We present unto you our selves, our souls and bodies….

Preached on 27 August 2017 at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Snohomish, Washington
The twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 16, Year A

We all live our theology.  The theology we live is what we truly believe and trust to be true, deep in our souls, in our hearts, in our bones.  It’s what we stake our lives on about the way the world works and about the nature of God and how God interacts with us and the whole of Creation.

Now, the theology we profess – whether it’s a Creed we say or what we tell others or ourselves, we believe – is something different.  That may be what we think is expected of us or what we aspire to, but it’s often not the theology we stake our lives on.

The goal is to bring those two in line with each other; so that the theology we profess and the theology we live are the same.  In my opinion, my job as a priest and our job as the church, as a community of faith is to  help each other in that regard.  Sometimes it means learning to recognize and articulate the theology we live.  Other times it means having the courage to step out and live, even if it’s only in a single action, as if we truly believed what we say; to take the risk of trusting God to be and do what we say God is and does – and possibly learning something new about God in the process.  It takes practice and repetition, a lifetime of it, as we build a sort of muscle memory in our soul.  Otherwise, our aspiration is nothing more than a wish.

In today’s gospel, Jesus asks us two questions that are worth pondering, especially at this time in the life of the church, and, for that matter, in the life of our country.

“Who do the people say that I am?”  The people on the street, people in other churches, other faiths, non-believers?  Here are some:

Judge, Friend, Savior, Healer, Teacher, a self-improvement program, a really good man, the Son of God, the one who receives the punishment I deserve, just a guy who may have lived a really long time ago.  What others have you heard?

The other question Jesus poses is this–

“Who do you say that I am?” Who do you say God is?  And who does your life say Jesus is?  In other words, how do you embody your faith, your theology?

What do you believe, deep in your soul?  What will you stake your life on?

To help get you started, I’ll offer my answer to Jesus’ question.  This is the theology I aspire to,

  • Jesus is the incarnation of God – but I still can’t say what that means pre-nativity and post-resurrection.
  • Jesus is the one who shows me God and redirects my focus to God; at least when I pay attention.
  • Jesus has a claim on my life for God who loves me, and cares deeply about my well-being and that of the whole world. But my family, my children, and my husband also have a claim on my life.
  • Jesus suffers when anyone in the world suffers, especially when we inflict suffering on one another. And Jesus rejoices in acts of mercy, kindness, justice, love, and so on; when we open our hearts and communities to welcome others, especially the stranger.

Then the harder question, how do I embody that faith?

In moments
In listening and being fully present to another.

In sharing myself, my story, and my resources with others; and being open when they share themselves and their stories.

Remembering those who are in any kind of need.

Helping with donations or actions, those organizations who work to help others and to counter injustice and reform unjust systems.

When I know deep in my bones that I am connected to every other being.  Loving my neighbor as myself is loving myself because there is no separation.

Who do you say Jesus is?

This time of transition is a particularly fitting time to consider these questions not only as individuals but as the people, the community of faith that is St. John’s.  You began that work when you were developing the profile.  Now is a good time to return to them and go deeper.

Phase one of this transition is drawing to a close, letting go of and grieving what you have lost.

Phase 2 is about to begin.  You will be learning about each other, you and Eliacin.  You’ll be sharing your stories and answering these questions together.

Who do you, the people of St. John’s say Jesus is?
How do you embody that faith?  If someone were to look at St. John’s from the outside, what would they guess you believe about Jesus?

Here’s what they might see:

A bunch of people having dinner together twice a week and talking with each other outside beforehand and afterward.

Those who live with the pain of addiction coming together to support each other in their recovery.

When someone dies, a flurry of activity in and around the church.

A love of beauty, from the well-tended gardens and grounds to the building with its stained glass.

If they step inside, they will see people committed to a beautiful, historic building.

They will see the whole congregation devoted to and engaged in beautiful worship.

They may sense the holiness of this place, not only as they come to the altar to receive the blessed sacrament of real bread and wine, but also the holiness in the people gathered here.

They will notice the love for those who have gone before as we pray for them in worship and keep them close in the columbarium and memorial garden.

They may delight in the energy and enthusiasm of the children.

They will find welcome in a cup of coffee, a bite to eat, and friendly conversation.

If they keep coming, they may learn about your commitment to caring for the environment and to justice in the world, and to caring for your neighbors.

They will have an opportunity to discuss their questions of faith rather than being given pat answers.

What do you think they would see?  What does it say about who we believe Jesus is?

As you ponder these questions and particularly as you seek to grow in your faith as a community, to move toward living the faith you aspire to, I suggest we listen to what Paul has to say to us today.

“I appeal to you brothers and sisters, present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God which is your spiritual worship.”  Bring our whole self, body and soul, and offer it to God, not only as we come to this holy altar, as we come to worship, but each and every morning as we begin our day.

“Do not be conformed to this world,” he writes, “but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God; what is good and acceptable, and perfect.”
This is about the whole community embodying the gospel; learning to live the theology they profess.

I still have a couple of weeks with you, but even after I leave here, I will continue to pray for you and Eliacin as you get to know one another, and learn to live out the gospel; as you offer your whole selves, body and mind and soul, as a living sacrifice to God.
You are holy and acceptable to God; Jesus has made you so.

 

Vigilant Persistence Resisting Evil

Preached on 20 August 2017 at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Snohomish, Washington
The eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 15, Year A

For a long time I struggled with the psalms – I still do, truth be told – especially the ones that are angry, hateful, and violent, particularly when they’re used in our worship.  The psalms are the prayer book, the hymnal, of the ancient communities that wrote them.

We include specific prayer requests from individuals in our weekly prayers of the people; prayers for guidance, healing, strength, for God’s presence.  We don’t have a “smite my neighbor” section, though.  That just doesn’t seem to be in keeping with Jesus teachings.  Yet, we pray the psalms.

One day, when I was in seminary, one of the professors preached about the psalms at the daily Eucharist and it helped me see the psalms from a new perspective.  These are the prayers of the voiceless and the powerless; whether powerless against human opponents or the forces of nature.  The justice they seek, the judgement they call upon God to exact is beyond their reach, beyond their own ability to effect.

To silence the psalms would be to silence voices with legitimate grievances; including those in the world or at our doorstep who may have a grievance against us.  We need to be willing to listen.  When we pray a psalm of lament, even if it isn’t about our own experience, it is a prayer for someone’s experience.  The psalms can remind us that when we come together on Sunday it’s not about us; we are here to pray for the world.

The psalms show us that if even God can be called to account for the world’s suffering, can there be anyone who is so magnificent or powerful or grandiose that they are beyond our reach.  If we can challenge God, we can certainly challenge any earthly authority or power about the suffering and injustice in the world.

Today’s gospel is something like that.  We heard two consecutive passages verses 10 to 20 and verses 21 to 28.  In the first passage, we hear Jesus saying that it is what comes out of our mouths that has the potential to defile us.  What comes out of our mouth comes from the heart.  And what lies in the evil intentions of the heart?  Murder, adultery, fornication, theft, perjury, slander.  Obviously, it’s not just about words, but also the actions that come from our thoughts and words.  I think we can all understand this.  In fact, every Sunday, we begin our worship with prayer asking God to cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of God’s Holy Spirit.  It’s called the Collect for Purity; we’re asking God to purify our hearts, to remove any defilement.

In the other passage, we have this interesting story about Jesus and a Canaanite woman.  Now, while these two passages occur together, geographically, they’re miles apart.  In the first one, the last we heard, Jesus is at Gennesaret on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee.  The second passage begins with Jesus leaving that place and traveling to the region of Tyre and Sidon – way to the north of Galilee and over on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea.

Now a local woman, whom Matthew describes as a Canaanite, comes to Jesus.  She is a mother and she is desperate, fearing for her daughter who is tormented by a demon.  Now first, at this time, there really are no Canaanites.  In Mark’s gospel, she is described as a Syrophoenician woman.  Perhaps Matthew is drawing a connection to the Canaanite women who were listed in Jesus’ genealogy at the beginning of the gospel?
In any case, at first, he ignores her.  Then, when she persists, this comes out of his mouth – what to our ears sounds awful!
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  And when she pleads again, he responds, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  What?  Really, Jesus?  Did you really mean to say that?
Again, she persists.  “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”  You’d almost think she was reminding him of what he had just said down in Gennesaret.

For the Canaanite mother, this was certainly not a “Thy will be done” moment.  She will do whatever it takes to save her daughter – even challenge Jesus.  “Great is your faith!” Jesus says to her.  Faith is not passive.  Faith is active, it challenges power in the pursuit of what is right and just and merciful.

For this faithful mother, the time of waiting is over.  She is not going to get in line behind anyone.  She recognizes the abundance of God’s grace.  Healing her daughter would take nothing from anyone.  There is no need to delay any longer.

God’s abundance and grace is all around us.  And yet sometimes it seems that we try to mete it out in dribs and drabs and only to the most deserving, as if it were going to run out.  Why do people go hungry when half of the food produced in the U.S. ends up in landfills?  Housing, education, healthcare – we could choose not to ration them.  But more important, justice, mercy, kindness, love, dignity, these are for everyone, not just a segment of the people.  There is an unlimited supply, enough for all.

The gospel shows us that if even a desperate outsider, a Canaanite mother can challenge Jesus, there is no one whom we cannot challenge; no power that we cannot hold to account for injustice.

Make no mistake – what is going on in our country right now is not a case of “both sides” being equally guilty.  Racism and antisemitism are sin.  White supremacy is evil.  In our baptismal covenant, we promise to persevere in resisting evil.  Faith requires vigilance and persistence in actively resisting evil and establishing justice – with God’s help.  Justice is not some nebulous, abstract concept.  It is real, it is particular, it is tangible.  It is life.  Without it, there is death.  For the Canaanite mother, justice is the healing of her daughter from a tormenting demon.

Sometimes, the tormentor that threatens the life and safety of God’s beloved daughters and sons, is human.   With God’s help, they can be challenged and opposed.

Let us pray

Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you, no secrets are hid.  Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit that we may perfectly love our neighbor as ourselves.  Give us courage and wisdom to challenge the evil-doer.  Open our eyes and give us vigilance to see injustice.  Give us faith and the will to persevere in resisting evil, that all the world may know that you are God and worthily magnify your holy name, through Christ our Lord.

*Thank you to Karoline Lewis of WorkingPreacher.org for the idea for the Title and theme,  and The Book of Common Prayer for the Baptismal Covenant and the Collect for Purity.

 

Get Back in the Boat

Preached on 13 August 2017 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Snohomish, Washington
The tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 14, Year A

The title of today’s sermon is “Get back in the boat.”  But before I go there, I would like to say a little bit about miracles.

Many rational people who believe in and understand science and the laws of physics believe the miracle stories.  And, many faithful, committed Christians struggle with them.  They can’t quite believe their literal truth at face value.  They may even try to find alternative explanations for how those events could have occurred.  Or, they may dismiss them entirely.  Thomas Jefferson dealt with the miracles by literally cutting them out of his Bible and discarding them.

Miracle stories are not there to test our faith.  Belief in the literal truth of the miracles is not a litmus test.  It doesn’t separate the insiders from the outsiders, the faithful from the faithless, the saved from the condemned.  It doesn’t define the “real Christians.”

Nor are they included in order to “prove” who Jesus is or to demonstrate that he is better than or more powerful than “ordinary” human beings.  Like every single other story in the Bible, whether a made-up story like the parable of the Prodigal Son, or a story about a historical event that can be corroborated by other sources, like the fact that Herod ruled in Palestine at the beginning of the current era, the miracle stories are there to tell us about the nature of God and the nature of humankind.  They tell us how to be in relationship with God and our neighbor.

What does this story have to tell us?  One of the beauties of the Bible as the living word of God, is that the stories can speak to us in new ways every time we come to them; even familiar stories like this one, that we have heard again and again.

I told you at the beginning that the title of this sermon is “Get Back in the Boat.”  Often preachers use it to urge their listeners to get out of the boat, to move beyond their comfort zone.  Like I said, the Bible can have something new to say every time.  So, let’s take a look at the story.  I know it raises some questions in my mind.

When we come into the story, it’s already been a long day.  It started with Jesus hearing that John the Baptist was beheaded and he suggests that they take the boat and get away from the crowds so they can rest and get refreshed.  But word has spread and the crowds are already there, waiting for Jesus when they land their boat.  So, Jesus heals the people they bring to him.  Then, as evening comes, he decides that the disciples should feed the crowd with just a few loaves of bread and some fish.  Finally, Jesus sends the disciples on ahead in the boat while he sends the crowds on their way home.

I wonder why he does that?  The disciples are exhausted and overwhelmed and most likely at least a little fearful; they’ve just heard that John was executed. Why does Jesus send them out on the lake at night, when they’re already utterly spent?  Why not stay there and rest for the night?
And then the storm comes up.  That alone is terrifying.  They probably can’t swim.  Now it’s not just Herod threatening their life, but nature itself.

Rowing as hard as they can against the wind, they’re even more exhausted.  Then, in the wee, small hours of the morning, they see a form coming toward them through the spray and the wind.  What could it be?  “It’s ok, it’s just me,” they hear Jesus’ familiar voice.  “If it’s you, call me to you,” Peter calls out.  (I wonder what that’s about?)  So, Peter gets out of the boat and heads toward the form, but then the fear kicks in again and he finds himself up to his neck.  “Lord, Save me!”  and immediately, Jesus reaches out and grabs him.

Have you ever been there?  Are you there now?  If you’ve been watching the news the last few days, you may be feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, and more than a little fearful.  When we hear hateful racism spewing from the mouths of our fellow citizens and see them violently attack, in acts of terrorism, people of courage who stand up to them, disagree with them, and protest their hatred and racism.  When our president fails to clearly condemn them, we may wonder what has happened to us as a nation; as a people.  And all that after a week (well, months) of escalating, alarming rhetoric and events that have many of us feeling overwhelmed. We may cry out in desperation, “Lord, Save us!”

Immediately, Jesus reached out to Peter.  I can imagine him saying, “You’re okay, I’m here.” And then he guides him back to the boat, back to his community.  Only then does the wind calm down; when he’s back in the boat with the other disciples, the storm is stilled.

They continue on their way until they get to Gennesaret.  There is more work to be done.
The crowds come to them and Jesus cures the sick people, proclaiming the kingdom of heaven.

We’re not meant to go through the storm alone, trying to walk on water, just by holding Jesus’ hand, so to speak.  We need to get in the boat with our sisters and brothers, our community, and row to our Gennesaret.

To be silent in the face of racist terrorism against our sisters and brothers is to support it.
To be complacent is to be complicit.
It is saying “Amen” to the hatred and violence.

We need to get in the boat, joining our sisters and brothers.  There is a great deal of healing needed in Gennesaret, in Virginia, in Charlottesville, in Washington, in Seattle, in Everett, in Monroe and Lake Stevens and Bothell and Woodinville and Snohomish and maybe even in our own neighborhood, our own hearts.

And remember that Jesus is with us, always, to the end of the age.

Thanks be to God.

The Jacob Saga – Wedding Trickery

Preached on 30 July 2017 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Snohomish, Washington
The eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 12, Year A

You’ve probably heard the joke, “how many engineers does it take to change a light bulb?”  None.  They revise the specs and redefine darkness as ‘good;’ the desired outcome.

It is human nature to manipulate.  We manipulate our environment, resources, and even people to serve our own interests and desires.  And to be honest, a lot of good comes from that.  That’s what engineering and medicine and even the arts and literature do.  Without it, we wouldn’t have agriculture; we would still be hunting and foraging – not even gathering.  Advances in farming, manufacturing, healing, and all manner of problem-solving come from manipulating the environment and resources.

Even in the arts, materials and ideas are manipulated to express the human condition, evoking our compassion and empathy, inspiring solutions that alleviate suffering.  This very human activity often serves the common good as well as self-interest.

It can also result in the opposite of the common good, what might be called the common evil – when the environment is polluted, habitats damaged or destroyed, the life, health, or safety of people and other species, our neighbors, seriously harmed or put at risk for the limited benefit of a few.

When it comes to manipulating people, nobody wants to be manipulated.  We probably all do it to some extent, though.  Whole industries (advertising comes to mind) are solely about manipulating people.  It is human nature to balk when we are the object of manipulation.  When my kids were little, a lot of the parenting advice was about getting your children to do what you want by offering them choices – manipulated them by letting them think they’re in control.  As an example, “Do you want to dress yourself or do you want me to help?”  “Do you want cold cereal or toast for breakfast?”  well, my kids didn’t read the book or follow the script.  They would inevitably choose something else.

They would not allow someone else to define the boxes into which their lives were to be confined.  Put that way, it sounds like a good thing, doesn’t it?  While that was in fact my desire for them in the end, it was rather frustrating to me when they were four.

The story of Jacob is full of very human manipulation.  Now, Jacob’s story is a long, rich story that fills over ten chapters in the book of Genesis.  Our lectionary only shows us a few scenes, so let’s play a little catch-up, putting today’s scene in context.

A couple of weeks ago, we heard about the birth of Jacob and his older twin, Essau.  The even fought in the womb and the Lord told their mother Rebecca that her two sons were two rival nations, that one would be master of the other; that the elder would serve the younger.  We heard how Essau was the favorite of his father, Isaac, and Jacob was the favorite of their mother, Rebecca.  We heard how Jacob manipulated Essau to give him is birthright for a bowl of stew.

Last week, we heard the story of Jacob in the wilderness, using a stone for a pillow.  He had a dream in which God renewed the promise made to Jacob’s father, Isaac, and to his grandfather, Abraham, before him; the promise of the land and offspring as plentiful as the dust of the earth.  It leaves out Jacob’s response, “If God remains with me and keeps me safe on this journey I am making, if he gives me food to eat and clothes to wear, and if I come home safe to my father’s home, then the Lord shall be my God.”  That’s a lot of “ifs.”  Jacob even tries to manipulate God.  Wow!

The lectionary skips a bit though.  You see, Jacob is on the run.  He and his mother conspired to trick Isaac into giving Jacob the blessing meant for Essau.  When Essau finds out, he is enraged and vows to kill Jacob.

Rebecca tells Isaac, she doesn’t want Jacob to marry one of the local women like Essau had, she wants Isaac to send Jacob back to her family to find a wife among her kin.  Jacob was running for his life, heading to the home of his uncle, when he had the dream.

So today, we find him with his uncle, Laban who has two daughters.  And as we heard, he offers to work for his uncle for seven years in exchange for the younger daughter, Rachel.  And then the trickster gets tricked.  He ends up having to work for fourteen years to get the bride he wants.

What about the women, though?  They are used like chess pieces as these two men maneuver and manipulate each other for dominance.  The women have no voice, no choice.

If we continue reading, we find that Jacob works yet another six years for his father-in-law, tending the sheep and the goats, breeding them and manipulating them to enrich himself until, at last, he quietly leaves with huge flocks of his own, his two wives, his many children, and a huge household.

In a way, it’s hard to find good news in Jacob’s saga.  This is a story of who suffers when people with power choose to treat the world and people as objects to be manipulated in their own quest for dominance.

Jacob’s story could be our story.  Not in the details, but the messiness, the broken relationships, the maneuvering and manipulating.  The pain of being the second-best in the love of a parent; or the particular challenges of being the favorite.
It strikes me that in today’s lesson, God isn’t really mentioned.  Maybe that’s when we get into trouble, when we forget about God and our dependence on God.  When we try to take the fulfillment of God’s promise into our own hands and force it to happen in our time.  When we try to negotiate with God and manipulate God.  When we make our relationship with God conditional.

The parables in today’s gospel present the opposite.  When all else is set aside in pursuit of the Kingdom of God.  The kingdom that is like the treasure hidden in the field or a fine pearl, that when it is found the person sells everything they own to possess it.

Despite the mess he makes of his life, Jacob is one of the patriarchs.  He is the one God chose to receive the promise.  It is through him, his twelve sons, that the twelve tribes of Israel come to be.

It is very clear from the story of Jacob, that God doesn’t choose the most deserving.  We don’t earn God’s favor.  God gives it freely.  God works with us as we are, even in our human weakness or failings, to bring about God’s promises.  Perhaps that is the Good News; the hope we find in Jacob’s story.