<![CDATA[Grace Episcopal Church - Recent Sermons]]>Wed, 14 Mar 2018 22:46:45 -0700Weebly<![CDATA[Tag! You're it! - Rector's Farewell (Proper 23A)]]>Sun, 15 Oct 2017 07:00:00 GMThttp://gracebrunswick.org/recent-sermons/tag-youre-it-rectors-farewell-proper-23aThis past week I was in Chicago for the Society of Catholic Priests Annual Conference. I had to reschedule my flight from returning on Saturday to coming home on Friday so that I get back in time to set up the church for this morning. This required exchanging a non-stop flight for one which had a stop in Louisville. So I headed out early to the airport wearing my black clerics underneath a tunic because, having forgotten that weather forecasts in Chicago are mere suggestions, it was colder than originally predicted on Friday morning and an extra layer came in handy. Getting on an airplane in a collar never fails to elicit interesting responses.

I made my way to the exit row because I’m still fit enough to help in an emergency but, more than that, there’s extra leg room. I asked the man sitting on the aisle seat if the seat next to him was taken and he said, “It is now – it’s yours.” This prompted the flight attendant to say, “Well, now here’s a good sign! You’ll put in a good word, right?” I said, “Sure but you know there’s no immediate response guarantee. Look how long we had to pray for the Cubbies to win the World Series.”

So my seatmate and I struck up a conversation. I asked him where he was headed. “Back home to ‘Lou-ee-ville’.” I said, “That’s not your home! Nobody from Louisville says it that way. Where are you originally from?” Turns out he was from Maryland, and had lived in Los Angeles. So we compared notes on those locales. His name was Chip and he was in the print and digital media business as a kind of sales engineer but his passion was photography – “I just haven’t had the guts to take the leap to do it full-time.” But he did have the guts to buy a storefront in a working class neighborhood in Louisville – a part of the city which was stretching him out of his comfort zone (“I’m kind of a suburban guy – this is really different for me.”). He renovated the space so the front half was his studio and the back half an apartment. He put a little table and chair out on the sidewalk in front of the studio and he’d sit there with a book and smoke a cigar. I told him we did the same in Brunswick – we call it a “porch hang” and I paint icons doing that. He told me how he was meeting people in the community and observing what went on as people went by. We talked at length about the need for community and connection in our increasingly fracture, polarized and hate-filled world. He shared a deep desire to connect with this neighborhood, in spite of it taking him out of his comfort zone.

Chip then told me about his first close encounter of the city kind. About a week into his time there, while still renovating the space, he came out one morning to find the dumpster he had rented as part of his renovation project had been graffitied. The neighbors were all mad and wanted to clean it off for him but Chip stopped them. “Wait … that’s … me!” It seems the aspiring graffiti artist had created a likeness of Chip, replete with his short spikey hair and cigar, on the side of the dumpster. I said, “Oh man! He tagged you! Did you find out who did it?” He said, “Not yet, but I took pictures of it before they cleaned it off.” I said, “Pictures? Hmm … how about you blow one of those pictures up really big and put it in your storefront? Put the story you just told me underneath it.” Chip lit up and said, “Wow! I hadn’t thought of that – that’s a great idea.” “You know,” I said, “Whoever did this sent you a message. He (or she) sees you. I mean really sees you. If you post that big picture, it’s a way of saying, ‘I see you back.’ Who knows? Maybe you’ll meet … and just think what could happen.”

I see you. Isn’t that the deepest longing of our heart – to be seen? Known? Loved? But if we think about it, God is the original graffiti artist. Each one of us is tagged with the image of God. Each of us bears the imprint of Original Love and our lifelong faith pilgrimage is our way of being seen by God through the community and responding, “I see you back.” God says, “Tag … you’re it!” and that isn’t a bad thing … it’s a holy thing because it means you are sent.

When Canon Dan Webster called me just over 6 years ago on a Friday evening, because clearly he had nothing better to do, and asked me to do some long-term supply at Grace Church, I’ve come to realize he was bearing a message from God: the message, “I see you. Tag, you’re it!” Six years ago I preached on these exact same lectionary texts. I preached a series that fall of 2011, working the congregation through Paul’s letter to the Philippians – a letter where he tells them he really sees them and appreciates their ministry. Back then, there was Shirley Shores, Teeny Phillips, Charlotte Barnhouse, Nancy Smith (she wasn’t Hughes back then), Ginny Dinterman and Susan Mann, David Shurland, Virginia Danner, Wendy Davis, The Whitehursts, Janet Roberts, Bill George, Orel Orvis, and Bill and Lila Wenner – 18 people. People who were thankful I had arrived and who, in three weeks, would ask me to stay. It’s been the best supply gig a priest could ask for.

The readings this morning are an amazing reflection of our 6 years of ministry together. In them, God reaches through time and says, “I see you. Tag … you’re it!” The first two readings from Isaiah 25 and Psalm 23 are commonly read at funerals. In our time together, I have preached and taught about death and resurrection: not just the final “Big D” death when we step into the “Big R” resurrection in the Divine Mystery of God, but the many “little d” deaths and “little r” resurrections we experience throughout life as we grow more and more into the likeness of Christ. It seems fitting because today is a “funeral” of sorts – it marks the end of our ministry together as priest and people in this particular place. So to hear the comforting words of Psalm 23 of God as shepherd of our souls – the one who will provide a rich feast in the presence of those who trouble us, anoint us with oil, and be the source of our calm when surrounded by death – is quite appropriate and comforting. In the Hebrew, the phrase “surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me” renders more like “surely your goodness and mercy shall pursue me” and I think that’s an image to hold this day. God’s goodness and mercy are not passively following – they are chasing you down jack! Why? Because God sees you and will not let you go.
The promise of the heavenly banquet in Isaiah is given to the people in the midst of absolute calamity – the Babylonian deportations in the wake of the destruction of Jerusalem. “And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.” Isaiah’s words ring out to the people then and to us today – Do not be afraid! God SEES YOU! You are not forsaken. I’ve tagged you … I’m not letting you go.

Pulling from Isaiah’s imagery is Jesus’ parable of the heavenly banquet – yes … another parable! Now I have preached on the last little tweak of judgement he throws in, but today let’s focus on the invitation. The king invites all the “A-listers” – the “Who’s Who” of society – all of whom blow his invitation off. His response is to tell his servants to go out and find a better class of riff-raff – the good and the bad: the sick, suffering, posers, hodads, and all the shady characters that would never get this kind of swanky invitation and bring them in to fill the hall. Imagine being one of those shady characters receiving this invitation (because honestly you and I are those shady characters!)… and realize the king SEES YOU. You’ve been tagged! What grace … what amazing grace. This image has become a touchstone for you – the people of Grace Church. From the welcome statement our vestry shamelessly ripped off and riffed to make it Brunswick specific that says all are welcome here, to going on the record as a Believe Out Loud congregation welcoming the LGBTQ community and being part of Frederick PRIDE, to reaching out to people on the margins through the Food Forest, and providing space for the Recovery communities of AA, Grace has been telling this community and the world, “God SEES YOU … and God loves you … and you are welcome here.” This is living into the teachings of Jesus and you have done it well. Keep doing it and teach Spencer+ how you do what you do when she gets here.

Finally, I end where I began six years ago with Philippians. There is no question when you read this letter in its entirety that Paul really, really sees and deeply loves this community. In this letter, I find reflected my deep affection for you. He says, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” His words today are my prayer for you. Do not worry about anything: God has tagged you and will not let you go. “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Keep in the forefront of your ministry here at Grace the things which are just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent and worthy of praise. Keep welcoming all as Christ in the Benedictine spirit which was here before I arrived. Keep remembering God has tagged you and sees you, and tell others the good news that they are seen and known and loved too. “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.” Tag … you’re it!
<![CDATA[Shattered illusions of love - Good Friday 2017]]>Fri, 14 Apr 2017 07:00:00 GMThttp://gracebrunswick.org/recent-sermons/shattered-illusions-of-love-good-friday-2017Holy Week is a sleep deprivation phenomenon for clergy. When the guard of being rested is down, it’s interesting how the Holy Spirit can sneak through with something surprising. For me this year, that’s the hook from a song from the 1970’s. To be sure, the song isn’t one which makes a whole lot of sense and does have references to illegal drug use which generally isn’t something one would associate with a Good Friday homily. But taking the bulk of the lyrics aside and just focusing on the hook, with a slight tweak to one pronoun, and … well, it was exactly what Good Friday was all about.

Did he make you cry, make you break down, and shatter your illusions of love? Is it over now, do you know how, to pick up the pieces and go home?

Yes, the hook from Stevie Nick’s song Gold Dust Woman which was on the Fleetwood Mac Rumours album and, for those of you old enough to remember, the pronoun was originally “she.” But no matter … just focus on the word of the paraphrased hook for a moment: Did he make you cry, make you break down, and shatter your illusions of love? Isn’t that what is happening here? Isn’t Jesus doing exactly that?

Last night we observed the first day of the Sacred Triduum – Maundy Thursday – in which Jesus takes the role of a slave and washes the disciple’s feet. He then wraps it into a teaching of the “New Commandment”: Love one another as I have loved you. According to this commandment, love is a verb and love is to set aside our egos and serve generously without regard to reciprocity or judgement. Today, Jesus takes this love all the way to the cross – to death.

When we hear the word “love,” I suspect we do not think of the battered body of Jesus hanging on a cross as our first image, do we? It’s because we all carry around illusions of what we think love is. We often find our experience of human love to be fickle and with strings attached. We experience love as conditional – something we get as a kind of reward if we are good little boys and girls but which is withheld when we misbehave. At times, the very people who say they love us really do so in order to manipulate or even abuse us. Oh, we human beings love, but even at our at best we do it imperfectly.

We also give our love and our hearts to people, ideas, and things which really are more attachments or addictions than anything else. We love our possessions, our families and friends, ideologies, and even our egocentric concept of who we think we are. We have difficulty loving beyond the familiar and the safe. So this is why, on this day, every single notion, every illusion of love we carry is shattered at the cross.

Did he make you cry, make you break down, and shatter your illusions of love? Is it over now, do you know how, to pick up the pieces and go home?

This man, Jesus of Nazareth, an innocent man convicted by the corrupt powers of his day and time who saw his teachings a threat to their love of power and control, shattered all of our illusions as his life poured out in love for the whole world. Not poured out for a few of his friend, or only for believers … but for the whole cosmos. The pieces and remains of his earthly ministry scattered: now residing in the minds and bodies of frightened disciples who have fled and women who stand watch and grieve. How do you pick up the pieces and go home? And it begs the question of whether or not we even should pick up the pieces, doesn’t it?

When our illusions of love are blown apart at the cross, perhaps it isn’t up to us to pick up the pieces. It may very well be that some of those pieces need to be left behind at the cross. Perhaps it is an invitation to leave behind those very things which are standing between you and the outpouring of Christ’s love for you: an opportunity to leave behind resentments, old wounds, suffering, addictions, attachments, and pain to make space for Christ’s real love, his love poured out this day, to enter your heart. If anything, perhaps we need to pick up the pieces and offer them to God alone for redemption and healing – an offering to let ourselves be remade, redeemed, renewed, resurrected.

Did he make you cry, make you break down, and shatter your illusions of love? Is it over now, do you know how, to pick up the pieces and go home?
<![CDATA[We know, but will we do? - Maundy Thursday 2017]]>Thu, 13 Apr 2017 07:00:00 GMThttp://gracebrunswick.org/recent-sermons/we-know-but-will-we-do-maundy-thursday-2017​In 1956, German social psychologist and humanist philosopher Erich Fromm wrote a book entitled The Art of Loving. He makes the case for love being a verb rather than a noun. He writes: “Love is an activity, not a passive affect; it is a ‘standing in,’ not a ‘falling for.’ In the most general way, the active character of love can be described by stating that love is primarily giving, not receiving.” It is primarily giving, not receiving.

Tonight begins the Triduum – the Great Three Days wherein the Church recalls and recounts the final earthly days of our Lord Jesus Christ which culminates in his execution and resurrection. It is the incarnation of the art of loving. On this night, we hear from the Gospel of John: “I give you a new commandment: Love one another. As I have loved you, so are you to love one another.”

The word that Jesus uses for love is not the eros of romantic love or the philio of familial love: it is agape – the self-sacrificial love which manifests itself in selfless giving towards others. Not just selfless giving toward one object of your affection, but rather a self-giving for the sake of all. Loving in this way becomes a state of being, an embodied cosmic force.

On this night, Jesus disquieted the souls of his disciples by disrobing as a slave would, taking a basin and water and washing the disciples feet. It is a practice we will offer the option of doing this night in remembrance of Jesus’ act and I know this brings disquietude to us even today, but perhaps for different reasons. I sense our discomfort with this is primarily centered on the vulnerability of having another person touch our bare feet (it’s ok to admit this feels really weird). It’s one thing to have our spouse or partner give us a foot massage, but it’s quite another to have someone from church do this, right? While discomfort is discomfort, from my study of the Bible and its context, I sense there was a different motivation in why the disciples were uncomfortable with what Jesus did.

First century Rome, like other ancient cultures and even some in our world today, was a very classist society. Not only were there rigid social classes and structures, but there was no mobility between them. One could not really aspire to move into upper-echelons of society in that place and time. If you were a laborer, you would always be a laborer; if you were a king, you would always be a king and so would your descendants in perpetuity. Your place was determined by accident of birth, so to speak. Who you were was predetermined and one just accepted this as normative.

Into that rigid social structure we find Jesus of Nazareth – an itinerant, working-class. Pharisaic teacher. He gathers about him a group of men who are largely fishermen and other common laborers. In the innermost circle of disciples, there is an understood social order: Jesus is their teacher/leader, and the disciples are beneath him as those who learn (the meaning of the word disciple comes from the Latin discipulus which means “pupil” – one who is learning). So keeping in mind the rigid social structures, when Jesus willingly flips the social order by stripping and donning a towel like a slave to wash their feet, it did not feel right at all. In fact, it was all wrong!

Jesus upset the social order. He flipped the script. It isn’t supposed to work like this! Peter’s protestations are best understood in light of that. He likely was caught off guard by this: after all, he knew his proper place was beneath Jesus – he should be washing Jesus’ feet. This is why Jesus tells him, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” When Jesus warns him that if he doesn’t allow Jesus to wash his feet then Peter has no part in him, Peter then goes “all in” and wants his head and hands washed too.

After he is done, Jesus then gives the teaching about the example he has set of love in action. He reminds them the social constructs of class and who is better than who are not the ways of the Kingdom of God. He is promoting a very subversive vision of mutuality and service to each other and to the world. He says, “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”

As Christians, we know these things, but the question is, “Are we willing to actually do them?” Stanford Business School professors Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton have coined the phrase the “Knowing-Doing Gap” – that gap between knowing what to do and actually acting on the knowledge by doing it. It is a human problem and spans all of our existence, not just in the realm of business. To do what Jesus has told us to do requires us to subvert the social and power structures of our own day. It means … oh here comes that word again … knowing the dynamics of social privilege at work in our own culture and subverting those dynamics in acts of love and humble service to others. It is still risky business and it is the heart of what it means to love.

This is the core of what it means to be a faithful Christian because our faith calls us to risk for the sake of love. Fromm said it this way,
To have faith requires courage, the ability to take a risk, the readiness even to accept pain and disappointment. Whoever insists on safety and security as primary conditions of life cannot have faith; whoever shuts himself off in a system of defense, where distance and possession are his means of security, makes himself a prisoner. To be loved, and to love, need courage, the courage to judge certain values as of ultimate concern – and to take the jump and to stake everything on these values
​Jesus judged love as his ultimate concern. He will risk everything to the point of death to love us. We know these things. How will we do them?
<![CDATA[To Whom Do You Belong? (1 Corinthians 1:10-18)]]>Sun, 22 Jan 2017 08:00:00 GMThttp://gracebrunswick.org/recent-sermons/to-whom-do-you-belong-1-corinthians-110-18​“For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

About 10 years ago, when I was a seminarian at Gettysburg Seminary, I attended a series of lectures whose theme was “Luther and War.” A rather touchy subject given our location on the battlefield (and yes, the seminary predated the battle), but also because we had a number of military chaplains there studying for their Masters in Divinity. One of my top 10 cranky theologians, Stanley Hauerwas, spoke. He said something which was jarring to me that day. He said, “American Christians are more ‘American’ than they are ‘Christian.’” Wow … ouch! I felt myself pushing back against that, but I also had to recognize that I was raised in a family which believed the highest form of patriotism was being loyal opposition during Vietnam. But I’ve mulled over his comment in these 10 years and the fact I can remember it clearly as if it were yesterday says something. He was speaking about divided allegiances between country and Christ and it is the subject of divided allegiances which Paul is addressing this morning in his letter to the church in Corinth.

Paul says he’s heard from Chloe’s people that they are breaking into factions based on who baptized them. “I belong to Paul” or “I belong to Cephas” or “I belong to Apollos” is telling us the Corinthians have forgotten their allegiance is to Christ and him alone. It’s not hard to see why they are struggling with this. After all, the people of Corinth are converts from a Greco-Roman culture where there was panoply of gods. The worship of the Emperor as a “god incarnate” and the civic religion of empire worship was what they knew. Confusion happened often in trying to understand who Jesus Christ was and what monotheism and belief in a Triune God meant. We even hear in the 14th chapter of Acts how Paul and Barnabas were mistaken for “gods come down as humans” when they healed a man in Laodicea. The residents there named Barnabas “Zeus” and Paul “Hermes” (because he did the talking) and the priest of the Temple of Zeus comes out and the whole community tries to offer sacrifice to Paul and Barnabas! Paul kind of freaks out and screams “NO!! We are just mortals like you! Don’t do this!” but even with the protestations, they couldn’t prevent the locals from offering sacrifice. With this kind of confusion possible, it isn’t hard to see how the Corinthians could end up with divided allegiances.

Paul expresses his frustration in this portion of the letter when he exclaims he thanks God he “baptized none of you” (with a few exceptions, of course). He then goes on to exhort them to lay down these divided allegiances, repent, and turn back to the truth that our ultimate allegiance is to Christ, and him alone.

It would be tempting to believe this issue of divided allegiances is only a problem with Gentile converts and somehow worked its way out so it isn’t an issue today. However, we would be naïve to believe that as there has always been the temptation to divide our loyalties and swear our ultimate allegiance to temporal things. Allow me put this into our modern context. While we would not say “I belong to Paul” or “I belong to Cephas” today, how many of us would say “I belong to the Democratic Party” or “I belong to the Republican Party” or “I’m with Bernie” or “I’m with her”? You see, politics is one way we Christians can find ourselves embroiled in the same problem of divided allegiances which lead to fractiousness. When political party or ideology becomes where we put our ultimate trust, we have made them our god and this is the sin of idolatry regardless of whether you are on the left or the right.

This morning I am deeply troubled by the inaugural address of our new president, Donald Trump. In that address, he said:
​At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America and, through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other. When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice. The bible tells us how good and pleasant it is when god’s people live together in unity.
​Notice his call for “total allegiance to the United States of America” as well as his using a portion of Psalm 133 as a proof-text for his premise. He is using the Bible to justify his call for “total allegiance” to nation. In essence, he is putting God in the service of Nation rather than the Nation in service to God. This is heresy and unchristian. It is an attempt to divide the mind of Christ through the religion of Nationalism.

For much of Christian history, our faith has cozied up in the service of empires and nations putting political leaders, whether emperor, king or president, over our allegiance to Jesus Christ. We know this as “Christendom” and history has shown it to be an unholy alliance. Whether the Church was supporting the militaristic empirical desires of the Holy Roman Empire in the Crusades, or the subjugation of the Native Peoples in the New World by the Conquistadors, or the tacit support of Hitler, or the National Catholicism of Francisco Franco, or the Moral Majority in our own country – every time we have forgotten the message of Christ and put it at the foot of Nationalism, we have grieved the Holy Spirit and crucified our Lord once again.

The marriage of Christian language to the civic religion of Nationalism has a long history, but it really began to amplify in the 1950s. During the 1950s, we entered the Cold War which posited our nation as a “God-fearing Christian nation” against the Russia (the USSR) which we called a “godless Communist nation.” In the service of anti-communist rhetoric, our country added the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance and put the words “In God We Trust” on our money. It may seem like a small thing but its effect was insidious. For a nation founded on the principle of “E Pluribus Unum” (“Out of many, one”) and the belief that Church and State should be separated, we now had a nation which was putting God in service of our political agenda. I never knew of a time when these phrases invoking God were not in the Pledge or on our money – this happened 10 years before I was born. I never questioned it … until I went to seminary and was ordained. I have now come to realized just how our faith in Jesus Christ has been co-opted in the service of another god: namely the Nation.

I believe we are at a very important spiritual cross-road in this country where it is imperative we deeply examine both our faith in Christ and the religion of Nationalism. I think it’s helpful to see Nationalism as a religious practice because I found it very helpful in detangling how Christianity has been caught up in its web. Nationalism has its own liturgical practices like saying the Pledge of Allegiance or singing the National Anthem. That might sound odd to you, but consider that each of those actions asks you to take a particular physical posture, stand and put your hand over your heart, just as our church’s liturgy asks you to take a particular physical posture in the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer. Anyone who violates the accepted norms of physical posture during the Pledge or the National Anthem is publically castigated and shunned. Nationalism also has its own set of “Holy Days” (from which we derive the word “holiday”) and interestingly, they all occur during the Church’s Ordinary Time: President’s Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day, Veterans Day, and Thanksgiving. When the Church appears to “go silent” the religion of Nationalism rises to the fore.

Now please let me be clear about what I am not saying. I am not saying you should refrain from saying the Pledge of Allegiance or not sing the National Anthem. What I am encouraging you to do is to raise your awareness of how religion, especially Christianity, has been used in the service of the civic religion of Nationalism. Spiritualizing the nation and using the Bible and Christian imagery to support the nation state creates divided allegiances which can often be at cross-purposes with faith in Jesus Christ. Whether you say the Pledge or sing the National Anthem is your own personal choice but be aware there are Christians who cannot do this because of their deep moral reflection on their ultimate allegiance to Christ alone. Whatever your decision on these matters, make sure what you do is done thoughtfully and prayerfully not just merely an act of blind obedience and without reflection.

In light of our current culture, I believe it is a Christian imperative to think deeply and reflect prayerfully on how our allegiances are being divided by Nationalism and political ideology. We are not called to worship Nation, king, or president. Our true citizenship was given at the font in baptism and it is citizenship in the Kingdom of God – any other is temporal and passing. Our total allegiance is to Christ and this is what it means to follow him.
<![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.
<![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.
<![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.”
<![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.
<![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.]]>