Monday, December 20, 2010

Just When He Had Resolved

Sermon from December 19, 2010
(Advent 4 – Year A)
Matthew 1: 18-25
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Waco, Texas

Joseph could not fall asleep that night.
He had spent the last few hours of the night staring at the ceiling, fighting back tears, then getting up out of bed to think.
Joseph was not used to these feeling of uncertainty.
Joseph was used to everything being black and white, according to the letter of the Law.

You see, Joseph was a righteous man.
Joseph was a good Jew, a man who had been raised to be a good boy, following all the religious rules.

In those days, details about the birds and the bees were not discussed readily.
Yet Joseph knew enough to know what happens between a man and a woman when, months after the engagement ritual, the wife is taken into the home of the husband.
And Joseph, being good man of the law, had never even gotten up the nerve to put the moves on Mary, because the Jewish law clearly stated that marital relations were not to occur before she had been properly brought into his home.
Yet now his beautiful Mary was pregnant, obviously by another man.
Every time he thought of each of the young men in Nazareth, and speculated about which one of them had gotten Mary pregnant, tears began to roll down his cheeks.
Yet Joseph was a religious man, a man of the Law, who knew that the Jewish penalty for adultery was death by stoning.

So Joseph concocted a plan.
Joseph made plans to dismiss her quietly, plans to send her away for a quickie Caribbean divorce.
And just when he had resolved to do this, Joseph fell fast asleep.

The next morning, before Joseph rolled out of bed, he woke up with this strange sense of calm and peace.
Was this sense of peace coming from the dream that he had the night before?
He couldn’t tell.
However, he did remember a voice.
A voice had spoken to him in his dream, instructing him by saying:

“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary [into your house] 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.”

For just when he had resolved to judge Mary based upon the Law,
Then Grace appeared, telling Joseph to lay aside the rules of religion and to not be afraid to be the father of the Son of God.

Sixty years after the birth of Jesus, the Apostle Paul wrote a very short letter to his friend, Titus.
The book of Titus now appears in the New Testament, yet we very rarely read from this small letter.
Yet in writing about the Christmas event, Paul writes this to Titus:
“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.”[1]

For just when we had resolved to base everything on the Law, on the rules of religion,
Then Grace appears, bringing love and salvation to all.

Last Friday afternoon, I had resolved to preach a sermon about Joseph.
In the mind of Jeff Fisher, I had concocted an outline of a sermon, a sermon about Joseph and his best-laid plans.
But just when I had resolved to do this, I went to Gold’s Gym for a workout and some prayer time.

At the gym, a man about my same age, whom I have met there before, saw me walk into the area where the free weights are.
This man signaled to me and then walked right over in my direction.
A little out breath, he shook my hand and inquired:
“Hey, man.
You are the guy who comes in here who is a pastor, right?”
Obviously, even in gym shorts and tennis shoes, I was not fully incognito.

This man proceeded to say:
“I need your advice, man.
You see, my wife and I – we are getting a divorce.
Now I will fully admit that both of us were in the wrong.
I fully admit that I have been seeing someone else.
But what really has me bothered right now is this church we had been going to.
The senior pastor has kicked both of us out of the church.
He sends me text messages all the time telling me that I am going to hell.
The guys in the men’s group at my church tell me that I have been impure and can’t come back to their bible study breakfast.
My wife – my ex-wife that is – is being hounded by the senior pastor, as well.
I have confessed that what I have done is wrong.
But pastor, tell me this:
Am I going to hell for what I have done?”

I assured this man that if he has confessed his sins, and is truly sorry for what he and his wife have done, then God forgives.
I assured him that he needed to get away from his current church and to come to a church like St. Alban’s, where grace and love are preached.

At that moment, this guy’s cell phone rings.
He looks at the screen and says to me:
“It’s my ex-wife calling.
She lives in Dallas now.”

He then answers his phone and speaks to his ex-wife, saying:
“Hey, guess what?
I just ran into this guy at the gym who is a senior pastor of a different church in town.”
He then turns to me and asks.
“You are a Senior Pastor, right?”
Since I am rarely given an opportunity to pull rank on this guy {pointing to Jimmy}, I assured him that I am, in fact, a senior pastor.
The guy then goes back to his phone conversation with his ex-wife, and tells her:
“This guy here at the gym is the senior pastor of an Episcopal church, you know they are kinda like Catholics, except this dude is married.
Anyway, what this guy here says is that we need to just get away from the hateful stuff at our old church.
And that we need to find different churches.
This guy says that you and I need to find places where there is love and grace.
Because this pastor here at the gym tells me
That we have been forgiven.”

For just when we had resolved to base everything on the Law,
Grace appears.
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.

I have discovered in my own life, that the older I get, the more attracted to grace I have become.
When I was a much younger man, I took great comfort in basing everything on the law, a set of religious rules and dogmas that made it very black and white on who was in and who was out.
Yet as I have grown older, and I hope a bit more spiritually mature, the more attracted I am to hearing and speaking words of grace and forgiveness and love.

Because just when we have resolved to point out the faults and shortcomings of the family members who will gather around our holiday tables,
Then grace appears, in the form of keeping our mouth shut.

Just when we had resolved to kick people out of our churches because they might be divorced or alcoholic or an unwed mother,
Then grace appears, in the form of a senior pastor at the gym who simply says:
“You are forgiven.”

And just when Joseph had resolved to base everything on the letter of the Jewish law and to send the seemingly adulterous Mary off to an undisclosed location,
Then grace appears, in the form of an infant, a baby whose name is Jesus, a name which literally means “God saves.”

For just when we had resolved to base everything on the rules,
Then the grace and forgiveness and love of God appears.

Just when we had resolved to base everything on the Law,
Then Grace is born.


[1] Titus 2:11

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


I have always had a special place in my heart for Joseph. Joseph was the husband of Mary and the earthly father of Jesus. As we focus on the birth of Jesus, so much of our attention is usually on Mary, the mother of Jesus. Yet the Gospel of Matthew turns our eyes to the faith and obedience of Joseph, the man who must have thought that he had been “two-timed” by Mary, his fiancĂ©e.

In the calendar of the Episcopal Church, Joseph’s feast day is March 19. Yet in that “post-Spring Break” time of year, we don’t give Joseph much thought. This week, however, I do want to give thanks for Joseph. Therefore, I offer to all of us the Collect/Prayer appointed for March 19, St. Joseph’s Day:

O God, who from the family of your servant David raised up Joseph to be the guardian of your incarnate Son and the spouse of his virgin mother: Give us grace to imitate his uprightness of life and his obedience to your commands; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Thank you, Joseph, for your obedience; thank you for being the father of our Lord.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Stir Up Sunday

The Collect/Prayer for this coming Sunday begins: “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us.” In England, the Sunday that uses this Collect/Prayer is referred to as: “Stir Up Sunday,” from the first words of the prayer. It is on this Sunday that that the English women would begin “stirring up” their Christmas puddings. (I am always amazed by how church and culture influence each other!)

On this “Stir Up Sunday,” we might not be stirring up cookie or cake batter, but we should probably look more closely at what we are praying for. We pray that God will “stir up Holy Spirit power and with great might come among us.” We pray that God will stir up the waters and cause a mess of trouble when he comes.

John the Baptist sure did stir up the waters and cause a mess of trouble. Jesus sure did stir up a mess of trouble. And most everyone I know who really make a difference in this world make that difference because they are not afraid to stir up the status quo.

On this Stir Up Sunday, what kind of trouble are you stirring up for God?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Old Rugged Jesse Tree

Sermon from December 5, 2010
(Advent 2 – Year A)
Isaiah 11: 1-10
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Waco, Texas

The Old Testament Prophet Isaiah cries out to be heard:
“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
On that day, the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples.”

During December, there are several places and streets in Waco that seem to go all out with their Christmas light displays.
One of those houses that just covers their yard in Christmas paraphernalia and decorations is over by the old Hillcrest Hospital.
Another place that becomes a holiday pilgrimage when looking for great light displays is Wooded Crest Drive in Woodway.

Wooded Crest Drive is only one block away from my house.
When you are getting off of Highway 84, just before you turn right onto Poage, when you get to the bottom of the hill, turn right onto Wooded Crest, and you will see what I mean.

During December, our family always takes the detour, and goes down Wooded Crest Drive, to see what each house has put up in the way of Christmas light displays.
Last Tuesday night, we drove down Wooded Crest to see the progress they are making in their Christmas extravaganza.

As we drove down the street, one of the houses has put up a big Christmas train in their front yard, and each of the cars in the train has a giant picture in it of each of their different grandchildren’s faces.
One of the houses usually uses some sort of projection device so that the side of their house is bathed in the image of a giant Christmas tree.
And the granddaddy of all the houses on Wooded Crest has every inch of the front yard filled with inflatable Santas and reindeer and lights that blink in tempo with Christmas music that is broadcast from this house.
You can also listen to this music by tuning your car stereo into a particular FM radio station as you drive by.
As usual, Wooded Crest Drive is doing its best to be a must-see destination for holiday lights.

Yet last Tuesday night, as we were driving to the end of street, we noticed one of the most unusual Christmas light displays.
In fact, the display was so unusual that our son, John, exclaimed:
“Why did they put that up?”
You see this house was mainly dark, with absolutely no blinking lights on shrubbery, no plastic inflatable Mary and Joseph and the baby, no dancing lights to keep time with music piped into car stereos.
At this most unusual house, coming up from out of the ground, bathed in one single spotlight, is a tall, wooden, rugged cross.

The Old Testament Prophet Isaiah cries out to be heard above the din of the muzak carols:
“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch, shall grow out of his roots.
On that day, the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples.”

You see, Jesse was the father of David.
And David was the greatest king in the history of Israel.
After King David, the kings of Israel seemed to go downhill.
Yet the Jewish people, including the Prophet Isaiah, yearned for a king of the Jews upon whom the spirit of the Lord would rest.
In the time the Old Testament, the Jewish people yearned for a righteous branch, a tree that would grow out of the root of Jesse, the father of David, the great King of the Jews.

In Christian art, the tree of Jesse is commonly depicted in paintings and in stained glass windows.
In Christian art, the tree of Jesse is actually renderings of the family tree of Jesus.
In artistic renderings of the Jesse Tree, Jesse is depicted laying down at the root, with a branch, a tree, growing out of his body.
From Jesse, the tree branches go up to his son, King David, then up to David’s son, all the way up to Joseph, who was the earthly father of Jesus.
For in Christian thought, Jesus is the pinnacle of the tree that branches out of the root of Jesse.
In Christian thought, Jesus is the branch of Jesse that stands as a signal to the peoples.

Yet I wonder if the Prophet Isaiah was not referring to an even different kind of tree when he proclaimed about a branch that shall grow out of the root of Jesse?
Because over 700 years after Isaiah delivers this prophesy, on a Friday afternoon outside of Jerusalem, a different tree springs forth from the ground.
On that spring day, at the Jewish festival of the Passover, a tall, wooden, rugged tree is lifted up on a hill called the Place of the Skull.
And on that tree, a sign is nailed at the very top, a signal to all people that simply reads:
This is the King of the Jews.

And on that tree, the descendent of the great King David is crowned with thorns.
On that tree, Jesse’s great, great, great, great, grandson is crucified for all people.
On that day, the tree of Jesse becomes the glorious tree that we call the Cross of Christ.

For the Prophet Isaiah, over 700 years before, foretells:
“On that day, the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples.”
And the tall, wooden, rugged cross still stands today as a signal to all people:
A signal that God loves you, no matter what.

Two weeks from today, Jimmy Abbott, our assistant rector, will be ordained to the sacred order of priests.
I certainly hope that all of you will be here on Sunday evening the 19th to witness Jimmy’s ordination.
And Jimmy’s upcoming ordination has made me remember my own ordination to the priesthood, which also occurred just a few days before Christmas.

I received several different gifts for my ordination to the priesthood.
Yet one gift, from another priest named Sara, was really quite unique:
Sara gave me an ordination gift that is a very unusual Christmas ornament.
This ornament is actually a nail, a big 5 inch nail, with a hook so that this nail can hang on our Christmas tree each year.
Along with this gift of a cold, gray nail, Sara wrote a note to me, a message saying that I should always hang this nail on our tree – and remember at Christmas, that the greatest gift of all is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Our family hangs this gray nail on our Christmas tree every year, to remember that the greatest gift is the branch of Jesse, the King who was nailed to a tree.

Christmas trees have become the universal and pervasive symbol of Christmas.
Yet it is the Cross, the tree springing from the root of Jesse, that is the signal to all people - that God loves everyone, no exceptions.

So as you put up your Christmas tree this year,
Place a cold gray nail onto your tree, as a remembrance that Christ died for you.
As you gaze into the twinkling lights of your tree with a cup of eggnog in your hand,
Do not forget that other tree, the tree of Jesse upon which the King of the Jews stretched out his arms upon the hard wood of the Cross.
Hear the words of that old Prophet Isaiah, crying out in the wilderness, proclaiming:
“On that day, the tree of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples.”

For God loves you so much, that the son of Jesse died for you,
On a tall, wooden, rugged tree.


Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Get Out of the Car and Join the Story

When our sons were little, we used to pick one night in December each year to go look at Christmas lights. We packed up blankets and pillows and maybe a thermos of hot chocolate. We made sure that we had plenty of Christmas CDs to play on the car stereo. Then we would take off on our holiday pilgrimage.

Our pilgrimage always began with the Drive-Through Live Nativity, hosted by Kingsland Baptist Church, near our house in Katy, Texas. Kingsland Baptist went all out for their annual drive-through nativity. There was always a traffic jam to get in, as cars and SUVs waited their turn to drive through dramatic renderings of Bethlehem and then of Jerusalem, where a suburban dad, dressed as Jesus, was crucified and resurrected. We watched the scenes of our Lord’s birth and death and resurrection with our windows rolled up, listening to our Lord’s life on simulcast radio, with the heater on, keeping the chill of the night outside of our car.

I wonder how many of us today treat the Lord Jesus Christ’s birth and death and resurrection as if it is just a drive-through experience? As if Jesus’ life was something to just look at for 10 minutes before driving on to the next thing? As if the Incarnation, the event of God living in a human body, is just for actors to play on a dramatic stage?

My goal this Advent and Christmas is to get out of the warm car and get into the Story, to roll down the window, open the door and become a part of the Story of a very unique God who chooses to open up his windows and doors and enter into my story. And I plan to enter the Story through scripture, worship and prayer.

My goal this Advent is to listen, really listen, to the words of scripture. I plan to hear the words, not just as words of a historical event, but as words that describe a God who really does act and move in my life.

My goal this Advent is to worship, to give worth to God who gives me everything. There are plenty of opportunities for worship this December; I plan to not just watch worship from afar, with my window rolled up, but to really get into the singing and the prayers and the communion that I receive.

My goal this Advent is to pray, but not as a habit or a duty. I plan to pray because it is a natural response to a God who comes so close to us that we can feel his tiny fingers clutching ours in his cradle.

This Christmas, don’t just stay in the car, wrapped in blankets, gazing out the window, just driving through. Through scripture, worship and prayer, join the Story of a God who loves us so much that he chooses to live with us.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

My Master Will Come Again

Sermon from November 28, 2010
(Advent 1 – Year A)
Matthew 24: 36-44
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Waco, Texas

I must tell you:
I don’t like to leave my little dog behind at home.
You see, I have a miniature dachshund that has a little bit of beagle in him, which makes him the cutest dog in the world.
Our dog is named Grady, and I hate to leave him behind at home.

Sometimes we have to leave Grady behind for short periods of time, like when we leave to go out to dinner or when we leave to run to HEB.
And whenever we leave for short periods of time, Grady runs to his little bed, which is up on a window seat.
His bed looks out of the window onto our driveway.
And when we drive away, we see Grady in his bed, peering out of the window, looking at us with sad and longing eyes, waiting for our return.
And when we come back from a short trip, Grady is still sitting in his bed, peering out of the window onto the driveway, anxiously awaiting our return.

Yet sometimes we have to leave Grady behind for long periods of time, like when we leave to go for a week at summer camp or when we leave to go on vacation in Florida.
When we leave for long periods of time, we have a sitter who comes in to feed and walk Grady every day.
Yet whenever we leave for long periods of time, Grady runs to his little bed up on the window seat.
He looks out of the window onto our driveway, with sad and longing eyes, waiting for our return.
And when we come back from a long, long trip, Grady is still sitting in his bed, peering out of the window onto the driveway, anxiously awaiting our return.

I don’t like to leave my little dog behind at home.
For Grady has no idea when we leave, if we are going to be gone for 5 minutes or 5 hours or 5 days.
Yet it doesn’t matter to our dog how long we will be gone.
Our dog waits.
He waits, peering out at the driveway, perched on the window seat.
He does not know the day or the hour that we will come home.
Our dog simply knows that we will return.

Jesus says to us, his followers:
“About that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son…
For you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.
Therefore you…must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

I find it interesting in today’s Gospel passage that the writer of Matthew uses two different Greek words for the verb: ‘to know.’
One of these verbs is ginosko, which means to know, to understand because we have learned this knowledge through books or through school.
We know that 8 times 8 equals 64 because we learned that fact in school.

Yet the other Greek verb that means ‘to know’ is oida.
Oida means to know, but not because you have learned in it in school.
Rather, we know something, in our gut, because we have experienced it.

For example, I know that after all of the autumn leaves fall off of the trees and into my swimming pool, I know that fresh, new green leaves will return in the spring.
I know that green leaves return because I have experienced it.
I know that when Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade nears its ending, I know that Santa Claus will be on that last float and the holiday season will be in full swing.
I know that Santa Claus will return to Macy’s, not because I was taught it in school, but because I have experienced it.
My dog knows that when our car disappears out the driveway, my dog knows that we will return, because he has experienced it.

And I know, deep in my gut, that Jesus, will return at an unexpected hour.
I know that Jesus is coming, not because of book knowledge.
I know that Jesus will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, because I have experienced it.

We have entered into a new season of the church year.
We have entered into Advent.
The word Advent means ‘to come.’
And during Advent, we remember three ways in which the Lord Jesus comes.
First: The coming of Jesus as a baby in a manger at Bethlehem.
Second: The coming of Jesus again, at an unexpected hour.
Third: The coming of Jesus into our heart, every single day.

Therefore, I believe that if we can recognize that Jesus comes again to us, each and every day in the short-term,
Then we can know, in our gut, that Jesus will come again, in the long-term, at an unexpected hour.

And Jesus tells us that he comes to you and to me each and every day, through the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, the lonely, the unloved and the under-loved.

Last Monday, I had finished my workout.
As I was leaving the gym, I purchased a protein drink at the counter.
The man behind the counter asked me.
“So, are you ready for the holidays?”
I just mumbled some reply to his question.
Then the man behind the counter continued,
“You know, it seems that the Christmas stuff starts earlier and earlier each year.
Yet I don’t think it all has to do with commercialism.
I think that people are hungry.
I think that people are hungry for something spiritual.
I don’t know about you, but I see a spiritual awakening happening in people.
What do you think?”

I could tell that this man behind the counter was hungry.
This man was Jesus, talking about a spiritual awakening that he was waiting for, at an unexpected hour.
And this encounter gave me an opportunity, without telling him that I am a priest, to talk about the season of Advent and about how at St. Alban’s we wait for four weeks for Christmas.
It gave me an opportunity to talk about how we worship fully for four weeks, focusing on the spiritual awakening of this holiday season.
This short conversation I had with this spiritually hungry and curious man at the gym gave me an opportunity to meet Jesus, in the short-term.

Therefore, I know, I have experienced, that if Jesus can come to me through a man who works at Gold’s Gym,
Then, I know, in my gut, that in the long-term, Jesus Christ will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.

However, I must tell you:
I don’t like to leave my little dog behind at home.
Yet when I am gone for a very, very long time, my dog knows that I will return.
My dog knows that I will come again because he has experienced, he knows, deep in his gut, that I return to him, day by day by day.

And so we see Jesus coming to us in the short-term,
In the face of the barber who cuts your hair whose wife just left him,
In the face of the grandmother who works the cash register at Wal-Mart,
In the face of the man who just took your parking place at the mall.
We peer out onto the driveway from our window seat, looking longingly through scripture and through prayer to see his face.
We wait and we wait…
And then, we see the headlights coming up the driveway, arriving home.

For I know, deep in my gut, that at an unexpected hour, my Master will come again.


Thursday, November 18, 2010

Be Prepared to Give an Answer

Waco always gets excited when a new restaurant comes to town. As citizens of Waco, Susan and I get excited, as well, at the arrival of a new restaurant.

When Five Guys Burgers came to town, we told everyone about how we loved their huge burgers that we were introduced to when we lived in the DC area. When Chuy’s Mexican Restaurant came to town, we told everyone to request their spicy jalapeno ranch dressing to dip their tortilla chips into. Susan and I love to spread the good news about new and exciting restaurants that we have experienced.

When we experience a new restaurant that we love, people will ask us: “What did you order off the menu so that I can try it too? What is so good about the place?” And Susan and I have an answer at the ready, to tell them about the wonderful service we received from our waiter or the amazing Cajun French fries that we enjoyed.

The same is true with our Christian faith. People will ask you: “What do you think about Jesus? What is so great about St. Alban’s?” And if we do not have a good answer ready, then our experience rings hollow and we do not have good news, truly good news, to share.

We need to be ready to share the good news of what we have found in Jesus Christ, news about what we experience in this place called St. Alban’s Episcopal Church. So I invite you to do this little exercise: on an index card or a slip of paper, write down a short answer, a very short answer, to just two questions:

1. Why do you follow Jesus?
2. Why do you go to St. Alban’s?

When you have the answers to those questions in your proverbial hip pocket, then you will be ready to share the good news at a moment’s notice. As Paul writes, in his First Letter to Peter: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have (3:15).”

Spend some time at the “restaurant” that we call St. Alban’s. Order something new off the menu. Give yourself room to experience Jesus in this place and to accept his invitation to follow him. Then, be prepared to give an answer, a short heartfelt answer, about the reason for the hope that you have.

Sharing a new place to break bread is wonderful; sharing a place to break the Bread of Life is even better.

You Will Be A Martyr

Sermon from November 14, 2010
(Pentecost 25 – Year C)
Luke 21: 5-19
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Waco, Texas

As many of you know, every summer, Susan and I lead a camp session at Camp Allen, the Episcopal retreat center for the Diocese of Texas, located near Navasota.
Each summer, Susan and I spend one week at camp with third and fourth grade kids and with teenaged counselors and staff.

The summer camp of 2007 is the camp session that we all remember as the “Camp of Harry Potter,” because the camp session began on the very day that the last volume in the Harry Potter book series was released.
Teen-aged counselors arrived at camp with the book Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows tucked under their arm, purchased at Barnes & Noble on their way to camp.
Mail that arrives for campers during the week usually consists of letters from grandparents and a box of cookies from parents.
But during this week of camp, the bulk of the mail for campers was from, with the Harry Potter book sent as a gift from parents.
Night after night, 8 and 9 year olds and teenagers, and even adults, stayed up ‘til all hours of the night in their cabins, reading the last Harry Potter book by flash light, to find out how the Harry Potter series turns out in the end.

Yet there was an agreement that was made at our campsite.
No one who got to the end of the book was to spoil the ending and tell others about how it all turned out for Harry Potter and his friends at Hogwarts.

However, after a few days, a rather annoying counselor stood up at lunch on a bench in the dining hall and yelled out:
“I finished the book last night
And I know how it all turns out.
Harry Potter dies in the end!”

The whole dining hall erupted in boos and hisses because she had spoiled the end of the story.
We wished that this annoying counselor had just kept her mouth shut.

I sometimes wish that Jesus had kept his mouth shut.
Yet Jesus stands up in the Temple in Jerusalem and tells us all how it is going to turn out for us.
Jesus stands up on a bench and tells us all how it is going to turn out, as he proclaims:

“You will be arrested and persecuted and hauled before kings and governors because of my name.
You will be betrayed by parents and relatives and friends.
Some of you will be put to death.
This will give you an opportunity to testify.”

Sometimes I wish that Jesus had just kept his mouth shut and not spoiled the ending.
And I really wish that Jesus had not spoiled the ending when I read this biblical passage in the original Greek language of the New Testament.

You see, we have translated Jesus’ statement as this.
“This will give you an opportunity to testify.”
But the actual Greek is:
“It will turn out for you – as a testimony, as a witness.”
And the word that we translate as testimony or witness is actually the word “martyrion,” a martyr.

Therefore, Jesus stands up in the Temple in Jerusalem and spoils the ending of our story, proclaiming:
“It will turn out for you - that you will be a martyr.”

A martyr is someone who is killed for their faith.
It can make us uncomfortable to think that we have been crucified and buried with Christ in our Baptism, already resurrected to a new life across the river.
It can make us uncomfortable to think about being killed for our faith.
Yet I think that our discomfort comes because we have lived within the confines of comfy, upper-middle class American Christianity for too long.

In the first century, most Christians certainly understood that being crucified in our Baptism and being killed physically went hand in hand.
Most early followers of Jesus understood all too well that Jesus was not spoiling the end of the story by telling them that they would be martyrs for the faith.
For gosh sakes, St. Stephen, the first martyr, was killed by stoning.
Then James was beheaded, Peter was crucified upside down and Paul was killed in Rome.
Jesus is just stating the obvious when he spoils the end of the story and tells his followers:
It will turn out for you - that you will be a martyr.

A little later in Christian history,
A 22-year old persecuted woman named Perpetua had a tiny baby and yet she would not recant her Christian faith.
So Perpetua was killed, ripped apart by wild beasts in the city of Carthage in the year 203.
A man named Alban lived in Britain in the 3rd century and converted to Christianity.
Alban was hauled in front of a Roman judge, yet he would not recant his Christian faith.
So Alban was killed, having his head chopped off.
A preacher named Martin Luther King, Jr. insisted that he had a dream where people would not be judged by the color of their skin, a dream of justice and dignity for every human being, a Christian belief that he would not recant.
So Dr. King was killed, shot dead on the balcony of a Memphis motel.

You see, my friends, it is the norm, not the exception, that we can expect to be killed for our Christian faith.
We should expect to be hauled in front of kings and governors – and in front of our bosses and supervisors – so that we may insist that everyone, Greek or Jew, slave or free, men or women, everyone should be treated equally.
We should expect for our friends and relatives to think that we have gone wacko on religion for worshiping a man who is killed on a cross in order to bring us abundant life.
We should expect, like many of our brothers and sisters in other countries today, to be willing to die for our faith.
Because being a witness, a testimony, a martyr, for Jesus is not the exception, but the norm, for Christian faith and living.

And we make a witness, a testimony to our faith, every time that we celebrate the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation in this church.
At every Baptism and Confirmation, we reaffirm our faith that Jesus is Lord and Savior of our lives.

And I believe that we do a disservice to those who are newly baptized and confirmed to then throw them a nice reception in the parish hall with finger sandwiches and fruit punch in tiny glass cups.
Instead, we should tell those who are baptized and confirmed the same thing that Jesus stands up and tells to us, his followers.
We should stand up and spoil the end of the story for all who profess that they are Christians, saying:
It will turn out for you - that you will be a martyr.

Now I realize that most of us are not going to be up against a firing squad of persecution in this coming week.
Yet just because we might not be physically threatened with death does not mean that we still cannot be a testimony, a witness, a martyr for the Faith.

For example, when you see someone being bullied or picked on or laughed at because they are different, for whatever reason, then speak up and rebuke that bully, even if it might cost you your reputation or your very life.
Because being a real Christian means that we are to be a testimony, a witness, a martyr even, to defend the dignity of every human being.

Jesus stands up in the Temple and tells us that by standing firm for faith and for love, you will gain an abundant and eternal and resurrected life.
Jesus has already spoiled the end of your faith story.
It will turn out for you - that you will be a martyr.


Sunday, November 7, 2010

We Have Crossed the River

Sermon from November 7, 2010
(Pentecost 24 – All Saints’ Sunday – Year C)
Luke 20: 27-38
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Waco, Texas

When I was in college, I was probably pretty unusual in that I did attend church on most Sundays.
However, because of the various Saturday night activities that many college students partake in, sometimes getting up for church on Sunday morning was just not an option.
Therefore, I was glad that the Episcopal parish in downtown Austin, St. David’s Episcopal Church, did offer a weekly Sunday service at 6 pm on Sunday evenings.
Among my friends in the dorm - and among my Episcopal college friends - we affectionately referred to the Sunday evening Eucharist at St. David’s as “the Hangover Mass.”

When I would attend the Sunday evening Eucharist at St. David’s in downtown Austin, I was always struck by the ancient stained glass windows in that historic church.
St. David’s Episcopal Church dates back to 1853 and many of the windows in that church are well over a hundred years old.

I always sat on the right hand side of the church, and in the right hand aisle of that church is a famous stained glass window.
This stained glass window is beautiful, and if my memory serves me correctly, the central part of the window depicts a nautical symbol, such as the anchor for a ship.
This window always reminded me that Austin was established as a river town, a town that is still deeply connected to the Colorado River and to Lake Travis.
This stained glass window was dedicated to a woman named Maggie, a woman whose dates of birth and death were from the 1800s.
And the words in this beautiful window read:

Maggie: she hath crossed the river.

Many of us question what happens when we cross the river between life and death.
Many of us would like to know what happens after we die.
We want to know if we will cross the river into heaven.

A good friend of mine, the Rev. Randall Trego, is the chaplain at St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital in The Woodlands.
Randall told me last week that the number one question that is asked by hospital patients, especially those who are terminally ill, is this:
“Pastor, am I going to go to heaven when I die?”

Jesus, near the end of his earthly life, is questioned about this very same thing.
Those who are with Jesus want to know what will happen when we die, when we cross the river, after our death.
So a silly hypothetical question is posed to Jesus about a woman who has 7 husbands, 7 brothers whom she marries in succession.
The question is which of the 7 husbands will be married to the woman when they all get to heaven.

Yet Jesus answers this silly question by telling us that we are asking the wrong question.
The central question of the Christian faith is not about heaven.
The central question of the Christian faith is about resurrection, as Jesus replies that all of us are daughters and sons of the resurrection.

You see, the concept of heaven, the concept of an afterlife, is not particularly Christian.
In Greek mythology, the dead are carried across the River Styx into an afterlife.
Buddhists believe in several different layers of heaven.
Muslims believe that those who have led a good life are granted an entrance into heaven.
And in contemporary, secular American life, when someone dies, we tell the family:
“She is in a better place” or
“He was a good man, so I am sure he is heaven.”

The concept of heaven, the concept of an afterlife, is not unique to Christians.
However, while the concept of heaven is not unique, the concept of the resurrection of the dead is unique to the Christian faith.

You see, my brothers and sisters, only Christians believe that we have already passed over from death to abundant life.
Only Christians believe that we have been already been killed, dead and buried with Christ in Baptism - and then raised, resurrected, to a new life of grace.
Only Christians believe that the great chasm between death and life is not when our bodies die,
But the great chasm between death and life is the troubled waters of Baptism.
Only Christians believe that we have already crossed the river.

Therefore, I want you to take a moment to look around at the names written on the walls on the inside of this church.
I want you to take a moment to look at the names of the saints who have gone before, because the men and women who are represented by the bricks on our walls are the very same as us.
Just take a look at these names...

To God, both the names on these walls and the human bodies in the pews are the very same.
To God, all of us, both the living and the dead, are sons and daughters of the resurrection.
To God, all of us, both the living and the dead, have already died in Baptism and are now living resurrected lives.
To God, all of us have already crossed the river.

So if we have already crossed the river,
If we have already died and been resurrected in the waters of baptism,
Then how do we live a resurrected life?

For me, for Jeff Fisher, I must remind myself that I have already been killed at my Baptism - so what else can this world do to me?
To me, living the resurrected life means that I do not have to be afraid of homeless people, because I am already resurrected and living on the other side of the river.
To me, living the resurrected life means that I do not have to be afraid of giving away my money and my things, because I am already resurrected and living on the other side of the river.
To me, living the resurrected life means that I do not have to be afraid to imitate the lives of the saints:

Therefore, I can imitate the love for God and the love for others of my 4 dead grandparents, whose names are on these walls.
I can imitate the love for the poor of St. Francis of Assisi.
I can imitate the intense prayer life of St. Teresa of Avila.
I can imitate the passion for justice of Martin Luther King, Jr.
I can imitate the obedience and courage of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
I can do all these things through Christ who strengthens me, because I am a son of the resurrection, already living abundantly, on the other side of the river.

Many people ask the question:
“Will I go to heaven when I die?”

While this is not a bad question to ask, it is not a particularly Christian question to ask.
And I know this because I have examined the liturgy for the Burial of the Dead, the funeral service in The Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church.
And my examination of the burial liturgy revealed to me that when your heart stops beating and your funeral is held here in this church,
At your burial service, the word “heaven” will only be said - just one time.
Yet the words “resurrection” and “life” and “baptism” will be said over and over again.

You see, my friends, the quest of the Christian faith and life is not heaven.
The quest of the Christian faith and life is to live an abundant and eternal and resurrected life, now.

Because, as Christian people, we have already passed from death to life in the waters of Baptism.
As Christian people, all of us are alive, whether our bodies are breathing in these pews or our names are up on these walls.
As Christian people, all of the baptized are already daughters and sons of the resurrection.

For to God, all of us are already saints.
To God, we have crossed the river.


Friday, October 29, 2010

Small in Stature, Tall in Faith

In 1977, Randy Newman wrote a song called “Short People” that rose to the top of the charts and became a hit on the radio, singing “short people got nobody, short people got nobody to love.”

In the Gospel reading for this Sunday, Luke tells us, specifically, that Zacchaeus was a man who was “short in stature.” The short man, Zacchaeus, climbs up a sycamore tree to see Jesus, because he has “got nobody to love.” In the end of the story, we know that Zacchaeus is tall in stature, tall in faith, proclaiming that he gives half of all his possessions to the poor, making restitution with those he has cheated.

At St. Alban’s, over the next week, we will be celebrating the saints of God. We will celebrate those who are tall in faith at our All Hallows’ Eve service this Sunday at 5:00 PM, at the All Saints’ Day Eucharist at noon on Monday and on All Saints’ Sunday, November 7. We recognize that the church is made up of people, people who might be short in stature, yet are tall in faith.

Whether you are tall or short, skinny or not, white, black or brown, scamper up a sycamore tree to see Jesus. Become tall in faith and you will have somebody to love.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

I Need God

Sermon from October 24, 2010
(Pentecost 22 – Year C)
Luke 18: 9-14
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Waco, Texas

When I was in elementary school, my best friend was a boy named Bill.
Bill and I met on the very first day of kindergarten.
And for five years, we were inseparable, until his father was transferred to Dallas when we were in the fourth grade.

Bill’s family took lavish vacations every Thanksgiving and Christmas and Spring Break.
Their family had a summer home on Cape Cod.
Bill was the first kid I knew to have a digitial clock radio and a ten speed bike.
Bill’s grandfather lived with their family in the guest house attached to the house.
They were a kind and loving family.
They were good people.
But Bill’s family never went to church.

One Sunday, I invited Bill to church with my family.
I remember that is was Palm Sunday, and Bill enjoyed the outdoor procession with a real live donkey and the waving of palm branches.
Bill seemed to enjoy the service, yet neither he nor his family seemed very interested in the Christian life.

That next week, my mother saw Bill’s mother at the grocery store.
In the aisle of the grocery store, my mom exchanged small talk with Bill’s mom.
Then my mother asked Bill’s mom a question.
She asked:
“Barbara, why doesn’t your family go to church?”

Bill’s mother seemed a little taken back by the question, then thought for a moment, and answered:
“Well, we live a comfortable life, we have a great family, Don has a good job, we really have gotten everything that we need on our own.
I just suppose that it is because we don’t need God.”

Jesus tells us a story:
Two men go up to the temple to pray.
One of the men prays, saying:
“Thank God I am not like other people.
Thank God that I live a comfortable life, I have a great family, I have a good job, everything that I need I have gotten on my own.”

However, the other man stands far away in the corner of the temple.
This other man is a crook, a fraud, a tax collector.
This tax collector is so aware of his need for God that he keeps his head down, with his eyes focused on his shoes.
He is so aware of his need for God that he cries out and prays:
“God, be merciful to me, because I need you.”

Jesus then tells us that this second man, the tax collector, the man who recognized his own emptiness, his own shortcomings, went home justified.
Because all of us, all of us, need God.

I have heard it said before that all of us have a God-shaped hole in our hearts that only God can fill.
Frankly, I have found that phrase to be a little bit corny.

Yet in these last few days, I have realized in my own life, that houses and vacations and careers and money never truly fill the hole, the emptiness, in my heart.
I realize that I do have God-shaped hole in my heart that only God has filled.
I realize that I do need God.

Last Friday afternoon, my Facebook page and my emails began to buzz with tragic news.
The tragic news was that the Chapel at the Virginia Theological Seminary, my alma mater, was on fire.
As friends began to post pictures and links to news coverage, within a period of less than two hours, the beloved old chapel had all but burned to the ground.

The Chapel at Virginia Seminary was built in 1881, and included many old stained glass windows, including a Tiffany window, which melted in the fire on Friday.
This was the chapel that Jimmy and I, when we were in seminary, worshiped in every day.

At the front of the chapel, over the altar, was a stained glass window that was 129 years old.
The window depicted Jesus, with his arms open wide.
Below Jesus, the disciples huddled at his feet.
Over the stained glass window, in a giant arc, the following words were written in black letters:
Go Ye into All the World and Preach the Gospel.

Day after day, for three years, I got on my knees at Daily Morning Prayer and I looked into that window.
Day after day, for three years, I looked into Jesus’ face, and the words written above that window, and I asked God what in the world I was doing in here, preparing to be a priest.
Yet day after day, the God-sized hole in my heart was filled with the presence of Jesus.

During those three years, I volunteered to sing in the Seminary Chapel Choir, believing that this old accountant had to become a fool for Christ.
And day after day, the God-sized hole in my heart was filled with music, sometimes sung off-key, that gave me the courage to try a new thing for God, no matter how foolish I might sound or look.

During those three years, I went with my family, Susan, Scott and John, to worship at evening Community Eucharists in that creaky old seminary chapel.
And day after day, and year after year, the God-sized hole in my heart, and that of my family, was filled with the Holy Spirit, which strengthened us to realize that God was pushing us out into all the world – to preach and to love – and it would be okay.

So last Friday, when the Virginia Seminary Chapel burned to the ground, I began to grieve.
I am grieving, not just because of a building that was made of old wood and plaster and windows.
I am grieving because, during those three years of my life, I experienced that God does fill our emptiness.
In that chapel, I discovered that I do need God.

At this time of year in the Episcopal Church, we are filling out our pledge cards.
On the pledge card, we are writing down a dollar amount, an amount that represents the money we are going to give back to God in 2011, in the form of an offering.
You might not believe this, but I really do believe that the money that you take out of your wallet and your bank account really has very little to do with St. Alban’s Episcopal Church.
But the money that you take out of your bank account has everything to do with declaring that no amount of money, no house on Cape Cod, no job, no car, no stocks, no bonds, no 401(k) account – none of these things will ever fill the God-sized hole in your heart.
But the money that you take out of your bank account and give away is a testimony that only God can fill the God-sized hole in your heart.
For when we give away our money, when we give away our things, when we give away our very own lives, then we are saying that we do need God for everything.

Jesus tells us a story:
Two men go up to the temple to pray.
One man feels that he can work his way into God’s kingdom by being a good boy.
This man believes that he has never really needed God for anything.
But the other man, a tax collector, looks down at his shoes and prays, recognizing that God is his only hope, recognizing that only God can fill his emptiness.
The tax collector knows, in his heart, that he needs God.

My sisters and brothers, none of us, none of us, can work our way into God’s kingdom.
So we give away the things, the money, the status, that delude us into thinking that we have gotten everything on our own, that delude us into thinking that we have no need of God.
So we ask God to fill the empty hole in our hearts, praying:

“God, be merciful to me,
Because I need you.”


Friday, October 22, 2010

Lion's Mouth

When we lived in the Washington, DC, area, the National Gallery of Art was a favorite destination. My favorite painting in the National Gallery is “Daniel in the Lion's Den” by Paul Rubens. This painting is gigantic and the lions in the shadows loom large. A print of this painting hangs in my office, a reminder that lions are always present in life, waiting to devour us. Yet it is God who delivers and rescues us from the lion’s mouth.

In the Second Letter of Paul to Timothy, Paul writes: “So I was rescued from the lion's mouth (4:17).” In today's culture, it is a great temptation to deny the existence of lions in our midst. The lions of today, however, are our insatiable desire for more things and our greed for more money. The lions today are an unquenched thirst for power and control. The lions today come in the form of prejudice and bigotry and self-centeredness that focuses on “me, me, me.”

Naming the lions is half the battle. The other half of the battle is won by Jesus Christ, as he places his Cross between us and the lion’s cavernous mouth. Therefore, we shout out, with Paul:

I was rescued from the lion's mouth!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010


Persistence is not always seen as a virtue. In all honesty, we sometimes think of persistent and adamant people as being annoying pests, like a house fly that keeps buzzing around.

Yet in our lessons from Scripture to be read this Sunday, persistence is seen as a positive virtue in pursuing God’s message of justice and love for all. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells us a story about a persistent widow who wears down an unjust judge to get the justice she deserves. In the Second Letter to Timothy, Paul writes that we are to be persistent with our message, whether the time is favorable or unfavorable, in season or out of season.

The best leaders I have known are persistent about their mission, constantly staying “on message.” And when I think about it, God constantly stays “on message,” as well, persistently telling us that we are loved, whether the time is favorable or unfavorable. God stays “on message,” adamantly pursuing justice, until the unjust become worn down with persistent love.

Persistently stay on message: love others adamantly and pursue justice for all.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Our Souls and Bodies

Sermon from October 10, 2010
(Pentecost 20 – Year C)
Luke 17: 11-19
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Waco, Texas

On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus is approached by ten lepers with a multitude of skin diseases.
Using words, the ten lepers acknowledge that Jesus is their master, saying:
“Jesus, Master, have mercy on me.”
Then Jesus tells the ten lepers to go on their way to the temple where the priests will certify that they have been cured.
And along the way, the ten lepers are healed.

Yet one of the lepers, a loser who was a Samaritan, turns around on his heels, and runs toward Jesus with his arms open wide.
He rushes toward Jesus and falls down on his face at Jesus’ feet.
With his whole entire body bent down, the healed Samaritan leper expresses his gratitude and thanks as he looks up into Jesus’ face and exclaims,
“Thank you, Jesus.
Thank you for healing and saving me.”

The ten lepers express their gratitude and faith in words - and they are healed.
Yet Jesus points out the gesture of the one leper, the Samaritan, who turned around with his whole body and who used his entire body to fall down at Jesus’ feet, expressing thanks with both words and with his body.

The Christian faith is not just about words.
The Christian faith is not just concerned with our souls.
The Christian faith, fully lived, is an alignment of body and soul, as we worship and give thanks, with our whole entire bodies.

Just when I thought I had heard everything, last Friday morning, I read a headline in the first section of the Waco Tribune-Herald that screamed out at me.
The headline read.
“Baptist leader [says]: Yoga [is] not Christian.”

As I read even further, the news article was reported from the Associated Press, discussing how a leader in the Southern Baptist church is proclaiming that the practice of yoga is incompatible with Christianity.
I did further research on this subject and discovered that Dr. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and an influential leader in the Church, has written the following – and I quote directly from Dr. Mohler’s words:

“The growing acceptance of yoga points to the retreat of biblical Christianity in the culture.
Yoga begins and ends with an understanding of the body that is, to say the very least, at odds with the Christian understanding.
Christians are not called to empty the mind or to see the human body as a means of connecting to and coming to know the divine.”

My friends, I must tell you that I am embarrassed beyond words by Dr. Mohler’s much-publicized viewpoint - and by the bad press that these words give to our Christian faith.
For from what I know about the practice of yoga, it is, for many, a spiritual and physical practice of aligning our body and soul, as a means of connecting to the divine.
The practice of yoga can take our faith beyond words, introducing our entire body, our whole being, into prayer and thanksgiving and worship.
The practice of yoga is similar to when I was a boy and I knelt beside my bed at night to say bedtime prayers, aligning the posture of body and soul.
The practice of yoga is similar to the ancient practice of contemplative prayer, experienced sitting cross-legged by the light of a solitary candle.
The practice of yoga, of bringing our souls and bodies together as one, is similar to a Samaritan leper falling down on his face at Jesus’ feet to give thanks for his healing.

Throughout our Christian history, rooted in our Jewish heritage, our bodies have been used to take our worship to a more profound level.

In the Hebrew Psalms, we are encouraged to “fall down and kneel before the Lord our Maker” and we are to “lift up our hands in the sanctuary and bless the Lord.”

In the New Testament, the very first people to ever worship Jesus Christ were wise men from the East, who knelt down to the Christ child, with their entire bodies.
A sinful woman, most likely a prostitute, used her whole body to wipe Jesus’ feet with her hair.
Jesus himself used his own body to breathe the Holy Spirit onto his followers.
And St. Paul tells us that our bodies are now temples of the Holy Spirit.

In our own Episcopal heritage, we use our whole entire bodies in worship.
We stand up for praise and singing.
We sit for spiritual instruction.
We kneel for corporate prayer.
We stand or kneel before God’s gracious Table, where we have been made worthy to stand before him.

Some of us Episcopalians cross ourselves as a reminder of God’s saving cross.
Some genuflect with their knees to God’s presence.
Some even raise their hands up and shout “Alleluia!”
And in the ancient words of our Eucharistic worship, the priest prays these beautiful words:
“And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies.”

My friends, I believe that the use of our bodies to pray in a lotus position in yoga,
Or to bow as the processional cross comes down the aisle,
Or to lift up our hands in praise,
Or to fall down on our faces at Jesus’ feet,
Is not contrary to historical and biblical Christianity.
So I say to Dr. Mohler, even though you are the President of one of the largest seminaries in the United States, that I respectfully disagree with you.
The use of our whole bodies is not contrary to a biblical understanding of Christianity.
In fact, I would say the opposite:
Our human bodies are to be used to connect to the divine.

Yet, the question is:
How? How do you and I use our bodies to connect to the divine?

With our bodies, we can worship the gods of youth and perfection by enhancing our bodies with tummy tucks and facelifts and hair plugs and injecting ourselves with Botox.
Or, with our bodies, we can worship the God who created our imperfect bodies, by daily scripture readings at our desk or waking in the quietness of the pre-dawn hours or even prayerful yoga on the floor to align our souls and sagging bodies, connecting us to the divine.

With our bodies, we can worship the gods of self-centeredness and self-absorption by spending our free time as a couch potato, glued to the TV or to the internet or to Facebook.
Or, with our bodies, we can worship the God who commands us to love our neighbor, by getting our bodies up off of the sofa and out into the world, to love and serve other people.

With our bodies, on Sunday mornings we can worship the gods of St. Mattress and the Holy Quilted Comforter by sleeping in and skipping church.
Or, with our bodies, we can worship God by getting our bodies out of bed, throwing on some clothes and coming into these doors to give thanks and to kneel at Jesus’ feet around his Table.
For as the sign says at the entrance of Gold’s Gym, sometimes the hardest step is just getting our body in the door.

On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus encounters ten lepers, all of whom use words to express their faith – and they are healed.
Yet one of the lepers, a Samaritan, makes that hard step of turning his entire body around.
He runs back and falls down on his face at Jesus’ feet, in thankful worship, using his soul and body to connect with the divine.

So use both your soul and body in prayer.
Use your soul and body in love and service to other people.
Use your soul and body in worship.
For here, in this church, we offer and present unto thee, O Lord,
Our selves, our souls - and bodies.


Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Exodus & Exile

In order to understand the overarching story of the Old Testament, you really only need to know 2 words, and both of these words start with the letter E:

Exodus & Exile

Exodus – the Hebrews, who were slaves in Egypt, are led to freedom by God through the parted waters of the Red Sea and the wilderness in an exodus to the land of promise.

Exile – the Hebrews are defeated and taken into exile in Assyria and Babylon, returning many years later to re-establish Jerusalem and the Temple, their home.

Even in our Scripture readings for this coming Sunday, we hear about Exodus and Exile. In Jeremiah, the prophet tells how his people have been taken away from Jerusalem into daily life in exile in Babylon. In the Psalm, the words sing of the awesome deeds of God in the exodus, turning “the sea into dry land, so that they went through the water on foot (66:5).”

How has God led you on an exodus journey on dry land - into the freedom of a promised land of grace and love? How has God delivered you from the exile of your sins and shortcomings - carrying you back to Jerusalem, our spiritual home?

Monday, October 4, 2010

A Decision to Go Forward, to Give to Grow

Our son, John, is in the midst of learning how to drive a car. For those of us who know how to drive an automobile, we tend to take for granted the small tasks that go into driving. We have to remember to put our foot on the accelerator or the brake. We have to remember to put on our turn signal. You have to remember to put the car in either ‘drive’ or ‘reverse.’

Until I sat in the front seat with our brand new driver, I forgot that a simple thing - such as knowing whether you are going forward or in reverse - is a decision that must be willfully made. In our Christian faith and life, we also need to assess where we are going: forward or in reverse.

One of the members of your Vestry likes to say: “There is no such thing as status quo. We are either going backward or forward; we are either dying or growing.” For the last five years, the leadership of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, day after day, continues to make a decision to put this parish into ‘drive’ and to go forward and to grow.

The Gospels tell us that Jesus set his face firmly and resolutely to Jerusalem. Jesus put his mission into overdrive and moved forward; Jesus never looked back wistfully at the manger in Bethlehem, but he looked forward to the Cross and to Resurrection.

In the Episcopal Church, we usually spend the month of October making a decision if we are going to go in reverse, or if we are going to go forward and grow. We call this season “stewardship,” when we assess our own lives and money and what we are going to give back to God, to further God’s mission in this place.

St. Alban’s has decided to not look backward, but to set our face forward and to continue to grow. This will take everyone, looking into our hearts and our minds – and yes, our wallets – to make sure that our transmission is not in reverse, but in drive. This will take everyone, making a decision to give to grow and to grow to give.

However, I am concerned that we tend to think of our giving, of our stewardship, as just about benefiting the Church. Our giving is not just about growing the Church; our giving is primarily about growing our relationship with God. Jesus asks us to fight the good fight, to fight to be a giver, because Jesus is a Giver. And when we give (and I cannot fully explain this, folks), then our hearts expand as we do not look wistfully backwards, but as we set our face firmly toward our own Cross of sacrifice - and Resurrection to new life.

Please make a willful decision to go forward. Make a decision to grow your heart, a decision to give to grow.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Fight - To Be A Giver

Sermon from September 26, 2010
(Pentecost 18 – Year C)
1 Timothy 6: 6-19
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Waco, Texas

Last weekend was Homecoming weekend at Midway High School.
At Midway High School, it is a tradition on the Thursday night before the football game, to have a giant carnival.
Then everyone goes into the stadium for a pep rally of sorts, where the Midway band plays and the Homecoming court is introduced.
The evening is capped off with a big fireworks display.

I took our son, John, to the Homecoming festivities.
And on the way home in the car, I found myself humming the Midway High School fight song.
I asked John:
“Do you know the words to your school fight song?”
In response, he began to sing the words.

Then John asked me:
“Dad, do you remember the words to your high school’s fight song?
And out from the fog of my middle-aged memory, the words and tune to the Memorial High School fight song came pouring out of the recesses of my brain:

Fight, Mustangs, fight with all your might.
For the red and white
Fight, onward, to vict’ry
And we’ll win this game tonight!

The Apostle Paul remembered the words his fight song, a fight song that he teaches to young Timothy, in his First Letter to Timothy.
The Apostle Paul is a mentor to Timothy as Paul teaches this fight song:

Fight the good fight with all your might.
Fight the good fight to take hold of real life, a life that is not defined by money or possessions.
Fight the good fight to give, to be generous, to give away your money.
Fight – to be a giver.

Now most human beings believe that giving is a good thing.
We give presents at birthday parties.
We wrap up gifts with bows and put them around the Christmas tree.
We might give to United Way through our offices or we put a dollar or two in the collection plate at church.
We might think that there is no resistance at all to giving.

Yet when we try to give away too much, when we go overboard, or when we are foolish with our giving,
Then, there is resistance.

And in order to combat this resistance to give abundantly,
In order to give with foolish extravagance,
In order to give like God gives,
We must fight – to be a giver.

As many of you know, the scriptures that we read in church are on a three-year cycle.
This means that the scriptures that we just read a few minutes ago are the same scriptures that we read three years ago, the same scriptures that deal mainly with money and wealth and giving.

Three years ago, I preached on these scriptures.
And I told this congregation back then that Susan and I were in the midst of contemplating how much money we were going to give back to God in the form of a financial pledge to St. Alban’s Episcopal Church.
In that sermon, I told you all about the struggle that Susan and I have with giving.

You see, even three years ago, Susan wanted to rip up the carpet in our home and put in hard wood floors.
Yet when we got the bid proposal on how much it would cost us to put in hardwood floors, the cost was just about the same amount of money that we give away to God through the work of St. Alban’s.

Through much discussion and struggle, we finally decided to go ahead and give the money away, rather than to get hardwood floors.
Susan and I decided to give sacrificially.
And every time that we wrote a check to St. Alban’s, we knew very clearly what it was that we were giving up, in order to be a giver.

After I delivered that sermon three years ago, where I described our struggle, I must say that I was quite surprised by the reaction from some people in this congregation.
Most of the feedback that I received from that sermon about sacrificial giving was from well-meaning people who scolded me for giving so much away.
I received emails from people telling me that I should just go ahead and buy those wood floors for Susan.
I received comments from people telling me that I already give enough to the church and that I should not deny Susan the pleasure of the floors that she has always wanted.

And I thought to myself:
Good grief, now I have to fight the members of my own congregation to be a giver?!

For in order to give abundantly,
In order to give with foolish extravagance,
In order to give like God gives,
We must fight – to be a giver.

Now Susan and I are certainly not perfect givers.
And within Jeff Fisher’s heart, I encounter the resistance to give, every day.
I have a kid in college and a house with a mortgage and four drivers on my auto insurance policy.
The temptation is great for me to hold on tightly to my money and my things.
Every day I feel the resistance to giving with open hands and with extravagant foolishness.

Yet it helps me to know that Jesus understands our resistance to giving.
It helps me to know that Jesus understands that we must fight to be a foolish giver.

During the last months of Jesus’ life, Jesus tells his good friend, Peter, what it will mean for Jesus to give away everything.
Jesus tells Peter that he must go to Jerusalem, where Jesus says that he will be killed.
But a well-meaning Peter resists this idea of this extravagant and foolish giving,
And Peter takes Jesus aside to scold him, saying:
“Jesus, are you crazy?
You don’t have to give away everything!

In response, Jesus uses some of the strongest language that he ever uses in the Gospels as he wheels around and screams at Peter:
“Get behind me, Satan!
For you are holding onto things, instead of fighting to be a giver.”

You see, Jesus is the ultimate giver, in that he gives away everything.
For Jesus knows that those who lose their life, who give it all away, will find the only life that really matters.
And Jesus knows that
In order to combat our resistance to give abundantly,
In order to give foolishly,
In order to give like Jesus gives,
We must fight – to be a giver.

So my friends, fight the good fight –
And when you discover that a co-worker or a friend is having a hard time making ends meet,
Write them a big, fat check.
Give away so much that your friends will scold you saying:
“Are you crazy?
You don’t have to give away everything!”

Fight the good fight –
And when the collection plate comes around this morning,
Empty out your purse or wallet.
Give away so much that your friends will scold you saying:
“Are you crazy?
You don’t have to give away everything!”

Because, almost two thousand years ago, the Apostle Paul wrote a letter to young Timothy, teaching Timothy the words to our fight song.
And this morning, the Apostle Paul teaches us that

In order to give foolishly,
In order to give like God gives,
In order to take hold of the only life that really matters:

Fight the good fight with all your might.
Fight - to be a giver.


Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Fight the Good Fight

In our worship services, we sing hymns. I hope that you pay close attention to the words of these hymns. The words of our hymns contribute to our worship of God in much the same ways that the prayers and scripture readings do.

This Sunday morning, our Sequence Hymn (the hymn that is sung right after we read the Epistle) is a perfect example of a hymn text that further illumines a scripture text, the First Epistle to Timothy (6:12). The hymn sings:

Fight the good fight with all thy might,
Christ is thy strength and Christ thy right;
Lay hold on life, and it shall be
Thy joy and crown eternally.

As I listen to First Timothy, and as I sing this hymn, I wonder:

What fight are you and I fighting?
What life are you and I laying hold of?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Hearing William Willimon Preach

Waco is full of unexpected blessings. We tend to forget that Truett Seminary is here. Although it is an officially "Baptist" seminary, I have found the people at Truett to be very open to Episcopalians and to liturgy, especially of the Episcopal variety.

For their Fall Preaching Conference, Truett Seminary invited Dr. William Willimon to campus to speak and to teach. For the past 2 days, I took the opportunity to hear Willimon, who gained renown as a preacher when he was at Duke and who is now a Methodist bishop in Alabama. Everytime that Willimon writes in The Christian Century magazine, I have resonated with his earthy style and straight-forward faith.

And I learned a few things from hearing Willimon preach yesterday and today -things that I gleaned from hearing a master preach:

* Preaching, according to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, is about letting the resurrected Jesus walk around in the room.

* God tears the heavens open so that Jesus can get to us freely; now no one is safe.

* It is okay -and actually quite effective - to say "umm" during a sermon, collecting your thoughts before making your next point.

* As I have always suspected, the most powerful parts of the sermon are the stories and illustrations, not the theological discourses.

* Not everyone needs to be "born again/from above." Only Nicodemus, the "church elite/leadership," need to be ripped apart and turned upside down by a birthing from above.

* Do not apologize for the things that Jesus said, things that you repeat/expound upon from the pulpit. Jesus does not need us to protect him.

It was good to be fed and watered at Truett Seminary these past 2 days.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Losing, Searching, Finding, Celebrating

At St. Alban’s on Sundays, we always share bread and wine as we continually become the Body of Christ. The worship service is called: The Holy Eucharist. Actually, if you look on page 315 of The Book of Common Prayer, the full title of the service is: “The Holy Eucharist: The Liturgy for the Proclamation of the Word of God and the Celebration of the Holy Communion.” What we do each week is a celebration.

In the 15th Chapter of Luke’s Gospel, we hear several stories about losing, searching, finding and celebrating. A shepherd loses one of his sheep; he searches the wilderness until he finds it; then he celebrates. A woman loses a valuable coin; she sweeps the house until she finds it; then she celebrates.

We are the one lost sheep. We are the one lost coin. And God searches for us until God finds us. Then God throws a huge celebration, shouting: “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost; I have found my coin that was lost.”

Every Sunday, we gather as the lost who have been found, in a celebration of bread and wine. So rejoice with me that you and I have been found – and let’s celebrate.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Cost-Benefit Analysis

Sermon from September 5, 2010
(Pentecost 15 – Year C)
Luke 14: 25-33
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Waco, Texas

When I was a student in the College of Business Administration at the University of Texas, I took a variety of classes to prepare me for the business world.
In the Business School at UT, we were taught how to make decisions, decisions that would have financial ramifications.
One of the methods that I learned to use in making business decisions is to run a cost-benefit analysis.

A cost-benefit analysis is actually quite simple.
Essentially, you make two columns on a piece of paper.
In the left hand column, you write down all the costs associated with a decision, and in the right hand column you list all the benefits of that decision.

For example, if you are contemplating opening up a hamburger joint, on the cost side you would list the estimated costs of renting a space in a shopping center, the cost of kitchen equipment and dining room furnishings, the cost of food, the cost of hiring employees as cooks and wait-staff.
And in the benefit column, you would estimate the price you would charge your customers for hamburgers and how many hamburgers you think you could sell.
Then you add up all the estimated costs.
You add up all the estimated benefits.
And if the costs are greater than the benefits, then it is a bad decision.
But if the benefits are greater than the costs, then it is a good business decision.

Now I have looked carefully in my Bible.
However, I have not found any evidence that Jesus attended the School of Business at the University of Texas.
Yet I do see evidence in Scripture that Jesus understands the importance of running a cost-benefit analysis when making important decisions.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus gives us a comprehensive list of the costs that we must include in our analysis.
Jesus gives us a list of costs that we must not underestimate.

Jesus warns us that when we follow him, our discipleship could cost us the love and inclusion of those in our very own families:
Because father and mother, wife and husband, brother and sister, all of these relationships become secondary when our relationship with God becomes primary.
Jesus warns us that when we follow him, our discipleship could cost us our money and our possessions.
Because when we leave behind our stuff, then there is more room for God to fill our hearts.
Jesus warns us that when we follow him, our discipleship could cost us our very own lives, as we voluntarily take up the cross.
Because when we open our hearts to die, then we are born to eternal life.

As Jesus walks toward his own Cross, Jesus warns us that we should not underestimate the costs of following him.
Yet the timing of our cost-benefit analysis is also a key component in our decision about whether we should follow Jesus - or not.

Soon after Susan and I got married, just like many couples, in our minds, we ran a cost-benefit analysis on whether or not we should have children.
Yet the timing on when this analysis is performed can make a huge difference as to the results.

When running a cost-benefit analysis for having children, the costs must be estimated for diapers and baby clothes and new furniture for the nursery.
And if the couple is having difficulty conceiving, costs for in-vitro fertilization and/or adoption costs must be estimated, as well.
Not to mention the costs for ballet lessons and soccer uniforms and college tuition and new clothing every year that reflects the latest trends.
Before becoming a parent, from a purely economic standpoint, the costs of having a child far outweigh the benefits.

Yet, if you were to re-run your cost-benefit analysis at a different time, when your baby looks sweetly into your face and says “Da-Da” for the very first time,
Suddenly the equation changes and the benefits at that moment certainly outweigh the costs.

And if you were to re-run your analysis for having children at an even different time, when your orthodontist breaks the news about the cost of a complete set of braces on your teenager’s teeth, then the cost of having children, at that moment, seems to outweigh the benefits.

And if you were to re-run your cost-benefit analysis at yet an even different time, when your adult child is all grown up – and when he calls or texts you and says:
“Hey, Dad, I just wanted to tell you that I love you,”
Then suddenly all the costs seem to melt away and the intangible benefits become priceless.

You see, while it is important to never underestimate the costs, the timing of when we do our cost-benefit analysis is also important.

For the timing of Jesus’ difficult words that we hear this morning, detailing the impossible costs of following him, are spoken before his death on Good Friday and his resurrection on Easter.
Jesus’ hard words on discipleship are spoken before we are able to estimate the innumerable benefits of a post-Easter faith.

The Apostle Peter, who was one of Jesus’ most passionate followers, ran several different cost-benefit analyses.
Peter paid a heavy cost, leaving behind family and possessions to follow Jesus.
Yet when Jesus tells Peter that being a disciple means that you must die, Peter protests, thinking that the cost is too big.
So, using a very good business decision-making model, on the night before Good Friday, Peter distances himself from Jesus;
And Peter winds up denying even knowing Jesus, three times around the campfire.
Yet when Peter re-ran the cost-benefit analysis again, after Easter, the intangible benefits far outweigh the costs, as Jesus forgives Peter for all of his sins.

Judas, who was the follower of Jesus who betrayed him, never got the chance to re-run a cost-benefit analysis after Easter.
Instead, Judas counts the impossible costs and views the Cross of Jesus as a colossal business failure.
So Judas hangs himself for his perceived failure in underestimating the costs, before he could re-run his analysis and see the benefits of forgiveness that Easter would bring.

And even Jesus himself, on the night before he died for us, ran a cost-benefit analysis.
On the night before Good Friday, Jesus goes to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray.
The cost of his painful Cross seems impossible, as Jesus prays in agony:
“Father, please let this cup pass from me.”
Yet when Jesus re-ran the cost-benefit analysis after Easter, the intangible benefits far exceeded the costs.
And today, the resurrected Jesus has defeated the power of death and is seated at the right hand of his Father.

This morning, when you and I decide if we should follow Jesus, we now have an advantage in our timing.
We have an advantage in our timing in that we can run our cost-benefit analysis by factoring in the benefits of a post-Easter world.
Therefore, while separation from family and friends is a cost of following Jesus,
The benefit, post-Easter, is that we receive a new and larger family of love: the rag-tag, riff-raff family of God.
While giving our money and our possessions away is a cost of following Jesus,
The benefit, post-Easter, is that we receive freedom, freedom from the things of this world.
While being crucified with Christ is a cost of following Jesus,
The benefit, post-Easter, is that we are raised with Christ through Baptism into a new life of forgiveness and grace.

You see, you don’t need a bachelor’s degree in business administration to run a cost-benefit analysis on whether or not you should follow Jesus.
Just gaze at the Cross of Jesus Christ - do not underestimate the costs.
Then look into the Empty Tomb and re-run your analysis, factoring in your resurrection to eternal life.

Add up those two columns and you will see:
The costs of following Jesus are huge,
But the eternal benefits - far exceed the cost.


Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Honey, Vinegar & Philemon

This Sunday in worship, we will read the majority of the Letter of Paul to Philemon, only omitting the last 4 verses of the letter. Philemon is one of the shortest books in the New Testament. Yet, despite its brevity, the Letter to Philemon displays the Apostle Paul’s mastery at persuasion, all cloaked in the authentic garb of love.

In the letter, Onesimus is a slave, who has obviously run away from his master, Philemon. Onesimus, the runaway slave, is now with Paul, who is writing from prison. Paul appeals to Philemon, on the basis of love, to take back his runaway slave and to welcome his slave home as “a beloved brother.”

A wise mentor once repeated the adage to me: “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.“ The language and rhetoric that Paul uses in this Letter to Philemon are extraordinary, as he persuades Philemon with honey, rather than with vinegar.

As we live our Monday through Friday lives, listen to yourself. Are you complaining and negative and demeaning to others, using vinegar to try to catch flies? Or do you respect others and have a positive attitude and love people with authenticity, using honey, rather than vinegar?

Monday, August 30, 2010

Thank You for Inviting Me

Sermon from August 29, 2010
(Pentecost 14 – Year C)
Luke 14: 1, 4-14
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Waco, Texas

A little over two weeks ago, while I was on vacation, I went to the car dealership to buy a new car for Susan.
Susan had been driving a mini-van for years, yet our family has pretty much gone past the need for a mini-van.
So I went into the car dealership looking to make a purchase.

It was a hot, slow Thursday afternoon, a pretty good time to buy a car.
I began talking to the fleet manager, and before you know it, we had struck a deal on how much he was going to give me for the mini-van we were trading in and how much I was going to pay for the new car.
We shook hands on the deal and I signed my name to his form, agreeing to the negotiated prices.
I was now the proud owner of a new, white Honda CRV, with that wonderful “new car smell.”

However, a man called the “credit manager” then appeared on the scene to set up our car loan.
It became quickly obvious that, even though hands had been shaken and backs had been slapped, I really did not own a new car at all.
It became quickly obvious that what this transaction was really about was about me going into more debt, a debt that certainly must be repaid.

In order to go into debt, I had to complete a lot of forms.
And in order for the credit manager to run a report to ascertain my credit rating, he had to get my social security number and a copy of my driver’s license.
Now, whenever I go to get my driver’s license picture taken, I always make sure that I have on my clerical collar for my picture.
So when the credit manager looked at my driver’s license, he said:

“Rev. Fisher, you should see some of the riff-raff who come in here trying to get a car loan,
But I am sure that your credit rating will be just fine.”
Strangely, I was flattered by this comment –
And I did have a sense of misplaced pride when my credit rating came out with a stellar rating, which really only shows that I am just very good at being in debt.

After I was congratulated for my stellar credit rating, the credit manager led me through the loan agreement and amortization schedule, showing me how and when my debt must be repaid each month.
We shook hands again and more backs were slapped.
I was congratulated for making such a wise purchase.

Yet a few days later, I realized that this transaction was really not about being invited into the great banquet of Honda ownership.
This transaction was really about going into debt, a debt that must be repaid.

Jesus says:
“When you throw a banquet, do not invite your rich friends and those with stellar credit ratings.
But when you throw a party, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind.
When you throw a party, invite the riff-raff who could never qualify for a loan.
Invite the people who can never repay the debt.”

Now I know that Jesus is saying that the host of a party is supposed to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.
I know that Jesus is saying here that we are to practice a radical hospitality, a hospitality where everyone is welcome.

Yet, as I have had said before in other teachings, I believe that many of Jesus’ stories and teachings are not centered on you and me.
I believe that Jesus’ stories and teachings are centered more on who God is.
Therefore, Jesus is not just giving us a simple lesson on nice manners at a luncheon.
Jesus is not just telling us about whom we should invite to our parties,
As much as Jesus is telling us about whom he invites to his party.

For when we throw a party, we are selective in whom we invite.
Yet when God throws his party of unconditional love, everyone is welcome.
When we throw a party, we run a credit report to see if the credit rating of our guests is good enough.
Yet when God throws his party, the credit reports are ripped up and the riff-raff are invited along with the rich.
When we throw a party, we sign a loan agreement that specifies when and how we are to repay all the love we have been given.
Yet when God throws his party, God takes the loan agreement, he takes our debt, and he nails the repayment schedule to the Cross, once and for all.
Because at God’s banquet, at Jesus’ party, everyone is invited, invited to live debt-free.

And our Christian response to God’s invitation,
Our Christian response to debt-free living,
Is to live full of thanksgiving and gratitude.
And we live a life of thanksgiving and gratitude,
By practicing saying ‘thank you,’ each and every day.

When I was in kindergarten, I was invited to the birthday parties of most all of my classmates.
On many Saturday afternoons, my parents would drop me off at the house of a classmate for a celebration of ice cream and cake.
My mother taught me that, whenever I left a birthday party, I should always find the host and express my gratitude by saying:
“I had a very nice time.
Thank you for inviting me.”

Now whenever these birthday parties were over, my mother would usually pick me up at the front door.
And as we walked down the front walk, she would ask me this question:
“Jeff, did you find Mrs. Smith and tell her:
‘I had a very nice time.
Thank you for inviting me’?”

Yet sometimes I would forget to say thank you to the host.
And my mother would insist that I march back up the front walk and into the house to express my gratitude.
I would whine:
“But Mom, that is so embarrassing to go back into the house and find them in their backyard.”
Yet my mother would not back down,
And I would re-enter the party, and find the mother of my classmate and say:
“I had a very nice time.
Thank you for inviting me.”

I was taught by my parents to say ‘thank you,’ because sometimes we need to be taught how to be grateful and thankful.
And each and every Sunday at St. Alban’s, we open the doors of this church so that each one of us can be taught the practice of being thankful.
In fact, every Sunday at St. Alban’s, we celebrate what we call:
The Holy Eucharist.
And that word, ‘Eucharist,’ in Greek, actually means ‘to give thanks.’

So every Sunday, we are invited around God’s Table to God’s party, to practice saying thank you, thank you to God for loving us.
Every Sunday, we practice saying thank you, thank you for inviting the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind and the riff-raff to God’s party.
Every Sunday, we practice saying thank you, thank you for ripping up our credit reports and canceling our debts.
In this church, we celebrate the Eucharist, we say thank you - because we will never, ever, need to repay the debt of love that we have been given.

This morning, you are invited to celebrate at God’s party, God’s Eucharist, with bread and wine.
You are invited to practice gratitude, gratitude for a debt-free life.
You are invited to march yourself up this aisle to find Jesus, our Host, and say:

I had a very nice time.
Thank you - for inviting me.


Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Prophets of Katrina

As many people mark the 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I am reminded of the sermon I preached on that next Sunday, in the suburbs of Houston, as evacuees were streaming into our city. Portions of this sermon were picked up by the Episcopal News Service, in their reporting on how various parishes were reacting to the crisis.

The Prophets of Katrina
September 4, 2005
(Pentecost 16 - Proper 18 - Year A)
Matthew 18: 15-20
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, Cypress, Texas

I welcome all of you here today, especially our friends from Louisiana and Mississippi.
I don’t think that many of us in the pews today are here in church to listen about how this is the 16th Sunday after Pentecost.
Instead, we have come into this holy place to hear the good news of Jesus Christ in the midst of the unbearable and frustrating tragedy of Hurricane Katrina.

Some of you who have been in my office and have seen what is framed and sitting on my desk.
It is a quote from the French theologian, Paul Claudel:
The quote says:
"Jesus did not come to explain away suffering or remove it.
He came to fill it with his presence."
Let me say that again:
"Jesus did not come to explain away suffering or remove it.
He came to fill it with his presence."

Jesus came to earth not to take away the unpleasant and bad parts of being human.
Jesus, through the downward journey of the Cross, enters the bad parts of being human and fills it with his presence.
For, joy (and suffering) and life (and death) are all a part of the human experience.

The same Gulf of Mexico that lulls us to sleep with its gentle waves on a summer’s night in Galveston is the same Gulf of Mexico whose waves can bring catastrophic loss.
The same water that we use to joyfully baptize is the same water that flows over broken levees.
The same Astrodome in which we chanted "Luv Ya Blue" is the same Astrodome which is now a ghetto for the sick.
God gives us freedom, freedom to experience both the ups and the downs of life.
And, Jesus does not eliminate the ups and downs of life,
What Jesus DOES do is to fill both the ups and downs of life with his presence.
And, the presence of Jesus is the presence of love.

The love of Jesus fills this moment of tragedy as we become Jesus to these hurting, hungry and helpless people.
Our hands become Jesus’ hands as we fill the world with loving service, as we pray, as we collect money, as we donate bottled water, as we sort through used clothing.
For "Jesus did not come to explain away suffering or remove it.
He came to fill it with his presence."

However, I do not want us to leave here today thinking that the Christian life is just a glorified United Way agency.
Christians are not only called to fill the world with the presence of Jesus’ love.
Christians are to live on the edge, fearless in the face of opposition and bold in our proclamation against injustice.
Christians are called to be more than relief workers, we are called to be prophets.

The Gospel reading from Matthew today is a lesson about how we are to live together in community.
In methodical steps, Jesus teaches us how to handle those times when we have a disagreement or a problem with someone else:
First, you are to have a conversation alone, with just you and the person you disagree with.
Second, if that doesn’t work, then you are to bring in a third party.
Third, if that doesn’t work, then you are to bring in the whole congregation.
Then Jesus says that if visiting with them in person doesn’t work, and if bringing in a third party doesn’t work, and if involving the whole church doesn’t work,
Then, your last option is to treat them like a Gentile or a tax collector.

The most common way of interpreting this story is that if you can’t settle an argument with someone using these methods, then the offending person is to be treated like a Gentile or a tax collector and kicked out of the church.
Yet, what does Jesus teach us about Gentiles and tax-collectors?
Jesus teaches us that those on the outside, those who are like criminals, those who are like non-believers, the Gentiles and the tax-collectors, should be treated with EXTRA grace and love, NOT kicked out of the church.

One of the things that has been left largely unsaid as we address the Hurricane Katrina disaster is that many of the victims are the Gentiles and tax-collectors in our society.
When I watch CNN, the people I mainly see are black and poor.
For the sad truth has now been revealed:
The poor of New Orleans were displaced, long before Katrina came.

And, as Christians, we are called to cry out, like all the prophets in the Bible, prophets like Ezekiel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, John the Baptist.
We are called to cry out, in righteous anger, that this whole disaster has unearthed a giant problem in American society.
We are NOT all equal.
We are not even separate, but equal.
We are not a nation where all are free, but we are a nation STILL enslaved by divisions of skin color and economic advantage.

You have a right to disagree with me, but I bet you that if the Superdome was filled with rich white people, then you would not have seen the horror that we have seen on our TV screens.
And, I get my opinions from sources right here in our own town.
I have overheard people say, referring to the looting they have seen on TV:
"Well, what do you expect?
You know that is what those kinds of people do."
I have overheard people say, commenting on the rescues from rooftops:
"Well, what do you expect?
They told those stupid people to get out."

How are we going to welcome the Gentiles and the tax-collectors that are pouring into our city?
How are we going to treat the poor, the hungry, the black-skinned?
How are we going to feel about our new neighbors come November or December, after they have taken our jobs, guzzled our gas and learned in our schools?

We, as Christians, have the sad opportunity to fill this tragedy with the presence of Jesus’ love.
And, we have the opportunity to be courageous prophets, working against the grain of an unjust social system.

The capacity of the Astrodome was underestimated.
The levees in New Orleans did not hold.
The relief effort has been botched at all levels.

Let’s not blow this opportunity to be real Christians.