed and not always what we have wanted. Help us to see your hand at work in the world about us and to know your glory as it is revealed every day. Be with us in the storms of life. Let us know your presence and let your presence calm our hearts. All this we ask in your name. Amen.

July 5, 2009

The Saga Continues

Proper 9, Year B, RCL

July 5th, 2009

St. Columba’s, Washington, DC

The Saga Continues

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts always be pleasing to you, Oh Lord our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

I want to take a quick poll, and please be honest. There’s no judgment here. If you’ve ever had a TV show, that you just HAD to watch, wouldn’t have missed it for the world, one where you set the DVR (or the VCR if it was back in the day), your phone is or was off the hook, your spouse, partner, kids or roommates knew or know not to disturb you… raise your hand. Like I said, there’s no judgment. It’s OK, we’ve all had that show.

Most recently, mine was Battlestar Galactica. Not the old one with Loren Green, which was incredible, but the re-imagined series with Edward James Olmos that was on the Sci-Fi channel for about 4 seasons. Once I was introduced to it, I was hooked. It had action, suspense, complicated romance, political twists, and, of course, lots of stuff that exploded. And like most science fiction, there is some excellent theology running throughout.

I only mention Battlestar Galactica, or whatever your story-line of choice is, because our lectionary readings from the Old Testament Scripture during these summer months are sort of like that weekly drama. The readings this summer tell the epic story of the rise of the monarchy in ancient Israel as it’s recorded in the books of First and Second Samuel. Every episode builds on the previous one. What we are hearing these Sundays are more like a “re-cap” episode since we are missing some of the more dramatic pieces of the story, but we will hear the major details about the first three kings of Israel: Saul, David, and Solomon, and the prophets of God who led and advised them, mainly Samuel and Nathan. These two books give witness to what is arguably one of the most crucial periods of transition and change in the history of ancient Israel. At the start of First Samuel, the people of Israel are a loose band of tribes facing internal squabbling and a serious external threat from the Philistines. By the end of Second Samuel, Israel has an established central government and is moving rapidly from being a simple agrarian society to a major trade partner in the region.

Today’s lesson begins the second stage in the epic where David is named king by the elders of Israel, more importantly, by those in the Northern Tribes of Israel. A couple of weeks ago, we heard the story of how David was anointed as a young boy by Samuel while Saul was still king. Samuel was searching for a man after God’s own heart, and God led him to David. Samuel’s anointing put David on the map, filled him with the Holy Spirit and prepared him to be king.

By the time we get to today’s lesson, David had already assumed the kingship of the Southern Tribes of Judah, which is where he was born. Once Saul and his son died, the tribal elders from the Northern Tribes of Israel called upon David to take the reins and continue leading as their king. This was not really a triumphal, “now we are one big happy family” moment, though. The leaders of the northern tribes are looking for peace and stability and were out of options. Their last connection to Saul was his general Abner, who was killed in battle, so these tribal leaders were really at the mercy of David. He had the wisdom and the political and military power behind him to crush anyone who got in his way. Just about the only bargaining chip the leaders from the Northern Tribes had was to say, “We are your bone and flesh.” In other words, “Hey, we’re all family here, right?” One commentator said that they are saying, “Please don’t leave us to our own devices. We need your help.” Another commentator suggests that the tribesmen were afraid that David would wipe them out. They knew of his military prowess and intellect, and know that it was really David, and not Saul, who led Israel and Judah to great victories over the Philistines. They knew that God was with David during Israel’s battles. This image of a shepherd, by the way, was a very common adjective to describe the king or ruler over a people. But nonetheless, they knew David was the one whom God had chosen to be their leader. That’s what a portion of this reading is about, giving honor and acknowledgment to God who used David to bring victory to Israel.

So David is presented with a choice. He could have laughed at them. He could have slaughtered them right then and there. He could have said, “You’re on your own.” But he didn’t do any of those things. David made a covenant with them before the Lord.

Throughout First and Second Samuel, it is evident that it is God who opens the doors and makes it possible for Israel to rise up as a nation. The underlying question laid out by the writers of this epic is “Where does true power lie?” As one commentator wrote of these books, “In the juxtaposition of human power and divine will, God possess the final authority.”

David is a man after God’s own heart, so what does he do? He enters a covenant with the Northern Tribal leaders. Freely. Of his own choosing. Can you imagine a King who makes, not a contract, but a covenant?

In the theological sense, a covenant is an agreement initiated by God that says, “Here’s what I, your God, am asking you to do. I will be your protector and provider. I simply ask that you love and follow me as your only God.” Covenants, especially in Scripture, are conferred with some sign. For Noah, it was the rainbow. For God’s covenant with Abraham in Genesis 17, it was circumcision. For Moses, it was the giving of the 10 Commandments. The giving and receiving of rings are often the symbol of the covenant of marriage, a covenant in which we believe God is an equal partner. The sign of the New Covenant established by Christ at the Last Supper is the bread and wine as the symbols of his body and blood.

David probably didn’t know about wedding rings or the Eucharist, but he more than likely knew about Noah, Abraham, and Moses. So he knew what a Covenant was. David’s choice to enter into a covenant with the Northern Tribal leaders sent a strong and humble message that, unlike the reign of Saul, this will not be a reign of raw power, bending on a whim, but one that will be based on mutual needs and responsibilities.

That underlying question in First and Second Samuel of where does true power lie is one that has followed us into the 21st Century. If David, a man whose most notorious sin we will read about in a few weeks, can be called a man after God’s own heart and lead the people through a covenant relationship, what would it look like if we were to build our relationships around our mutual needs as a community and as the family of God? What if we were to think first about our responsibilities to our neighbors, whether or not they are our flesh and blood and not think first about what we have to gain from other people?

The true power that we see in these stories in First and Second Samuel is the amazing power that God has to act through each of us to reach beyond ourselves, build relationships and advance Christ’s message of love and forgiveness. These are the stories of God’s divine purpose intersecting the usual patterns of power in the world. If David, the youngest and smallest son of an obscure family, can be called a man after God’s own heart, and carry the weight of the future of Israel, despite his own short comings, do you wonder how God can use you?

May 10, 2009

Listening & Doing

Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year B, RCL
St. Stephen & the Incarnation Episcopal Church, Washington, DC
May 10th, 2009

There are many things that I love about the lectionary. The lectionary (so I don’t lapse into speaking too much churchy language) is the schedule of readings we have for every Sunday and other major feast day in the church. The earliest Christians borrowed the order of readings for Sabbath from the synagogues, and as they became available, Christian writings were incorporated into readings from the Psalms, the Torah and the Prophets. Once the Church became more established, readings for specific times of the year and seasons of the church were established. For most weeks, the Hebrew Scripture, or Old Testament, lesson has some parallel to the Gospel reading, while the Epistle, one of the many letters in the New Testament, offers some instruction for Christian living or offers a glimpse into the early church’s witness of the resurrected Jesus. The Psalms were the hymns for Jewish worship, used no doubt by Christ himself in worship in the synagogues and the Temple. Our use of the Psalms today keeps us liturgically connected to our Jewish brothers and sisters and to the very roots of the Christian Church. Very early in the Church’s development it was decided to use lessons from the Book of Acts during the Great Fifty Days of Easter. The general idea is that during this season of celebrating the resurrection of Christ, we hear the stories of the earliest missionary work to spread His message of the coming kingdom of God.

So it is in this early period of the Christian movement that we find the Apostle Philip being called by the Spirit of God to go from Samaria, where he had been converting people to follow Christ, down what the author calls a “wilderness road.” And while some scholars question why it was called that since it was pretty well traveled, Philip goes and he finds an Ethiopian court official sitting in his chariot reading from the Prophet Isaiah. This particular man is in charge of the queen’s treasury, meaning, he is a man of good standing and very well trusted. He was returning to Ethiopia from Jerusalem where he had gone to worship in the Temple. There was likely a problem with him worshiping there, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

There was a strong Jewish presence in Ethiopia dating back to the time just after King Solomon. Solomon married Sheba, who was herself Ethiopian. Many Jews migrated to Ethiopia a few generations later when the Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. For a time after the destruction of the Temple and the Babylonian captivity, Ethiopian Jews thought they were the last remaining Jews in the world. Ethiopia is mentioned several times in the Hebrew scriptures, mainly by Isaiah and Jeremiah.

Back to our story about Philip… He answers the call of the Spirit and finds our court official struggling with this passage from Isaiah, what we know as the chapter 53, verses 7-8. Philip sees this as a prime jumping off spot to tell the Ethiopian about Jesus and how Jesus was and is the fulfillment of this scripture passage. The Ethiopian desires to be baptized, and so Philip baptizes him in the nearby water. The story ends with Philip being snatched away to Azotus to continue to proclaim the Gospel and the Ethiopian going on his way rejoicing.

I like this story is because it has so much in it to dive into. Let’s talk first about the Ethiopian himself and what he represents. He was an Ethiopian and a eunuch, meaning not only was he was a castrated male, but his physical location meant he was considered an outsider by the Jewish community in Jerusalem. His status as a eunuch would also have been problematic for his worshiping in the Temple. Leviticus 21 prohibits men with any deformities, specifically listing a lack of testicles, from making an offering to God. So it is possible that his not being able to worship led to an added spiritual hunger and desire to know God.

Much like the woman the well and the story of the man born blind, both in John’s Gospel, the Ethiopian represents the disenfranchised and disinherited groups of an exiled Israel that are the choice recipients of God’s promises. Those promises are made in Isaiah 56, and come to fruition with Jesus’ ministry. Isaiah 56, which would likely have been a different scroll than what the Ethiopian had with him, says: Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’; and do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree.’ For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.

In last week’s Gospel, Jesus talks about being the Good Shepherd and says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” These passages, both Isaiah 56 and this one from Acts, re-affirm this teaching of Jesus. In multiple places in the Gospels, especially in Luke and John, Jesus talks about reaching beyond the family of Israel to bring all of God’s children into a closer relationship with the Creator. The Ethiopian is part of this common thread of restoration of the outcast, of gathering closer to Christ those who are on the outside looking in.

The Ethiopian represents the continued spreading of the Gospel, and it is spreading fast! We don’t know how long it has been since Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, but we are only eight chapters into Acts and the Gospel is being preached in Samaria and now it will be carried to Ethiopia and likely other parts of Africa as well. The message of Christ is spreading, and it is spreading to those on the fringes of the known world, both Jewish and non-Jewish.

This is the message of the Gospel, that those on the outer edges of what society says is the “norm” are the ones that Christ desires the most. As one of my mentors is fond of saying, “God did not become flesh and dwell among us for the goody-two-shoes of the world. Jesus came for the wretched sinner. He came for you and for me.”

Even though St. Stephen’s probably works as hard as any local body of Christ to serve those who are on the fringes of society, it is a message that we cannot hear enough. The good news of the Kingdom of God is that it is a place where all who desire a closer relationship with God can have one. God came near in the person of Jesus to show us that God is not far away. The message Philip shares with the Ethiopian is that no matter what your physical or locational “deficiencies” may seem to be, the kingdom of God has room for you. That is a message I need to hear on a regular basis and a message that it is our responsibility as Christians to share with each other and with those we encounter outside the walls of this place. The kingdom of God has room for all.

How are you going to share that message this week?

February 8, 2009

Show 'em what ya got!

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

Year B, RCL, February 8th, 2009

St. Stephen & the Incarnation, Washington, DC

In the name of the One God: Father, Son & Holy Spirit. Amen.

There was a major secular holiday on Wednesday of this week. A holiday most closely (and I dare say religiously) watched in parts of the Deep South and the Midwest and even by many on the West Coast. It is always very anticipated and gets a lot of media attention.

I’m talking, of course, about College Football Signing Day—the Christmas day of College Football, when fans all across the nation follow the blogosphere to see who has signed their national letter of intent to spend the next two, three or four years on the gridiron for their favorite team. The only days with more anticipation and speculation are the first day of fall practice and the days leading up to the first game of the season.

The recruiting game in college football has become a big business. Magazines and websites are devoted to following the stats of high school players across the country. ESPN has even taken to showing high school football games on Friday nights featuring some of the most highly sought after players. When players make their official visits to schools, they are often treated like royalty. The coaching staff rolls out the red carpet, taking the young man and his parents to a nice lunch or dinner, arranging meetings with players, professors (usually ones who are fans of the football program), and showering them with small gifts allowed by the NCAA. The coach spends some time with the parents, telling them that if their son chooses to play football for him, he will treat him like one of his own, make sure that he is going to class and running with the right group of peers. Usually the final pitch is aimed straight at the ego. On the tour of the stadium, the player will find a locker set up just for him, with the helmet and pads already laid out, and his name on the back of a jersey. Sometimes they have the P.A. announcer call the young man’s name and number so he can hear it bouncing off the empty stands.

This act, this game… is played out on college campuses from Seattle to Miami and from Los Angeles to Knoxville. College football coaches put the best image forward for their school and their program. They bend over backwards and tell these fellas and their families almost anything they want to hear to get them to come play football at their school. The coach has a school and a program that he believes in and about 99 percent of the time, he wants this young man to be a part of it.

So what, pray tell, does this have to do with anything related to us here today? Let me say that I’ve never been a huge fan of Saint Paul’s Epistles, and part of that, which I’m beginning to get over, is that people attempt to apply his very contextual writing to modern times. Those who want to cite Paul’s writings (as well as the other Epistles) often overlook that these letters were addressed to specific groups of people dealing with specific issues. While the Paul-line Epistles have much to offer us here in 2009, it is highly doubtful that Saint Paul was thinking about the United States of America when writing to the church in Corinth.

Speaking of the church in Corinth, let me paint you just a little bit of a picture of what they were dealing with-- since we heard about them last week and this week, and will continue hearing about them until Lent begins. As I told a Bible study group once, “Corinth was a city that could make Las Vegas look like Mayberry.” You have this tiny slip of land connecting two large bodies of water, making it a huge shipping port, and bringing in people (and their religious practices) from all over the known world. Then this new sect of Judiaism finds its way to Corinth, too, and Jews and Gentiles alike begin following this crazy guy named Jesus who performed some amazing miracles and it is even believed that he rose from the dead after the most gruesome of executions. Saint Paul is writing to them to set some things straight about practices and beliefs and customs, and even to offer them some reassurance.

While much of what Paul says to the Corinthians points to a specific problem or concern, much of what he says is also timeless. “If I proclaim the Gospel,” he writes in this morning’s Epistle lesson, “this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel!” This verse is in the middle of an entire chapter devoted to Paul laying out the rights and responsibilities of being an apostle of Christ.

What Paul is saying in all of this is that in order to win more people to the cause of Christ, he has taken himself to them. He has not so much given up his own identity, as he has begun to identify with those who he would lead to Christ. He has done it all for the sake of the Gospel so that he (and we) may share in its blessings.

Go back in your head for a few minutes to that college football coach recruiting the high school player to his campus. That coach has a program he believes in and wants that young man to be a part of it to make it even better.

Back in the days of Corinth, there was something to this Jesus movement that made it worthwhile for Saint Paul to not only risk his life spreading the message but to seek to help the budding churches have a common theology and understanding of what they were committing themselves to. Saint Paul saw the ministry and teachings of Jesus as so powerful and so valuable that he wanted everyone to be a part of it.

College football coaches get paid ridiculous sums of money to bring in the best talent and most coaches are pretty picky about who they want based on where the needs are for their team.

Saint Paul—not so much. He was willing to sculpt his message to meet the soon-to-be follower of Christ where they were. There is no earthly reward for that, and Saint Paul knew it. Saint Paul had already trashed his own reputation in the Jewish community by abandoning his Law enforcement career. As he spread the Gospel of Christ, he came to see this as his sole purpose: To bring all people to the Gospel and to bring the Gospel to all people.

So, what about us as Christians and as Episcopalians? What is it that we have to share with people about who Christ is and what Christ has done in our lives? Are we willing to share it? There are tens of thousands of people in the metro DC area without a place of worship to call home. Are we willing to share not only the message of Christ but the message of this parish with them? Are we willing to give them the royal treatment, put their name on the back of a jersey, in order to win them over?

Our call and our commission is simple—an obligation has been laid upon us to share the Good News of Christ. We can share that Gospel in words, and in actions; in how we speak to those we encounter, and how we treat those we encounter.

My challenge to you is this: How are you going to share the Gospel this week?

January 30, 2009

Witch hunt in California

There was a troubling court ruling out of California (of all places) this week.

A private religious high school can expel students it believes are lesbians because the school isn't covered by California civil rights laws, a state appeals court has ruled.

Relying on a 1998 state Supreme Court ruling that allowed the Boy Scouts to exclude gays and atheists, the Fourth District Court of Appeal in San Bernardino said California Lutheran High School is a social organization entitled to follow its own principles, not a business subject to state anti-discrimination laws.

The troubling part is not that a private school can discriminate against a student's sexuality. It's the fact that the court said they could discriminate on the belief that a young person is gay or lesbian. There does not appear to be any evidence that the students in question were actually lesbian or in a relationship, only the rumor based on something someone else saw on MySpace. Makes you wonder if the principal of California Lutheran posted a reward for the outing of suspected gays. (This school is part of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, which is very much on the conservative end of the spectrum.) I'm saddened that they are so exclusionary towards gays and lesbians, but I do uphold that as their right.

What is dangerous is telling any young person who may be question his/her sexual orientation that they are wrong, do not belong, or are bad. Any modern educator, like the principal at this school, should know that. The statistics about teenagers who are in some quandary about their orientation who take their own lives or attempt to take their own lives are staggering. Most often, those young people have been told or made to feel that their "choice" is going to tear up their family, anger God, cause a spike in crude oil prices, bring about Armageddon, etc. OK, maybe those last two are a bit of an exaggeration, but (as my late grandmother would say) the fact remains... It's not enough that they can't keep up with the "normal" stresses of being a teenager, but throw in the added confusion of trying to figure out their sexuality and life just got a whole lot more complicated.

If California Lutheran High School, or whatever private school, wants to disallow students because of their race, sexual orientation or nation of origin, that's their loss. But to expel a student because of that rumor is not only wrong, but seems to fly in the face of Christ's command to love one another as He loves us.

January 19, 2009

January 20th, 2009 = HUGE

There are many, many things I would like to say about the inauguration of Barack Obama on January 20th. I can't fit them all into one blog post, and if I tried to say everything, it would come across as bumbling. So allow me attempt to convey a few thoughts about the momentous occassion that will occur in just under 12 hours here in Washington, DC.

When he was elected, I stood in my den and watched his acceptance speech with my then-two-week old son. I was not afraid to weep. Today (January 19th), Emily & I took Ollie down to the National Mall to see the sights and sounds of the day before what may be the most historic presidential inauguration in American history. Emily & I were amazed. Simply amazed. It wasn't just the sheer numbers of people. It wasn't the name and face of Obama (and his family) on just about anything you can imagine (the football jersey was my favorite). It was the level of energy that everyone had. It was like 10 football fields worth of 7 year olds on Christmas Eve. As I told Ollie on November 4th and again today, he may not remember any of this, but we will never let him forget.

Don't get me wrong. It was a mad house, and I can't imagine how it will be tomorrow. (We will be watching from our TV.) But everyone was really glad to see each other and people were patient and kind and just glad to be a part of the moment.

All of our problems will not be solved simply because Barack Obama is sworn in as President, any more than simply buying a vaccuum cleaner will make your carpet cleaner. It will take work, it will take sacrifice and most of all it will take courage and patience.

I thought Bishop Gene Robinson's prayer before the concert yesterday was quite amazing. Here is the video of it with a link to the transcript.

Without a doubt, our nation and our national leaders stand need of prayer. Inspired by the Rev. Linda Kauffman's sermon on Sunday, I will be setting the alarm on my cell phone to remind me everyday at noon to pause and pray for President Obama. I invite you to do something that will remind you to pray for him, too.

Tuesday is a huge day, a day which our nation has been longing for and needing. I am excited to be in Washington, DC, for it, and more proud than ever to be an American at this time in history.