What Would God Have Me Do?

Preached on 29 January 2017, at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Snohomish, Washington
Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A

Do you have favorite scripture passages?  This passage from Micah is one of my favorites.  In fact, when I die, this is the Old Testament lesson I want read at my funeral.  Have you thought about that?  Talked to your loved ones about what you want at your funeral?  It’s not a bad idea.  For one thing, it makes it easier on them at a time that’s already stressful and confusing and hard to make decisions.  None of the lessons I’ve chosen are among the suggestions in the prayer book, by the way.  They don’t have to be.

But maybe more important than that, choosing now can provide direction and a certain level of accountability to how you live your life now.

Here’s what I mean.  I would hope that whoever knows me well and comes to my funeral or offers a eulogy or homily would nod when they hear the readings and understand why there were chosen.  I hope they might say, “Yeah, that was Mary.”  And I would NOT want them to be puzzled and say, “Huh, I wonder why they chose that?”  That’s what I mean by accountability.

So, let’s take a look at this reading from Micah.  We tend to focus on that last verse – “What does the Lord require of you?  Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.”  And that’s the bit I’m drawn to as well.  It’s what I aspire to.  And I’ll get back to that, but first, let’s look at the context.

The book of Micah is about Israel on trial.  It’s written in a few different time periods: around the time that the northern kingdom is under threat or attack by Assyria and then around the time of the Babylonian exile, when the southern kingdom fell.

Israel is on trial and the indictment is rampant injustice.  City-dwellers are pitted against farmers.  Elites (those with wealth and power) are grabbing land for their own purposes.  They are commandeering resources and people in order to go to war for their own advantage.  Economic corruption abounds.

The trial is also against large nations abusing smaller nations, taking advantage of the chaos caused by the situation I just described.  It is about turning a blind eye to the injustice within their society to focus on external threats.

In other words, Israel is pretty messed up.  And it’s systemic, it’s not just the actions of individual “bad apples” as the saying goes.

So, in that context, we hear God calling Israel to account.  “What have I ever done to you?”  God asks.  “Testify before all of creation!  Oh, I get it,” God gets sarcastic, now, “I brought you out of Egypt and redeemed you from slavery!  I gave you prophets and leaders like Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.  I performed mighty works and signs, so you would know my salvation.”

Israel responds, “What can we do to appease you?”  and they suggest ridiculous sacrifices – again, robbing from the produce of the land – thousands of rams, rivers of oil, even their own children!

And what does God say?  “You already know what I desire of you.  Do justice, love mercy or kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”

Let’s start with that last bit, walk humbly with God.  It’s not about walking with our heads down, three paces behind God, berating ourselves and thinking we’re worthless.  It’s better translated as deliberately or intentionally.  So, it’s more about actively choosing to walk with God.  It’s like waking up in the morning and asking, what would God have me do today, and continuing to ask it throughout the day – and then expecting an answer or at least clues – looking for them as we go through our day.

And of course, we’re given two guiding principles at the beginning of the verse.  Love kindness, or mercy, and act justly.  Now when we speak of justice, too often, what we really mean is institutionalized revenge – punishment – making someone “pay” or suffer in some “proportionate” way for suffering they caused.  That kind of justice is often seen in opposition to mercy.  If someone receives mercy, they can’t receive justice and vice versa.  But this isn’t a sermon about our criminal justice system.  I want to draw your attention to the contrast, though.

What we’re talking about in Micah is biblical justice.  Biblical justice and mercy go hand in hand; you can’t have one without the other.  To act justly is to choose righteousness; to do what is right; to treat others with dignity and compassion and fairness; to ensure everyone has the basic necessities.  Even when society is a mess and your enemies are at the gates, God says do it anyway.  Do it always.

We hear the call to righteousness in the Beatitudes in Matthew’s gospel today, too.  We’re going to spend the next few weeks in chapter 5 of Matthew.  This is the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry.  He begins by going up on the mountain with his disciples, the twelve, and teaching them.  Now the crowds that have gathered may be listening in, but he is teaching the twelve.  In this list, we hear who he has come for, who he has come to be with:  the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness – there’s that righteousness bit again – the merciful – we’ve heard that before, too – the pure in heart, peacemakers, those who are persecuted for his sake.  He says they are blessed – enviable, fortunate!, even, is a better translation.

On the one hand, those don’t sound terribly fortunate, what we desire for ourselves.  On the other hand, – this may be teaching them what it will mean to be his disciple; a call to action:  To be righteous and merciful; meek, poor in spirit, and pure in heart; to mourn and to make peace; and it will mean they will be persecuted.  It is to be with those who are poor, hungry, mourning, merciful, and so forth because that’s where Christ will be; where Christ is.

Christ invites them to come along, to participate with God in bringing about the kingdom of God; the commonwealth of God; where God’s deepest desire, the well-being of all humanity and all of creation is fully manifested.

Discipleship is to act justly, righteously, to love mercy, and to walk intentionally with God, in all things and all places at all times.  It’s waking up each morning and asking, What would God have me do today?

And then looking for God’s response.

It may mean asking, Can our mercy and mourning and peacemaking, our hunger for God’s righteousness, in meekness, pureness of heart and poverty of spirit, can it extend beyond our little sphere?  Can it reach to the next town?  Over the mountains?  Across the country?  Beyond our borders?

What would God have me do today?

God’s Claim on our lives

Preached on 22 January, 2017 at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Snohomish, Washington
Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A

The Lord is my light and my salvation;
Whom then shall I fear?
The Lord is the strength of my life;
Of whom then shall I be afraid?

What wonderful words of comfort and hope. But I don’t imagine the psalmist spoke or wrote them when things were going great.  And I know many people have turned to just this psalm and those words to carry them through times of darkness in their world or in their lives.

These words are a reminder that God is sovereign in our lives, not worldly rulers; that despite the darkness and evil in the world, God’s light still shines.

Isaiah offers a similar message.  We hear him talk about Zebulun and Naphtali and we hear about those same places in the gospel.  What significance do those places have?  They are the lands given to those two tribes of Israel.  Their lands have been overrun and occupied by Israel’s enemies, countless times.  When Isaiah is preaching, the land is held by Assyria and the tribes were dispersed, deported, so to speak, to other places in Assyria’s empire.

Yet, even in that darkness, the prophet speaks, “There will be no gloom for those who were in anguish.  The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them a light has shined.

The Lord is my light and my salvation;
Whom then shall I fear?

And so, I think it is significant that when Jesus hears that John the Baptist has been arrested, he goes to the land where the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali once lived; where they are now only a distant memory.  A place now occupied by Rome – the newest superpower on the block.  Jesus goes to a place associated with deep darkness to make his home.

I want to stop for a moment and talk about darkness and light for a minute.  We now have the ability to light up the night practically as bright as day with the flip of a switch. So, we don’t really experience the kind of darkness that these passages evoke except by choice and even some effort.  The experience of having to wait through the night for the sun to come up to be able to see where we’re going, to find what we’ve lost, to see what we’re doing.  We are not used to actual deep darkness – although we can probably relate to the metaphorical darkness it talks about.

So, Jesus makes his home in the place that has a long history of foreign powers fighting over it and occupying it.  He picks up where John left off, proclaiming “Repent, the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  He goes there to proclaim the reign of God; to bring light of God into the darkness – even in the face of Rome.  He reminds the people of God’s promise made in Isaiah, reminding them what the prophet said about Zebulun and Naphtali, this very place.

He doesn’t try to do it alone, however.  He immediately calls his first disciples.  Last week, we heard the account of the calling of Simon Peter and Andrew according to John’s gospel.  Today we hear that story plus the calling of James and John according to Matthew’s gospel.

He calls them away from their livelihood as fishermen, participating in the vast Roman economic system; and calls them into a fellowship with himself and others; a community with a purpose – this vague metaphor of fishing for people.

God is making a claim on their lives that supersedes the claim of Rome.  In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he reminds them that God’s claim on their lives through the Cross of Christ is far greater than any loyalties they may have to individuals in their group.  He calls on them to remember it is Christ who unifies them and that they have a unity of purpose; that they should be united in mind and action as well.

Through Christ, through our baptism, God has a claim on our lives as well.  A claim that calls us to be Christ’s light in the darkness in our own place, despite the human rulers in our lives in our world.  We can’t be light for the whole world, but we are called to shine Christ’s light right here.  How will we do that?  What light is needed?

Later this morning, we will have our annual meeting.  It’s a time to look back on the year.  We celebrate our achievements, our progress, our success.  We remember and give thanks for the people we have lost.  We thank God for the many ways God has blessed this community and we thank the people who have served and are now turning over leadership to the next group of leaders.

It is also a time to look ahead to the coming year.  We’ll elect new Members of the Vestry and Delegates to Convention.  We’ll hear about some of our ministries and programs and their hopes and plans for the future.  In a few minutes, we’ll commission the search committee who will be charged to discern the priest whom God is calling to serve with you; to bring Christ’s light in our particular way to Snohomish.  And we will thank the members of the Profile Committee for their faithful service.

I suggest that this is a good time for us to reflect on our own ministries in the church as well.  Listen for God’s call.  Are you drawn to something new?  It’s also a good time to listen for God’s call to St. John’s.  How is God calling the congregation to serve this community; to be a light right here?  To proclaim God’s reign?

Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works.  Amen.

Come and See

Preached on 15 January 2017 at St. John Episcopal Church in Snohomish, Washington
Second Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A

Vocation – God’s call – Can you hear it?  It’s all through the readings for today.

In Isaiah, we hear the Second Song of the Servant.  The people of Israel are returning to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon.  They’re refugees and returnees at the same time, trying to put their lives back together.  Jerusalem is pretty much in ruins.  Great!  – they survived.  God has redeemed them – well, at least a remnant.  And what does God say?

“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.

The servant songs are ambiguous, perhaps purposely so, as to just who they are addressed to.  And that often seems to shift as we read along.  Is this about God’s call to the prophet himself?  Is he the servant?  Or is it about the whole people of Israel?

Christians often hear it as being about Jesus.  But we can also hear it as a call to us, the Church, here and now.  That’s the beauty of the Living Word of God – it can hold all of those meanings simultaneously.

Too light a thing.  It is too light a thing that I have redeemed you and you are survivors.  No, not only that, I will give you as a light to the Nations!  That my salvation may reach to the end of the earth!
I didn’t preserve you for your own sake, but for the sake of the world.

Then we have the letter to the Church in Corinth.  One the one hand, it’s specific.  It’s addressed to the people in a particular church.  It’s from Paul, the person who planted that church, and he’s writing in response to what he has heard about them – either from a letter he received or word of mouth.  We don’t really know the content of that communication, but as we read through Paul’s letter, we begin to get a picture of a community that’s going through a rough patch, shall we say.

On the other hand, although it’s aimed at a specific community, it may also speak to us today.  Here are the pertinent bullet points from the introduction that we heard today:

  1. You are called to be saints.
  2. Along with all the other folks who call upon the name of Jesus. (You are part of something bigger than your little group.)
  3. God has equipped you with all the gifts you need to do the work God gives you to do.
  4. You need them all. No gift is better or more important than another.

Can you hear a word from God to us in that?  I hear important reminders – and some are kind of uncomfortable.

We are all called to be saints – along with all the other Christians.  Even those we disagree with.  There is a lot of “I’m not that kind of Christian” talk, especially in social media.  Christians trying to distance themselves from other Christians.  And I get that.  In fact, I do that.

This reminds me that we are all called to be saints; we are all doing our best to follow that call AND we all fall short.  My falling short is not necessarily “not-as-bad” as someone else’s.  The fact that I think I get a particular thing right doesn’t make everything I believe or do righteous.  Nor does the fact that I think the other person gets one thing totally wrong mean that everything they believe or do is unrighteous.

The goal is not to strive to be alike or persuade them to be like us.  Rather it is to strive to follow Christ’s call to us as best we can.

And finally, in Paul’s words, I hear the reassuring hope that God provides.  As a community, God gives us all the gifts we need to do the work God calls us to do.

And now we come to our reading from the gospel of John and Jesus calling the first of the disciples – in fact the first words spoken by Jesus in this gospel.  It begins with John’s witness and an allusion to Jesus’ baptism.  John points him out and says he’s the one.  I saw the Holy Spirit rest on him.  And immediately, two of his disciples leave him to go after Jesus.

Jesus asks, “What do you seek?”
I can just imagine the two looking at each other, shrugging, trying to find words for that strange feeling they have that draws them to him.  “Where are you staying?” they ask.  Where do you abide?  The question refers to a sense of continuous presence – this is not about what hotel he’s using.

Jesus responds with an invitation, “Come and see.”

What they will see as the gospel progresses is that Jesus abides in God’s presence – it’s ongoing, continuous.  And we will find that “come and see” was an invitation to abide in the presence of God.

That question, “What do you seek?”  and invitation, “Come and see” are extended to us as well.

In all three lessons, we hear God’s call
Come and see.   You are called to be saints.
I will give you as a light to the nations.
You have received every spiritual gift.

This time of transition is a particularly good time in the life of the community to reflect anew – to listen anew – for God’s call, for God’s guidance, for God’s reassurance and hope.  The completion of the profile is a step, it’s not the end of this time of discernment.  Discerning not only God’s call, but discerning the gifts God has given this community.

When I was in discernment for ordination, the priest who facilitated the group reminded us that our discernment was more a matter of fine-tuning.

Jesus was already pretty clear about what we are called to do:
Feed the hungry.  Give water to the thirsty.
Clothe the naked.  Shelter the homeless.  Heal the sick.
Visit the prisoner.  Free the captives.  Forgive sins.
Hold one another to account.  Go to the nations, to people not like you –
Proclaim the Good News.  Baptize.  Make disciples.
Teach what he taught.

Pray for one another.  Serve one another.
Love one another.  Love your enemies.
Do this for the remembrance of me.

Discernment is the work of listening for how to apply the big ideas to this specific community.  The people of St. John’s in Snohomish.

Where do you abide?   What do you seek?
Come and see, Jesus says.

Abide in the presence of God.
God will equip you with every spiritual gift you need.
Be a light to the nations.

Gift of the Stranger

Preached on January 8, 2017 at St. John Episcopal Church in Snohomish, Washington
Epiphany, Year A

Gifts are one of my favorite parts of Christmas.
Shopping for that special something that will light up the person’s face; whether it’s a toy for a giving tree or something one of my loved ones really, really wants – or maybe doesn’t even know they want.  And, the truth is, yes, I enjoy receiving gifts – to see how the people who are closest to me; the people I love – how they see me and our relationship.

One year, our son had just bought a used car, so we gave him a winter weather kit:  A flashlight, an ice scraper, windshield deicer, tire chains, gloves, kitty litter, a shovel, and jumper cables.  It was very practical.  But it was also a gift of love.

Now local customs vary, but the tradition of exchanging gifts is common across the church.

Some places exchange gifts on St. Nicholas Day, early in December.
Most people in this country exchange gifts on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.  And others wait until this day, the Feast of the Epiphany, when we celebrate the arrival of the magi to visit the holy family; to pay homage to God’s Greatest gift to us in Jesus; and to offer their gifts to a newborn king.

Instead, of talking about the gold and frankincense and myrrh, I would like to focus on some of the other gifts in the story; gifts that are easily overlooked.

First, there’s the gift of Jesus.  From his birth, he brought together all kinds of unlikely folks:

  • We find shepherds from outside of Bethlehem visiting a carpenter from Nazareth and his family, not to mention the angels
  • Next we see a band of gentiles, astrologers from the East, conferring with a Jewish king along with the priests and scribes of the Temple.
  • And finally, of course, we see those same gentile magi visiting the family, and worshiping an infant. I wonder what Mary and Joseph were thinking and feeling at that point.  I would think it would be terrifying to have such strangers just show up.

Second, there’s the gift of the Magi.  Their gifts were sight and interpretation and courage.  They were able to read the signs and recognize that a king had been born.  And then they had the courage to set out across the desert to seek that king.

Yet, even with such extraordinary gifts, they arrived in Jerusalem, lost and confused.  They were close, but in the wrong place, talking to the wrong people.  They needed the priests and the scribes to help them find their way.

Which brings us to the third gift.
The Priests and the Scribes had the gifts of knowledge and interpretation.  It was their knowledge of the Holy Scriptures and their ability to interpret the ancient prophecies that guided the magi to Bethlehem to find the child they sought.

The local “experts” hadn’t noticed the signs.  They needed the fresh eyes of the Stranger to point them out.  The magi needed the locals to help them interpret what they had seen; to help them find what they sought.

Everyone has gifts to offer; Even the Stranger; perhaps most especially, the Stranger.
We may find the gift we need or the gift we don’t even know we need in the most unlikely places and the most unlikely people.  And the gift of Christ is to draw unlikely people together.

Why?  And How?
Two things about this story strike me and it turns out they touch on those two questions.

One is that God does whatever it takes to draw people to God’s self in Christ.  God connects with the magi through their own culture and religious practices so powerfully that they get up and go to see.

The other is that as it has been said,

It takes the whole world to receive the gospel.
It takes the whole world to understand the gospel.  It takes the whole world to proclaim the gospel.
That’s the why.  The gospel isn’t Good News in isolation.  The gospel, God’s love and grace and blessing is for everyone.  We need each other and we need  the Other, the Stranger.

All this reminds me of the jumper cables that we gave our son.  Jumper cables are worthless by themselves.  You also need a car with a good battery.
The day after Christmas, we were all at the store and our son left before we did, to go to work.  He called me from the parking lot.
“I just used my jumper cables already!” he said.  “I got out to my car and there was a guy in the parking lot with a dead battery. He asked me if I have some jumper cables.  And I said, Yeah, as a matter of fact, I do.”
So he gave the guy a jump and they were both on their way.

All gifts come from God – all gifts are to the community through individuals.  God chooses the people of Israel not as God’s “favorites” or Teacher’s pet, so to speak.  All through the Scriptures, it says they are chosen to receive the teaching; to be a nation of priests.  They are blessed in order to be a blessing to all peoples.

We are blessed in order to be a blessing to others.  We can’t keep it for ourselves.  You can’t hoard blessing.

The question is, how will you use your gifts?  How can you be a blessing to others?

Living Your Name

Preached on 1 January 2017 at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Snohomish, Washington
Feast of the Holy Name, Year A

Merry Christmas!
On the 8th Day of Christmas, Mary and Joseph gave their true love – their son – a bris and a Name.

That was the custom – when your son was 8 days old, your friends and family would gather together and celebrate his birth, giving thanks to God for this newest member of the community.  And he would be circumcised and you would name him.  There was a lot of tradition surrounding the choice of name, too.
It was the custom.  Everybody did it; at least every good Jew did.

And yet, even though it was just what everybody did, this particular event in Jesus’ life was so important that we, commemorate it today, 2000 years later.  In fact, it is so important that it displaces the regular Sunday observance.  So you see, this is apparently a pretty big deal.

But WHY?!  After all, everybody has a name.
Perhaps it’s precisely that.  He is named – unlike God, but just like every other human being on the face of the planet.  And he is a Jew; circumcised as a member of the Covenant, born and reared according to the Law of Moses.

Now, names in the Bible ARE important.  They almost always have some significance.
For one thing, in the Bible, spoken words are understood to have power, almost a physical existence – whether blessings or curses (remember when Isaac was unable to give his son, Essau a blessing, because he had already given it to Jacob?). Names are the same way.  How often we hear in the Bible phrases like, “I will call upon the Name of the Lord…”  “I will trust in your Name and not be afraid,”  “Glorify His Name…”  Speaking a name has power.

Another thing is the idea of power over.  It was understood that when you named something, you had power over it.  We see this most clearly in the stories of Creation.  In Genesis 1, God creates and then names the sun, the moon, the earth, the sky, and so on.  It’s a way of saying that God has power over all of these things in creation.  In Genesis 2, however, God creates, but then brings all of the animals to the man and he names them.  The man has dominion over them – to care for the creation.  So, in effect, when Mary and Joseph name him, God incarnate in a baby boy, is subject to them; is under their power.  That’s a pretty big deal.

And finally, there is the significance and meaning of the name itself.  Do you know what your name means? Do you know how you got it?  Were you named for someone?  Mary and Jesus gave their son the name the angel told them to, but it’s a little confusing to us because Jesus is the latinized version of his name.  In Hebrew, it would have been Yeshua or Joshua.  Like the book of the Bible – Moses’ successor.  It was Joshua who brought the Israelites across the Jordan into the Promised Land.  He is an important and revered figure in the history of the Israelites and probably a lot of boys were named after him.

Jesus’ name connects him with the history of his people.  But it’s also a promise, a blessing.  You see, Joshua means, “God will save.”

So we see that when Mary and Joseph named Jesus, it was much more than “what should we call him? The angel suggested Jesus – sounds good.”  Naming him points to his connections to the history of his people, to his community, to the Covenant, and to the whole human family.

Now think about your own name.  Our names often say something about our parents, in a way – about their culture, their values, sometimes their hopes and dreams for us.  Our name is an important part of our identity.  On the one hand it sets us apart as an individual.  On the other hand, our name also connects us to a family, and often a clan that may extend across the globe and into history.

I once knew a family and the dad would say kind of light-heartedly to his children, “don’t bring shame to the name.”  It sounded almost like a joke.  But the kids knew it wasn’t entirely a joke.  He was saying, remember your behavior in the world, how you treat people, reflects not only on you, but on your whole family; on everyone who shares your name.

Well, we have another name, besides the one given to us by our parents, our family, our spouse.  It’s a name that connects us to a community.  In fact it is a name that we all share.  That name is Christian.  When we are baptized, we join the family of Christ.  Think about that for a minute.  It is almost like when a person changes their name when they marry – they are joining themselves to another family, sharing their name.

Today is New Year’s Day; a day when many people choose to make a fresh start, take on a new project, or to develop a new habit.  I have an idea for you to consider for this year.  What would it be like to fully embrace your name as Christian; your identity as a member of the family of Christ?  Think about the family I told you about that understood that everything they did reflected on the family name.  What would it mean to do everything in the name of Christ?  And I don’t mean in a judgmental sense, but freely, joyfully, generously; To BE Christ in all we do, in all our interactions?   How and where would we spend our time and money and energy?  How would we do our work and go about our daily tasks?

Think about it.  Try it.  It may be the best Christmas gift you ever receive.
Happy New Year.