<![CDATA[Grace Episcopal Church - Recent Sermons]]>Sat, 30 Apr 2016 05:35:09 -0700Weebly<![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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<![CDATA[The Incarnation according to Matthew - Christmas 2C]]>Sun, 03 Jan 2016 16:22:14 GMThttp://gracebrunswick.org/recent-sermons/the-incarnation-according-to-matthew-christmas-2cThank you all for bearing with a long Gospel reading this morning! Most of the 2nd chapter of Matthew is appointed for today but broken into two options for Gospel readings. The more I considered this during my prayer time this week, the more I struggled to find a way to preach only part of a very important story. You see, only in Luke and Matthew do we get any kind of birth narrative for Jesus and in the Christmas season, we often weave back and forth between the two so much we get them confused. The two stories are starkly different, but by the time we get done with Christmas, we have the Magi visiting the baby Jesus in the manger! Both Luke and Matthew tell us important things about Jesus in these narratives, but I really wanted to give you the whole picture by reading all of Matthew 2 because in this one chapter, Matthew lays out the entire plan of salvation with rich imagery. Admittedly, being 21st century Americans who are largely unfamiliar with the first century Palestinian Judaism, it’s harder for us to connect with the story, its imagery and what exactly Matthew was trying to tell his congregation. Matthew is concerned with telling his community of Jewish converts exactly why Jesus is the fulfilment of prophecy and the promised Messiah of God.

Matthew begins his story grounding Jesus squarely as an Israelite – a Jewish child born into the covenant. In fact, Jesus becomes the embodiment of entire people of Israel. Let’s begin with just the family names, for they are rich in history and meaning. Nomen est Omen in Hebrew scripture – your name means something. Jesus’ father Joseph is portrayed throughout the first and second chapter as a man who receives messages through dreams just like his ancestor Joseph from the book of Genesis. Ancestral Joseph, favored son of Jacob, was sold into slavery in Egypt by his jealous brothers. In a twist of fate, Joseph offers to interpret the dreams of Pharaoh and, in so doing, gives him a plan to avoid a major famine. Pharaoh elevates Joseph to second in command because of his ability to interpret dreams – and because of this, Joseph is able to bring his family down to Egypt to rescue them from death by famine. Just as ancestral Joseph rescues his family by bringing them to Egypt, so will this Joseph flee to Egypt to save the lives of his family members. Mary is the Anglicized version of the Hebrew name Miriam – the same name as the sister of Moses. Miriam played a role in the liberation of the people when they escaped 400 years of slavery in Egypt. Jesus also bears the name of a liberating ancestor as his name in Hebrew is Joshua – the deliverer. The imagery of Jesus being in Egypt until it was safe to return evokes images of the return of the Israelites to the Promised Land. Even the violence of the murderous King Herod echoes the cruelty of Pharaoh to the Hebrews. Matthew wants us to know that Jesus is the absolute embodiment of the covenant God made with Israel.

Matthew then evokes the prophetic eschatological vision of the plan of salvation being more and bigger than just the Jewish people. Jesus has come to reconcile all of the nations into the covenant of Abraham. God’s concern is not just for his chosen people, but indeed God’s concern embraces the whole world. We begin with hearing that a group of Gentile Wise Ones come from the East in recognition of Jesus as Messiah. It is ironic these foreigners know who Jesus is destined to be while Herod rejects this message. Now I know tradition tells us there were three kings, but the narrative only speaks of three gifts. Considering the serious cash value of gold, frankincense and myrrh, I’d venture a guess that there were more than three wise people – and I also say people because Magi were not necessarily male. The image of these foreigners coming evokes the image of Isaiah 60: “Nations will stream to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawning.”

But there is a dark side to these foreigners and their acknowledgment of Jesus as king. Matthew tells us that King Herod was frightened “and all Jerusalem with him.” A new king was a direct threat to his power and Herod would have none of it. After being tricked by the Magi who did not return with news of the child, Herod lashed out in murderous rage killing all of the children under the age of 2 in Bethlehem to eliminate the possibility of a challenge to his throne or that of his sons. Thankfully, Joseph hearkens to the angel in his dream and flees with his family by night to Egypt.

It is this part of the story where we hear another piece of the salvation of the Gentiles. Egypt, the land of Pharaoh and the reminder of 400 years of bondage for the Jewish people, is redeemed through their welcome of the Holy Family. It is Egypt who provides safety for these terrified Jews on the run. God’s plan of salvation is not bound by ethnicity or national borders! God actually uses the people once feared and hated as enslavers to be those who save the Christ child.

As the Holy Family had to flee for their lives, Matthew tells us exactly where God casts his lot – with the poor, refugees, and outcasts. Jesus and his parents are in solidarity with all of the marginalized and dispossessed of the world. Today we only need turn on our televisions to see images of frightened people fleeing the violence in their own homeland to catch a glimpse of the fear of the Holy Family as they sought protection in a foreign land as aliens. Throughout Jesus’ later ministry, he will reach out to those who were outcasts and marginalized. One cannot help but see how his early childhood in Egypt and the stories about it that his mother and father would tell him would influence his affinity for those on the outside.

The experiences of Jesus and his parents assure us he did not come here to escape the hardness and violence of this world by somehow living in a bubble. They lived in the real world and had to navigate the violence in it. Jesus would later teach us to welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and feed the hungry not because these are “nice things” to do – it comes from the very reality that these things we do are what we do for and to him each and every day. For us who live in the relative comfort of the United State in the 21st century, it is hard to understand what it is like to be in the shoes of those who flee for their lives with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Quite honestly, our life of relative wealth and leisure puts us more in the camp of the Caesars and Herods than it does the Holy Family. Jesus was the outcast, the refugee, the migrant, the foreigner – it is his face we are to see when we look to those who have need. We are to do these things to honor God who reminded Israel to show hospitality to the stranger and alien because they too had been aliens in the land of Egypt even as now Egypt becomes the image of refuge and care for this family on the run.

Matthew closes this chapter with a reminder of something else – Jesus understands our joys too. We hear of Joseph having another dream and being told it was safe to return to Israel – the Promised Land. The Incarnation isn’t always about suffering and hardship – it’s also about rejoicing! The homecoming of Jesus echoes the return of Israel under Joshua’s leadership and the celebrations which accompanied it. Jesus shares in the joys of our lives as much as in the sorrows and challenges – he knows the fullness, depth and breadth of all of what it means to be human. His return is also a joyous reminder of God’s promises to bring justice and peace to those who live in God’s reign.

The second chapter of Matthew gives us hope in spite of the outer circumstances of our lives and our world. In baptism, we are brought into the family of God in Christ and through the Mystery of the Incarnation Christ comes to us. We are no longer alienated from God, but God has come to us in Christ to share every aspect of our lives and hallow them. We are no longer estranged but brought to the very heart of God through Jesus who gives us the grace and power to then take this gospel to the world, opening our arms like Egypt to all who are in need.
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<![CDATA[Christmas Eve 2015]]>Thu, 24 Dec 2015 16:11:53 GMThttp://gracebrunswick.org/recent-sermons/christmas-eve-2015Long ago on this night, shepherds looked to the heavens and were given a sign from God. 47 years ago, we were much like them with our eyes turned towards the heavens, or at least to our televisions, as we heard the first Christmas Eve greeting from outer space. The crew of Apollo 8 was in orbit around the moon this night in 1968.

While we look around us today and see a world in turmoil, it is easy to forget that we’ve experienced upheaval before – and 1968 was no exception. In January, the Tet Offensive began in Vietnam and by February we were involved in a full scale war there. In April, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated and riots erupted across the cities of our nation. Two months later, presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy was also assassinated and riots broke out at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

But on Christmas Eve 1968, Apollo 8, the first manned mission to the moon, entered lunar orbit. Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell, and Lunar Module Pilot William Anders became the first humans to orbit the moon, and the first astronauts to spend Christmas in space.

To mark the occasion, they sent Christmas greetings and live images of the moon back to their home planet and read from the Book of Genesis. It was estimated that as many as one billion people worldwide watched the historic broadcast or listened on the radio.

As the world looked at images of the Earth and the moon seen from Apollo 8, Jim Lovell said, “The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth.” They ended the broadcast with these words.

William Anders said, “For all the people on Earth the crew of Apollo 8 has a message we would like to send you. In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, ‘Let there be light:’ and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.”

Jim Lovell read next, “And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day. And God said, ‘Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.’ And God made the firmament, and divided the waters, which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.”

Frank Borman read, “And God said, ‘Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear:’ and it was so. And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good.” Borman then added, “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you – all of you on the good Earth.”

In that moment, we were reminded of something very important. We were reminded that regardless of the upheaval, violence, and fear surrounding us that we were all together on the good Earth. An Earth so good and a creation so loved that God slipped in quietly through this cleft in history 2,000 years ago to be one of us … on the good Earth. And God did so in the person of Jesus who we remember this night as a vulnerable, helpless baby reminding us that God in Christ gets us.

This news doesn’t come to the high and mighty – the Herods, the Quiriniuses, or the Caesars. This news comes to, well, lowlifes first! Shepherds were held in quite low regard in first century Palestine and the message of God's radical inbreaking comes to the ones we don't expect. When the shepherds go to Bethlehem and see this thing which had been made known to them … they found ... a very ordinary looking couple and a very ordinary looking tiny baby. Yet, looking into that baby’s eyes they saw themselves in a fully human child who would save them. In the eyes of the Christ child all of humanity was there and in all of humanity something of this child would be present too. In that mutual gaze between the Christ child and the shepherds lay the hope of the world … the hope for this good Earth and all who live in it. They then return home praising God for all they had heard and seen.

These shepherds and the three astronauts who greeted us from space this night experienced a transformation. Their experiences moved them to see beyond the ordinary to the extraordinary … to see a glimpse of the Divine. When you can see beyond the eyes of a baby and see the face of God and when you glimpse the good Earth from God’s perspective, you then can see the face of God in the eyes of others. And when you can see beyond the surface and see Christ in the other and in all creation, you can never forget who God is. From the farthest reaches of space to the dirt under the feet of shepherds, God is, was, and will always be there no matter what.

God has not given up on us no matter the circumstances of our lives or of this world. God came for us this night many years ago as a baby and on this night he still comes to us in bread and wine … and in the faces of all God’s beloved. The Christ child invites you this night to see beyond the obvious and through to the extraordinary … that we may bear the light of Christ to all … all of us on the good Earth.
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<![CDATA[What Should We Do? - Advent 3C]]>Sun, 13 Dec 2015 21:34:44 GMThttp://gracebrunswick.org/recent-sermons/what-should-we-do-advent-3cToday is Gaudete Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent. Gaudete is Latin for “Rejoice!” and nothing says rejoice like John the Baptist shouting “you brood of vipers!” Yeah … that’s what I think of when I hear the word “rejoice!” Last week John appeared on the scene and this week he’s tearing up the homiletical field. This is as good old-fashioned “hellfire and brimstone” at its best! He’s telling them to turn around and don’t think you can just rest on the cred of some long dead ancestor named Abraham – you’ll be held to account for you sin!

Now admittedly, the “turn or burn hellfire and brimstone” style isn’t usually what you hear in a proper Episcopal Church, is it? And let’s face it, ad hominem attacks like calling the crowd a “brood of vipers” just doesn’t get you very far in seminary homiletics class. I mean … that label alone is a flip on the “your momma” put downs … because, if you’re a brood of vipers, your momma is a snake! And we know how much snakes are loved in Hebrew Scriptures, right? I always imagine John the Baptist in a modern seminary homiletics class giving this sermon and afterwards the professor saying, "Um ... let's go back to your opening there John ... 'brood of vipers' ... would you like to unpack that?" Seriously ... this just isn't how preaching is done these days.

But did you notice the reaction of the crowd? I mean, John just called them an epithet and ranted about their sin of blindness and pride … and what is the crowd’s reaction? You'd think they would be reaching for some rotten fruit to throw at him, wouldn't you? But they don't! They ask what they should do. Let that sink in for just a moment. They ask "What should we do?"

Like many other liturgical churches, we use a lectionary which is a cycle of designated readings from Scripture. The Jewish rabbis have a similar schedule through their liturgical year – it’s not unique to Christianity. But because we have a lectionary, I don’t get to pick and choose what texts I want to preach on … they are set for me. That means I have to deal with and try to illuminate texts that frankly make people mad at some point or another. I was on Facebook this week commiserating with a few colleagues about complaints we get when we preach: “too liberal,” “too conservative,” “you’re a socialist,” “stop shoving the Bible down our throats,” “Jesus didn’t really say that,” “I’m cutting my pledge” … yep, we’ve pretty much heard it all.

What these complaints point to, though, is our very human reaction to hearing the Gospel crash into our carefully crafted ego. We all stand in the place of being convicted by the Gospel as falling short of the mark. Whether it’s our world view, or our values, or our habits – we all sin and fall short of the glory of God and we are convicted. So when we hear a disturbing message or don’t like what the preacher says our first reaction is usually to lash out at the preacher, question their credentials, claim they don’t know the Bible, or call the senior warden to complain. I confess, prior to ordination, I did it too … I guess being on the receiving end is poetic justice. John’s Gospel tells us even Jesus lost most of his followers after he preached about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. The natural human reaction is to defend the ego at all costs rather than listen to how the Gospel is convicting us. That sounds harsh, but remember: the Gospel convicts us not to condemn us but to convert us.

But the crowd in today’s reading doesn’t react defensively. They don’t let their egos get in the way. They want to know what they should do and this is where it gets real. John gives them a plan of wealth redistribution! If you have two coats, give one away. Yeah … and I opened up my coat closet this week and BAM! I was hit with how many coats I had that I don’t even wear anymore! I was guilty of missing the mark (and for the record, we made a serious Goodwill donation this week … coats and all). Luke then tells us two specific groups of people asking John what they should do: tax collectors and soldiers. Both of these groups were officials serving the Roman government. The tax collectors were Jewish. The Romans used locals as their tax collecting agents because locals knew the neighborhood and who lived there. They were hated as traitors because they collected not just the tax owed, but would shake down their fellow Jews for more than what was owed and pocketed the rest (which Roman law allowed). John tells them to stop defrauding people and only collect what is owed. The soldiers were Romans – hated by the Jews as part of the occupying force who could take whatever they wanted by force. John tells them not to commit extortion by threats or false accusations, essentially stop blackmailing the people, and be satisfied with your wages. These encounters tell us that John’s message wasn’t just for Jews; it was for the whole world. Economic justice is a part of God’s plan of salvation, we all have a part in it and we can’t rest on our laurels and think just because we’re saved that we won’t face judgment: a hard teaching indeed.

Advent is the time when we focus on the end of all things as well as the reality that each of us will die. It’s also a time where we focus on the radical nature of what the coming of Christ really is all about. It’s about the total conversion of our hearts and souls, claimed by Christ in baptism, that we may be fully united with God. Divine union is the goal and we don’t get that on our terms. It comes on God’s terms … and it means, like the tax collector, the soldier and the crowd, we are going to be expected to change. This conversion will mean that there are things we will be asked to leave behind – beliefs, world views, values … all that is constructed by our egos has to be set aside so that Christ can enter our hearts and make us new. It doesn’t always feel good – in fact it usually feels pretty lousy when God rips out our hearts of stone and replaces them with hearts of flesh. But it is necessary if we are to be serious about following Christ rather than just admiring him from the sidelines.

So when you hear the equivalent of “you brood of vipers” and the hackles on the back of your neck stand up, remember you have a choice. You can choose to defend your ego … or … you can see these signs of ego stress as the Holy Spirit’s invitation to conversion and a deeper intimacy with Christ. Maybe it’s time to ask God, “What should I do?” and ask for the grace and courage to do it.
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<![CDATA[Hope - Dangerous and Good - Advent 1C]]>Mon, 30 Nov 2015 12:27:50 GMThttp://gracebrunswick.org/recent-sermons/hope-dangerous-and-good-advent-1cStephen King wrote a short story a few years ago entitled Rita Heyworth and the Shawshank Redemption which most of you know by the latter half of the title was made into a move back in 1994. It tells the story of an unlikely friendship between two convicted men: Andy Dufresne, a white banker who was wrongly convicted of murder, and Ellis “Red” Redding, an African American who was also convicted of murder. Red is the guy who can get things for the inmates and Andy is the quiet brainy ex-banker who becomes the brains of an intricate operation. Andy pulls a stunt which earns him two weeks “in the hole” – solitary confinement. Upon his return in the cafeteria, he sits down with his friends and tells them it was the easiest two weeks I’ve had here. Of course, nobody believes him but he goes on to say that he had “Mr. Mozart for company.” They wonder how he was able to sneak a record player into solitary and Andy replies, “No … it’s here” [pointing to his head] “and here” [pointing to his heart]. He goes on to say that’s what music does – it gets down deep where they can’t get at it and keeps you from forgetting there are better places outside the walls of the prison. It gives him “hope.” Red then tells Andy, “Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane. There’s no use for it on the inside.” Hope is a dangerous thing.

Today we begin a new liturgical year. It is the first Sunday of Advent and every year the first Sunday of the Church year begins with a foreboding reading about the end of all things. We are in the year of Luke and today’s reading takes place in Holy Week. We hear Jesus saying: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Two weeks ago we heard the corresponding reading from Mark’s Gospel where Jesus predicted the end of all things describing a day when “no stone would be left on another.” His disciples then ask “When will these things take place?” Mark’s gospel is believed to be the first written and it was written either immediately before or right after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 66 CE. Temple destruction and its meaning as part of the signs of end times were on Mark’s mind and heart when he told the Jesus story as was the belief Jesus would be coming any day now. Luke, however, was written some 20 or so years after Mark’s gospel – temple destruction is past history. Luke and his community are struggling with the fact that Jesus’ return doesn’t seem as imminent as it did for Mark or even St. Paul. Luke’s concern isn’t so much “when will these things happen?” as much as it is “how do we live this faith right now as we wait?”

We live in a time often described as “already but not yet.” Jesus has already come, lived among us, died, rose and has ascended; but he has not come again and the last chapter has not yet been written by God. We live in that in between time – just like Luke, Mark, Paul, Matthew, John and all the others who bore witness to Jesus as Christ. In this in between time, there have been many wars and rumors of wars. There has been destruction and chaos. But rather than trying to pinpoint the end of all things, Luke give us a message of hope: “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Jesus exhorts us not to cower in fear when things get crazy and scary – instead he tells us to “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” … in fact, it has already come.

We have seen resurgence in terrorism in the past few weeks which has brought out some very ugly behaviors in some of those who claim to be our leaders and even those who claim to be Christian. I am persuaded that terrorism and violence are not our greatest enemies – fear is our greatest enemy. When we are afraid, we forget who we are and whose we are. We will sell out our values and our beliefs under the false premise that finding a common enemy will somehow make us safer. It even causes us to make enemies out of people who are not. Just as Andy spoke of music being in his head and heart, fear is something which can invade our heads and hearts and really mess up our thinking and actions. Fear is a dangerous thing!

But remember, hope is also a dangerous thing because hope can give you the imagination and spiritual insight to see possibilities beyond the current reality. Our hope is centered in the cross of Christ and the resurrection. It tells us that no matter what and no matter how bad it gets, God is not finished and the final chapter of history is not yet written. This gospel also must be something in our heads and in our hearts: something they can’t take away from you (no matter who the “they” being referred to happen to be). These promises of Scripture need to be in our minds and our hearts so we don’t forget who we are and whose we are – and we dare not let fear into that space!

So when we become anxious over a terrorist attack and begin to fall back into fear, we need to remind each other to stand up and raise our heads, because our redemption has already been won in Christ Jesus. When we are tempted to scapegoat Syrian refugees and blame “all Muslims” for the behaviors of a relatively small number of radicals, we need to stand up and lift our heads – our redemption is already here! When violence in our cities tempts us to abandon the civil rights of others, we need to stand up and raise our heads … our redemption is already here!

Jesus Christ is the lord of all time and all history. No matter what happens, no matter how bad things may get, our redemption has already been won by Christ on the cross and because of that, we need not fear anything ever. This is the essence of hope which, at the end of the movie, Andy reminds Red: “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” So stand up … raise your heads … live in hope … your redemption is already here.
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<![CDATA[Which King will you follow? - Christ the King Sunday]]>Sun, 22 Nov 2015 16:38:39 GMThttp://gracebrunswick.org/recent-sermons/which-king-will-you-follow-christ-the-king-sundayI’ve noticed something recently about interpersonal relationships. When two parties disagree and begin to debate something, have you noticed that there is a tendency to get the last word in? Think about it, two sides have a disagreement and both try to make their case going back and forth. As one party perceives they are “losing” the debate, the anxieties and tensions rise and it seems to result in attempts by both sides to make sure they get the last word. It’s as if we believe if we get the last word, we’ll somehow “win” the argument. I’ve noticed this tendency, both in myself and others, but in truth I’m finding that those who insist on getting the last word are really just anxious and afraid. I suggest this is the case in today’s Gospel passage.

Today is the Feast of Christ the King and we find ourselves on Good Friday hearing again this exchange between Jesus and Pontius Pilate. I took the liberty of adding the first part of the verse following where our lectionary leaves off – where Pilate asks, “What is truth?” We usually like to let Jesus have the last word in lectionary readings, but today I suggest there is a good reason to give what appears to be the last word to Pilate.

Think for a moment about the setting. Pontius Pilate the Roman governor and procurator with the awesome power of empire on his side is facing off with this upcountry troublemaker from Nazareth, Jesus. Jesus appears beaten and bruised, a man who stands in the place to be judged and yet he is not impressed by Pilate’s display of power … and he lets Pilate get the last word. “What is truth?” Jesus lets that question hang without an answer.

I think this shows Pilate to be what he really is: anxious and terrified. Regardless of how much power he appears to have, he really is nothing but a puppet caught between the power of Caesar and seething anger of the Jewish people who are sick and tired of the oppression of Rome. He’s really far more vulnerable than he appears … and he’s scared.

Jesus, on the other hand, isn’t afraid. He tells Pilate about his kingdom and reminds him that if his kingdom was of this world, like that of Caesar, his followers would be launching an armed insurrection … but they aren’t. Because the kingdom Jesus is ushering in is one that does not derive its power from fear like Rome does but instead derives its power from love. This isn’t to say Jesus isn’t experiencing any existential angst of facing his own death, but it is to say he doesn’t let that get in the way of his plan – to lead an insurrection of love. I’m not talking about a love of sweet sentimentality – I’m talking about what the Bible calls a love “strong as death.” It’s a love Jesus taught in his lifetime – to love God, love you neighbor, and yes even to love your enemies. This is love which is hard but it is the only thing which can overcome anxious fear. This is the truth which Jesus embodies – perfect love which casts out fear. And this is what makes Pilate anxious enough to want to get the last word in … because for all of the worldly trappings of power, Jesus stands before him unimpressed and unafraid.

We are living in a time of widespread anxiety and fear, much of it centering on terrorism and especially the so-called Islamic State. In many ways, we are experiencing the same anxiety of Pilate. As Americans, we have all the trappings of wealth and power but we now realize this will not protect us from those who are intent on harm. Or in the words of Moises Naim, the author of the End of Power: ISIS has breached that perimeter that above all defines strong states: a monopoly over violence. The Islamic State terrorists have nothing to lose because they don’t believe this world has anything good to offer them. Terrorism is the language of those who feel like they have no other voice and so spread fear and intimidation. Fear, whether ours or theirs, is the mechanism which begets hatred, greed, and violence.

Jesus did not come into this world to create another system of domination and oppression based on fear. His entire message was that of love: love God, love your neighbor, love your enemies. He opted out of human fear based power games and launched an insurrection of love. He spoke of losing your life for his sake and the sake of the Gospel – not clinging to this life by any means necessary. Jesus knew and accepted a deep truth: we will all die. He knew his time was short, but he also knew that one day Pilate would die, as would Caesar, and Herod, and all the other tyrants who wield power through fear and exploitation. We will all die. And this leaves us with a question: how will you live in this time between your birth and death and what will that stand for? Will you live this life in a state of anxiety and fear, allowing that to warp your thinking into hatred of those who are different? Or will you live this life in a state of love, even if it means risking your life? What mark do you want to leave on this world?

Today, we are baptizing Miriam Lynne into the family of Christ. She will begin her journey like all of us did – at the font. And in this act of baptism, she will begin a journey to follow the Prince of Peace and become part of his insurrection of love. This love is demanding because when we enter it, we no longer have the luxury to choose who we love. That’s right, Christians do not choose who we love or don’t love because Jesus told us to love everyone … absolutely everyone … and this is very, very hard. We don’t just get to love those who love us back – we have to love even those who wish us dead. We can hate their actions but we cannot hate people – we have to love them. This is hard work … the work of a lifetime and we can only do it with God’s help.

On this feast of Christ the King, how will you respond? Will you join the insurrection of love or be trapped by fear and have the life Christ wants for you stolen away? Which king will you follow – the one of this world or Christ? Which one will get the last word?
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<![CDATA[Prayer changes ... me - Proper 25B]]>Sun, 25 Oct 2015 13:43:38 GMThttp://gracebrunswick.org/recent-sermons/prayer-changes-me-proper-25bOne of the most influential books on prayer I ever read was Martin+ Smith’s book The Word Is Very Near You. Martin+ is a priest and the former superior of the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Massachusetts. Lou Nutter, a senior saint at All Saints Church in Frederick, gave my husband a copy of this book when we were first married and I read it after he did. In that book, Martin+ talks about how we first come to prayer. He describes something which is very familiar to us – we “assume the posture” of prayer, we trot out our laundry list of things to pray about (usually intercessions for others and petitions for ourselves), and then we wait … and we hear … crickets … and it feels like nothing is happening. When we do this for some time, we get frustrated and some give up on prayer. He suggests when we do this, we have the locus of our prayer in the wrong place – we believe it begins with our initiative. He recommends moving the locus of initiative off of us and onto God. In essence, the fact you felt the need to pray is proof that God has already initiated the conversation with you and you have entered into it. Wow! You mean it’s not all about me?? Oh thank God! That one change in perspective really opened up my eyes to prayer in a whole different way. It’s part of what we hear about in today’s conclusion of the story of Job.

Our lectionary gives us the Sparknotes version of Job and we have skipped a lot and today is no exception. But there was something in today’s portion that looped back to prayer. Did you notice what this conclusion to Job said? “And the LORD restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends …” What is it about prayer being a part of Job’s “restoration?”

First let me recap for those of you who have missed some of this series. I’ve been saying for the past four weeks the story of Job is a parable – it is a folktale which is similar to a number of ancient Near East stories from Sumeria and Babylon: the story of a person who suffers for no apparent reason. It is our story too, isn’t it? In our lives, we will suffer and at times we won’t know why. Sometimes we suffer because of our own choices and we know it … and sometimes we cannot admit our own complicity in our suffering. But sometimes bad stuff just happens for no apparent reason at all. Sometimes we get a glimpse of why in retrospect, but just as often we will never know. This ending of Job where God thunders out of the whirlwind still leaves us not knowing the reason why Job went through what he did. Rabbi Cushner in his book “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People” suggests part of the reason is that God is not finished with creation and there are a lot of loose ends still being worked out. I find that plausible. His take on God speaking out of the whirlwind is more like God saying, “Hey! You think you can do a better job than me? I’m still working on all this mess!”

If we remember this is a parable and we are left in mystery, then we can approach the ending in a different way. The narrative says “the Lord restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends …” I’d like to suggest a different word than “restored” – let’s consider this the “resurrection” of Job. The word “restored” kind of makes it sound like God showed up and said, “Hey, sorry about that. My bad … here’s some replacement stuff and kids.” The truth is, new children cannot replace the ones who died. I find resurrection a more helpful word here because it tells us God moved Job to a different place. Resurrection is never the revivification of what has died – it is moving through death and loss to a new reality. Job is in a new reality because God moved him there … but only after he prayed for his friends.

We are missing a few verses from the lectionary today, so we lose the emphasis on the prayer of Job. After addressing Job, God turns attention to Eliphaz the Temanite (one of Job’s clueless friends). God basically says, “Hey, you three ticked me off! You are clueless about me and you spoke like idiots. You three need to make a burnt offering sacrifice in front of Job and he will pray for you … because you need it!” OK … admittedly that was the AAV (Anjel’s Authorized Version, not available in stores), but you get the gist of it. God again trusts Job to be a righteous person who will pray for his friends. The three friends offer sacrifice, Job prays for them … and then Job is set in a new place after the prayer. God called Job to prayer, Job prays, and then Job is set in a different place – prayer changes the situation.

I couldn’t let go of this because I have experienced something similar in the past month; only instead of praying for my friends, God pulled me into praying for someone who has set himself against me as an enemy – someone who betrayed me deeply. Now I know Jesus commanded us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us … but I confess I don’t like that any more than you do! It’s hard for me too.

God called me as is usual when I wasn’t quite awake, you know that half awake/half asleep state we are in at times? I had spent a big chunk of time since this person left my life working through what happened with my therapist and spiritual director. Now I want to be clear, I’m not telling this story because I want to call attention to myself. I’m hoping you hear this is about what God did to put me in a new place, much like Job … but I kind of went with more resistance. I tell you this because I believe in the incarnation and the presence of God working in and through our flawed selves and the only story I have to tell is my experience. So in that state where I wasn’t quite awake, I had a message: “You need to apologize.” My first reaction was, “Are you kidding me?? What do you mean apologize? Did you even SEE what he did to me??” Well, duh, of course God knows what he did! But God also sees what I did and I was caught up short. The message continued, “He may never apologize to you and I know what he did, but you reacted to him in a hurtful way and you are responsible for that.”

OK … fair enough. I did react in a hurtful way. I remember the last time I spoke to this person on the phone. I let loose. I spoke a lot of truth to him … but it was NOT in love. I’d come to the end of my rope with deceptions and lies and I reacted in a way that wasn’t very Christ-like. I think I may have even hung up on him. Now compared to the lies, slander, defamation of my character, and the other evils he directed at me, what I did was pretty small. But God doesn’t care about whether my sin was “lesser” or “greater” – God cares that it was sin … period. God also knew I was stuck and wanting vindication. But what was revealed to me in this call to apologize was that vindication would not look like what I had envisioned. Vindication would not come through his apologizing to me – it would come through owning my brokenness and apologizing. OK … I agreed. Then came the harder request – “before you write the letter, you’ll write an icon … for him as a way to make peace.” I really did not want to do that! I write icons for people who ask me to pray with them. What do you mean write an icon for someone who did what he did? When I resisted, I woke up crying. I hate crying … but I pay attention to it now. It usually means I have something I need to release. OK … an icon it is.

So I wrote an icon and started it at the Chapman Dialogs and I know Bishop Michael Curry’s words on the Liberation of Love were working on me too. Writing an icon is an act of sacrifice … like Job’s friends. It came effortlessly, like it had been pent up trying to get out, and when it was done I really liked it. But I knew it had to go along with my letter of apology which I then wrote. I spoke of my wounded soul and his. I named both of our wounds and how I see we now both struck at each other out of that place of hurt we each have. I told him I was working on this so I wouldn’t repeat the same mistakes in the future. I also told him I did not want to re-enter his life in any way because the likelihood of repeating a destructive pattern of behavior was high and I didn’t need that negativity … nor did he. I wished him peace and healing and told him the icon was a prayer that he might find a way to wholeness. And off it went … through an intermediary … and it was delivered to his workplace.

But here’s where the story gets weird. The very same day this icon and letter was delivered, I received a Facebook message in my “Other” box. Usually those messages are spammy – scams requesting money or guys who thought I was cute and want a date (Seriously? Do they even see that I’m a married priest?? Sheesh!). I did not recognize the name of the sender at first but when I opened the message I was caught short. It was an ex-boyfriend of mine from way back … I mean wayyyy back … 33 years to be exact. He said he thought of me often and wanted apologize for the hurt he caused me. He thanked me for my prayers way back then and said they eventually led him to Christ. Wait … what?? Do you know what my first thought was? “Hey! Who do you think you are barging in on my life after 33 years?” … DOH!!! Yeah … right after I did the same thing to somebody else. Wow. I took a few days to think about this and whether I would respond. I could have ignored it (and I did delete his Facebook friend request) but then I thought, “Where would the grace and mercy be in that?” Clearly, he had carried this burden of what he did for 33 years … and that’s too long. He wanted to clean his side of the street just as I had done. I wrote him a short note. I told him I hoped he understood if I didn’t accept his friend request – it had been too long and we had both moved on. I told him I accepted his apology and thanked him for doing so. I wished him blessings in living the life God had given him to live. He replied: “I understand. Thanks.”

I’m still trying to wrap my head around all of that. I didn’t want to clean my side of the street and apologize for the hurt I caused but clearly something opened up for another person to do the same with me and it lifted a very old burden. I can’t understand the timing on this but prayer moves out in unpredictable ways. In that sense, prayer is a risky enterprise. Prayer moves us to a new place but we don’t always know what the implications of this will be. I rarely understand it, and it doesn’t always work the way I think it will but I know this: it works … for me and for you too.
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