Sunday, July 31, 2011


St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, Gainesville FL
The Chapel of the Incarnation, Gainesville FL
July 31, 2011

Year A: Proper 13 - The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 32:22-31
Psalm 17:1-7, 16
Romans 9:1-5
Matthew 14:13-21


For seven years before I went to seminary I was a history teacher at my alma mater, an all-boys Catholic school. For the most part, I loved teaching there. The students were bright and eager to learn. I taught alongside fine colleagues, some of whom were also close friends.

One of my favorite parts of the day was homeroom – which we had first thing in the morning. Always having a freshman homeroom, I tried to help these boys get acclimated to the challenges of their new school. Each year I tried to create a little homeroom community – a place where they could feel safe and welcome at the start of their four years of high school.

I have to admit, though, that starting the day with a roomful of 14 year-old boys could sometimes be too much. One of the things that drove me up a wall was when the boys would come into my classroom and talk with great excitement about the wrestling matches they had watched on TV the night before.

Remember, this was the peak of so-called professional wrestling. Night after night my students would watch mostly men in outlandish costumes with silly stage names exchange insults and toss each other around the ring.

The kids were savvy enough to know that for the most part the cartoonish violence they were watching wasn’t real – but they still loved it and loved retelling the stories in my classroom first thing in the morning.

It got so bad that eventually I issued an “executive order” banning any discussion of professional wrestling in my classroom.

Meanwhile the school had a wrestling team. Its matches against students from other schools couldn’t be more different from what the kids were watching on TV. This wrestling wasn’t flamboyant. The wrestlers really were vulnerable to their opponent. This wrestling was much more subtle than what was on TV. If you weren’t paying close attention you could easily miss how exactly one wrestler ended up pinned to the mat. And in this kind of wrestling the lasting effects were all too real.

Living a life of faith requires wrestling – wrestling with ourselves, wrestling with Scripture, wrestling with the Church, and even, as we heard this morning, wrestling with God.

Although I haven’t mentioned Jacob in a couple of weeks, we’ve continued to hear the highlights of his story. You may remember that so far we have seen Jacob for the most part as a dishonorable person – as a trickster and a fink who cheats his slightly older twin Esau out of his birthright and out of their father’s blessing.

Yet, God has big hopes and plans for this unsavory character.

Two weeks ago we heard the story of Jacob dreaming of a ladder bridging the gap between earth and heaven – a ladder that allows angels to travel back and forth.

At the end of the dream God appears to Jacob and says, “the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you."

Last week we glimpsed some of the goodness in Jacob when we heard the story of his love for Rachel – and his willingness to work seven years for her father in order to have her as his wife.

Now Jacob and his entourage are making their way back to Canaan. There is, however, a shadow over what might have been a joyful homecoming – Esau. Jacob knows all too well that his brother remains furious at him because of the betrayal.

Jacob has tried to reconcile with his brother by sending gifts ahead. But, he knows that Esau has a real grievance against him – and that Esau may very well kill him and his family.

Like many of us, when feeling guilt and fear, Jacob just wants to be alone.

Yet, like all of us, Jacob is not alone. God keeps the promise to be with Jacob.

And God isn’t only with Jacob. God is willing to wrestle with Jacob – God is willing to challenge Jacob in order to transform him – to transform Jacob into the person he was always meant to be – to transform Jacob into his true self.

Transformation is not easy. And so we have this ancient, powerful and mysterious story of Jacob wrestling with a man, a supernatural being, maybe an angel or maybe even God.

Regardless of the exact identity of Jacob’s opponent, there’s nothing cartoonish about this wrestling match. The stakes are real both for God and for Jacob.

Jacob proves his strength and persistence not to God - but to himself. Jacob is marked forever by the encounter. He is marked both by his limp and he is marked by his new name. Before he was Jacob – the supplanter – and now he is renamed Israel “the one who has striven with God and with humans and has prevailed.”

Early commentators streamlined the meaning of the name Israel into simply “the man who saw God.”

The rest of Jacob’s life was transformed by this mysterious divine wrestling match. But, that doesn’t mean that he always had an easy time of it or that he and his family lived happily ever after.

His reconciliation with Esau will be only partial. His daughter Dinah will be raped. And his son Joseph will be sold by his brothers into Egyptian slavery.

But throughout all the trials to come I’m sure Jacob remembered the night he saw God and knew that God would be with him through it all.

We Christians see God most clearly in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And if we take seriously the teachings and example of Christ, then we’re likely to wrestle with ourselves, with Scripture, with the Church and even with God.

It’s going to take some wrestling to really love and trust God.

It’s going to take some wrestling to resist evil and, when we sin, to repent.

It’s going to take some wrestling to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.

It’s going to take some wrestling to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as our self.

And it’s going to take some wrestling to strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being.

The first disciples did a fair amount of wrestling as they tried to absorb the message Jesus was teaching them through his word and example. We hear a little bit of that wrestling in the story of Jesus feeding the multitudes.

We’re told that many thousands of people have followed Jesus and the disciples to a deserted place. Now, it’s evening, and the crowd is hungry.

How do the disciples respond? They tell Jesus to, “…send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”

Obviously they still don’t get it. But now the disciples are challenged to wrestle with what it means to trust God and to follow Christ. Jesus tells them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”

On that night, one miracle was Jesus multiplying the loaves and fishes, providing more than enough for the many thousands of hungry people. But, another miracle was the wrestling challenge given to the disciples – the challenge that transformed the disciples from selfishness to self-sacrifice.

Like the first disciples we are challenged to wrestle with what it means to trust God and to follow Christ.

We are challenged to wrestle with our selfishness, our small-mindedness and our fears.

For us today, the miracle is seeing the face of God in Jesus Christ and seeing the face of Christ in one another and the people out there – the people who are hungry for a good meal – the people who are hungry for the Body and Blood of Christ – the people who are hungry for healing and reconciliation – and the people who are burdened by fear and guilt.

Just as God was willing to wrestle with Jacob long ago, fortunately God is willing to wrestle with us – to mark us forever and to transform us into the people we were always meant to be – to transform us into our true selves – to be, like Jacob, the people who have seen God.


Sunday, July 24, 2011


St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, Gainesville FL
The Chapel of the Incarnation, Gainesville FL
July 24, 2011

Year A: Proper 12 – The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 29:15-28
Psalm 105:1-11,45b
Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52


For the past couple of Sundays we’ve been making our way through a collection of Jesus’ parables recorded in the Gospel of Matthew.

Two weeks ago we heard the Parable of the Sower – Jesus’ powerful image of a persistent and hopeful God casting seeds all over the place – casting seeds on good soil and, more often, casting seeds not such good soil.

Last week we heard the parable of the weeds and the wheat.

And now today we have a collection of shorter parables beginning with the parable of the mustard seed.

This is one of the best known and most beloved of Jesus’ parables – giving us a glimpse of what the kingdom of God is like.

The kingdom of God begins in tiny, nearly invisible, easy to miss, ways. And yet, under the right conditions from these small beginnings the kingdom is manifested in ways that are a blessing for many.

In thinking about this beautiful and profound parable, I was reminded of a movie from France that came out last year, but Sue and I only caught up with it a couple of weeks ago.

The movie is called Of Gods and Men. It’s set in the North African country of Algeria during the 1990s.

It tells the true story of a small group of French monks who live in a monastery in a rural village in that predominately Muslim country.

In the movie’s early scenes we see the monks going about their daily tasks, living out their vocations. Like monks and nuns everywhere their days and nights are punctuated by times of prayer and worship in the monastery chapel. They eat their meals in silence listening to one monk read some spiritual writing. They wash their dishes. They scrub the floors. They gather firewood. They tend their crops and bring their products to sell at the local market.

And they operate a rudimentary clinic that seems to be the only medical facility in the village. Each day young and old gather outside the monastery door waiting to see Luc, the monk who is also a physician. Each day he dispenses medicine, along with the occasional pair of shoes and, at least once, advice to a young woman from the village on matters of the heart.

In 1991 an Islamic party won Algeria’s first multi-party election. More secular elements in the country, including the military, refused to accept that result -sparking a decade-long brutal civil war.

In the movie, at first the violence seems far away from the rural village where the French monks and their Algerian neighbors live in harmony. But, soon enough, it becomes clear that their village, including the monastery, will not be spared bloodshed.

Unlike most of the villagers, the monks have a choice. To save their lives, they could close up the monastery and head back to France.

The monks are divided. Some want to stay while others say they went to Algeria to live, not to die.

Talking with one of the villagers, a monk describes himself and his brothers this way. He says,

“We are like birds on a branch. Uncertain when we’ll leave.”

But the villager gently corrects him, saying,

“We’re the birds. You’re the branch.”

Although the monk had lived at the monastery and among the villagers for years, he had not recognized how important the monastery had become for the little village. The monastery had started as a small seed in very inhospitable Algerian soil. Thanks to the faithfulness of the monks day after day, year in and year out, that little seed had grown into a life-giving tree where the people of the village were able to make their nests in a dangerous world.

As we heard in the parable of the sower two weeks ago, God is planting seeds all over the place – in the most unlikely and inhospitable places.

And God is certainly planting seeds in us all of the time.

The only question is how do we respond to these divine seeds.

Like the monks in the movie, despite our flaws and weaknesses, do we do our best to faithfully nurture God’s seeds?

Even when we’re tired or bored or are just feeling dry and uninspired, do we still drag ourselves here week after week just as the monks punctuated each of their days with common and personal prayer?

Like the monks, despite our fear, do we come out from behind the walls of our church and our homes to walk side by side with our neighbors, with our brothers and sisters – especially those who are poor and who suffer in mind, body or spirit?

It seems to me that the only thing that prevents us from nurturing the seeds that God plants in us is fear – fear that we might have to give more than we expected – fear that we might lose what we think is most important.

The French monks in Algeria were afraid, some more than others. The threats of violence, pain and death were very real.

In the movie there’s a scene when the abbot talks with one of the monks who is afraid of losing his life. Essentially the abbot tells the monk that he has already lost his life. He lost his life when he gave it to Christ. He lost his life when he gave it to serving God and serving God’s people. He lost his life when he gave it to doing his best to nurture the seeds that God had planted in him.

You never know, but I’m guessing that no one here is called to be a monk or a nun.

But we are all called to lose our lives by giving them to Christ.

We are all called to lose our lives in service to God and God’s people.

As Jesus says, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Fear alone prevents us from nurturing the seeds that God plants in us. The monks in Algeria suffered a great deal. And there has been and there will be real suffering in our lives. But, ultimately, we can be sure of God’s love through every challenge and ordeal.

St. Paul – who knew a lot about suffering - wrote to the church in Rome, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

There’s no guarantee that the tiny mustard seeds planted by God in each of us will ever grow into trees with branches strong enough for birds to make their nests.

With God’s help, through our openness and faithfulness the kingdom of God can take root and grow in Gainesville, in Algeria, and throughout creation.


Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Good Soil

St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, Gainesville FL
The Chapel of the Incarnation, Gainesville FL
July 10, 2011

Year A: Proper 9, The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 25:19-34
Psalm 119:105-112
Romans 8:1-11
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

The Good Soil

Back when I was a teacher it was a never-ending challenge to find methods and approaches that would get my subject – in my case history – across to my students. Some students did best with the old-fashioned chalk and talk method while others preferred to read on their own and come to class eager to discuss or debate. Others were visual learners – doing best with photographs, charts and films.

It was tough to find the right approach – and like all teachers sometimes I succeeded, and sometimes not so much.

Jesus is often held up as the greatest of all teachers because he was able to teach about the most important of subjects – the kingdom of God – in ways that still inspire and challenge us all these many centuries later.

Jesus taught by using parables – very short stories with double meanings – to give his first followers and to give us today an inkling of what God is like and what life is like in God’s kingdom.

And from the Gospel of Matthew we just heard one of the best known of Jesus’ parables – and one he probably retold many times to many different audiences: the parable of the sower.

It’s called the parable of the sower although most of the parable is about how the seeds interact with the different types of soil they land on.

Obviously agriculture in First Century Palestine was much less sophisticated than what we’re capable of today. Sowing seeds was imprecise and very risky – even under the best conditions the return was not good – and a failed crop was a matter of life and death.

So Jesus’ first audiences must have been shocked by the fact that the sower in the parable is amazingly indiscriminate – the sower tosses seeds on the path where birds can get at them, on rocky soil where they grow too fast and are scorched by the sun and among choking thorns – the sower tosses seed everywhere.

No surprise that most of the seeds are never able to take root and grow.

Yet, where the seeds do take root in the good soil, the return is astonishing – Jesus says, “Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.”

Most scholars believe that the explanation of the parable that we heard in the second part of the lesson comes not from Jesus himself but from the early Church as it reflected on and struggled with the meaning of this and Jesus’ other parables.

Whatever its source, from an early date there’s been an understanding that the different types of soil are a metaphor for how we receive Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of God.

So, who are we in this parable?

Are we the ones who hear Jesus’ teaching, but since we don’t understand it the evil one is able to snatch it right out of our hearts?

Or are we the ones who first receive Jesus’ teaching with great joy but since we don’t nurture it, we fall away during times of trouble?

Or are we the ones who hear Jesus’ teaching but we’re so concerned about our lives and our material possessions that the Good News gets choked in our hearts?

Or are we the ones in whom the teachings of Jesus take root and bear abundant fruit that is a blessing to many?

A clergy colleague suggested that at different points in our lives we provide all of these different types of soil for the Good News of Jesus Christ.

That seems about right to me.

Sometimes we feel so distant from God – our faith seems like just a cruel pipedream – that we can’t see all the many ways that God is at work around us – all the ways that God is planting seeds even in the most inhospitable soil.

Sometimes we come to church and get so inspired by the service, the music and the fellowship, that it feels like we go flying back out into the world. But then during the week we do nothing to nurture our faith. We don’t set aside time for prayer or reflection. We quickly get caught up in the cares and occupations of our lives and the experience of worship becomes a faint memory.

And then sometimes we feel so close to God. We can feel God’s love and presence. We can recognize God at work even in the most ordinary experiences of our lives. And sometimes we can even feel God using us to plant even more seeds, to spread the Good News of the kingdom.

Yes, for many of us, over the course of our lives it’s all of the above.

Fortunately, God doesn’t have just one planting season. Unlike us, God doesn’t get discouraged. Instead, God the persistent farmer is constantly at work - pouring an overflowing abundance of seeds into all of us.

Despite our failings and flaws if we’re open just a little, God can find the good soil that’s been inside of us all along.

Throughout the Bible there are examples of God finding the good soil in people with very big failings and flaws.

In today’s Old Testament lesson, we heard about the birth of the twins Esau and Jacob. In some ways it’s a familiar story of sibling rivalry – a rivalry that seems to already exist in the womb as we’re told Jacob is born grasping on to his slightly older twin’s heel.

In fact, the name “Jacob” means “heel-grabber” or “supplanter.”

We’re told that, although they are twins, Esau and Jacob are very different. Esau is “a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents.”

In my previous parish the last time I preached about Jacob people laughed when I referred to him as a fink – but often that’s what he was. In these early stories he’s a trickster and certainly not a very appealing or honorable character. In today’s lesson we heard the story of Jacob bartering a bowl of stew in exchange for his older brother’s birthright.

And later, Jacob (helped by his mother Rebekah) will trick blind old Isaac into giving his blessing to him instead of Esau.

This is all pretty unpleasant business. Jacob does not distinguish himself as an honorable person.

Yet, eventually God is able to find the good soil in Jacob - gradually transforming this fink, this trickster, into a blessing.

God is able to find the good soil in Jacob, transforming this deceiving younger brother into the good father of the twelve tribes of Israel.

If God can find the good soil in Jacob, then God can definitely find the good soil in each of us.

All we need to do is give God a little space, just a small opening.

We give God a little space by being here each week, hearing God’s Word, taking Christ’s Body and Blood into our bodies and hearts, and by sharing God’s love with each other.

We give God a little space each week by setting aside a little time – even just a minute or two – for prayer and reflection – even maybe just a plea for help or a cry of thanks for being alive.

We give God a little space when we give of ourselves however and whenever we can – maybe by sharing our plenty, maybe by listening to a friend in distress, or maybe by just giving a shoulder to cry on.

And when we give God a little space, eventually God the persistent farmer will find the good soil that’s been in us all along.

Thanks be to God!


Sunday, July 03, 2011

"Dependence Day"

St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, Gainesville FL
The Chapel of the Incarnation, Gainesville FL
July 3, 2011

Year A: Proper 9 – The Third Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67
Psalm 45: 11-18
Romans 7:15-25a
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

"Dependence Day"

For many people across the country this weekend is a time for barbecues and fireworks, and a very appropriate time to give thanks for the liberty we enjoy as Americans.

As Christians, maybe Independence Day is also an opportunity to reflect on America’s civil religion and how well or not so well it matches up with Christianity.

There are lots of different definitions of America’s civil religion, but here are some of its key features:

There’s the idea of American exceptionalism – the idea that America is fundamentally different from all other countries – the idea that God has given the United States a unique role to play in the history of the world.

There’s the idea that in our country if you work hard and play by the rules you’ll get a fair shot at success – and by success we mean a comfortable middle class life.

And at the core of America’s civil religion are the twin ideas of individualism and self-reliance.

We don’t call our big holiday Independence Day for nothing! This is a generalization, but in America there tends to be a heavy emphasis on the rights and interests of the individual and a bit less concern for the common good. Deeply rooted in our sense of nationhood is the idea that the greatest good will be produced when we are all free to pursue our own self-interest.

What about God? How does God fit into America’s civil religion?

Maybe the answer to that question can be summed up by quoting America’s favorite Bible verse, “God helps those who help themselves.”

We’ve all heard it. Many of us have said it. Some of us believe it. There’s just one problem: “God helps those who help themselves” isn’t in the Bible. In fact, when you stop and think about it, that familiar phrase contradicts one of the great themes of Scripture: We are made to depend on God.

We hear what happens when we think we’re in control and when we try to help ourselves in today’s passage from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. He writes, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”

Paul’s recognition of his and our helplessness reminds me of the first steps in Alcoholics Anonymous and other twelve-step programs.

As I’m sure some of you know, the twelve steps begin with an admission of our own powerlessness, a recognition that only a higher power can help us, and a willingness to turn over our wills and our lives to that higher power.

It’s never “independence day” at an AA meeting. Instead, it’s always dependence day – but instead of depending on alcohol or some other substance, at recovery meetings people are encouraged and challenged to recognize their life-giving dependence on God and their liberating dependence on one another.

And what’s true at a recovery meeting should be even truer for us.

I’m glad to live in a politically independent America – but on a deeper, spiritual, level we are not made for independence. And when we try to be independent – independent of God and independent of one another – we end up exhausted, making a huge mess of our lives, a mess of the lives of those around us and a mess of our country and planet.

But, for many of us, it’s not easy to admit our dependence on God and our dependence on one another. For many of us it’s not easy to trust God or to trust other people.

I’ve been reading a book about loneliness and in it the author suggests that lonely people to some extent prefer their aloneness over taking the risks involved with forming deep and complicated relationships with others. Yet, lonely people don’t enjoy their loneliness – don’t relish their independence. It’s not what we were made for.

Today’s Old Testament lesson gives us an example of the costs and rewards of dependence.

Last week you’ll remember we heard the story of the almost-sacrifice by Abraham of his son Isaac. Now a little later on the authors of Genesis tell the story of Abraham sending his servant back to his kinfolk in Haran to find Isaac a suitable wife. It’s a story sometimes called the wooing of Rebekah.

The servant makes a solemn oath to Abraham that he will carry out his mission. There’s more than a little magical thinking in the servant’s approach to finding Isaac a wife, but there is also deep dependence on God to help him find the best wife for his master’s son.

After meeting her at a well and after a very brief discernment, the servant decides that Rebekah – described as “fair to look at” and also kind and generous– is the one for Isaac. The part of the story we heard today picks up with the servant meeting with Rebekah’s brother, who seems to be in charge of the family.

We glimpse a little of the negotiations that were involved – and in many parts of the world still are involved - in arranging a marriage. We might find these kinds of negotiations distasteful, but they do reflect the reality that in a marriage it’s more than two people who are united – two families are forming a bond of mutual dependence – a real but often an uneasy process.

Thinking about these premarital negotiations I was reminded of a wedding I officiated at a few months ago. In some ways it was a very modern and somewhat complicated situation. The groom had been married before and has a young son. To make things easier, the couple could have just gotten married at city hall in a simple ceremony that would have taken a few minutes. But, instead they created a prayerful service reflecting their dependence on God, on one another and on their families and friends.

The most powerful expression of this mutual dependence took place when the bride and the groom along with the ex-wife and their son stepped forward and in front of everyone poured different colored sand into a glass jar – symbolizing mutual dependence and the new unity between and among their families.

This little ceremony was a powerful reminder that marriage is not just about two individuals – it’s about the mutual dependence of families and the mutual dependence of the whole community.

We didn’t hear it in today’s excerpt, but, naturally enough, Rebekah’s family wanted to hold on to her for a little while longer. But, here’s an amazing thing – they ask Rebekah to decide for herself. They ask her, “Will you go with this man?” And she answers, “I will.”

Rebekah boldly chooses to depend on God and to also depend on the servant and to depend on a man she has never even met.

It’s a great story of dependence.

The questions for us today are:

Will we fool ourselves into thinking that we can be independent of God and independent of one another?

Will we make the big mistake of thinking that somehow through our own efforts we can help ourselves?

Will we misunderstand the whole story of God and humanity and somehow think that God helps those who help themselves?

I’m sure we all answer yes to those questions, at least sometimes.

But, trying to go it alone, depending only on ourselves, is exhausting and ultimately self-destructive. So, in today’s gospel Jesus offers us rest. Jesus offers a yoke that is easy and a burden that is light.

Jesus offers us the chance to be part of the Body of Christ – where we depend on God and depend on one another.

Accepting Jesus’ offer doesn’t mean we’ll have an easy time of it. No, there will still be plenty of challenges and failures and suffering.

But accepting Jesus’ offer of rest and an easy yoke and a light burden does mean we can live the kind of joyful lives that we were always meant to live – the kind of lives that God still hopes we will live – lives dependent on the God who loves us more than we can imagine – and lives dependent on one another.

So, I hope everyone has a safe and happy Independence Day!

But I also hope that we Christians remember that for us every day is “dependence day.”

Thanks be to God!