Sunday, July 31, 2011

Feeding of the Multitudes homily

A homily offered at St. James Episcopal Church on the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost. July 31, 2011. Matthew 14:13-21

In the section of the New Testament in 1st Timothy that deals with ordination to Holy Orders there is a verse (1 Tim. 5:22) that says “Do not ordain anyone hastily.” Now I know the Anglican approach to Scripture has taken some heat from our brothers and sisters in other traditions, but let me tell you, if there is any verse in the Bible that the Episcopal Church interprets very literally, it is “Do not ordain anyone hastily.”

One of my fellow deacons who was in the School for Deacons with me had actually been in the process for ten years. She used to joke that she was afraid she was going to reach the mandatory retirement age before she ever reached ordination.

If I learned anything during that whole process it was that in the Episcopal Church the path to Holy Orders is a marathon, not a sprint. In our own diocese before one is ordained there is a very lengthy process of discernment and formation that takes place. If you discern a call to the priesthood then hopefully you will eventually be given the Bishop’s blessing to go off to seminary for a few years to prepare for ordination. If you discern a call to the diaconate then hopefully you will eventually be granted the Bishop’s blessing to enter the diaconal formation school for a few years to prepare for ordination. Until that time, people in both tracks----future priests and future deacons undergo the same lengthy process. During that time each person undergoes very extensive background checks, physicals and psychological testing. During one of the sessions of my Psychological testing I was given an inkblot test. Do you know what I am talking about?

I was told that I was supposed to look at a series of cards with what appeared to be ink splatters printed on them and then tell what I saw. The psychologist was sitting across from me with a pencil and pad ready to write down what I saw when I looked at the abstract patterns. It was my first time taking one of those so I just took him at his word followed his instructions. I thought, ’this could be fun.”

I looked at the first card and said something like, “Hmmmmm… let’s see. I see the city of Rome at night or maybe some cherub choirs. I also Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker in a light saber battle and a field of wildflowers.” He would scribble down everything I said on his pad. I noticed that he was getting an increasingly disturbed look on his face as he continued writing, but I just kept on going. “Maybe it’s a spinach and mushroom pizza or the top of a volcano. It could be a T-Rex footprint or maybe a dragon.” Finally, he just seemed to have had enough and he put down his pad and said, “ Look, between us, it really does not look good if I write down too many things. One or two is enough. You don’t want me write down more than that.” I said, “Ohhhh.” Suddenly, the only pattern I could see was the Bishop saying, “Son, it looks like we are just going to have to send you back to the Baptists.” After that I just gave one or two simple, unremarkable answers: “It’s a tree.” “It looks like a bird.”

Now, I believe the premise of that inkblot test is that what you see actually reveals more you that it does about the actual images. Life is like that, isn’t it? Two people can look at the exact same thing but see completely different things.

Our outlook----or what we see often reveals a great deal about us and where we are at. The same holds true in our life of faith. Spiritually, our perspective or point of view often reveals where we are at in our faith journey. As Christians, the process of ongoing daily conversion of life is a call to see things from a different point of view--- the Divine point of view. It’s an exciting invitation to see the world with a whole new set of eyes.

The story of the feeding of the 5000 offers two different ways of seeing. One perspective sees scarcity: “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” The other perspective is grounded in the abundance of God’s generosity: “Bring them here to me”…and all ate and were filled.”

Both perspectives agree there is a problem: a large crowd full of hungry people. But the two different points of view see vastly different ways of dealing with the problem. One wants to send the crowd away: “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” That seems like a perfectly reasonable and sane thing to do, doesn’t it? Jesus could you just go ahead and wrap up all this sermonizing about the kingdom of God so everyone can go find something to eat? The other perspective offered by Jesus sees a different solution to the problem: “Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”

One problem: two different solutions. 1) Send them away vs. 2) Keep them here. Guess which one is always the Gospel perspective? My brothers and sisters I submit to you that the kingdom of God will always be found in the perspective that is about inviting people to the banquet feast, not turning people away. The kingdom of God is only glimpsed in the perspective that is about invitation and embrace instead of exclusion.

However, the problem with that perspective is that so often it seems radical, risky and at times downright impossible. And that’s precisely the point. The perspective of faith always sees things in a way that calls us out the security of the known into the unknown and unfamiliar.

That does not mean faith is about denying the reality of problems around us. You know how we sometimes tend do that in the South. We hope that if we politely pretend the problems don’t exist that they will all just somehow go away. Faith is not a retreat into a fairy tale never, never land of pretending that we cannot see life‘s problems. Faith does not somehow see less---instead it actually sees more. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews said, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” The perspective of faith allows us to lay hold of the invisible. As long as we only see the problem and our own lack or power and resources we will always take the safe course---we will always hunker down, circle the wagons and send the crowd away. However the perspective of faith allows us to factor in the one thing that changes every equation: the power and presence of a loving and generous God.

As long as we can only see the obstacle and our own inability to surmount it then the obstacle will loom large in front of us like a mountain. However, faith allows to measure our obstacle not only by the size of our own resources and power, but also by the size of the generosity of our God.

Let’s be honest here. Have you ever found yourself overwhelmed by the size and scope of problems around you? Have you ever looked at what little bit you have to contribute to solving the problem and it just felt so insignificant----like a bucket of water against a vast ocean? You feel like throwing up your hands and saying “What’s the use?” Why bother? What little bit I can do will not even make a dent in the problem…. If so, then you are in good company. The disciples felt the same way. “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.”

Jesus offer us an invitation to a different perspective: “ Bring them here to me.”
When we take what little we have----however small and seemingly insignificant in proportion to the problem--- and offer it over into the hands of the one who can break it, bless it and multiply it then we begin to live with an awareness that Jesus can take our little bit and make much of it. That’s what our faith can do for us. It’s a whole different way of seeing the world.

When I was growing up here if you heard the words 7th Avenue mentioned it was always in the context of the place your parents told you to stay away from. One of the families I went to church with had a business on 7th Avenue and I worked for them in the summers. I remember going to work and many mornings the there would be someone piled up in the doorway, drunk and passed out. I also remember that you had to go to the outside of our building and go around back to access the restrooms. The only problem was that there were often men passed out drunk in the tall grass of the field there so I would tip toe to the bathroom in fear that I was going to wake them up. I remember riding down Maple Street where I now go to work every day and looking at all the people piled up sleeping under the 64 overpass and feeling so terrible for them.

In 1980 there was a man named George Cox who was a fairly new Christian---a recent convert to the faith. He had a job that brought him to 7th Avenue every day. He drove a Little Debbie snack cake truck and before he would go on his daily route he would have to go to a warehouse on 7th Avenue to load up his inventory. Early every morning he would pass by all the homeless people under the 64 overpass and all the people in the fields and doorways and it bothered him, As he began to read and study the Scriptures of his newfound faith the words of Jesus in the Gospel began to vex him even more in light of what he saw every morning on his way to work. Why wasn’t someone doing something to help these people? So he began to visit local pastors and ask that very question. The responses he received ranged from downright anger---one pastor told him to get in his truck and get on down the road---to sympathetic acknowledgement that there was indeed a problem but that the problem of homelessness on 7th Avenue was just too vast and complex. It’s a huge social problem and what can one church do to really make a difference?
However, he was still so new to the faith that he had not yet developed that skillful way of tuning out the Gospel and the words of Jesus continued to sting him, “You give them something to eat.” He said he knew he had to do something---no matter how small it was in comparison to the problem.

He did not even have loaves and fish, but he had some extra Little Debbie cakes that were still good even though they were so close to the expiration date that they could not be sold. So he bought a large coffee pot and after work he began to open park his Little Debbie truck down on 7th Avenue and open up the back and give out those snack cakes, coffee and he would talk to people who were not used to people either listening or talking to them. That’s how the Rescue Mission where I work was started----literally, out of the back of a truck. It was started on a shoestring budget and a lot of faith.

George no longer lives in this community, but we are celebrating our 30th anniversary this year so I have had the occasion to actually spend some time with him talking about the history of the organization. By the way, he told me that not every church was resistant to helping. He said when he rented their first little storefront building it was $75.00 a month and they were going to give him a break if he could pay two months in advance. He could only afford one month and had no idea where the second month’s rent was going to come from. He said to me “We did not have a kitchen or a way to prepare food at that time. We had to borrow a sofa to cover a hole in the floor.” He told me that first year all of the meals that were served at that location were prepared up there at that St. James Episcopal Church in that great big old kitchen of theirs and they would bring it down to serve in our building.” I said, “Hmmm…I know those people at St. James---bunch of trouble makers. They are always feeding somebody with that big old kitchen of theirs.”

We now serve over 60,000 meals a year to the hungry in our community and we provide shelter to well over a thousand homeless men, women and children each year. I asked George if he ever imagined that offering up his Little Debbie cakes and coffee would lead to this? He said, “No, I am probably more amazed than anyone by all of this, but I was certain that God could surely make something out of the little bit I had to offer.”

Faith gives us a whole new way of seeing the world. It allows us to begin to assess things not only by the size of our own strength, but by the size of our God.

So to everyone in this room who has ever taken a look at how enormous and overwhelming the problems are in this world around us and how seemingly insignificant are our efforts to address them----when you get discouraged and feel like giving up I want you to remember one phrase: five loaves and two fish.

Five loaves and two fish. It’s not even worth fooling with OR it can feed a multitude. It all depends on how you look at. It all depends on how you look at it. The kingdom of God invites us to see the world from a radically different perspective. In the eloquent words of our own Bishop, faith is what allows us to begin to dream as God dreams.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Trinity Sunday homily

A homily preached at St. James Episcopal Church on the First Sunday after Pentecost. June 19, 2011. Matthew 28:16-20

Have you ever had one those times when you just could not seem to connect with someone---no matter how hard your tried? Back when I first started working at the Rescue Mission I struggled to earn the trust of the people on the streets. It was like there was a hard wall between us. There was this attitude of, “How could you possibly understand what it’s like to be in our shoes?” Sometimes it felt to me that because I had not been in legal trouble and I had never been homeless that people automatically assumed I had a Mr. Rogers mixed with a “holier-than-thou” outlook on things. Of course, reflecting back on it now, I didn’t help myself out much by doing stupid little things like wearing a coat and tie to work on some days.

I want to tell you about the day that all began to change for me. Ironically, it started out as a coat and tie day. Several years ago there was a store near the shelter that has now has gone out of business. The owners moved to a different state years ago. This particular business had a dumpster near the back entrance of our shelter. Quite often new guests at the shelter would mistake that dumpster for ours and throw our trash into it. Our trash bags were a different color than theirs and if they spotted them one of the owners would call us and I would respond by apologizing and retrieving our trash. We try to be good neighbors to the businesses that border the shelter property. So that morning I marched over to our neighbor’s dumpster in my coat and tie thinking that I would simply pick up a couple of bags off the top of the heap, only to discover that I could not reach our bags because they were at the bottom of the massive dumpster. It was empty except for our trash. So I went and got a broom and climbed up on the outside and began to try to fish for them so I could lift them up and out with my broom handle. I strained and stretched and I could almost reach the biggest bag. That’s when I felt my weight shift and the next thing I knew, Mr. coat and tie here was down in the bottom of this tall dumpster in a couple of inches of stagnant water. To make matters even worse, the broom I was using had pierced the trash bag it had just as I slipped. The bag was torn open and our garbage was floating around me in the cesspool on a hot summer morning.

Something inside of me just snapped. There was yelling that morning---lots of unholy yelling echoed from the bottom of that empty dumpster out onto Seventh Avenue. I angrily began to pick up the scattered items and toss them out of the dumpster. It must have felt good to have something to take my anger out on because I started launching them straight up into the air, high over the dumpster and outside. I imagine it must have appeared to be some bizarre volcano of trash raining down on the pavement punctuated by screams and shrieks coming from the belly of the beast.

Finally, after it was all cleaned out and the fury had subsided, I struggled back up over the wall. I felt and looked like a soldier climbing out of a foxhole after battle. To my utter horror, a crowd had gathered. Many of the people I was there at the Mission to serve were standing there with their mouths open in disbelief. I thought, “Oh no, this is it. I lost it. I have blown it. They will never respect me after this.” Suddenly, to my surprise, they burst into laughter. A couple of guys even applauded. Somehow, in that moment I became human and real to them. I was less than perfect after all. I did not always have it all together. That dumpster ruined a suit, but it broke through the wall and I was able to begin to form relationships with the very people I was called to serve. That incident made me accessible to them and in turn they became accessible to me.

Our Gospel reading today contains one little phrase that does that for me when it comes to the disciples of Jesus.

“Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.”

“But some doubted”---this is not simply Thomas, doubting because he had not yet seen the risen Christ. This is after the risen Christ has appeared to them and after they worshipped, but still it some doubted. This little phrase is so honest and so troubling for Church’s traditional portraits of the disciples after the resurrection that many people have tried to explain it away. My New Interpreter’s Study Bible finally concludes with the comment on this verse: “The presence of doubt… indicates the community of disciples is not perfect.”

I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. I am delighted that the Gospel writer makes note of it because it’s through that little phrase that these disciples become accessible to me and where I live. They become real human figures with the same struggles and weaknesses and doubts that we have.

One of the surprising things for me about being ordained is that when I wear the collar people will come up and start talking about church. Sometimes complete strangers will just come up and tell me what they think is wrong with church---not St. James, just church in general. It makes me sad when I hear people tell me that they feel alienated because of they have doubts. Usually it goes something like this. “I felt so out of place with everyone else saying the creed when I am not sure I fully believe all of that stuff. I felt like a hypocrite because I had to say the creed like this (fingers crossed behind back).”

People should never feel like their doubts are causing them to look on from the outside. We are not a community of perfect faith that always believes everything with 100% certainty. We are not now and we were not all the way back in Matthew 28. That did not disqualify them from being a part of the community back then and it should not now. What we have to do is stop pretending that we always have it all together.

The things we struggle with and the doubts we have are honestly probably the very same things that others sitting in pews around us are alsostruggling with at any given time. We do not come to this table to worship together because we always have perfect faith. We do not come to this table together because we have somehow earned our way onto some sort of Divine dean’s list. We come together because Jesus invites us to come to this table to receive grace together!

I wish that I could say that I always have this perfect faith. I wish I could stand up here and tell people I am that guy, but I am not. There are times when I say the creed and my heart just sings it our like the ancient poetry of faith it is. However, there have been many times in my journey when that was not the case. That does not mean I give up and walk away from the community of faith. It’s precisely in those moments that I most in need of remaining connected to the community of faith. Those are the times when I sit back and listen to the community affirm the faith and the faith of the community carries me.

When we are in community there are days that we carry others and there are days when others carry us. That is truly what is at the core of what we celebrate today.

Today is Trinity Sunday. The doctrine of the Trinity is not some abstract doctrinal puzzle to sit back and do mental gymnastics with. It is God’s love song about the Divine community that is God. Love cannot exist alone by itself. Our spiritual ancestors said that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are each fully God, but none of them are the totality of God alone without each other.

Self-giving love to each other is at the heart of the doctrine of the Trinity and it is the model for our life together in the community of the church.

In that lengthy reading Genesis this morning we heard: “Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.”

In other words, we with the capacity and need for community. We were designed to be in relationship with others. Our faith is designed to be shaped and formed and strengthened in community with each other. Community is the only soil in which we can grow and make disciples as Jesus commanded in Matthew 28.

The Roman Catholic Bible Scholar Luke Timothy Johnson has described the difficulty of trying to teach the academic study of the Scriptures to graduate students who come to school without any real faith background in church where they could witness how the Scriptures are heard and applied and lived out in community. He says it’s like a medical student trying to learn about the human body from simply dissecting a cadaver without having ever seen how a living body looks and moves in motion or the life that shows up in a person’s eyes in love or laughter.

I would daresay the same thing about the doctrine of the Trinity. When we try to have a discussion about the Trinity divorced from a living experience of community, then the whole thing becomes this dead, abstract discussion that simply causes our eyes to glaze over.

In the 5:00 service last night we baptized Josie Jordan in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit just as today’s Gospel instructs us to. It was wonderful. I love baptisms. They are my favorite services. To be baptized in the name of the Trinity is to be welcomed into and warmly embraced by the community of faith here on earth that is a reflection of the Divine community within the Trinity. That’s why baptism is not a private affair. It is a communally witnessed event where those who are gathered are asked, “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support this person in his or her life if Christ?” And we answer: “We will’ And then we all renew our baptismal covenant where we promise with God’s help to “continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.”

Community is the only soil in which we can grow disciples as Jesus commands in our Gospel reading. It’s the only way we can be equipped to fulfill the Great Commission. We will either do it together or we will not do very long at all. Community with each other sustains us for long haul of carrying out God’s great mission.

Beside my bed I have a National Geographic with a pull out about the giant redwood trees in California. I have never seen a giant redwood tree, but getting out there to see them is really up on the top of my bucket list. I mean to do so one day. I cannot tell you how many times I have pulled that magazine out and read that same article over again and again before falling asleep at night In my reading about them I came across a very interesting fact. Those majestic trees, that reach so high you often can't see their tops, actually have a very shallow root system. It’s amazing that tress that tall and heavy are able to withstand the harsh weather and winds of the High Sierras and yet some have done it since the glaciers were retreating.

How in the world can they do that with a shallow root system? It is something called “the grove factor“ where trees grow in close proximity to one another. What happens is the roots reach out in all directions and they get tangled up with the roots from other Redwoods. The roots grow together, intertwining with each other and creating a stabilizing root bed that helps each tree continue to stand. A lone Redwood tree growing by itself wouldn't last long, but a Redwood forest can last for thousands of years.

It’s that kind of community we are called to live in within the church that allows us to weather the storms and overcome the seasons of doubt. It allows us to do more than survive. It’s a place where our mutual faith can flourish and thrive in a way it could never do in isolation from others.

My brothers and sisters Trinity Sunday is our invitation to hear the Spirit calling to do the work of living in community with each other---- when it’s easy and especially when it is hard, because in the end the sum of our common faith together is always stronger than the individual parts.


Sunday, May 15, 2011

Good Shepherd Sunday homily

A homily preached at St. James Episcopal Church on the Fourth Sunday after Easter. May 15, 2011. John 10:1-10

In May of 1998, I was literally given a crash course on how quickly life can change in the blink of an eye. I had just started a new job and I was having some success, but one night after work I was driving home in the dark fog and rain. I remember seeing the brake lights of the car in front of me as it suddenly swerved and then for just a split second I saw headlights. I never even had time to hit the brakes. A 17-year-old drunk driver was driving the wrong direction in my lane and his car crashed head on into mine. It was a horrific accident scene.

What I remember next was an increasing chorus of muffled voices and sirens. I was pinned under the weight of the engine block that had come through the floor. The voices outside the car grew in number and volume. People were shouting and I became aware of the fact that a number of emergency workers had somehow managed to enter through the back of the car and they were yelling as they were trying to pull me free of my metal cocoon.

As they pulled me out onto a board, they put my neck in these blocks and strapped me in so tightly that I could not move. I could not see anything except the dark night sky and the rain pouring down on me, but I heard so many voices. Some of them were angry. Some of them sounded scared. I did not recognize any of them. I will spare you the gory details, but I heard one of those voices say that he had once seen someone with the exact same injuries as mine who “bled out” before they could get him to the hospital. I began to panic!!

It was not so much that I was not afraid of dying. I began to panic because I realized that I was afloat in a sea of complete strangers and that my last moments on this earth might be spent among people who did not know me---so I prayed. All I really wanted from God was to please let me see my wife and my little boys just one more time.

In the hospital I was still strapped in those necks block things and I could hear many voices and the sound of equipment, but I could not move. Finally, I heard a voice that I recognized. It was not only a voice that I recognized, but also a voice that I loved.

Before I ever caught a glimpse of my wife’s face, I knew she was in the room. It was only at that moment that I finally began to relax. Somehow, when I heard her voice, I knew that whatever the outcome, it was going to be okay. It was going to be okay.

We live in interesting times. It seems like we are surrounded by a 24 hour news cycle of endlessly talking heads and competing voices that get louder and louder and louder. In a world of scary, strange voices that bring death, fear and division, Jesus says a defining characteristic of belonging to the Good Shepherd is being able to cut through the static and all of the other noise and tune into his life-giving voice.

Jesus uses the image of a Shepherd in our Gospel reading today. He says, “the sheep follow him because they know his voice.”

Our peace and stability in a shifting and unstable world will not be found in the sea of voices that compete for our attention. The source of our strength is found in one voice that we know and trust to lead us to abundant life.

Barbara Brown Taylor wrote about a friend of hers who grew up working on a sheep farm in the Midwest. She said, “It never ceased to amaze him, growing up, that he could walk right through a sleeping flock without disturbing a single one of them, while a stranger could not step foot in the fold without causing pandemonium. Sheep seem to consider their shepherds part of the family, and the relationship that grows up between the two is quite exclusive. They develop a language of their own that outsiders are not privy to. A good shepherd learns to distinguish a bleat of pain from one of pleasure, while the sheep learn that a cluck of the tongue means food, or a two note song means that it is time to go home.”

Today’s Gospel calls us to listen and pay attention and go deeper with the Gospel voice of our Good Shepherd because it is the voice that leads us to life. Of all the voices clamoring for our attention…only the voice of the Good Shepherd leads us to green pastures and beside the still waters.

As your deacon, I am called by my ordination vows to set before you the needs of the world. But in doing that I don’t want to simply be yet another voice in the mix. When I set before you the needs of the world I simply ask that each time you listen for the voice of our Good Shepherd. I cannot tell you what you should be doing. All I can do is present the needs of the world and ask that you listen to see if that is what God is calling you to. Whatever the ministry opportunity, the question is not “will this make the deacon happy if I do this?” The main question should be, “Is this where God is calling me to use my gifts and talents?” If you choose to get involved with something simply because someone twisted your arm to do it, you into, it will not be life-giving and it will not be spiritually sustainable. However, if you do it because have discerned that it is something the God is leading you to then it will be one of those places described in today’s Psalm that revives the soul.

Frederick Buechner says that our calling is to be found in the places “where our deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet”.

Let me give you a good example of what I mean by this. Our Outreach Committee has discerned a need for our parish family to reconstitute our Faith Link team with all new people and new energy. Faith Link is a program that brings together people from a faith community like ours and a single-parent, low income family to encourage self-reliance, independence and self respect by providing social and emotional support. In others words, it’s not so much about giving money as it is giving of who we are. It asks that you volunteer to take about an hour and a half a month to mentor and share the skills and gifts you have. This parish has been involved with this program for a long time, but the people who were involved with it have moved on to other places and other areas of service. In reconstituting this team we intend to celebrate our past successes and quite frankly learn from past mistakes. I believe in the fundamental goodness of this program because through my work at the Rescue Mission I was familiar with the successes of this program in other churches long before I came to this parish. I also believe there is an abundance of amazing gifts and talents in this parish that could be a blessing to a Faith Link family.

You get where I am going with this? Hehe….There’s just one catch, but it’s a pretty big deal for me. At the very core of what I value as a Christian, I believe it would be wrong for me to stand here in this pulpit and use guilt and shame to try to manipulate people to volunteer for this. That is not life giving. Ultimately, it does not lead to the wholeness that God desires for us.

When I left my former life of fundamentalism I made a promise to God that I was leaving behind guilt trips and brown beatings from the pulpit. I do not intend to go back there again. So what I intend to do is simply offer information about how to be involved with the Faith Link team in a presentation today at 10:20 in the Trinity Room and next Saturday at a breakfast in Stillwell Hall at 8:30. In doing so all I ask is that you listen for the voice of the Good Shepherd and try to discern if it is something God is leading you to or not leading you to be involved in.

You see, while guilt and shame may be effective temporary motivators, they are external motivators. They are only good as long as the pressure from the outside is applied. But if someone discerns a call from God it will speak to something deeper within us and it’s life-giving. It’s an internal motivator because it comes from within.

I have discovered that when a person becomes convinced that God is calling that person to do something, you don’t have to beg, beat or drag that person kicking and screaming, you just have to get out of the way because they are doing it not because they have to, but because they want to.

Austin Mansfield tells a story about a priest he knew in New York City who went to Ireland to visit his relatives. While his friend was staying at his cousin’s farm, they decided to have some fun with him. After doing some chores in the fields, they told him to come in for dinner just as soon as he was through rounding up the sheep into the pen.

After nearly an hour of chasing after sheep, trying to push, poke, prod, and even pull them with no success, he gave up and asked the cousins to help. They sent out their five-year-old daughter, who simply called out to the sheep, and within minutes they had all followed her through the gate into the pen. He learned the hard way that it had nothing to do with strength or skill, but it had everything to with recognition of, and trust in the voice calling the sheep.

I invite you to come to one of the two information forums we are going to have---today at 10:20 or next Saturday at 8:20, but as your deacon, I cannot call you to join the Faith Link team or any other outreach ministry of this parish. I can humbly educate and inform you about the deep needs of this world, but only Christ can call you to the places where your deep gladness will meet those deep needs. I simply ask you to listen and remain open to the voice of the Good Shepherd because I know that voice will always call the right people at the right time out into the world, but it will also do something that I cannot do---it will lead to wholeness and deep and abiding gladness that restores the soul!

“The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.”

The call to live as a part of the flock that belongs to Jesus is a call to not be blindly swept up in whatever voices happen to be the loudest at any given moment. It’s a call to go deeper with the voice that we know. In the end, it’s a call to listen to the only voice that leads to abundant life because his is the voice that always leads to life----it always leads to life.


Sunday, April 17, 2011

Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday homily

A homily preached at St. James Episcopal Church on Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday. April 17, 2011. Matthew 21:1-11 and Matthew 26:14- 27:66

How many of you grew up in home that had one of those large family Bibles? We had one and when I was just a preschooler it seemed really huge. We kept it down in the bottom of a cabinet, but like the good Baptists we were, we pulled it out, dusted it off and displayed it if we knew the pastor was coming for a visit. That huge Bible is one of my earliest memories. I was hooked on it long before I ever went to kindergarten and long before I ever learned to read. You see, ever so often in that massive book there would be a section of full page, full color reproductions of sacred art. They were scenes from Biblical stories as painted by famous old masters. I was so fascinated by them that I just sit and pore over those images. In fact, there are still some Bible stories that when I hear them read I picture them in terms of those images. It was through those images that I first encountered the story of Jesus. I remember the picture of the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday; the adoring crowds lining the road and bowing down to Jesus as rides along on a donkey. But in just a couple of pages there was also a scene with Jesus and Pilate standing before a different crowd of people---their faces looked angry and they shook their fists at him. I could not make any sense the contrast. I remember asking my Dad why that crowd was so angry with Jesus when everyone was just so happy with him a couple of pictures before that? What did he do to cause that? I remember that sudden shift from happy crowds to angry mob frightened me.

We are now on the threshold of Holy Week; it is both Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday. As I was reflecting in preparation for this homily on what is essentially two Gospel readings (One from Matthew 21 one from Matthew 27) I realized that in one sense I understand a lot more now than I did when I was four years old, but in another sense, the contrast between to two different crowds Jesus encountered in these readings still baffles me. And yet it’s a contrast that probably resonates with experiences of everyone in this room. I suspect that all of us here today have, at some point, experienced a sudden reversal of fortune where everything rapidly shifted in front of you. Life is like that isn’t it? Some days you feel like Jesus on Palm Sunday and you ride the donkey. Other days it feels like you are the donkey.

The other thing that I remember from those sacred art images from my childhood is the surprising portrait of the serenity of Jesus in both of those scenes.

I used to think that the reactions of Jesus described in these scenes almost sounded detached and aloof, but that’s not really the case. I have come to believe that what we see in the behavior of Jesus is an image of a person who has his eyes on something larger---something that transcends the both the approval and disapproval of the crowds. Jesus has fixed his vision to a point much farther on the horizon: the approval of God. That is the voice that speaks louder than anything from the crowds. No matter what the crowds yell---from Palm Sunday right up to the taunts on Good Friday, EASTER is God’s final word on the matter. The only verdict that matters is the last verdict to come in.

The example of Jesus throughout Holy Week shows us that true courage is not the absence of fear, but rather it is overcoming our fears through confidence in God. That is how followers of Christ throughout the ages have summoned the courage to do the right thing even when it defied the values of the culture around them. It’s not so much simply tuning out of the voices of the crowds, but the tuning into the voice of the One who has the final word.

During Apartheid in South Africa St. George’s Cathedral was a focal point of nonviolent resistance to the injustice and oppression that was the law of the land there. Blacks and whites had the holy audacity to worship together at St. George’s in defiance of the directives of Apartheid. Desmond Tutu was the Anglican Archbishop of South Africa. During one particularly tense encounter during a worship service security forces arrived with armored vehicles outside the cathedral. Listen to what one of the witnesses who was present had to say about it, “…the police were massing by the hundreds on the outside and they were there to intimidate, to threaten, to try and frighten all the worshipers. I will testify, being on the inside, that I was scared. You could feel the tension in that place. The police were so bold and arrogant they even came into that Cathedral and stood along the walls. They were writing down and tape recording everything that Archbishop Tutu said. But he stood there to preach… a little man with long, flowing robes, and he said, "This system of apartheid cannot endure because it is evil." That’s a wonderful thing to say, but very few people on the planet believed that statement at that point in time. But I could tell that he believed it. Then he pointed his finger at those police standing along the walls of his sanctuary and said, "You are powerful. You are very powerful, but you are not gods and I serve a God who cannot be mocked." Then he flashed that wonderful Desmond Tutu smile and said, "So, since you’ve already lost, since you’ve already lost, I invite you today to come and join the winning side!" And at that the congregation erupted. They began dancing in the church. They danced out into the streets and the police moved back because they didn’t expect dancing worshipers.

Was Archbishop Tutu just a reckless, suicidal man without any natural fear? No, he would later admit that he had plenty of fear. He knew full well what could happen to him. He knew the people trying to intimidate him had power and weapons. He knew they had a history of not hesitating to resort to violence to silence critics, but he also knew something else: Archbishop Tutu wrote: “During the darkest days of apartheid I used to say to the president of South Africa, that we had already won, and I invited him and other white South Africans to join the winning side. All the "objective" facts were against us-the laws, the imprisonments, the tear-gassing, the massacres, the murder of political activists-but my confidence was not in the present circumstances but in the laws of God's universe. This is a moral universe, which means that, despite all the evidence that seems to be to the contrary, there is no way that evil and injustice and oppression and lies can have the last word. God is a God who cares about right and wrong. God cares about justice and injustice.”

That is where his uncanny confidence came from. His fixed his vision to a much larger point on the horizon: the approval of God----and so should we.

Last week during our Diocesan "Service of Repentance, Healing and Reconciliation" Bishop Taylor offered an amazingly direct and honest apology for our diocesan complicity in the sins of slavery segregation and racism. In that apology he said ,

“I apologize for the loss of the future God had in mind as our Church forgot what our Lord preached and instead accepted what the racist culture said.
I apologize for all the times the Church has said, “Not now” instead of speaking for the truth.”

It was at that moment that I realized just how much I do not want my great grandchildren to one day have to be holding a service of repentance for my silence in the face of injustice simply because the voice of the crowds. The voice of the culture around us will always try to intimidate into fear and conformity.

Martin Luther King said, "Courage is an inner resolution to go forward despite obstacles…Cowardice asks the question, is it safe? Expediency ask the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? But conscience ask the question, is it right? And there comes a time when we must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because it is right.”

My brothers and sisters our courage to do the right thing should come from the fact that in the end we are Easter people. That means we are more concerned with God’s final verdict than the crowds’ fickle approval. Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday teach us that when we do the right thing sometimes the crowd will applaud and sometimes it will want to see you crucified! Some days you will be hero and some days you will be a zero, but the only voice that should matter is the one that will have the final word!

As we enter this Holy Week, I was us to pause and remember that as Christians we are called to follow the example of Jesus. It is a summons to live into the type of moral courage that breaks free of the voices of the crowds around us and enter into that place called the Kingdom of God where the injustices of Good Friday are never the final word. Easter is the final verdict where we hear that God’s final word always favors justice over injustice, love over hate, life over death.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Transfiguration Sunday homily

A homily preached at St. James Episcopal Church on the last Sunday of Epiphany. March 6, 2011. Matthew 17:1-9

We all have our own unique gifts and talents. I have a special skill that causes my wife to prohibit me from going to the grocery store alone unless it’s an extreme emergency. You see, I have an uncanny ability to take a list that she has written out for me and get everything on that list and still get nothing that she wants in terms of quality and value. (Some of you may have spouses with that same talent?) My purchasing decisions always seem to just astound my dear wife. She will ask, “Why did you get that brand?” To which I reply, “I don’t know…the box was big and red and yellow. It just spoke to me. That jar of Apple Juice had a really cool picture of some people hiking on it.” Then it usually turns into a lesson on “just because it says it’s on sale does not mean it is a good deal” or “just because it has green leaves printed on it does not really mean it’s healthy or environmentally friendly.” Or my personal favorite, “There’s no such thing as healthy Cocoa Puffs---even if it comes in a green box.” Recently my wife asked me why I had purchased such an unusually expense brand of deodorant? I grabbed the container and looked at the beautiful drawing of mountains on the front and then my eyes went immediately to a red sticker on top of the package. I suddenly remembered why I purchased the deodorant. The sticker said, ( I am not joking---this is an exact quote) “Smells like wilderness, open air and freedom.” When I thought about it I had to admit that I really could not honestly say that I know what freedom smells like. You see, my wife’s job actually is in marketing, so she just looked at me and said, “It is people like you that keep people like me in business. You are a marketing department‘s dream come true.”

The world of marketing and advertising is often predicated on getting us to see something that is not really there---appealing visuals, nostalgic sounds and all sorts of techniques to conjure up the illusion of substance where there is none.

But what Jesus teaches about the kingdom of God over and over in the Gospel is what I like to call God’s reverse marketing strategy. Whereas the world will try to polish and shine and manipulate you into seeing something valuable where there is really nothing, in the kingdom of God, it’s just the opposite. The most valuable is often hidden in plain sight disguised as something ordinary and mundane. What appears to be of little value or consequence is precisely where that which is of most value to God is to be found. It’s almost as if God goes out of the way to make sure you dig deeper and have to take a closer look. It would be a whole lot easier in the kingdom of God if we just had neon signs from God that flashed and said “Pay attention to this”!! That’s how the world works. That’s not generally how the kingdom of God works.

But ever now and then we do get a bright light that breaks through the darkness. Sometimes we do get a rare glimpse into a deeper reality than the one we are familiar with.. In the language of Scripture, we call that an Epiphany. An epiphany is often a sudden insight… an a-ha moment where our own understanding is transformed.

We often use the language of light to describe those moments of sudden insight. We say things like “She finally saw the light” or “it was like someone flipped the light switch on and I could finally see” or even the imagery of cartoons where there is a light bulb is drawn over the character’s head.

The language of our faith tradition also describes epiphanies another way: Mountain top experiences. Mountain tops are places where see things with a higher clarity because our perspective is elevated. I like that language. It’s not that God is somehow present on the mountain top and absent from the valley below---it’s just that somehow we are more present to God in those special moments. In our first reading from Exodus we heard how Moses went up to the mountain of God to experience an epiphany. In first Kings 19 we learn about another fellow named Elijah, who went up to the same place---Mt. Horeb or Mt.Sinai, the mountain of God, to experience an epiphany of the glory of the Lord passing by. Both experiences were filled with light. Both experiences were mountain top experiences. Now, both of those characters appear in the vision we heard described in today’s Gospel reading.

As we come to the conclusion of this liturgical season of Epiphany we are offered this story of the transfiguration of Jesus---an vision that our other reading from 2nd Peter describes as taking place up “on the holy mountain”--- because it’s really sort of the ultimate Epiphany story where disciples see the light on so many levels.

The way the Gospel describes it, it’s almost as if these disciples are now being invited to experience that same light that Moses and Elijah experienced in their mountain top Epiphanies. What is significant in the Gospel story is where this light is coming from---or I should say WHO this light is coming from: JESUS

That is the message of the Transfiguration and ultimately the message of Epiphany: Jesus is the God’s light for the world.

Jesus did not become the light of God and the light of the world at this moment. Theologically speaking, he already was and is that. The transfiguration was simply a brief pulling back the curtains to reveal what was already true. It’s sort of like when I go hiking in the mountains. I can start off down here at this elevation in Hendersonville and it will be foggy, cloudy and wet, but as I drive up the Parkway, somewhere around 4500 to 5000 ft elevation, I sometimes get above the clouds and there is the sun and the blue sky. It’s so depressing down below, but the sun did not go away---I simply could not see it, but it was there all along. I like to think of this Transfiguration experience as something like a break in the clouds, to reveal what was true about Jesus all along. It was a very dramatic and sudden break in the clouds.

And then comes the strangest part of the whole story. It all goes away as suddenly as it happened and the Jesus and the disciples go back down the mountain and start serving again.

It is wonderful to be granted those epiphany moments where we feel like we are on top of the mountain, but the story is not meant to end there. My sisters and brothers, I humbly submit to you that it is vital that we come down from the mountain to serve in the world in the light of that experience. We are never meant to remain on the mountain. We are meant to carry it with is into the world

The mountain top experience is not meant to be a substitute for the world down below, instead the mountain top experience is given to nourish and sustain us to serve once we come down into that real world again. N.T. Wright, now a retired Anglican Bishop in England says this about the connection between the healing of the boy and the Transfiguration: “These things are never given for their own sake, but so that, as we are equipped by them, God can use us within his needy world"

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I would just rather stay on top of the mountain, but to do so would be to really negate the purpose of the whole mountaintop experience.

Many, many times when I have gone hiking in the mountains, I have found myself lost and caught up in the beauty of the place. I have verbalized it: “I don’t ever want to leave here. I wish I could just stay here forever. Honey, let’s buy a cabin up in the woods and just become hermits up here.” However, I know that I am not meant to stay there. For me and my vocation there is a world of homeless and hungry people that I am supposed to come back to. The beautiful scenes I experience up there in the mountains are not where I live, but I carry their beauty with me so that I can go back renewed in order to serve in the world where I do live.

That’s the challenge of mountain top experiences. We are not meant to hold on to them for dear life, we are supposed to let them hold onto us as we live life.
Epiphanies are not given to entertain us and keep us up on the mountain top. Epiphanies are given to equip us to come down and serve. We carry them with us and return to those Epiphanies moments to give us strength to serve in the dark places we face each day in the real world.

People sometimes have the wrong notion about what my vocation is like. They will say things like, “You sure are lucky to get to serve the homeless. You must always get to see Jesus in the faces of the people you serve everyday.”

As flattering as that is to me, I always feel like looking around behind me because surely Mother Teresa or someone like that must be standing behind me and that’s who they are talking to. I would love to live in an elevated state of spiritual bliss where I was always aware of the presence of Christ in everyone I meet, but the reality is that it’s hard. It’s hard for me to see Jesus in the face of the man who has walked out on his family to pursue drugs. It’s hard for me to see Jesus in the face of the person who comes to my doors strung out and cussing me (sometimes in English and Spanish and a little sign language). I try to tell people that I don’t always see Jesus in everyone, but I catch glimpses of Jesus every now and then and that’s enough to sustain me.

Several years ago I had one of those high points in my spiritual journey. I had just been to my very first Commission on Ministry overnight and everyone seemed to affirm that they also could discern a call to the diaconate in my life. I was on cloud nine from that experience. I went to Atlanta for a couple of days for a International Conference for Homeless Shelter ministries. We rolled our sleeves up and jumped right in to urban development ministry. The theme of the conference was from Matthew 25 where Jesus says whatever you do to the least of these you do unto me. I had this crystal clarity that this is what I am supposed to be doing with my life because in serving others I get to serve Jesus. That was so profoundly real to me as I came home.

I had barely been home a day or so---and I was still basking in the glow of that mountain top experience when I ran into the grocery store to pick up some dog food and encountered a lady that I had not seen for some time. She used to eat at the shelter and engage in all kinds of behavior on the streets outside of the shelter. She came up to me on the dog food aisle and started sharing the good news about her life. Her very loud voice carried a long way. I am sure half of the store heard her say, “ I don’t smoke crack anymore.” Then she began to describe in a pretty graphic ways all the things she no longer did since she escaped her life on the streets. She was unaware that others were stopping to listen and stare, but I was not. I was mortified as I noticed a man grab his son and quickly walk away. Part of me wanted to melt because I was wearing nothing to identify myself as someone who works at the shelter. What would everyone think of a man listening to a woman describe how she was no longer… did certain things? Would they think that I was a former associate of hers? Would they think that I once used drugs with her? The stunned look on the face of one elderly lady at the end of the aisle confirmed my fears.

The story that this lady was broadcasting was actually great news and she was eager to share it with me. So I had two choices. I could brush her off and maybe work something into the conversation that alerted everyone around us to the fact that I serve at a homeless shelter. I could also choose to get over my concerns about being perceived as a respectable citizen and just listen and celebrate the good news with her. She had visited my office many times and I had told her that she was valuable to God and worth more than the lifestyle she had been trapped in. All of that would seem like a load of empty religious talk if she thought that I was paying more attention to those around us than I was to hearing how she escaped the trap of her former life.

She needed someone to see Jesus in her and that does not always come easy for me. The only way that I was able to simply stand there and get over myself and listen to her story was the fact that the reality of my epiphany meant that I could see more of the reality of Jesus in her, but I was surprised at how quickly my epiphany would be put to the test. We come down from the mountain and go back into the real world. The real world will put our mountain top experience into practice. That’s precisely the point. It’s not simply about us. Our mountain top blessings are meant to equip and sustain us to go back down the mountain and be a blessing to others.

The lesson of the Transfiguration and the lesson of this season of Epiphany is that Jesus is the light and the light always goes with us, whether we see it or not. The light is there---wherever we are called to follow Jesus to---the light is there, because Jesus is there: up on the mountain and back down in the world. My prayer for us as we end Epiphany is that we not only see the light of Christ, but that we remain open to carry that reality with us back down the mountain and out into the world to serve. AMEN

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Homily for the Second Sunday after Christmas

A homily preached at St. James Episcopal Church, Hendersonville NC on the Second Sunday after Christmas, January 2, 2011. Matthew 2:13-23

Whenever I am not at church or working at the homeless shelter, those who know me well already know the reason they cannot reach me. I am usually off hiking up in the high mountain woods far out of cell phone range. You see, my friends call me a waterfall junkie. I love waterfalls. One of my very favorite waterfalls is in Pisgah National Forest. And it’s actually very easy to get to. It’s called Courthouse Falls. The headwaters for the French Broad River flow down the mountain below a rock outcropping called the Devil’s Courthouse. Courthouse Falls is stunning. My wife says it looks like something out of a fairy tale movie. There’s a natural bowl carved out into this black rock. The rock is usually covered in some sort of flowering ivy. The river flows down a gorge and suddenly pours off into this deep green pool at the bottom. It is one my most frequent haunts.

Six years ago, a fellow waterfall addict that I have come to know through our mutual love of waterfalls, took a young lady up there on a date. It had been raining hard for a couple of days, but there was a break in the rain and he really wanted to show her this beautiful spot. He was a little surprised that the water levels seemed about normal after all of the recent rain. They made their way down into the bowl at the bottom to get a closer look. Then they rock-hopped out to the middle of the river. There he spotted a photographer’s dream come true. Just opposite the waterfall, a beautiful scene was unfolding down the river. The rays of the sun were breaking through and shining down on the river through the trees in the gorge. He could not let this opportunity pass by, so he pulled out his camera and set about trying to capture it. Those of you who do any outdoor photography know what it is like to go into that hyper focus mode where time slows down and everything else just fades away as you focus in on your subject. That’s what happened to him, but not to his date. She was watching the waterfall when she started noticing something strange. That beautiful white cascade was starting to turn brown. She was not an outdoor person, but she thought that was a bit odd. Then she noticed that the water was rapidly rising around the rocks they were standing on. Then she heard a roaring noise growing louder and louder above the waterfall. She started to punch her date and get his attention. When he turned around and looked he instantly realized the danger they were in and grabbed her hand and jumped up on the bank and started to scramble back up the wall of the gorge. Some sort of natural dam from all of the stormy weather had just broken lose up stream and all of the sudden this dark churning water full of debris just gushed over the top of the waterfall and filled the gorge with water. They barely made it out in time. I actually saw a photograph he took of this terrifying scene. Instead of pouring down into the pool, the angry water is shooting straight out like a water hose. Now, I don’t think it helped him earn a second date that in the seconds following their narrow escape from death he paused to take photographs, but he did catch some really cool images!

That is what the scenario is today’s Gospel reading feels like to me. It’s finally Christmas. We have been waiting all of Advent for the baby Jesus to arrive as we relive that story. We just spent the glorious holy days in hyper focus on the whole beautiful scene unfolding in front of us. Angel choirs singing good tidings of great joy to shepherds. Joseph and Mary; the Christ child lying in a manger. We’re looking at that beautiful scene and the very next thing we know in the narrative, the Christ child is in imminent danger of being swept away. It seems like they just got here and now the Holy Family is on the run to Egypt. Like that young lady at Courthouse Falls who began to punch her date and get his attention. An angel gets Joseph’s attention in a vivid dream and says there is life-threatening danger swiftly rolling down your way. Jesus, the Savior, born in the city of David, is all of the sudden part of a family of political refugees hiding out and taking asylum in a foreign country.

On Christmas Eve I stood right there and read Luke’s beautiful Nativity story and in the earliest moments of Christmas morning we turned the lights out, lit our candles and sang together , “Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright.” Now, this morning, I stood there and read, “Flee to Egypt…Herod is about to search for the child to destroy him.” Almost in the same breath---- it’s peace, love and joy and then run, danger, upheaval! BUT ISN’T THAT THE WAY LIFE IN THE REAL WORLD WORKS?

Sometimes in the space of a single day, we experience these high moments on top of the mountain and then next thing we know the rug is pulled from beneath us and the real world seems like it is going to flatten us like a steam roller. We come together at church and worship God together on Sunday. It’s wonderful--everyone is wishing each other the peace of the Lord, hugging and shaking hands. But then a funny thing always happens after that----Monday… and it’s back to the stress of work, school or whatever place the world exerts pressure points into our daily lives. It does not matter how much security we try to carve out for ourselves we all know what it like to suddenly go from high to low, from peace to turmoil. Probably most of us here today have experienced one of those days where everything was going just right and it was on that day----that very day, that we got the telephone call we did not want to get or the news from the doctor or the boss that we hoped would never come. That is part of the unpredictable and fluid nature of life in the real world that we live in. It’s also the world that Jesus entered. Peace and stability one moment and upheaval and bare survival the next---the pattern of the Gospel story shows that Jesus entered our zip code---or as we heard last Sunday, the Word was made flesh and entered the world. It was not a world made up simply of pristine, beautiful Christmas card sentimentality, but the raw, gritty, unpredictable real life world you and I live in!

The mystery of the incarnation is that God is fully present in the human life of Jesus. God was not only fully present in the beautiful Nativity scene. God was also fully present in sudden flight to Egypt.

My brothers and sisters the mystery of the incarnation is that God is there on our good days and somehow God is there on our worst days. It does not require a great deal of faith to believe God is present when things are calmly along as planned. The test of our faith is learning to trust that God is also present in the game-changing variables that interrupt our plans.

If you are going through some sort of sudden, unplanned, unpredicted life-altering upheaval, today’s Gospel declares that God is still with you. God is with us at the peaceful moments and God is with us when life seems to have us on the run. Please understand that I am not in anyway trying to minimize the real pain or trauma caused by the situation. The Holy Family had to get out of town and flee for their lives. They had to leave the comfort and security of friends and family behind. IT was, no doubt, both awful and absurd at the same time---just like some of the things we all experience. The good news we need to hear in the midst of our pain is that God is still with us even when we are wandering lost in exile. God is still in those times of limbo when it would be tempting to believe that we have been abandoned by Divine presence

The Gospel declares that God has been there and is there with us. is The Word was made flesh and lived among us in a human life that was as times as vulnerable and painful as our is. God does not simply dwell somewhere up there in the sweet by and by. Through the incarnation God entered the nasty now and now that is common to human experience. Through Christ God enters into our suffering and chaos and stands in solidarity with us in the midst of our pain.

At the Rescue Mission we usually seek to have a balance in the way we hire our staff. We need some people who have a great deal of professional experience, but we also try to hire some who have come through our programs or other programs like ours. We want people who now have some stability under their belts. We need them because of their ability to relate to what it’s really like to be homeless and to struggling with the issues that of that. experience. I have come to recognize that they can offer something vital that I can never offer: the solidarity of a shared experience.

One fellow once put it to me like this. “I respect education, but I am fighting to get sober. I need more than someone’s Master’s degree. I want to talk to someone who has fought this same demon that I am fighting. I want to hear how that person got through it.”

Rowan Williams, our Archbishop of Canterbury, writes about the incarnation and the ups and downs in the life experience of Jesus. He says, “… it means that God understands exactly what we are and what we suffer and why we struggle.”

The Gospel story of the flight to Egypt declares that through the human life of Jesus, God entered into a solidarity of shared experience with our upheavals, interruptions and moments when it seems we are running for dear life.

It also means that because God entered into a real world of pain and suffering, if we are going to be followers of Christ, so must we. The Gospel calls us to let go of our comfort and security to go out into that real world that is outside of our beautiful church walls. Jesus did not stay frozen in time in a nativity scene in the holy city of David.. The Messiah became a refugee child far away down in Egypt. My sisters and brothers, the Body of Christ does not remain between two candles on a beautiful altar. Each week we come forward, we eat it, we take the body of Christ into us and then go out into the real world to BE the living body of Christ. When I dismiss us each week, we go out to be the hands and feet of Jesus Christ to a truly hurting world full brokenness and upheaval.

That is part of what I love about the Episcopal Church. Anglicans are people of the incarnation. It’s part of what drew me in. It is who we are. It’s in our spiritual DNA to be out in the real world making a real difference. The Episcopal Church is not my native tradition. In the tradition I grew up in, the world was very scary place. A place to retreat from and not be defiled by it. However, the Episcopalians I knew were always right in the thick of it. Why? Because that’s the real world the Word made flesh entered into. Other traditions see the world as a glass that is half empty and leaking. It’s a lost cause. It’s heading for the flames. Give up on it. Retreat and circle the wagons and just wait for it to go there in a hand basket. As Anglicans, as people of the incarnation, we see it as a glass that is half full awaiting redemption and the fullness of God.. While other traditions are trying to modernize their buildings and worship styles, but keep their theology and members pulled back a safe distance from the world we are doing just the opposite. We hang on to our ancient liturgy and traditional worship styles, but we actively engage the world. We don’t run from the world, instead we run in to it!

St. James, as your new deacon, I am so proud of all that you are doing in the real world. You not only get it---you really get it. I am proud to say that there is so much ministry to celebrate here. In my work at the homeless shelter I interact with many other service organizations and charitable groups. I have discovered that St. James seems to be embedded in just about every transformative activity in our community. Whenever I tell people in that I am now at St. James, I hear a chorus of, “Oh they are involved in our organization. They support it and people from there volunteer here.”

Since my arrival a few weeks ago, I have been asked by a few people why I am always smiling up here. The answer is really very simple: I am just so happy to be here! I am proud to be associated with a place that follows the example of Jesus and engages the real world where people are really hurting. You are not only a grace-filled parish --- you spread that grace into the world. I am delighted about our shared journey that is ahead of us. I hope to be a cheerleader who fans the flames of your good works. I also hope to invite you to continue going out and entering into the messiness of the real world to be the living Body of Christ.

One of my favorite spiritual authors once wrote, “Life offers only one tragedy in the end: not to have been a saint.” He goes on to define “saint” as “to be in the world who God is.”

Ronald Rolheiser wrote about a four-year-old child who woke up one night frightened, convinced that there were all kinds of spooks and monsters in her room. In terror she fled to her parents' bedroom. Her mother took her back to her room and, after soothing her fears, assured her that it was safe there: "You don't need to be afraid. After I leave, you won't be alone in the room. God will be here with you!" "I know that God will be here," the child protested, "but I need someone in this room who has some skin."

The world needs more than just another sermon about the presence of God. The world needs the good news to come alive and have some skin to it. That is our calling. It is not enough to simply tell the world that God loves it. We must be in the world and let that love take concrete form in our lives and actions. By living as the body of Christ in the real world God’s presence takes shape in a tangible way.

To be a saint is “to be in the world who God is.” May God continue to grant us the courage and grace to enter into the real world and live up to that calling…to be in the mix of this world as God is. Amen.