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Sunday, June 25, 2023

Lost and Found


St. Phillip's Episcopal Church

Laurel, Delaware
Pentecost VI - Proper 7 - Year A

June 25, 2023


Did you hear what Jesus just said?  “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother,  and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;  and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”


Well, after reading that Gospel I can promise you this: Next time I am asked to be a guest preacher anywhere, I am definitely going to read the lessons FIRST before saying YES.

My friend and colleague, Margaret Watson, says, “Sometimes, you just gotta let it lay where Jesus flang it.” And, that’s what I intend to do.


This is a sermon about how God surpasses and transforms our expectations, bringing a sense of peace out of turmoil, a sense of belonging out of a sense of abandonment, and a sense of hope out of despair.  In order to understand that, you must listen to and understand – out of all of the many things Jesus says to us in this gospel passage – the following words:


“Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”


First, let’s talk about families. The first lesson this morning is about the abandonment of Hagar, the Egyptian slave of Sarah, the wife of Abraham. Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham to conceive a child, Ishmael, the firstborn, because Sarah was unable. It’s the first recorded surrogacy.  


It wasn’t just that Abraham abandoned Hagar and his firstborn son Ishmael; it was that he sent them to the wilderness where they would face certain death. All of this because his wife, Sarah, wanted to insure that the son, Isaac, whom she bore by some wonderful miracle became the certain heir of his father’s legacy and did not have to share it with Ishmael.


Pretty chilling, isn’t it? But, some may argue that Abraham was just following directions from God, who told him not to worry, assuring him that Ishmael would not only survive but would live to see “a nation” come together under him, because he, too, is Abraham’s offspring.


Is this what Jesus was referring? This blind obedience to the voice of God, even if it causes the disruption and destruction of families? Is this what Jesus meant when he said, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword”?


Certainly, many preachers over the years have interpreted these passages this way. In my work with Hospice patients, I have seen family arguments lead to heartache when a well intentioned person, dying of cancer or heart disease and convinced he or she have been stricken with this illness as divine retribution for one sin or another – sometimes grave, other times trivial like “I once had a cigarette with some friends on the football field” or, “I had sex before I was married” – and the only way they believed they were going to gain entrance beyond the Pearly Gates was to leave their life savings not to their family but to a local pastor or Televangelist.

I have come to believe that the judgments we heap on ourselves – or the judgments we allow others to heap on us – are seventy times seven worse than anything we will experience when we come face to face with God. 70 x 7. I do not believe that the God of unconditional love we see revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is about judgement for infractions of what are human constructs, limited human understanding, of Divine will, in the absence of grace.


That is not what Jesus is talking about in this morning’s gospel. Jesus was warning against what it would cost to go up against the Roman Empire in order to be one of his followers. Hear Jesus say, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul;”

The possibility of death lies in the direct confrontation of the teachings of Jesus with the ‘powers and principalities’ of the day. It is then that the sword of Jesus will bring us the peace we seek when we act on our convictions, when we find the courage to live in our lives what we say with our lips.


In the almost 37 years I’ve been privileged to serve as a priest, I’ve come to know several people who have made difficult decisions based on what they believe that has not killed the body but came very close to killing the soul, the essence of who they are.


I’ve known young women who became pregnant and their decision to have an abortion or to keep the baby and either raise them on their own or get married to a man their family didn’t like or thought too young to marry, caused them to be abandoned by their families. It was devastating to those young women who, no matter their choice, were acting on their beliefs.


I’ve known lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people who made the world-shifting choice to be who they understood God made them to be and “come out” – to be – their authentic selves. Because of that choice, they were abandoned by their parents and families. UCLA studies indicate that sexual minorities are twice as likely as the general population to experience homelessness in their lifetime, the highest proportion being transgender youth.

And yet, in each and every one of the people I’ve known who have sacrificed everything for their own integrity, their own authenticity, for their dream, find a sense of peace that they have done the right thing, even as their hearts are broken by rejection and abandonment.

Like Hagar and Ishmael, God has provided a well of water in the midst of the desert, and promises a new family and a new home to be built from the broken pieces of abandonment and betrayal.  

That is because no one is ever outside of God’s grace. No one. We can be outside an awareness of God’s grace but the pathway to our salvation lies in our awareness and acceptance of God’s grace, as St. Paul says, “so we, too, (like Christ) might walk in newness of life,” even when it comes in most unexpected ways and from strangers.

A final story: Howard Thurman, was an African American author, philosopher, theologian, mystic, educator, and civil rights leader. In his autobiography, Thurman tells of his lonely years growing up in Daytona Beach, FL, a segregated town, where the nurturing black community and a profound interest in nature provided his deepest solace.

Schools in Daytona Beach went only to the seventh grade, so Thurman's family scraped together the funds to buy a train ticket for him to travel to high school in Jacksonville. It was a dream for which many were willing to sacrifice – a dream of a better life for this grandson of slaves –despite the lies some people wanted them to believe about the limits or deficiencies or worth of the life of a person of color.


Buoyed by the emotional and spiritual and financial support of his family, Thurman set out to pursue his dream.  However, at the train station, Thurman was told he had to pay extra to send his baggage. Buying the ticket had left him destitute; he had no more to ship his trunk.


Suddenly, all the awful things people said about him and people of his color and station in life began to feel utterly defeated. This must be what it felt like to have someone “kill your soul but not your body”.

Thurman writes: “I sat down on the steps of the railway station and cried my heart out. Presently I opened my eyes and saw before me a large pair of work shoes. My eyes crawled upward until I saw the man’s face. He was a black man, dressed in overalls and a denim cap. As he looked down at me he rolled a cigarette and lit it. Then he said, “Boy, what in hell are you crying about?”  

And I told him.

“If you’re trying to get out of this damn town to get an education, the least I can do is to help you. Come with me,” he said.

He took me around to the agent and asked, “How much does it take to send this boy’s trunk to Jacksonville?”

Then he took out his rawhide money bag and counted the money out. When the agent handed him the receipt, he handed it to me. Then, without a word, he turned and disappeared down the railroad track. I never saw him again.”


And, just like that, God gathered up the broken pieces of his dreams and wove of them out of the kind generosity of a stranger in work shoes, overalls and a denim cap, a way in the midst of the wilderness.

God offered him a cool sip of the living water of hope when his mouth was parched with despair.
God cut through the darkness of uncertainty with the sword of possibility and provided a way forward not only for Thurman but for the many students he would teach and inspire, including people like Barbara Jordan, Alice Walker, and Martin Luther King Jr.

Thurman never forgot that act of kindness, and dedicated his autobiography “To the stranger in the railroad station in Daytona Beach who restored my broken dream sixty-five years ago.”

This is a sermon about how God surpasses and transforms our expectations, bringing a sense of peace out of turmoil, a sense of belonging out of a sense of abandonment, and a sense of hope out of despair.  In order to understand that, you must listen to and understand – out of all of the many things Jesus says to us in this gospel passage – the following words:


“Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”








Sunday, June 11, 2023

"As Jesus was walking along . . ."


 St. Mark's Episcopal Church
Pentecost II - Proper V
June 11, 2023

“As Jesus was walking along . . . .”

So begins our gospel lesson today, which sounds so casual, so nonchalant, that we cannot possibly be prepared for the incredible things that are about to unfold. This include, the calling of Matthew and what Matthew witnesses as he decides to follow Jesus:  The healing of a young girl so sick she is presumed to be dead and the healing of an elderly woman suffering for twelve years with hemorrhages.

Now, when you stop to think about it, the calling of Matthew to be a disciple was pretty amazing. He, himself, was a Jew who was a tax collector. That meant he worked for the Romans, the occupiers and oppressors, extracting unfair taxes from his fellow Jews and being paid an annual salary what was probably more than his fellow Jews would make in their lifetimes.


To say that tax collectors were hated is to make an understatement. Even the Pharisees, who had an unhealthy relationship with Rome, hated the tax collectors and complained to Jesus when they saw him sharing a meal with them “and other sinners”. And here, Jesus calls one of them, a man named Matthew, to be one of his disciples. And, wonder of wonders and miracle of miracles, Matthew follows him. Here’s what Matthew sees:


“As Jesus was walking along . . . .” suddenly a leader of the synagogue called to him, begging to come and heal his daughter whom he presumed was already dead. He assures the man that she will live and “as Jesus was walking along” to go and cure her, he is suddenly approached by an elderly woman who touches the hem of his cloak in hopes of being healed.


“As Jesus was walking along . . .” he stopped and turned to her and said, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” And instantly the woman was made well.

It’s almost dizzying, isn’t it? So many miracles packed into – let’s see, 1, 2, 3 paragraphs. And all of it happened, “As Jesus was walking along.” It’s all so casual that you might have missed the golden nugget of a lesson Jesus provides in the midst of all of these nonchalant miracles.


Jesus says, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’”

Woah! Hang on! Let’s hear that again: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”  That’s a pretty heavy lesson he’s nonchalantly dropped into the midst of nonchalantly performing three miracles.


I confess that, over the years, I’ve probably lost count of the number of times I’ve preached on this gospel passage, but I don’t think I’ve ever been struck as hard by these words. I think I’ve preached on Jesus saying, “Follow me” and the significance of the call to Matthew, the tax collector, and what it means to follow Jesus. I’m sure I’ve preached on the healing of the little girl and no doubt the healing of the elderly woman.


Maybe, in the midst of all that’s happening in this Gospel, I’ve missed – or, perhaps more accurately, avoided – the words of Jesus to the Pharisees, “Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”


For our Roman Catholic friends as well as those in the Episcopal Church who understand themselves to be Anglo Catholics, today is the Feast of Corpus Christi, also known as the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, celebrating the Real Presence of the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus in the bread and wine of the Eucharist.


In medieval times in many parts of Europe, but especially in England, Corpus Christi was a time for the performance of mystery plays. The plays in York, England were performed on Corpus Christi Day for some 200 years until their suppression in the sixteenth century during the Protestant Reformation.


The observance of this day is frown upon by many as a relic of the kind of religion that moves the Eucharist to the status of an idol to be worshiped – too much emphasis on the “sacrifice of the mass” and not enough on the mercy of Jesus. 


I’ll leave that question to be debated by theologians as well as basic questions like, How is mercy different from sacrifice? What is required of mercy that is not required of sacrifice? And, what could any of those words, spoken to some ancient religious men mean for us today?


No, I’m not going to run to the dictionary and I’m not going to give you an exegesis on the passage. I could do that but this is a sermon meant to inspire more than instruct. I’ll leave all the classroom stuff to a weekly bible study or adult education class where it rightly belongs.


No, I want to talk about Ted Lasso. Does anyone in church today know who I’m talking about? For those of you who don’t, here’s the basic plot: American college football coach Ted Lasso  heads to London to manage AFC Richmond, a struggling English Premier League football team, which was part of the divorce settlement of a very wealthy British woman, Rebecca Welton, whose husband left her for a younger woman.

Why would a British divorcee ask an American football coach from Wichita, Kansas to coach a British soccer team – which is nothing like American football – you ask? To destroy it and therefore hurt her ex-husband who loved the team and get her revenge. Pretty dark, right? I’ve known divorces that were darker and messier and meaner. Trust me.


Except Ted Lasso is no ordinary coach. He embodies the kind of American can-do spirit some of us have forgotten about, given all the negativity that swirls around us today. He is unphased by his first loss as coach – and, his second. When the press asks him about it he says something that is quite remarkable.


Ted Lasso says that if coaching a sports team is only about winning and losing then a team will never win. In Lasso’s mind, a great team is created by helping each player understand who they are and learn to work with their abilities and limitations and by becoming the best person they are, they can be the best team player. For Lasso, it’s all about relationships.

Hold that thought.

So, a few episodes later, Lasso’s star player, Jamie, is sidelined for disciplinary reasons and Ted puts a new player, Daniel Rojas in his place. Daniel proves to be even better than Jaime but during practice, he is felled by an injury.

“It’s the curse of the treatment room,” someone gasps.


Turns out, in 1914 the club teased young men to join the club to trick them into enlisting in WWI. Over 400 men enlisted. Very few returned. Those injured from the war who did return ended up in the treatment room. Ever since, it is said, the room and the team have been cursed.


Ted is determined to ‘reverse the curse’ and asks the team to meet at midnight in the treatment room and bring with them something of value to them which will be burned. At midnight. In the hopes that Daniel will be healed and return to the team.


What follows is nothing less than astonishing. Roy, the team captain begins by bringing the blanket that was given to him as a child when he came to London. It was his “security blanket” which connected him to his family when he felt alone and scared.


Another player – Jamie, the bully who was sidelined for disciplinary reasons – told the story about how his mum encouraged him to play soccer and bought him his first pair of football shoes. But his dad, he said, encouraged him to be tough. He said, “Sometimes, I think I focus too much on being tough for my dad and not enough on why I came into football in the first place.” In went the football shoes.


And so on, one player after the next, sacrificing what was of value to him, letting go of old memories, and all for the sake of the health and healing of someone else.


You all are smart enough to know where I’m headed with this. I couldn’t provide a better illustration of what Jesus means when he says, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Because, you see, for Jesus sacrifice is not about the suffering. For Jesus, sacrifice is about what you do – a piece of yourself you give up and contribute – in the service of others. Which is an act of mercy.

Which brings us to the “real presence” we celebrate in “Corpus Christi” – the Body of Christ. We are asked to “make a sacrifice of thanksgiving” and place it on the altar. In so doing, the true, real presence of Jesus comes to us in the ordinary elements of the bread and the wine.


It’s not magic but it is mystical. And, admittedly, a profound part of the mystery of our faith.


I have no power but I have been given the authority of the church and your trust in me to gather up all the broken pieces of our lives – the petitions we make in the Prayers of the People, said silently in our hearts or a loud, along with the worried lines I see buried deep in your brow, the tears I see welling at the corners of your eyes, the grimaces you make when you sit down or stand up, the whispered worries you give me in the sacristy or at the entrance to the church about an upcoming surgery or doctor’s appointment, the suffering of a relative or friend or neighbor, your grief at the death of someone near and dear to you.

I gather up ALL those broken pieces and lay them at the altar and together, we pray over them, remembering the great sacrifice Jesus made for us and the mercy he had for us. And, we ask Jesus to make of them his Body and Blood and for him to be truly and really present to us. We ask him to nourish us with the Bread of Heaven and the Cup of Salvation.


A sacrifice of mercy for our sacrifice of thanksgiving so we may be merciful to others.

“As Jesus was walking along . . .” a lot of stuff happened, according to Matthew. Turns out, lots of stuff happens in the midst of the ordinary, mundane events of our lives, which we can see if we but slow down just a bit and pay it some attention.


Jesus takes our pain and our sorrows, our worries and our anxieties, our fretting and concern along with our happiness and joy, our celebrations and commemorations, our triumphs and successes and all those things are changed and transformed and become for us his real and true presence.  And we are changed and transformed and become, for him, the Corpus Christi, the Body of Christ.

It's nothing short of a miracle, I tell you, all sandwiched into a regular, routine, Sunday in something on the church calendar we call “ordinary time,” which begins when we, like Matthew, decide to follow Jesus.



Sunday, June 04, 2023

Trinity Sunday: Imagine!


Sunday morning FaceBook Reflection
Trinity Sunday - June 4, 2023

Good Sunday morning, good people of the universe. It's a lovely, sunny-but-cool Spring morning, the first Sunday in June, and the early days of Pride Month.

In Christian circles, today is Trinity Sunday. I didn't go to church this morning. I watched it live-streaming. But, last night, I read a really good sermon on the Trinity written by a dear friend and colleague who is an octogenarian which really resonated with me. I've been "chewing" on it ever since - the mark of a good sermon, in my book.

I wish she had told a story - she's a good storyteller - but she had just enough of what I call "pragmatic mysticism" to be satisfying to my spirituality. I'm not going to get into a whole discussion of all the different kinds of mysticism practiced by various folk. Here's what I want to say about it:

A mysticism that is pragmatic deals with things sensibly and realistically in a way that is based on practical rather than theoretical considerations but not in the physical world. It deals with knowledge inaccessible to the intellect obtained through contemplation and meditation; it is not a system of beliefs or theoretical assumptions that are unreliable.

I think Jung described it best when he talked about things like "synchronicity" and "collective unconscious"- that place in the cosmos (or unconscious mind) that contains archetypes, or universal primordial images and ideas. It's a manifestation of the old saying, "There is no original thought."

In her sermon, my friend asked why we need a Doctrine of the Trinity. She answered it simply and honestly by saying that "we humans have to have an explanation for almost everything."

And thus we get not only one but two Creation stories in Genesis. And, the Virgin Birth. And, the Resurrection. And, of course, The Trinity.

I think the best explanation I've heard of the mysteries in life like The Trinity came from the character Neytiri in the epic film Avatar. Her student and Avatar, Jacke Sully, reports what she has taught him from her people, the Na’vi, who live on Pandora.

"There is a network of energy that flows through all living things. All energy is borrowed and one day you have to give it back."

That's it. Right there. The Resurrection and the Trinity explained in two simple sentences. We could bundle up all the theological doctrine and mysteries in those two sentences as well, including the Virgin Birth and Eternal Life.

It's pragmatic mysticism - something we 'know' to be true without needing an intellectual discussion or explanation. Or, perhaps, in spite of it.

I'm not preaching on The Trinity in a church today but if I were, I would begin by calling for a Spiritual Revolution, because that's what I think The Trinity does.

I think it begs for it. Insists on it. Practically demands it by continuing the Pentecost Effect and confounding everything we have carefully constructed to keep us separate: language, race, and now, creed and time.

God is no longer just a white-haired old man sitting high in the heavens, judging us. God is within us, revealed to us in Christ Jesus. And, God is around us and in all of creation, as revealed to us by The Spirit, the Advocate, the Paraclete.

God is not just one thing or one person. God is not even just The Trinity but more than that - dummied down so that we can pretend to understand how it all works.

But, we don't. We simply don't have the intellectual capacity and the language as humans to express the mystery that is at the center of every creature which lives and moves and has its being in all of the greater mystery of creation.

The closest we can come to understanding The Mysterium Grandum is that God is like a network of energy that flows through all things.

The Chinese call it Chi. In Sanskrit, it is called Prana. It is also called Ki or circulating energy in the practice of Asian acupuncture. In the Qur'an, it is called Ruh. In the Talmud, Ruach. In Greek, pneuma.

Among the indigenous people of the Algonquin, it is called Manitou. Among some Native Americans, there are nine spirit guides that sometimes appear on a Totem, calling their spirit energy to enlighten, enliven and protect the community (tribe). In some Native American cultures, the four winds are also called into being in the Medicine Wheel or Sacred Hoop to maintain health and healing.

There's more - much more - but I'll stop there.

Christians call it "Holy Spirit" which we say is part of The Trinity. And, in our arrogance, we think and act like we own the idea.

I think Trinity Sunday calls for a Spiritual Revolution to honor the network of energies - the Eywa - which connect us, everyone of every race, culture, language, age, and creed, and time to ourselves and to each other.

Imagine what would happen if we moved beyond the words on the dusty pages of doctrine and discipline and opened not just our minds but our hearts to be in relationships and interrelationships with each other and all creatures and creation.


I think that's exactly the Spiritual Revolution that The Trinity calls us to experience, deep in our souls. Imagine more than what's here. Imagine more than the limits of our intellect and the constructs of our time and place. Imagine relationships with some ones and some things vastly different from our selves.

Imagine what that would do to our world. Could war even be a possibility anymore? Might we be able to stop pollution, repair our climate, and heal our planet?

On this Trinity Sunday, were I in a pulpit, I just might challenge everyone to begin the Spiritual Revolution by eating an apple. I mean, eat it and really taste it - its skin and pulp and juices - and enjoy it as if it were a forbidden fruit.

Look at the Spiritual Revolution our ancestors tell us started when a man and a woman ate an apple in a garden and began to realize things they had never before imagined possible.

As Jake Sully says, "Sooner or later though, you always have to wake up."

Make it a great day, everybody.

Bom dia!