Sunday, September 27, 2009


Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
September 27, 2009

The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Year B: Proper 21
Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
Psalm 124
(James 5:13-20)
Mark 9:38-50


This year on most Sundays we’ve been hearing lessons from the Gospel of Mark. For a long time, Christians didn’t pay too much attention to Mark. Since it’s the most barebones of the four gospels and shares much material with Matthew and Luke, it was seen as sort of the poor relation of the other gospels.

In more modern times, however, the Gospel of Mark has gotten a lot more attention. Most scholars have come to the conclusion that the barebones Gospel of Mark is actually the earliest of the gospels and that Matthew and Luke used Mark as their major source of material.

Most scholars date the writing of Mark’s gospel to around the year 70 - early, but still decades after the earthly lifetime and ministry of Jesus. This means that even this earliest gospel probably drew upon earlier written material about Jesus as well as oral traditions about Jesus that had been passed down over a couple of generations.

In the kind of dense section of Mark that we read today we hear an echo of that earlier oral tradition. We have a cluster of Jesus sayings that Mark seems to have drawn from the oral, memorized tradition and inserted into the Gospel. There’s a lot for the preacher to unpack in this passage but I’d like to focus on stumbling and being a stumbling block for others.

First, this passage tells us is that from the very beginnings Christians have stumbled. One of the major themes running through the gospel is that over and over the disciples don’t really get what Jesus is trying to teach them. This theme probably reflects historical reality. I mean, let’s face it, Jesus is not the kind of messiah anyone was expecting and his teachings are always challenging. And this theme of the stumbling disciples also offers comfort to us today in our own stumbling. When we stumble we can take comfort that we’re the latest in a long line of Christian stumblers stretching all the way back to the first disciples.
So, in today’s gospel lesson we see the disciples stumble once again. The Good News is that Jesus is always ready to forgive their – and our - stumbling.

This whole section of the Gospel of Mark is about Jesus making his journey to Jerusalem where he will give his life for humanity. There is urgency to the gospel as Jesus tries to get his message through the thick heads of the disciples.

Two weeks ago we heard Peter get it half-right when he recognized Jesus as the Messiah but could not accept that Jesus was going to be the Messiah who suffered and died on the Cross. Remember Jesus strongly rebukes the stumbling Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” Time is running out for Jesus to get his message to the disciples.

Last week, we heard the disciples stumble when they argued among themselves about who was the greatest. Jesus succinctly puts his message to the disciples, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Time is running out for Jesus to get his message through to the disciples.

And now today we hear the disciples stumble again. This time the disciples are concerned because someone not part of their inner circle is casting out demons in the name of Jesus. This story echoes today’s Old Testament lesson from the Book of Numbers where Joshua, Moses’ assistant is upset that Eldad and Medad – not part of the inner circle – were prophesying. Moses’ takes it all in stride saying, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”

There’s an extra wrinkle to the story about Jesus’ disciples, though. Just a little earlier Mark tells the story of Jesus’ disciples being not able to cast out a demon. So, imagine their frustration anger and confusion. Here we are part of the inner circle and we can’t seem to heal people and along comes this person we don’t even know and he’s able to do cast a demon. Can’t you imagine them running back to Jesus, “Jesus, do something – stop this guy – we’re the inner circle – we’re the ones who should have the power!” Jesus, however, is not too concerned about soothing the insecurities of his disciples. Can you imagine the reaction of the stumbling disciples when Jesus says, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”

Hoping to have exclusive rights to the power of Jesus, the disciples stumble once again. The good news for them and for us is that Jesus is patient with stumbling. Patience and forgiveness are always available to us.

However. There is stumbling and then there is deliberately causing others to stumble. Jesus uses very graphic language to highlight the seriousness of being a stumbling block for someone else.

“It would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” Here today he might say something like, it would be better if you were wearing cement shoes and were thrown into the Hackensack River.

What is Jesus talking about when he warns us not to be a stumbling block for those who believe in him?

We should do nothing deliberately to cause someone else to lose their faith in Jesus.

What comes to mind when we think of stumbling blocks – of doing something that causes people to lose faith in Jesus?

Maybe we think of some of the terrible church scandals of recent years, the horrible stories of child abuse. Much of the focus has been on the Roman Catholic Church, but no denomination has been immune to it. Of course the core of the tragedy is what happens to child who is abused. But think also of the many people who lost their faith in Christianity because of the misdeeds of some.

What comes to mind when we think of stumbling blocks – of doing something that causes people to lose faith in Jesus?

Sometimes when I’m stopped at the light at Kings Road and Green Avenue I reflect on the line of churches one after the other – the Roman Catholics, the Presbyterians, the Episcopalians and the Methodists. We are all Christians who agree on the most fundamental things but disagree on quite a lot, too. And in some cases we carry the weight of some ugly and even bloody history.

How many people have thought as they looked at all these different churches, why believe in Jesus if his followers can’t even get along?

Then there’s the Episcopal Church itself. We have always had disagreements about all sorts of things from altar candles to women’s ordination but in recent years the church has been nearly consumed by battles over biblical interpretation, human sexuality, money, property and power.

Why in the world would I be a Christian if even people in one little denomination can’t seem to get along with one another?

I think these are good examples of stumbling blocks, but they’re a little abstract aren’t they? They don’t have too much to do with us personally, do they?

But, how about us? Are we ever stumbling blocks? Do we ever do anything deliberately that might cause people to turn away or to reject Jesus?

Well, when we act just like everybody else, when our faith makes no difference in how we live our lives, then we become stumbling blocks too. Then we too can cause people to turn away from Jesus or to reject Jesus.

When we pull out of the church parking lot and cut someone off then we have become a stumbling block.

When we are overly concerned with accumulating money and things then we have become a stumbling block.

When we act in an unethical or immoral way, then we have become a stumbling block.

When we ridicule those who are different than us, then we have become a stumbling block.

When we demonize those who disagree with us, then we have become a stumbling block.

When we don’t even try to love our neighbors – let alone our enemies! – then we have become a stumbling block.

When we act just like everybody else, when our baptism makes no difference in our lives, when our faith makes no difference in how we live our lives, then we become stumbling blocks too. Then we too can cause people to turn away from Jesus or to reject Jesus.

Jesus warns us that this is serious business.

In the gospels over and over we see the disciples stumble – they didn’t always get what Jesus was trying to teach them. But ultimately, those same stumbling disciples went out and proclaimed by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.

Like the first disciples, we are all stumblers.

But, are we also stumbling blocks?


Friday, September 25, 2009

Funeral Sermon for Keith Davies

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
September 25, 2009

Funeral Sermon for David Ian Keith Davies
Isaiah 25:6-9
Psalm 23
1 John 3:1-2
John 14:1-6a

Believe and Belove

In the passage I just read from the Gospel of John, Jesus is at the Last Supper with his friends and he’s just told them the shocking and devastating news that he will be with them just a short while longer.

As you might expect, the disciples are upset at this news. Jesus is going to die? How is this possible? This wasn’t what we expected. This wasn’t the way it was supposed to happen. How can we go on without our beloved teacher and friend and Lord? How can we go on without Jesus?

In the Gospel, Jesus tries to console his friends by saying, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.”

Frankly, in the Gospel those consoling words of Jesus don’t work at first. The disciples are going to be devastated by what happens to Jesus and they will deeply mourn his death.

At first those consoling words of Jesus didn’t work with the disciples and maybe they didn’t work with us here today either.

There’s a lot of sadness and shock here today and I suspect that believing in God and believing in Jesus might be difficult for many of us.

I never met Keith but hearing Bruce and Wendy talk about him – hearing about his love of life, his sense of fun, his quest for adventure – hearing about all of that has made me wish I had known him in life.

I wish I had known Keith the champion wrestler who also loved English Literature. I wish I had known Keith who surely loved sailing and the Shore but who loved nothing more than spending time with his daughters. Bruce mentioned to me several times how Keith loved singing songs to his daughters as they drifted off to sleep.

I didn’t know Keith, but of course, so many of you here this morning knew him very well. There is much shock – and maybe anger - at his sudden, untimely and unexpected death. There is much sadness and grief that we will not see Keith again in this life.

Sometimes people think it’s wrong to cry or be angry at a church funeral. Sometimes people think that because we as Christians believe that death is not the end, that somehow it’s wrong to feel sad or angry that someone we love has died.

That’s nonsense. What’s happening here this morning is part of the mourning you have been doing all this week. Bruce told me that he has spent so much time on the phone talking with people who cared about Keith – people who care about this family and who want to offer some comfort or just to let them know that they are hurting too. And what a tribute to Keith and his family that so many people have come here this morning.

So one of the reasons we gather here in church is to grieve this very real loss – to mourn the loss of this special and complex person you loved so much. So, just in case you weren’t sure, it is perfectly appropriate to feel sad and even angry at a church funeral.

But, this morning we’re not just about grief .

We are also here to give thanks. We are here to give thanks for Keith’s life. And we are here to give thanks to the loving God who gave the gift of life to Keith and has given all of us the gift of life.

It is God who imagined Keith into existence. It is God who was with Keith every breath, every minute of his life. It is God who knew Keith better than Keith knew himself.

Because it is so hard to face the death of someone we love, Jesus tells his friends – tells us - “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.”

Especially at moments like this many of us struggle with belief. Maybe it would be less of a struggle if we better understood what it means to believe in God.
In my experience most people think that to believe is to kind of mentally agree to set of propositions or claims – sort of a mental checklist. “Yep, I believe this, I believe that and I believe this other thing.”

In a few moments we’ll say together the Apostle’s Creed – and that sure does sound like a checklist of propositions and claims.

It turns out that’s actually a very modern understanding of the word “believe.” As a student of English Literature maybe Keith knew that the original meaning of “to believe” was “to love.” In fact, the English words “believe” and “belove” are related. As one scholar has written, “What we believe is what we belove.”

Believing is beloving.

And so in the Gospel, Jesus is not asking his sad and shocked friends to complete a mental checklist. Jesus is asking for love. Jesus is asking his friends, asking us, to turn to him, turn to God, in love.

Keith Davies lived a life of love and in his life you had a glimpse of the source of love, the God who is love itself.

In Keith’s life of love you had a glimpse of the God who loves us so much that in Jesus he came and lived and died among us. In Keith’s life of love you had a glimpse of the God who loves us so much that death itself was defeated on Easter morning.

Today we mourn the loss of Keith but we also give thanks that Keith is now safely in the presence of the God of love.

And that same God of love is ready to console us and strengthen us, if only we open our hearts, believe and belove.


Sunday, September 06, 2009

The Messianic Secret

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
September 6, 2009

The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Year B: Proper 18
(Isaiah 35:4-7a)
Psalm 146
James 2:1-17
Mark 7:24-37

The Messianic Secret

Today’s gospel lesson raises a couple of difficult questions. One question is why in the world is Jesus so harsh with this woman who is desperately trying to help her daughter.

The second question might not be so obvious. What’s with all the secrecy? Mark tells us that Jesus “entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.” And later, after he heals the man who was deaf and mute, Jesus tells the disciples not to tell anyone what they’ve seen.

Why is Jesus so harsh with this woman and why is Jesus being so secretive? I believe the answers to both questions are related.

Despite Jesus’ attempts at secrecy, the word about him and his power gets out. Even the Gentiles hear about Jesus, including a certain Syrophoenician woman.
She’s one of the most remarkable women in the New Testament.

Mark describes her simply as a “Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin.” He tells us her daughter is possessed by a demon. And since this woman has heard about the healing power of Jesus, she boldly approaches him and asks him to cast the demon out of her daughter.

We know just about nothing about her and yet we know her, don’t we? She’s a mother fiercely trying to save her child – willing to try just about anything to make her daughter healthy and whole again. We know her.

She’s a mother who has every reason to think this Jewish teacher and healer is going to reject her request. After all, he’s a Jewish man and she’s a Gentile woman. He should have nothing to do with her, let alone heal her daughter.

Yet, she still comes forward and asks for help. And after he rejects her request, she’s incredibly bold and persistent and, yes, faithful. She’s been insulted, referred to as a dog, and yet she comes back at him. This gentile woman comes back at this Jewish rabbi and her boldness and persistence and yes her faithfulness is rewarded. Her daughter is healed.

We know almost nothing about the woman, yet we know her. There’s nothing unusual about a mother fighting for the life of her child.

On the other hand, we know a lot about Jesus, yet it’s hard to recognize the Jesus we know in the way he treats this woman.

Over and over in the gospels we see Jesus breaking through all kinds of boundaries, spending time with, talking with, even eating with people he’s really not supposed be with. He drives the religious people crazy with his behavior. And Jesus’ boundary-breaking even confuses the disciples, the people who were closest to him.
But in today’s gospel Jesus is downright un-Jesus-like in his treatment of this woman. She comes to him begging for help and he replies with a common Jewish slur against Gentiles, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Ouch. What in the world is going on here?

In this odd exchange with the Syrophoenician woman we get a rare glimpse of Jesus growing. We catch Jesus in a moment when he understands even more just how big his mission is. We see Jesus’ growing realization that, yes, he is the Jewish messiah, but more than that, he is the messiah for the whole world.

When the woman replies to his insult, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs,” we can imagine Jesus having an “aha” or “you got me” moment.

So in this encounter with the Syrophoenician woman we see an important moment in Jesus’ life – a moment when he deepens his understanding of who he is and what he’s come into the world to do.

And to show Jesus’ growth Mark deliberately places the healing of the man who is deaf and mute right after the story of the Syrophoenician woman. Jesus heals the Gentile daughter at a distance, but in the case of the Gentile man, Jesus is more like the Jesus we know. Jesus breaks through some real boundaries, placing his fingers into his Gentile ears and spitting and touching his tongue.

And Jesus’ growing realization of who he is and what he has come into the world to do has something to do with his secrecy.

This secrecy is one of the big themes in the Gospel of Mark and people have puzzled over it for a very long time. On the surface it does seem odd that Jesus would keep telling his disciples not to tell people about his powerful works.

But maybe this secrecy reflects a certain ambivalence or caution or even fear on the part of Jesus. As he increasingly recognized his own power and mission he also recognized his destiny. And in the second half of the Gospel of Mark Jesus repeatedly predicts his own suffering and death.

Until Jesus is ready to really give himself to his mission, until he’s ready to break through human boundaries, until he’s ready to give it all away, to sacrifice his life, wouldn’t it make sense to just…keep things quiet?

Once the word is out there won’t be any turning back for Jesus. And this is something we can relate to isn’t it? How many of us when we’re considering a life-altering change prefer to keep it quiet until we are really ready and sure? Once everyone knows it’s pretty hard to change course.

In my own case, I didn’t tell anyone that I was going to ask Sue to marry me. I figured if she said no, my humiliation could be private. And later I only told a few close friends and family that I was going to pursue ordination. This way, if the Church didn’t think I was called I’d be spared having to explain things to everyone at work.
Maybe thinking about Jesus being challenged to learn and grow makes us uneasy. Maybe thinking about Jesus hesitating to take on his mission makes us uncomfortable. Maybe we prefer to think of Jesus as always having known who he was, what he was called to do. Maybe we prefer to think of Jesus as fearless, completely confident.

But I find Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman to be comforting. The truth is as Christians we are called to break through the boundaries that divide us from others. And we all know this is hard to do. I find it comforting that even Jesus was tempted to stick with his own people, to stick with what was familiar. Even Jesus was tempted to disregard the needs of people who were different, people who were the “dogs” of the world.

And I find it comforting that the early Church – those who were closest to the life of Jesus - struggled with the challenge of crossing boundaries and respecting the dignity of every human being.

In our lesson from the Epistle of James, the author writes to the early Church and accuses them of acts of favoritism – of treating the rich and the presentable with hospitality and the poor and disheveled – the “dogs” - with disdain.

In thinking about how hard it is to cross the boundaries that divide us, I was reminded of one experience I had on the mission trip to Camden.

I spent one day at a drop-in center for homeless people called “New Visions.” It’s housed in a former Lutheran church downtown and provides meals, laundry, a mail drop and a whole host of other services. Our job as volunteers was to provide what’s called the “ministry of presence” – to just be with the people in the large common room, which I guess was once the parish hall.

There were some very real boundaries in that room – boundaries that divided us and that were not easy to cross.

I saw one group of guys sitting at a table playing a game of checkers. When I went over to them all but one moved away. The one who remained seemed pretty together – clean, fairly well dressed, apparently educated, and so on. I felt pretty comfortable with him. He started telling me how he was the best checkers player around and asked if I wanted to play.

I was glad to have something to do. Sure enough he quickly started snapping up my pieces and began lecturing me on how I didn’t understand strategy and didn’t know anything about checkers.

After he got his first king he made a move I had never seen before – swooping down the line and taking all my pieces that were along the way. I asked him what he was doing and, looking slightly offended, he told me that we were playing “flying kings” and that’s how it was done.

Once I realized how the game was played, I started to rally and began taking some of his pieces and got some “flying kings” of my own. The lectures about strategy and my ignorance came to an end.

It was around this time that another client of the center sat with us. He looked to be in pretty bad shape – disheveled and his ravaged face reflected a hard life and, I suspected, a lot of substance abuse. He asked if he could play winners. My opponent and I, locked in an epic checkers battle, ignored him although I was aware of his near-constant mumbling and twitching.

Finally the checker board was nearly clear – I had a king and one other piece and my opponent had a king. We moved our pieces around for a while but it was clear we were stalemated. My opponent gave up in disgust – and told me that I was smarter than he thought I was.

I was feeling pretty good – I had just about beaten the best checker player in the place! So when the disheveled, mumbling, twitchy other guy asked if I wanted to play, I said sure.

I looked with pity at his worn and weary face and click, click, click, in what seemed like nine or ten moves, and almost without me noticing, he had beaten me.

He asked if I wanted to play again. My competitive juices were starting to flow. I said yes. Again, click, click, click, he had beaten me.

The next time I began by mirroring each of his moves. Of course, he immediately knew what I was up to and looked at me with a hint of amusement and, click, click, click. Same result.

Realizing I was going to lose anyway, I began to engage him in conversation as we played. As I learned something about his story, and told him something of my story, the boundaries between us began to break down.

Today’s lessons remind us of Jesus’ mission and the church’s mission to break through the boundaries that separate us. It wasn’t always easy for Jesus and it’s certainly not easy for us. But with God’s help we can break through the boundaries that divide humanity and recognize everyone – especially those the world considers “the dogs” – as beloved creations of God.


Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Mission Trip Reflections: Naming the Poor

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
The Messenger
September 2009

Mission Trip Reflections: Naming the Poor

On a Monday morning a few weeks ago I felt a mix of emotions as we prepared to leave for our mission trip to Camden. I was excited that this long-planned trip was now about to begin. I was nervous about the safety of all of us who would be spending the better part of a week in one of America’s poorest and most dangerous cities. I was also profoundly grateful for the generosity, openness and courage of the young people and adults who had volunteered to travel down the New Jersey Turnpike into what was for most of us uncharted and intimidating territory.

In Camden we stayed at the Romero Center, which is housed in a former Roman Catholic convent in the center of the city. The accommodations were simple but comfortable. I was pleasantly surprised by the very effective central air conditioning. We began by learning about the center’s namesake, Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. For much of his life Romero was very much a moderate, preferring to stay out of the political, social and economic controversies of his country. After he was chosen as archbishop (mostly because he was viewed by those in power as easily controlled) he became increasingly outspoken against the violence and injustice in his country. Romero paid the ultimate price for his commitment to the Gospel when he was assassinated in 1980 while celebrating the Eucharist.

There were several central themes to our time in Camden. One was the simple act of providing service to people very much in need. In my case I worked at an industrial kitchen in Philadelphia called “Manna” which provides healthy and tasty meals to people with AIDS, cancer and other serious illnesses. I spent another day volunteering at an adult day care center for people with physical and mental disabilities. Another day I walked the streets of Camden telling people about “Hopeworks ‘N Camden” – an organization providing computer training and employment for young people in the city. On my last day in the city I was at “New Visions,” a drop-in center for homeless people. Other members of our group helped build a playground, painted classrooms in a parochial school, worked at a huge food bank called “Philabundance” and offered the ministry of presence to people with HIV and AIDS.

Along with offering service we were challenged to get to know the people we were serving. We were inspired by these words were painted in large letters on the wall in our common meeting room: “So you say you love the poor…name them.” We were encouraged to learn people’s names and then tell others about the people we had met and the stories they had shared. On the bulletin board outside Nieman Hall you can see the names of some of those we met in Camden and Philadelphia.

The last central theme was learning about the social and economic injustices which have contributed to the poverty of Camden and about those who are fighting for social and economic justice. We learned that food stamps provide on average 87 cents per meal per person. In order to understand what that means one day we were divided into “families” of four, walked a few blocks to a local supermarket, and were each allowed to spend no more than three dollars per person. The next day we could only eat the food we had purchased. As I mentioned in a recent sermon it was a day of cheap and unsatisfying bread for many of us! We also toured Camden, driving down many streets disfigured by abandoned houses and businesses. We saw – and more importantly, smelled – the large sewage treatment plant casting a malodorous blanket over an entire neighborhood and cutting off part of the city from the waterfront.

Obviously, it would be easy to despair in the face of so much poverty and misfortune. Yet, while recognizing the enormous challenges that exist in Camden, I was energized and inspired by the experience. Wherever we worked we found so many compassionate and joyful people committed to living out the gospel challenges to love our neighbor and to offer food, drink and shelter to the poorest and most vulnerable. I was also deeply moved by our youth and adults. In many ways it was a very challenging week but each morning the members of our group went off into the unknown with enthusiasm and energy. At the end of each day they offered thoughtful reflections about their experiences. Our youth and adults were willing to not just serve the poor but name them.

Special thanks to the adults who served as chaperones and also fully participated in the experience: Geoff Brooks, Mike Cullen, Bill Geyer and Lisa Lawson. Many thanks also to the parents and spouses who sacrificed to make the mission trip possible. Thanks also to Julie Geyer and Linda Faletto for their help with fundraising. Finally, thanks to the parish for your prayers and encouragement.