<![CDATA[Grace Episcopal Church - Recent Sermons]]>Fri, 02 Dec 2016 07:12:09 -0800Weebly<![CDATA[The Winning Side]]>Sun, 13 Nov 2016 08:00:00 GMThttp://gracebrunswick.org/recent-sermons/the-winning-sideDuring the deepest, darkest days of apartheid when the government tried to shut down opposition by canceling a political rally, Archbishop Desmond Tutu declared that he would hold a church service instead.

St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town, South Africa was filled with worshippers. Outside the cathedral hundreds of police gathered, a show of force intended to intimidate. As Tutu was preaching they entered the Cathedral, armed, and lined the walls. They took out notebooks and recorded Tutu’s words.

But Tutu would not be intimidated. He preached against the evils of apartheid, declaring it could not endure. At one extraordinary point he addressed the police directly.

“You are powerful. You are very powerful, but you are not gods and I serve a God who cannot be mocked. So, since you’ve already lost, since you’ve already lost, I invite you today to come and join the winning side!”

With that the congregation erupted in dance and song. The police didn’t know what to do. Their attempts at intimidation had failed, overcome by the archbishop’s confidence that God and goodness would triumph over evil. The quietly turned around and walked out of the church. Allow me today, in the wake of the most divided and contentious election we have ever witnessed, to echo Archbishop Tutu’s words: “I invite you today to join the winning side!”

The winning side is not Republican, it is not Democratic, it is not Libertarian or Green … or any other political party. The winning side is at the foot of the cross. Oh yes, it looks like losing, but our God who will not be mocked has put all earthly powers under his feet, has declared victory over oppression, violence and death, and we as a Church are here to proclaim that gospel because we are on the winning side.

The prophet Malachi speaks of the day when “all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble” – burned up never to return. Then, and only then, “the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in his wings” – and if that sounds familiar, you will hear it again at Christmas because it is the source of Mendelsohn’s “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” There is no room for arrogance and evil on the winning side.

Jesus’ ominous words in our Gospel reading are a moment of truth telling. He starts by warning that “all will be thrown down.” He is telling his disciples and his followers in later generations (including us) that all, I repeat ALL, empires will collapse. Every. Single. One – even the empire we live in right now known as the United States of America. All empires decay, all empires collapse. He then goes on to warn that many will come in his name with a false message saying, “I am he” and how we are not to be deceived by this. There will be people who claim the name of Christian who are not following the teachings of Jesus grounded in self-sacrificial love. They may claim the name of Christian, use “Jesus talk” but instead are worshiping nation, or ideology, or power, or money. Do not believe them no matter what they claim, especially if they are choosing the side of power, privilege, and political ideology - there is no place for false gospel on the winning side.

Jesus goes on to paint a very dire picture of national violence and disaster. He also plainly says that if we are faithful and really following him, we will suffer. He says our families will be torn apart. He says we may be imprisoned or killed. But in all cases, we are to testify to the truth of Jesus and his call to self-sacrificial love for ALL people, not just some of them. He gives us a picture of what the winning side looks like … but it does not feel like winning at all.

Take a really good look at the cross. Does the bleeding, suffering, dying Christ look like a winner to you? Or does he look like the “Biggest Loser?” This is the paradox of being on the winning side - winning in God's Kingdom appears like losing in this world. As Fr. Richard Rohr says, "The way down is the way up."

So, in the wake of this election, what will it look like to be on the winning side? Let me start by suggesting what it does not look like. If you voted for our president-elect Donald Trump, congratulations on this win. He’s obtained enough votes to win the Electoral College. Regardless of how you feel about that system, it’s the one we live under. It is America’s rule of law and in 1st Peter we are advised to respect civil authority. But if you are now gloating, crowing about your man winning, and labeling those who did not vote for your candidate “crybabies” or “spoiled brats”, or even worse you are targeting women, LGBTs, minorities and immigrants with physical and verbal violence,  you are choosing the losing side! You are not following Jesus, you are not loving others, and you cannot be a Christian and act this way. There is no place for gloating, boasting, bragging, name-calling, violence and exclusion on the winning side. You want to be a real winner? Repent of that arrogance and leave it at the cross.

If you voted for anyone but Donald Trump and are feeling frightened by his rhetoric and the violent actions of some, let me repeat some, of his followers, know that God is with you. Jesus’ warnings today didn’t say life would be easy. It’s going to get hard and it may be scary and it may get worse before it gets better. Your fears are not imaginary, but they cannot define or control you, or send you into despair. They also cannot be the catalyst for you to engage in name-calling, smug self-righteousness, cutting others who voted differently off without first trying to hear them. Someone once said that courage is just fear that said its prayers. Remember the saints I talked about last week? Those who suffered persecution at the hands of bullies in their day were afraid too! But they didn’t let their fear stop them from doing what was right and following Jesus – many times at great personal cost. If you sink into paralyzing fear, reactivity, retaliatory violence, hysteria, name-calling, or despair, you have chosen the losing side too! Repent of this and leave it at the cross.

The winning side looks like this: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control – the Fruit of the Spirit Paul speaks of in his letter to the Galatians (Galatians 5:22-23). It looks like weakness. The winning side will engage in listening to the other without defensiveness. The winning side seeks to find out what the people who differ from you are afraid of and finding out where we have common ground. And let’s be honest, the corruption of our political empire on both sides has led to what happened. Lots of people in America are dispossessed and left out – and many were unheard. Both the left and the right raised up their respective “outsiders” out of sheer frustration and fear. Fear is the hallmark of the 2016 election but as John writes in his first letter: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” (1 John 4:18)

Sisters and brothers in the Lord Jesus Christ, we as the Church are in a defining moment where we must choose whether we will put our ultimate trust in the cross and follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, or we will place our trust in empire and all of its idols. The winning side is at the foot of the cross and seeks to draw all nations to that place. There will be opposition and we are called to ever more live into our baptismal covenant. We must stand firm and claim we are Christians first and Americans second. This isn’t an either/or choice, though, as many American ideals are born out of the very teachings of Jesus. But it does mean that we strive to respect the dignity of every human being and where our country chooses a path which does not do this, we stand up for those whom God has shown preference: the last, lost, little, least and lifeless. Oppression must be named and resisted at every turn because oppression of any part of the Body of Christ means all parts of the Body suffer. We will be called to action and witness like we have never been called before. We cannot be complacent in the face of violence and evil but heed the words of St. Paul:

“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.  Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:9-15)

This, beloved in the Lord Christ, is what it means to be on the winning side.]]>
<![CDATA[Doing justice - Proper 24C]]>Sun, 16 Oct 2016 04:00:00 GMThttp://gracebrunswick.org/recent-sermons/doing-justice-proper-24cI miss the old Ikea commercials. There was one in particular that ran about 20 years ago which showed three people in white lab coats presumably doing quality testing on their cabinets. One was opening and closing the door while another held a clipboard and was taking notes. A third stood by and repeatedly said, “Mom, can I have a cookie?” The one opening and closing the door kept saying “NO.” Over and over and over again – “Mom, can I have a cookie?” “NO.” “Mom, can I have a cookie?” “NO.” “Mom, can I have a cookie?” “NO.” Then I had kids and realized how life imitates commercials.

But at first reading, this parable about the persistent widow and the unjust judge sounds just like this, doesn’t it? “Grant me justice.” “NO.” “Grant me justice.” “NO.” “Grant me justice.” “NO.” And Jesus framing this with the admonition to pray and not lose heart makes it sound like we need to nag God repeatedly for a proverbial cookie and eventually we will get what we ask for. Now you and I know this isn’t true and, as a wise old grandfather named Mick Jagger once said, “You can’t always get what you want.” So what is this parable really saying to us?

As Biblical scholars, and we are all Biblical scholars learning at various rates, when we read or hear the Scriptures we have to look for clues in different ways than when we read a contemporary document. When the books of the Bible were set in written form, the science of written language was in its infancy – writing was very primitive. What I mean is that the innovations we take for granted which tell us what words or phrases should get the emphasis in a story had not been invented yet. Innovations like bold, underlining, italics, large fonts, punctuation – none of these things existed. Even miniscule letters were not there – everything was in all caps … so today we might think the ancients were shouting. That’s the downside: the upside is Comic Sans did not exist either so we must take the good with the bad.

So how do we interpret where to focus given these visual clues just are not there? Well, the ancient linguists and scribes had a way of telling you what was important: repetition. The repetition of a word or a phrase was a way of focusing your attention to the main point. Writers also used literary devices such as rhyme, homophones (words that had similar sounds to the main idea) and puns (there are a lot of puns in the Bible which get lost in translation).  If we go back and listen to the Gospel reading again, the word which comes up repeatedly is: justice. Pray only shows up once, so clearly this isn’t the focus of the story. The other thing which gets repeated is the description of the unjust judge. Jesus describes him as neither fearing God or respecting people and the judge himself in a bit of internal dialog (a narrative device unique to Luke) also says he has “no fear of God and no respect for anyone”. This is important because when we hear a parable, on first blush we unconsciously allegorize it and try to figure out who the characters are. When we hear there is an authority figure, like a judge, we might be quick to assign that role to God. Even Jesus’ original audience might have done so as a traditional blessing at a Jewish funeral is the Baruch Dayan Emet: “Blessed are you Lord God, King of the Universe, the True Judge.” This is why Jesus goes out of his way to repeat this is an unjust judge – and his contrast of unjust only helps repeat and underscore the widow’s cry for justice being the central focus of the story.

Justice is at the heart of God’s concern for humanity. It is a central theme in the Bible. There are three words in the Bible used to speak of justice: two in Hebrew (tzedeq and mishpat) and one in Greek (dikaiosyne). All three of these words can also be translated as righteousness. Justice and righteousness are the same and they speak of right relationships between people and with God. We get a strong clue of what that looks like to God from the Scriptures because over and over we hear admonitions about how we are to care for the most vulnerable in our society: the widows and orphans. In ancient times, to be a widow was to be vulnerable because you lacked the protection and economic support of your husband or father. If you had sons, they were to provide this support; however, a widow without sons was at the mercy of the extended family or society at large. Orphans have always been vulnerable, even to this day. So in our more modern context, we might substitute “widows and orphans” with “vulnerable people” as we read the admonitions of where God’s concerns are. God’s concern is with those who are at the mercy of others and in our world that includes the poor, the homeless, those struggling with mental illness or addiction, those who cannot find meaningful work, the disabled and the chronically ill. Scripture tells us we and our whole society will be judged by God in light of how we treat those most vulnerable among us. This is why in the parable God’s lot is cast with the widow and it is God who is demanding justice for her.

Interestingly, the unjust judge finally grants her request, but not as an altruistic move on his part. The NRSV actually cleans up the translation here but he really says he’s going to grant her justice so that she “will not come and strike me on the face below the eye”, meaning she won’t come and give him a black eye! Even the unjust judge knows there is a point beyond which people will break and he is, quite honestly, acting out of his own selfish interests; but sometimes we do the right things for selfish reasons, don’t we?

I believe the contentiousness of our current election cycle is deeply rooted in the injustice people have experienced – and I hear this from both sides! It doesn’t matter whether you support Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton – both camps are crying out for justice. I’m hearing the pain and frustration of people who have been left behind when their jobs went away after factories closed and there was no money or support for job retraining or relocation. Rural people are hurting in America! We have family farmers who are trying to make a living working the land and finding they need food stamps to feed their own families. Where is the justice for them? Brunswickians – you know what it’s like when the big business walks out of your town and leaves you high and dry. What happened when CSX pulled out of here and took all the jobs? Was there any money or help for job retraining and relocation? Or did that get cut so that wealthy people could get tax breaks? The working class is hurting and crying out for justice. Women who have been on the receiving end of sexual violence and oppression are saying “enough is enough” and crying out for justice. LGBT folk are tired of living in the shadows and being bashed or killed because of who they love and they are crying out for justice. People of color are tired of being racially profiled and under what feels like constant suspicion and they are crying out for justice. Every single one of us is longing and aching for right relationships – we all want justice.

And Jesus tells us our response to this longing: to pray and not lose heart. Now I’m not talking about prayer being some empty chatter directed at God. If that’s what your prayers are, let me assure you that God is not impressed. I’m also not talking about praying for a specific outcome in this election – you know, praying for your candidate to be elected. I’m telling you to ask God for right relationships, for justice. That means right relationships between each of us and with the people who right now are pressing all of your buttons and with whom you are angry. It means you pray for the candidate you support AND for the one you do not support – God knows they need it. It means you ask God what you should do, what you should say, what you should Tweet or post BEFORE you do it and ask how you can be a force for setting relationships right. This is a prayer which isn’t passive at all! You need to be prepared for this kind of prayer to change you and make demands on you. We cannot undertake the mission of Christ without being ready to lay down whatever gods we have worshipped which are getting in the way of doing justice. God will not act outside and apart from human agency – you are to be a part of this plan to be repairers of breaches and justice makers. The prophet Micah summed it up this way: we are to “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” May we do so.
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<![CDATA[Failure doesn't matter - Proper 14C]]>Sun, 07 Aug 2016 05:00:00 GMThttp://gracebrunswick.org/recent-sermons/failure-doesnt-matter-proper-14cRose Castorini came to mind this week as I meditated on this week’s lectionary. Rose Castorini … the quintessential Italian mother portrayed by Olympia Dukakis in the 1987 movie Moonstruck. You know my homiletic process involves biblical exegesis, commentaries, my smartphone, popular culture (including 80’s music) and a dash of existential angst alongside the Gospel and into that fray came Rose Castorini. If you haven’t seen the movie, do so it’s a lot of fun. Each of the characters in this romantic comedy has their own little quirky leitmotif which runs through the film. Rose’s is asking the question, “Why do men cheat on their wives?” all the while suspecting her husband Cosmo is carrying on an extramarital affair. She’s met with a lot of befuddled looks and rambling answers but she always reveals her hypothesis: “They cheat because they fear death.” She’s confident in her answer as only an Italian matriarch can be … but she seems to need someone else to see this truth and confirm it for her. You’ll have to see the movie to know whether or not she gets that confirmation – no spoilers here. But her question made me think a bit more broadly – “Why do people act out inappropriately or destructively?” because, let’s be honest, cheating on your spouse is inappropriate and destructive behavior. Perhaps they fear death.

Now I’m not necessarily talking about death as in what I’ve called the “Capital D Death” – when we draw our final breath and step across the divide into the Great Mystery of God. I’ve said before and will say again, I think that is the “final exam” of our lives which is preceded by a lifetime of “pop quizzes” I call “little d deaths” – those times in our lives when things fall apart, catastrophically fail. The big truth of Christianity is the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ and in that dying and rising we learn the pattern of our lives for all of the “little d deaths” we will encounter. Dying and rising is the pattern of our whole life and we have another word for those “little d deaths” – failure. Failure is another word for the smaller transitory deaths we experience throughout our lives. And let’s be honest, failure isn’t fun. It can hurt ... a lot! And we fear being hurt and want to avoid it. So I think Rose Castorini’s observation about death also applies to our fear of failure. We can state her hypothesis as a declarative: People act out in inappropriate and destructive ways because we fear failure. Now it’s clear this isn’t the only reason, but it is one reason. How many times have we seen failure coming towards us and we begin to flail about grasping at straws, often in ways that are harmful, only to succumb to failure anyway? This behavior is part of our sinful nature.

There is no doubt we are living in anxious and fearful times. I’ve been addressing that quite a bit lately because it’s pervasive in our country and our world. Fear creates its own gravitational pull into a vortex of anxiety which enslaves us and is at the root of the violence we have experienced. Fear of death ironically leads to death – it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. John writes in his first letter “perfect love casts out fear,” but I’ve experienced how our fears can block out perfect love. Biologically, fear traps our brains in a stuck loop dominated by our primitive lizard brain’s “flight, fight or freeze” mode and our limbic emotional brain. This sets off a rapid cycle of anxious fearful responses like a hamster running full speed in a wheel and getting nowhere. Fear doesn’t make much room at all for the love of Christ or the renewal of the Holy Spirit, does it?

So what do we do? Fortunately, there is a spiritual practice which can short circuit our culture’s rampant anxiety festival: prayer – and more specifically contemplative prayer. Contemplation, or meditation, pushes back the constant noise of our world to create a bubble of silence. The early Desert Fathers and Mothers spoke of silence as the native language of God. Contemplation isn’t necessarily total emptiness. Contemplation can also be focused on a word or a question. I commend this practice to you and allow me to suggest a question to take with you into your contemplative prayer in the coming weeks and months – a question having to do with our fear of failure. The question is this: If you could do anything in the world in complete confidence that you would not fail, what would you do? Contemplate that question. It’s a vision question designed to open you up so the Holy Spirit can unshackled you from the twin tyrannies of fear and reactivity. Let the Spirit and your imagination run with this: what would you do if you knew you wouldn’t fail doing it?

Would you pack up everything you own in a VW microbus and set out for parts unknown? Maybe you would … just like Abram. OK, I know he didn’t have a VW microbus, but three chapters ago in Genesis God told him “Lech lecha!” – “Get up and go to a land I will show you and there I will make of you a great nation.” You notice God didn’t say, “Get up and go to this lovely condo in Haifa. It has a great view of the ocean – you and the missus are going to love it!” No … God didn’t tell Abram where he was going, God just told Abram to go … and he did so as if failure was no consideration. Now this didn’t mean that fear didn’t creep in from time to time. Of course not and today’s reading shows us Abram is stressed out about his lack of progeny who were promised but hadn’t shown up yet. The writer of Hebrews describes Abram as one who was “as good as dead.” And in this portion, we hear God calling Abram out of his fear over lack of offspring into a contemplative space because fear limits possibility. Consider the stars, God tells Abram, count them if you can, and see through the eyes of faith what is possible with God.

Jesus is makes the same invitation to his disciples: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Wow! Wait … what? That’s right “it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” In other words, you will be given everything and failure isn’t part of God’s economy. So when you step away from the fear and contemplate not only is the kingdom being given to you, it is God’s good pleasure to do so. And if we hold to this truth, then we do not need to worry about anything – failure isn’t an issue, failure doesn’t matter. This liberates us from the shackles of greed and selfishness because you don’t have anything to fear. This frees you to be generous and give of your possessions. Jesus even goes on to use an image of slaves awaiting their master and how the master would be so overjoyed to find them ready that the master himself will serve the slaves! Imagine that: God giving abundantly to us and we need not fear failing.

Now I know that we live in a world where we will fail. But I also know our fear of failure is inflated and leads us to live lives which are small and not worthy of the kingdom. Fear causes us to contract, to color inside the lines, to be selfish and greedy, and to seek safety and security even at the expense of human dignity and even the Gospel. We were not fashioned in the image of our Creator to live small lives. So how do we put this into action? The vision question “If you could do anything at all knowing failure was not possible, what would you do?” can be tweaked into an action question: “What would you dare to do if failure just didn’t matter?” That’s right … what if failure just doesn’t matter?

If we take seriously our holy texts, there are many, many stories where God’s people failed … at least according to how we would define failure. Abram would fail along the way in his walk with God and so would his offspring Isaac, Jacob, and onward. The great kings of Israel would fail and Israel itself would disintegrate and fall into exile. The disciples would get it all wrong. And let’s be real: take a good hard look at Christ on the cross. Forget for a moment that we Christians know the rest of the story. Look at Jesus hanging on the cross as those who were eyewitnesses … ask yourself: “Does this look like success?” Of course it doesn’t … it looks like failure, doesn’t it? See the good news of God is that failure doesn’t matter. Failure … death … doesn’t get the last word. “Have no fear, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” You are given the kingdom every single time you approach the altar! Every time you receive the Body and Blood of Christ you are being given the kingdom and it is God’s good pleasure to give it to you. Remember this! Have no fear, live large for the sake of Christ and each other, and dare to risk everything because failure doesn’t matter and it is God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.
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<![CDATA[The one who shows mercy - Proper 10C]]>Sun, 10 Jul 2016 05:00:00 GMThttp://gracebrunswick.org/recent-sermons/the-one-who-shows-mercy-proper-10c“And who is my neighbor?” “The one who showed mercy.” In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

It has been another horrific week in our country. Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Lorne Ahrens, Michael Smith … officers targeted in gun violence in Missouri, Tennessee and Georgia. Then there are the ones we don’t hear about. Latinos like Pedro Villanueva, Raul Saavedra-Vargas, Melissa Ventura and Anthony Nunez – all killed in police related shootings last week – or Giovanni Lyiscott who was arguing with his father and dad decided to threaten him with a gun and shot him dead, or Stephen Brumby shot dead accidentally by his father at the shooting range … or the many we cannot name who die from gun violence inflicted by intimate partners or the ones who use a gun to kill themselves. “And who is my neighbor?”

A lawyer came to test Jesus. This was not someone coming to learn at the feet of Jesus – it was an adversarial encounter. The question as to which is the greatest commandment comes up in all three synoptic Gospels – and in Mark and Matthew, Jesus is the one who answers the question. Only in Luke do we hear Jesus turn the question back on his interlocutor and place the answer in the lawyer’s mouth. The lawyer summarizes the law by reciting the Shema from Deuteronomy 6: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind” and then he marries it to a portion of Leviticus 19:18, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus tells him he answered rightly “do this and you shall live.” But this lawyer proves that getting the right answer is not the same as living a righteous life. Knowing what to do and doing it are two very different things. Luke goes on to tell us the lawyer sought to “justify himself” when he asked the follow on question: “And who is my neighbor?” What follows is the parable nicknamed “The Good Samaritan” but it could have been called “the near dead guy in the ditch” or the “indifferent religious professionals” – but maybe those titles weren’t pithy enough.

We struggle to grasp the scandal of this story and we all like to think we too would be like the “Good Samaritan.” We can reduce this to a simple morality tale, but to do so relieves it of its scandal and after a week of such violence I think we need to be scandalized. Remember a couple of weeks ago when Jesus passed through Samaria after he set his face towards Jerusalem? What happened? They blew him off. Why? Well why not? The Jews accused the Samaritans of being half-breeds – people who defiled their purity by intermarrying with their Assyrian occupiers. When the Jews returned from the Babylonian exile, the Samaritans actually offered to help rebuild the Temple, but the Jews rejected their help. The enmity continued as the Jews would not allow Samaritans into the Jerusalem temple to offer sacrifice, even though the Samaritans consider themselves observant of the Jewish law and believers in the God of Israel. The Jews would build a wall around their city to keep undesirables, including Samaritans, out. Jews hated Samaritans and Samaritans hated Jews. And this is why Jesus’ disciples were ready to rain fire down on those dirty Samaritans. Sounds eerily familiar, doesn’t it?

So now Jesus tells a story to this hotshot lawyer seeking his own self-aggrandizement. A man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho (“going down to Jericho” tells us the direction), is set upon by thugs who rob him, beat him and leave him for dead. The religious professionals in the story – the priest and Levite – both pass by not wanting to defile themselves as they head to the temple. Who knows? This guy might be dead and the touching of a dead body would make one unclean and therefore unable to render service in the Temple. Their Temple service was more important than a human life – they were wrapped up in themselves. The now late Elie Wiesel said, “The opposite of love isn’t hate: it’s indifference.” These religious professionals were indifferent to the pain right in front of them. They chose to ignore him.

But the one who was not indifferent was the one the hearers would have loved to hate – a Samaritan. He was moved with “pity” but the word also can be translated “compassion” – in Greek it literally means he “felt it in his guts.” He went to him to render aid, bind up his wounds, and get the man to a place where he could recover in safety … and he paid for it and promised to pay for whatever costs were incurred. Imagine the shock and awe of hearing a story about a person whom you have been taught all your life to fear and hate being held up as an exemplar of righteousness. Notice also the response of the lawyer when Jesus asks him which of the three acted as a neighbor to the injured man: “The one who showed mercy.” This lawyer cannot even bring himself to say “the Samaritan” – the closest he comes is describing the Samaritan’s behavior. So deep is the level of hatred and distrust.

Hatred and distrust are exactly what we are experiencing in our country right now. It has been on display and the body count is rising. This hatred and distrust are rooted in fear and a complete absence of compassion. We are afraid – we are all afraid. African Americans and Latinos are afraid. Police officers are afraid. Women are afraid. Men are afraid. LGBTQ folk are afraid. And collectively, we are letting our fears rule our lives and dictate our actions. And who profits from stoking this fear in us? As “Deep Throat” once famously said, “Follow the money.” Who profits? Well, for one, corporations who make guns and other weaponry for profit. If Ruger, Glock, Smith & Wesson, Remington and the rest of their ilk can make you afraid, they can sell more guns. Remember, your priest has a degree in Marketing and I know exactly how to make each and every one of you very afraid of something and then tell you how what I have to sell you will alleviate your anxious fears … the very fears I have stoked up in you. It’s brainwashing pure and simple.

So what are these fears which beset us? We are afraid of the “other.” We are afraid those we deem “not like us” will hurt us in some way. African Americans, Latinos, Middle-Easterners fear white people will hurt them – and they have good reason because there’s a history of this happening. White people are afraid that “brown skinned” people will make social gains at our expense and one day outnumber us … and then we will be on the receiving end of their oppression. Women fear violence against our bodies by men – and there is good reason we do because there is a history of that happening. Men fear a loss of control and power as women find their voice. LGBTQ folk fear being bashed by those who use Scripture as a weapon against them. Even though what provokes the fear in each instance differs, the bottom line is that we are all afraid. And when we are afraid, we withdraw from others, we move to black and white either/or thinking, we demonize those who are different, and our lizard brains fire off “fight, flight, or freeze” instructions with absolutely NO filters or consideration for the consequences. We withdraw into our echo chambers of like-minded people, stop listening to others, and like the lawyer we justify ourselves and our hatred. We speak violence and we act on it … and the body count is rising.

Those who make profits off of our fears are not the only ones benefiting from keeping us afraid. This fear is a distraction by those who are also trying to amass political power. The uber-rich plutocrats who now rule our country do so with no sense of noblesse oblige, the concept that wealth and power confer a responsibility upon the wealthy to act in ways which benefit all. The selfishness of our “me first” social Darwinism has created a society where everyone is in it for themselves. This is a fear based mentality which has a vested interest in keeping you afraid too. If the wealthy power brokers succeed in pitting those outside their ranks against each other by stoking fear and hatred, nobody will notice when the factory closes and the jobs get shipped off shore, or when the stock prices get manipulated, or when the river gets toxic chemicals dumped in it, or when we buy our politician’s votes, or any number of other corporate sins. And the body count will keep rising.

The fears and hatreds we amass are demonic. The hateful violent rhetoric is turning to action and it is killing us – all of us: Black lives, police lives, LGBTQ lives, women’s lives … all of this matters to God! All of it matters! I do not have easy answers to these problems, because there aren’t any. The answers are going to require hard work, soul searching, and repentance. We must again renounce Satan and all of the spiritual forces which rebel against God!

Last year after the Mother Emmanuel shootings I preached about the problem of privilege. If this week has not opened your eyes to the problem of privilege, I don’t know what will. Now I know some of you struggled with that sermon, but we are not finished with that conversation. I know I carry a heavy hand of privilege power cards: I’m white, highly educated (I have a Masters Degree), able-bodied, physically and mentally healthy, straight, cis-gendered, and economically stable (at least right now). I lack the power card of gender – being male carries more weight, power, safety and opportunity in our society than being female or queer. I also lack the power card of being a military veteran which, although it doesn’t always seem like it, does open doors of opportunity in this country – especially if you are an officer. Every one of us in this room has a different hand of privilege cards. Like a hand of poker, some hands play better than others. Our unbridled instincts tell us to amass the best hand we can and use it for our own advantage. The result of that are the development and perpetuation of systems which are fear based. Those who have the privilege fear it will be taken from them and those who lack the privilege live in fear of not having their basic needs met. The only way I know to break the fear cycle which privilege instills is self-examination and repentance which lead to love and compassion. Examining those fears which are operant in us and be willing to repent, to turn away, from them and turn towards the other we have feared and begin to build relationships based in love. In building those relationships, we need to lay down our hand of privilege cards and stop defending them. For those places where you have privilege, sit down with someone who doesn’t carry that same card and listen, really deeply listen, to their experience of life. These sisters and brothers are the beaten up bloody bodies by the sides of our roads. We need to sit with the discomfort of hearing things that are going to be hard to hear, the ways in which the power systems have beaten them down and how we often unknowingly participate in those systems. We need to be moved like the Samaritan with compassion – a word which means “to suffer with.” And for you my sisters and brothers whose hold privilege cards which come up short, who have been beaten up by life, we need you and we need to hear you. We cannot be transformed until our hearts are broken open – only then will the Holy Spirit be able to heal us and enable us to work together to dismantle the fears which hold us hostage and work for a just world where human lives are more important than corporate profits. We must, as I paraphrase the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “learn to live together as brothers and sisters or perish together as fools.”
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<![CDATA[Liberation of the Legion - Proper 7C]]>Sun, 19 Jun 2016 20:30:55 GMThttp://gracebrunswick.org/recent-sermons/liberation-of-the-legion-proper-7cWe just sang a lament hymn. Did you pick up on that? I know the organist and choir are always pumped up when the preacher talks about music, but listen again to the opening words from “Thine Arm O Lord In Days of Old”:

Thine arm, O Lord, in days of old
Was strong to heal and save;
It triumphed o'er disease and death,
O'er darkness and the grave.

This is the classic structural opening of a lament Psalm. It begins with reminding God of what happened “back then” – back when God showed power and strength. In a lament Psalm this would be followed by asking “Where are you now God?” I know that I’ve been asking the question “Where are you now God?” this week in the wake of the shooting at Pulse in Orlando which left 50 people dead (including the shooter) and another 53 seriously injured. Where were you God? Where are you now God?

Make no mistake, the actions of Omar Mateen were not of God. They were the actions of a troubled, sexually conflicted man from a traditional Afghani culture – a culture where shaming your father by admitting you are gay is worse than death and masking your suicide by cop under the guise of a pseudo-religious martyrdom is imaged as the only way out. God was not in the actions of Omar Mateen no matter what some Christian extremists want to say.

I can say where God did show up. God showed up in the long lines of volunteers willing to donate blood. God showed up in the police officers, medics, doctors and nurses who cared for the injured. God showed up for those who claimed the dead and comforted their loved ones. God showed up here at Grace Church on Monday for candlelight Compline and prayer and again on Church Street in Frederick where I was privileged to stand with religious leaders from the UCC, Unitarian, Jewish and Muslim communities – all standing together to support the LGBTQ community and commit to ending gun violence. Our gospel reading today reminds us there is no place at all where God will not show up and no limit to how far God will go to heal us.

The story of the Gerasene demoniac is told in all three synoptic Gospels with some minor variations. Luke closely follows Mark’s telling of this story. Jesus crosses over to the region of the Gerasenes, across from Galilee. He is squarely in Gentile territory – an “unclean land” according to Jewish tradition. He is met by a man possessed by demons, a state of ritual uncleanliness. Luke tells us he is often naked and according to Jewish law, looking on a naked person makes a person ritually unclean. In other words, God in Jesus is showing up in all the so-called “polluted” places!
Jesus attempts to cast out this man’s demons and they respond by naming him as “Jesus Son of the Most High God.” Naming is powerful. It is an attempt to gain control over another. Notice how the demons know exactly who Jesus is and in many of these stories, they attempt to gain control over him by naming him as “Son of the Most High God.” Jesus responds by asking the demons’ name and the reply is “Legion” – a reference to the size of a Roman army unit numbering between 3,000 and 6,000 soldiers. This man is possessed by countless demons.

In our enlightened, scientific modern culture, we often dismiss demon possession as something from an ancient time – Stone Age people trying to explain mental or physical illness. Surely we are past that, aren’t we? Well, no … no we are not past that and we are fools to think we are. We, both individually and as a culture, are possessed by demons – and make no mistake, they are legion. Here are just a few:
  • Violence is one of our demons. Our violence explodes in words and actions – in our homes, in our workplaces, in our schools, on our streets, in churches and nightclubs. It also manifests in our addiction to war. My children, who are now in college, have only known our country as one at war – they have no conscious memory of our nation at peace. Violence possesses us – it is a demon.
  • Fear is another demon. We are afraid of people who are different – whether they are immigrants, ethnic/racial minorities, or LGBTQ. Fear is the demon which drives our xenophobia, our homophobia, our transphobia, our cultural misogyny. It feeds the demon of our violence.
  • Selfishness is another demon. We are quick to demand our rights for what we think is our due but divorce those rights from responsibilities towards the greater good of the community.
  • Avaricious greed is another of our demons. Putting corporate profits ahead of public safety and the good of the community intersects with our selfishness to place a price tag on our lives and commoditize our worth.
Oh yes … do not be fooled into thinking demon possession isn’t real. It is very real and we are possessed by a legion of demons!

It is, though, right into the midst of this polluted mess that God shows up in the person of Jesus. At the request of the legion of demons, he orders them into the herd of swine (yet another unclean element in this story). Now in seminary, we remember this as the “deviled ham” story – and we hear the swine rush into the lake and are drowned. The symbolism of the unclean animals becoming clean in their death by water would not have been lost on Luke’s audience, although we tend to feel sorry for the pigs today.

We now hear that word gets out and the people come out to find the formerly demon-possessed man clothed and in his right mind – and this terrifies them. What seems to be great news of liberation is terrifying to the people. Why? Well, likely they have spent years using this guy as their scapegoat, writing him off as some crazy so they didn’t have to look at their own sins. Now that he’s been healed, who will the people hid their sins behind? This healing destabilized their ability to make excuses.

We Christians live in a paradoxical reality for we are both the demon possessed man and simultaneously through our baptism we are received into God’s grace and called to be healers and reconcilers to continue the work of Christ. How can we do the latter if we are the former? Let me suggest the key lies in the pattern of what Jesus does in the story. First he finds out the names of the demons. If we refuse to name our demons, both the individual ones and the corporate ones, we will remain bound to their powers and react out of them. This only perpetuates the demonic activity and its destruction. We too need to name our demons. I’ve given you a few to consider today and naming them is the first step to being healed of them. We need to know and acknowledge them before God in order to face them honestly. When we do, we allow God’s power to enter our lives, especially through this community here at Grace and the Sacraments of the Church, to release us from them. This is the liberation and transformation which Christ promises to all of us and there is no limit to how far God will go to find us and set us free.
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<![CDATA[Do you see this woman? - Proper 6C]]>Mon, 13 Jun 2016 18:45:28 GMThttp://gracebrunswick.org/recent-sermons/do-you-see-this-woman-proper-6cHappy are they whose transgressions are forgiven, and whose sin is put away.

Happy is he who sees a married woman from far off, commands her to be brought to him, rapes her, and sends her home.

Happy is he who kills the husband of the woman he wants and who, when called out by the prophet of God, begs forgiveness of God.

Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven, and whose sin is put away.

Happy is he who has the wealth to host a dinner and neglect hospitality to the son of God.

Happy is he who sneers at a sinner.

Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven, and whose sin is put away.

Happy is he who rapes an unconscious girl but, because he is such a promising athlete, is only going to spend 90 days in jail.

Happy is he who spews hatred, division, and judgment, and for he is chosen as a presidential nominee.

Happy is he who saves his Christian university’s football program by covering up the sexual assaults perpetrated by his team members.

Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven, and whose sin is put away. [i]

These are supposed to be words of joy and thanksgiving for receiving God’s mercy and forgiveness. But in the cold light of this week’s news of ever rising hatred spewed in our political process, a justice system’s failure to take seriously a victim’s voice, the inability of a convicted rapist and his parents to take responsibility for a crime, collusion to cover up sexual assaults at a Christian university coming into juxtaposition against King David’s rape of Bathsheba and his orchestration of the murder of her husband Uriah and the sneering judgmental rejection of Simon towards a woman seeking Jesus – well, the Psalmist’s words ring just a bit hollow.

We hear today of Nathan, the prophet of God, calling King David out for his sin. And what was his sin? King David saw Bathsheba taking her monthly bath of ritual purity required under the law and he wanted her. He made inquiry and found out she was married to Uriah the Hittite, one of David’s soldiers. He ordered her to come to him anyway – and he raped her. Make no mistake, it was rape – Bathsheba had no choice in the matter. When the King, who is also your husband’s benefactor, summons you, you have no choice in the matter. But given that this story takes place in a very different context, the rape of Bathsheba is not considered a crime against her – it was rather a crime against Uriah for stealing his sexual property. So when Bathsheba sends word to David of her pregnancy, David makes a very elaborate effort to get Uriah to have sexual relations with her to “cover up” the parentage of the child in her womb so he can get away with his theft. When Uriah refuses to have relations with his wife, David takes more drastic measures so that he will not have to be accountable for the unlawful impregnating of Bathsheba, and so he orchestrates Uriah’s death on the battlefield. And God saw it all.

This is why God sent Nathan to call David out on his sin – one he thought was so private and, by all appearances, he had successfully hid. But the Biblical narrative frames this according to Jewish law: a sin against the property rights and life of Uriah the Hittite. The whole metaphoric story of the rich man stealing a lamb for his banquet has to do with stealing property because in the eyes of the law, that’s what Bathsheba was – property of her husband. Did you pick up the fact that in this passage, the writer of this story doesn’t even name her? She’s referred to repeatedly as “the wife of Uriah” not as Bathsheba. And when Nathan calls out David on his sin of “taking the wife of Uriah the Hittite” and orchestrating Uriah’s death, David’s response is, “I have sinned against the Lord.” He does not once mention he has sinned against Uriah or Bathsheba – he reduces his sin to an individual transaction between himself and God.

The danger of reducing sin to only a transaction between an individual and God is that we ignore the very real social impact of what our sins do to other people. We forget the flesh and blood victims who suffer the consequences of our sinful actions. When we reduce sin to merely an individual transaction between ourselves and God, we can confess our transgressions privately to God alone and smugly rest in the assurance of our forgiveness bought by the blood of Christ while refusing all the while to make direct amends to those we have harmed. Forgetting the victims is the first step in ignoring the societal systems which continue to perpetuate violence and degradation of God’s beloved children.

When we reduce sin to only a transaction between an individual and God, when every instance of sin is viewed as a single instance rather than part of a pattern that takes place over and over again, we ignore the systems which perpetuate violence against women and act as if sexual assault is merely a natural consequence of being born female and not just not hiding it well enough.

Jesus was a guest at the home of Simon the Pharisee when a woman, whom the narrator tells us is a sinner, enters the house. For millennia, this woman’s sin has been assumed to be sexual in nature. This is the pervasiveness of the way our culture looks at women - that we are sexual objects so it stands to reason our sins are likely sexual ones. It is interesting that the only sin we have historically ascribed to women, including falsely to Mary Magdalene, is sexual promiscuity. We seem to forget it takes two to tango and we let the men in these stories off the hook.

But if indeed this woman’s sin was sexual, what does this say about the status of women in society in Jesus’ day? She comes to Simon’s house alone. In a day when women actually were property of their husbands or fathers, where were the men she would normally look to for protection? Was she a widow? Had she been turned out by a husband? Was she escaping abuse in her marriage? We don’t know. But for women who are alone and vulnerable, too often the sex trade becomes the only way to survive – both then and now. And what does this say about a society which creates a lucrative market for a woman to sell her body – both then and now? Reducing sin to only a transaction between an individual and God lets us turn a blind eye to forget victims and systems as we look at the women who have been always been slaves to the appetites of men and say like Simon: "You don’t belong at the feet of Jesus."

Jesus turns to face the woman and he says to Simon, “Do you see this woman?” Do you see this woman? Do you see this woman Brock Turner? Do you see this woman David? Do you see this woman Donald Trump? Do you see this woman Ken Starr? Do you see this woman? This woman has come before Jesus in humility seeking God’s mercy and justice for her. Not the kind of earthly justice denied Bathsheba, Brock Turner’s victim, or the thousands of other victims of sexual assault. She seeks the justice of God to remove the stain of her label of “sinner” – the label which Simon continues to hold against her. She comes to Jesus in hope that God will really, truly see her – not for her labels or her sin, but as a whole person. She is seeking the kind of justice that walks up to David and says: You are the man! The justice of God which stands up to every system of oppression and domination and says: You are the man! The justice of the Son of God sitting across the table from Simon and saying: Do you see this woman or do you only see the sinner who offends your delicate sensibilities?

Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven, and whose sin is put away. There is no question sin has an individual nature – a transaction between us and God – but it cannot only be seen as an individual issue. God’s forgiveness begins with the confession of our sin but it cannot and dare not end there. The grace which God gives us through the cross of Christ is not a private matter – it has social dimensions. God’s forgiveness is a beginning, but it is not a substitute for nor does it excuse us from making amends to those whom we harm. God’s forgiveness is no free pass to turn a blind eye to the systems of domination and oppression fed by our collective sin and willful blindness. God’s forgiveness is the means by which we are set free to act in ways which are healing and reconciling. It gives us the freedom to know our transgressions have been healed from God’s side and asks the question of us, “Now what will you do to restore the relationships you have harmed?”

[i] Inspired by Emmy Kegler: http://emmykegler.blogspot.com/2016/06/do-you-see-this-woman-preaching.html.]]>
<![CDATA[Getting through this thing called life - Easter 5C]]>Sun, 24 Apr 2016 14:40:56 GMThttp://gracebrunswick.org/recent-sermons/getting-through-this-thing-called-life-easter-5c“Dearly beloved: We are gathered together today to get through this thing called life.” True words from an artist we lost too soon. Prince Rogers Nelson died at the age of 57 and many of us either grew up with his music or it defined our young adult years. I confess my musical interest spans a wide range of styles and I am not a big fan of any one artist to the exclusion of others. I liked some of Prince’s music and I am certainly aware of the boundaries he pushed. But what has captured my attention this week has been the little known stories of Prince’s personal generosity. On stage he was fearless and bigger than life, but off stage he was shy and reclusive. The only person most of us saw was the former, but the latter is now becoming known. The superstar who gave a free concert at Gallaudet University so deaf students could experience his music. The artist who was mobbed by high school students in the hotel lobby where they were having their prom and agreed to go in … and then took the stage with his band and played for them. But mostly we hear stories of how he personally mentored so many other musicians, especially women. Rock and roll is a world often dominated by men and Prince followed in a great tradition of breaking gender boundaries to include and lift up female artists. Now those of you who are a bit older may remember another great rocker who did this – the late Bo Diddley. He was the first to have a woman guitarist on stage with him – Lady Bo. He also mentored women into being great rock musicians … later Sly and the Family Stone would also break down those gender and race boundaries. Like them, Prince made no distinction between “them and us.” And this is exactly what Peter is talking about in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles – breaking down human made barriers.

In this reading, we hear Peter getting called on the carpet by the Jewish Christians for “eating with Gentiles.” Admittedly, this sounds very strange to us, but this was a big deal back then. Gentiles ate food which was forbidden to Jews … you know … like bacon! Peter then tells of his vision where God revealed something astonishing. In essence, God revealed that the dietary laws they had always followed were making distinctions which God was not making! What God had called “clean” must not be labeled “profane” by anyone – whether it be food or people. This was a serious crisis for Jewish believers because it was calling on them to release some deeply held beliefs – things which God had “commanded.” Think about how hard this is. Giving up something you have always believed was true and right in order to live into a new commandment, reach across deep divides and love people who are not like you.

It’s what Jesus told us to do, isn’t it? Our Gospel reading takes us back to the Last Supper and Jesus’ new commandment: Love one another as I have loved you. When we take that commandment seriously, it will turn our world upside down. It makes a claim on us and takes us into a life where we will be confronted with our deeply held beliefs and they will be measured against whether or not those beliefs are reflect love or not … and if not, we are to let them go. This is hard work and it will make each and every one of us at various times deeply troubled in our spirit. Love is not some romantic sentiment in a Hallmark card. Love is a verb, it is active, and it brings about change. If we are completely honest with ourselves, the change we most want to see is a change in other people. But today’s reading challenges each of us to first look to the change in ourselves wrought by love. What transformation might Christ’s love bring in your life? What deeply held convictions are you holding onto that run counter to the love of Christ? What barriers need to come down so that there is no distinction between them and us?

Love is the way, the only way, we can ever hope to glimpse the Kingdom of God. The images from Revelation tell us of a future where love becomes the only way. This is the part of Revelation that the folks who subscribe to Rapture theology don’t want admit. Revelation is often seen as a scary book and I believe it has been hijacked by a heretical theology called Dispensationalism – from which we get the stories of the Rapture. Let me clarify that when I say this is heresy, I am not speaking condemnation on the people who believe this. I am following the historic teachings of the Church on Revelation in declaring it a mistaken teaching. Our Coffee Talk Bible study just completed a study of Revelation and it was enlightening to find out what wasn’t there as much as what was there. Unfortunately, our cultural knowledge of Revelation is shaped by Dispensationalist teachings which emphasize the violence, the reign of the anti-Christ (a word which never appears in Revelation), the battle of Armageddon and the Last Judgement. Tim LaHay’s “Left Behind” books have largely shaped what we think about Revelation. Let me give you a nutshell synopsis – they are wrong. No battle is ever fought in Revelation and the only sword spoken of is the one coming from the mouth of the slain lamb which is Christ – his word is the only sword drawn. The Battle of Armageddon is spoken about in terms of it already being accomplished and we hear reports of it but it never happens in the narrative. As to the Lake of Fire, the only thing which is cast into it is the unholy trinity of the false prophet, the empire (those who received the mark of the beast) and the dragon – all of which represent the powers of empire which were oppressing the Church. It was not the place of judgement for believers! So in Revelation 19 and 20, all evil powers of this world are destroyed … that’s good news. And now today’s reading is what happens when love reigns and evil is eliminated: a new city, the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven and moving towards us! The one on the throne says all things are being made new, sorrow is no more, death is no more, pain is no more. Wow! This is what happens when the command to love God by loving one another is fulfilled. This is a vision John of Patmos wants us to hold onto even in the midst of a world which is decaying and passing away.

Jesus knew that love is the only thing which expresses the fullness of God. It is the only thing which endures and yet, it is not easy. It makes demands and claims on each and every one of us to be changed. And love is the only thing which has the power to get us through this thing called life.
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<![CDATA[So What? - Easter 2016]]>Sun, 27 Mar 2016 20:35:17 GMThttp://gracebrunswick.org/recent-sermons/so-what-easter-2016Alleluia!! Christ is risen!! The Lord is risen indeed!! Alleluia!! Wow! We have been holding back on that for 40 days and now it’s time to cut loose and celebrate. Christ is risen, the powers of Sin and Death destroyed forever and we are set free! And … well … Monday’s coming isn’t it? We’ll gather with family and friends for Easter Sunday to celebrate but … Monday’s coming. And our exuberant shouts of “Alleluia!!” will likely give way to “Now what?” Going out into the world from here may even cause our “Alleluias” to be met with “So whats?” For the world beyond the Church, the rising tide of culture is meeting Easter joy with “so what?” So what if Christ was risen from the dead? So what? Look around you and see there’s still terrorism, violence, war, illness, needless suffering and death … so what? And to be totally honest, if I go to the deep dark corners of my spiritual life where the dust bunnies hang out, I’ve said “So what?” too. In the face of the darkest places in our world, the promise of resurrection just seems at times a little too remote – too good to be true.

We have just come through what is known as Holy Week and during that week we observe the Triduum – the Great Three Days. These three days are the most intense of the Christian year and in them we hear a story which could be ripped from our own headlines. It’s a story of a charismatic change agent who is popularly acclaimed by the people. Rumor has it he is Son of God and a Son of David – a dual threat to politics and the religious establishment. He sweeps into town on Passion Sunday to the cries of “Hosanna!” which means “save us!” The people want a Savior from Rome’s oppressive grip. The stakes are high and the powers of Rome and Temple are threatened by the possibility of unrest. Jesus meets with his disciples on Maundy Thursday and gives them a new commandment – love one another as I have loved you. But talk of love becomes treachery and betrayal when one of the inner circle sells Jesus out for some silver coins. A kangaroo court ensues, police brutality against a prisoner, a sham trial without evidence, a quick conviction, a not so quick and torturous death, and the darkness of a donated burial site.

While the telling of Jesus’ final hours on earth end in his physical death, this story is also our own. Many of you who are regulars at Grace have heard me say that death and resurrection are the pattern of our lives. Anytime we experience change, something has to die for something new to happen. It’s all about transformation. While we experience the “big D” at the end of our lives, our life pattern is filled with “little d” deaths and they can be very painful. They can be brought about by betrayal, fear, jealousy, anger. These “little d” deaths take us to many a Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday … but hang on, because Sunday resurrection is coming!

I wish it were different. I don’t like dying any more than the next guy; but this seems to be the pattern which holds true. Dying eventually results in rising again, transformed and changed, into a new reality … but it can also take a long time. There’s also a temptation to stay stuck where we are. I love Luke’s telling of the men who ask the women, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” There is a strong temptation to try and hold on to what has died even though there is no life left there. Resurrection always means letting go completely and it means you will be different in some significant way. And this is why “so what?” is a “big what!” – because resurrection is a reality into which we live each and every day … even if we have to die to get there. Theologian Frederick Buechner said this, “Resurrection is knowing that the worst thing that can happen to you will never be the last thing to happen to you.” The word thing is NEVER the last thing … that’s good news.

Now this Easter, I know that some of you are not really in a place of resurrection right now. Our life chronologies do not follow the Church Year! You may still be back on Maundy Thursday trying to feel the love yet sensing the other shoe is going to drop or you’re about to get thrown under the bus. Maybe you’re in a Good Friday space where what you have known is ended – done and there is no going back and everything just hurts. You might still be in that tomb on Holy Saturday, and it’s dark, and you are desperately hoping somebody’s going to roll that stone away. But for all of us who may not be at Easter in our lives right now, there are some of us here who are. This is why we come together every week at Grace – to remind ourselves that resurrection is real and the worst thing will never be the last thing! The Church exists to be a community of people who are all in different places and who come together to encourage each other, remind each other, and lift each other up. For all of us having an Easter morning, we come to hold our hands out to our sisters and brothers who may be somewhere else on that Maundy Thursday to Easter journey and, grabbing hold of their hands, we can say, “Hang on! We got you! Easter is coming!” That’s what we do and we are sustained in this by the Eucharist each week – the meal of Christ’s Body and Blood meant to help us continue our journey. That’s a pretty big “what.” And that’s why, no matter where we are in spirit, we can boldly proclaim, “Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!”
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<![CDATA[Lost Children Found - Lent 4C]]>Sun, 06 Mar 2016 14:01:35 GMThttp://gracebrunswick.org/recent-sermons/lost-children-found-lent-4cImagine that … welcoming sinners and eating with them! What will Jesus think of next? Today’s Gospel reading is an edited portion of a series of three parables Jesus tells in a row: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost sons. Notice I said “sons” … or better yet, “children.” We know this parable by its nickname – the Prodigal Son. But this nickname is a horrible disservice to the story. It can cause us to stop with the seemingly “happy ending” of the younger son’s return and ignore the real scandal and discomfort of the older son’s response so let’s remember these nicknames were overlaid onto the parables at a much later date and are rarely helpful. I suggest we rename this story “the lost children and the misunderstood father” – but allow me to give you an introductory disclaimer.

First, this story is not about parenting techniques. It is a parable of God’s economy of grace – that is, how the unmerited, unearned mercy and love of God is poured out on all of humanity. Second, be prepared to be unnerved by this story. While it is 2,000 years old, it drives to the heart of the problem of the human condition in presenting a continuum of human behavior and belief, the polar ends being typified by the older and younger sons. You will see yourselves in this … and you very well may not like what I have to say today. Believe me that I am preaching this as much for the dark shadow side of myself as I do for you today. I do so because I firmly believe in the power of God’s grace and mercy to heal our collectively wounded younger and older children.

There was a man who had two sons and the younger said, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ This sounds like a demand of impudence and perhaps it is. It’s worth noting, however, that if one lived to a “certain age” in first century Palestine, distributing the estate while one was still living was not out of the ordinary. It was, in fact, the ancient equivalent of social security. A father would distribute his holdings (property, flocks, herds, small business) to his sons and customarily the oldest son would receive a “double portion” so as to be able to provide for his aging parents who would come to live with him. We really don’t operate that way in our country and I think the only remote equivalent we have is the moment every adult child with an aging parent dreads – the day when we have to ask mom or dad to hand over the car keys because it’s just no longer safe for them to drive. Maybe this was what was going on here – the younger son telling his father it’s time to turn things over … or not. Either way, the father complies and divides his property between them.

A few days later, the younger son takes all he now owns and goes off to a far country and squanders it all. I love the Greek here – it says he “scattered his substance” on a “riotous life.” It’s more than just the money. He’s blown it all epically so when the famine comes, he’s in trouble and now we have a “nice Jewish boy” feeding pigs … and not just feeding pigs but looking at what they are eating and thinking, “Hey, that looks pretty good.” How low can you go?

Addicts and alcoholics have taught us the concept of “hitting bottom” – that point of desperation where you face what your addiction has done to you and are ready to do absolutely anything to stop the insanity. Everyone is addicted – absolutely everyone. The salient questions are: “To what am I addicted?” and “How deadly are they?” The younger son is addicted to his rebelliousness and living life on his terms come hell or high water. That should sound pretty familiar to any honest alcoholics or addicts here in the room today. But he now knows his rebelliousness and wanton selfishness has tanked his life. Just a few weeks ago, I heard the best definition of “hitting bottom” from Mike, one of our AAs in the Wednesday meeting. He said, “You hit bottom when you put down the shovel.” The younger son puts down the shovel and, in the parlance of AA, does a 4th step – makes a searching and fearless moral inventory. He sees his condition and takes responsibility for it: he has sinned before heaven and his father and is not worthy to be called “son.” Now admittedly, he still sounds a bit conniving insofar as the hook about “treat me like one of your hired hands.” Maybe it is, or maybe he’s humbling himself in being willing to take the place of a slave and he’s giving up all thoughts of entitlement. Either way, he decides to go home and we can only imagine his dread – what will await him when he arrives? Will it rejection or even more condemnation?

When he arrives, his father sees him and runs out to meet him. That’s scandalous to a society based in honor and shame! No father with a shred of dignity would do that! The younger son blurts out, “I have sinned before heaven and you and am not worthy to be called your son.” Forget that part about treat me as a hired hand … he’s doing his fifth step right here – “Admitted to God, ourselves and another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.” And we know the rest … the party breaks out and the son is forgiven, the relationship reconciled, and this younger son is restored to his place in the family.

If the story ended here, we might think they “all lived happily ever after,” but the story doesn’t end here. The older son sees the commotion and finds out that his screw off younger brother came home and he is mad. When their father comes out and tries to reason with the older son and argument ensues. He enumerates how he has worked “like a slave” for dear old dad and followed all the rules – and dad never threw him a party! Dad took him for granted.

You see the eldest son is addicted too. His is the more insidious addiction. He is addicted to his morals and his deeply held belief in a meritocracy. Now meritocracy as I’m defining it here is the belief that hard work will be rewarded. It’s the quid pro quo system of rewards and punishments which is always the system human beings put into place, no matter what culture we belong to or what our religious beliefs are. Luther called this “works righteousness” and it is the basis of the Protestant work ethic. Work hard, play by the rules, and you will be rewarded. Slack off, screw up, and you will be punished – often mercilessly. We are hard wired for this kind of thinking and we overlay it onto every aspect of our lives. Judicial systems, business models, schools and we even try to make it true in the church. In his book “Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the 12 Steps”, Fr. Richard Rohr points out that the system of meritocracy demands personal sacrifice and this becomes the basis of scoring points, judging ourselves and others, and the root of our deepest resentments. This is the oldest son’s addiction! Listen to his language: “I have worked like a slave for you” is “look at the sacrifices I have made for you!” “I have never disobeyed your command” is “I have followed the rules!” Dad’s treatment of the younger son is violating all rules of fairness. He’s showing grace and mercy to someone who does not deserve it! He hasn’t earned it! And the deepest darkest dread of this addiction is this: that grace is a zero sum game and if Dad shows grace to that screw up younger son … there will be nothing for me.

I admit I am the oldest child in my family of origin. I know for a fact that my younger sister got away with stuff I never would have been able to get away with. Younger children … thank those older siblings of yours … they wore mom and dad out so you could raise hell! But the truth is, we all have both of these archetypal children in each of us. Remember I said they were on a continuum. Jesus’ story points out that both of these children are spiritually bankrupt – both of them! The younger one figures it out while the older one doesn’t. I believe our society today has much more in common with the older son. We are addicted to our meritocracy and belief in systems of punishments and rewards. We are addicted to keeping score on others instead of showing love because keeping score on others faults allows us to float through life on feelings of moral superiority: in essence, building ourselves up by keeping those “younger children” humiliated and down. We like the idea of the forgiving father when we find ourselves in the “younger child” role, but we hate it when “those people” get forgiven … after all, they don’t deserve it.

The point of this parable is that both sides are spiritually dead – equally and unequivocally dead. The good news is the deep dread of both the younger and older sons is not true. The younger fears condemnation and the older fears there will be no grace for him. The father shows both of them their fears are unfounded. We’re familiar with why the younger’s fears are dashed, but let’s see how the older’s are likewise dispatched. The father says to the older son, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” Remember the beginning of the story? The father “divided his property between them.” The customary division was likely made and the older son got the double-portion … he is now in charge of everything. You want a party? Great! Throw one … nothing is stopping you!! You’ve always been here; you are always a part of me and I of you. Grace is not a zero-sum game … there is plenty for you too.

This story comes on Laetare Sunday – a day where Lent takes a turn. The first three weeks are focused on our “searching and fearless moral inventory” and now we come to the admission to God, ourselves and perhaps even to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. Through the lens of either being the younger son or the older in this story, where are you? Is it time to lay down some form of rebelliousness? Christ promises you can do that without fear of condemnation. Is it time to stop score keeping and measuring worthiness? Christ promises there is grace enough for you. Isn't it time to put down the shovel?
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<![CDATA[Who you really are - Lent 1C]]>Sun, 14 Feb 2016 19:19:15 GMThttp://gracebrunswick.org/recent-sermons/who-you-really-are-lent-1c​20 years ago, we never really thought much of identity theft, did we? Impersonating another for the purpose of financial gain has always been around in some form, but the Internet and electronic monetary transactions seem to have made it easier. It’s bad enough when somebody drains your bank account by means of identity theft … but it always adds insult to injury when they do it from someplace really cool like the Cayman Islands! Not only are they trying to be you, they are doing it while vacationing in a really nice place. Today’s gospel reading is about Jesus being tempted in the wilderness – but it is also about the attempt to steal his identity. Temptations do just that. They try to steal our identity as beloved of God.
We are now back just after Jesus’ baptism. Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell the story of the temptation of Jesus, but Matthew and Luke in particular give us this back and forth dialog between Jesus and the devil. This 40 day period in the wilderness is what we are observing each year in Lent and it echoes the 40 years in the wilderness that the Israelites experienced. While the narrative speaks of wilderness as a physical place, it is also an interior landscape. We can find ourselves in an interior wilderness without ever leaving familiar physical spaces.
Jesus is tired and he is hungry. Luke sets these temptations at the end of his time there. The devil shows up and in his first attempt to steal Jesus’ identity, he says, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Now for many years I read this as Satan questioning Jesus’ identity – you know, like “If you think you’re so hot, show me you’re really the Son of God and make this rock become bread.” But after I learned Greek, I found out the wording was much more subtle than that. In Greek there are two words for “if” – an “if of uncertainty” and an “if of certainty.” The “if of uncertainty” is more along the lines of “If I win the Powerball, I’ll go to the Cayman Islands.” (Hey, it’s cold outside here in Maryland, I can dream right?). That’s a long shot by anyone’s calculation – an “if” whose outcome is uncertain. The “if of certainty”, on the other hand, has a known outcome. “If I file my tax return on time, I won’t have any penalties.” That outcome is known and certain … the only uncertainty is if I can get my act together in time and file by April 15th (OK … this year we have until the 18th … but you know what I mean). This this is the “if” being used by Satan – the “if of certainty” – and we can translate that as “since.” So his first temptation could be “Since you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” That’s a much sneakier attack! Think of all the implications. “Since you are the Son of God, you have the power to do that. After all, your Heavenly Father wouldn’t want you to starve would he?” The temptation is for Jesus to misuse his identity rather than to rely on God. He keeps his focus in his reply, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”
So the devil shows him all the kingdoms and tells him “all this can be yours if you worship me.” This temptation is to throw away your identity in God for something fleeting which does not last, but Jesus is like us in seeing that the world that needs help. How tempting it would be to take charge and set things right … you know, since you are the Son of God. Again Jesus quotes scripture, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
Finally, the devil decides to try and beat Jesus at his own game. Taking him up to the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem – the Holy of Holies – he says, “Since you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” “Go ahead, Jesus, crowd surf the angels … your Heavenly Father wouldn’t let anything bad happen to you.” Proof indeed that the devil can quote Scripture with the best of them. Again, the temptation here is to redirect Jesus’ trust away from God and to trust his own self and the angels, who are also created beings. Jesus replies, “It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Each one of these was a subtle attempt to steal Jesus’ identity as Son of God and replace it with a false image by redirecting his trust. We are also beset by similar attempts to steal our identity as children of God. It may not be in turning stones into bread, but it could be the temptation of power, financial security and wealth, or avoidance of pain or death. We are assailed every day by these temptations – attempts to redirect our trust. This being an election year, we’re getting this from those who are trying to gain our votes and fear is a common tactic. Anytime you can strike at the bottom level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Emotional Needs – and that’s all about safety and security – you get people to go back to their primitive brains and react from there. So filling you full of fear about terrorists or economic collapse and then telling you to redirect your trust away from God and vote for them because they have the answers is quite a winning strategy, isn’t it?
We are also assaulted by messages every hour of the day by advertisements which play on these same fears. We all fear death and the ravages of aging, so buy that “little blue pill” or that “age defying make up” and you’ll look younger and be more attractive, right? But this is only a ploy to get you to put your trust in some product rather than in your identity as beloved of God. These temptations, these attempts to steal your identity, are subtle, pernicious, and constant.
This is why we need our faith and this community – to keep reminding us of who we are and whose we are in the face of so many attempts to steal away the truth. Our minds and hearts have a hard time accepting our beloved status – why would God want to be in relationship with us? But the truth is our Creator loves the Creation – and that love relationship is real – real enough for Jesus to come among us, live as us, die and rise for us. Each week we come here to be reminded of our real identity through the Word and Sacrament. We need this to be reminded of who we are and whose we are and that, in the words of St. Paul, nothing, absolutely nothing, in all of creation can separate us from the love of God which is ours in Christ Jesus.
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