Sunday, July 29, 2012

Proper 12B. 29 July 2012.

Listen by clicking here.


           

            I would hope that you all have been in prayer for the Brownfields and Stringers and Richard Torovsky during the week.   As most of you know, Chance Stringer—one of Ray and Marcia's grandsons—drowned at the family's new home in Greenville, South Carolina.  They had recently relocated from the Richmond area. 

 

            And before I begin, I just want to reaffirm our belief in God as "the ground of our being"—as Paul Tillich wrote—that God is not only present in the midst of tragedy, but beyond tragedy in a new place that we call the Resurrection. 

 

            Life does not continue to be the same as it was.  Life is ever-changing—often in confusing and frightening ways.  The steady rhythms of our lives are often punctured by uncertainty.  It is the resurrection of Christ that gently, even quietly, turns the page of sorrow, and reminds us that—as Frederick Buechner said—"The worst things are never the last things."       

 

            Despite this tragedy in our midst, it is still a delight for me to worship with you today.  I always look forward to these fifth Sundays when we try to combine the congregations of Beckford Parish—not just because it means I only have one liturgy instead of three!—but because it gathers us up into one place, and one moment. 

 

            I have a somewhat unique perspective in that my role as your priest means that I know all of you, at least a bit, and I often wish that you knew each other as well as I do.  I think many of you would be delighted to discover what a wonderful group of people our churches are.  Whenever the moment in the Prayers of the People arrives when we give thanks for the blessings of this life, I invariably find myself thanking God for the many dedicated, and lovely people God has brought to this parish. 

 

            I only wish that you would all find others that you could drag, kicking and screaming, to church.  I'd love to see St. Andrew's and Emmanuel packed to the gills—and I think it's possible we could do that, but it would take something more than just prayer.  It would take meeting new people, talking to them, forming relationships, and, yes, leading them to the Risen Christ and to his church. 

 

            But I promise you, there are people out there who don't go to church and would like to, they just don't know that they'd be welcomed.  They have no idea that we'd love to share this beautiful tradition and historic faith with them. 

 

            The hunger is there, though.  The hunger for community and meaning, hunger for God.  The hunger for a life that is more profound that just working and playing, eating and sleeping. 

           

            You know what I mean.  There is a dignity and an intangible strength that comes from trying to live a devout life, centered on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  There are no meaningful substitutes.

 

            Even when it seems that the cards are stacked against you, and life grinds away the vim and vigor, you can still come to church and engage your heart and mind, and discover that God has been holding your hand the entire time.  Do you realize what a treasure it is to believe that? 

 

            A lot of people—most people—think that Christianity is just guilt, guilt, guilt.  Or they think it's just something to hold them down.  I have never felt that way.  I have always thought that Jesus offers the best boat in the sea of uncertainty—not some uncritical, anti-intellectual path of blind faith—but a reasonable and hopeful life, grounded in the depth of God's love. 

 

            You can engage your most critical intellectual faculties and find that the Christian faith stands up to the challenge.  The Rev. John Stott, DD, CBE, one of the great Anglican evangelical clergy said that that is why some folks shy away.  They think Christianity is not big enough to handle their questions.  Or that you have to check your mind at the door to believe in miracles, or the Resurrection, or the virgin birth of Jesus.

 

            I think it is the smaller mind that refuses to believe in more.  As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, "There are more things in heaven and on earth…than are dreamt of in your philosophy."  You and I do not know how all of this works.  There are far too many variables of agency and causation: some human, some natural, some beyond all knowing.  You cannot even plan one minute of your day that is completely within your control.  Thoughts intrude, the phone rings, the very thing that tenaciously possesses your mind can flit into non-existence with a sip of coffee. 

 

            To believe that something amazing can happen—something beyond explanation, beyond all that you have ever known—is not a leap of faith, it happens all the time.  What makes it miraculous is not that science can't explain it, but that it seems so unlikely and so wonderful at the same time. 

 

            Jesus encountered a large group of people.  John puts the estimate at five thousand.  The 2011 U.S. Census numbers, Woodstock Virginia has a population of 5,132.  Imagine the entire population of the Town of Woodstock coming to hear Jesus. Jesus himself wonders how they're going to feed them.  He asks, "Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat."  Philip responds, "Six month's wages would not buy enough for each of them to have even a little."

           

            Andrew says, "There is a boy here who has five of these little barley loaves and two fish."  That's a little boy's lunch.  Five little barley loaves, about this big.  Don't think of some big loaves of French bread, and two wide-mouth bass.  We're talking buns and bluegills.  Next to nothing.  It's like trying to clean up the Johnstown flood with a kitchen sponge.  Or end the Los Angeles riots with one police officer.  Or put out a house fire with a squirt gun.  

 

            And Jesus takes the bread and gives thanks to God, and gave it to them.   And the sign occurs.  The sign of who Jesus is.  "The living Bread"—as the Common Worship liturgy reads—"in whom all our hungers are satisfied." 

 

            Now, please consider the absurdity of this situation.  The Town of Woodstock feasting plentifully on a little boy's lunch, and then the disciples gathering up the leftovers!  Twelve baskets of leftovers.  How did it work?  That's not the point.  The point is that a little bitty bit in the hands of Jesus became enough. 

 

            Let me show you a part of the miracle that you might never have thought about: Jesus is able to give thanks for a little bitty bit. 

 

            Have you ever given thanks for the little bitty things in your life?  A little bitty checking account.  A little bitty amount of food in the fridge before heading off to the store.  Do you give thanks for that?  Quite often, the answer is no. 


            We want to give thanks for the paycheck, the dinner after the visit to the store, the new article of clothing, the bigger, the better, the brighter.  But the little bitty bit …well...

             

            Sometimes I wonder if this story is really a parable about how powerful—even miraculous—it is to give thanks for what seems to be not enough.  Because everything changes when you give thanks.  Your whole body changes. 

 

            Do you remember that old song Count your blessings?  "Count your blessings, name them one by one, count your blessings see what God has done."  Sit there, and try it sometime.  And as you do, notice that you will begin to relax.  Places in your neck and shoulders that were tense will start to release.  It's a miracle, really, because all you are doing is opening your heart just a little bitty bit to the magnitude of what you have been given. 

 

            And make no mistake about it, we have been given so much.  I don't care what amount of money you have—if your soul and mind have been embraced our Lord, crucified and risen, then you will never be poor.  True poverty is not the absence of money; it is the absence of faith, hope, love.   It is living in the ceaseless round of days, harassed and helpless, lost in the sea of uncertainty with no oars and no land in sight.  It is going to bed at night with a hunger in your belly for the kind of love that does not demand anything from you in return

 

            Did you know that there are people who have never in their lives known what it's like to be cared for and loved without that love meaning that they have to do something for it in return?  Women have married men, and men have married women on the basis of what you are going to do for me.  And when one of them needs a little extra time, a little extra affection, they get thrown over for violating the terms of the agreement. 

 

            I have had people come in to get assistance from me—people who have come to the end of their rope.  You can hear it in their voices.  When you get some experience you can tell the difference between the scam artist and the person who is really in need.  When the person is really in need you can hear it in their voice.  They don't mind showing you the bill.  They don't mind showing you their ID or their rental agreement. 

 

            And often, when they are helped, they offer to come back and paint the porch or sweep out the hallway or something, because they are grateful, of course.  Because they wish us to respect their dignity, of course.  But some of these folks genuinely, genuinely have never known what it is like to be helped without having to do something to pay for it.

 

            And that is poverty.  To never have had a taste of the pure milk of human kindness.  To never know the love of a church community, or even their own family that isn't trying to take

 

            The Church throughout the world, and the Episcopal Church in specific, preaches a different kind of love.  A boundless, unfettered, unconditional love that is willing to suffer and die in the person of Jesus Christ.  And through his resurrection, Jesus shows the world that there is no transaction in real love.  Real love offers itself not expecting pay back.  And by our reception of that unfettered love, we have become very, very rich. 

 

            The irony, the paradox, the parable of the feeding of the five thousand is that Jesus takes practically nothing and gives thanks.  Practically nothing to eat, and in his hands, it feeds them all, and there are even leftovers. (Pause.)

 

            Most churches in the United States, most churches in the world are small churches.  Did you know that?  And most churches have a vestry, or some equivalent group of people, who sit down with a bottle of Pepto-Bismol to make a budget for the coming year.  They have a desire to seek God with the people they have come to know over the bread and wine—coffee hours, baptisms, funerals, years and years of coming to this place.  Prayers have been prayed for healing, for safe travel, for peace in the time of war. 

 

            The incalculable blessings of the place and the people meet the cold reality of the needs of the budget, and offerings of the people—and the two often have trouble lining up.  And quite often the belt is tightened one more notch as something else has to be unfunded.  Members walk away from the meeting with a dull ache, and not a lot of gratitude.

 

            But it's the most mature group of Christians who can look at the little bitty bit and give thanks, and hand it out, believing that this is God's church, and God will take care of God's church.   

 

            Think for a moment about how God does this all the time with you and me.  Christians have always been a tiny minority of the general population.  And God takes you and me, and adds together the attendance at the other churches, and he comes up with several hundred in this town of just over five thousand. 

 

            And does God regard the little bitty number of people who showed up on Sunday and say, "Well, that's nothing.  I'm not going to send my Holy Spirit into that group…it's not big enough."  No.  God says, "Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there in the midst of them."  (Matthew 18:20)

 

            God gives thanks for the little bitty church and the one next door and the other town and all over the world, and then he spreads us out during the week.  We go all over.  Some go and push a broom at George's Chicken on Rt. 42, and some of us walk the halls of power in Washington DC.  And everywhere we go we carry in our bosom this beautiful open secret that death is not the ultimate end of life. 

 

            One little bitty man named Jesus, who died and rose again, has changed that.  A little bitty bit of bread and fish, buns and bluegills, can feed five thousand people. 

 

            And what about you.  Little bitty you.  (Pause.) How often have you looked at yourself in the mirror and wondered if you have contributed enough to that world that sometimes seems to be a bottomless cavern of need and loneliness and misery.  And you have watched the news at night and wondered if this faith that you say you have on Sunday is able to stand up to it. 

 

            Well, the answer is yes.  Because the same man who lifted up the bread and gave thanks and said, "This is my body," is the same man who lifted you out of the waters of Baptism, and sealed you with the Holy Spirit, and sends you out into the world everyday, everyday, everyday. 

 

            Because in the hands of Jesus, even just a little bitty bit is more than enough.


 

-o0o-



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.

 

Monday, July 23, 2012

Proper 11B. 22 July 2012.

Listen here.


 

            Having two small children is its own education.  Many of you know and remember what it's like—though time has probably smoothed the edges of the experience.  Nostalgia does that.  Many's the time I have been out and about with the children and one of you or someone else will watch Peter and Maggie in some sudden burst of excitement and say, "I wish I had their energy."  Let me just tell you.  No, you don't.

 

            You don't remember, I don't remember, but children don't have the kind of energy that you and I think.  We imagine this sort of boundless energy that can be focused in useful ways, but that's not what children have.  They have a kind of energy that is so powerful and explosive that they can't hold it in.  Or if they try to hold it in, it will become painful.  The running and jumping and sudden movements are intended to grow their bodies and minds.   

 

            When we go out for walks, they invariably find a curb and begin to walk it like a balance beam—and they do that because it's fun, but also because they are intuitively fine tuning their equilibrium.  In fact, I remember hearing somewhere that adults lose our equilibrium and strength precisely because we stop challenging our bodies in the ways children do.

 

            But it's different for adults because adults exercise to keep their muscles, whereas children exercise because their muscles are growing.  And when children—particularly very young children—wake up in the morning, they are ON!  And they go until they're tired.  Something may capture their attention long enough to settle down, but it takes time before they gain mastery over their impulses. 

 

            Children sprint.  Adults are used to the longer run.  The slow and steady.  You plan your day, and you know—based on your own sense of energy—that you're going to need to take things easy in order to have enough in the tank to make it to the evening. 

 

            But we all know that there have been, and continue to be, times in our lives when circumstances demand that we soldier on regardless of our energy levels.  They are difficult, sometimes painful, circumstances.  We may be needing to have energy to take care of our families when we are dealing with grief, loss, transition, tending to a sick relative or friend.  And you soldier on.  You don't get the sleep you'd like, but you still get up and you keep going.

 

            Not everyone does that, you know.  There are folks who do not have the temperament to make sacrifices when sacrifices are needed.  But my sense is that people who actually do are people who draw strength from intangible rewards. 

 

 

 

            The mother rolls out of bed when the baby wakes up at 4 o'clock in the morning not just because the child is crying.  That's only the momentary problem.  She knows that this is part of a life long relationship that will go well beyond this stage of physical neediness.  In her reflective moments, she can see into the future when the child is smiling back from the children's choir at church, or the school play.  These are the intangible rewards of parenthood. 

 

            This is how it is for the truly dedicated.  You don't plant the seeds and imagine barren soil.  You plant the seeds and imagine the flowers.  It's what keeps you going.  It's what kept Jesus going.  It's what kept the Apostles going—a vision of the kingdom of God.  A vision of a world where the hungry are fed, the lonely are cared for, the sick are healed—and not just by human agency, but by God—by this amazing vision that Jesus had where human beings become collaborators with God's desire—God's great, huge desire—to be with humanity, and to restore humanity to harmony with itself and with God.  What a vision!  What an enormous undertaking that Jesus started!

 

            And the Apostles went out to do it.  Jesus laid hands on their heads and said…  (I'm going to give you the New Revised Alexander Version here.)

 

"Don't worry, boys.  You can do this.  Find the people out there who look hollow and worn out.  Find the people who are ignored by society, by Rome, by the Temple, by everyone, and tell them that they're not alone anymore.  We're here.  We care about them.  If they're hungry, help them find food.  If they're sick, reach out and touch them, and ask the Father to heal them.  If they welcome you, take care of them; and if they don't, move on to the next.  You can do this."

 

            It's an incredible thing, really, when you think about it.  It still sends a shiver down my spine to think about.  And many's the time I think about the simple beauty of that commission, and how inadequately I, personally, have managed to fulfill it in my own life.  But it really is a very basic vision.  Compassion and care, beyond comfort zone, beyond nationality, beyond economic status or social position.

 

            And the Apostles did it.  They actually did it.  And Mark 6:30 records that they came back from the mission field and gathered around Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught.  And Jesus' response was, "Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while."  Mark writes, "For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.  And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves."

 

            I love that that was Jesus' response.  I imagine him sitting there, listening to the report of the disciples, and being absolutely thrilled with them.  I imagine delightful stories about the astonishment in people's eyes. 

 

            Would you like to know what that's like?  Let me tell you, you can see it for yourself, if you want.  The next time you visit Wal-Mart, or Food Lion, or wherever, look at the people who are there.  Break out of your little mind bubble about what you need to get, and see the men and women and children there. 

 

            Each one them is loved by God, just as much as God loves you and me.  And many of them live in complete ignorance of that fact.  If you just told them, "God loves you," they'd probably…well…I don't know what they'd say…   Some might give a little snort, and say thanks out of the side of their mouths.  Some might even make fun of you.  I would imagine that there are plenty out there who might seem to write it off, but would actually be very touched that you said it. 

 

            But that's not what I'm suggesting you say.  I'm suggesting that you just smile and say hello.  It's something people used to do all the time, but you don't see it much anymore.  People are afraid.  Mark calls them "like sheep without a shepherd"—Matthew (9:36) wrote, "harassed and helpless, like sheep needing a shepherd." 

 

            No one likes to think of themselves in that category, but many people are.  Henry David Thoreau said it like this: "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation."[1] 

 

            The Apostles began move out among them.  No longer disciples who follow, but Apostles, who are sent.  They no longer represent the great need in the hollow looks in people's eyes—they represent the kingdom of God—the in breaking of the Messiah.

 

            And Jesus recognized the Apostles' effectiveness.  He saw that they had the vision of the kingdom in their bosom, and that the Holy Spirit was moving in them, and through them.  So it was time for a retreat.  Time to pull away and debrief and get some rest.  But notice that the crowds would not let them!  And Jesus is moved with compassion, and back they go. 

 

            I have known a lot of Christians who have needed to take a break—or at least say that they need a break from the ministry they do.  I, myself, am about to go on vacation, and I rather dislike that the lectionary writers have put this lesson so close to it. 

 

            But there is a difference between the ministry that we do here—in and for this church—and the ministry that awaits us…out there.  And I would hope that we understood that.  You can get tired from setting the Altar for Sunday and need a break.  You can get tired of preparing for coffee hour, or reading the lessons.  And that's fine. 

 

 

 

            But let me ask you, please, to be moved with compassion in a way that will not allow you to draw aside from other people.  There are so many people out there who lead lives of quiet desperation.  And all it takes to begin to share this beautiful open secret called the Gospel of Jesus Christ is to smile and say hello, and see where the conversation goes.

 

            You can do this.  Find the people out there who look hollow and worn out.  Find the people who are ignored by society, by Rome, by the Temple, by everyone, and show them that they're not alone anymore.

 

            Don't offer pat answers, or trite Biblical quotations.  Just talk.  And if you are authentically devout, something of that is going to come out sooner or later.  And when it does, the Holy Spirit will be with you.

 

 

 

-o0o-

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 



[1] Walden

Monday, July 16, 2012

Proper 10B. 15 July 2012.

For the audio version, click here.


 

            One of the topics of discussion among biblical scholars is the many ways the Bible continues to be read in the Church.  There continue to be churches that take a very literal, uncritical approach to the text, and say, "Well, the Bible says what the Bible says."  Or "God said it. That settles it." 

 

            The Episcopal Church has never read the Bible that way, and in fact, most churches don't.  Most churches understand that the Bible was written by very devout people coming from various strands of tradition and background who were trying to bring the sacredness of their experience to the people of God.  As such, you cannot take the Bible out of its intended context, which is among the people who believe.

 

            The texts contained in the Bible were written long before the printing press; and therefore, were written to be read out loud.  You can and should read them to yourself.  Lord knows, much of my work with the Bible is taken from reading it to myself and searching for its meaning.  But the intention for my work is always to move the text out from the personal reading to a corporate understanding.  In that way, the Word can become flesh.  It can live by being brought into the here and now by our reception of it.

 

            There are times when that is easy to do—times when the text seems to preach its own sermon, or offers us a very cohesive and readily preach-able format.  For instance, even though I would never do this, I am sure that many a preacher—having handled their fair share of difficulties over the course of the week, not able to prepare adequately for Sunday—will find 1 Corinthians 13 coming up in the lectionary and see that it provides its own sermon outline.  "Now these three things abide: faith, hope and love.  And the greatest of these is love."  The three point sermon on faith, hope and love can write itself from there.

 

            But there are times when the lectionary presents a story that seems unfit to be read out loud to the people of God on a beautiful Sunday morning.  Not that all of our readings should be thoughtful parables and stories of the Pharisees' misunderstandings.  But some stories seem to be somewhat…what's the word?  Depressing?  Sordid?  I don't really want to give an adjective because I don't want to speak negatively about them, but as a clergyman, I sometimes find myself asking, "Why is this in the Bible?"  Or maybe the better question is, "Why are we reading this out loud on Sunday?" 

 

            I wouldn't want to see those texts stricken from the Bible, but do we really need to read them out loud?  And I feel that way about the story of the death of John the Baptizer, which we read this morning.  It is recorded in narrative detail in both Mark and Matthew.  It is mentioned in Luke, but only in passing.  Why do we read this story?  Where is the good news for the people of God?

 

            Of course, we forget that John was a beloved figure to the first Christians.  The Bible says that people came to hear John from all over—that he drew crowds and crowds of people who came out to hear what he was preaching.  People wanted to be moved by his words, and wanted to be baptized by him.  He was a charismatic figure—even though he is depicted as a rough sort of man. 

 

            I have gotten the feeling that part of John's charisma and mystique have to do with the authenticity of who he was.  He wasn't a preacher.  He wasn't a rabbi or a cantor at the synagogue who made a lot of jokes and everyone loved him.  He was just John.  He was doing what he felt he was called by God to do, and he did it with great humility, understanding that his role was to be the voice in the wilderness. 

 

            We needed John's voice then and we need him now, like the Master of Ceremonies, or the announcer, or the Ring Master at the circus.  Someone has to raise the curtain on the life of Jesus in a way that contextualizes his ministry as part of the tradition of the Hebrew people.  After all, Mark begins his gospel with the words:

 

"The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, `See I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way…John the Baptizer appeared in the wilderness…" (1.1-3)

 

            John is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.  He was beloved by the disciples and the crowds, and by Jesus personally.  It only makes sense that he be memorialized in telling of the story of Jesus.  You can't have him fade into obscurity as Jesus takes center stage—it's like waiting for the other shoe to drop.  What happened to John?

 

            So, of course, there should be some record of his death, no matter how it happened.  But why do we read it on Sunday morning?  What possible good news can come from it?

 

            When you look at the story as a story you will notice that it's almost a boilerplate narrative of the caprice of power and lust.  You remember the story of Jezebel who manipulates Ahab into doing what she wants him to do?  It's the old, old story of power and lust.  You see it time and again—power corrupting judgment, the power of the state, the power of sexuality. 

 

            It's almost laughable, really, that for all the hard work a man does to achieve position and status, only to throw away his good reputation (if he had one) and moral fiber over a woman who happened to smile at just the right moment. 

 

            And that's how it happens.  W.S. Gilbert wrote: "When maiden loves, she sits and sighs, She wanders to and fro;  Unbidden tear-drops fill her eyes, And to all questions she replies, With a sad 'heighho!'  'Tis but a little word – 'heighho!'  So soft, 'tis scarcely heard – 'heighho!' An idle breath – Yet life and death, May hang upon a maid's 'heighho!'"[1]

 

            Life and death hangs upon the eyelashes of a courtier in Herod's court.  It's a birthday party for Herod.  Look at all the streamers and balloons.  Listen to the sounds of women giggling, and moving about in sensuous circles, dancing to sounds of the pipes and drums.  They're fingers curling; their slender arms stretching out and twirling, as their heads toss. 

 

            And the men, laughing, clinking glasses of wine and stuffing their mouths with olives, and grapes, and bread.  Every once in awhile the conversations of land and camels, servants and conquests, lapses just for a moment as the music swells, and their eyes are drawn relentlessly, inevitably to the women.  Are their wives with them, or is this one of those parties where the wives are not invited?  Is it one of those parties that the powerful men throw?  Open bar, cigars, no questions.

 

            And the daughter of Herodias has started dancing.  Alone.  Just one woman.  Young.  And despite the family relationship, it is clear that Herod is very much taken by the young woman, so that when she is finished he leans over to her and says, "You can have whatever you want."

 

            It's his birthday, remember, and he's the local Roman big shot.   Mark calls him King Herod, but he wasn't really a king.  He was the local governor—a puppet for the Roman Empire in that neck of the woods.  Mark is probably making fun of him by calling him King Herod.  But still, he is a big shot—license to kill.  There are presents everywhere.  If the young woman wants to be covered in jewels and gold; it can be done with a snap of his fingers. 

 

            What should she tell him?  She asks her mother.  Herodias tells her to ask for the head of John.  So she does, pretty little thing.  Marches right up to Herod and asks for the head of John on a platter.  (Pause.)

 

            And the conversation gets serious.  John was imprisoned.  Herod was already getting flack for that, because John was a beloved figure.  But, he had made a promise, and how would look to the men if he backs out?  So he sent the soldier to do it, and it was done. (Pause.)

 

            I can understand why we have it in the Bible.  What I have trouble with is why we read it on Sunday mornings.  Let's say this is your first Sunday morning.  You walk through that red door looking for some solace and comfort, or some inspiration.  And what do you get?  A story from the Gospel of Jesus Christ about the shameful death of John at the caprice of young woman. 

 

            I thought about this for a long time, and I toyed with several possibilities.  First, I thought it was just informational, and if it is, then Luke got it right.  Luke dismisses the beheading of John in two verses.  No muss, no fuss.  But it doesn't answer why Mark and Matthew extend the story out with details.  

 

            Second, I thought maybe it was just like a little entertaining anecdote that gives us a little break from the story of Jesus.  It fills in the story, cycling back around to John and then giving us a full transition to the story of Jesus.  Maybe.  I don't know.  But I don't buy the idea that it's a narrative flourish.

 

            The only idea that satisfies me is to return to the role of John the Baptizer.  He is meant to be the herald of the Messiah.  The one who was sent by God to testify to the light that was coming into the world—the man we believe to be Jesus, the Son of God.  That's John's role in the Bible.  He is the voice in the wilderness—the man who comes to prepare the way of the Lord.

 

            And I think the reason why we read this story out loud on a Sunday morning is because even in death, John is preparing the way for Jesus.  It was also the caprice of power that took Jesus to the Cross.  The party guests are as complicit as the angry mob.  Herod will be replaced by Pontius Pilate.  Herodias will be replaced by Pilate's wife.  The soldiers will do what soldiers always do—follow the orders and do the deed that the powerful have decided should be done. 


            At the end of the story, the disciples of John take his body and place it in a tomb.  Did you notice the last words of the lesson? 

 

            In many ways, the story corresponds to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, so that when we read the story of John we begin to think of Jesus.  The final account of what happens to John foreshadows the imprisonment, the caprice of power, and the ignominious death that awaits Jesus.

 

            The story is filled with pathos.  John will not live to see Jesus become all that he will become, but there is still good news here.  John lived to see the Messiah emerge.  His life and death were not in vain—even his death was a symbol of the Gospel of Jesus to come.

 

            So while the guests laugh and the women dance, ironically celebrating their power and the death of John and soon Jesus, it is their power that will be beheaded.  Jesus will fulfill all that John announced as he inaugurates the kingdom of heaven on earth.

 

 

-o0o-

 

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.



[1] The Yeomen of the Guard, Act I, Scene I.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Proper 9B. 8 July 2012.

 

2 Corinthians 12.7-9

 

 

            I wonder if any of you remember the spring of 2005.  We had an early Easter on March 27th.  The day after Easter an earthquake rocked Indonesia, but the weather in the United States was moderate and appropriate to the season.  The Middle East was simmering with the trial of Saddam Hussein.  There were protests by the people in Kuwait for women's right to vote.  Steve Fossett had become the first man to fly solo around the world without stops or refueling.

 

            In many ways it was an average year, except that one news story dominated the headlines in a completely unique way.  A Polish man, who was baptized Karol Józef Wojtyła, but who had become Pope John Paul II, was dying. 

 

            There was something compelling about John Paul II.  He was a very charismatic Pope who had travelled extensively.  He had become a living icon, not just for the Roman Catholic Church, but for Christianity in the world.   

 

            I will never forget hearing of a reporter asking him, "How do you respond to the fact that so many people say they love you, but don't follow what you teach."  And the he responded, "I'm like a daddy.  They may not do what I tell them, but I love them anyway." 

 

            Comments like that made me hold John Paul II in great affection, despite my theological disagreements.  And when he died in April of that year, I continued to pray for him for several weeks.  I prayed for Karol—the name by which he was baptized.

 

            There were many reports leading up to his death about his failing health.  One of them contained a bit of editorializing by the spokesman for the Pontiff.  After some description of the medical situation, the man—I don't remember if he was a priest or bishop—said, "The Holy Father has spent many years teaching us how to live.  In many respects, he is now teaching us how to die."

 

            They were solemn words, said with gravity and with a very authentic quiver of affection in his voice.  I felt the force of his words and the emotion behind them.  This was, for many, the death of a spiritual father; and despite the faith in the Resurrection we claim, it was sad.  We were saying goodbye.  That the vibrant young Polish man who skied and went jogging around the Vatican was lying in great weakness. 

 

            And yet, there was a power to the weakness—a spiritual power that brought people, young and old, to Rome and to the Vatican.  St. Peter's Square was filled to capacity, holding Vigil.  The world was in prayer. 

            Even Protestant, Anglican, and Orthodox leaders were moved by the sight of thousands upon thousands of pilgrims streaming by the body as he lay in state.  One estimate placed the number of mourners at 4 million—possibly the largest single Christian pilgrimage ever.

 

            There was a spiritual power to the moment and to the man.  And that power emanated from many sources.  The iconic power of the papacy—the last surviving institution that conveys upon its occupant the symbolic and administrative authority for a worldwide body of people, across boundaries of nationality and language.  The power of one of the few remaining sovereign city-states.  The power of a historic succession of St. Peter to whom Christ said, "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."[1]  Words that are taken quite literally by devout Roman Catholics.

 

            But those are just prescribed powers.  Beyond those there are also powers of celebrity and fame.  Everyone knows who you are, even if they don't know what you are really like.  You have to ask for the name of the other person; but the other person will always know your name.  People who have little or nothing will desire to touch and be touched by your presence, and will consider themselves blessed by every gesture.  He looked over here.  He looked at me.  Our eyes met.  We shook hands.  We hugged.  We spoke.   

 

            Then there is the power of time.  Years rolled by.  Political leaders, presidents, prime ministers have come and gone, but he kept going.  And now, an old master, years under the stole and miter, mid-night Masses at Christmas, and he was there.  Frail and weary, but still lifting the chalice and still, through labored breath, reciting the Canon of the Mass. 

 

            The man said, "The Holy Father has spent many years teaching us how to live.  In many respects, he is teaching us how to die."  How to give over.  How to release.  How to let go.  How to take a very deep breath from the Holy Spirit, and release it into eternity. (Pause.)

 

            St. Paul, writing to the Corinthians, spoke of his own weakness as a thorn in his flesh.  "A messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated," he writes.  "Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but [the Lord] said to me, `My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.'"  (Pause.) It's one of the great mysteries of life.  There is a power that is palpable in the presence of someone who has been made weak. 

 

            For years, Tennyson's poem Ulysses was one of my favourite poems to recite from memory:

 

'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die…


Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in the old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are,
One equal-temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

 

            And perhaps that is the core of the mystery: that the physical and intellectual powers have declined or become diminished by time and fate, yet the will continues.  The soul pushes yet another prayer, yet another blessing.  (Pause.)

 

            We don't know what Paul's thorn was.  Some of have said it was a chronic physical pain or illness.  Some have even suggested that it was a tendency toward homosexuality.  We don't know.  He was clearly embarrassed about it, and the fact that he mentions it in the letter seems to suggest that it was something he could not hide.  Perhaps a stutter, or a limp, or something like that.  But it doesn't really matter.  It was something from which he could not escape. 

 

            We all know what that's like—to deal with your own hidden foibles and illnesses.  If nothing else, to know nagging torment of our own self-criticism.  I remember reading in a book, "You know your weak spots better than anyone, so when you take a swing at yourself, it's definitely going to do some damage."

 

            The mystery, of course, is how the power of God is made perfect in weakness.  It's an irony.  The faculties are diminished, but the vision becomes clear—like the blind who develop acute hearing, or the man or woman, no longer racing down the track of life with its many low hurdles of parenthood and career, retirement...  And you begin to notice the beauty of that slant of mid-afternoon sun as it spills its golden light on a Persian rug. 

 

            Much is taken, but much abides.  Memories.  Stories.  Funny, sad.  How often have we recalled an incident thirty, forty years ago that still causes us to shudder?  How could I have said that?  How could I have been so insensitive?  Weakness.  And in the midst of profound weakness, the soul can still push another prayer, and another, and still another. 

 

            When John Paul II lay dying, thousands crowded St. Peter's Square, and when he heard that so many had come to pray for him, he said, "I have searched for you, and now you have come to me, ..I thank you."  Tender words of Christian love, made ironically more powerful by being offered in weakness. 

 

            Four hours before he drifted into a coma, he said his last words, "Let me depart to the house of the Father."  (Pause.) I am not trying to romanticize John Paul II, or suffering, or death.  I am speaking about this mystery that somehow the power of God is perfected in weakness. 

 

            Ultimately it has nothing to do with being a pope, or any kind of ordained person.  Ultimately what I am talking about is a tenacity that comes from living a life so dedicated to Christ that everything, everything can fall away, but him.

 

            It is a choice we make: whether to let the weakness that invariably comes also take from us the will to strive and seek and find.  The will to push yet one more prayer.  The will to lift our hands in blessing, utterly committed to the Lord, and trusting in him that all shall be well.  And then to breathe in the Holy Spirit and release it into eternity.

 

            It may be easier for me to say now than it may be for me to say when I have begun to comb grey hair, but I hope that when, and if, the time comes, I will not shrink or falter from the one who laid down his life and rose again. 

 

Though much is taken, much abides, and though
We are not now that strength which in the old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are,
One equal-temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

           

 

-o0o-

 

 

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.



[1] Matthew 16:19

Monday, July 2, 2012

Proper 8B. 1 July 2012.

 

2 Corinthians 8:7-15

           

            Almost a full month ago, (here) at Emmanuel, we hosted Frances Caldwell, the Director of Stewardship and Development for the Diocese of Virginia.  She wanted to hold a workshop on narrative budgets—which is a way of taking the hard numbers in our church budget and putting them in context—helping us tell the story of what those dollars and cents accomplish.  Instead of thinking of light bills and salaries, the narrative budget considers the use of the space for the building up of the kingdom of God.  Not that we don't pay a bill for electricity, but that the electricity goes toward creating a hospitable space where we do the ministry of Jesus. 

 

            One of the comments that Frances made that sticks out in my mind is about the fundamental nature of trust when it comes to raising money.  Unlike paying for something that we can own or use, giving is a much more complicated proposition.  To sell a car, you need only to establish reliability and affordability, but to inspire better giving, you have to articulate a greater vision for the future.  People need to share that vision, and trust that the money will be going to create it.  Trust in the leadership and trust that the vision is shared is vital.

 

            One of the greatest commodities in the United States of America is a vision of a better tomorrow.  You might say it is part and parcel of our DNA as a country that we believe—above all else—that the future can be better than the past and present.  I'm sure you are aware that in many other countries that vision is not as commonly held, yet because it is so commonly held in this country, it makes progress seem inevitable.

 

            But vision can go in all sorts of directions.  It can be so laughably realistic that it winds up deflating the people it is meant to inspire.  I have a clergy buddy I was talking with at Shrine Mont several months ago who said that he's thrown his hands in the air with trying to inspire people to give to the work of Christ in his church. 

 

            He said, "I've had it.  For the first few years I tried to get them to see it as expanding the mission and ministry of the church, and nothing changed.  Same ole, same ole.  Now I write the same letter every year.  It says, "Give what you can.  If we don't get enough, we'll have to dip further into savings."  I said, "Well, at least you're honest."  I asked him, "Did the giving improve?"  He said, "Same ole, same ole."

 

            I remember listening to Bishop Jones about three or four years ago talking about the church plants and about wanting to plant some new churches.  It was such an awkward conversation.  We lost a lot of our church plants in the Diocese of Virginia, because like plants are, when they're young, the have no depth of root, and it's easy to pluck them out of the ground.  These churches had not had time to develop a sense of history and shared mission and identity with the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Virginia. 

 

            But the impulse toward church planting in this Diocese has not gone away, and Bishop Jones was speaking about that.  And he said, "We are not lacking the vision or the commitment.  We lack the resources."  When I first heard him say "resources" I thought he was just using it as a polite word for money.  But as he continued speaking, it was clear that money was only part of it.  He spoke of a lack of dedicated Episcopalians who would want to do the work of planting a church.  A lack of clergy who wanted to plant churches.  A lack of available land to purchase in strategic areas where there are no churches nearby.  It was a fascinating, though disheartening speech.  Yet in all of it, the vision was palpable. 

 

            He was speaking to clergy, and there was an electricity in the air.  We all saw the vision.  And that word "resources" kept re-surfacing.  Resources.  And I kept thinking about empty pockets, lint, and bits of tissue, and pennies and nickels.  We had a lot of vision, but we didn't have the resources. 

 

            It might surprise you to know that the Church has been dealing with this problem since the very beginning.   Did you know that this morning we read part of the very first stewardship letter the Church ever received?  Actually, I should back off from that, because it's not really a stewardship letter—it's an appeal. 

 

            Paul is appealing to the people of Corinth and Macedonia to give to help the poor Christians in Jerusalem.  He's doing it for two reasons.  One reason is material, the other is spiritual.  He wants to help ease the burden of poverty among the Christian brothers and sisters in the city of Jerusalem—the spiritual home of Judaism and Christianity.  But the spiritual reason is not affection for the place—it's for the people.

 

             Paul is attempting to cast a moral vision of the Church not being just a community here and a community over here, but as one united Body of Christ—as people who should be so united that it doesn't matter whether you live in Corinth or Asia Minor or Jerusalem.  It makes no difference if your community is here or a hundred miles away, when one of us hurts, we all hurt.  If one of us is hungry, we're all hungry. 

 

            It's a concept that is deeply rooted in Paul's theology of Jesus.  He believes the Church to be the Body of Christ.   As one of the hymns in the Church's hymnal sings "As grain once scattered on the hillsides / Was in this broken bread made one, / So from all lands Thy Church be gather'd Into Thy kingdom by Thy Son."

 

            In Christ Jesus—in the spiritual understanding of his body—we are together, so if your brother is hungry, you are hungry.  St. Basil the Great, who lived during the middle part of the 300s, said, "The bread you do not use is the bread of the hungry. The garment hanging in your wardrobe is the garment of the person who is naked. The shoes you do not wear are the shoes of the one who is barefoot. The money you keep locked away is the money of the poor. The acts of charity you do not perform are the injustices you commit."

 

            Paul could have been that severe in his letter to the church in Corinth, but he wasn't.  Instead, he points to the generosity of the church in Macedonia, just to the north.  Now geographically and economically, these are two different churches.  The church in Corinth was a city church.  They weren't that big, but they were city folks.  The church in Macedonia to the north was a rural church. 

 

            Paul tells the church in Corinth, "8.1We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been grated to the churches of Macedonia; 2 for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. 3 For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, 4 begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints…"

 

            This is the lead up to his appeal to the Corinthians to chip in.  The Macedonian church is rural, and impoverished itself, but they gave according to their means and even beyond, begging for the privilege of being part of this relief effort, so Paul writes,

 

8.7 "Now as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you—so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking. 8 I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others. 9For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. 10And in this matter I am giving my advice: it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something— 11now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means. 12For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have. 13I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between 14your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. 15As it is written, 'The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.'

 

            Look at what Paul is saying.  The Macedonian church had very little money, but they measured out their gift by their desire to give.  It was the desire to be supportive and to please Paul that led to them to giving according to their means and even beyond.

 

            So Paul then says, "Look at all you have excelled in, Corinthians!  You excel in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness for the Gospel, and in our love for you—so why don't you also excel in generosity?   Your vision is there!  Your love is there.  Why not?  After all, consider our Lord.  Jesus was rich, but emptied himself, and by emptying himself, you became rich." 8.12 "For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have."

 

            Paul points to the people's spiritual abundance as the greatest commodity in their wallets.   "You have it all.  Wisdom, knowledge, speech, eagerness for the Lord.  If you have that, well…think of all the people who don't."

 

            Now you might be thinking that I'm about to try to raise some money this morning.  Well, I'm not going to do that.  If you want to, I won't stop you, but I'd rather lift up this radical notion that the greatest commodity we have is a spiritual abundance.

 

            I remember when I was a little boy, around age five, I made my first financial commitment to the church.  I pledged a dollar a week.  It was an ambitious pledge, because I wasn't making a dollar a week.  A few weeks rolled by, and I brought my offering envelope along.  I was proud to have a box of offering envelopes.  None of the other kids had them.  And then, when the plate came down the pew, and my grandfather put his in, and my dad, then I got to have the honor, too. 

 

            One week, I got it into my mind that there were people in Africa who were starving, and I decided that I would write "Africa" on the envelope.  So I did.  In a few month's time a letter arrived from the church's treasurer.  It said that my pledge was several months in arrears, and that the dollar I earmarked for Africa was sent to Africa and didn't count.  I don't remember how this was handled.  Either my dad ponied up for me, or the pledge was forgiven. 

           

            I spent years feeling embarrassed about that.  I don't think I ever mentioned it to my parents.  I certainly didn't tell Karin before we were married. 

 

             I didn't pledge on the basis of money, of course.  As I think back on it, I think was pledging on something a little different: a little seed of an idea that had fallen into my head that what I had was more than what I had. 

 

            And it seems to me that that's what Paul is trying to say.  You excel in so many things, Corinthians.  You've got love; you've got hope; you've got joy; you've got preaching, and fellowship and eagerness.  Wow!  A lot of people don't have that.  A lot of people don't believe in God—or don't believe that humanity is worth the sacrifices Jesus made, but you do." 

 

            And it's hovering there above you—hovering above you in the ether whenever you get together.  Do you realize that the fundamental beliefs you have about who God is and who we are because of Jesus represents such enormous wealth?  You must know.  You must know that what we have is a lot more than what we have.

 

-o0o-

 

 

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.