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.