Sunday, August 28, 2011

True Religion

St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, Millburn NJ
August 28, 2011

Year A: Proper 17 – The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 3:1-15
Psalm 105: 1-6, 23-26
Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 16:21-28

True Religion

In today’s collect we made several requests of God, but the one that really jumped out at me was asking God to “increase in us true religion.” I’ll admit that I don’t always pay as much attention to the collect as I should. Maybe you don’t either! But, over the past couple of days I’ve found myself wondering just what is “true religion” and what would it look like if “true religion” really did increase in us.

Right off the bat, we have to acknowledge that for many the very word “religion” carries a whole lot of baggage. I don’t know you at all, but since we’re here in church on the morning of a predicted major hurricane I suspect that all of us here this morning are to some extent “religious.”

But, because of all the religious baggage in our country and around the world, how many of us would admit to being “religious” to our colleagues at work, or on line in the supermarket, or with our classmates at school, or even with our own families and friends?

No, we know all too well what’s written on the tags hanging from religious baggage. One label reads “Closed-minded.” Another says, “Judgmental.” Another, “Ignorant” Still another says, “Bigoted.” And then there are the tags written in blood that say “Threatening” and “Violent.”

Now, I know that’s not what we want written on the tags of our religious baggage – and that’s not the kind of religion that we pray God increases in us – and, in fact, not the kind of religion that God would ever want to increase in us.

Obviously, religion doesn’t mean – or, shouldn’t mean – being closed-minded or judgmental or ignorant or bigoted and certainly not threatening or violent.

But, what does religion mean? What does it mean to be religious?

I think today’s lessons offer very powerful descriptions of religion and what it means to be religious.

In today’s gospel lesson we heard the first time Jesus predicts his fate: his arrest, his suffering, his death and his resurrection. It must have been a very shocking revelation for Jesus’ friends who had left behind their old lives to follow this rabbi who taught and healed like no one they had ever seen before.

I’m sure all the disciples were upset, and maybe none more than Peter.

I think most of us love Peter so much because we can relate to him. We can relate to his bumbling. We can relate to his usually trying to do the right thing but often coming up short. And we can relate to sometimes letting down the people we care about most.

But, like us, sometimes the very human Peter gets it right. Remember last week we heard Peter really getting it. When Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am? Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Peter must have felt like a million shekels – there’s nothing better than giving the right answer when the teacher asks a tough question!

Jesus tells Peter he is blessed. Peter isn’t blessed because he’s smarter or more insightful than the other disciples. Jesus tells Peter he is blessed, “For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”

Peter got the answer right not because he was smart or insightful but because he was open to God at work in him. Because Peter’s heart was open to God he recognized Jesus for who he really is.

Contrast last week’s scene with what we heard today. Peter is so shocked by what Jesus has just said that he’s closed to God working in and through him.

Peter is so consumed by fear and anxiety that he isn’t able to hear everything Jesus is saying. Peter seems to miss the big point: that Jesus would rise again on the third day. I imagine all Peter heard was Jesus saying, “undergo great suffering…and be killed.”

And so, motivated by shock and fear and anxiety and, yes, love for his teacher, Peter “rebukes” Jesus, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”

For his part, Jesus reflects the seriousness of Peter’s error by speaking harshly to his disciple, calling him “Satan” and telling him that Peter the rock has become a stumbling block.

Like Peter, we too can be motivated by shock and fear and anxiety.

Certainly there’s plenty in the world to be shocked by, to be afraid of, and to be anxious about.

I’m sure most of us spent much of the past few days anxiously tracking Hurricane Irene as it made its destructive way up the East Coast.

We worry that we have damaged the planet so much that we look to a future filled with ever more destructive storms and extreme weather.

We are afraid that our political system and our economy are both broken beyond repair, threatening our children and grandchildren lives far less prosperous than our own.

And we have our own personal anxieties – that occasional pain in our chest, that we’ll be the next one in the department to be let go, that losing our keys is the first sign of impending dementia, and even that a new rector will change all the things we really love about St. Stephen’s.

But if we’re truly religious, then our eyes and our minds and our hearts are open to God.

So, asking God to “increase in us true religion” means asking God to open our eyes to see God at work in the world around us.

Asking God to “increase in us true religion” means asking God to open our minds to understand how God is at work in the world around us.

And asking God to “increase in us true religion” means asking God to open our hearts so we can live lives inspired by love rather than lives motivated by shock, fear and anxiety.

I think that’s what St. Paul is getting at when he writes to the early church in Rome,

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

That’s what “true religion” looks like.

“True religion” has its own baggage. But here’s what’s written on the tags hanging from true religious baggage: “love,” “mutual affection,” “show honor,” “ardent in spirit,” and “service to the Lord.”

We live in a time of fear and anxiety. Yet, the God who spoke to Moses long ago – the God was and is and will be – is still at work right now early 21st Century.

The God who raised Jesus on the third day – the God who was and is and will be – is still at work right here in us, and through us, and with us at St. Stephen’s

We pray that God will increase in us true religion so that, like Peter, our hearts will be open and we will recognize Jesus as Messiah, Son of the Living God.

We pray that God will increase in us true religion so that in a world filled with anxiety and bad religious baggage, our lives will be tagged by love, generosity and service.


Sunday, August 14, 2011

More Than We Can Ask Or Imagine

St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, Gainesville FL
The Chapel of the Incarnation, Gainesville FL
August 14, 2011

Year A: Proper 15, the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 45:1-15
Psalm 133
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28

More Than We Can Ask Or Imagine

Many of you know that one of the first things I did when I arrived in Gainesville last year was to start offering Morning Prayer each weekday at the chapel – or, actually, in the chapel garden.

I did that for a couple of reasons but mostly because like everybody else I can get a little lazy. But, I realized that if I put Morning Prayer on the schedule then - no matter how lazy or busy I was - I had to start my day with prayer.

At the end of Morning Prayer the officiant may say one of three verses from Scripture. My favorite of these verses is from Ephesians. It begins:

“Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine…”

That’s a beautiful description of how God is at work in our lives.

If our hearts are open, God takes us to unexpected places.

If our hearts are open, God brings amazing people into our lives.

If our hearts are open, God uses us to heal our broken world.

“Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine…”

I’ve been hearing that verse from Ephesians in my head as my time here with all of you in Gainesville draws to a close. Over the past year God has done more in my life than I could ever have asked or imagined.

And I’ve also been hearing that verse in my head as I’ve been reflecting on this week’s lessons, in which, as usual, God does more than anyone could have asked or imagined.

You may remember that last week we heard the story of Joseph being sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. They were jealous that Joseph was his father’s favorite. They were angry that Joseph had dreams in which they bowed before him. And, don’t forget, they were irritated that their father honored Joseph by giving him a fancy robe with long sleeves.

Ah, family!

To make a long story short, Joseph did very well in Egypt, rising to a position of great honor and power.

The rest of his family didn’t do as well. Things got so bad that during a time of famine, Joseph’s brothers go to Egypt looking for help.

At first, Joseph played some mind games with his brothers who don’t recognize him. The last of these games was demanding that Benjamin, the youngest and Joseph’s only full brother, stay behind in Egypt as a slave.

In an act of great courage and love, Judah, who had been primarily responsible for selling Joseph into slavery, offers to take Benjamin’s place because he knows the loss of both Joseph and Benjamin would devastate their father.

It’s a powerful moment and an amazing reversal. It’s so powerful and amazing, in fact, that in the passage we heard today Joseph breaks down and reveals his identity to his shocked brothers.

The healing of a family broken by jealousy, deceit and violence begins.

“Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine…”

If our hearts are open, God takes us to unexpected places.

If our hearts are open, God brings amazing people into our lives.

If our hearts are open, God uses us to heal our broken world.

Today’s lesson from the Gospel of Matthew might, at first, seem a little disjointed.

It begins with Jesus challenging the teaching of the Pharisees, who usually get a bad rap in the New Testament. We don’t know as much about the Pharisees as we’d like but it seems that they were interested in sanctifying everyday life. So, they intensified some of the demands of Jewish Law, for example requiring ritual hand washing before meals.

There’s nothing wrong with those kinds of practices unless of course they become more important than the way we actually live our lives. In the gospel, Jesus emphasizes that it’s not our rituals but our moral behavior that makes us clean or unclean.

Important words for the Pharisees and for us - and then almost immediately Jesus is challenged to put those important words into practice.

Jesus goes into the non-Jewish territory of Tyre and Sidon where he encounters a pushy and persistent Canaanite woman. She honors Jesus when she shouts to him, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”

Now, this is a familiar scene. Throughout the gospels we see Jesus in these kinds of situations – people begging him for healing. But, in this case, Jesus acts in an un-Jesus like way.

After all, she’s both not Jewish and a woman. So, Jesus and any other Jewish man shouldn’t have anything to do with her.

The disciples want to get rid of her – undoubtedly her shouting was attracting a crowd in this foreign land. Jesus offers a very narrow vision of his mission when he says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

The woman persists, “Lord, help me.”

And then Jesus does something very un-Jesus like. He insults the woman:

“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Yet, even after this ugly insult, the woman not only persists but is quick-witted:

“Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

And then, impressed by her faith and maybe her wit, Jesus relents, and heals her daughter instantly.

This is a difficult passage for us to hear. It’s often interpreted as a story about faith and persistence – and, in part, it’s certainly about that. But, if that’s all that this story is about, what does it say about God? Would God’s attitude towards the woman really be, “If only you had gone back at Jesus after he insulted you then your daughter would have been healed! Too bad you didn’t have more faith and persistence!”

No, this passage isn’t so much about the Canaanite woman. This story is much more about Jesus. There has always been a tendency in the Church to overemphasize either Jesus’ humanity or his divinity. I think in our time the tendency is to focus so much on his divinity that we lose sight of Jesus our brother, a flesh and blood human being who had to learn and grow like we all need to learn and grow.

In this passage we glimpse a flesh and blood human Jesus who was challenged by a persistent Canaanite woman to put his important words into practice.

The rules say no contact with this woman. But this quick-witted woman seems to have reminded Jesus that our conduct is far more important than our rituals.

And maybe in that encounter Jesus had the nearly overwhelming realization that his identity and his mission were far greater than he had previously believed.

Maybe Jesus’ heart was opened to realize that he wasn’t only the long awaited Messiah of Israel, but he was also the Savior of this Canaanite woman and her daughter - and the Savior of the whole world.

Maybe in that encounter with the persistent woman, Jesus recognized that in him and through him, God was doing more than this Jewish peasant from Nazareth could have ever asked or imagined.

And now it’s our turn. We’re all aware of the challenges we face in our lives, our families, our community and the world. But, God is at work today in Gainesville just as God was at work when Joseph revealed his identity to his brothers and when Jesus chose healing over rules and regulations.

If our hearts are open, God takes us to unexpected places.

If our hearts are open, God brings amazing people into our lives.

If our hearts are open, God uses us to heal our broken world.

“Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever.”


Sunday, August 07, 2011

Little Faith

St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, Gainesville FL
The Chapel of the Incarnation, Gainesville FL
August 7, 2011

Year A: Proper 14 – the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
Psalm 105: 1-6, 16-22, 45b
Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-33

Little Faith

Last Sunday we heard Matthew’s account of Jesus feeding the multitudes. The crowd had followed Jesus, hungry for his teaching and maybe a healing or two. The only problem was now there were thousands of people in a remote place. As the day grew late the disciples grew concerned about how all of these people were going to get fed. They tell Jesus to send the crowd into the villages so they can buy food.

Instead, Jesus tells the disciples, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”

The disciples have very little. They are only able to offer five loaves and two fish. It certainly doesn’t seem like they have nearly enough.

Yet, Jesus is able to take their little offering and transform it into food that feeds a multitude – with baskets of leftovers completing the picture of God’s abundance.

Today we picked up right where we left off in the Gospel of Matthew – the story of Jesus walking on water and calming the storm.

Matthew drew upon the earlier Gospel of Mark when he wrote his own account of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Since there’s so much of Mark in Matthew, it’s interesting to note when Matthew adds some additional details to what’s in the earlier gospel.

For example, Matthew’s account of Peter’s “little faith” isn’t found in Mark.

Peter isn’t sure if it’s really Jesus or if it’s a ghost. But, he bravely says, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

After getting the word, Peter – a fisherman who knew the dangers of the turbulent sea all too well - bravely gets out of the boat and takes a few steps on the water towards his Lord.

When he gets understandably frightened and begins to sink, Peter cries out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reaches out to him, catches him, and says, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

“You of little faith” is the usual description of the apostles in the Gospel of Matthew.

“You of little faith” sounds like a put-down, but I’m not so sure.

After all, God seems to be very good at making something awesome out of something very little.

God is good at taking tiny mustard seeds and growing trees that provide shelter for many.

And we just saw God’s ability to turn little into awesome in the miracle of feeding the multitudes when Jesus took the little offering from the disciples and transform it into food that satisfies a multitude – with baskets of leftovers.

Actually, all God seems to require of us is “little faith” – the faith that leaves us open to God’s power working within us – the faith that leaves a small space in our hearts where God can do the work of transforming us and transforming the world.

And it’s noteworthy that it’s Peter who is of little faith. Peter is often depicted as kind of a well-meaning bumbler. And, as we know, he will let Jesus down in his greatest moment of need – abandoning and denying his crucified Lord.

Yet Peter’s little faith is enough to get him out on the water – Peter’s little faith is enough to get Peter to take a few steps toward Jesus – Peter’s little faith is enough for him to cry out to Jesus for help.

And we know that God will take Peter’s little faith – and working from that small place in the fisherman’s heart - transform him from bumbler and coward and denier into an apostle who gave his life for Jesus and the Gospel.

So, I don’t think “little faith” is a put-down.

But, if we’re honest, I think we all wonder if we have even Peter’s little faith. Would we really take even a step or two out onto the water towards Jesus?

Does our doubt crush our little faith and close off the small space in our hearts?

Like Peter, our doubts become most apparent in turbulent times.

And we are certainly living in turbulent times.

The loss of life caused by the shooting down of one of our helicopters in Afghanistan on Saturday is a reminder that our country is involved in wars that, despite the bravery of our troops, we know will end not with victory but, at best, ambiguity.

Our economy and many economies around the world continue to sputter -leaving so many of us unemployed or underemployed or frightened that we are about to take a place in the long lines of people looking for work. Unemployment benefits are running out and there doesn’t seem to be the money or the will or even the compassion to extend them.

For the first time in our history Americans really believe that their children won’t have it as good as they did.

Over the past few weeks the world watched as leaders of both parties made a spectacle of themselves in dealing with the debt ceiling – a spectacle for which we’ll all pay. But, that was really just one example of the dysfunction and corruption that prevents our elected officials in Washington and Tallahassee from setting aside ideology and self-interest for the good of the people.

And then there is the turbulence in our own lives.

Like every community, some of us here are facing serious illness or worried about the health of someone we love. Some of us are battling addiction. Some of our relationships are strained or have ruptured. Some of us feel guilty about things we’ve done or things we’ve left undone.

And there is the turbulence that comes when a priest gets ready to leave. What will happen to the church? What will our next priest be like? Will the next priest be in place before momentum is lost and people begin to drift away?

In turbulent times it’s easy to doubt - and hard to have even little faith.

Actually, though, our idea of doubt might not be exactly what Jesus meant.

When Jesus asked Peter, “why did you doubt?” he wasn’t asking Peter why he was skeptical that a man could walk on the surface of a turbulent sea.

Instead, when Jesus asked Peter why he doubted, he was asking why didn’t he hold steady? Why didn’t he remain steadfast? Why didn’t he keep going?

Peter had heard Jesus teach and had seen Jesus heal and had seen Jesus feed the multitudes. So why he didn’t Peter trust that the Lord would hold him up and keep him afloat?

In this turbulent time, you and I are like Peter trying to walk on the turbulent sea.

During my year here I’ve gotten to know you well enough to know that you’ve seen the power of Jesus to teach, heal and feed. So I know you’ll hold steady. I know that doubt won’t crush your – our - little faith. I know that doubt won’t close off the small space reserved for God in our hearts.

We have little faith – we make a small place in our heart – when we hold steady, when we remain steadfast, when we keep going even when we’re frightened or tired or bewildered.

We have little faith – we make a small place for God in our heart – when we stick together, make time for prayer, extend peace and forgiveness to our neighbors, sing our hymns, and take the Body and Blood of Christ into our bodies and into our hearts.

With all his flaws and failures, Peter still had little faith and made a small place in his heart for God. And God used that little faith and that small place to transform Peter and to transform the world.

As usual, God made something awesome out of something very small.

The good news is that what was true for Peter is just as true for us – what God did for Peter, God can do for all of us - for all of us of little faith.