Sunday, November 19, 2017

Some Parables

         It seems two things are true this time of year
—that the days get shorter, and that Matthew’s Parables of the Kingdom of Heaven drop into still greater gloom.
         These parables are building, leading us to the Passion of Jesus—the culmination, the centerpiece, of his Gospel.
         Then the early church was left, like these servants, these slaves—forced to function with an absent master, to struggle on as disciples without Christ’s clear footsteps to follow. To wrestle with the consequences of getting it wrong, of misusing the Grace of God given to them, of wondering and speculating how their actions looked from the other side of heaven.
         Infusing all of that into these stories given to them by Jesus—telling each other about the Kingdom of Heaven, what the Rule of God was looking like in both good times and bad.
That’s what these parables are about.
Let us pray.

         In the last month or so the #MeToo movement—women opening up about their experience of sexual harassment, has hit the world like a spotlight sweeping over a dirty kitchen floor—stunning a herd of cockroaches before they can escape back under the fridge and in the shadowy cracks of the cupboards.
         Powerful men in Hollywood, the Church, Academia, Sports, Politics, Journalism, and Medicine have all been caught flat footed and exposed—there may be actual consequences for their actions, there may be a measure of justice for those they hurt. Perhaps the Kingdom of Heaven is a little like that.

              My cousin Anna from Minnesota was recently my houseguest—and I did warn her, the Parsonage is a bachelor pad with 2 shedding cats in it. And she excused my mess, but did leave me with Marie Kondo’s book The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing…
         I imagine there are 2 potential version of me. One who can get past the statement that “socks stored in your drawer are on holiday” and reads through the book and gets something good out of it
—and one who scoffs at the idea that socks have feelings and puts the book into his “never read” pile.
              That first version of Chris might take seriously his stuff and take the time to ask what objects give him joy and which do not, and gladly purge and pass on the things that aren’t doing it for him.
              The second version of Chris might not take the time to figure out what things of his are important to him and thus be afraid to let go of any of it.
              The first would learn to let go of things, for they weren’t his in the first place…
the second would eventually need a storage unit to fit everything in.
              The one who let go would find joy, the one who held tightly would not. Perhaps the Kingdom of Heaven is a little like that.

              Yesterday was National Adoption Day. A day when adoption agencies all across the country push to finalize adoptions, and a day when families formed through adoption tell their stories.
Yesterday at the Union County Courthouse in Elizabeth, 9 families formalized their adoption; one mother, Keisha Archibald, for whom this was her second adoption, said, “It’s not a job to me, it’s a purpose in life.”
              Similarly, Arthur Brooks—a fellow who writes about charitable giving—wrote, “giving to charity is proven to make people happier, healthier, and richer—but in truth, I don’t know or care what the adoption of my daughter has done to my income or health—but my happiness? It spikes every time she looks at me and I remember that magic day we met.”
              Putting in the time and love it takes to raise a child, adding to it the hurdles of the adoption process—it’s all nothing compared to the joy received back double and more, the grandest of celebrations— Perhaps the Kingdom of Heaven is a little like that.

              A homebound parishioner reading this sermon later in the week will think, “That’s great, but my abilities are on the wane—what can I do to fit into this story? Can I only be the servant who buries her coin?”
              Doesn’t she know, when one of our Sunday School students created a card for her, and another went and visited her in the nursing home—they received so much,
you allowed them to grow and make connections with people of different ages who weren’t family
—you richly blessed their life by opening up to them like that.
You cracked open the Kingdom for them, so they could see it! Thank God. Perhaps the Kingdom of Heaven is a little like that.

              Margaret—this is your last day with us as Director of Music.
Can you believe it will be just under 4 months? You’ve done so much in such a little time. The gifts God has given you, you have made use of and passed on, so generously.
The All Saints Hymn Sing,
opening your home to the choir,
offering up whole new worship settings you’ve composed,
the leaven your whole family has been to all of us here at St. Stephen. Perhaps the Kingdom of Heaven is a little like that.

              And finally. Last week’s Agape Meal was amazing, at least for me as the Pastor.
You see… on a typical Sunday so much of the service is me doing all the Holy Things… right.
But Last Sunday, I got to simply be an emcee of the Holy,
I was just there to moving the crowd
—I just transitioned us from Holy Thing to Holy Thing
—I wasn’t doing any of it
—it was plain, at least for me…
it was plain to see that none of it was my doing, it was all just gift,
all just the things God was already doing here among us…
I’m sure the Discipleship Team, heading up the service,
was less aware of the sheer grace of things last week, but let me tell you
—God is doing wonderful things in the lives of everyone here,
and it is so good to take a long glimpse at it every now and again!
Perhaps the Kingdom of Heaven is a little like that.


Monday, November 06, 2017

Sermon: God Bless You

 Here, faced with God’s blessings found in the beatitudes.
          Here, remembering those faithful who lived before us, relishing our own saintliness—given to us by Jesus, and looking forward in hope to the countless generations of God’s Children we do not yet know.
          Here, baptizing little Nathaniel.
          Here, in all these things, I simply wish to say, God bless you.


God bless you, not as the world would, not blessings as we’d like, not as we’d imagine them to be
—not as the world’s siren song has said to us:
Blessed are the vigorous, for they will rule.
Blessed are the comfortable, for they will accrue still more comfort.
Blessed are the proud, for they may take the earth.
Blessed are those filled and slaked with injustices, for they shall overflow.
Blessed are the cruel, mercy is for the weak.
Blessed are the corrupt, for they will see what they want to see.
Blessed are the warmongers, for they will take God’s inheritance.
Blessed are those honored for their injustices, for they will rule.
Blessed are you when people praise you and hide your harassment and say all kinds of good things about you-because you dishonor me. Smile hard at it, you’ve got your reward, just as the false prophets of old were rewarded.

May such a blessing never find lodging in your hearts! Instead,
God bless you, that you might know God among us in his humility.
          The Blessed One, Jesus came to us through Mary, lowly and young. 
Came to us with Mary and Joseph—so poor that they could only afford the sacrifice of pigeons at his circumcision.
          Jesus who hungered in the dessert for 40 days.
          Jesus whose life was a life of mercy from beginning to end.
          Jesus who was not corrupted by either the crowd or the religious leaders.
          Jesus who made peace among disciples who deeply disagreed, and called upon us to turn the other cheek and go the extra mile, and even love of enemies.
          Jesus who was harassed and harried and eventually killed under false pretenses.
Jesus who relinquished even his life, that we might have life.
          Jesus who, as Paul writes somewhere, “emptied himself of Godhood, embraced servanthood, humbled himself to death, even death on a cross.”
          May Jesus Christ’s presence, as he is, bless you.

God bless you, that when you are struck low, God will raise you up
          On the off-chance things are going particularly well in your life right now, it is worth reminding you that in this life there are no guarantees—be you glad and well fed now, be you at peace and without temptation—know that the other foot may drop.
          But to you mourning, humiliated, hungry, merciful, and so on—I pray that in the midst of all these things, we might be lifted up, 
that we might find healing and wholeness
—redemption itself, through Christ our Lord.
          Look back just a few verses, see what Christ is explaining with these blessings… he was mobbed by the diseased, possessed, paralyzed and epileptics—and he healed them.
          Those healings—those transformed lives—that’s the Kingdom of God come near! That’s an example of blessing
—that’s what happens when Jesus shows up! When Jesus shows up, you are raised up!

God bless you, with eyes to see the lowly and love them as yourself
          Just as our Lord raises up the lowly, I pray he gives us eyes and wills to do the same.
          That when we see those he has blessed,
the meek and mild, who are disempowered and have lost the energy for life, the humble and humiliated, those seeking seriously for decency and virtue
—when we see them, we might really see them, see them as beloved Children of the Father, and have the will to be a blessing to them!

God bless you and continually bring you from death to life!
          These blessings, they come from the God who creates—the very act of speaking them, makes them so.
          Ours is a God who speaks into chaos and nothing and creates all that is. 
Ours is a God who speaks through us with sighs too deep for words. 
Ours is a God who, when faced with the murder of his own Son, saw fit to speak life into him and speak our sin out of existence, naming our crime as a sacrifice that saves us
—naming us anew as adopted children of God, renewed for an abundant life, blessed by God!

Just so, God bless you Nathanael, 
God bless you in this baptism. 
This recreation by God. 
This calling, that you might see all people and have the will to love them well. 
This solid space created for you to experience even suffering in such a way that when you look back at it you may even be able to see God at work. 
This way Jesus unites you with him and his humble life, death, and resurrection.
This act in which you reject all the forces of this world that stand against God.
Nathaniel, on this the day of your baptism, may God bless you.

May God bless us all… 
God bless you.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Reformation 2017

         Dan and Claire were married for 8 years, it started out great, but they were drifting apart. Eventually Claire spoke up, “Hey, this isn’t working.” Dan replied, “I’m so glad you said something, I’ve felt that way too.” It took a lot of work and some outside counseling, but things got better.
         It had started to go south for Phil when he had an accident on the job and was given more painkillers than he needed. Then he used medication he found in her mother’s medicine cabinet, and he quickly escalated to heroin. His best friends Jason and Jamal sat him down one day, and told him how his dependency on drugs had changed who he was—they intervened, and Phil got into an inpatient rehab place, and afterwards regularly attended NA meetings and, after a few relapses, kept clean.
         Patt and Max were driving from South Plainfield to New York City, and things didn’t look quite right, and after a while Max turned to Patt and said, “Hey, Patt, I just saw a sign for Philly… maybe we should turn around.” And they pulled over, checked googlemaps, and turned around.

         In all these cases it took some courage to say, “This is wrong” and courage, too, to change. To turn around—or to put it in biblical terms, to repent.
Let us pray

         When I think of repentance—of folk forced to look at their situation and be stimulated by the Spirit to spontaneous acts of re-interpretation of the faith, I think of Jeremiah.
         2,700 years ago, the prophet Jeremiah was assessing the destruction of Jerusalem, walking the rubble and ruin of that grand city razed by the Babylonians—his city shattered.
         And down from his depths a question arose, “Why?”
         “What of the promises between God and us? What of the covenant made between God and the people, made between Moses and God?”
         And the horrifying answer came to him, “they broke it! They treated God like a cheated-upon spouse!”
         Imagine that moment! Struck there by his surroundings, and by his despair, and by a need to start again—to turn around, to repent.
         “Oh, Lord,” it seems he is saying, “There is no way out. We can’t save ourselves, look around at our best, blown to bits and blowing away in the wind and ate by the flames of war!”
         And God responds, “I will provide for you a new covenant. An internal promise, one sided and sure, beyond breaking—there will be no separation between you and I this time, because you will know me!”
         God turned the people around, and did a new thing with them!

When I think of repentance—of folk complacent but called to something more, moved to a higher ground and higher calling, I think of the folk Jesus calls to discipleship in John’s Gospel.
1,990 year ago, Jesus calls it like he sees it.
“The truth will set you free.”
Yet these folk with him believe they’ve always been free, smug even with Jesus right there, unable to see where they’d fallen short, unable to see how bound they were.
But Jesus sets before them a Word and a Way—a path to turn onto and follow onward to the Truth and the Freedom found in being a Disciple of Jesus Christ, paved, ultimately, in the unearned adoption into God’s family—reminded that that was Abraham’s origins as well… just some wandering Aramean who God happened to gift with relationship—turning him too toward the promised land, turning Abraham too around, and into the merciful arms of God!
God turned the people around and did a new thing with them!

When I think of repentance—when I think of a Repenter par excellence—someone stopped in their tracks and turned 180 degrees around—I think of the Apostle Paul.
1,960 years ago, Paul had a problem.
He’d met the Messiah, and it wasn’t who he expected at all! The Blessed One died on a cursed tree! Non-Jews joining Jesus’ earliest followers!
He asked, “How is this possible? Aren’t there clear boundary markers? Isn’t that what makes the world of religion go round? Isn’t that righteousness in a nut shell?”
No—he finds, God is faithful to ALL people! The barriers erected, erased, and replaced by God’s love found in Christ Jesus our Lord.
God turned the people around and did a new thing with them!

When I think of repentance—being convicted and convinced by conscience, following after a new Spiritual insight, wherever it may lead—I think of Luther.
500 years ago, Martin Luther looked back at Scripture and at the Early Church, and looked carefully at the church around him—and was convinced something was wrong!
He looked at the penance system that had calcified onto the church and hand clung to it like some parasite.
He looked at it in horror, realizing the problem was deeper than the sale of indulgence—get out of purgatory free cards hocked to pay for St. Peter’s Basilica back in Rome.
         Luther noted:
-How the penance system was warping not only his faith life, but the collective life of the Church writ large.
-How it seemed designed to obscure the Grace God promises us,
-designed to ignore that we are adopted children of God,
and to pull at people’s hearts in order to make God’s law again an external thing.

And to this he wrote up 95 points of debate, beginning:
 “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” in Matthew 4:17, he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
         And the journey that followed the posting of the 95 theses involved:
-sanctifying and splitting,
-a Christian re-thinking of sex and celibacy and the spirituality of work,
-a popularization of scripture reading and child rearing,
-new ways of taking care of the poor among us, engaging with secular power, and finding God where we would least expect God to show up.
God turned the people around and did a new thing with them!

And, just as God wasn’t done with folk 2,700 years ago, or 1,900 some years ago, or 500 years ago… I want you to know God continues to call us to a life of repentance, of turning around, moving from complacency to Christ follower, righteous re-interpretation of the faith, digging down through the layers of our own missteps to recover the grace that is always, already, there!
God is always turning us around and always doing a new thing with us!


Saturday, October 21, 2017

A Review of "The Gospel of John: Church and Culture in Conflict"

The Gospel of John: Church and Culture in ConflictThe Gospel of John: Church and Culture in Conflict by Gregg Knepp
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Five Big Stars!!!
Disclaimer—I served under Pastor Gregg as a Vicar at St. John’s Pimlico, so I’m biased.
I can’t say enough good things about Pastor Gregg’s book “The Gospel of John: Church and Culture in Conflict”.
This book reads the Gospel of John in light of Pastor Gregg’s experiences as, essentially, a Lutheran Human Shield in El Salvador, his time serving at St. John’s in NW Baltimore, and his experience as a parent of both biological and adopted kids. This book will give you an “in” into the head and heart of a very faithful Pastor.
I first read it devotionally, it reminded me of why I got into this business in the first place, the nuances of faith lived in the world as it is, it both convicted me and convinced me to be a better Pastor of the congregation I serve.
I am now using it as the main resource for a bible study on the Gospel of John. It is really helpful. I’ve been looking at scripture with this same crew of people every Thursday for 6 years, and Pastor Gregg’s book has brought us to a much deeper place of discussion than we’ve ever been at!
So, if you are clergy in need of a rerooting of your ministry, buy this book. If you are leading a Bible Study or book club, or want to, buy this book. For that matter, if you’re a skeptic or burnt out on church and church folk—this book is the real deal, not going to say it’ll convert you, but it’ll remind you why Christianity and Christian ain’t all bad, in fact at our best we’re pretty damn good!

View all my reviews