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Sunday, November 25, 2018

The Kingdom of the Ego and the Soul

A Sermon Preached on the Feast of Christ the King
Last Sunday after Pentecost - Proper 29 B 
St. Philip's Episcopal Church, Laurel, DE
November 25, 2018

So, I’ll start with a confession because it’s good for the soul. Or, at least, so I hear.

When Fr. Howard called me last Tuesday to ask if I could cover for him today, I confess I was concerned and a bit distressed. I mean, we’ve all seen the commercial on TV where they operate for back pain. The person walks out of the outpatient clinic a few hours after the procedure upright and smiling broadly. 

I, well – many of us, including Fr. Howard – thought that’s exactly how it would go. Apparently, that reality happens more often in TV commercials than in real life.

I was happy to be able to help out, not just for Fr. Howard but because it meant being with you all again. But then, it hit me: This is the last Sunday before the beginning of Advent. And, suddenly, the realization hit me: That means that it's Christ the King Sunday.

Well, if I’m honest, I confess I thought to myself that after more than thirty years of preaching, I don’t think have another Christ the King sermon in me. 

I mean, what more can be said about the fact that the kingdom of God is not of this world? Or, to use the words of St. Paul, that it is in this world but not of this world?

And, anyway, how does that help anyone deal with the realities we have to face today? Is it really good or wise to teach people that they must wait until they die before they can know anything about the Kingdom of God?

So, with my teeth grit, I read over the Gospel lesson from John. Several times. And then, I read it again. And, though I prayed mightily for it, no new inspiration arrived, no new insight, nothing to help us live through these end days of the year when darkness comes early and the morning light appears later in the day. 

So, I got up off my knees and went back to work.

Here’s the truth as I know it: Sometimes, the light of inspiration comes when we least expect it. I think I was in the kitchen, de-boning the Thanksgiving turkey carcass I had boiled down to make some bone broth for the cold that comes in the deep winter months when I heard it.

Listen to part of John’s gospel again with me:

Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.

How odd, I thought to myself. Pilate asks him if he is a king and Jesus says, “I came to testify to the truth.” As if being a ruler and telling the truth are diametrically opposed. As if power and truth are mutually exclusive.  

Is that true, I wondered? Can a person rule and being truthful? We know that many politicians have a difficult relationship with the truth but what about all those people who are charged with the sacred duty of leading the people?  

Are leaders, by their nature, the adversary of truth? Is truth a stranger to leaders? Can truth and leadership walk side by side as companions?  

Now, hear me clearly: I’m not just talking about our current state of political affairs. I’m not talking strictly about American political parties of any persuasion.  

I’m talking about leadership at all levels and in every situation – government officials, corporate executives, heads of pharmaceutical companies, hospital administrators, law enforcement agents, school officials, local business owners, and yes, religious leaders.  

Is it okay to tell a ‘little white lie’? Or, to exaggerate a few details? Or, to play fast and loose with the facts?  

Okay, so I know I wouldn’t appreciate it if you told me that I look awful in the outfit I’m wearing. If you think that, I’d rather you keep the truth of your opinion to yourself, thank you ever so much.  

But, what about those times when the welfare of people’s lives are at stake? Is it okay to ‘tell a white lie’ or ‘exaggerate a few details’ or ‘play fast and loose with the facts’ then? 


Some of us have become so familiar with ‘spin’ that it is a ‘new normal’ for us. This can either make us naïve or cynical. I know I naively believed that Fr. Howard would walk out of that outpatient center and right back into the church. I’m now struggling not to become cynical. 


Here’s the thing I’ve learned as I’ve grown older and not necessarily wiser but more. . . um . . . ‘seasoned’: 


Truth and lies are not always black and white. 


Courage is not always the opposite of fear. 


Those who believe still have doubts. 


Hate is not the necessarily opposite of love. 


In this life, anyway, there are shades of white and shades of black as well as shades of gray. And, most of us live very shadowed lives. 


As I say that, I think of that line in the movie “A Few Good Men,” when Jack Nickolson’s character, Col. Jessup, yells, “You can’t handle the truth.”


Many of us can’t handle the truth – even about ourselves – so we write our own press releases and some of us, unfortunately, actually believe them.


I’ve learned that the stories we tell about ourselves are different, based on their origin. Quaker leaders Parker Palmer and Marcy Jackson from the Center for Courage and Renewal talk about the difference between ego stories and soul stories. 


Let me give you few of their examples:


Ego stories are told for the sake of self-promotion, as when we apply for a job. Soul stories are stories beneath the ego stories, with the thread of truth running thru them.  


Ego stories try to portray us as in control or in charge of our lives. Soul stories are stories of twists and turns when our plans were undone by the unexpected. 


Ego stores are highly crafted stories that leave out important things. Soul stories honor the fragments and integrate them with the whole.   


We tell ego stories at a party when someone asks, “What do you do?” When we want the people we trust to know about us, we tell stories from the soul


As a Hospice Chaplain, I’ve learned that ego stories do not sustain us in times of suffering, but soul stories are the ones we turn to in hard times or when we die.


This is what I hear in Jesus’ response to Pilate. I hear Pilate asking Jesus an ego question and Jesus giving Pilate a soul answer. “So, you are a king?” is Pilate asking, “So, you really do have power? So, the truth is that you can get yourself out of this?” 


And, I hear Jesus answering, a kinder, gentler, more humble version of the statement: “You can’t handle the truth!”


I started out by saying that confession is good for the soul. I do believe that to be true. 


Next week begins the Season of Advent, and we prepare for the coming of Jesus, the Christ, who came into the world not as a King to be worshiped, but as a naked babe, born of lowly and mean estate, not so much to be loved as to love us into being more human.  


Jesus came to testify to the truth which Jesuit scholar and physicist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said so well: “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”


The truth of the God we worship and adore is that God loves us so much that God became one of us. 


And, because God knows our human condition through Jesus, God gave us the gift of free will. 


And, because God loves us unconditionally, God knew we would sometimes make poor choices so God also gave us the gift of grace, grace upon grace, by the power of the Spirit. 


Perhaps, on the Sunday after we have given thanks for all that we have been given, it is a good thing – a meet, proper and right thing so to do – to prepare to confess the truth of who we really are, to tell fewer stories from our ego and begin practicing telling stories from our soul, at least with the people we know and trust.  


Because, you know, confession is good for the soul. Or, at least, so I’ve heard.


In fact, sometimes, you might even get a sermon out of the deal.




Sunday, November 11, 2018

Inspired generosity

A Sermon Preached at 
The Episcopal Church of St Phillip, Laurel, DE
Pentecost XXV - Proper 27 B

I seriously loves me some Jesus, but sometimes – not always, but sometimes – Jesus pulls my last, poor, tired nerve.

Like in this Gospel story. Jesus is in the Temple, sitting across from where people are putting money in the Treasury. Rich people were putting in large sums but he watched as a widow came in and put in a few small coins, worth about a penny.

Jesus calls to his disciples and says look at this poor widow! Even though she’s only contributed about a penny, she’s actually given more than all those rich people.

I want to say, “Wait! Stop! And, what is YOUR contribution, Jesus? For goodness sake, get up, man, and do what SHE did! How about putting into practice what you preach?”

In fairness, maybe he did and that part just didn’t get written into the story. I don’t want my temporary annoyance with Jesus in this particular story to detract from his larger point: There is a difference between giving out of your abundance and giving out of the same generosity with which God gives to us.

I’m privileged to be a guest here so I don’t know when you start your Stewardship Season but I’m of a mind that Stewardship Season lasts all year. As your leadership – laity and ordained – begin to consider the 2019 Budget, I hope you are at least beginning to consider your pledge to this work and ministry of this church, especially as you face the uncertainty and challenges of this time of interim leadership and transition.

So, I want to underscore the point Jesus makes in this gospel story with a story of my own. I want to underscore the point he made about the difference between giving out of your abundance as opposed to striving to be as generous as God is with us. I also want to underscore my own point about leading by example.

I clearly remember the first time I started to earn an allowance. I got fifty cents a week in the form of two shiny quarters delivered to me by my father every Saturday night. Right after we had taken our weekly baths, washed out our white gloves and polished our shoes for Church the next day.

My father would remind me, every week, that one quarter was to go into my piggy bank and one quarter was to go to into the Church collection basket on Sunday.

I can still feel my teeth clench with resentment as I tried to smile and say, “Yes, Daddy.” Sort of the same way my teeth sometimes clench when Jesus annoys me. It didn’t take me long, however, to figure out a way to beat my father at his game.

The collection baskets in the church of my youth were literally baskets with long, smooth handles that the ushers would glide skillfully and smoothly through their hands as you placed your pledge envelope or coins into them. There were three collections in my church: one for the Adults to put their paper money or pledge envelopes, and one for ‘the work of missions’ - usually an order of priests or nuns who were working with people in far off places like Cambodia or Guatemala or someplace in Africa.

The children’s basket was always the last basket to be passed. Since we normally sat in the back of the church, it was filled with shiny coins – dimes, nickels and quarters – rendered with the same resentment I always felt in my heart. The best part, however, before listening for the ‘clink’ of your coin as it went into the basket, was to first move your hand across the cool top of the coins. To a kid, you could almost see the dream of how many ice cream cones or comic books you could buy with that great stash dancing above their heads like the caption balloons of the cartoon characters we watched every Saturday morning.

What was God going to do with all that money, anyway? I was quite certain that God would have been much happier knowing that His children were happy with their mouths full of jaw-breakers or gummy worms we could purchase with those quarters.

That’s when I got the idea. Ready? It’s brilliant. Truly brilliant.

I discovered that if you put your hand over the coins, you could simultaneously drop your quarter in while very discretely picking up one or two more. Then, you would fidget in your seat, pretend to cough into the hand with your ill gotten gain, and then, as your mother gave you the ‘evil eye’ for making noise in church, you simply leaned over and slipped the quarter(s) into your sock or shoe.

Brilliant! It was a positively brilliant scheme which went on for weeks without anyone noticing what I was doing. My parents did get a bit suspicious when I stopped being resentful of giving one half of my hard earned allowance money to the church, so to cover my tracks, I began having conversations with them about how I might have a vocation to become a nun.

I have to tell you, this was my first run as a thief, and I was pure genius! I was being a scoundrel and they thought I was trying to be a saint! How cool is THAT?

Well, because God is God and we are not, all good – and bad – things come to an end. Eventually. Eventually, I got found out.

Turns out, one of the nuns had turned to give me the stink eye when I coughed and saw me slipping the coin into my shoe. Over the next few Sundays, she watched and realized that I always coughed at the same time and always made the same move down to my shoes. She reported me to the priest and, before I knew it, my parents and I were called into the parish office where the nun told my parents exactly what she had seen.

My parents were furious. I was humiliated. The priest, a kind, gentle man, came over to me and gently put his arm around me as he asked why I had done it.

Through heavy sobs and copious tears, I blurted out the real reason: I was afraid. I was afraid because, after I went to bed, when my parents thought we kids were all asleep, I was awake. And, I could hear them argue.

Their arguments were always the same. It was always about the family budget. My brother was very ill and she had to pay Dr. Rudolph for the office visits and she still had a $70 balance with Mr. Rexall at his Drug Store for my brother’s penicillin. Now, $70 may not seem like a lot these days but at that time, for my family, that was a fortune.

My mother was concerned that my father’s good friend, Mr. Johnnie Walker, was taking more money than she was able to pay either Dr. Rudolph or Mr. Rexall. My father said that a man needed something at the end of the day when he worked so hard at the factory. They would go back and forth, their voices getting louder and more angry, and I would fall asleep with the pillow over my head to block out the sounds of their argument.

I thought that I could save up enough money to help my parents pay off the doctor and the pharmacist, let my father keep his friend, Mr. Walker, happy, and still buy candy and comic books for myself and my siblings and friends.

I’m not really sure what happened next. I do remember the priest asking the nun to take me out of the office and to the kitchen where he invited her to share a slice of cake and a glass of milk with me while he talked to my parents.

I do remember that my parents stopped arguing late at night and that Mr. Walker’s name was no longer  a line item on my parent’s budget.

And, I will never forget that this priest’s decision to err on the side of generosity changed my life. Actually, his generosity inspired the generosity of my parents and has inspired me to err on the side of generosity. 

Oh, and he also inspired me to stay away from a life of crime. 

I am inspired, like the widow in this gospel story, to contribute more than mere money. I am inspired not to just ‘go through the motions’ like the scribes in the first part of the story.

I am inspired to be as generous as I know how to be, even though sometimes – not always, but sometimes – the institutional church, the Body of Christ, pulls my last, poor tired nerve.

I hope you are inspired to do the same, because generosity is always inspiring. Your generosity can and will inspire others. Just as God's generosity inspires us.


Sunday, November 04, 2018

And I mean to be one, too.

A Sermon Preached at St. Phillip's Episcopal Church, Laurel, DE
All Saints' Sunday - November 4, 2018

Today is the day many in the church celebrate All Saints Day. We are allowed to transfer it from Thursday, November 1st to the closest Sunday, and so we have in this church.

I don’t know what you, personally, believe about ‘saints’. Episcopalians hold various places on a broad spectrum of thought about this subject. 

Some reject it flat out as ‘Papist rubbish’. Others embrace it fully, even placing statues of various saints in and around the church. 

You’ll even find some congregations with banks of votive candles in front of statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary or in one church I know in Baltimore, a statue of King Charles I, the reported last and highly disputed saint of the Reformation who refused to give up bishops in the church and was martyred for his choice.

So, here’s the question many of you have always wanted to know but were afraid to ask: Do Episcopalians believe in Saints? Do we ‘make’ saints the way the Pope does?  Do Episcopalians have their own saints?  No we do not. 

We do have some saints which you can find listed in the Book of Common Prayer, including Mary, Joseph, Peter, Paul, Matthias, Bartholomew, Matthew, Michael, Luke, James, Simon, Jude, Andrew, Thomas, Stephen and John – all new Testament figures. 

Episcopal Churches are often named after saints from the post-Biblical age (like, St. Augustine), and those individuals identified by the universal church as saints are often called saints. 

But, for the most part, our “saints” are identified as “theologians, bishops, martyrs, etc.” 

Or, as that favorite song in our hymnal “I sing a song of the saints of God,” by Lesbia Scott puts it: And one was a doctor, and one was a queen, And one was a shepherdess on the green; They were all of them saints of God, and I mean, God helping, to be one too.

Saints, for Episcopalians, are people not to pray to or through whom to ask intercession from God; rather, they are heroes of the faith whose lives provide a blueprint of sorts for our lives. 

For the saints of God,"as Scott wrote, are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too."

That is very unlike my highly devout Roman Catholic grandmother who had little shrines everywhere in her house. Indeed, the top of her bedroom bureau was covered with statues of saints with little votive candles in front of them. Under the votive light were little slips of paper with her written prayer petition.

The thing about my grandmother is that she didn’t fool around. If she was going to make a ‘novena’ to a particular saint for a particular petition, that saint had jolly well better respond in the affirmative to her request.

I remember the statue of St. Gerard, the patron saint of families, was always in deep doo-doo.

She would pray to St. Gerard for one of her 15 adult children (she had had 20 pregnancies and 22 children) and, if he hadn’t granted her novena, she would turn him around to face the corner and blow out his candle adding as her finger wagged in his direction, “And you won’t see the light of day again until you answer my prayer.”

I credit my healthy, balanced theology of sainthood from my grandmother.

It always breaks my heart every time I read this morning’s passage from Luke’s gospel and hear Mary say to Jesus, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” It’s so heart-wrenching, that scripture reports, “And Jesus wept.”

But, listen to what Jesus says to the crowd after he performs the miracle of the resurrection of Lazarus. 

Remember, Lazarus has been dead four days. When Jesus commands them to roll back the stone, Mary cautions him that “there will be a stench”.

But Jesus prays to God and then says in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” And scripture reports that “the dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, "Unbind him, and let him go."

Unbind him and let him go. 

The first part of the miracle is that Lazarus was raised from the dead. But the second part is just as miraculous. The people had to help unbind him – they had to get near his smelly body and put their hands on the strips of cloth that bound him and remove them.

To my mind, that is the best understanding of the theology of miracles and saints. 

It’s not just the intervention of God – it’s not just the miraculous working of Jesus. It also takes all of us – the community of faith – to roll up our hands and unbind each other that we may be ‘let go’ of the death-grip of sin. 

To find new life after resurrection.

The stories of the saints are just stories, some of them fantastic. We are the ones who unbind the stories from the past and find within them a blueprint of a life of faith from which we might learn about the miraculous work of God.

And, as Lesbia Scott has taught us to sing, “For the saints of God are just folk like me.” 

So, yes, I do look to the lives of the people I’ve known who have died. I don’t pray to them to intercede with God for me. But, I reflect on their lives and what I’ve learned from them. I try to change my life for the better. 

In Buddhist and Asian cultures, the ancestors are honored and revered not just one day a year but always. In African and African American cultures, the ancestors are likewise honored with libations and prayers.

In Hispanic cultures, "The Day of the Dead" - November 2nd, or All Souls Day - is observed by creating altars with pictures of the deceased and vases of marigolds. The names of the deceased are said aloud and everyone responds "Presente" - "present" - as an acknowledgement that the souls of the deceased live on. 

I want you to take one moment right now. Close your eyes and call up the faces and names of the saints in your life who have died and passed on to the other side. When you are ready, speak their names, aloud or silently in your hearts.

Take a moment to do that right now. 

And, now, let us all say, "Presente".

I believe what we say in the Creed every Sunday. 

I believe in the communion of saints. 

I believe that Jesus kept his promise and has given us the gift of life eternal. 

I believe that our ancestors are with us, walking with us, inspiring us on this pilgrimage we call life.

I can’t prove that to you. If I argued the case in court against Perry Mason I would most certainly lose. Which is right. It doesn’t make any sense, actually. But faith rarely does.

Jesus said to the crowd, “Unbind him and let him go.”

It’s a message we all need to hear on this day when we honor and celebrate the saints who have gone one before us, the saints who are here now, and the saints who are yet to come.

May we continue to be free – to be let go, unbound – to worship God in the fullness of the great mystery that is God - and the mystery that is the faith of our lives.