Grace & Achievement: A Reflection on (Striving for) Excellence

The Mid-Week Missive is based on Community Rules: An Episcopal Manual by Ian Markham and Kathryn Glover, both administrators at Virginia Theological Seminary. I am working my way through this book, reading and writing  through the lens of our Life Together as part of the Christ the King Episcopal Church family, as well as part of the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast. 

Rule #18: Strive for Excellence. Markham and Glover’s reflection on this rule can be found in their book, which can be purchased here

How does this rule apply to our Life Together at Christ the King? Note the word “strive.” There is grace there. As long as we strive for excellence, the result will be a faithful use of the gifts and time with which God has blessed us. As we are in the midst of the annual pledge drive at CtK, how might we include Rule #18 in our pledge to God and our parish? There isn’t a box to check that says, “I will [continue to] strive for excellence in 2020,” but perhaps that can be a personal pledge that we make to God and ourselves.

On a personal note, I am humbled and inspired by the excellence I see around me here at CtK, from our staff, to our Parish Day School, to the faithful servant leaders who contribute to and carry out the ministries here at CtK. An example: on Sunday mornings, when I face the altar and cross to say the opening Collect for Purity, I am always stunned at the beauty of the altar flowers. The “simply elegant” beauty of the arrangements are an example of striving for (and achieving!) excellence. And it is an example of the faithful stewardship of time, talent, and treasure. Thanks be to God for the St. Theresa Flower Guild, and all of the other faithful servant leaders of our parish!

 

Outrageous Justice: A Sermon for 17 Pentecost, Proper 22

 “How long O Lord?” The prophet Habakkuk’s cry of lament comes during an era of Judah’s history when violence, evil, lawlessness, and injustice prevailed. And things were about to get worse for Judah, as they were soon to be captured and exiled by the Babylonians. Indeed, for Habakkuk - and the few righteous who remained - it had been too long of a wait for God to implement justice. So the prophet called out, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble?”

 

The reality is, we have it much better than the ancient Israelites during Habakkuk’s time. And we have it much better than the followers of Jesus during the first century Roman occupation of Israel. During those eras, the people of God were victims of violence and injustice from the outside forces of Babylon and Rome, as well as moral and social decay from within. Being subject to outside powers served as a constant reminder that they were not in control, and at times, it made them wonder if their God was even in control. Had God abandoned them? Or was their God simply less powerful than the gods of their enemies?

 

These difficult questions were in their very own DNA, as their ancestors had asked the same questions when they were living as slaves under Pharaoh in Egypt. The Israelite family system was marked by eras of slavery, violence, and injustice. You have heard me say before that the Bible was written by oppressed communities for oppressed communities. This doesn’t mean that there is nothing in the Bible for those of us today who are in positions of power and privilege. Quite the contrary. It just means that we have to hold these texts up in front of us like a mirror, and allow them to transform us.

 

So texts like this can pose a challenge as well as an opportunity for us in our relatively comfortable context. Besides reading about it in the Bible, most of us have to hear about injustice being done to others to be made aware of it. We have to read about it or watch it on the news. Most of the time, it is others who are the victims of injustice and corruption. So as followers of Jesus, we are called to do the difficult work of learning about people and communities for whom – in the words of Habakkuk – “the law becomes slack and justice never prevails.” And then, we have to do the even more difficult work of not just learning about the plight of the oppressed, but advocating on their behalf. Due to our relative positions of power and privilege, we as 21st-century American Christians have a unique opportunity to not just lament injustice, but also to do something about it. Fortunately, we are not under the heel of Pharaoh, Babylon, or Caesar. We are in a better position to advocate for and implement justice. But with that blessing comes the responsibility not to collude with or become Pharaoh, Babylon, or Caesar.

 

So how might we hold our texts for today up as a mirror in such a way that we can become advocates for those who cannot advocate for themselves? And in the face of this difficult work, how might Jesus “increase our faith” as the apostles in today’s Gospel lesson demanded? One specific context where we can take our emboldened faith into action is prisons and the criminal justice system. One thing that I love about the time I have spent participating in prison ministry is that is has put me with groups of other Christians – on both sides of the bars - with whom I otherwise shared very little in common – politically, theologically, or socially. But when it comes to answering Christ’s call for us to visit him in prison, all of those differences seem to fade away. I can say with conviction say that the closest I have felt to living out Christ’s call to discipleship – to take up my cross and follow him - has been when I have participated in prison ministry.

 

Not too long ago, our Adult Forum class read and discussed “The Sun Does Shine” by Anthony Ray Hinton. His story tugged at our hearts and gave us an excellent glimpse of how the criminal justice system initially failed to execute justice. And the only way that justice was ultimately served in this case was through the tireless, courageous, and faithful efforts of attorney Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative. Someone had to stand up for what was good, right, and just.

 

Last week, our Adult Forum class began a new study called “Outrageous Justice,” which is a book and study guide published by Prison Fellowship, a Christian prison ministry organization that believes that, “Every person is made in the image of God, [and] no life is beyond His reach. Founded in 1976, Prison Fellowship® exists to serve all those affected by crime and incarceration, and to see lives and communities restored in and out of prison—one transformed life at a time.”

 

What I love about Prison Fellowship and the Outrageous Justice curriculum is that their focus is on justice – not just for the incarcerated but for the victims and communities who are affected by crime as well. In chapter 2 of the book, it mentions that “justice and mercy intersected at the cross.” We need both, otherwise we end up with cheap grace or unbridled justice. The book goes on to say that “God’s desire for justice extends even farther than atonement for sin and provision of salvation. In fact, the Bible exhorts Christ-followers to live justly and love mercy in their daily lives.”

 

And this exhortation is a thread that runs through our lessons for today. Keep in mind that Paul wrote his letters to Timothy from prison. But also note that Paul didn’t let his incarcerated status define him. His baptismal status was what defined him. And Paul did a faithful job of remaining grounded in his baptismal identity.

 

And one way that we can remain grounded in our baptismal identity is to find ways to advocate for justice for those who cannot advocate for themselves. Prison Ministry is one of many ways we can do this. Keep in mind that there are numerous ways you can participate in prison ministry without going into the prisons. Go to the Prison Fellowship website and join us for our Sunday Forum for many ideas of how you can get involved. Also, you can speak with Libby Fisher and me about our Diocesan Commission for Prison Ministry if you’d like to get involved at the diocesan level.

 

But if we go out from here inspired to advocate for the prisoner who cannot advocate for themselves, we must be sure that we do so grounded in our Christian faith and identity. It is incumbent on us to be able to make the connection between our baptisms, our weekly feasting on Christ’s Body and Blood, and our mission in the world. If we do one without the other, we are not making the critical connection between faith and works.

 

Michaela Bruzzeze points out that in our readings today, Paul encourages Timothy to "bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God." And in today's gospel, Jesus assures the disciples that even the smallest amount of faith can move … firmly rooted trees. Surely, then, our faith can also strengthen us in the face of evil and injustice.” In other words, we can’t fight the good fight alone. As it says in today’s psalm, “Commit your way to the Lord and put your trust in him, and he will bring it to pass. He will make your righteousness as clear as the light and your just dealing as the noonday.” When we advocate for justice, we need the grounding and support of our community of faith, as well as an utter dependence on God’s mercy and grace.

Worry & Prayer: A Reflection on Community Rule #17

The Mid-Week Missive is based on Community Rules: An Episcopal Manual by Ian Markham and Kathryn Glover, both administrators at Virginia Theological Seminary. I am working my way through this book, reading and writing  through the lens of our Life Together as part of the Christ the King Episcopal Church family, as well as part of the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast. 

Rule #17: Turn Every Worry into a Prayer. Markham and Glover’s reflection on this rule can be found in their book, which can be purchased here

How does this rule apply to our Life Together at Christ the King? Just this past Monday (September 30), our Daily Office gospel reading was Matthew 6:25-34 (an excerpt from the Sermon on the Mount). In it, Jesus says,

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

No disrespect to our Lord and Savior, but my response to this challenge is, “easier said than done!” Quite frankly, I worry a lot. But rather than feel bad about this natural tendency of mine, I can actually turn this into an opportunity to grow closer to God.

Markham and Glover suggest that we turn our worries into prayer. So for those of us who worry a lot, we have the opportunity to pray a lot. And that is a redemptive solution – the more we worry, the more we pray! And ultimately, our constant prayer will transform our hearts and minds in such a way that we worry far less than we used to.

Of course, when we get to where we are able to worry less, we shouldn’t pray any less – our prayers will change just as we will have changed. And such is the pattern of Christ’s redemptive grace…thanks be to God!

The Eyes of the Lord: A Sermon for 16 Pentecost, Proper 21

Today marks the fifth straight week we’ve heard a parable from Jesus in our Gospel lesson. Last week, I mentioned that when we hear a parable, we have to be careful not to treat them allegorically, where we assign a direct one-to-one correlation to each character in the story. The danger in approaching parables this way is that we can hear one and conclude that it doesn’t apply to us. Given their ancient context, and Jesus’ tendency to use hyperbole to make a point, sometimes it can be difficult to find their relevance for us here and now.

Today’s parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is a good example of this. On the surface, I cannot directly relate to the experiences of the Rich Man or Lazarus. As described in the story, they are both “other” to me. The risk we run when we discover that “we” are not in the story, is that we then use the story as a means for self-righteously telling other people how they should live and act. And this lack of self-examination is exactly what Jesus condemns in most of his parables.

So the task we have as Christians when we hear this parable is to discern what part of us is the Rich Man, and what part of us is Lazarus. It is not an either-or, but rather a both-and. You have heard me say before that a good sermon should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. And the same goes for parables. In today’s parable, the Rich Man in us needs to be afflicted in such a way that we repent and are transformed. And the Lazarus in us needs to be comforted in such a way that we recognize that even when others might ignore, overlook, or misunderstand us, God never does.

Most of the commentaries and sermons I have read and heard about this parable focus on how we should be more hospitable and generous to the poor in our midst. And this is especially the case when it is paired with the lessons from Amos and 1 Timothy. And that is certainly a faithful reading of the text. And until all of the hungry are fed, and all of the homeless housed, there can never be too many sermons on caring for the poor.

But today I’d like us to look at this parable from a different angle. Rather than focusing on Lazarus’ poverty, I’d like to focus on his medical condition, and his inability to get the help he needs. I think that this predicament is something that most of us can directly relate to, whether it is from personal experience, or the experience of a friend or family member. How many of us have had something wrong with us – whether it is a physical ailment or an emotional one – and not been able to get the help we need? It is a terribly helpless feeling to go to the doctor and have him or her tell you, “I can’t find anything wrong with you” or “I can see that something is abnormal, but it’s a mystery to me as to what it is, or how to treat it.”

Now just like any profession, there are wonderfully compassionate, empathetic  medical and mental health professionals and there are those who aren’t. And just like in any family or group of friends, there are those who are wonderfully compassionate and empathetic, and those who are not. But my experience has been that when someone is sick or injured – physically or emotionally – what they need as much as anything is to be noticed. They need to be noticed they need to be seen - by their medical care givers, their co-workers, their family members, and their friends.

According to our parable today, the sin of the Rich Man wasn’t the fact that he was rich. His great sin was that he failed to notice Lazarus as he passed him by every day. He didn’t see Lazarus. To the Rich Man, Lazarus either didn’t exist, or he was just like the neighborhood stray dog. And that is why the Rich Man didn’t inherit a blissful eternal life. That is why the tables were turned in the afterlife – and the Rich Man’s needs would go unnoticed and unmet for eternity.

One thing clergy, mental health professionals, and social workers are warned of is compassion fatigue. If we’re not careful, we can get burned out from caring so much and so often. The needs of our communities are endless, and no one person, no one church, and no one agency can fix all of the problems with which we are faced. So if we’re not careful, we can begin to grow callous to the needs of others, because we simply get overwhelmed. Perhaps the Rich Man, early in his life, was more compassionate and empathetic, but then grew weary once he realized he alone couldn’t meet the needs of his community.

Just like last week, and really, the past several weeks, we have been given some very provocative lessons to read, mark, and inwardly digest as we are beginning this season of stewardship. One thing that I would like to challenge us to do this coming year for stewardship – and you won’t find this one your pledge card – is to make a pledge to notice someone who perhaps has gone unnoticed. Make a pledge to see someone who has gone unseen. Make a pledge to hear someone who hasn’t been heard. This could be a family member, someone at work, or someone in your neighborhood. And believe me, I am holding up the mirror to myself when I am saying this. I am terribly afflicted by this parable as I reflect on those who I don’t take the time to visit, notice, see, or hear. But I am also comforted when I remember that as children of God, we are always noticed, seen, and heard by God. And when God sees us, God sees us as God’s beloved children, created in God’s very own image. In Jesus Christ, we have been given an example of what it is like to notice, hear, and love others. Let us follow that example, so that life in the here and now will model life eternal.  

Unfeignedly Thankful: A Reflection on Gratitude

The Mid-Week Missive is based on Community Rules: An Episcopal Manual by Ian Markham and Kathryn Glover, both administrators at Virginia Theological Seminary. I am working my way through this book, reading and writing  through the lens of our Life Together as part of the Christ the King Episcopal Church family, as well as part of the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast. 

Rule #16: Give Thanks to God; Give Thanks to Others. Markham and Glover’s reflection on this rule can be found in their book, which can be purchased here

How does this rule apply to our Life Together at Christ the King? One major change that came with the 1979 Book of Common Prayer was that it became to norm to celebrate Holy Eucharist at the principal worship service every week. The word “eucharist” means thanksgiving, and the pinnacle of the Holy Eucharist service is the prayer of Great Thanksgiving. So gratitude is at the heart of our weekly worship...we are being conditioned to be thankful for all that God has done and continues to do.

That being said, one might think that gratitude comes easy for Christians who participate in the eucharist every week. But my experience is that gratitude takes constant practice. Personally, I am more inclined to think about what could be improved, or what needs to get done, or what I want to accomplish next.

To work on my gratitude, I send out “thank you” notes every week to folks who have helped at the church in one way or another. The feedback I oftentimes receive is something along the lines of “thank you for the note(s), but save the time and the stamp. You don’t have to write me a thank you note. I am happy to help.” And I know that to be true. Nobody at CtK serves because they want to be noticed or thanked. They serve because they love God and they love the church.

But the “thank you” notes are as much for me as they are the recipient. They force me to practice the discipline of gratitude. They force me to slow down, and before I jump to what lies ahead for the week, to reflect on my gratitude for those who helped last Sunday.

Another way that I am working on practicing gratitude is to pray the General Thanksgiving (BCP p. 71) every evening at Evening Prayer. This prayer (the Rite 1 version in particular) is perhaps my favorite in all of the Prayer Book. I commend it to you!

We just launched our Stewardship campaign at CtK this week, and giving our time, talent, and treasure is another practical and spiritual way we can practice gratitude.

When I pause for a moment (not an easy thing for me to do), I become more aware of the many opportunities there are for me to practice gratitude to God and to others. And for that, I am grateful!

Shrewd for the Kingdom: A Sermon for 15 Pentecost, Proper 20

Today’s parable from Luke’s gospel has historically been one of the most difficult ones to interpret. Scholars, preachers, and faithful readers of scripture alike have struggled to make sense of the Parable of the Dishonest Manager. Beth Quick reminds us that we are not to read parables as allegories, where each person and part of the story has a one-to-one relationship to something specific. Parables like today’s make it difficult to fit the pieces nicely into the puzzle.

Jesus told parables to communicate what God’s reign - the Kingdom of Heaven – is like. Again, Beth Quick says that parables “tell us something about how things are or will be when we do things on earth the way God means for us to.” When he was baptized by John, Jesus announced that the Kingdom of Heaven was near. So we must remember to always frame Jesus’ public ministry within the proclamation of a new era of God’s reign on earth. And the parable of the Dishonest Manager is indeed a kingdom parable.

In today’s lesson, Jesus and his disciples are still on their journey to Jerusalem, and as they draw closer, you can feel Jesus’ intensity - and perhaps even anxiety - begin to rise . So the parables we have been hearing the past few weeks have been preparing Jesus’ followers – then and now - for God’s reign on earth as it is in heaven. And for those of us in positions of earthly power and influence, the parables have perhaps been difficult to hear.

And while today’s lessons from Amos and Luke may not be easy for us to understand or digest, they are another example of how our scripture lessons line up providentially well with our life as a parish church. Today marks the official beginning of our annual stewardship campaign, where we seek pledge commitments towards the mission and ministries of Christ the King. So how fitting is it that we get two lessons today about money?

In the parable of the Dishonest Manager, Jesus is pointing out to his disciples that that they should be as shrewd at handling what has been entrusted to them as  the rich man and the dishonest manager have been with what they’ve been given. In other words, I don’t think Jesus is saying that they too should be dishonest in their dealings with others. I think he is calling for his disciples then and now – the “children of the light” – to take the calling to follow Jesus as seriously as others take their worldly callings.

In prison and drug and alcohol recovery ministries, a common mentoring approach is to challenge the person seeking to turn their lives around is to be as shrewd, industrious, and persistent in making good choices as they were in making poor choices. In other words, most addicts simply find a way to get what they need. They will beg, borrow, and steal – and put their lives on the line - to get their next fix. And sometimes, the ingenuity they use to get drugs is quite impressive. So when working with addicts, counselors would praise them for their persistence, creativity, and drive. But then they’d say that the addict now needs to use that same persistence, creativity, and drive to get and stay sober. And then they’d need to use it to get and hold a job, and to achieve and maintain stability in their lives. The shrewdness is there – it just needs to be re-channeled towards good, healthy choices instead of poor, dangerous choices.

Oftentimes, the parables deal with extremes, and that is a rhetorical device Jesus used so that he could effectively draw the listener in, and so that the impact of the story is significant. Most of us today do not live in the realm of the extreme like the characters in Jesus’ parables. We are all lost and wayward in some way or another, but not as lost and wayward as the Prodigal Son. That being the case, we have to be careful not to hear these parables and think, “Wow, that is a great story. Thankfully it doesn’t apply to me. I’m not that lost, or that dishonest or that selfish. The power of the parables is that they are for all of us.

And applied to our current context of stewardship season, I think that today’s parable is a lesson first and foremost about wisely managing our resources – as individuals, as families, and as a church. Jesus calls us to be shrewd, industrious, creative, and driven with the resources with which we have been blessed. After all, our resources are really God’s, not ours. As scripture tells us, “All things come of thee O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.”

Speaking from personal experience, Emily and I took Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University course a few years ago and learned a lot about managing our the resources with which we have been blessed. But that was before we had Julian and Madeleine. Having children was a huge financial wake-up call for us. After all, we had enjoyed a two-income, zero children marriage for about six years. The wake-up call came when we enrolled them both in preschool. The combination of tuition, aftercare, babysitters, and all of the other expenses – food, clothing, and medical care – ended up making a huge impact on our financial bottom line. So this past year, we called our Financial Peace University coach and told him that we needed help. So for the past several months, we have been meeting with him once a month to go over our budget and hold ourselves accountable to one another and our financial goals. And since we began meeting with him and going over our finances every month, we are actually donating and saving more money than before we had children. Our incomes didn’t change – our priorities and habits changed. Our coach helped us be shrewd in the management of our income and expenses. And we found a way to make it happen, and I must say, it feels better than ever.

What I admire about the Financial Peace program is that the first budget priority is to give 10% of your income away – preferably your church. And everything else flows from there. Again, it is about reordering your priorities and habits. One thing that ensures that Emily and I keep our financial commitment to the church is that we have our pledge on autopay through the church database. So at the beginning of every month, the first thing that gets paid is our church pledge. We aren’t seeing what is leftover at the end of the month and then giving to the church. We are not tipping the church at the end of the year for a job well done. Our commitment is first to the church. And again, everything else flows from there.

And with that commitment, we are trusting that the vestry is also being shrewd managers of our money. Just as we are called as individuals and families to be wise and generous with our gifts, so too is the church called to do the same. We are, after all, Christ’s body in the world. We are representatives of Christ, and how we manage and share the gifts we’ve been given should reflect that. And I can confidently say that our vestry does exactly that. Just as Emily and I do with our financial coach once a month, the vestry meets once a month in part to go over the finances with our treasurer, Clinton Berry. Furthermore, Clinton comes into the office every Tuesday and meets with our Bookkeeper Michelle to go over the books. Being the church treasurer is probably the hardest job someone can have at the church, because no matter how much money comes in, there is always more mission and ministry that can be done. And it is the treasurer who has to make sure that our bottom line is being effectively communicated to the rector and vestry.

So what about the parable? How do my own personal financial management as well as the church’s financial management relate to today’s parable? Remember that parables “tell us something about how things are or will be when we do things on earth the way God means for us to.” Imagine our local parish, our local community, our state, our nation, and the world if every Christian made their church their first priority with their time, talent, and treasure. The effect of such gracious generosity would be absolutely astonishing. I may be naïve, but I truly believe that many of our local, national, and worldwide problems would be greatly diminished if Christians led the way in re-ordering our priorities as it relates to time, talent, and treasure. I am regularly amazed at what we are able to accomplish here at Christ the King without 100% participation from our parishioners. Imagine the impact we could have if everybody in our parish made an annual pledge to the mission and ministries of our church! And then imagine again if everybody tithed, which is giving back 10% of your income. Again, the effect of such gracious generosity would be absolutely astonishing.

The kingdom of heaven isn’t characterized by money or business or budgets. Whenever the kingdom is finally realized, I can assure you that there won’t be finance committee meetings being held. And we won’t be talking about money and budgets. That is because in the kingdom of heaven, everybody’s priority will be to offer gratitude and praise towards God. And everything will flow from there, and everyone’s needs will be met. Until the kingdom is fully realized, let us model kingdom living for the world, and with gratitude in our hearts, structure our giving of time, talent, and treasure in a way that reflects our gratitude and love.     

Bad News and Good News: A Sermon for 14 Pentecost, Proper 9

If you attended last Sunday’s Adult Forum on Preparing for a Funeral in the Episcopal Church, you heard me use the term “Greatest Hits” more than once. Not only do recording artists have their Greatest Hits collections; the Bible, the Prayer Book, and the Hymnal have them too. Some stories, prayers, and hymns are just more well-known and well-loved by the Body of Christ. Chapter 15 of St. Luke’s Gospel would certainly make a Greatest Hits of the New Testament collection. This is the chapter where we get three parables in a row, the third being perhaps the greatest hit of them all – the Prodigal Son.

 Fittingly so, we read parable of the Prodigal Son on the 4th Sunday of Lent this year, so now, in the Season after Pentecost, we are circling back around to read the first half of chapter 15. And today also marks a turn from the last two weeks, when the gospel lessons from Luke were focused on the social, financial, and spiritual costs of following Jesus. And indeed, Jesus made it clear that the cost of discipleship is high, and involves great sacrifice.

But in Chapter 15, Luke reminds us that while the cost of Christian discipleship is high, so is the reward. God the Good Shepherd values each and every one of God’s sheep – including those that go astray. But we have to be careful not to domesticate the parables of the Good Shepherd and the Lost Coin. If we see them as sentimental stories about a loving, caring God who will seek and find those who are lost – as if it is only others who are lost – then we have missed the point of the parables. In his book Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale, Frederick Buechner asserts that “the Gospel is bad news before it is good news. It is the news that [the face we see in the mirror] is at least eight parts chicken, phony, and slob. That is the tragedy. But it is also the news that we are loved anyway… cherished, forgiven… bleeding to be sure… but also bled for.” 

Applied to our two parables today, the tragedy is that it is we – you and I – who are the lost sheep and coins. We are the ones who are in desperate need of salvation…not somebody else. Not those other poor souls who are lost and haven’t found the way. If we come to the Gospels with the understanding that it isn’t us who needs Christ’s atoning sacrifice, then we put ourselves in the company of the grumbling scribes and Pharisees in today’s story.

Frank Limehouse – retired Dean of the Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham – told a story at a clergy conference in the Diocese of Florida a few years back and I’ll never forget it. He was recalling to us a time when he was in the handshake line after worship one Sunday morning. A woman who he didn’t know approached him with tears in her eyes as she profusely thanked him for the worship service and his sermon. She told him that she had been literally and spiritually far from the church for many years, living a sin-filled, selfish life. But something told her that she needed to come to church this morning, and she did, and now she was so grateful that she had come. And she was ready to get her life back on track.

As Frank held this woman’s hand, he said [something along the lines of], “Thank you for your vulnerability, and for sharing your story with me. Now I have some bad news and some good news for you. The bad news is that you are even more sinful, selfish, and lost than you think you are. But the Good News is that it doesn’t matter how sinful, selfish, and lost you are; or how sinful, selfish, and lost I am. Jesus died for all of us – every single sheep in the flock - so that we might be redeemed. That, my friend, is the Good News.

Just as Buechner said, the gospel is bad news before it is Good News. And in order for the Gospel of Jesus Christ to have transformative power over us, we first need the bad news. Otherwise, the Gospel becomes a domesticated, sentimental story for those “other people” who are lost.

 If we’re not careful – particularly in our context here – we can fall into the trap of seeing ourselves only as the shepherd or the woman in today’s parables. We see ourselves as the ones doing the rescuing, and not the ones in need of rescue.

In his first letter to Timothy, the Apostle Paul gives us an excellent example of recognizing first the bad news and then the Good News of the gospel when he says, “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners-- of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.”

Now don’t get me wrong – through our baptisms, we are called to go out into the world to share and do the love and work of Christ in the world. We are called to be shepherds for the lost sheep. But the only way we can do this with any integrity is for us to first recognize – like the Apostle Paul did - that we too are lost and in need of being found. When Harriet Tubman was being praised for her heroic work with the Underground Railroad, her response was, “I could have freed more if only they knew they were slaves.” Part of me wonders if Jesus might be thinking the same thing about us – “I could have saved more if only they knew they were lost.” But when I frame that question within the Parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin, I am reminded that the focus is on the steadfast, persistent, constant pursuit of the shepherd and the woman. Even when I forget that it is I who is lost, I am still being relentlessly pursued by Jesus. And that my friends, is Good News indeed!

Choose Life: A Sermon for 13 Pentecost, Proper 18

Our lessons today are about the cost of discipleship, which includes making sacrificial choices about establishing priorities in our lives. In our first lesson, Moses is addressing the Israelites as they are preparing to enter the long-awaited Promised Land after the forty-year journey in the wilderness. Moses urges his disciples to “choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.” Moses reminds us that following God involves our own choice. And our faithful response will almost always require a sacrifice.

Our Psalm poetically presents the choices that God’s people have to make – the choice between a life of righteousness and wickedness. In the first Psalm of the psalter, right out of the gate, the message for God’s people is about the choices we will be presented with in our lives. The cost of discipleship involves making the right choice, even when it is difficult.

But it is our two lessons from the New Testament that give us an idea of what these difficult choices might actually look like in our day-to-day lives. Jesus doesn’t mince his words when he says, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” And what might carrying the cross look like for Jesus’ followers? In one of his least beloved statements in all of the Gospels, Jesus says, "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Back then, and still today in some parts of the world, choosing Jesus had profound financial, familial, and social implications.

But I think that it is Paul’s letter to Philemon that might best demonstrate what sort of difficult choices we are faced with as followers of Jesus. Writing from prison, Paul is sending Philemon’s escaped slave, Onesimus, back to him. But Paul is urging Philemon to take Onesimus back as a free person of equal status. The grounds upon which Paul is making this request aren’t social or political; they are theological. Paul refers to Onesimus as “a beloved brother-- especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.” As Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians, in Christ “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” In other words, in Christ, all of the world’s labels and distinctions take a back seat to one’s baptismal identity.  

This letter tells us that Paul has some sort of authority over Philemon, but Paul says that he wants to place the decision of how to treat Onesimus in Philemon’s hands. Paul doesn’t want Philemon to feel forced into freeing Onesimus. Paul wants Philemon to choose based on his own conscious, informed by his own faith in Jesus Christ. But while Paul isn’t directly forcing Philemon to free Onesimus, he is certainly making a strong case when he says, “So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self.”

If Philemon is astute in his faith, he should notice the rhetoric Paul is using. In other words, what Paul is saying to Philemon is what Jesus says on behalf of us to his Father in heaven– “If your people have wronged you in any way (and we have), or owe you anything (we do), charge it to my account. I will repay it.” And that is exactly what Jesus did for us on the cross. He took our debt and made it good...not because of who we are but because of who he is. So Paul is appealing to Philemon on these grounds. And now, Philemon has a tough choice to make. Paul has laid it out for him, and has appealed to their personal relationship which is grounded in their faith in Jesus Christ. If Christ was willing to take humanity’s sin upon him, and if Paul was willing to make good on Philemon’s debt to him, can Philemon do the same for Onesimus?

We must recognize that this must have been a terribly difficult choice for Philemon, because to take Onesimus back as a free person would have had a huge financial impact on Philemon. Onesimus was Philemon’s property in which he had made a financial investment. Onesimus provided free labor for Philemon. So freeing Onesimus was also a financial decision for Philemon. Letting go of that investment would have been the cross that Jesus told his followers that they must carry. What was more important to Philemon, his financial status or his relationship with Paul and his faith community? Sadly, we don’t know how the story ended, or what Philemon decided to do.

But Philemon’s story is our story as well. As followers of Jesus, we have difficult choices to make. Of course, when we hear Philemon’s story with our modern ears, there is no question in our minds as to what the right thing to do is in terms of slavery vs. freedom. I don’t think anybody here would find the choice difficult in terms of is it right or wrong to own another human being. But, the question becomes more difficult when we frame it in terms of finances. In the United States, during the era of chattel slavery, many slave owners came to believe that slavery was indeed an immoral institution. But they couldn’t bring themselves to act on it, and free their slaves, because it would result in financial ruin for them. The way the agricultural economy worked in the South, nobody would be able to compete and make a living if they all of the sudden had to pay their labor. The only way out would be to sell the family farm and start a new career and way of life.

Today, the choices we are faced with might be more subtle, but we still have choices to make. And these choices can affect our lives, finances, and relationships in such a way that they indeed become our cross to bear.

If not already, I believe that we as a global community, nation and individuals are soon going to be faced with making significant sacrifices in terms of environmental sustainability. In order to preserve God’s creation for the generations that follow, our entire economy will need to shift away from dependence on fossil fuels. The automobile industry will continue to have to make major investments in research and development, and we will have to be willing to pay more for our cars – on the front end at least -  and perhaps own fewer of them. Communities like ours that have no legitimate means of public transit will have to invest in that area. And those of us who are accustomed to the convenience of driving by ourselves in our own cars might have to learn an entirely new way of getting around. Neighborhoods will once again need to have all they need – schools, churches, and a grocery store – within walking distance. And for this to be possible, communities will need to invest in sidewalks and bike lanes so that walking and biking is a safe, viable option. All of these changes will require us to re-order our priorities, which will include a willingness to spend more money than we are used to spending on ways to make our communities, homes, and workplaces more sustainable.

Until we as a nation get to a place where the issue of environmental sustainability is no longer viewed as a political issue, we will remain in gridlock. As Christians, I think that it is important for us to see this as a deeply theological issue, grounded in our belief that God created the earth, and gave us dominion over it, with a responsibility to care for it as good stewards.

It was the Christian Church that led the way in the Civil Rights Movement. And I that the Christian Church should be a leader in the environmental sustainability movement as well. This is an issue that conservative and progressive Christians should be able to agree upon if we can keep the conversation grounded in scripture and theology and away from politics.

From the beginning of time – as early as the Garden of Eden - God’s people have had choices to make. That is our God-given free will. And oftentimes, the righteous choice will involve sacrifice. Jesus himself had such a choice to make, and he chose to suffer and die on the cross so that we might have life. As followers of Christ, the legacy that we leave will be based on the choices we make. As Moses said to the Israelites in the wilderness, let us choose life so that we and our descendants may live.

Making Space: A Reflection on Partnering with God in Prayer

The Mid-Week Missive is based on Community Rules: An Episcopal Manual by Ian Markham and Kathryn Glover, both administrators at Virginia Theological Seminary. I am working my way through this book, reading and writing  through the lens of our Life Together as part of the Christ the King Episcopal Church family, as well as part of the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast. 

Rule #15: Partner with God in Prayer. Markham and Glover’s reflection on this rule can be found in their book, which can be purchased here

How does this rule apply to our Life Together at Christ the King? Markham and Glover assert that “[Prayer] is the space where we seek to align our will with the will of God to further our service in the world.” I agree wholeheartedly, but the challenge for me and likely many of us is making the “space” for prayer. I have never succeeded in being prayerful when I counted on it happening spontaneously or finding its way into my schedule. I have to schedule time every day for prayer to ensure that it gets done. Once the time is marked on my calendar, I then have to protect that time, as if it is the most important, non-negotiable event on my calendar.

On weekdays, these times are 8:30am and 4:30pm, when we pray the Daily Office in the CtK sanctuary. This sort of prayer includes praying the Church’s corporate prayers for the Church and the world combined with personal intercessions, thanksgivings, and supplications.

I encourage all who have yet to find a prayer rhythm and routine that suits your temperament to commit to joining God and God’s people in the fruitful discipline of daily prayer, whatever that may look like for you. It has had a profound impact on me, and I trust that it will for you too. The Good News is that in prayer, you are never alone. You always have a consistent, loving, and faithful prayer partner in God!

 

 

Is Being "Nice" Enough?: A Sermon for 12 Pentecost, Proper 17

 “They were watching him closely…” Such was the situation when Jesus was invited to a meal in the home of a leader of the Pharisees. Upon first glance, the leader of the Pharisees was doing exactly what Jesus was known to do himself – dine with the outcasts of society. Jesus wasn’t a tax collector, prostitute, or even a sinner. But to the Pharisees, he was a threat because the kingdom he kept speaking of – the kingdom he claimed to ushering in – challenged much of what the Pharisees held to be most important. To the Pharisees, Jesus was an outsider. So the leader of this group inviting Jesus to dinner was making a statement. Perhaps this Pharisee was inspired by Jesus’ teaching and extending hospitality to someone who he normally would feel uncomfortable around. Maybe he was “reaching across the aisle” so to speak and seeking common ground with an opponent. And certainly table fellowship would be a less threatening context for this coming together of opposites than the synagogue. So I wonder if Jesus was pleasantly surprised at the invitation, as well as hopeful for the opportunity for reconciliation of sorts.

But when Jesus entered the home, it quickly became obvious that this invitation was not an attempt at reconciliation or genuine table fellowship. Our text tells us that “…when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.” In other words, it was the Sabbath day, he was in the home of a prominent Pharisee, and he was being evaluated. This wasn’t a safe space so to speak.

But Jesus was watching them as well. And what he saw was a jockeying for position among their own group “when he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor.” In that context, at a dinner party like this, the guests would have eaten reclining, in groups of three. And in each group of three, the person with this highest status would sit in the middle, flanked by someone on his right and left. And if someone with high status arrived late, he could “bump” someone out of the middle position. This sort of bumping would have been obviously embarrassing for the person being demoted. So just imagine the awkwardness when the host says, “OK, everyone take their seats, it’s time to eat.” You’d have to quickly scan the room to size up who is there, and where and how you fit within the hierarchy. Needless to say, Jesus didn’t think much of this tradition, and he most definitely wasn’t going to play the game. Of course, the Pharisees there wanted to see if Jesus thought as highly of himself as others who had been speaking of him. If he saw himself to be a prophetic healer and teacher who was ushering in the Kingdom of God, surely he would claim to best seat in the house. And if he did, they could accuse him of poor taste at best and perhaps even blasphemy at worst. But again, Jesus knew their eyes were on him, so he used it as an opportunity to tell a parable about hospitality and humility.

Our epistle lesson from Hebrews, as well as our brief lesson from Proverbs, are also about hospitality and humility. I’m guessing that we are given these lessons at this time of year because many churches are having or gearing up for their Rally Days and kicking off their program years. So now is the time for us to re-focus on hospitality as folks are finding their way back into their routines after the summer season. Of course, I have to be careful not to imply that the full depth and breadth of these passages from scripture are all about being nice by being hospitable at our rally day-type events. After all, at the end of our gospel lesson, Jesus says that “when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous." In other words, this sort of hospitality isn’t about being nice. According to Jesus, it is a matter of salvation.

But regardless of the context, I believe that, taken together, these lessons from Proverbs, Hebrews, and Luke are inviting us to take a deep look at how we practice hospitality as individuals, families, and congregations. For quite a while, the Episcopal Church has taken great pride in our official slogan, “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.” Indeed, it is a nice, feel-good slogan that was adopted as an attempt to counter our reputation as a fairly closed, country club, members-only type denomination. In some ways, this slogan has proven true, as the Episcopal Church has become a destination church for many disaffected evangelicals, Roman Catholics, and others who felt excluded for one reason or another by their denominations or congregations.

The late Rachel Held Evans rose to prominence from well-known blogger to New York Times bestselling author when she wrote a memoir about her journey from her non-denominational evangelical church to the Episcopal Church, entitled “Searching for Sunday.” Many Episcopalians felt very affirmed by Evans’ well-written endorsement of our church’s more open, inclusive, and welcoming stance on many issues. Yet, the fact remains that being more welcoming, open, and inclusive has not resulted in numerical growth for the Episcopal Church. As a matter of fact, the Episcopal Church, like other mainline denominations, has experienced considerable decline in attendance and membership over the past decades. So while we have placed a lot of theological, doctrinal, and marketing emphasis on being “welcoming,” the fact is, people aren’t flocking to our doors for us to welcome.

I think that perhaps one problem with placing so much emphasis on welcoming people is that we are essentially saying, “This is who we are and what we believe, and if you’d like to be a part of it, you’re welcome to come and be a part of it. But we’re still the ones in control here.” Now, don’t get me wrong, this is not a terrible way to be. But it is not the sort of hospitality that Jesus is speaking of in our lessons today. Jesus said that hospitality wasn’t for the sake of hoping that you might get a return invite from those you invite. And it’s not for the sake of adding members to our rolls. He said that “when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you…”.

And notice that Jesus doesn’t place an emphasis on welcoming people if they happen to show up at your door, but rather, on inviting people who otherwise might not be inclined to show up on their own…on people who aren’t being invited by anyone else. And once “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” arrive, not only are we to welcome them, Jesus urges us to invite and integrate them into the life of our community. In other words, we are being called to be transformed by those who enter into our midst. Taken even further, Jesus urges us to give our guests the seat of honor in our community – “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."

Now don’t get me wrong…this is not easy work. It is can be much easier to hang a sign that says “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You” and hope that folks will come to our church and feel welcomed because we are nice. But Jesus is calling us to a deeper, more risky form of hospitality. And the writer of the letter to the Hebrews goes as far as drawing the connection between the strangers to whom we extend hospitality to angels sent from God when he writes, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

 

There is no way that this sort of risky, radical hospitality can be practiced without our utter dependence and reliance on God’s mercy, love and grace. As we prayed in our Collect of the Day, we need God to “Graft in our hearts the love of God’s Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works.” And the fruit of the good work of this sort of hospitality will be a church that more reflects the heavenly kingdom that Jesus was ushering in when he dined at the home of the leader of the Pharisees. And let us remember, we are not in this alone. As our psalmist today declared, “The Lord is [our] helper, we shall not be afraid.” Let us not be afraid to humble ourselves as we invite others to our church, and when they arrive, to welcome and exalt them as if they are angels sent by God into our midst.