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Sermon: Easter -4/16/2017

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Sermon – Easter 2017                                                                  Jeffrey B. MacKnight
16 April 2017                                                                            St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda

God is Green

Happy Easter, everybody! 

A week ago we had a little surprise at our house: no hot water. When I checked out the water heater, it was leaking slightly, so I knew it had to be replaced, which fortunately we got done the next day.  But even a brief time without hot water reminded us of what a lovely luxury it is – hot showers loosen the tension in my back and help me wake up in the morning!  Clean, fresh water is a great gift of Creation that it’s easy to take for granted.

Many of us grew up saying grace before meals, reminding us of the goodness of God’s creation:

“God is great and God is good….” 

Even as children, this prayer helped us remember that God’s Creation is good – very good – and gives us both life itself, and much joy.  Everybody loves food; it is a natural channel for our gratitude. Water and food – two blessings we might take for granted, but in the rest of the world they are still precious privileges.

This Easter, coming so close to Earth Day, I propose a new prayer for us – a prayer not just for food, but for the whole Creation:

“God is great and God is green,
Your great glory we have seen
in Creation.  Bless the earth;
Bring us all to second birth.”

Every Easter we hear the story of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, showing that God wants to bring new life out of death.  God demonstrated that in Jesus; God wants to redeem and save each of us.  No past sin, failure, or mistake can change God's love for us, God’s desire for us to be alive, and joyful, and whole.  Whatever you think cannot be forgiven or overcome, God can transcend.  If God can raise the dead to life, God can vanquish our human sins and offenses. 

But this year, I want to focus on a broader picture: the redemption, the salvation of the whole Creation.  Christianity teaches that God not only loves each and every human being, but God loves the world, the earth, the cosmos.  “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son….”  Jesus comes not just to save individual humans from our brokenness; Jesus is the Christ of Creation who brings renewal to the whole world and all its creatures.

St. Paul writes in Romans 8 about his “hope 21that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; 23and not only the creation, but we ourselves.”  Our salvation is tied up with the salvation of the whole earth.

Springtime in Washington helps us see how overwhelmingly beautiful this gift is – all Creation springing forth into life: a riot of colors, textures, fragrances, and a green everywhere: such an intense, vivid green.  We are really blessed to live where each season (with the possible exception of winter) is such a display of God’s handiwork!

Back when the world was new, Adam and Eve were set up in a beautiful Garden – a symbol of all that is good in Creation.  But they rebelled against God’s rule. (Human beings don’t seem to like to be told what to do.)   God sent them away from the beautiful garden of Eden: they were alienated from the earth.  Genesis tells us that God cursed the earth itself because of human sin.  Since then, we have become alienated from the very world we live in.  We have used the earth, not as a cherished home, but as a cash-cow we could exploit.  We all know that the earth is sick now – staggering under the weight of human exploitation and abuse, just as surely as Jesus staggered under the weight of his heavy cross. 

In the resurrection story, you noticed that Mary is mistaken when she first sees Jesus.  She doesn’t recognize Jesus.  She thinks he is the gardener.  Well, I’ve come to believe that he is!  He is God’s gardener, bringing forth life from the earth.

I’m not much of a gardener, (I have a very brown thumb), though I really wish I were, especially as I get older.  I’m working on it.  Connecting with the earth, and participating in God’s giving growth, moves me more and more.  I enjoy the simple things, like a few flowers by the front door, and around the back patio.  I love the sound of a swiftly flowing stream of fresh, cool water, kicking up a spray that catches the sunlight.  A brisk walk with the dogs (dogs are another sign that God loves us). 

Maybe this Easter, we could think of our lives as a garden, and ourselves as junior gardeners – God’s apprentices, so to speak.  How can we bring beauty into our own lives, and into the lives of those around us?  How can we better tend our earthly home – from picking up litter, to reducing our energy use?  What garden tools might we need?  Well, a rake to clean out what is old and dead.  A shovel to dig holes to plant God’s new tree of life.  And most of all, we need the fellowship of other gardeners, to encourage and teach one another – I have a lot to learn!  We can think of the church as a garden club – where all are welcome to join in celebrating and tending God’s creation. 

I am quite sure that a clean, green earth is God’s vision, God’s preferred future for our world.  God has immense power to bring new life out of death, but humanity must cooperate; we must partner with God in tending the Garden we have been given.  We may not live in Eden, but that doesn’t mean our earthly home cannot be beautiful, fragrant, and supportive of all kinds of life. 

This Easter, God is bringing new life, both to us as individuals, and to the whole earth.  And God wants us as partners – to be God’s junior gardeners to help till, plant, nourish, and enjoy the fruits of the earth – fresh water, wonderful foods, beautiful flowers and foliage. This is both a gift, and a challenge to us.  Together, we can work with God for the salvation, the rebirth of the earth. 

God is great, and God is green. Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed!   


 

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Lent 3: 03/19/2017

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Sermon, Lent 3A                                                                          Jeffrey B. MacKnight
19 March 2017                                                                          St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda

Thirsty?  In honor of St. Paddy’s day…

An Irish man walked into a bar, asked for three shots of whiskey, and quickly downed them all. The barkeep asked, "Why three?" to which the man said, "That's one each for me, my dad, and my brother back in Ireland." From that day forward, he came in every week and ordered three shots. One day, however, he ordered only two shots. The barkeep asked, with concern, "Why only two? Are your brother and father well?" “Oh yes, they are both quite well!  I, however, have quit drinking for Lent."

 
Today we’re here to talk not about whiskey, but about water…a far more important subject.  The image of water runs deep in scripture, from the waters of Creation, to crossing the Red Sea, to Moses striking the rock in the wilderness, to the baptism of John, to the Samaritan woman at the well.  Jesus said he came to give us “living water.” 

This week I’m attending a conference on Water Justice at Trinity Church in Lower Manhattan, a wonderful place surrounded by water…water that’s rising each year and flooding more regularly than ever before. 

Worldwide, water is both a gift and a problem.  Some water is dirty and kills people through disease.  Some is polluted with metals that destroy young brains.  In the American West, access to water is a battle between cities and ranchers.  There’s not enough for green lawns and swimming pools in the desert, as well as agriculture and human needs.

The conference begins with this thesis:

Water is a gift. Water is life. As water crises increase, access to safe and clean drinking water decreases.

From Flint to Standing Rock, many of today’s most pressing social issues revolve around water. Faith communities worldwide can help.

Here in Washington, the many crises around water may seem far away – we get a good amount of rain, our rivers run full (mostly), we are surrounded by green foliage and trees.  We are quite blest. 

The intriguing Samaritan woman at the well was doing what most women had to do: fetch water daily.  But she came for water at high noon, the hottest time of day.  Why?  Scholars suggest she may have been ashamed to come when the other women did, in the cool of the morning.  She was a woman of high energy, but compromised morals….5 husbands plus another guy at the moment!

She was thirsty.  She knew she needed water to live.  But she probably couldn’t even dream of the kind of water that Jesus offered – the living water of salvation, freedom, cleansing renewal.  Water that would wash away all her shame and sorrow, and let her feel the love of her Creator shower over her.  No, she probably couldn’t even imagine that….

We’re thirsty too. Even with our running water taps and ubiquitous water bottles, we are thirsty. I wonder if we can imagine the kind of water Jesus offers? 

It strikes me that many of the “waters” with which we keep trying to slake our spiritual thirst don’t quench it at all, and they may make it worse.  A lot of what we do in life is like drinking salt water…instead of satisfying our real thirst, it makes us more thirsty, to the point that it can kill us!  When we try to satisfy ourselves with more money and material stuff, or more prestige, or more power over others, we may feel a rush of satisfaction for a moment, but then we just want more.  More and more. 

So what is it we ought to be seeking…what kind of water is truly living water, water of life?  What is this water that Jesus offers? 

Love – knowing we are beloved, knowing that God loves others as God loves us.  Learning to love others.  Wrapped in that package is forgiveness – feeling forgiven ourselves, and learning to forgive those who have hurt us.  Without this living water, we grow parched and brittle.  Our lives cannot bloom as they are meant to do. 

This Lent at St. Dunstan’s, we are learning more about a particularly unloved group in our society: persons who are incarcerated, “serving time.”  Regardless of their crimes, they remain human beings, beloved of God, and in need of love from other human beings.  Jesus specifically commended those who visit prisoners. Yet most of us keep our distance – out of fear, probably.  I understand the fear.  But we have a chance to learn more about these persons, their lives, their families, their hopes and dreams.  Around you are stations of the cross, which juxtapose the sufferings of Jesus with the sufferings of incarcerated persons.  Take a look. 

So…if your life is full of warm love and laughter, if you feel the loved and accepted by God, rejoice and be glad!  Or maybe your life seems a bit empty, and you wish it were more filled with friends and relationships of meaning.  Either way, you have love to offer. Find someone who needs to be loved, cared for, cherished…and love that person: a child, an elder person, maybe even a prisoner.  Spend some time.  You can change a life!  You can pour out the water of your love, and as you do, it will become the living water of Jesus: the fount of blessing, the spring of salvation, the cleansing water of forgiveness.  The more love you give, the more love you’ll have.  Amazing, isn’t it?  The more we give of the waters of Christ’s love, the less thirsty we are. 

 

 


 

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Lent 2: 03/12/2017

Posted 1:11 PM by
Sermon, Lent 2A                                                                          Jeffrey B. MacKnight
12 March 2017                                                                           St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda

 

“This hills are alive with the sound of music….”

Have you ever lived in the mountains?  Every morning you walk out and look around, and it’s just as the psalmist said:  “I lift up my eyes to the hills, from where is my help to come?”  Something in the grandeur of the mountains reminds us of the solidity and dependability of God. 

And yet sometimes we just don’t feel it.  We may go through all the motions and do all the right things, but still not feel God in our lives.  That seemed to be the case with Nicodemus, a strong Jewish man, a leader, and yet he was missing something huge…or else he wouldn’t have taken the risk to come talk to Jesus late that night long ago.  Something was missing for Nicodemus. 

And of course, we are Nicodemus in this story!  You and I have times when things aren’t working, our faith may seem dry, our hope exhausted, we wonder if it’s all worth it.  That’s when we need to come again to Jesus, by day or by night, in prayer or in worship or on a mountain.  “My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.”  God’s creation, God’s handiwork, tells us of God’s power and care.  It is blessed assurance that God is still with us. 

Jesus told Nicodemus he needed to be born again.  What’s that about?  Many of us may have a jaded view of being “born again,” from other Christians who push and prod about what day and hour we gave our hearts to Jesus, or got saved, or declared Jesus our personal Lord and savior. 

I’m sure that is NOT what Jesus was talking about!  This rebirth, this renewal, was much more mystical than that – it’s about God’s Spirit blowing through us like a refreshing breeze, blowing away all the dust and grime that clouds our vision and clogs us up, bringing in the fresh scent of pine and mountain wildflowers. 

And this renewal doesn’t just happen one day in your life, and then it’s done.  It’s an ongoing thing, a journey, a long trek over mountain trails – some parts hard climbing, other times easy going across a hidden meadow, and occasionally, now and then, arriving at a place of such indescribable beauty that it takes our breath away.  That’s what happened to Abraham: God  called him to leave what was familiar, and voyage into the unknown…another kind of rebirth. 

When Maria, in The Sound of Music (who will always be Julie Andrews in my mind!), went into the mountains, she thought her God-given path in life was the convent, a life of service to God.  Little did she know that she would be completely reborn when she met all those bratty little von Trapp children!  Sometimes the obvious path isn’t the right path.  God is a God of surprises.  Be prepared to alter course!

The same holds true for Christian communities, too.  St. Dunstan’s as a congregation is being born anew.  Our journey continues, sometimes in surprising ways. 

Your new Vestry met in retreat last week, 4 hours with a facilitator, and 5 more on our own, with our new Senior Warden Julie Anderson capably leading us.  What did we come up with? 

We looked at who we are, and we like it!, and we decided to focus on what’s important to us:

  • We are a real voice in Bethesda for justice and welcoming the “stranger” as in our refugee and asylum-seekers ministry
  • The beauty and vitality of our Anglican worship is important to us
  • We want to keep welcoming children and youth here

We know we want to be welcoming and inclusive of all people, and we want to practice love: to be kind, with humility.  We are a modest church; we can’t be all things to all people.  We’re not going to agonize over growth in numbers anymore.  We’ll focus on God’s call to us, just as we are. 

Our core values end up aligning very well with the prophet Micah’s well-known description of faithful life with God:

Do justice
Love Kindness
Walk humbly with our God.

We’re going to come to you, the congregation, with our plans and proposals, and ask your input, your thoughts, your suggestions.  Because of course St. Dunstan’s is all of us, from the youngest baby to the eldest senior. 

Scholars now tell us that “born again” is not the best translation in this passage.  A better translation is “born from above.”  I’ve thought about what that means, and I believe it means getting our DNA from God, not just from human parents.  As individuals, we are not just looking at life from a human perspective, looking out for ourselves.  We now look at the world from God’s perspective, and we look out for God’s world, God’s beloved people and creatures – all of them. 

So, we hope that St. Dunstan’s can offer you support and guidance and inspiration and joy as you walk your walk with God.  And we ask your support and help and input as we chart our course as a parish, ever knowing that God’s Spirit is our true guide…our help is in the name of the Lord.  As our lovely sequence hymn puts it:

And so the yearning strong, with which the soul will long,
   shall far outpass the power of human telling;
For none can guess its grace, till Love create a place
   wherein the Holy Spirit makes a dwelling.               (Hymnal 516)


 

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Lent 1: 03/05/2017

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Sermon, Lent IA                                                                          Jeffrey B. MacKnight
5 March 2017                                                                             St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda

 

Lead me not into temptation…I can find it myself! 

What are you most tempted by right now?  We’re all tempted by different things, I guess….some love other people a bit too much…did you hear the one about…

“Why did the cannibal get sick after eating the missionary? You just can't keep a good man down.” 

Our liturgy tells us that Jesus was tempted in every way as we are, but did not sin. 

What does that mean, he did not sin?  As a child was he not self-centered as all children are?  Did he never sneak out at night with his friends?  He never stole an extra snack from the pita jar, or a few more matzah balls at Passover time?  We don’t even LIKE people like that…we call them goodie-two-shoes.  Sin is not really about the little temptations and little foibles that make us human. 

When Jesus was around 30 years old, he got serious about his mission in life.  He learned from John the Baptist.  But after Jesus’ baptism, there was no luncheon served to celebrate.  He was sent – by God’s Holy Spirit – directly into the wilderness to be tested – tempted by Satan.  Sounds like God’s version of basic training before a ministry assignment.  Jesus was tempted in three ways…

Stones into bread.  Hunger is powerful!   “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” 

Jumping off the pinnacle.  This would have been sheer hubris, daring the angels to let him fall

“You shall not tempt the Lord your God.”  Tempting others, whether it’s God or another person, can be a major sin

Ruling the world, if only Jesus would worship Satan

“You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.” 

We’ve all had our own versions of these temptations, I imagine…who wouldn’t steal food to keep from starving?  Who hasn’t ever wanted to show off in front of other people?  I’ve certainly dreamed of a world where we were in charge, thinking I could do a much better job of running things. 

But all of Jesus’ temptations came down to one thing – the temptation to usurp God’s role, God’s power…to play God ourselves…not to let God be God. 

Now, our own temptations may be a bit more pedestrian.  Not every temptation rises to the level of usurping God’s place and power.  There are little temptations vs. big temptations – a range of temptations with a range of consequences.  The whole advertising industry is designed to heighten our temptations, and get us to succumb to them, both small and large.

For instance, there are temptations: to cheat and steal.  I’m told that cheating in school is quite common these days, which is worrisome.  As for stealing, while shoplifting a small item is definitely a problem, it hardly compares with Bernie Madoff stealing people’s life savings.

Psych experts actually advise us to give in to some of our little temptations, like a latte in the morning, or a special dessert, in order to save our willpower for the really important things….  Maybe this is smart; I don’t know. That advice is not in the Bible, I’m afraid. 

So what is really important to us as Christians?

We believe in that we, and all our neighbors, are created in God’s image.  That means we need to tend and respect and care for both ourselves and others around us.  The most important temptations – the biggies – that we need to resist are those that denigrate or destroy our selves or other people. 

Our bodies can be damaged by our appetites for food, and for alcoholic drinks. I certainly enjoy my wine with dinner and a bit of scotch (sorry, that’s in my blood!)  I watch myself to see that alcohol doesn’t become a problem in my daily living. I have another vice, though.  My own body suffers from my lack of appetite…for exercise!

We also need to resist temptations that hurt other people, deprive other people, or ruin relationships.  Cheating and lying to other people hurts them…and hurts ourselves by disrespecting and damaging our own integrity. Drinking too much can hurt family and friends, and strangers too if we drive drunk.  Malicious gossip damages communities terribly – including church congregations.  The tongue can be a powerful and destructive weapon. 

A number of us were just on an overnight spiritual retreat – an experience I can recommend to all of you.  Good food, good conversation, and a spirit of rest and peace in a beautiful place!  We talked this year about living our lives as self-referenced, vs. living our lives as Christ-referenced.  When we are self-referenced, we are making decisions, and giving in to temptations, based on our own wants, desires, and satisfactions.  We’re not thinking about Christ, or about other people. 

When we live as Christ-referenced, we are putting Christ at the center of our lives, instead of ourselves.  That changes a lot of our choices, decisions, and priorities.  It’s a big challenge!  But worth thinking about…the next time you are faced with something very tempting.  What would Jesus want?  Why would I do this?  What is motivating me?  A little thought, and maybe a bit of prayer, might change the course of your actions.  Maybe that cannibal might think twice about enjoying that nice, tender missionary.  He might even become a vegetarian, who knows?    


 

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Ash Wednesday: 03/01/2017

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Homily, Ash Wednesday                                                                    J.B. MacKnight
1 March 2017                                                                                          St. Dunstan’s

I believe it was Woody Allen who said, “I don’t mind dying; I just don’t want to be around when it happens.” 

Most of us would agree…and in fact most of us do mind dying.  Our culture has taught us to fight death as ferociously as we can, even though we know intellectually that death is part of life, and like taxes, it’s a sure thing.  So why are we so afraid? 

To pretend we won’t die is to pretend that we are like God.  Prolonging a good life by caring for our health is one thing; but refusing to let go is another.  That is trying to play God: and not letting God be God is one of our greatest sins in this life.  

If Ash Wednesday is about anything, it is about death – the certainty of our mortality: ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  It’s a fitting reminder as we begin Lent, a period of self-examination.  We look at ourselves, our frailties and failings, our jealousies and greed, our unhealthy desires and addictions, and yes, our sins.  Wanting to play God is a Class-A sin.  It’s in the big ten: “I am the Lord your God…you shall have no other gods before me.” 

Matthew’s Gospel today gives us the early text of the Lord’s Prayer.  It’s a succinct model for all our prayer, a Jewish prayer to its core.  (Let us not forget, in these days of renewed attacks on Jews, that our Lord Jesus was a Jew his whole life, and never left that faith!  As our bishop states, when one faith community is attacked, we are all attacked.) 

This pithy prayer gets to the heart of the matter: we are not to try to play God!  Try to put aside your long, habitual associations with the Lord’s Prayer, and hear the words anew.  Jesus said, “Pray then in this way:” 

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.  We address our God as Father, and this is in fact an innovation by Jesus – I’m not aware of earlier Jewish texts addressing God thus.  Jesus brings an new intimacy to our relationship with God – sharing his own sonship with us. 

“Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  Now Jesus is getting edgier.  He is proclaiming God’s kingdom, right here on earth.  And if God is king, then guess who can’t be?  As someone put it, “When God’s kingdom comes, all our little kingdoms have to go!”  We can’t pray this prayer, and still hold back the areas of our lives that we want to control for ourselves.  But that’s our natural tendency.

“Give us this day our daily bread.”  With this humble request, we acknowledge that we are needy; we are not self-sufficient.  We need daily bread, both food to sustain our bodies, and food to sustain our spirits.  We need God.  Everybody has these same needs, and God wants everybody to have enough.  When we enjoy food or other things that feed us, we should stop and think if our lifestyles allow others to have enough as well.  If we have more than enough, then we need to be generous in giving. 

So, as we take these ashes upon our foreheads, as signs of our mortal nature, let’s really ask ourselves if we are prepared to let God be God.  Can we surrender our (rather foolish) quest to be in control of everything, even to the point of defying death itself? 

Jesus lived this same human life that we are given.  The unique thing about him is that he let God be God; he was content with humanity, even unto death.  And by joining us in our death, he invites us to join him in his resurrection – a resurrection that was God’s gift of transformation.  And that gift is still on offer – it’s available to us who follow Jesus’ way. 

Come, let us begin anew our Lenten observance.  AMEN.  


 

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Hard Knocks: Sermon 5

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Sermon, Financial Hard Knocks                                                   Jeffrey B. MacKnight
19 February 2017                                                                       St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda

 

In our sermon series on hard knocks, we’re talking about financial hard knocks today.  So did you hear…

The best money managers in the Bible were Noah, who was floating his stock when everyone else was in liquidation, and Pharaoh's daughter, who went down to the bank of the Nile, found Moses, and managed to draw out a little prophet. 

Years ago I attended a hospital seminar on pain and pain management.  Various kinds of physical pain were discussed, and we looked at emotional pain from trauma, hardship, and grief.  Then the presenter surprised me: he introduced another kind of pain I hadn’t thought of in this context: financial pain. All of a sudden, I realized that the distress of not having enough was an identifiable source of real pain, anguish even.  We sometimes call it Feeling the Pinch. I recognized that experience, not so much from my own experience, but from my parents’. 

My parents had many advantages and privileges – they were white, both college graduates, from stable families. Yet that didn’t insulate them from financial pain: my dad suffered from extended periods of unemployment late in life, and my mom had a debilitating physical and mental illnesses. They had a legal judgment against them when my eldest brother stole and crashed a car at age 16.  I often marvel that they managed to pay the rent every month, and put food on the table.

You may, or may not, be familiar with that kind of grinding financial pain.  It’s different from being a bit short some months and having to juggle some bills.  It’s a constant battle to make ends meet, often robbing Peter to pay Paul.  At its extreme, this painful financial condition is poverty.  I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.

The Bible has a lot to say about poverty and people who are poor. 

We heard in Leviticus that God calls for generosity – making sure poor people have enough.  (Enough is a concept we’ll come back to.)

In Leviticus, God’s economy was spelled out.  Those with capital (primarily land, in those days) are instructed to leave the edges of their fields unharvested, so the poor could come and collect food.  Gleaning, it’s called.  My friend Gary and I gleaned in a friend’s cornfield when we were in college, to raise money for a trip to visit seminaries. 

And there are labor laws, too: Moses commanded that the Hebrews pay a fair wage to their laborers, and always pay workers at the end of each day (otherwise the worker could go hungry that night).  God is clearly concerned about the welfare of the whole community, not just the wealth of some individuals.  It’s right there in the Bible. 

In the Gospel, Jesus calls us to give when someone begs….  We struggle with that today, on the streets, in the subway…

A recent encounter here at church: a man came with $11 in his pocket, needing $69 for a bottle of insulin for his brittle diabetes (just the copay – he actually has insurance, although who knows how long that will last), His next paycheck is 12 days away.  He also needs to raise rent money for a hoped-for new apartment in April for his family, including his wife and twin 13 year olds.  What should he do? 

I gave him what we had in the office to give - $27. 

Clearly, God doesn’t want anybody to be poor and desperate.  And God has provided enough to support all the people in the world – if we would just share it more equitably.  But we don’t. 

God’s view of the money and wealth is really very different from ours.  God doesn’t measure us by the vacations we take or the houses we remodel or the colleges we attend.  God sees us as human beings to be loved, whether we have lots of money or little.  If we really felt God’s love for us as beloved persons, we wouldn’t need so many material trappings in life to prop us up.  We wouldn’t always feel we have to keep up with the neighbors or the inlaws.  We would learn to be content – really happy – if we just have enough. 

Enough.  Everybody should have enough. 

If we looked at people from God’s point of view, we would also have more love for people who truly have too little to live on, because God loves them as God loves us.  Our thankfulness for our own lives would blossom into greater generosity for other people.  Jesus calls us to give to people who beg, lend to those who need to borrow, leave enough in the fields for the poor to eat; to love our neighbors, and even our enemies. 

Jesus calls us to a life of Modesty, Thankfulness, Generosity.  I don’t think Jesus hates wealth – he enjoyed the pleasures of the earth, of good food and wine.  (He did note that wealth would make it harder for people to enter the Kingdom of God….)  Jesus didn’t want poverty for anybody – he saw how the majority of people in his world were beaten down by taxes, landlords, and unjust systems. 

The Good News for those of us who do suffer financial pain is that money is not how God measures us.  Only the world measures a person by his money.  God’s abundant love disregards that.  (It still pains me to think of my dad’s deep shame when he couldn’t find a job!)  It can really help us when we stop trying to live up to someone else’s expectations, and start living modestly, thankfully, generously, for God. 

And God wants to free us from all that binds us, including financial hardship.  Not to make us rich, but to make us whole.  Our cult of wealth is so damaging to our country!  God depends on all of us to make the world fairer, more compassionate on people who are struggling.  Financial pain is real, but we know how to reduce it.  God will rejoice, not when everybody is rich, but when everybody has enough, when we stop hoarding and start sharing, when we all come to God’s banquet table as one human family.  AMEN.  


 

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Hard Knocks: Sermon 4

Posted 4:09 PM by
Sermon, Epiphany 5A                                                                  Jeffrey B. MacKnight
5 Feb 2017                                                                                 St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda

 

The NYT Magazine has a column called “The Ethicist.”  A couple of experts respond to queries of all kinds.  A few recent ones:  What is I obligation when I am told that someone has gotten married simply for green card?  Am I obliged to tell my friend if I find out her husband is cheating on her?  What should I do if I witness a parent abusing a child in a public place?  When a coworker sabotages a colleague at work? 

We make ethical decisions all the time.  At the moment, many of us will make judgment calls as we prepare our taxes – what income must be declared, what deductions we can claim. 

And we face ethical decisions in the public sphere too.  When we witness injustice, what is our obligation to respond?  To protest?  The assist and advocate for the injured?  To try to get laws and policy changed? 

The prophet Isaiah railed against the religious folk of his time, for maintaining all their religious fasts, but failing to act with righteousness in their worldly affairs.  “Look…you oppress all your workers…you quarrel and fight….  Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry….?”  Isaiah declared that God wants righteousness – moral behavior – not just religious talk and ceremonies! 

That’s still a problem for us.  But sometimes, we get it right.  There is a long history of the churches fighting injustice by fighting for political change.  The church fought slavery and helped to end it in this country.  The churches fought for civil rights, and against wars.  Many churches lead in the environmental movement.  Our neighbors in the Roman Catholic Church are adamant about fighting abortion and capital punishment as violating the sanctity of human life.  We may or may not agree, but they have the right to fight for their beliefs in the political arena.  

Many this last week are alarmed about the president’s directive to stop all refugees from entering the U.S., as well as other drastic travel restrictions on legal residents of our country.  Our Episcopal Church leaders have led the way, with clear statements from Michael Curry, our presiding bishop, and Mariann Budde, our own bishop: 

“All Christian Americans should be offended that President Trump has decided that some of the most vulnerable refugees on the planet are not welcome here because they are of the Muslim faith, but that Christians from the seven troubled countries that the President has named are to receive favored treatment. Such favoritism is an insult to Christians. I stand proudly with other Christians and interfaith leaders to protest this order, express solidarity with one another, and together call our nation to the highest of our common spiritual and civic values.  Scripture could not be clearer: we are called to welcome the stranger.”

Why?  Because we are all strangers ourselves…in Scripture, God reminds the Hebrews that they themselves were strangers in Egypt, so they’d better treat other strangers with respect.  The United States is uniquely a land of strangers, of immigrants.  Nobody can claim to be a native except native peoples – American Indians.  All the rest of us are of immigrant stock – I myself am the progeny of Scotch-Irish horse thieves, as near as I can tell.  We are all strangers; we all need a welcome in this world.  What could be a more basic human aspiration than to find a home, a safe, secure place for our families? 

St. Dunstan’s began a refugee ministry months ago, and we’ll continue it, adjusting for whatever realities come.  We put up a banner, “Help us help refugees,” last week, to show our commitment to the strangers seeking safety on our shores.  I got a call last week from a neighbor who said he was offended by that.  He said that it was a blatant political act, considering the timing of the banner.  He said he had not seen banners about other crises, such as the bombing of Aleppo.  He also said he himself was an immigrant to the U.S. and appreciated the welcome he received here.  Go figure. 

While I don’t back down from St. Dunstan’s right to display banners, this man, who wouldn’t identify himself, did make me think.  Many other humanitarian crises we have lamented, but let go by without taking a public stand.  Why?  What is our ethical obligation here?  How do we choose which causes to fight for? 

Christian ethicists have a number of criteria to apply to situations:  What principles are at stake?  What are our obligations to the parties involved?  Do we have the capability to make a difference in the outcome? 

Each of us must decide what to do, how to stand up for what we believe in.  We all must make that choice, because doing nothing is a choice too, and we are responsible for that choice.  As a congregation, we have responsibilities to live out what we say we believe about justice, equality, and the dignity of every human being.  We claim that we seek Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourself.  Do we live that way?  Jesus said we are to be the salt of the earth, the light of the world.  Salt can sting; it’s not always comfortable.  Light can reveal things we may rather keep hidden.  Refugees and immigrants may remind us that we were once just like them. 

I have a feeling that our Christian values will be challenged again and again in the world we live in today.  Will we be salt and light, or will we hide in the shadows, hoping our comfortable lives are not too much disturbed?   Isaiah, and Jesus, both call us to put our money, and our actions, where our mouths are.  I hope in the end God will judge that we have let our light shine brightly in this troubled world, working for justice and compassion for all our fellow human beings.  AMEN.  


 

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Hard Knocks: Sermon 3

Posted 6:56 PM by
Sermon, Epiphany 3A                                                                   Jeffrey B. MacKnight
22 January 2017                                                                         St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda

 

Chopping cabbage, carrots, celery, and potatoes…. That’s what I spent a few hours doing on Monday morning, MLK day.  It was a day of service organized by Washington Hebrew Congregation, our neighbors down Mass. Ave.  Hundreds of youth and adults from all over the city did numerous kinds of work to help poor people.  My group was prepping veggies for a number of soup kitchens.  It was good, honest work to be doing.  I enjoy working with food.  And I emerged without cutting myself – just one callous! 

Doing something active, and doing something for somebody else, are two good ways to combat the symptoms of mental illness, which often include profound lethargy, a sense of paralysis and futility.  Mental illness is our “hard knocks” topic today.

I hasten to add that these activities can help with symptoms, but they do not lessen, much less cure, mental illness.  Illnesses of the mind have many causes, including proven chemical causes in the brain.  These are medical conditions. They have no simple or easy solutions. 

I’ll bet everybody here has direct experience with mental illness – either you’ve suffered from it yourself, or you know somebody well who has.  Maybe you know what it’s like to be Eeyeore – feeling listless and sad for no apparent reason.  Or you know what it’s like to be Winnie the Pooh – trying to be a good friend to Eeyeore, even when that’s hard to do.  I’ve been on both sides myself. 

The Mayo Clinic defines Mental illness as a wide range of mental health conditions — disorders that affect your mood, thinking and behavior. Examples of mental illness include depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders and addictive behaviors.

To that, I would add dementia, which is such a huge part of our lives now, as human beings live longer.  These illnesses seriously affect the quality of life for sufferers and companions alike.  The stress of living with someone whose mental capacities are diminishing daily is unbelievable.  If you’ve lived with an addict, or if you are one yourself, you know how destructive that is.  And we know that mental illness is one driver of heinous acts of violence such as shooting…although there are other factors that need addressing as well. 

Now, to the Gospel passage today.  In Matthew, Jesus does not begin his public ministry until John the Baptist is imprisoned, indicating that Jesus was a disciple of John’s.  When Jesus does announce his own mission, he quotes Isaiah: “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”  This is the nature of Jesus’ message: God is bringing light where there was only darkness. 

Was Jesus referring to mental illness here?  No, at least not particularly.  Jesus was announcing liberation from many oppressors – many sources of darkness.  These included oppressive poverty, the oppression of Roman occupation, oppressive class structures in society, and yes, the oppression of mental and physical diseases.  Jesus’ healing stories fill the Gospels!  Many of them are mental healings – freeing persons from demons and unclean spirits.  That’s the way they understood mental illness in Jesus’ day.  Jesus wanted people to be healthy and whole.  Jesus wants us to be healthy and whole!  We should never forget that – especially when we are feeling anything but whole. 

But the world is an imperfect world – beautiful, but imperfect: full of risks, hurts, disease, and misfortune.  People suffer – we all suffer in various ways.  And that gives us opportunity to help, to minister to people who really need it.  It’s like chopping vegetables for the soup kitchen – it feels good to help someone feel a little better, or at least a little less alone. 

And here, religion and science come together.  Scientists have developed tools to reduce human suffering.  For mental illness, many of these tools are drugs.  I am indebted to several of these drugs which have helped me since I first had trouble in college with overwhelming depression.  I am grateful these drugs exist.  Other treatments are crucial, too – talk therapy, cognitive therapies, and even electroshock therapy for some people. 

I asked my psychiatrist on Friday what one thing she’d want you to know about mental illness.  She said mainly that she wanted people to understand these are diseases of the brain, causing great suffering – just as physical diseases can. 

For addictive personalities, the 12-step movement has saved millions of lives, through hard, constant work – a lifetime of recovery.  Twelve step groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous are spiritual communities, often functioning like churches.  Our church has much to learn about the mutual support given in such groups, much of it one-on-one. 

Coping with dementia is perhaps the greatest challenge of our generation, because the number of sufferers is growing as the elderly population is growing.  Interestingly, some studies show that the actual prevalence has decreased – that could be very good news indeed.  Still, how do we support people as they enter dementia, and how do we support their caregivers?  Can we sit and talk with someone who has dementia?  Are we willing to offer a few hours respite care?

Finally, I want to touch on stigma, which still exists in American society, and other societies (Maggie has told me it’s worse in Scotland).  We should never, ever tell people to “buck up” or “get over it,” because they can’t – just as a diabetic can’t just “get over” his need for insulin.  We must fight this.  We must talk openly about mental illness as one of many medical problems we face, and advocate for help and treatments just as we do for cancer or heart disease.  Jesus actually destigmatized mental illness in the language of his own day: by addressing demons and unclean spirits who “possessed” people, he removed the fault from the human being himself or herself.  These persons were invaded by malevolent forces – diseases – that needed to be eradicated. 

This is why, every so often, I speak of my own struggles with depression in sermons and articles.  I’ve been treated with medication for many years.  I’ve done talk therapy on and off.  I am so grateful for these treatments, and the people who have helped me obtain them.  For good insurance coverage and family members who understand.  For friends who have stuck by me through my dark hours.  I see all these things – from drugs to friends – as healing gifts from God who loves me and wants the best for me.  That’s the same God who loves you and wants the best for you. 

“The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”  This is the nature of Jesus’ message: God is bringing light where there was only darkness.  He wants us to walk in that light.  AMEN. 

 

 


 

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Hard Knocks: Sermon 2

Posted 6:52 PM by
Sermon, Epiphany 2A                                                                Jeffrey B. MacKnight
15 January 2017                                                                      St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda

 

Hard Knocks #3:

When relationships break down: Sin and Forgiveness

 

“Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.”

John the Baptist strangely announced Jesus in this way. 

Hard knocks: when we lose important relationships – many ways: through death or physical separation, or through conflict, anger, hurt, and sin.

All week, as I thought about this, I kept coming back to one matter of central concern to Christians: forgiveness.

I’m reminded of a story from my extended family:  in middle age, one member of our family had a fight of some kind with his brother.  The two cut off the relationship and did not speak for over 20 years, though they lived near each other.  It took the death of their sister to break the ice.  What a waste – 20 years without your brother!  No fight, no grudge is worth that loss. 

A strange saying of Jesus begins to make sense in this context: 

“When you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; when you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  (John 20:23)    

God forgives sin readily, eagerly: we know that through the suffering love of Jesus.  But humans do not forgive so easily.  We are good at grudges, we can nurse them along like some prized orchid…as if they were things of beauty! 

Yet we see the devastation we work when we don’t, can’t, refuse to forgive.  We think we are hurting the one who hurt us: getting back at him; making her suffer; tit-for-tat.  Sometimes that’s true.  But mostly, we are planting a cancer in our own hearts that will grow and infiltrate and destroy all that is good and joyful in our lives. 

Think of a time when you really struggled to forgive someone who hurt you deeply.  What happened?  Were you able to forgive in time?  Is the hurt still festering in your heart today?

I can think of several cases, when I felt so hurt and misused, I just couldn’t let go of the injury and resentment that filled my heart.  One time, I kept going over the matter in my head, like a loop tape I could not turn off.  I prayed for release.  I created a small ritual to represent letting go of the resentment I felt…by writing it down, praying to let go, and then burning the paper.  I went to therapy and talked it through.  Eventually, the resentment faded, and I was able to understand, and forgive.

French saying: Tout comprendre c’est tout pardoner. 

When all is understood, all will be forgiven.  It’s a nice, hopeful thought, and I’ve often wondered if it is true.  Perhaps that’s part of what heaven is about: when we have full understanding, we can accept others, and ourselves, as we are, warts and all. 

Rituals may help us.  We Anglicans like our rituals!  I have a book on marking life events with blessings and rituals, including “A blessing ritual for a broken trust” – for acknowledging an affair outside of marriage, and pledging to work to restore the relationship.  This is hard, hard work to do, and we need to ask God’s help with it.  There are other rituals for asking release from long-held anger and resentment. These are all grouped under the heading: “Letting Go.”  In the end, that’s what forgiveness is: letting go…and giving it up to God. 

Because sin and pain are real, we have to make room for sorrow in our faith, in our church life – not to dwell on it endlessly, but to acknowledge that sorrow that is a real part of human life.  Hymns help us with this:

To think on Jesus: “When I survey the wondrous cross….”

To remember how much God has forgiven us: “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy…” 

There are Christian preachers who seem to promise a perpetual rose garden in life – if we believe the right things, maintain a positive attitude, behave the right way…and send money to their television “ministry”!  But that’s not the way life is really. 

Any religious faith worth its salt has to make room for sorrow, the honest grief that comes from real losses.  We love to celebrate the good things in life at church – babies born, weddings, all the blessings of our lives – and that’s good to do.  But we also need to grieve death and loss.  Our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers can teach us something about this, in their emphasis on Jesus’ suffering sacrifice on the cross…. 

MLK Day – a day that calls us to remember the more sordid and shameful parts of our national history, and to renew our commitment to equal opportunity, fair treatment, and justice in this country.  I am reading the acclaimed new novel “The Underground Railroad,” by Colson Whitehead.  It is an excellent novel, but it is hard to read of the sordid ways white people terrorized black people through fear, beatings, sexual abuse, and mutilations of black bodies.  God knows, there is much horrific sin here; so much to be rectified, so much to be forgiven.  It is staggering.  Any offense ever done to me, as a free, privileged, white male, is tiny by comparison. 

While many changes in law and society have reduced the horrors faced by black people in the United States, we have a long way to go.  Black lives do matter, and we must say so, because they are the ones who are getting shot so often.  Ta-Nehisi Coates reminds us that control over black bodies was at the heart of slavery, and then of Jim Crow, and we, as a society, still use violence to control black bodies. 

We are not there yet; the struggle must continue.  Dr. King exhibited an amazing ability to refrain from lashing out in anger and violence, even though he was surely provoked.  Did he forgive his tormenters? We don’t know his heart, but in his words and actions he portrayed a forgiving nature, even as he fought the wrongs against African Americans. 

So, forgiveness is hard, very hard.  Sin is real; we hurt each other terribly.  Relationships are broken, and may never recover.  That’s the bad news. 

The good news is that we can strive to forgive.  We can work at it.  We can pray for it. We can ask God to help us do it, because God clearly has sharpened God’s forgiveness skills for millennia dealing with human beings.  Remember that story about Adam, Eve, and the serpent? 

We started with the strange name by which John the Baptist announced Jesus: “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”  So, can Jesus really do this – take away our sins?  Well, yes: he reaches out to us and offers to take all our sins upon himself.  It’s an amazing gift of love.  But we have to be willing to hand our sins to him, and not just our sins, but our grudges, our bitterness, our dearly-held resentments against others.  And that’s where forgiveness comes in.  We have to let them go: open our hands and our hearts, and let the cancer drain out of us.  It’s one of life’s greatest challenges, and it promises life’s greatest rewards. 

AMEN. 

 


 

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Hard Knocks: Sermon 1

Posted 3:48 PM by
Sermon, Epiphany I  Baptism of Jesus                                        Jeffrey B. MacKnight
Jan 8, 2017  “Hard Knocks” series                                            St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda

 

I don’t like tunnels. 

We must first go down, down, down into the darkness, not knowing what we’ll find, what we’ll have to experience.  We have faith that we’ll emerge again into the light and air. My own phobia is getting stuck in a tunnel, in the dark depths.  I don’t like to think about that. 

Sometimes, when times are really tough, it feels like that old joke about seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, and then realizing it’s a roaring train headed right for us. 

Baptism of Jesus – Jesus is baptized into a fully human life: it starts with human birth, ends in a fully human death.  No way around that.  The liturgy even tells us that we are being baptized into Christ’s death – not a pleasant thought.  But we know it’s true: none of us is exempt from death.  It’s part of being fully human. 

This is the beginning of a new sermon series:  Hard Knocks.  It starts with baptism into human condition: the greatest joys, satisfactions, triumphs, and glories…and the deepest, darkest times that come with loss, hurt.  If we love deeply, we shall suffer deeply…they go together. 

Isaiah: “Here is my servant, my chosen – I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.”  This servant, whom Christians understand to be Jesus, is tender, gentle with us, because we are vulnerable human beings: “A bruised reed he will not break, a dimly burning wick he will not quench.”  He is to be a “light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, bring prisoners from the dungeon.”  We are the ones this savior comes to help; we are the ones who are blind, who are locked in prisons of all sorts. 

We leap ahead 600 years to Matthew’s gospel – Jesus must be baptized to fulfill all righteousness – because he was fully human.  The Spirit comes upon him, yes, but not to protect or exclude him from human pain, loss, and final death.  He is vulnerable, he is like us.  He’s going to endure a lot of loss, hurt, and dejection in his life, hard knocks, like us.  He’s going to die, like us.  And yet, he’ll come back, he’ll live and love again, he’ll be restored to life…like us. That’s the journey, and that’s the promise.  Our own baptismal liturgy is clear about this – we are baptized into the death of Jesus. 

Like all of you, I know something of death – both the literal and the figurative kind.  The early deaths of two of my brothers have been hard; struggles with depression have been part of my own life, and have affected me deeply.  There are no quick fixes.  And each of us has our own stories. 

This is the stuff of real life.  Our human bodies and minds are far from perfect; they fail us.  The world can be unkind, even cruel.  Relationships are hard, and they often break down.  Loving people does mean we’ll get hurt.  And yet not to love…that would be the most impoverished way to live – empty, sterile, without much meaning. 

That’s when we find ourselves in the tunnel, in a dark place, searching for a point of light, a sign of hope, some signal that joy might be possible again in the future.  That’s when Christians look at the cross, and the suffering of Jesus upon it, and remind ourselves that God has more to say than death. 

Weeping may linger for the night,
   but joy comes with the morning.   (ps. 30)

So I want to explore some of life’s hard knocks in the next several weeks of sermons.  I’ll try to keep a sense of humor, even as we discuss difficult things.  I could list many of these, but I’d rather know: What are the events and experiences in your own life that come to mind?  Please, shout them out!   

Whatever you have faced, I believe two things can help:

1.     The love of God can comfort us when we are hurting.
2.     The Christian community can be a great support, when we know that a member is suffering.

Although I’m the priest, and you may think I’m the one that gives comfort, I have also received amazing gifts of support, prayer, and empathy from this community.  I know how powerful that is…I believe that is part of the power of resurrection, the power that brings us back up out of the depths, out of the darkness, into the light. 

It can begin with the prayers for healing we offer each Sunday after communion.  It could be a visit in the hospital, or a meal brought by your home.  Reading the psalms is a time-tested source of comfort for Christians.  Counseling can help immensely.  Singing hymns can be powerful.  Receiving the bread and wine of Eucharist strengthens us. We have many tools to help us get through the hard knocks. 

But I think the path of healing starts with our admission that we are baptized into the vulnerability of being human, and there is no escape for that.  How we deal with the hard knocks in life can make all the difference.  We’re much better off seeking help – from God, and from other people.  That’s what Christian community is for.  Thank God we are not in this life alone.  We have a God who loves us and wants the best for us, and we have a church community who care for us.  We don’t have to go through the dark tunnel – the shadow of death – by ourselves.  Thanks be to God.  


 

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