Sermons

Humbly Confessing our Participation in Abusive Systems of Power

I am not preaching this Sunday, but if I were, here is a draft of what I would say.

May the words of my mouth and the mediations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, o Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

If I have sinned against any of you knowingly or unknowingly, by things I’ve done or things I’ve failed to do, please forgive me.

As many of you know, I am currently a seminarian seeking to become an ordained priest in the holy catholic and apostolic church. So, the recent news about the sexual abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic church in Pennsylvania has weighed greatly on my mind. How do we respond to a church that allows this to happen? I’ve seen a lot of posts on Facebook dealing with this.

One post that particularly jumped out at me was a link to an Op-Ed in the New York Times, I Stood Up in Mass and Confronted My Priest. You Should, Too.. The man spoke about going to church and hearing his priest say the church has to change. The priest began to move on and the man jumped up and asked, “How?”

The priest responded with what felt like a bureaucratic answer. At the end of the service, the priest spoke with him.

the father looked at me and said the most honest thing I’ve ever heard in a church: “You and I have no influence.”

He was right. And if congregants like me have no influence, and if parents like me no longer feel safe and comfortable bringing our sons and daughters to make Communion, then the Catholic Church is beyond redemption.

Fr. Jonathan Slavinskas, a Roman Catholic priest serving in the Diocese of Worchester, MA wrote a powerful Facebook post about how the scandal affects him from the viewpoint of putting on the priest’s collar.

He talks about the great responsibility that the collar represents, the suspicion it generates, the grave sin it now represents for so many people. He talks about questioning why he should stick around. He talks about not wanting to wear the collar because of the shame of what it represents to so many people and the weariness of dealing with it.

He then went on to talk about a woman asking if he were a Catholic priest. She wanted him to anoint her dying brother and the comfort he was able to bring to her and her family. He reminds us all that the collar is not about us, it is about Jesus. He speaks with great humility.

It reminded me of a priest I know who starts off the Divine Liturgy asking for forgiveness. It was based on his words that I asked your forgiveness at the beginning of this sermon. I was copied on an email he recently sent to a friend. He ended it with, “I remain your unworthy pastor”. We would all do well to show some of his humility.

How do we respond to the scandal in the church? Do we have any influence? Is the church beyond redemption?

Today’s Gospel offers us some insight:

Jesus said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”

Jesus doesn’t back down and responds, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.”

Many of the discipled turned away and then Jesus asked the twelve if they would turn away also. Peter responded, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

You and I do have little influence on the church structures, but that isn’t what matters. We are called to abide in Jesus and trust in God’s influence. We will not change the church. God will.

This is not just a passive thing, the “thoughts and prayers” that are so often derided in political commentary today. This is putting on the whole armor of God with the belt of truth and the breastplate of righteousness. This is praying in the spirit without ceasing.

This is adopting a spirit of humility and recognizing that we, ourselves, participate in structures of power that harm others. Like well intentioned priests in a broken ecclesiastical power structure, we participate in systems that perpetuate racism, sexism, and a raft of other “-isms”.

The first steps in dismantling these systems is recognizing our own culpability and the powerful narratives that support these systems. We can then begin to change these narratives by turning away from the gratifications they offer and turning towards the gratifications of humbly abiding in Christ.

Let us pray in the spirit without ceasing. Amen.

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The Bread of What Sort of Life?

Here is the audio of the sermon I preached at Grace and St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Hamden, CT on August 12, 2018:

The Bread of What Sort of Life (rough cut)

Below you will also find the text as prepared for delivery.

I would like to thank my good friends who provided feedback, both as I was writing it and afterwards. I hope to discuss some of their ideas in a follow up post, if I can make the time.


“I am the bread of life”. How many of you have heard verse before? If you were in church last Sunday, you probably heard it. How many of you have heard it so many times before that it has lost much of it’s meaning?

Last Sunday, I was at a folk music festival and went to a small church in upstate New York. “I am the bread of life” was written over the arch leading up to the altar. It was part of the appointed readings for last week. It is for this week also.

Since I was in New York, I didn’t hear what was preached here, but I suspect it was similar to the sermon I heard there, talking about freshly baked bread, about being hungry, maybe even about feeding the hungry. I’ve also read other people’s sermons which were about freshly baked bread.

If I wanted to play it safe, and not worry about repeating what was said last week, I could preach on other parts of the Gospel lesson or one of the other readings. Yet the folks who put together the lectionary thought this was important enough to repeat two weeks in a row, so I’ll expand a little bit on the verse.

As I think about this verse, I split it into three parts. “I am” … “the Bread” … and “Life”.

The phrase “I am” is very important in scripture. It is how God responds to Moses when Moses asks God’s name. In the Gospel of John, Jesus describes himself seven times with phrases that start off with “I am…” The final phrase is “I am the true vine”, which was the Gospel the last time I preached here. “I am the bread of life” is the first of these phrases. In these phrases, Jesus is linking himself back to God and Moses on Mount Horeb.

So, if you were to start a sentence with the words, “I am”, what would you say? Who are you - really? I was thinking about this as I was listening to folk music last weekend. One of the songs that jumped out at me was “I am the one that will remember everything”. It is about orphan refugees being trained to become child warriors. How much are we like orphan refugees, living out painful lives and being trained to deal with that our pain by bringing pain to others? To borrow from a different song, how much are we “living like a refugee”? How much are we remembering painful parts of our lives and perhaps causing pain to others? How much are we like “the least of these” that Jesus talks about, like “the others”, whomever the others might be?

In another song, Dar Williams has a response, “I am the others”. How is God calling us to treat others?

When we talk about “the bread”, we are reminded about manna. Manna is referenced in both last week’s Gospel and this week’s. Remember, God gave manna to the Israelites as they wandered and complained in the wilderness. This continues the discussion from last week, where Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves”.

Are we coming to God and to church primarily to have our needs met? Are we seeking some sort of wealth that prosperity gospel preachers talk about? God does want our needs to be met, but God has a much greater understanding of what our needs really are. God wants so much more for us. This leads me to the final phrase part of the quote. “Life”.

What sort of life are we looking for? For ourselves? For our church? What makes you feel really alive? This takes us back to the stories of David we’ve been hearing about over the past few weeks. God took David, that ruddy son of Jesse who’s been out tending the sheep and makes him king of Israel. God defends David from his adversaries. David shows his gratitude dancing before the ark of the covenant even though his wife derides him for this. God has provided for David greatly, but David wants more than is appropriate and seeks out physical intimacy with Bathsheba.

I want to be clear here. What David did wrong was not seeking physical intimacy. Unlike some conservative preachers, I believe that physical intimacy is another wonderful gift that God gives us. What David did wrong was to seek physical intimacy at the expense of others. We don’t know what Bathsheba really thought. The bible is woefully lacking in exploring the thoughts and desires of most of its female characters. This reflects a larger issue of men generally failing to respect what women want. It reflects the overarching issue of power imbalances.

This isn’t just an issue of Biblical times. We still hear it today. As one political media personality put it, “when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.” Power continues to be misused today, and it’s not just politicians. In April, the founding pastor of Willows Creek mega-church resigned amidst sexual abuse allegations. At General Convention this year, the Episcopal Church had a powerful Liturgy of Listening in response to issues of abuse and harassment in the Episcopal Church.

Last week, we heard about Nathan confronting David of his great sin, and I’ve longed to hear people confront some of our leaders today in the same manner. Perhaps the closest we are to such prophets are ones who use the #MeToo hashtag.

I suspect if we really look closely at our lives, there have been times that we have been taken advantage of by people misusing their power … AND … I suspect that we have all taken advantage of other people by misusing our own power. Sometimes, we’ve probably done this without even knowing it. I believe it is something we should always be keeping in mind when we confess our sins.

This week, we hear more about David. He gets the news that his son has died in battle and laments, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” I won’t go into Absalom’s history. It is, like so many of the stories in the Old Testament, complicated. Yet I will say that I cannot imagine the pain and grief of losing a beloved child. It is hard enough to lose even a pet.

How do we respond to such pain and grief? For David, and I suspect most of us, there are things that are more important to us than our own suffering, even than our own lives. - “Would I had died instead of you”.

One year ago today, Susan Bro’s daughter Heather Heyer was killed at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. I cannot imagine her pain and grief. Yet she is calling on people today not to respond with violence. On top of that, I can’t imagine the pain that drives people to hate other people because of their skin color.

Yet I did just read a story that helps me understand a little bit. Ken Parker, an ex-neo nazi put it this way, “I had gotten out of the navy, it was hard getting a job and it was really easy to blame it somebody else, you know people with darker skin.”

This is, I believe, can help us understand today’s gospel lesson. The crowds were asking for physical bread. They were looking for food, just as people are looking for jobs and better lives today. Jesus was talking about something much deeper.

You know, there are these quizzes on Facebook: Would you be willing to live in a haunted house with no modern communications for a month for a million dollars? Todays lesson asks a similar question: Would you rather have a life time supply of bread or have someone love you enough to be willing to suffer and die for you?

Ken Parker’s story continued on to encounter Jesus, the bread of life, when he befriended a black pastor and turned his life around, being baptized and received into a predominantly black church.

Today’s epistle takes it the one step further. It says, “Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands”. Why is this? It isn’t simply because stealing is wrong or that maybe we need to be doing our fair share of the work that needs to be done. The epistle tells us it is “so as to have something to share with the needy”. That is where we experience the joy of Christ. The epistle ends with “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

This is where we experience true joy, where our lives are most full, when we are living in love, imitating God, and sharing with those in need around us.

In a theology group on Facebook the other day we were asked what sort of church events other than the worship services did people ‘feel the spirit’. I mentioned Dinner for a Dollar. I believe it is in helping with things like Dinner for a Dollar that we are especially close to being imitators of God, living in love, that and deeply experiencing God’s love for all of us.

Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Amen.

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Sermon: Locating The Vine

Below is the text of the sermon I delivered Sunday, May 6, 2018 at Grace and St. Peter's in Hamden, CT. As described in the sermon we had switched the Gospel lessons between last week and this week, so the text was John 15:1-8. I did vary a bit from this draft as I presented it, but the ideas and framework remained the same.

[From the center Aisle]

Good Morning. Bob is out of town today and Dexter has graciously given me the opportunity to preach. In today's lesson were going to talk about about location and I’m going to do something a little bit differently. Bob has been preaching from the aisle, Amanda used to preach from the pulpit. I’m going to do a little bit of both and maybe bring in a little bit from my studies in seminary. I also invite you to think pay attention in a different way. I want you to pay attention to all that is going on here. Look around the sanctuary. Look at the altar. Look at the light coming in through the stained glass windows. Listen to my words. Listen to the sounds of people shifting around in their seats, rustling papers, and the sounds of the world outside the church, the traffic, the birds, and so on.

[pause… Walk to the altar and then to the pulpit]

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

Today, we hear the lesson about Jesus being the vine and us being the branches. We’re doing things a little bit out of order. Our lesson last week about God’s love should have been the lesson for this week and vice versa, but Bob wanted to change the order so that youth Sunday would have such a great passage to preach from and that fit in with their song. We need to keep in mind that today’s lesson comes before the lesson we heard about love last week.

These two lessons, together come as part of the Jesus’ great Farewell Discourse in chapters 14 through 17 of John. They are preceded and followed by Jesus telling the disciples about God sending the Holy Spirit.

In Biblical Studies, a lot of attention is paid to the location of various texts. When and where were the texts written? Who wrote the texts and how did they fit into the society of the time? What about the location might shape what got included and what didn’t get included in the text? Finally, how does our location today shape how we think about the texts?

An important question that the early Christians at the Gospel of John was written were struggling with was the relationship between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. Would Gentiles have to adopt Jewish customs? If so, which thread of Jewish customs, the customs of the Greek Jews spread out across the Middle East, or the customs of Hebrew Jews in Jerusalem? This was about more than things like keeping a kosher kitchen or being circumcised. It was about the very understanding of who they were.

What role did Jerusalem play to these Jews and early Christians? Jesus’ comments about being the vine need to be thought about in terms of Old Testament scriptures about Vineyards.

In Isaiah 5:7, we read:

The vineyard of the LORD Almighty
is the nation of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are the vines he delighted in.

Deuteronomy 28:30 echoes this theme but with an ominous warning, “You will plant a vineyard, but you will not even begin to enjoy its fruit.”

Various commentators have suggested that what Jesus is saying here is that what matters is our relationship with God instead of any specific physical location. In this light, John 15 fits very nicely between the discussions of the Holy Spirit coming in Chapters 14 and 16. The physical body of Jesus cannot possibly be with all people in all locations at all times, but the Holy Spirit can be.

As we continue to think about who we are as a community, I think this is an important perspective. We have a beautiful church building at a great location. Its purpose should be to draw each of us closer to God and to one another as we bring God’s love to the greater community. We, as a community, can bring God’s love, as we experience it here to people in our daily lives, wherever our paths take us.

In the Gospel, Jesus calls us to remain in him, as he remains in us. An older translation of this is ‘abide’. What does it mean to remain or abide in Jesus? The same word is used in Matthew when Jesus sends out the disciples. “Whatever town or village you enter, search there for some worthy person and stay [or remain or abide] at their house until you leave”.

This location here in Hamden is where we are sent out from. It is where we abide as we show God’s love to those around us, through programs like Dinner for a Dollar and Abraham’s tent.
Another place where the word ‘abide’ is used in the New Testament is by Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. In Matthew, Jesus says to his disciples in the garden, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here [abide or remain] and keep watch with me.”

Our location here in Hamden is also where we abide in times of grief or sadness as we say good bye to loved ones and comfort one another. We abide with those we love when they are grieving or troubled, whether they are with us here at Grace and St. Peter’s or far away from us. It is part of what makes us the community we are.

And what is the result of our abiding in Jesus? Jesus tells us, “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”

What is this fruit? We find the word used many different places. Many of my evangelical friends think of these fruits in terms of the number of new people we bring to church. That is part of it, but that is much more. In Galatians are told that the fruits of the spirit are “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control”.

In the story of Jesus birth, we get another view of what these fruits. In the beginning of Luke when Mary visits Elizabeth, Elizabeth shouts out, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb”.

This is the fruit we are called to bear, to bring God’s love into the world. It is what the children of our Sunday school spoke with us about last week. It is what we show through ministries like Dinner for a Dollar, Abraham’s Tent, Arden House, Older and Wiser, and simply showing God’s love to those around us.

Finally, we come to the type of fruit that grows on vines. The grapes used to make wine; the wine which will become for us the mystical blood of Christ in the Eucharist in a little while. We are the body of Christ. We are the branches of vine, bearing the fruit that will bring hope, love, and joy to those around us. Let us keep all of these things in mind as we consider our location, here in Hamden, and as branches connected to the vine of Christ. Amen

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The Things that are God's

This is the prepared text of the homily I delivered at Chapel on the Green in New Haven, CT, 10/22/2017

Give to the Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s. It’s a well-known quote that we can look at a bunch of different ways. It is Jesus giving a clever reply to some people trying to trap him. We like clever replies; especially in this age of Twitter and Facebook, where the snarkier a reply is the more we like them.

Jesus’ reply takes the focus away from the Pharisee’s challenge to his authority, and puts it on the bigger issues: taxes, money, and God. None of us like not having enough money. We don’t like having to give our money to other people, especially when we don’t seem to have enough money for ourselves. And in all of this, we too often forget about God. We need to be thinking about what we should be giving to God.

After all, that picture on our money is of some dead politicians, but we are serving a living God. Look around you. Where do you see the hand of our living God? Where do you see God in this beautiful fall day, in the leaves changing color, in the squirrels running across the green? Do you see God in the faces of those around you? Do you see God in your own reflection? Think about that for a moment. Stop and look around. Where do you see God?

This is the place in the homily where preachers normally go on to explain that ultimately all things come from God and we should be giving back to God some of the wonderful things God has given us. But sometimes – sometimes it just feels like all those wonderful things from God are too few and far between. We might try to think of great things God has given us and even be able to recognize that this beautiful day is a gift from God, but somehow, in our pain and brokenness, it just doesn’t feel like a great gift.

So let me offer another way of thinking about this. If all things come from God, where do you and I come from? That’s right. God. Each one of us is a gift from God. We are a gift from God to ourselves and to the people around us. We are gifts from God just waiting to be seen and recognized. I see you. I recognize you as a beautiful gift from God, even when you might not feel like a beautiful gift from God.

In a little while, we are going to share food, smiles, perhaps even some hugs. We are going to share with one another some of the gifts God has given us. I hope we will also share the recognition that each one of us is a gift from God, a gift from God that Jesus has called us to give to God. I hope that as we go forth from Chapel on the Green, we will remember that we are gifts of God to the people around us and that we can truly be that gift when one of our friends is particularly struggling.

Give to the Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.

Amen.

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In the Shadow of #Charlottesville: Blessed are the Peacemakers – Ginny Bouvier

This morning, I delivered the homily at the memorial service for Ginny Bouvier. Before I speak, I like to spend time in prayer. This morning, before my prayer time, I glanced at the news on Facebook. The wife of a friend of mine was gathering with clergy in Charlottesville, VA in response to the Unite the Right march planed there. I watched a live stream from Charlottesville of clergy praying and singing this little light of mine before I shutdown the computer, prayed, and headed over to the service.

I mentioned Charlottesville and the importance of peacemakers in our country, here today before I delivered the following homily. Please continue to pray for peace, for peacemakers, as well as for those who mourn the passing of a great peacemaker.

Today, we gather to remember Ginny Bouvier. Mingled with the grief and sadness of her passing, I suspect many of us will also feel a sense of awe and wish we had known Ginny better. You see, today we are remembering an important peacemaker. Jesus spoke about peacemakers in the Beatitudes. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God”. Sometimes we may think of ourselves as peacemakers - like when we get to friends to make up after a silly argument. That’s an important form of peacemaking. Yet Ginny’s peacemaking was on a very different level. In her position as chief of operations in Colombia for the U.S. Institute of Peace, she played a vital role in reaching the peace treaty which resulted in Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos receiving the Nobel Peace Prize.

I’ve always been interested in those who work behind the scenes, the way Ginny did. I remember when I first learned about the life of St. Francis of Assisi and wondered who were those nuns that prayed over him. St. Francis asked God to make him an instrument of God’s peace, and I think those nuns played an important, though often overlooked role.

Perhaps this tells us something about some of Ginny’s success. You see, Ginny included the overlooked in her work. The United States Institute of Peace noted that the peace accord was “unprecedented in its inclusion of victims, women and minorities, due in no small part to Ginny’s unrelenting support and advice to so many of those involved”.

An obituary in the Wellesley Underground, an alternative alumnae magazine, speaks of Ginny as a “secret Wellesley” an important person whom others find out later, went to Wellesley. Ginny “had been the first ever Latin American Studies major at Wellesley”. The author goes on to say, “though she hasn’t been part of the pantheon of Wellesley heroes, many of us who work on gender, peacebuilding, or Latin America policy would agree she deserves to be.”

Another aspect of Ginny, which is very important to many of us here, was her love of poetry. Her mother Jane told me that while Ginny was in the hospital, a young Dominican brother came and read her poetry, almost every day. It is part of why the adapted version of John Donne’s No Man is an Island is so meaningful. It was adapted to be more inclusive, the way Ginny worked on making the peace process in Colombia more inclusive. It was adapted to reference Colombia because of her work for peace there and how Colombia is the less as a result of her passing. The bell tolls for Colombia. It tolls for all of us.

Her love of literature went beyond just poetry. In 2014, when Gabriel García Márquez died, she wrote a blog post in memory of him. “The entire world mourns with Colombia as we also celebrate his life and legacy.” We can say the same about her life and legacy.

Later on in the blog post, she writes, “It is ultimately our capacity for imagination and faith that allows hope to triumph over despair, life to conquer death, love to conquer hate, and forgiveness to win out over vengeance. In the end, it is our exercise of imagination that allows peace to claim victory over war.”

These are important words for us to consider today. Our imagination and faith will sustain us as we mourn. It fits nicely with the reading from Revelation. The Faith Study Group here at Grace and St. Peter’s has been studying this book and this week we discussed the passage read today.

“God will wipe away every tear from their eyes”. It is the promise to those “who have come safely through the terrible persecution”. It is also God’s promise to us today.

As Jane and I talked about the music for the service we tried to find some way of working “Julian of Norwich”, sometimes called “Loud are the bells of Norwich” by Sydney Carter into the program.

“All shall be well, I'm telling you, let the winter come and go. All shall be well again, I know. “

So, as we mourn the passing of Ginny Bouvier, let us all aspire to be peacemakers, to include those too often overlooked, to rely on our faith and imagination, and to trust that God will wipe away every tear and all shall be well again. Amen

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