Archive for March, 2009

Sermon for a Faithful Remnant After a Breakaway Group Departs

March 22, 2009

Our Gospel for this 4th Sunday in Lent is the familiar story of Jesus feeding the multitude. It’s the only miracle story found in all four Gospels which is why we are so familiar with it. Yet I think often we are so preoccupied with the “miracle itself,” with the multiplication of the loaves and fish, that we miss out on so much else that is going on here in addition.


The very first line gives us a clue, but we often skip right over it to get into the story. It begins, “Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand.” (John 6:4). There wouldn’t be much point in John telling us the time of year if it didn’t have something to do with the point of the story.


The Passover was (and is), of course, the freedom meal for the Jewish people, the meal “eaten in haste” before Moses led the Israelites out of their slavery in Egypt. It was the meal eaten every year by devout Jews, and it was the Last Supper eaten with his disciples “on the night Jesus was betrayed” which developed into the Eucharist – the meal you and I partake of each Sunday we can.


But this feeding of the 5,000 was a meal too. And, when John tells us that it took place around Passover time, he is asking us to look back to that original Passover and forward to the Eucharist. Notice in verse 11 that John writes, “Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated.” Basically the same actions Jesus takes at the Last Supper: “…the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said This is my Body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” (I Corinthians 11:23-24). Taking, blessing, breaking, and distributing…the bread.


On both of those occasions, when Jesus is presiding at a meal, his disciples were bound to see him in the role of Moses, the originator of the Passover, and also in the role of the Messiah. Because there was tradition which said that, when the Messiah came, he too would preside over a festive banquet, hearkening back to the Passover, at which all the people would be fed. One such account is in the 25th chapter of the Prophet Isaiah:


 “On this mountain, the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of fat things, a feast of wine on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wine on the lees well refined. And he will destroy on this mountain the covering that is cast over all the peoples, the veil spread over all nations. He will swallow up death for ever, and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces…” 


The people were bound to see Jesus in that role as he multiplied the loaves and the fish. That’s why they tried to “take him by force and make him become king.”


So here have three sacred meals – the Passover, the Feeding of the 5,000, and the Last Supper. And all three have something to teach us. The Passover teaches us that God wants us to be free…The Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish teach us that God can bring abundance out of scarcity…And the Eucharist teaches us that God has fulfilled Jesus’ promise to be with us to the end of the ages!


As we set about the task of re-building St. Paul’s Church here in Durant, all three of those things are important. First of all, it’s important to know that we are free in Christ! We are free to look at new possibilities and new strategies.  Free to open ourselves to new possibilities we may never have thought of before. God is not interested in us being weighed down and hamstrung by anger or bitterness or resentment or by anxiety about the future for that matter. If God can bring slaves out of Egypt, provide them with manna in the desert and plant them in their own Promised Land, God can surely rebuild this church.


And God is also able to bring abundance out of scarcity. If our Lord Jesus Christ could cause 5,000 people to be fed with five loaves and two fish, then he can surely multiply our resources and bring abundant life out of what appears at the present time to be a scarcity of resources. God is in the “new beginnings business” and we need to hang on to the promise given in today’s Epistle: The author writes “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ…For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:4 ff)


And finally we need to be confident that Christ has not deserted us and he never will!

At the end of Matthew’s Gospel he promised to be with us “to the close of the age.” And one of the signs of that presence is the Eucharist we celebrate at this Altar. As a matter of fact, whenever “two or three are gathered in his name” he has promised to be with us.

How much more so when those two or three break the Bread and share the Cup of the Lord in this “memorial (meal) he has commanded us to make?”  


The God you and I serve has set us free to serve him “in perfect freedom.” He has promised us abundant life and blessing if we are faithful. And, in this Eucharist, he assures us of his continual presence until the end of the ages. Let me close with a prayer I would like to suggest each one of you pray daily in the weeks and months to come. It’s found at the bottom of page 817 in the Prayer Book.


Let’s stand and pray together for this Parish and for your life together: “Almighty and ever living God, ruler of all things in heaven and earth, hear our prayers for this parish family. Strengthen the faithful, arouse the careless, and restore the penitent. Grant us all things necessary for our common life, and bring us all to be of one heart and mind within your holy Church; through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Amen.
























Lent and The Economy

March 19, 2009

A Pastoral Letter from the Bishops of the Episcopal Church meeting in Hendersonville, North Carolina, March 13-18, 2009 to the Church and our partners in mission throughout the world.
I have learned to be content with whatever I have.  I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty.  In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.  I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

–Philippians 4:11b – 13

As the House of Bishops gather at the Kanuga Camp and Conference Center for our annual Spring Retreat, we are mindful of the worsening financial crisis around us. We recognize there are no easy solutions for the problems we now face. In the United States there is a 30% reduction of overall wealth, a 26% reduction in home values and a budget deficit of unprecedented proportions. Unemployment currently hovers at over 8% and is estimated to top 10% by the end of the year. There are over 8 million homes in America that are in foreclosure. Consumer confidence is at a 50-year low.

Unparalleled corporate greed and irresponsibility, predatory lending practices, and rampant consumerism have amplified domestic and global economic injustice. The global impact is difficult to calculate, except that the poor will become poorer and our commitment to continue our work toward achieving the Millennium Development Goals by 2015 is at great risk. A specter of fear creeps not only across the United States, but also across the world, sometimes causing us as a people to ignore the Gospel imperative of self-sacrifice and generosity, as we scramble for self-preservation in a culture of scarcity.

The crisis is both economic and environmental. The drought that grips Texas, parts of the American South, California, Africa and Australia, the force of hurricanes that have wreaked so much havoc in the Caribbean, Central America and the Gulf Coast, the ice storm in Kentucky—these and other natural disasters related to climate change—result in massive joblessness, driving agricultural production costs up, and worsening global hunger. The wars nations wage over diminishing natural resources kill and debilitate not only those who fight in them, but also civilians, weakening families, and destroying the land. We as a people have failed to see this connection, compartmentalizing concerns so as to minimize them and continue to live without regard to the care of God’s creation and the stewardship of the earth’s resources that usher in a more just and peaceful world.

In this season of Lent, God calls us to repentance. We have too often been preoccupied as a Church with internal affairs and a narrow focus that has absorbed both our energy and interest and that of our Communion – to the exclusion of concern for the crisis of suffering both at home and abroad. We have often failed to speak a compelling word of commitment to economic justice. We have often failed to speak truth to power, to name the greed and consumerism that has pervaded our culture, and we have too often allowed the culture to define us instead of being formed by Gospel values.

While our commitment to the eradication of extreme poverty through the eight Millennium Development Goals moves us toward the standard of Christ’s teaching, we have nevertheless often fallen short of the transformation to which Christ calls us in our own lives in order to live more fully into the Gospel paradigm of God’s abundance for all.

Everyone is affected by the shrinking of the global economy. For some, this is a time of great loss—loss of employment, of homes, of a way of life. And for the most vulnerable, this “downturn” represents an emergency of catastrophic proportions. Like the Prodigal who comes to his senses and returns home, we as the people of God seek a new life. We recognize in this crisis an invitation into a deeper simplicity, a tightening of the belt, an expanded Lenten fast, and a broader generosity. God’s abundant mercy and forgiveness meet and embrace us, waiting to empower us through the Holy Spirit to face the coming days.

In a time of anxiety and fear the Holy Spirit invites us to hope. Anxiety, when voiced in community can be heard, blessed and transformed into energy and hope, but if ignored, swallowed or hidden, fear and anxiety can be corrosive and lead to despair. We Christians claim that joy and hope emerge for those who have the courage to endure suffering. In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul goes so far as to boast of his suffering, because “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” Our current crisis presents us with opportunities to learn from our brothers and sisters of faith in other parts of the world who have long been bearers of hope in the midst of even greater economic calamity.

We can also learn from our spiritual ancestors, who found themselves in an economic and existential crisis that endured for forty years – on their journey from Egypt to Israel. While they groaned in Egypt, they murmured at Sinai – at least at first. And then after their groaning, complaining and reverting to old comforts of idol worship, they were given Grace to learn and understand what the Lord wanted to teach them.

They learned that they needed the wilderness in order to recover their nerve and put their full trust in God–and to discover their God-given uniqueness, which had been rubbed away during their captivity in Egypt. They adopted some basic rules that enabled them to live in a community of free people rather than as captives or slaves – the God-given Ten Commandments. And perhaps most importantly, our spiritual ancestors discovered that the wilderness is a unique place of God’s abundance and miracle, where water gushed out of a rock and manna appeared on the desert floor – food and drink miraculously provided by God.
As we go through our own wilderness, these spiritual ancestors also point the way to a deep and abiding hope. We can rediscover our uniqueness – which emerges from the conviction that our wealth is determined by what we give rather than what we own. We can re-discover manna – God’s extraordinary expression of abundance. Week by week, in congregations and communities around the world, our common manna is placed before us in the Eucharist. Ordinary gifts of bread and wine are placed on the altar, and become for us the Body and Blood of Christ, which, when we receive them, draw us ever more deeply into the Paschal mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection.
As our risen Lord broke through the isolation of the disciples huddled in fear for their lives following his suffering and death, so too are we, the Body of Christ, called to break through the loneliness and anxiety of this time, drawing people from their fears and isolation into the comforting embrace of God’s gathered community of hope. As disciples of the risen Christ we are given gifts for showing forth God’s gracious generosity and for finding blessing and abundance in what is hard and difficult. In this time the Holy Spirit is moving among us, sharing with us the vision of what is real and valued in God’s world. In a time such as this, Christ draws us deeper into our faith revealing to us that generosity breaks through distrust, paralysis and misinformation. Like our risen Lord, we, as his disciples are called to listen to the world’s pain and offer comfort and peace.
As we continue our Lenten journey together we place our hearts in the power of the Trinity. The God who created us is creating still and will not abandon us. The Incarnate Word, our Savior Jesus Christ, who in suffering, dying and rising for our sake, stands in solidarity with us, has promised to be with us to the end of the age.  God the Holy Spirit, the very breath of God for us and in us, is our comforter, companion, inspiration and guide. In this is our hope, our joy and our peace.

Prophets, Scribes, and “The Big Sort”

March 14, 2009

We are in the middle of a fascinating series of lectures and discussions with Bill Bishop, a journalist, and Walter Brueggemann, the Old Testament scholar, on pluralism and unity in world and church as we meet as a House of Bishops here at the Kanuga Conference Center in North Carolina.

Mr. Bishop has written widely on the “sorting” Americans are doing by retreating not just into “red” and “blue” states but in local communities. Withdrawing from any engagement with those who may be different, but “ghetto-izing” ourselves into neighborhoods (and churches!) of like-minded people. This has a tendency to reinforce our own prejudices and lead us deeper into extremism on all sides. It makes conversation and community extremely difficult.

Dr. Brueggemann is challenging us to see the Bible, not as some kind of seamless document of universal Truth, but as a conversation itself between different narratives. The Hebrew Bible itself, he maintains, is such a conversation between (among others) the “Priestly” and “Deuteronomic” traditions — between “purity” and “prophecy.”

His point is that neither tradition “won out” because both are true and need each other. Similarly, in the church today “conservatives” (who emphasize purity) and “liberals” (who emphasize prophecy) desparately need each other and cannot afford to allow this cultural “ghetto-ization” to separate us from one another and so lose “the rest of the story.” (To quote the late Paul Harvey!).

He thinks that, at least within the church today, we need fewer “prophets” of the kind which arose in Israel in  and around the Babylonian captivity. Instead, he believes, we need more “scribes” who are able to go back to the Tradition, bringing out “what is old and what is new.” This scribal approach flourished more in the Persian period in Israel and required a subtle combination of “accommodation and resistence” to the Empire under which they found themselves.

If we are to be a truly “prophetic church” against the Empire of our day — consumerism, militarism, etc. — we cannot afford to be lobbing “prophetic grenades” against one another in the church. We need instead to keep the conversation going between the “priests and the prophets,” the “Puritans” and the “Revisionists”, the “conservatives” and the “liberals”

Because none of us has a corner on the Truth. The wheat and the tares must be allowed to grow together. Because “The Big Sort” is yet to come!

And only God can do that.

Spring Training

March 8, 2009


Even with the winter we have been having in Iowa this year, there are really only two things I miss about my growing-up-years in the State of Florida. One is easy access to beaches and the ocean. I grew up living close to the water – the ocean or lakes or rivers – and I have missed that, although it’s wonderful now to be able to see the great Mississippi River every day!


The second thing I miss about Florida is… Spring Training! I have to confess to being something of a baseball nut (and Susanne, fortunately, shares that flaw with me) and I spent many happy hours as a youngster and adult, watching the Twins work out in Orlando, the Red Sox in Lakeland, the Yankees in Ft. Lauderdale, and the Astros, for a while, in Cocoa where my last parish was.


I rarely missed catching at least a few games during Spring Training each season, even if it meant taking an afternoon off or, when my kids were small, even taking them out of school for the day so that we could enjoy those times together. One of the minor inconveniences that I experienced during some of those Spring Training seasons was to forego the cold beer I really wanted with my ball park hot dog because I would often give up alcohol for Lent which invariably coincided with Spring Training.


And that led me to the realization, one day, that Lent is really “spring training” for the Christian! During these “lengthening days” of late Winter and early Spring (which is where the word “Lent” comes from) you and I are given the opportunity to practice. To practice dying! And to practice living! All three of our Lessons from Holy Scripture this morning have to do with this kind of “practicing.”


Abraham and Sarah practicing obedience to God, even having their names changed to symbolize their new identities as the forebears of an entire nation. St. Paul, in Romans, recounting Abraham’s story but also beginning to “practice” what it meant for Abraham’s faith “to be reckoned to him as righteousness.” (This becomes the key text for Paul’s understanding of what it means to be justified by faith, not works). And, in the Gospel, Peter is learning the hard lesson of what it means to “deny himself, to take up his cross and follow Jesus” even when he had to bear the brunt of Jesus’ frustration with him!


I wonder how your practice is going. How your “spring training” is going so far. Have you begun to work out? Using the various exercises suggested to you on Ash Wednesday — self examination…repentance…prayer…fasting…self-denial…reading and meditating on God’s holy Word?  Those things aren’t nearly as tough as the practicing Abraham and Sarah, Paul and Peter were about in our Readings today. But I wonder if you know how to “do” those exercises.


Self examination simply means spending some time looking over your life and seeing how you’re doing.  You can use the Ten Commandments or the Baptismal Covenant found in the baptismal section of our Prayer Book against which to measure yourself. 


Do you believe and trust in God? Do you come to the Eucharist every week? Do you confess your sins to God when you mess up? Do you share your faith with others?  Do you love your neighbor as yourself? Do you work for justice and peace in this community and in the world? Do you respect the dignity of, not just some, but every human being? If your batting average is not too great in these areas, Lent is a time to work on it.


Repentance means more than simply saying you’re sorry.  It has to do with trying to live differently…with going in a new direction, like a recovering alcoholic does in the Twelve Step Program.  In what area or areas of your life do you need to take off in a new direction in response to God?  Lent is a time to do that. 


Prayer is simply talking to God…and learning to listen.  Spend some time each day talking with your Creator.  And then spend at least a few minutes in silence in case a Word comes back!


Fasting means doing without, or cutting back on the amount of, food we eat. Most of us need to do that, for our physical health if nothing else.  But there’s a spiritual benefit as well.  Going a little bit hungry reminds us that most of the world goes to bed hungry every night.  And the reason for that is that we eat – and waste – far too much. We can fast in order to give!


Self-denial is, of course, similar. But it may not have to do with food.  It’s important, spiritually, to be able to say “no” to yourself.  I am absolutely convinced that saying “no” to myself in simple things over many, many Lenten seasons helped me to say “no” to myself in some larger things, later in life, which could have resulted in great pain for me…and for other people.


Finally, we are bidden by the Church to read and meditate on God’s holy Word. That’s a fancy way of saying, “Read your Bible!” Buy yourself an inexpensive, paperback edition of the Bible in a good, modern translation that you can understand…and open it up!

Start with the Gospel of Mark…the shortest one! And then go to the Acts of the Apostles…browse through the Psalms. And then go wherever the Spirit leads, but learn the stories of your faith.


The Bible is not just a rule book. It’s a library of books which works more like the family album. Just browsing through it teaches you something about your family history! 


Well, I hope you’ll do some work during this “spring training season.” Because you’re practicing for something a whole lot more important than a season of baseball.


You’re practicing for dying.  And you’re practicing for living. Dying as a Christian… living as a Christian. And the stakes are pretty high!