Sunday, December 18, 2011

How Can This Be?

Sermon from December 18, 2011
(Advent 4 – Year B)
Luke 1: 26-38
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Waco, Texas

How can this be?
How can this be - that an NFL quarterback with average statistics can end up winning football games?
How can this be - that a quarterback can generate conversations on ESPN about the Christian faith?
How can this be - that Tim Tebow squeaks out last minute wins for the Denver Broncos?

These are the questions that are being asked whenever I hear Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow being discussed.
The conversation makes me want to tune in to see if Tebow will accomplish another Sunday afternoon miracle and to see if he will bow his knee to his Savior in the endzone.
When I hear the buzz about Tim Tebow, the question soon follows:
How can this be?

And when I hear the buzz about the Virgin Mary, the same question soon follows:
How can this be?

In Luke’s Gospel, the very first words out of Mary’s mouth are the question:
“How can this be, since I am a virgin?”
And the angel Gabriel responds to her:
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
And the power of the Most High will overshadow you;
Therefore the child to be born will be holy;
He will be called Son of God.”

This is the story of the Annunciation.
This is the story where the angel Gabriel is sent by God to a town called Nazareth to a virgin whose name was Mary.
We are not told if Mary is any different than any other Jewish teenaged girl.
All we are told is that an angel was sent by God with an incredible announcement.
The announcement is that she would become pregnant, pregnant without any intimate relations with a man.
And the very first words out of Mary’s mouth are:
“How can this be?”

This incredible story of the Annunciation is the opening story in our Christmas narrative.
This incredible story can be a stumbling block to some who recite the Nicene Creed on Sundays, to those who have difficulty believing the virgin birth of Jesus.
For others, the incredible story has become so commonplace that we don’t pay attention to the scandal of the gospel, the scandal that makes us ask:
How can this be?

In Auckland, New Zealand, an Anglican church has generated quite a scandal with their new billboard.
St. Matthew-in-the-City Anglican Church has put up a billboard that has the style and look of a very classical painting of the Virgin Mary, as if it was painted a hundred years ago.
In the painting, Mary is gently swathed in blue and green and red robes.
In the painting, Mary’s left hand is over her mouth, as if she is in shock.
And in Mary’s right hand is a stick, the stick of a home pregnancy test, indicating a positive result.

I am glad that an Anglican church, just like St. Alban’s, is focusing our attention on the incredible response of Mary to the good news of God.
Yet there has been some negative reaction to the billboard in New Zealand.
Some critics are saying that Mary shouldn’t look shocked because she assented to the will of God.
Some are saying that the depiction of Mary with a home pregnancy test stick is distasteful.

Yet the billboard of Mary with a look of shock on her face and the pregnancy test in her hand highlights that Mary’s very first response to God’s miracle was to ask:
“How can this be?”

Yet God’s miracles are not just for Christians.
Our Jewish sisters and brothers will be celebrating one of the many miracles of God beginning this Tuesday, celebrating the incredible story of Hanukkah.

About 165 years before the birth of Jesus, the Jews had recaptured their beloved Temple from Greek and Syrian forces.
In the process of cleaning up the Temple so they could worship the one true God again, the Jews re-lit the lights in the Temple.
However, the Jews only had enough oil to keep the candles lit for one day.
Yet night after night, for 8 nights, the candles stayed lit, until new oil arrived.
Night after night, the Jews witnessed a miracle of God.
Night after night, for 8 nights, the Jews responded:
How can this be?

The more I travel through this life, the more I see that there are two very different ways that we can approach life.
First, we can see our life as rational, ordered, predictable events, events that we can manage and control.
Yet the other way we can see our life is to be open to the irrational, the mysterious, the incredible, events that we can never manage or control.
We can approach life from a human point of view - only taking into consideration the possible.
Or we can approach life from God’s point of view - taking into consideration the impossible.
For we worship a God of mystery, a God of the incredible, a God of the impossible.

Last Wednesday, I received an email that Bishop Claude Payne had just had hip replacement surgery at Scott & White in Temple.
Now Claude Payne was the seventh Bishop of Texas, who retired in 2003.
At St. Alban’s, we were blessed to have Bishop Payne with us for confirmation last May.

Bishop Payne became the Bishop of Texas in 1995.
At that time, I was a busy CPA in Houston, with no reason to ever know a bishop.

Then, in 2000, my first face-to-face encounter with Bishop Payne was when Susan and I appeared in his office, seeking his approval to send me to seminary.
While waiting in the bishop’s office, I can remember feeling like the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz, with my knees shaking and my palms sweating.
Yet over the years, Claude Payne has become my friend.

And last Wednesday, I drove down to Temple to visit Bishop Payne in the hospital.
He was doing well after his surgery and I had a nice conversation with him and with Barbara.
Then I asked if I could pray for him.
I held his hand and he grabbed onto mine.
And I was humbled to say prayers of healing for the retired Bishop of Texas.

As I walked out of the bishop’s hospital room and reflected on my life, I asked myself the question:
How can this be?

How can this be that God has twisted and turned my life in such a way that I could have never asked for or imagined?
For when we view life as an impossible mystery, then the first words out of our mouth are:
How can this be?

No matter what religion people follow, life is incredible and mysterious.
Yet what is particular about Christianity is that we believe that God is with us in the flesh.
We believe that God is born in us.
We believe that the question “how can this be?” is fleshed out in the Son of God, born of a woman, a woman with one hand over her mouth in shock and with the other hand holding a home pregnancy test.
We believe in an impossible mystery.

How can this be - that Tim Tebow wins football games?
How can this be - that Hanukkah lights burn without any oil?
How can this be - that a virgin has a positive pregnancy test?
I don’t know.

Yet I do know that God is with us.
I do know that Jesus has been born in me.
I do know that the power of the Most High has overshadowed me.

And in response to God’s incredible mystery, the first words out of my mouth are:
How can this be?


Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Secret is Out

It is hard, especially for children, to keep a Christmas secret for long. I can remember when our son, Scott, was a toddler. I was giving him a bath one December evening. I had asked what he had done that day. He burst out: “I went Christmas shopping with Mommy. We bought socks for Daddy --- but it’s a secret!”

Sometimes a secret is so hard to keep; it’s difficult to keep our lips sealed. But the time has come, with the advent of Jesus Christ, that our secret is now out!

Paul writes in his Letter to the Romans: “The revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages is now disclosed.”

Jesus is not a mystery that is to be kept secret, with our lips sealed. Jesus is a revelation, an opening up of God’s heart, that propels us to open up our hearts and lips and mouths as well. As the wreaths and the garlands and the tree go up in our church after 10:00 AM worship today, the secret will be out of the box.

Some people will say: “My faith is private.” Yet the revelation of the mystery of Jesus is not a secret; it is not private; it is to be disclosed. Our faith in Christ is personal, yet never private.

We worship a God from whom no secrets are hid. For Jesus Christ is not a secret (nor are socks for Daddy!)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

John the Pointer

Sermon from December 11, 2011
(Advent 3 – Year B)
John 1: 6-8, 19-28
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Waco, Texas

Learning how to be a preacher can be a scary thing.
In learning how to be a preacher at the Virginia Theological Seminary, the introductory course in preaching is a scary class called Homiletics 101.
At one end of the classroom is a pulpit, the pulpit in which students preach their very first sermon.
At the other end of the classroom is a video camera, where seminary student’s first sermons are taped, to be critiqued and graded by the professor.
And fellow students sit in rows of chairs, facing the pulpit, becoming the very first highly critical congregation for baby preachers.

Of course, there are many techniques to learn in preaching.
But one of the tips that I was given by my homiletics professors is not to point with one finger.
For when a preacher gets out his or her index finger and points, the congregation can feel as if they are being scolded or judged.
Instead of pointing with one finger, my preaching professors suggested that if we wanted to make such a gesture, to use the whole hand, which is less judgmental and less accusatory.

Most people do not like to have a bony finger pointing into their chest, accusing them.
Most people do not like to have their preacher pointing in their direction, convicting them.
Yet preachers - and all Christians - are sent by God to point, to point to Jesus Christ.

In the Gospel of John, we hear about a man named John, a man sent by God to point to Jesus.
This John and the writer of the Gospel of John are two different people.
Yet the writer of the Gospel of John says this about the other John:

“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.
He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.”

In the Gospel of John, this man sent from God, whose name was John, is not referred to in this Gospel as John the Baptist.
Yet this man named John is same man as John the Baptist.
This man named John is not only John the Baptist.
This man is also “John the Pointer.”

For there was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
This John came as a pointer, to point to the light.
He himself was not the light, but he came to point to the light.
For the true light who has come into the world is Jesus Christ.
And John the Pointer, also known as John the Baptist, wants us to make sure that we are truly pointing our index finger to Jesus.

In this season of Advent, in this season of preparation for the feast of Christmas, it seems that everyone is pointing at someone or something.
Some people are pointing to the struggling economy, asking us to buy more things to boost up a shaky economy that depends heavily on the success of retailers in December.
Others are pointing to “put Christ back in Christmas” – yet they don’t give us a compelling vision of who this Christ really is.
Others are pointing to the Republican primaries and the 2012 election, looking for the next presidential Messiah.
Others are pointing to the Tea Party movement or the Occupy movement - telling us how these populist movements are either compatible or incompatible with Christianity.

My facebook newsfeed, especially in December, seems to be filled with people who are all pointing with their index finger at someone or something that will save us from a whole host of ills and complaints.
During December, we are quick to point our finger at the economy, at politics, at families - and even point our finger at what is wrong with the way we celebrate Christmas itself - looking for something to save us from our current world.

But there was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
This John came as a pointer, to point to the light.
He himself was not the light, but he came to point to the light.
For the true light who has come into the world is Jesus.
And we are to point to Jesus Christ.

Preaching professors might advise against pointing the index finger at a congregation - because pointing can make people in the pews feel uncomfortable.
Yet in all four of the Gospels, John the Baptist, John the Pointer, makes people uncomfortable.
And it is my belief that when we are truly pointing to Jesus, then we will make people uncomfortable.

Last Thursday night, Susan and I decided to stop by Wal-Mart on Hewitt Drive to pick up a few strands of Christmas lights that we needed to complete the lighting of our Christmas tree.
Of course, we also made a few impulse purchases, picking up a 12-pack of Diet Coke and finding a new kind of coffee cake that we wanted to try and choosing a new plush toy for our dog, because our precious dog truly does deserve an early Christmas present.

In the checkout line at Wal-Mart, we were assisted by a cashier who felt it was necessary to point out and comment on each of the items in our shopping cart.
The cashier was slow and seemed to have a slight mental disability.
His pointed comments about each of our purchases made me uncomfortable.
He made a point to complain about having to work the late shift all this week, which also made me uncomfortable.
I was secretly hoping that he would just hurry up - so that we could get the heck out of there.

Yet as we were pushing our shopping cart out of Wal-Mart, Susan said to me:
“I am glad we had that nice conversation with that cashier.
So many people are looking for a job these days and I am glad that he has a job and was so personal and friendly, taking the time to make conversation with us.”

I felt like crawling under a rock – because I realized that my wife had just pointed to Jesus, while I was so busy pointing to my own selfish concerns.
Like John the Baptist, like John the Pointer, when we are truly pointing to Jesus, we are uncomfortable.
We are uncomfortable because Jesus comes to us, each and every day, in the people who are the last and the least.

In my experience, we are pointing to Jesus when we are truly concerned about the poor, by making a difference - not just by giving lip service to the poor.
We are pointing to Jesus when we point out injustice, when we point out inequality, when we point out that the true light that comes into the world shines a beam on love and justice and a fair living wage and adequate health care and other subjects that make us uncomfortable.

You see, I don’t care if people say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” at Dillard’s.
Yet I do care if we are using our index finger to point to Jesus, by pointing to the people that Jesus cares about the most.
For Jesus cares the most about the poor and the lonely and the unemployed and the uninsured.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
This John was not the light, but he came to point to the light.
For the true light has come into the world.
And we are to point to Jesus Christ.

For I don’t care what my preaching professors said.

{pointing to a person in the congregation}
It’s okay - to point.


Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Grownup Jesus

On Christmas Eve in 2007, I preached a sermon titled: “Ricky Bobby and Grownup Jesus.” I give thanks that some of you, even now, still remember and refer to that sermon. That Christmas sermon cast an image of Ricky Bobby from the movie Talladega Nights. In the sermon, I recalled a scene from the film where Ricky Bobby begins a dinner table prayer by invoking “Dear Lord Baby Jesus.” Ricky then insists that he likes the Christmas Jesus best, as opposed to grownup Jesus.

I suppose that the sermon from Christmas 2007 became memorable, not just for its humor, but because you know how close it comes to a theological point that is near and dear to me. The challenge to worship the grownup Jesus at Christmas, rather than just the baby Jesus, rings very true to my own theology of what is so important about Christmas. In my own spiritual life, I have received power from celebrating Christmas as the Feast of the Grownup Jesus, the Feast of the Incarnation.

In the Episcopal/Anglican tradition, Christmas is the Feast of the Incarnation. One of the most beautiful Christmas services is Lessons & Carols sung at King’s College in Cambridge, England (tune into NPR on the radio or on-line on Christmas Eve morning for a real treat). At the conclusion of that worship service, the sonorous and soaring blessing begins:
May Christ, who by his Incarnation gathered into one things earthly and heavenly…

It is the Incarnation of Jesus Christ that has made a huge difference in my life. It is baby Jesus and teenaged Jesus and baptized Jesus and crucified and resurrected Jesus who gathers into one things earthly and heavenly. It is Jesus, all grown up and mature, who calls me to an abundant and mature life, as Jesus challenges me to love my neighbor, to give a cup of cold water to the least of these, to sell everything and follow him, to take up my cross.

I want you to know that the most powerful moment for me every Christmas Eve is when I kneel in front of the altar, in our darkened church, to sing Silent Night. My gaze goes up to the altar, overflowing with poinsettias that are only lit by flickering candles. Then my eyes do not go to a manger, but my gaze goes up to a majestic wooden cross, the cross where grownup Jesus died for me out of love.

The manger is not the enduring symbol of the Christian life. The enduring symbol of Christianity is the cross. The cross is the ultimate moment of Incarnation, when Christ gathers into one things earthly and heavenly.

This Christmas, I invite you to move beyond the manger, beyond the baby Jesus. Turn your eyes upon grownup Jesus. He is asking you to follow him, asking you to die with him, asking you to rise to new life with him.

This Christmas, worship Jesus, the Incarnation of God, the ultimate grownup.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Comfort Food

Sermon from December 4, 2011
(Advent 2 – Year B)
Isaiah 40: 1-11
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Waco, Texas

Comfort, O comfort my people.
And speak tenderly to Jerusalem.

Comfort is the message that the Prophet Isaiah cries out to the Hebrew people.
Many years before, the Hebrew people had watched their beloved temple be destroyed in their homeland in Jerusalem.
The Hebrew people were then exiled into Babylon, into a country far away across the desert.

Years later, in 539 BC, Cyrus the Great of Persia defeated the Babylonians.
And Cyrus issued an “emancipation proclamation” for the Hebrew people who had been exiled in Babylon.
The Hebrew people were now free, free to be transported back home to Jerusalem.

Then onto the stage comes the Prophet Isaiah, proclaiming:
“Comfort, O comfort my people.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem
And cry out to her that her long exile is now over!”

The very first words of Isaiah to his exiled people are words of comfort.
The very first action to homesick people is to speak tenderly, with morsels of words that transport us home.
The very first action to homesick people is to offer comfort food.

When I was a very young child, my mother began to make apple cakes.
At first, my mom made an occasional apple cake in a large Bundt pan.
However, as she began to receive more requests for an apple cake, she divided the recipe and baked up smaller apple cakes that would fit into foil loaf pans.

Every December when I was in elementary school, my mom would begin to bake up batch after batch of these apple cakes.
The holiday kitchen in our home in December was like a fragrant factory, slicing up tart apples and stirring up batter and baking up goodness with cinnamon and spice.
Each of my teachers received an apple cake for Christmas, loving wrapped in tin foil and tied with a plaid ribbon.
Each of our neighbors received an apple cake that my brother and I would hand deliver.
Yet at least one apple cake was always reserved and not gifted to someone else.
We ate this reserved apple cake on Christmas Eve, late at night after the late Christmas Eve worship service.

As I got older, the list of recipients for my mother’s apple cake changed.
When I was a student at UT, several cakes were mailed to my dorm, to be eaten in huge bites by me and my friends as we took study breaks from preparing for finals.

Eventually, my mom grew weary of all the December baking.
Yet still, even to this day, she does bake at least one apple cake each year.
And I reserve one of these cakes for Christmas Eve, for when I come home from church at around one o’clock in the morning.
In the post-worship glow of that wonderful, late Christmas Eve service, I tear open the foil that is wrapped around that cake.
I get a knife out of the drawer and I cut a big hunk off to savor.
Sitting next to the Christmas tree, I eat this comfort food, the comfort of this morsel of spices and apples.
And this comfort food takes my mind back to the kitchen of my childhood.
This comfort food transports me back to my homeland.

For comfort food speaks tenderly to our souls, taking us back to a time and a place where we are warm and safe and loved.
Comfort food transports us to a place of love.

The very first words of Isaiah to his exiled people are words of comfort.
The very first action to homesick people is to speak tenderly, with morsels of words that transport us home.
The very first action to homesick people is to offer comfort food.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus speaks tenderly to us, saying:
“I am the Bread of Life.”
Jesus speaks tenderly, with words of comfort, that he is the bread of life, the bread gives life to the world.
Jesus speaks tenderly, reminding us that he is the comfort food that transports us home.

My wife, Susan, was raised in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church.
Whenever our family would travel back to Kentucky to visit my in-laws, we always went to church at Margaret Hank Memorial Cumberland Presbyterian Church.
Our sons, even as little boys, would go to church with us.

On one Sunday when we were visiting, our oldest son, Scott, must have been about 4 or 5 years old.
And at church that Sunday, we packed toys and games to keep our little son busy during the worship service.
We all participated in the Presbyterian call to worship.
We sang the hymns.
We listened to the sermon.
At the very end of the worship service, the minister pronounced a word of dismissal and folks began to file out of their pews.
Realizing that worship was over, Scott looked up and shouted out at the top of his lungs:
“That’s it?!
We didn’t even get to eat!”

In the worship of the Episcopal Church, we do get to eat the bread of heaven every Sunday, comfort food that reminds us of home.
We are given a morsel of the bread of life and a sip of the cup of salvation - as we hear Jesus calling us home from the exile of our sins and shortcomings.
We hear these words of comfort:
“Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you.
And feed on him in your hearts by faith, with thanksgiving.”

And through the comfort food of the bread and wine of the Eucharist, we are transported home.
We might not be transported to our childhood home with a kitchen filled with the aroma of Christmas baking.
Yet in the communion of bread and wine, we are transported home to Jerusalem.
In the Eucharistic feast, we are transported to a place of joy and comfort and love.

For as one of our beautiful hymns sings:
“And oh, what transport of delight,
From thy pure chalice floweth!”

My brothers and sisters, we will receive our comfort food today around God’s table.
Yet the food we receive is to strengthen us to leave this place and to give comfort food to others.
Like Isaiah, we are to offer morsels of words to speak tenderly to others, transporting all of us to a place of love.

In this hectic season, comfort others, inviting them to return home.
Bake up a batch of comfort food - by speaking tenderly and by saying things such as:

“I am listening to you.”
“I think you were in line ahead of me.”
“It has been a while since I said this, but I love you.”

Comfort, O comfort God’s people.
Speak tenderly to God’s homesick people, with words that transport us to love.
Eat the comfort food of the bread of life, the transport of delight to our joyful home.

Comfort, O comfort my people.
O tidings of comfort – and joy.


Sunday, November 20, 2011


Sermon from November 20, 2011
(Last Pentecost – Year A)
Matthew 25: 31-46
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Waco, Texas

I don’t want to be an old goat.
I would rather be a sheep.

Yet it can be hard to tell a goat from a sheep.
Goats and sheep have a lot of the same genetic makeup.
Goats and sheep are both grazing animals.
Goats and sheep are both accustomed to being herded by shepherds or goat herders across mountainous terrain.

I have distant cousins who live in Brackettville, in west Texas.
These country cousins are ranchers, ranchers who raise both sheep and goats.

When I was a boy, my family of city slickers from Houston traveled out to Brackettville.
At the time of our visit to the country, it was sheep shearing time on the ranch.
And after their extreme haircut, it became difficult for this city boy to tell the difference between a sheep and a goat.
For without their thick coat of wool, a sheep can look an awful lot like a goat.

Yet Jesus sits between the sheep and the goats.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus proclaims:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
And he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats to his left.”

Jesus goes on to teach us that the sheep are those who practice a life of service to others.
The sheep are those who feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, clothe the naked, and visit prisoners.
Sheep are those who serve others.
Yet, aside from a few characteristics, it could be hard to tell a goat from a sheep in the flock.
For the biggest difference between a sheep and a goat is a thick coat of warm, white wool.

As an old goat myself, I would love to grow a thick coat of warm, white, wool.
I first began showing signs of hair loss when I was in college.
My college roommates thought it was hilarious to make jokes about my receding hairline, that began when I was about 19.

In my mailbox at my dorm, I began to receive advertisements and promotions for hair enhancement products.
I began to receive sales calls from the Hair Club for Men, asking if I wanted information about hair replacement.

One afternoon, I received a phone call from a store that specialized in toupees for men.
The salesperson asked:
“Is this Jeff Fisher?”
I replied:
“Yes, it is.”
The salesperson continued:
“Mr. Fisher, I am returning your phone call from yesterday.
You had left a message that you are disturbed by your hair loss.”

I then realized that my roommates had been playing pranks on me, signing me up for mailings about hair growth and calling the Hair Club for Men, using my name as their alias!

Yet, I really would like to grow some hair.
I really don’t want to end up as a bald old goat.
For I would much rather be a sheep, with a thick and luxurious head of warm wool.

The Church, the Body of Christ, is a place where we can grow hair and develop a thick coat of wool.
The Church offers products and opportunities that transform us from hairless goats into wooly sheep, sporting thick coats of service to others.

Jesus can change us from goats into sheep.
Jesus can move us from his left hand to his right hand.
In this church, in Jesus’ church, we can grow thick coats of wool.

Last month, St. Alban’s entered into a partnership with Wesley United Methodist Church in east Waco.
We have communicated this partnership in worship leaflets and in the monthly church newsletter, yet I am not sure that all of you know about this amazing new opportunity for all of us to grow wool.

In this new partnership, St. Alban’s is now hosting Wesley’s Friday evening children’s education program in our building.
This children’s program is called Furaha Friday.
‘Furaha’ is a Swahili word that means ‘joyful’.

As of right now, every Friday evening, children and adult leaders from Wesley Church travel across the Brazos River and into St. Alban’s parish hall.
Every Friday evening, wooly sheep, like you, prepare and serve a simple meal to our new friends from Wesley.

The pastor from Wesley, Valda Combs, then leads all of the children, including the St. Alban’s kids who are here, in singing and laughing and joyfully learning about the Faith.

The first Furaha Friday at St. Alban’s occurred this weekend.
Last Friday evening, warm, wooly sheep from St. Alban’s served up hot dogs, apples and homemade macaroni and cheese in our parish hall kitchen.
The wooly sheep from St. Alban’s sat on the floor with the sheep from Wesley, as they had a joyful time together, learning about the faith of Jesus as one flock.
On our first Furaha Friday, you would be hard pressed to find many goats in the flock.
Because Jesus was growing a fluffy coat of wool on each of them, as they fed and served, with our new friends from Wesley.

Furaha Friday will take a one-week break for the Friday after Thanksgiving.
But after that, every Friday evening at St. Alban’s, you have an opportunity to help serve dinner and clean up the kitchen, just for an hour or so.
All you have to do is serve about once a month.
For through Faraha Fridays, Jesus will grow us a wooly coat of love, changing us from goats into sheep, as we serve others.

I don’t want to be an old goat.
I want to be a sheep.
For Jesus proclaims to us that, in his glory, he will separate the goats from the sheep.
The goats will go on his left.
The sheep will be on his right.
And Jesus will be in the middle.

Just as the bridges across the Brazos River are bringing new friends to us on Furaha Fridays,
Jesus is the bridge between the goats and the sheep.
Jesus is the bridge that leads us from living as selfish, self-serving, hairless goats.
And into a new life, living as serving, giving, wooly sheep.
Jesus changes us into people who serve the least of these in the world.
Jesus changes us into sheep.

In the Episcopal Church, when someone dies, we offer words from The Book of Common Prayer, from the liturgy of the Burial of the Dead.
Near the end of that beautiful funeral service, the priest stands at these chancel steps beside the body, if present, and says these words of commendation:

“O merciful Savior…
Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming.”

Jesus redeems me from my sins - by making me a sheep of his own fold, a lamb of his own flock.
Jesus rescues me from myself - by teaching me to serve the hungry, the jobless, the lonely and the least.
Jesus saves me from disturbing hair loss - by growing a wooly coat of love and service.

For I don’t want to be an old goat.
I want to be a sheep.


Sunday, November 6, 2011

The McRib & the Saints of God

Sermon from November 6, 2011
(All Saints’ Sunday – Year A)
Matthew 5: 1-12
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Waco, Texas

During this past week, several news stories have caused me to question a very important part of American life.
During this past week, I have been led to explore the identity and makeup of a mystery.
During this past week, I have been compelled to ask:
What is in a McRib?

The McRib is the pork sandwich at McDonald’s that first debuted in 1982.
The McRib has a devout following of disciples.
From TV commercials, it looks as if the McRib is a slab of pork ribs, smothered in BBQ sauce, garnished with pickles and onions and served on a hoagie roll.
The meat on the McRib is shaped so that you can actually see the indentation of ribs.

In 2005, however, McDonald’s discontinued the McRib from its regular menu.
Now the McRib comes out only for a season, only for a limited time of a few weeks.

However, the McRib is not at all what it seems.
The McRib does not actually have any ribs in it at all.
In fact, what looks like a slab of pork encasing several ribs, is actually pressed together animal parts such as pig organs and lips and other unmentionables.
There is not a single bone in a McRib.
Instead the “meat” is pressed together to give it a shape that just looks like ribs are present.

On October 24th of this year, the McRib returned again for its elusive appearance on McDonald’s menu.
And during this past week, I have been compelled to ask:
What is in a McRib?
And I have discovered that the McRib is not at all what it seems.

And in this season of All Saints, I have been compelled to ask:
What is in a saint?
And I have discovered that a saint is not at all what it seems.

When we ask:
What is in a saint?
We immediately think of the perfection of the saints, a perception of perfection that is fed by TV and movies and popular culture.

When exploring what is in a saint, we might come to the conclusion that saints are perfect people, people who are nice and sweet and destined to be angels in heaven.
Saints, we think, are the goody two shoes who never backtalk in the classroom and who are models of good manners.
Saints, we think, are smothered in a sweet and savory BBQ sauce, a delight to everyone.

In this last week, I have asked the question:
What is in a McRib?
And I have also asked the question:
What is in a saint?
And I have discovered that the McRib – and the saints of God - are not what they might seem.

If we want to know who the saints of God are, we can listen to Jesus’ careful description in his Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus climbs up a mountain, sits down and teaches us:

Blessed are you who are poor in spirit, who know you need God - for you are a saint.
Blessed are you who mourn, who are acquainted with grief - for you are a saint.
Blessed are you who are gentle in spirit, who do not answer your problems with violence - for you are a saint.
Blessed are you who hunger and thirst, who are starving for the intangibles of life - for you are a saint.
Blessed are you peacemakers, who keep the peace by forgiveness - for you are a saint.
Blessed are all of you when you live counter-culturally, when you protest against injustice and get made fun of because you are different and get bullied for standing up for the weird kid in your class - for you are saints.
Rejoice and be glad, for you are not perfect.
Rejoice and be glad, because you are already a saint of God, today.

What is in a saint?
Inside a saint are some messy ingredients that we might not expect.
A saint is not someone who is perfect, who flies around with the angels up in heaven.
A saint is a human being who is poor in spirit, sad, hungry, thirsty, persecuted and forgiving.
A saint is someone who can be a pain in the neck to the unjust establishment.
A saint is someone whose feet are firmly planted on this earth, bringing the kingdom of God among us.
A saint is someone whose head is not up in the clouds, but whose heart is bent toward the people who now live on this earth.

Maybe it is just about where I am right now spiritually.
But I have grown weary of a Christianity that is so preoccupied about what heaven will be like or about what will happen to us when we die or about when “the second coming” will be (which, by the way, the phrase ‘second coming’ is not even in the Bible).

Instead, just as I want to know the messy details of what is inside a McRib,
I yearn to truly know the messy, gross and earthy details of what is inside the saints of God who are on this earth.

For Christianity is not about the pristine and the perfect.
Christianity is about the messy and unpredictable people who live on this earth.
Christianity is not about us flying away to escape our humanity.
Christianity is about a God who comes among us, on this earth.
Christianity is about a God who makes us saints, saints who bring God’s kingdom to this earth.

And so we fervently pray to our Father:
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done.
On earth, as it is in heaven.

Last Thursday, the Waco Tribune-Herald wrote an unexpected article about a football player at McGregor High School.
When we picture a high school football player, we expect a guy who is big and tall and strong.
Yet, Isaac Villafana, who is a wide receiver, is only 3 feet 9 inches tall.
For several years, Isaac had been the team manager,
But for his senior year this year, he wanted to suit up.
So the coach allowed Isaac to be an active part of the team.

On the outside, it would seem that Isaac could never play football.
Yet even with his disabilities, Isaac completes all the drills and two-a-days with his teammates, not asking for any special treatment.
Isaac does not ask to be taken away from this cruel earth, with all its disabilities and messiness.
Instead, Isaac has brought the kingdom of God to this earth, as his presence among his teammates has transformed the hearts of the players on the McGregor football team.

Isaac Villafana is Jesus among us.
Isaac is a short, disabled wide receiver who brings God’s kingdom of love and forgiveness and acceptance and transformation down to this earth.
Isaac is an unexpected saint.

What is in a McRib?
What is in a saint?
It is certainly not what it seems.

For the saints of God are not perfect.
The saints of God are imperfect and disabled and messy people like you and me and the hundreds of people whose names are on the walls of St. Alban’s today.
The saints of God are the poor in spirit, the hungry, the sad, the persecuted, the troublemakers who bring God’s kingdom to this earth.

So rejoice and be glad that you are not perfect.
Rejoice and be glad that today - on this earth - you are a saint.


Monday, October 31, 2011


Sermon from October 30, 2011
(Pentecost 20 – Year A)
Matthew 23: 1-12
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Waco, Texas

I am a hypocrite.
And you are a hypocrite.
As hypocrites, you and I tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and we lay them on the shoulders of others.
As hypocrites, we do deeds to be seen by others.
As hypocrites, we love to have the best seats in the luxury box at the stadium.
As hypocrites, as human beings, we are burdened down and heavy laden.

Jesus says to us hypocrites:
“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it;
But do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.
They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others;
But they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.
They do all their deeds to be seen by others.
They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi.”

This morning, it would be much easier to hear Jesus’ words and to rationalize that these words are about someone else.
Those people: those nasty scribes and Pharisees who heap on heavy burdens of law.
Those bankers on Wall Street - who heap on heavy burdens of upside-down mortgages.
Those politicians in Washington - who heap on heavy burdens of tax codes.
Those mega church evangelists - who heap on heavy burdens of religion.

It is much easier to hear Jesus’ words and to make them apply to someone else.
Yet the burden of our hearts is that we are hypocrites in that we do not always practice what we preach.
And our inability to practice what we preach is a burden.

When I was in the 8th grade, the expectations regarding homework in school were different than what I experience in schools today.
In each one of my classes, we had homework most every single night.
In social studies and history, we had to keep up with current events by reading the newspaper and making a journal of current events.
In math class, we had pages of mathematical equations to solve.
In English class, we were reading novels every night.

In the winter of my 8th grade year, I got very sick with the flu.
I was out of school for more than a week.
My mother called up to the school to ask how I could keep up with my homework.
I had hoped that my illness would have relieved me of the burden of completing my assignments.

Yet my teachers did not relieve me of the burden of the assignments.
Instead, after school each day, my mother went to the school office and picked up a list of my missed assignments for the day.
I gave her the combination to my locker and she got out the books that I would need.
After my mom got home, she plopped the books and assignments and projects in my bedroom.
And shivering with fever, I would stare at the stack of books that was my burden.

As I looked at my burden of missed homework, my 8th grade teachers became scribes and Pharisees to me, tying up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and laying them on the shoulders of others, unwilling to lift a finger to move them.

All of us are burdened.
We are hypocrites.
We are sinners.
And our sins and our hypocrisy and our shortcomings are our burden.

Jesus uses the word ‘burden’ only twice in the Gospel of Matthew.
The first time occurs in today’s Gospel passage as Jesus teaches us:
“The scribes and the Pharisees tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others.”

And the only other time that Jesus uses the word ‘burden’ is when Jesus invites us by saying:
“Take my yoke upon me and learn from me...
For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

The yoke of our sin, the yoke of our hypocrisy, is a heavy burden.
Yet when we are yoked to Jesus, his burden is light.

I might be bursting your idyllic vision of the priesthood, but Jimmy and I work more than just one day a week than Sunday.
And the last two or three weeks, it seems like I have been working through a burdensome to-do list.
Like you, I acutely feel the burden of all the things that I must get done today:
The phone calls that must be returned, the emails that must be answered, the reports I must complete for the diocese, the bishop I must contact about confirmation this coming Wednesday, the All Saints’ Day worship leaflet that must be edited.
All of us can look at our daily lives and feel the burden, the stack of undone homework that sits beside our bed, the burdens of life that are hard to bear, with no one willing to lift a finger.

Yet our life in Jesus Christ is not defined by our hypocrisy and our burdens.
For when we take Jesus upon us,
Then Jesus’ yoke is easy and his burden light.

An old Sunday School song sings:
“Jesus took my burdens and he rolled them in the sea.”
Yet Jesus does not magically take my burdens and roll them into the sea.
But Jesus invites me take some time with him in quiet prayer and in public worship.
And when I am yoked to Jesus, he gives me his peace, peace in the midst of my burdens.

For me, I am yoked to Jesus when I go off to the gym and I pray and in my prayers I imagine Jesus sitting right beside me.
For me, I am yoked to Jesus when I worship at St. Alban’s, imagining Jesus worshiping and singing and eating at his table with me.
I imagine Jesus being yoked to me – being tied to me.
And Jesus takes away my burdens.
Jesus takes my burdens and he gives me his stillness and his peace in the midst of my hypocrisy, in the midst of my sins, in the midst of the unfinished stack of my burdens.

We hypocrites have come into the church this morning.
We hypocrites are scribes and Pharisees with heavy burdens, hard to bear, laying them on the shoulders of others, with no one willing to lift a finger.
We hypocrites are burdened with sin and with a stack of undone homework and with a to-do list a mile long.
The burden of these things is intolerable.

Yet Jesus comforts us hypocrites, inviting us to take his yoke upon us.
So in private prayer, tie yourself to Jesus.
In public worship, tie yourself to Jesus.

Come to Jesus, all you who are heavy laden.
And he will give you rest from your burden.


Thursday, October 27, 2011


The Rite One version of the liturgy of the Holy Eucharist uses the more ancient language. We usually use the more contemporary language of Rite Two at St. Alban’s. In that Rite One liturgy, a portion of last week’s Gospel passage is said near the beginning of the worship service. That portion is this:

“Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and greatt and first commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

When I was a child growing up in the church, that phrasing about “commandments hanging” conjured up all sorts of images for me. When I thought of something hanging, I thought of meat hanging on a hook or clothes hanging on a clothesline or a criminal hanging from the gallows. As a boy, the image of “hanging” was rich with possibilities.

All of us hang onto something. Some people hang everything on their success. Others hang everything on their hobbies or on sports. Others hang everything on their children or their pets. We all hang our lives on something.

Yet Jesus says to hang everything on our love of God. And hang everything on loving others. For on these two commandments of love, everything hangs.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Backside or Frontal Glory

Sermon from October 16, 2011
(Pentecost 18 – Year A)
Exodus 33: 12-23
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Waco, Texas

After the ancient Israelites make a golden calf as a replacement God in their impatience,
After Moses comes down from the mountain and gets angry with his people for making the golden calf,
After the Lord gets angry,
Then Moses and the Lord kiss and make up.

Moses and the Lord are back to being best buddies again.
So Moses makes a request of the Lord, saying:
“Show me your glory.”

And the Lord replies:
“I will make my goodness pass before you.”

But the Lord also warns Moses:
“You cannot see my face.
So as my glory passes by I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by.
Then I will take away my hand and you will only see my back, for my face shall not be seen.”

Moses requests that he see the glory of the Lord.
Yet Moses only gets a glimpse of God’s glory, seeing the backside of the Lord.

Back in 2004, President Ronald Reagan died after a long journey with Alzheimer’s.
Whether you were a fan of Reagan or not,
The Reagan era marked a definitive period in my own life, the period of my life that was the glory of my adolescence.

When Reagan first became President in 1981, I can remember watching his inauguration on a small TV in my classroom in high school.
I was in typing class, learning how to communicate using an ancient machine known as a typewriter.
By the time I got to my next class period that day, we learned that the great news that the American hostages had been released from Iran.
It truly felt like a new era had begun.

When Reagan left office in 1989, that was the year I got married, the beginning of another era in my life.
And in between those bookends of Reagan’s presidency, there was the movie Footloose (not the remake) and topsiders and legwarmers.
And the B-52s and Madonna and Michael Jackson were playing on my Sony Walkman.
The Reagan era represents the glory years of my growing up.

And so when Ronald Reagan died in 2004, it was during the very last week that our family lived in the Washington, DC area.
So to pay homage to the glory years of my adolescence, I decided to pay tribute by going into DC and watching the funeral procession of Ronald Reagan.

On that afternoon, I grabbed a good book and I headed to the Metro station.
I rode the subway into the District.
I walked to Constitution Avenue, with the United States Capitol to my right.
I found a good spot on the curb to sit and read my book while I waited for several hours for the funeral procession to begin.

Finally, as police and military personnel began to process down the avenue, I stood up to watch the funeral procession pass me by.
The riderless horse with backward boots in the stirrups passed me by.
The casket coach with Reagan’s flag draped coffin passed me by.
The limousine with Nancy Reagan inside then passed me by.
I did not get a chance to see her face, but I did catch a glimpse of the back of her head.

The glories of America’s past, the glories of the Reagan-era of my adolescence, all passed me by, all with only a peek at a flag-draped coffin and a glimpse of the back of a woman’s head.
Yet I was satisfied with just a glimpse of glory.
That evening, I rode the Metro back home to Alexandria, knowing that a glimpse of glory as it passes us by - might be all that we need.

For Moses had requested to see the glory of the Lord.
Yet Moses did not see the Lord face to face, but caught just a glimpse of the backside of the Lord.

In the beautiful prose of the first chapter of the Gospel of John, the writer proclaims:
“No one has ever seen God.
Yet it is God the only son, who is close to his Father’s heart, who has made him known.”

Two thousand years ago, there was another procession that marked the end of an era.
Two thousand years ago, the procession of Jesus carrying his cross marked the end of an era.
Between the bookends of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem and his death in Jerusalem, this era had not been marked by Michael Jackson’s music or by legwarmers.
But the Jesus era was marked by the healings of a Canaanite woman and a Roman man and by countless parables, marked by about a kingdom that includes everyone and marked by conversations with a questionable woman at the well.
Yet the Jesus era is now over - as Jesus carries his cross through the avenues of the capital city.

A black man named Simon from northern Africa, from Cyrene, has come to Jerusalem and catches a glimpse of the funeral procession.
Simon of Cyrene has ridden the subway to sit on the curb in Jerusalem that Friday morning.
As Jesus passes by, the shadow of a cross moves across Simon’s face.
A Roman policeman grabs Simon by the arm and he barks:
“You! You carry his cross the rest of his way!”

With sad and pleading eyes, Jesus allows Simon to take up his cross.
Looking squarely into Jesus’ eyes, Simon sees the crown of thorns.
Simon sees the arms of love that will soon bear the weight of crucifixion.
Looking into Jesus’ sweaty and blood-smeared face, Simon sees the full glory of the Lord.

Simon of Cyrene did not just see the backside of the Lord in a tiny glimpse, as Moses did.
Simon of Cyrene saw the full frontal assault of the glory of the Lord, the frontal assault of the Lord of love who walks the way of the Cross - for you and for me.

For no one has ever seen God.
Yet it is God the only son, who is close to his Father’s heart, who has made him known.

Like Moses, we ask to see God.
Like Moses, we can see just a glimpse of God, the backside of God’s glory, in a brilliant lakeside sunset or in the multitude of stars in the night sky.
Yet we see God face to face - when we look into the eyes of a single mother who is carrying her cross, working three jobs just to put food on the table for her children.

We can see just a glimpse of God when we hear a beautiful symphony or gaze at an amazing piece of art.
Yet we see God face to face - when we look into the eyes of an incarcerated man on death row who is carrying his cross, hoping for forgiveness for his sins.

For as the ancient theologian Irenaeus proclaimed:
“The glory of God is human beings fully alive.”

This morning, like Moses, we make our request of the Lord:
“Show us your glory.”
And yet the full glory of the Lord is human beings who are fully alive, fully alive by carrying their cross.

For the goodness of God will pass us by in procession, showing us a glimpse of the backside of his glory.
Yet if you want to see all of God’s amazing glory, face to face, then join the funeral procession and take up your cross.

If you want to see God face to face,
Then look into the eyes of your fellow human beings, carrying the daily sorrow and pain of their cross.

If you want to see God face to face,
Then look into the eyes of Jesus - on his glorious Cross.


Tuesday, October 11, 2011

iPods & iDols

Sermon from October 9, 2011
(Pentecost 17 – Year A)
Exodus 32: 1-14
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Waco, Texas

Three weeks ago, our garage door broke down, as the garage door refused to open or close.
For a few days, we worked around the malfunction by parking our cars outside of the garage.

Yet after a few days of this, I decided to have the garage door fixed.
I picked an afternoon when I did not have to be in the church office so that I could be at home all afternoon for a repairperson to come.

On my computer, I googled “Waco garage doors” and I found a repair company to call.
I explained to the repair company that I needed to have the garage door fixed, specifically on the afternoon that I would be at home.
I was assured by the company that a repairman would call me that afternoon, before 2 pm.

So on the scheduled afternoon, I waited patiently at home for the phone call.
However, two o’clock came and went.
And yet I did not hear from the garage door repair man.
At 2:15, I called the repair company back.
Yet no one answered the phone.
At 2:30, I called again.
Yet no one answered the phone.

In my frustration, I feared that my afternoon would be wasted - and that no one would ever come to repair our garage door.
So in my impatience and frustration, I googled other garage door repair companies in Waco.
I searched for someone - for anyone - to come and fix our garage door.

Finally, just when I had found someone else who said they could be at my house around 3:30, my other line beeped in.
On the other phone line was the original repairman, saying that he was on his way over.
This original repairman said to me on the phone:
“I am so glad that you did not get impatient and give up on me.”

To my chagrin, I hated to admit that I had become impatient and I had given up on him.
In my desire for instant gratification, I had searched for someone else.
In my impatience, I had searched for a replacement to fix my problem.

In the book of Exodus in the Old Testament, the Israelites are impatient.
Their leader, Moses, has disappeared up the mountain, up the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments.

Moses is gone for a very, very long time.
The one true God had delivered the people from their bondage in Egypt through the Red Sea.
Yet Moses and the message of their one true God are now out of sight and out of mind.
So the Israelites become impatient.
2 o’clock comes, then 2:15, then 2:30, with no sign of a repairman, with no sign of Moses’ return.

So in the Israelite’s impatience, they do a google search for a new god to worship who will come to them right away.
And the google search comes back with instructions on how to find a replacement god - by making a golden calf.
So Moses’ assistant, Aaron, tells the people to take off all their gold jewelry.
Aaron makes a mold in the shape of a calf.
The Israelites throw their gold into the fire and the melted gold is pour into the mold.
Out of the mold comes a golden calf.
The Israelites now have a replacement god to worship.
The Israelites now have a new god that you do not have to wait on, a god that satisfies their impatience and their desire for instant gratification.

Last week, Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple Computer, died at a tragically young age.
I was a bit surprised by the depth of reaction to Steve Job’s death, reactions that I read on facebook wall posts.
Some of these messages portrayed Steve Jobs in almost messianic terms.
These facebook posts said things like:
“Steve Jobs changed my life.”
“Steve Jobs changed my world forever.”

In thinking about why people speak of Steve Jobs in language that I would only use to describe Jesus Christ, I began to reflect on why Steve Jobs and the age of personal computing have become our golden calf, a golden calf that even I have participated in worshiping.

Years ago, right after I was in junior high school, my best friend moved with his family to London.
To stay in touch with my friend, I would take a sheet of very thin paper, paper designed specifically for letters that were sent via airmail.
I would use this piece of paper to write my friend a letter, putting several stamps on the envelope.
I was well-prepared that it would take 7 to 10 days for that letter to arrive in London.
And I knew that it would take at least another 7 to 10 days before I could expect a response via international airmail.

Yet today, I can send an email to London - and the message arrives in just a few seconds.
And if I do not receive a response back in a few hours, I begin to wonder if something is wrong.

The age of the personal computer has affected the level of my impatience.
Technology satisfies my desire for instant gratification.

Years ago, there were people who I went to high school with, classmates with whom I was perfectly comfortable seeing only once every 10 years, at our 10, 20 & 30-year reunions.
Today, however, with the facebook newsfeed on my iphone, I can now wake up each day knowing exactly what the men and women of the Class of 1982 are eating for breakfast that morning.

Yes, it is true, Steve Jobs and personal computers have changed the world forever.
Technology has dramatically fed our desire for instant gratification and affected our impatience.

And iphones and ipods and ipads can become i-dols.
Technology can be the golden calf of our generation, a new god to worship.
Technology can create a replacement god that you do not have to wait on, a god that soothes our impatience.

Yet in my own spiritual life, the one true God, the God who delivers me from bondage, does not abide by my schedule.
The God who delivers us through Jesus Christ does not satisfy my desire for instant gratification.

Instead, in my own spiritual life, God can be infuriating, infuriating in that God makes me wait.
Yet God seems to work in my life most powerfully when I am waiting, sometimes impatiently, for the Lord to come back down from the mountain.
My times of greatest spiritual growth and formation are when I am waiting on the Lord, waiting on my God to surprise me, in the fullness of God’s time.

For it is inscribed in the wood above the altar here at St. Alban’s:
“They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength.”

And it is in the long, 40-year wanderings in the wilderness that the ancient Israelites wait and grow and trust in the Lord.
It is in the fullness of God’s time, not our own schedules, that we are surprised by grace.
It is in the fullness of God’s time that the original repairman calls to say:
“I am so glad that you did not get impatient and give up on me.”

Fellow wanderers in the wilderness:
Do not make false idols of instant gratification.
In your impatience, do not make a golden calf.

But in your impatience – wait.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Surpasses All Understanding

One of the most compelling phrases in the scriptures appeared in yesterday’s reading from the Letter to the Philippians as the Apostle Paul writes: “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”

I have experienced this peace before, this peace which surpasses all understanding. Have you?

I have seen this kind of peace in a hospital room, when the tubes have been removed from a terminally ill patient and the heart monitor goes to a flat line. There is God’s peace in the room. How? I don’t know. It surpasses all understanding.

I have experienced this peace before, when I finally made the leap to let go of the control over my life – and to let God lead me into the ordained ministry. I had worried and fretted about this leap of faith and had no idea how I would support my family on my wife’s teacher salary. Yet I felt God’s peace. How? I don’t know. It surpasses all understanding.

I hope and pray that you experience this peace, God’s peace. It is not the kind of peace that means the absence of war or problems or troubles. God’s peace is different. How? I can’t explain it. But I do know that it surpasses all understanding.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Against the Tide of Getting

It was a joy for Jimmy (our assistant rector) and me to participate in the Gratitude Gatherings last month. He and I attended, between the two of us, all 13 gatherings. With ovur 140 people in our church, we were able to share, in more intimate settings, the blessings that God has given us.
At these gatherings, people divided into small groups of 3 or 4 people to ponder these two statements:
1. Tell us about a time when you gave, up to or to the point of sacrifice.
2. Tell us about what you are grateful and thankful for.

As I participated in the gatherings, I noted that most of you were quite comfortable to share regarding the second statement, about what you are grateful for. Yet about the first statement, about giving and about sacrifice, some were a bit stumped.

Many of us have been the recipients of giving, of giving to the point of sacrifice. Some of us had parents who sacrificed much to give us a college education. A very few in this congregation have experienced the gracious giving of an organ donor, walking around now with a donated kidney in their bodies. We have been blessed beyond measure; we are the recipients of sacrificial giving. Yet we are not only to be receivers, but givers.

However, the messages that we hear all around us tell us the opposite. Every single day we are bombarded with: “Look out for #1” and “The one with the most toys wins” and “It’s all about me.” It takes a monumental force to push against the tidal wave of consumerism and consumption. It takes a huge effort to go against the grain of self-absorption. It takes Jesus.

Jesus says to us: “If you want to save your life, you must give it away.” Jesus teaches us: “There is no greater love than giving away one’s life for a friend.” Then Jesus puts his money where his mouth is - by opening up his arms on the hard wood of the cross.

At St. Alban’s, we provide avenues to practice a new life of giving, of giving up to the point of sacrifice. You can sacrifice your Sunday mornings at 9:00 AM - by helping our children in Godly Play. You can sacrifice your money – by giving it away to God’s work and writing a seemingly ridiculous amount on your pledge card. You can sacrifice your pride - by trying out a new thing by singing in the choir or reading scripture publicly. Yet it takes Jesus, and his example, to get us to giving to the point of sacrifice.

I am so pleased that we are a grateful and thankful parish. Now I want us to go deeper in following Jesus’ call - and to push against the tide of receiving and getting. For new and resurrected life comes when we take up our cross and when we give - up to or to the point of sacrifice.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


Reflection on September 11, 2011
(A Service for Peace)
John 14:27
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Waco, Texas

Jesus says to us:
“Peace is my last gift to you, my own peace I now leave with you;
Peace which the world cannot give.”

Ten years ago this morning, I was searching for peace.
I was searching for the peace which the world cannot give.
On September 11, 2001, I was 37 years old with a wife and two small children, all of whom I had just uprooted 4 weeks before.
I had just resigned my position as the CFO of a benefits and trust company.
And a moving van had just recently carried all of our possessions away.

Ten years ago, I was a brand new student at the Virginia Theological Seminary, near Washington, DC.
I had never preached a sermon in my life.
I had never performed a baptism or gone on a hospital visit.
Yet I was searching for peace, the peace which I knew, I knew, that the world could not give me.

On that clear sunny Tuesday morning, a classmate told me that a plane had crashed in New York City.
With other classmates, I huddled around a tv set in the student lounge.
Then a large sonic boom shook the buildings and the windows.
We ran outside, searching the skies, not realizing that we had just heard the Pentagon explosion just a few miles away.
The sound of sirens filled the air and all of us headed into the seminary chapel for prayer and for hymns.

On that day, Susan had students in her classroom with parents who were in the Pentagon.
My sons, who were 10 and 7 at the time, remember being at their classroom desks, feeling the sound of Flight 77 shake the windows.

Desperate to find my peace and to give sacrificially, I drove frantically around Washington, DC, trying to give blood.
I drove down I-395 with my windows down, with the smoke from the Pentagon filling my car.

When I finally got to Susan’s school late that afternoon, I cried.
I cried for two reasons:
God had turned the interior of our lives upside down by calling me to be God’s priest.
And now it seemed that the exterior of our lives was being turned upside down as well - as God had moved our family into the epicenter of this horror.

Yet Jesus says to us:
My peace I give to you.
Peace which the world cannot give.

In the last 10 years, I have found an interior peace that I did not have on September 11, 2001.

In the last 10 years, my marriage has grown stronger and deeper, as I have found great peace through my wonderful wife – my wife who has sacrificed so much for me.
In the last 10 years, my sons, whom many predicted would grow up to be screwed up “preacher’s kids” - are now incredible young men.
In the last 10 years, I have discovered that I am a pretty good priest - who can actually preach a decent sermon, on occasion.
In the last 10 years, I have discovered an inner peace, a peace which our suburban dream house never gave, a peace that my job never gave, a peace that I cannot receive from things.

And this inner peace only comes - from Jesus living within me.

Today I remember the smoke, the sirens, the sonic boom of that September morning.
But most of all today, I give thanks.
I give thanks that Jesus has given me his last gift.
I give thanks that Jesus has given me something that the world cannot give.
I give thanks that Jesus has given me - his peace.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Group Project

Sermon from September 4, 2011
(Pentecost 12 – Year A)
Matthew 18: 15-20
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Waco, Texas

When I was a boy in school, I really did love school work.
I was eager to learn and diligent in doing my homework.
I got especially energized by school projects.
I enjoyed delivering book reports about Tom Sawyer or about the life of Thomas Jefferson.
In science, I remember a project on the respiratory system where I used two plastic baggies to simulate the work of human lungs.
In social studies, I used scrap plywood to construct a map of Washington, DC, using blue paint for water and green paint for land.
I really liked it when my teacher would exclaim:
“Class, I have a wonderful project for you to work on all by yourself!”

Yet I did not like it when my teacher would proclaim:
“I have a very special project for you to work on.
And this project - is to be a group project!”

At the mention of a group project, the classroom would erupt in with squeals of delight.
Yet I remained stoic and skeptical.

Now I hope that by now you know that I do love people.
But I did not like working on group school projects.

In group school projects, I always felt like I ended up doing the majority of the work - without getting the majority of the credit.
Invariably, there was kid in my group who figured out that he could just coast by and do nothing.
Invariably, there was kid in my group who thought that her ideas were better than mine.
In the midst of those group projects, in my mind, I wanted to kick out the non-productive kid.
I wanted to kick out the bossy kid.
I wanted to kick out the kid who got on my nerves.
I just did not like group school projects.

Yet living in Christian community is much like a group school project.
And Jesus teaches us how to handle when we have a problem with someone in our group.

Jesus says that if we have a problem with someone,
Before kicking them out, we should have a one-on-one conversation with them.

Then if that doesn’t work, bring others into the conversation.
And if that doesn’t work, then bring the whole classroom into the conversation.

Since I am a person who enjoys clear directions on projects, I am really liking Jesus’ methodical and clear cut ways of dealing with conflict.
As I listen to Jesus’ directions, I am just itching for a good reason for the ax to fall and to get rid of the problem children.

Yet Jesus then gets a big grin on his face.
He looks into the self-righteous eyes of his students, students who are looking for an honorable way to get rid of people.
And Jesus says:
“If all of those steps do not work, then treat the other kids in your group as Gentiles and tax collectors.”

My heart sinks.
For how does Jesus treat lazy Gentiles and know-it-all tax collectors?
Jesus does the exact opposite of kicking out the Gentiles and tax collectors.
Instead, Jesus treats Gentiles and tax collectors with extra grace and extra care.

So now it sounds like I must learn to work on the group science project with the girl who smacks her bubble gum and twists her hair.
And it sounds like I must learn to work with the boy who is dyslexic and has trouble reading the textbook.
It sounds like I must learn to work together on the group project of the Christian journey – instead of kicking anyone out.
It sounds like we are stuck with each other.

Our concept of church is different than the concept of the Christian community in the first century.
We tend to think of church as an activity on Sundays, maybe with some worship and education during the week in the St. Alban’s community.
In this 21st century, we have the option of keeping our church relationships and our everyday relationships separate.

However, church in the first century was not separate from the community that you lived in.
In the early days, church was where you cooked together, prayed together, worked in the fields together, shared wine over dinner together and blew out the candles at the end of a long day together.
Most likely, the church community that the writer of the Gospel of Matthew was addressing was more like a group school project on steroids.

And Jesus says to this faith community:
“To those who offend you, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
To those who offend you, show them extra grace and extra care.
For truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in eternity.”

We are bound to each other on earth.
We are stuck with each other for eternity.

Today we are baptizing James Lane Hughes.
We are binding another person into our faith community, a person whom we will give extra grace and care to.

And Jamie is being assigned a group project.
In this group project of love, Jamie is to work with us to love God and to love his neighbors.
Jamie is making a covenant.
And we are making a covenant.
This baptismal covenant will bind him to us and will bind us to him, on this earth and into eternity.
Jamie doesn’t know it yet, but he is stuck with us.

And as Jamie grows up, he will learn how to walk the Christian journey, yet not as his own private project.
Instead Jamie will walk the Christian journey together with us, as a group.

Because when we get tired of each other and disputes get heated, we have bound ourselves to Jesus and to each other.
When we get on each other’s nerves, we have promised to treat each other as Gentiles and tax collectors.
We have promised to show extra grace and care to each other, in God’s grand group project of love.

I would imagine that there are people in your life whom you might like to kick out of your group project:
The lazy co-worker who always comes in late to work and who always leaves work 15 minutes early.
The strange cousin who overstays his welcome and never says thank you for anything.
The old friend who is always asking to borrow money from you and yet who never repays a dime.

And Jesus says that if a brother or sister offends you, then have a conversation.
And if that doesn’t work, don’t kick them out, but treat them as a Gentile or a tax collector, with extra grace and love.

You see, the Christian faith and life is not lived and practiced as our own individual project.
In our Baptism, we are bound together.
We are stuck with each other.

For Jesus, our teacher, does not say:
“I have a wonderful project for you to work on all by yourself!”

But Jesus proclaims:
“I have a special project for you to work on.
And this project - is a group project.”


Wednesday, September 7, 2011


Jesus teaches us: “Look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. (John 4:35)”

Last year, Bishop Doyle asked me to lead an exciting new venture, a “Greenfield Initiative,” by chairing a new Greenfield Commission. I have been leading this Greenfield Commission, a creative bunch that includes 8 clergy from all over our diocese. Yet our name - “greenfield” - brings about many questions as to the meaning of that word.

Evangelism in the greenfield means looking around you and seeing how the fields are ripe for harvesting. Greenfield evangelism does not mean knocking on unknown doors and passing out paper pamphlets about Jesus. Greenfield evangelism does not mean staying inside our churches and waiting for people to come to us, just because we have an attractive sign out front with our worship service times.

Greenfield evangelism means looking around at the places where you gather right now – and then seeing how the field is ripe for harvesting. Your greenfield might be a yoga class that you have attended for years. Your greenfield might be the group of guys that you go deer hunting with every fall. Your greenfield might be: a book club, the parents on your son’s football team, the college students on the floor of your dorm, the early risers with whom you power walk with every morning, the people who you meet for happy hour after work.

These are the greenfields that are ripe for the harvest. Then, in your greenfield, just open your mouth and share your story. And the harvest will come, in ways that we could never ask for or imagine.

Bishop Doyle is hosting a Conference on Evangelism at Camp Allen for the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. The conference will be Friday, November 11 – Saturday, November 12. Jimmy and I will be there; please come and join us. You can register at If you come, I believe that you will learn to look around you, to find the greenfields in your life. You will learn how to share your story more effectively, so that the harvest of Jesus’ message of love will come, in ways that we could never ask for or imagine.

A video will be shown at the conference, highlighting the exciting challenge of the Greenfield Initiative. Our St. Alban’s Bible Study at Barnett’s Pub (the study begins again on Tuesday, September 27!) will be featured, an example of harvesting outside of the church buildings and into the ripe fields.

Where is your greenfield? Just look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Earth and All Stars: Sing to the Lord a New Song

Psalm 96 begins: “Sing to the Lord a new song!” It is a good thing to learn a new song, especially as a new fall season is upon us. It is good to sing a new song as we bless students, teachers, professors, administrators and other school personnel today in our worship.

At the 10:00 AM worship service this Sunday, we are singing a new song, a hymn that might be new to many of you: “Earth and All Stars” (Hymn 412). The hymn is a series of calls to creation, humanity, music and human endeavors, all of whom are to “sing to the Lord a new song.” The words were written by Herbert Brokering in 1964, originally for the 90th anniversary of St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. With the academic world in mind, Brokering even imagined that the campus life praises the Lord, with “classrooms and labs, loud boiling test tubes” and bands and athletes (see verse 5) all singing a new song to the Lord.

As a new year begins in our academic calendar, please notice all the people, places and things around you that are giving praise to God, singing a new song about God’s marvelous things. I believe that a deep spiritual life is about paying attention - and trying a new thing - and singing a new song to the Lord.

For God “has done marvelous things. I, too, will praise him with a new song!”

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Lifelong Learner

Sermon from August 14, 2011
(Pentecost 9 – Year A)
Matthew 15: 10-28
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Waco, Texas

There are some people who say that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
But there is something that I really like about people who don’t think that they are too old to learn something new.

In Time magazine this last week, I read about a 94-year old woman named Clara Cannucciari who has started her own cooking show.
In her cooking show, Clara demonstrates the recipes that she learned during the 1930s, when the Great Depression made folks utilize cost-cutting measures to stretch a meal on a tight budget.
Clara’s cooking show is on YouTube and it is called:
“Great Depression Cooking with Clara.”

A 94-year old great grandmother who starts her own cooking show certainly proves that you can teach an old dog new tricks.
Either that or it proves that America will watch just about anything.

I sometimes wonder:
When did Jesus stop learning?
Did Jesus ever get to the point where you couldn’t teach that old dog some new tricks?

In the passage from the Gospel of Matthew that we have to tackle this morning, Jesus is not portrayed in a very positive light.
Jesus is presented as an old dog who can’t learn a new trick.

Jesus goes away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.
A Canaanite woman approaches Jesus and shouts:
“Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David;
My daughter is tormented by a demon!”

Now Canaanites and Jews were enemies for centuries and centuries.
When the Hebrew people entered the Promised Land after they had escaped from Egypt, their “promised land” was not empty, but was instead inhabited by Canaanites.

We sometimes assume that the American West in the 1800s was empty and ready for our “Manifest Destiny.”
Yet the American “promised land” was filled with native Americans, people who already inhabited the land.
We then killed or put onto reservations those native Americans in order to take over our “promised land.”

The Hebrew people had done the same to the Canaanites, taking over the Promised Land, beginning with the battle that Joshua fought, the battle where the walls came a-tumblin’ down.

You see, when the Aggies bolt from the Big 12 to join the SEC, they will still sing about sawing our horns off,
And the Canaanites and the Jews still have bad blood between them.

Anyway, a Canaanite woman approaches Jesus to heal her daughter.
Jesus’ followers retort:
“Send her away, for she keeps shouting at us.”
Yet the Canaanite woman gets on her knees and pleads:
“Lord, help me!”

And then Jesus does not respond very well.
Jesus utters an unfortunate statement, a rigid statement that shows that he is unwilling to learn a new trick, as Jesus stares at the Canaanite woman on her knees and says:
“It is not fair to take the children’s food, [the food for Jews only], and to throw it to the dogs.”
Yet with a gleam in her eye, even after just being called a dirty dog, the Canaanite woman teaches Jesus a new trick, as she replies:
“Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumb’s under the masters’ table.”

Now I could be getting myself into theological hot water here, but I do believe that Jesus was a lifelong learner.
From boyhood into adulthood, Luke’s Gospel tells us that Jesus grew in wisdom and in years.[1]
In his life, Jesus learned.

It is a tough thing to wrap our brains around the idea that Jesus is the Son of God,
And yet did Jesus know that the earth was round before scientists did?
Did Jesus know Einstein’s theory of relativity?
Or did Jesus continue to learn about the world and about people well into his adulthood?

It is my belief that Jesus was a lifelong learner.
It is my belief that Jesus grew in wisdom.
It is my belief that over Jesus’ lifetime he had to unlearn living as an exclusive and rigid Jew,
So that he could learn to be an inclusive and loving Savior.

And if Jesus can learn how to treat a Canaanite woman like a person instead of a dog,
If Jesus can learn a new trick,
If Jesus can be a lifelong learner,
Then I can be a lifelong learner, as well.

This summer while on vacation, Susan encouraged me to read the book called The Help.
And yesterday, I saw the screenplay version of The Help at the theater.
It is an excellent book and a great movie.

The story of The Help is told through the eyes of black domestic maids in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1963.
It is a time when black-skinned people were treated like dogs, many times even worse than dogs.

As I sat in the movie theater yesterday, I was taken back to that time.
Back to a time when my grandma’s maid, Elsie, used to fry up the best friend chicken I have ever tasted.
Back to a time where accusing the maid of stealing the sterling silver was explained as “that’s what those people do.”
Back to a time romanticized as 1960s glamour, with turquoise cars and Jackie Kennedy style.
Yet also back to a time when human beings were forced to use different water fountains and different toilets and different schools, just because of the color of their skin.

The book and the movie called The Help took me back to a time when the Canaanite woman, the black housemaid, pleaded on her knees at our feet, screaming:
“Please, help me!”

And as individuals and as a society, we did not respond well in 1963, but we responded with the unfortunate statement:
“It is not fair to take the children’s food, the food for whites only, and to throw it to the dogs.”

Yet the lifelong learners heard the perseverance of our African-American brothers and sisters.
Those who were open to new learning heard the Canaanite woman reply:
“Yes, Lord, yet even the dog’s eat the crumbs that fall from the white man’s table.”

And with Jesus, we unlearn judgmental and prejudiced behavior.
With Jesus, we learn to respond to everyone, everyone:
“Sister, brother, great is your faith!
Let it be done for you as you wish!”

You see, in every generation, in every era, in every time, Canaanite women have begged to sit at the table with us.
As I sat in that movie theater yesterday, tears ran down my cheeks as I watched the pain of a black maid pleading for a seat at the table.
Tears ran down my cheeks because I know that a part of my calling as a priest in God’s Church is to give a voice, voice to those in every generation who have begged for just a crumb under God’s table.
My calling is to unlearn the mindset of a white male from the South.
My calling is to stand in this pulpit and to fight:
Fight for the lonely, for those who are bullied because they are different, for the undocumented Mexican aliens, for the uninsured, for the constantly-persecuted Jews.

Tears ran down my cheeks in that movie theater because I know that my calling as a Christian is to give everyone, everyone a seat at God’s table.
For we are not worthy to gather up the crumbs under God’s table, yet all of God’s children, all of them, are to be fed.

I believe that Jesus was taught by a Canaanite woman, a woman whom he had just called a dog.
And as a lifelong learner, Jesus was taught a new trick:
To open up a seat at God’s table - for all.

And I believe that you and I are taught by the Canaanite woman, taught by maids in Mississippi, by the people whom we might treat as dogs.
And as a lifelong learner, us old dogs are taught a new trick:
To open up a seat at God’s table – for all.


[1] Luke 2:52

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Anxious Times

I have been hearing a lot of anxious comments and concerns lately. News of S&P’s downgrade of U.S. debt, riots in the United Kingdom, congressional dysfunction, stock market craziness, speculation on candidates for the next presidential election – all of these things can and do raise our anxiety levels.

As a Christian, it helps me to think back to what things were like when Jesus walked the earth. Jesus lived in a country that was occupied by a hostile power, taxes were insanely exorbitant to fund Roman debt and expenditures, corruption and prostitution were rampant, puppet governors ruled - and women and children were not even counted in biblical measures of people. In Jesus’ world, I imagine that anxiety levels were high.

So what is a Christian to do in the face of anxious times? The Apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome in very anxious times: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect (12:2).”

Do not conform and get sucked into the mass hysteria and anxiety of the times. Instead, be transformed – changed – by the renewing of our minds and hearts. Let us reform and renew the face of the earth through what is good and loving, beginning with the reforming of our own hearts.

The message for us in anxious times, I believe, is not to conform to this world, but to reform this world - by doing justice, by loving mercy and by walking humbly with our God.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Jesus Scares Me, This I Know

Sermon from August 7, 2011
(Pentecost 8 – Year A)
Matthew 14: 22-33
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Waco, Texas

Jesus can be a pretty scary guy.
While Jesus goes up to the top of a mountain to pray by himself, Jesus makes his followers get into a boat.
The boat gets caught up in high winds.
And waves crash over the boat carrying the disciples.

And that’s when Jesus really gets scary.
After 3 o’clock in the morning, Jesus comes walking toward the boat, walking on the water.
The disciples cry out in total fear:
“Help, it’s a ghost!”

Sometimes you just have to listen to the scriptures with an ear for dry humor.
Because Peter then asks this “ghost”:
“Lord, is that you?”

Like who else do you know who walks on water at 3:00 AM and scares the living daylights out of you?

So Jesus responds:
“Who else do you think it is, you knucklehead?
Now get out of that boat and walk to me.”

As Peter steps out of the boat, he becomes distracted by the wind.
Peter then starts to sink – and he panics in fear.
Yet Jesus reaches out his hand – and he catches Peter.

When Jesus and his followers all get back into the boat, the wind stops.
Those in the boat then worship Jesus, as Peter and the other disciples continue the journey, the walk from fear to worship.
For the walk to Jesus across the water begins with fear.

My deep encounters with Jesus almost always begin with fear.
Some of you might not realize this, but I get apprehensive before I preach.
I was especially apprehensive in this last week, as we had 3 funerals at St. Alban’s.
I stepped into this pulpit 3 times in the last several days to deliver very different funeral sermons each time, sermons that I hoped would honor Jesus, as well as honor the life of the deceased.

As I sat with my laptop to write each one of those sermons, I was afraid, afraid that I would preach with words that might convey distorted beliefs about death and resurrection.
As I walked up the aisle to begin the liturgy of the burial of the dead, my palms were sweaty and I felt as if I just seen a ghost walking toward me upon the waters.
As I stepped into the pulpit, I was afraid, afraid that I would mess up or lose it or say something that would discredit Jesus’ message of resurrection and love.

Also, you might not know this, but each and every Sunday, when I get ready to step into this pulpit, I am afraid.
I am afraid because I know the weight and responsibility of preaching the Word of God.
I am afraid because I know that God might be asking me to say something to you that could make you upset or make you not like me anymore.
When I preach, I am afraid, afraid because I know that I will encounter Jesus, the Son of God.
For the walk to Jesus across the water begins with fear.

And Jesus knows that he can be a pretty scary guy.
When the angels announce his birth in Bethlehem, the shepherds who are keeping watch over their flocks by night - are sore afraid.
When Jesus tells his followers that that must take up their cross daily – they are afraid.
Even when God raises Jesus from the dead, the first reaction of the women when they meet the resurrected Jesus – is that they are afraid.

It is okay if Jesus scares the livin’ daylights out of us.
It is okay to be afraid of the difficult things that Jesus asks us to do.
Because the walk to Jesus across the water begins with fear.

Every Sunday, I am a little scared and a bit nervous before worship begins.
And as you walk into St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, I want you to be afraid, as well.
I want you to feel like you have just seen a ghost, walking on the water to you.
I want you to call out:
“Jesus, is that you who is walking toward me from across the water?”

And through the worship service, through the reading of scripture, through the sermon, through the music, through the prayers, through the bread and wine, Jesus will call back to you:
“Yes, it’s me, you knucklehead!
Now get out of that boat and walk to me.”

After you encounter the Holy Ghost,
After you take a risk by stepping out of the boat,
After you begin to sink because of second thoughts,
Jesus will clutch your hand and raise you up.

And then, you will be moved from a place of fear - to a place of worship and love.
For the walk to the worship of Jesus begins with fear.

In the worship leaflet this morning, you will see an increased number of announcements, announcements about activities and programs that are beginning to ramp up as we enter the fall season.
I want you to read about these opportunities and events – and be a little scared.
I want you to feel as if you have just seen a ghost, a ghost walking to you on the water, as you ask these questions:

Is that you, Jesus, who is asking me to go to a Bible study when I feel confused by the Bible?
Is that you, Jesus, who is asking me to pack up a backpack for some kid I have never met, when I have so many things to do this August?
Is that you, Jesus, who is asking me to go to Sunday school, when I like to sleep late on Sundays?
Is that you, Jesus, who is asking me to sign up for a Gratitude Gathering later this month – when I have no idea whom I will meet there?

Despite these 105-plus degree temperatures, the fall season in the church is upon us.
And this fall, my hope is that each one of you will try something new and a bit scary.
My hope is that each of you will step out of the boat and get your feet wet.
My hope is that you will start to sink – so that you can experience that it is only Jesus who reaches out his hand to raise you up.
This fall, my hope is that we will take new risks to walk on the water with Jesus.

For if you are not a just a little bit scared,
If your palms are not sweaty and your face is not as white as a ghost,
If you are not trembling with fear as you follow Jesus to the cross,
Then maybe your God is not big enough.

You see, it is okay is to approach the Son of God with trembling and fear.
But you do have to take the first step and get out of the boat.
And then Jesus will lift you up - to walk in trust and love.

Jesus loves me, this I know.
And Jesus scares me, this I also know.

For the walk to Jesus across the water
Begins - with fear.


Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Let's Get this Party Started!

I think that the TV show, Modern Family, is hilarious. In an episode of Modern Family last spring, the brainy daughter, Alex, was preparing to give a commencement speech to her classmates. Alex was preparing to give a rather academic and serious speech with lofty platitudes. However, Alex’s older and more social sister advised her that effective graduation speeches only need to include this one line: Let’s get this party started!

People of St. Alban’s: Let’s get this party started! Even though the temperatures are still soaring, the time for vacations, rest and relaxation is coming to a close. As August dawns, new signs of life are popping up all around St. Alban’s as we prepare for a new academic year, as we prepare to give thanks to God for everything.

Jesus himself certainly knew the value of celebration and thanksgiving. Jesus continually uses language about feasts and celebration and times of thanksgiving. Jesus knew how to get this party started by changing water into wine and by telling a story about two sons, the wayward son being welcomed home by a celebration that included a fatted calf on the BBQ grill.

In our daily lives, it is appropriate to set aside time to celebrate, to give thanks, to count our blessings. You will have an opportunity to reflect on gratitude and blessings at “Gratitude Gatherings” in late August and early September. These one-time gatherings will include 10-12 people, will meet in a variety of locations, and will enable you to get to know other folks here better. I expect everyone to be a part of a Gratitude Gathering, as we get this party started.

Also, at St. Alban’s, we now have almost twice as many people in our worshipping community than we did 5 years ago. It is now time to start new ministries to be involved in - and you are going to get them started. Men’s outreach ministries, at-home parishioner visitation teams, parent gatherings, Bible study groups, softball teams, women’s prayer groups: I don’t care what you start – let’s just get this party started!

In August, we will have plenty of opportunities to celebrate, to learn and to give thanks. We will conduct the Blessing of the Backpacks & Bookbags, backpacks for others will be stuffed with supplies, a new structure for Children & Youth Formation will commence, Bible study will resume, St. Awesome’s young adult community will have dinner together at the Abbott’s, the choir will re-gather for awesome music, Gratitude Gatherings will be organized, a Fajita Fiesta will welcome everyone home – and we will even learn about Old Chicks without Beards!

So, St. Alban’s, let’s get this party started!