Monday, September 24, 2018

Ask More Questions

“’The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three day after being killed, he will rise again.’ But the disciples did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”
            So, instead of risking sounding clueless by asking Jesus what he means when he says the Son of Man will be betrayed, killed, and resurrected on the third day, the disciples try to compensate for their ignorance by arguing over who is the important disciple. Their feelings of inadequacy lead the disciples to puff themselves up by comparing resumes. Jesus is not, however, the chair of a calling committee for a new Rector. 
Jesus could care less about their resumes. If he did care about their resumes, these twelve would never have made it out of their fishing villages. These disciples flunked out of Rabbi school and were destined to a life in the family trade. They forget that only by grace are they called to follow Jesus.
Jesus does not care about their resumes, their accomplishments, their awards. Rather, Jesus wants to know where their heart is. Are these disciples following Jesus because they think they can make a name for themselves? Or are they following Jesus because they believe Jesus can make a name for those whom society gives no name?
In order to illustrate his point, Jesus puts a child in front of the disciples and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” In other words, Jesus puts in front of the disciples someone who is most likely to be forgotten by society. Jesus is telling the disciples that the kingdom of God gives priority to the least, the last, and the lost. These the most important voices in God’s kingdom.
While the disciples might be afraid to ask Jesus questions about the kingdom of God, I can assure you the child Jesus puts in front of them is not afraid to speak up and give voice to her questions. I know this because I have a 5-year-old. I also know this because I read on the internet (because everything on the internet is true) that the average 4-year-old asks over 400 questions a day!
A child isn’t afraid to ask questions because they still believe the realm of possibilities is endless. They still believe that there is nothing in our imaginations that can’t be touched or realized. They aren’t afraid to know all that is possible. But we grown-ups have been disappointed one too many times to believe in all that is possible. 
Therefore, we are often too afraid to ask questions that will take us beyond our wildest imaginations. Our dreams have been dashed too many times. Our hearts have grown cold and closed off to a world of possibilities. We forget that life is a mystery to enjoy and take delight in especially when we don’t have all the answers. 
Amanda, Mary Beth, and Chris shared some of the questions the children here at Ascension are asking about the kingdom of God. Some of the questions have pretty straight forward answers. Others do not.  
Why does fire stand for the Holy Spirit? Did that really happen? Do you really have to forgive everybody? What is a deacon? Do I have to drink the wine? Where is heaven? Can I touch God? Is Jesus a boy or a girl?
The thing I love about questions is that they open our eyes to what was previously unseen. Questions take us on a spiritual journey with God as our teacher. And these questions on our spiritual journey have the potential to open our hearts to new reality, a new way of being, a new way of living, a new way of imagining what the world could be through the love of Jesus. 
Questions change our posture from one of arrogance and pride to one of humility and vulnerability. And this is what Jesus hopes the disciples understand when he sets a child in front of them. The only stupid question is the one not asked. As any teacher or professor will say, I hope you leave here on Sunday mornings with more questions than answers.
The biggest question of our faith that begs to be asked, a question that today’s lesson begs us to ask, “Why is the way of the cross none other than the way of life and peace?” In addition to not being on the calling committee for a new Rector, Jesus is also not a Rector. Jesus did not come to run a church. He left that up to Peter. 
In the end, the way of the cross leaves Jesus with a congregation of less than five members – the beloved disciple, his mother, and a few Marys. Jesus goes from a congregation of 5,000 to less than five in under a year. By any standard, Jesus would make a terrible Rector. But don’t worry, I’m not Jesus.  
But again, Jesus did not come to start a church. Jesus came to start a movement. The Jesus Movement, as our Presiding Bishop would say, includes betrayal, suffering, and death.
The Jesus Movement cuts against every facet of society – political, social, economic, and even religious. And our part in the Jesus Movement is not about our willingness to be successful – at least by the world’s standards – but by our willingness to fail by the world’s standards.
Now, I am right there with you. I have a hard time swallowing this idea. “Whoever wants to be first of all must be last of all.” Like the disciples, I don’t ask Jesus why this is (why we must fail to be first) enough in my own prayers. Why is the way of Jesus none other than the way of life and peace? In all reality, I am afraid to ask because I know the answer. 
I know that means there will come a time when I must choose between the kingdom of God – where the least, the last, and the lost are the most valuable and the kingdoms of this world – where the best and brightest are the most valuable. 
I know there will come a time when I must choose between the right thing and the popular thing. I know there will come a time when the middle ground erodes away. And I know that choosing the way of the cross might leave me vulnerable and open to ridicule. 
But I hope I am not alone in asking these questions. I hope you will join me in asking these questions. What does it mean that in order to be first of all we must become last of all? What questions are the children asking? What are the voices of the least, the last, and the lost saying to the Church? And I also hope you will ask, what is the worst that could happen?
I can answer that last one for you. That’s an easy one. The answer is found in the words of Jesus – and after three days I will rise again. The beauty and wonder and mystery of life in the kingdom of God is there is no end. The more willing we are to die, the more willing we are to fail, the more willing we are to risk sounding ignorant, the more chances we get to grow in resurrection life, the more chances we get to grow in grace, the more chances we get to grow in the way of life and peace.
I spoke with Mary Anne Hornbuckle this week about the Pastoral Care Committee. She told me that their philosophy is to make sure nobody in the parish gets forgotten. When I heard this, I was even more convinced that we made the right decision to come to the Ascension. Friends, at the end of the day, this is what life in the kingdom of God is all about – to make sure no one is forgotten especially the least, the last, and the lost.
So, it seems to me that some of the first things we ought to do together as a congregation is to make sure no one is forgotten. Who are the people you haven’t seen around in a while? Maybe they are sick. Maybe they just decided to stop coming to church. Maybe they have moved to a different church. Maybe they have been hurt by the church. Maybe their life is falling apart. 
Whatever the reason, we have the opportunity to show them the power of God’s love. We have the opportunity to meet someone where they feel lonely or afraid or heartbroken or angry over something that is going on at home or work or church or in their own heart. And when we meet them there, we communicate the ultimate truth of God, a truth that say, I will not forget you. 
When we reach out in this way, then we will find that our heart is in the right place. For in the end, we all (rich or poor) want to know the answer to the same questions. Am I loved? Am I valued? Am I important? And in case you forgot, Jesus has answered this question for all of us. Our Lord and Savior was willing to be betrayed, endure suffering, and die to communicate God’s deepest desire – for us to know that we are not alone even at our darkest hours. Amen.

Monday, September 10, 2018

But the Story Remains the Same

When I stood in this pulpit four years ago last month, for my first sermon as Rector of St. Paul’s, I was confronted with one of the more peculiar passages in scripture. It was the provocative story of how Jesus called a Gentile woman a dog and how that Gentile woman bested Jesus in a debate. In her closing argument, the woman said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
And today, as I stand in this pulpit and preach, for the last time as Rector of St. Paul’s, I am presented with the same encounter, this time from the Gospel according to Mark, “Sir, yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” I'm not quite sure what the message is here except to say...more proof that God has a remarkable sense of humor! 
In that sermon four years ago, I reflected on how our dog Charlie ate the crumbs from underneath Mary Katherine’s highchair. This time around it is John who is pushing his leftovers off the highchair onto the floor for Charlie to eat. The names of the players and the circumstances might have changed but the story stays the same.
Seasons change. Parishioners come and go. Priests come and go, but the eternal truth of God’s mercy from age to age remains the same. From generation to generation, the story of our faith is woven together through God’s infinite mercy. No matter the time or place, the light of God shines on – a truth we proclaim in Christ.
 In today’s lesson from Mark, this Gentile woman, this outsider is reminding the chosen people of Israel of the faith they have forgotten; a faith given through the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, I will bless you and you will be a blessing; a faith given through the prophets, I will make you a light to the nations; a faith that our ancestors in exile proclaimed, surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; a faith given in Jesus Christ, a faith that makes us well; a faith that is passed down through the Church by the power of the Holy Spirit.
For us sitting here today, this is a faith that is alive in Selma, a faith that is alive through the story of St. Paul’s. For these past four years, it has been a tremendous honor and blessing to be a part of that story of faith lived out through St. Paul’s, a story of faith that has given me a courage and conviction to proclaim the power of the gospel, a story of faith that will continue to inspire others to know unending love of God. 
The preservation and restoration of these buildings stand as an outward and visible sign of how the faith story of St. Paul’s continues to inspire. The fact that someone from St. Paul’s is featured in the Selma Times Journal just about every day is an outward and visible sign of the lively and active faith at St. Paul’s. The fact that St. Paul’s is known as the church in Selma where anyone is welcome is perhaps the greatest symbol of the lively and active faith that is exists in this place.
In our lesson from Mark, this Gentile woman, an extreme outsider, is reminding the chosen people of Israel, and today the Church, that we do not exist for ourselves alone, we do not exist for the sake of self-preservation. As we talked about in Bible Study on Tuesday, the Church is not a place where we go to get sanitized from our sins. 
Rather, the Church is a place where imperfect people gather to be sanctified or set apart for works of mercy given in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus our Lord. Church is the place where we are transformed into living members of the body of Christ, where we become living members of God’s story of goodness and mercy that is meant to be extended to all people from every culture, creed, race, and nation.
Our family is proud and humbled to have been a part of a congregation who has claimed their place in God’s story of mercy and welcome to all. I can’t emphasize this enough – Selma needs that story of faith given through the life of St. Paul’s. Selma needs you to continue to be that light shining in the darkness. 
Selma needs you to continue to be that church where anyone and everyone is welcome. And with God’s never-ending promise of mercy through Christ Jesus, you will continue be a church who is a tremendous blessing to this community especially to those whom the church and society have declared unworthy.
Some of you might be thinking – how are we going to do this without a Rector to lead us? For starters, Jesus has always been your true leader and will always be your true leader. Regardless of who stands in this pulpit, Jesus is the one you are called to follow. Jesus is the one who makes our mission to extend God’s mercy to all people possible.
Secondly, St. Paul’s will find a new Rector soon enough. And I am confident that you will welcome that Rector as warmly as you welcomed me and my family. I am confident that God is preparing to send you a Rector with the skills and talents needed to help you continue to live into the story of faith that God is still writing through St. Paul’s.
At the Wednesday morning Eucharist, we remembered the life and witness of Bishop Paul Jones. Bishop Jones of Utah was forced to resign his office in 1918 because he publically stated that war is unchristian. In a farewell address, Bishop Jones stated, “Where I serve the Church is of small importance, so long as I can make my life count in the cause of Christ.” Paul Jones went on to serve Christ and his Church in amazing ways even without the title bishop attached to his name.
Likewise, our ministry to Christ and his Church is not diminished if we don’t happen to carry the title bishop, priest, or deacon before our name. Our prayer book, in fact, lists the laity first among all orders in the church. In particular, the charge of the laity is to carry on the mission of the Church which is Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world. You are the main characters in God’s on-going story of goodness and mercy through Christ Jesus. 
The work of the clergy is to nourish, support, and encourage you in this work. So, in many ways, the clergy follow the lead of the laity. We are here to serve you and lift you in your work. With that being said, thank you for giving Jamie and me, for giving our family the opportunity to serve you in the amazing work that God is up to at St. Paul’s. 
Obviously, there are a lot of unknowns as transition looms. There are a lot of questions to be answered. Who will be in charge of this? Or who will do that? What do we do if this happens? First of all, you have an extremely competent Vestry and staff who will help answer these questions. You have an extremely competent priest associate who will help answer these questions. 
And when all else fails, (when Mary Helen doesn’t even know the answer), when the changes and chances of this life are too much, you possess a faith that relies on the goodness and mercy of Christ in God to lead you on in the unchanging story of God’s love for his people.
Beloved sisters and brothers in Christ, I leave you with the words of my favorite hymn, our closing hymn for today, a hymn that brings me comfort and peace regardless of the time or place  – “Together met, together bound, we’ll go our different ways, and as God’s people in the world, we’ll live and speak his praise.” Amen.   

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Giving Thanks in All Things

            Last Thursday, I met with members of the Daughters of the King. In that meeting, we talked about the importance of prayer at this juncture in the life of St. Paul's. In their fifteenth year, the St. Catherine of Siena Chapter of the Daughters of the King plan to re-commit themselves in prayer and service to this parish at the September 10thHealing Eucharist (6 p.m. in the Chapel).
            At this service, the Daughters will pray for those on the prayer list, they will pray for the parish and for the community, and they will pray for the current and future leadership at St. Paul's. This is a service that you are always invited to attend (2nd Mondays at 6 p.m.) where you may offer healing prayers for the parish and community. It is my hope and prayer for this Healing Eucharistic to become a source of light and life for St. Paul's during this time of transition.
As I reflect through my own prayers, I am filled with gratitude for time spent at St. Paul's. When I look back on what I hope is a long and fruitful ministry in the church, I will undoubtedly conclude that our four years at St. Paul's Selma were some of the most rewarding and memorable. St. Paul's is truly a light shining in the darkness and to be a part of that light in this community was an incredible honor and privilege. I will always be proud to say, "I served as the Rector of St. Paul's in Selma."
            In my prayers, I am also aware of the failures and disappointments. I am aware of the things left undone. I am aware that I have let some of you down. I am aware that there are some things I could have spent more time paying attention to. However, I choose not to let these failures and disappointments lead me to despair.
            Using the General Thanksgiving on page 836 in the prayer book, I give thanks "for those disappointments and failures that lead [me] to acknowledge [my] dependence on [God] alone." As Henri Nouwen once wrote, we cannot be truly grateful unless we give thanks to God for all things - even the bad things. For in the fullness of time, God brings all things to their perfection in Jesus Christ. In other words, let's get on with living life to its fullest and trust that God is sorting it all out through the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ.
Finally, I was filled with gratitude when I met with the Vestry for the final time. In many ways, it was like a regular Vestry meeting. We prayed for the church. We talked about upcoming events in the life of the parish. We made decisions on behalf of the congregation. We approved the audit report and reviewed the budget. The only thing we didn't talk about were the light bulbs! It was almost like business as usual.
Most of the ministries and programs we offer to parish and community will go on like they always have. There will be opportunities for the laity to become even more involved in leadership. Some of what we have done together will cease to continue but the work of the church will go on. God will continue to use St. Paul's as a beacon of light to the people of Selma like God has for the past 180 years.
During this time of transition, pray without ceasing. May God open your eyes to see how you are being called to be that light in the darkness. May your time in prayer help you re-focus and re-commit to the work God is calling St. Paul's to be a part of in this community. May the grace of Christ in God help you see failure and disappointment as the building blocks of faith. And may you continue to grow in Christ and make him known; and through him, at all times and in all places, may you give thanks to him in all things.