Sunday, December 23, 2007

Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A, December 23, 2007

Matthew 1:18-25

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

"Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,

and they shall name him Emmanuel,"

which means, "God is with us." When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.


I enjoy listening to Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion monologues. In one of them he talks about Christmas being run by women and how it has always been that way. He said, “Joseph didn’t do much…he said, ‘Why me? Why now? Why couldn’t it have been 5 months from now?” Mr. Keillor was, of course, going for a laugh, but it can’t have been far from how Joseph actually reacted. Here he thought he had everything planned out and everything changed in a moment.

John Lennon said, “Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans.” We would like to think we are in control of what happens to us. We’re not and never have been.

It can be hard for us to understand, in our modern society, exactly what it was that Joseph was facing. Back in those days, they had a word for men like him and it was “cuckold”.

The word “cuckold” is a reference to the cuckoo. Most members of this species are what are called “brood parasites”, which means they lay their eggs in other birds nests so that the other birds will have the burden of hatching and raising young that are not their own. The cuckold was a man whose wife was unfaithful, particularly apt when the woman bore a child that was obviously not her husband’s. Such men were ridiculed and shamed in almost all societies in history.

So it’s not very surprising that when Joseph found a cuckoo’s egg in his nest, his first reaction was to quietly put his betrothed away, that is, to divorce her even before the marriage was celebrated. No one wants to be humiliated. Not only was Joseph protecting Mary’s reputation, he was protecting his own. It was life happening to Joseph in spite of the plans he had made. Time for damage control…with the emphasis on “control”.

Most of us have experienced this sort of situation in our own lives. Something happens that changes everything. A job is lost. A loved one dies. A home burns to the ground. And sometimes, just as it happened to Joseph, a child comes along that is not expected. We feel lost and confused. Why is this happening now? And if we are spiritual people, we ask God “What are you doing to me? Why are you doing this to me?” We want to have a say in what happens to us, thinking we know better than God what is good for us. We want to be in charge, to be in control.

As Christians we’re called to surrender control to God. He’s the one that is calling the shots in our lives, not us. But it is very hard to do this. It is very hard to lay those burdens down and walk away.

Joseph required a heavenly intervention. God sent an angel to clue Joseph in on what the bigger picture was. Both fortunately and unfortunately, our choices are usually far less earth-shaking, so we aren’t entitled to this sort of communication. We’re supposed to be listening to that still small voice of the Holy Spirit, the one that says, “Wait…it’s going to turn out okay. This is something God will use for good, if you will only let him work through you.”

One of my favorite verses from the bible is Psalm 46:10 “Be still and know that I am God.” This is far more polite than “shut up and listen” isn’t it? But it comes to the same thing. Be still. Listen for the voice of the Holy Spirit in your heart. Surrender control to God.

The Christian band FFH has a great song about this. Here is the chorus:

You take the wheel
I will work the radio
You take the wheel
We'll go where You want to go
You take the wheel
Take it fast, take it slow
Whatever you choose I'm fine
You drive, I'll ride
You drive, I'll ride

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Third Sunday of Advent Year A - December 16, 2007

Richard Lovelace, an Elizabethan poet, wrote these lines:

“Stone walls do not a prison make

Nor iron bars a cage.”

This is part of a poem called “To Althea, from prison” that the poet wrote while he was imprisoned in 1642 during England’s period of civil war between the Royalists and the Roundheads. The meaning of the lines, as he wrote them, is to show that while you are in prison, as long as your soul is free then you are free.

In today’s gospel we hear another message from prison. John the Baptist, in prison, sends a message to Jesus asking him, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” This seems strange to us, because in the third chapter of Matthew we see Jesus coming to be baptized by John. John knew exactly who Jesus then. So why is John asking this question now?

Some bible scholars think that John is sending a little reminder to Jesus. John is in prison and, naturally, wants to be set free. Since Jesus is the Messiah and has come to fulfill the prophecy we read today in Psalm 146, John is reminding Jesus that:

“The LORD sets the prisoners free;
the LORD opens the eyes of the blind;
the LORD lifts up those who are bowed down”

So the scholars think this is a little reminder, kind of “Hey, Jesus! I’m a prisoner…aren’t you going to set me free?”

But Jesus does not set John free. Instead he replies:

"Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."

This last sentence I found very puzzling. What did Jesus mean, “blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me”? I spent some time reading different commentaries on this passage. Basically, Jesus meant, “no I’m not going to set you free from prison, John, and if you can accept that, you will be blessed.”

Personally, I don’t believe that John was sending a reminder to Jesus. I think that John had fallen prey to doubt, just like we all do. I can imagine that in prison, shut away from the crowds who had come seeking John’s wisdom and baptism at his hands, away from the center of the action, John began to doubt whether he really HAD prepared the way for the Messiah. What if Jesus was just another prophet? What if John had messed up? Obviously Jesus was not doing what he was supposed to be doing, setting the prisoners free, since Jesus had not set John free. Had it all been for nothing? When was Jesus going to get on with establishing his kingdom and doing all the things that everyone expected him to do?

The answer is, of course, that John, just like all the disciples, got the whole idea of Messiah wrong. They all believed Jesus was supposed to establish a Jewish state with himself at the head, drive out the Romans and re-establish the nation Israel as it ought to be. But the Messiah was not going to do that. His kingdom was not of this world.

John was in prison physically, but his doubt had also put him in a mental prison. John was guilty, as we all are, of expecting God to do what we want him to do. John had read the same scriptures that everyone else had and had built a set of expectations based on what he read, the way that John himself interpreted them. So when God did not behave according to expectations, John lost faith and doubted.

We all do this. We build a box and try to put God in it. Then when he doesn’t go quietly and nicely as we expect him to, we end up in that box ourselves. Because we doubt God can do for us what we think he ought to do, we limit the effectiveness of what the Holy Spirit *can* do THROUGH us. This *is* the prison that the Messiah came to free us from, the prison of our own doubts, fears and expectations.

So Jesus’ message, ending with “blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” told John, “Yes, I am the Messiah. And if you have faith in me, you will be blessed.” It shows that Jesus understood that John was experiencing doubt and despair. In choosing faith over doubt, John would be set free from prison, though not in the way he was expecting.

Only through letting go and allowing the power of God to flow through us in the person of the Holy Spirit, can we be free from the prison we construct of our own doubts and expectations. The power of the Holy Spirit can be the wind beneath our wings, lifting us free from the burdens that weigh us down. Allowing God to work through us will mean that we shall be “free indeed”.

Richard Lovelace’s poem, “To Althea, from Prison”, which is considered a love song, actually acknowledges God as the source of spiritual freedom. Here is part of it:

When (like committed linnets) I

With shriller throat shall sing

The sweetness, mercy, majesty,

And glories of my king;

When I shall voice aloud how good

He is, how great should be,

Enlarged winds, that curl the flood,

Know no such liberty.

Stone walls do not a prison make,

Nor iron bars a cage;

Minds innocent and quiet take

That for an hermitage;

If I have freedom in my love,

And in my soul am free,

Angels alone that soar above,

Enjoy such liberty.

May we all know and enjoy this liberty.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

First Sunday of Advent Year A - December 2, 2007

I’m lousy at waiting. That’s why I knit, honestly. As the mother of three kids, I have spent a lot of time waiting outside the school when I’m picking them up, sitting in a lawn chair at soccer games and t-ball, and outside the classroom for dance classes. As the steward of my children’s health, I have spent a lot of time in emergency rooms, as well as doctors’, dentists’, orthodontists’, and optometrists’ waiting rooms. As the steward of my own and, sometimes, my husband’s health I have done the same. Knitting keeps me sane all through this, because at least I feel like I’m doing SOMETHING. And it helps while away the time. Time drags by very slowly in waiting rooms

This is the time of year to think about waiting. Advent is all about waiting. Symbolically, we are waiting for the coming of the Christ child, a wait that spans four weeks in our liturgical cycle, which has it’s echoes in our day to day life in our wait for Christmas day, particularly our children.. We are also waiting for our Lord’s return to earth, something for which we have been waiting for almost 2000 years. Advent symbolizes both of these things, the wait for the Christ child and the wait for the return of Christ our King. Today we begin our season of waiting. What does it mean to wait?

The American Heritage Dictionary has 4 different definitions for the word “Wait”

    1. To remain or rest in expectation: waiting for the guests to arrive. See Synonyms at stay1.
    2. To tarry until another catches up.
  1. To remain or be in readiness: lunch waiting on the table.
  2. To remain temporarily neglected, unattended to, or postponed: The trip will have to wait.
  3. To work as a waiter or waitress.

Clearly what Jesus’ message relates to us today has to do with definition number two, to be in readiness. He warns us very specifically that we will not know the hour of his return so we should always be ready. So what are we supposed to be doing while we wait?

If we add one word to the verb “wait”, we get “wait on”. Let’s turn to the dictionary again to see what this means:

wait on/upon

  1. To serve the needs of; be in attendance on.
  2. To make a formal call on; visit.
  3. To follow as a result; depend on.
  4. To await: They're waiting on my decision.

I think we could easily use more than one of these definitions to decide what to do while waiting. We can serve the needs of the Kingdom of God. We can be in attendance on God and making ourselves available to do the work he needs us to do. And we can follow and depend on God. Clearly, if we do all of these things, we don’t have to worry about what the master will find us doing when he returns. Whenever that may be, which is not entirely clear. Jesus didn’t give us a date and asked us to jot it down on our calendars or put it in our Palm Pilots or Franklin Planners. Why not? Wouldn’t it be nice to know?

There are plenty of people who have tried to set a date for Jesus’ return. In the 19th century, there was a noted preacher named William Miller, who set a date for Christ’s return on April 3, 1843. Unfortunately, that date came and went, as did 2 other dates set by the same preacher.

Jesus was purposefully obscure about the date of his return; in our reading today, he says:

"But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” God set the date, but not even Jesus knew what it is. And even if he did know what it is, we can be sure he wouldn’t have told us. Because if there as many people who procrastinate spiritually as there are those that procrastinate about cleaning, paying bills, and doing anything else that requires a bit of effort, there would be a lot of people who would wait until the last minute to repent of their sins and do God’s work here on earth.

What Jesus was not obscure about was what you and I ought to be doing when he returns. We’re not supposed to be waiting by the door, looking at our watches and complaining about how long it’s taking. We’re not supposed to write the date on our calendar and then go do whatever we like until a day or two before he comes back, when we can clean our spiritual houses. We’re supposed to live our lives, every day, as if we can expect Jesus to show up at any time. Are you ready?

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Proper 28 Year C - November 18, 2007

We all know people who probably would score very well on standard IQ tests, but when it comes to dealing with other people, they are as dumb as rocks. “Just goes to show,” we mutter to ourselves smugly, “That there’s more to life than how fast you can solve a math equation.”

In fact, several years ago, researchers began to identify a new factor in our psychological make-up that can determine how well we do in life. They called this factor Emotional Intelligence and created a new measure called the Emotional Intelligence Quotient or EQ to measure this intelligence. This intelligence involves the ability to perceive, assess or manage the emotions of oneself, others or groups of people. Unlike IQ, EQ can be increased by learning how to deal with your own emotions or those of others. Dale Carnegie, with his popular book “How to Win Friends and Influence People” and his series of courses based on it probably made a mint off of this concept.

Today I’d like to identify a new factor in our psychological make-up that can determine how well we do in the next life. Let’s call it “Spiritual Intelligence.” Spiritual Intelligence is the ability to discern “spiritual value” over “material value”. We could easily make up a test that would measure your Spiritual Intelligence Quotient, or SQ, because Jesus’ teachings in the New Testament were mostly about this discernment of spiritual over material.

In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus is giving the disciples a teaching that combines this discernment with a prophecy about the end times. The disciples are admiring the temple, which from all reports of the time was an incredibly opulent building. Josephus, a Jewish historian at the time of Christ, describes it this way:

The whole of the outer works of the temple was in the highest degree worthy of admiration; for it was completely covered with gold plates, which when the sun was shining on them, glittered so dazzlingly that they blinded the eyes of the beholders not less than when one gazed at the sun’s rays themselves. And on the other sides, where there was no gold, the blocks of marble were of such a pure white that to strangers who had never previously seen them (from a distance they looked like a mountain of snow’” (v, 14), p. 534.

This temple was the 3rd temple built by the Jewish people and was, during the times of Jesus, still under construction. It was being built by Herod the Great and would be finished in 60 AD. Herod, by all we learn of him in the Bible, was not a particularly pious king. But he was filled with pride and arrogance. This temple was more a monument to HIS power and glory than God’s.

The disciples were from the very rural province of Galilee, you might say they were “country bumpkins.” They were very impressed by the sight of this gorgeous building. Maybe they were even planning which offices would be theirs when Jesus came into his kingdom. After all, wouldn’t he be making the Temple his headquarters? To fishermen from Galilee, it must have looked like a building that dropped right down from heaven. Obviously, they had made it to the Big Time. It was time to pick out that corner office and live in style.

However, just before the passages in today’s lesson, Jesus points out the contribution of the widow, who gave her few coins in offering, compared to the more showy donations of richer people. Because she gave from her heart, not holding back for fear of what the lack of her small savings might bring her, hunger or sickness with no money to pay the doctor, she demonstrated trust and faith in God. She showed a very high SQ.

So when the disciples start exclaiming over the opulence of the temple, Jesus warns them that the whole temple will be destroyed. “Not one stone will be left upon another,” he said. Jesus’ prediction came to pass in 70 AD, when the Roman army sacked the temple, literally pulling all the stones down to remove their gold plating and ornaments. Not one stone remained on another. As startling as this prediction was, the real message was far more startling. The disciples were not to put their faith in something that man had made for God, something with more material value than spiritual value. The kingdom that was coming was not one that would need a temple like this. The kingdom was to deal with the spiritual changes of the heart, not physical locations like buildings, cities or even countries. And, as usual, the disciples missed the whole point.

We see the same struggle going on in our day, our eternal tendency to choose style (or material) over substance (or spirit). One only need drive around the Metro Detroit area and look at the showy churches, the big crosses erected over them, the amount of glamour and style these churches put into their worship spaces and the amount of people who staff the worship team. Churches do this to attract members, because members give money and money pays for more renovations and more things to “attract” more members, which give more money and it goes on and on. Some churches have a coffee bar in the lobby so that worshippers can get that cappuccino before the service. Others have ATM machines in the lobby so that cash may be available to all who want to toss some money in the plate.

But if there is no substance, the substance being the true love of God and devotion to the mission of spreading the gospel, the mission that will bring persecution and danger into the lives of those who choose discipleship, these churches are no more holy places than the mall down the street. A church can be falling down, but if the love of God lives in the members and they continually seek to serve Him through spreading the gospel and showing God’s love through caring for the poor, both those who are poor in spirit and those who are poor in material things, then that church has a high SQ indeed.

Like EQ, we can change our SQ. We don’t need to study a lot of books or take a course titled, “How to Win Souls and Reject the Material.” All we need to do is listen for that still small voice of the Holy Spirit, the one who will give us the words to say when we are defending our faith, the one who can help us find the spiritual value of the choices we have available to us. St. Anthony of Padua wrote the following prayer for the help of the Holy Spirit, which I invite you to pray with me now:

O God, send forth your Holy Spirit into my heart that I may perceive, into my mind that I may remember, and into my soul that I may meditate. Inspire me to speak with piety, holiness, tenderness and mercy. Teach, guide and direct my thoughts and senses from beginning to end. May your grace ever help and correct me, and may I be strengthened now with wisdom from on high, for the sake of your infinite mercy. Amen.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

All Saints Day - November 4, 2007

What does it mean to be a saint in 21st century America?

Most of us, when we hear the word saint, think of martyrs; people who died rather grisly deaths to witness to the world the love of Jesus Christ. And most of us, if we are truthful, don’t really want to be a saint if that is what is required. Who would want to die like Saint Sebastian, shot with arrows? Or like Saint Stephen, stoned to death? We shy away from the thought of being a saint if that is what is required.

The other connotation of the word saint is someone inhumanly good, so good that we cannot ever measure up to them, someone like Mother Teresa. Who can be that good? What use is it even to try?

But we are wrong. Mostly because we do not understand the term “saint” and what it really means to be one. Almost every denomination defines saint differently, but to Protestant Christians it generally means anyone who makes it to heaven. And since we have made the decision to accept Jesus as our savior and we are on our way to heaven day by day, then technically, we are saints as well.

So what are we doing about it? What do saints do and how can we tell if we are living up to the word “saint”? Jesus gives us a laundry list, commonly known as the Beatitudes in Matthew 5:1-12 that can probably tell us more about what a saint is like than any other source. What is that he says?

Jesus says that we should be meek, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, peacemaking, righteous, and willing to endure persecution in his name. If we do all these things our reward will be great in heaven. It doesn’t mean that if we don’t do all these things that we will not get to heaven, just that our reward will be great. So how do we do them? Let’s go over them one at a time:

Meek: Most of us think of meek as being someone who is afraid to speak up for themselves, someone that other people walk on, if the truth be told. Originally, however, as used in the Bible, it meant gentle and kind. We certainly can choose to be more gentle, more kind with our fellow man.

Hungering & Thirsting for Righteousness: we are supposed to DESIRE righteousness. I think we all desire to be righteous, the problem is in achieving it. But as long as we desire to be righteous, we have fulfilled this requirement…but we need to desire it so much that we cannot rest until we get it. We need to hunger and thirst after it so much that choosing anything else will make us feel terrible, much as making a bad food choice at dinner will make us queasy.

Merciful: this one is easy to understand, we need to choose to be compassionate to other people, as well as to ourselves.

Pure in heart: To me this speaks of single-mindedness, the “gladness and singleness of heart” spoken in the General Thanksgiving. It means not allowing our love for God to be watered down or tainted with other desires.

Peacemaking: Choosing harmony over discord, when discord will not accomplish God’s will. Not making peace at any cost, as is sometimes thought. Sometimes pursuing mercy and righteousness means not choosing a peaceful course.

Willing to endure persecution: not necessarily choosing to suffer physical degradation, for us in 21st century America it usually means choosing to risk losing friends because God comes first or because you will not keep your beliefs “under wraps” so as not to offend others. For other people around the world, though, persecution is a very real danger in professing the faith that in America we follow fairly risk-free.

For us, though, all of these qualities, as enumerated by Jesus, involve, not intentionally seeking out opportunities to practice them, but simple choices that every day living entails. We can choose to be compassionate. We can choose to be kind, gentle, pure in heart, loving peace, and willing to endure the social losses that come from speaking out and sharing our faith. We can choose to cultivate the desire to follow God more closely and reject the values that our culture teaches are acceptable. We have opportunities every day to embrace the qualities Jesus lists in the Beatitudes, to show God’s love in the world we live in today, to be saints in every sense of the word.

The hymn we sang just a few minutes ago really says it all. This is the third verse, which is a more Americanized version than we sing:

They lived not only in ages past; 
there are hundreds of thousands still. 
The world is bright with the joyous saints 
who love to do Jesus' will. 
You can meet them in school, on the street, in the store, 
in church, by the sea, in the house next door; 
they are saints of God, whether rich or poor, 
and I mean to be one too.

May we all be saints, every day of our lives. Amen.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Proper 22 Year C - October 7, 2007

It has been a long time since I have had to do any algebra. So when my oldest daughter, Laurel, asked me if I knew how the distributive property worked, I drew a blank. I simply did not remember.

I had studied algebra in junior high and again in college, where it was necessary for my general education requirement. But it had been a long time since then, and I had found, as many school students complain about when they are learning algebra, that it had little impact on my life after college. I didn’t use it. And, as is said about many things, if you don’t use it, you lose it.

I did my best to help Laurel and I actually found it came back to me rather quickly, maybe because I’ve always liked math. But at first I thought that it might be a totally different algebra than I had studied, much as parents in the 60’s discovered when the “New Math” was introduced to their children. They found themselves totally unable to help their children with their homework, because it was all so different than they remembered.

So what does algebra have to do with Jesus talking to his disciples about faith? What it comes down to is, much like the New Math, Jesus had a New Faith equation that was different than the faith equation that the disciples had been brought up with.

In the verses in Luke that precede the gospel lesson, Jesus tells the disciples that they need to forgive people over and over and over and over again. The idea of forgiving people who may have just said, “Oh, sorry!” for doing something wrong, something that these people did wrong many times over, was hard for the disciples to accept. In fact, it seems quite unacceptable to most of us, doesn’t it? They couldn’t grasp it. It was a radical idea. Somewhere, they reasoned, there had to be a place where you could say, like the Soup Nazi on the television show, Seinfeld, “No forgiveness for you!”

But Jesus told them the disciples had to forgive many more times than seemed reasonable or necessary. They figured that they needed more faith to grasp this idea, because obviously they didn’t have “enough”. So they asked Jesus to increase their faith.

The disciples’ faith equation was the one that most of us mistakenly have, the one that is even flogged by many denominations who preach “health & wealth theology”. This is how it goes:

Me + Righteousness + Faith = God doing what I ask Him to do

It is a “just add water” type of theology, indeed, sometimes a “just add money” theology. All we have to have is “enough” faith, to follow all the rules, and we can move mountains. With this equation, the emphasis is on WE. WE move mountains because that is what WE want to do. It’s like making a movie: God’s the producer and puts up the money, but we are the ones directing the movie.

This is why, when Jesus challenged the disciples with the hard teaching on forgiveness, that the disciples asked Jesus to increase their faith. But the disciples weren’t really asking for more faith. Their equation was really this:

Me + Faith + More Faith = Wisdom

This is what the disciples asked for. They thought that with more faith they would then understand why God wanted them to forgive…they would be wise like God and then it would become what THEY wanted to do. It would still be what THEY wanted, rather than what God wanted. Of course, this solution came with a nice bonus: God would agree with them. And so “enough” faith is really “enough” wisdom. And when you start to think that you can be as wise as God, your equation becomes quite unbalanced indeed. It becomes an algebraic equation:

Me + x(faith) = God doing what I want

With x representing “enough”, which is an unknown quantity. How much faith would be “enough” to make you as wise as God?

The idea that if we only have “enough” faith that God will do what we want him to is a big reason that some of us may lose the faith that we have. “I had faith,” we cry, “Yet God didn’t listen! He didn’t heal my child!” or “He didn’t save my marriage” or “He didn’t give me a baby or a promotion or a new job”…well, you fill in the blank! “Didn’t I have enough faith for Him to do that for me?” we cry. And then we either turn from God because we are angry that our faith wasn’t “enough” for Him because His standards must be impossibly high, much too high for us to reach, or we spend our lives blaming ourselves and sometimes our loved ones for not having enough faith. And our equation looks like this:

My faith < Enough faith for God


Me – Faith = Me - God

But real faith, as Jesus’ illustration of the mustard seed shows, is a highly powerful, concentrated thing. A little goes a long way. The kind of super-concentrated, new and improved formula that could cause a mulberry tree, a tree with a very large root system that makes it almost impossible to move, to move itself. The problem wasn’t in the quantity of faith that the disciples had. It was in the quality of faith that they had.

Jesus makes it clear that the equation the disciples were operating under, the same equation that the Pharisees, those sticklers for strict observance of the Law, had been teaching for years, was the wrong faith equation.

Jesus gives us the new faith equation in the gospel lesson when he says “"Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, `Come here at once and take your place at the table'? Would you not rather say to him, `Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink'? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, `We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!'”

What does Jesus mean by that?

The clue is in the master/slave relationship illustrated in the parable.

When the slave does what needs to be done, the master doesn’t say, “Okay, now I’ll do what you want me to, since you did what I wanted!” The master does not say, “Well, what do you think you should do first, since you might have a better idea of what to do than I?” No. The master tells the slave what to do, because the master knows what needs to be done. The slave has faith that the master knows what should be done and does not expect anything extra for doing it.

When we think about the power and wisdom of God, about how He made the universe and all that is in it, the idea that we can know better than He does what is best for our lives is ludicrous, at best. We are certainly worthless in comparison to God. God is the Master and his will is to be central in our lives.

And so we see that Jesus’ new faith equation is:

Me + God’s will = Faith

When we center ourselves in the will of God, faith comes naturally. When we struggle to surrender our will daily to God, giving up our insistence that our knowledge is better than His, then we realize that whatever God chooses to do in our lives is what we really want.

And realizing that, when we pray, we stop asking for things from God as if we know what the best answer is to our problems. We start asking Him to take over, to do what is best. Instead of telling God what will bless us, we ask Him to bless us in whatever way He chooses. And sometimes what God chooses is the exact opposite of what we want. But what I have found is that it always turns out to be what is best for me and for the ones I love, though it doesn’t always seem like it at the time.

The most powerful prayer, the prayer that Jan Karon, in her series of novels about Father Tim Kavanaugh, says is the prayer that never fails, is “Thy will be done.” Because when we pray that prayer, we have that super-concentrated faith, the new and improved formula, the faith that moves mountains.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Proper 20 Year C - September 23, 2007

Sermon – Proper 20, Year C – September 23, 2007

Charles Haddon Spurgeon was a 19th century British Reformed Baptist preacher who remains highly influential amongst Christians of different denominations, among whom he is still known in various circles as the "Prince of Preachers."

At the height of his fame, he preached to thousands in London every Sunday, but he started out passing out tracts and teaching Sunday School as a teenager. He said, “I am perfectly sure,” he said, “that, if I had not been willing to preach to those small gatherings of people in obscure country places, I should never have had the privilege of preaching to thousands of men and women in large buildings all over the land. Remember our Lord’s rule, “whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.”

Charles Spurgeon is the perfect illustration for today’s gospel lesson, in which Jesus says, “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much.”

People like Charles Spurgeon inspire many people, but they also discourage many people who ask themselves, “How can I, with my small gifts, do as much for God as someone like this, to whom God has given much greater gifts?”

There was a popular song in the 1950’s recorded by Kitty Kallen called Little Things Mean A Lot. The lyrics start out with:

Blow me a kiss across the room
Say I look nice when I'm not
Touch my hair as you pass my chair
Little things mean a lot
Give me your arm as we cross the street
Call me at six on the dot
A line a day when you're far away
Little things mean a lot

The song celebrates how love is expressed, not in big romantic ways, but in the small everyday words and gestures that mean much more in the long run. In ministry, little things mean a lot too. We are all in ministry, whether we realize it or not, the ministry of the baptized towards each other and towards the world. Any gift we have to give is the Lord’s gift to the world, not our own. We need to realize that small acts of ministry are often the most effective.

I recently read this story online: An elderly widow, restricted in her activities, was eager to serve Christ. After praying about this, she realized that she could bring blessing to others by playing the piano. The next day she placed this small ad in the Oakland Tribune: "Pianist will play hymns by phone daily for those who are sick and despondent; the service is free.” The notice included the number to dial. When people called, she would ask, "What hymn would you like to hear?'

Within a few months her playing had brought cheer to several hundred people. Many of them freely poured out their hearts to her, and she was able to help and encourage them.

Clearly this widow understood that small acts of ministry can have big results. She didn’t say, “I can’t serve God because I am too old” or “I can’t do as much as I used to, so I’m going to sit back and let others do what I can’t” or “I don’t have anything to give that will make a difference in people’s lives.” She asked God to tell her what she COULD do. And by using the gift that he had given her, she was able to be effective in her ministry.

So what gifts are you hiding under your bushel? Ministry can be as big as leading people to Christ like Billy Graham and as small as sending cards to shut-ins. As big as writing books that inspire millions of people like Philip Yancy, or as small as giving rides to church to those who can no longer drive themselves. Little things mean a lot in ministry. So why is it so often we end our ministry before we even have begun?

We are not faithful in little because we are little in our faith. We are our own worst enemies, talking ourselves out of doing what we can by minimizing the effect we can have. We make the mistake of believing that only large ministries can have an impact in the world, when small ministries may actually help people in many ways that large ministries fail. We want recognition, a 100% success rate, and enough time, energy and motivation to keep ourselves going forever. We tell ourselves that if no one notices what we do, that if we fail sometimes at what we attempt, and if we get tired and discouraged, that we are not succeeding.

David McCasland, noted biographer of Oswald Chambers, wrote:

When we long for success, God says, "I will reward you."

When we ache for recognition, God says, "I see you."

When we are ready to quit, God says, "I will help you."

Whether our service is public or private, our responsibility is the same—to be faithful.

Paul, in his letter to the Colossians, wrote:

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.

Whatever you do. Not “in all the big things you do” or even “in all the things you do in church”. There are ministry opportunitites everywhere if you only look for them; holding a door open for someone, telling the waitress at the local diner what a great job she’s doing, or giving your place in line at the grocery store to someone with just a few items. Little things mean a lot.

There’s an old hymn by Kittie Suffield that goes:

1. In the harvest field now ripened,
There's a work for all to do.
Hark, the voice of God is calling,
To the harvest calling you.

2. Does the place you're called to labor
Seem so small and little known?
It is great if God is in it,
And He'll not forget His own.

3. When the conflict here is ended
And our race on earth is run,
He will say, if we are faithful,
"Welcome home, my child, well done."

Little is much when God is in it.
Labor not for wealth or fame.
There's a crown and you can win it,
If you go in Jesus' name.

Proper 18 Year C - September 9, 2007

Sermon – Proper 18, Year C – September 9, 2007
I was watching “The Quiet Man” the other day on television. This is a movie that I’ve seen many times, due to the fact that my husband is a big John Wayne fan. Of all the movies John Wayne made, this is his favorite one. We always watch it when it’s on television and, believe me: it’s on television quite often.

If you’ve never seen it, in the movie, set in Ireland, Mary Kate Danniher, a fiery redhead played by Maureen O’Hara, marries Sean Thornton, played by John Wayne. After the marriage, Mary Kate’s brother refuses to hand over her dowry and the things that had been passed down to her from her mother and grandmother. Their wedding night turns out miserably because Sean can’t understand why those things are so important to Mary Kate. He says, “It seems like a lot of fuss and bother over a little bit of furniture.” She says, “There’s three hundred years of happy dreaming in those things and I want them!”

Sean is an American and doesn’t understand the Irish culture which made Mary Kate so insistent on having her “things about her”. To him it seems mercenary and cold, while to Mary Kate, her things represent something much deeper: her self-identity and position in the community.

In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus tells the disciples that they must give up all their possessions.

Maybe to us, understanding the true impact of what Jesus was asking his disciples to do is just as hard as it was for Sean Thornton. We live in a very affluent country; in comparison to the way that the Jewish people lived back then, we are fabulously wealthy. Our access to increasingly cheaper goods has turned us into the world’s largest consumer culture. We don’t get as attached to most of our possessions, probably because we have more than we really need and if something gets broken it’s easily replaced. I’ve seen this in my own children; if they break a toy, it isn’t a big deal to them. I contrast my own remembrances of toys that were prized possessions and that I mourned over when they broke. It was harder to get a new toy in our family. You had to wait until your birthday or Christmas because toys were comparatively expensive then, dollar for dollar.

These days most of us are just not as invested in our possessions as someone who had to work very hard just to acquire a nice table or a chair. Those things were much more representative of the hard work done to acquire them and were passed down in the family. Sean doesn’t understand Mary Kate’s need for her “things about her”, at least not at first.

For Mary Kate, her things were the more important to her than her marriage was. She put her possessions first. And that caused many problems.

There’s an old saying, “Well begun is half done.” In the example that Jesus uses, a builder makes sure he has enough money to begin the construction of his tower BEFORE he begins. And so he is able to finish the tower and avoids the ridicule that waits for people who do not finish what they begin. Jesus asked his disciples to prepare themselves for discipleship by giving away their possessions. This showed their commitment to him, a commitment that many failed to make.

But these days, are we required to do the same? This is a frequent question that comes up in Christian circles and a deterrent for many who believe that Jesus meant it literally. After all, someone has to work to make money to give to missions, to provide children sponsored by World Vision, Compassion International, and similar organizations. What are we to do with all of this “stuff” that makes our lives easier and enables us to continue earning to provide for our families as well as to give to the poor? Are we really supposed to give it all away?

When looking over the many passages where Jesus speaks to this issue, it seems clear: if we can’t freely give away what we have, we do not have God first in our lives. If we would have a hard time closing the doors on our houses and walking away if God called us, we are not putting God first in our lives. God does not want us not to have possessions; he wants possessions not to have us. When our things become more important to us than him, there are many problems.

So when Jesus told his disciples to give up their possessions, Jesus was really asking his disciples to put God first in their hearts. After all, this is the first commandment: You shall have no other gods before me. God wants to be first.

Even the passage preceding the stricture about possessions was not strictly about hating “father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself.” It is about putting God first. The word “hate”, when used in the Bible, does not carry the same sort of meaning it does for us. It means “loving less”. So when God says in Malachi 1:2 “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated” he doesn’t actually hate Esau. He just loves Jacob more. When Jesus says we must hate our families, he means we must love them less than we love God. God wants us to love him more than any other.

Like many of Jesus’ teachings, putting God first is more about heart change, rather than physical change. God must be first in our hearts. We must love him more than our families, our possessions and our lives.

Like any true Hollywood classic, “The Quiet Man” has a happy ending. Mary Kate gets her possessions and Sean understands, finally, why they are important to her. Their marriage is saved and they live happily ever after.

As we leave today, may we also have a happy ending. By putting God first in our lives, our possessions will not own us. We will stop worrying about what we will eat or wear. When confronted with the opportunity to give, we will not hesitate. We will begin to lay up our treasures in heaven, not on earth. After all, the earth is the Lord’s, for he made it. Won’t he provide even better for us than we can for ourselves?

Marjorie Holmes, the author of “Two from Galilee” wrote the following prayer which I think sums up our struggles today. May it inspire you as it inspired me:

Help me not to put too much stock in possessions, Lord. I want things, sure. But life seems to be a continual round of wanting things—from the first toys we fight over as children to our thrilled unwrapping of wedding presents to those we buy in our old age. Our concern is not primarily love and friends and pride in what we can do, but things.

Sometimes I’m ashamed of how much I want mere possessions—things for my husband and the house and the children. Yes, and things for myself, too. And this hunger is enhanced every time I turn on the television or walk through a shopping mall.

My senses are tormented by the dazzling world of things.

Lord, cool these fires of wanting. Help me to realize how futile is this passion for possessions. Because—and this is what strips my values to the bone—one of my best friends died today in the very midst of her possessions. She was in the beautiful home she and her husband worked so hard to achieve, the home that was finally furnished the way she wanted it with the best of everything. She was surrounded by the Oriental rugs she was so proud of, the formal French sofas, the painting, the china and glass, the handsome silver service…She had been snatched away while silently, almost cruelly, THEY remain. Lord, I grieve for my friend. My heart hurts that she had so little time to enjoy the things that she had earned and that meant so much to her. But let me learn something from this loss; that possessions are meant to enhance life, not to become the main focus of living. Help me remember that we come into the world with nothing and we leave with nothing.

Don’t let me put too much stock in mere possessions.


Welcome to my Sermon Blog

I recently completed the preaching course offered to Total Ministry participants in the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan and was commissioned to preach in my church, St. Elizabeth's Episcopal in Redford, Michigan. I hope you enjoy the sermons!