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Sunday, February 24, 2019

The Broken Truth

Epiphany VII - February 24, 2019
St. Phillip's Church, Laurel, DE

I have to admit, all of the lessons for today make me uncomfortable but especially the story from Genesis of Joseph and his brothers. And, yes, the Gospel of the teachings of Jesus from the disciple, Luke, too.

Do you know the story of Joseph? Not his namesake, Joseph, the husband of Mary and the earthly father of Jesus. You may vaguely remember “Joseph and his coat of many colors” from an old Sunday School lesson. 

You may have even heard of the Broadway musical, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat.” And, maybe you caught the reference in Dolly Parton’s song, “The Coat of Many Colors (That my mamma made for me).”

But, do you know the story of Joseph? In this morning’s lesson we hear the part of the story of Joseph’s emotional reunion with his brothers. Joseph appears to have come to a place of peace about their profound betrayal. But, let me briefly catch you up to speed on the whole story.

The brothers were envious of Joseph because he had the gift of dreams, and although he was the 11th of his father, Jacob’s sons, he was the firstborn of Rachel and his father’s favorite. This favoritism was represented in the beautiful coat of many colors that was a gift from his father.

In their jealousy, the brothers intended to kill Joseph but decided instead to leave him for dead in a deep pit. 

He was then sold into slavery, and when his brothers couldn’t find him where they left him, they faked his death. Joseph went from slavery to relative privilege, then to prison after being falsely accused of rape. 

He languished there for years until he was remembered when the pharaoh needed help interpreting a dream. Joseph then enjoyed prominence as the second most powerful man in Egypt. Now, when he is confronted by his family’s desperation, he interprets this as divine providence. 

Joseph reunites with his father and full-blood brother, saves them all from starvation, and brings them to Goshen to live in security.

And, you thought YOUR family was mixed up!

Jesus seems to be recalling his father’s ancestor’s story as he sets a seemingly impossible bar for us to live by.  
But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, he says, “Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you.”
I won’t ask you to raise your hands but I am going to ask the question: How many of you are sitting in this church right now and thinking to yourselves, “Well, he’s not talking to me. He was talking to his disciples, using Joseph as an example.” 

Or, maybe you’re thinking, “Oh.My.God! I could never live up to that standard.” 

Or, maybe you’re even thinking, “Man, I have really got to work on forgiving so-and-so.” 

Or, perhaps you may be thinking, “I really regret what I did to so-and-do. How can they ever find forgiveness for what I did? How can I forgive myself for what I did?”

I hope you have listened to these words of Jesus and this reflection of mine and are starting to feel just a bit uncomfortable, too. 

Here’s why these texts cause me so much discomfort: Christians have often encouraged people to be silent about their pain, using the Bible as our justification. 

I can tell you lots of stories – true stories – of how these texts have been employed to silence the victimized so that others are not discomfited or inconvenienced by their difficult stories. 

And, isn't that just what the church has done with the children - and women - who have been abused by clergy.

Or, some of us use these texts as window dressing to cover up our pain but let people think we’ve got it all together. One woman once said to me, “You know, I’d love to go to your church but, well, I’m just not like them.” 

When I asked her what she meant she said, “Well, everyone always looks so happy. They have perfect lives and perfect jobs and perfect families and they’re always smiling and I’m just so far from all of that I don’t even know how to relate. I just wouldn’t fit in.”

I haven’t had the chance to speak with any of you about the stories of your lives, but I know one thing for a fact: You’ve got stories. Lots of stories. Stories of hurt and betrayal. Stories of pain and tears and loss. 

And, I know for a fact that while some have reached a resolve and found a place of peace, others of you have not. But, while you have found the strength to move on, you are still carrying around the pain of all of that. I know this because underneath this fairly healthy neurotic exterior beats the heart of a woman who has her own stories, too.

That’s not the question. The question is this: What ever are we to do about this teaching of Jesus? How are we ever going to reach the seemingly impossible standards he has set?

I think before we can get to the ‘how’ we need to look at the ‘why’. Why do we do these things to hurt others? Why should we suffer the things others did to us in silence? Why should we forgive? Why would others forgive me if I can’t forgive myself?

There’s a wonderful children’s story called “Old Turtle and the Broken Truth” by Douglas Wood, illustrated in gorgeous watercolor by Jon J. Muth. Like so many children’s stories, I think it contains the wisdom we need to find the strength to live into the teachings of Jesus.

It begins, 
“Once, in a beautiful, faraway land… that was somehow not so very far, a land where every stone was a teacher and ever breeze a language, where every lake was a mirror and every tree a ladder to the stars, into this far and lovely land there fell . . . a truth. It streaked down from the stars, trailing a tail as long as the sky. But, as it fell, it broke. One of the pieces blazed off through the night sky, and the other fell to earth in the beautiful land.”
The story continues that the various animals of the beautiful land noticed the fallen piece. Crow thought it a beautiful shiny truth but something didn’t feel right. He thought something was missing.
Fox, Coyote, Raccoon, each picked up the shiny object and noticed its truth but they found that it had rough edges. “We do not need this broken truth,” they said, “We will find a whole one.”
Butterfly and Bear also discovered the truth, draws by its sweetness, but each found it bitter tasting after all. “There is something missing in this truth,” they thought and left it alone. 
Then, a human being found it. He had been listening to the breezes and enjoying the beauty all around him and he found the Broken Truth. On it was this writing: 
“You Are Loved.”
The man held it carefully, thinking it was the loveliest thing he had ever seen. He tucked the Broken Truth into a safe place and kept it. Sometimes he would take it out and admire it. And the truth sparkled just for him, and whispered its message to him alone. And, the man thought he had never felt so proud and so happy.
The story goes on, as children’s stories are wont to do. The man finally brings the Broken Truth to his people – those who look like him and sound like him and dress like him – and everyone is happy. For a long time, everyone is happy. 

Soon, others come to their land – people who do not look like them or sound like them or dress like them but they want the truth that they have because they want to be happy like them. And fights break out and wars begin and there is destruction and death, all because everyone wanted to possess this Broken Truth.

Until one day…. A Little Girl came to find Old Turtle. 
“She had traveled very far, and crossed the Mountains of Imagining and the River of Wondering Why and had found her way through the Forest of Finding Out.” Finally she arrived at the Center of the World where she saw so much beauty she could hardly speak. It was there that she found Old Turtle.

She said to Old Turtle, “Where I live, the earth is sore and people are suffering. Battles are fought, over and over again. People say it has always been this way and it will never change. Can it change, Old Turtle? Can we make it change?”

That’s when Old Turtle told her the story of the Broken Truth. “It is because it is so close to a great, whole truth that it has such beauty, and people love it so,” said Old Turtle. “It is the lost portion of that Broken Truth that the people need, if the world is to be whole again.”

The people only had one part of the truth and that truth is this:
“You are loved.”
But, the other part of the truth, the part that makes it whole is this:
“And so are they.”  
Old Turtle tells the Little Girl: 
“Remember this, Little One. The Broken Truth, and life itself, will be mended only when one person meets another – someone from a different place or with a different face or different ways – and sees and hears…. Herself. Only then will the people know that every person, every human being, is important, and that the world was made for each of us.”
Until we understand the Whole Truth – that we are all made of the same dust as Adam, and in the image of God and that we are all loved by God – until we understand that Whole Truth we will keep on hurting one another. When we understand the Whole Truth we will look at The Other and see ourselves – someone with the potential to do great harm and someone with the potential to do great good. It is an ancient truth that we hate most in others what we fear most in ourselves.

You know, in Inda, people greet each other with a bow. They are bowing to the spark of divinity that is in each other. How different would the world be if we bowed to each other when we met? If we acknowledged the divinity - the goodness, the potential to do great good - in each other?

We might just have a shot at changing the world for the better. 
“We are loved. And so are they.” 
If we understand that truth, we might have a glimpse of understanding the truth of the teaching of Jesus: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you.”

That doesn’t make it easy. The truth rarely is.  But you can begin to find it after you cross the Mountains of Imagining and the River of Wondering Why, and make your way through the Forest of Finding Out. 

There, you might listen to the stones, which have something to teach, and to every breeze, which has a language to speak, and where every lake is a mirror and every tree a ladder to the stars. There, you might connect with the enormous beauty of the world and the mystery and wisdom that is at the center of life. 

There, into your midst, an ancient stone of truth may fall and your brokenness will be healed by the wholeness of the truth which Joseph learned and Paul began to understand and Jesus came to teach:
“We are loved. And so are they.”    


Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Incarnational Defiance

Spouses at Lambeth 2008
Just so I'm clear at the outset before I get myself tangled up in the weeds and in case you've been out of the Episcopal/Anglican news cycle: The invitations for Lambeth 2020 have been sent out to all the bishops in the 77-million member world-wide Anglican Communion.

And, wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles, the one bishop who is gay and the one bishop who is lesbian, and, no doubt, the one bishop-elect who is a gay man, have all been invited to Lambeth Conference. You will remember Lambeth 2008 when the lone 'out' gay bishop, Gene Robinson, was pointedly un-invited. But, you will also remember he went anyway.

So, the black-eye at Lambeth Palace has finally faded from that, but the good bishops just can't seem to get out of their own way. They have made it clear that the spouses of those bishops are not invited.

You can "read all about it" here: Same-sex spouses not invited to next year's Lambeth Conference of bishops.

I'm trying not to go off on too much of a rant here but, Sweet Baby Jesus and all the angles that rock him to sleep! Remember just a few weeks ago when some of us, on the issue of marriage equality, declared "The strife is o'er, the battle done; the victory of life is won; the song of triumph has begun"?

And so, here we are with the Purple Princes of the Church declaring, "Okay, so we see what happened last time, and we don't want to seem inhospitable so you gay bishops can come but you have to bring your closets with you - not your spouses."

I understand from other conversations around the internet that one UMC pastor from Kenya is quoted as saying about his denominational issue over matters of sexuality,
“In Africa, we have people in polygamous marriage and others who practice female genital mutilation, but we have never advocated for such issues to be universal,” he said amid cheers of ‘Amen’ from congregants. “We don’t want the issue to be included in the church because it’s a sin. God forbids it.”
Polygamy and Marriage Equality? FGM and Marriage Equality? Talk about your basic false equivalence. 

It won't be long before we hear "the slippery slope" argument which goes something like, "What's next? Marriage to dogs?"

Shortly after that will be the "Chicken Little School of Theology" which will proclaim, "The Anglican Sky is falling."

Haven't we been enough times around this part of Mulligan's barn? 

Look, I'm as tired as the next person of this issue which ought not to be an issue at all. 
We should be outraged that last night, millions of children around the world went to bed with their tummies growling and right now, thousands of elderly in this country are trying to figure out how to pay for their medicine like insulin AND their heating bill while Big Pharma executives are drinking a $12 martini before eating a $30 lunch.

Right this very minute, the POTUS has declared a state of emergency and 16 states have filed lawsuits while our Congress grinds to a halt.

And, in all probability, there's someone out there right now working out his rage and plotting to take his guns into a school or a theater or his old work place and kill a whole bunch of people before he commits "suicide by cop". 

And, as I write this, some Black girl or boy is getting ready to walk home from school, praying not to be stopped for Walking While Black.

And, here we are, splitting hairs over what to do about the fact that two gay men who are bishops and one lesbian woman who is a bishop can't bring their 'lawfully wedded spouse' to Lambeth Conference next year?

At least, not yet. Our Presiding Bishop hasn't yet spoken on the matter. Neither has the House of Bishops or the Executive Council. 
My take? This is a decision which first needs to be made by the three spouses. If they want to show up, anyway, just the way +Gene Robinson did in 2008, then that changes the whole thing.
I'm calling it "Incarnational Defiance". Showing up anyway, even though your presence confirms that yes, these three bishops are not celibate; they are married, legally and sacramentally, just like all the other bishops who have their spouses in attendance. 
This is what +Mary Glasspool and her spouse have done. +Mary asked her spouse and now she is taking the conversation to her colleagues in the House of Bishop. 
I'm sure one of the options will be what I call The Three Musketeers approach: "all for one and one for all". If one doesn't go, all don't go. 
Entre nous: I just don't think that's going to happen.  It's just not. I've got stories from my attendance at Lambeth 1998 and Lambeth 2008. Trust me on this. The bishops are not "all for one and one for all". Why would we think their wives would be? 

Besides, we have eight (8) bishops who made Resolution B012 necessary: When a priest in their diocese wants to preside over the marriage of a same-sex couple, that priest has to appeal to his/her bishop for DEPO (Designated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight ). In other words, another bishop must be called in to assist with the pastoral needs of that clergy and that couple.  

You may remember that the Bishop of Albany has even declined the limits of B012. 

And, there are others who are none too pleased with any of it, but they stay below the radar screen, much in the same way they do with the ordination and employment of women. 

So much for "all for one and one for all".

So, buckle up, buttercups. The wailing and gnashing of teeth has begun. Some people are already threatening to leave - The Episcopal Church, Christianity, all of it. 

We're a long way from any final decision. I hope we can all keep our powder dry and let these three spouses discern what it is God is calling them to do, hoping that they have the support and love and encouragement from their spouses and enough of the other bishops and spouses to feel supported in whatever it is they decide. 

Meanwhile, I'm praying for Incarnational Defiance. 

As Jack Spong famously said, "The Church will die of boredom long before it dies of controversy". 

Meanwhile, there are mouths to feed and sick people who need access to affordable health care and  epidemics of opioid addiction and gun violence to tend to and walls to bring down (or prevent from being built) so that justice roll on like a river and righteousness like a never-falling stream.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

My Father At 100

I woke up this morning and, shortly thereafter, was startled to another awakening that today, my father would have been 100 years old.

He has been on my heart all day. And, as I have done on his birthday for several years now, I rejoiced to think of him in heaven, singing the song he sang to each one of his children when we were babies and teething, or frightened in our beds when there was a thunder and lightning storm, or we had had a difficult day in school or on the playground.

"You are my sunshine, my only sunshine," he would sing, and by the end of the tune, we just knew that, no matter what, everything was going to be okay. 

And then, there were times when it seemed that he seemed so intent on making our home, our world, so chaotic and violent that nothing would ever be okay, ever again. 

There was a time when I rejoiced that I would not see him after I died because I was convinced he would not be in heaven.

I know. That makes me sound like a terrible person. There's a reason for that.

Daddy was an alcoholic. When he drank, he could be dark and moody and rumbling, like a volcano before eruption. During those times, we kids stayed in our room, being very, very quiet, because when he exploded, it was ugly. 

He could be verbally abusive or physically violent - sometimes both.
It took me many years to forgive my father for his temper and his alcoholism. That came about only after I had spent some time hanging around with alcoholics in the AA meeting I used to sponsor when I was Chaplain at University of Lowell in Lowell, MA.
Hearing the stories of the folks who came to those meetings peaked my curiosity about my father's story. Their story - and his story - were healing and transformative. 
My father was one of the middle of five children born to two Portuguese immigrants from the Azores. My grandfather was a farmer and a fisherman who someone managed to save up enough money to by a piece of land where he built a home for his family and started a farm with a vegetable garden, fruit trees and farm animals. 

This not only fed his family but also provided an income for his family. They were poor, but they managed and, as my father always said, "We never went hungry."

And then, necessity being what it was, my grandfather pulled his children out of school after the 6th grade in order to work on the farm and in the factories of the mill towns of Northern New England.

My father's mother died when he was 9 years old and his father re-married within a year of her death. 

My father's narrative was that the woman was a "spinster" whose father wanted her out of his house, so a deal was made. She was, my father said, "a very sour woman" and was "mean" to the children.

The Army provided an escape from all of that, and my father enlisted shortly after the outbreak of WWII where he served in the Pacific Front. We didn't have the understanding or the language for it then, but I'm convinced my father suffered from PTSD after his experiences in the war. 

He kept a box in the basement which contained his uniform and his Purple Heart along with the helmet of a Japanese soldier - one of the many he shot and killed - which had the picture of the soldier, his wife and child tucked inside the helmet.  

Sometimes, he would take out his "War Box". I would often find him holding the helmet and staring at the picture. He was so lost in thought he never even knew I was standing there. 

Not longer after one of those moments, he would have one of his "bad dreams". He would yell and holler out as he relived something that happened to him in the war. 

And then, he would SCREAM. Oh, God! How he would SCREAM. 

He would wake up the entire household with his screaming. We kids would be downstairs, outside my parents bedroom, crying, "Daddy, Daddy, what's wrong? Daddy, are you okay?" 

And, my mother would try to soothe him and he would start crying and then we would cry with him and he would tell us to go back to bed and that he was okay. And then he would take us up to our bedrooms and he would sing, "You are my sunshine".

I never really knew if he was singing it to calm us or himself. Maybe both.

And then, he would sit at the kitchen table, he and his favorite coffee cup and his old buddy Jack Daniels. We would wake up in the morning and find him asleep (passed out) at the table, the bottle of whiskey almost empty.  

My mother would be in the kitchen, shushing us kids as she readied the Faberware coffee pot, and took out the Melmac "every day" dishware for us to set the table while she fixed breakfast. 

He soon took to drinking at night, a way to calm the beast that lived in his brain, no doubt. He used to say it helped him to "calm his nerves" so he could "find sleep". 

Yes, that's exactly what he said: "find sleep". Even at a young age, that always struck me. 

My teen years were volatile - probably no more volatile than any other teenager, especially in the late 60s, early 70s. My father's alcoholism was in full bloom and with it his temper and abuse and violence.  

My mother, not fully understanding and without any support or help from anywhere - her family, her friends, her church, her physician - fell into all the enabling behaviors we now call "dysfunction".

I found solace anywhere but at home. I spent so many hours at the library, the staff there put me to work. I didn't mind and they seemed to understand. 

It was in that library that I learned the origins of the word "dysfunction". It means "painful functioning". I didn't fully understand what that meant, but I did understand that it was painful to function in my family. 

What I didn't know - and wouldn't know until much, much later - that the origin of that painful behavior was unaddressed and unattended pain. It was the pain my father was trying to anesthetize but no amount of alcohol could control or contain or cure.     

Slowly, slowly, slowly, as I grew up and matured emotionally and spiritually, I began to hear my father's story in a new way. As I listened to the stories of alcoholics in the AA group I sponsored as a Chaplain at ULowell, I heard the deep regret, the sincere need and genuine desire to make amends, which was often experienced by the affected family member or friend as "too little too late". 

Slowly, slowly, slowly, I began to take to heart the lessons I learned in ACoA groups. I learned that I was the "hero" in the family system.  I used to say the ACOA "Three C's" mantra repeatedly, "I didn't cause it. I can't control it. I can't cure it."    

It all helped to help me be able to forgive my father. 

At the end of his life, Daddy suffered from "senile dementia". A week before he died, I went to visit him in the Extended Care Facility where he was recovering after a long stay in the hospital with COPD. He would have small windows of time when he was clear and lucid. I tried to take advantage of those times to tell him that I loved him. He would look at me and smile. 

He was feeling restless so I got him up so we could walk down the hall. He seemed anxious but he was having a moment of clarity, so I tried one last time to bring closure to our relationship.

I said, "Daddy, I want you to know that I forgive you."

He stopped and turned around to look at me. A warm smile came over his face, a smile I suddenly realized I hadn't seen in years. "You do?" he asked, with just a note of amusement in his voice. 

"Yes, Daddy. I do. I forgive you."

My father smiled, looked me straight in the eye and said, "Well, good. Because I forgive you, too."

And then, it washed over me like baptismal water. Indeed He may have needed forgiveness, but so, in fact, did I. I needed forgiveness for the ignorance and insensitivity which were at the root of my hardness of heart. I needed forgiveness for the myriad ways that children hurt their parents, intentionally and unintentionally. 

My father started walking ahead of me again. The anxiety had returned. 

I called out to him, "I love you, Daddy," The desperation I heard in my voice startled me.

My father turned around and said, "And, I love you, too."

And then he turned and started walking again, driven by some unknown, unseen force that propelled him forward. I felt helpless. Not knowing what to do to help him, to ease his distress, I found myself singing to him:
"You are my sunshine, 
My only sunshine."
My father stopped, turned around and smiled. He walked back to me as together we sang, 
"You make me happy
When skies are gray
You'll never know, dear
How much I love you.
Please don't take my sunshine away."
We sang that song over and over again, up and down the hall, until he tired and got back into his bed. He hummed that song to himself as he finally fell back to sleep. 

Today, my father would have turned 100 years old. I rejoice to know that he's in heaven. I think of him singing his favorite song to the angels. 

And, that they are singing it with him.   

And, I rejoice to sing it with him while I am here on earth, until we can sing it together again in heaven where no one will be able to take our sunshine away.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Evangelism: Far From The Shallow

A Sermon preached for Epiphany V - February 10, 2019
Christ Episcopal Church, Milford, DE

“Do not be afraid.”

Have you noticed how often that sentence is said – especially in the Gospel stories? An angel said those very words to the mother of Jesus before she was told she was pregnant. 

And now, as he is about to launch his ministry, forming his disciples from the placental waters of Lake Gennesaret, Jesus says the same thing to Simon, the one he would come to call Peter, after he had been born again by the Spirit as ‘the rock’ upon which Jesus would build his church.

“Do not be afraid.” Peter and John and James, his partners in a small fishing business, had been working all night and had not caught any fish. They are exhausted and bone tired. But, here comes this Jesus, not even a local fisherman but the son of a carpenter from Nazareth, and he’s telling them how to fish.

And yet, they do what he says. And, wonder of wonder and miracle of miracles, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break.” I imagine Simon Peter must have felt a mixture of gratitude and awe, along with a touch of embarrassment and unworthiness, confusion and fear. He fell down before Jesus saying, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!"

And Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Do not be afraid.” And then he told him that his vocation was going to change. 

Instead of catching fish, Simon Peter was going to be “catching people.” And after he and James and John brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed Jesus.  

This morning, all over Western Christendom, preachers will use this opportunity to talk about evangelism this Sunday.   

Or, not. Especially in Episcopal churches. 

The only ‘e’ word we seem to be able to use is “Episcopal”. We also talk about ‘the economy’. Some of us love to talk about Queen Elizabeth I, who led us skillfully through the Reformation and laid the foundation for the Anglican Communion from which The Episcopal Church was birthed.

But, ‘evangelism” is a word that is abhorrent to some of us. I used to have a New Yorker cartoon pinned above my desk. It was from the ‘70s when The Episcopal Church was going through lots of ‘changes’. 

The scene is the church steps, and the tall and dashingly handsome and dignified “Father What-A-Waste” is greeting some Upper East Side Blue Haired Dowagers on the steps of the church. Behind him is a sign announcing today’s Sermon: “Evangelism”. 

In the cartoon caption, one of the women is saying to the priest, “But, Father, everyone one who needs to be an Episcopalian, already is.”

Those of you who have been Episcopalians for a long while know exactly what I’m talking about. Presbyterians may have originally been known as “God’s Frozen Chosen,” but everyone knows that there was a special place in hell for Episcopalians who can’t tell a salad fork from a dessert fork.

Some Episcopalians have been known to break out in a full-blown rash upon merely hearing the word “evangelism” spoken. Remember that scene in The Princess Bride where Vizzini keeps saying, “Inconceivable!”? 

And Inigo Montoya says, You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” 

I think that’s true about Episcopalians and evangelism.
For five years, I worked as Canon Missioner to Bishop Jack Spong. Those were tough years - long hours, lots of travel - but some of the best of my ordained ministry. I learned so much from him - mostly because he said such provocative things – sometimes, maddeningly challenging things – that it made me question just what it is I really believe. 

Which meant, I had to put some work into my faith. Often, it was enough to make me sweat. But, my faith was always stronger at the end of one of Jack’s spiritual workouts.

Jack Spong said, 
“The task of religion is not to turn us into proper believers; it is to deepen the personal within us, to embrace the power of life, to expand our consciousness, in order that we might see things that eyes do not normally see.”
In that case, I’m a real evangelist for my religion because I think that’s exactly what Jesus did. I think, if we practiced that kind of evangelism, people might not flock to our churches and fill our pews so our collection plates would be filled to overflowing, but that’s not what Jesus said. 

He said, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”

Okay, you know me well enough by now to have seen this coming. It’s story time, folks. It’s about how I got caught trying to catch someone else and we both got caught because we moved away from the shallow and put out into deep water.

I was a very green, very wet-behind-the-ears newbie priest. You know, the kind who think they know everything just because they’ve been to seminary? Yup, that was me. 

I was that newbie priest who just knew in my bones that the reason the world was in such a mess was due to the fact that what they needed was . . . . ME!

See? I was ordained to save the world. Problem was, in spite of all my fancy (and expensive) education, I had forgotten that Jesus had already taken the job title of “Savior”.

At the time, I was Assistant to the Rector at Memorial Episcopal Church on Bolton Hill in Baltimore, MD. Part of my portfolio was to visit the folks over at the newly built church housing for the elderly, appropriately named “Memorial House.” I would preside and preach at a noonday Eucharist every Tuesday and then visit with the folks in the dining hall.

One of the residents asked me to see a woman who was new to the community. Her husband had been a fairly well known and loved pastor in the Black Baptist community. He had died suddenly and their five children, concerned about her being lonely, had convinced their mother to sell their magnificent old five story Brownstone and move into Memorial House where she’d be with “people her own age” and “make new friends” and “be happy.”

She wasn’t. Happy. At all. In fact, she was quite miserable. She had taken to staying in her room – even taking all of her meals there and not engaging in any of the many offered activities. So, I went to see her. Of course, I went to see her. I was going to save the world, wasn’t I? Why yes, yes of course, I was. One broken hearted woman at a time, if necessary.

Oh, I had no idea what I was in for. Did I mention that I was very young and inexperienced? She was older and wiser and a pastor’s wife. She had seen more and done more than I could ever think of or imagine. She was very stiff, very formal and it was clear that she thought me an idiot. 

A lovely idiot. A well-meaning idiot. But, an idiot nonetheless. She was absolutely right.

At the end of our first visit, I offered to pray, which actually brought a smile to her face. She seemed pleased at the prospect. Until I reached for my Book of Common Prayer. “What are you doing?” she asked, clearly displeased. 

“I’m … I’m… why… I’m going to pray,” said I.

“With THAT?” she demanded, pointing to my book. 

I haltingly nodded yes, beginning to understand how Dorothy might have felt standing before The Wizard.

“You mean,” she sniffed, “you don’t know how to PRAY? All that fancy education and you can’t PRAY without opening a BOOK?”

Right. She was Baptist. I, an Episcopalian. She was Black. I am White, but I turned several shades of red, I’m sure. I stammered out an apology, opened my BCP, cleared my throat, and said, “Let us prayer.” 

In the silence I had been carefully taught to leave after those words, I heard her take a huge sigh.

Our visits went on like that for several months. About 15-20 minutes of awkward conversation, followed by an even more awkward time of prayer out of the BCP. Until one day, I decided to take the plunge. I decided to try to pray spontaneously, and from my heart. 

I thought, well, you know, what’s the worse thing that could happen? She’d laugh at me? Well, maybe, but maybe then she’d understand why I had to use my BCP for prayer.

So, when it came time, I said, “Would you like to pray?” 

She nodded her head and I asked if I could hold her hand. “Why, how will you hold your book?” she scoffed. 

Too afraid to say anything else, I just took her hand in mine, closed my eyes, took a deep breath and tried to search my heart for a place of truth from which to speak.

I have absolutely no idea what I said, or how long I spoke. All I know is that when I opened my eyes and looked at her face, her eyes were brimming with tears which were streaming down her face. 

I panicked! “Oh dear!” I said, “Oh, I’m so sorry. Did I say something to offend you?”

She smiled kindly and gently took my face in her hands. “Oh, no, child. No. Do not be afraid. You did a fine job."

"It’s just that, when we get to this point in our visit, even when you are using your prayer book, I know it’s time for you to leave."

"And this time, when you were praying just now, I realized how fond I have become of you. And, I realized that I miss you after you leave. And then, like just now, I realize just how lonely I really am.”

I put my hands on top of her hands and said, “So, why don’t we talk about that loneliness?” 

Which we did, for the next hour, and for many hours after that. 

She would tell me stories about her husband and her children and their life together. And their church. And, her faith. And, I told her my stories.

That's not necessarily what many would call evangelism. I do. I was changed and transformed and would never be the same b/c of that conversation. 

My faith in God and love for Jesus and trust in the Holy Spirit have been strong ever since. 

I didn’t become a Baptist. She didn’t become an Episcopalian. No one’s church membership role increased. No collection plate got fuller.

But, I do believe that we were both changed and transformed and our faith deepened. As that song goes from the newest version of A Star is Born, We were “far from the shallow.” 

We’re all tired of trying to fill the void that comes from feeling safe in the shallow end. Some of us need more. Some of us know that it’s “hard keeping it so hardcore.”

Here’s what I’ve learned over the years: I have learned that people really want – what people really need – is the words of that old Negro spiritual, “A Balm in Gilead”.

The old slaves used to sing: “If you can not preach like Peter, if you can not pray like Paul, you can tell the love of Jesus, and say he died for all. Oh, there is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole! There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.”

We are – every one of us: male, female, old, young, rich, poor, gay, straight, bi, black, white, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, every single human being walking the face of the earth, every single last one of us– in desperate need of human kindness, human understanding, human contact.

No one knows what burdens we are carrying around. No one really stops to think how lonely it can be in a world filled with people who walk around with their heads down, their eyes fixed on a ‘smart phone’. 

Communicating not with human voice but by texting. 

Letting emojis express their feelings. 

But, never really connecting beyond the shallow.

Here’s my nickel’s worth of unsolicited advice about evangelism: 

Reach way down deep and find the Christ in you and dare to be that Balm in Gilead for someone.

Take a real risk and reach way down deep to find the Christ in others and let someone be that Balm in Gilead for you. 

No one will call that ‘evangelism’ but I will tell you that it is the sort of evangelism that will make Jesus smile.

Move far from the shallow. Put out into deep water and lower your nets.

And, as Jesus says, do not be afraid.    


Sunday, February 03, 2019

If it's not about love, it's not about God

A Sermon for Epiphany IV - February 3, 2019

So, after reading and studying this gospel passage, I come to you this morning with some questions that have been weighing heavily on my heart.

If you know how the story ends, what trouble are you willing to make for Jesus? If you know how the story ends, what would you be willing to risk for Jesus?

So, to try to answer that, let's get into the middle of today's Gospel Story.

Jesus has gotten himself into a peck of trouble, hasn’t he? Things have turned real bad real quick.

In the Sunday lesson we heard two weeks ago, he got himself in trouble with his mother during a wedding feast over at Capernaum when they ran out of wine and Mary told Jesus about it.

Well, we didn’t hear this part in the Gospel, but I’ll tell you what, if I were at a wedding with my son – my only son, whom I loved – and told him that there was no wine, and he said, “Woman, what has that to do with me?” Well, let’s just say there would have been  . . . . consequences.

So, he leaves Capernaum and heads back home to Nazareth where he gives his first sermon in the synagogue. He gets an A+. People were “amazed at the gracious words that came out of his mouth.” And, they said, “Hey, isn’t this Joseph’s kid?” 

If they had heard about the miracle in Capernaum, perhaps they were they expecting some favor or something from the home town boy? Some special treatment? Some little miracle he might perform just for their pleasure and enjoyment?

But, Jesus is just not having it. He had to tell them the truth. Even though it makes the people of the town so angry – so filled with rage – they got up drove him out of the synagogue and out of the town and led him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built so that they might hurl him off the cliff.  But, he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

That’s a pretty incredible scene, isn’t it?

What would make Jesus do that? Why would he risk riling the very people he had grown up with? Why would he risk his life like that? Did he really have to tell the truth? 

Couldn’t he have softened that story of Elijah saving that one widow from Zarephath in Sidon? Did he have to make a point of Naaman being the only leper healed by Elisha?

Why couldn't he just have kept his mouth shut? Would it have hurt him to maybe zap a couple of containers of water so everyone could drink wine and be happy? 

Couldn't he just "go along to get along"? Where is that Baby Jesus meek and mild when you want him?

Well, I want to offer one possible answer. 

I think Jesus risked telling the truth, even if it angered people, because he knew how the story was going to end.  Indeed, he knew the whole story even before it started to unfold. He was very clear about who he was and what it was he was supposed to do. And, with that clarity, he could do nothing else but what he was put on this earth to do.

And, he was willing to risk everything for it. Even his own life. 

Because, he knew the whole story: Why it began, the sacrifices that were in the middle how the story was going to end - and, why.

I heard a story this week that reminded me of this scripture. It’s the story  - the true story - of WWII. It’s the story about the country of Bulgaria, which was one of the countries to form an alliance with Nazi Germany.

In 1941, the German government forced anti-Semitic legislation on Bulgaria but the people refused to enforce it. 

In 1943, the German government told the country of Bulgaria to deport all non-Bulgarian Jews to the concentration camp at Treblinka but some high Bulgarian government officials stopped the process from happening.

Finally, the German government demanded at all Jews – ALL Jews – in all of Bulgaria be rounded up and sent to the train station to be deported. 

And, it happened that this time, Bulgaria obeyed. 

All over the entire country of Bulgaria, from east to west and north to south, every man, woman and child of Jewish origin was rounded up and marched to the train station where they awaited to be boarded onto a train and deported.

Except, a Bulgarian man from the military, and one from the legislature, and one religious leader who lined themselves up in front of the thousands of Jews who stood at the train station. 

And, they said to the Germans, “You can take the Jews. But, you must kill us first.”

Hear their words again and let them sink in: "You can take the Jews. But, you must kill us first."

And, they wouldn’t move.

They stared each other down, these three men: the military man, the lawyer and the religious leader and the German soldiers. 

And then, they walked through the German soldiers and escorted them out of their country.

And, every year, on the anniversary of this event, the people in the town gather to celebrate what they call, “The Ceremony of the Ungiven.” They say prayers and light candles and sing songs and they remember the three men who put their lives on the line to save the lives of thousands of others.

Why did they do that? What gave them the courage to stand up to evil like that? Why did they risk their lives for others?

I want to offer one possible answer: They knew how the story ends. 

These three men knew the story of Jesus. And, they know how the gospel story ends. 

They knew that death is not the most important thing. They knew that kindness is. And, compassion. And, the courage to not just know the truth but to risk everything for it.

Because the truth is that we know what Jesus knows: Love is stronger than death. 

As St. Paul tells us in this morning's Epistle: 
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”
Love is the way the Gospel story begins - in the Garden of Eden with the love that brings the whole of creation into being.

Love is in the very middle of the Gospel story - in the Garden of Gethsemane with the sacrificial love of Jesus who surrenders his life for the life of the world.

Love is the way the Gospel story ends - with a return to the Garden of Eden and the Tree of Life as told in the Book of Revelations. 

In the words of our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry,  
“If it's not about love, it's not about God.”
So, what are you willing to do for love? Look around. Look around. See how lucky we are to be alive right now. Look around. Look around. See whose luck is down right now.

If tomorrow, we received an order to round up all those who were not born in this country and told we had to deport them back to the country of their origin, what would you do? 

If, after than, we were told we had to round up all the Jews and Muslims, everyone who wasn’t baptized Christian, and deport them? What would you do? 

Would you stand in front of all those people on that train platform? Would you look the soldiers in the eye and say, “You can take them. You can deport them. But, you’re going to have to kill me first?”

What are you willing to risk for love? 

What truth do you know that you are willing to annoy and disturb others for? 

What truth do you know that you are willing to die for? 

What truth do you know that makes life worth living?

I know the story of Jesus. So do you. 

I know the story of the sacrificial love of God as revealed on the cross in Christ Jesus. So do you.  

I know how the story of Jesus ends - not on the cross of shame but in the empty tomb of the possibilities of love.  

And, so do you.

What trouble are you willing to get into for love? 

What risks are you willing to take for love?