Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Cost

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
June 22, 2008 – The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Genesis 21:8-21
Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17
(Romans 6:1b-11)
Matthew 10:24-39

The Cost

A New Testament professor at General Seminary has written a book called Jesus’ Family Values. In the book she makes the point that, maybe surprisingly, Jesus does not place a lot of emphasis on the traditional family. Instead, Jesus is more interested in the new family that he was building, the new family that he continues to build – the community of his followers. And especially in the early days, and sometimes even today, becoming a follower of Jesus can come at the cost of a division in the family.

And cost is really what Jesus is talking about in today’s gospel. Jesus is telling his first followers and telling us that following him is going to come at a cost. Sometimes we sentimentalize Jesus as a groovy guy in a robe and sandals, but here’s Jesus saying “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Sometimes we sentimentalize the Christian life as being happy-clappy, sitting around in a circle singing kumbaya, but here’s Jesus saying “whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”

This is tough stuff. Sometimes it amazes me that Christianity ever took off. I mean, Jesus really isn’t much of a salesman, is he? Jesus doesn’t sugarcoat what it means to be his follower. Jesus is brutally honest about the costs of following him. And yet we still baptize our children. We still come here week after week. We still call ourselves Christians.

Not much of a salesman Jesus continues his “sales pitch”, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”

Are we sure we want to sign up for this?

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

With a sales pitch like that, isn’t it amazing that Christianity took off? Isn’t it amazing that anyone chose to follow Jesus? Isn’t it amazing that still people bring their babies to church, bring their babies to be baptized into the Christian life?

Of course, Jesus is not really making a sales pitch. Jesus is simply telling it like it is. If we choose to really follow Jesus there will be a cost. And we’re free - it’s up to us to weigh the cost and the benefit and make our decision.

I bet that lately many of us having been thinking a lot about costs. I joked to someone the other day that it figures that just when I move to the suburbs and have to drive more than ever the price of gas goes through the roof. But it’s no joke that many millions of Americans, including at least some of us here, are starting to have to think very carefully about costs and benefits.

I know that some of you work or have worked in the energy business and in the financial world, so you certainly understand much more about all of this than I do. I would be happy to go back to the old days of paying a dollar for a gallon of gas. But, we’re all facing the fact that oil is a very valuable commodity. And setting aside speculation and all the other machinations of the global market, the bottom line is simply that things of value come at a cost. Oil is becoming increasingly valuable and so it’s going to cost us. There’s seems to be no way around it. There’s no shortcut.

In Jesus, God offers us something very valuable. In Jesus, God offers us the fullness of life. It comes at a cost. Apparently there was no way around the cost even for God. The Cross reminds us that there was no shortcut for Jesus.

Jesus says, “Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” Really following Jesus is going to cost us.

The first readers of the Gospel of Matthew understood the cost of following Jesus as they faced persecution from both their Jewish and gentile neighbors. And of course the history of the Church is filled with people who have paid a very high cost for following Jesus. I know at least some of you are familiar with this book, called Lesser Feasts and Fasts. It contains the readings and the prayers for the holy men and women who are commemorated on the Church’s calendar. When I started seminary one of the professors told us that we should get to know the people commemorated in this book – the great men and women who put everything on the line for Jesus. He said that they should become our friends.

One of the very best parts of serving here at Grace is that since we have at least one service everyday we always commemorate these faithful people. And when there’s a Eucharist on those days Lauren or I get to preach about these holy men and women. And so it’s only now that some of these men and women have become my friends – as I’ve thought about the cost that they paid and what that means for us.

And very often at those services we wear red – because we are honoring people who gave their lives for the faith. Just last Wednesday we commemorated Bernard Mizeki, an African Christian teacher who was brutally martyred in what’s today Zimbabwe back in 1896. A few weeks before that we recalled St. Barnabas, an early follower of Jesus, martyred in Cyprus. And back in April we remembered Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great 20th Century theologian who was executed in a Nazi concentration camp.

Bonhoeffer had a lot to say about the cost of being a follower of Jesus. In his book The Cost of Discipleship he writes about what he calls “costly grace.” He writes “Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.” And then Bonhoeffer echoes Jesus in today’s gospel when he writes, “Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.”

So what’s the cost for us? Most of probably are not going to be martyrs, though you never know. But, if our Christian faith isn’t costing us anything, we should probably give that some thought and some prayer.

And a good place to start is the Baptism service. (In a few moments) Elizabeth Mae McManus is going to be baptized into this costly Christian life. Her parents and godparents are going to make some pretty serious promises on her behalf. And all of us are going to promise to support Elizabeth Mae in this costly Christian life. And we are going to renew the promises from our own baptism.

So, what’s the cost for us? Take a look at the middle of page two of the program. Well, for starters, in the Baptismal Covenant there’s the cost of proclaiming by word and example the Good News of God in Christ. If we really do that, it’s going to cost us.

Then there’s the cost of seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself. Also very costly.

And finally there’s striving for justice and peace among all people and respecting the dignity of every human being. Think about what that might cost us.

In today’s gospel Jesus is brutally honest with us. In bold language Jesus warns us that following him is going to cost us. The cost may scare us away. But Jesus also reassures us. Jesus reminds us that we are of great value to God – this God who knows every time a sparrow lands – this God who has counted every hair on our head. This same God who loves us so much that he paid the cost of becoming one of us and paid the cost of dying on the cross..

So that’s the sales pitch. Are we ready to pay the cost? Are we ready to follow Jesus?


Sunday, June 01, 2008

Reflections on Confirmation

The Messenger
Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
June 2008

Reflections on Confirmation

I felt a mix of pride and relief when the fourteen young people (along with two adults) from Grace Church were confirmed by Bishop Beckwith at Trinity + St. Philip’s Cathedral back in April. I was proud because these fine young men and women had taken their preparation seriously and relief that everyone was confirmed without any last-minute complications. The service itself was a joyous, even at times raucous, event. Although I know some miss the custom of the bishop confirming our parishioners here at Grace, many of the parents of our confirmands mentioned that they were very moved by the service. In particular it was a great opportunity for all of us to see some of the diversity and breadth of our Diocese of Newark.

Looking back on it, Confirmation class was one of the highlights of my work at Grace so far. We met in the parish library at 7:00 on Sunday evenings, covering the usual topics such as the Scriptures, the sacraments, the Nicene Creed, and Anglicanism. These subjects often led to interesting and wide-ranging comments and questions and gave me a chance to dust off some of my old teaching skills. It was a privilege and a gift to reflect on the major challenges and questions of our Christian faith with this bright and inquisitive group. Before the class began, the confirmands signed a covenant in which they pledged to seek a closer relationship with God and their peers in the group; develop a better understanding of the Episcopal Church; and to reach a personal decision on whether they wanted to confirm their faith. Each of our confirmands certainly took those promises very seriously

The confirmands were all required to attend an overnight diocesan Confirmation retreat. Some of us made the retreat at St. Luke’s in Phillipsburg (and got to see Fr. Tom Mathews in his new home) and the rest attended a retreat at the Church of the Annunciation in Oradell. The retreat began with some icebreaker activities and then some games such as “Confirmation Jeopardy.” We ended the first night with Compline and then it was down to the floor and into our sleeping bags. The next day gave the confirmands a chance to meet Bishop Beckwith as well as attend sessions on various ministries and spiritual practices. The retreat ended with a celebration of the Eucharist. Much like the Confirmation service itself, the retreat gave us a chance to meet other Episcopalians and to appreciate the variety and the complexity of our Church.

The confirmands also had a service requirement. I requested that they perform their service here at Grace Church, specifically helping the Altar Guild, or serving as an usher or an acolyte. On their own initiative, one girl offered to help with Sunday School and two others asked if they could serve in the Parish Office. Some of the confirmands have continued to offer their service although it is no longer required. I am rethinking how to provide service opportunities for next year’s confirmation class. I would be happy to hear suggestions from parishioners.

Confirmation has a long and convoluted history, and today in the Episcopal Church it is sort of an ambiguous sacrament. Some have even called Confirmation “a sacrament in search of a theology.” Many of you will remember the days in the Episcopal Church when only those who had been confirmed were able to receive Communion. One of the key features of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer is the heavy emphasis placed on Baptism. The prayer book recovered the early Christian understanding that Baptism provides full initiation into the Church. In other words, Baptism is in no way “completed” in Confirmation. As Mother Lauren reminds us each Sunday, “All baptized persons are welcome to receive Communion.” But, certainly as long as infant Baptism remains common, the Church will need to provide young people, particularly teenagers, with an opportunity to stand up on their own and affirm their faith. And hopefully Confirmation can also be an opportunity to pray and think deeply about the Christian faith, a chance to grapple with some of the big questions of life, and the start of a mature commitment to Jesus Christ.

We began each of our classes by saying together the Collect for Confirmation. I think it can be a great prayer for all of us, confirmed or not, as we try to live a Christian life of faith and service:

Almighty God, we thank you that by the life, death and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ you have overcome sin and brought us to yourself, and that by the sealing of your Holy Spirit you have bound us to your service. Renew in us the covenant you made with us at our Baptism. Send us forth in the power of that Spirit to perform the service you set before us; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

Two Types of People

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
Year A: The Third Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 4
June 1, 2008

Genesis 6:9-22; 7:24; 8:14-19
Psalm 46
(Romans 1:16-17; 3:22b-31)
Matthew 7:21-29

Two Types of People

Have you ever heard people say “There are two types of people in the world?” Usually it’s said in kind of a joking way such as, “There are two types of people – people who like to drink Pepsi and people who like to drink Coke.” Or, “There are two types of people – people who give gray hair and people who get gray hair.” Or, “There are two types of people – people who see the glass as half full and people who see the glass as half empty.”

Well, in today’s lesson from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is not joking when he says there are two types of people. There are the people who hear the words of Jesus and act on them – they are like the man who built his house on a rock. They will be able to withstand the inevitable challenges and struggles of life. And then there are the people who hear the words of Jesus but do not act on them – they are like the man who built his house on sand. They will not be able to withstand the inevitable struggles and challenges of life.

And so today, just like Jesus’ first listeners, we’re faced with the crucial question – which type of person are we? Week after week we come to church and we hear the words of Jesus. How do we respond? Do the words of Jesus, do the teachings of Jesus, make any difference in our lives? Which type of person are we?

The lesson we just heard is taken from a pivotal part of Matthew’s gospel. Actually, it comes right at the end of the Sermon on the Mount – the long section of the gospel where Jesus lays out the heart of his teaching. The Sermon on the Mount is so rich and challenging, it’s difficult to summarize. But the pieces of the sermon are familiar to many of us. There are the Beatitudes - where Jesus offers a vision of life in the kingdom of God – a kingdom that has drawn near in Jesus himself.

The Beatitudes are so familiar we may miss just how radical, how unlikely and challenging, they are. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” And then Jesus looks at us and asks, well, what type of person are you? How do you respond to all this? Does it make any difference? Which type of person are you?

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus talks a lot about the law – and reminds us that he expects and demands better of us than just obeying the letter of the law. We are told we must reconcile with one another; we must love our enemies and those who persecute us; we must not resist evildoers; and we must give to everyone who begs from us.

This is tough stuff. And then Jesus looks at us and asks, well, which type of person are you? How do you respond to all of this? Does it make any difference? Which type of person are you?

Also in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus teaches us how to pray. Jesus instructs us to say to God, “your will be done. Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” Does it make any difference? Which type of person are you?

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.”

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says all this and much more – and then he looks at his audience – looks at us - and asks – so which is it going to be? There are two types of people in the world. Which type of person are you? You’ve heard what I’ve had to say – will you change your life? Or will things continue - business as usual? And Jesus issues a warning that the type of person we choose to be will have important and lasting consequences.

After Jesus issues this challenge and warning, Matthew devotes the next section of his gospel to describing the various miracles performed by Jesus. This is certainly done on purpose. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has taught with words and now in his miracles and healings, Jesus teaches through actions. All of Jesus’ teaching and healing is to help us decide which type of person we are going to be.

Something else that helps us decide which type of person we are going to be is the example of others who have gone before us – people who are role models of faith. We learn about some of those people in the Bible, we learn about others in history and still others we discover in our own lives.

In today’s Old Testament lesson, we heard the very familiar story of Noah, the ark and the flood. It’s odd that so often we think of this as a children’s story. It’s a really disturbing story isn’t it? The idea of God getting so fed up with humanity that God decides to flood the whole world is pretty terrifying. And in recent years – and even just the past couple of weeks - we’ve been very powerfully and horribly reminded of the destructive power of a great flood.

In a lot of ways, though, the story of the Flood fits in very nicely with Jesus’ challenge to us in the Gospel: which type of person are you going to be?

The whole theme of the early chapters of the Book of Genesis is that God made a good creation and created human beings in God’s image and likeness. Unfortunately – and maybe inevitably – things went terribly wrong as human beings misused their freedom and chose to be the wrong type of people. Human beings chose to rebel against God and tried to run away from God. And human beings became violent with one another.

It’s a long way from God proclaiming the creation good to the line from today’s reading, “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.” And so in the story God decides to try again and unleashes this terrible flood.

If on the one hand, the story of the flood is terrible and terrifying, on the other hand it’s also a story of a good man – a righteous man – the type of person who does the will of God. Yes, the flood is the story of God’s anger, but it’s also the story of Noah – the righteous man who walked with God. It’s the story of Noah – the type of person we can choose to be.

I love that phrase from today’s lesson, “Noah walked with God.” Noah walked with God by responding to God’s call and doing the will of God – in his case it was the unlikely and challenging task of building the ark and saving the earth’s creatures. It’s important to point out that just because Noah was righteous didn’t mean that he didn’t have trouble and grief in his life – even after the flood. God never promises a trouble-free life. As Jesus says the storms of life eventually come for all of us. But God does promise to be with us and strengthen us during the inevitable troubles and challenges of life.

So, what would it mean for us here today to “walk with God?” In one way, each of us has to figure out – has to discern – what it means for us to walk with God. In our own lives each of us has to figure out what it means for us to walk with God. The details will be different for each of us. But the bottom line is that for all of us walking with God means choosing to be the type of person who hears the words of Jesus - and acts on them.

Now, God is probably not going to give us a task as unlikely or as challenging as building an ark and saving the creatures of the earth. Then again, plenty of world’s creatures in danger today. You know, maybe God is calling us all to be a little bit like Noah.

And, speaking of unlikely and challenging tasks is there anything more unlikely or challenging than what Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount? Is there anything more unlikely and challenging than being asked to love our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us, to turn the other cheek, to do to others as you would have them to do to you? All pretty unlikely.

And, speaking of unlikely and challenging - is there anything more unlikely or challenging than… blessed are the poor and spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

All very unlikely and very challenging. But this is the teaching offered by Jesus. We are free to accept it or reject it.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches us how to walk with God. And then, once he’s done with his teaching, he looks at us and asks, so which type of person are you. There are two types of people in the world. There are the people who hear Jesus’ words and act on them and there are the people who hear Jesus’ words and do nothing.

There are two types of people in the world. If we haven’t already, it’s time for us to decide which type we are.