Sermon of the Month
Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, July 26, 2015
Most of you know that I spent this past week as a counselor at our diocesan youth summer camp. I’m committed to doing this every year, and it’s always exhausting and exhilarating in equal parts. It’s a mix of long days, short nights on uncomfortable beds, and the endless energy of kids from all over Nebraska between the ages of ten and eighteen. There is worship every day, small group time for kids, games like cabin Olympics and counselor hide and seek, and all the regular round of camp activities you’d find anywhere: sports, zip line, swimming, archery, crafts, and on and on. I think it’s one of the most important things we as a church can do. Every year, we form and renew one of the most loving, accepting, and holy communities I have ever been a part of. The bonds the kids form with each other become some of the most important that sustain them in their faith and life through all the challenges that growing up involves.
This year, we were at a new camp, and one of the most popular activities was something called “hammock village,” which is simply a large structure made of metal piping that has probably fifteen hammocks strung around a circle. It was one of about a dozen optional activities every day, and it was always full. You might think that more active pursuits like archery, or something called gaga ball–which is like dodge ball inside a wooden pen—would always be more appealing to these kids with endless energy than lying around in a hammock, but those hammocks always had people in them.
I think part of the reason they were always full is that the young people at camp, like all of us really, have very full lives. Most kids I know, like most adults I know, spend their lives running from one activity to the next. There are so many good options available to us, that we often stretch ourselves way too thin by pursuing every good activity that’s out there. In our culture, sitting and doing nothing is a rare thing. Idling and resting are often seen as self-indulgent luxuries. So I think at least part of hammock village’s popularity was the rare opportunity to do nothing but talk and daydream and even nap.
In our gospel lesson for today, Jesus and his disciples are moving at the frenetic pace of camp. Even though we’ve jumped gospels this week, Jesus and his disciples are really in the same position today as they were last week: the crowds are pressing in, and they can’t get a moment’s peace.
The main story here is simple enough. Jesus takes a few loaves of bread and some fish, and miraculously feeds five thousand people, with leftovers. Almost all of us have heard it before, and in fact it’s the only miracle of Jesus that is recorded in all four gospels.
But there’s a pre-requisite for this miracle that I hadn’t really noticed until I was literally lying in hammock village thinking about this sermon. Before the miracle happens, when Jesus and Phillip are discussing the problem, Jesus says to him: “make them sit down.” The crowd is massive, and they are all trying to manage their kids and make plans for the evening, and do all of the other things that made just getting through a day in the ancient world a huge project, and Jesus says the first thing is to just sit down. I’m acutely aware today of how hard it is to make sixty campers sit down, let alone a throng of five thousand people.
This story is told in every gospel because it communicates what is really the central message of all of scripture: God’s love always finds a way through our shortcomings. God’s abundance always fills up our scarcity. When we share what little we have with Jesus-like generosity, God always transforms what little we have into more than the world needs. But in order for this miracle of God’s love, and abundance, and generosity to happen, everyone first has to stop, cease all the frantic activity of managing every last thing in their lives, and sit down.
God’s goodness, God’s love, God’s comfort are always trying to find a way to us. Miracles of healing, and peace, and restored relationships are always waiting to bubble up from beneath the surface of our lives and our world. We are reminded today that we have to stop, and sit down often enough so that there’s room in our lives and spirits to receive them.
It’s why I’m always going on about the habit of praying for ten minutes every day. Just try spending ten minutes doing nothing else but letting God love you. Try spending just a morning, or an afternoon, or an evening each week with no plans and no schedule. Try giving up one commitment that isn’t feeding you and replacing with time to just soak in God’s love.
Part of the reason I think our diocesan camp is so important is because I’ve seen miracles happen there. Miracles of God’s love, and acceptance, and peace, and joy. They happen because even in the midst of all the energetic fun, camp creates a space for the kids to stop, and sit down.
The abundance of God’s love is waiting to fill up your spirit and your life. The first step in receiving it is to sit down. So stop, and sit down, and let God’s unbounded generosity take what little you think you have, and turn it into more than enough to feed a love-starved world. Amen.
All In: Being the Church in Today’s World
Celebration of New Ministry – Tar Drazdowski
Christ Church Sidney
March 31, 2015
Bishop J. Scott Barker
Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few. Pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into the harvest.” – Luke 10:2
What a night. What a rare privilege to take the time to stop and celebrate. To celebrate the call God has placed on our lives as disciples of Christ in this time and this place … to celebrate the ministries to which God has lead us to respond to that call. It’s a night to look back on a rich past, a night to celebrate a present day pregnant with wonderful possibility, a night to look forward to all that could be, if we stay faithful to the Lord of the harvest.
For almost 130 years this church has stood it’s ground! I went to Bishop Beecher’s autobiography last week. Of the several Nebraska bishops who were writers, Beecher’s are the best stories and his is the most beautiful poetry. Beecher moved to Sidney in 1892 to begin serving as your Rector. It was his first ever assignment as a priest in the Church. In his autobiography he wrote about his early impressions of this place:
When I first saw this lovely little church it was the most attractive building in town. It was surrounded by beautiful shade trees, blue grass lawns, and a fine picket fence …
[Christ Church] was like a watchtower symbolizing power and stability … from its portal one could look out across the prairie upon the infinite skylines, where the mountain peaks were lost in the azure blue … scarcely a human habitation in the foreground.
(For the record I think the Rocky Mountains are actually obscured by the curve of the earth and not the blue of the sky, but you’ve gotta love how deeply he feels for this patch of earth!)
For my money that short paragraph captures a sense of the land and the community that is not only the story of our past, but that shapes us deeply still as the people of God here, and to this very night. Beecher writes of the beautiful church and grounds – cherished sacred space bought, paid and cared for by the labor of generations of Cheyenne County Episcopalians. A place made holy – made holy – by the presence, hopes and prayers of God’s people across the ages.
This building is beautiful to be sure, but it is sacred because this is the place where for decade upon decade women, men and children have come all in the midst of life to seek out God in Christ: to lay their burdens down before him, to find fellowship with the members of his church, to be nourished by his body and blood.
Beecher writes of the astonishing natural beauty of this landscape – which still informs what we believe in this part of the world as much as any prayer in any prayer book. We exult in the beauty of God’s creation because we are in it in such a deep and real way. That endless grass and that deep blue sky still sing to us every day of all God’s handiwork and teach us about the power and majesty of our Creator God. We know how small we are when we live in a place this big! And we rely on God’s grace in the most concrete imaginable ways in this place – especially those who farm, ranch or work to support these labors. Nobody knows more about God’s providence and grace than those who rely on miracles like rainfall, photosynthesis and the reproduction of animals to make a living!
Now Bishop Beecher also wrote about the church as a watchtower. I actually edited a little bit out there. Beecher partly saw the tower atop Christ Church as a sign of advancing western civilization, come to bring peace and stability to the prairie. That of course, turned out not to be the whole story. Our church towers were not always a sign of peace and hope to the first people’s of this land.
We now see that we made some terrible, sinful mistakes along the way. The truth is we did far more harm than good to the native people of this region … and often to the flora and fauna with which they’d coexisted for a thousand years. We are even still today dealing with the consequences and legacies of the exploitation and extermination of the culture and ecosystem that once held strong in this place. Thanks be to God: it is part of our culture – it is part of our Baptismal Covenant – to name our sins along the way, and to repent and return to the Lord.
We can be brave and intentional about learning from our mistakes. We can work to ensure that the evangelism, mission and service work to which we are devoted in this age – which Mother Tar has in fact come to this diocese to help lead – is work that is respectful and celebratory of the cultures we visit: looking for Christ in all persons and respecting the dignity of every human being. Let’s pray that we will be more sensitive and open to the prospect of actually meeting Jesus – and being changed by him – when we encounter those in need in this here and now. Let’s insure that in this time and this place the proud tower that stands atop this church – and the cross which adorns it – are beacons that say nothing more nor less than this: Christ is here … and you are welcome whomever you are.
If we’ve gotten our research right, Mother Tar is the thirty-seventh priest to serve here at Christ Church Sidney! The story of how in the world she and Jim came to move from Valdosta to the Nebraska panhandle is a story only God could have written … and it is really Mother Tar’s to tell. But what I can tell you about tonight – what we can embrace as evidence of God Holy Spirit at work to bring us to this moment – is the amazing openheartedness that brought us here. Both the openheartedness the people of Christ Church extended to Tar and Jim as you all talked and prayed about whether you were called to come together … and the openheartedness that Tar and Jim brought to bear in their discernment to leave a home and family they cherished, to come and be with us.
This is the Spirit of God at work my brothers and sisters. Or perhaps this is the Christ – being born again in this time and place to remind us how we are called to live – and who we are called to be – as his disciples: brave, optimistic, kind … sacrificial.
Your diocesan staff – three quarters of whom are here tonight! – get to visit a lot of beautiful churches. That’s fun work. And the truth is that they all are all special in their own way. They all have their strengths. Here at Christ Church you lead the way in your ability to offer hospitality and true welcome to the stranger … to make Christ known by opening your old church doors and your big Nebraska hearts to all comers. It was no surprise that Tar and Jim fell in love with you.
And the beauty is that the Drazdowski’s too, led with their hearts: trusting that the tug of a new place and people was of God … that the lack of trees and abundance of cold would not in fact be overwhelming … that letting go of so many good things in Georgia would open them up to new life and horizons in Nebraska. Such openheartedness is costly and hard … and it is beautiful and it is holy. And we celebrate God’s presence in all that this evening.
So what about the future?
We can’t say much for certain sure. At least not about the many things that so often pre-occupy our days in this here and now:
– We do not know how the relationships between pastor and people will develop … or how long Mother Tar will be called to serve this place.
– We do not know whether this or any Nebraska church will be able to grow and thrive in this post-Christian world.
– We do not know whether the town of Sidney will continue ascendant … or whether L.L. Bean will finally invent a boot that puts Cabella’s out of business!
But we do know that we can trust in God to handle these worries so we can focus on the work that set before us … work we resolve this night to dedicate ourselves to with new enthusiasm and new hope as this new chapter begins.
Bishop Beecher wrote about the job of an Episcopal priest. I’ve only changed the pronouns for this occasion:
The bonds of friendship and affection between the pastor and her flock become more and more distinct and real as she builds up herself in the spirit of unselfish service, and finds within the constant desire to live and labor among the people …
She solemnizes weddings, baptizes children, prepares and presents [people] for confirmation, ministers to the sick [and] comforts those in sorrow.
And [so] she proves herself a worthy example of Christian leadership.
Beloved, that’s not just the job description of a parish priest. That is the job description of a Christian Church. That sort of loving and caring service is not just how a pastor shows herself to be a good priest, but how a follower of Jesus shows him or herself to be a true disciple.
Here’s what I know about the future: if you build on your proud past … if you lead in this day with your amazing openheartedness … if you get out into the world to work the harvest and welcome your fellows into the beautiful family … then the future will take care of itself, and this place and people will be forever renewed by the presence of Christ in it all.
And you will be a shining beacon to this town and region and world … of the transforming power of the love of Jesus.
+ J.S. Barker
[Sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, January 18, 2015.
Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Northampton, MA.]
Friends, it is good to be with you this morning. Thank you, Cat, for inviting me to preach. I serve the diocese as your Missioner for Creation Care, so I travel from church to church, preaching the Gospel and speaking about our call as Christians to heal the Earth. I am blessed by the timing of this invitation to speak, for across the U.S. this weekend Americans are celebrating the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who gave his life, quite literally, to the quest to heal our country’s great racial divide, and who dreamed of a world in which men and women of all races could live together with justice and mutual respect. Racism and racial justice is of course a vital issue in our country right now, a topic of intense debate as we observe in several cities the tragic tensions between some white police officers and the people of color that they were sworn to protect. Across the country people are exploring hard questions about white privilege and institutionalized racism, about how far we have come as a society and how much farther we have to go before we finally manifest what Dr. King called the Beloved Community.
Dr. King recognized that race relations do not exist in a vacuum. He understood that racism intersects with other patterns of violence, including poverty and militarism. If he were alive today, I believe that Dr. King would add a fourth item to what he called the “triple evils” of poverty, racism, and militarism. To that list I believe that he would add environmental destruction, especially human-caused climate change. For unless we stabilize the global climate and rapidly reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases, we will unravel the web of life and destroy any possibility of Beloved Community for human beings and for most of the other beings with which we share this precious planet. The struggle to end racism is linked to the struggle to end poverty, the struggle to end war, and the struggle to protect life as it has evolved on Earth. Racial justice, social and economic justice, environmental justice, climate justice – all these struggles intersect. In the end we share one struggle, one dream, one deep and God-inspired longing: the desire to build a peaceful, healthy, just, and sustainable world.
It is God who whispers that dream into our hearts, God who plants that longing in us like a seed that grows into a mighty oak, God who stirs us out of our complacency and sends us into action. It is God who gives us a heart to care, and strength to keep fighting the good fight. For it can be difficult to keep going, difficult to keep the faith in the face of sometimes brutal opposition and the sheer inertia of business as usual.
There is a wonderful scene in the movie Selma, a movie that I hope you will see, if you haven’t already. The movie is set during the turbulent three months of 1965, exactly fifty years ago, when Martin Luther King, Jr. was leading a campaign to secure equal voting rights. Early in the movie we see David Oyelowo, the actor playing Dr. King, awake at home late at night, restless, anxious, and acutely aware of the threats against his own life and against the lives of his wife and children. Should he keep going and head to Selma? He is resisting the powers and principalities of this world and he has reached the limit of his strength. In that late-night hour he picks up the phone, dials, and says to the person on the other end of the line: “I need to hear the Lord’s voice.” The friend he has phoned is the legendary Gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, and into the phone receiver she begins to sing very tenderly, “Precious Lord, take my hand.”
It is an intimate moment, as intimate as the moment recorded in this morning’s first reading, when late at night the boy Samuel hears the voice of God speaking his name in the darkness (1 Samuel 3:1-10). When God speaks to us in that intimate way, often without any words at all, we feel mysteriously addressed. In that quiet, intimate encounter we feel known by name, touched very personally by a loving power that sees us, knows us through and through, loves us to the core, and gives us strength to carry on. This is the experience of the psalmist who writes – marveling and full of wonder – “Lord, you have searched me out and known me; you know my sitting down and my rising up; you discern my thoughts from afar” (Psalm 139:1). This is the experience of Philip, who hears Jesus call him to follow, and of Nathaniel, who realizes that Jesus saw, and knew, and thoroughly understood him even before they’d met (John 1:43-51). As Christians, we open ourselves to be seen and known, loved and guided by an intimate, divine presence that will never let us go. That is what prayer is, and it gives us strength. And when we’ve lost touch with that divine presence, when we feel frightened, despairing, or overwhelmed, we rely on each other to help us find our way back to God, just as Philip helped Nathaniel, as Eli helped the boy Samuel, and as Mahalia Jackson helped Dr. King. As people of faith, we are in this together, and when any of us lose heart, we try to help each other, as individuals and as a community, to turn again to God and to make our appeal: Precious Lord, take my hand.
I feel as powerfully as ever that call to prayer, that call to community, and that call to active, faithful service and advocacy. I don’t usually carry a newspaper into church – actually, this is the first time I’ve ever done it. But I want to show you the front page of yesterday’s New York Times, which gives a map of the world colored in shades of red to indicate all the areas that were above average in temperature last year. The year 2014 broke the record for the hottest year on Earth since we started keeping records.
But hey, we may be saying to ourselves, it’s been so cold in New England! It turns out that below-average temperatures in our region may be indirectly linked to climate change. Some scientists are studying the likelihood that the unusual dips they are noticing in the jet stream are connected to the rapidly warming Arctic and the exceptionally warm waters of the Pacific Ocean. Bottom line is that the phrase “global warming” is probably much too simple – a better term might be “global weirding.” As the world grows warmer we can expect more erratic and extreme fluctuations in local weather, and some places will sometimes become unexpectedly cold. Yet all the while the average global temperature is heading in only one direction: up.
In just two centuries – a blink in geologic time – we have burned so much coal, gas, and oil and released so much heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are higher today than they’ve been for hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of years. I heard a climate scientist say, “We are breathing from an atmosphere that none of our ancestors would recognize.”
Sticking to business as usual could raise average global temperatures between 5 and 11 degrees Fahrenheit in this century. That may not sound like much, but in fact it would make the world extremely difficult for humans and other creatures to inhabit. Oceans are already heating and becoming more acidic; tundra is thawing; ice caps and glaciers are melting; sea levels are rising; coral reefs are dying; massive droughts are spreading in some places and heavy rains are intensifying in others. Last spring we learned that the huge West Antarctic ice sheet is starting to collapse and slide into the sea in a way that scientists call “unstoppable.” The latest climate report from the U.N. warns of food shortages, waves of refugees, and the mass extinction of plants and animals, if we keep to our present course.
This is the sort of news that wakes me up at night and pulls me into prayer: precious Lord, take my hand. It is also the sort of news that propels me out of bed in the morning, eager to find a way to be of use. Once we have grasped what the bishops of the Episcopal Church call “the urgency of the planetary crisis in which we find ourselves,”1 there is so much we can do, so many ways that we can contribute to the healing of Creation. Thank you for the work you’ve done here at St. John’s to conserve energy, switch to efficient light bulbs, and use cloth rather than paper napkins. Our individual actions add up: we can recycle more, drive less, be sparing in our use of water, quit using bottled water. We can turn off lights when we leave a room. Maybe we can eat local, organic foods and support local farms and land trusts, maybe even leave them some money in our wills. I hope you’ll form a “green team” in this parish, and name a Creation Care Minister. I hope you’ll sign up to join a network of people in the diocese who care about Creation. I’d be glad to support you in any way I can.
I also hope you’ll sign up to receive a weekly newsletter from the grassroots group, Climate Action Now, which is centered right here in the Pioneer Valley. If we work as isolated individuals, our success will be limited, for the scope and speed of the climate crisis require action on a much broader scale. So we link arms with other people and we join the movement to make it politically possible to do what is scientifically necessary. The climate movement is gaining momentum, and many of us are inspired by Dr. King and the civil rights movement. Last week I spent a day in Amherst with other local climate activists, studying the principles of non-violent civil disobedience as practiced by Gandhi and Dr. King. Along with more than 97,000 people across the U.S., I have signed a pledge of resistance, a pledge to risk arrest in non-violent direct action if the Keystone XL pipeline is approved. Stopping that pipeline has become a powerful symbol of the urgent need to keep 80% of the known fossil fuels in the ground, where they belong. Fossil fuel companies now possess five times the amount of coal, gas, and oil that, if burned, would force the average global temperature to rise far higher than the 2 degree threshold that gives us a 50-50 chance of preventing runaway climate change. So now is the time to make a swift transition to clean, safe, renewable energy, such as sun and wind.
In this unprecedented time, many of us feel called anew to listen to the tender voice of love that God is always sounding in our heart, and then to embody that love in the world as bravely and clearly as we can. If ever there were a time to bear witness to our faith that life and not death will have the last word, now would be the time. If ever there were a time to take hold of the vision of a Beloved Community in which human beings live in right relationship with each other and with all our fellow creatures, now would be the time. The collapse of the ice sheet in Antarctica may be “unstoppable,” but so is the love that calls us to stand up for life.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu fought for racial justice and against apartheid in South Africa, and now he is one of the world’s champions of climate justice. Reconciling human beings to each other, to God, and to the rest of Creation is what Tutu calls the “supreme work” of Jesus Christ.
Thank you, my brothers and sisters in Christ, for joining me in that supreme work.
1.In 2011 the bishops of the Episcopal Church issued a pastoral teaching on the environment that begins with a call to repentance “as we face the unfolding environmental crisis of the earth.” For the full text of “A Pastoral Teaching from the Bishops of the Episcopal Church,” meeting in Province IX, in Quito, Ecuador, September 2011, visit here.
TNE note: Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas is an Episcopal priest, writer, retreat leader, and climate activist. After 25 years of parish ministry, she now serves as Missioner for Creation Care in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts. You can follow her blog here.
Today is the first Sunday of Advent, which is a season that invites us to enter into a spiritual space of waiting. It’s a time when wait to celebrate Jesus birth in our lives again, and look forward to his final coming at the last day to set the whole world right. The waiting we’re called to do in Advent is the impatient, agitated kind of waiting that strives to bring about the thing we are waiting for.
In our gospel lesson, Jesus is speaking to his disciples about his triumphal return, and urging them to keep awake and be ready. I suspect that most of us have a hard time with these apocalyptic passages in the Bible. Rapture-happy televangelists, and the almost cartoonish depictions of the last things in popular books and movies that often paint a terrifying picture of what will happen to those “left behind” in order to scare us straight before it’s too late have soured these kinds of passages for us. Bumper stickers like “Jesus is coming. Look busy.” satirize passages like these and their interpretations in popular culture.
But actually, Jesus’ words weren’t meant to scare his disciples, they were meant to reassure them. Their lives were already hard, and uncertain, and scary. Their hope was that in Jesus, God was going to right injustices, was going to destroy suffering, was going to give peace and security instead of constant violence and threats of violence. So when Jesus reminds his disciples that he could return at any minute, he is telling them that new life, justice, hope, and peace could show up at any second.
That’s the kind of heightened awareness we’re called to during Advent. We’re called to remember that God’s life, and love, and peace, and healing could break into our lives at any minute. And we’re not just called to be good little boys and girls and sit around patiently waiting for it, but we’re called to wait impatiently, and agitate for that justice, and new life, and hope. We’re called to join the prophet Isaiah as he agitates for God saying, “Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down. . .” Craning your neck around the car in front of you to try to move traffic is ridiculous and futile, but it’s exactly the kind of spiritual waiting Jesus calls us to.
That’s why we’re called as Christians to care deeply about what’s happening in Ferguson. It’s why we’re called to listen deeply to the protesters there. Whatever may or may not have happened when Michael Brown was shot, we’re called to listen to their frustration and their anger at the racial divisions and prejudice that are still very real in America. And rather than simply dismiss Ferguson as an unfortunate and isolated case, we’re called to consider how racial, and class, and all forms difference and prejudice play out in our own city, and to agitate for hardened and prejudiced hearts and minds to be changed. That people are divided and set against each other because of how they look, or the language they speak, or where they live is one of the things Christ’s kingdom will set right, and one of the things we’re called to agitate as we impatiently wait now. “Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”
Our impatient waiting also involves feeding the hungry, caring for the abused, visiting the sick, becoming agents of healing and forgiveness in our offices, in our schools, in our homes.
That’s why grumpy priests like me want to keep us from jumping too quickly into calling this the “Christmas season,” because our lives and our world can be changed when we spend a little time digging into what it means to be waiting for God to come in God’s full power; digging into what it means to be impatiently agitating for justice and mercy in a world where those things continue to be in such short supply.
Over these next weeks, we’re called to wait, but we aren’t called to be patient. How can you become an agitator in your own life? In the words of the famous prayer in our prayer book attributed to St. Francis, we wait by praying to be instruments, agitators, of God’s peace: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.” Pray that you might help to make it so, while you await the full coming of the Savior. Amen.
You can follow Dean Loya’s posts on his blog here.
Genesis 29:15-28; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Preached by Archdeacon Betsy Blake Bennett at Church of the Resurrection, Omaha, July 27, 2014
“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in [a] field…the kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour…Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” (Matthew 13: 31-32, 52)
I’m especially excited about preaching today because this morning’s lessons are full of treasures from our tradition that can help us find our way today. This morning’s Gospel lesson from Matthew gives us a wealth of parables, images Jesus used to help us get glimpses of the kingdom of heaven. These parables point us to the reign of the Living God who is served by people with a living and lively faith.
Along with that wealth of parables, we have a very rich passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans full of comforting images and words — the Spirit interceding for us with “sighs too deep for words”, the assurance that “all things work together for good for those who love God”, and Paul’s firm conviction that nothing — absolutely nothing —“will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
But let’s begin today a footnote of sorts about our first lesson from Genesis, a footnote or comment I feel obligated to include given our Gospel lesson. The Gospel parables remind us that our faith is alive and that the church’s treasure lies in honoring what is old while embracing the new things that our living and abundantly creative God brings into being in all times and places.
In this week’s chapter of the story of Jacob, we witness his steadfast love for Rachel and his perseverance as he works for her father Laban seven years so he can marry her. Then when Laban substitutes Leah for Rachel on the wedding night, Jacob serves seven years again. Most of us here this morning know at least something of the story of Jacob. The story, like others, is so familiar that we barely hear it.
But I wonder what this chunk of Scripture says to people with little connection to our tradition who might find themselves for some reason or another in a church hearing this story for the first time. Rachel and Leah are bargaining chips. They will marry whomever their father chooses whenever he chooses, and his choice will depend on what payment he can get for them. Two other women are in this story: Laban gives his maid Zilpah to Leah, and if this reading continued one more verse to verse 29, we would find Laban giving his maid Bilhah to Rachel. Zilpah and Bilhah become important to the story when Leah and Rachel have trouble conceiving children and give Zilpah and Bilhah to Jacob to bear children for him. Thus, the twelve “sons of Jacob”, the patriarchs of the twelve tribes of Israel, have four different mothers, none of whom had much say about their own lives. Our unchurched visitor hears all of this and then hears us respond “Thanks be to God”, and usually nothing else is said about the passage unless it’s something about Jacob and his situation.
We almost always ignore the reality of the lives of women in such stories. After all, that was the way things were done in that time and place, we say. But in ignoring it, we treat our tradition as if it were dead. We say that Scripture is too dead to make any difference today, that the stories don’t really change anything. No wonder some people see organized religion as dead or dying when we treat it that way ourselves sometimes! And if we never mention the situation of the women in the story, we miss an opportunity to bring something new out of the treasure of our tradition.
UNICEF has a poster that’s been shared on the internet recently, a photo of a girl from some non-western nation with the words “Girls are not property. They have the right to determine their destiny.” This is a reminder we still need in the 21st century. There are still people in the world — and not just in other countries, by the way — who see nothing wrong with all this subordination of women to men. And that’s why we in the church have an obligation to both treasure and critique our tradition. We have a moral obligation to be clear about our belief that God’s family includes everyone, no exceptions. We need to make this clear not only to visitors, but to ourselves. We need to make certain that our boys and girls grow up knowing they are of equal worth. Our tradition is a living tradition, and our God is a living God. The stories we read are important, the way we tell them to our children is important, and the language we use for God and humankind in our liturgy and in our teaching is important. These may seem like small things, but small things done with integrity and faithfulness can do great things for God’s kingdom.
Jesus talks about small things in today’s parables: the tiny mustard seed that grows into such a big bush that it’s more like a tree, the little bit of yeast that raises up three measures of flour. Neither a mustard seed nor a single grain of yeast look like much of anything; if you dropped one on the floor, you’d be hard put to see it or pick it up. But even though they look like a tiny bit of nothing, they are full of life. If we take the time to notice, there’s a lot of wonder in the sprouting of any seed, and a lot of wonder in watching yeast work. If the seed isn’t viable or the yeast has sat on the shelf too long, neither is good for anything. But when they are full of life ready for the right growing conditions, they do wondrous things.
When we feel too small as individuals, as a parish, or as a church to further the growth of God’s kingdom and to serve as a catalyst for good in the world, we can remember the parables of the mustard seed and the yeast. We don’t have to understand how the mustard seed grows or how the yeast produces the carbon dioxide bubbles that make the bread rise, and we don’t have to understand how God can use us to do God’s work. Our work is to be viable, to be alive, so that God can use us however and wherever God needs us.
And so something like simply seeing and acknowledging the patriarchy embedded in our tradition can be a seed that grows into a church that may someday use inclusive and expansive language in our prayer book and hymnal, that may someday not allow any representative of the church to belittle women, and that may someday be a nurturing and empowering place for all of our children, no exceptions.
As some of you know, my ministry is focused on environmental stewardship. I got into this ministry when I heard the Presiding Bishop challenge a group of us deacons meeting in Seattle to get to work on the environmental degradation that underlies so much of our more traditional areas of diaconal work: the world’s hunger, diseases, and poverty. With global warming and its evil twin of ocean acidification accelerating, and with a lack of political will in the US and some other big nations to do anything big enough to change that, it would be easy to feel hopeless. I do sometimes feel deep grief as I learn about what is unfolding as a result of our unwillingness to acknowledge the size of the problem and to make the systemic changes we need to make, but I seldom feel truly hopeless, partly because of this parable. I don’t think God will or can make everything magically get better, but I do think the efforts of a few relatively small institutions (including faith communities), of individual people from around the world, and of leaders of smaller nations that know they will suffer first and worst from global warming can open the way for the unfolding of a new sort of hope that we can’t even envision. Some of that hope lies in knowing that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us even when we are unable to pray, when the only prayer possible is the Spirit’s “sighs too deep for words”.
And some of that hope lies in having lived long enough to witness the results of prayer and the truth of these parables in other situations. Our son Andrew has an internship in Alexandria, Virginia, this summer, and Gary and I went to see him over the 4th of July. That weekend we took a water taxi over to the National Mall. One of our first stops was the Martin Luther King memorial, which is breathtaking. Something about the statue of Dr. King and the selection of quotations from his speeches and sermons that run along a long wall behind the statue brought home not only what he and others accomplished in the civil rights movement, but how great the odds were against them. These were people who lacked political power but who had the power of a living faith. And that made all the difference. They and their faith were the yeast that changed everything.
This week marks the 40th anniversary of the ordination of the Philadelphia Eleven, the first women to be ordained as Episcopal priests. General Convention had not yet authorized the ordination of women in 1974, but this small group of women seeking ordination and bishops who thought the custom of an exclusively male priesthood was contrary to the Gospel took this first step that resulted not only in General Convention affirming and authorizing the ordination of women to the priesthood in 1976 but eventually led to the ordination of women to the episcopate and led to other changes in our culture and customs that have resulted from men and women sharing leadership. Before graduating from college in 1973, I did some discernment around a long-time pull towards ordination, something that was very confusing because the vocational diaconate had not yet been revived and women were not being ordained as priests. In the course of deciding whether to go to graduate school or seminary, I talked with priests — all male, of course — who thought the ordination of women to the priesthood anytime soon was a long shot. And compared to the power structure of the church in 1973, this small group of women and the men who supported them seemed pretty powerless. But the mustard seeds grew and the uncustomary ordination of eleven became the customary ordination of many.
Good things can grow from small beginnings. We don’t know how the seeds grow, exactly what makes the yeast work, or exactly how any struggle for what is good and right and just will unfold. But we do know from a couple of today’s other parables what it takes to be viable, to have a lively faith within us that God can use. What gives us life is fixing our hearts on Christ. If we recognize our opportunity to follow Jesus as a pearl of great value or a buried treasure for which we would give anything and everything, we will fix our hearts on serving Christ. Faithful discipleship in worship, action, and study keeps our faith viable, full of life that God can use for bigger things than we can ask or imagine.
My sisters and brothers, there is violence here at home and in battlegrounds all over the world to be stopped. There are girls who aren’t allowed to go to school, men and women who can’t find work that pays enough to feed their families, and refugees who cannot find a safe place where they will be welcomed. And there is an unstable climate around the world that drives people from their homes with floods, high winds, and wildfires, that spreads diseases like malaria and dengue fever, and that changes rainfall patterns and growing seasons so that people have difficulty growing food in some places where people used to survive by subsistence farming. The good news in the midst of all of this is that we are not too small for God to use us to transform this brokenness into the life-giving wholeness of the reign of God.
Ours is not a dead tradition. Ours is a living faith that points us to serve the Living God. And, as Paul says in his Letter to the Romans, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God.” Thanks be to God, the source of all genuine hope and power! Amen.
Liturgy of Rededication, Church of Our Savior, September 14, 2014
“As Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” – Matthew 12:40
What a joy and a privilege to be here with you this morning, and to be a part of this glorious celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the dedication of this sacred space. I can only imagine the amount of work that has been undertaken to bring us to this moment and I want to offer my thanks for what must have been an extraordinary investment of time and energy by many people over many, many months. I am certain I speak for this whole assembly in saying thank you. Thanks to all those who have planned parties, and orchestrated liturgies, and written remembrances, and entertained guests, and polished brass and swept cobwebs and all the rest. Thank you for offering such a generous gift on behalf of your church and Jesus behind that. This is beautiful.
This is a weekend of remembering: of remembering the history of this building and remembering the lives of the saints who have called this place “home” during their earthly pilgrimages. And what a history you have written. Not just over the 50 years you have inhabited this structure, but over the 140 years you have “officially” been the Episcopal Church in North Platte. It has been an amazing journey:
- Your founding goes to a real-estate deal brokered by the very first Bishop of Nebraska and the famous Civil War General who built the Union Pacific Railroad.
- Your early days are associated with some of the most colorful figures in all the old west, most notably of course Buffalo Bill and the Cody family…
- You have given three Bishops to the apostolic succession of the Church Catholic, in George Beecher, Alfred Gilman and James Krotz.
- You have served your community in prophetic and life-giving ways, from establishing a school to running a hospital to feeding people at the famous North Platte Canteen (and to this very day at Wednesday Dot Com.)
- And in working alongside the extraordinary Hirum Hisanori Kano, you have played a part in shaping – and being shaped by – a saint of the Church of God.
Your story is as great as that of any parish in the Americas. It is not enough to say that North Platte or the Diocese of Nebraska would be less if it were not for Church of Our Savior: our Episcopal Church would be terribly diminished without you and yours.
We heard a funny little Gospel reading this morning. It was short and seemed incomplete I suppose. Asked by the skeptical Pharisees for a “sign” to prove that he is the real deal, Jesus recalls to them a story from the Hebrew Scriptures. “Here’s the only sign you’ll get,” he says, “Just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”
While the Pharisees must have been confounded by this proclamation, we are not. Jesus here points to his own crucifixion and death: just as Jonah was in the dark belly of the fish for three days, Jesus too will spend three days in the grave following his sacrifice on the cross. And then we know (as they couldn’t) that Jesus will blast forth from that grave, and by the power of that resurrection, defeat sin and death, and make the whole creation new.
It seems to me the Holy Spirit wrapped up a perfect gift for us in this little Gospel reading on this morning. For it points us to THE STORY – the essential proclamation – that has been at the heart of the ministry of all the saints who have gathered to worship in this building for the last half century. The story of how Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary, how he suffered for us under Pontius Pilot, how he was crucified, died and was buried for three days; How on the third day, he rose again from the dead. And how by his death and resurrection those who believe in him are now set free from the bondage of sin and death and restored to a new creation and empowered to help usher in his kingdom in this here and now.
That is our story. That is your story. It’s good to be reminded of it this morning.
I first met most of you in the fall of 2011, just a few weeks after being consecrated as the new Bishop of Nebraska. The whole diocese had come out to North Platte, where Our Savior was generously hosting annual council for us all. There was a moment during our convention business meeting, when I saw this commotion off to the side of the dais where I was speaking, and suddenly non-other than Buffalo Bill came crashing into our church meeting. (Silly me, up to that moment I’d been under the misapprehension that Buffalo Bill was dead!) Well old Bill strode to the podium, sort of wrestled the mic away from me, and proceeded to loudly proclaim that today was “Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska day” in North Platte. And then he handed me the key to the city and the gift of a beautiful white Stetson to add to my episcopal apparel. “Glad you’re here, partner!” said Bill, slapping me on the back and jangling his way back out the door.
That was quite a moment! And just between us I’ll tell you I was surprised and a little unnerved yesterday when we paid a visit out to Scout’s Rest and who should come cantering out from behind the Cody house on a great white steed but Buffalo Bill. That guy won’t leave me alone!
It seems to me that an awful lot of your history – symbolically I mean – is represented in the feisty, generous and larger than life figure of Bill Cody. Like him you were and are pioneers – pioneers who brought Christianity to the frontier of America and keep it well to this day. Like him you are fighters – fighters who we remember this day battled back from a disastrous church fire to build anew and to live again. Like him you are all Nebraska in every way (and Bill is all Nebraska right? Even though Iowa birthed him and Colorado has stolen his earthly remains!)
But I also want to acknowledge this morning that you are also much, much more in that upside down, last shall be first, service is perfect freedom way that we’re familiar with as followers of Christ. I suspect that in the book of the history of this place that is being written in Heaven – the one being composed by the God who sees our private actions and our most personal thoughts – there is a different collection of stories than the ones we’re telling this weekend, stories of people who were baptized in that font, who journeyed regularly to this address, who prayed in this very building and fidgeted in those very pews … and who are now known only to God.
And these are saints too! Though their faces and their contributions are now forgotten, they played their essential part. They paid their church pledge, even when food was scarce in the pantry and the next paycheck was not due for a week. They invited friends here, and in that o-so-awkward Episcopal way, tried to tell them how much Jesus and this holy place meant to them. They sat on the vestry, they sang in the choir, they taught Sunday School to the kids, they ironed the linens …
They made the effort to simply be here Sunday after Sunday, week after week, year after year, even perhaps when the aches and pains of an aging body made that one of the hardest tasks of each week.
Beloved, such humble acts often spring from deep faith and real courage. They are how a group of friends is transformed into a band of disciples. This is the way a church is built.
The truth is that the stories of the heroes and heroines we’re sharing this weekend – our cherished tales of the grand mountaintop and deepest valley moments of life in this building and on this lot – are not much of life. Most of life happens between the mountains and the valleys, in faithful day-to-day decisions and actions taken by folks who are not known beyond their own small circle of family, friends and neighbors.
And so in the midst of celebrating Father Kano and Father Bullard, and Bishop Krotz and Buffalo Bill … let’s remember too the ones who have gone before and whose names are now known only to God in heaven. For it is most of all by the work and prayer of those unsung and little known saints that this house of worship has been built. The ones who have come to call this building “my church,” and who even still make their way to this sacred place to break the bread, to say their prayers, and day after day, week after week and year after year – worship Our Savior!
+ J.S. Barker
(This homily was preached September 14th at The Church of Our Savior in North Platte. They were celebrating the 50th anniversary of their church building and the 140th anniversary of the admission to the council of the Diocese of Nebraska.)
Proper 9 – 2014 Year A – (July 6)
Good morning. I hope we have all had a safe and fun Fourth of July holiday weekend. As some of you may recall (because I have mentioned it before) one of my hobbies is Presidential history. With this in mind, I’ll share a little story with you. On Sunday evening, April 29, 1962, President and Mrs. Kennedy hosted a White House dinner for the forty-nine Nobel laureates from North and South America. After dinner, in the East Room, the President began his remarks with the following words: “I am proud to welcome to the White House the winners of the Nobel Prize in the Western Hemisphere. I doubt whether in the long history of this house we have ever had on a single occasion such a concentration of genius and achievement as we have tonight, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”
Two hundred thirty-eight years ago, in the summer of 1776, Thomas Jefferson wrote these words: “When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” So begins our national Declaration of Independence.
Eleven years later, in 1787, Mr. Jefferson wrote these words: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” So begins our Federal Constitution.
It is my personal belief that these words of Mr. Jefferson are divinely inspired words. I am not saying they are the same as Holy Scripture, but I believe they are divinely inspired nonetheless. Did you notice the rights of God Mr. Jefferson references are life itself, and many of the qualities which are essential to living a good life — equality, liberty, happiness, safety, union, justice, and tranquility? These are all spiritual qualities representing specific spiritual locations. But, since the time of Cain and Abel, all too often some humans seem to want to deprive other humans of these God-given rights. When this happens we find ourselves needing to “provide for the common defence”.
My father was thirty-one years old when Pearl Harbor was attacked, and he became part of what is known today as the Greatest Generation. My father served in WWII with the 85th Infantry Division in French North Africa, Sicily, and southern Italy moving up into Rome under General Patton. But he never made it to Rome. Somewhere in southern Italy, my father earned a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star with a piece of shrapnel in his shoulder, with which he lived for the rest of his life.
WWII is just one chapter in the long history of the world when people of good faith have needed to defend themselves from the ill will of others. Since September 11, 2001, we have been at war defending our God-given rights. It does not look as though this war will end any time soon. Every Sunday we pray for the men and women serving in our armed forces, and we follow this prayer with a prayer that God’s peace will be made manifest throughout God’s creation. Each of these prayers is equally important. Our brothers and sisters in arms need our prayers to strengthen them and sustain them. Our prayers for peace may seem futile while this war continues, but I want to assure you they are not futile. God hears our prayers for peace and in God’s time, not ours, in God’s own way; our prayers for peace will be answered. Our calling is to live with faith, to act with faith, and to continue to pray with faith all the while trusting God that His divine peace will come to fruition.
Fr. Jerry Ness
St. Luke’s, Kearney
Pentecost, Year A ’14
Acts 2;1-11/John 20, 19-23
8 June 2014
“Take my lips, oh Lord, and speak through them; take our minds and think with them. Take our hearts and set them on fire, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you. When he had said this he breathed on them and said to them, ‘receive the Holy Spirit’.” How’s your holy imagination today? Can you see what it was like on that day of Pentecost so long ago? Jesus’ followers had gathered in Jerusalem to worship, it was, after all a festival day, Pentecost. They had come together bringing what they needed for their table worship. Maybe there were some olives and fish, there was certainly bread and wine. They lit the candles and said the prayers. Someone read from their scriptures and another commented on what they had read. Then, all of a sudden, and boy were they surprised, the room was filled with a rushing wind. Tongues as of flame appeared and rested on each of them. Power, sheer power, filled the air and they began to speak, each of them in a different language. It was pandemonium. And it attracted quite a crowd. What’s going on, someone asked. What does it mean? A few exclaimed, we can each hear what they are saying as though they are speaking in our own language! Others said, and I can hear the disgust in their voice, they must be drunk. (those Galileans you know, can’t trust ‘em) Then Peter spoke up. We are not drunk, he said, this is not the result of new wine, we have been filled up with the Holy Spirit. He was referring, of course, to what the prophet Joel had said when he spoke of how the Holy Spirit would be poured out on all humankind. And so here we are today, celebrating what has come to be known as the very beginning of Christianity as a separate religion. Here we are remembering, and in some way reenacting, hopefully re-experiencing, that moment of awareness of G-d doing a profoundly new thing, because, of course, it all happened so long ago, 2000 years and a little bit. That new thing has become old hat to us. Sort of like Christmas and Easter, though our culture hasn’t seized this day, prettied it up, and turned it into a profit making enterprise. Oh yes, we do have special decorations, we sing hymns that remind us of the power of the Holy Spirit. And we have special treats for our coffee hour. But, really, beneath the skin, it is business as usual on Sunday morning. We have our nice, sanitized, worship service with no real surprised and no real power either. It’s kind of like a wedding dress, neatly cleaned and folded into a display box, kept on a shelf to be taken out on an anniversary and admired, a memento of a life changing event. But what if (and yes, I am asking you to use that holy imagination of yours) what if this morning, when it comes time to respond to the Gospel with the Nicene Creed, suddenly this place was filled with the sound of rushing wind, what if tongues of flame appeared and began touching down on each one of us? What then? What would happen?
Would we try to keep it quiet and covered up? After all, can you imagine what would happen
if the Star-Herald got hold of the story? What would the Bishop have to say then? Never mind what our neighbors might say. I can just hear them. Oh those Episcopalians, this is what comes of using real wine for communion. Perhaps it would be better to push it away and not speak of it again lest G-d’s wild, exuberant, and Holy power overtake us, acting in and through us to bring G-d’s Holy presence into our world. Here’s the thing. We say that G-d came among us in the person of Jesus, we even call him Messiah, Christ, because of G-d’s great love for us. You know, “For G-d so loved the world that he gave his only Son…” G-d saw our weakness and our need
and reached out to us in love. And guess what, that need still exists. People are still trapped, held prisoner, held in bondage, to depression, and addiction, and above all to loneliness. People are still looked in prisons of need as strong as any set of iron bars, alienated from one another by our differences, living in fear and frustration. “Peace be with you [Jesus said]. As the Father has sent me, so I send you. When he had said this he breathed on them and said to them, ‘receive the Holy Spirit’.” What are we to do? Should we, CAN we, just shrug and say, well Pentecost (or Easter or Christmas), it all happened a long time ago, we have it right here in our holy book. But, of course, stuff like that doesn’t really happen anymore, and besides, isn’t that kind of work a job for the experts? Still, I have to wonder, what could happen if we asked a different question?
What if we asked whether it could happen again? And what might it look like if it did happen again right here today? No. I don’t mean actual wind and fire and each one of us miraculously able to speak a foreign language. Thing is, if we wait for G-d to repeat what happened back then,
well, we will wait in disappointment for a pretty long time I think. I am reminded of a woman I know who always expects to be disappointed, to be hurt, to be rejected. And guess what. She always gets just what she expects. So. Use that holy imagination of yours. What could an outpouring of the Holy Spirit look like in terms of your life, in terms of the life of this church?
Could it look like increased prayer time, maybe learning to pray in new ways, ways you’re are not accustomed to, maybe dedicating as little as 20 minutes a day to conversation with G-d?
Could it look like real dedication to prayer and praise in community, to spending as little as 1 hour a week in joyful, joy filled, worship? Could it look like finding new ways to serve G-d in others, reaching out to mend broken relationships or to make new ones, overcoming our self-imposed differences and accepting people as they are rather than expecting them to become just like us? Could it involve openness to new kinds of ministry because, yes, G-d does call each and every one of us to ministries that make use of the gifts we have been given. Keep your eyes open, use that holy imagination. The skies the limit when we expect G-d to do a new thing, a fresh and Holy thing, in and through us. Remember that G-d has promised that the Holy Spirit will be poured out abundantly on every single one of us. The Holy One is already doing a new thing. Remember what Jesus said; “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.
When he had said this he breathed on them and said to them, ‘receive the Holy Spirit’.” Don’t fall asleep and miss the richness, the sweetness, the sheer power and beauty of new life, life lived with G-d. Amen
My thanks to Rev. Marshall A. Jolly whose sermon posted in Sermons that work, Pentecost 2014, sparked my thinking and got me writing this Pentecost.
– Mother Carol Ann Bullard