Sunday, January 18, 2009

Can anything good come out of Brockton?

Compare and contrast the two sermons I preached on these same texts, three years apart.

In 2009, the excitement of the pending inauguration was on my mind; in 2006, the urgency of discerning the mission of St. Paul's Church: What was God calling this little church to be and to do in Brockton. Read on ...

Epiphany 2-B

January 18, 2009

Samuel 3:1-10

Psalm 139: 1-5-12-17

1 Corinthians 6: 12-20

John 1:43-51

Our Old Testament lesson, from the First Book of Samuel, is about a change in leadership. An old regime has proved to be corrupt and inept and has lost its connection with God, who calls out to a newcomer, a young boy who does not even know what he is hearing, for the next generation of leadership in hard times.

Sound familiar?

It’s an exciting week in America, and I’ve been watching a lot of the pre-inauguration coverage. I’ve been re-reading President-elect Obama’s speeches, especially his important speech on race and his election night speech. Believe me: I am not going to equate Obama with Samuel, or the Democratic Party’s victory with the divine hand of God at work in the election booth. I am not going to re-open the old talk of America being the “city on the hill,” the placed founded by the Puritans to be the embodiment of the kingdom of God on earth. No, there is no way we can equate our history, our politics, with the will of God – that is our national temptation, though, from the beginning of our history – to think that America is special in the eyes of God, that we are chosen, elect, better than everyone else.

I was reminded of Mr. Obama’s remarks at the Saddleback Church in California last summer, during the early days of the campaign, when the pastor, Rick Warren, asked both Obama and McCain:

“Does evil exist?” he asked each candidate, and if so, “Should we ignore it, negotiate with it, contain it or defeat it?”

“Evil does exist,” Mr. Obama began. “I mean, I think we see evil all the time. We see evil in Darfur. We see evil, sadly, on the streets of our cities. We see evil in parents who viciously abuse their children. And I think it has to be confronted. It has to be confronted squarely. And one of the things that I strongly believe is that, you know, we are not going to, as individuals, be able to erase evil from the world. That is God’s task. But we can be soldiers in that process, and we can confront it when we see it. Now, the one thing that I think is very important is for us to have some humility in how we approach the issue of confronting evil because, you know, a lot of evil has been perpetrated based on the claim that we were trying to confront evil.”

And when Mr. Warren interjected, “In the name of good,” Mr. Obama agreed, saying, “Just because we think our intentions are good doesn’t always means that we’re going to be doing good.”[1]

“Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

That’s what Eli told the young Samuel to say to the voice that woke him in the night. Eli himself had lost the connection with God – prophecies were few and far between in those days; Eli’s own sons were greedy and ambitious and faithless, and the news that comes to the young Samuel from God spells the beginning of the end for Eli and his descendents. Yet there is enough wisdom in old Eli yet to know that this young boy is the future, and that God will act through surprising and new agents to pursue the divine agenda.

“Come and see.”

That’s what the disciple Philip said to the skeptical Nathanael, who wondered what all the fuss was about. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he had snorted. Yet, when he meets Jesus, and has the conversation where Jesus reveals that he knows Nathanael, deeply, Jesus begins to reveal the mighty acts that God has in store. When you listen, truly listen, you never know where it will lead you, what new news it will bring, what mysterious wisdom will be imparted.

With the inauguration of Barack Obama, we are on the edge of momentous change in our nation. This is a moment of hope and promise, and given the very real dangers of the world today, a moment of risk and challenge as well. We do not know the direction God’s hand is taking us. We can only, as Obama himself implied, listen humbly, carefully, modestly, and know that, at best, “we can [only] be soldiers in that process” of the working out of what God has in store for the world. The best our nation has to offer – the best any nation has to offer – can only act in service to those purposes. We know God wants justice and mercy and compassion. God wants attention paid to widows and orphans and poor people. We know God’s standards, and if we know anything about where our nation is headed, our progress can be measured by how closely we hew to those standards.

But back to Samuel and Nathanael – Samuel the innocent and Nathanael the skeptical. What lessons do we take away from their stories for this moment in history?

They are both open. They tell the truth, and they know the truth when they hear it. When they don’t understand what is going on, they are not afraid to say so. Both of them receive challenging invitations to come closer to God, to listen more closely to look more closely. Neither know what will come of these closer encounters. When we listen for God, God invites us into a larger world than we had imagined before.

If they took those risks, we can, too. We can listen for God’s voice, in our nation in our community and in our own lives. Can we? As Barack Obama has been reminding us lately, Yes, we can!

Epiphany 2-B

January 15, 2006

Samuel 3:1-10

Psalm 139: 1-5-12-17

1 Corinthians 6: 12-20

John 1:43-51

Come and see.

By all reports, you – meaning you, people in the pews – rarely ask people to join you here in church. You don’t often say to your friends, “Come and see.” According to a recent survey, “Adults are lukewarm about God.” In a survey of Protestant church-goers, “not quite one out of every four named their faith in God as their top priority in life.”[2]

Stewardship, evangelism and service to needy people outside the church doors: in this same survey, Protestant pew-sitters admitted they weren’t doing much. “Church budgets are typically set based on the assumption that the average congregant will give two to three percent of their income to the ministry.” Even among those fervent born-agains: only six percent tithe, or give ten percent of their income to the church. “Most churched adults do not verbally share the gospel in a given year …” “For every two churches that consider the congregation’s breadth of ministry to people not connected to the church to be an indicator of spiritual health, there are five churches that focus on the amount of ‘in-reach’ activity undertaken [to people within the church].”

And yet what does Philip say in the Gospel? “Come and see.”

Philip said this to a very skeptical person, Nathanael, the faithful Jew, who spoke the truth: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” He was skeptical indeed at the message of Philip, that this Jesus was the one prophesied by Moses and the prophets, the one who was the Good News embodied. Nazareth, in grubby Galilee, was a nothing town, scorned by people in the know. Nathanael might even say, Can anything good come out of Brockton?

But I have a feeling, after a few weeks here, that all of you indeed know what you come here to see, and to feel, and to do.

Come and see.

Think for minute: what is it that you come here to see?

Add it up. It’s worth asking others to come and see it, too, is it not? You are not alone in not inviting folks in – all the surveys tell us that is what most Protestants just don’t do very often. You could do it. There is something for others to come and see. Tell them why you are here.

Listen to Jesus’ reply to Nathanael, who finally recognizes that Jesus is the Son of God. “Do you believe, Nathanael, that I am some sort of conjurer or fortune teller? That because I remembered you under the fig tree, I am the King of Israel? Well, you haven’t seen anything yet.”

When people say to you, Come and see what is happening at St. Paul’s in Brockton? You can say to them, you haven’t seen anything yet.

This is what Jesus told Nathanael he would see: “the heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

“For us, this image of angel traffic between heaven and earth might at first seem pleasant, perhaps a little sweet. But it probably at once meant something deeper to Nathanael. He’d know well the Old Testament story of Jacob’s dream, where Jacob saw a ladder reaching to heaven with angels going up and down. Nathanael might also have noticed the difference in the image Jesus used. Jesus said the angels were going up and down not on a ladder, but on the Son of Man -- a subtle, but very important, difference. In both instances, the image of angelic traffic points to the connection between heaven and earth, the connection between God and God’s creatures. But in the image Jesus used, that connection between God and us resides in the person of Jesus. Jacob’s dream becomes very personal for us all.”[3]

For Nathanael, the faithful Jew who has studied and lived with the Torah, Jesus issues an invitation: there is more. You can connect with God, not just through that story of the ladder to heaven, but here, with me , with the person of Jesus. The connection with God that has always been there is renewed, with a new and shocking image. It’s like Jesus is saying to Nathanael, wake up. See something new in the old story. Something new is coming out of that old, forlorn city of Nazareth.

There is more, much more, to Brockton, and to St. Paul’s. Can any good come out of Brockton? Out of St. Paul’s? You can answer that question; come and see.

In the Old Testament lesson, we read of the young boy, Samuel, sent by his mother to serve God along with the old prophet Eli. Samuel is awakened in the night, and the aged Eli sends the boy back to bed. But the voices persist, and Eli realizes there is more to this disturbed sleep than a small boy’s dream. “Go and lie down,” Eli said to Samuel, “and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’ So Samuel went and lay down in his place, [and] the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ And Samuel said, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.’”

For what are we listening? You know the answer. You know why you are here. Come and see. Go and tell.

[1] From “Beliefs: Invoking a Presidential Revelatory Moment” by Peter Steinfels (New York Times, Jan. 16, 2009)

[2] All quotes from Surveys Show Pastors Claim Congregants are Deeply Committed to God but Congregants Deny it!, Barna Update, Jan. 9, 2006 – The Barna Group, Ltd.

Christmas: Change is here to stay

Christmas Eve 2008
Isaiah 9:2-7

Ps. 96
Titus 2:11-14

Luke 2:1-20

Christmas Eve is a time to tell old stories --- to thrill at the hearing of the things we know and have heard many times, to recreate in our imagination the trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the last-minute accommodations in the stable, the ordinary birth as miraculous as all ordinary births, the angels, the shepherds, the wise men from the east. In my mind, no matter what
translation is read, the pictures are the same ones I formed as a child -- the dark, cold night, the brightness of the star, the shepherds on a hill illuminated by the glow of the angels, the little barn full of straw and animals.

The Gospel of Luke is precise in what is described; it seems almost like fact. “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria….” Are we not reading a history text here?

Well, yes and no. Scholars tell us there is “no evidence of one census under Augustus that covered the whole Empire, nor of a …requirement that people be registered in their own cities….” But Caesar Augustus was the emperor, and we do know that the empire wanted its taxes, and to get an accurate accounting for tax purposes, these people had to be counted. If we were hearing this story 2000 years ago, we’d know that that part of the story is true.

I also love this part: “In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.” We know what they angel says – aren’t we amazed that this great good news comes first to the poorest of the poor, the hard-working shepherds who never get a day off?

“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host …” “The heavenly host.” If we were hearing this in its original language, we would have heard it like this: “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly army …” Just what kind of a history are we reading here? This isn’t just a sweet, romantic story; it’s a story told with power – a story of how God acts in history, on behalf of poor people like shepherds, a story of how God takes on big, oppressive political powers like the Roman Empire, how God’s army swoops down among us bringing real peace, real good tidings, real good news for all people – not just the people who would benefit from those taxes levied on the people being coun
ted in that census.

The Christian story is rooted in the life of the body. Christmas is a celebration of the Incarnation of Jesus as God made human, and so this story of God’s interaction with us is inseparable from all of the joyful, painful, and even political experiences of human life.

The truth of this story is found in the ordinary and extraordinary birth of a baby boy, and in these miraculous appearances of angels and shepherds and wise men from the East. No matter how or how often we tell it, the truth lies in trusting the body: For God has trusted the cosmic disclosure of God’s self to a mere human form; with the birth of this babe, the human condition IS God’s condition. And so if God has “trusted the body” to that extent, so may we – trust in the body of the faithful that the stories we continue to tell to each other about God are true. Tonight we tell the true story of the Coming Day of Peace. We tell the true story that Jesus, true God and true man is born. We who are fully aware of what it means to be human, in all or our weakness and vulnerability, hear this story of ultimate vulnerability and weakness in the birth of the Savior, this little babe, who is Christ the Lord.

Christmas 2-B
January 4, 2009
Isaiah 61:10-62:3

Psalm 84:1-8
s 1:3-6, 15-19a
Luke 2:41-52

Did you read the story in yesterday’s Enterprise? “New survey reveals changes in churches.” It was on page 15, the first page of the “Lifestyle” section.

Just about all of us could read that article and say, hah. So what’s the new news here? We know churches have been changing dramatically over our lifetimes.

How many of you were raised in a different church than this one – than St. Paul’s Church? How many of you were raised in a church different from the Episcopal Church? Or, were you raised in the Anglican Communion but in another country? Were you raised learning the Lord’s Prayer in a language other than English? How many of you, when you were 10 years old, knew that women could be ministers?

That article in yesterday’s Enterprise talked about some of those changes. Religion, one of those things we thought were unchanging, seems to have thrown all the pieces on the game board up in the air, and I don’t think we know exactly where they will be coming down – or if they will ever come down again to anything resembling the stability and security we think “religion” ought to have.

You know, we were wrong in the ‘60s when we thought that it was just the young people, or the Jesus freaks, drifting away from church – that the cultural changes would shake out and when all those hippies and evangelicals would “get it out of their system” and come back to church once they got married and had children. I think any of us who moved from one culture to another, from a different continent or island to this great, huge United States would know how wrong that idea is. Once a culture changes, it changes; in many profound ways, none of us can go home again. Believe me: no matter what kind of church – or no church – you grew up in, no matter where in the world, or in the U.S., you grew up, this church here today is very different from the church or 30, or 20, or even 10 years ago. Check out the article during coffee hour. As a former teacher of mine, who in her young adulthood fled Nazi Germany, said, “Change is here to stay.” Imagine, then, what impact the visit of the young Jesus to the Temple had on … his parents? On the Temple leaders and teachers? On the people who first heard this story, this biographical snippet from the young life of the man people had come to know as Teacher, as Leader, as the Crucified one, as the Risen Lord?

On every score, what Jesus does in this story upsets the status quo. This little story, coming at the end of Chapter 2 in the Gospel of Luke, is the last of the “infancy narratives” –the last bit of evidence that Luke puts out that this Jesus, this baby boy born in a stable to a poor mother, whose birth was announced by an army of angels to poor shepherds in the fields that he would be the true king, the true bringer of peace, the true one to ensure the prosperity of humankind, was the real thing. His birth heralded the new age, the new world order, the end of the empire of violence and military might and over-taxed exploitation.

This little story is also the first time we read of Jesus’ public ministry. He is a teacher, a proclaimer of the true word of God. Even at age 12 – he is the one who knows that he is to do what God would have him do – that he is both a profound and complete break with the past as well as the fulfillment of what God has been trying to get across to humanity since the beginning of time. When he leaves the Temple with his parents, he will not return until a few days before his death on the cross, when he denounces the Temple leaders for their corrupt rule and the cruel taxes the poor cannot pay.

We might want religion to be something comfortable and stable and never-changing. We might want choirs of angels to lull us to sleep. But a fierce, hot wind is blowing, like the one that blew Jesus from Nazareth to Jerusalem thousands of years ago. The wind is that Spirit of God, restless and powerful, blowing in this new world, forcing us to pay attention to what God is calling us to be and to do now, here, in this place, with these people. “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Jesus asked his bewildered parents. Don’t we sympathize with them? How can things change so quickly?

For the people who first read the Gospel of Luke, that change was long overdue. At the beginning of Chapter 2, this boy was born under the thumb of the brutal Roman Empire, yet heralded by an army mightier than all their legions. Now, here, at the end of the same chapter, he is wise enough to tell the teachers in the Temple what the ancient texts mean. At the end of these two chapters, in which Luke tells us just where this Jesus came from, it’s like he is saying to us, hold on to your seats. The best is yet to come. Change is here to stay.

Advent - at last!

Advent 1-B/Nov. 30, 2008

Isaiah 64:1-9

Psalm 80

1 Corinthians 1:1-9

Mark 13:24-37


If popular culture is any measure, we love to indulge in fear.

How many of you ever watch those ghastly made-for-TV dramas about child murderers and avenging mothers, or those real-life video drug busts, or any number of those truly psychotic and violent fantasies that can be found on network television on any night of the week? Apparently a lot of us do, or TV networks wouldn't be able to sell advertising time to air them.

We spin a web of fear around us, and in so doing we create monsters. We become like Frankenstein: we have created something out of the imagination and skill and power of our own culture that terrifies us, and we cannot pull ourselves out of that terror.

We fear what we cannot control; ultimately, of course, we fear death: as the Gospel for today says, we do not know when the time will come. We do not know what to expect or when to expect it. When we fear death, we fear everything that reminds us of it: we fear loss and clutch at the familiar for security; we fear change and throw all our energy into keeping things the same.

Our thoughts in Advent are guided by lessons from the Bible that focus on the End Times. Today’s lessons are full of scary thoughts about the End of Days. A thousand years ago, at the end of the first millennium, as well as just a few years ago, at the end of the second millennium, the air was full of such talk.

As the year 200 approached, people flocked to Jerusalem convinced that they were characters from the Bible, and that God had called them there to witness these End Times. Even in normal times, like this year, there may be 150 cases a year of what is called the Jerusalem syndrome. Some tourists arrive mentally disturbed and become convinced that they are biblical figures, King David, or Jesus, or John the Baptist or the Virgin Mary. They might think they are in a living version of the “Jesse Tree” that is depicted on our leaflet – that they themselves are related to this holy family of Jesse, David, Mary and Jesus. Others come to Jerusalem with visions of the end of the world. Not all the victims of this identified syndrome arrive in a disturbed state but they feel compelled to don bed sheets from their hotels and take to the street to preach rambling sermons. Word has it that Jerusalem is bracing in this season of Advent for a “Sudden surge of Saviors. “ ‘Tis the season of anticipation, the season of fear, change is ever upon us.

What goes on in far-off Jerusalem may not seem relevant to us here, but think of

this: we saw splashed across our televisions this week the most horrific scenes and sounds coming from Mumbai, India. Terrorists broke into hotels and killed people who were Americans or Westerners or rich or Jewish. This was a terrible version of the end of times – only this time with no righteous ruler came down from the heavens. Something terrible, but something far away.

What brought the fear home to me was the image of a two-year-old boy, in the arms of his caregiver, fleeing his home where his parents, a Jewish rabbi and his wife, were being held hostage. The child is now in Jerusalem, with his grandparents. The terrible scene from the other side of the world was brought home to them, the fear of the end times made immediate. In this world of instant communication, of pictures sent round the world in a flash, we are never far from images that disturb or frighten us. The world is moving too fast.

Change is profoundly difficult to deal with. We are caught off guard, and confronted with the possibility of loss and even death, and that is where Advent comes in. Jesus in today's gospel talks about the most horrible things: about the explosion of the universe, about suffering, about anxiety and sleeplessness. The community to whom Mark addressed these words of Jesus was a community who saw their friends and families persecuted and killed by Roman authorities. Paul's letter to the Corinthians was addressed to people who were struggling with the cost of what it meant to be Christian, with giving up the pleasures and conveniences of pagan society to be ostracized and possibly killed for this new gospel.

Advent is about not putting faith in the things we have created, no matter how beautiful or comforting or technologically superior. Advent is not about security in this world. Advent is about putting faith in the one thing that will never change: God.

During Advent we focus on Emmanuel, God with us. God has been with us throughout history, throughout times of more disturbing and violent change than even this one.

God is with us today, speaking to us through the things that challenge us and discomfort us.

God is with us as the poor, the hungry, the imprisoned, the sick, as last week's gospel told us.

And God is with us into the future, giving us hope that even these things which we fear the most are in God's hands.

O come, Emmanuel.

Visit us during this season of deepening darkness,

and shed enough light to scatter our fears.

Advent 2-B/Dec. 7, 2008

Isaiah 40:1-11

Psalm 85

2 Peter 3 : 8-15a,18

Mark 1:1-8

We wait for a new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.

I’m going to take a risk here, to talk about something we all may not share: parenthood. I’m hoping, though, that even if you are not a mother or a father, that you can resonate with the hopes I had – that I think many parents have – at the birth of their children.

The hopes I had were hopes that the world my child would grow up in would be a wonderful place. I hoped my child would not be terrified by war, famine or disaster. I hoped my child could run and play in green fields and breathe clean air. I hoped for a world where there was enough of everything to go around. On a more mundane level, I hoped for a world free from junk food and commercial television. Whatever I hoped for – and I imagine you have a list of your own hopes, as well – it was a version of the new heavens and the new earth. And in a way, the experience of life now, in the world as it is, is the experience of the exile. With my hopes for that new heavens and that new earth, living in this earth seems kind of like a displacement. There is a loss, when life does not turn out the way I thought it would.

The prophet Isaiah was speaking to people in exile – the people of Israel living in captivity in Babylon. How could they worship God in that foreign land? How could they know who they were as God’s people when the Babylonian powers defined them as slaves, as captives, as homeless, as poor, as non-citizens, as “less than”? So look at what the prophet Isaiah says to these displaced, grieving persons. The prophet Isaiah speaks God’s words of comfort to them in the middle of their deep dis-comfort. In their current experience of wilderness, God reminds them of their first highway in the wilderness, when God led them out of Egypt into the Promised Land, the journey of God’s chosen people. God agrees with them that the reality of life may not change – “the people are grass, the grass withers, the flower fades” – but God brings something more: a herald of hope. The exiles are defined not by the Babylonians who bad-mouth them, but by God who stands up for them, God who rules with a mighty arm – but who then embraces them like a tender shepherd.

What can we learn from these people in their long-ago exile? We who may feel a little displaced and out of step in the world we live in?

We can know that this ragged space of our lives is where God meets us. Here. Now. The world may not make sense at times, but that craziness does not define us; God does. Because we know we are God’s, we can resist the things that make us mad, things that we know are out of whack, things that are unjust and cruel and crazy.

Because we know we are God’s and we know that God meets us here, in this place, we know that whatever we do to make this world a better place, the place we know God would want it to be, will not be in vain. Jeremiah, the other prophet of Israel’s exile, put it this way: “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile … for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” Here. Now. In this world that does not live up to our expectations. In this place where we feel out of place. This is where God speaks to us, and this is where God expects us to flourish.

When Mark the gospeller told this story of John the Baptist, he knew these themes would resonate with his audience. He knew that they would understand what it meant to be called by God out of the wilderness. He knew they would be familiar with the strange messages prophets would bring. He knew they were people who felt out of place in their own world, people who knew the world was out of whack and unjust, people longing for a new heavens and a new earth. John the Baptist came out of the wilderness to people who felt exiled in their own countryside and said, like Isaiah, Here is your God!

What do we make of John the Baptist? Does that wilderness from which he hails make any sense to us today? I think John’s message, which is unsettling and disconcerting, may not make sense to people who are satisfied with the status quo of this world. It may not be a message of hope to people who like the world the way it is. But to those of us who have higher hopes, who seek a new heavens and a new earth, this stranger with his rough clothes and his peculiar diet, brings very good news indeed.