May 31, 2011

On being a good steward of hope

You can listen to this sermon here. Or read the unedited text below.

Good morning! It is so great to be back here with you this morning. The folks at St. Stephen's in Brewton were gracious hosts, but there truly is “no place like home.” This morning we gather on the thirty-sixth day of Easter as we continue our 50 Days of Stewardship: searching for ways in which to live as a people of the resurrection. So far we've looked at Stewardship of Money, Stewardship of Service, the lack of stewardship in debt, and Stewardship of Power.
This week, I have the distinct pleasure of combining two of our least favorite topics into one uncomfortable package: Stewardship and Evangelism. I call this the Stewardship of Hope, and it is nowhere more present than in today's lesson from First Peter. Peter writes to a church spread far and wide by persecution – a church afraid – a church in hiding. He writes to a Church that finds itself as a minority within a minority – a church without much cultural significance - a church struggling to find its voice. His advice is as needed today as it was two-thousand years ago, “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.”
There are two pieces of this admonition that make it difficult for most Christians to live into: the being ready part and the gentleness and reverence part. I'll readily admit that the being ready part is the hardest for me. I realized very early on that my life as an ordained person would be a life filled with awkward conversations. Just over a week after I was ordained a deacon, Cassie and I began our two day journey down here. We left Alexandria on Sunday morning, set to spend the night just outside of Spartanburg, South Carolina. We arrived at our hotel at about 5pm, got the cats settled in, and set out in search of a beer and a bite to eat. The only place within walking distance was a little hole in the wall called the Rendezvous. It was a private club, seems you can't buy alcohol on Sundays in South Carolina outside of certain city limits. We applied for membership and paid out one dollar lifetime dues, and sat down for fried cheese sticks, chicken fingers, and a bucket of miller lite, when the man next to us, who had certainly been there quite a while, began to talk with us.
As these sorts of conversations go, we quickly arrived on the “how'd you get here?” topic. Cassie and I explained that we were on our way to Foley, Alabama hoping to meet our moving truck in the next couple of days. “What takes you to South Alabama?” He asked. “Well,” I responded nervously, “I've been hired as the assistant minister at an Episcopal Church down there.”
Over the past four years, I've noticed that there are mainly two ways the conversation can go from there. The first is for the conversation to come to a grinding halt. The other party responds with something like, “Oh, wow. Umm... good for you.” And then spins around on their barstool or zones out at the 1976 Sugar Bowl replay happening on ESPN Classic. That's not how this conversation played itself out. Instead, we went through door number two, the “I'm lapsed, but generally a good person, and let me tell you why” path. Depending on how long someone has been at the bar before we meet, this path can be short and sweet or very long and very painful. A week into my life as an ordained minister, this particular journey felt very, very long. I was ill-equipped. I wasn't ready. And so that man, a fellow lifetime member of the Rendezvous, never heard about the hope that is within me. He just got some hems and haws and ring spinning.
The Apostle Paul is the king of being ready. He was so ready to share his hope that he didn't even wait for folks to come to him, he hit the town running. This morning we heard a portion of the story about his time in Athens. He finds himself there, waiting to be joined by Timothy and Silas because his previous attempts at sharing his hope got him run out of Thessalonica and Berea. While waiting for his companions, Paul did what he always did and found his way to the Synagogue where, as a guest teacher, he was invited to share with the congregation. He told them the Good News about Jesus and he resurrection, and after a cool response, he took his message to the marketplace where he ran into the stoics and the epicureans who thought he was nuts. They, in turn, took him to Mars Hill where he was invited to speak before the Areopagus, basically the city council, where he gave the stirring sermon we heard read this morning.
Three years ago this weekend, I joined Cassie, Doug, her dad, Paul, his friend, a Presbyterian minister, Bart Campolo, a Christian missioner, John, an insurance executive and Christian philanthropist, and John's brother, who I don't know very well because he always has to leave before the race is over, at the Indianapolis 500. I'm sure I've mentioned this particular race before, it was full of sermon illustrations. As we approached the track, at the historic corner of 16th and Georgetown, we were grated by the familiar sound of men holding placards, shouting through bull-horns, “Repent! God hates sinners. Repent or be damned!” This is always an interesting moment for our particular group, as it seems as though the assumption is “if you go to The 500, you are an enemy of Christ.” A title which doesn't really fit anyone in our group, but one that helps prove my other point this morning.
The second way in which we fail to live up to Peter's call to evangelism is that we lack gentleness and reverence.” The men shouting through megaphones are, unfortunately, not the only one's who lack the necessary tact to share the Good News. The media has been full of stories in recent months of Christians who have failed to live into gentleness and reverence. The Westboro Baptist Church people protesting military funerals, the preacher in Florida who burnt the Koran, the kindergartner in Hokes Bluff whose yearbook message said he wanted to “beat up all those BAD MUSLIMS.” Too often, we fail to share our hope with gentleness and reverence. Too often, we forget the commandments of Jesus to love God and love one another.
In this morning's Gospel lesson, Jesus promises his disciples another Advocate who will be with them, with us forever. This Advocate, the Holy Spirit, cannot be received by the world because the world does not see him or know him. As disciples of the risen Jesus, we have been given this Advocate. The Holy Spirit abides in us, leads us, carries us. Those who believe, those who are engaged in an active, ongoing relationship with God, through Jesus Christ, are engaged in the work of God by way of the Holy Spirit. When we find ourselves in those places where words cease, when fear overwhelms, God's promise is that the Holy Spirit will give us words to say. Too often, however, when we find ourselves in a place of fear, put on the spot to share our faith, instead of trusting in the Spirit and speaking in love, we react emotionally and defensively and the hope we share comes with anger and contempt, rather than gentleness and reverence.
As Paul stood before the Aeropagus, he was disturbed to the point of anger, but his words weren't arrogant or rude, but loving and hope-filled. “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, `To an unknown god.' What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things....” Paul quoted their own poets, “In Him we live and move an have our being” and shared with them the hope of resurrection from the dead. And he did it all in love, with gentleness, and reverence.
Are you ready? What is the hope inside of you? Is it that you'll get to heaven when you die? Is it that before you get there, God will use you to bring heaven to earth? Can you articulate that hope without getting defensive or angry? Can you share the Good News in love, with gentleness and reverence?
Over the course of my thrity-one years, I have not been the best steward of hope. I've kept the message bottled up. I've been afraid and uncomfortable. I've been argumentative and scornful. But God continues to work on me, as I'm certain he does you as well. He gives us his Spirit, our Advocate, who walks alongside us. Who, when we'll listen, will give us the words we need to speak.
O God, help us to always be ready to make our defense to anyone who demands from us an accounting for the hope that is in us; and help us to do it with gentleness and reverence, all for the glory of your name, by the indwelling of your Spirit, and through the grace of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

the world

There are many ways in which 21st Century Americans have a hard time reading scripture formed over a thousand years, two thousand years ago. This Sunday, as we hear John's rendition of Jesus' High Priestly Prayer, we hear one of those sticking points.

"I pray (ask) not on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me..."

There is a tendency in modern theology to look at Jesus not just universally (i.e. he came to save us all/he saves us all/he will save us all), but, in fact, cosmically (i.e. he came to redeem all creation/the whole world).

So why does Jesus make it clear that this last prayer, this intimate moment between himself, his Father, and his disciples, this chance to ask for God's protection in his absence, isn't for the world? Doesn't God want to redeem everything and everyone?

Well, yes. But. In John's Gospel "the world" has very little to do with the planet earth and the plants, animals, and humans that dwell there-in. In John's Gospel "the world" is the stomping ground of Satan, the darkness that tries to overpower the light. The world is those powers and principalities that are corrupt, those systems that are oppressive. Jesus prays that his disciples and those who will come to faith through them, might be protected from the world whose desires are mutually exclusive from those of the Kingdom of God.

The danger comes when we hear this read on a Sunday morning, without education and without its original context. Too often, we hear that Jesus cares about me, but not about the world. Whole political machines have been based on this misunderstanding. Whole (a)theologies. Disasters happen when we hear the Scriptures and think we understand.

Jesus cares deeply for the world God created. His prayer is that it would be redeemed from the darkness and come into the light. His prayer is that the powers of the world might be overthrown so that the light of his Kingdom can shine. His prayer is that his disciples, namely us, might be protected from the infection of greed, sloth, anger, oppression, and corruption. Jesus asks that we might glorify him, and in doing so, bring the world back from the brink.

May 26, 2011

stewards of hope

During our Great 50 Days of Stewardship, as we've looked at what it means to be a people of the resurrection, we've talked about money, service, debt, and power. As the season begins to wrap up, the tendency, as I wrote yesterday, is to go back to money. It is the unfortunate side effect of the co-opting of the word "stewardship."

But the more I think about it, the more I think this week's focus is stewardship of hope. Next to the very breath we breathe, God's gift of hope is the greatest gift creation has been given. Imagine life without it. All that's left when we die is the crematory furnace or the bugs. All that's left when we struggle is the same crap on a different day. All that's left, when we are without hope, is despair.

Peter, in his instructions to the persecuted diaspora, calls each and every Christian to "Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence." To turn the language around, we are to always be ready to be stewards of hope.

There are two cliche questions that come to mind this morning.
1. If you were put on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?
2. If your church were to close its doors, would anybody outside of the parish directory care?

If the answers to 1 and 2 are both "yes," then being good stewards of hope, ready to give an account of the hope that is within you, will be necessary. People will ask questions. "Why did you respond that way?" "Why are you here?" "What causes you to be so peaceful?" Whatever.

If the answers are no. Well then perhaps we should first figure out if hope exists at all. If it does, then our response should be the follow the commandments of Jesus, which will then necessarily lead us to be good stewards of hope.

As TKT said on Sunday, Jesus has gone to prepare a place for us so that we can get to work in the meantime.

May 25, 2011

When Jesus will Return

My sermon from Sunday at St. Stephen's Church, Brewton, AL

Good morning. It is a pleasure to be here with you this morning. I bring you greetings from your brothers and sisters in Christ in Foley. They also send their regrets that their patron saint, Saint Paul held coats and looked on approvingly while your patron saint, Saint Stephen was stoned to death becoming the first to follow in Christ's footsteps and die at the hands of his persecutors. We hope there are no hard feelings.
I'm actually quite relieved to even be here this morning. I don't know if you heard, but the world was supposed to come to an end in a series of massive earthquakes yesterday. An eighty-nine year old, former Civil Engineer turned Christian radio preacher named Harold Camping thought he had stumbled upon a truth that even Jesus himself had missed: the exact date and time of the Second Coming of Christ. I tried really hard all week to avoid the press that Camping was getting. To be quite honest, it grieved me that honest to goodness news organizations like CNN and The Washington Post would even bother to pick up the story. I shouldn't be surprised, I guess. The media seems all too excited to jump on a story that makes Christians look silly. I was also sad for the folks who follow this radio prophet, especially the children whose faith might be irreparably broken by the fact that Jesus didn't return at eight pm Pacific Time on May twenty-first, Twenty-eleven. I was avoiding all the hoopla out of silent protest for the scores of ways this man and his math made my life's vocation harder.
But on Thursday morning I caved. I followed the link on to an interview with Mr. Camping in which he declared that he knew “absolutely, without any shadow of a doubt that May twenty-one will be the day.” I read with sadness the stories of people who gave away everything they had, walked away from jobs and family and friends to drive RVs around the county declaring the end of the world. And assuming that Camping isn't lining his wallet, a generous assumption, considering his family radio group is worth over one hundred million dollars, I prayed that God would somehow redeem the mess that one well meaning follower was managing to make. And then I went back to work, looking over the scriptures for today, asking God what he wanted me to share with the good people of Saint Stephen's in Brewton on the day after the world was supposed to end, and I realized, as if in a flash of lightning, when the world would actually end. Well not really end, what I came to understand is when Jesus would actually return. or perhaps better said, when Jesus will return again.
The funny thing about the Great Fifty Days of Easter is that we very quickly run out of resurrection stories. On Easter Day we get the empty tomb. On Easter Two we hear about the upper room on Easter Evening. Easter Three we met Jesus on the road to Emmaus. And then, by Easter Four we were back in pre-crucifixion days listening to Jesus interact with his disciples. This morning we are back on Maundy Thursday in John's Gospel. Jesus and his disciples are in the upper room, the Last Supper has been served, feet have been washed, Judas has left to finish the deal that will cost Jesus his life, and Jesus has predicted Peter's denial. The mood in the room is so heavy with grief that even now we can taste the sadness, and yet Jesus looks at his disciples and says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God and Trust in me. In my Father's house there are many mansions, and I'm going to prepare a place for you. I'll be back to get you, but in the meantime, you know where I'll be.” Jesus will spend the next four chapters, roughly twenty percent of John's Gospel, helping his disciples understand how to live as a people “left behind.”
Good old Thomas isn't having it. He speaks up as the rest of the group stands in bewilderment, “What do you mean we know where you are going? We don't have clue? How can we know how to go somewhere when we don't know where it is?” He wants seven habits, ten commandments, or twelve steps. He needs Google Maps to tell him to swim the Atlantic Ocean to get to England. Thomas wants a date and a time to meet Jesus. But Jesus doesn't offer concrete details. Jesus is soon headed off to be at the right hand of the Father. He'll be the firstborn of the dead. He'll be in that great by and by. And not even his disciples can join him there just yet. Their job is still on earth.
Jesus dangles heaven in front of his disciples, and then proceeds to tell them that the journey is the more important part for now. That's so hard for us humans to handle. That's why Harold Camping got all sorts of press this week. We don't really want to die, and we certainly don't want the world to end, but if there was a way to have heaven right now without the perceived bad stuff, we'd take it in a heartbeat. My friend Scott from Michigan puts it this way, “If you tell your child that tomorrow you're getting in the car and heading to Orlando to spend some time at Disneyworld, the kid will have a mighty tough time enjoying the trip along the way. Suddenly, she will want to be there yesterday. It would be a foolish parent who would dangle Disneyworld in front of a kid as the final destination but who then also told the child, 'But now, Janey, we're going to take our time getting there. There is a neat museum in Ohio where President Rutherford B. Hayes was born which I want to visit first as well as an excellent fabric store in Kentucky where your mother will be picking up quilting supplies. And then...' And then nothing, as far as Janey is concerned! You can't get to Orlando fast enough from her point of view. Everything else along the way is either just a delay or flat out a waste of time.”
That's where Philip is. “Just show us the Father and we will be satisfied.” In a culture where you couldn't even say the name of God, lest you would die, seeing him would be instant death. Not even Moses got to see God face to face, he had to hide the the cleft of a mountain while God passed by. Philip wants to jump to the end, but Jesus asks his disciples to wait. He's got to leave them behind for now, but in doing so, he is giving them a gift.
“You'll do greater works than what I've done because I'm going to the Father.” In essence, Jesus says, “With me out of the way, you're going to be God Incarnate on earth. You'll be his hands, feet, mouths, and ears. You'll do the work of declaring the Kingdom of God, bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and letting the oppressed go free. To put it bluntly, as the note in my HarperCollins Study Bible does, “Believers are Jesus' successors and Jesus 'returns' through their work.” Jesus returns through the work of those who trust in him. Jesus returns through you and through me.
Jesus Christ did return yesterday, and the day before yesterday, and the day before that. Jesus will return today, and tomorrow, and the next day. Jesus returned several weeks ago when this parish called to reach out to a former member after the tornadoes, sparking a vibrant relationship between Brewton, Trussville, and Cullman. Jesus returns in the chaos of tornado debris and in hospital rooms. In pulpits and around dinner tables. In search committees and Youth Sundays. Everywhere his commandment of love is lived out in word and deed, Jesus returns to earth incarnate in his bride, the Church.
This morning we gather as a people left behind. Maybe the Rapture did happen last night. Maybe it didn't. There was about 30 minutes on my way up 31 this morning that I thought maybe it had, but still, we are still a people left behind in the same way Jesus' disciples were left behind. He is still with the Father, preparing a place for us, and he is still the way, the truth and the life. Do not let your hearts be troubled, there is trouble enough to go around. Instead, trust God and trust Jesus and keep up the good work. Keep reaching out to those in need. Keep visiting the sick and infirm. Keep sharing the good news that the Kingdom of God is available to everyone. Keep raising your children in the knowledge and love of the Lord.
Jesus Christ is coming back: yesterday, today, and tomorrow. It doesn't mean the world is going to end, but I does mean that heaven is coming to earth, if only for a moment, in the faithful work of a faithful disciple. May God bless you as you take part in that work. May he make you his very hands a feet. May he show you the need and give you the means to address it. And may you do it all in the love commanded us by his Son, who is the way, the truth and the life. Amen.

Coming Back Around

As our season of stewardship begins to draw to a close, it seems only right that the Lectionary would invite the topic to come full circle. We began on Easter 2 with Jesus and his disciples in that upper room. They were afraid, doubtful, needy. Jesus offered them shalom and his Spirit. As I preached this text, I brought to mind the words of King David in 1 Chronicles:

"Yours, O Lord, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty; for all that is in the heavens and on the earth is yours; yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all. Riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might; and it is in your hand to make great and to give strength to all. And now, our God, we give thanks to you and praise your glorious name... For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you."

And now we have Paul in front of the Areopagus, preaching to the Athenians about his God, "The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth..."

If we believe that God made the world and everything in it. And if we believe that our God is not served by human hands. And if we believe that our God does not need any thing from us. Then stewardship (and anything else we speak of in the Church) is never a matter of desperation (we'll never make it without...), but rather a matter of gratitude (a response to the gifts given to us by God).

In a parish where money is tight or where membership is dwindling or where leadership is embattled, it can be hard to stay away from desperation, but when it is your key motivator, when everything you do is done to perpetuate "what has always been", well then you are doomed to fail. Desperation is the thing of unknown gods. Hope and life are the gifts of our God.

May 19, 2011

Jesus is coming!

I've really tried to ignore all the May 21st Rapture talk going on, but today I caved in and read an interview with the group's founder, Harold Camping, posted on the CNNBelief Blog. It really is quite scary, his vision for the rapture, massive earthquakes that by then end of the 24 hour day that is May 21st will cause the end of the Earth. What is scarier to me is the way in which the folks who follow this man are spreading the message; leaving everything they know, giving away everything they have, to spread the news that God's so angry that he's going to destroy his creation (before saving those who since the 1994 end of the Church age (Camping's last failed prediction) belong to right believing churches).

What is amazing to me is how apropos the Sunday Lectionary is given it will be read the day after the world is supposed to end. Jesus and most of his disciples are in the upper room. The Last Supper has been consumed, feet have been washed, Judas has left to finish the deal, and Peter knows that three times he will deny his friend and Rabbi, and then Jesus says,

"Don't let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God and Trust in me. In my Father's house there are many mansions, and I'm going to prepare a place for you. I'll be back to get you, but in the meantime, you know where I'll be."

Jesus will spend the next four chapters, roughly 20% of John's Gospel, telling his disciples how to live in his absence. They will be left behind. He shares with them that while the final destination is good, their job is to make the here and now just as good. The Spirit will work alongside them, prod them, lead them, but it will be their hands, feet, mouths, ears, that will be God Incarnate while Jesus is gone. As the note in my HarperCollins Study Bible says, "14.12-14 Believes are Jesus' successors and Jesus 'returns' through their work."

Jesus will return on Saturday. I can guarantee it. It probably won't be the way Camping and his followers have pictured it, but in the midst of tornado debris, in hospital rooms, in pulpits, around dinner tables, Jesus will return when his disciples do the work that he left for them to finish, declaring the Kingdom of God, bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, letting the oppressed go free." (Luke 4:18).

May 18, 2011

The Good Shepherds Voice - an unpreached sermon

It's not that great anyway, so I'm kind of glad the Holy Spirit gave me something else to say at noon today.

One of the resources I use in sermon preparation dares to call itself “The Center for Excellence in Preaching.” It is a rather heady resource offered by Calvin Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Before last week, I would have called it a “awfully heady resource,” but then, in their illustration idea section they shared this story.
Several years ago there was a story carried in various newspapers about a woman from Missouri who was startled out of a dead sleep one night by some desperate cries of "Help! Help!" You know how it is when you awake to some sound: you are not at all certain whether you really heard something or if it was just a dream. At first she thought perhaps her husband had cried out, but he was sleeping soundly next to her. Then suddenly she heard the cries again: "Help! Help!" Finally she threw back the covers and headed downstairs toward their living room. "Help!" went the plaintive voice yet again. "Where are you?" the woman replied. "In the fireplace," came the rather shocking answer.
And sure enough, dangling in the fireplace with his head sticking through the flue was a burglar, upside down and quite snugly stuck! The police and fire department got him out eventually, though not before having to disassemble the mantle and some of the masonry. Perhaps the best part of the story was what this woman did in the meantime. She flipped on all the lights and videotaped the whole thing. I don't know what the two talked about while waiting for the police and company to arrive, but had I been she, I think I would have hauled out a Bible and given the crook a pointed reading of John 10: "Verily I tell you, anyone who does not enter by the door but climbs in another way is a thief and a robber!"
On Sunday morning, I talked about the ways in which advertisers attempt to climb over the fences of our lives in order to get inside our heads and convince us to listen to their voice, but it certainly isn't just advertisers. Politicians tell us they have the answers to our national ails. News corporations sell the opinions of a talking head as fact, and try to convince us that their spin is right, and everyone else is wrong. Pharmaceutical corporations create diagnoses in order to sell the new pill they've developed to fix it. There is an almost constant barrage of thieves and robbers who do their best to sneak inside the sheepfold. Once they get there, often times they sound a whole lot like Jesus, but as we all know, there is only one Good Shepherd.
A few years ago, Keith told a story about he and Lynn at a banquet. The room was full of people and even more full of their sound. Hundreds of conversations, all happening at once, forks rattling against plates, the hum of the chocolate fountain motor, and yet, in the midst of all that ambient sound, and with Lynn across the room, all he had to say, not shout, but say, was “Lynn” and she heard his voice and found him.
As the sheep of the Good Shepherd, our only real job is to be able to discern the voices that call our in our lives. Lynn could hear and know Keith's voice because of a 30 plus years of conversations. It seems to me, then, that we too ought to take advantage of our two ears and one mouth and listen for Jesus twice as often as we talk. Over a lifetime of listening, we grow to know the one true voice, the voice of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who doesn't just give us life, but gives us life abundantly. There are a lot of voices out there, each vying for your attention, but if you'll listen carefully, you'll hear the Good Shepherd calling for you by name. Listen. Believe. Follow. Find abundant life. Amen.

A Holy Spirit Moment

Seems my blog post from Monday was part truth and part self-fulfilling prophecy. I do that sometimes; I get so stuck in the blank slate that is my head that I'm of no earthly good. Oh I pray, and I listen, and I read, and I reflect, but sometimes I'm so convinced I don't know what to say, that I can't possibly hear and understand.

I guess I'm like the disciples in that way.

Anyway, I had one of those ah-ha moments today, unfortunately, it hasn't helped with Sunday yet, but I share it with you anyway.

I didn't blog yesterday because of an internet issue. We've been having connectivity problems at the Parish Office for quite a while now. We narrowed down the problems to the router, so we bought a new one. It arrived over lunch yesterday, so I told TKT that I'd have it all up and running in "10 minutes." Three hours later, I was late getting home to watch FBC while SHW went to a meeting, and the office was without internet with notes and boxes and wires everywhere.

I was mad.

I wrote a sermon for the noon service at about 6:30am (Thank you God for letting FBC sleep until it was finished), which you can read in my next post, and headed to work ready to fix the internet problem, but wondering what it was all about - how does having the internet at the office help the Kingdom of God?

Thanks to a very helpful tech support person, we got everything up and running, and by about 11am, I was back on schedule: E-Pistle sent, Bulletin proofed, ready for the noon service. Just before it started, however, I received an email from a parishioner who because of infirmity is unable to make it to St. Paul's any more. She had just finished listening to my sermon from Sunday and was grateful to have seen the E-Pistle posted on facebook.

A Holy Spirit Moment.

I threw out the sermon for noon, and instead shared this 24 hour crisis of faith with the congregation in the light of Acts 2:42. We might not be able to break bread online, but we can offer people the Apostle's teaching, fellowship, and prayers.

Thank you, Lord God, for the internet, and the ways in which your Kingdom are revealed through it. Amen.

May 16, 2011


This Sunday, I'm supply preaching at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Brewton, AL. I've supplied a couple of times over the past couple of years: filling in for a sick colleague, a random Sunday evening service, the usual. Every time I supply preach, I run into the same problem - my mind goes blank.

I read the lessons appointed for Sunday this morning, like I do every Monday morning, but this time, I'm at a loss. It isn't because there isn't anything interesting to say, there is always something to preach, Stephen gets martyred on the Sunday the Rev. Steven Pankey preaches at St. Stephen's Church for crying out loud! The reason I'm drawing a blank is because the people of St. Stephen's are a blank slate to me. I only really know one member, who served as a facilitator for the Fresh Start program I attended three years ago. I knew their former Rector, though not very well, from the same Fresh Start experience. I have a vague sense of how the relationship ended, but, in all reality, I have no idea what this collection of souls in the Body of Christ needs to hear this Sunday.

Do I comfort the disturbed?
Do I disturb the comfortable?
Do I preach with the Bible in one hand and in the other?

To make matters worse, its Youth Sunday! Can I really preach the angry mob stoning Stephen to death while a young Saul holds coats and nods approvingly?

I have a deep respect for my brothers and sisters who do this supply priest thing on a regular basis. It is hard, much harder than preaching to a community that one knows intimately and has walked with for years. Prayers are appreciated this week, I could use all the help I can get.

The Thief and Abundant Life - A Sermon

You can listen here, or continue reading below.

In 1997, I was seventeen years old and a senior in high school. I made about ten thousand dollars working part time at a local grocery store and after putting gas in my car and paying to insure it, I spent the vast majority of the remaining eight thousand dollars eating out with friends at our favorite twenty-four hour greasy spoon, Eat-N-Park. Life was nice in those days. Money came in, I ate butter covered sweet rolls and drank decaf coffee, and the money went out. In 1998, I was eighteen years old and walking across campus at the University of Pittsburgh when I saw a kiosk offering free “Go Pitt!” T-shirts. I like T-shirts and I like free, so they had me, and before I knew it, I was holding a shiny, new, University of Pittsburgh Visa Platinum Card with a five thousand dollar credit limit. Don't ask me how I got platinum status at 18 years of age with no discernible income, all I know is that on that day in 1998, life got complicated. No longer was it so simple as money in, eat junk food, money out. Now money could go out before it ever came in.
In 1999, I was nineteen years old and a student at Millersville University when a Visa bill for four thousand some odd dollars arrived in my mailbox. Seems the guy who got my old mailbox at Pitt had activated a replacement card and gone on a shopping spree. I got the mix up taken care of, thanks be to God I had actually gone to class and shown up at work and could prove I was in Lancaster and not Pittsburgh when the purchases took place, but I didn't learn my lesson about the dangers of credit. By the time 2007 rolled around and I graduated from seminary and moved to Foley, I was the proud owner of a Wachovia Credit Card, a Capitol One Credit Card, a Whitehall Jewelers Card, a Banana Republic Card, a Lenscrafters Card with 0% interest for six months, a Wolf Furniture Card with 0% interest for twelve months, a sixty dollar a month student loan payment, a three hundred dollar a month car note, and a nine hundred dollar a month mortgage. And then it took Cassie nine months and almost ten thousand dollars to get licensed to work in Alabama.
Jesus said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that [my sheep] may have life and have it abundantly.” Isn't that why we are all here? We are desperately searching for a life of abundance. “The chance to not simply persist, but to thrive, to not simply exist, but flourish. To have a sense of meaning, purpose, and fulfillment; to know and be known...”1 If it isn't the reason we are all here, it is certainly the reason why people like Joel Osteen are surrounded by throngs of followers all wanting their “best life now.” It is what the American Dream has come to be, “a life of personal happiness and material comfort.”2 It is the playground of Madison Avenue, Wall Street, Capitol Hill, and too often, the Church, and it is all based on a lie; the lie of scarcity. Madison Avenue spends most of their rather significant effort and brain power convincing us that what we want, that thing that will make us the happiest, won't be available for ever; it is a limited time offer, and so we'd better buy it now, before its too late.
But wait, there's more. Not only are we fully convinced that there won't be enough snuggies, Disney movies, sixty inch lcd three-d TVs, and quality built brick homes to go around, we are also subtly tricked into believing that if we are one of the lucky ones who actually gets these things, we will in some way be happier, better off, or, to steal a turn of phrase from Jesus, “we might have life and have it abundantly.” I say all of this not to disparage advertisers in any way, they are doing exactly what they are paid to do, through “emotional branding” they are filling holes that were once filled by the things that sat at the center of town: the school and the church. In 2004, PBS's Frontline did an episode called “The Persuaders” that looked at this new form of advertising. The money quote, pardon the pun, comes from Naomi Klein, author of the book No Logo, who says, “When you listen to brand managers talk, you can get quite carried away in this idea that they are fulfilling this need we have for community, and narrative, and transcendence, but in the end it is a laptop and a pair of running shoes. And they may be great, but they aren't going to fulfill these needs. Which serves them very well, because then you have to go shopping again.” And so we do, often with credit card in hand, in the vain hope that someday we will make that singular perfect purchase that will for ever make us happy, that will help us understand the meaning of life, and that will make us members of a community of other enlightened, fulfilled people.
All the while, we have given up our freedom for slavery. As the ancient Hebrew Proverb says, “Just as the rich rule the poor, so the borrower is servant to the lender.” I'm convinced that debt is the only way an otherwise rational person would ever sell themselves into slavery, and unfortunately the slavery of debt isn't isolated to the individual. This morning, this community gathered is a slave to the debt of the education building. The eighteen hundred dollar a month payment is, for all intents and purposes, the reason for our cash flow deficit each and every month. And we are not an isolated case, parishes, institutions, dioceses are all barely keeping their heads above water because of the debt service they carry on new buildings and property, built when growth seemed never ending and interest rates were so low the banks were practically giving money away. For the four years since I arrived here, Cassie and I have been enslaved to monthly payments on credit cards with short-term, low interest rate deals. We've robbed Peter to pay Paul only to turn around and borrow the money back from Paul to repay our debt to Peter. How many churches are slaves to the debt service built when cotton was high and he boll weevil was nowhere to be seen? How many families are torn apart by the over-availability of easy credit cards? How many of our recent ails as a parish, a community, and a nation are the result of debt?
And it is all based on that lie of scarcity. There isn't enough to go around, so you better get it now, even if you can't afford it, otherwise you'll never be happy. Jesus says, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that [my sheep] may have life and have it abundantly.” Jesus shines a light on the falsehood of scarcity and calls us to a lifestyle of abundance. The truth he speaks says to us “there is more than enough for everyone and everything in this world to flourish, so we should take what we need, when we need it, and share our excess with one another.”
Two weeks ago, Cassie and I officially paid off the last of our credit card debt. We celebrated by buying the ceiling fan that we've wanted to put up on the back porch for four years. We paid... in cash! The breeze feels so much cooler knowing that we waited and saved and the fan is ours, no strings attached. I tell you this not to pat myself on the back, but to tell you that it is possible. With wise spending habits, and Jesus, even Steve Pankey, Visa cardholder since 1998, can get out of credit card debt.
Back in 1997, when money came in, I ate butter covered sweet rolls and drank decaf coffee, and the money went out, I was living the dream: I had a job, I was getting an education, I had a community of good friends, and I was doing my best to follow Jesus. It was as close to transcendence as I'll ever get, not because of the sweet rolls and coffee, but because of the relationships they helped foster. No matter how hard we try, it is impossible to buy transcendence. There is no price tag on the meaning of life. You can't barter your way into authentic community. By trying to buy stuff to make us feel good, we, as a society, have enslaved ourselves to creditors, banks, and foreign nations; none of which has our best interests in mind. The abundant life we so desperately seek can not be bought, it is only offered as a free gift, given to us by the only being outside of ourselves who seeks our best interests, the God of all Creation. He bought us out of slavery to sin in the life, death, and resurrection of his only Son, and begs us not to sell ourselves back by way of debt. He offers us lasting joy, rather than fleeting happiness. He offers us access into the perfect community of the Trinity. He offers us abundant life, rather than a life constantly in search of more. Have you unwittingly welcomed the thief into your life? Jesus calls on us to trust in him, to follow him, to give of ourselves to him, all in thanksgiving for the gift of freedom he has so graciously given us. Jesus invites to you be set free, to loose the bonds of slavery, and to live abundantly. Authentic life as a people of the resurrection begins when we say “no” to the thief, when we reject the lie of scarcity, and rest our hope in God's abundance. God, the good shepherd, offers you a cup that is overflowing beside still waters. He longs to restore your soul. All for the low-low price of grace. No debt, just freedom. Now that is the good life. Amen.

May 12, 2011

A Symbol of the Mainline Church

Last night the clergy and lay deputies and alternates to General Convention were invited to Bishop and Kathy Duncan's home for dinner. It was a lovely evening: good beer, good conversation, and an excellent meal. As the evening wrapped up our Diocesan Administrator, who we also think happens to also be the longest tenured deputy elected to the 2012 Convention gave us a brief overview of the next year's worth of prep work.

He handed out to each of us a 1GB flash drive (some call it a thumb drive, he called it a pig drive containing three pdf documents: a list of contact information for deputies and alternates, the outdated draft schedule for the Convention, and a copy of an email sent to all of us regarding a June Synod meeting that most of us will not attend. I chuckled at the flash drives, and told Cassie how excited I was the Diocese had nearly reached the year 2000 with its technology. At least they are trying, though, and I have to give them credit for that.

Well, I went to plug in the drive this morning, and after my PC went through the usual machinations to install the drivers, it told me I had to restart my computer for the software to work correctly. At the very same time, it opened a window showing the contents of the drive: the three pdfs I mentioned earlier. I tried to open them, but to no avail, they were either corrupted or not found, which I assume meant, "follow the restart instructions, hot shot!"

I restarted my computer, and tried to open the drive folder again, but now my computer is recognizing it as either a floppy or CD drive and telling me to insert a disk into drive e:. I went to the website of the brand name on the thumb drive but all the FAQ pages are bad links. And so, here I sit with a 1GB piece of useless plastic.

And I thought to myself, is this a symbol of the Mainline Church?
We try.
We over buy.
We aren't quite sure how to make it all work.
And our FAQs have as many answers as we do members.

Are we stuck with over-sized structures that are essentially useless? Or, is there a way to format what we've got in such a way that it is useful to a world that is desperately in need?

May 11, 2011

Acts 2:42 Church

"Those who had been baptized devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers."

I guess there is some debate as to whether the Church described in Acts 2:42 was actually the early Church or just the ideal to which it aspired. Either way, it continues to be the the fullest description of how the contemporary Church, in all of its variations and forms called churches, should live out its mission.

We are called to teach and be taught.
We are called to fellowship.
We are called to break bread.
We are called to pray and be prayed for.

Emil Brunner has famously said, "The Church exists by mission as fire exists by burning" and while I don't disagree with the famous Swiss Reformed theologian, I tend to think that Mission comes as a natural side effect of hearing the lessons of Jesus' life and ministry, seeking to share the joy that comes from Christian fellowship, receiving the grace of God's Holy Communion, and earnestly desiring God's will for ourselves and the rest of God's good creation.

Taking Brunner's analogy to the edge of its usefulness, if fire requires fuel, heat, and oxygen to produce a flame then the Church needs teaching, fellowship, breaking bread, and prayer to produce mission. When one is lacking, the focus turns wrong way in, and the problem isn't a lack of mission, which tends to get the attention. Instead, it is almost always a lack of prayer or a hubris against education, or a lack of fellowship. At least in The Episcopal Church there's never a lack of bread breaking. ;-)

May 10, 2011


One story tells us that there isn't enough in this world, so you better grab up all you can as fast as you can. This is a philosophy of scarcity.

Another story says that there is more than enough for everyone and everything in this world to flourish, so we should take what we need, when we need it, and share our excess with the rest. This is a philosophy of abundance.

Madison Avenue, Wall Street, and Capitol Hill operates under the former.

The Kingdom of God calls us to live by the latter.

Jesus had just healed a man born blind. With mud. And spit. On the Sabbath.

The Pharisees were not happy with this obvious display of power, and so Jesus responds by telling them a story. Not a story of power about an emperor or an army, but a story about mercy about a shepherd who calls his sheep to follow. The Pharisees grasp to the power they have accumulated thinking that there isn't enough to go around. Jesus holds with an open hand the power given to him, eager to share it, to empower others, to live in the Kingdom.

Abundance doesn't mean more. More doesn't mean better. Abundance is better. Abundance is a gift.

May 9, 2011

The Thief

"The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy"

Boy do I know that thief. Well, more accurately, I know several thieves, but as we continue our 50 Days of Stewardship as a People of the Resurrection, my thoughts this week are aimed at debt. For so many of us, the main thief, the one who does the most damage, is debt. And it steals. kills. and destroys.

No doubt about it.

How many churches are slaves to the debt service built when cotton was high and he boll weevil was nowhere to be seen? How many families are torn apart by the over-availability of easy credit cards? How many of our recent ails are the result of debt?

Credit convinces us that while today resources are scarce, someday they won't be and therefore we should buy now and pay later. As most of us have come to realize, however, that someday never comes. When we subscribe to a philosophy (or a theology) of scarcity, that lens becomes a defining factor in our lives. I don't have enough, so I'll buy on credit. I might not have enough, so I'll keep a little extra. My neighbor doesn't have enough, so I'll sell at a handsome markup.

Scarcity, however, is a lie. Our wants have replaced our needs, and the thief is all too willing to help us fill the void. The thief offers us more and more and more, until he takes it all away.

Jesus offers a different way, but that, dear reader, is the stuff of another post.

May 4, 2011

Feast of Monnica - Homily

Today we celebrate the Feast of Monnica who died in the Roman Port of Ostia in 387. If the Episcopal Church assigned patron saints, Monnica would be the patron saint of faithful mothers. Maybe that's why we didn't change her feast day from being near Mother's Day to the end of August like the Romans did after Vatican Two.
Monnica was born about 332 in modern day Algeria, and grew up as the riotous daughter of two devoutly Christian parents. One of her biographies says that “as a girl, she was fond of wine.” Not as a young woman nor even as a teen, but as a girl, she was fond of wine.” She only gave up the sauce after a young slave girl made fun of her and Monnica vowed never to drink again. She married a pagan name Patricus who followed the example of his mother as an angry adulterer.
Monnica prayed for her husband, his mother, and their children. She prayed and prayed and prayed that they would come to know the gift of grace offered by God in his son Jesus. Once, when their eldest son, Augustine was desperately ill, Monnica convinced Patricus to allow him to be baptized, but before a priest could be found, Augustine was healed, and Patricus withdrew his permission.
Monnica continued to pray and live the life of a faithful disciples. As Augustine grew, it became apparent that he was a gifted young man, and Monnica attempted to help him marry into a fine family, but when those attempts failed and as Monnica grew in her faith, her sole ideal became the conversion of her husband, mother-in-law, and sons. Her patience and faithfulness paid off as both Patricus and his mother-in-law were baptized before their deaths. Augustine, however, continued to resist as he was fond of both wine and women. After studying at Carthage, Augustine so upset his mother with his philosophies that she ran him off from the dinner table. After a vision told her that should would not die until her son was converted, Monnica followed Augustine to Rome and then to Milan where she happened upon the famous bishop, Ambrose of Milan, who disciples both Monnica and the less than enthused, Augustine, who was finally baptized at the Great Vigil of Easter in 387.
Monnica, a younger son, and Augustine prepared to return to North Africa after the baptism, but while waiting for the ship at Ostia, she took ill and died. That rebellious elder son, Augustine, would later tell her story in his autobiography, The Confessions and was consecrated as Bishop of Hippo in 395 and is also remembered with his own feast on August 28th (the day after his mother's feast on the post-1969 Roman calendar).
Monnica's story reads like the story of many of us. She made mistakes. She sought after prideful things. She like wine a little too much. Her children had their struggles. And in the midst of it all, she remained faithful. She prayed. She sought out the will of God. She served. She mostly did the best she could with the hand she was dealt and the mercy of God. How many of us do the same thing, day in and day out?
Often, the folks who get remembered on the calendar are so extraordinary that they are hard to relate to, but Monnica is the working man's or woman's saint. We remember her faith and her faithfulness. We remember her patience and her faults. We rejoice that God's mercy is unfailing, even in the midst of our messiness. Amen.

Really, really stuck

Last night, in Mobile, a man was shot.  It tends to happen all too often, 20 or so murders already in Mobile County in 2011. Most of the time the story gives me quick pause, but I quickly move on.  I hadn't even heard last night's story, it didn't cross my two local news apps this morning.  Instead, I returned from lunch and K, our parish secretary, told me that TKT needed me to look something up on the internet while he drove to preach in Greenville, AL.

So, I called Keith and he told me about a news story he heard while falling asleep last night. It was about a man who had been assaulted in downtown Mobile and his name was WW. "I wonder if it is our WW," he said, "and if so, I doubt anybody will be able to pay for his cremation or anything."

The three of us who hang out at 506 North Pine Street everyday know a WW pretty well.  I don't know if the WW we know is the same WW who died last night, but my guess is the chances are pretty good.  Our WW is one of our regulars.  We've all heard his whole life story: his Father was a jerk, he never had a chance, and if he did, he didn't take it.  WW drove broken down cars, lived in broken down apartments, and lived a broken down life. Thanks to a pretty terrible childhood, mental illness, and (I'm guessing) some recreational drug use, WW was really, really stuck.

Stuck feeling sorry for himself.  Stuck in a go nowhere existence. Stuck driving a 90 mile loop from Mobile to Pensacola, stopping at churches, sharing his story, and asking for help.  Whether the man who died last night was our WW or another, it is a sad story, but it is even sadder, for me, if it our WW because he never allowed himself the chance to get unstuck. He lived as a lone ranger, isolated by the voices of sadness bouncing around his head.

It would have been easy for the disciples to wallow in their self-pity after Jesus died - to close themselves off completely, even from each other, but they didn't.  The group huddled together in that upper room.  Cleopas walked to Emmaus with somebody else.  They, at the very least, stayed in community, and so, when Jesus appeared, they weren't stuck with the voices in their head, but were able to corroborate with the person standing next to them.

I pray that the WW shot and killed last night wasn't our WW. I pray that our WW is alive and that someday he'll be able to realize his potential as a beloved child of God. I pray for all of those souls, lost in their own minds, who today find themselves, really, really, stuck.

May 3, 2011


It seems as thought every time I read a well known piece of scripture, I find something I had never seen before.  This morning in our Lectionary Group, TKT noted that Cleopas and the other disciple stop walking in order to talk to Jesus.  They weren't moving very quickly to begin with, heads drooped, discussing the crushing sadness of the weekend, but when the stranger asks them what they are talking about, the stop completely.

They are stuck.

It got me thinking about all the times that I've gotten stuck. Stuck in an ideal. Stuck in an emotion. Stuck in my fear. Stuck with no real desire to get unstuck.  Sometimes, I just want to stop and wallow in my self-pity. Sometimes, my fear keeps me from moving.  Sometimes, I just don't want to get unstuck.

Cleopas and the other disciple seem to be there.  They saw (from a distance) their Rabbi be arrested, condemned, tortured, and killed.  They had come to the life altering realization that their hopes were now dead.  They heard the women say, "he's gone and an angel told us he is alive."  And yet they are still moping their way from Jerusalem to Emmaus. They're leaving town, giving up, moving on.  They are stuck on Saturday, but Sunday has already come.

Lots of things get us hung up.  Hopes dashed, budgets trimmed, taxes raised, life altered.  We get stuck when there isn't enough. We get stuck when the power of evil gets the edge over the light, but if Easter teaches us one thing, it is that light always wins.  In word and sacrament, in the exposition of scripture and the breaking of bread, God's glory is revealed again and again and again, helping us to get unstuck again and again and again.

May 2, 2011

Shalom versus Fear - A sermon on Resurrection and Stewardship

If you'd prefer to listen to this sermon as it was preached at 10am, then follow this link.  Otherwise, continue reading.

Fear is an awfully strong motivator. By that I don't mean that fear is really really strong motivator, but rather that fear is awful and a strong motivator. Fear leads to all sorts of bad decisions. The fear of “I'm going to die alone” leads people into all sorts of doomed relationships. The fear of rejection leads people away from all sorts of wonderful relationships. When fear is our motivator, awful things tend to happen.
Last Sunday we heard the story of Mary Magdalene meeting the risen Jesus. She was instructed to go and tell the rest that Jesus was on his way to meet with his Father and their Father, his God and their God. Mary went and told them, and today we hear the rest of what happened. The disciples were terrified. While last week everyone was doing what a sane person would do, this week, the disciples do what any fearful person would do: they hide. They huddle up in that famous upper room and lock the door for fear of the Jews. Wouldn't you go look for Jesus? Wouldn't you want to see him for yourself? Fear does funny things to us. It makes the illogical, logical. It makes the rational, irrational. It makes the smart do stupid things. And so, out of fear, that first Easter Day was not spent hunting eggs, eating ham, and enjoying family. Instead, the disciples locked the doors and hid.
When I announced on last week that St. Paul's was entering a season of renewal, resurrection, and whole life stewardship, I know that a few of you felt that tinge of fear course through your veins. Maybe you even thought about it as you got ready this morning, “Maybe I won't go this week, I just don't want to hear money talk.” I get it. I'm not stupid. I woke up this morning terrified to preach this sermon. Sex, politics, religion, and money. We just don't talk about these things. But we should. Fear has led us to not talk about the important issues of our lives, and not talking about these things has led us to near crisis situations in all four arenas. On sex, just this week the Washington Post reported that 1 in 4 children in the United States is being raised by a single mother: more than any other industrialized nation. In Politics - While Congress was in recess, they were still back-biting one another over whose fault it is that we got into the current economic mess rather than seeking realistic solutions. In Religion - Mainline denominations continue to shrink while we joke that “evangelism isn't our thing.” And Money - Exxon announced that thanks to higher gas prices, it earned almost eleven billion dollars in just the first quarter of 2011.
When fear motivates us and awful things happen.
Eighteen months ago, I stood in this pulpit and shared with you that Cassie and I give the first 10% of our household income for the work of the Kingdom of God. What I failed to tell you is how hard it was for me to get there. Prior to heading to seminary, I was content to give God everything I had... in my wallet... on the Sunday's I went to church... and wasn't serving at the altar. After Friday night out with friends, and Saturday night out with friends, Sunday morning usually rolled around with maybe a five or a ten dollar bill in my wallet. I faithfully put that in the offering plate... if I was at church... and not vested and at the altar. I was, in my mind, doing all I could. I was afraid to give any more because it would mean not paying the cell phone bill or buying groceries or, more likely, not going out Friday AND Saturday nights with friends. Once I got to seminary and we were writing a twelve-hundred dollar check to the seminary every month, it was easy to call that our gift for the Kingdom, even though, deep down, we both knew that was probably cheating. Still, we were afraid that if we gave any more, there wouldn't be enough for rent or groceries or, more likely, good Indian food. Fear motivated us to keep our wallets and, by extension, our hearts closed to God.
Back in that upper room, as fate would have it, another person managed to make his way in, through the locked doors and drawn windows. Suddenly, standing in their midst was the man at the center of all the controversy, Jesus of Nazareth, their Rabbi and friend. He begins to speak by offering a very traditional Jewish salutation, “Shalom. Peace be with you.” His words, however, aren't just a casual hello, but a call to action. Jesus understands that fear is an awful and powerful motivator. He knows why the group is huddled up with the door locked and he simply says, “no.” No, fear will not motivate my followers. Shalom will be the order of the day. Again he speaks and says, “Shalom. Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” Fear caused them to hide, God's peace propels them out in love, service, compassion, and evangelism.
Poor Thomas wasn't around on Easter evening, and he wants so desperately what the rest of the group got. He wants to hear Jesus' word of comfort and shalom. He wants to receive the Holy Spirit. He wants to touch the holes in his hands and put his hand in his side. He needs that one-on-one encounter with the risen Jesus in order to shake of the fear that still paralyzes him.
And so did I. As seminary came to an end, it became abundantly clear that God had blessed us so richly during our time in Alexandria and by calling us to serve in Foley. We decided that if we were called to be church leaders, then one way we should lead is by giving 10% of our income to the Kingdom of God. After we got settled, we created our budget worksheet and realized that after tithe, taxes, bills, gas, and groceries we would have about zero dollars left each pay check. It would have been easy to put three-hundred dollars back in our monthly budget by not tithing, but that simply was not an option. For too long fear had been our motivator, but after a three-year, intensive, one-on-one encounter with the risen Lord we were able to shake the fear that paralyzed us.
Thomas needed that one-on-one encounter with the risen Jesus, and so did I, and so do we. Over the last three years, St. Paul's has done some amazing things. Things that many people would have thought impossible. You know the list, but I'll name them anyway. We've launched a volunteer ministry at the Elementary School, we began hosting Family Promise, and collecting food for Ecumenical Ministries weekly rather than one month a year. We have a monthly men's dinner, a Saturday night service, a highly successful pig-out fundraiser, a singles group, an ecumenical Vacation Bible School, monthly Bunco nights. We've done mission work in the DR, Katrina ravaged Mississippi, and given support to tornado victims last year, and today, and tomorrow. We have a weekly newsletter, a website, a facebook group, online sermon recordings, and a whole list that I'm forgetting. While the disciples were busy hiding, we've been busy doing, doing, doing. In recent months, however, Keith and I and your vestry have begun to wonder how much of our doing has been to avoid big pink piggy bank in the room: our deficit budget. St. Paul's Parish, like most households in America, has lived paycheck to paycheck for the last three years. When the money ran out before the month did, we relied on the relative ease of band-aids by asking for special gifts. In so doing, we made a mistake. Rather than rely on God's abundance, we allowed darkness and fear to convince us that resources were scarce. We sought “blood from a turnip” rather than the Spirit of God. We went back to the same well over and over again instead of drinking from the unending water of life.
As you leave church this morning, you will receive a letter and a worksheet. The letter is going to look a lot like what I've just described: going to the same old well, digging deeper, and asking for more. On behalf of Keith and the Vestry, I'll ask you to look at this letter differently. While, of course, we will ask you to considering increasing your gift, what we hope you'll prayerfully discern is where your gift is coming from. There was a time when I gave God what was left over, but now, thanks to proportional giving, Cassie and I give God the first fruits. Our tithe is the first thing in our budget, and all other decisions are based on that non-negotiable number. It was a change in priorities: a change in worldview. A move from fear to faith, and one that has impacted every area of our life.
But even that letter, as much of a change in worldview it is for us, is useless if it is all about money. If we are seeking only the cash flow to keep the staff paid, the lights lit, and the doors open, then we've forgotten why we exist in the first place. We are a ministering community... for the glory of Jesus Christ, and so today we come before God and ask him to turn on the faucet: to pour out his Spirit so that we might be overflowing: to forgive us for our lack of faith and to allow us, once again, that one-on-one encounter with the Risen Jesus. We pray, as today's Collect says, “that we might show forth in our lives what we profess by our faith.” We cry out to God and say, “help us to walk the walk! Not just with our money, but with our whole lives. Bring to our lips the praises of King David “Yours, O Lord, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty; for all that is in the heavens and on the earth is yours; yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all. Riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might; and it is in your hand to make great and to give strength to all. And now, our God, we give thanks to you and praise your glorious name... For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you.”
Fear is an awfully strong motivator. It causes us to do wildly irresponsible things. It is the root cause of most of our sin. In the resurrection, God freely, I repeat freely, without any cost or strings attached, offers us his shalom, his peace. During these 50 days, reflect on that peace, seek after it, spend time in honest one-on-one encounters with the risen Jesus, and I'm convinced that you will find that peace is just the the first-fruit, the foretaste of the amazing blessings God longs to pour out upon you if you will only say no to fear and receive his peace. Amen.

God does not desire the death of the wicked...

... but rather that they turn from their sin and live.
(para of Ezekiel 18:23 and from the Ash Wednesday Liturgy in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer 1979)

On the weekend after 9/11, I found myself at my usual hangout in the basement of the Travelodge listening to bad Karaoke with my friends after work.  I remember vividly the Karaoke Jockey standing on the stage railing against Osama bin Laden with shockingly violent language involving hot oil and defecation.  Even as a 21 year-old who spent too much time at the bar and not enough time at church, I remember feeling queasy about the vitriol directed toward one human being, but in many ways understanding the anger that lie at the root.

My life has changed a lot in the nearly 10 since. I'm now a husband, a father, a master's educated theologian, and a priest.  My priorities have shifted since the days when the 'lodge put Miller Lite on tap just for me and my buddies, but today, as our nation comes to grips with the reality that OBL was killed by an American bullet, I once again find myself not sure how to feel.

I give thanks to God this morning that a seed of great evil has been destroyed, but I mourn with God that one of his children, as depraved as he may have been, has died.

My Father-in-law and I had a conversation many years ago about the men who hijacked the four jets in 9/11. He, coming from a strong Presbyterian background and me an Episcopalian.  My argument was that up until the moment those jets crashed, the hijackers still had a chance to find Jesus, repent, and be saved. His understanding was that their depravity was too deep: they could never be restored. Ultimately, since they followed through with their plans, he was right, but I can't help but shake the fact that God created human kind in his image.

Our depravity is never so deep that God can't set us free, but it is often too deep for us to look up and see the light.  OBL could never see the light, and that grieves God.  He was killed by violence, and I think that too grieves God.

As I look within myself at the vast array of emotions I feel this morning: gladness, sadness, relief, worry, excitement, anxiety, and many others, I'm drawn to the words of the prophet Ezekiel. In the eighteenth chapter of his book, while he deals with all types of sin, he writes to the people of Israel (and to me and to you):

21Suppose wicked people stop sinning and start obeying my laws and doing right. They won't be put to death. 22All their sins will be forgiven, and they will live because they did right. 23I, the LORD God, don't like to see wicked people die. I enjoy seeing them turn from their sins and live.
    24But when good people start sinning and doing disgusting things, will they live? No! All their good deeds will be forgotten, and they will be put to death because of their sins.
    25You people of Israel accuse me of being unfair! But listen--I'm not unfair; you are! 26If good people start doing evil, they must be put to death, because they have sinned. 27And if wicked people start doing right, they will save themselves from punishment. 28They will think about what they've done and stop sinning, and so they won't be put to death. 29But you still say that I am unfair. You are the ones who have done wrong and are unfair! (Ez 18.21-29 CEV)

I pray this day that I don't fall into evil as I react to the death of one who did. I pray this day that I don't fall ito evil as I react to the ways in which others react to OBL's death. Be they causticly overjoyed, smugly self-righteous, or anything in between.  May God have mercy on my soul.