The Ends of the Earth – a sermon

The audio of today’s sermon is on the Saint Paul’s website, or read it here.

Happy 29th Day of Easter Everybody!  As liturgical Christians, we are peculiar in lots of ways, not least of which that we tend to celebrate seasons after something happens.  While the rest of the world celebrates Christmas from Thanksgiving until Christmas Day, we’re mired in Advent with prophets proclaiming doom and gloom and lessons about the end of the world.  It isn’t until Christmas items are 75% off that we start celebrating the twelve day Season of our Lord’s birth.  Then there’s Easter.  While we’re waving palm branches and contemplating the death of our Lord and Savior, the rest of the world, many churches included, are gorging themselves on jelly beans and dropping Easter Eggs from helicopters.  The Easter Bunny has left the mall by the time we’re ready to dig up the Alleluias for a fifty-day celebration of the resurrection.  So here we are, the stores already hocking July 4th Merchandise, still wearing white, still shouting Alleluia, still celebrating Easter.

One thing we do tend to get ahead of ourselves on is the Ascension.  We’re still 11 days away from Ascension Day, but we’ve been reading lessons from the post-Ascension Acts of the Apostles all Easter long.  Don’t get me wrong, I love hearing the stories of the early Church, and I think there is no better time to hear them than the Easter Season as we ponder what it means to follow the risen Lord in the resurrection life.  It is worth noting, however, that while liturgically we are still in Easter, scripturally, we are all over the place.  This morning is no different as our lesson from Acts comes from the eighth chapter, way past Ascension Day and a big jump from three weeks spent bouncing around chapters three and four.  A lot has already happened by the time the angel tells Philip to head down the Wilderness Road.

The story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch really begins in Jerusalem on Ascension Day.  Just as Jesus was about to depart from his friends, he gave them one last commissioning, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  The Apostles stood there awestruck, but somewhere, a man named Philip’s life was changed forever.  Skipping ahead to chapter six, we find the Church in the midst of some growing pains.  So much was happening so quickly, and some needy widows had fallen through the cracks.  This was a problem, of course, and it was exacerbated by the fact that all the widows who were no longer receiving their daily bread spoke Greek, while all the widows who were still on the Meals on Wheels list spoke Aramaic.  The Greek speaking Christians took issue with the Apostles about this and it was quickly decided that a new order of ministry was needed.  The Apostles called on the fledgling Christian community to “select seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” who could serve as Deacons and coordinate the caring for widows and the feeding of the poor, so that the Apostles could devote themselves to “prayer and serving the word.”

Of the seven selected, five are never heard of again, but two would forever change the Church: Stephen and Philip.  Stephen was “full of faith and the Holy Spirit” and quickly began to do much more than what was written in his job description.  Stephen had the gift of miracles, and he did all sorts of signs and wonders in the name of Jesus before being arrested for stirring up the people.  After an impassioned speech before the Council, Stephen was dragged out of the city and stoned to death.  A great persecution began after the stoning of Stephen and all the Christians in Jerusalem, except the Apostles, left town and scattered throughout the Judean countryside; sharing the Good News everywhere they went.

Soon, Philip found himself in the dreaded city of Samaria, where his gifts of evangelism and healing came pouring out as a blessing upon a people who, for so long, had been outside the bounds of proper Judaism.  He told them the Good News of Jesus, he cast out demons, and he healed the paralyzed and the lame.  The city of Samaria was filled with joy, and the promise of Jesus was nearly fulfilled.  The Gospel had spread from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria.  All that was left was the ends of the earth, and Philip was about to find it in the form of a Eunuch from Ethiopia.

The story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch is a fantastic story, with one incredible detail after another.  It starts with an Angel of the Lord appearing before Philip and instructing him to leave Samaria and head south through Jerusalem to the road that leads down to Gaza: the wild and wooly Wilderness Road.  At once Philip got up and went.  Meanwhile, in Jerusalem there was a man who was taking what little part he could in the worship of God.  He was a Eunuch, and as such, according to Deuteronomy, was forbidden from even entering the Temple.  He was an Ethiopian, most likely a descendant of Cush, son of Ham, son of Noah.  He was, most certainly, not an ethnic Jew.  He was a Senior Official in the court of the Candace, the Queen of Ethiopia.  As the man in charge of the treasury, he handled money engraved with images and dealt with funds raised in pagan Temple worship.  The Ethiopian Eunuch was, for all intents and purposes, the ends of the earth.  You couldn’t get much further outside of the Jerusalem Establishment than this man was, and yet there he was, returning from the Holy City, reading from a scroll of the Prophet Isaiah, having fulfilled his own personal commitment to worship God.

“There,” the Spirit says to Philip, “there in that chariot is a man with whom you need to speak.” Without hesitation Philip saddled up next to the Eunuch and asked, “Whatcha readin’?” He then shared with this man, this obvious outsider, the Good News of Jesus Christ.  The story only gets more fantastic when, in the middle of the desert between Jerusalem and Gaza, the two men stumble upon an oasis and the Eunuch says to Philip, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

What is to prevent the Eunuch from being baptized?!?  In Philip’s time and place there was only one answer to this question.  Everything!  Everything about this man should prevent him from being baptized.  He’s an Ethiopian, a Eunuch, and in charge of the treasury of a pagan queen; his only knowledge of Jesus came from a thirty minute chariot ride with a newly minted Deacon named Philip.  There are lots and lots of reasons why the Ethiopian Eunuch shouldn’t have been baptized in the desert that afternoon, but he was, and the Kingdom of God is better off for it.

Philip knew the right thing to do was to baptize that man in a mud puddle on the side of the road because Philip was tied into the vine of Christ.  As a branch on that great vine of God, Philip knew that he had only one job, to bear the fruit of the Kingdom.  Love flows through the vine of Christ and love is the fruit that disciples who are grafted into that vine produce.  It couldn’t have been easy for Philip to love the people of Samaria, he’d been taught to hate them his whole life.  It couldn’t have been easy for Philip to love the Ethiopian Eunuch, there was so much that made him unclean.  And yet, Philip loved them all because that is what a disciple of Jesus does.  Disciples of Jesus love their neighbors: black and white, gay and straight, Republican and Democrat, Eunuchs and Samaritans because in the Kingdom of God, all lives matter.  The same love that compelled God to send his only begotten Son to save the whole world flowed through Philip and compelled him to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth. That same love flows through each of us. The question is, What will we do with that love?  With whom will you share it?  How far outside your comfort zone are you willing to go?  Even to the ends of the earth? May God’s love flow through each of us as we go forth from this place to share the Good News and serve our neighbors in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Grace in the face of laughter – a Lent 2B homily

Last week was brutal, but I did write a few things.  Here is my homily from Wednesday using the Propers from Lent 2B.

Depending on traffic and left turn arrows, there are three or four different ways that I can go home from here.  One of the paths that I end up on most often takes me past a little church that always has something theologically provocative posted on the marquee.  Recently, they’ve been advertising some sort of revival event, but not long ago there was a phrase that caught my attention.  “Hope says, ‘God can.’ Faith says, ‘He will.’” I found this to be an interesting distinction.  It is certainly one I wouldn’t have made, and it always made me wonder, if faith, hope, and love remain, and if the greatest of these is love, then why aren’t they talking about that.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking a lot about faith this week, especially how hard it can be to have faith sometimes.  It seems to me that sometimes faith simply says, “I hope.”  I chose not to have the Romans 4 lesson read for us this afternoon.  It is one of Paul’s masterful run on paragraphs that would have left us more confused that when we started, but there is a kernel of truth in there that is worth our hearing.  He refers to the faith of Abraham, which we heard about in the Genesis lesson, and he writes, that Abraham “Hoping against hope… believed that he would become “the father of many nations.’”  Hoping against hope; that’s the kind of definition of faith I can get behind.  Even when it makes no sense, even when all seems lost, even in the pit of despair, faith says, “I hope.”

We often romanticize the story of Abraham.  God comes and tells Abraham that at 100 years old, he will be the father of many nations, Abraham believed him, and God’s chosen people were born.  That’s how the Lectionary tells the story, but if we were to read just one more verse, we’d hear this, “Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?”  That doesn’t sound much like faith to me, and yet notice that in the midst of his laughter, laughing at the promise of God, Abraham called his wife Sarah, not Sarai.  He called her by the new name God had given her, Sarah, the Princess and Mother of Israel.

Sometimes faith is a small as a mustard seed, so small as to be almost imperceptible, but even the tiniest bit of faith is enough for God to move mountains.  I find the story of Abraham and Sarah to be a source of comfort in those moments when all hope seems lost, when the odds are stacked so high that a 100 year old man and a 90 year old woman having a child together seems plausible by comparison.  I think this story, romanticized as it has become, is one worth repeating, worth remembering, as a reminder that God lives up to his promises, even, and perhaps especially, when we find ourselves laughing in his face.  God is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and of great kindness.  He brings back those who have gone astray, those who have lost their faith, and even those whose faith is laughable.  That’s what grace through faith is all about.  Even when our faith is lacking, God’s grace is there, holding fast to the promise of things hoped for.  Amen.

Transfiguration Means Change – a sermon

The audio for today’s sermon for Last Epiphany is now on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.

In the fall of 2013, we held a series of community conversations here at Saint Paul’s.  In groups of ten to twenty, we gathered around a meal and discussed our life together.  We talked about what brought us to Saint Paul’s and what kept us here.  We imagined what the ideal church might look like, and we peered into our crystal ball to dream about how we could improve our parish to better accomplish our mission of reaching up in worship, reaching in to serve, and reaching out in love to the glory of Jesus Christ.  Inevitably, at each of those gatherings, we ended up talking about change.  At one of the dinners, I heard the old adage that the only person that likes change is a baby with a wet diaper.  At the time, Lainey was about six months old and going through a phase where every time we tried to change her diaper, she would engage the alligator death roll technique, flipping again and again in an effort to avoid being changed.  It seems nobody, not even a baby with a wet diaper likes change. That’s a real bummer for me as a preacher because God’s call to change our lives is what the Transfiguration is all about.

Our story begins with a plot note that we are six days later.  This begs the question, six days after what?  Six days after two monumental events.  Jesus and his disciples had made their way to Caesarea Philippi, a town built by Phillip the Second, one of the three sons of Herod the Great, and named after the Emperor of Rome, Caesar Augustus.  It was a distinctly Roman city with a distinctly pagan past, built atop the ruins of the Temple of Pan, the Greek god of desolate places.  As they made their way to this town that served as a gateway to Gentile territory, Jesus began to ask his disciples some questions.  “Who do people say that I am?” he asked.  “John the Baptist,” said some.  Some thought maybe he was Elijah.  Others wondered if he was one of the prophets promised in the lineage of Moses.  “That’s well and good,” Jesus replied, “but who do you say that I am?”  Peter stepped forward and with conviction declared, “You are the Messiah, the anointed one of God.”  Right there, on the edge of a town built to proclaim Roman authority, Jesus was declared the Messiah, the Savior of Israel.

The disciples had figured out who he was, but Jesus wanted to be sure they knew what it meant to be the Messiah.  He began to teach them that the Son of Man would undergo great suffering, that he’d be rejected by the leadership of Israel, the Chief Priests, and the scribes, and be killed, but that the story would not end there.  Three days later, he would be raised from the dead!  Peter was not in the mood for change.  He had his idea of what it meant that Jesus was the Messiah, and it meant that they would enter Jerusalem with power and might and overthrow the Romans and the Chief Priests, and the Scribes.  Death, even with the promise of resurrection was not on his agenda, and so he stood up and again with conviction spoke to Jesus. “That’s not going to happen, Jesus, we won’t let it.”  Jesus rebuked Peter quickly and strongly, saying, “Get behind me Satan!”

Six days go by.  Six long and awkward days until Jesus comes to Peter and invites him to join James and John for a private talk, up the mountain, by themselves.  While they were up there, something amazing happened.  The event was so spectacular that Mark knew he needed to tell us about it, but seems to have difficulty putting it into words.  Jesus was transfigured: metamorphosized, transformed, changed entirely.  Even his clothes were different; they became a dazzling white, so bright that no human being could have bleached them so.  Mark tries to describe the amazing event by telling us that Jesus’ tunic was “whiter than white, more dazzling than dazzling, like nothing you’ve ever seen.”[1]  In an instant, everything about Jesus changed right before their very eyes.

As if that wasn’t enough, two of the three characters mentioned in the conversation six days ago appeared alongside Jesus.  Elijah, the one whose coming would bring about the end of the world, is standing next to the shining Jesus.  Moses, the Prophet, the first savior of Israel, is standing next to the shining Jesus.  Peter realized that things were changing, that his expectations weren’t going to be met, and so, for a third time he speaks, this time with less conviction and more terror in his voice, “Master it’s good that we’re here.  Let’s build three booths, one for each of you.”  Booths, the ancient symbol of God’s salvation, built once a year as a reminder that God sustained his people in the wilderness and one day will come to restore all things.  Peter thinks the change that is coming is the end of the world and he wants to build booths to be ready for it.

Poor Peter still doesn’t quite have it right.  A voice from heaven cuts him off and says, “This is my beloved Son, listen to him.”  Listen to his words.  All of them.  Don’t stop listening when he says “I’m going to be killed,” but hear the good news when he says, “and on the third day rise again.”  Be ready to be changed.  Jesus is going to defy your expectations.  He’s going to challenge your assumptions.  He’s going to ask you to give up your life so that he can save it.  Just as Jesus was changed before Peter’s eyes, the whole world is going to be changed through Jesus.

It is true that nobody, not even a baby with a wet diaper, likes change.  Sir Isaac Newton knew that nothing in the universe was capable of changing by itself.  His First Law of Motion states that an object at rest will remain at rest until acted on by an outside force.  Likewise, an object in motion will stay in motion at a constant speed and direction until acted on by an outside force.  We are hard wired to not just change for the sake of change.  An outside force, for example, God, has to be at work.  Unfortunately, most of us are a lot like Peter.  We are so averse to change that even when acted upon by God himself, we’ll resist it.  Refusing to follow the will of God in order to do your own thing has a name my friends, it is called sin.

The story of the Transfiguration offers us a perfect transition from the Season of Epiphany to the Season of Lent.  We’ve spent the last six weeks getting to know Jesus and what he was about.  We listened in as he was being baptized and heard the voice of his Father say, “You are my Son whom I love.”  We’ve heard Jesus preach about repentance and the coming of the Kingdom of God.  We’ve seen him invite fishermen to become fishers of men.  We’ve been told of crowds who were amazed at his authority, and witnessed him heal the sick, the blind, the lame, and cast out demons with power and might.  Like Peter, we think we know Jesus, but God is about to invite us into a deeper relationship.  Beginning on Ash Wednesday, we’ll be invited to change our lives through the repentance of sins, by turning toward the will of God.  We’ll be given the opportunity to take some extra time, either by adding a spiritual discipline or by shedding a distraction, to listen to God’s call in our lives.  We’ll have the chance to recognize God’s action, pushing us out of our comfortable, sinful patterns and into his kingdom.  No one likes change, but God is all about it.  God is calling each us to be transformed and transfigured through repentance and renewal.  Will you be like Peter and balk at God’s call?  Or will you open your ears and your heart to listen for God and be changed? Which will it be? Amen.


Are you ready for Jesus – a sermon

Today’s sermon is now on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.

If statistical research and everyday conversations are any indicator of real life, then the most important thing I do in my work is preparing, writing, and delivering a sermon.  Hours of study, prayer, and writing go into each fourteen hundred word text.  This summer, I took a class on preaching that was co-taught by Duke Divinity professor and Episcopal Priest, Lauren Winner, who noted that preaching presents a unique opportunity in modern life.  With TVs and iPhones and cars that have Internet access, the average American will rarely, if ever, choose to sit and listen to another human being talk for 15 minutes, except for Sunday morning.  Dr. Winner was adamant that “There is no excuse for not taking seriously the extreme privilege that preaching is.”  I get that, which is why I work so hard to craft the sermons I preach.  I also know that a 2007 study from LifeWay Research says that 87% of church-shoppers say preaching is the most important factor in their deciding where to worship.  Again and again, studies by Episcopal seminaries say that the number one thing people want their priest to be able to do it preach a decent sermon.  I really don’t think human beings have changed much over the last two or three thousand years.  I think preaching has always been an important part of the religious life of the faithful.

It was certainly important for Mark and his Church.  This morning we hear Mark’s story of Jesus’ first public act, and what do you know, he preached a sermon.  Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus said to the congregation gathered at the First Synagogue of  Capernaum, but we know their reaction: “they were amazed at his teaching for he taught as one having authority.”  I imagine the people in the crowd that morning weren’t that unlike you and me.[1]  They’d come to Synagogue for all sorts of reasons.  Some where there hoping to find healing from a deep hurt.  Some were there hoping to see and be seen.  Some where there because their grandmother had made sure they went to Synagogue on Saturday and their grandfather had built the place with his bare hands.  They’d come to the Synagogue in all sorts of conditions.  Some where there hoping to hear the voice of God.  Some where there hoping to shake off the cobwebs of a late Friday night with friends, hoping for forgiveness for another week.  Some were hopping mad at their children for putting up such a fuss about getting dressed.

No matter the reason, no matter the mood, the congregation in Capernaum headed off to Saturday morning services expecting what most of us expect on a Sunday morning, routine.  Whether you’re a Baptist, a Jew, a Roman Catholic, a non-denominational type, a Muslim, or an Episcopalian, everyone heads to their weekly worship service expecting it to look like it did last week.  The folks in Capernaum, like most of us this morning, came ready for a fairly predictable liturgy: a reading from the Bible, some prayers, a few songs maybe, and a sermon that would either make them feel warm and fuzzy or make them think, just a little bit, but not too much.  What they certainly didn’t expect was Jesus of Nazareth, but Jesus is exactly what they got.

It wouldn’t have been unusual for a guest preacher to be asked to speak.  Travel wasn’t easy, so when you had someone from out of town, especially a Rabbi, it made sense to invite them to share a word.  Presumably, Jesus would offer greetings from the Synagogue in Nazareth, news he had learned on his journey, and a brief reflection on a safe text.  I’m sure when he was introduced as being from Nazareth; the reaction was not unlike Nathaniel’s from two week’s ago: a groan or two, maybe some eye rolls, and someone muttering under their breath, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” But then Jesus began to preach, and it was unlike anything they had ever heard before.

Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus said, but a few verses earlier, he did offer the crux of Jesus’ message, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the good news.”  It wasn’t that this was a new teaching, but it was the way he said it.  It wasn’t like the preaching of the Scribes: who had to rely on their brains, their studies, and the Holy Spirit for the words they said.  No, Jesus spoke with conviction, with a new authority.  He spoke as if the message about the kingdom of God was fulfilled in his speaking – as if his saying it made it so.  There was a depth and a power to his teaching that was unrivaled, even by the best preachers: the John the Baptists, the Billy Grahams, the Michael Currys.  Jesus spoke and immediately everyone sat up at attention, amazed at what they heard.

I wonder what would happen if Jesus showed up to preach at Saint Paul’s this morning.  Would we be inclined to listen?  Would we sense the same authority and depth the folks in Capernaum realized?  Would we find ourselves amazed?  Or would our experience be more like Jesus’ first public act in Luke’s Gospel, also a sermon.  This time, he isn’t in Capernaum as a guest preacher; he’s in his hometown of Nazareth.  Having preached my first sermon in the congregation in which I grew up, I can tell you how that goes.  As you stand up to preach, the people start to smile.  The congregation is transformed into proud adopted parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles as they await your first word.  My first sermons there were awful, but the people were so kind.  “Great job,”  “I’m so proud of you,”  “You’ll do great things,” they said to me.  Jesus looked out on that hometown crowd and said to them basically the same thing he said in Capernaum, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the good news.”  “Great job,” “I’m so proud of you,” You’ll do great things,” they said, but Jesus kept talking.  The kingdom wasn’t going to look like what they thought it should look like.  He wasn’t going to bring his hometown buddies riding in on his coattails.  Much like in Capernaum, the crowd in Nazareth recognized the authority of Jesus, they sensed his conviction, and they felt the weight of his words, but in Nazareth things went south quickly.  The room flipped from proud smiles to enraged scowls in seconds, and Jesus was run out of town.

Are we ready to answer the call of Jesus to repent and believe in the good news?  Can we hear about freedom to captives, sight to the blind, and the forgiveness of sins for all people without getting nervous?  Are we willing to let Jesus challenge our preconceived notions about what the world should look like?  Or are we hoping that he’ll offer us a safe word, one that might make us feel warm and fuzzy, or at worst make us think, just a little bit, but not too much?  Are we ready for the sort of authority that Jesus claims over our lives: about how we vote, how we shop, and more importantly, how we treat our neighbors and our enemies?  Are we willing to have our lives changed by Jesus, or are we stuck in the same old ways of living that lead only to death?

We are all here this morning for different reasons.  We’ve arrived here having dealt with all sorts of different things.  Some of us are tired and in need of rest.  Some of us are excited and looking for a way to channel our energy.  Some of us are here to get our card punched for the week.  Some are hoping to be changed.  Ideally, all of us are here expecting to encounter Jesus of Nazareth.  In word and song and bread and wine, we come and ask God to enter into our lives, to usher in his kingdom and to set us free from anger and sadness; from routine and boredom; from the way of selfishness and death.  Are you ready to hear the voice of Jesus?  Or would you rather keep things safe and easy?

[1] I’m grateful to Scott Hoeze for helping me imagine this scene.

Our Mary Story – Saint Paul’s 90th Anniversary Sermon

You can listen to yesterday’s sermon over on the Saint Paul’s website, or read it here.

On December 20th, 1924, in the home of Mrs. J.H. Shepherd, Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church in Foley, Alabama was founded.  We can assume that some prayers were offered, but in good Episcopalian fashion, we hear nothing about that in the official record.  Instead the two sentence account of that first gathering reads like the minutes of a short vestry meeting, listing only the officers elected: A.A. Rich, Warden; Dr. John Stark, Treasurer; E.D. Hanson, Secretary; W.W. Manning, and E.A. Smith, Trustees.  The Rev. Joseph R. Walker or Mr. Walker, as they called their priests in those days, was the priest in charge of mission outposts in Foley, Daphne, Robertsdale, Loxley, Bay Minette, Flomaton, Atmore, and Brewton.  As you might assume, clergy leadership in these early days was hard to come by, and the Episcopal Church in Baldwin and Escambia Counties was necessarily built on a foundation of strong lay leadership, which has sustained this congregation throughout the highs and lows of the last nine decades.

As the story goes, Saint Paul’s got its name from none other than Mr. John Burton Foley himself.  His children attended a boarding school in New Hampshire called Saint Paul’s, and Mr. Foley was so impressed with Saint Paul’s School that he suggested the newly founded mission in the town that bore his name should have Saint Paul as its patron saint as well.  As I read over the lessons for this week and thought about the history of this parish I began to realize that though Saint Paul’s is a good and appropriate name for this community, it could just as easily been named Saint Mary’s as for 90 years now, The Episcopal Church in Foley has lived into Mary’s model of faithfulness: seeking to share the love of God with the wider world.  Of course, the name Saint Mary’s would have never flown in low-church, Protestant, evangelical South Alabama.  Even hundreds of years after the Reformation, churches formed in response to the excesses of medieval Roman Catholicism aren’t quite sure how to handle the Mother of our Lord.

At times, the Blessed Virgin Mary has been elevated to near godlike status in Roman Catholicism.  In the peak of the Middle Ages some theologians began to speak not of the Trinity, but of a Quaternity of God: Father, Mother, Son, and Holy Ghost.  In response, we Protestants, and yes Anglicans are included in that broad title, have shied away from Mariology, which is unfortunate because there is much we can learn from the example of Mary, especially in Luke’s Gospel where she is lifted up as the pre-eminent example of what it looks like to be a faithful follower of God.  In her conversation with the Angel Gabriel, we see Mary coming to terms with what it means to trust in God fully: a struggle that anyone who decides to follow Jesus will encounter.

The story begins in the backwater, nothing town of Nazareth in Galilee.  Mary is a young woman of maybe twelve or thirteen, betrothed to a carpenter named Joseph.  As she awaits the return of the bridegroom who will take her to his father’s house, Mary finds herself face to face with the Archangel Gabriel.  He begins with words of comfort and blessing, “Greetings favored one!  The Lord is with you.”  Mary is perplexed and she debates within herself what sort of greeting this might be.  Mary is wise beyond her years here.  Clearly she is being buttered up for something by the divine-being standing before her.  “What’s going on here?” she must wonder, “What is about to happen?”

It is in that moment that Gabriel speaks the most common words that angels speak, “Be not afraid.”  Notice that all of this has happened before Mary has committed to anything, before even Gabriel as begun to share with her the good news of God’s plan for salvation.  Mary is favored by God just where she is, just how she is.  She has been offered the grace of God, and quite frankly, she’s not sure what to do with it. Often, we aren’t either.

Our story begins in the early days of what was once a backwater, nothing town called Foley in Baldwin County, Alabama.  By 1924, the city had been incorporated for almost a decade, the railroad had been transporting crops for nearly twenty years, and the city had a school, several churches, and even its own newspaper.  Yet for a small group of Episcopalians, there was still something missing.  There was already an Episcopal congregation in Bon Secour, but getting to worship at Saint Peter’s wasn’t easy, and because the priest came to Bon Secour from Mobile by boat, which was very much weather dependent, you could never be sure if there’d actually be services when you got there.  So Mrs. Shepherd along with the Holks, Wenzels, Mannings, Heltons, and several others petitioned Bishop McDowell for a missionary priest to serve them.  God had found favor with these faithful Episcopalians long before Saint Paul’s was founded, and in response to that grace, and despite some bouncing around, meeting in the Agricultural Building at Foley High School, the Odd Fellows Hall and the Masonic Temple, they found ways to be the Church in South Alabama and on May 22nd, 1928, the cornerstone of the current chapel building was laid.

Sensing Mary’s trepidation, the Archangel Gabriel implored her to not be afraid, and then laid out before her a plan for the salvation of the world that was as amazing as it was hard to believe.  “How can this be?” was Mary’s response.

“Nothing is impossible with God.”

“How can this be?” has been a popular question in this congregation as well.  Finances have been an issue here since the very beginning.  It is only thanks to the generous donation of several lots at the corner of Pine and Orchid Streets by John Foley that Saint Paul’s was even able to consider building a place to call home, but it took raffles, the sale of homemade Easter baskets and even a quilt or two to raise enough money to actually build the church.  Even then, the building had to be built as inexpensively as possible.  The bricks, which were fired in Bon Secour, were thought to be of such poor quality that that many thought they simply would not hold up, and to keep the sewer bill paid, the Boller and Rich families sponsored card parties.  Through it all, and despite a few pretty crummy priests along the way, Saint Paul’s has faithfully lived out the Gospel call to love God and love our neighbor.  Like the Virgin Mary, there have often been doubts, but the steadfast love of God, through which nothing is impossible, has continued to sustain this Church for 90 years.

Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  Despite her fears and doubts, Mary responded with faithfulness.  Through Mary, God’s plan for salvation came to fulfillment.  In Mary we find an example of faithfulness despite the odds and a call to follow the Lord no matter the cost.

As we look forward to the next 90 years for Saint Paul’s in Foley, my prayer is for continued faithfulness.  There is a tendency in the church to look back on our past and think longingly about how things used to be, but instead, I hope that we will remember that God is continuing to call us forward, continuing to propel us out of these walls and into the world to share the good news of Jesus Christ in word and deed.  Let us never forget the faithfulness of Mary and the faithfulness of our founding mothers and fathers who followed God’s call, took risks, tried new things, and by the grace of God were able to accomplish infinitely more than they could have ever imagined.  Let it be with us as you have promised, O Lord, and bless us with faithfulness and grace in the years to come.  Amen.

Authority in a Church Full of Hypocrites – a sermon

Audio of yesterday’s sermon is now available on the Saint Paul’s Website, or you can read it here.

When I was in seminary, I became involved in one of those heated debates that you only have when you’re in seminary.  We were trying to answer the question, “how long should a regular Sunday worship service last?”  In reality, there is no right answer to that question, unless you’re trying to get to the Cracker Barrel before the Baptists, but the one thing we could settle on was that an hour and fifteen minutes for a regular Sunday morning church service was just too long.  I had a theory that this was a function of our increasingly busy society.  I used to think that back in the good old days before the NFL was broadcast live on Sunday afternoons, nobody blinked at a church service lasting an hour and a half, or more.  In preparing for my Saint Paul’s 101 class, I learned that my theory was 100% wrong.

On August 9th of 1949, J.D. Wilson, then Vicar of Saint Paul’s, complained at a vestry meeting that very few men were showing up for Sunday services during the summer.  In fact, he said that on the previous Sunday only four men had shown up, and only one of them was actually a member!  Virgil Christensen, a faithful churchman and member of the Vestry, looked at his priest and proposed that if the services were shortened from an hour and fifteen minutes to last no more than an hour, it might help to get the men out.[1]  This was 1949, they heyday of the “Good Old Days.”  Boy was I wrong.  Mr. Wilson disagreed with Virgil, but the wider Church has come to follow his advice.  By and large these days, most Episcopal Congregations shoot for Sunday worship to last no more than an hour.  The people who put together the Revised Common Lectionary know this, and so they have made tough choices about cutting lessons to fit the allotted time.  Last week, rather than taking 10 minutes to read the whole story of Jonah, we got only the end, completely cut out of its context.  This week, our Gospel lesson opens with Jesus and the Chief Priests and Scribes already fighting with one another, but we have no idea why.

The 21st chapter of Matthew marks the beginning of Holy Week.  It starts with Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.  If you’ll recall, this grand entrance into the capital city was highly orchestrated by Jesus.  He planned the route, he set the day, and he had his disciples secure the donkey.  Crowds lined the streets as Jesus entered into town, laying down their coats and palm branches and crying out to Jesus as King and Lord, “Hosanna to the Son of David!”  Matthew tells us this parade came at the beginning of Passover week, the annual remembrance of God saving the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt, and it put “the whole city in turmoil.”

From there, Jesus rode his donkey straight to the Temple courtyard and began to drive out everyone.  He flipped over the tables of the money changers.  He cursed the sellers of sacrificial animals, claiming that they had turned God’s house into “a den of robbers.”  Then the blind and the lame came flooding into the Temple to be healed by Jesus and even the children shouted out, “Hosanna to the Son of David!”  Unsurprisingly, the chief priests and the scribes were not happy.  As night fell on Sunday, they began to challenge him by asking, “Don’t you hear what these people are saying about you?  It is blasphemy!  Tell them to stop.”

Here’s where today’s lesson finally begins.  It is Monday morning, and Jesus and his disciples have made their way back to the Temple court.  Jesus had to know things weren’t going to go smoothly this morning, nevertheless, he took a seat in the Temple and began to teach the crowd that gathered about the coming of the Kingdom of God.  The Temple Council had probably been up all night trying to figure out what to do with Jesus.  They plotted and schemed and planned so that when he returned, they were ready with their best question to finally trap him in the charges of blasphemy.  “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”  As the ruling voice of religion in Israel, they knew that they didn’t give Jesus the authority, and so just about any answer he could give will lead him right into their trap.  If he claims his authority from some Zealot Rabbi, they can turn him over to the Romans as a traitor.  If he claims his authority is from God, they can try him as a heretic.  Either way, they win.  What they didn’t expect was that Jesus would answer with a question of his own.

Jesus isn’t dumb.  He knows not to trust these people.  He knows that they’ve laid a trap to catch him, but He also knows that he’s been in control of this situation from the very beginning.  His response is certain to spring him from their trap, “First, let me ask you a question.  If you answer it, I’ll answer yours.  By what authority did John the Baptist baptize people?  Was it from heaven, or was it of human origin?”  When, for fear of the crowd, they don’t answer, Jesus doesn’t have to either, but that doesn’t mean he stops talking.  Jesus goes on to tell a parable about two sons.  The father approaches his first son and asks him to work in the vineyard.  He answers, “No,” but eventually does go out into the field to work.  The father then asks his second son to go out and work.  He answers, “Yes,” but never so much as lifts a finger to help out.

Which one did the will of the father?  Honestly, neither one.  The right thing to do would be to say “Yes” and mean it and do it.  Of course, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and so, though both have fallen short, the first son, the one who actually did something at least sort of fulfilled his Father’s wishes.  And what does any of this have to do with the authority of Jesus and, by extension, the authority of the Church that calls him Savior and Lord?  Well, authority comes not from words, but through actions.

The Chief Priests and Elders claimed the authority of God by means of their lineage, their education, and their piety, but their actions betrayed them as having said “Yes” to God but saying “No” to helping those whom God cares about: the poor, the outcast, the oppressed, the widows, and the orphans.  Prostitutes and tax collectors had lives that looked they had said “No” to God, but when John the Baptist came calling, they responded with a resounding “Yes!”  Jesus had no lineage, he had very little education, and he was just a simple carpenter from Nazareth who hung out with fishermen, prostitutes, tax collectors, and lepers; the blind, the lame, widows and orphans.  From the perspective of the Temple, his life have looked like he had said, “No” to God but his actions showed a life of saying “Yes” and living “Yes” to his Father in heaven.

I’m not Jesus, which means I’m not perfect.  You aren’t Jesus, so naturally you aren’t perfect either.  Sometimes, we say “Yes” to God’s will for our lives and end up falling short.  Sometimes, we say “No thanks” to God’s dream for us, and end up doing amazing things anyway.  The Church is full of hypocrites, full of people who say one thing and do another.  Thankfully, there is always room for one more.  In the end, we are called to do our best to live lives that show what we’ve come to know about the Kingdom of God.  We gather for worship (that thanks to Virgil Christensen, lasts no more than an hour), we reach out to those in need: the poor, the outcast and the oppressed; and we take care of those who are dear to us: the sick and the mourning.  As a church full of hypocrites, we gain our authority when our actions speak louder than our words.  Amen.

[1] Vestry Minutes (August 9, 1949), p. 2.

Considering Giving – A Lenten Reflection

I was on tap for last night’s Lenten Program.  You can listen to the talk on the Saint Paul’s Website, or read it below.

The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Let us pray.
Almighty God, whose loving hand has given us all that we possess: Grant us grace that we may honor you with our substance, and, remembering the account which we must one day give, may be faithful stewards of your bounty, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Good evening! Welcome back to the third installment of our 2014 Lenten Series: 5 Weeks to Renewed Stewardship. During our first week, we did a little fine tuning of our eyesight as we attempted to pay attention to the gifts that God has given us. A brief list included: Children,
House, Rain, Job, Friends, Food, Community, Family, Stars, Garden, Nature, Water, Travel, Transportation, Knowledge, Church, Money, Air, Hearing Aids, Toilets that work, Medical Care, Bed, Heating, Roses, and Shoes. Then last week, Father Keith helped us define stewardship in a new way by thinking about what it meant to be a steward of his shoes including thinking about how the way he walks will make them last longer. As he finished, I overheard somebody come up to him and suggest that he hadn’t gone far enough with the analogy, that perhaps he should have talked about where his shoes take him to reach out in love and service in the name of Jesus. That is, of course, “the next step.” Pun intended. Tonight’s topic then is “Considering Giving.”

If you’ve ever suffered through a season of stewardship in a congregation, Saint Paul’s or otherwise, then you’ve heard the old saying that stewardship is about time, talent, and treasure, and then the entire month of October is spent begging you to give more money to the church. Clergy, Vestry members, even little kids stand up in front of the church and tell everybody why giving God 10% of their income has changed their lives. According to my colleague and Lent Madness Guru, The Rev. Tim Schenk, the average pledge to churches nationally is 2.6%. In conversations I’ve had over the years, the assumption is that the average pledge in Episcopal Churches is about 1.5%. Obviously, the starry-eyed speeches of tithers just aren’t working. Probably because we completely ignore time, talent, and treasure and make it all about money.

That’s precisely what we’ve tried to not to here because it really isn’t about money, and it certainly isn’t about giving the church 10% of it. As we’ve come to realize over the past two weeks, it is about everything. Which is why I love the prayer we’ve been using to open our sessions together so much. In its original form in 1889, the prayer was entitled, “For the Rich” and it was all about money.

O ALMIGHTY God, we beseech thee to send thy grace upon those whom thou hast entrusted with great possessions, that they may praise thee in their lives, honour thee with their wealth, and lead others by their example to seek for that inheritance which thy beloved Son will give to all those who have followed him. Have mercy upon such as neglect to minister to the wants of thy poor; and grant that, remembering the account of their stewardship which they must one day give, they may be faithful almoners of thy bounty, and so at last attain to thy heavenly kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
By 1928, it had been revised to take into account a more holistic view of stewardship and renamed, “For Faithfulness in the Use of this World’s Goods.” In the 1979 Book, it is more accurately called a prayer “For the Right Use of God’s Gifts,” and it invites us to think about how we might honor God with our substances of time, talent and treasure by being faithful stewards of his abundant gifts of time, talent, and treasure.

The greatest gift we receive from God is the very gift of life itself, and that life affords us each new 24 hours period in which to live. Our first place to give back to God is our time, 100% of it, 24 hours a day. In his First Letter to the Church in Thessalonica, Saint Paul encourages the faithful to live a Christ-like life, “Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” Being good stewards of the time God has given us means living content, joyful, prayer fueled lives. All. The. Time. It means finding ways to be thankful even in tough circumstances, even if all you can be thankful for is a heart that beats, air to breathe, and a God who loves you. Sure, giving of your time to work that builds the Kingdom at Saint Paul’s or Foley Elementary or Meals on Wheels or Ecumenical Ministries is good and noble work, but being a steward of all your time is the proper response to God’s gift of life. God doesn’t ask for 10% of your time to be given back to him, but rather that you give him all your time.

Elsewhere in his letters, Paul tells us that in baptism, each disciple of Jesus is given gifts of the Holy Spirit. He lists things like preaching, teaching, administration, healing, and tongues. Keith joked last week that there are two tragedies in the Church: those who have gifts and don’t use them and those who use gifts they don’t have. The talent piece of stewardship goes beyond spiritual gifts, however, and incorporates every part of your life. It isn’t about the carpenter who gives an afternoon to frame a Habitat house, but it is about the carpenter who uses her gifts to the up building of the Kingdom and the glory of God. It isn’t about the teacher who volunteers for Sunday school, but about the teacher who gives his all to his students that they might grow into the fullness of their potential. God doesn’t ask for 10% of your talent to be given back to him, but rather that you give him all your talent.

Finally, there is the treasure component, which is often translated as, “God wants you to give 10%, pre-tax, to the Church.” As I alluded to earlier, however, when we think of all the treasures that God has given us, we realize that our treasure goes way beyond a paycheck. God wants us to use everything we have: our homes, our cars, our shoes, our minds, and our passions to serve his Kingdom. Of course, most of those things require money to buy, and how you spend your money is a big deal in scripture. Making wise decisions about what to buy and where to buy it may seem silly when Wal*Mart has everything you could ever need, but the truth of the matter is that like Keith’s shoes, everything you buy impacts the lives of a lot of people all around the globe. In Luke, chapter 14, Jesus said, “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” And we like to soften that up as much as possible. We reference his encounter with the rich young ruler later on in Luke and say “Oh, but Jesus meant that just for him, not for everyone.” But here, Jesus clearly means it for everyone in the “now large crowd that was following him.” I’ll soften it up a little bit. I don’t think Jesus is affirming communal living. I don’t think he meant sell it all and give it to the poor so that you too will be poor. But I do think he meant to hand over all your possessions and possible possessions to him, by giving God that which is due him, and by really taking notice of the sacrifice you’ve made. God doesn’t ask for 10% of your possessions to be given back to him, but rather that you give him everything you have. It has all come from him anyway.

Once you’ve developed a lifestyle that relies fully on God’s gifts, you’ll eventually realize that you are more inclined to give specific things to the Church. You’ll begin to volunteer more often, you’ll find that your talents match the church’s needs, and you’ll see that regularly donating money to the Church is a source of spiritual depth and great joy, but if it is just a list of “have to’s” or “ought to’s” or “it’d be nice to’s”, it’ll never be the true response to God’s bountiful grace that giving is meant to be. Giving should be like life:

The Lord be with you.
And Also with you.
Let us pray for the wisdom and courage to make stewardship a way of life.
Almighty and everliving God, you are the giver of all good gifts and the source of all that we have and all that we are. Help us to place You, our loving Creator, first in our lives by becoming more prayerful and more focused on loving and caring for our families and our neighbors in need, and by becoming less preoccupied with material things. Help us, Lord to find the true source of happiness and fulfillment that we all seek and that You, alone, can provide. Help us to hear Your call to be good stewards of all Your gifts by sharing them for Your purposes. Help us make Your priorities our priorities. Help us challenge each other, as disciples of Jesus Christ to put our faith into action, through the power of your Holy Spirit, who with you and the same Jesus Christ lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.


Recognizing God’s Gifts – Lent 2014

This year’s Lenten Program at Saint Paul’s is on stewardship.  I had the honor of giving the first talk last night.  You can listen to a poor audio quality version of it on the Saint Paul’s website, or read on.

The Lord be with you.

And Also with you.

Let us pray.

Almighty God, whose loving hand hath given us all that we possess: Grant us grace that we may honor thee with our substance, and, remembering the account which we must one day give, may be faithful stewards of thy bounty, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

When I was in high school, I was a very active contrarian – I worked hard to go against the grain of popular culture.  From 9th through 12th grades, I only wore a pair of jeans one time, because it was a required costume for our presentation of American Culture while in Germany with my high school German class.  I bought my clothes at the Salvation Army, and never wore the popular labels of my day: Abercrombie, American Eagle, or Peace Frogs.  To this day, I’ve never seen Titanic or any of the Jurassic Park movies.  I tried really hard to be an outsider, and there is a part of that still in me to this day.  So, for example, when I notice that something is going “viral” on Facebook, I will often refuse to click the link, just on principle.  It might actually be the most interesting article I’ve ever read or a video that will change my life, but based solely on the fact that it is cool, I won’t check it out.

This happened a few weeks ago when an article on the Huffington Post’s religion page entitled, “The One Thing Christians Should Stop Saying” started popping up again and again on my newsfeed.  In my mind, there is any number of things that Christians should never say again, Narthex being chief among them, so I scoffed at the very idea of the article and scrolled on by.  The Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways, however, when 24 hours later, after I had all but forgotten the article existed, Kathryn Ann Ford sent it my way, “I thought you might like to read this,” she wrote, “It seems to fit with our Lenten theme.”  So I clicked the link and read the article, and while I still think Narthex is the worst word in Christendom, I found some merit in Scott Dannemiller’s suggestion that we stop equating material wealth with God’s blessing.  Instead, he argues, that with great wealth comes great responsibility.

The truth is, I have no idea why I was born where I was or why I have the opportunity I have. It’s beyond comprehension. But I certainly don’t believe God has chosen me above others because of the veracity of my prayers or the depth of my faith. Still, if I take advantage of the opportunities set before me, a comfortable life may come my way. It’s not guaranteed. But if it does happen, I don’t believe Jesus will call me blessed.

He will call me “burdened.”

He will ask,

“What will you do with it?”

“Will you use it for yourself?”

“Will you use it to help?”

“Will you hold it close for comfort?”

“Will you share it?”[1]

This, then is the basic premise behind our five week Lenten series on Stewardship, a word, like Narthex, that if often thrown around in Church circles, but is rarely defined and almost never fully understood.  In fact, I’m guessing most of you came here expecting us to ask you for money.  I’d be willing to bet that as people made the choice between attending this year’s Lenten Series and staying home and watching the Top 11 perform on American Idol, the threat that we’d be begging for cash came to mind.  It’s not your fault for thinking that way.  The Church universal has for too long equated stewardship only with money in the plate, but the reality is that stewardship is much more than that.  So, for the next five weeks, Keith and I will attempt to challenge the common perception of stewardship and invite us to think more fully about how we are called to be stewards of all of God’s gifts.

Let’s begin with a definition.  The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms defines stewardship as “the responsibility given to humans in creation for managing the resources of the earth (Gen. 1:26).  In the church, Christian stewardship involves the whole of life since all life comes from God and is to be lived for God’s glory (1 Cor. 4:1-2; 9:17; 1 Peter 4:10).”[2]  Tonight’s topic then is “Recognizing God’s Gifts.”

As the WDTT definition suggests, the notion of God’s gifts to humankind go well beyond cash money and the things that it can buy.  This idea is repeated again and again in Scripture, beginning all the way back at Genesis 1, when after God had created the heavens and the earth, the seas and the skies, the sun and moon, vegetation and every creeping thing, he created humankind in his image and gave them dominion over everything.  Our primary, God-given identity from the very beginning is that of stewards of every aspect of God’s creation.

For the first several thousand years of recorded history, this idea of stewardship was easily understood.  Nomadic and agricultural in nature, humankind was utterly dependent on God’s creation for survival.  They took very seriously God’s call to stewardship; in fact many of the 613 laws of the Torah were created to ensure healthy harvests and fruitful cattle.  As the nomadic tribe of Israel becomes a kingdom with a capital city, the idea of stewardship began to shift.  By the time that King David was ready to hand things over to his son, Solomon, God was ready to settle down in a Temple of his very own.  1 Chronicles, chapter 29 includes David’s impassioned speech to the people of Israel.  After telling them of all the gold and silver, wood and iron, onyx, precious stones, and marble he had donated to the cause, he challenged the people to give as well, and boy did they respond, giving 188 tons of gold, 375 tons of silver, 675 tons of bronze, and 3,750 tons of iron!  Amazed by the generosity of the people, David “rejoiced greatly,” but rather than thanking the people or tooting his own horn as a leader, he turned his gratitude toward God.

“Blessed are you, O LORD, the God of our ancestor Israel, forever and ever.  Yours, O LORD, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty; for all that is in the heavens and on the earth is yours; yours is the kingdom, O LORD, and you are exalted as head above all. Riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might; and it is in your hand to make great and to give strength to all. And now, our God, we give thanks to you and praise your glorious name. But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able to make this freewill offering? For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you. For we are aliens and transients before you, as were all our ancestors; our days on the earth are like a shadow, and there is no hope. O LORD our God, all this abundance that we have provided for building you a house for your holy name comes from your hand and is all your own.”[3]

While the motivation for David’s speech was the material things of his age, it is telling that he doesn’t just thank God for gold and silver, but instead he affirms that “All things come from God.”  Every Sunday, the 7:30 service takes a page from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer and affirms these words of David, “All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.”[4]  I often wonder if we really believe what we’re saying there.  Perhaps it is better stated this way, while we believe that everything comes from God’s provision, have we ever stopped to think about what “all things” includes?

I think that rooting our understanding of stewardship in the Creation Story of Genesis 1 helps us to begin to think about what “all things” means.  The very earth we stand on wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for God.  Nor would the air we breathe, the water we drink, or the food we consume.  When it comes right down to it, God’s gift is our very life.  As you live and move and have your being this week, I’d like to challenge you to recognize God’s gifts.  Pay attention to what is included in the “all things” that come from God.  Jot them down, if you can, and just be aware of the amazing and abundant provision of God.

Let us pray.

We give you thanks, most gracious God, for the beauty of earth and sky and sea; for the richness of mountains, plains, and rivers; for the songs of birds and the loveliness of flowers. We praise you for these good gifts, and pray that we may safeguard them for our posterity. Grant that we may continue to grow in our grateful enjoyment of your abundant creation, to the honor and glory of your Name, now and for ever. Amen.