Monday, February 23, 2015

We Are Never Alone

**This post is from my sermon on February 22, 2015 (First Sunday in Lent) at Christ Church Cathedral, Lexington, KY**

"It happened in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John.  And immediately as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending like a dove upon him; and there came a voice from the heavens, saying:  "You are my son, my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased."  And the Spirit immediately drove Jesus into the desert, and he was there for forty days, being tried out by Satan.  He was with the beasts, but the angels were ministering to him."
--Mark 1: 9-14 (translation by P.H. Epps)

I'd like you to think of a graduation.  Your own, preferably.  Be it from middle school, high school, college, or grad school. Do you remember what that felt like, putting on a gown, walking across a stage in front of a bunch of folks, getting a fancy piece of paper, and then being sent out into a strange new world?  And then what happened?  You were sent out into a strange, new world. My most recent graduation was from seminary. My Mom, Dad, and sister all came up to New York City, one of the rare moments when the four of us were together.  About 200 people crammed into the seminary chapel, and we sang hymns, knelt before our dean as our academic hoods were placed around our necks, and we got this big fancy diploma written in Latin—of which I can’t read a single word besides my name!  We celebrated afterwards.  But then, we actually headed off into the world. And while I don’t wanna speak for my anyone else, I was terrified.  It was all so real now.  I had to actually go out into this strange new world and do ministry.  It was scary stuff.  I wonder if any of your graduations were like that…

With my family at my graduation from General Seminary.

Graduations are moments when we are sent out into a new frontier, an undiscovered country, if you will. Sometimes graduations are treated as self-contained events, but really they are the start of something new, exciting, and often very, very scary. We have such ceremonies in the Church, of course.  We call them baptism, confirmation, and ordination.  And this is where we find Jesus today, at one such ceremony.

We are back at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, a place we found ourselves back on January 11 when we celebrated the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord.  But while, on that day, we ended our reading with those beautiful words from God, ‘This is my beloved, with whom I am well pleased,’ we get the aftermath today.  

What happens once Jesus is baptized?  Well, he doesn’t go out to brunch with family and friends like some of us might.  He is immediately driven out into the wilderness. In Greek the word used is eutheos, meaning straightway, forthwith, or instantly, and it is Mark's favorite word.  There is no time to bask in the glory of Jesus' baptism; instead, in his first moments of earthly ministry, he is whisked away into the wilderness, the desert, the unknown, fearful world.  

There once was a seminary student who was doing her clinical pastoral education, which is the piece of every clergy person’s education that requires one to serve as a chaplain for at least a summer.  This student chose to do her work in prison ministry.  She arrived her first day, received her badge and a quick rundown of the layout of her facility, was introduced to her supervisor and fellow chaplains, and was then immediately told, ‘OK, go do ministry!’  No warm up, no week of orientation.  Just dropped into the middle of the wilderness.

Similarly, we find Jesus being dropped into the wilderness.  Here he is faced with all sorts of temptations, all sorts of evils.  The text says he is tempted, or tried out, by Satan, which is simply a Hebrew word for ‘adversary,’ and that he is out there for 40 days, again a Hebrew expression for a long period of time, not necessarily to be taken literally.  The point, however, is that Jesus faced great difficulties out in the wilderness, and he faced them over a long period of time. So, right after this joyful occasion of baptism, Jesus, with no prior ministerial experience that we know of, has to go into a dreadful situation that, I suspect, none of us would willingly enter into ourselves.  How does he do it?

He does it because the Spirit wills that he do it.  The Spirit is the one that drives him to do it.  The very same Spirit that descended upon him as he came out of the water, the very Spirit that spoke the voice of God and called him beloved, is the Spirit that sends him into the wilderness.

Brothers and sisters, in the same way, our baptisms confirmations, or ordinations, while joyful, celebratory occasions, were not self-contained events, but they were the beginning.  And in the same way, the Spirit that descended upon us at those joyful ceremonies, the Spirit that has sealed us and marked us as Christ’s own forever, has sent us out into a world that is, quite honestly, very, very scary.  Like a young person after a graduation, we have each had our ceremony, and now, as we find ourselves out in the ‘real’ world, God has told each and every one of us the same thing that that prison chaplain was told, ‘OK, go do ministry!’  I don’t know about you, but when I think about that, when I REALLY think about that, it seems too big, too much.  How?  How can I, how can we, possibly do this?

I suspect Jesus thought the same thing out there in the wilderness.  Still, the Spirit continued to sustain him during his journey.  Not only that, but we are told, as Preston Epps translates it, that the angels ministered to him.  What a beautiful image?!  The angels surrounding Jesus, lifting him up, supporting him.  See.  He didn’t have to do it alone.  And neither do we.  Look around you and you will see God’s angels, God's messengers. You will see those who will minister to you, with you, for the sake of the Good News.  They are in your church, at your work office, in your home, and out on the streets. They are everywhere!  Ministry may seem like a monumental task and, believe me, it is.  Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, preaching love to those who have never heard such a thing, yes it is monumental.  But it is never done alone.

This season of Lent is a time to prayerfully remind ourselves of the call that God has issued to each of us, a call that we will reaffirm with the neophytes—the newly baptized—at that Great Vigil of Easter. The Spirit has blessed each of you and called you beloved in your baptisms, your confirmations, and your ordinations, and the Spirit is driving you out into the wilderness of this world to proclaim that the Kingdom of God has, indeed, come near.  There are temptations, worries, and fears, and it will be very scary.  But be not afraid, brothers and sisters.  The Spirit is your guide. And God’s angels are ministering to you, with you.  You are, we are, never alone. 

Monday, February 16, 2015

A Christian Response in Favor of Marriage Equality

On Wednesday, January 7 the Chapel of St. Augustine of Canterbury, an Episcopal chapel at the University of Kentucky, held an event unlike any it had ever held before.  We called it God Is Love:  A Christian Response in Favor of Marriage Equality.

Bishop Doug Hahn welcomes a packed house to St. Augustine's and opens our Chapel Talk with prayer.

To offer some background for folks reading this blog who may not be Episcopalian, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church voted in 2012 to create a service for the Blessing of Same Gender Marriages.  This was an official endorsement by the church's national governing body, saying that we Episcopalians have acknowledged that God blesses all of God's children and all of their relationships.  Furthermore, as the priest-in-charge at St. A's, I have ministered with young gay and lesbian men and women who have very deep relationships with God and are often thankful to our chapel for being the one place where they can come and can be welcomed and appreciated for who they are.  

The event was co-sponsored by our Episcopal Campus Ministry and the Ignite Lutheran Campus Ministry.  My good friend Pastor Dana Lockhart helped organize and promote the event, which saw a distinguished panel of three Lutheran pastors and two Episcopal priests (the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has also been blessing same gender marriages).  The point of the evening was dialogue, not debate.  Our goal was not to antagonize anyone, rather it was to let those LGBT students out there know that there was a place on UK's campus where they can come and belong.  While some worried that there may be some tension from a few audience members, the overall tone of the evening was uplifting, and as a result the chapel has since found itself partnering more closely with LGBT groups on campus.

As a panel we addressed the issue of marriage equality--and the larger issue of homosexuality itself--by looking at what Holy Scripture says and what our traditions have said, which have influenced our decisions as Episcopalians and Lutherans to affirm these relationships and bless them.  As an Episcopal priest I talked about the Three-Legged Stool, developed by theologian Richard Hooker, which states that the Anglican tradition rests on the legs of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason.  While Holy Scripture is the beginning of all our discussions and decisions, it cannot possibly be the end--otherwise we would still be worshipping on Saturdays and never cutting our beards!  The Traditions of Holy Mother Church must also factor into our decision-making, as we who are members of a catholic and apostolic faith hold dear the fact that we are part of something much larger than ourselves, spanning centuries, and that connectivity is to be honored.  And lastly, we rest on our God-given Reason, which has shown us time and again that there are moments when we must go in a direction that neither Scripture nor Tradition speak to with certainty and firmness.  Hence why we have female priests, for example, and why we have affirmed same gender marriages.

I don't want to use this blog to rehash all of our points, especially since I am including the YouTube link at the end of the post.  Suffice it to say, I invite you to click the link below to view the full Chapel Talk, and please leave your comments.

If you are an opponent of marriage equality I hope that you will at least watch the video and listen to the prayerful decisions that our churches have reached.  If you are in favor of marriage equality, and especially if you have been hurt by the institutional church in the past, I hope that you know that we are here, that the Church recognizes your worth and blesses who you are, just as God made you.  

May you all continue to bless others as you yourselves are a blessing!

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Let's Play Two!!

Ernie Banks

Two weeks ago in church we went through the Prayers of the People as normal.  After the service one of the men of the choir came up to me with a big grin on his face.  "I figured you were the one who added Ernie Banks to the prayers.  Thanks!"

"What gave it away?"  I asked jokingly.

That choir member was the first of many folks throughout the week who thanked me for adding Mr. Cub to the list of those who had died.  It wasn't because we were actually praying for a famous person who had died--we included famed theologian Marcus Borg in our prayers that day also--rather it was because of the person Ernie Banks was.

Most folks know Ernie best as Mr. Cub.  He was a lifelong member of the hapless northsiders, playing 19 seasons in the friendly confines of Wrigley Field.  Without question he was the best shortstop of his time--some might even say of all time.  His 512 homeruns, 1,636 runs batted in, and .274 lifetime batting average all rank number one among major league shortstops.  He was a 14-time All Star, won the National League Most Valuable Player award twice (1958 & 1959), and was inducted into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot in 1977.  Simply put:  Ernie Banks was one helluva baseball player!

But what he is most remembered for is his famous line, "What a great day for a ballgame!  Let's play two!"  Sure, it's a nostalgic callback to the days of true doubleheaders, when folks payed one price for two games, and you didn't have to put your kids to bed before the start of a ballgame.  The line calls us back to a simpler, more serene and pastoral time.  But more than that, Ernie's famous catchphrase is about a love and excitement for the game that he loved.  And to hear every person tell it, he had that same excitement about life.

Everyone from sportswriters to my own father has said that when they met Ernie Banks for the first time he had that same joy in his eyes, that same genuineness about him.  You knew, they said, that he loved life because he was smiling at you with that same little-kid smile that he had on his baseball cards. He didn't just wanna play two games because he loved baseball.  He wanted to play two games because he loved life, he loved the smell of the grass, he loved the camaraderie of his teammates, and he loved the fans.  He gave back to his community through a charitable foundation that he set up.  He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013.  Oh, and did I mention he was an ordained minister?!  Simply put:  Ernie Banks was one helluva human being!

Baseball has always been a road to God for me.  Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, once said that "the glory of God is a human being fully alive."  So whenever I've been lucky enough to toe the rubber of a pitching mound or dig into a batter's box, I know that God is glorified in that thing that makes me feel most alive.  Ernie Banks knew that.  It's why he always wanted to play two.

Today Ernie takes his place at short with the other legends of the diamond who have gone before him.  His legacy is not only that of a great player--the very face of the Chicago Cubs franchise--but one of a great man.  Yes, like all of us, he had his flaws.  Still, perhaps we can take a cue from Ernie and approach each day with that same joy and enthusiasm.  Perhaps we can learn to smile more and give thanks for the sunshine, the grass, and all that makes us feel fully alive.

So rest in peace, Ernie.  And rise in glory!  It's time for you to play that second game, and the best part is that it never ends!

Monday, February 9, 2015

Every One Is Searching For You

"In the earlier part of the morning, while it was still quite dark, Jesus rose up and went into a deserted place and praying there.  Simon and those with him sought him out, and when they had found him, they said to him:  every one is searching for you.  But he said to them:  let us go into the neighboring village towns that there also I may make my proclamation; for it is for this that I have come.  And he went into the entire region of Galilee making his proclamation in their synagogues and casting out unclean spirits."
--Mark 1: 35-39 (translation by P.H. Epps)

This past Sunday we heard the story of Jesus healing Simon Peter's mother-in-law, and afterwards retreating to a deserted place so that he can go and pray alone.  This is an early moment in Jesus' earthly ministry, and, as is Mark's custom, the gospeler gives little time for Jesus to relax.  The people have heard of Jesus, and they are getting excited.  That want to see him.  They want to hear him.  They want to be healed by him.  So it is no real surprise that Simon Peter, James, and John go looking for Jesus.  The people are calling for him, and these three most trusted of disciples are going to find him and bring him to the people.

The line that seemed to leap off the page when I read this gospel in church yesterday was the line from the disciples that Preston Epps translates as "every one is searching for you." (Pardon me for using a non-sanctioned translation, but Preston Epps' is my favorite version of the First Gospel!)  Standing in our sanctuary for our evening Eucharist last night I thought that that line certainly applied to us.  It applies to any of us who get up on a Sunday morning and head to our favorite place of worship.  We are there because we are searching for Jesus.  Why else would we be there?  We are there to sing songs about him, to pray to him, and to experience him in very real and tangible ways.  We are searching for him, and, make no mistake, we DO find him there!  We find him in the real materials of wine and bread that have been made holy and that connect us to him and to one another.  We find him in the water that resides in that font at the front of the church, which reminds us of the baptism that grafted us onto Christ's Body once and forever.  Oh yes, we are in church because, like those early followers who heard the news of Jesus as it quickly spread through Galilee, we are searching for Jesus.  And regardless of our traditions, I'd bet that each one of us--Episcopalian, Methodist, Orthodox, Roman, Baptist, or otherwise--would proudly proclaim that we find him in our worship space of choice.  

But the truth is that we are not the only ones searching for Jesus.  The truth is that the world is searching for Jesus.  It doesn't matter if the world ever even utters the name of Jesus; even those who do not believe in him are searching for him.  What do I mean by this?  The world is searching for hope.  It's searching for reconciliation.  A hungry world is crying for food.  A naked world is crying for clothing.  A world that is lost is crying for purpose and home.  So when I read that line "every one is searching for you," I can't help but think that that line does not just apply to those crowds in 1st century Palestine, nor does it just apply to those of us who proudly and boldly proclaim Jesus as Lord.  It applies to the entire world.  Every one is searching for him.

Have you ever heard the saying, "You may be the only Bible anyone ever reads?"  Well, brothers and sisters, you may be the only Jesus that anyone ever meets.  Too many people have met Jesus and have been turned away.  They have been turned away by homophobia, by greed, by pride, by sexism, by racism, and by a host of other sins all masked as righteousness and all in the name of Jesus.  But you have the opportunity each day to be the face of Jesus to someone.  You have the opportunity to feed someone who is hungry.  You have the opportunity to clothe someone who is naked, to proclaim Good News in word and action, to seek and serve Christ in all persons.  You may be the only Jesus Christ that anyone ever meets.  You are, after all, the Body of Christ, and you are called to not only be the Body when we gather together in our favorite worship spaces, but most especially you are called to be the Body outside of those walls.  It is an awesome (and, at times, overwhelming) responsibility. But this Christian thing is not supposed to be easy.  It's not about taking the comfortable, well-worn path.  It is about blazing a new trail of love like this world has never seen.  For that is what our Lord did and what he calls us as his Body to do now.  

Every one is searching for Jesus.  How will you show him to the world?  Because you may be the only Jesus anyone ever meets.  

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

More Than Our Arguments

My second entry in this blog—called Being Good Enough—I talked about how we as ministers have no gauge for figuring out if we are doing our jobs.  In that blog I mentioned how we tend to focus so much on numbers of folks in the pews, or the money that is collected during stewardship season, or any other barometer for measuring our success.  What if, I pondered, we focused less on being successful and more on being faithful?

Though I have worked now in three churches that would be called corporate-sized, I am a product of small church ministry and see the beautiful ministries that only small churches can do. On February 1 I was blessed to celebrate Holy Eucharist in one such church. 

 Outside of St. Marks, Hazard, KY

Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church in Hazard, KY is the very definition of a small church.  They have been without a full-time priest for almost four decades, and their numbers have decreased more and more as the coal industry has slowly dried up in the Appalachians.  However, this faithful flock continues to gather for weekly worship—Eucharist once a month, Morning Prayer the other three—and live out their baptismal covenant by loving their neighbors and serving Christ in Hazard.  Parishioners fix weekly meals for those in need, open their parish building for NA and girl scout meetings, and provide hospitality when the little outdoor theatre across the street is in-season.  So while the Sunday morning community is tiny, the faith is huge.  This community could easily get angry over the way things are or be bitter than some of our diocese’s parishes have four priests when they have none.  But they don’t do that.  They see the unifying force of God’s love manifested in Jesus Christ, and they live into it.  It was an incredible blessing for me (and Casey) to be with them and celebrate the Feast of the World’s Redemption in their midst.

With that being said, what follows is the sermon that I preached at St. Mark’s on that Sunday, focusing on St. Paul’s 1st Letter to the Church in Corinth and its varied disputes over trivial matters.  Paul urged those folks to look past their differences and embrace their unity in Christ, and that is what he is urging us to do now.  Enjoy J

 St. Mark's parishioners singing the final hymn.  Casey was not as excited.

 "Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’ Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him."
--1 Corinthians 8: 1-3

Have you ever had a disagreement in your church?  Never, right?!  I find that hard to believe.  It's amazing, isn't it, that churches, houses of God, places of prayer and refuge, often times are the places where some of the loudest, most vicious disagreements occur.  It might be over that new Prayer Book (which, by the way, is older than me!), or the altar not being on the wall.  You know the old joke about how many Episcopalians does it take to screw in a lightbulb, don't you?  Three.  One to change the lightbulb, one to hold the ladder, and one to complain about how much nicer the old bulb was because his grandmother gave it.

Petty disagreements are not something new.  Not to the Episcopal Church and not to Christianity on the whole.  And if you think that the church is divided today, you shoulda seen the church in the ancient world in the decades after Jesus' resurrection and ascension! The church back then made the church today look like a group of folks sitting around singing Kumbaya!   A perfect example is today's passage from St. Paul's first letter to the church in Corinth.  Things were so bad in that church that Paul had to write two letters to them!  Today we hear how some of the folks in the Corinthian church were worried whether they were eating food that had been sacrificed to idols.  Because this is a major sin in the Hebrew Law, a good number of believers were concerned.  But the church also contained believers who were not of the Hebrew tradition, Gentiles.  And for those believers, eating such food wasn't an issue at all.  And so you can see where this is heading:  one group within the church is pitted against another, and so Paul is contacted to settle the dispute. 

But rather than siding with one specific  group, Paul brings the hammer down on the community as a whole.  The issue about eating food sacrificed to idols is a non-issue, he says, because there are, after all no other gods but the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  So what does it matter if such food had been sacrificed to these other gods when they don't exist anyway?  But this isn't really about food at all.  Paul himself says, 'Food will not bring us close to God.'  So if it's not about food, what is it about?

It's about disagreement and our own pride.  It's about letting our own knowledge, our own certainties about the way God and the world work, get in the way.  Paul's plea in this reading today is a plea to put down those certainties, those childish squabbles, and focus on what is really important, namely the community's unity in Jesus.  Paul isn't trying to convert the community, they've already bought in to the message of salvation in Jesus, but his frustration is that the people's spiritual gifts are not being used as they should, and they're letting their differences get the better of them, and in doing so are forgetting about what binds them in the first place--the love of God in Jesus Christ. How beautiful is that line:  knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.  This is what we that community in Corinth, and we today, are called to do:  build one another up.

This is a really good lesson for us to hear in this day and age.  Too often we let the things that divide us get in the way of truly working together.  Why is that?  Perhaps it's our own pride getting in the way.  Maybe it's because we sometimes forget that this whole business of being Christians is not about ourselves, but about proclaiming the Good News of Jesus.  Maybe we forget that our similarities far outweigh our differences.  That's one reason I like Pope Francis so much.  He has said that some of the hard-lined  controversial practices of the Roman Catholic Church--such as women's ordination, gay marriage, and abortion--are off the table and that Rome's stances on such issues aren't changing anytime soon.  Still, he urges Christians everywhere to put those differences aside and focus on the things that bind us, namely taking care of the poor, visiting prisoners, and focusing less on our own worldly goods and prestige.  He gets it!  He gets that our common life together is about focusing on those things that we have in common, not those things that divide us. 

I know that on some level every person here has experienced disagreements so fierce that they either threaten to rip a community apart or actually succeed in doing so.  I know that in our very diocese there have been tremendous disagreements--usually over money--which have splintered our communities.  I know that parishes in Lexington and Versailles left the diocese over disagreements 10 years ago.  And I know that small parishes here in the coalfields and the larger ones in the cities often have trouble seeing eye to eye when some the former have so little and the latter have so much.  I know that disagreements still arise--just come to convention next month in Morehead and you'll see what I'm talking about.

But the Good News for us today is that we have the chance to really hear what the apostle Paul is saying.  Yes he is speaking to a specific church at a specific time in history--and understand that the issue with food is one of MANY arguments that the church in Corinth found itself having.  But Paul's cry to cast away our petty, childish disagreements is a cry that we can certainly stand to hear today.  He even says that he will no longer eat meat at all if it means that this dispute will go away.  What Paul says to the Corinthians he says to us today:  you are more than your arguments, more than your differences; , more than your own knowledge.  You are the Body of Christ.  Right now in this place you are the Body of Christ. Here, at this holy table, Jesus cares nothing about all of that knowledge that we may like to puff up.  Jesus cares only about love.  He sees none of the differences that we see.  He only sees us for who we are: children of God.  Broken and flawed, yes.  But also beloved and forgiven. 

Paul's plea is that the church in Corinth focus on building each other up, not tearing each other down.  And so that is our plea today too, here at St. Mark's, in the Diocese of Lexington, in the Episcopal Church, and throughout the Body of Christ all across the world.  Build each other up.  Encourage one another.  Focus on those things that unite us, not the things that separate us.  Take care of each other, inside and outside these walls.  That, my brothers and sisters, is Good News, indeed.