<![CDATA[Grace Episcopal Church - Recent Sermons]]>Wed, 27 Jul 2016 18:22:15 -0700Weebly<![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.]]>
<![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.
<![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!”
<![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?
<![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.
<![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.
<![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.
<![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.
<![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.