Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Hope for the New Year

[Following is the article I wrote for January 2009 issue of the parish newsletter.]

The New Year is always a time for reflection on the year that has just past. Usually, as I look back on the previous year, I find myself overcome with emotion and sentimentality over what has occurred during the previous twelve months, thinking about the many ways I have grown and changed, the successes I have experienced, and pondering the ways that I might have done things better. But this year is a little different. I’m sure that many of you share my sentiment that you would just as soon forget that 2008 ever happened. While I may still get a little teary-eyed on New Year’s Eve, I’m sure they will be more tears of sorrow than tears of joy. After all, the news and events of the past year have been, by and large, less than cheery, to say the least.

As this new year begins, more than any other year, I find that I am looking forward more than I am looking back. With all the negative news we have witnessed, the difficulties and losses we have all experienced due to the global financial crisis, I feel a need more than ever to look forward in hope – hope that 2009 will be better than 2008, hope that things will improve. I think, now more than ever, we need hope – if for no other reason than to prevent us from spiraling into the pit of despair that hopelessness always brings.

As I think about hope, I am reminded that we are a people of hope. Our faith is built upon hope. The hope of Abraham and Sarah that God would fulfill His promise to provide offspring that would become a great nation. The hope of the Hebrews wandering in the desert that God, through Moses, would lead them to the Promised Land. The hope of the people of Israel that they would return home from exile in Babylon. The hope of a Messiah announced to Zechariah. The hope of a son who would be Emmanuel, God with us, promised to Mary. And the hope of new life promised through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

For thousands of years, hope carried our Old Testament ancestors through unimaginable trials and tribulations. For the past two thousand years, hope in our Lord Jesus Christ has seen countless Christians through incredibly difficult times. Like these, our forebears, we cannot forget our past. But we don’t have to dwell in or on the past. We can, instead, look ahead, in hope, to better things to come – to the land of milk and honey that God wishes for us all, that God promises to us all. Let us pray that 2009 brings us one step closer to that promise.

I wish you all a blessed and happy New Year.

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Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Word is Worth a Thousand Pictures

First Sunday after Christmas – Year B (BCP)Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 147:13-21; Galatians 3:23-25, 4:4-7; John 1:1-18
Sunday, December 28, 2008 – St. Alban’s, Westwood

It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words. This refers to the idea that complex ideas or stories can better be conveyed through the use of a single image, that an image can convey more information or be far more influential than copious amounts of text. This phrase, or at least the general concept, has been attributed to such varied historical figures as Napoleon Bonaparte, Confucius, and the Russian author Ivan Turgenev.

Regardless of its provenance, the modern use of the phrase is attributed to Fred R. Barnard who used the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words” in a 1921 article promoting the use of images in advertisements that were plastered on the sides of streetcars (Wikipedia). Ever since, Madison Avenue has used this adage as the guiding principal for its ad campaigns. In the early 20th century, it was for ads on streetcars. Today, it is ads on buses, on billboards, in magazines, and on television. The concept has become so pervasive that sometimes, all you see in an ad is an image with no words. The image is meant to evoke some kind of emotional response that will prompt the viewer to buy whatever is being sold. Such images generally play on our baser human desires, on our dreams and fantasies, to sell the product. A classic example is the image of a beautiful, bikini-clad blond lounging on the hood of a Ferrari. If you buy this car, you’re fantasies will come true; you will be sexy; you will attract sexy, beautiful blonds.

Of course, at a rational level, we know such ads are pure hype, intending to play on our emotions, to reach down into the depths of our being to dredge up or tease out our deepest thoughts, feelings, and desires. That is the power of a single image. Even when not used to try to sell us something, there are certain images that evoke strong emotional responses from us.

Who among us was not deeply moved when we first saw the images on television of smoke rising from the top of the Twin Tours on September 11, 2001? As we saw those images, repeatedly flashed on our television screens, printed on the fronts of newspapers and in news magazines, who of us did not feel deep, gut-level emotions? Fear. Anger. Sorrow. Loss. Anxiety. Even today, for many Americans, seeing pictures of that tragic day, of that fateful event, brings back all those emotions, as if it just happened yesterday. For many, those images have become stronger, more powerful, filled with more of a message than they had on that fateful day seven years ago. For many, seeing those images today not only brings back the emotions felt at the time, but also brings back memories of where they were when they first heard the news, when they first saw the images, memories of the sense of shock.

And who among us has not seen the picture of a loved one, even someone long departed, and not felt a great stirring of memory and emotion. Even though she died nearly 35 years ago, seeing a picture of my grandmother brings back so many memories and emotions. The deep sense of love that Nanny always conveyed to each and every one of her grandchildren. The way we always felt cared for and nurtured when we were at her house. Her gentle, humble spirit. Of walking into her house on a Sunday after church, being greeted not only by her warm embrace and gentle kiss, but also the smells of pot roast or fried chicken, the smells of some home-baked goodie for dessert. The joy of sitting down to Sunday dinner with parents and grandparents, with aunts, uncles, and cousins. I can almost taste the delicious food she lovingly prepared, particularly the home-made chocolate cream pie. All this and much more, just by looking at a picture of a woman, a woman who died when I was only 12 years old.

That is the power of an image, of a single picture – to bring up such emotion, to recall so many memories, than could not be adequately conveyed in mere words, not even in a thousand words. Yes, a picture is indeed worth a thousand words and much more.

But there is one word whose power surpasses even that of a picture. And that is the Word (with a capital “W”) of which John speaks in today’s Gospel lesson. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” These words, the Word, carries so much meaning for us, it is difficult to know where to begin. So how about we start at the very beginning.

John’s words parallel and are intended to remind us of the beginning of Genesis. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). But even before the creation story, the Word always was from the beginning. The Word was before creation. “All things came into being through him,” through the Word. This was God’s first gift, the creation of all that is, of the heavens and the earth, light and darkness, water and dry land, day and night, vegetation, birds of the air, creatures of the sea, every kind of animal and creeping thing that lives on dry land, and finally, us – humankind. Through the Word, all that we have, all creation, our very lives, were lovingly made and given into our care. All of creation is but a mere part of the Word, a mere expression of the Word, not the totality of the Word. The Word is so much more. There is so much more of the Word that has yet to be revealed.

As one clergy person noted, the Word ultimately expresses “the fellowship that is God, the intimate relationships of love that are God’s heart, have always been, and always will be” (Howell, 188). The Word expresses God’s internal fellowship, the internal relationship of the Persons of the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, all intertwined in infinite, limitless love. In this fellowship, the Word expresses God’s inner self, God’s loving heart. It is that loving heart that was at the root of, that gave birth to, the desire for creation. The Word, God’s loving heart, expression of God’s unbounded love, ached to share himself with something other than himself. Thus began the process of creation, born of the love that is in and is through and is the Word.

But even in the full realization that creation is an expression of God’s love, in the realization of God’s unlimited love for what has been created, there was still something missing. Even in creation, the fullness of the Word, the greatness of the love inherent in the Word was even then not yet fully expressed. How to be in relationship with creation, particularly with humanity? Such relationship requires, at least for us, the created, a tangible manifestation, a physical expression of love. And that is what John’s Prologue reveals – the means of that manifestation of God’s loving heart.

As John’s Prologue reveals through its poetic imagery, the revelation of the Word to humanity is not so much a “big bang” as it is an unfolding, just as the process of creation was a gradual unfolding. The Prologue unfolds for us yet more detail about who the Word is. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” The Word made flesh, God incarnate. The Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. In this, the Word expresses God’s desire to connect with us, humanity, with that which was loving created through the Word, we who have always been loved. This desire is made reality, made tangible for us through God’s incarnation, through God made flesh, in His Son Jesus.

What more beautiful way for God to manifest His love for us than to become one of us, to be born as a human. God incarnated, born as a child of a human mother. Even though King of Kings and Lord of Lords, born as a peasant of lowly estate, born not in a royal palace, born not even in a proper home, but born in a manger. The Word made flesh, born among the lowest of the low, so that he might fully experience the human condition in all its baseness and grittiness. To willingly take on such an existence is truly an act of love, only possible from God’s loving heart that is the Word.

But even more expressive of God’s loving heart is the ultimate purpose for which the Word was made flesh. The Word was made flesh not merely to share our human experience, but to provide for our salvation. “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” Through his life, death, and resurrection, we have received the ultimate grace expressing God’s loving heart – that we might be saved, that we might be given eternal life with God, through Christ, through the Word made flesh. Through the Word, God brought about all creation. Because of the Word made flesh, we are heirs to a new creation. Through the Word, God gave us life. Because of the Word made flesh, we are given eternal life.

The Word, who was from before creation, through whom all things were created. The Word, desiring, longing to be in relationship with us, the created children of God. The Word, made flesh, to be in relationship with us and to share our experiences of humanity. The Word, made flesh in order to be the means and instrument of our salvation. The Word, made flesh, through whom we are given eternal life. In all of this and so much more that is beyond words, the Word speaks far more than could possibly be conveyed even by a thousand pictures.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

“A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words” Wikipedia. (26 December 2008).

Howell, James C. “Second Sunday After Christmas Day, John 1:(1-9)10-18, Theological Perspective.” In Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, Volume 1, Advent Through Transfiguration. Edited by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.

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Thursday, December 25, 2008

Home for Christmas

Christmas Day – Year B (BCP)
Luke 2:1-14(15-20)
Thursday, December 25, 2008 –
St. Alban’s, Westwood

I know we all have our favorite Christmas hymns and Christmas carols. And I’m sure some of those evoke a strong emotional response. For me, it is not officially Christmas until I hear “O Come All Ye Faithful” sung as the processional hymn at the Christmas Eve midnight mass. That song, particularly at that time, nearly always brings a tear or two to my eyes. Other hymns that really stir my emotions are “What Child Is This,” “O Holy Night,” and “Silent Night.” Part of it is the haunting, solemn melodies. And part of it is certainly the image that these songs conjure up – a scared young woman, far from home for the first time, nine months pregnant, forced to give birth to her child, the One who would be the savior of the world, in a strange town, under the most dismal of conditions. Put it all together and my emotions can hardly be contained.

But it’s not just the Christmas songs with proper religious themes that get me going emotionally. There is the occasional secular Christmas song, lacking any religious theme, lacking any semblance of a message about what this day and this season are truly about, that will churn my emotions. One that nearly always gets me is “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.” Thinking about that song, I can’t help but hear in my mind Bing Crosby singing those words:

I'll be home for Christmas;
You can count on me.
Please have snow and mistletoe
And presents on the tree.

Christmas Eve will find me
Where the love-light gleams.
I'll be home for Christmas
If only in my dreams.

Now I can do without the snow part. And this song certainly doesn’t give any indication of what this most holy of days is all about. But it still rips at my emotions, and even in its lack of Christmas imagery, other than snow, mistletoe, presents, and a tree, at least for me, it carries tremendous meaning as to what this day, this season, is all about – home.

Perhaps it’s the knowledge that “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” was first written and sung in 1943, in the midst of World War II. At the time of its premier, it touched the hearts and minds of soldiers away from home and of their friends and families, indeed, of all civilians, here in the States. It expressed in a simple melody the fervent wishes of so many – to be home with loved ones for this holiday. While that was not to be a reality for most, at least it could be a pleasant, nurturing dream.

Or perhaps it’s the fact that it expresses my reality. While most of my adult life I have lived within an hour or two of my family home in Riverside, and can easily get there whenever I want to or need to, the one time of the year that I truly yearn to be home in Riverside, is Christmas. I long to see all the decorations my mother has put out. I want to spend time with those I love. I can hardly wait for the wonderful Christmas feast, unlike any other family dinner of the year. I suppose “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” took on a deeper meaning for me during my three years in seminary in Chicago. During those years, going home for Christmas took on a greater significance while at the same time requiring greater effort – either three days of driving or a five hour plane flight. And invariably, from the time I left my apartment in Chicago until I arrived in Riverside, Bing Crosby serenaded me, reminding me of what I was doing, of what it meant to be going home.

For many, Christmas is a time of returning home. Or, if they are not able to go home, because of insufficient time to do so, because of insufficient money to be able to make the trip, because the home of memory, of bygone times, no longer exists, it is a time of wishing they could be home. “I’ll be home for Christmas if only in my dreams.”

This year, as I read and reflect on the Gospel lesson, I cannot help but hear shades of Bing Crosby creeping into the message. For in a way, this Gospel is about home, about being away from home, about coming home, about providing a home.

For Mary and Joseph, this is a time for leaving home. We are told that for them, home is Nazareth. They are required, by a decree from the emperor, to travel to a different home, to Bethlehem, Joseph’s ancestral home, a home that is not at all home, at least not for them, to be registered in the census.

Despite having to be away from their home, Mary and Joseph, out of necessity, for the sake of the child that is about to be born, make a home where there is no home. We are told that while they are in Bethlehem, “the time came for [Mary] to deliver her child.” Because the town was crowded with others coming to register for the census, there was not room for them to stay in proper guest accommodations. The only place where they could find shelter was in a manger – in the smelly, dirty stable in which the animals made their home. In such a place, Mary and Joseph were forced to make the first home their newborn son would have.

In this way, Jesus is born into a new home – a home not his own, the home made for him by his parents in that manger in Bethlehem. But we are told, or rather, the shepherds are told, that this is no ordinary child. For “to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” This is the child that has been foretold by the prophets – the Messiah, the hope of the world, the savior of all humanity. This child, the great king who would bring salvation to all, is not born in a palace. He is not even born in a proper home. Yet, by virtue of who he is and who he is to become, has nonetheless come home to the world – to the world and to the people it would be his responsibility to save.

And by virtue of who he is, this king, this Messiah, this child called Jesus is not just born into a physical place that is a manger in Bethlehem, an outpost in Judea, a province of the Roman Empire. He is also born into a home that has no physical location. Jesus is born into the home that is provided in the hearts of those who hear the glorious announcement of the birth of their Messiah. But the shepherds who received this most spectacular of birth announcements delivered by an angel, accompanied by a multitude of the heavenly host, were not the only ones to receive the message. On this day, we, too, receive the announcement of this spectacular birth, In receiving this announcement, Jesus is not just born into a makeshift home in a manger in Bethlehem. In receiving this announcement, of hearing the words of the angel and the heavenly host, Jesus is also born into the home that we make for him in our hearts and our lives.

In this way, Jesus is born into a new home – a temporary home that is provided by his parents in that manger in Bethlehem, and a permanent home, that is provided in the hearts and lives of all those who receive him as their Savior, as their Messiah. But Jesus is not the only one who receives a new home as a result of that first Christmas. We, too, by witnessing his birth, by receiving our Lord, by embracing the tender child who is the key to salvation, not just ours but the entire world’s; we, too, come home to a new life in Jesus Christ.

For us, no matter where our physical homes may be, no matter whether we are able to actually be their at this time of year or only long to be there, to be home if only in our dreams, we can take comfort in the assurance that each and every one of us is indeed home for Christmas, here and now, in the life of the One born this day, Emmanuel, “God with us.”

Merry Christmas!

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Sunday, December 21, 2008

Scandal of the Annunciation

Fourth Sunday of Advent – Year B (BCP)
2 Samuel 7:4,8-16; Psalm 132:8-15; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38
Sunday, December 21, 2008 – St. Alban’s, Westwood

Scandalous! Absolutely scandalous!

Today’s Gospel lesson is certainly worthy of the tabloids lining the racks at supermarket check-out lines. “Angel Appears to Young Girl, Gives Startling News.” “Virgin from Nazareth Conceives Child.” “Girl Claims God is Baby’s Father.” “Peasant Girl to Give Birth to King.” This story has it all – all of what makes a good tabloid story – other-worldly appearances, the supernatural, royalty. And while there is no specific sexual imagery, we even manage to work that one in, too. Put it all together and you have the biggest, most scandalous event of all-time – a story far surpassing anything the National Enquirer could ever hope to publish about Britney Spears, the British Royal Family, or UFOs.

Of course, we must remember that we are dealing with a different culture and different time. So what we might view as scandalous in our own day may not necessarily have been viewed as that scandalous 2,000 years ago. For those living in Greco-Roman society, steeped in a pantheon of hedonistic gods, a god choosing a human woman to bear a child would not have been unheard of, nor, in many respects, thought that unusual. Hercules was the son of the god Zeus and the mortal woman Alcmana. Perseus was the son of Zeus and the human woman DanaĆ«, just to name a couple of the better known progeny of gods and mortals. For the Greco-Roman society of the day, the news of God choosing a mortal woman to bear a child would not have been everyday news, but it also would not be completely unexpected. In fact, such an event would have sent a definite message about the nature of the child. Since the offspring of a god and a mortal was virtually always a significant and heroic figure, the story of Mary’s spectacular conception would have indicated that the child to be born would be a hero of the people and would likely be powerful and achieve great things.

While in retrospect, this is certainly true of Jesus, the fact remains that in the first century, this story would, at a certain level, still have been viewed as scandalous by believers and non-believers alike, but for different reasons.

Whether or not you believe in the virgin birth, regardless of the historical veracity of the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ conception and birth, today’s lesson holds some key truths about the nature of our God, as well as some insight into what motivated Jesus and helped form his teachings and actions. As one biblical scholar notes, “Luke apparently believed that if we are to properly understand Jesus and what his birth means, we must hear how it began” (Peterson, 26). If that were not so, why would Luke choose to begin the story about the leader of a new religious movement, the story of the one whom he believed to be the Messiah, with a description that would have raised more than a few eyebrows? Why not just let Jesus’ life speak for itself, as Mark did? No, there must be something to this scandalous description of Jesus’ mother and his conception that is worth pondering. It is only by looking at the scandal involved in this story that the truths about Jesus, the truths about God, are revealed. So, let’s look at the scandal from several angles, and see what this extraordinary set of circumstances says about God, about Jesus, and about our relationship with them.

One of the first things that jumps out is the fact that the story is filled with a bunch of unlikely, even insignificant particulars. God chose an insignificant girl, betrothed to an insignificant carpenter, living in an insignificant town in an insignificant province of the Roman Empire to perform one of the most significant tasks in salvation history – to bear and give birth to the Son of God. If God wanted to make a big splash, to make sure that everyone knew about the birth of His Son, why did he choose such an insignificant time, location, and cast of characters to carry out this most important of events? I am reminded of a scene in the 1970s rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Near the end of the play, just before Jesus’ crucifixion, Judas sings:

Every time I look at you I don’t understand.
Why you let the things you did get so out of hand.
You’d have managed better if you’d had it planned.
Why’d you choose such a backward time and such a strange land?
If you’d come today you would have reached a whole nation.
Israel in 4 BC had no mass-communication.

Judas has a point. But with all due respect to him, I think God had it planned down to a “T”. Yes, the place, the time, the principals may have been insignificant, but that was all part of the message. Ours is a God who does not rush in like a bull in a china shop or use Madison Avenue companies to create flashy press releases. Ours is a God who takes the insignificant, the seemingly lowly, and gives them the opportunity to become part of something bigger, better, and far more spectacular than they could have ever imagined. In so doing, ours is a God who sends the message that everyone, even the least of these, is important, is significant, is worthy of His attention, of his love, mercy, and grace.

I think this is, to some extent, reflected in the way Mary is viewed, particularly by Protestants. For the Roman Catholics, Mary is unlike other Christian believers. She is quite extraordinary, even unique. She is viewed as being sinless, as being both mother and perpetual virgin. For Protestants, “the extraordinary thing about Mary is precisely her ordinariness” (Rigby, 94).

Despite the fact that God chose an insignificant person from an insignificant place to perform one of the most significant tasks in salvation history, these insignificant particulars hold an inherent significance in their very particularity. As Luke tells us, God acts at a very particular time – in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy; in a particular place – a town in Galilee called Nazareth; through a particular individual – a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph. This is what theologians refer to as the “scandal of particularity”. Scholar Cynthia Rigby notes that in the “scandal of particularity,” theologians “recognize that it can offend our sensibilities to ponder how the omnipotent, omniscient Creator of the universe entered into the particularities of historical existence” (Rigby, 96). In other words, “How could God's revelation of his saving purpose for all humanity be restricted to one isolated event in a tiny outpost in the Roman Empire, some 2,000 years ago? Could God not just have revealed himself in a more universal way that was not tied to this particular historical event?” (Gil). The answer? No. We humans require relationship. God recognized this. The only way that God would be able to truly connect with humanity, or rather, for humanity to truly connect with God, would be through relationship. For that, God needed to be incarnate, made flesh, so that we might be able to be in relationship, face-to-face. For that, God needed to be incarnated at a particular time, to a particular place, to be in relationship with particular people.

And the scandal of particularity does not end in the first century, with the Annunciation, or with Jesus’ birth, or even with his death and resurrection. The scandal of particularly continues to be a central component of our faith journeys, both individually and collectively. Even today, in the twenty-first century, we continue to meet God at very particular times, in particular places, through particular people. This alleged “scandal” continues to be the primary means of encountering God, of knowing God, of how we progress along our spiritual journeys. And while we need the particular for our own benefit, it also takes us back to the insignificant. Not only do we meet God in the particular, we also quite often, it turns out, meet God in the seemingly insignificant.

Another key aspect of this scandal has to do with the way Mary is treated throughout all of this. As we’ve noted, Greco-Roman culture would not have been surprised to hear that a deity chose a mortal woman to bear a child. After all, gods were always forcing their will upon humans for their own selfish purposes. For first century residents of the Roman Empire, a god forcing his will upon a mortal would have been assumed, even expected. But what was different about this god was that he did not force his will upon his human “victim.” For us, it is unthinkable that God would have forced Mary to have the child against her will (Culpepper, 52). For first century residents of the Roman world, the Annunciation would have been a very different kind of story. Mary was not a victim. God was not a perpetrator of violence. Mary had a choice. After being presented with God’s request, Mary has the opportunity to carefully consider the full implications of what was being asked of her, and of what it would mean to her personally and to her unborn child if she said “yes.” After all, if she were to say “yes,” she would be subjecting herself, not to mention her illegitimate, unborn child, to great ridicule and ostracism. But after weighing all that Gabriel said, all that God was asking of her, Mary boldly says, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Mary acts freely, consistent with who she really is – the servant of the Lord. In her response, and in her actions, “Mary is an important example, therefore, of one who is obedient to God even at great risk to self.” In this respect, Mary not only embodies the scandal, she also embodies the obedience (Culpepper, 52). While we often talk about Mary’s obedience, we tend to overlook what Mary’s willingness to be obedient says about God. God had a great plan, but it all hinged upon the willingness of a single person, Mary, to say “yes.” Without her “yes,” the plan would have been a “no go.” God invited Mary into the process, particularly into this event which was of paramount importance to all of humanity. God needed Mary’s participation. God needed Mary’s willing participation.

This story and Mary’s willingness to be a part of God’s grand plan demonstrates that in this most significant of events, God worked in mutual cooperation, in partnership, with humanity, represented by Mary. In this, Mary acts as proxy for us all. As a servant of the Lord, Mary, and we, are not merely tools to be used by God, but rather, we are asked to willingly contribute, to be partners, to be co-creators with God.

The story of the Annunciation is full of scandal. But not the scandal you might expect based on a cursory reading. The scandal is that God uses the insignificant to produce or create the significant. The scandal is that God meets us in very particular times and places, in very particular ways. And the scandal is that God does not coerce us, but rather invites us, lovingly, gently, into His plans, into His processes, to be co-creators. From the perspective of the secular world, all of this is truly scandalous. But, as one scholar notes, perhaps “The ultimate scandal is that God would enter human life with all its depravity, violence, and corruption.” In that, “the annunciation ultimately is an announcement of hope for humankind” (Culpepper, 53).

The original meaning of the word “scandal” was “stumbling block.” For us Christians, the story of the Annunciation, the scandalous particulars embodied in it, are not stumbling blocks as much as stepping stones on our faith journey – truths revealed about our God, to be treasured and pondered, as we go about doing whatever it is that God has asked of us. What God asks of each of us may not be as spectacular as what was asked of Mary, but it is, nonetheless, just as significant, just as particular, and is done gently and lovingly, inviting us into the process of co-creation.

As we wrap-up this Advent season and prepare for the birth of the One who is our ultimate hope, who is the ultimate purpose of our lives, let us enter into the scandal and say with Mary, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Culpepper, R. Alan. “The Gospel of Luke: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflection.” In Vol. IX of The New Interpreter’s Bible. Edited by Leander E. Keck, et al. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995.

Gil. “The Scandal of Particularity.” Just Wondering. (4 December 2008).

Peterson, Brian K., et al. New Proclamation: Year B, 2008-2009, Advent through Holy Week. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008.

Rigby, Cynthia L. “Luke 1:26-38, Theological Perspective.” In Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, Volume 1, Advent Through Transfiguration. Edited by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.

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Thursday, November 27, 2008

Advent as a Metaphor for Everyday Life

[Following is the article I wrote for the December issue of the parish newsletter.]

As I contemplate the beginning of the Advent season, I am reminded that this season has one meaning in two forms. The one meaning is the anticipation of the coming of Christ. As we look at the gospel lessons for the season, we see that the coming of Christ is manifested in two forms, or more accurately, in two timeframes – one in the past and one in the future. Most commonly, we think of Advent as the time in which we anticipate the birth of Jesus at Christmas. In this sense, while we look forward to the birth of our Savior, we are looking backward in time to an historic event that happened about 2,000 years ago. But during this season, we also look forward in time, to the Second Coming of Christ, to an unknown time in the future when Christ will usher in the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God. If you think about it too much, it can become a mind-bender worthy of a science fiction adventure. But it’s not. For us Christians, it’s our reality.

During this season, how do we reconcile the fact that our attention is pulled simultaneously backward in time to the manger and forward in time to the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God, where or how do we find equilibrium? Where or how do we find a point of balance that allows us to embrace both the comfort of the past and the unknown of the future? We do that by living in the in-between, in the here and now – that point in time between Christ’s first coming, his birth, and his Second Coming. We do that by being the Body of Christ – by being the body of the one whose birth we anticipate and who will ultimately bring about the fulfillment of God’s kingdom.

Advent calls us to live in the tension between that which has been, indeed, that which is, and that which is yet to be. In this respect, Advent is a metaphor for the church – that place that proclaims what has been accomplished through the birth of Jesus, and that proclaims and holds onto the hope of that which is yet to be accomplished – namely, the coming of God’s kingdom. And Advent is a metaphor for our own lives, as we struggle, on a daily basis, to live out that which the church proclaims and represents. From this perspective, all our life is an Advent-time, spent living in the joy of Jesus’ birth, spent living the gospel that Jesus proclaimed during his life among us, and spent anticipating the ultimate fulfillment of the Gospel in his coming again.

Here’s wishing you and your loved ones not only a blessed Advent season, but also a blessed on-going Advent life.

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Sunday, October 19, 2008

Political Sermonizing

Today I preached my first political sermon (see text of sermon). I was really nervous about how it would go over with the congregation, but it seemed to go fine. There was at least one person at the 8:00 service who was obviously a little agitated by it. But the 10:00ers seemed to really like it and I got some good comments about people liking it. One parishioner said she didn’t know how it would go over – she knew I was going to get political. But she said she was pleasantly surprised. While it was a different style from my sermons in the past, she thought it went very well and that it was definitely my voice. She felt that I have definitely expanded my range in how I preach. That would have pleased John Dally (my preaching professor at Seabury), who always stressed that sermons need to be authentic, in our own voice. So I was pleased with my parishioner’s assessment.


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What Things Do Rightfully Belong To God?

Twenty-Third Sunday After Pentecost – Year A (Proper 24)
Isaiah 45:1-7; Psalm 96:1-9; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22
Sunday, October 19, 2008 –
St. Alban’s, Westwood

“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and [give] to God the things that are God’s.”

In this statement, Jesus gives a carefully and masterfully crafted response to the thorny question as to whether it is lawful to pay taxes. If he responded that it was not lawful to pay taxes, he would anger the Roman officials. If he said that it was lawful under Jewish law, the Torah, to pay taxes, he would offend the Pharisees and the other devout nationalists who hated Rome. But, in actuality, the question has nothing to do with taxes. Nor is the story about the competing jurisdictions of church and state, about separation of church and state. Yet, for us 21st century Christians, it does naturally raise questions about how we adequately, thoughtfully, and prayerfully respond to the inevitable competition between the demands of church and the demands of empire.

So, inevitably, for us Christians, the questions arise:
What things belong to the emperor, are rightfully the emperor’s?
What things belong to God, are rightfully God’s?

They say if you want the truth, follow the money. Jesus uses the danrius to illustrate his point. Maybe that’s where we should start. Our modern-day denarius, the coin of the realm, and the paper equivalent, all bear the words “In God we trust.” Other than the dollar bill, which is the most basic unit of currency, probably the most common piece of currency many of us handle is the twenty dollar bill – dispensed by ATMs throughout the land. On the back of the twenty dollar bill, the words “In God we trust” hover over the image of the White House – one of the most recognized symbols of our empire. Not only that, but the phrase is bisected by a flagpole, with “In God” on one side, and “we trust” on the other. If the Pharisees had handed Jesus a twenty dollar bill, how would they have answered the questions “whose image and whose title are on this bill?” This basic unit of our commerce bears both the image of empire and the title of God. It’s no wonder we have a hard time determining what belongs to the emperor and what belongs to God. Our currency blurs that line.

Even our own government has blurred the line to some extent. Writer, commentator, and former political strategist Kevin Phillips notes that over the last two to three decades, there has been too much church-state collaboration, too much of a crusader mentality, leading to fervent, almost zealous religiosity feeding into national politics, both in terms of domestic and foreign policy. As a result, we see a decay, which Phillips describes as having “two faces: the one displaying economic and social polarization and injustice, which always stirs complaint among progressives, and the second representing moral and cultural decadence-cum-sophistication, which invariably stirs conservative and fundamentalist outrage” (Phillips, 229). At the same time, we see the overextending of international commitment, and in costly foreign military involvement, on the part of the part of leading powers (i.e., the United States). All of this has resulted in hubris and triumphalism, a sense of exceptionalism, that we are a chosen nation, that we are God’s chosen people.

Historically, we are not alone in this attitude about of our own empire. These and other similar characteristics have plagued all the great empires – the British Empire before us, the Dutch Empire before them, the Spanish-centered Hapsburg empire before them. And right before the onset of the Dark Ages, the Roman Empire.

The interconnecting factor that has woven its way through all of these characteristics, which has beset all the great empires (to have ultimately fallen in the wake of such hubris) is religion. In all cases, the state religion became so intertwined with political and economic concerns that the government structures virtually became puppets of the Church, pushing its agenda in the name of God and country, or rather, under the delusion that country and emperor served as instruments of God, that the emperor proclaimed the definitive word of God, and that the country was obliged to act in accordance with such prophetic utterances.

Some would claim the United States has fallen into the same trap as these previous empires. Some would claim that our government has taken upon itself the mantle of prophet, speaking for God, declaring to the world the way things should be, and using it’s might, both military and economic to enforce God’s will. We have seen this in the linking of White House policy statements to Scripture and prophecy. Some would claim that the ruling party has become so intertwined with conservative, fundamentalist Christianity, that the Republican Party has become, according to John Danforth, an Episcopal priest and former Republican senator from Missouri, the political arm of conservative Christians. This warning has been echoed to one degree or another by a number of the GOP leadership, including John McCain during the 2000 presidential primaries.

Lest Republicans feel I am picking on them, I would hasten to add that the Democratic Party is not without fault or complicity. While the party continues to be secularist in its outward appearance, some Democrats we have elected, both those who are currently serving, as well as such notable officials as Bill Clinton, through their rhetoric, policies, and actions, have bought into the notion that the United States and its government are God’s instruments.

Theologically, our major political parties are pulling in opposite directions. One is becoming increasingly theocratic. The other is maintaining a staunch secularist position, if not edging toward universalism. One party is focused on morality. The other is focused on doing “the right thing.” But despite the different directions ideologically, at the same time, both are pushing toward the same goals – toward staunch nationalism, toward the empire of money.

That’s why we have such a hard time untangling the questions “What things rightfully belong to the emperor?” and “What things rightfully belong to God?” Our sense of empire, at least in this country, has become so intertwined with church, or at least a part of it, that it is virtually impossible to see where church, representing God, stops and government, representing empire, begins. But when we really stop and look beyond our own borders, when we look at the global scene, we discover that a major reason we have a difficult time determining what things rightfully belong to the emperor and that things rightfully belong to God is because while our empire was busy exercising the role of God’s prophet to the world, a new empire slipped in and took its place as the true ruler of our secular lives.

Just look at the news. The new empire exercising its authority over the world is not the United States. It’s the global economy. Yes, the current global economic crisis was precipitated, at least in part, by the United States economy, or more specifically, by our economic policies, or in some cases, lack there of – by our deregulation of banking and financial institutions, by our failing to adequately police our own domestic practices, particularly regarding mortgage and credit markets. Obviously, these failures on the part of our government and our financial institutions has had a ripple effect around the world.

Looking at the last month or so indicates the insanity of the resulting world economic condition and, more importantly, reveals that the global economy has taken on a life of its own, becoming empire in its own right. But this new empire is not behaving in any rational manner. Congress fails to pass the $700 trillion bail-out package and the world’s stock markets take a nosedive. A few days later, Congress does pass the bail-out package, and the world’s stock markets plummet yet again – counter to what one would logically expect. Last week, following the partial nationalization of banks, the world’s stock market’s rally one day, and plummet the next. The world’s financial system is out of control and is not responding in any seemingly logical manner. It is a new empire that has taken over and is controlling the world, and no one, not even the US government, can rein it in.

As a result, in these difficult times, it seems as if everything we have belongs to the empire – an empire created out of greed and operating out of fear. The new empire is taking money from our IRAs and 401(k)s. People are losing their homes. Companies face bankruptcy and even closure because of the inability to obtain credit. And as a result, people are facing the loss of jobs. In short, what to give to the empire and what to give to God are moot questions, because everything we have is being involuntarily given to the new empire run amok.

So, in light of this pessimistic assessment, I ask again, “What things rightfully belong to the emperor?” and “What things rightfully belong to God?”

As people of faith, we believe that God created all things, that all things continue to belong to God, that he is Lord and ruler of all. As hard as it may be to fathom, God is, therefore, even the Lord and ruler of the stock market – that’s not to say that God controls the outcome, the daily ups and downs. But the stock market is a human invention, a device that we have created, rightly or wrongly, in an attempt to be stewards of the resources God has given us. Despite the rueful way we may view it right now, the stock market and the complex global financial system can, and has, done a lot of good – a means of providing financial resources to people who may not have had access to such resources otherwise. And in time, it will probably fill that need again.

I believe that in light of this crisis that has affected us all in one way or another, that we have an opportunity. The old ways way of doing business has not worked. The new empire bears that out. We have an opportunity to show the country and the world a new way of doing business, a new way of being. That way is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As Jesuit scholar John Kavanaugh notes, “Jesus knew what ought to be rendered to God: not lip-service, but heart and mind” (Kavanaugh). I see this response of heart and mind in two ways, one individual and one communal.

As to the individual response, the Gospel story implies that we are to give to the emperor that which bears the image and title of the empire, and that we are to give to God that which bears the image and title of God. The only thing that we have that bears the image of God is ourselves. Just as a coin, the denarius, is stamped with the image of the emperor, we are stamped with the image of God, made in God’s image and likeness. And we bear the title of God, not in our being, but we have the imprimatur, the approval, the imprint of God placed upon us at the time of our baptism. Following baptism with water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, we are chrismated, marked with holy oil using the words “you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” We have the seal of God placed on us, making us God’s in image and in name. If we are to give that which has the image and name of God to God, then we have only ourselves to give. We give ourselves to God’s service. We give ourselves to live according to God’s Word, using that Word, the word of Scripture and the living Word of Jesus Christ as the guide for how we live in the world. We give ourselves as an example to the world – an example of what it means to be a Christian by our very thoughts, words, and deeds. In other words, we are called, by virtue of our baptism and our signing as Christ’s own forever, to not live according to the ways of the empire, but according to the ways of God and to thereby show the world that there is a better way of conducting business, both in God’s realm and in empire’s realm.

And that leads to the communal response. In the new global economic empire, it is all about investment in the financial markets. In the Kingdom of God, it’s all about investment in community, in relationship. It is only in community that we can live out our baptismal vow to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” It is only in community that we can demonstrate a new way of being, one that is not based on the ways of empire, the ways of greed at the expense of whoever happens to get in the way, no matter how innocent that person may be; or the ways of fear that have gripped so many, causing empire to run amok. It is a way of being that values the other, is concerned for what happens to the other, is concerned with how our actions impact our fellow human beings. It is only through community, through relationship, that we can demonstrate that significant returns are not only achieved through financial prowess and greed, but through caring for others. By showing genuine care and concern for others, particularly when they are in need, we will be rewarded, particularly when we find ourselves in need. That’s not the type of return you get on an investment in empire, only by investing in the community that is the Kingdom of God.

What things rightfully belong to the emperor? To be honest, that’s a tough one, and can only really be determined by each of us in light of and in response to the second question, “what things rightfully belong to God?”

So, what things do rightfully belong to God? Take a look in a mirror. Take a look at the person sitting next to you. There you will find the answer. There you will find that which is stamped with the image and name of God.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Kavenaugh, John, SJ. “The Word Embodied.” The Center for Liturgy Sunday Website. University of St. Louis. (15 October 2008).

Phillips, Kevin. American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century. New York: Viking, 2006.

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Sunday, September 28, 2008

Thy Will Be Changed? No, My Will Be Changed

Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost – Year A (Proper 21)
Ezekiel 18:1-4,25-32; Psalm 25:3-9; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:28-32
Sunday, September 28, 2008 –
St. Alban’s, Westwood

“Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, all of you according to your ways, says the Lord GOD. Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin.” (Ez 18:30). In these words of God, as conveyed by the prophet Ezekiel, we are told in no uncertain terms what God will do, what God expects of His people, and what the potential consequences are if the people continue in their current way of being. In light of this prophetic proclamation, I can’t help but wonder how God would judge the two contrary sons in the parable Jesus tells in today’s Gospel lesson.

Like so many of Jesus’ parables, I’ve always struggled with this one, and have even found it a bit troubling at times. There’s the first son, who when his father requests that he go and work in the vineyard, flat out refuses, but eventually goes anyway. Then there’s the second son, who, when his father makes the same request of him, says, “sure thing, I’ll do it,” knowing full well that he has no intention of doing what is asked of him.

I don’t know about your experience growing up, but for me, neither approach would have been an option. I would not dare say I was going to do something and then not follow through, as the second son did. Well, okay, there probably were those rare occasions when I said I would do something, like take out the trash, and then conveniently forgot to do it. So, yeah, maybe, once or twice, I was like the second son. That being the case, maybe I can cut the second son a little slack. I mean, be honest – how many times have we said we’ll do something, knowing that we didn’t want to or having no intention of doing it, just so we won’t have to say “no” to someone for fear of hurting their feelings or out of fear of getting in trouble? I think that’s pretty common human behavior.

And truth be told, in the ancient Middle East, the second son would not have been viewed as having done anything wrong. In that culture, obedience was certainly important, but honor was more important. The second son showed great respect and honor for his father by agreeing to do what he asked. The fact that he didn’t follow through was immaterial. The important thing was that he showed respect, unlike his good-for-nothing brother, who disrespected his father by publicly refusing to do what was asked. So, here again, based on cultural considerations, the second son gets an apparent pass.

Now, when I was growing up, there was no way I would have behaved like the first son. I would never have flat out refused to do what was asked of me, no matter how much I didn’t want to do it. Unlike the first son, I would have agreed, grumbled out of earshot of my father, and reluctantly done what was asked. So, I guess I have a harder time relating to the first son than I do to the second. And I particularly have a hard time relating to the first son because he is the one who ends up being praised, who Jesus upholds as being the paragon of virtue. Sure, the first son ultimately did do the will of his father. But I have a hard time with Jesus justifying his actions. I have a hard time getting beyond the fact that the first son initially refused to comply with his father’s order, regardless of the ultimate result.

The parable of the two sons is,admittedly, a very complex one. As one commentator notes, “Both sons are in the wrong in their own way – the first son treats his father with stark (though honest) disrespect by publicly refusing his order; the second fails to do the father’s will. Conversely, both sons are right in their own way – one gives the right answer; one does the right thing.” This commentator goes on to note that the important things is that “Both sons begin as sons, act as sons, and remain as sons; neither is cast from the family” (Langknecht, 210). This tension, this confusion over how each of the two sons responds, or doesn’t respond, illustrates the struggle that many of us have with doing what we want to do versus doing what God wants us to do.

This struggle is not limited to us mere mortals. Looking back through salvation history, we see that even the “greats,” Abraham, Moses, all the prophets, even Jesus, struggled at times with whether they really wanted to do what God was asking of them. In these cases, they went so far as to argue with God about what was being asked. They tried to get God to reconsider His request. “As Rabbi Heschel puts it, from Abraham through Jesus we see how the great figures of our faith are not in the habit of easily saying: “Thy will be done!” but often, for a while at least, counter God’s invitation with: “Thy will be changed!” (Rolheiser).

But what we see from these pillars of our faith is that ultimately it is not God’s will that is changed, but our attitude, our response that is changed. It is all about an exercise in conversion – of our will changing, of our will being brought into conformance with God’s will, of God’s will becoming our will. Our faith is an ongoing process of conversion. And in the process, like the first son, we end up doing things that we may have had no intention of doing. Things are turned upside down. Our lives are turned upside down. As scholar Ann Zimmerman notes, “This is what conversion does: it upends our world and challenges us to change our minds. our hearts, and our lives and to do the Father’s will” (Zimmerman).

We are not told why the first son had a change of mind and heart. He obviously had some sort of epiphany, some sort of conversion experience that made him go against his initial inclination and ultimately do what was requested of him in the first place. I suppose, what it boils down to is personal choice. It comes down to human action and human response. This parable illustrates the importance of our response to God – whether we do God’s will or not is our choice – ours and ours alone.

The good news in all of this may not be readily apparent, but is found in Jesus’ affirmation that the one who is justified is the first son – the one who ultimately did his father’s will, regardless of his initial reaction or behavior. The good news is found in God’s injunction to us through the prophet Ezekiel. Our initial reaction is not what counts. What counts is what we ultimately choose to do. Throughout the process, we do have a choice. Even if we initially reject what God is calling us to do, we are free to change our minds and our hearts. We are free, as God calls us in Ezekiel, to “Cast away from [ourselves] all the transgressions that [we] have committed against [God], and get [ourselves] a new heart and a new spirit!” (Ez 18:31a). We are called all along the way, at any point in the process, to “Turn, then, and live.” (Ez 18:32b). And in so choosing a new heart and a new spirit that lead to new life, that which was before, the stubbornness with which we rejected God’s call to do His will, is forgotten, put behind us. It is no longer important. In turning away from our former reaction, in turning toward what God is asking us to do, we will not be judged on the former action, but on the latter. We will be judged based on the new life to which we have turned, not on the previous life. As Clement of Alexandria wrote in his sermon on this very Gospel lesson, “The doors are open for all who sincerely and wholeheartedly return to God; indeed, the Father is most willing to welcome back a truly repentant son or daughter” (Barnecut).

This is what is so radical about the Gospel. This is what is so radical about God’s message of love and mercy. For those who truly repent, for those who experience conversion, the old life is dead and buried. We have new life in God through Christ. And that is the only life that will be remembered in God’s eyes. This is what God was railing against in our lesson from Ezekiel. The people were so bound up in corporate solidarity that the sins of the father were visited on his sons and his son’s sons. But God says “no, that is not how I work.” God has proclaimed a new way of being, saying “each of you is responsible for your own actions, for your own choices, for your own lives. Therefore, get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Turn, then, and live.”

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul talks about what this conversion entails. Paul tells us you must “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil 2:12-13). Working out our salvation with, as Paul terms it, “fear and trembling” does not imply that this need be a frightening or terrible process. But it also does not imply that it will be easy. It’s so much easier to focus on what we want to do for ourselves, on what seems to be best for us. It’s so much easier to give into the temptations of the world. They are, after all, often much more appealing on first glance. All you have to do is look at the news about global warming, rampant global poverty, or most recently, the current world financial crisis to see that, for many, succumbing to the temptations of greed and personal gain was far easier and far more appealing than doing the hard work of acting in a socially responsible manner.

While looking out for number one may be easier and seem more satisfying initially, our contrary first son illustrates that our true spiritual growth, and ultimately, our true reward, come through those conversion experiences when we are forced to roll up our sleeves and really struggle with discerning what God is calling us to do and be, when we struggle with discerning not what is easy or profitable to us personally, but what is just and true, what is right in the eyes of God. As the prophet Ezekiel says, this is done by choosing a new heart and a new sprit. And in that struggle, we gain new life. Just look at our forefathers and foremothers in the faith. As a result of their struggles, they ended up with lives that were far more interesting and far more fulfilling than would have been the case had they chosen to do what was easy, had they not chosen to struggle with God to discern what the Father asked of them.

To illustrate the point, I leave you with a little story to ponder. “In his memoir, Report to Greco, Nikos Kazantzakis shares this story: As a young man, he spent a summer in a monastery during which he had a series of conversations with an old monk. One day he asked the old monk: ‘Father, do you still do battle with the devil?’ The old monk replied: ‘No, I used to, when I was younger, but now I have grown old and tired and the devil has grown old and tired with me. I leave him alone and he leaves me alone.’ ‘So your life is easy then?’ remarked Kazantzakis. ‘Oh no,’ replied the monk, ‘it’s much worse, now I wrestle with God!’” (Rolheiser).

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Barnecut, Edith, OSB. “
Thoughts from the Early Church.” The Center for Liturgy Sunday Website. University of St. Louis. (24 September 2008).

Langknecht, Hank J., et al. New Proclamation: Year A, 2008, Easter to Christ the King. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008.

Rolheiser, Ron, OMI. “
In Exile.” The Center for Liturgy Sunday Website. University of St. Louis. (24 September 2008).

Zimmerman, Joyce Ann, ed. “
Working with the Word.” The Center for Liturgy Sunday Website. University of St. Louis. (24 September 2008).

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Sunday, August 31, 2008

"Get Behind Me"

Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost – Year A (Proper 17)
Jeremiah 15:15-21; Psalm 26:1-8; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:21-27
Sunday, August 31, 2008 –
St. Alban’s, Westwood

Have you ever had the experience of being acknowledged for an accomplishment, or of being praised for some admirable quality you possess, only to have something happen that calls into question the veracity of the acknowledgement or praise you received?

I remember a time years ago, during my previous career. I had been working really hard, wanting so much to be promoted to associate – the second highest level in the company hierarchy, just below the level of partner. It was quite an honor to be made an associate, because it was essentially a sign of recognition on the part of the firm’s partners that you were among the top in your field and could, one day, be made a partner. My hard work paid off and I was promoted to associate. And then everything seemed to fall apart. After years of nearly flawless work with no significant mistakes, I seemed to become a walking disaster area. While I don’t remember the specifics (I’ve conveniently blocked out the memories), I do recall feeling like everything I did was wrong. I made stupid mistakes in my technical analyses. I made erroneous analysis assumptions. I had some difficult interactions with clients and other staff. As a result, I began to question my abilities. I began to question whether I really should have been promoted. I just knew that my boss was going to call me into his office and say “We made a mistake. You’re not associate material. We’re demoting you to project manager.” Of course, that didn’t happen. Things did get better over time. And truth be told, the things that seemed to go wrong were probably not really that big of a deal and were probably not any different from the way my work had gone before my promotion. But I still remember feeling for a number of months that I was a failure, a fraud, not worthy of the honor bestowed upon me.

I imagine that’s kind of how Peter felt in today’s Gospel lesson. To fully appreciate this, we first need to recall last week’s lesson, in which Peter, responding to Jesus’ question as to who the disciples think Jesus is, states that he is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” In that moment, Peter seems to get it. He proves to Jesus that he has been listening to what Jesus had been saying, observed what Jesus had been doing, and put it all together. Peter, like no other person before him, understands just who Jesus is. In response to Peter’s revelation, Jesus responds “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!” Of course, he then notes that Peter undoubtedly had a little help from God in sorting it out, but that’s okay. Jesus then goes on to say “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” In this act of blessing, naming, and commissioning, Jesus has heaped great praise on Peter. And in commissioning Peter to be the rock, the foundation, on which the Church would be built, Jesus is giving Peter a promotion. He is now chief disciple, the designated successor to Jesus in proclaiming the Gospel to the world.

But then we have today’s lesson, which happens mere minutes after Jesus’ commissioning of Peter. In today’s lesson, Jesus tells the disciples about how he will suffer and be killed at the hands of the authorities, and how despite this, he will be raised on the third day. Immediately, Peter begins rebuking Jesus for saying such things. “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” And how does Jesus respond? He says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” At this point, Peter must feel like a failure. Jesus had just blessed and promoted him because he understood who and what Jesus is, and now he’s basically blown it. Jesus might as well have said, “I thought you understood, but obviously you don’t. I guess I was wrong about you.” Well, that’s not what Jesus meant, but that’s probably what Peter heard.

So what happened? How did Peter, in a mere instant, go from being the rock, the foundation on which the Church would be built, to being a potential stumbling block to Jesus’ mission – a mission that would be necessary for the Church to be founded? In a way, you can understand why Peter freaked out and started rebuking Jesus. In one moment, Peter is saying that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God, a revelation which Jesus affirms. And in the next, Jesus is telling the disciples that he will suffer and be killed. How can this be? How can the Messiah suffer and be killed? That’s not what messiahs are supposed to do. Messiahs are supposed be the savior of the people, to come in glory to overthrow the corrupt authorities who currently reign over God’s people, to free God’s people from tyranny, to provide them with a new way of life in a peaceable kingdom. This would have been Peter’s understanding of Messiah. But we know that Jesus’ understanding of Messiah, God’s understanding of Messiah, was very different. This Messiah would liberate people, but not necessarily from oppressive governments. This Messiah would liberate the people from the bondage of sin and death. This Messiah would give his own life that we might have new and eternal life. But in that moment, Peter didn’t understand that. He had a mistaken idea of Jesus’ messiahship. Or his personal feelings for Jesus, his love for his master, got in the way. Either way, all he heard was that Jesus would suffer and die.

Now Jesus did say that he would be raised on the third day. He may have even explained what that would mean. But Peter didn’t seem to get that part of the message. Like so many of us, Peter’s hearing shut down when he got to a part of the message he didn’t understand or couldn’t deal with. Peter only heard what he perceived to be bad news – distressing news that became all consuming to the exclusion of anything else. He became wrapped up in his emotional response. He was so overcome by his emotions that he was not able to hear the good news that followed. He had set his heart and his mind on the human things he was perceiving, not on the divine things that were to come – the divine things that he could not yet understand.

Jesus’ response to Peter may seem a little harsh to us, but conveys exactly what Peter needs to do to get back on track, and what we need to do when we get off track. Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” Now in this context, Jesus is not accusing Peter of being the devil, but is using Satan as a general term, common to that time, for one who challenges faith or tests loyalties. But the most important part is what he tells Peter to do. “Get behind me.” In saying this, Jesus is invoking a call to renewed and deeper discipleship. The words “get behind me” are part of a discipleship formula which does not so much indicate physical position, but rather the posture of the disciple. In other words, “you need to get behind me so that you can follow me. You need to do what I ask of you, what I have prepared you to do. You need to follow where I will lead you.”

Jesus then proceeds to tell Peter and the disciples what they need to do to follow him, to be his disciples. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Jesus is going to the cross. Those who are truly his disciples are expected to follow. This undoubtedly comes as a bit of a surprise to the disciples. After all, they are only now learning the full ramifications of what it means to follow Jesus. They had thought they were following a visionary, one who would save them. They had not signed on for crucifixion, for loss of life.

And it is at this point that we, too, are often brought up short. We hear that as followers of Jesus, as good Christians, we are to deny ourselves. We are to take up our cross and follow Jesus. We are to lose our life. This is where we panic. This is where, like Peter, we stop hearing. We get so hung up on what this could possibly mean, what it might mean for us, what we might have to actually give up to follow our Lord, that we don’t hear the rest of Jesus’ message. We often don’t hear that if we lose our life for Jesus’ sake, we will find life. We do not hear that by losing our life, by giving it up to Jesus, we will actually gain a new life. We don’t hear that we will gain eternal life in a new kingdom, freed from the wages of sin and death that run rampant in this imperfect and broken world.

But, as we have seen, we are not alone. We are not the only ones who get hung up on the seemingly bad parts and don’t hear the good parts. If it can happen to Peter, the foundation on whom Jesus built the Church, the one who lived with Jesus for three years, sitting at his feet, hearing first hand his teachings, witnessing in person his miracles – if after all that, Peter still has a hard time getting it, it’s no wonder we have a hard time getting it. This story of Peter, the message of what we need to do to be Jesus’ followers, is not intended to be a reminder of our failings for which we must beat ourselves up, but rather should be a gentle reminder that even if we falter and fail, we are in good company. The disciples faltered and failed before their story was over. Peter failed so badly that when the going really got tough, he denied Jesus, not once, not twice, but three times.

But eventually, Peter overcame his failings. I imagine that following his denial of Jesus, following Jesus’ crucifixion, following his resurrection, Peter looked back and remembered the lesson Jesus had taught him – “get behind me, follow me, I will show you the way.” This is the same instructions that apply to us. When we do falter or fail, what we have to do is get behind Jesus, for he will lead us back to the right path. That doesn’t mean the path will be easy. In fact, in asking us to take up our crosses, to deny ourselves, and to give up our lives, Jesus is promising us that it will indeed be difficult at times. As one commentator notes, “Here is both the challenge and the good news in this text: If we follow Jesus, we will be seriously called to bear certain crosses and lose hold of our lifestyle, if not our life. Yet, in all our weakness and human mindedness, it is Jesus' own death on the cross that enables us to do what we cannot” otherwise do (Schmit).

Jesus does not ask us to do what he has not prepared us to do, what he has not given us the tools to do, what we are not capable of doing. In addressing this struggle between what Jesus asks of us and our own humanness, another biblical scholar observes that “It takes a lifetime to grow into full understanding of God’s mission, purpose, and methodology, and the road to that understanding (as . . . Peter can attest) is full of missteps and misunderstandings (Langknecht, 182). Taking up the cross, denying oneself, losing one’s life, is scary business. It’s enough to make anyone back away from such demands. But we must remember not to get hung up on the human things, but rather set our sights on the divine things. That yes there may be difficulties. There may be death. But there is also resurrection. And you cannot have resurrection without death. The old must die so that the new may be born.

But we do not face such difficulties alone. That’s why we have the Church – established by Jesus on the foundation of Peter, who, like us, sometimes faltered and failed. That’s why we have communities such as this one. This is a place where we can support each other as we take up our individual crosses, as we struggle to deny ourselves for a greater purpose, as we continually discover what it means to lose our lives, only to find them in Christ.

I believe this is what Paul is talking about in Romans when he calls upon us to present ourselves as a “living sacrifice.” In ancient times, the faithful took animals to the Temple to be sacrificed on the altar as a gift to God. Today, we do not bring animals to sacrifice. Instead, we bring ourselves. We come week after week to this place, to this altar, laying our lives upon it as a sacrifice, as the ultimate gift of self, to God. Instead of physical death, we experience a spiritual death in which we die to self, and a rebirth, in which we are made new, made whole, given new life. The sacrificial gift of our very lives, as imperfect as they may be, we give to God for continued transformation and renewal as members of the Body of Christ, focused not on the failures of human things, but rather on the glory of divine things, the new kingdom promised by Jesus, in which we are all truly the beloved children of God.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Langknecht, Hank J., et al. New Proclamation: Year A, 2008, Easter to Christ the King. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008.

Schmit, Clayton.

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Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Foundation of the Church

Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost – Year A (Proper 16, RCL)
Exodus 1:8-2:10;Psalm 124; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20
Sunday, August 24, 2008 – St. Mark’s, Fort Dodge, IA and Good Shepherd, Webster City, IA

Today’s Gospel lesson is, in many ways, one of the most important stories in the evolution of the Christian Church. It occurs at a pivotal moment in Matthew’s account of the formation of the Church. In Matthew’s Gospel, today’s lesson is the central or middle part of a larger, three part story. Up to this point, the Gospel tells about the growing opposition of the old, established religious and political communities to Jesus’ growing movement. Looking at the story to this point, we see this opposition taking the form of Jesus being rejected in his hometown of Nazareth. We see John the Baptist beheaded. We witness Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman who challenges his seemingly narrow religious views. And we see the tensions between Jesus and the Jewish authorities, with the Pharisees and Sadducees testing Jesus, and Jesus engaging in public and private criticisms of these authorities.

In the third and final part of the story, which we will hear in subsequent weeks, we have a foretaste of what the new kingdom will be like. We experience the Transfiguration, with Jesus being glorified as the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. We learn important lessons about temptation and forgiveness. We learn about the power of faith. And we learn just how this new kingdom will be accomplished, with the death and resurrection of Jesus. And, in the process, we glimpse the glory of God revealed to his new kingdom through Jesus Christ.

In between, we have the pivotal middle piece, of which today’s story is a part. We have the part of the story that provides the transition from the old community of faith based on Jewish legalism, to the new community of faith based on the grace and mercy of God that extends even to Gentiles. In this critical, middle piece, we have two incredibly important events that make the transition possible. The first of these is revelation. It is Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God, and Jesus’ affirmation that this is indeed the case. The second is the blessing, naming, and commissioning of Peter.

The first of these is certainly important to our faith. Up until this point in Matthew’s Gospel, there have been hints that Jesus may be the Messiah. There are suggestions, rather strong ones, that Jesus is the Son of God. But Peter’s confession is the first time that someone put it all together and makes a definitive statement about Jesus’ identity. And this is the first time that Jesus confirms that, yes, he is indeed the Messiah, the Son of God. Our entire faith tradition flows from this central fact. All other events in the story of Jesus are built round this central tenant – the extraordinary manner of his birth, his teachings, the miraculous healings he performed, right up to his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension.

But that’s not what I want to focus on. I want to focus on the second part of this pivotal account. I want to focus on how Jesus responds to Peter in the wake of this revelation – on the role he gives to Peter – that Peter is to be the rock, the foundation, on which Jesus will build his church. This is critical to the development of the Church. This is a moment in the formation of the Church that is perhaps second only to Pentecost. While Pentecost may be the birthday of the Church, Jesus’ proclamation following Peter’s confession sets the stage for the impending birth of the Church. It is the moment of conception, if you will. With that simple commissioning, “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church,” Jesus literally lays the foundation for what would become Christianity.

This moment is also important because it tells us what Jesus envisions for his Church. In his commissioning of Peter, Jesus is emphatically stating that the Church is not founded on buildings. It is not founded on doctrine or dogma. It is not founded on political position. Rather, it is founded on a person – on Peter.

On Peter? Couldn’t Jesus have made a better choice? I mean, have you ever stopped to consider just what Peter was like? We know he is a fisherman, which for that time and place would have actually been a pretty lucrative business. But even so, as a fisherman he is still in the lower social strata. And furthermore, we are told he is uneducated (Acts 4:13). Is that the type of person who should be the foundation of the Church?

Scripture indicates that Peter has a certain amount of humility. After all, he recognizes and willingly confesses to Jesus that he is a sinful man (Lk 5:8). But at the same time, he can be kind of gutsy, even arrogant. After all, he has the nerve to rebuke Jesus when he foretells that he will undergo great suffering and be killed (Mt 16:22). Is that the type of person who should be the foundation of the Church?

Scripture indicates that Peter is a bit idealistic. After all, he wants to stay on the Mount of the Transfiguration and worship at the feet of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah (Mt 17:4). Yet, he can also be impulsive. After all, he jumps into the sea, thinking he can walk on water, just like Jesus (Mt 14:28). Is that the type of person who should be the foundation of the Church?

Scripture indicates that Peter is conscientious. He is diligent about living according to the Law and is concerned with the specific requirements of the Law (cf Mt 18:21). But sometimes, he can be a little rigid in its application. Such as when he initially refuses to eat something he considers unclean, even though God said it’s okay (cf Acts 10:10 ff). Is that the type of person who should be the foundation of the Church?

Peter repeatedly shows himself to be obedient (cf Jn 21:11). But when he hears things he does not particularly like, he can get a little whiney (cf Mt 19:27). Is that the type of person who should be the foundation of the Church?

Peter is certainly a loyal follower of Jesus. After all, he does promise Jesus that he will not desert him (Mt 26:33). But when push comes to shove, he is more concerned with his own wellbeing and denies Jesus three times (Mt 26:69 ff). Is that the type of person who should be the foundation of the Church?

Peter definitely has some very good qualities. But he also has some less than desirable qualities. As I look at this little psychological profile we have built of Peter, straight out of the pages of the New Testament, I see something startling. I see a lot of qualities that I have. I see a lot of qualities that are present in nearly everyone I know. What I see in this profile of Peter is a pretty good cross-section of human strengths and human frailties – of those qualities that make us strong, but also those qualities that make us difficult to live with. In short, I see all the qualities that make us human.

Peter is not selected to be the foundation of the Church because he is some sort of superman, some sort of spiritual giant. He is selected precisely because of who he appears to be in Scripture, warts and all. He is selected precisely because he is very human – because he shares the very traits and characteristics of the people who will comprise the Church. In this respect, Peter represents all Christians. He is the archetypal Christian. He is us. As one of my parishioners said regarding Peter, “I find it encouraging for us that Peter was the way he was.” In other words, the Church has been able to survive because we can relate to Peter. With all due respect to our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers who see the papacy as the heir and successor of Peter, this is too narrow a perspective. By virtue of our baptisms, we are all heirs to the foundation laid by Peter. In that respect, the story of Peter is the story of all of us who bear the name “Christian.”

Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who think that Christians should be perfect. I remember a woman who attended the church I went to in high school. Her name was Scottie. Scottie was very faithful. She attended church every Sunday. She worked on committees and helped out with various projects. Despite all this, she wouldn’t become a member of the church. One Sunday after church, Scottie went out to the parking lot. She ran into my father, who had gone to the parking lot for a smoke. Seeing my father smoke completely changed her perception about what it meant to be a Christian. Here was a man who was an elder, a member of the board of trustees, a pillar of the congregation. And he was smoking. It turns out the reason that Scottie did not become a member of the church was that she was a smoker herself and she honestly felt that because of that, she could not join the church. She felt that because of her vice, she was not good enough to be a member of the church. Her encounter with my father helped her to see God’s grace and unending love, that all are welcome in the church, that all are invited into full membership in the Body of Christ, no matter who they are, what they are, or what they do. The following Sunday, Scottie officially joined the church and became a member of First Christian Church in Riverside, California.

God does not require that we be perfect in order to be Christians. God only asks us to be faithful. That was obvious in the choice of Peter to be the foundation of the Church. God, through Jesus, chose to establish the Church on a flawed human being – the Church that would be comprised of flawed human beings. Why? Because ours is an incarnational religion. Jesus, the Son of God, fully divine, was incarnated, became human so that he might know us flesh to flesh, and so that we might know him flesh to flesh. For the Church, which would be the Body of Christ, to be of any value, it too would have to be incarnational, human, flesh to flesh. Otherwise, we simply wouldn’t be able to relate. We saw that from the Old Testament experience. We simply could not relate to a God whom we could not experience face to face, flesh to flesh. Hence, Christ’s incarnation. Hence, the Body of Christ, the Church, built upon a very real, sometimes flawed, person. An institution for very real, sometimes flawed, people.

Jesus showed a great deal of faith by entrusting his Church, the institution that would be his Body on Earth, to a bunch of flawed beings. He showed a great deal of faith by entrusting to us the task of taking his message of love and mercy to a broken world. We talk about our faith in Jesus. But we generally forget that faith runs both ways. Today’s Gospel lesson shows us that the truly Good News is that Jesus has faith in us. Let’s not let him down.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Sunday, August 03, 2008

Feeding of the Five Thousand - A Model for Creating Abundance

Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost – Year A (Proper 13)
Nehemiah 9:16-20; Ps. 78:14-20,23-25; Romans 8:35-39; Matthew 14:13-21
Sunday, August 3, 2008 – St. Alban’s, Westwood

Everywhere we turn these days, we are faced with news of scarcity or impending scarcity. Scarcity of petroleum, scarcity of food due to floods in the Midwest, scarcity of water due to drought, just to name a few. Thanks to the law of supply and demand, the impact of such scarcities on us consumers translates into another scarcity, or at the very least, fear of scarcity – the lack of personal financial resources to purchase the goods we need to maintain our current standard of living.

Yet, even in the midst of very real experiences of scarcity, some are still able to see the abundance of God’s grace. Today’s Gospel lesson of the feeding of the five thousand is such a story of seeing abundance in the midst of apparent scarcity. Even more, it is a corrective to the generally prevailing focus on scarcity. It is about conversion from a theology of scarcity to a theology of abundance.

At it’s heart, the story of the feeding of the five thousand is about hunger and food, about scarcity and abundance. The focus is most certainly on physical hunger. But there is more at stake than just satiating physical hunger. The people that flocked to Jesus were not attracted out of physical hunger. No, they were attracted by a spiritual hunger – a desire to get in touch with their spiritual selves and to understand their relationship with the God who created them.

Even Jesus himself was probably struggling with a sense of scarcity. We are told in this passage that he withdrew to a deserted place. We know that prior to this story, Jesus had been preaching throughout the land, he had been to his own hometown where he was promptly rejected, and he had learned of the death of his cousin John the Baptist. Because of all this, he was undoubtedly exhausted, depleted of his own physical, spiritual, and emotional energy, in need of some much needed rest and relaxation.

But as Jesus tries to slip away to be by himself, he is followed by the crowds, by those who live in the grips of scarcity – physically and spiritually. They have a need that they perceive only Jesus can satisfy. In his current condition, Jesus could have driven the crowds away because he needed rest. Despite his own personal condition and needs, Jesus recognized the needs and concerns of those pressing in on him. Instead of focusing on his own needs, he had compassion for the crowd. He chose to meet those men, women, and children at their point of need. In so doing, when called to act, Jesus was able to give of himself out of abundance, not scarcity.

The disciples, however, were another matter. Yes, the disciples were concerned about the needs of the crowd, but approached this concern from a perspective of scarcity. The disciples would have had the crowd take care of their own needs. The disciples buy into the illusion of scarcity – that there could not possibly be enough food for all these people. They even threaten to make it a reality by promoting competition and division.

Jesus, on the other hand, took a different approach. While the disciples only saw scarcity, Jesus only saw abundance. And he acts out of a theology of abundance to feed the masses. In doing so, did he perform some sort of miracle? Yes and no. I don’t necessarily think Jesus magically multiplied the five loaves and two fish into the hundreds or even thousands of loaves and fishes that would be needed to feed five thousand men plus women and children. It’s not that I’m saying it couldn’t have happened. You never know what God is going to do. But I think the miracle was that he showed them that if they operated out of a theology of abundance as opposed to a theology of scarcity, they would find that they had enough combined resources to feed everyone present, and still have plenty left over. As Parker Palmer comments, “Jesus wanted to help [the] people penetrate the illusion of scarcity and act out of the reality of abundance” (Palmer, 124). In the Gospel story, Jesus “makes a dramatic attempt to break people of the scarcity habit by revealing the reality of abundance” (126). The miracle is that when we put aside our fears of scarcity, the fears that make scarcity a reality, and begin to operate from a place of abundance, when we act and live as if abundance is a reality, God’s grace is present, providing the abundance that we need in that moment.

I would venture to guess that we all have our own stories of how we have benefited by God’s abundance. Some of these stories may even reveal God’s grace and abundance as being born out of or overcoming our own feelings or fears of scarcity. I recall an experience in my life that particularly illustrated this scarcity-abundance dichotomy for me – an experience that has always stayed with me as a sign of God’s abundant grace. This happened about eight years ago. It was a Friday morning. Pat, the interim rector of my parish, called me at work to let me know that Chuck, a beloved parishioner, was in the hospital in San Bernardino. Things did not look good. Pat was away and would not be able to get out to see him that day. She asked if I would go visit him. I really didn’t want to. That morning, I had woken up feeling lousy. Just a couple of hours into my work day, I decided that I was too sick to stay at work, and was about to leave the office when Pat had called. But I knew that Chuck was in need of someone to visit him and to pray with him. So, despite feeling like death warmed-over, I left work, and instead of heading home, I drove in the opposite direction, to San Bernardino.

I spent about fifteen minutes with Chuck and Jean, his wife. Chuck was drifting in and out of consciousness, but he knew I was there. Before I left, I held hands with Chuck and Jean and offered a prayer for Chuck’s healing. As I was driving home from the hospital, I had the startling realization that all through my visit, I had not experienced any of the cold symptoms I had earlier in the day. No coughing. No runny nose. No sore throat. No achy-ness. By acting out of compassion to meet the need of another, by trusting that God would give me the energy and strength to get through the visit, I indeed received God’s grace of momentary strength and wellness. Unfortunately, the effects were not permanent. By the time I got home, I had no choice but to confine myself to the couch for the rest of the day.

Sadly, Chuck died several hours later. I realized that if I had acted out of my own feeling of scarcity and not gone to the hospital, Chuck would have died without anyone from his faith community visiting him, without prayers to accompany him on his final journey. By acting out of a faith in God’s abundance, I found that I had the resources I needed to meet Chuck’s need in his final hours.

While not readily apparent in Matthew’s version of the feeding of the five thousand, other accounts of this event in the remaining Gospels give us one important clue as to what is needed to reject the illusion of scarcity and to embrace the reality of abundance. That clue is to be found in community. In Matthew, Jesus orders the crowds to sit down on the grass. In Mark and Luke, he has them sit in groups. Human nature being what it is, I would venture to guess that even in Matthew’s account, the crowds did not sit down in nice, neat rows facing Jesus. It’s highly likely that they sat down in small groups with those they knew, or those nearby whom they had just met.

Why did he do this? Attempt to create community? Because Jesus knew that scarcity is born out of competition and division. When we stand alone, we feel we have to be in competition with our neighbors over the resources we need, which leads to scarcity. In fact, as Parker Palmer notes, “There is a powerful correlation between the assumption of scarcity and the decline of community, a correlation that runs both ways. If we allow the scarcity assumption to dominate our thinking, we will act in individualistic, competitive ways that destroy community. If we destroy community, where creating and sharing with others generates abundance, the scarcity assumption will become [even] more valid” (Palmer, 127).

Abundance, on the other hand, is born out of cooperation and community. With true community, people are willing and able to cooperate, which leads to the reality of abundance. I may not have all the resources that I need. Hence, I perceive scarcity. You may not have all the resources you need. Hence, you perceive scarcity. But when we come together in community and begin to take stock of our gifts, our talents, and our resources, we may just find that I have some resources you need and you have resources I need. Within community, we see that while individually we may not have sufficient resources, collectively, we have an abundance of resources – even an over-abundance.

Just maybe, that’s what happened with the feeding of the five thousand. Joshua had some bread, but that wasn’t enough for a meal. Miriam had a little bit of cheese, but it wasn’t enough for a whole meal. Isaac had a few figs, but that certainly wouldn’t be enough for a meal. But put it all together and you have a picnic! Palmer notes that “community is the context in which abundance can replace scarcity. Even more important, the very experience of community is itself an experience of abundance” (Palmer, 130).

Within the context of community, Jesus lays out a specific model for moving from a theology of scarcity to a theology of abundance. The first step, as just noted, is the building of community. Second, once community is established, we begin to take stock of our resources – what each of us brings to the table, and how we might be able to use our collective resources for the good of the community. Palmer sees this as “a crucial turning point in our transition from assuming scarcity to seeing the potentials of abundance. It consists in the simple but rare act of looking at what we already have, at the gifts and resources that are immediately available to us” (Palmer, 128). The critical step in “any action that assumes abundance and wants to amplify it is to perceive, and receive, those resources already present to us in the abundance of life itself” (Palmer, 129). Once we have an inventory of our resources, it is important to give thanks for what we have, no matter how little it may seem. All our resources ultimately come from God, and we should be ever mindful of the abundance of His grace and for being blessed with such abundance. And finally, with a clear understanding of our resources, and mindfulness of where they truly come from, we need to be open to offering our gifts and resources to those who may need them – to those in our own community and beyond.

I believe we are seeing examples of this model for abundance here at St. Alban’s. In these times of economic uncertainty, we are all feeling the pinch financially. The parish is not immune. But despite uncertainties about how we are going to be able to meet all of our expenses, we have chosen to not focus on the potential for scarcity, to be gripped by that fear. Rather, we have chosen to move forward in the certainty of abundance. Just look around and you will see the fruits of that abundance being manifest before your very eyes. We are undergoing a major renovation of the main church. While a costly venture, requiring a significant amount of our parish resources, we have faith that a revitalized worship space will reap benefits in terms of the quality of our worship, one of the outward manifestations of our ministry and a proclamation of our belief in the abundance of God’s grace.

We are in the process of planning a pre-school. Again, another costly venture, but one that will meet a significant need in our community – the need for quality pre-school education for the children who are our future – who are perhaps our greatest resource. Over the past year, there has been a tremendous increase in participation and financial resources devoted to outreach ministry. The Social Action Ministry has identified numerous worthy causes in our community and the parish has stepped up to help these causes by giving a tithe of our Sunday plate offering, as well as other projects, such as the book drive for the New Directions Women’s Shelter. In Pilgrims’ Way, we have a vibrant and growing small group ministry devoted to building community and sharing our individual and collective resources in the nurture and development of not only our individual spiritual journeys, but also our collective journey as the parish of St. Alban’s. And in the midst of all this, because of all this and much more, we are seeing new people coming into the parish – newcomers who are bringing their own gifts, talents, and resources, not to mention the energy, enthusiasm, and desire to use them to benefit our parish community.

None of this could be accomplished if we pulled back in the face of the fear of scarcity. Admittedly, operating out of a place of scarcity is often safer than operating out of a place of abundance. There is less risk involved. But along with less risk comes less reward. If we are called to share in the abundance of God’s grace, which we most certainly are, we are, therefore, also called to shatter the illusion of scarcity and share in the creation of abundance by living as if abundance is a reality. “We must discern the gifts God gives us, accept them, employ them, pass them along. Without our active cooperation, God’s abundance remains in the realm of potential, always there, always available, but forever untapped” (Palmer, 135).

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Palmer, Parker. The Active Life: A Spirituality of Work, Creativity, and Caring. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1990.

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