Monday, June 29, 2009

Pentecost 4 (proper 8) Year B, Sunday June 28, 2009

2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27; Psalm 130; 2 Corinthians 8:7-15; Mark 5:21-43

Preached by Deacon Lynn Anderson

In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer Amen.

Some Sunday mornings as we listen to the readings and the psalm, the common theme is obvious. It is easy to imagine what the designers of the lectionary had in mind. Today is not one of those times. We move from the lamentation over the deaths of Saul and Jonathan to Psalm 130; a disclosure of deep sinfulness and a need for forgiveness. The Epistle is Paul’s teaching on stewardship and the reading from the Gospel of Mark that weaves two completely unrelated miracles of healing stories into one teaching. They just don’t seem to connect with each other or with anything else. As I prayed about this, I kept hearing the familiar: “For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you.”

I realized that while I knew and many times repeated this very familiar part of our liturgy, I had not made it my own truth. Proof to me that the Book of Common Prayer and Holy Scripture are both living documents, they speak to us where we are in our spiritual growth continuum, differently at different times. I began the research and discovered that this familiar sentence is from scripture, 1 Chronicles 29:14. In fact it is part of King David’s farewell address as he turns things over to his son Solomon. The transition is patterned after that of Moses and Joshua, with the words; “be strong and of good courage.” He describes in detail the things have been amassed for the building of the temple. He lists those things he has given of his personal treasures. Then he stops and begins to bless God in front of his entire congregation. This leads to verse 14 in which King David says: “But me – who am I, and who are these my people, that we should presume to be giving something back to you (God)? Everything comes from you; all we are doing is giving back what we’ve been given from your generous hand.”

All things come from God and anything we give back is his anyhow; we are but stewards, called to manage what God gives to us to manage. That includes everything we have, our talents, our time and our treasures. This is a bull’s eye strike on stewardship. That is right where I hoped God was not leading me. Preaching from the work of Paul with his very long and often confusing sentences and preaching about the dreaded stewardship topic are two things most of us try to avoid even thinking much about.

At the same time that God seemed to be calling me to this specific sermon, two other things happened that pushed me to this morning. One was the announcement that Ann Wiggs had bequeathed a generous gift to St. Augustine’s church, giving us all her message about her strong faith and her love for the Lord and for this parish. The other happening was that Sr Ellen Francis recommended a book she wanted me to read, called Remember the Future by Gerald W. Keucher, a colleague of hers from New York. I’ve read it twice, will loan it and hope that many will be interested in hearing what this priest has to say about Financial Leadership and Asset Management for Congregations. Stewardship seems to be one of the directions that God is leading our Interim Priest to emphasize her work with us. Evidently there are many things that God still wants me to learn. Perhaps there are things that God wants us to learn together about Stewardship. So this morning, Paul’s lessons on stewardship from his letter to the Corinthians it is.

I wrestled like Jacob with this very complex passage from the Epistle today for more than one night. I came to this simple understanding of the Stewardship lessons of Paul:

· Paul advises not commands us to be Good Stewards.

· He suggests good stewardship must include desire of the heart.

· Gifts must be the result of a free decision, rather than of any compulsion.

· He assures us that If this is the spirit of the gift, then, the gift is acceptable to God and enough.

So as we think about all of this, we must remember that when Paul wrote there were not buildings to maintain and Priests to pay and Diocesan pledges to make in the early church. Money was collected to do the work Jesus gave to the church, feed the hungry and the poor and take care of the Widows and Orphans. Funding the facility and the maintenance and the programs is very difficult for most church units today. These things are not fun. In our Diocese there are many parishes that cannot afford a full time priest. Perhaps that is the base problem of “21st century stewardship. But I challenge you to notice that most parishes seem to generate a lot of giving in all three areas (time, talent and treasure) for outreach projects. Think about the response to the Angel Tree project where we give so generously and lovingly to the children with incarcerated parents. Each of us can think of a special area that promotes sacrificial and spontaneous giving in us. What does that tell us about ourselves? What can we do with this information? You see we do have the commitment of buildings to maintain and a Priest to pay and a Diocesan pledge to honor.

Can we translate these stewardship lessons from Paul into our world and circumstance today?

Perhaps what God is calling us to do here is to schedule a time for an open honest, searching dialogue within our parish about the importance of sacrificial and spontaneous giving. Should we discuss in an open forum soon what the important principals regarding Christian stewardship are according to the teachings of scripture? Do we believe as individuals and as a parish of believers we are to follow Christ in giving freely with joy and love? Which of the principals concerning Christian stewardship can be applied to our own situation?

One of God’s gifts to me was an involved and wise father whose counsel I often sought. It was just amazing to realize how much he had learned while I was away at college. I often as long as he lived, discussed with him a decision or a challenge I was facing. He would listen and then ask what options for solution I could see. Once I responded, “Dad If I could see the options, I wouldn’t be talking to you about this.” He replied, “Lynn, if you are not part of the solution, then you are part of the problem.” I know that to be truth.

Perhaps reflection on the economic situation in most of our homes and in the country is exactly the time to address these hard questions with God’s help. Maybe we start by exploring whether or not we individually and as a group really believe that “all things come from God and it really is of God’s own that we give back.”


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Pentecost 3 (proper 7), Year B, Sunday June 21, 2009

1 Sam 17:32-49; Psalm 9:9-20; 2 Cor 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41

Preached by The Rev. Ellen Francis, OSH

When I was about 12 years old, my family owned a summer cottage on the Connecticut shore and I had my own 14’ sailboat.  I spent many hours and days sailing that boat, and I was comfortable sailing it in almost any weather conditions.  I even went far out into Long Island sound – farther than I ever admitted to my parents.   

There was only one thing on the ocean that I feared.  We kept this boat in a large cove, and at the mouth of the cove was a reef.   The reef was almost always submerged below the surface, but it was still pretty easy to tell where it was because the water was usually churning and waves were usually breaking just above it.

One time I sailed fairly close to this reef, and I could just make out the jagged rocks, covered with seaweed, just below the surface.  I could imagine the danger that this reef posed: if anyone sailed too close, our small boats could be smashed to pieces and the waves could pummel those on board against the rough edges.  For some reason, I’m not really sure why, I was greatly afraid of this reef. I knew where it was; I knew very well how to avoid it, and yet I was greatly afraid. Logically, I knew that I need not be afraid, and yet I was and my mind continually created disaster scenarios of shipwreck and destruction.

Ancient peoples learned how to navigate the seas and rivers and even oceans, but they also had much fear of the power of the water and storms at sea.  In the story of creation in the Book of Genesis, there is a description of the “formless void” and of the “darkness [that] covered the face of the deep”.   We can imagine that this description of the beginning of creation was influenced by the mysterious and awesome power that ancient people saw in the great seas and strange sea creatures. 

But God created safe space.  In creating the earth and the heavens, God defined the boundaries of the chaos of the “deep”.  The land was separated from the waters, and was held back so that life and order could thrive on earth.  Still, ancient peoples were always just a little afraid that the chaos of the deep could once again overtake the order and safety that God had provided.

In today’s Gospel reading, we hear that Jesus also brought order and quiet to the raging sea.  We can be sure that at least some of the disciples were experienced fishermen and sailors, and knew how to manage their boats in a storm.  Yet they turn to Jesus, saying “Hey, wake up!  Don’t you care that we’re going to sink and drown?”  Jesus does wake up and “rebukes” the wind and commands the sea to be peaceful and still.  Jesus brings order to the wildness of the storm, just as God brought order at the beginning of creation.  No wonder the disciples are filled with awe and say to one another: “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:41)

Today, there are still many things that we fear.  I no longer worry very much about rocks and reefs, but sometimes I’m still afraid in my heart, even when I know I need not be.  And my mind still enjoys creating disaster scenarios of everything that could possibly go wrong.  We know that too much fear and anxiety can be paralyzing and inhibiting.  Fear can drain away the energy we need to move forward.  And yet, still, we are sometimes afraid of all the worst things that could possibly or even improbably happen.  

David surely felt fear in challenging the great Philistine warrior, but he had the experience of God’s faithfulness to him.  God had kept him safe from the lion and the bear, and so David had confidence that God would continue to protect him.  David trusted in God.

That’s not always so easy to do.  We are so often convinced that it is our own power, our own smarts, and our own efforts that will get us through and save us.  Yet the scriptures tell us over and over again that it is only when we strip away the reliance on the modern day equivalents of “sword and spear and javelin” that we can come to face our fears in the Name of the living and almighty God.  And it is an awesome thing indeed to realize that in letting go, we may gain the greatest courage and strength.

Paul wrote that the disciples of Jesus endured all hardships to reach the greatest joy.  He wrote that they were “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything”. (2 Cor 6:12?)

Surrender to God is the intention of a prayer attributed to St. Ignatius of Lyola: Take, O Lord, and receive my entire liberty, my memory, my understanding and my whole will.  All that I am and all that I possess you have given me.
 I surrender it all to you to be disposed of according to your will.
 Give me only your love and your grace.  With these I will be rich enough, and will desire nothing more.

What a brave thing it would be to offer over to God all of our gifts and all of our being, trusting that God will cherish all that we are and give us the love and grace to fulfill His will for us in this life.   We are not promised complete freedom from all fear and anxiety and hardship, but we are promised the grace to carry us through.

Jesus said, “Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?”  Jesus offers another way of being -- beyond fear and anxiety.  The way of Jesus is through faith and prayer and surrender to God.  The way of Jesus is to let go of worry about tomorrow and our favorite disaster scenarios for the future, for the worries of today are more than enough.  The disciples themselves eventually overcame their fear, and they went bravely out into the world to tell the Good News, at great personal risk and sacrifice.

In Vacation Bible School this past week, the children said pledges each day:  God is with me; God guides me; God teaches me; God loves me; God sends me.   What a great reminder to us, as well, that we start with God’s loving presence, guidance, and teaching.  We can face each fear with confidence in the faithfulness and protection of God.  In prayer, we can dare to ask for grace and blessing.  We can have the courage to expect miracles.  We can receive the peace and freedom from fear that will make all things possible.  And because God loves us, as the children learned this week, we will stay close to God.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Trinity Sunday, Year B, Sunday June 7, 2009

Isaiah 6:1-8; Canticle 13; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17
Preached by The Rev. Ellen Francis, OSH

I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe. How can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? (John 3:12)

Indeed, how can we talk about heavenly things? The ancient Hebrews found “heavenly things” so awesome that they avoided saying the name of God at all. In the Hebrew scriptures the name of God is written with four letters YHWH, and in the place of this awesome word they said “Adoni” or “Lord”. The Muslims on the other hand have 99 names for God, including Merciful, Compassionate, King, Holy.

Today we celebrate the Christian name for and experience of God: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This is Trinity Sunday, and on this day we are led to examine some of the deepest questions of the nature of God and our relationship with God.

Even though the Trinity is so central to Christian belief, it isn’t explained in the Bible. There are many passages that talk in some ways about God the Creator, of Jesus Christ the Son of God, and of the Holy Spirit. There are even some precursors to the Trinity in the Old Testament. For example, when Abraham and Sarah receive the prophecy that Sarah will bear a child, we are told that there are three men (or angels) and then that there is only one. Three in one, one in three? Maybe.

The three persons of the Trinity are mentioned at the conclusion of 2 Corinthians when Paul signs off with the words: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” (2 Cor 13:13) Paul names all three but doesn’t explain how we know them, how they relate to each other, or how all three can be one God.

What is very clear is that the earliest Christians experienced God in these three ways. They knew of the creator God, YHWH, whom Jesus called “Father”. They knew of the miracles and the resurrection and the saving grace of Jesus. They knew of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

During the first several centuries of the Church, there was a growing debate about these three ways of knowing God. Did Christians believe in one God or three? This became an increasingly hot topic. One ancient theologian wrote that he couldn’t even go to the bakery without getting drawn into an argument about whether the Father was greater than the Son. People actually came to blows over whether Jesus was more human or more divine. Eventually all this got worked out at the great councils of the Church in the 4th and 5th centuries, and the results have been handed down to us in the Creeds.

The Trinity continues to be at the very center of our faith, and continues to baffle most non-Christians and even many faithful Christians as well. One of the most distinguished Anglican theologians, John Macquarrie, wrote: “We may be completely puzzled to know what is meant by the idea of a God who is one in three and three in one, one substance and three persons.” (Principles of Christian Theology, 190)

So, we may well be standing right alongside Nicodemus, saying “How can these things be?” Part of the problem is in the limitation of language that we have available to talk about God. We can use symbols and metaphors and analogies, but they always fall short of the entire dimension and experience of God. A scientist (a psychopharmaologist, I think) once said something like: If our brains were simple enough for us to understand, we would be too simple to understand them. The words and understanding that we have of the Holy are an incomplete expression of our limited understanding of the great mystery of God. Jesus says, “How can I tell you of heavenly things?” Yes, indeed, how can you, and how can we of little brain understand?

I love the story that we heard today about Nicodemus. He’s so precise and concrete in his thinking. He tries to flatter Jesus a little with the affirmation, “We know you are a teacher in Israel….” But Jesus says, in effect, no, you really don’t know. You will need to learn how to be comfortable with not knowing. You are treading on holy ground, and for you, as for Moses, that is an awesome and unfamiliar place. As you stand on holy ground, you will be blown about by the Spirit of God, you will be born again, from above, and you will be transformed forever.

And so here we are on Trinity Sunday, and we are also standing on this very ancient and perplexing holy ground. The Trinity is a powerful reminder of God’s intimate connection with us and the infinite complexity of our relationship with God. The Trinity reminds us also that within God’s own self there must be intimate and balanced and generous relationship.

The Trinity has become the most accessible to me when I pray aloud with others. Extemporaneous prayer doesn’t come naturally to me, and I’m still learning to say out loud what’s in my heart. It’s an awesome and intimidating thing to do, and it helps me to draw on the traditional and ancient experiences of God as Father, Son, and Spirit.

The most effective (and humbling) way to start a prayer is to go straight to the top, so to speak: “Almighty God…” There’s no one else interceding – we are speaking directly to the source of all that is, and praying to the fullness of God in adoration and worship, in praise and thanksgiving. Once the prayer is started and the line of communication is open, it’s a bit easier to continue.

When I pray for guidance, and the loving presence of God, and the grace of God, I pray to Jesus, the one who knows first-hand all of the joys and sorrows of human existence. When I pray for healing power and relief from pain and anxiety, I pray for the Holy Spirit to support and to give comfort.

In the Trinity, God is in relationship with God’s own self. God is diversity and God is unity. God is distant mystery and God is intimately present. In the Trinity, we may experience all the richness and complexity of God, as the disciples did, as we are sustained by the Spirit, washed by the love of Jesus, and blessed with life from the Creator. How can this be? As with all God’s gifts, the blessings of the love of the Triune God are at the last beyond our comprehension.

Still, in confidence, we may pray that “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit [will] be with” us and remain with us forever.