Sunday, July 19, 2009

Building a House for God

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
July 19, 2009

The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Year B: Proper 11
2 Samuel 7:1-14a
Psalm 89:20-37
Ephesians 2:11-212
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Building a House for God

Well, it’s been quite a week. Many of you know that we had Vacation Bible School, which was a really great experience for me and I think for the children and other adults who participated. Since in the past I had managed to avoid vacation bible school, I wasn’t really sure what to expect.

I knew this year’s theme was “Paul and the Underground Church” and I had looked at some of the program materials ahead of time. That was about it. I did know that with Mary Lea in charge it was going to be very well done. And, sure enough, Mary Lea and the parent volunteers did a fantastic job planning the week and creating a really spectacular environment in Grace Hall. The colorful tents and mats really fired up our imaginations and helped us to pretend that we were in ancient Rome. The older youth who served as counselors were so good with the children – they were both leaders and also role models.

I mentioned last week that my job at VBS was to play St. Paul. The children’s chapel was transformed into Paul’s house in Rome where he was being held under house arrest by his Roman guard Brutus, well-played by Eric Roper. Each day groups of children would come downstairs to Paul’s cave-like house and learn a little bit about Paul’s life and talk about some key parts of the Christian life.

We talked about how God’s love for us is a gift and how we are changed by God’s love and called to share God’s love with other people.

I like that these conversations about God’s love took place in what was supposed to be Paul’s house. I like that because one of the ways we can describe recognizing God’s love for us and sharing God’s love for us is building a house for God.

Today’s lessons begin with the very literal idea of building a house for God but then we move to a less-literal and much more powerful understanding of what it means to build a house for God. By recognizing God’s love for us and sharing that love we build a house for God – we help the world to see that God lives right here in the world among us.

In our reading from Second Book of Samuel we continue with the story of David. If you were in church last Sunday you may remember how King David led a triumphant parade with 30,000 men of Israel and the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem.

Remember the ark was believed to be the most sacred object in the universe – containing the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, but also the very presence of God.

Last week I talked about how, in a sense, David was using this most sacred object as a political prop to let everyone know that he was God’s anointed, and, perhaps, warning any opponents that God was on David’s side.

Today we pick up the story in Jerusalem where David the king is living in “a house of cedar” and decides that he should build a house for God. And David means that literally – rather than keeping the ark in a tent David wants to construct a building where God can live.

At first the prophet Nathan encourages David, saying, “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.”

But God has much bigger ideas of what it means to build a house for God’s Self. David has a very limited idea of God’s house – it would be house not unlike David’s own house.

God tells Nathan that instead of David building a house of cedar for him, God will build a house for David – a house not made of cedar but a royal dynasty.
It’s going to take more than David to build a house for God.

As Christians we know that ultimately God will use the house of David to give the greatest sign of God’s love by becoming a human being in Jesus of Nazareth, born of the House of David.

In our gospel lesson we hear an example of the ever expanding idea of building a house for God, helping the world to see that God lives right here in the world among us.

In his life and ministry, Jesus taught and healed and revealed the gift of God’s love for us. But his work was not just limited to his own teaching and healing. Jesus also sends out his disciples to continue his work – to continue building a house for God, helping the world to see that God lives right here in the world among us.

Earlier in Mark’s gospel the apostles had been commissioned by Jesus to continue his work. Mark tells us that the twelve “went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.”

In other words, the twelve went out and helped to reveal God’s love for us and God’s presence among us. The twelve were helping to build a house for God.

In today’s gospel lesson, Mark picks up with the apostles returning and telling Jesus all that they had done and taught. In my imagination it’s a very warm scene as the twelve excitedly tell Jesus about the people the places they had gone, the people they had met, the work they had done. And in my imagination Jesus looks on them with the pride of a teacher knowing his students had learned their lessons well.

But Mark doesn’t end this scene on a self-satisfied note. Although Jesus wants to retreat with his followers to a deserted place, that doesn’t seem to be possible. People need Jesus. People are hungry for God’s love. Jesus looks at the crowd with compassion “because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” People from all over, from villages, cities and farms, they all need Jesus, they all want his healing, they all need to know the gift of God’s love.

It’s going to take more than the twelve to build a house for God.

St. Paul is one of the people who understood we needed to expand our idea of what it means to build a house for God. Paul – who never met Jesus in his earthly lifetime and in fact had persecuted some of Jesus’ first followers - Paul recognized that Jesus was the gift of God’s love not just for the people of Israel but for the whole world. And Paul dedicated his life to spreading the news about the gift of God’s love. Paul dedicated his life to telling how the gift of God’s love had changed him. Paul dedicated his life to building a house for God, helping the world to see that God lives right here in the world among us.

In many ways the Letter to the Ephesians is a summing up of Paul’s ideas. And Paul very clearly saw his work as traveling among non-Jews, among the gentiles, and helping to build a house for God. Paul, or one of Paul’s disciples, writes in the Letter to the Ephesians to the gentiles who have put their faith in Jesus:

“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”

Paul encouraged people to see that they were part of this great project of building a house for God.

But it’s going to take more than Paul and those early Christians to build a house for God, to help the world to see that God lives right here in the world among us.

You and I are called to this work of building a house for God, helping the world to see that God lives right here in the world among us. Just as in the time of Jesus and Paul people are hungry for God’s love and desperate for God’s healing.

And if we look around we see that the work of building a house for God is underway all around us. When people give up a week in the summer to create a wonderful Vacation Bible School for our children they are helping to build a house for God. When people give up a week in the summer to go on a mission trip to Camden they are helping to build a house for God.

When people give up their time to unload furniture and furnish the apartment of someone who has nothing, they are helping to build a house for God. When people in a time of economic anxiety give money so some of the poorer residents of Madison can afford a pool membership, they are helping to build a house for God.

When people organize the delivery of food to the sick or a family with a loved one in the hospital, they are helping to build a house for God. When people take the time to visit or call someone who is sick or lonely, they are helping to build a house for God.

When people share with someone the importance of our faith or invite others to church, they are helping to build a house for God.

If we look around, there is a great building project underway. People are helping to build a house for God – sharing the great gift of God’s love for the world – helping people to see God’s love and presence right here among us.

But it’s going to take more to build a house for God. It’s going to take all of us.


Sunday, July 12, 2009

Servant Leadership

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
July 12, 2009

Year B, Proper 10: The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19
Psalm 24
(Ephesians 1:3-14)
Mark 6:14-29

Servant Leadership

What makes a good leader? Is Christian leadership different from good leadership in the world?

These are questions I think about a lot. And fortunately I have some time to think about them because one of the best parts of my job at Grace is that I am not the one in charge. But now that Lauren is on vacation a few people have said to me, “Oh, now you get to be in charge!” Not true! For the record, I’d like to point out that in the absence of the rector it’s the wardens who are in charge – not me.

But, of course, as a priest I am in a position of leadership and so I do think very seriously about what makes a good leader – and I wonder if good Christian leadership is different from good leadership in the business world and the political world.

Most, if not all of us, at some points in our lives are called to be leaders. Maybe we are called to be leaders in our families, or our communities or leaders at work.

So, naturally, since most if not all of us serve as leaders at some point lots of people think about – and write about – leadership. The other day just out of curiosity I typed in the word “leadership” at and found over 20,000 titles were listed!

After scanning through some of these titles it’s safe to say that the general understanding of leadership is the ability to get people to do what you want them to do. Apparently most would agree that leadership is about accumulating and exercising power over other people.

But in reality is that good leadership? And is that good Christian leadership? Does God call us to the kind of leadership that is about accumulating and exercising power?

Today’s lessons give us the chance to see several different leaders in action. We see King David and we see Herod Antipas. And we also see the leadership of John the Baptist.

And of course above all of these we have the example of the leadership of Jesus Christ.

So here are two questions. What makes a good leader? Is Christian leadership different from leadership in the world?

From the Old Testament we heard the next installment in the amazing adventures of David. Over the past few weeks we’ve heard the unlikely story of Jesse’s youngest son’s rise from tending the sheep to being anointed as the king of Israel. We heard the story of God choosing David through the prophet Samuel. We heard the familiar story of David proving himself by slinging a rock and defeating the giant Goliath. And last week we heard how, after the death of Israel’s first king, the elders of Israel anoint David as their new leader.

Which brings us to today’s lesson. David has a triumphant victory parade, gathering “the chosen men of Israel” – some thirty thousand we’re told – and processing with the ark of God. The ark was a container which contained the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments – but more than that the ark was believed to contain the very presence of God.

So this is quite an event – and quite a statement by David. By moving the ark and “dancing before the Lord” David is making it very clear that he is God’s anointed and he’s letting everyone know that to oppose David was to oppose the God of Israel.

There are two ominous notes in this story, however. It’s too bad that one of these ominous notes was left out from the section we read from Second Samuel.

The part that’s left out describes how during the procession, Uzzah, one of the men helping to move the ark, reached out and touched the ark when it was in danger of tipping over. Despite his good intentions, he violated the taboo against touching the ark and Uzzah was immediately struck dead.

David is understandably upset by this event and temporarily changes his plan to bring the ark to Jerusalem. After a few months pass without further incident, though, he is able to work up the courage to bring the ark into his city – and eventually it will be placed in the Temple.

Maybe David should have hesitated even more and reflected on the danger of trying to use God for his own political purposes.

The other ominous note is included in what we heard today. The author of Second Samuel writes, “As the ark of the LORD came into the city of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart.”

We’re not given any explanation here for Michal’s strong emotions. She was a daughter of Saul, the previous king, and later she will criticize David for making a spectacle of himself in the procession with the “common people.” But perhaps as a king’s daughter she recognized the danger of a leader flaunting his relationship with God and the danger of abusing his status as God’s anointed.

Although David surrounded himself with the trappings of religion, in truth he governed Israel pretty much like any of the pagan rulers of his time and for that matter pretty much like dictators and absolute monarchs of today.

He placed himself above the law and violated God’s justice. The most famous example of this is his adultery with Bathsheba and the sending of her husband Uriah to the front lines to die in battle. Like other leaders then and now he did all of this because he wanted to – and because he could.

As a leader David transformed Israel for the first and last time into a political and military power – and yet he betrayed many and most especially he betrayed the God who had anointed him as king.

Today’s second king, Herod Antipas, is not quite as complex as David. Herod was a son of Herod the Great and he was ruler of Galilee during Jesus’ earthly lifetime. He was essentially a puppet of the Romans. As long as he maintained the favor of Rome he remained in power. When that favor was withdrawn, he was finished.

He is best-remembered for his relationship with Herodias – who was both his niece and sister-in-law! John the Baptist, of course is critical of this relationship and according to the gospel this leads to his demise.

Herod isn’t a one-dimensional character. Mark notes that Herod fears John the Baptist and recognizes him as a righteous and holy man. Mark tells us when Herod heard John “he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.”

But Herod is an essentially weak man and so he needs to boast and exercise his “power” to impress his guests with bold oaths to Herodias’ daughter Salome (incorrectly and confusingly called Herodias in our bible translation). And so, probably with a mix of fear and regret Herod orders the beheading of John.

And Herod is painfully reminded of his essential weakness when Jesus gains notoriety for his teaching and healing. With dread, Herod is convinced that the righteous and holy John has been raised from the dead.

And what about the leadership of John the Baptist? He doesn’t surround himself with religious trappings the way David did, and yet even Herod is able to see that John is righteous and holy.

John leads a radically simple life in the wilderness and attracts a committed group of followers including, most scholars think, Jesus himself.

John speaks the truth to both the powerful and the not so powerful. He condemns Herod for his relationship with Herodias but he also challenges ordinary people to repent of their sins and change their ways. And his leadership attracts crowds to the River Jordan and transforms lives.

John the Baptist – John the leader – will pay the ultimate price for speaking the truth to power and yet his power and his leadership can still be felt today when we imitate him at the baptismal font.

There isn’t much Jesus in today’s lessons, but if we are looking for what makes a good leader – a good Christian leader – we have to look to Jesus.

Jesus didn’t need the religious trappings of David. And unlike Herod, Jesus was no one’s puppet.

Like John, Jesus spoke the truth to the powerful and the not so powerful. And, like John, Jesus paid the ultimate price for that honesty.

But there is something distinctive about the leadership of Jesus. Jesus practices a leadership of service.

Jesus does nothing to glorify himself. Instead he makes it very clear that he has come into the world to serve human beings and to glorify God the Father. Over and over he offers this service in his teaching and his healing. Jesus reveals this servant leadership at the Last Supper when describes the bread as his body broken for the world and the wine as his blood poured out for the world. And Jesus models that servant leadership when he gets on his knees and washes the feet of the apostles.

Servant leadership is leadership. Servant leadership is Christian leadership.

Bennett J. Sims, the late bishop of Atlanta once wrote, “Servant leadership defines success as giving and measures achievement by devotion to serving.”

As Christians all of us are called and challenged to follow the example of Jesus and to be servant leaders. In baptism we all promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as our self. We don’t have to look very far to see opportunities for servant leadership – opportunities for giving and serving.

And with God’s grace we all can be far greater leaders than David or Herod. With God’s grace we can be servant leaders – defining success as giving and measuring achievement by devotion to serving.


Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Mission to Camden

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
The Messenger
Curate’s Corner

"Mission to Camden"

One of my best friends serves as Director of Campus Ministry at the Loyola School, a Roman Catholic high school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. From time to time over the past four or five years I have heard her tell stories about the powerful experience of bringing groups of her students on mission trips to Camden. She has told me that these young men and women are so transformed by their time there that they frequently sign up for return visits, although they receive no school credit for their service.

I know in the past Grace Church youth and their adult chaperones have had excellent mission trips to Central America, Indian reservations and Appalachia. As I began to think about this year’s mission trip, I recalled the stories I have heard from my friend about the Romero Center. I also reflected on how our world has changed since the last mission trip. I considered the economic recession which has caused anxiety for many and real suffering for some. Maybe this would be a good year to stay closer to home and work among the poor in our part of the country. After talking it over with Lauren and the J2A leaders, I decided that this year’s mission trip would take us just under a hundred miles away from Madison. This year, from August 3rd to the 8th, our mission is to Camden.

The facts and figures about Camden are horrifying. It is the second-poorest city in the nation with an unemployment rate more than three times the national average. The median income for a family of four in the city is $18,000. Camden has a population of 80,000 and has three high schools, three supermarkets, three prisons and three hospitals. Half of the population is illiterate and the school dropout rate is 70%. Only 7% of the population has a college degree or higher. One out of every five homes in Camden is abandoned and there are 200 active drug corners with 3000 drug dealers in the city. It is estimated that $200 million is spent on drugs every year in Camden. This is a place of great suffering right here in New Jersey.

Our group of ten young people and five adults will be participating in the “Urban Challenge” program at the Romero Center located in a former convent in the heart of Camden. Named for the martyred El Salvadoran archbishop Oscar Romero, the center describes itself as a “Peace and Social Justice Education Center.” Its mission is “to build bridges of understanding between people of faith in urban and suburban churches, leading people to a deeper awareness of our prophetic vocation, as we respond to our sisters and brothers in remarkable need.” The center aims to achieve this mission through means of “service, education, community and reflection.”

During the week we will be living in community, preparing our own meals and cleaning up after ourselves. Each day will begin with morning prayer, led by participants. Then we will head out to various work sites in the Camden and Philadelphia area. These may include rehabilitating housing, working in schools and pre-schools, preparing and serving meals at soup kitchens, assisting at the South Jersey Food Bank, and more. One of the most attractive elements of the “Urban Challenge” is the emphasis on how we will benefit from our encounter with the people of Camden. These sentences from the Romero Center’s promotional literature jumped out at me: “Most participants come prepared for what they will do for Camden. Typically, they are unprepared for what Camden will do for them.”

Each afternoon we will return to the Romero Center, discuss the places we have visited and the people we have met and reflect on the social justice issues raised by our experiences. Each evening after dinner the Romero Center presents a variety of social justice programs including an impressive roster of guest speakers and community activities and events. Our days will conclude with evening prayer during which each of us will reflect on the day – recalling a gift we received and how God challenged or stretched us.

Our time in Camden promises to be both challenging and rewarding. I look forward to sharing the experience with the parish in the fall. Meanwhile I hope that you will keep all of the participants in your prayers. The youth are: Will Brooks, Alexis Cardwell, Grace Cole, Tommy Cullen, Erica Faletto, Joey Geyer, Will Geyer, Lindsey Kellstrom, Kathy Meyer and Brian Tross. Along with me, the adults are: Geoff Brooks, Mike Cullen, Bill Geyer, and Lisa Lawson.