The Power of the Psalms

Despite the fact that you will rarely hear a sermon on them, the Psalms are by far the most read book of the Bible within my denomination.  With a few exceptions, in the Daily Office, we read the Psalter through every seven weeks.  In the Book of Common Prayer, the Psalter is still marked for reading them in a thirty day cycle.  Almost every Sunday, a portion of the Psalter is appointed in the Lectionary.  It is a gift that we are able to borrow from our Jewish sisters and brothers their ancient songs of praise, lament, thanksgiving, and wisdom sharing.

As with any set of texts, some speak more to me than others.  I’m sure I’m not alone in this.  Psalm 121 is a go-to for me in challenging times.  Psalms 1, 122, 133, and even the weighty Psalm 22 have all been important to me at times in my life.  Of course, there is Psalm 23, which has almost universally been used at the funerals over which I have presided in my decade plus of ordained ministry.   Psalm 23 has a tendency to show up just when I need it to.  It was there on the week of the Boston Marathon bombing.  There have been several experiencing where I was ministering to someone who was deep in the symptoms of Alzheimers and watched as they mouthed the words of the King James Version of the 23rd Psalm along with me.

This week, as we had to make the Closing the Porch to close our porches to overnight sleeping.  Through tears and hugs, last night we announced to the Cloister Community that it would be the final night they could find shelter in our shelter.  Our ministry with this community isn’t ending, but it is drastically changing, and as I grieve all that is lost in this transition – seeing folks daily, praying for them, sharing coffee and a breakfast – I’m holding on to these words of lament that are also words of hope.  In minutes that seem to last for days where I feel acutely the shadow of death, stuck as I am on Holy Saturday, but I know that in due time, blessings and mercy will find me, and that grace abounds.


Take your cute lamb and stuff it.

Of course, the reality of grief is that if anyone says that to me right now, I will be hard-pressed not to throat-punch them theologically, but just as those souls wracked with dementia had the 23rd Psalm hard-wired into their bones, it is there, deep within me, sustaining me through what are some pretty painful days.


In my introductory letter to Christ Episcopal Church, I noted that I thought the role of the Rector is to be “an empowerer and encourager of ministry.”  This comes from my understanding of ministry as a shared activity.  As an ordained minister, I am not paid a salary to do ministry on behalf of a group of people, but rather, I am paid a stipend in order to be free to look around, listen for where God is calling, and to bring people along in support of that calling.  This is based in stories like the one that we will hear from John’s Gospel on Sunday.


Despite the context seeming to suggest that Jesus already has fish roasting over the coals, he is not content to just hand his disciples what they have spent all night looking for.  No, instead, he serves as an encourager of their own self-worth.  “Try the other side of the boat,” he shouts from the shoreline, and then, when the haul is nearly impossible to bring in, he doesn’t jump into the water to save them, but let’s them live into who they are, seasoned fishermen who know their way around boats and the sea.

This model of ministry has been highlighted for me of late.  As we’ve struggled to figure out how to respond to those who are experiencing homelessness and find shelter on our porches, we have worked very intentionally not to “minister to them,” but to “walk alongside our neighbors.”  We’ve learned names.  We listened to and shared stories.  We’ve prayed with, for, and asked them to pray with and for us as well.  The same has been true of our other members as well.  It isn’t just the clergy who are doing this work on behalf of the people who pay our salaries, but the invitation continues to be made for anyone who has a heart for those in need to come alongside us in loving service for all in our community – housed or not, regular attendee or not.

This isn’t a Joel Osteen, boot-strap heresy, your best life now story.  There have been fits and starts.  There have been moments of joy and moments of true heart ache.  We’ve made mistakes, learned, forgotten what we’ve learned, and, I’m sure, on more than one occasion, fallen back into, “let us fix you” types of ministry.  But, with God’s help, we are trying to encourage one another toward the common goal of loving our neighbors and seeking justice and peace for all people.

Spontaneous Volunteerism

The sermon begins at about the 15 minute mark.

My older half-brother, Ed, served in the United States Air Force for more than thirty-two years.  He was active in both Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom and was awarded several medals and commendations.  Ed is quite a bit older than I am, so we really only see each other at major family events like weddings, funerals, and graduations.  I remember one time listening to Ed talk about his time in the military, I think from when he was stationed at Ramstein Air Base in Germany.  He was talking about the lessons life in the Air Force had taught him, one of which was “when they ask for volunteers, always raise your hand.”  “At worst,” he said, “you’ll have to wash a truck, but you might get to go home.  No matter what, it is better than sitting around.”

I can’t help but wonder if Simon Peter subscribed to a similar life philosophy.  I like to joke about Peter’s impetuous nature.  He certainly was of the “ready, shoot, aim” school of ministry.  He was always ready to say or do something, whether it made any sense or not.  In reading our Gospel lesson for this morning, however, I’m beginning to think that this style was cultivated in him by Jesus from the beginning?  What if Jesus chose Peter precisely because he was always ready to raise his hand and volunteer?  In fact, between the story of Jesus calling his first disciples in Luke and the calling of the Prophet Isaiah in our Old Testament lesson, it seems as though God rather enjoys working with those who are ready to jump into service without quite knowing what that service will actually look like.

In the lesson from Isaiah, we hear God’s initial call to the prophet.  It is a majestic scene, in which Isaiah actually comes face-to-face with the Lord God Almighty, an event thought to be so holy that it would cause any human being to die instantly.  There, standing before the throne of God, hearing a voice so powerful that the very foundations of the earth shook beneath him, Isaiah was so keenly aware of his unworthiness that he cried out to God, “Woe to me!”  Even after an angel touched a live coal taken from the altar of God directly to Isaiah’s lips, he was eager to answer God’s call with, “Here am I; send me!”  Now, I don’t know how familiar you are with Isaiah’s work, but lessons from his book have been the Daily Office readings of late, and let me tell you, he had no idea what he was signing up for.  His stinging words of rebuke to the leaders of Israel brought him significant hardship, and yet, Isaiah stood firm, answering again and again God’s call to proclaim judgement.

You are likely more familiar with the trials and tribulations of Peter, who in our story for today makes his first appearance in Luke’s Gospel.  We find Simon Peter tired after a long and frustrating night of not catching fish on the Sea of Galilee.  He and his companions were doing the work that you have to do at the end of a day of fishing – work that is a lot more fun when there is the promise of fresh fish when it is over.  The only thing on Simon Peter’s mind at that moment was going home and going to bed.  Tomorrow night was already coming quickly, and rest was the order of the day.  That is, until a commotion rose up around them.  Jesus had been preaching further down the shore, when suddenly, the crowd was upon them.  As Peter looked up from his net, he was just in time to see Jesus stepping over the gunwale of his boat.

“Can you put out a bit so that the crowd can hear me?” Jesus asked.

“Get your own dang boat,” might have been my reply, but that’s not what Simon Peter did.  Impulsive Peter hopped in and pushed off.  As he sat there at the feet of Jesus, something seems to have clicked in Simon’s mind.  The message of the Kingdom of God coming near spoke to a deep longing that Simon Peter might not have even known he had.  Who knows how long he sat there as Jesus taught the crowds, but when he was done, Peter once again looked up at Jesus just in time to be put to work.

“Head out to the deep water and throw out your nets for a catch,” Jesus suggests.

This time, Peter pushes back just a bit, “Master, we fished all night long and didn’t catch thing.”  His retort didn’t stick however, as he quickly changes course, “but if you say so, I’ll give it a try.”  Peter threw his net over the side of the boat, not knowing what was going to happen next.  This Jesus character promised him a catch, but he didn’t say what kind.  Was he hoping just for enough to feed himself?  Did he want to feed the crowd that had gathered or the entire Village of Capernaum.  Peter didn’t know, and thanks to his spontaneous streak, Peter didn’t seem to care either.  Out went the nets and the haul of fish was so enormous that it threatened to sink both his boat and the one James and John had brought out to help.[1]

Peter’s response to this miraculous scene is not unlike Isaiah’s response to seeing the throne of God.  Immediately, he fell to his knees and worshipped Jesus in fear and trembling.  “Go away from me, O Lord, for a I am a sinful man.”  Again, just like it was for Isaiah, God won’t let Peter off quite so easily.  From Isaiah’s “whom shall I send,” to Peter’s “Don’t be afraid, from now on, you will be catching people,” in both cases the response was the same – they dropped everything and followed God’s call, with no idea what was going to happen next.

I am not like Isaiah, nor like Peter.  I don’t have a spontaneous bone in my body.  I hate surprises, and I almost always have a plan.  Following God, however, often means throwing the plan out the window, raising your hand, and saying, “here I am God, what do you need?”  In October of last year, in the midst of all the amazing things we have going on here at Christ Church, a crowd arrived on our doorstep.  We have named them the Cloister Community, but that just a fancy church euphemism for people who are experiencing homelessness and find themselves sleeping in our Cloister.  At first, I didn’t really know what to do.  I mean, we all knew that folks have been sleeping out there for years, but all of a sudden, they were visible.  It is as if I looked up from cleaning my nets one day and suddenly saw a whole group of people that I had never seen before.  It was a rocky start.  People, personal belongings, blankets, pallets, bikes, and even shopping carts seemed to multiply by the day. I’ll admit that my initial reaction was to push back against this change, to fear for our beautiful campus, and to want to shoo them away.  Something kept that from happening; probably the influence of Deacon Kellie, Mother Becca, and other lay leaders who would soon develop into a group called Sacred Conversations that is devoted to praying for our Cloister Community and seeking ways to help them move on to long-term, sustainable housing solutions.

After a painfully slow six weeks or so, in December, we published a set of community expectations, and for the past eight weeks, we’ve been working daily to help ensure those expectations are being met, building relationships, and generally following the Peter model of ministry – ready, fire, aim.  It hasn’t always been pretty.  There have been unintended consequences both good and bad, but we are making progress toward our goal of providing a safe, temporary place for those experiencing homelessness to sleep.  Nothing more.  Nothing less.  I wish we had a grand plan.  I wish there was a flow-chart I could post in my office, but it seems that God’s ways are not my ways.  All God asks is for you to raise your hand and volunteer.  Slowly but surely, the rest will be revealed.

If you want to raise your hand and say “here am I; send me,” come pray with us on the porch, Mondays at 4pm or join our Sacred Conversations meetings on Wednesdays at 4 in the Conference Room.  Jesus loves to make use of Peters and Isaiahs who are flexible and spontaneous, just as he loves to make use of me, a planner and organizer.  I don’t know what will come of this latest invitation to walk with our neighbors; but as my brother would say following Jesus brings a whole lot more blessing than sitting around.  Amen.

[1] I am grateful to Lauren Dow Wegner for her imagery. (accessed 1/5/19)


The Bread of Life for All – a sermon

The new is now up and running, which means audio will soon be available.  Stay tuned.  In the meantime, you can read today’s sermon here:

I grew up the child of blue collar folk in a decidedly white-collar community.  Manheim Township was one of the richest tax bases in Pennsylvania.  As McMansions came into fashion, they were built in spades in my school district.  I went to school with the children of doctors, lawyers, and more than a few stockbrokers.  Folks drove nice cars, had vacation homes down the shore, and generally lived very comfortably.  My family lived in 1,300 square foot, post-war house nestled in a quiet, older neighborhood.  My parents both worked hard, but my sister and I knew that we’d never have everything our friends had.  Still, we were always comfortable.  We never knew hunger, and were always sure that our next meal would come.  The same couldn’t be said for some of the kids who rode our school bus, however.

Thanks to some political maneuvering over the years, the Manheim Township School District had come to include two blocks of Lancaster City that sat right alongside the railroad tracks.  The kids who lived in those rowhouses lived very different lives.  My shoes were knock-off Chuck Taylors, theirs were hand-me downs.  My clothes were always freshly cleaned, but theirs obviously were not.  I maybe didn’t have the spare lunch money to buy that Chaco Taco I wanted, but some of them didn’t have enough lunch money to buy anything at all.  Being a self-absorbed kid, I noticed the differences, it was hard not to, but my attention was mostly fixed on my own perceived need.  As I’ve matured in my faith, I often think of those kids and the thousands like them that I’ve met over the last decade for whom the desperation of hunger is a very real thing.

Last Sunday, we heard the story of Jesus feeding 5,000 people out of fives small barely loaves and two fish.  In that crowd, there were folk from every walk of life.  Some in the crowd would have been quite well off – religious leaders, lawyers, and tax collectors.  Some likely lived day-to-day existences – farmers, fishermen, and the like.  Many, no doubt, were the poorest of the poor – widows, orphans, and lepers, for example – living at the very margins of society, never knowing when their next meal might be.  For this group, to eat their fill and have food left-over was an unimaginable luxury.  It is unsurprising, then, that the next day, some out of the crowd of 5,000 would be out in search of another meal.

After a rough night on the lake, it would have been easy for Jesus to focus on his own needs.  Yet, as we’ve seen several times lately, Jesus is quick to see to the very core of people, to assess their needs, and to offer grace.  Jesus understood that the remaining crowd had been unable to experience the fullness of the miracle the day before because they knew nothing but hunger.  As the old adage goes, “a hungry stomach has no ears.” They only knew that for a moment, the desperation of living in constant hunger had gone away.  It is no wonder that they went in search of Jesus when they couldn’t find him – they sought him out in the hope that he might be able to feed them another meal.  It is easy to hear this passage as Jesus condemning this group of people for missing the miracle, but I think that it is much more likely that Jesus’ response to their hunger for literal food was compassion, and so he took the opportunity to teach them about what had really happened the day before.  “You missed the sign.” Jesus says, “What you are searching for today isn’t just another bit of bread, but rather, food that will abide – food that will endure – food for eternal life.”

I was struck, this week, by the reaction of the crowd to Jesus’ words.  As I heard the response of the crowd, I could see the faces of the myriad men and women who have come into my office desperate and hungry.  They come for all sorts of reasons and in need of all kinds of things: diapers for their child or the assurance of God’s love; gas to get to work or hope in the midst of hopelessness; money to have the lights turned back on, or someone who will just care enough to listen.  As they tell me their stories and we both come to realize that I might have some resources to be able to help, more often than not, their reaction is the same as the crowd, “what work can I do to earn this?”

Grace is really hard to comprehend.  Grace is antithetical to the American Way.  There is no bootstrap theology in the Gospel, but rather, the stark realization that everything we have is a gift from God, and there is nothing we can ever do to earn it.  For the hungry crowd, it was hard to fathom that someone would just give you food that endures forever.  For those of us who know only comfort, I think grace is even harder to imagine.  Only those who have known desperation can begin to understand grace.  Only those who have cried out in hunger, fear, or despair can begin to know what Jesus is talking about when he says that the only work we have is to believe, and even that, the tradition teaches us, is a gift from God.  It is only those who have known what it is to live in need who can experience what it means to cry out to God and say, “Lord, give us this bread always.”

The good news of God’s grace is that even if we can’t comprehend it, even when we don’t know we need it, we are still invited to receive it.  To the hungry crowd, Jesus is eager to share that all throughout history, God has been in the business of freely giving away the true bread of grace. From Adam and Eve to Abraham and Sarah.  From Moses and the people of Israel to the here and now.  In the person of Jesus, God continues to offer the bread of life.  This bread, which the crowds don’t know they really want, which we often don’t know we really need, is made fully known in Jesus who declares, “I am the bread of life.”  In the Greek language and in Jesus’ Jewish context this declaration puts Jesus on par with God who, when Moses asked for a name from the burning bush, proclaimed the name “I AM,” and it affirms Jesus as having been present when God gave life to humanity.  Zoe, the Greek word used here for life, is the thing that animates, the soul, the breath of God, which was breathed into Adam and Eve at the beginning.  There is no one out there who isn’t in need of this bread of life.

Four blocks away, there is another set of railroad tracks that draw a dividing line.  On the other side, there live many families who know what it means to experience real hunger.  As followers of Jesus, our response to the grace of God should be the same sort of compassion that Jesus had for the crowd that sought him out.  As we gather today to ask God’s blessing upon a new school year, we pray for our own kids while also remembering those who will attend Dishman-McGinnis, where we will once again have the opportunity to serve as mentors, reaching out with the love of God to children, many of whom have known the real hunger of the crowd in today’s Gospel lesson.  We who have been given the bread of life are called to share it.  And so, let us continually pray that being nourished by the bread of life, we might have eyes to see, hearts to love, and hands to serve.

Open our eyes, O Lord, to see your hand at work in the world about us.  Help us to see the bread of life which has been offered to us, and be thankful. Help us to see those with whom you invite us to share that living bread, and be generous.  Give us hearts of compassion to reach out in loving service that one day, by your grace, the whole world might know the gift of your Son, the bread of life.  Amen.

I was hungry, and you fed me

As is the case most mornings, as I got ready for work today, I turned the TV to SportsCenter on ESPN.  Amidst the coverage of the MLB trade deadline and the Mets getting totally blown out by the Nats (baseball has a serious problem) was the story of Lebron James, through is foundation, opening a new public school in Akron, OH.  In the interview with Rachel Nichols, who is one of the best in the game, she noted that one of things that caught her attention was the ways in which this new school was working to change the lives of kids.

RN: As I look around here, one thing that caught my eye just beyond all the academic stuff is that kids will go here for a longer school year and also longer school days. They’re here until 5 o’clock, partly just so they’re in this supported system and not out in the world as much. The other thing was food. That if a kid is hungry, it’s hard to learn, so you guys are giving these kids breakfast, lunch and a snack. How important is that?

LJ: I think first of all, fueling the body keeps the mind sharp. I remember when I was a kid, my attention span — I mean, you can have me for a little bit, but you have to keep me engaged. I think obviously fueling these kids and giving them food and breakfast and lunch and a snack — but just keeping them here under our support, keeping them here under our guidance, giving them objectives and criteria that they can match and not feel stressed and feel like they’re family. That’s what we want to create. We want to create an environment of family and not like a workplace. Sometimes you can get tired. If you look at it like work, you kind of get tired of it. We want to create an environment of family, where you want to always be around your family no matter the good and the bad, you always want to be around that support system. So that’s what we’re creating here.

As I listened to Lebron talk and thought about my own experiences at Foley Elementary and now Dishman McGinnis Elementary, the words of Jesus to the crowd that he had fed with five loaves and two fish came to life.  In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, we hear Jesus speak frankly about the human condition. “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”

First and foremost, people came to Jesus because they were hungry or hurting or in need of something they thought he could give, but the reason they stayed wasn’t because of a few pieces of bread and salted cod, but because of what else he had to offer.  Lebron James is making sure hungry kids are fed, not simply because feeding them is the right thing to do, but because it is the right thing to do, but because by filling their stomachs, the possibilities for learning open up.  In the same way, we reach out into the community not simply to make ourselves feel good or to have photo opps with our homeless neighbors, but because through sharing the love of God in action, we have the opportunity to share the love of God in word as well.

Every Wednesday at 11am, Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green opens its doors to feed 80-100 folks a free lunch.  Our volunteers don’t stand safely on one side of a service counter, however.  Instead, they are sitting at tables, hearing stories, learning about our neighbors, and, generally, just treating the stranger as a human being.  Our ministry at Dishman McGinnis, in which we might do as little as simply have lunch with a kid, means that for those 30 minutes, an adult who would otherwise have nothing to do with them, cares, and that act of caring can make all the difference in the world.  It isn’t an either/or proposition.  We don’t just feed someone’s body without also feeding their soul with the bread of eternal life, and in return, we too are fed.

Worship, Learn, AND Serve – a sermon

Today’s sermon can be heard on the Christ Church website, or you can read it below.

I’m not sure why, but recently, it seems I have been engaged in more than my fair share of conversations about our mission and vision.  It was just a few weeks ago that I based an entire sermon on our mission statement, so I don’t really want to rehash all of it here, but this week, I realized something that I feel I need to share with you.  After more than six months of living with and speaking aloud our mission statement, I came to the realization that it is strung together with an “and” and not an “or.”  We are a community of Christ’s servants who seek to worship God with joy and wonder, learn and grow together, AND radiate God’s love to all.  This means that in addition to our mission being a statement about who we are as a community, I think it also serves as a call for each of us as individuals.  It isn’t that some are over here doing the worship bit, while others worry about learning and growing, and still others are in the kitchen radiating God’s love.  Rather, we are each called to engage in all three areas of mission and ministry here at Christ Church.  Worship is the proper response to God’s grace.  Being a disciple literally means being a student of the teachings of God.  The fullness of our life in Christ is exemplified in the ministry of service, reaching out and radiating God’s love to all.  Sure, each of us is maybe better equipped to fulfill one part of this mission than the others, but the truth of the matter is that all are called to serve God by way of worship, discipleship, and outreach.

In my experience, it is most difficult to convince people to engage in the outreach component of the life of faith.  We get showing up for worship, and most of us enjoy learning about God, but for some reason, many have been convinced that the call to serve is reserved for a small group who are particularly gifted in some way.  “Oh, I can’t cook.”  “I couldn’t possibly help with Room in the Inn.”  “I wouldn’t know what to say if I visited someone in the hospital.”  Most members of most congregations are quite content to write checks so that somebody else can radiate God’s love on their behalf.  Here at Christ Church, however, we are not “or” Christians.  We are “and” Christians.  Our Gospel lesson for today makes it clear that following Jesus requires us, all of us, to serve.

This story immediately follows last week’s lesson about Jesus healing a demon possessed man in the Synagogue at Capernaum.  As the crowd buzzed with excitement about the authority of Jesus’ teaching and his ability to cast out demons, Jesus and his disciples retired to Simon Peter’s house for the evening.  Upon arriving there, the group was made aware that Simon Peter’s mother-in-law had taken ill.  The substantial news coverage of the number of people who have died from the flu this year might remind us that a fever isn’t as innocuous as we have come to believe.  In a world before antibiotics, Peter’s mother-in-law’s fever could very well have been a death sentence.  At the very least, and like every other illness and demon possession in Marks’ Gospel, her fever had rendered her as good as dead by keeping her from the fullness of her ministry and setting her outside of her relationships.

Here I feel the need to pause to make mention of how this text has been used very poorly in the past.  Too often, the healing of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law has been told as a story that was meant to “keep women in their place” by highlighting that her ministry was a ministry of service.  Some translations say that after she was healed she “began to wait on them” or “prepared a meal for them,” and while that was the traditional role of women in first century Palestine, what Mark describes happening is of much deeper significance.

First, we should note that Jesus did not heal Peter’s mother-in-law in the same way he healed many in the crowd later that evening.  In the Greek, Jesus did something far greater than heal her.  Jesus raised her up.  It is the same word John uses to describe what happened to Lazarus.  It is the same word that Mark will later use to describe the resurrection of Jesus on that first Easter Day.  What Jesus did for her was far more powerful than the many healings he would do that evening.  He turned her weakness into strength.  He raised her from her as-good-as-deadness and restored her to fullness.  It didn’t take her any time at all to recuperate. Immediately she got up and served them.

As I noted just a moment ago, it is upon this word “serve” that plenty of bad theology has been built.  Rather than being a proof-text for why women shouldn’t be ordained or preach or teach in seminaries, what Mark is actually saying here is that she ministered to them.  The Greek word translated as “serve” is diakonai, from which we get the word Deacon.  It could be said that Peter’s mother-in-law was the first Deacon in the Christian Way.  Well before Philip, Stephen, and the rest, she was set apart in a ministry of table service and support.  Rather than a text that can be used to subjugate the call of women into ministry, this story seems to be an invitation to see women as fully part of the Gospel work from the very beginning.

Even more important is how Mark uses this word elsewhere in his Gospel.  While Jesus was in the wilderness being tempted by the Devil after his baptism by John, Mark says that Angels waited (diakonai) on him. When Jesus was crucified, Mark tells us that all his male disciples fled.  Judas turned him over to the Temple Authorities, Peter denied him three times, and the other ten were nowhere to be found.  Yet, in that moment of pain and sadness, several women were there.  Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, are named, but there were others.   These were the women, Mark tells us, who had accompanied Jesus as disciples while he was in Galilee, and who had provided for him, served him, ministered to him, diakonai’d for him, along the way.  It is not unreasonable to think that, even though her son-in-law had failed his Lord that day, maybe Simon Peter’s mother-in-law was still there, supporting Jesus in prayer and grief.

Finally, Jesus even uses diakonai to describe his own ministry in Mark 10:45.  My New Testament Professor, John Yieh, called this verse the key to understanding Mark’s Gospel.  “For the Son of Man came not to be served (diakonai), but to serve (diakonai) and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  For those who follow Jesus, service (diakonai) is the basic building block of discipleship.  Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, then, is not healed simply to fulfil her role as a 1st century woman or to serve as the exemplar of what women are called to be in the church, but in being raised up to serve, she is the first true disciple of Jesus Christ.

Jesus healed Simon Peter’s mother-in-law from her fevered bondage in order that she might live fully into her identity as a disciple through loving service.  We who have been set free from our bondage to sin are called to the same.  We are called to worship by acknowledging the holiness of God in word, song, and sacrament.  We are called to learn and grow by engaging in practices of discipleship and Christian formation so that we can deepen our relationship with God through Christ.  AND, we are called to serve, diakonai, by working for justice and peace; by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and welcoming the stranger; and by visiting the sick and imprisoned.  We may not perform the same sort of miracles that Jesus did, but we can serve with the same goal in mind: joining with God in restoring all people to right relationship with God and with one another and living into the abundant life of grace.  Ultimately, we worship, we learn, AND we serve because it is who God calls us to be in Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Living into our calling – a sermon

Today’s sermon can be heard on the Christ Church website, or you can read it here.

Christ Episcopal Church is a community of Christ’s servants who seek to worship God with joy and wonder, learn and grow together, and radiate God’s love to all.  This is how we describe ourselves.  It is also who we believe God has called us to be in this time.  As many of you will recall, this mission statement was developed out of a series of community conversations in which more than one-hundred-fifty members of Christ Church turned out to reflect on the same three questions.  What keeps you coming back to Christ Church?  When have you experienced Christ Church at its best?  And, What additional programs or activities would you like to see added over the next three to five years to help us more fully share the love of God with each other, our community, and the world?  Your Vestry took the notes from these gatherings and in prayerful conversation, tried to discern what themes and images seemed to come to the fore.  Three areas of ministry came into focus: worship, discipleship, and outreach, and from there, our mission statement was born.

Mission Statement Slide

Now, mission statements are, more often than not, absolutely useless.  They get printed on letterhead and published on websites, and are never thought of again.  Many are made up simply of buzzwords and vague ideals, leaving them to be nothing more than drivel taking up space on a hard drive somewhere.  We didn’t want our mission statement to fall into the abyss, and so the vestry completed its retreat by setting three vision goals to help us more fully live into who we say we are and who we think God is calling us to be.  Each ministry area mentioned in the mission statement got a goal.  For worship, our goal is to explore opportunities to enhance our worship of God.  In discipleship, we hope to broaden participation in Christian formation.  In outreach, we want to reestablish the Outreach Ministry Team.  That was August.  It is safe to say that while I believe our mission statement continues to stay at the forefront of our minds, our work toward implementing these goals has been very slow going for a variety of reasons.

Earlier this week, I wrote a blogpost entitled “Motive, Means, and Opportunity.”  In it, I reflected on what I have learned from years of watching cop shows, which has, as you might imagine, made me something of an expert in criminal investigations.  With my keen eye, I never fail to have no clue who committed the crime, while Cassie usually has it figured out before the first commercial break.  One thing I have pieced together is that for an investigation to prove something beyond a reasonable doubt, the detectives must show motive, means, and opportunity.  Motive is, of course, the reason a crime was committed.  Means is the ability to do the crime.  Opportunity requires it be proved that the suspect was present at the scene during the time in which the crime was committed.

I found myself coming back to that post again and again this week, especially as I thought about today’s annual meeting, our Mission Statement, and the lessons appointed for this morning.  As I’ve thought more about it, I’ve become convinced that it isn’t just crimes that require motive, means, and opportunity, but everything we do comes down to these three things.  Take, for example, the story of Jonah.  This morning, we only hear a small piece of a larger story that is all about motive, means, and opportunity.  God first came to the great prophet near the city of Joppa.  God told Jonah to go to Nineveh, an Assyrian city, to declare God’s judgment upon them.  It seems reasonable to assume that Jonah had the means to perform this important task.  He was most likely already a trusted prophet of God.  He had shared difficult news of God’s judgment before.  And even if he wasn’t, in stories of faith like these, God’s grace ensures qualification.  Even if Jonah had never before spoken a word from God, simply in being called, Jonah was made qualified.

It is also clear that Jonah had the opportunity to preach the message God had given him.  As the story unfolds, we hear that, clearly, Jonah did not have another, more pressing matter, to attend to.  Jonah could have easily made his way to Nineveh to proclaim the message of God’s judgment upon that evil and violent city.  Jonah had the means and the opportunity to follow God’s call.  What Jonah lacked was motivation.  Immediately upon receiving the word from the Lord, Jonah made his way onto a boat sailing in the opposite direction.  Even with God providing the means and the opportunity, the very human part of following God’s call is the motive.  Jonah didn’t want to bother with Nineveh because he knew that God was compassionate, and that God would show mercy even upon a city that was the enemy of Israel.  So, Jonah fled.  God pursued Jonah; creating a massive storm that threatened to destroy the boat.  When the crew threw Jonah overboard, God appointed a fish to swallow and protect Jonah.  Three days later, Jonah was returned to dry land, and God once again called him to go to Nineveh to proclaim judgment.  Jonah relented, made the prophecy of God.  Just as Jonah had suspected, the people of Nineveh repented, and God forgave them their sins.  When Jonah finally put motive, means, and opportunity together, the will of God that all people might be restored to right relationship with God and one another came into being.

Everything we do requires motive, means, and opportunity, even our mission and vision here at Christ Church.  As of Thursday evening, with Becca’s ordination to the priesthood, and for the first time in several years, Christ Episcopal Church is fully equipped with means and opportunity.  We are fully staffed, more so than ever before in fact, with two priests, a deacon, and four lay employees.  Our 2018 budget of more than three-quarters of a million dollars is within seven-hundredths of one percent of being balanced.  Your willingness to offer your gifts of time and talent mean that we are well equipped to meet whatever challenges God might place before us.  We have the means.

In the late 1980s, the members of Christ Church made the decision to embrace fully what it meant to be a downtown church.  Being a downtown congregation, whether it is in Foley, Alabama, Chicago, Illinois, or Bowling Green, Kentucky means that the opportunities for ministry are endless.  Seven blocks in that direction is Dishman McGinnis Elementary School, where every child receives free breakfast and lunch, and dozens still wait on a list, hoping to be assigned a mentor.  Seven blocks the other way are hundreds of middle-class and upper-middle-class families whose lives are so busy, they can’t figure out how to eat dinner together or even begin to imagine finding time to come to church.  With Western’s Campus only few blocks away, we hear clearly a call to serve its students, faculty, and staff.  Across the street, many of our neighbors living in the Towers are barely hanging on to the first rung of the American Dream, while right next door, the homeless line up, waiting to warm up in the library when it opens this afternoon.  Opportunity abounds.

As we heard in Becca’s ordination service, priests are called to care alike for young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor.  We can’t do it alone.  Instead, I see my job as the Rector of Christ Church to be one of motivator, encourager, and cheerleader.  With great means and plenty of opportunity, the coming year will be one of growing motivation to live into our mission, to attain our goals, and, above all, to spread the Good News of God’s salvation for all people.  As I wrote in my annual report, “with a full staff, a healthy budget, and an empowered and excited membership, there is no telling what God might have in mind for us.”  I look forward to continuing the journey God has planned for us as we worship with joy and wonder, learn and grow together, and radiate God’s love to all in 2018.  May God bless us in this work.  Amen.


Where did you see God today?

You can listen to this sermon on the Christ Church website.

Cassie and I moved to south Alabama in 2007, almost two full years after Hurricane Katrina had ravaged the Gulf Coast from Louisiana to Mobile Bay.  Two years might seem like a long time after a storm, but estimates were that it would take as much as a decade to rebuild after such a catastrophic event.  For three summers, I joined the Saint Paul’s youth group on a trip to work at Mission on the Bay in Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi.  To give you an idea of the extent of the work, we were still demolishing houses in 2010; five years after the storm.  Mission on the Bay was a joint venture between the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi and the local Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  It welcomed teams of youth, college students, and adults year-round to help people rebuild their homes and their lives.  They offered a place to stay, three square meals a day, and the case work, tools, and expertise required to do the job safely and effectively.   Because of the wide variety of groups, they chose not to offer any sort of chapel service or structured devotional time.  Each group leader was welcome to create their own.

Our first summer there, I did all kinds of prep work.  I created a devotional journal, complete with Scripture readings, reflection questions, and discussion topics.  It only took a day to realize the error of my ways.  After “sleeping” in a Quonset hut that barely got below 80 degrees, working all day in the south Mississippi July sun, and showering in a trailer with one-thousand percent humidity, none of us could think straight.  The devotion time was mostly just staring at each other followed by the airing of teenage grievances over who took the most breaks or drank the last Gatorade.  I quickly decided to change things up for year two.  This time, under the shade of a live oak tree that had seen more than its fair share of storms, I asked the kids the same question every night of our week together, “Where did you see God today?”  Their answers ranged from the sublime to the mundane.  We saw God in the neighborhood children who brought us popsicles at lunch time and in the elderly woman who had taken in as many neighbors as she could after the storm, many of whom were still there.  We saw God in a refreshing dip in Mississippi Sound and the ability to use power tools.  As the week went on, it became clear that God can be seen everywhere, if we are willing to allow the Spirit to open our eyes.

Peter, James, and John would have had no problem answering the “where did you see God today” question after this morning’s Gospel lesson.  I doubt they expected to experience such an awe-inspiring event as they joined Jesus on one of his usual hikes up the mountain to pray, but this day, something special happened.  This day, they got to see God fully present in the person of Jesus.  Not that God wasn’t always fully present in the person of Jesus, just that normally, their eyes couldn’t see it in its full glory.  Today was special.  Eight days after Peter had first declared Jesus as the Messiah and Jesus had, in turn, first predicted his death for the sins of the world, Peter, James, and John saw, first-hand, that Jesus really was the chosen one of God.  With his face transformed and his clothing as bright as lightening, they saw the glory of God in him.  They overheard him talking with Moses and Elijah about the death that he had predicted, the final exodus the disciples so desperately hoped he could avoid.  They heard, with a mixture of fear and awe, the voice of God confirming what they had come to understand, Jesus truly was the Son of God.

Even in that profoundly miraculous moment, I suspect they could have missed it.  Had their eyes not been tuned to the Spirit’s frequency, all of this may have happened while they dozed off on the sidelines.  It happened on the night Jesus was arrested, why couldn’t it have happened here?  Yet, they were blessed in seeing.  They were tuned in with the help of the Spirit, and there, atop that holy mountain, they saw God.

It is so easy, as we go about the ongoing rhythms of life, to miss opportunities to see God.  The hamster wheel of work, school, vacation, sports practices, doctors’ appointments, or however we define our days and weeks can get spinning so fast that it becomes impossible to pause for even a moment to see God.  Which is why, I think it is important, from time to time, to break the routine, to be caught short, and to be forced to see things in a different way.  Take today, for example.  The Sunday before the start of school could be like every other Sunday on the calendar.  We could come, say our prayers, sing a few hymns (if we are so inclined), receive communion, and then get about our day; ignoring completely that God will be joining us on school buses and in classrooms for the next nine months.  Rather than just going about the routine of life, today we pause, and look for God.  We will, in a few minutes, take time to pray God’s special blessing upon students, teachers, support staff, school board members, parents, and volunteers as a new school year begins.  After that, we will gather our prayers around an altar made of paper boxes and ask God to open our eyes to see his hand at work in the world about us to be empowered for ministry through the bread and wine, the body and blood of his Son.

God is already present in these one-hundred-twenty-thousand sheets of paper.  They were purchased from my Discretionary Fund, thanks to your generosity, and will be donated to Parker Bennett Curry and Dishman McGinnis Elementary Schools where they will take a small portion of the burden off hard working faculty who serve some of the most vulnerable in our community.  You may recall from my third sermon at Christ Church, that for years I have volunteered at Foley Elementary School.  I told you the statistics of fifteen hundred students, 80% of whom are in poverty and 50% who come from single parent homes.  This week, I had the chance to meet Angie Slocum, the school counselor at Dishman McGinnis, an elementary school seven blocks that way (points to reredos).  Angie told me the story of a school that has grown by nearly 50% over four years ago and now serves almost 500 students, 99% of whom are on free and reduced lunch, a key poverty indicator.  That is a 99% poverty rate in our own backyard.  I saw God there.  I saw God in the 80 volunteers who mentored children last year.  I saw God calling us to help mentor the nearly 80 others who were still on the waiting list.  I saw God in teachers, counselors, administrators, secretaries, and janitors who were working, with immense pride, to ready their school to meet the needs of their students.  I left the school and immediately filled out my volunteer application.  I have plenty of extra copies, so let me know if you’d like to join me at Dishman McGinnis to see God and be God’s hand at work helping some of the least in our community experience God’s love while receiving an opportunity to find their way onto the first rung on the ladder to success.

If the Feast of the Transfiguration teaches us anything, it is that God longs to be seen.  If we invite the Spirit to open our eyes, we will see God, but beware: seeing God will change your life.  You’ll never see the world the same way again.  Volunteering at an elementary school might not be for you, but I promise you, God is ready to be seen by you somewhere. Whether it is at a Wednesday lunch, Living Waters for the World, HOTEL, INC., or some other servant ministry, God is waiting to be seen, to crack your heart open, and invite you to serve.  Open your eyes, pay attention, and learn to see by routinely asking yourself this simple question, “where did I see God today?”

Inside the Brackets

Every once in a while, a Lectionary text will have some optional portions.  These are usually noted by parenthesis in the chapter and verse reference.  Often, the optional portions, while in line with the theme of the rest of lesson, contain some material that preachers and listeners might find troublesome.  Like I said, it happens every once in a while.  This week, however, three of our four readings have optional sections.  And if you take my advice from yesterday and read chapter 5 from the beginning, you could end up with a seriously long set of scripture readings come Sunday morning.

Which is not a bad thing.

As this week’s preacher, the Parish Administrator asked me which options I would like to use for Sunday so that she could get started on the Sunday bulletins (She doesn’t know of my plan to expand the Gospel lesson (I should really tell her about that)).  I decided that I thought we should hear the optional text in Isaiah, but decided to skip it in the Psalm and 1 Corinthians lesson.  Some of that decision was based on length and some on the content, but as I read the optional verses from Isaiah 58, I knew we had to hear them.  They begin with these words from the prophet to a people who have become hollow religionists rather than followers of the LORD their God, “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.” (NRSV, emphasis mine)

Those words that I have set in bold above are the verses we use in advertising our donations to the food pantry here in town.  Sure, they are taken out of context, but I don’t think the intention is harmed in it.  As the LORD seeks to draw his people back, he reminds them that the goal of their religion shouldn’t be help for themselves, but it should be for the good of their community, especially the weak, hungry, and powerless among them.  (For more on this, listen to this week’s Sermon Brainwave) The people of Israel were called to be a light to the Gentiles.  We are called, in Sunday’s Gospel lesson, to let our light so shine before others that they might see our good works and glorify our Father who is in heaven.  In neither place is the call to a life of faith about punching a ticket to heaven or felling good about yourself.  Rather, the life of faith should be outward focused, as in “Love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself.”  The world is full of people who will sell you the false theologies of self-help and prosperity, but if we take time occasionally to read the stuff that is inside the brackets, we find that God has bigger and much better plans for this world.