September 20, 2015

Pentecost – Proper 20

Wisdom of Solomon 1:16-2:1, 12-22; Psalm 54; James 3: 13- 4:3, 7 – 8a; Mark 9: 30-37


In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.

In several weeks Episcopal clergy from all around the Diocese of Texas will gather at our Diocesan camp, Camp Allen, for an annual event called “clergy conference.” I have now been to  about ten of these clergy conferences, and one of the things that I have noticed about them is the natural, and very human tendency clergy have in comparing themselves to one another. There is a lot of talk about successful parishes, lot of talk about church growth, growing budgets, new staff members. Those are the stories clergy seem to want to share. But there is not much talk about failure, churches that are struggling, and certainly rare is the occasion when a priest would admit to buckling under the pressures of leading a congregation.

This is sad to me, for many reasons. It is sad that clergy feel the need to compare themselves and the churches they serve to other churches. It is sad that clergy sometimes confuse their relationship with their church with their relationship with God. They are not the same thing!

And finally, it is sad that we, as clergy, struggle to admit our own inadequacies, our own mistakes, our own brokenness, failures, and instead choose talk about safer, more comfortable things, like church attendance, curriculums, or programs. It’s much easier, and safer, to compare yourself to another person on superficial matters, like church size, than it is to confront your own brokenness. And so clergy conference is sometimes the forum where priests argue over who is the greatest, the most successful, the best.  

These arguments are not new – the disciples had them long ago as they were walking along the coast of the Sea of Galilee. They were doing just what many at clergy conference do – arguing over who was the best, the greatest. I guess they needed something to pass the time – they were probably bored, and arguing is something people certainly do to avoid boredom, strange as that sounds. Once they get to where they were going Jesus asks them, “what were you all arguing about?” and the disciples were embarrassed that Jesus heard them, and they said nothing. They were ashamed, I imagine, of their selfish ambition.

Ambition alone is fine and good, but selfish ambition, a desire to be greater than others, does nothing but create chaos. Our lesson from James this morning reminds us that “where there is selfish ambition, there will be disorder of every kind.” The reason why James says that putting yourself above others breeds disorder is because if you say that you are better, more important, that your needs matter more, then you are going to live a very lonely life, because in your own imaginary world with your self-inflated importance, no one is allowed to come close.

Theologians have a word for this kind of living where your selfish ambition constantly supersedes the needs of others, where your ongoing desire for recognition and importance is all that feeds you. The word they use to describe this kind of life is simple – hell.  

There is a way out, by the way. Jesus shares this way out with his disciples, when he says to them “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” In other words, greatness doesn’t come from ambition. It comes from humility.  

Mark’s Gospel never says if the disciples understood what Jesus said to them, or if they just kept on bickering amongst each other about who was the greatest. But in the Gospel of our lives, in the story we tell about who we are as God’s people, we get to say how we understand the words of Jesus. We get to say – we understand.

We don’t need to be ashamed of who we are. We don’t need to lie about our story. We are free to be imperfect, as God created us to be. We are released from the prison of comparing ourselves to others, and are empowered by the Holy Spirit to just be, and to be grateful.  

When I interviewed with the search committee of this parish, I was asked by one of the members that if I was called here, would I use St. Andrew’s as a stepping stone to get to some flashier, glitzy, high rolling church in a few years.  What they were really trying to find out is if I was some selfishly ambitious little twerp.  My answer to them was no. I envision a lot of ministry for us to do together for an abundant chapter in the history of St. Andrew’s.  

Pray for those clergy going to clergy conference this year, stuffing their insecurities, failures, and shame into their suitcases too small to carry such burdens. I wish I could say it was only clergy that do this, but the truth is – we all do. And all of us have been given a way out, thanks be to God. AMEN.

September 13, 2015

Pentecost – Proper 19

Isaiah 50: 4 – 9a; Psalm 116: 1-8; James 3: 1-12; Mark 8: 27 - 38


In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.

On September 10, 2001, St. Andrew’s Episcopal School opened its doors for the first time, welcoming new students, parents and families. I imagine that it was a day of celebration as the church welcomed students into the renovated Montessori classrooms for the first time where they met their teachers. It was a good day. It was a day to celebrate all the tremendous work it had taken to start a school at St. Andrew’s.  

The morning of the next day, September 11, 2001, while students returned to St. Andrew’s School, much of the country watched in horror and shock as a United Airlines and American Airlines passenger jet collided into the World Trade Center towers. Moments later a third jet, American Airlines flight 77, crashed into the Pentagon, and a fourth airplane, United Airlines Flight 93, set on a course to crash into our nation’s capital, was bravely diverted and crashed in rural Pennsylvania. 

One year later, on Wednesday, September 11, 2002, I attended an interfaith service of remembrance in recognition of the first anniversary of the attacks on September 11 at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.  I was in my first year of seminary at Virginia Theological Seminary across the Potomac River in Alexandria. I remember driving to the National Cathedral, passing the Pentagon, and seeing armed troops and large 30 MM artillery cannons poised to retaliate if such an attack occurred again.  

The Cathedral itself was full, standing room only, and I watched as dignitaries, clergy from every denomination, rabbis, imams, hindu and buddhist leaders all process and take their place near the altar. The Most Reverend Desmond Tutu, former Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, Africa, delivered an impassioned homily that encouraged those gathered to hear the words of the prophet Isaiah, who wrote in chapter 2 of his hope that one day war would cease. The prophet write “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”

The worship service was a sacred and holy space where for a moment, it felt as if every person inside was united, regardless of race or religion. The sense that we were united in our commitment to work for peace, to distill hope from the tragedy of the events a year ago was palpable in the room. I left the National Cathedral that day feeling hopeful about the future, empowered by the experience of shared unity, and committed to work for the cause of peace. 

As you might expect, this feeling of unity I felt in many ways contradicted the thoughts and feelings of others.  In the days following I heard rhetoric of hate and retaliation from amongst my pears, people who called themselves Christian, and were studying to become priests. I remember walking into the restroom of a restaurant one evening. I passed by one of the stalls and what I saw written on the toilet seat lid immediately grabbed my attention. It was just one word, and beside it was an arrow pointing to the bottom of the toilet bowl. The word read “Muslims” and my assumed implication was that this was a reflection of the author’s disdain and hatred for this religious group. I wondered if he, too, was a Christian.

I don’t ask that you agree with the religion of Islam, but I firmly believe that such a statement of hatred as I saw that day was, in my opinion, not one that Jesus himself would make. This is but one example of how throughout our human history, incendiary comments have started and perpetuated systems of war, prejudice, bigotry, and hatred.

The author of the letter of James, whom we hear today, cautiously warns us about the power of our words. James writes that “the tongue is a fire, it stains the whole body, it sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.”

What power we have in what we say or choose not to say.  It is easy to harbor prejudice against a group of people as long as we generalize them. All Muslims are violent fundamentalists. All drug addicts have no self control. All politicians are corrupt, all Christians are hypocrites. These prejudices work as long as we never meet an educated and devout Muslim, an addict in recovery, a politician with integrity, or a Christian who however imperfect, seeks to pattern their life the best they can on the teachings of rarely, if ever, survives our experience.

Author Stephen Covey in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People book presents a simple way to guard one’s tongue, and it is this: don’t say something about someone not present that you wouldn’t say directly to their face.  If we do that, if we speak with integrity and not judgment or hate, then we beat the sword of gossip into a plowshare of love. We transform the spear of hate into a pruning hook of peace.  This, my friends,  is how we change the world. AMEN.

September 6, 2015

Proper 18

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; PSALM 25: 1 - 12; James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17; Mark 7:24-37


Before I became a parent to human children, I was a dog mom. I dutifully walked my dogs daily and took them to the dog park in order that they could run and recreate and generally pretend to be wild animals. This sometimes included early morning trips. The upside for me of arriving just after daybreak was that no one was there. It was a time of stillness, contemplation and quiet in the heart of the city. The downside for the dogs was that few - or no - dogs were there with whom they could act out their wildness.

Nonetheless, there we were one morning as the only ones in the park, until a woman came along walking her bicycle. She had no pet, but she did have an animal carrier wired the back of her bike.  It seemed from her cargo that the bicycle might have been her mobile home. We did not exchange words or even glances. Yet, I had the feeling she was there for the same thing I was; a moment of quiet in the heart of the city on a rare expanses of park green.

My new companion in silence took a restful seat on one of the park benches and seemed to be soaking up the morning’s peace. While my stomach grumbled, she had brought herself breakfast. As a life-long fan of the Egg McMuffin, I knew exactly the pleasure she was savoring with her eyes. It was like she was going to make the goodness last as long as possible, soaking in every morsel through every possible sense with taste to be the last. The sandwich finally made a move toward her mouth when out of nowhere lumbered a slobbering Great Dane who literally snatched the sandwich from the woman’s lips. Without even a sound the breakfast had vanished, been ingested, dematerialized and was gone. What had started as a day break with the promise of so much goodness suddenly turned into a moment of seeming mercilessness.

What the readings from today - specifically the letter of James - want us to hear, is that faith is brought to life in contexts injustice and moments of mercilessness. James asks, “What good is it to say you have faith if you do not do good works?” James’ letter rewritten the context of the dog park might read, “If a woman has only enough money for one egg sandwich per day, and you say to her, ‘Don’t worry about the dog, go buy another muffin!’ without providing for funds for the purchase, what is the good of that?!” Faith stands on the legs of mercy which can only manifest through acts and can only manifest by way of actors.

The psalm for today assures that God is the greatest of all actors of mercy, bringing not only justice to the oppressed also food to the hungry. The gospel read today tells of Jesus being convinced to heal a child who was considered irrelevant to him by way of her tribe. It was an act of mercy not required of him by the culture, and yet in the end mercy was not withheld.  Similarly, there is a story in the Islamic tradition that the Prophet Muhammad kissed his grandson and an onlooker remarked, “I swear by Allah, I have ten children and I never kissed any one of them!”  to which the Prophet is said to have replied, “He who does not show mercy to others will not be shown mercy by God.” These words appear in almost identical form in the portion of James read today. The prophetic tradition, whether expressed through Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, instructs us in the way of a faith built upon mercy and justice.

Mercy, unlike justice, does not necessarily require great courage of us. It can be a practical matter. Even cold stone can be put to merciful use. Some grand scale churches in medieval times lent their covered, exterior walkways to serve as overnight shelter for the poor and the dying. Where practiced, this was a merciful use of architectural grandeur.  Mercy may not require great sacrifice, though it may require us at times to be willing to look a fool. Befuddling examples can be found in the animal world such as the chimpanzee who helps to raise a tiny puma orphan, or the leopardess who after killing an adult baboon for supper subsequently cuddled and protected overnight the dead prey’s one-day-old infant.

Sometimes we hear the letters of Paul or we read the letter of James and we think there is a great Christian debate or conflict between faith and acts. Cynthia Bourgault, an Episcopal priest and leading teacher of spirituality, reminds us that if we hear the Bible telling us that faith and works, or grace and works, are separate and at odds, then we are mistaken. To hear it that way would be to accept a false dichotomy.  Rather, she instructs us that the two are a single, unitive and divine portal through which flows into us the divine mercy of the great Creator. We are to understand that acts and mercy, acts of mercy, grace and acts are how God gets into the actor’s soul. Be we rich or poor, committing acts of mercy is - to quote Leonard Cohen - how the light gets in.

Mercy is never guaranteed. Mercy is not a birthright even for the faithful. And yet, when it comes, it comes in divine forms through divine portals to people like you and me through other people like you and like me.