How are you responding to God’s grace?


Sermon for Sunday, October 27th, 2019


Sirach 35:12-17
Psalm 84:1-6
2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18
Luke 18:9-14


“Give to the Most High as he has given to you, and as generously as you can afford.”


I’m willing to bet that this is not the sermon that anyone wants to hear the week after our parish fair and biggest fundraiser. We just spent months collecting donations, moving furniture, advertising, cooking and setting up displays. We spent two days of long hours with some people working in the heat while others worked in the cold. We saw old friends and welcomed new people. We spent money. We raised money. We did pretty well actually, and thanks be to God for it, because we need it. You know it takes a lot to make worship happen here on a weekly basis. It takes a lot to keep the lights and the heat on. Over $5,600 a week. That’s a lot, and I assure you we try and run a pretty slim organization. We are blessed to have a lot of dedicated and talented people that give of their time generously. We are and have been blessed.


But here, the week after the fair, after all that we have done and raised, I am going to stand here and tell you that it’s not enough. It’s not enough y’all. I warned you that this wasn’t going to be a sermon anyone wanted to hear. That’s why I made sure this morning that I was wearing shoes I could run in. But before you start sharpening your pitchforks, hear me out. I know that we’re good Episcopalians, we don’t like to talk about money. Money seems common and profane, and we don’t want to risk worshipping it, so we just avoid talking about it altogether. Money brings up issues with people. It can cause embarrassment and shame if you don’t have it. It can lead to pride and vanity if you do have it. What priest in his right mind wants to talk to his people about money? Best to avoid it and not offend people. Well lucky for you your priest isn’t in his right mind.


Your priest recognizes that there are two big problems with trying to avoid talking about money: the first is Jesus. Jesus actually talks about money quite a lot. It’s all over the gospels. Unless you want to take a pair of scissors to the words of Jesus (something which I don’t advise) then at some point you will have to confront what he has to say about money and our relationship to it.


The other big problem is worship. Now you may think that the worship of God is something that happens within your heart, and Lord knows I hope that is true. I hope that you are worshipping God in your heart in ways that are inexpressible and free, but the outward worship of God is costly. It always has been. Maybe it is supposed to be.


From the beginning of our scriptures worship has been tied to sacrifice. This isn’t just a Judeo-Christian thing though; this cuts across religions. Worshipping God and giving up something of value have always walked hand in hand. We cannot escape that. From the beginning of time worship has meant sacrifice. We give up something we value, because we value God more. We give, because we recognize how much we have been given. That is sacrifice.


Now maybe you are thinking: Great, why don’t we sacrifice this priest? After all he is one of our biggest expenses. That’s true. But the ordained clergy are kind of a necessary evil if you want to have mass and not just a community meeting. The expense of priests has always been a factor in the worship of God, it has been since Old Testament times, that’s not new.


The worship of God has always been costly. It costs money, it costs time. And for many people, it has cost their lives. Many of the saints of the church were martyrs…people who gave their lives to God….and we worry about talking about money?


So here is our dose of truth this morning: we raised about $40,000 at this year’s Friendship Fair and that is terrific and it is a testament to the dedication of this parish, but it is enough to keep this place running for less than 2 months.


The truth is the church does not, and cannot survive, much less thrive on fundraising. No church can. Churches that are thriving and growing, churches that have robust membership and ministries, and they are out there those churches, they aren’t balancing the budget by having bake sales every week. Churches that are thriving and growing are churches where the core membership understands that worship means sacrifice. They are churches where people are committed to giving to God. They are churches where people have such gratitude for what God has given them, that they are willing to joyfully and generously give back. Not to get something from God, not as some sort of bribe, but because of what they have already been given. That takes faith. And people when they visit churches like that can feel and experience that faith, even if they never look at the church budget.


When people come through those doors they can tell if this is a community that is committed to gratefully and thankfully giving back to God. They know. That is what attracts people. Nobody wants to join a church that when you walk in the door people just see a dollar sign or someone to serve on a committee. Nobody wants to be asked to pay for someone else’s faith. That’s not attractive. But you know what is attractive? When you walk into a place and you can tell that the people there have something precious that they are committed to and that they care for and they look at you and say welcome, would you like some too?


Friends we have such a treasure here. We are a blessed church. Our building is beautiful, and we have talented people, but most importantly we have the grace of God. We have our Lord’s presence in his body and blood. We have the story of God’s healing power of forgiveness and we have the hope of eternal life with those we love. Now that is treasure. And I think that when most people walk through those doors, they know that that is a treasure we are committed to caring for and sharing.


Yes, it is true that the fair helps us do that, but I remain convinced that the primary benefit of the fair is not the money it makes (no matter how much we may need it). The primary benefit of the fair is the connections it makes. We get to interact with the community and with each other. Visitors witness our commitment to this place and the worship here, and that speaks volumes. Now next year is not a fair year, for which many of us may be breathing a sigh of relief; however, stay tuned because I am going to be proposing soon a smaller one-day much simpler event for off-fair years. Why? Would a little extra money in off-fair years help with the never ending maintenance issues around here? You bet. But that’s not the primary reason to do it. The best reason is that it gives us another chance, as a community, to show others what this place is all about.


Fundraisers are great. They are necessary. But money from fundraising should never be more than the gravy on any church budget. The meat and potatoes, the substance of the meal comes from us. It comes from understanding that worship means sacrifice. It comes from looking at all that God has given you, and choosing to give back. I mentioned how much it takes to run this place, because you should know it, but it is important to remember that stewardship, sacrifice and tithing is not about paying the bills here. It really isn’t. It is about you recognizing how much God has given you and making the commitment to give back to the best of your ability. That is why the tithe in the bible is a percentage and not a specific amount. It is the benchmark for a level of giving that we are called to honestly strive toward, recognizing that the one who really knows how much we have been given, God, is the one that will ultimately be the judge. And you may wonder why 10%, what is so special about that number? It’s the biblical and traditional standard, but why? Well maybe it is because that is when it starts to hurt. That is when a sacrifice starts to be significant. Don’t believe me? When was the last time you went shopping at a 1% off sale? When have you ever seen a rack at the department store labeled “Big Sale! 2% off!”? Stores know that discounts start to get meaningful at 10%. That is when we recognize that it really means something to us and to them. If they offered us less, we wouldn’t take them seriously, because it wouldn’t be much of a sacrifice to them. 10% is where is starts to hurt. It is a serious commitment, but it should always come from the place of gratitude in our hearts, not pride.


Jesus tells a parable this morning about a Pharisee that was ranking himself in comparison to another man in the temple. And one of the things that he was proud of was how much he gave. He was giving the biblical standard, 10%, but that wasn’t the problem. The problem was his pride. Maybe he thought he was giving more than the tax collector. Maybe he thought that the tax collector was a lesser person because he gave less. Truth is we have no idea how much the tax collector gave, Jesus doesn’t say. But which one of them was really the most grateful for God’s grace? You see it’s not whether we are doing better or worse than the person in the next pew; it’s not whether you toss in a twenty folded just right so the usher can see it, or whether you have to let the plate pass you by because you gave online, or even because maybe you aren’t sure where your next meal is coming from. The question is not “are you doing better than this person or that person, or any other person?” The question is simply, “how are you responding to God’s grace?” How am I responding to God’s grace? That’s it. Maybe you really can’t afford to tithe, God knows that, but is your heart so disposed that you really do want to give God everything you’ve got? God knows that too. That is what stewardship is all about.


Today is NOT stewardship Sunday. I am not asking anyone today to make any financial commitments to the parish for the coming year. What I am asking you today is to think about that tax collector in the temple, the one that is so humbled before God he can’t even look up. What if, on his way home someone stopped him and said “Good news! God heard your prayer. He has forgiven you. He wants you to come home.” What in this world, would mean more to him than that little bit of good news? How might he respond to that news? How might you respond?


What will he find?


Sermon for Sunday, October 20th, 2019


Genesis 32:22-31
Psalm 121
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Luke 18:1-8


Our faith is full of stories that can be a bit odd. Our sacred writings, our scriptures tell tales that are at times bizarre, perplexing. Even for people that devote their lives to scripture, who study its languages and its history, even for professionals, these writings can be a challenge. The great saints of our faith, many of them the most brilliant minds of their time, even they had to struggle with some of these stories.


So when you come across a story like the one we get in Genesis this morning, and you scratch your head wondering what is going on here, you are not alone. Do not be discouraged.


Jacob, is one of the patriarchs of the faith. He is the son of Isaac; the grandson of Abraham. Jacob has been moving around the middle East. Why has he been moving? Family problems.


Now you may think you have family issues, and you might, but Jacob has serious family issues. He is at war with his brother Esau over an inheritance. He has been fighting with his father in law. He has been fighting with his brothers in law. He has two wives, two maids and eleven children. This is not an uncomplicated family. And Jacob is not a paragon of virtue.


This same Jacob, as he is wandering with his dysfunctional family, ends up spending a night alone beside a stream in the desert. And while he is there alone under the stars he encounters this mysterious man, this stranger, and right out of the gate there is a fight. Jacob has to wrestle with this man. Jacob is holding his own, but the man won’t quit, until finally the stranger strikes Jacob right in his hip socket, down to the bone.


Sometime during that struggle though Jacob must have realized that this wasn’t just some man he was wrestling with, because as dawn was breaking Jacob says to the mysterious man: “I will not let go of you until you bless me.” We don’t know why Jacob started wrestling with this character; we don’t know how the fight started, but we know now that the reason Jacob won’t let go; the reason Jacob persists, is because he believes that this man has the power to bless him.


And what blessing does Jacob receive? He gets a new name; a new identity. No longer will he be called Jacob. Now he will be called Israel. And his children will be called the Children of Israel. And his name means one who has striven with God.


Striven. Struggled. Persisted. Fought. Wrestled.


Jacobs identity now is as someone who has struggled with God. And the struggle has changed him. He didn’t instantly become a better person. His family struggles didn’t go away. But he never walked the same way again. Before he had swagger…now he has a limp, and the difference between a swagger and a limp is pride and humility. Jacob, now Israel, has been humbled by struggling with a force far greater than himself.


But more than that, it isn’t just Jacob’s name that has changed. The way that Jacob sees the world has changed. He calls the sight of this mysterious fight Peniel, a name meaning the face of God. Jacob now recognizes that God is not just some generic higher power, but is a force active and alive in the world that he has dealt with face to face, and it happened here. A place becomes sacred because someone saw, and struggled with God there.


Jacob’s blessing, wasn’t instant virtue, easy money, it wasn’t artificial happiness or peace; Jacob’s blessing was a new identity (a new way of looking at himself) and a new way of looking at the world.


Such a short little passage of scripture. Just a few verses that don’t make a whole lot of sense if you take them out of context. It would be so easy just to pass over it, or to look at it for a moment and think “well this doesn’t make sense,” and then just go back to thinking about something else. You wouldn’t be alone. The problem with scripture is that sometimes its wisdom is obvious and its blessings come easy, but sometimes, many times, you really have to struggle with it.


But it is precisely because of that struggle that scripture is so valuable. It is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness because it causes you to struggle with God. The scriptures are an occasion for you to wrestle with your faith and your experiences and with the experiences of others. The scriptures will make you question yourself and your own righteousness; your own abilities. You’ll think you have things figured out; you may think you have found some answers and then some scripture story will come along and say nope, not so easy. You might be wrong there.


And then, after a long night of struggle, you get a glimpse of the face of God, and it was all worth it.


Faith is a struggle. It is supposed to be. If being a Christian comes easy to you, you are probably doing it wrong. If the Christian faith always makes complete sense to you, I hate to tell you, but there is a good chance that you don’t really understand it. Faith is a struggle. Sound doctrine doesn’t always go down easy like a piece of cake and neither does the truth. That’s why people don’t want to hear it. They want you to tell them what they want to hear; make them feel good. But what if, we are not supposed to live on a diet of cake all the time?


You know, a lot of times in life, things that are effortless are also very often worthless. You invest nothing and you get nothing back. We know that is how it works with diet and exercise, so then why do we expect faith to be different? We will persist and strive and struggle with the forces of this world, often all our lives and with minimal benefit, so why is it that when it comes to God, it is so easy to give up?


It is so easy to give up on God and the church. We say a prayer and it isn’t answered the way we wanted or hoped for, so we give up. We join a church and we encounter sinful, difficult people and we quit. We try to read the Bible and find a story that doesn’t make complete sense and we stop reading. We do this in other areas of our life to, but for some reason it is particularly easy when it comes to God.


We are more willing to strive with the forces of this world than we are with God. We will stand in line, we will wait, we will sit, we will listen, we will pay, we will have patience, we will keep trying, we will do all that for material things of minimal benefit to us, we will do it with the unjust forces of this world, but when it comes to God or church, if our desires aren’t met right away…we move on.


When the Son of Man comes, when the Lord returns either in glorious day or under cover of night, will he find faith on earth? Will he find Jacobs that are willing to hold on to him and wrestle with him? Will he find a Moses that is willing to follow and lead? Will he find prophets that can warn and rebuke? Will he find a Sarah or a Mary that can both question and believe at the same time? Will he find people willing to persist and strive with him? Will he find people willing to look past their own imperfections and the mess of their lives? Will God find people that he can rename and reshape and strike to the bone? Will God find people that can then look at the world and see his face in it?


If we find ourselves alone like Jacob under the starry sky and God comes to meet us, what will he find?


The Word in Chains


Sermon for October 13th, 2019


2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c
Psalm 111
2 Timothy 2:8-15
Luke 17:11-19

One of the most amazing things about the Bible for me, is that even if you read it every day, even if you know some of its stories very well, it still reveals new things to you. You reread a story, that you think you know, that you have read many times before, and yet somehow, this time, you notice something that you didn’t notice before.


You know when Paul says that I have been chained but the Word of God is not chained, he’s not kidding. You may think that your imitation leather, red-letter bible can’t mess with you if its just sitting on the shelf on your bookcase, but you’d be wrong. Because the conviction of the church has been the same God that inspired these writers is the same God that created and runs the universe that you’re still living in, so the truth that is speaking in this book is alive in the world, you can’t shut it up just by keeping it on the shelf…so you might as well read it.


You won’t always understand everything, but that’s ok. I don’t understand everything that is happening in the world, but that doesn’t stop me from living in it.


You would think that after thousands of years, we would have figured out this book by now, but we haven’t. It reveals new things to us all the time.


Take the story of Naaman for example. Now it is buried down in the second book of Kings in the Old Testament, but it is a popular story, and I have heard it many times.


Naaman is a powerful leader of a foreign army. He works for the King of Aram, which was a kingdom to the North of Israel, around where Syria is today. Naaman was a powerful leader, but he had a weakness. He had leprosy, a terrible skin disease. His wife tells him that there is a prophetic healer in Israel that might be able to help him. So he asks his king for permission to go and seek help and his king sends him with a letter to the King of Israel. The king of Israel reads the letter from the King of Aram that basically says “This is my general, please heal him of his leprosy” and he is indignant. No one can heal but God. This King of Aram must be trying to pick a fight with me…this is a trap. But Elisha the prophet tells Naaman to bathe seven times in the Jordan river, he reluctantly does so, is healed, and is finally convinced that the God of Israel is THE God. God heals this foreign general and proves his power. God (the God of Israel) has the power to heal. End of story.


Only there is more to this story. There are parts of this story you might have missed, because I did the first several times I read it. Yes, it is the power of God that heals Naaman in the end, but how did Naaman hear about this God? Let’s go back to the story:


Now the Arameans, on one of their raids, had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. A young girl captive who is now a servant. You know, we have a word in English for a captive servant…they’re called slaves. This is an enslaved little girl that had been taken from her homeland and her family and now she is forced to work for the leader of her captors and she is the one who says to Naaman’s wife: I know who can heal your husband.


Let that sink in a minute. Why on earth would this little girl want to do anything to help her captors? You would expect her to be asking God to give Naaman a skin disease, not take one away, but here she is telling the man that enslaved her where he can go to be healed. It’s remarkable. Yes, it is God the heals Naaman, but it was this little girl that first led him to God.


So I went back to the story again and I started to pay attention to all of the servants. You know sometimes we get frustrated by the names in the Bible, names we struggle to pronounce, but you know, sometimes it is the characters without any names at all that are the most important. Most of the servants in this story don’t have names.


The nameless slave girl tells Naaman’s wife where God’s prophet lives.

Elisha the prophet, who is a servant both of God and the King, sends a nameless messenger to the King asking him to send Naaman to him.

When Naaman arrives, Elisha sends another nameless messenger out to meet him and to instruct him to wash in the Jordan.


But Naaman doesn’t want to be greeted by some lowly messenger. Naaman’s salvation and healing should come from on high: the mighty prophet of the mighty God should give him a mighty task to perform. But this guy expects him to listen to some lowly servant, and bath in some dirty little stream.


He storms off, but then who stops him and talks sense into him? His servants.


It is the lowly servants in this story that direct and redirect Naaman to the healing power of God. The two Kings and the mighty general, they look weak and powerless in this story. They look ridiculous.


It is the servants that know where true power lies. The lowly, the humble, the powerless…they are the ones that ultimately lead Naaman to God. They showed mercy and forgiveness and lead a man that for all intents and purposes was their enemy, to God. Naaman needed these nameless servants and messengers more than they needed him. In God’s eyes a dirty little stream can be more important than a mighty river.


When you discover in this Word the wisdom and power of the humble and often nameless voices; when you realize that it is the Samaritains and the servants and the slaves that truly know where God is to be found when he is revealed in this word, then you may be more prepared to listen to those voices when you encounter them alive in the world today. The word of God is alive and powerful, it is not chained, but sometimes its messengers are. The word of God is mighty and powerful, but it constantly reminds us that it is very often the humble and powerless that actually have the faith and the strength to share it.