Hope and Invitation (Advent 1A)

This sermon was preached at St. Patrick’s on December 1, 2013.

Advent 1A
Isaiah 2:1-5
Hope and Invitation

In our modern culture, we often think of prophets as people who foretell the future.  But prophets in the Old Testament were individuals who called the people back to God.  And so this the framework we need to work with when we listen to Isaiah…

The stage is being set today. This is our liturgical, “In the beginning…”

The words of Isaiah are the first words to the church in Advent, the first words to the church in our lectionary. These are significant, important, weighty words.

Like at a Cirque de Soliel production, I imagine a wild character dancing through the crowd, playfully teasing and bantering before stepping in front of a massive red curtain. And as the story begins, the prophet and curtain are swept up in grand fashion to reveal a vision of a mountain that is majestic and striking…

Isaiah gives the church a vision and message from God. And what we hear is a message of hope and invitation.

So first, let’s talk about hope.

I’m sure you’ve heard me say this before: Hope is belief in a world that does not yet exist.

And this is the promise of God. This is the promise in the words seen by Isaiah.

See, when Isaiah speaks to the Israelites, they are in the midst of disorientation. Isaiah 1 tells of bribery, violence, taking advantage of the poor…

Israel was a relatively small group of people who had been subjected to war, fear, intimidation, exile, and more by the Assyrians and Babylonians. Their world had been turned upside down by much more powerful tribes and kingdoms.

To begin Advent with Isaiah 2 almost suggests that we do not need to hear those words that come prior. Disorientation is a reality of the world in which we live. Listen to the words of Isaiah 1…

Your country lies desolate,
your cities are burned with fire
…Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan
Everyone loves a bribe
and runs after gifts.
…kickbacks and corruption in big business and government
They do not defend the orphan,
and the widow’s cause does not come before them.
…The Sequester, the health care debate, the living wage debate

Turn on the tv, log onto your favorite news site, maybe just simply take stock of our own lives. We know that we live in a reality that is unbalanced, broken, and lacking.

And so, Isaiah’s vision from God of reconciliation and peace may have sounded just as absurd to the Israelites 2500 years ago as it does today.

The absurdity of this vision is captured nicely by the satirical news publication, The Onion: one of their headlines last week proclaimed: Buddhist Extremist Cell Vows To Unleash Tranquility On West.

This fictitious group threatened to inflict a wave of tranquility and peace: “In the name of the Great Teacher, we will stop at nothing to unleash a firestorm of empathy, compassion, and true selflessness upon the West,”

This is just how absurd and counter cultural true peace is to the world today, that it works as satire.

However, it is important to point out that Isaiah wasn’t naïve. He was not a Pollyana prophet, saying, “Oh, everything’s going to be just fine!”

It may sound absurd, but Isaiah holds up a true vision of hope.
A vision of hope grounded in God’s covenant with Israel.
A covenant that says if the people worship God, then God will take care of the people.

Hope grounded in having been led out from Egypt.
Hope grounded in belief that God will reorient relationships and restructure the world.

God will judge and mediate: God is the One who takes the grievances, hurts, desires, and hungers of the nations and through his authority is able to make peace, bridge division, and resolve conflict.

When God mediates between the nations, we no longer have a reason to justify war and conflict. It is at this point that we will truly be able to beat swords into plowshares. Resources will feed the hungry instead of make bombs. We will be able to focus resources towards cultivation instead of destruction.

This is reorientation and transformation at our very core. And this is what followers of God hope for…a world that does not yet exist.

And this is where we shift from hope to invitation.

Isaiah takes us up onto a mountain and shows us what our hearts are truly attuned towards…

Life in relationship with God.

Isaiah invites us up onto the mountain to learn the ways of God and to walk in His path.

Isaiah’s contemporary, Micah, makes the same invitation, nearly word for word.
Jeremiah talks of God writing his laws on the hearts of the people.

These are invitations to be in relationship with God.
Reorientation is to happen through relationship with God.

The Israelites saw this happening through the study of scripture and worship: writing the ways of God on their hearts and going to Temple to worship, being in the presence of Yahweh.

It’s not so different as a Christian, is it?

We see the life of God made manifest fully in the person of Jesus.
When we make our lives in the way of Jesus,
…we enter into a life of study, worship, fellowship, and prayer.
…we seek to serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves.
…we respect the dignity of each and every human being.
…we strive for justice and peace among all people.

All of this is rooted in the life of God in Christ.
At the core, it’s about acknowledging the presence of God in the other.
The way we seek and learn to love God is by loving other people.

Exploring the way of Jesus requires writing his way of life on our hearts in a way that it begins to permeate every fabric of our being.

Advent is an invitation to pursue a deeper relationship with God.
Advent is a time to commit or recommit ourselves to life in the way of Jesus.

Further, this is a wholly perfect time to invite others to come and see the promises of God made incarnate in Christ.

But what are we being invited into exactly when it comes to Advent?

Advent means waiting.
Waiting for the arrival of the Christ child.
Waiting for the return of Jesus.
Waiting for the promises of God in the vision of Isaiah to be fulfilled.

It is layered and paradoxical! We wait with both great anticipation and deep patience.

Patient anticipation…
…undergirded by deep hope.

The path of the Christian life in Advent is patient anticipation undergirded by deep hope in the promises of God.

And so, you may ask, “What does this life in the path of God look like in Advent in 2013?”

One example that I would like to share is called the ADVENT CONSPIRACY.

This might be your first introduction to the AC, or if you read This Week at St. Patrick’s, you truly think that Loren and I are conspiring together!

The AC is a growing movement that was founded by 3 churches back in 2006, and it has 4 basic principles:
WORSHIP FULLY
SPEND LESS
GIVE MORE
LOVE ALL

WORSHIP FULLY
The promises of God are fulfilled and took form at the moment of the Incarnation, Word made flesh, a little baby, tiny fingers and all. Advent is about preparation for this event, being fully attentive and present to God in Christ. It begins with Jesus. It ends with Jesus. Love wins, peace reigns, and a new kingdom and way of life is ushered into this world. So the intent is to slow down, partner with the Kingdom of God, and worship Jesus to the fullest.

SPEND LESS
Don’t worry, I’m not going completely Scrooge on you. This isn’t a call to completely forego giving gifts. We all love to give and receive gifts. But consider this: in America, we spend an average of $450 billion a year every Christmas. That’s an incredible amount of money! And truthfully, there are always gifts given or received out of obligation. We have our favorites, but then there are the gifts that become forgotten. It is just stuff.

What we are asking is that you consider buying at least ONE LESS GIFT this year. Just one. If you’re ambitious, consider foregoing gifts that may not be remembered a year from now. These steps may seem insignificant at first, but they add up over time, creating space to be more present during Advent and Christmas.

GIVE MORE
I know what you’re thinking. “Wait, didn’t Dorian just say I should spend less, and yet here he is telling me to give more? What gives?” Well, instead of giving presents, give presence. The most powerful, memorable gift you can give to someone else is yourself. And nobody modeled this more than Jesus. So what does this look like for you? Coffee with a friend? A potluck and board game night with friends? Homemade fudge or cookies? Write letters to friends/family telling them why they are special to you. Give time at a homeless shelter or foodbank. The main point is simple: When it comes to spending time with those you love, it’s all about quality, not quantity.

LOVE ALL
The core of the message is love. Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of love. And Jesus loved fully and wholly. He became lowly to love the poor and marginalized. He was always widening that circle, inviting the fringes into the full life of God and community. By spending just a little less on gifts we free up our resources to love as Jesus loves by giving to those who need help the most. The churches that founded AC gave to clean water initiatives because they learned that it would take $20 billion a year to provide clean water to everyone on earth (just a fraction of that $450 billion). For us, this is inspiration to give resources to those who God has put on your heart, like the ones supported by St. Patrick’s (Samaritan Ministries, St. Phillips, and others).

It seems daunting to look at the sheer size and depth of some of the issues in the world today, but engaging one relationship at a time is a beginning towards God’s promises.

And so that’s the Advent Conspiracy: one simple, practical way to follow the way of Jesus and walk in the path of God.

A path tuned towards self-giving.
A path that cultivates resources to benefit those in need.
A path that inspires a reorientation towards the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God.

With Isaiah, Advent gives us a vision that proclaims the promise of God:
Life in relationship with God will lead towards reconciliation and peace.

We begin Advent with a vivid image of hope:
a holy mountain as the center of a kingdom of peace and equity

We begin Advent with an invitation to participate in God’s teachings and way of life:
a way of life that leads towards the reality of that hope.

So yes, we wait. But we do not wait passively. Patient anticipation.

What might we dare? What might we venture or risk, knowing that God promises peace?

O people of God, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!

Advertisements
Posted in Sermon | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

November 2013 News From The Hill

[The Student Body President is given a regular article in the VTS publication News From The Hill.]

News From The Hill
Nov 2013
Student Body President
Dorian Del Priore

Two years ago, when I moved to VTS, I was told that a group of seminarians would help unpack my moving truck. While I generally take people for their word, my family honestly did not know what this assistance would actually look like (and maybe we were a little skeptical). When a couple dozen seminarians showed up at Braddock Lee to unload my huge truck, I was dumbstruck! What would have taken my family many hours of labor to finish was completed in less than 90 minutes. This ministry provided an incredible display of community and welcome that I had rarely experienced or witnessed in my life.

And so it has been a blessing to participate in this ministry, to see the relief and thanksgiving on new faces, to see the community give time and sweat to new friends who were mere strangers moments before.

After a particular move-in this past August, I was both inspirited and convicted. The work had been done, hugs and handshakes had been shared, and folks were slowly dispersing for the evening. As I was leaving, I noticed a couple seminarians across the street helping another family move their stuff into their new apartment…a family that was not associated with the seminary.

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares …  (Hebrews 13:2)

Honestly, this has been sitting with me ever since…because how often do we miss these opportunities? We are gifted with time and opportunity to learn deeply and be formed for our future vocations at VTS. But at the same time, the heart of the Gospel is cultivated through a deep and profound love for the other. We must not miss the opportunities that are presented both within and outside the boundaries of our seminary community.

I have heard it said that our liturgy is our theology, so what we do speaks volumes about what we believe. If we look back to the original civil meaning of liturgy as public work at private cost, then liturgy becomes so much more than just what we do in church. Our liturgy points to and becomes a way of life that is broken open for the world.

So then, the tough question we must ask is…do our actions proclaim what we profess to believe?

We have been given an unparalleled opportunity to cultivate love; for the call of the Gospel tells us that our words and deeds addressed to others are truly and fully addressed to Jesus himself. This requires us to get our hands and feet dirty, to engage the other in real and vulnerable ways.

So whether it is within the context of our seminary community or our various parish communities, as we cultivate community and cause love to grow amongst ourselves, do we also turn outward, break ourselves open, and cause love to grow amongst the greater community outside the walls of our church?

How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news! (Romans 10:15)

Be beautiful, my friends, get dirty and be beautiful!

Posted in NFTH | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

June 2013 News From The Hill

[The Student Body President is given a regular article in the VTS publication News From The Hill.]

News From The Hill
June 2013
Student Body President
Dorian Del Priore

The dining table we brought to seminary was one my dad built and rebuilt, and then I refinished it again years later. This table had seen many homes, hosted many family game nights, and been the gathering place for hundreds of meals and parties. It was well-loved, but I never imagined how its importance would grow.

Once at seminary, our table became an even more central aspect of our lives. In the afternoon, I do schoolwork along with my two kids as they do theirs; from exegesis to science fair projects. It continues to be a gathering place for meals and guests, covered in laughter, tears, life, and love. We have gotten to know new friends around that table, and we have celebrated old friendships too. Our gatherings around the refectory tables mirror our gatherings around the chapel altar. They are places at which we are blessed, challenged, loved, and fed. They are places where we are made vulnerable and develop relationships. We grow in life, love, hope, and faith together around these tables.

Towards the end of Luke 7, we see Jesus at the table of a Pharisee, and a sinful woman comes with great emotion to bathe the feet of Jesus with her tears. It is at this table that the Pharisee is challenged. It is at this table that the woman receives grace and displays gratitude. It is at this table that Jesus engages, teaches, and blesses. It seems that everyone at the table with Jesus is invited into relationship and transformed by the experience. We are invited by Christ to see the tables of our lives sacramentally, as places of relationship and transformation.

The Rev. James Farwell has said that the altar is “a table like any other, a table like no other.” Just like the dinner gathering after the resurrection encounter on the road to Emmaus, Jesus is revealed to us in the other when we break bread together. A simple meal with friends and colleagues becomes a place of revelation, transformation, and mystery.

Graduates will soon find themselves at new tables, in naves of new churches and in dining rooms of new homes. Rising seniors and middlers will continue to cultivate relationships around tables at seminary in a variety of places and settings, coming back to lunch tables and altars for fellowship and formation. And soon, new juniors will arrive, and we will welcome them as new members of our seminary family.

As we find ourselves at tables with new and old friends alike, may we be open to the revelation of Christ in the other. May we display deep gratitude and also embrace the times that Jesus challenges us. And in the words of Augustine: may we behold what we are and become what we receive…the body of Christ.

Posted in NFTH | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

A Life of Faith and Gratitude

This Sermon was preached at St. Patrick’s in DC on October 13, 2013. The lections are for Proper 23C, and the Gospel is:

Luke 17:11-19
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Over the last year, I have come to love the Lukan account of the Gospel. Scholars refer to Luke as the Shakespeare of the Gospel writers. The greek is poetic and contains layers of meaning.

There is an old rabbinic tradition that compares scripture to a diamond with 77 sides. When you turn a diamond, light reflects off of it in many ways, displaying dazzling colors. In the same way, when we turn over the scriptures and study them, many layers of meaning and depth are revealed. Luke is very much like this.

And after struggling through weeks of difficult teachings and challenging parables, we come to a healing today that seems straight forward and simple.

It’s almost like a respite, a change of pace. Finally, Jesus is back to just healing sick people. This is the familiar Jesus, the loving Jesus, the do-gooder Jesus. This Jesus is easier to swallow. Right?

But if we learn anything about Luke, we should know that the Lukan Gospel is always pushing and challenging. And so we must continue to turn it over and wrestle with this story.

And when we do, we begin to see that the healing is simply a vehicle for a greater truth. The healing is a vehicle that demonstrates a characteristic of the Kingdom of God lived out in real praxis.

And so, it begins with the region between Samaria and Galilee. This is a place that any good self-respecting first century Jew would most likely go out of their way to avoid.

To the listener in the early church, this was a cue. Immediately, they would have thought, “Why on earth is he way out there?” This is like one of those scenes in the movies, when the lead character goes exactly where they shouldn’t go and you’re like, “No! No! What are you doing?!? You’re not supposed to be there!”

This is one of those signs that we should be prepared to dig a little deeper.

Because Jesus is always stretching the boundaries. Touching people he shouldn’t touch. Talking to people he isn’t supposed to talk to. Walking in a region that maybe he shouldn’t. He is constantly drawing the circle bigger and wider.

To compound matters, Jesus encountered a group of ten leprous people.

As you may already know, lepers are people who suffered from all sorts of skin diseases. The law of Israel was clear about lepers in Numbers 5:

“Command the Israelites to put out of the camp everyone who is leprous.” And not only were they ostracized because of their illness, but they were responsible for enforcing their own exile. The law laid out in Leviticus said that lepers were to wear torn clothes and keep their hair disheveled. Lepers were to cry out to those who passed by, “Unclean! Unclean!”

So, not only did a leper suffer from physical illness, they were completely cast out from family and society. And so lepers would band together on the outskirts of towns and villages.

They were bound up together in their suffering. Suffering and stigmatization are leveling forces. Differences between class, education, status, influence…they are all wiped away by something like leprosy or homelessness.

Working for Martha’s Table, the largest DC foodbank, I distributed food along with classmates on a side street near the Capitol Building. I noticed people from all walks of life coming to find a meal: homeless, college students, government workers, elderly and young folk alike, and many more. It was stunning and caught me up a bit short. Those who struggle to eat and survive do not fit into a stereotype or demographic. They are you, me… a sister, an uncle, a grandparent, a neighbor.

As we move further through the narrative, we come to a detail that I often overlook:
the lepers don’t actually ask for healing.
They ask for mercy.

There is a depth in this cry for mercy; a depth that reaches to their core. They may be hoping for healing from their illness, but before that can happen, Jesus must acknowledge their presence, their humanity.

Imagine, you’ve been cut off from everything and everyone. Maybe, just maybe, this great healer and teacher will acknowledge you. To be acknowledged as human and worthy. That’s where mercy begins.

And when Jesus acknowledges the lepers, speaking mercy and humanity back into their lives, he sends them to go see the priests.

But his command lacks a declaration of healing. This is unusual and unique to this story.
It’s as if Jesus treats the lepers as already healed.
Jesus sees them for who they are instead of defining them by their affliction.

But in their healing we see the story shift.

It is easy to loose sight of the 9. We presume they present themselves to the priests, receive their certification of cleanliness, and are restored to society and family according to the law. There’s nothing to say otherwise, and they obviously possessed even a mustard seed worth of faith in their obedience to Jesus.

But this one leper, a Samaritan, upon seeing that he has been made clean, returns and falls prostrate in front of Jesus.

Now, prostrate is a funny word. And you have to be careful. Remove one letter and it gets awkward.
But does everyone know what this means…to lie prostrate? Let me get a volunteer…

(at this point, the volunteer stood in front of the altar facing the congregation. The volunteer represented Jesus, and I laid prostrate at the feet of the volunteer, holding their feet. With a mic on, I described the posture as being vulnerable, emotional, humble, and more)

This posture of thanksgiving is one of deep gratitude and overwhelming emotion. Imagine tears and open weeping…words stammering out, broken open and vulnerable in new, blessed ways. This wasn’t a mere healing…this runs deeper. This is about transformation, friends. This is new life, a new direction, resurrection…

Now, as a Samaritan, this individual would have been viewed intrinsically as unclean (even when healthy). Many scholars point out how being both a leper and a Samaritan, this person was doubly cursed. But in being sent, would he even have been allowed to approach the priests?

And so, it seems that Jesus was not commenting on the other nine who were healed, but instead Jesus was critiquing the system that would accept them and reject the Samaritan.

The Samaritan returned to Jesus because he recognized the work of God in and through Jesus.

This is about ritual versus relationship.
The Kingdom of God is about relationship, not ritual.

This is how things like a government shutdown happen. We place people in boxes. People become positions or ideologies. It’s easier to be against, to ostracize, or demean when humanity is removed.

Earlier we mentioned how cultural and social distinctions were rendered unimportant in leper colonies, and we find how the distinctions are dismantled even more so in the presence of Jesus.

Jesus again continues to stretch the boundaries…
Dismantling the walls we construct between each other.
For love knows no boundaries.
Jesus chooses who is brought into the fold of God’s Kingdom.

What’s more, it’s often someone unexpected: feel free to substitute for the Samaritan someone you may find challenging or unexpected…even repulsive.

As an incarnational faith, we affirm that our encounters with another person possess a very real encounter with Christ in the other.

So when we become vulnerable to one another and approach the thin space between one another, we participate in creating space for the holy to work.

Let me take you back to Martha’s Table and serving meals on 2nd St NW.

There was one gentleman I got to know a little over the course of those 6 weeks. (I will call him David) He would often help us setup and then provide crowd control. He was friendly and humble, if not reserved. He had been a successful day trader with a family, big house, and nice cars. An ugly divorce, a run of bad luck, and the crash of the economy left him without a job and struggling to stay off the streets. It was absolutely sobering.

One day David wore a jacket with a business name on it that a classmate of mine recognized. David and my classmate had apparently lived in the same city out West. They connected over restaurants, local landmarks, and much more. As they joyfully explored this personal connection, I watched David’s walls slowly loose some stones. I saw him relax and smile, become something more than he had been or shown to us previously, maybe something more like who he used to be.

Now, this wasn’t a miraculous life change, but the acknowledgment of David’s humanity and the personal connection allowed a glimmer of hope to break in.

This points to the proclamation Jesus makes to the Samaritan, “your faith has made you well.”

The Greek (sodzo) can also be rendered, “your faith has saved you!”

This points to a healing that is deeper than physical.
This is further evidence of the expansion of God’s kingdom and the transformative nature of mercy.

Faith is a response to God’s mercy.
A response that is girded and grounded in hope.
A response overflowing with nearly inappropriate levels of gratitude.

Further, what we see in the Samaritan is that a life of faith is a life of gratitude.
A life of faith is a life transformed, a life reclaimed, restored.

And so I will leave you with this…

In response to God’s unbounded mercy, what does a life of gratitude look like?
How does a life of faith (a life of gratitude) partner with God to expand the boundaries of the Kingdom of God?

Posted in Sermon | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Lost Sheep or a Pharisee?

This sermon was preached at St. Patrick’s in DC on September 15, 2013. The Gospel lection was Luke 15:1-10 (Proper19C). The audio can be found HERE.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

[Have you ever noticed that the Bible really likes shepherds and sheep? In fact, the last time I stood up here with you, it was Good Shepherd Sunday. It is today’s parable, though, that is responsible for the iconic Good Shepherd image of Jesus that appears in stained glass windows and on Orthodox Good Shepherd icons (sheep over the shoulders).]

Honestly, though, this beloved parable is just absurd. I mean, really, what shepherd that is worth his salt is going to leave all his sheep, off in the wilderness no less, to go find that lone sheep that wandered off? What happens to the other sheep?!?! I’d fire him. He’d be out of job quick.

It’s sort of like the balloon guy in old movies or cartoons…Curious George cartoons always have a balloon guy, right? …but it’s like the balloon guy lets one slip and when he realizes it, he lets go of ALL the other balloons to go after the one!

Or a teacher, who while on a field trip, realizes that one kid is missing. And so she bails on rest of the class to run off and find the missing kid (who is probably just completely enamored by the t-rex skeleton).

So really, this iconic parable tells an absurd, ridiculous story. It doesn’t really reflect reality as we know it. These sorts of scenarios don’t really play out this way. However, maybe Jesus is shedding light on a particular reality…pointing us beyond the norms of our experience.

It’s pretty easy to put ourselves into the parable as the lost sheep and connect that way (think Amazing Grace….I once was lost and now I’m found). I think that’s what usually happens for most people and a good portion of the Christian tradition, but maybe that’s not the only point that can be made…

Maybe this parable is less about us, and more about the character of God.

If we acknowledge that Jesus is the full revelation of God in the life of a person, then we must also acknowledge that the way Jesus lived his life reflected the character of God.

Jesus was known to hang around a less than stellar group of characters, a bunch of regular joes and ragamuffins. It seems like the Pharisees were always complaining about that fact, and today is no exception…grumbling they say, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

So, who are these sinners and what’s the big deal? Sinner = tax collector, right? But is it really that degrading of a stigma to work for the IRS? Who else carries that kind of burden for a couple thousand years?

More fully, these sinners are outcasts of all stripes. These are people on the fringes of society or people who are just not deemed important or worthy. They are ragamuffins: dirty, unclean, sick, homeless, blind, of less than respectable reputation…and heck, many were also probably just decent blue collar types, fishermen and the like.

So, you may ask, why did the Pharisees, the religious insiders have such a problem with Jesus hanging out with these folks?

The Pharisees were concerned with making sure everyone was prim and proper, that every law was followed to the T. Image and holiness were at stake at all times. They were probably were a little type A when it came to cleanliness, rules, and stuff like that. It’s about power and control.

At this point in the Gospel narrative, Jesus had a reputation as a powerful healer and brilliant teacher. But he was blurring the lines between class and tribe, the haves and the have-nots.

The Pharisee’s grumbling judges Jesus according to the company he keeps, in effect, insulting him and saying that by hanging out with sinners and outcasts, Jesus becomes a sinner and outcast. The reality is that the outcast is restored and healed by being in the company of Jesus. Jesus was all about the folks on the fringes, the outcasts… the lost. And so the character of God in the life of Jesus is about love and vulnerability for the outcast, and even more, it is about restoration, reclaiming, and bringing the fringes fully into the fold. At the core, it’s about God’s mercy.

And here is where the parable becomes hard to swallow. And so, I must make a confession.

One of the things I have struggled with at seminary is that I am realizing that I am a church insider. I’ve always tried to find a way to define myself that allows me to claim to be some sort of outsider. But regardless, as a baptized Christian, I am a religious insider.

And so, that means that Jesus is directing this parable at me because I’m a Pharisee, a religious insider. And that hurts. That’s tough to swallow. I don’t want to hear that. But guess what, folks, we are not necessarily the lost sheep…unfortunately, sometimes, we just might be the Pharisees and scribes.

But this is really important for us to hear. And here’s why: sometimes, we need to be reminded that each and every person has full and equal value.

For instance, a recurring issue in our government and society over the past few years is social nets, or as some call them, entitlements or handouts. The different names of these social programs, whether official names or not, can be used to degrade and set apart those who receive this sort of assistance.

Simply being on assistance can be degrading, but the stigma associated further shames and humiliates. For example, as a young married couple in college, when we found ourselves pregnant with our son, we applied for and received government assistance (Medicaid and WIC). The process to apply for this assistance was humiliating. We definitely felt that we were perceived as less than, that there was something wrong with us.

Further, when we engage in name-calling and abuse accusations concerning these programs, we further alienate and entrench a divide in society between the haves and have-nots. Many proposed government budgets seek further cuts in these programs, which then continues to communicate a lack of worth to those who receive assistance.

Whether or not these programs function well or need some reform, the reality is that government assistance does not provide the basics needed for survival, much less the chance to move out from poverty. Also, nearly half our country lives just a paycheck or two from dropping below the poverty line or becoming homeless (this is called liquid asset poor). At any moment, many of us could be forced into the broken reality of a life in poverty.

Martin Luther King, Jr. sums up the full reality of the situation: “that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality.”

And so, the dignity of the Pharisee is bound up with the dignity of the outcast and sinner.

The worth of the wealthiest of society is bound up with the value of those who live below the poverty line.

My value is bound up in yours.

But what does this interrelated nature of our humanity reflect about the nature of God with regards to these parables?

If the shepherd is willing to sacrifice the one sheep for the whole of the group, then it devalues each and every sheep. Each sheep becomes expendable. However, when the shepherd is willing to go after the lost sheep, it communicates to all the sheep that they each possess incredible value. There is tremendous security in knowing that you have value.

Further, God is characterized by an unrelenting, intense desire for his flock to be brought back together as one. Jesus understands that the outcasts and those on the fringes are needed for the community of God’s Kingdom to be whole.

The question becomes, how do we work to bridge this social chasm?

As the people of God, we are imprinted with the likeness and image of God. In other words, we bear the marks of the character of God. The parable of the lost coin characterizes God as one who seeks and loves with depth and passion. Thus, we are to pursue relationship and be purposeful in how we cultivate community.

At the end of Acts 2: during the formation of the early church, we are told that all who believed had all things in common. I don’t think this meant just money and possessions. This is about relationship, living together, sharing meals, sharing struggles and joys. Being there for one another through the peaks and valleys, the challenges and graces. This was about the whole of life being shared communally and recognizing the value in each other.

Let me introduce you to Brandon Stanton: he is one of my favorite photographers. He runs a photo blog and is releasing a book, both by the same name: Humans of New York.

It’s a simple, yet brilliant concept. Stanton dared to construct a photographic census of NY and started with a goal of photographing 10,000 New Yorkers. He walks the streets of the city, approaching strangers and asking to photograph them. Along with the photographs, Stanton began to collect stories and quotes. He became intentional about the questions he would ask, such as:

“If you could give one piece of advice to a large group of people, what would it be?”

“Where do you want to be in ten years?”

“What’s your greatest struggle?”

“What’s the happiest moment of your life?”

“Who’s had the biggest influence on your life?”

And people open up; they tell their stories. They share their dreams, failures, hopes, struggles, and joys.

The stories and quotes are moving and powerful. The portraits are stunning and incredibly diverse. Combined, the stories and portraits add to a larger communal narrative that grows daily with over 1.2 million people following the Humans of New York blog. And it is amazingly simplistic. It’s a dude taking street portraits of strangers and then asking them about their lives.

Brandon Stanton, through Humans of New York, is cultivating community. He is giving voice and value to people in a unique way. While many are just regular joes, there are many who would be considered uncommon, unusual, or outcast…people who often have no voice.

And people are drawn to these stories, drawn to the vulnerability, the unique characters and the realities that are shared. The power of story, personal and intimate story, is unparalleled: It changes lives.

There is something in this phenomenon of Humans of New York that reflects the character and Kingdom of God.

Now, I’m not recommending that we all run up to a newcomer or the quiet introvert after the service and invade their personal space by interrogating them about their greatest struggle or happiest moment! Let’s not be overzealous or creepy. It just doesn’t work that way. Instead, we have to earn that right, that opportunity.

It’s about intentionality and grace. I’ve heard it said that if you approach the world with the apron of a servant, then you are allowed to go places that you can’t go if you approach it with the crown of a king.[1] It’s through these types of vulnerable interactions and genuine relationships that we experience the Christ in the other and open ourselves up to the possibility of transformation and wholeness.

So, who is missing from this table?

Whose voice do you believe is unheard?

Who is your lost sheep?

Amen.

———————————————-

[1] http://www.relevantmagazine.com/culture/music/features/18937-the-unexpected-journey-of-switchfoot

Posted in Sermon | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Set Yourself on Fire

This sermon was preached at St. Peter’s Episcopal in Greenville, SC on August 18, 2013. The Lections are for Proper 13C:

Jeremiah 23:23-29
Psalm 82
Hebrews 11:29-12:2
Luke 12:49-56

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Poor James and John.

You might be wondering why I’m starting by mentioning two characters that aren’t mentioned in this story. But they are two of my favorite disciples, and Jesus gave them the best nickname in the whole Bible: the Songs of Thunder! I imagine them as something like Irish twins, close in age, loud, boisterous, talking at the same time and finishing each other’s sentences. But today, they must have been absolutely dumbfounded with Jesus. It wasn’t all too long ago that they offered to bring down fire on a Samaritan village, and Jesus rebuked them. I can totally hear them protesting, “What?!? Are you serious?! Why do you get to have all the fun?!? Why can’t we bring down fire too?!” Much like younger siblings jealous of an older sibling.

Aside from their likely astonishment, they must have also been frustrated and confused. We have a phrase to describe some of our classes at seminary: that it is like “drinking from a firehose.” I often wonder if the disciples walked away from class with Jesus in the same way I walk out of some of my classes, rubbing my brain, completely overwhelmed and at least slightly confused. There’s a good chance that this was one of those days.

Fire? Baptism? Division? Father against son…mother against daughter? No peace?

I know that today, when I hear these words of Jesus, they make me uncomfortable. But maybe they should. Maybe that’s the point.

But let’s back up just a second. NO peace? Really?!?

This comes from the Gospel in which Luke heralds in the birth of the Christ child with a chorus of angels proclaiming,
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

Further, Zechariah’s prophecy proclaims that Jesus will
“guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Jesus tells his disciples to bless the homes they visit with peace.

He tells those whom he has healed to “go in peace.”

This is the Gospel that teaches us about reconciliation between a father and his prodigal son.

And at his last resurrection appearance in Luke, Jesus offers the benediction we have come to know so well over the years, “Peace be with you.”

So with this framework of peace, how are we to make sense of these words that seem to say the way of Jesus will bring about division, conflict even?

To do so, we have to look deeper than surface level. It is shocking to be told that by following Christ, you could be pitted against your own family members. But, ultimately, at its essence, this passage is calling those of us who follow Christ to live according to the culture of the Kingdom of God instead of the culture of the world around us.

The Lukan Gospel has a thematic arc of social justice and social reversals. This is what Jesus was pointing to. There can truly be no peace until all have peace, and the process of lifting the lowly and giving voice to the fringes will create division.

The very life and ministry of Jesus exemplifies a radical love that flushes out this social upheaval:
Touching the unclean, healing the sick, feeding the multitudes, granting forgiveness, …these actions by Jesus give voice and value to people in society that have none…
lifting the lowly. Turning things over. Shaking up the status quo.
The Gospel is calling us to live and love in ways that are radically different than the ways and desires of the world.

By showing division within the home, the core foundational structure of society, Jesus shows that upheaval and division will happen not only at a broad social level, but it will also be experienced at a private and personal level.

So, maybe we are uncomfortable with these words because we aren’t so sure how things will turn out for us…
Maybe we are uncomfortable because we know deep down what Jesus may be asking of us…
Maybe we are wary of how the Gospel will shake up our lives…

This past weekend, my wife and I took a short day trip to NY. In the afternoon, while on a subway train, an older man stepped into our car and began asking for help and assistance. He spoke in a pleading voice, almost desperate,
“Ladies and gentlemen, I am a marine. I just need a little help…”

He was ragged, dirty, and very skinny. His baggy pants barely covered his bare feet as he shuffled through the crowded car. He looked broken and defeated. None of us really made eye contact with him.

It was as if, for many of us, he didn’t even exist.

This is division, conflict at a very personal level. It is a type of conflict that reaches straight into your heart and grips it, or puts a mirror right in front of you and makes you wrestle with who you are at your very core.

This was one of those times when the kingdom of God was face to face with me, and I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t have cash or change. Do I offer him my shoes, but then what do I wear? Do I pray for him in the middle of the subway car? Is it enough to simply acknowledge him and apologize?

And then he was gone… These types of interactions haunt me. Sometimes I do okay, but other times, I fail miserably.

One of the signs that God is working in us, that the kingdom of God is breaking into our very lives, is that we become uncomfortable with the broken realities of the world around us.
Uncomfortable in a way that moves us to discontentment and compassion. A discontentment and compassion that move us to action.

As we wrestle with what it means to make our lives in the way of Jesus, we are confronted with the reality that we must question how we live our lives and how we engage our neighbor, especially our neighbor on the fringes of society.

Honestly, as Christians, we make some pretty strong vows in our Baptismal Covenant:
To seek and serve Christ in all persons…
To strive for justice and peace among all people…
To respect the dignity of every human being…

Unfortunately, if we are not careful, these phrases can quickly, easily become internet banner slogans or churchy clichés that roll off our tongues during a confirmation class.

Instead, these vows should prod continual self-examination:

As we live into and participate in the Kingdom of God, how do these vows shape and form our lives and relationships?

Are we able to die to our desires and comforts in order to strive for justice and the dignity of every human being?

And so let’s go back to fire because it’s the fire that helps facilitate our continual self-examination.

Fire can be destructive, but it can also be productive. The problem with James and John was that they desired the fire of retribution, revenge. This is a destructive fire that does not bring peace.

The fire that Jesus brings is different, though. It is the fire of purification and refinement; a fire that consumes, but does not destroy.

Fire, at an elemental level, is a chemical reaction between oxygen and fuel. The fuel is Word of God, the life and teachings of Christ. The oxygen is the ruach of God. Ruach is Hebrew for the breath/spirit of God (think of God’s spirit over the waters of creation and God breathing life into humankind).*

Let’s not forget that fire needs a spark, something to ignite it. I believe that spark is provided when we break open our hearts to the movement of God. I believe the spark is provided when we break open our hearts to the other, the lowly, those on the fringes.

This fire, fed by Word and Ruach, engulfs the whole of our being and ignites us with a passion for the Kingdom of God that is driven by love, grace, and mercy. This fire is not and will not be satisfied until justice and peace are available to all people.

I believe it is this fire, born of Word and Spirit, that prodded Martin Luther King, Jr. to say, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

I believe this is the fire from which the writer of Hebrews exhorts followers of Christ to persevere towards the promises of God. Promises rooted in the life and work of Christ, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith and salvation. Promises and hope grounded in the cross and the empty tomb.

For hope is believing in a world that does not yet exist. And when love becomes a verb, when love is action and movement, we are well on our way to our hopes becoming reality.

At that point we are partnering with God in the redemption of creation, and we become a means by which the Kingdom of God comes here on earth.

So, you may ask, where do we start?
Well, I believe you already have.
St. Peter’s is described to me as having a strong streak of outreach and mission in the core of your DNA. That’s super and fantastic. That’s to be affirmed and celebrated.

But the tough words we hear today from Jesus are a reminder to never be satisfied.

To continue to work, pursue, and challenge in hope that the Kingdom of God will be made manifest in a way that lifts up the lowly and sheds light into darkness.

Because there is no true peace until it is available to all people.

Folk-rockers, Mumford and Songs, sing in their song Awake My Soul:
In these bodies we will live, in these bodies we will die,
And where you invest your love, you invest your life.

So when we come to the table of the Eucharist, we too become the body of Christ broken open for the benefit of the world. And thus we are blessed with the opportunity to love deeply.

Look around Greenville. Your neighborhood. Your schools.
Take a hard look at your relationships, your friendships.
Look to each other and what you are already doing.
Take an even harder look at where we may be missing the mark, the relationships that have not been cultivated.

And then break open your heart and set yourself on fire.

—————————————–
* http://www.stewardshipoflife.org/2013/08/aflame/

Posted in Sermon | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pursue Love

This sermon was preached at St. Patrick’s in DC on May 12, 2013. The Gospel lection was John 17:20-26 (7th Easter Year C).

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

A headline caught my attention about a week ago. It’s a good stunner that grabs you, so let it settle when you hear it…

Find what you love and let it kill you.*

I immediately wondered what on earth could that mean? As I dove into the article, written by classical pianist James Rhodes, I learned about his life of wrestling with his passion and love for the piano.

I hadn’t heard of Rhodes prior to reading this article, maybe you have. However, he has kindled a new fascination with classical music within me. As I read, I listened to him playing pieces from Beethoven and Bach. He plays with incredible emotion covering an amazing range of dynamics. He isn’t just playing the piano, he is telling a story.

Rhodes is a bit of an eccentric fella: gave up the piano for 10 years, and then, only when the pain of not playing got greater than his imagined pain of pursuing a career as a concert pianist, did he begin playing again. He embarked on a 5 year period that he himself calls extreme: no income, 6+ hours of intense practice per day, monthly four-day long sessions of practice, and periods of deep loneliness and isolation. He lost his marriage and even spent 9 months in a mental hospital. Maintaining his career and continuing his pursuits involved hours of frustrating and exhausting practice, stretches of isolation, and living on the road. He talks of the swings between dealing with bouts of nervous boredom (counting ceiling tiles backstage) and the intense pressure of performing and perfectly nailing 120,000 notes from memory. So the logical question becomes: is it all worth it?

Rhodes says: yes, without a shadow of a doubt.

The point that Rhodes is getting at, though, is about the pursuit of a love, a passion. Taking advantage of every minute, every hour, pushing boundaries and taking risks, giving yourself over to something greater than yourself.

Rhodes figures that after sleep, work, errands, kids, chores, eating, and other daily commitments, we are generally left with up to 6 hours per day to do with whatever we want. Personally, I would love to find 6 hours per day for my interests and pursuits, but even if you estimated closer to a more conservative 2-3 hours per day, that’s still a good chunk of time.

Rhodes questions the time we give to TV, Facebook, and Twitter. Is that how we really want to use those precious hours? Personally, as I peruse social media, I enjoy bad church and theology jokes, baby sloth videos, and cat memes (who doesn’t like Grumpy Cat?!?)

Now, maybe Rhodes is partial to the creative process, but he makes suggestions like:
Instead of joining a book club try your hand at a writer’s club.
Instead of paying for a gym membership, buy some paints and blank canvases and spend time every day painting a new interpretation of “I love you” for your significant other.

And I’m sure we each have our interest or hobby (tennis, knitting, poetry, photography, etc.), and maybe we already give it that sort of commitment and passion.

But it got me to wondering…
what if we pursued God in a similar fashion?
What if we pursued love with relentless purpose?
What if we engaged our neighbor with a deeper passion?

All week I’ve wrestled with the title of the article:
Find what you love and let it kill you.

In a peculiar sort of way, I began to see parallels with our baptism.

At our baptism, we are buried with Jesus in his death. When we commit to the way of Jesus, when we give our lives over to God, we too find death. He who bids us to follow also calls us to die a death of hope.

For in this Easter season, we are continually reminded that death in Christ brings new life. By the waters of Baptism we share in the resurrection of Jesus.

To get to resurrection, new life, we must pass through death. As members of the body of Christ, we all pass through the waters of Baptism and allow ourselves to be given up and into Christ’s body. Given a share of God’s eternal life, we are swept up and joined into something much bigger than ourselves. We no longer belong to just ourselves. We are bound up together in community, uniquely joined to each other and each human being through the love of God for his creation, his people.

Jesus prays to God on our behalf: “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

Jesus understands the strength of witness in community and relationships. He knows that we need each other. He understands that it is through relationships that people come to know God.

And what’s crucial to understand is that this prayer by Jesus comes at the end of Maunday Thursday after Jesus has washed the feet of his disciples. This is it. The next scene in the narrative is betrayal that leads to the cross. These are the last words, the ending of his ministry: a prayer for unity grounded in God’s love and glory.

And so as the people of God on the other side of Easter Sunday, we look back and are drawn to the place where Jesus bids us to gather, remember and celebrate, the table of the Eucharist.

The altar is the center of our lives of worship. Everything in our worship directs us to here.

It is where we are reminded of Christ’s love for us. It is where we are fed by Christ to become like Christ.

In the words of Augustine, it is around the altar that we behold what we are and become what we receive…the body of Christ.

My liturgy professor, Dr. James Farwell, is fond of saying that the altar is “a table like any other, a table like no other.”

While there is something unique about this table around which we gather for the Eucharist, there is also something about this table here that is just like any other table that we gather around with family or community.

For a moment, think about the centrality of the dining table in your own home.

The dining table my family brought to seminary was one my dad built and rebuilt, and then I refinished it again years later. This table had seen many homes, hosted many family game nights, and been the gathering place for hundreds of meals, birthday parties, and celebrations.

Once at seminary, our table became an even more central aspect of our lives. In the afternoon, I do schoolwork along with Jordan and Brynn as they do theirs, from theology papers to science fair projects.

It continues to be a gathering place for meals and guests, covered in laughter, tears, life, and love. Family dinners offer space for creative prayers and stories from each day.

We have developed new friendships around that table, wrestling with the challenges of seminary life and celebrating joys and blessings together.

Just like the dinner gathering after the resurrection encounter on the road to Emmaus, Jesus is revealed to us in the other when we break bread together. After opening the scriptures up to the two disciples, they implore Jesus to join them because the day was coming to a close. At dinner, “when he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him…”

A simple meal becomes a place of revelation, transformation, and mystery. There is something sacramental about each encounter around a table; an inner and spiritual grace that is shared amongst those who gather.

In the words of Catholic priest Charles de Foucald,
“One learns to love God by loving men and women.”

When we pursue love in the Christian life, we are pursuing not only a deeper life with God, but also a deeper life with our fellow human being. These two go hand in hand with each other: love of God and love of neighbor. It is through deeper connections with one another that the risen Lord is made known more fully to us, both individually and communally.

Too often, and I’m certainly guilty of this, but too often, just getting out the door in the morning to get to church is a struggle. Our culture is overworked, overstressed, and overstretched. We run from school to work to sports to music lessons…it is dizzying and exhausting. And those extra hours disappear quickly. And then there are the growing demographics of the “nones” and the “spiritual but not religious.” Church and religion end up falling down the list of priorities or being removed altogether for a variety of reasons.

So we must not become numb to the significance of having these doors flung wide open for us and for the world. It’s not just about being a welcoming church; it’s about being a people who engage in authentic and intentional relationship.

We need to be reminded that the opportunity for grace here in this place and in our encounters is brimming like a flooded dam that just can’t hold back the water any longer.

Gathering around this altar, around the tables at coffee hour, at funerals and baptisms, at meals and celebrations here at church, and very soon, in homes for Friendship Feasts: these are all tremendous opportunities for grace to spill forth and love to grow.

These are opportunities for relationships to grow deeper and new friendships to be cultivated. These are the places where people are drawn in, invited to join us at the table: to become, to belong, and to live out the unity that Christ prays for.

It’s also important to note that this posture is not limited to the context within these walls. Orienting our lives towards relationship is a principal way to be a witness to the Good News in Christ in all facets of our lives.

So, pursue relationship with a passion and purpose. Those extra hours that Rhodes figures we have, a portion can be given over to relationships and community:

Make a point to talk to someone today that you don’t know
or maybe don’t know as well as you’d like.
Inquire about dreams that haven’t been fulfilled or even pursued.
Seek out relationships that challenge you or are outside your comfort zone.
Pursue wisdom and learn from each other’s experiences.
Meet over coffee and ask about prayers that are needed.
Invite neighbors and friends over for dinner.

When our relationships grow and community is cultivated in love grounded in Jesus, lives are transformed in powerful ways.

John the Evangelist offers a fitting summary: “No one has ever seen God; but if we love each other, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”

Pursue love.
Overflow abundantly with grace.

Don’t. Miss. These. Moments.

Amen.

 

——————————
* James Rhodes: ‘Find what you love and let it kill you’ at theguardian.com

Posted in Sermon | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment