November 30, 2014

Our Prayer for Advent

How jarring it is to hear this doom and gloom from both the prophet Isaiah and Jesus in today’s Scripture readings. This is supposed to be a season of splendor and hope and all things happy. We want to see carolers and reindeer and snow and a jolly old elf/4th-Century saint and Nativity scenes on lawns and mantles. We want to hear talk of Emmanuel, God-With-Us, of peace, and joy and love. We want to have that warm feeling the weather will not provide, that anxious excitement that waiting for a baby always provides. And yet… What we hear about is a God who has kept distant because of the sin of the people and an ominous monologue from Jesus about not knowing the day or the time when he will reappear, but it doesn't sound like it will be during a relaxing picnic on the beach. That’s not what we want on this First Sunday of Advent. As the great 20th Century English prophet Mick Jagger said, “You can’t always get what you want. But, if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.”
I contend that we need these passages of Scripture today, of all days, this year, of all years. We need to hear of a God who has not left us, but from whom we have wandered so far that we are unsure of exactly which way to turn to seek God out. Isaiah is appealing to God on behalf of God’s people Israel. We are near the end of the book of Isaiah, when the people are still in exile. Their hope is fading as they realize that maybe all those prophets might have been correct about the coming of God’s wrath. They are convinced that God’s back has been turned on them.  And yet the prophet calls upon God to remember mighty works of the past, when God spoke and mountains trembled. However disorienting the exile of their sin and guilt is, Israel, through the writer of Isaiah remembers the grace and power of God, remembers the forgiveness of God, remembers the greatness of God. Now that they cannot take God’s presence for granted, they are, as a people, doing all they can to remember God in every action they take.
In a similar way, Jesus’ hearers in Mark’s Gospel are an occupied people. Unlike Isaiah’s crowd, they are at least in their home and not in a distant, foreign land. The distant, foreign land has come to rule them.  Historians debate how rough life was for those in Israel during Roman occupation, but they tend to agree that the poor had very little, and the wealthy only had their wealth because it pleased Rome. No one escaped the oppressive taxes of Rome, and Jesus was just one of many ‘would-be’ Messiah’s of his time. (The big difference is that Jesus never claimed to be the Messiah. He let others do that for him. Other men who touted their own messiah-ship often found themselves on the wrong end of a Roman garrison.) But Jesus hearers and followers were waiting for someone to bring back the reign of God and cast out the Roman swine once and for all. But Jesus is talking about something different to his disciples. Yes, there will be insurrections. Yes, there will be things that look like the end is near. Yes, things are not going to be great from time to time.  But that won’t be the sign that things are coming to an end. And guess what, he says, it’s not for you to know. Jesus says that even he doesn't know when he will return. That is only for God to know. Jesus urges his hearers, then and now, to live as if this return is just around the corner, not in some far off distance. One commentator wrote, “we are to be more like a waiter who is continually busy serving others and has no time to sit down and count our tips.”
The season of Advent is not about waiting for the birth of Jesus, but for the return of Jesus. We already know, as much as we can, what that first arrival was like. We do not know what that second arrival will be like, nor are we really supposed to know I think. The season of Advent is about preparation for God’s kingdom on earth, something we pray for each time we say the prayer Jesus taught his followers. This holy season calls us to look beyond ourselves and beyond the secular holiday to see how exactly it is we can serve others, and thereby serve God.
At the same time that we wait for the return of Christ into the world, we are challenged to see the places where Christ already is. It’s this theological murkiness known as the “Already and Not Yet.” That Christ is already in the world, but we do not yet see him as we should. Jesus has provided the means for us to already be in relationship with him, we do not yet live in complete harmony with God and our neighbor.  The realm of God is already present, but that realm is not yet fully established.
While this imagery can be jarring on this first Sunday of Advent, imagery of a God whose back has been turned on us and a Messiah who will return in some mysterious and thunderous way, we find comfort in Isaiah’s words as he reminds us not of the faithlessness of humanity, but the faithfulness of God.
“Yet, O Lord, you are our Father: we are the clay, and you are our potter. We are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people,” he writes.
In the uncertainty of life, we can find comfort in the promise of Jesus that heaven and earth will fade away, but his words will not.
We take comfort knowing that the hands and feet and voice of Jesus are still working in this world because God has not, and will not, left us. The people of God, here in New Bern and around the world, are still caring for each other as Jesus called us to do. We are the hands, feet, and voice of Jesus. Whether it is in the massive response to the needs of Migrant Farmworkers in Eastern North Carolina or the unsung heroes who are taking on the challenges and opportunities for healing and reconciliation in Ferguson, Missouri, Christ is working in and through the people of God. Our job is to recognize it and name it for what it is: Christ alive in the world today.
Our prayer for Advent is that God will break into the ordinary of our everyday lives, even, maybe, hopefully, through us. That we can be the presence of Jesus in this broken and wounded world. That if this season is going to be about Emmanuel, peace, and joy, and hope, those things have to come from us and Christ working in and through us, especially as we work to help those who have less than we do, whether that “less than” is physical, emotional, or spiritual. Our prayer is that the Holy breaks into the Daily so that we can be reminded and remind others of the holiness and faithfulness of God.

October 26, 2014

The choice between Faith & Fear

Proper 25, Year A (RCL)

When Moses chose to put his faith in God, he saw all that God would and could do to. When Moses let fear win out, the results did not turn out so well. I'd venture to say that the same is true for each of us.

September 14, 2014

Let go of that baggage!!!

Proper 19, Year A, RCL
Christ Church, New Bern

An amazing thing happens when we forgive and accept other's forgiveness: We all can more fully be the person God has created us to be!


August 24, 2014

Being there for our young people

Proper 16A (RCL, Track 1, Exodus reading)

Who are the people who helped shape you into the person you are today? Who taught you about God and showed you the unconditional love of Jesus?

Watch the video of David Belisle of the Cumberland, RI, Americans Little League Team.

July 20, 2014

The Story of Your Life

Proper 11A (RCL, Track 1)

The StoryCorps segment on NPR each Friday morning is a highlight of my week. StoryCorps invites friends and family to interview each other about a wide range of topics, almost all of which have to do with human relationships. These stories of everyday Americans are then archived in the Library of Congress. I tend to hold my breath as the story begins because I never know if it will leave me smiling or with a warm happy feeling or be one that causes a weird lump in my throat and water to well up in my eyes.

We have read lots of great stories in our culture (To Kill a Mockingbird, Les Miserable, anything by Mark Twain). And we've all read, at least bits and pieces, of the Bible. The Bible is the best selling book of all time, and probably the least read, most misunderstood, and most debated book of all time, too.

In this epic work, is the story you, and me, and the person across the street at First Baptist and the guy at Bear Towne Java who didn't go to church today. It is the story of God's people past, present, and future.

As Episcopalians, we believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to contain all things necessary for salvation*, and it tells the story of God's people from the beginning of time through the earliest years of Christianity and the persecution endured under Nero. it uses words to paint the picture of a people who were disjointed and nomadic and could hardly be called "a people" yet. And it follows how God used this one family, Abraham's family, to not only grow in numbers as Abraham's grandson Jacob is promised in today's reading, but to also grow in their trust of their Lord and God so that they went where ever God called them to go. Maybe not without some questions and hesitations (they are human after all), but they go. And they grow.

Scripture tells the story of how this wandering people who are made a People of God grow to the point that they don't need God anymore, at least not in the way they once did. And it tells the story of God calling out for these people like a shepherd calls out for a lost sheep or a parent searches for a wandering child. And it tells how their reconciliation and reunion was a holy and beautiful moment.

Scripture tells the story of God becoming human so that humanity could become more divine. It shows us how Jesus himself used stories to teach the throngs of people who wanted to learn from him. The people who wrote the story of Jesus called them parables because they had a specific purpose in telling the story. A parable uses figurative language to evoke a reality that goes well beyond the surface of the story.  In fact, sometimes the story is so ridiculous that the hearers would know right away that the story teller was trying to make a broader point. I mean, what farmer would scatter his precious and valuable seeds on rocky ground or on the road? And what farmer's enemy would spend the time to sow weeds among the crop? And Jesus' hearers would have known how ridiculous the idea of cultivating mustard seed is. You might was well talk about cultivating kudzu or dandelions.

This holy and sacred book goes to great lengths to tell the story of God and the story of God's people. During this season of the church year, we are following the development of Abraham's family, highlights really, as his family grows to be more numerous than the stars of the sky and the sands of the desert, just as God promised. We hear how Isaac and Jacob find wives, how Jacob and Esau are reconciled, how Joseph ends up in Egypt, and how God hears the cry of their oppression in a foreign land.

As we follow Jesus' ministry in Matthew's Gospel this summer, we find ourselves in the middle of "Parable Season," sort of like a story within a story.

We so easily forget that each of us has a story to tell. That our lives, whether we want to believe it or not, are worth telling others about. No matter how ordinary or extra-ordinary we well our lives are, we have an amazing story to tell. It occurred to me the other day that the reason my grandfather told such great stories was because he had so many stories to choose from, if for no other reason than he lived a long, full, and faith-filled life. And my grandfather could tell! A! Story!

But here's why your stories are worth telling: Because God is in the midst of your story.

Whether we are sitting at the feet of Jesus or alone in a field like Jacob, God is an intimate part of the story we have to share with the world. The challenge we have, like Jacob, is naming where God is in our story and how God is acting and has acted in the past. If we can name those moments and times, our faith be strengthened that God will act again in the future.

When they write the story of your life, where are the places you want people to know that God was most deeply involved: Leading, guiding, teaching, tugging pulling?

Maybe it was when you encountered God in an unexpected place or in a surprising way. Maybe you felt that you and God were a million miles apart, only to discover that God was present in every person who gave you an encouraging word or helpful advice or even just a smile. Maybe God was just as much a part of a loved one's miraculous healing and a good friend's peaceful passing. Maybe it was when you saw God do the impossible, even though you doubted.

Just as God is active in the lives of each person in Scripture, God is active and working in our life story as well. The question is: Do we know it, feel it, see it, believe it, enough to tell the world our story?

* Article VI of the Articles of Religion, 1801, Book of Common Prayer, p. 868

June 29, 2014

Welcoming Christ

Third Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 8A
Christ Church, New Bern, NC

What does it look like to welcome Christ into our midst?


If you want to learn more about the Cathedral of St. Sophia in Washington, DC, click here: http://www.saintsophiadc.com/

June 1, 2014

Being in a Liminal Space

Easter 7A – June 1, 2014
(Focus on Acts 1 reading)

So, in today’s reading from Acts, the disciples find themselves in a liminal space
. Now, before you tune me out because I used a high-dollar Scrabble word, let me tell you what it means. “Liminal” (L-I-M-I-N-A-L) comes from the same Latin root (limens) where we get the word “threshold.” A liminal space is a space of waiting, of transition, of knowing that something is about to happen, but not knowing what it is. Being in a liminal space is like being finished with high school, but not yet starting college. It’s wrapping up one project and having a week or two before the next one begins. It’s electing a bishop on May 17, but not ordaining him until November 8. It’s letting go of one trapeze bar without having hold of the next trapeze bar. I can’t imagine anyone here, no matter how young or old, hasn’t been in a liminal space at least once or twice, even if we didn’t know that’s what it is called.

Being in a liminal space, like the followers of Jesus in today’s Acts reading, means you are on the threshold of the next amazing thing God is going to do. Because so much is happening while we are in that space, even though it may seem like nothing is happening. It’s being allowed time for personal reflection, it’s catching up on those things that you’ve been neglecting, it’s spending time with friends, it’s being open to look at how and where God has been active in our lives. It’s knowing something is going to happen, but not knowing how great it can possibly be.

The followers of Jesus find themselves on the threshold today. They have just witnessed Jesus’ last great act on earth. No ropes, no pulleys, no smoke and mirrors. Very simply, a cloud takes him to heaven. In their typical fashion, they start off missing the point: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” In other words, “Are you finally going to give the Romans and all the other heathens the boot??” Jesus, of course, says, in his Jesus way, “No. That’s not the point! Just wait until the Holy Spirit comes. Until then, tell my story in Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” The angels show up and tell the disciples to snap out of it, and guess what?! THEY DO! Jesus doesn't give them a time certain of when the Holy Spirit is going to come, or what that moment will look or feel like. Jesus just gives them their marching orders, and they follow through! The go back the half-mile from the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem, maybe even back to the upper room where they celebrated the Last Supper, and the author of Acts tells us they “were constantly devoting themselves to prayer.”

There it is. In black and white, that the eleven remaining disciples, along with Jesus’ mother and some other women, were not just sitting around waiting for whatever it was God was going to do next. Whether we find ourselves in a liminal space or not, we are not called to sit around and wait on God either. The future of Jesus’ message is left to a group of people who may finally be “getting it” now that Jesus isn’t there to hold their hand the whole way. If you read the rest of Acts 1, you’ll find that these same disciples no longer had Jesus with them physically, nor had they received the Holy Spirit, at least according to Luke’s testimony, and yet they move forward with the good news of Jesus. They select someone to take the place of Judas Iscariot. They even gathered 10 days after the Ascension (at least as the church celebrates it) for the Feast of Pentecost, which is 50 days after the Passover, and in Jewish tradition, The Law was given to Moses on that day. They had no idea from one day to the next what God was going to do or how God was going to act in their lives.

Between Ascension and Pentecost, the followers of Jesus were in that “what next” kind of moment. But when we find ourselves in that moment, “what next” is a dangerous question to ask because it assumes there is only one answer and not an endless array of possibilities. This is God we’re talking about, the creator of the universe who never has one answer when we look up says, “so, what next? What do I do now?”

The disciples knew what to do, finally. They continued to be together, to pray, to live, to wait for God, but not sit idly by. Transformation doesn’t happen when we sit by and wait.

There’s a great NPR podcast I listen to called “Radio Lab.” Very science oriented, but they get people on there who can speak science in English and not in academic sciencey language, and it’s enthralling. They had an episode about a year or so ago called “Black Box,” and as they describe the episode, they explore “those peculiar spaces where it’s clear what’s going in, we know what’s coming out, but what happens in-between is a mystery.” They look at the metamorphosis of a caterpillar to a butterfly and even how our own consciousness and understanding can change. The whole point of the episode is that while it doesn’t look like anything is happening, A LOT IS HAPPENING.

So with regards to the followers of Jesus, and the “what next” question they find themselves facing, it begs the question: Are we in charge of what happens next? Or are we anticipating the Holy Spirit to lead the way? If we think we’re in charge, what room does that leave for God to work? Are we expecting God’s Spirit to come in our midst? Or are we hoping the Spirit will be among us to lead and inspire and open our eyes? Do we want that power? Does it scare us? Hopefully the answer is “yes” to both of those.[
H/T to John McClure in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 2, p. 523 (Westminster John Knox Press)]

If we are simply hoping for God’s power to come among us and act, we end up asking misguided questions like the disciples at the beginning of the Acts reading. But if we fully expect the Holy Spirit to rain down on us in tongues of fire and light us up for sharing the message of Jesus in our own community and the next town over and to the whole world, then we’ll be like the disciples at the end of this same reading: devoted to prayer and community, beginning to understand that this Jesus stuff is so much bigger than us and our own agenda. If we are willing to be comfortable in that liminal space, that in-between, that “what next” we may just see God do better than we could ask or imagine.

With the coming of the Holy Spirit, Jesus promises a community empowered to bear witness, to love another. We’ll see a faith transformed to what was described in our reading from I Peter 2 a couple of weeks ago, where we were called, “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation (no matter the color of our skin or the country of our birth), God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

The question we need to ask ourselves is “am I going to be a part of the community Jesus promises? Am I going to be both patient and proactive in seeking and expecting the Holy Spirit to act in my life and in the lives of those around me?”  Jesus never promised easy answers, but he promises to be with us and to never leave us without support and comfort. While we are in this liminal space between the Ascension and Pentecost, this prayer by a priest named Kristi Phillip seems most appropriate.

Ever-present God,
You call us on a journey to a place we do not know.
We are not where we started
We have not reached our destination.
We are not sure where we are or who we are.
This is not a comfortable place.
Be among us, we pray.
Calm our fears, save us from discouragement,
And help us stay on course.
Open our hearts to your guidance
So that our journey to this unknown place
Continues as a journey of trust.


April 16, 2014

Palm Sunday Sermon

The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday
Philippians 2:5-11 

We find ourselves nearing the end of the winding, twisting path we call Lent. But we are not at the end yet!

For more about Frederick Olmsted, Jr., go here.
For more about Olmsted Woods at the Washington National Cathedral, visit their website.

March 4, 2014

God speaks. Listen!

Last Sunday after the Epiphany

As we begin the holiest season of the church year, may we find again, or for the first time, the power and the mercy of God in the everyday and the ordinary. 

Thanks to Pharrell Williams, Darth Vader, John Williams, and God for the special effects, and to Jackie for making them happen...

February 3, 2014

The Presentation

The Feast of the Presentation 
February 2, 2014

Being part of a 2,000-year old tradition, following in the footsteps of an adherent to a 4,000-year old tradition, is holy, sacred, and awesome. Don't ever forget that!

Click here for the audio.

January 5, 2014

Not such a cute little baby anymore!

Christmas II, Year A
Luke 2:41-52

How do you prefer to see Jesus? The reality is that he doesn't stay a baby for long, and our faith calls us to grow up, too.

With apologies to Will Ferrell and Ricky Bobby, click here for the audio.