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HERO OF THE MONTH -- "I know your heart is with the poor and broken of this world. But here's the question: where are your feet? CHRISSY MULREADY, SSJ

Take heart. God lives. Do not be afraid.

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Sermon given at Good Shepherd, West Springfield on August 8, 2014

Text: Matthew 14:22-33

In this compelling story, Matthew uses the word “immediately” three times in just twelve verses. “Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat…”  When the disciples cried out in fear “immediately Jesus spoke to them…” When Peter starts to sink, “Jesus immediately reached out his hand…” We are tempted to say “Matthew, with all due respect, get yourself a thesaurus.” But Matthew is a brilliant writer and he has a reason for all those “immediatelys.” With them and with Peter’s question: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water,” Matthew is telling us who Jesus is and who we are called to be as followers of Jesus.

The significance of the first “immediately.” Remember what has happened to Jesus before this story. His beloved cousin John is executed by Herod. Jesus goes away to a deserted place to mourn. But 5000 people follow him there and because of his great compassion, he spends the day healing and feeding them. The grieving of Jesus is interrupted. But he needs to mourn and mourning is hard work. When Jesus dismisses the crowds he immediately goes up the mountain to do this necessary and difficult remembering and soul-searching. He can’t wait any longer.

He goes not only to mourn, but to pray. Here is one reason why prayer was vitally important to Jesus and to us as his followers. I’ll get there by way of a basketball story. (Don’t you think God showed God’s sense of humor by calling me to a diocese where the Basketball Hall of Fame is mere blocks away from my office?) One evening many years ago back at our home/church in Millbrook New York, our daughter Caragh was taking her daily 200 foul shots at our basketball hoop in the parking lot. It was getting dark and it was starting to rain but Caragh kept on shooting. Betsy said “why is she still out there in the dark and the rain, taking the same shot over and over again?” I knew the answer to that question. “She is developing her muscle memory. She keeps repeating the same shot because if there is two minutes left in a close game, and she is exhausted, and the crowd is going wild, she needs her muscle memory to take over and sink those shots.”

Jesus goes to the mountain to pray to develop his “soul memory.” John has suffered an unjust death. Jesus knows his fate will be similar. He prays in the quiet of the mountain so his soul memory will take over in the midst of the chaos of his last days. And that is one reason why we gather in this church, week after week, and experience the God who loves us no matter what, the God who has embraced our lives and will not let go. We do this over and over and over again, because when the road gets tough, as it always will, we will have a soul memory to draw upon. When life is hard, we will have a memory of prayers, psalms, and images to give us courage and hope.

The second “immediately.” Jesus walks toward the disciples on the water. They are terrified because they think it is a ghost. “Immediately Jesus spoke to them and said ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid’.” Some biblical scholars say this is not the most accurate translation. Instead of “it is I”, Matthew wrote “I am.” “Take heart. I am. Do not be afraid.”

This is important because “I am” is God’s definition of God’s self in the Hebrew Scriptures. “I Am Who Am” God said to Moses. Now as a definition this seems pretty disappointing. Moses and you and I might be hoping for more. “I Am Who Am.” Actually, it says everything about God. It means God is being itself. All that is, is in God. God is not separate from us. God is and we live in God. As today’s collect says “we cannot exist without you.” Therefore, because God lives we live. And always will. That is why there is Eternal Life – because God lives.

Jesus is clearly identifying his life as God’s life. Because of that we are called to “take heart” and stop letting fear rule our lives. After all, God is here – how can we be afraid? That is going to be demonstrated in Peter’s question to Jesus.

“Lord, if it is you…” What comes next tells us who Jesus is and what it means to be a follower of Jesus. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Notice, Peter did not say “Lord, if it is you, tell me to stay here in the boat, where everything is safe.” If he said that, it would not be Jesus because Jesus is the one who invites us to New Life, not clinging to the old life. And Peter did not say, “Lord, if it is you, tell me to admire what you are doing, out there walking on the water.” Peter did not ask that because that would not be Jesus. Jesus is not looking for admirers. Jesus invites us to do what he does.

M. Scott Peck, the renowned author of one of the most popular books of all time, The Road Less Traveled, spoke about being at a conference with 400 Christian psychiatrists – counselors who spoke about faith with their clients. Peck read the story of the time Jesus was teaching and the house was so filled with people that no one else could get in. Four friends of a paralyzed man desperately wanted Jesus to heal him. They climbed up on the roof and lowered the paralyzed man on a cot in front of Jesus. Jesus healed him.

Peck asked the crowd of counselors to think about who they were in the story. Did they identify with the paralyzed man? Or his four friends willing to do anything to get him help? Or Jesus? By a show of hands, many identified with the paralyzed man. Many identified with his friends. No one identified with Jesus.

Now that might be out of humility, but these counselors were in the business of healing. Don’t you think someone would say “I am called to heal as Jesus healed.” Peter knew that. Lord do what you always do. Call me out of my safety zone and call me to do what you do.

The last “immediately.” Peter gets out of the boat and starts to walk on water. When he notices the strong wind, he becomes scared and starts to sink. (Think back to the “muscle memory/soul memory” story from a few minutes ago.) As Peter starts to go under, “Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him.”

Of course Jesus reached out immediately to save a person going under. And if it is the Lord, he is asking us to do the same. Who in your life is starting to sink? Who are you called to reach out and catch? Let’s all think about that. Let’s expand the image. Due to climate change, our earth is going under. The time to do something about it is “immediately.” 30,000 people in the United States are dying due to gun violence, and another 100,000 are injured. Those who follow Jesus need to reach out “immediately.” One in five children in our country is sinking into a life of poverty and food insecurity. Children are drowning in a sea of poverty and violence in Central America. Jesus reaches out “immediately.” When should we act?

Barbara Brown Taylor, the powerful Episcopal preacher who was on the cover of TIME magazine a few months ago, says this “It is time to reject a ‘put-off’ life and lead a ‘caught-up life.’ Get ready for the Jesus who is continually coming into the world by living today. Write that letter, reconcile that relationship, get the help you need and do it now. Refuse to keep living yesterday over and over and over again. Today is the day to be generous. Today is the day to be a new creation.”

I will end this sermon with an invitation. I invite any who wish to, to come forward and I will anoint your head with oil and say these words: “Take heart. God lives. Do not be afraid.” That is the truth. And I will do it immediately. Amen.

+Doug

 

US Refugee Crisis: From a Parent’s Perspective

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“I contain multitudes” Walt Whitman famously said. For me, I am a follower of Jesus, a husband, a parent, a son, a brother, an uncle, a bishop (although Betsy has declared our home a bishop-free zone), an American, and a fan of a certain baseball team and the E-Street Band.

When I consider the refugee crisis going on in Texas right now – an estimated 52,000 children being detained- I do it through the lens of a parent. And I believe I’m on sound theological footing when I do that because Jesus consistently addressed God as his parent and our parent. So it is a good lens to use.

Tom Callard, our Missioner for Hispanic Ministry, recently urged us all the read an article called God Doesn’t Live Here Anymore: A Year in the Murder Capital of the World. It is about life in Honduras and can be found here. It is one of many stories coming out of Central America describing the horror of gang violence and dire poverty. As a parent, I would move heaven and earth to get my children to safety. Wouldn’t we all?

Let me use another lens – that of an American. I recently had a brief exchange with Archbishop Desmond Tutu – we are Facebook “friends.” I think he has 125,000 Facebook friends but he actually replied to my request for prayers for the children detained at our border. He readily agreed to pray and added that there are dire refugee situations around the world. Under international law, the host countries must take them in. According to “Arch”, if the United States does not take in these refugees (and they should be designated refugees because they are fleeing violence), what message will we send to the rest of the world? As a citizen in a country that wants to be a beacon of freedom and peace in the world, it is clear to me what we need to do.

Two weeks ago, Governor Deval Patrick gave a passionate speech saying he was looking for ways to host these immigrant children in our Commonwealth. He said, “My inclination is to remember what happened when a ship of Jewish children tried to come to the United States in 1939 and the United States turned them away, and many of them went to their deaths in Nazi concentration camps. I think we are a bigger- hearted people than that as Americans, and certainly as residents of Massachusetts.”

My hope is that we have the opportunity to host these children in our Commonwealth and in our Diocese. I hope that as a parent, as an American and as a follower of the one who said “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it. How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.”

+Doug

Pray and get into the game…

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A couple of weeks ago Betsy and I had the enjoyable experience of watching the World Cup final in a pub in Ireland with rabid soccer fans. It led me to remember our oldest daughter’s first soccer game. (Don’t worry. This is leading somewhere.)

When Caragh was very little, we would kick a soccer ball back and forth to one another. When we signed her up for the league for five year olds, she loved it. The practices again had children lining up opposite one another and kicking the ball back and forth. But now there were drills too, like spreading out across the field and kicking the ball from one player to another down the field until the one closest to the goal would shoot. But no one played defense.

Now the day of the first game arrived. All the players went to their positions. Then the whistle blew and almost everyone (certainly all the boys in this co-ed league) converged on the ball, all trying to kick it in a jumble of bodies. This was not what Caragh was expecting. She came off the field, walked right up to Betsy and me, and with her hands on her hips she said, “Children are kicking out there. Someone could get hurt. And that someone could be ME. Do something about this!” (Caragh later become a fierce competitor and an outstanding basketball player known for playing with reckless abandon.)

Ok, now for the point. It is so important that we pray for God’s creation, for the poor, for refugees, for peace in a violent world. It is vital that we pray often (“always” recommends Jesus) and fervently. Prayer shapes who we are. But sometimes that can feel like gently kicking the ball back and forth in the safety of our own backyard. People of faith also need to act – to get out and get into the game. Jesus got into a “game” in which someone could get hurt and that someone was him. He gave his life for the life of the world – he took on the emptiness of death and filled it with life. He took on the cruelty of the world and offered a new possibility of compassion – a possibility that could not be killed because the Holy Spirit would not let it.

Earlier this summer, the Social Justice Commission of our diocese put out a study document titled “Not Only With Our Lips, But In Our Lives: The Church and Social Justice”. It can be found here. I invite you to read it. It is a foundational document as to why we must engage the issues of our time.

And I invite you to consider these opportunities for action, among many, to witness to God’s saving mission in this world. On Sunday September 21 there will be the People’s Climate March in New York City. This will be a hugely significant, history-making event. Join with our Missioner for Creation Care, Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, and march behind a diocesan banner that reads: “Love God, Love your neighbor: Stop Climate Change.” Details can be found here.

As you know, casinos are on the ballot in Massachusetts in November. There will be a lot of discussion (and kicking) about this for the next three months. Our document A Theology of Casino Gambling has been used in dioceses throughout the country. You can find it here. Jesus came to bring good news to the poor. Casinos are bad news for the poor. We follow Jesus.

Activists and church leaders are gathering to address the issue of violence in the city of Springfield. I will get you more information as it becomes available. Consider joining Episcopalians Against Gun Violence. They have a Facebook page you can visit for more information.

Governor Deval Patrick gave a passionate speech the other day calling for Massachusetts to help in the housing of the refugee children now in Texas. We are involved in a dialogue about this and will get you more information when plans become finalized.

And finally, thank you to everyone “out on the field” – to all who work for Jesus’ mission of mercy, compassion and hope. You are witnesses to the dream God has for this world.

+Doug

Trinity Sunday

Sermon given at St. Andrew’s, Longmeadow on June 15, 2014

What a great blessing it is for me to be at St. Andrew’s on Trinity Sunday and what an honor it is to baptize Derek’s and Jaimie’s baby – the beautiful Mari.

There is an old Episcopal Church in Kentucky that has this listing in its baptismal registry: Willard Jones partially baptized.

Here is what happened. As an adult Willard went to the church and asked to be baptized. Even though it was an Episcopal Church, Willard wanted to be baptized the way other churches did it – full immersion in the river. The priest consented and on the day of the baptism the congregation gathered at the river. It was cold that day and the priest and Willard were both shivering as they stood in the water. The priest dunked Willard once, holding him under the water saying “I baptize you in the name of the Father” and then bringing him back up. Willard is really shaking now. The priest puts him under the water again saying, “and of the Son.” Willard pops up and he is terribly cold now. He runs out of the river saying, “I have had enough!”

Willard Jones, “partially baptized.”

We are not going to immerse Mari but we are going to fully baptize her in the Trinity on this Trinity Sunday because God as Triune is crucial to our faith. Now I am going to ramble on for another ten minutes about this. If you take away anything from this time, let it be this: We speak of God as Trinity because we are always grappling with a God who goes beyond one dimension. We are involved with God who is always more. God is Creator (Father). Yes, but God is more than that. We meet God in Jesus (Son). Yes, but God is more. God is still with us (Spirit). And even then we don’t have the fullness of God. The Trinity is not an explanation of God. It is a description of our experience of God. A good one, the best we could come up with. But even this is inadequate. There is always more to God.

St. Augustine of Hippo

St. Augustine of Hippo

St. Augustine wrote 15 books about the Trinity. 15! And he did that while writing many other books and being the bishop with thousands of people in his care. Now here is my question: when did he have time for golf? Augustine could have written 12 books on the Trinity and it would have been good enough for us. But he was still grappling with the God experience and how to describe it.

Here is the simplest way to understand the Trinity. For a couple of hundred years the church struggled with the more of God. Finally someone had a profound insight while watching a Greek play. When the Greeks performed plays, the actors would wear masks. Often one actor played more than one part, so he would go back stage and come out with a different mask on. The Greek word for “mask” is “persona.” One actor might have several personas. Early church leaders wisely decided this is a good way to describe God. One God, three “personas” (which we inadequately translated as “persons.”) One God coming to us in three ways.

Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton

God is more and God is more than we are. We are not peers with God. Thomas Merton, a great spiritual writer of the last century, wrote “When we deal with God, we are necessarily in over our heads.” God is always more. God must be deep and complex – even more than we are.

Theologian John Shea tells this story. Three people arrived at the door of a spiritual teacher hoping he would take them in as students. He asked all of them the same question: “did you come to me because others sent you or because of yourself?” The first answered he had been sent by others. The spiritual teacher dismissed him. The second answered that he came on his own accord. He was also dismissed. The third stammered that he had heard of the teacher from others and yet he came on his own- partially out of curiosity, partially out of frustration, partially because he was addicted to searching, and probably out of a host of other motives of which he was not aware. The spiritual teacher said, “You’ll do.” The multi-layered mind was accepted.

Yes, we are complicated and multi-dimensional. Of course, God will be – gloriously so. It is true of Jesus. The early church was not satisfied with one gospel. One gospel can’t tell the whole story of Jesus. The genius of the early church was to preserve four different accounts and hold that multiple reality together.

Our description of God as Trinity is not an abstraction. Right there in today’s text from Matthew, the Trinity is connected to mission. The disciples are to go forth and baptize all nations in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Some translate “all nations” as “the ends of the earth.” Actually, scholars of the Greek language tell us the word used here in Greek just means “other.” Go to the other and baptize…

To go to the other, to go to the ends of the earth, means going to specific places to bring the more of God. Here is an example and it comes from the ministry of Michael Curry, the Bishop of North Carolina. Back in the 1980’s he served as a priest in a church in Baltimore. That was the era of the crack epidemic with all the gang warfare that went with it. Baltimore had the highest homicide rate of any city in America and the area where Curry’s church was located had the highest homicide rate in the city.

Bishop Michael Curry

Bishop Michael Curry

The son of one of Curry’s parishioners was killed in a gang warfare drive-by shooting. On the day of the funeral, the congregation gathered was not like the typical Episcopal congregation that prayed together on Sunday. Gang members from throughout the city were entering the church. The ushers came back into the sacristy and said, “Father, these people are not sitting where we tell them to sit.” Michael said “Let them sit wherever they want.”

The church was overflowing. Michael came out and began the service but quickly realized the traditional service was meaning nothing to this crowd. He ditched his prepared sermon and tried another approach. He invited the crowd to shout out the names of all those who had been killed in gang violence. Name after name was shouted out. Then Michael said, “All that killing. You know what? Those people are not heroes. They died because of stupidity and greed. You all want to be The Man. Let me tell you who The Man is!” He went on to talk about Jesus, the Man who used his power for healing. The Man who rejected violence and had tremendous courage. Jesus who showed us that a real man, a real woman, trusts in God. Curry ended the sermon with these words: “I’m going back to that altar to pray and in a few minutes we are going to have an altar call. You are going to come to this altar rail and you are going to kneel down and you are going to open your mouth like a little bird and I am going to pour Jesus into you. And you will never be the same.”

That is bringing the gospel to the ends of the earth. That is bringing the more of God to “the other.”

It might not be so dramatic for you and me. But the mission is still ours. Who is “the other” in your life who needs the transforming power of God? Where are “the ends of the earth” for you? It might be a troubled teenager. Or a person in the nursing home. Or someone at work.

Or maybe it is you. Maybe you feel like you are at the ends of the earth. Maybe you need to remember God’s saving power for you. The saving grace that will never run out because there is always more.

At Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer we say “God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.” Not “God, working once in a while out there, can do a little bit now and again.” No! It is “God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.”

Let’s go baptize Mari into a Church who believes that. Amen.

+Doug