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!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

They are Israelites...

People will ask me on occasion: What should Christians think about people who are Jewish? In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul answers this question directly in the 9th chapter, from which we read last Sunday in our worship.

About those who are born as Jews, Paul writes this: “They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen. (9:4-5)”

Jesus was and is Jewish. And the Jewish people are God’s chosen people, forever. The good news of Jesus Christ is that God opens up to all people the power to become God’s chosen people.

I was not born into a Jewish family. Yet through my baptism into the family of Jesus, I am now one of God’s chosen people, as well! To all of us who are baptized into God’s family, now to us, also, belongs the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. God blessed forever. Amen!