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Easter Day 2015, Rev. Lori M. Lowe

Easter Day

St. Paul’s • McHenry

April 5, 2015

 

Alleluia! The Lord is risen!

The Lord is risen indeed.  Alleluia!

There was once – and I hope still is – a tribe in East Africa in which one’s true identity is searched out even before birth.  In this tribe, the birth of a child is not counted from the day of its physical birth, nor even the day of conception.

The birth date is counted from the first time the child is a thought in its mother’s mind.

Aware of her desire to conceive a child with her beloved, the mother goes off to sit alone under a tree.  There she sits and listens until she can hear the song of the child that she hopes to conceive.

Once she has heard it, she returns to her village and teaches the song to the father so that they can sing it together as they make love, inviting the child to join them.

After the child is conceived, she sings it to the baby in her womb throughout her pregnancy.  She teaches it to the old women and midwives of the village so that during her labor and at the moment of birth, they can greet the child with its song when it comes into this world.

After the birth, all the villagers learn the song of their new member and sing it to the child when it falls or hurts itself.  It is sung at special occasions, and in rituals and initiations.  When the child is grown this song is part of the marriage ceremony.

And at the end of life, loved ones will gather around the death bed to sing this song for the last time.

In the ancient world of Israel, names had much the same importance.  To know one’s name was to be able to call forth the essence of that person, to have a kind of power over them.  That is why for the Jews, the name of God is not spoken.

For Christians, naming a child at baptism is more than just repeating the name chosen by his or her parents.  It is to name the child INTO the family of God.

And God knows us, each of us, uniquely and particularly by name.  Like the song of identity in that African village, our names are an essential part of who we are.

Little wonder then, that Jesus had to call Mary by name before she knew him.

…she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she didn’t know that it was Jesus.  He said to her, Woman, why are you weeping?  Who are you looking for?  Thinking that he was the gardener, she said, Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me… and let me go and get his body.  

Jesus said to her, “Mary!”  She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!”… 

It is little wonder that she didn’t recognize him at first.  Imagine her distress.  To do that, we must remember what she and the others have been through.  They have watched as Jesus was tortured and killed in an unimaginably brutal way.

They had taken his bloody, lifeless, cold body, and wrapped it for burial.  Make no mistake: he was dead.  And they knew it.  Unlike most of us, who can go through our whole lives without actually touching the body of one who is dead… they knew.

Then they had laid him in a rolling stone tomb.  Such a tomb is carved out of – more accurately – into solid rock.  To enter, one had to duck through the opening and step down into the trench that has been dug in the rock in order to be able to stand around a rectangular slab or table left in the center.  In the outer wall, five or six tunnel-like holes have been carved.

Normally, a body is placed on the table and prepared with oils and spices, wrapped in linen clothes, and then slipped into one of the tunnels which is then sealed with stone and mortar.

After two or three years, all that remains are bones, which are reverently removed and placed in jars or small casket-like reliquaries.  This is the kind of tomb that a family could use for generations.

Jesus’ friends and family had laid his body on the stone table in just such a tomb.  But when sundown settled on them, it meant that the Sabbath had begun.  So they had to cease their work – the burial preparations – until the Sabbath was over.

On Sunday morning, Mary had arrived early with the oils and spices to complete the preparations.  When she saw that the stone had been rolled away, she alerted the others, who came to see for themselves.

Finally, she was left there, by herself, to weep for her beloved friend and teacher.  It was then that he came to her.  It was then that he called her by name.

“Mary,” he said, and she knew him – and forever after, she – and the world – were changed.  Transformed.  Made new.

God in Christ calls us by name, and we too are forever changed, transformed, and made new.  The world is a different place now because death no longer has the last word.

Death no longer wins.  God has given us, through Christ, the gift of everlasting life.  Not immortality – which is to never die – but new life and life everlasting.

But this is no pie-in-the-sky promise.  This is now.  Today.  Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, not only does death not have the final word, but sin no longer stands between us and God.  And this is the heart of our transformation, our newness.

I am convinced that forgiveness is the key; that Jesus came to embody the love of God in such a way that we would know once and for all time that we are forgiven; that nothing stands in the way of our salvation.

Nevertheless, it is our human nature, it seems, to need to know the parameters of God’s mercy… as if there are rules and limitations to forgiveness.

  • Who is forgiven?
  • Is there something I must do in order to be forgiven?
  • Are there some things, some people who are unforgivable?

Names of notorious evildoers leap to mind.

There is a legend – purely imaginary, of course – which pictures the Last Day, the end of history.  Everyone is celebrating, dancing, shouting “hallelujah!” and caught up in the spirit of jubilation.  Everyone except Jesus.

He is standing very quietly over by the gates of paradise.  Someone asks him what he’s doing… standing so quietly by the gates.  He says simply, “I’m waiting for Judas.”

The love and forgiveness of God has no bounds, no limits.  That is the scandal of the gospel.  We are all offered the grace, the mercy, the forgiveness of God.  We are all offered an invitation to share in his resurrection.  We are all called by name…

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

The Lord is risen indeed.  Alleluia! 

lml+

Sermon, 7/27/14, The Rev. Lori M. Lowe

Pentecost VII (Proper 12 Year A)                                    

St. Paul’s McHenry

July 27, 2014                                                          

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.

“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God…”

For anyone who reads or listens to the news, things have been really bad lately.  Heck, things have been really bad for a long time!  One thing after another, it seems.

  • One plane disappearing, another – both civilian, commercial airlines – shot down.
  • The madness in the Middle East boiling over… again.
  • The weekly announcements about the body count in Chicago.
  • The news is just crazy.  All of it!

Those are the headline stories.  Just as surely, there are others less likely to make the news.  Most of us could tell one close to home.

  • A friend in an auto accident…
  • A family member diagnosed with some serious condition…
  • …a troubled teen or struggling elder
  • Someone losing a job, someone hating a job
  • A loved one in trouble.

Is it just me, or does it seem to you like we’re drowning in all manner of suffering?  Of course there’s good stuff happening all around us, too.  But sometimes I feel like the Charlie Brown cartoon going around on Facebook this past week.

Charlie Brown and Linus are sitting on a log with long faces.  The caption above them reads: WORRYING WON’T STOP THE BAD FROM HAPPENING.  IT JUST STOPS YOU FROM ENJOYING THE GOOD. Well, that’s true enough.  But I don’t think we are supposed to ignore the bad stuff either.  To all of this, Paul says: all things work together for good for those who love God.  And I want to know… HOW. I want to know how, you understand, but I’m not big on a lot of god-talk.  I don’t want to hear bumper sticker theology… things like “Every day with Jesus is brighter than the day before,” or “Give it all to God and God will take care of it.”

When I’m feeling depressed and burdened by the hatred and violence that seems to be spreading across the face of the earth like a dark cloud, when I’m feeling sad and heavy-hearted by the sorrow and suffering that seems to be our human lot, cheap god-talk won’t do.

I’m reminded of a story that Fred Craddock tells.  I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned him to you before, but just in case… Dr. Craddock was one of the professors of homiletics at Candler School of Theology (my seminary).  He was on the list of the Twelve Best Preachers in the English Language; a list which was produced by Baylor University in 1996.

Fred tells a story about going to a victory party after attending a Georgia football game with friends.  (That’s the University of Georgia, you understand… sort of like “Da Bears” and what?… Notre Dame rolled into one.) The party was in a grand house in an Atlanta suburb.  Everyone was wearing stuff that said “How ‘bout them Dawgs,” and talking about the great game. Just about the time the hostess put out trays of little sandwiches, Fred noticed a woman who was a little overdressed to have just come from the game.  She was, in Fred’s words, “just dripping with success,” she and her husband both.  She stood up in front of everyone and announced, “I think we ought to sing the Doxology.” And before anyone could even vote on it, he says, she started.  A few sang with gusto.  Some stood there and counted their shoelaces, some tried to find a place to set their drinks because it didn’t seem right to hold a drink during the Doxology. (Obviously they weren’t Episcopalians!)  Others just sort of hummed along, feeling a bit awkward. When it was over, this imposing woman said, “You can talk all you want about the running of Herschel Walker [he was the 1982 Heisman winner], but it was Jesus that gave us the victory.”  Somebody asked, “Do you really believe that?”  And she said, “Of course I do. Jesus said ‘Whatever you ask in my name, I’ll give you.’  So I asked, ‘Jesus, I want us to win more than anything in the world,’ and we won.  I’m not ashamed to say that it’s because of Jesus, because I’m not ashamed of the gospel.” About this time, Fred says he was moving toward the kitchen.[i]

Me?  I think I’d have been moving toward my car.  That kind of god-talk doesn’t do it for me.  So how is it that we can even entertain Paul’s point blank statement that “all things work together for good for those who love God”?  At least, how can we do it without cheap god-talk?

Take that last bit, for instance — the part in Paul’s letter to the Romans about “for those who love God” — even that part rattles me.  I mean, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love God.  That’s not to say that I haven’t gone through times of doubt, confusion, and even despair.  But even then I had a sense – however vague – of belonging to God, of loving God. So wouldn’t you think that those of us who love God would get a break?  Be due a little favoritism?

My father died when I was 18.  He was only 41.  His long illness had invaded every aspect of our lives, mine and my mother’s and my sister’s.  At his funeral, I remember holding on by the skin of my teeth by saying over and over again to myself: “There must be a reason.  I don’t understand it now, but someday I will.  There must be a reason.” I didn’t know the Bible well enough back then to have quoted Romans.  Nevertheless, I think I was pretty darn close to something like… This will somehow work for the good, even if I don’t understand it now. Surely that’s what Paul is talking about when he says that for those of us who love God, the Spirit lives in us, and when we are rendered speechless, the Spirit prays on our behalf.  The Spirit puts our deepest groans into words.  So even a grieving eighteen-year-old girl can hang on for dear life.

We might not always be able to see the evidence of God’s love for us.  Sometimes we might feel overwhelmed by the immediate circumstances.  But it is at just such times, Paul tells us, that we are to claim – grab and hang onto for dear life – the gift of Jesus.  The gift of Christ’s suffering is to remind us that we are not alone. That is the proof of God’s solidarity with us.  We are not alone, and nothing — not life or death, not the past or the present, not anything in all creation — can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

All that being said, it’s a fair question to ask me: what good came of my father’s death?  Can I point to something specific and say, there, that’s the good that came of his untimely death?  Or, yes, I understand it now.  No.  But I can say this: that loss, and what I learned from it, is part of who I am. It is one of the things that has shaped my life, my vocation, and my faith.  It has made me stronger in the broken places.  God’s grace has turned my devastation into hope; my sorrow into tenderness.

In 2005, there were two sisters from Tennessee on one of the London subway trains when a terrorist bomb went off only ten feet from where they were sitting.  Both sisters were seriously, but not severely injured, though people all around them were dead or critically hurt. When they were back in the States in a rehabilitation center, they were interviewed.  Both young women spoke quietly and simply of how, while they were waiting for help to arrive, they prayed not only for the injured and dead, but also for those who were so misguided as to do such a terrible thing. It was not cheap god-talk; anything but.  It was as if the Spirit had been praying through them.  Clear, pure, honest, simple. That’s the kind of faith, courage, and strength we get, I believe, only from being in the community of faith, the family of God.  It comes from hearing the stories of the Bible, saying the prayers, singing the hymns, and being fed by the Body and Blood of Jesus.

That’s how I knew to say “someday I’ll understand” — my youthful version of “all things work for good.”  I learned it in church. That’s why we’re all here, I suppose.  Because this is where we absorb what we need.  This is where we are continually reminded of God’s love for us.  This is where we are nourished in mind and body and spirit… so that when the time comes, we can say with Paul: ALL THINGS WORK FOR GOOD FOR THOSE WHO LOVE GOD. And this is what we have to offer to others; to those who have no framework for their suffering, no company in their loneliness, no hope in their confusion.  Not that we have the answers – and certainly not easy answers.

Nevertheless, in this sometimes dark and violent world, we can offer peace.  In a world that glorifies revenge, we can offer forgiveness.  We may not be able to stop the bad stuff from happening, but together, we can help each other enjoy the good. And in the process, we can be reminded that all things work for good, and that nothing can separate us from the love of God.  Nothing.

Amen.

Lori +

 

 

[i] Craddock Stories, p. 73-74

Sermon, 7/20/14, The Rev. Lori M. Lowe

Pentecost  VI (Proper 11 A)                                                St. Paul’s McHenry

July 20, 2014                                                                            

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.

For two Sundays in a row, we’ve heard versions of parables involving farmers planting their crops.  In the version we heard last week, the so-called Parable of the Sower, Jesus describes a farmer who sows his seed extravagantly, so that it lands on rocks, hard scrabble, and on good soil alike. And if you were here last week, you’ll remember that I talked about how Jesus used parables; how they had various possible meanings, and the way these little stories were meant to send people away scratching their heads and wondering what Jesus meant. And I also talked about how Matthew just couldn’t resist explaining it and turning it into an analogy, meaning no harm, of course.  He was just trying to help his young church understand.

Today – just a few verses later in the Gospel of Matthew – we have Jesus once again telling a story about a farmer sowing his fields.  In this version, known as the Parable of the Wheat and Tares, “an enemy” (that’s code for The Devil) comes behind the farmer and sows weeds.

“Master… do you want us to go and gather [the weeds]?” his workers asked.  But the farmer says, “No.  If you do that, you’ll uproot the wheat with the weeds.  Just let both of them grow together until the harvest.” Now, I’m not much of a gardener, but my mother was.  She grew everything from fabulous southern azaleas to roses and zinnias, and the lawn to show them off. One of the things I remember about her puttering in our yard was her constant vigilance for weeds.  A weed could hardly break the soil before she snatched it up.

I’m not a farmer either, so I did a little research to find out more about farming in 1st century Palestine; you know, just to get a feel for what Jesus’ listeners might have been thinking as he told this parable. It would seem that my mother wasn’t too far off.  Those farmers listening to Jesus would have really been scratching their heads and likely thinking, This carpenter doesn’t know much about farming, does he! Actually, there are several things in Jesus’ story that would have tipped off his listeners that this story wasn’t exactly on the up-and-up.  For instance, since weeds were common enough, why would “an enemy” need to sow them?

Furthermore, it was common practice to remove weeds two or three times during the growing season and to bundle them up to be used as much needed fuel. So you see, right from the beginning, they knew something unusual is coming.  ‘Let the wheat and the tares grow up together’ is probably not what a farmer – or modern day gardener, for that matter – would be expecting to hear. All that being said, now we have another sort of problem.  It’s about the interpretation of the parable – the part in which each element of the parable is assigned a meaning and explained, which was quite unlike Jesus when he told stories and parables.

We are challenged to discern how much of all this Jesus may have actually said… and how much of it may have been Matthew’s well-intentioned expansion for the sake of his fledgling community. We do this discernment with prayer, scholarship, and the God-given gift of intellect.  In the end, most scholars agree that Matthew added the allegory; the part that explains that the weeds represent evil and will be burned in what sounds an awful lot like hell.

Matthew’s church, like all churches, was undoubtedly caught in the tension between their sense of obligation to call people to lives of goodness and holiness… and their desire to offer all comers the gift of acceptance and forgiveness. We, too, experience that tension.  In addition, most of us are keenly aware of living in a time of terrible, general belligerence.  Everything, every disagreement, is a potential battleground. This contentiousness pervades the international scene, our national politics, our communities and parishes,  and sometimes right down to families.  I don’t even need to offer examples, because I’m pretty sure you’ve immediately thought of several. It’s a contentiousness borne of pseudo-righteousness and judgmentalism.

Actually, that’s a word I just made up.  I made it up because I wanted to emphasize the difference between judgment and the form of judgment that really must end in “–ism”; thus, judgmentalism. I mean this to highlight the difference between conviction and rigidity, between passion and fanaticism. We have allowed rigidity and fanaticism to infect the air we breathe.  Christian fanatics, Jewish fanatics, Muslim fanatics; political fanatics of all sorts.  And in truth, fanatics of all stripes are dangerous.

But if I understand Jesus at all, if I understand this parable at all, we are to focus on nurturing goodness, promoting reconciliation, and healing divisions. The world is full of hatefulness, greed, meanness, full of violence which will threaten the good seed, but we are to sow love and kindness and forgiveness. If Jesus is to be taken seriously, we are to trust that love will overcome the madness, greed, and hate; and that God will suffice.  We are, in fact, to trust that God in Christ has already won the victory.

Is this passive?  Is it pie-in-the-sky theology?  I don’t believe so, if only because I know from experience that sowing love and kindness and forgiveness is the hardest work there is.  But when those things take root in the human heart, when they form the foundation of all that we do, then the Reign of God shines through the darkness.

There are glimpses all around.  Take for instance:

  • Kids for Peace, which brings together children from conflicted groups.  It started with Catholic and Protestant kids from Northern Ireland with life-altering results, and has expanded to children from Jewish and Muslim communities in the Middle East.
  • Most of us can remember the commitment to non-violence in the American Civil Rights Movement; the courage and bravery of the men and women who stood peacefully for justice.
  • There was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa which almost certainly prevented a bloodbath when Apartheid ended.
  • And there are organizations and ministries all over the country and the world reaching out to help those most in need, such as Heifer International, Episcopal Relief and Development, our own Diaper Bank and Betts’ Place.

This is a list that could go on and on.  These glimpses are visible at every level of human society. I remember a story I heard some years ago that made a deep impression on me.  It was about a neighborhood, an ordinary suburban neighborhood, into which a single Jewish family moved. During the holidays, when all the Christian families had their Christmas trees on display, this one family had their menorah in their front window. One night, someone threw a rock through that window and shouted anti-Semitic slurs as they drove by.  The next day, every window in the neighborhood quietly displayed a menorah.

I love that story.  It reminds me that there are many ways to sow love and kindness and forgiveness.

  • It reminds me that we are all part of the same human family;
  • that we are in the same boat;
  • that we will all sink or swim together;
  • and that the final outcome is in God’s hands.

So let the wheat and the tares grow up together.  In the end, it may not be so much a matter of who among us is evil and who is righteous; of who will be cast out and who will be invited into the heavenly kingdom. Given the extravagant mercy of God, it’s more likely that it will be about the good and evil, the love and hatred that grows in each of us, and that when the Kingdom of God is fulfilled, God will sort out the weeds that clutter each of our hearts… so that we will all be invited into the Kingdom.

Meanwhile, we are to do the best we can to sow love and kindness and forgiveness; and to remember that in God’s mercy, God is allowing the wheat and tares in the world – and in us – to grow together until the harvest.

Lori Lowe +

Sermon, 7/13/14, The Rev. Lori M. Lowe

Pentecost IV (Proper 10 A)                                                 St. Paul’s

July 13, 2014                                                                                McHenry

 May the word of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.

Let me start my reflection – and this is more a reflection today than a sermon – with a couple of points of clarification.  First, we use the term “gospel” to describe the four versions of the story of Jesus that are part of the canon of scripture – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, our reading this morning being from the Gospel of Matthew. But the basic meaning of “the gospel” is this: the good news of the love of God revealed in Jesus.  Or put more simply, the good news of God in Christ. 

The second point of clarification is about parables.  A parable – one of the main vehicles Jesus used in his teaching – is by definition a succinct story meant to be instructive.  One of the characteristics of a true parable is that it doesn’t necessarily have only one meaning.  When Jesus tells a parable, his listeners are left to ponder what the heck that meant!  And while it’s tempting to turn a parable into a fable or morality tale, or to turn it into an analogy, giving each element of the story a meaning, Jesus rarely if ever did that.  He seemed to have loved to let people go away scratching their heads.

Point in case: the Parable of the Sower.  Jesus told this concise little story about a farmer who spread his seeds randomly and, one might even say, extravagantly.  Some lived, some died, some thrived.  That’s it.  Just that.  He wrapped it up with, “Let anyone with ears listen!”

Then, according to faithful scholars, Matthew just couldn’t stand it – leaving it hanging like that.  So in his account of this story, he added his analogy, explaining what each element of the story represented.  It’s not a bad analogy, as analogies go. But his explanation cheats us of the opportunity to go away scratching our heads and pondering what Jesus might have meant; cheats us of having to work at opening our ears – our minds and hearts.

It’s a wonderful parable, don’t you think?  One that fits nicely into the images of sowing and reaping that we read in the Old and New Testaments.  Take for instance these examples:

Job 4:8  … those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same.

Proverbs 22:8   Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity…

Galatians 6:7-8  You reap whatever you sow…

2 Corinthians 9:6  …whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.

Quite simply, what we sow is what we reap.

  • If we sow violence, we will reap violence.
  • If we sow anger, we will reap anger.
  • If we sow – that is, if we tolerate, allow, or participate in injustice, WE WILL REAP NOT ONLY INJUSTICE FOR OURSELVES,

BUT THE FRUITS OF INJUSTICE WILL BE HATRED, RESENTMENT, AND WAR.

On the other hand, what would be the fruits of our sowing if we sowed compassion, justice, forgiveness, and love?  Let me give you a minute to imagine that…   (Feel free to scratch your heads.)  Ponder now this quote from the Honorable John Lewis, a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement side-by-side with Dr. King, and now Congressional Representative from my home state of Georgia:

[paraphrased] “We may have come here on many different ships, but now we’re all in the same boat.”

He reminds us that, except for Native Americans, we are all immigrants.  That being said, we are one nation, “…we’re all in the same boat.” I find myself thinking about that a lot lately; the idea that we are all in the same boat.  About the idea that those few men and women who have gone into space all say the same thing – that there are no borders visible from space. It’s very theological, of course, as in the prayer of Jesus that we all are one even as he and God are one.  Not just Christians, we must understand, but all of us… all people, all creatures, all creation.

What I’m beating around the bush about is the issue of these thousands of children who have come like “huddled masses” to our shores; literally to our borders.  Some are so young that I cringe at the desperation of their parents, their mothers and fathers, who sent them off into the unknown. To my mind, this is not an immigration issue.  This is a human issue, a refugee issue.  And they are children.  Texas, Nevada, California, all along the Gulf coast, anywhere along our southern borders. One town held a protest rally, demanding that these intruders be turned back, deported immediately.  Others have found places in their communities to provide shelter, food, beds for the children at their door.

Each will reap what they have sown.

All this may seem far away from McHenry.  But it turns out that several hundred of these children are being sheltered in Chicago.  It also turns out that we have hungry children right here in McHenry; and that is a conversation we will have very soon.  But for now, I’m trying to imagine what would it take for me to give all the money I have, everything, to a stranger who promised to take my child to an unknown destination and leave him there?  Such a thing seems inconceivable to me in my comfortable, sheltered world.  On the receiving end, I’m trying to imagine how we are to respond to this tragedy through the lenses of the gospel, through the lenses of the love of God in Christ Jesus.

I’m trying to think of what we might sow and what we might reap:

  • What will we reap if we sow indignation and rejection?
  • What will we reap if we sow love and compassion?

(Head scratching may be appropriate.)

Hear then this parable:

There was a gardener who had many workers.  This gardener allowed each of the workers in this garden to plant, tend, and harvest in any way they liked. One of the workers was insecure and anxious, so he or she (it doesn’t matter which) put a fence around his portion of the garden, put out poison to keep away the critters who kept trying to take a tomato or two, and who worked hard to protect what was his. Another of the workers preferred to ignore the gardening with the result that nothing much grew, and what did grow wasn’t very productive.  Even the critters didn’t much bother with it.  Another worker partnered up with several others to share the work and the bounty.  Their garden flourished and provided more than enough for them, their less fruitful neighbors, and even the critters. 

Let those with ears to hear, listen.

Lori +

Sermon, February 23, 2014, The Rev. Lori M. Lowe

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

Amen. [Read more…]

Sermon: February 16, 2014, The Rev. Lori M. Lowe

Epiphany VI (A)                                                            St. Paul’s

February 16, 2014                                                         McHenry

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.

 

A few years ago, WWJD became popular, especially among young people, in the Christian lexicon.  What Would Jesus Do?  It was emblazoned on everything from rubber bracelets to sterling silver charms and wooden plaques. 

 

It’s an interesting question, I suppose.  What would Jesus do?  But I confess: I was never terribly enthusiastic about this fad.  I mean, we don’t really know what Jesus would do.  Really, we don’t.

 

While we Episcopalians treasure scripture, most of us don’t read it as the literal, inerrant words of the transcendent, omnipotent God.  To be sure, we believe that scripture “contains all things necessary for salvation,” but not that everything in it is literal.

 

In other words, we read the Bible for hope and inspiration, but not so much as a book that could tell us what Jesus would do.

 

If we are in need of a slogan or a motto, we might turn back the clock to another set of initials: AMDG.  It stands for Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam – obviously Latin – meaning, To the Glory of God.

 

Johann Sebastian Bach felt so strongly that his musical compositions were meant to glorify God that he scrawled those initials at the top of every manuscript.  AMDG.  To the Glory of God.

 

Maybe it’s a good thing to have a slogan; something to remind us what we’re about, who we are.  Something to call us to a higher standard.  After all, Jesus spent a lot of his time and energy calling us to something better, something higher, holier.

 

You know the Law, he said, how it says “You shall not murder.”  Well, get this: I say it’s not enough to refrain from actually killing.  I say: Anger and judgment and liable do just as much to kill the human spirit.  DON’T DO IT!

 

You’ve got courts of law to settle your disputes… in which to sue each other and wreak havoc in each other’s lives just to prove that you’re right.  But I say: Work things out, forgive each other, be reconciled!

 

You know the Law, he said again, how it says “You shall not commit adultery.”  But I’m telling you: there are many, many ways of being unfaithful.

 

His litany goes on and on, shining the harsh light of reality on our legalism and hardness of heart… calling us to something better, something higher, holier.

 

__________________

 

In the past decade or so, St. Paul’s – like almost all churches – has experienced a decline in numbers.  Young people and children have all but disappeared, and we are a “graying” congregation.  It’s discouraging and disheartening for those of us who love the church.

 

Here’s what I want to say to you – and if you remember nothing else from this sermon, remember this: IT IS NOT YOUR FAULT.  You are the faithful.  You have been and are preserving the prayers, the breaking of the bread, and the teaching of the apostles.

 

You are the faithful. 

 

This is happening in all mainline churches, and even the so-called mega-churches are now feeling the pinch.  The Roman Catholics seem to be holding their own, but that has a lot to do with the influx of Hispanic immigrants.

 

The reasons for the loss of numbers are many and complex.  There are shelves of books on the subject.  If you want to make a study of this, just Google “decline in Christian churches,” and be prepared to spend a lot of time reading.

 

In response, there has been something of a movement usually referred to as “the emergent (or emerging) church.”  I’ve found some of this material helpful and encouraging. 

 

Simply put, the main proponents of this movement tell us that every 500 years or so, almost like clockwork, the church – meaning Christianity in general – has undergone radical change, and that we are now in the middle of just such an historical metamorphosis. 

 

Whether one agrees with the whole of the material isn’t particularly important, it seems to me.  But what is clear is this: we are in a time of change; not just the church, but every aspect of life is undergoing radical change.

 

Yesterday, the THRIVE team from St. Paul’s spent the day with some of the other churches in this year’s Thrive program.  We’re learning lots of inspiring and interesting things.  But we don’t have any easy answers for you, and in fact, I rather doubt that our end result will have anything to do with easy answers.

 

But we are asking the hard questions: who are we – this little community we call St. Paul’s?  What is God calling us to do in this present time and place?  How are we even going to go about discerning that?

 

Where we are now, right now, is in the “meanwhile,” in the meantime.  As we live into this process of discerning how to be church in a new time, how to change while holding onto those things we hold most dear… WHAT DO WE DO IN THE MEANTIME?

 

Well, this is what I think: that in the meantime, we live into something better, something higher, something holier. 

 

·        You have heard it said, be polite to each other.  But what would Jesus say?  How about: Love each other!  Treat each other with genuine – even sacred – respect, as if it was me you’re talking to… or talking about.

·        You’ve heard it said, give your time, talent, and treasure to the church.  How about: everything you have and everything you are and ever will be is mine.  Give like it doesn’t belong to you.

·        You’ve read that the poor will always be with you.  But what about this: Don’t just pity the poor – identify with them!  Relate to them, sit with them, eat with them, share with them.  Remember that most of you could be one of them under different circumstances.

·        You remember that scripture says not to gossip.  But here’s the thing: everything you say about another person will come back to either haunt or bless you.  It’s up to you which one.  Pick wisely.

 

Well, I could go on with this for a while.  But I have confidence in you… in your imaginations, your capacity and willingness to ponder these things.  Together, we might even embrace and practice them.

 

Whatever and whoever God is calling us to be as the Body of Christ, may everything we do, everything we say, every breath we take…

BE TO THE GLORY OF GOD.

                     Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam.

   

                                                                          

Bishop Lee’s Sermon: Renewal of Ministry St. Paul’s, McHenry, January 15, 2014

On Monday morning this week, as I was contemplating tonight’s sermon and not having a blessed idea about what I would say, I offered up a little prayer that God might send me an idea.  Well, while I don’t advocate thinking about God as a divine Santa Claus just waiting to grant my every wish, I have to say that no sooner had I made my little prayer, than I opened the Chicago Tribune to a half page ad for a Lutheran retirement community in Chicago.  Over the smiling face of a very pleasant looking older woman the headline read in big, bold letters:  St. Paul’s House knows.  Knows what?  The smaller, fainter type underneath the headline listed all the things that the caring staff apparently knows about the woman in the picture — her children and grandchildren, how she met her husband, that she used to sing in a big band, that she likes bacon and eggs for dinner, that she enjoys flower arranging.  In other words St. Paul’s House is a place that cares enough about its residents to know them, the details of their lives, what matters most, that every life — as the ad put it at the bottom of the piece — every life is a tapestry. [Read more…]