Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Proper 12A. 24 July 2011.

For the audio version, click here and select 6th Sunday after Pentecost.



          What was your first experience of prayer?  I can't remember it.  My guess is that it was table grace.  The table was set.  Steam was rising from the food from the oven.  And heads are bowed.  "Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts, which we have received from thy bounty…"  I know we sang the grace, too.  "For health and strength, and daily food we give thee thanks, O Lord." 


          But what was the first experience of really praying?  What was the first experience of more than just the words in the book?  Perhaps your parents brought you to church and your Sunday school teacher said, "We're going to sing `Jesus loves me,' and then we're going to have a little prayer.  Does anyone have anybody they would like to pray for?  Yes, Cindy?" 


          "I'd like to pray for my daddy.  He's going out of town next week to a conference, and I want him to be safe and bring me something when he comes home." 


          "Okay, Cindy…well, we can pray for your daddy to be safe, but let's just leave it at that.  Brian, did you raise your hand?"




          "My mother said that the lady next door is sick.  She's got some sort of condition that makes her want to go inside when I go out to play.  Mommy says that she can only stay outside to weed her garden if I stay really quiet, and I tried to stay really quiet, but you know…sometimes when my little sister comes out and tries to ride on my bicycle I get angry and I yell at her and she yells back, and mommy says that it's making the lady next door get really sick.  And I don't want her to be sick, but my sister is really mean, so I guess I want to pray that the lady next door feels better and that my little sister just stays away from my stuff…"


          "Okay, Brian…  Patricia?"


          "Yeah…I want to pray for a million dollars." 

          "Why do you want a million dollars, Patty?"

          "I don't know.  I just want it.  I could buy a lot of things with it."

          "And you could give some of it to the church, right?"  (Pause.)


          "Patty, with a million dollars you could afford to give a lot of money to the church, and to the people around you who really need help, and you'd still be able to buy toys and candy." (Pause.)



          Did any of you have those kinds of conversations with your parents or teachers about prayer?   The grown up tries to steer the youngster ever so gently to pray both honestly and unselfishly.  And it's hard to do with children, because they know how to ask for things they want—but to think about others—to think about a big picture is new and confusing.


          And prayer continues to be a mystery—how it works, what it means...  When we pray the words of The Book of Common Prayer we are borrowing someone else's language, but we fill those words with our hearts so that the sentiment of those words resonates into us and out of us.  For all Christians who worship together with fixed liturgy—like us—that is how we pray together.  Our many temperaments find a common expression in common prayer.  For some Christians of other backgrounds, the prayers in the book seem inauthentic—like they don't really come from the heart—when in fact, for people who are part of this tradition—the words in the book may be very authentic.  The words in the book serve to bring out the intentions that roam around inside of us and have trouble coming out on their own.


          You go into the pharmacy to buy a birthday card and you stand there reading through them—trying to find the one that says what you would write, if you could.   It's an interesting exercise, because the greeting card writers try to come up with cards that really say what we want to say.  And if you care about that relationship, you will stand there and really think through those words and how the person might receive them.


          Near Valentine's Day I was looking through the cards for Karin, and I was interested to see how many cards used the expression, "have you by my side."  I wondered if "by my side" was thought to be more masculine than "with me."  Those are two prepositional phrases that mean, essentially, the same thing; but "with me," somehow sounds a little weak next to "by my side." 


          How often do you drive to the store or work or wherever, and in your mind you're trying to find the right greeting card to send God?  Is it the one with the big red rose on the front and the big, heavy cursive lines that say, "Dear God, you have always been there for me.  Through thick and thin.  Through storm and calm.  In the times of my distress you have brought peace.  In the moments of quiet, you have been my strength.  I have always been glad that you have been…by my side."  Does that sound right?     


          Or is it the funny card?  The Shoebox Greeting lady in the frumpy hat and sunglasses.  "Lordy, lordy…look who is older than dirt!  Literally!  Love you lots God—keep it real."   I personally wouldn't send that card, but I wouldn't criticize you if you did.


          I'm sure God would love to get any greeting card you'd like to send.  Just the prayer that says, I love you, I'm thinking about you.  Even if you made it with construction paper and crayons, like children.  Little G, big O, oddly shaped D, and you run out of space to write anything else.


          Or maybe you'd like to write a letter to God, more like a grown up.  Out comes the paper and pen, or maybe the laptop and printer. 

          "Dear God, Thank you for your assistance in connection with a few of the matters that have recently come before me.  I'm afraid that some folks have just been commended to my prayers, several of them are very sick and, as you know, my concern is for their health and well being.  Please find enclosed the list of names and their attending conditions.  I am, of course, deeply grateful, and Karin joins me in sending our love to the communion of saints and the company of heaven.   Yours very faithfully…"


          Too formal?  Yes, I agree.  But sometimes formality is easier, sometimes formality is actually quite authentic to where we are.


          But I have known, and I am sure you have, too, what it is to not be able to pray.  To have something come up in your life or in a friend's life, and you have absolutely no idea how to pray for them.  It can't be reduced to getting something, or getting rid of something.  It's not as simple as that, because there are complexities to the situation where we honestly do not know what the best thing would be…or what needs to change and doesn't need to change. 


          I have known situations where the whole mess seemed so completely, ridiculously tangled that I was seriously in doubt as to whether anything could make it better, and then one little, tiny thing…something seemingly so insignificant in the grand total…or something that I thought could never in a million years be changed, shifted only slightly, and the whole situation resolved itself almost automatically. 


          How do you pray to the air traffic controller?  How do you pray to someone who already knows what you need before you ask it, and who is likely going to answer your prayer with a different answer than you ever thought possible?




          In situations like those, when the whole thing is just so overwhelming, it reminds me of this section from Paul's letter to the Romans.  "The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep words.  And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God."


          It is such a comfort to think that God knows… God knows.


          When you're driving in your car…

          When you're sitting alone…

          When the doctor is having you wait…

          When you're mowing the grass and your brain is darting from family to friends, from sick list to personal needs…

          When you're missing a loved one…

          When you need someone to say "I love you…"

          When you heart breaks because you don't know how it will ever get better…

          When you have felt so bad that you can't feel anything at all…



          We do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep…way too deep for words.  And God, who searches the heart, knows


          Prayer is such a mystery.  When you consider all that we know about God, through the life and teaching of Jesus, just the thought of addressing a prayer to God in the oratory of your heart can seem overwhelming. 


          I think Paul would have wanted us to know that being overwhelmed is not a sin.  Being overwhelmed by life, by family, by situations beyond our control is part of the deal.  I'm not being anti-intellectual here, but I really don't think that our minds are supposed to handle all of it.  I think we are meant to have faith, and to remain faithful in the midst of the crazy.


          I think sometimes utter silence, even confused silence, may be the most authentic prayer.  Because, if Paul is right, the Spirit is searching through all of that.  The Spirit is seeing the pain and the anxiety alongside the love, the hope…all rolled into one.  


          I think what I'm trying to say, and what I think Paul is saying, is don't be afraid of the holy silence that surrounds the overwhelming problems in your life.  Don't be afraid.  Take heart.  God knows.




            I want to offer a prayer written by the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton.  If you are overwhelmed by difficulties and are trying to be faithful in the midst of uncertainty, I think you will find this helpful. 





Y LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please You does in fact please You. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart  from that desire. And I know that, if I do this , You will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust You always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for You are ever with me, and You will never leave me to face my perils alone.




If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider giving to the church where you feel most at home.


The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Proper 11A. 17 July 2011.

For the audio version, click here and select 5th Sunday after Pentecost.

Proper 11A. 17 July 2011.[1]

Alexander D. MacPhail



          Jesus put before the crowd another parable: "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, `Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?' He answered, `An enemy has done this.' The slaves said to him, `Then do you want us to go and gather them?' But he replied, `No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.[2]


          Whenever I read this text—even though I know it's just a parable—I still have to ask the question: why in the world would anyone sow weeds?  It gnaws at me.  When I go out running, I see these immaculate gardens that are lovingly tended.  I look at those flowers and herbs, and I don't know about you, but I can violate the Tenth Commandment twelve times just running around Woodstock—I covet some of these gardens. 


          But no matter how much I envy, it would never even cross my mind plant weeds in them.  It would be like visiting a museum and spraying black paint on all the paintings. 


          You would never do that, but there are people who would.  For some people, people who are hurt by the slings and arrows of life, people who have walked the dusty path with not much to show for it—they can't bear that someone is getting—what they assume to be—a better life.  A better garden.  A nicer home.  More friends.  More money.  And they take it out in some kind of way.


          Did you know that some people become weeds?  In almost any organization.  In churches, in businesses, in charity organizations, bowling leagues, in colleges.  In almost any group of people that's been around for more than just a couple of years, you'll find weeds.  And the interesting thing about them, is that they don't start out that way.


          I know a priest who is in a parish where he's got a small group of weeds.  Whenever one of the "new people" is going to stand for vestry this group starts growing weeds.  "Well, he doesn't remember when we started out."  "This is the only rector she's ever known." 


          One of the new people decides they want to start a ministry in the church, maybe a food pantry, or an outreach program, and the weeds go to work.  "It'll draw in the wrong kind of people."  "Who does she think she is she can just waltz into this church and start a ministry?" 


          Now, you don't know what this is like here (at Emmanuel/ St. Andrew's), because we don't have any weeds here.  But let me tell you how these weeds started off. 

          They started off as wheat—the people who held the church up when virtually no one was coming, they gave money, and countless hours of hard work.  They were out mowing the grass.


          But, the years rolled on, and they can't do that stuff anymore.  But, you see, they used to, and it's a painful reminder that those days are passed when someone walks into the church, or the office, or the civic group, and seems to get instant respect, instant results, and instant friends.  All of which it used to take years to achieve.   


          So envy kicks in, and they become weeds, because they don't know how else to remind people that we wouldn't even be here today without their hard work.  It's a tricky thing to talk about, isn't it, because on one hand the weeds can be deeply aggravating.  And yet, on the other hand, you can understand precisely why they're behaving the way they are. 


          The reaction most people have is to start pulling them up.  That's what the parable says.  The slaves come back and say, "Hey, someone planted some weeds out here…you want us to go out and pull them up?"  And the master says, "No…you can't do that.  If you pull on the weeds, it'll uproot the wheat." (Pause.) And that's true.  There were one or two weeds in my last parish.  I used to have people coming up to me with advice on how to pull them up.  I had one person come into my office regularly and say, "You need to sit down and write up letters of transfer for these people, invite them into your office, and tell them to hit the bricks…get out of here…don't let the door hit you on your way out."  And I wouldn't do it. 

          Oh, I wanted to do it.  But see, if you start pulling on those weeds, it will get around, and before long, you're hand will slip and you'll pull up some wheat.  And then it's all over. 


          In a business you can just fire them, right?  Well, yes, but it still damages the wheat, even though you think it doesn't.


          Some people say, "Oh you just need to spray them with Round-Up.  Tell them that they're doing bad things.  Preach some pointed sermons at them.  You know: Let `em have it when you're alone with them."  I once got that advice from on of the bishops.  He said, "Just get them alone and tell them to shape up or ship out."  But it doesn't work that way.


          If you've spent any time at all with herbicides you know about drift.  No matter how careful you are, some of that spray is going to fly on the wind and get on the good plants.  You spray the weeds, and some of it will fall on the wrong ears, and suddenly the good plants start to die.  No.  The only way to handle it is to let those weeds grow.  (Pause.)


          I remember when I was a boy talking with a man who lived a couple doors down.  He was a nice man.  A couple times a week, he'd go out weeding the front flower bed.  One day he said, "You see that plant right there?"  I said, "Yes."  He said, "It's a weed."  Well, it was a beautiful flower.  I think it was a zinnia.  I said, "No, it's not a weed…it's a flower!"  He said, "You want to know the truth?  The only difference between them is that we like some more than we like others.  But they're all weeds." 


          I have thought about that conversation occasionally for the last, I don't know, twenty years.  Some days I think he was right; other days I think he was just grumpy.   Maybe he couldn't tell weeds from wheat.  I know I can't.


          You see, despite the fact that we know weedy behavior when we see it, quite often weeds really are wheat.  That's why it's God's job to sort them out.  Because God can look past the pettiness of human behavior in ways that we can't.  He can see the places in our hearts that ache from years of unnoticed sacrifice.  He can see the hours of selfless giving that no one else saw.


          And what's even more amazing… God can take a weed and make it wheat.  God can take someone who has been formed in absolute chaos and uncertainty, in and out of detention at school, and a heck-raiser, and spin them around into one of the finest examples of wheat you ever saw.  Ask the Apostle Paul.  Ask St. Francis of Assisi.  Ask Augustine of Hippo.


          We like having a bead on things, don't we?  Nice easy divisions between good and bad.  And we're so good at it.  Republican and Democrat.  From here, and not from here.  And once we've got them pegged, we think we know all there is to know.


          Emo Philips, a Christian comedian, said, "I had a conversation with a person I had recently met, I asked, "Are you Protestant or Catholic?"  He said, "Protestant." I said, "Me too! What kind?" He answered, "Baptist." "Me too!" I said. "Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?" "Northern Baptist," he replied. "Me too!" I shouted. We continued to go back and forth. Finally I asked, "Northern conservative fundamentalist Baptist, Great Lakes Region, Council of 1879 or Northern conservative fundamentalist Baptist, Great Lakes Region, Council of 1912?"  He replied, "Northern conservative fundamentalist Baptist, Great Lakes Region, Council of 1912." And I said, "Heretic!  Heretic!"


          Oh, we can play this game in our denomination, too…  And we think once we've got a couple of experiences with someone, a couple conversations, sizing them up, that we know pretty much where they're coming from.  And we make the decision to think of them as either weed or wheat.  But we don't really know. 


          And even if we did know, do we even know ourselves which one we are?  (Pause.)  You don't know.  When it comes to human beings, you do not know a weed from wheat—you don't even know yourself!


          When I was about nine or ten, my parents and I went to Camp Swatara, one of the Church of the Brethren camps.[3]  I was going to a week-long church summer camp. My parents were there to be counselors for some of the older kids.  On the first day, I met this boy—I don't remember his name now, but I'll call him Johnny.  When Johnny and I met we were instant enemies.  There was nothing about him I liked, and nothing about me he liked. 


          We couldn't have been more different.  He was athletic, I was sedentary.  He was out-going, I was shy.  He was tall, I was short.  And we bickered and fussed with each other for the entire week.  He wanted to go climb the rock pile, I wanted to take a nap.  He wanted to go swimming, I wanted to read a book.  And the other boys loved him, which really egged things on.


          We fussed and we bickered and we bickered and we fussed until the week ended and all the parents started coming to pick up their knee-scraped, foot-sore, poison ivy infected children. 


          We had all said our good byes at the vespers service the night before.  A man named Clarence—I'll never forget him—had handmade little wooden candleholders for each of us during the week, that we got to take with us.  He teared up when handing them out, telling us that we were the light of the world, the faith of the future church.  It was a moving service.  Yes, we sang Cum Baya.  Yes, there was a bonfire.  Yes, marshmallows were involved.  


          In my mind, the goodbyes were all said.  The few boys I actually got along with had shaken my hand, and left with their parents.  And I don't know quite what the circumstances were, but Johnny and I were the last kids left.  I sat on the steps in front of the lodge, and he was playing with a little rubber ball on the basketball court right there.




          We didn't speak.  We didn't even acknowledge that the other was present.  Finally, his mother arrived, and as they were about to leave, Johnny walked over to me.  I was scared out of my mind.  What was he going to do?  I was ready for a final insult, a final punch on the arm, a final indignity to a humiliating week.


          He got right up close, and then suddenly he reached out his arms and hugged me.  And he said, "I'm going to miss you."


          As I look back, I have to wonder:  During the course of that week, when we were all supposed to be learning how to be better Christians, was he weed, or was he wheat?  Was I weed, or was I wheat?  When he hugged me, did he become wheat right there?  Or was it just for show?  I don't know.  Only God knows.





If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider making a donation to the church where you feel most at home.


The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.


[1] Originally Proper 11A. 20 July 2008.

[2] Matthew 13:24-29

Monday, July 11, 2011

Proper 10A. 10 July 2011.


          Jesus is sitting beside the Sea of Galilee, and Matthew writes that "such great crowds gathered around him" that he could no longer just sit there beside the sea.  There were too many people.  Crowds and crowds of people.  So Jesus had to get in a boat and teach from the boat. 


          I can imagine there being a lot of people, but I've never been in a situation where I've seen a lot of people just sort of gathering around someone to hear them talk.  It's not the kind of thing people really do anymore because we've got radio and television and the internet.  It seems that political rallies are about the only thing people go to hear someone speak live—and of course nowadays there is a platform and microphones, and advance people who drum up crowds.  The candidate arrives, the music plays, the introduction is made and out they come.


          It's so very different from first century Palestine where people would gather around a speaker and just listen.  And, of course, the larger the crowd, the more prestige is accorded to the speaker.  The message is that he or she has a lot of power or charisma, if what they're saying is relevant to that many people.




          As someone who preaches, I can tell you that it's absolutely wonderful if you feel you have something meaningful to say that other people want to hear—and it's absolutely terrible if you don't feel like saying anything, or if the people listening aren't really listening.  I'm told that when people asked Jim Stamper how many people could fit comfortably in the pews, he would say, "This church sleeps about 100."[1] 


          If you want the experience of talking in front of a group of people to go well, then you want to talk about something that you care about, because if you care about something, people will take an interest.  What you don't want to do is insult people.  You don't want to say things that may hurt their feelings or in any way abuse the power that comes from being the only voice speaking—especially in preaching. 


          This is a sacred trust.  There are times when the pulpit has been abused by clergy who carried the responsibility too lightly.  I will tell you that there is almost always a little touch of fear I experience when I begin to speak, because every sermon is about the intersection of God with humanity.  A good sermon, offered in submission to the Holy Spirit has the capacity to inspire, correct, strengthen…  A good sermon can heal—open doors to new possibilities—change lives.  But the last thing in the world that you would want to do is insult.  So, that's what concerns me about the text for today from the Gospel lesson.  Jesus has all these crowds around him—such that he has to sit on a boat—there's not enough land for him.  The crowds are pushing in further and further.  He's out in the boat.

          And now that he's gotten into the boat he tells this parable about the sower and the varieties of ground.  The sower goes out to sow.  The agricultural methods of first century Palestine were such that a farmer would sow the seeds and then plow them into the ground.  But even still, this is parable—this is a teaching story that, as C.H. Dodd put it, "is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought."


          You've heard me use this definition before.  I think it's most helpful to remember that last part—that a parable is meant to tease the mind into active thought.  That's why these stories are so alive—because they are meant to tease the mind about possibilities of meaning.  And as we engage our minds with these parables—no matter how long we have known them—there is always something interesting to be discovered.  You could line up ten preachers and ask them all to talk about one parable and they'll come up with different sermons.


          The sower sows the seeds and the seeds go everywhere.  They go on the path, on the rocky ground, among the thorns, and in the good soil.  The seeds on the path were eaten by the birds.  The seeds on the rocky ground had no depth of soil, so they sprang up quickly and died.  Not enough depth for the roots to grow.  The seeds that fell among the thorns grew, but were choked by the thorns.  But then…ahhh!...you've got the good soil.  Freshly plowed, nutrient rich, pH balanced, and there's your crop.



          And then Matthew writes that Jesus explained the parable, the soil is the people who hear.  The path is the people who don't understand and don't really want to understand.  So the evil one comes and steals the seed.  The rocky ground is the shallow people.  People who only see life in terms of fun or not fun.  People whose idea of deep abiding happiness is a tabloid magazine and a Big Gulp.  They're not bad people.  They are nice people—they are friends of ours, even family, but they're just not very deep.  They grow the seeds a little bit, but they're too shallow to let them take hold of their lives.  They're still good people, of course, but they're not really able to commit to something bigger than themselves.


          The thorns are those people who receive the seed, but they've got too much going on in their lives to make space.  They're too busy trying to get money and stuff.  Again, nice people, good people—but they want the creation, not the creator.


          But then you've got the good soil.  People who are not shallow, able to make space for God's movements in their lives, open to others, not a slave to money and things, and they receive the seed and go on to produce crops and crops of wonderful, healthy wheat.


          Now, again…Jesus has offered this parable to crowds and crowds of people.  How many people?  A lot of people.  We don't know.  The irony is that he is the sower in the parable.  He's spreading the seed over crowds and crowds of people.  Every temperament, every spiritual/emotional/intellectual background is out there.  He's got path, rocky, thorns, and good soil listening.  The question is, who is who?


          And that's what teases the mind, and potentially insults the people who are listening.  Is he calling me shallow?  Am I the thorny ground?  What do you mean we can't follow God and try to collect wealth?  Is Jesus trying to lose his following here? 


          But now, see, we all know what we ought to be, right?  The good soil.  No one wants to consider themselves the path, rocky, or thorny, and my guess is that most of us consider ourselves good soil.  I know, I do.  But I think part of the way Jesus teases our minds with this parable is that the soils in the story don't change, but people do.  I may have been a path when I was in college.  I never listened to any sermons then.  Weeks and weeks would go by and I would tune out the sermon every Sunday.  All I cared about was the liturgy and receiving the Holy Communion—I didn't try to deepen anything.


          When I was in seminary at the time I thought I was good soil—nope.  I was pretty shallow, I think.  I think I'm good soil now, but there are times when I wonder what life might have been like if I had made some other choices—followed the money rather than the sense of call.  Everyone deals with those kinds of thoughts from time to time. 


          See that's the thing: in the parable the soils remain the same, but in real life, we can be good soil one day and thorns the next.  And I wonder if the people who heard this parable taught by Jesus felt the same way, or if they felt insulted by it? 


          I don't think Jesus meant to insult anyone, but I do think he meant to get the crowds thinking about how they were listening to him.  Anyone can listen.  Anyone can sit there on the beach and listen to Jesus. 


          One of my good friends likes to say that it's easy to worship God.  No trouble at all, really.  But if you want to follow Jesus, that's the hard part, because if you have to start living on his terms, not yours, and some changes will need to be made. 


          A little later in Matthew's Gospel—actually we will read it on the last Sunday of this season after Pentecost—Jesus will say to the crowds who are following him, "If any of you want to come after me, you must deny yourselves and take up your cross and follow.  For those who want to save their lives will lose them, and those who want to lose their lives for the sake of the Gospel will find them.


          The Cross ultimately, ironically, means life, not death.  But the crucifixion is the death of the person we would be if God were not a part of our lives.  There are plenty of people in world—and certainly in the Church—who are all fine and dandy with worshiping Jesus.  It's the following part.  The Cross part.  The sacrificing that keeps them from really signing on.


          You see, it's not that any of us are bad people, or poorly intentioned, or don't really love God.  It's that the last step on the road to real transformation and real heart level relationship is that God must be allowed into every corner. 

          You can't draw boundary lines around certain habits or prejudices or pet peeves and say, "Okay, God…I love you, but as far as this and this and this are concerned—that's none of your business.  So take care of me, and my family, but leave me alone."


          And that's the real sticking point for a lot of otherwise very devout people.  And I'm not throwing stones at anyone here, because, Lord knows, I have my own ways of pulling back.  I can honor every vow I made as a priest, but when I go back to the Baptismal Covenant and it says, "Will you strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being?"…


          Respect the dignity of every human being…  And I think back on the man who showed up in the parking lot of the Food Lion with a bumper sticker that had an American Flag on it, and there was a little sign that said, "Can you buy this sticker to support me? I'm a veteran and I'm deaf."  And I never even reached into my pocket to see if I had change.  Did I respect his dignity?  No.


          A couple years ago a man in a wheel chair skooched himself along the corridor of the Apple Blossom Mall and right into the restaurant where I and my family were having lunch.  The man was clearly mentally and physically disabled.  I remember everything about him—from his lime green tie-dyed t-shirt to his black biker boots.  And I remember his face and eyes, looking at me, not speaking.  His whole being seemed to say, "I'm hungry, can you help me?"  And I pretended not to notice him.  (Pause.) 

          I vowed to spend my life spreading the seeds of the Kingdom of God, and I was hard as a path, and as rocky and thorny as you can get. 


          The good soil would have offered to do something—buy him lunch, ask him if he needed to make a phone call.  "Will you seek and serve Christ is all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?"  You and I responded: "I will, with God's help."  But I didn't. 


          I told that story to a clergy friend of mine.  She didn't think I was making a confession, but that's what I was doing.  And I wasn't looking for absolution.  I was looking for her to do what I wanted her to do, which would have been to say, "Alexander, you really did mess up."  I wanted to hear her say that.  I wanted some voice other than my own to say, "That was not okay." 


          But do you know what she said?  She gave me every reason why I did the right thing.  She said, "Oh, Alexander…you didn't know that man.  He might have been a criminal.  He might have been up to no good."


          No. No. No.  The cozy answers are not cozy anymore, because we know what the Kingdom looks like—and it doesn't look like excuses.  It looks like hungry eating.  It looks like the lost being found.






          The Kingdom of God does not look like thorns and rocks—it looks like beautiful, freshly-turned soil where God can drop the many little seeds of crucifixion for the crops of Resurrection to grow.  It looks like a willingness always to say yes to God, and a pain down to the center of one's soul to say no.


          God says over and over and over.  Will you do it?  Will you live this life that my son taught you to live?  Will you do it?  And we—the Church—

feebly, often half-heartedly respond: "We will, with God's help." 


          Boy, do we need that help.







If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider making a donation to the church where you feel most at home.


The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.





[1] The Rev. James Stamper was the Rector of Beckford Parish before my immediate predecessor, the Rev. Dr. S. Paul Rowles.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Proper 9A. 3 July 2011.


          Some time ago I was asked by a member of the parish if we could have an Advent study that would be like our Lenten studies.  Now, Advent isn't for another five months.  Don't worry.  I looked it up; we have exactly 177 shopping days left till Christmas.


          But even during Lent of this year, I knew exactly what I wanted us to do.  I want us to study John's gospel, and I'm mentioning it now, because I want us to have a real, honest to goodness Bible study.  I'm going to ask those who participate to sit down on their own time, and read John's gospel from beginning to end.  And we're going to study it thematically, as a book. 


          On Sundays we do not take the time to read more than just sections of the Bible—what are technically called pericopes—or cuttings—from the Bible.  We just get little bits, really, on Sundays, and we do that for the very good reason that the person preaching needs to have their topics narrowed, and because you and I don't really have the attention span to listen to truly lengthy readings.  


          But one of the drawbacks of our lectionary system is that we don't notice thematic elements.  We don't notice the placement of certain stories in their context.  Sometimes the reading starts off, "Jesus said…" Well, okay…Jesus said.  But to whom?  Where?  What just happened before he said it? 

          And the funny thing is that we are so accustomed to hearing the gospels in these little sections that even when we read the text as a whole it reads like a series of sections, rather than as a whole narrative.  We lose the flow of the story.


          Or, in the case of today's gospel reading from Matthew, the lack of flow.  You see, sometimes, if you read the gospels, you come across sections where it is abundantly clear that the authors had these stories or parables or just moments that the church remembered—little glimpses into the life of Jesus—but no one was 100%  sure when they happened, or what the context was.  Remember that the gospels were not written like the newspaper—the day after it happened.  Mark was writing around 67 AD, Matthew was writing probably about 13 to 23 years later.  Luke was probably written around the same time.  John was writing 5 to 10 years after Matthew and Luke, which is very apparent in his rich development of Christian spirituality.


          So the gospels were written some 30 to 50 years after Jesus ascended into heaven.  That's a long time for the church to carry around the stories of Jesus in oral fashion.  Of course, the culture would have been such that the stories probably didn't vary, and people probably took pains to tell them correctly, since very few of they early Christians were able to write things down.


          It seems that the gospel writers, or evangelists—to use the proper term—were likely writing so that their community would no longer have to rely purely on memory and oral tradition to pass along this faith. 

          The development of the canon of scripture is another topic for another day, but what I'm trying to work my way around to saying is that sometimes the flow of the story is understandable and fitting, and sometimes you get these sayings that may or may not depend on what came before in the story.  Matthew may have simply noticed an opportunity in the narrative to slip something in and thus make sure it wouldn't be forgotten.


          If you look at the gospel reading, Matthew writes, "At that time…"  At what time?  Well, precisely!  It may have been at the time when he was saying what came before, or it may be that "at that time" just means sometime when Jesus was there, or saying this, or what have you.  Matthew gives us two "At that time" stories in close proximity.  Here we have it in 11.25, and we'll get it again 5 verses later in 12.1. 


          I want to look specifically at 11.28 today.  It's one of these verses that seems to have been slipped in, but I think we can be very glad Matthew included it because it is one of our more treasured sayings of Jesus, "Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."


          We know these verses very well from our Rite One liturgy of the Holy Eucharist, as part of what are called "the comfortable words" after the Absolution.   Many of us also hear Handel's caress of these words in his Messiah oratorio.  


          They are sweet words.  And they really don't need any context to be true or comforting.  They are not hard to understand.  Once the Sunday school teacher explained that a yoke wasn't yolk—like egg yolks—but a farm device that is harnessed around oxen for them to pull a plow, or a cart, or something.  In fact the expression "a yoke of oxen" means two oxen.


          Beckford Parish is called a yoked parish, drawing an analogy from oxen—both St. Andrew's and Emmanuel are coupled together, like many little churches.  Yokes were also made for people—as I'm sure you know—to help them carry heavy buckets. 


          The word and concept of yoke implies subservience, and even slavery.  On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day we read from Isaiah 9:4 "For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian."  In it's own context, Isaiah was saying that God breaks the yoke of the people's burden by sending a messiah to bring God's reign.  So as we read it at Christmas we are affirming that Jesus is that long awaited messiah, who by his very birth is bringing us freedom.


          So most often when we encounter the symbolism of a yoke in the Bible, it is a negative idea.  Yokes are to be broken, not taken on.  If he is the one to break the yokes to which we have been harnessed, then what is Jesus saying here?


          He says, "Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me for I am gentle and lowly in heart and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and burden is light."


          Is it?  Really?  Is this the same Jesus who said, "If any would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me"?  That doesn't sound like easy or light to me.


          In fact, as I try to engage in discipleship, I don't find much about it that is easy or light at all.  The Sermon on the Mount is absolutely loaded with teachings that seem difficult to near impossible.  Turn the other cheek.  Go the extra mile.  Give to anyone who asks from you. 


          I remember hearing the story some years ago about the parish priest who received an angry letter from a wealthy man who was on the parish register, but never came to church.  The wealthy man had received a stewardship letter in the mail and a pledge card, like everyone else, and the man fired back an angry letter that read, "As far as I can see this Christian business is just one continuous give, give, give."  The clergyman responded with a letter that said, "I want to thank you for the best definition of the Christian life I have ever heard."[*]


          It's true.  If you want to worship Jesus—that's easy.  Sunday morning, present yourself at a church, follow along in the book, shake a few hands.  You might have to learn your way around the Prayer Book, but you know…  But now, if you want to follow Jesus.  Well.  That's a little bit more tricky. 


          In Luke 14:36, it is recorded that Jesus said, "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple."  I'm pretty sure he was using hyperbole when he said "hate"—he's making a point.  But he is saying: sometimes you have to be willing to turn your back on your own family to be one of his disciples. 


          In those days, let's just remember, following Jesus often meant being thrown out of the synagogue.  So Jesus is really just stating the obvious for that place and time.  But there are some folks who take that teaching very literally to this day.  A month or so ago, Karin and I saw a documentary on television about the Jim Roberts cult.  This is a nomadic, highly secretive, fundamentalist cult where the members called "The Brothers and Sisters" or "The Brethren" give up all material possessions and their families and travel from place to place, essentially just surviving and trying to live in accordance with a very primitive understanding of the Bible.


          Instead of understanding the Church to be an outward looking, helpful, inclusive, loving, servant of all, they are inward looking, absolute, reflexive, and, frankly, kind of creepy.  But the most heart-rending aspect of their life is that they turn their backs completely on their families, and when the families try to talk with them or bring them back, they resist. 


          Parents who have lost their grown children to this cult have had to form support groups with each other, because of the unique pain that they endure for having living children they cannot contact who want nothing to do with them because of their religion.  And these are regular folks.  These are people who have been raised Methodist, Baptist, you name it. I wonder what they would do with "Take my yoke upon you and learn of me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and burden is light"?


          What are we to make of it?  If we are agreed that living the authentic Christian life means making some sacrifices—and it surely does—then how is the yoke easy and burden light?


          Did you know that yoke has yet another meaning?  I was fascinated to discover this.  Yoke was a metaphor the rabbis used to describe "the difficult but joyous task of obedience to the Torah."[†]   What Jesus is saying is, "Take my Torah upon you."  And Torah, you remember, is word that means both "Law" and "Teaching."  It's a good word. It carries in its fullest meaning wisdom and goodness.  I like to think of it as being like the advice that comes from a grandfather or grandmother.  There is a depth of experience and reflection that is conveyed in every word.  Make friends with the word torah.  It's a wonderful concept.




          "Take my torah upon you," says Jesus.  It will give your life purpose and dignity and meaning.  Jesus' torah is easy and light in the sense that it reveals the darkness and pain that come from following our own selfishness.  You would be surprised how many people have only two categories.  What I like and what I don't like.  If I like it, it's good.  If I don't like it, it's bad.  Let me tell you.  There is more to life than that.  If you only do things because they tickle your fancy, then everything just shrinks down to the next laugh.  That was fun; what's next.


          I have never found that to be a meaningful way of living.  But I have discovered that when you pray, "God, I am yours, use me as you will"—life might not be fun all the time, but it will be loaded with wonder.  We have a word for that kind of happiness.  It's a very churchy word and it means more than happy.  It's a word that can eat the word "happy" for breakfast.  This word carries a depth of happiness and contentment that can only come from God himself, and that word is "joy." 


          You don't get "joy" by looking for it—you get joy by doing what God has asked of you, and you to do with that careful mix of humility and zeal.  It's an attitude of "Okay, God, let's go!"  And that attitude will go and do and preach and heal and at the end of the day when you sit back in your chair, the feeling will come over you.  A feeling that comes over you gently, and then settles into your bones.  A yoke that is easy and light.  And you will call it, "joy."


          Take the Lord's torah upon you.  And learn.  His torah will give you joy, and paradoxically, you will find rest for your souls.



If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider making a donation to the church where you feel most at home.


The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.


[*] This is one of those old, old sermon stories. I'm almost embarrassed to use it.  It has been around so long that I have no idea who said it, or wrote it, or even if it truly happened.  But like most parables, it teases the mind; and in this case, makes a point.

[†] HarperCollins NRSV Study Bible, notes, pg. 1878.