Sunday, October 11, 2015

Sermon; 20 Pentecost/Proper 23B; Mark 10:17-31

Last week the question was asked, “Why do we bless pets on St. Francis Day?”  I channeled my inner Tevye and said, “Because . . . Tradition!”

Tevye must still be with me, because after looking at today's gospel, I kept hearing, “If I were a rich man . . . yubba dibba dibba dibba dibba dibba dibba dum.”

The first few lines of that song basically equate to, “Would it be so awful to let me be rich for awhile?”

But as the song progresses, Tevye's imagination begins to run away, envisioning a house with a long staircase for going up, an even longer one for coming down, and one just for show; his wife yelling at the servants; and him sitting with the wise men because, if a man is rich, people think him to be wise also.  The song moves from a desire to not be poor into a concern with showing off his riches and being fawned over by others.  Tevye becomes selfishly obsessed with how others would treat him.  His imagined riches lead to conditional deference and a desire to show everyone what his money could do.

The rich man in today's gospel is accustomed to dealing in contracts and negotiations.  His search for eternal life is presented as just one more transaction to complete.  He approaches Jesus and asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

That “do” is assumed to be an action or donation that he will be able to accomplish by using the interest from his wealth and not the principle.  That “do” is assumed to be something that takes a little effort but not necessarily a whole lot of commitment.  It's like the old joke about the traditional eggs and bacon breakfast: the chicken makes an effort, but the pig is wholly committed.  The rich man wanted to be the chicken.

We need to keep in mind the timeline of the gospel.  Today's story takes place as Jesus is on the road to Jerusalem, Holy Week and his crucifixion.  He has made two Passion predictions.  He has told the crowd, “If any want to become my followers, they must take up their cross and follow me.”

Jesus is totally committed to his mission and he is willing to give up all he has for the life of the gospel.  And this is what he asks those who would follow him to do as well.  We are asked to give up what we claim to love most in favor of following the gospel.  Hymn 550 expresses this perfectly in verse three: Jesus calls us from the worship of the vain world's golden store; from each idol that would keep us, saying, “Christian, love me more.”

What often gets overlooked in today's gospel is that it is a call story.  The rich man is asking for guidance on how he might obtain eternal life.  Jesus calls him to give up that which blocks him from being fully committed to the gospel.  Like the hymn says, Jesus is calling him away from the worship of vain idols, asking him to love God more.  Jesus is calling him to die to his old, selfish life and into a new life.  Just like with Peter and Andrew, James and John, and Matthew, Jesus is calling him to put away his old life and into a new life of discipleship.  And the man refuses.

We need to pay attention here because it is not wealth per se that is the problem.  The problem is often the attitudes created by wealth: God must love me more than others; my wealth must mean I'm wise; I can buy whatever I need/want, including special treatment; poor people don't want to work and only want stuff for free; and on and on.

The problem with giving up our idols to completely follow Jesus is that the greater the wealth, the more idols there are to give up.  And that's hard.

But as one commentator said, “It's probably no accident that this story follows the story of Jesus welcoming the little children.”  Part of our journey as disciples involves giving up our perceived control and seeing God through a child's eyes.  That is, with wonder, awe, trust, love and complete reliance.  The rich man in today's gospel was unable to do that.  He was unable to trust in God more than he trusted in his own self and his riches.

Eternal life is not a transaction to be completed.  It is not acquired by doing anything, as the rich man supposed.  Instead, it's a “how” to be performed.

Eternal life is how we answer the call to discipleship.  It's how we treat the people around us.  It's how we prioritize our lives.  It's how we live into discipleship with the wonder, trust and complete reliance of a child.

Like the rich man, Jesus is calling us to commit to the cross and the gospel.  How we respond is totally up to us.


Sunday, October 04, 2015

Sermon; 19 Pentecost, Proper 22B; Mark 10:2-16

Today, October 4, is the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi.  And today is the day we honor him by holding our annual pet blessing.  I was asked at our men's breakfast last week why we have a blessing of the animals.  I replied, “Because, in the words of Tevye, 'Tradition!'”  But there's more to it than that.

St. Francis is probably the most beloved and well-known saint in the Church.  He was born into a wealthy family in Assisi, Italy, in 1181 or '82, and was, by some accounts, the Johnny Manziel of his day – the typical spoiled rich kid.  While heading off to war and glory in 1204, he had a vision that changed his life.  He renounced his worldly ways and money (to the great displeasure of his father), and began a life of poverty and preaching.

He gained a following which was granted official recognition by Pope Innocent III, established two other Orders, traveled to Egypt in an effort to secure a peaceful end to the Crusades, rebuilt decrepit churches, and created the first Nativity scene in 1223.  He did all of this while under a strict vow of poverty, using only his desire to serve Christ to the best of his ability.

Francis had a high view of creation, contending that, as recorded in Genesis, it was all good.  That goodness is reflected in humans, animals and plants, but is corrupted by our sin and is in need of redemption.  This love of creation was shown in his Canticle of the Sun where he wrote of Brother Sun and Sister Moon.  We are probably most familiar with this Canticle in hymn 400 of The Hymnal 1982, “All creatures of our God and King,” which,  unfortunately, is not one of our selected hymns today.

As I said earlier, St. Francis is probably the most well-known and beloved of the saints.  We've turned him into garden statues and bird and bath feeders.  We have one of these in our rose garden, by the way.  We bless pets on his feast day and turn him into a character who would be right at home in the forest with Bambi and Thumper.  But, as LFF says, while “Francis may be the most popular and admired of all the saints, he is the least imitated.”

Lest we get too enamored of this gentle, God-fearing, creation-loving saint, don't forget he turned his back on a successful business and a financially secure future in order to live as Jesus instructed his disciples – taking no purse, no staff, no extra clothing.  Like Mother Theresa, he spent his life among the poor.  There is a reason this current pope took the name of Francis.

He worked among the poor because, according to Scripture, God is most concerned for them.  Over and over again we hear the words of God in the law and prophets telling us to treat the poor with dignity and respect.  And over and over again, through the law and the prophets, we hear God admonishing the rich and telling them not to neglect the least of God's children.

There's a scene in today's gospel that gives us an example of what the law, the prophets, Scripture and God are talking about.

Jesus is in a house discussing marriage, divorce, adultery and all kinds of groovy things when people begin showing up with their kidlets for Jesus to bless.  The disciples didn't much care for this intrusion.  Whether they thought children should be taught elsewhere to be admitted to the assembly only after they understood what was happening, or whether they thought children shouldn't be allowed in because they might be a disruption to the adults is never really stated.  What is stated is that they spoke sternly to the children.

But Jesus doesn't let this pass, and he gets indignant with his disciples.

“Let the little children come to me; do not stop them.  For it is such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”

Today, as with at any time in history, children are some of the most vulnerable and at risk members of a society.  Whether they are children living in war torn areas, children facing high mortality rates, or children facing extreme hunger on a daily basis, children are at the top of the “least of these” list.

In a sense, children represent everyone and everything that is vulnerable.  We need to be less like the disciples who try to control and limit the presence of the vulnerable, and more like Jesus who sees the vulnerable as a blessed part of the equation.

How we treat the vulnerable and marginalized in society is important.  How we treat a vulnerable ecosystem is important.  How we treat the animals is important.  In other words, how we, as stewards of God's earth, treat all of creation is important.

And this is why we honor St. Francis today.  Because Francis understood that God cares for the vulnerable in all aspects – for the poor and vulnerable people among us, for the vulnerable environment we live in, for the vulnerable animals at our mercy.  He understood that all those are vulnerable as a result of our sin.

We honor St. Francis today because he understood this and worked to make things better for all vulnerable.  And maybe the reason we have the tradition of blessing the animals is because that's easier than advocating for the poor, saving the environment or working in shelters.

Today we welcome and bless one vulnerable group of God's creation in the name of St. Francis.  And that's a good thing.  Hopefully it isn't the most important thing we do for the least of these and the vulnerable in the world.


Sunday, September 27, 2015

Sermon; 18 Pentecost, Proper 21B; Mark 9:38-50

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, “it means just what I choose it to mean.”

I could be wrong, but I think this quote is more meaningful now than when Lewis Carroll penned it 145 years ago.  It seems to me that people will use a word of opinion and treat it as fact, while using the same word of fact and treat it as an unverifiable opinion.  There are many ways this comes up, but one of the most annoying uses of words to mean what a person wants them to mean is the word “literal” – especially when that word gets tied to the Bible.

As in:  I believe in the literal word of the Bible; I believe the Bible is literally true; we take the Bible literally.  The overarching term for this is called biblical literalism, and some people use it as a club against anyone who they think is not a real, true Christian.

You can hear cries of biblical literalism when people rail against marriage equality, women's ordination and accounts of creation, just to name a few.  And you will always know when you've come into contact with a biblical literalist when that person begins or counters an argument with, “The Bible clearly says . . .”

But here's the thing, there are very few things for which the Bible clearly says.  Or, more correctly, there are very few things for which the Bible clearly says that we actually believe and obey.  And that is why biblical literalism is, at best a myth, and at worst a club used to beat down those who have different interpretations.

The Bible clearly says slavery is not only normative, but condoned by God; but this country fought a war to banish that evil practice.  The Bible clearly says we are to honor the Sabbath; but how many of us will do some sort of shopping or work today?  The Bible clearly says that those who don't honor the Sabbath are to be executed; but how many of us fear for our lives as we do that shopping?  The Bible clearly says that women are to be silent in church, that we are not to wear two kinds of fabric, that those with physical imperfections or foreign blood are not to be admitted to the house of God, that aliens are to be treated as equal citizens, that newly wed soldiers are to receive a year sabbatical from military service and a whole host of other things that we conveniently choose to ignore.

If you think I am cherry-picking selected, brutal Old Testament passages, let's pay attention to today's gospel.  If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off.  If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off.  If your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out.

These are not the brutal edicts from an iron-age desert tribe.  These are the words of the man whom we consider to be the Savior of the world.

Biblical literalism is a myth.  Nobody follows the bible literally.  Everybody makes personal or communal interpretations.  Everyone picks and chooses which parts of the Bible are important and worth following . . . or worth using to attack others.  And this is where biblical literalism is most problematic, because those who claim a version of biblical literalism spend most of their time attacking those who don't follow their particular understanding of the Bible.

I was in a group one time where I put forth my understanding and reasoning for granting LGBT people full equality:  love God, love your neighbor; there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; God shows no partiality; respect the dignity of every human being.  I was soundly attacked by a woman who pastored a church where she taught, and her congregation understood, that gays were going to hell because the Bible says so.

Um . . . think about that for a minute . . . a woman . . . pastored a church . . . where she taught . . .

Biblical literalism at its finest right there.

But we can get so hung up on what the Bible says and arguing with others about that, that we forget something very important.  We can get so focused on the fact that some people aren't doing things the way we are doing them that we miss the bigger picture.  And that bigger picture comes at the beginning of today's gospel.

“Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name and we tried to stop him because he wasn't following us.”  At which point Jesus ordered his disciples to stone the heretic because he wasn't using the authorized version of exorcism and he wore a cotton-flax blended shirt while doing it.

No, that's not what happened.  What happened is that Jesus chided his disciples to focus less on their differences and more on their similarities.

Let's face it, we are not going to make every person in Grants Pass an Episcopalian.  We aren't even going to convert every Christian in Grants Pass to the Episcopal church.  The goal of Christian unity is not to make everyone Episcopalians; the goal of Christian unity is to focus on our similarities.

Biblical literalism is a myth, but biblical truth is not.  What would happen if people spent less time on where others are getting it wrong and more time on what we are all doing right?  What would happen if we spent less time attacking others for not following the Bible as we understand it and more time on living into the truth of Christ?  I think what might happen is that the words of the Lord's Prayer might actually come true . . . on earth as it is in heaven.


Wednesday, September 23, 2015


We are assigned games through an assigning website.  It's a convenient way to get your schedule, unlike the old days when we were handed out slips of paper with our games and then we had to go through and check our schedules to see if we could work, turning back games we couldn't and trying to pick up games we could.

The way it goes now is that, before the season, we can log onto the site and go through the entire season blocking out days, or parts of days, when we are unavailable.  The assigner then knows immediately who is available for games and who not to assign.

We get an e-mail notification when we are assigned new games.  We get onto the site, accept the games, and note when, where and what time the game will take place.  In short, I know about two-weeks in advance where I will be working every day of the week.

As a white hat (crew chief), I send an e-mail to my crew reminding them of the game, what the weather report is, whether we will be wearing shorts or pants, short sleeves or long sleeves, and about what time I will be at the game site.

Yesterday one of my crew did not show up for a game, so we worked it with three.  He just didn't show up.  There was no e-mail stating a problem.  There was no phone call or text.  Just not there.

After the game, I talked with my boss and told him of the no-show.

This morning we all received a message laying the blame for the no-shows on the white hat.  "Make sure you call your crew -- e-mails and texts are not working."

Um . . . IT'S NOT MY FAULT.  The guy KNEW he was working that day (he accepted the assignment).  I sent him an e-mail.  If he can't keep track of his own life, why is it MY PROBLEM to keep him straight?  (Know that Friday nights are different, because we often have to make travel arrangements to show up together, whereas weekday games we are all coming separately and often from our day jobs).

So . . . I called the guy today (because he's on my crew tomorrow) and said, "This is your friendly reminder from your babysitter about the game tomorrow . . ." in a not-really-friendly tone.

He said, "I didn't forget on purpose . . . "

I wanted to say, "Really?  What does forgetting on purpose look like?"

Instead I simply said, "Be there at 4."

I have a feeling he will be early.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Sermon; 17 Pentecost, Proper 20B; James 3:13 - 4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37

A couple of weeks ago I said that it was usually pure coincidence when the Epistle reading thematically matches up with the gospel reading.  That's because unlike the Old Testament lessons that were traditionally chosen for a thematic match, the Epistle readings just cycle through.  If you are paying attention, you will notice that we hear good portions of the letters from Paul and the other general epistles as we move through the season.  But the letter from James is a different matter, because James ALWAYS seems to relate to the gospel reading.

“Where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.”

“When they came to Capernaum, he asked them what they were arguing about.  But they were silent for they had been arguing about who was the greatest among them.”

“But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle and willing to yield . . . You covet something and cannot obtain it, so you engage in disputes and conflicts.”

“The Son of Man will be betrayed, killed and rise again.  Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

Both James and today's gospel passage have to do with humility, servanthood and welcome.  Both readings give us, as Paul writes, a more excellent way of doing things.  And today, I want to focus on the idea of servanthood.

Today we hear the second Passion prediction found in Mark.  Jesus, second person of the Trinity, will be betrayed, executed by the state, and, eventually, rise again.  He could have stopped Judas from that awful act, but he chose to follow God, not his own selfish desires.  He could have prevented his execution, but he chose to follow God, not his own selfish desires.  Through his serving God, he was able to show that, ultimately, neither the state nor the world have any power to give life.  Life is only to be found in God, but we must be willing to submit in order to claim it.  We must be willing to serve in order to be great.

And whom are we to serve?  If we put this in the context of the two greatest commandments – love God, love your neighbor – the answer is obvious: serve God, serve your neighbor.  In serving God, we look for ways to serve our neighbor; and in serving our neighbor, we serve God.

To drive this point home, Jesus silently chides the disciples for arguing about their status.  He then reminds them that he who serves others will be great.  And, since people often need an example, or often reply, “Show me,” he brings a child into their little circle and says, “This . . . if you welcome the children, if you welcome the vulnerable, and do it in the name of my love, then you also welcome God into your midst.”

Serve God, serve neighbor; serve your neighbor, and you are serving God.

So whom do we serve?

We can, and do, serve those in this parish.  Whether that is as mundane as providing study opportunities, welcoming newcomers and visitors, or is more intentional by providing quilts for the sick and recovering, or offering meals for those in need.  Those are some of the ways we serve our neighbors in this parish.

We serve the children of Ft. Vannoy by providing food, clothing and monetary assistance to the family advocacy program.  But we also have the opportunity to do more.  We could drive out to Ft. Vannoy and volunteer as classroom aides or tutors.  We could staff the parish hall in afternoons offering homework help or other tutoring opportunities for the people in our neighborhood.

And on a much larger scale, we have an opportunity to welcome and serve those children of God who are displaced by the war in Syria.

There have been calls for governments and churches to help the Syrian refugees by providing food, housing and jobs.  Our Presiding Bishop has issued a letter on this topic.  Even so, even with the images of miles of people, of children who have perished, or of Hungary erecting a fence, some of the push-back has been, “Why should we help them when we have poor, sick and starving people in our own country?”

That may be true to an extent, but it also seems to me that is a line used to absolve people of doing anything at all.  It's the first line to, “Let someone else deal with it.”

Granted, we can't help everybody.  We can't serve everyone.  But we can help one.  We can serve one.

As we continue to process the Congregational Vitality work we did, as we continue to look to answer the question, “Who do you say St. Luke's is?” and as we continue to look for ways to market that identity, let us continually remember the words of James and the example of Christ – submit to God and serve all.

For it is when we serve God that we are open to serving our neighbor.  And it is in serving our neighbor that we serve God.


Saturday, September 19, 2015

We Got It Right

I had a game at my favorite site last night.  Not only do they provide us with a spacious place to get dressed, but they also give us fantastic hamburgers and Gatorade at halftime.  And on top of that, the school put in a new artificial turf field last year that, compared to their last field, is like walking in a bouncy house it's so soft.

At one point we had this play happen:

4th and many yards to go for the Visitors.
The snap went over the punter's head and he went chasing after the ball.
After securing possession, and being pursued around the field, he managed to get a kick off.
The kick was about two feet off the ground and traveled about seven yards.
The Home team tried to recover, but muffed it.
The Visitors also muffed it.
Then the Home team muffed it again.
The Visitors finally ended up in possession with the ball.

After the dust (or rubber pellets in this case) had settled, we had one of those very long conferences in the middle of the field with the entire crew.  Let's just say we weren't talking about those bacon cheeseburgers.

Who touched the ball?  Where did they touch the ball?  Who ended up with the ball and where?

After figuring all that out . . . Visitors ball 1st and 10.  And one unhappy Home coach.

But we got it right, and that's a very good feeling.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Sermon; 16 Pentecost/Proper 19B; Mark 8:27-38

16 Pentecost/Proper 19B
Mark 8:27-38

Jesus is making the move to Jerusalem.  We are still a few chapters away from Holy Week, but he has begun moving in that direction.  And it is in this reading where we get the first of his three Passion predictions.  The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, be rejected, killed and raised after three days.

Following this first Passion prediction, Jesus instructs the crowd on the meaning of the cross.  It is in the emptying of ourselves that we are filled.  It is in losing our lives for Christ that we gain life.

While this is always a good sermon topic, and while it is always good to meditate on the meaning of the cross and how we might empty ourselves, losing our life for Christ, especially with Holy Cross Day being tomorrow, that is not the focus of today's sermon.  Not only is it not the focus of the sermon, but it's not even what we need to be focused on here at St. Luke's today.

What we need to be focused on today are the first three verses of today's gospel passage:  Who do people say that I am?  John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets.  But who do you say that I am?

Jesus really isn't interested in what other people say about him – he's interested in what the disciples say about him.  But who do you say that I am?

He's interest in their opinion of him because it is these twelve men – well, okay, eleven plus Matthias – who will begin to spread the word about Jesus.  They are the ones who will first proclaim Jesus as the Messiah.  As such, they need to know who he is.  They need to be able to articulate who he is.  Because if they don't know who he is, if they don't know whom they are following, how will they be able to spread the Good News of the kingdom of God?  How can they articulate what they don't know?

That's a pretty basic statement:  We can't articulate what we don't know.  Likewise, the more we know about something, the better we can explain what we know.  For instance, the few times I have golfed, I hit the ball really far . . . to the left.  I know nothing about swings, so I simply adjust my stance 45 degrees to the right and . . . problem solved.  I can't tell you why that works, it just does.  A swing coach would be better able to articulate what's going on there and probably come up with a better solution.

Jesus wanted to know what the disciples themselves thought about him.  Who did they think he was, and could they articulate that?

Today we are standing with the disciples.  Today we are being asked a version of the same question; but instead of, “Who do people say that I am?” the question is, “Who do people say that St. Luke's is?”

And instead of, “Who do you say that I am?” the question is, “Who do you say that St. Luke's is?”

Who are we as a parish?  Do you know?  When inviting people to church, can you articulate either why you attend St. Luke's or what we are about?

Who do you say St. Luke's is?

Well, we are about to find out.

Last spring, John, Sharon and I attended a congregational vitality seminar at Trinity, Ashland.  There were a variety of components to the overall session, and the three of us decided that the component addressing the Culture of Anglicanism was the best fit for St. Luke's.

This was followed up a few months later when we invited Sarah Fischer to come work with the Vestry.  Her time with us resulted in those pieces of newsprint hanging in the parish hall.  Sarah has since moved to Seattle, so we have invited Susan Ladue to be with us today.  Susan has been to the full College of Congregational Development program sponsored by the Diocese of Olympia, and she has led other congregations in this process, so she knows her stuff.

In today's gospel we hear the first of three Passion predictions.  Passion comes from a Greek word which means “to suffer.”  The Passion of Christ begins with Jesus' emotional prayers in Gethsemane and ends with his death on the cross.

That word, Passion, has taken on a different meaning over time.  Suffering has been replaced with a powerful or compelling emotion or feeling, or a strong fondness or enthusiasm for something.  There are other definitions attached to it, but those two will do for now.  But even with that change, there is still a connection between the Passion of Christ and our passion.

As we move through this process of learning about the Culture of Anglicanism, keep this question in mind:  Who do you say that St. Luke's is?  Because it is this question that we hope to answer so that we might more fully articulate who we are as Christians, Episcopalians and St. Lukans.  And as we move through this process, I hope we see what we are good at, what moves us – in other words, what our passion is – and how we might articulate that to the wider community.

Jesus gave his first Passion prediction in today's gospel.  This is where his mission on earth will end and our mission begins.  Today we will be looking at where we might be going and, I hope, it will allow us to find the passion of this parish.  And it will be in finding that passion that will allow us to fully and competently answer the question:  Who do you say that St. Luke's is?