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Pride Sunday: 06/10/2018

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Sermon, Pride Sunday                                                                   Jeffrey B. MacKnight
10 June 2018                                                                              St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda

Today we conveniently have two scriptures in one: a Gospel passage that includes a quotation from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah.  After Jesus was baptized, and went into the desert for 40 days, he returns to Galilee, where people are amazed at his teaching. 

Then he comes home to Nazareth…and that was his first mistake!  He goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and is given the scroll of Isaiah to read.  He searches until he finds a certain passage, and then reads it:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’

The he sat down to teach, as was the custom, and said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 

Now, we might think everyone would be glad to hear this news:  poor people will get good news!  Captives will be released!  Blind people will see anew!  The Lord’s favor, not condemnation!  These are the marks of Jesus’ teaching and healing.  The people of Nazareth were mostly poor, oppressed by Roman occupation and taxation.  They would rejoice, right?  Don’t we all want these things? 

Our own society today shows us that no, we don’t all want these things. 

Jesus was rejected by his own folk, the people who knew him.  Why?  Likely it is because they thought they knew who he was: Joseph’s son - not bad with a hammer and saw, a kid who would follow the expected path.  But Jesus didn’t do that.  He followed his own path.  He didn’t marry and settle down.  He spoke up!  So they quickly became angry with him.  Luke’s Gospel tells us they became so enraged that they tried to take Jesus to a nearby cliff and throw him over! 

Human beings, human societies are all too good at turning their ire on anybody who steps out of the expected path.  Today, we celebrate Pride Sunday, to show our solidarity with folks who have done just that: stepped out of the conventional path in order to live and love differently to be true to themselves – gay, lesbian, and bisexual people, those who change genders, and people who may not identify with either sex.  Much progress has been made toward acceptance and embrace of this amazing diversity among human beings.  But the long history of oppression and rejection is not over.  There is still work to be done. 

By invoking Isaiah’s words, Jesus does not magically end all oppression and blindness and ignorance.  Jesus is not a magician.  He is a healer.  He works with people to bring change, release, healing – often in very mysterious ways.  He gets up close and personal with people whom others shun – lepers, demon-possessed ones, notorious sinners.  It is through his presence, his openness, his desire to touch and heal, that many were freed from their afflictions – set free, in a very real sense.  People could walk tall, with dignity, because Jesus treated them with dignity.  Many could see truth more clearly, because Jesus brought truth, with love.  With Jesus by their side…with Jesus on their side…countless folks shook free of their shackles and were able to live new lives. 

Today, it is up to us to continue Jesus’ ministry of presence, openness, touch, and healing.  One important way we do this is by becoming allies – allies of people who are on the outside, the edge; people who have been shunned and degraded.  An ally draws near and walks with you, visibly affirms you, and argues your case when you are challenged.  It’s not a passive benevolence; it’s an active role to play, to lift up another human being, defend him when he is attacked, and challenge the prejudices that persist insidiously in our society. 

I haven’t always been an ally of LGBTQ people, I’m sad to say.  It’s been a journey, helped along by several dear friends who helped me understand that we are all created by God, but we are not all created the same.  I’m grateful for my gay friends who have stuck with me and helped me grow.  Now I want to be an ally to them.  I don’t stand by when people are ridiculed, when nasty jokes are told.  I don’t attempt to keep the peace by staying silent.  

This Pride Sunday is meant to lift up LGBTQ people in our society.  But its deeper meaning comes right out of our baptismal covenant: we promise to respect the dignity of every human being.  More and more, I think that is the heart of living in a Christlike way.  And there are so many people who need that respect and that dignity: countless people ground down by poverty in our rich country, immigrants whose families are being torn apart by our nation’s policies in what appears to be malicious ways, and of course the original sin of racism that dogs our country and destroys so many lives.  If only we could all respect the dignity of every human being! 

Jesus came among us and did just that.  And for his trouble, his own neighbors in Nazareth tried to throw him over a cliff.  It’s time we all take Jesus as our example, and honor his message of liberation and healing in our own lives, as allies of all who need a friend, a defender, a champion.  Jesus expects no less of us.  AMEN. 

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Sermon: 5/27/2018 Trinity Sunday

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Sermon, Trinity Sunday – God Talk                                             Jeffrey B. MacKnight
27 May 2018                                                                              St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda

What’s a metaphor?

  • I’m over the moon about my new shoes! 
  • She’s so worried she’s walking on eggshells. 
  • That office is a snakepit! 
  • I’m afraid the spider bit the dust. 
  • That nurse is such a Good Samaritan. 
  • He got that project done in the twinkling of an eye. 
  • All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.
  • A hospital bed is a parked taxi with the meter running.  (That one’s Groucho Marx.) 
  • It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God. 
  • I am the good shepherd.  Those are from Jesus. 

Metaphor is our common way of adding interest and emphasis and fun to our speech, and describing things that are hard to find words for.  You can do a lot with a metaphor, but you can’t take it literally.  That will kill it – dead. 

Metaphor is hugely important in religious language, because so much of what we want to talk about, to express, is beyond the power of literal language.  How does one describe a God of infinite goodness and love?  A God who is love itself?  A man who is God incarnate?  A Spirit who is in us, among us, and leading us, all at the same time? 

So we resort to metaphor.  The Trinity is an amazing metaphor for God, because it points us toward God’s inner being of love, God’s many ways to reveal Godself to us and be with us.  Father, Son, Spirit.  Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.  Three, yet one.  Amazing! 

But if we press a metaphor too far, it will cave in, it will collapse like a bridge which has been asked to carry too much freight.  (That’s a simile, describing a metaphor….) 

So we need to let religious language – Godtalk – breathe and suggest realities to us, without trying to pin it down to details.  Sometimes the creeds make the mistake of trying to push these things too far.  A good example is the Athanasian Creed, which purports to explicate the Trinity.  It’s in the Prayerbook on page 864.  Try reading it sometime when you can’t sleep.  It goes on and on about what the Trinity is, and is not.  And to emphasize its self-importance, it ends its diatribe with a helpful caution that if you don’t believe it all, you’re doomed to eternal hell. 

That kind of thing doesn’t help the preaching of the Gospel.  Jesus didn’t seem to care all that much about the intricacies of belief.  He cared about love – loving God, and loving our neighbor and ourselves.  He cared about truth, about treating each other with respect.  He cared about poor people and sick people. 

Today, we hear the call story of the prophet Isaiah.  It’s an amazing scene right out of high-tech movie: six-winged angels in a smoke-filled chamber, which shivers with holiness.  Isaiah feels small and insignificant.  But an angel – a seraph – flies to him and purifies his lips with a red-hot coal from the altar.  Isaiah is now clean – he is anointed to speak God’s word. 

This vision is quite a metaphor.  Do we need to take it literally?  Absolutely not.  It points to the indescribability of being in God’s presence.  And the wonder of being known by God, and called by God to perform a sacred mission.  Six-winged seraphs are just special effects! 

The Gospel story about Nicodemus is less dramatic, but still metaphorical.  Nicodemus – call him Nico for short -  is an interesting character: he is a Jewish leader, but he’s fascinated by Jesus.  He doesn’t know what to make of this young man who preaches such a compelling message of love.  He goes to see Jesus at night, so he won’t be seen.  Nico starts with pleasantries: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God….”  Jesus cuts to the chase: “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  That’s an odd response!  Nico mistakes metaphor for something literal: “How can anyone be born after having grown old?”  This is a rookie mistake.  Jesus has to explain he’s talking about a spiritual rebirth – not returning to the womb. 

We don’t know if Nico ever actually got it.  But Jesus’ invitation is clear.  I identify with Nicodemus so much.  Fascinated by Jesus, but hesitant to take the jump, to commit all to follow him.  I’m too invested in my worldly security.  But still Jesus calls – he leaves the door open – he calls my name. 

And he calls your name.  Maybe you share my fascination, and my fears of total commitment.  Christian faith is not something to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly.  We have to be willing to give up our self-centeredness if we are going to be centered in God.  Isaiah did that, and he became perhaps the Hebrews’ greatest spokesman for God’s love and mercy. 

Did Nico ever come around?  I hope so.  We have one clue about him.  After Jesus died on the cross, Joseph of Arimathea asked for his body.  And Nicodemus brought 75 pounds of spices to embalm Jesus’ body.  So I think Nico got it in the end – he was there to honor Jesus at his death. 

Answering the call of God is not for sissies.  It’s often difficult and unpopular.  We may be subject to anger, ridicule, or even violence.  I am very proud of our own Episcopal Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, and many other Christian leaders, for answering the call to speak out against unrighteousness and injustice in our political system in America right now.  As you know, I believe the Gospel of Jesus is not just personal, but societal – and that means we judge our politics by the standards of Jesus.  Jesus’ values always put compassion before personal gain.  Jesus values truth.  Jesus teaches us to respect every single human being as a child of God. 

These leaders have issued a statement called “Reclaiming Jesus: A Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis.”  I hope you will take a copy from the Welcome Table and read it.  We’ll discuss it here at St. Dunstan’s on June 10 after service. 

After you read it, I hope you will ask yourself what God is calling you to do, to say, to be, as a disciple of Jesus.  Isaiah answered the call.  Nicodemus answered the call.  Now, it’s up to us.  AMEN. 


 

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Sermon:05/13/2018

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Sermon Ascension Day/Baptism/Mothers’ Day                           Jeffrey B. MacKnight
13 May 2018                                                                                    St. Dunstan’s, Beth.

 

I recently started the Netflix series “Call the Midwife,” about a young, well-to-do woman in the 1950s who has trained as a midwife and ends up working in down-and-out East London.  She sees sordid, filthy living conditions she never imagined existed, and women bearing child after child.  She asks a colleague, “How do you stand it?  How do you stay calm?” 

Her colleague responds, “When I first started, I was appalled.  I thought I should get medals for working here.  But now, I see that it’s the mums who are the true heroines.  They endure so much, and they just keep on going….” 

Moms are often the heroines – and happily we have recognized that since 1908, when Anna Jarvis held a memorial for her mother at St. Andrew’s Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia.  This Mothers’ Day, I give tribute to today’s mom, Hollis Boyd McLaughlin.  Leslie and I met Hollis here 19 years ago, and she helped us raise our own children.  Now a nurse, she has continued her calling to serve people in the most basic, life-giving ways. 

One quality of moms the world over stands out: their ability to focus on the needs of others, and respond to the need in the present moment.  Most mothers give up a lot in order to be moms – they must let go of past hopes and dreams, carefree living, and alternative lives they might have led.  And by and large, they do it gladly and without complaint…or maybe with just a little occasional grumbling!  As in “Call the Midwife,” the mums see their lives as a calling, and willingly let go of the life they led before.

What does that have to do with Ascension Day?  The connection is in Letting Go: putting aside some of our desires, or attachments, our loves, when we need to.  When Jesus departed from his earthly presence, the disciples had to set aside their desire to keep him here.  They had to let him go, in order to move forward.  I may need to put aside pleasurable things today, in order to study for the life I want to lead in the future. I may need to let go of my craving for alcohol or other drugs, because these substances are destroying my relationships.   I may need to let go of my hankering for a new house, a new car, or a big vacation, in order to save adequately for retirement. 

Buddhism, as I understand it, sees all desire, all craving, as the source of suffering, and teaches that we should renounce all attachments, in order not to suffer.  In other words, let everything go! 

Christianity is different.  We believe in seeking, striving, and loving what is important.  Attachment – the right attachments – are not a problem to be avoided, but a challenge to be engaged.  Yes, there is suffering with any love, any attachment or desire, but some suffering is worthwhile.  The love and care of a child, loyalty to a friend, difficult, sometimes risky, work against injustice – these are attachments we see modeled in Jesus, which we emulate ourselves.  We’re willing to suffer for these important loves. 

Many other cravings and desires in life we do need to let go of, just as the disciples had to let go of their happy times with Jesus, and learn to lead Jesus’ movement on their own.  After all, if Jesus had stayed on earth indefinitely, his movement would have been limited to a few square miles in Palestine.  Christian faith would probably have never spread as it did around the world. 

So what about you?  What have you had to let go of – perhaps with great sadness or pain – in order to move forward in your life? 

What might you be facing right now, that you will need to let go of, so that you can move on? 

Our men’s group at St. Dunstan’s gathers over bagels and coffee on Saturday each month to discuss our lives – spiritual matters affecting men.  Last time we talked about retirement – some men present are already retired; some are considering when to retire; others aren’t there yet.  Retirement requires a lot of letting go: men tend to tie up our identities with our jobs.  Our jobs give us structure, a sense of purpose and accomplishment, and a group of colleagues, who may also be friends. 

But retirement also offers a lot of new possibilities and freedom, if we choose to accept them.  (Of course, all this depends on having sufficient retirement resources to live without working. That’s becoming a rarer thing in America.)  How long should we continue working? What attracts us about retirement?  What are its promises and possibilities?  How might God be able to use us – our time, our skills, our passions - after we retire? 

Finally, the need to let go isn’t always a choice.  It’s often forced upon us, and this is a hard thing.  Losing a job, a marriage, a loved one, a way of life, is devastating.  But hope is a central gift of our faith in Christ.  Resurrection comes after death.  New life emerges from devastation. 

When Jesus ascended to heaven, leaving the disciples to build a new life without him, they were paralyzed briefly.  But two men – the same two angels who appeared to the women Easter morning at the empty tomb - said: “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”  Their work was here on earth, bringing good news to the poor and marginalized people who most needed hope and help.  The Holy Spirit would soon come upon them, with tremendous power – like fire!  And the Gospel would spread like wildfire.  Letting go of the bodily Jesus allowed this new work of God to begin.  It was worth it. 

Deciding what to cling to, and what to let go of in life, is one of our hardest choices to make.  Great suffering, but also great accomplishments, are in the balance.  Pray for God’s guidance as you make your choices.  AMEN. 


 

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Sermon:05/06/2018

Posted 5:29 PM by
Sermon, Easter 6B                                                                        Jeffrey B. MacKnight
6 May 2018                                                                                St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda

 

It was early on an ordinary Sunday morning.  James Shaw Jr. sat with his friend at the local Waffle House outside Nashville.  Amid the clank of diner crockery and silverware, shots crackled and bodies folded.  When the shooter paused to reload, James decided to act: he jumped him, wrestled the gun away, saving many lives.  “I’m just a regular person,” he said.  This regular person quietly went to see the other injured people, and has also raised more than $200,000 for the victims’ medical expenses. 

The First Letter of John tells us that “we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.  For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments.”  Now, was James Shaw trying to obey God’s commandments?  He didn’t say so – he says he just acted because he wanted to keep on living.  But in doing so, he followed the second great commandment that Jesus gave us: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  In loving himself, protecting himself, he loved his neighbors too.  And thank God he did – many more could have been killed. 

Sometimes Christianity is accused of having too many rules and regulations – do this, don’t do that, don’t have any fun.  Historically, this has been true in some groups that prohibited dancing, cards on Sunday, and other innocuous activities, groups who require certain dress or behaviors.  None of that is mentioned by Jesus.   

But Christianity is not a rule-based religion.  That’s why Jesus reduced the entire catalogue of Old Testament rules and regs to two simple ones: Love God, and love your neighbor has yourself

That’s why this letter of John can say, “God’s commandments are not burdensome.”  There are two commandments to love.  It’s that simple.  (Compare that to the rules of the road you must memorize to pass a driving test at the DMV!) 

Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson were sitting in a local Starbucks, waiting for a business meeting, in the tony Rittenhouse Square section of Philadelphia when suddenly police – 6 police officers! – were walking toward them.  Soon they were handcuffed and led away, without resistance.    They spent hours in jail, until a district attorney declined to prosecute them.  What would be the crime?  Sitting while black?

Starbucks has since apologized, and scheduled nationwide anti-bias training on May 29 – a small step, but more than many companies have done.  What is notable is that Mr. Nelson and Mr. Robinson have chosen not to sue the city for the appalling police behavior.  Instead, they’ve reached a settlement for a token $1 each in damages.  The city of Philadelphia will also fund a $200,000 grant program for high school students aspiring to become entrepreneurs. 

That’s loving their neighbors as themselves.  They suffered mistreatment and gross indignity, but only wanted society to benefit from their abuse.  These two incidents – the Waffle House and the Starbucks – show the long way we have to go as a society to live up to God’s commandment to love – to care for and truly respect one another.  But these individuals are showing us the way.  James Shaw chose to risk everything to help himself and others.   Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson chose to decline compensation and benefit many young people in Philadelphia.  The choices they’ve made make me think: would I be as brave, and as magnanimous, as they? 

Each incident is a case of love in action, love in practice.  We should lift up this way of living when we see it…teach this to our children…and try to “go and do likewise.” 

That could be the end of this sermon on “loving the children of God.”  But I’ll add one more question.  I have to admit I’ve always struggled with the idea that we can be commanded to love.  Can love be commanded?  Or must love come from within us – an inner impulse?  Or if God commands us to love, then does God also plant in us that impulse, that desire to love others,  that is necessary to fulfill the command?   

Perhaps it depends on the kind of love we’re talking about.  We use one word to mean everything from trivial preferences – “I love ice cream” – to romantic attraction.  Somewhere in the middle is the peculiarly Christian kind of love, called agape in Greek.  This is a freely given love for God and for other people which is considered the highest form of love: charity.  It does not depend on human relationship or affinity or receiving anything in return.  God, who is love – agape, fills us with this love, and gives us the capacity to offer it to others. 

We’re about to celebrate, in ritual form, an agape meal.  For the earliest Christians, this was a real meal, meant to feed and nourish people. People brought what they could, and all was shared.  The modern day equivalent is a pot-luck supper!  Like many things in religious practice, it became ritualized, and ended up involving just a morsel of bread and a sip of wine – our Eucharist.  It still represents a shared meal, and the nourishment that God provides to us, so that we can persevere in agape, in love for our neighbors, ourselves, and our God.  I kind of wish it were still a full meal myself.  But we do a lot of eating together here in church, and that’s good. 

So there are just two commandments for us to worry about, and those are the commandments to love.  And God gives us the resources we need to obey these commandments – God feeds us, and we feed each other.  It can happen in a Waffle House, in a Starbucks, and yes, here at church.  Let us be encouraged when we see such love, and inspired to go and do likewise.  AMEN. 

 

 


 

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Sermon: 04/29/2018

Posted 5:27 PM by
Sermon, Easter 5B                                                                        Jeffrey B. MacKnight
29 April 2018                                                                             St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda

 

How many of you have ever seen grapevines growing in a vineyard? 

Grapevines are beautiful to look at from a distance, as they stretch out in neat rows over rolling hills – whether in California’s Napa Valley or the Loire Valley in France.  But if you get up close to mature vines, you see a gnarled, twisted, rough-barked trunk vines – hard-working, earthy vines that wear themselves out producing fruit.  A grapevine, with proper care, can live and be fruitful for 50 to 100 years – kind of like a human being.  But they can also be wiped out by a sudden disease or blight, cut off in the prime of their productive lives – also like human beings.   They are both sturdy, and fragile – again, much like human beings. 

Jesus said that he is the grapevine and his Father is the vinegrower.  I was doing a bit of yardwork yesterday – happy to be out in the sunshine.  As I was bent over with my trowel, digging a hole to plant a begonia outside our back door, I was quickly reminded that gardening is work – hard work – that doesn’t come easily to my back anymore.  I also remembered that tending a garden requires patience.  I always want to get through my yardwork as quickly as possible.  I dig the minimal sized hole when I plant something, even though I know I should make it big, and loosen the soil around it.  I’m not a patient man by nature, which may be why I’m not a very good gardener.  I like to see results quickly. 

But God is apparently a good gardener, and therefore I have to believe that God is patient.  Grapevines require lots of patience.  You don’t plant them one week and have grapes the next.  It takes 3 years or so before a vine is strong and ready to produce fruit.  According to the Farmer’s Almanac, “Pruning is important.  Not only would vines run rampant without control, but canes will only produce fruit once.  Prune annually when vines are dormant….  Don’t be afraid to remove at least 90 percent of the previous season’s growth.  This will ensure a higher quality product.  Remember, the more you prune, the more graves you will have.” 

In my life, I’ve found pruning is difficult, because it’s an emotional issue.  Letting go of old books and papers – even ones we haven’t used in years – is hard.  Giving away old clothes is a challenge.  “Downsizing” is notoriously difficult for us acquisitive Americans, although most people who’ve done it say they are much happier afterwards. 

And it’s not just our “stuff” that we have trouble pruning away.  We also accumulate activities and commitments that wear us down.  I see kids with activities every single day after school, and little time to just be, to play, to relax.  And adults can do the same thing: program our lives so that we rarely just sit down and do nothing.  We rarely just be, just think.  Christianity has always promoted such time – meditation, contemplation, whatever you call it – even though it is considered “unproductive.”  But actually it can be more fruitful than one more self-improvement course. 

It’s true in the church too.  Pruning is hard.  The church is, by nature, a conservative institution.  It conserves ancient writings, historical artifacts, and age-old rituals.  It’s hard for us to change.  And it’s hard to let go of something, even when it has ceased to bear much fruit.  St. Dunstan’s kept its 8 a.m. communion service until only 2 people showed up.  Why?  Because we always had!  We’ve tried to keep groups going when the interest has waned.  We can hold more meetings than we need to, using up members’ free time.  Pruning anything at church is difficult. Usually somebody will be disappointed if we stop doing something we’ve been doing for a long time. But if we can’t prune, we don’t have much energy available for doing new things – new projects and ministries that could bear much fruit. 

In the end, it’s good to remember that we are just the branches of the grapevine, which is our Lord Jesus.  We are only good and useful if we stay connected with him – if we abide in him.  When we go off on our own, we lose the source of our lives, and we can bear no fruit. 

And what about that fruit?  Grapes are wonderful, and I certainly love wine.  We use it as a symbol of life in the Eucharist.  But the real fruit we are meant to bear is not grapes, it is love.  That is the signature fruit of a Christian person, just as love is the signature quality of our God – so much so that scripture even tells us that God IS love.  Love is the care and respect we give to our neighbors, to the good earth, and to ourselves.  Love is the fruit of all our good works, works of mercy, of compassion, of friendship, of generosity.  They all spring from love, and love springs from God. 

Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches.  And God is the vinegrower.  If we stay together, stay connected, we can bear so much fruit in the world – the good and godly fruit of love.  AMEN. 

 

 

 


 

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Sermon 4/222018

Posted 7:00 PM by
Sermon, Easter 4B Good Shepherd Sunday                                  Jeffrey B. MacKnight
22 April 2018                                                                             St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda

 

Why do Anglicans love Good Shepherd Sunday so much? 

Everybody I know in our church seems to have some affection for this image celebrated in the middle of the Easter season….

When I ask myself why I love the Good Shepherd, I realized that this is the only Sunday that refers to animals – sheep in this case.  And I love animals.  There’s no “Dog Sunday” or “Cat Sunday”  - although Mary does seem to exalt the feline when she sings “Magnificat….”  (Sorry, I couldn’t resist that one.)  There is a sweetness in our relationships with our animal friends.  It’s just love.  The shepherd loves the sheep, and the sheep love the shepherd. 

Most of us today are not intimately familiar with sheep, or shepherds.  But we know from scripture that the sheep knew the sound of the shepherd’s voice.  They trusted that voice, and followed where he led.  These days, we long for that kind of love and trust, because the world seems so often deceitful and threatening.  Whom can we really trust these days?  It may be simple and sweet with our animals, but it’s not so simple with other humans. 

John’s Gospel goes on to say that Jesus is the good shepherd who “lays down his life for his sheep.”  Now, I’ve been told that when nightfall came, ancient shepherds would corral their flocks into an enclosure, and then lie down himself across the gate of the sheepfold, to keep his sheep in, and keep them safe.  He lays down his life for the sheep.  Jesus took this further, when he was willing to go to his death, rather than compromise his teaching about God’s love for us. 

This idea of complete devotion  - “laying down one’s life” – is fascinating to most of us, I think…and also terrifying.  We are drawn to the idea of passionate loyalty to a person or a cause - it may even sound romantic! - but such commitment is also scary.  A few of us may actually be asked to put our physical lives on the line for others: soldiers, firefighters, even teachers caught in a school shooting. 

Most of us never face that literal test of love and devotion.  But we can still be called to lay down our lives in other ways, through the work we do, the relationships we commit to.  When we offer ourselves as a shepherd to another person - a mentor, a support - we’re taking a risk.  A true shepherd does not stand aloof and bark orders at the one he befriends.  A true shepherd takes off his armor and shares himself deeply with his friend.  He becomes truly vulnerable to hurt or even betrayal. 

I think parents learn this with our children – shepherding isn’t always easy!  Teachers and coaches often become very invested in their students, helping them work toward their goals, giving far more than the required time and energy, sharing their students’ disappointment when they stumble or fail.  I’m deeply grateful for the teachers our son Colin has had in his young career playing the organ.  It’s a highly competitive field, and they have given personal support when he has suffered setbacks. 

As a preacher and pastor, I think of a special kind of shepherding: shepherding people in their faith, helping them find a sense of connection with God, a language to speak of God, a sense of vocation – that is, God’s call to ministry and service in the world.  A few weeks ago, our guest preacher Tricia Lyons reminded us that faith is not really taught, it is caught.  And it has to be caught from somebody who has faith, and is willing to share it: willing to talk about it, practice it in various ways, reflect on life’s ups and downs in the context of a relationship with God. 

This kind of shepherding is tricky these days.  Religion is kind of out of fashion.  Many people are suspicious of institutions.  The only way I know to counteract that is one-on-one: offering myself as a gentle shepherd, sharing a bit of my own story of faith, and listening well to the story of the other person.  It’s not about spouting doctrines.  It’s not about threatening eternal damnation, or questioning the status of someone’s soul.  It’s more about listening, and sharing my own life – laying down my life – in front of another person, so that we might find a path to walk together, with God.  I wonder, if we Christians learned to do this better, how our communities might grow and blossom?

Finally -

What has always intrigued me about this passage is the strange ending sentence: “I have other sheep not of this fold.  I must bring them also…so there will be one flock, one shepherd.”  I’m not sure anybody really knows who Jesus was talking about here – these “other sheep not of this fold.”  But this strange saying reminds me that my view of Christ’s flock is only a partial view.  Jesus’ reach is much larger than I can imagine – many others fall into his saving embrace…maybe, in the end, all humanity.  I do hope so.  As a lovely hymn puts it: “The love of God is broader than the measure of the mind….”   I love that vision Jesus puts before us: in the end, there will be one flock, and one shepherd. 

So, if we love this image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, how will we practice it in our lives?  If we have had good shepherds in our own life, we’ll give thanks for all that they have given us.  And then we’ll go forth and find ways to shepherd others, give our lives to guide and help those who are walking with us.  We can find the words to share our own story of faith in God, with all our doubts and uncertainties, and walk beside folks who are seeking a path.  We can take the risk of love, following the one Good Shepherd who inspires us: Jesus himself.  AMEN. 

 

 

 


 

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Sermon 04/08/2018

Posted 6:58 PM by
Sermon, Easter 2B and Baptism                                                   Jeffrey B. MacKnight
8 April 2018                                                                               St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda

 

The other night, Leslie and I were watching an episode of “The Crown,” the hit Netflix series on the long reign of Queen Elizabeth II.  (A disclaimer: I don’t know how true to fact the series is – parts must be fiction.)  We’re in the second series, when Elizabeth and Philip have been married over 10 years.  Their relationship has been a struggle. They have drifted apart. Both of them have contributed to the troubles in a variety of ways, although Philip’s implied infidelity seems more glaring than Elizabeth’s stubbornness and use of the power of “the crown” to control things.

There is a scene where Elizabeth has retreated to her Scottish estate, Balmoral, for peace while Philip is traveling around Europe.  He returns to England, and then ventures to Scotland to be with her.  She is frosty upon his arrival – she feels bereft.  She says she needs to know if he is “in” or “out” – if he wants to continue in his role as prince-consort or not.  Philip rises to the occasion.  He does not defend his past behavior, and Elizabeth does not accuse him.  Philip declares that he loves Elizabeth, that he is there for her no matter what, that he is “in,” not “out.” They end the scene holding each other tenderly, with the Scottish hills in view out the window. 

Why do I recount this in a sermon – an Eastertide sermon, with a baptism?  The emphasis of the Gospel is on belief – belief in Jesus’ resurrection, which Thomas struggled with.  Many sermons on this passage urge Christians to believe in the resurrection of Christ, like it’s a project where you just have to try harder.  But trying to believe is difficult, if not impossible.  It might even be counterproductive.  It’s a bit like trying to fall in love with someone.  It won’t work.  Falling in love is not something we attempt or work at, it’s something we experience – it happens to us.  And when it does, we don’t worry about believing it.  What matters is that we recognize it. 

Thomas, always burdened with the adjective “doubting,” was simply an honest man.  (Maybe we should be calling him “honest Thomas.”) He heard the stories about Jesus, but he didn’t experience it, so he couldn’t be sure.  Then, when he saw Jesus, touched Jesus, he did experience it for himself.  The friend Thomas thought he had lost had returned, and Jesus’ love and care for Thomas was clear.  Thomas didn’t have to try to believe, he just knew.  He declared “My Lord and my God!”  Even more than belief in a miracle, this was an exclamation of love, the recognition that relationship thought lost which was now restored.   

So, the reason I thought of Elizabeth and Philip in “The Crown,” is that moment of recognition, for both of them,  that their relationship, though imperfect, was enduring; their marriage had a strong core, a firm foundation.  They were both committed to it; they were “in,” not “out.”  It wasn’t about trying to believe certain things, or not believe certain things.  It was about love. 

So it is, I think, with our relationship with God, with the Jesus we know through the Gospels.  It’s less about believing certain things, and more about experiencing love, recognizing that God loves us and we long to love God and return.  Rather than achieving belief, it’s about recognizing what we’ve experienced.  That’s what made the scene with Elizabeth and Philip so powerful. 

Today we baptize an infant into Christ’s Body, the Church.  Connelly

Not belief to work for, but Recognition of what is real, what we’ve experienced

Not a miracle of good fortune or protection from harm, but one of love

 


 

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Easter Sermon 04/01/2018

Posted 6:56 PM by
Easter Sermon                                                                               Jeffrey B. MacKnight
1 April 2018                                                                               St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda

 

SLIDE 1 – Portrait of Beethoven

An old story says that Beethoven once lived in a communal house in which several people lived.  There was a piano in the front parlor, just below Beethoven’s bedroom.  In order to drive the composer crazy, one rascal in the house would walk by the piano late at night and play a bit of Beethoven’s work, but stop just before the final chord, on what’s called the dominant seventh.  (On the piano, play second phrase of “Joyful, joyful” on piano, ending on the penultimate dominant chord.)

It worked!  Beethoven couldn’t stand it – he would have to get out of his bed, pad downstairs to the parlor, and play that final chord before he could sleep again!  Poor guy.

SLIDE 2 – Women at the tomb

Mark’s original ending to his gospel is like a dominant seventh chord: it says the women were at the tomb, and “they were afraid.”  It’s very abrupt; it seems unfinished.  (Others thought so and wrote various “more suitable” endings for the work, but those were later additions.) 

But I believe there’s a message for us in Mark’s abrupt cutoff: the story isn’t over yet.  Jesus died, yes, and was buried, yes.  But when the women went to the tomb fully intending to dress a dead body for final interment, they found…nothing.  An empty tomb.  In their shock, the angel in white told them Jesus had been raised.  That’s it.  He’d meet them in Galilee.  They fled in terror and amazement.  And they were afraid.  I would be too.  Wouldn’t you be? 

I think Mark’s point is that the story isn’t ended – not by a longshot.  Jesus’ whole life, his suffering and death, his mysterious resurrection – all this is prologue to the main part of the story, which is yet to come.  That’s our story. 

We are here to write the next chapter in the Jesus story – the Jesus movement.  We have to conquer our own fears and act – get to work in the world, right where we find ourselves…..

As a matter of fact, just last Wednesday, Jesus walked in here at St. Dunstan’s.  A man I’ll call Mark came for Bible study.  He came on a bicycle (as opposed to a donkey), and had a gentle demeanor. He looked like a traveler. He was knowledgeable and thoughtful about the Bible.  He stayed for Eucharist.  He had come to Washington to visit his mother as she was dying, and he’d just buried her.  We helped him with a bus ticket to travel back home in the south.  He asked me to bless his bicycle before he left.  I felt somehow uplifted after our encounter; Mark was a blessing to me.  We never know when or where we might meet Jesus…. 

SLIDE 3 – March for our Lives

Shifting from the intimate to the enormous - we’ve all witnessed the inspiring work of our nation’s young people in the March for our Lives movement against gun violence, culminating in 800 marches just a week ago.  These are youth who have grown up in fear – in the era of school shootings (just as some of us older folks remember drills for nuclear attack).  Talk to children and teens, and you hear that shootings are on their minds.  Talk to parents and they wonder how to protect their children. 

But these young people have risen up and conquered their fear, and demanded that a complacent world take notice, and act.  I say, more power to them.  It’s not comfortable for us as adults to be cited for our neglect, our complacency; we don’t like to hear criticism, especially from young people.  But we deserve it.  We created a stew of violence in this country.  These kids have come to the tomb, to a place of death, and seen a new possibility: a society where life – all life – is respected, protected, honored – and safe.  And it seems clear to me that God’s Holy Spirit is fueling this movement for life – just as God’s Holy Spirit fueled the movement to end slavery, to ensure civil rights, to empower women, and to respect every person as a child of God.  Jesus was marching with us last Saturday, calling for a nonviolent society where every child can live in peace. 

SLIDE 4 – Youth leaders of the march

The work continues.  These kids are not prepared to remain in a world where violence reigns supreme.  They are acting.  They want to change attitudes, change laws, and change outcomes.  They want safe schools, safe streets in their hometowns.

In their hometowns - that’s where Jesus told the women at the tomb that he would meet the disciples. Not in the great Temple of Jerusalem.  The man in white said to meet Jesus in Galilee – the ordinary place of the disciples’ home towns and villages – where they live and work.  That’s where resurrection work actually gets done – right where we live.  It doesn’t happen in grand churches or soaring cathedrals; it happens in everyday life: in our neighborhoods, on our streets, in our schools, and yes, on Pennsylvania Avenue and in the corridors of Congress and the White House.  St. Dunstan’s is part of this movement as we advocate locally for a living wage in Montgomery County, affordable housing, and help for refugees settling among us.  We are part of this movement. 

Slide 5 – Image of “Ode to Joy”

Earlier, I played a phrase of Joyful, joyful on the piano, and I ended on the second-to-last chord, the dominant chord – the chord that contains tension, dissonance, and just cries out to be resolved by the next chord, the final chord, which is the root.  We can’t stop on that dominant seventh chord; we must keep moving forward. 

Slide 6 – Image of an Easter sunrise service

Jesus’ resurrection is that dominant chord: it cries out for something more, the next faithful step, from us.  It calls us to live out the spirit of resurrection life and hope in our own worlds – our homes, our offices and workplaces, our schools and organizations, our neighborhood streets and our city of Washington.  We proclaim Easter here, in church.  Let’s follow the example of our nation’s youth, and take the resurrection power of Easter out there, to change the world.  AMEN. 

(Organ plays a verse of Ode to Joy, pausing dramatically on the dominant seventh chord just before the end, then ending with the final tonic chord.) 


 

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Sermon 02/04/2018

Posted 5:13 PM by
Sermon, Epiph 5B                                                                        Jeffrey B. MacKnight
4 February 2018                                                                         St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda

A Day in the Life

Some days are easier than others.  Monday morning I got an early call that the church basement classrooms were flooded with water.  Turns out the water heater ruptured during the night.  With the help of the teachers, the water was pushed down the drains, and the cleaners mopped it up in the evening.  By the next morning, a new water heater was installed.  On Tuesday, the urinal in the upstairs restroom started overflowing…and so it goes!  I’ll bet your life can be like that too! 

Today’s Gospel lesson struck me as presenting a day – perhaps a fairly typical day – in the life of Jesus.  And that day wasn’t so different in many respects from a day in my life, or in your life.  The same joys, tensions, and challenging moments are there – we all face them, day in and day out.  So maybe we can learn something about how to live, and live well, in the present moment, this day that we are in, with all its highs and lows. 

In Mark’s Gospel (the Gospel we are reading from most this year in church), Jesus is a man on a mission, and often a man in a hurry.  It’s still chapter one, and Jesus has already been baptized by John, tempted by Satan, started a preaching ministry, recruited at least a few disciples, taught in the synagogue, and healed a man with an unclean spirit.  Wow! 

Now, he goes to Simon Peter’s house in Capernaum, I assume to have a bit of a rest and maybe a meal.  But Simon’s mother-in-law was there and quite ill.  Alas, no rest for the weary.  Jesus does what we all would do – he adjusts his plans and refocuses on the immediate need.  Being Jesus, he is able to heal the woman in no time.  Wish I could do that! 

Then we are told, interestingly, that Mrs. Simon’s-mother-in-law got up and began to serve them – so maybe Jesus got his meal finally.  The point seems to be that she was fully recovered, and the word for “serve” is diakoneo – our word for deacon.  (Eugene, take note: meal prep is important work!) 

I’m hoping Jesus got a bit of a nap in, because that evening at sundown, the crowds figured out where he was, and they started coming for help and healing.  “The whole city was gathered around the door.”  So how did Jesus respond? 

Well, again, he did what most of us would do: he tried to help.  He healed many who were sick, and cast out many demons.  Jesus knew that was his Father’s will for that moment.  But Jesus also knew that he had other things to do – a long-term plan to work on.  So early in the morning, he went to a deserted place to pray, think, plan, and focus.  We all know that need (introverts more than extroverts, perhaps).  Without some time apart from the noise and demands of social intercourse, we’ll soon go off course, and never achieve the big goals we set.  Good for Jesus to find an empty Dunkin Donuts at the crack of dawn. 

But that didn’t last too long.  Simon and his companions hunted him down and found him.  They relayed the anxiety of the crowd: “Everyone is searching for you!”  Jesus responded by deflecting their anxiety and defining his mission:  “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also, for that is what I came out to do.” 

This is an important moment, and we should take note.  Jesus knew his mission was to spread the message of God’s Kingdom widely, so he couldn’t stay in one place and become a permanent dispenser of good deeds.  He had the wisdom and the courage to define himself.  He would do this again and again in his life.  He was generous and helped countless people, but he also insisted on time apart to pray.  He also carved out time with his disciples, to teach and guide them.  Why?  So that the message could spread with 12 more messengers, not just one. 

Any life of ministry resembles this day in the life of Jesus.  Various people have needs and demands, and we try to respond.  A mother stops what she’s doing when her baby fusses; she picks him up and soothes him.  But when he’s napping, she’s wise to take time for herself – to read, or rest, and rejuvenate herself.  She may need time alone, or she may need to talk to a friend, get some advice, or just visit or vent. 

So, what can we learn from Jesus’ busy day?  First, he was generous – with his time, teaching, and healing.  He responded cheerfully to the needs of others.  He modeled the service of a deacon, we might say.  Second, he defined himself: his purpose and goals, his own needs.  He was not just reactive to the situations around him.  Third, he took care of himself – found time for himself, and stayed connected with his God, the source of his mission and his strength to do it. 

I can imagine the moment when his disciples found him in the Dunkin Donuts that morning.  They brought a rush of anxiety into the shop: “Everybody’s looking for you!”  I envision Jesus smiling broadly and suggesting, “Why don’t you all just sit down for a little while; I’ll buy you a coffee.  Let’s talk about this mission we have, about how do minister to God’s people, and not get burned out.  And remind me next time to find a better place to hide out from you people!” 

So, what does a day in your life look like?  Do your days feel balanced, representing your life’s priorities and values?  Are you finding ways to reach out and help or heal others, expecting nothing in return?  If you have a job, is your work a reasonable part of your day?  Do you feel balanced among the demands of others, and your own needs for rest, quiet time, and, (dare I use a now-hackneyed phrase), self-care? 

This day in Jesus’ life shows us he knows the heavy demands on people in need, his own need and desire for some quiet time to rest and pray, and his compelling mission to spread the word of love from God.  We can look to Jesus as a model for our own lives.  AMEN.  


 

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Sermon 01/21/2018- Epiphany 3B

Posted 5:38 PM by
Sermon, Epiph 3B  MLK                                                              Jeffrey B. MacKnight
21 Jan 2018                                                                                St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda

 

Here’s a story that’s not politically correct, but reminds me of old Jonah. 

Walking into the bar, a man said to the bartender, "Pour me a stiff one — just had another fight with the little woman." "Oh yeah?" says the bartender, "And how did this one end?" "When it was over," the man replied, "she came to me on her hands and knees." "Really?" says the bartender, "Now that's a change! What did she say?" “She said, ‘Come out from under the bed, you little coward, so I can hit you again!’

Jonah didn’t take direction very well, and God seemed to have to use drastic means to get God’s point across – hence, the infamous whale.  God had a job for Jonah to do: to speak for God to the notoriously wicked city of Ninevah.  Jonah didn’t wanna, so he basically tried to hide under the bed.  Not a good strategy when hiding from God.  It doesn’t work for us, either.  God searches us out with ease, and finds us wherever we try to hide. 

But what about this job God had for Jonah: speaking for God?  That sounds presumptuous at best, and dangerous at worst.  Look at all the prophets who spoke for God and ended up in big trouble.  Look at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Who would choose to do that?  Ah, but do we have a choice?  That’s the real question. 

As a preacher, I’m in a special position to speak.  Now, preachers have choices.  A lot of time, we speak about God: we teach, explain.  That’s easier, and less risky, because we’re not challenging people’s behaviors, we’re not challenging the system, the society, that we live in.  But to speak for God takes chutzpah: When I do that, I presume to know God’s will, God’s desire for us, and I’m imposing it on others. 

Last week I attended a conference at the Virginia Seminary with other clergy.  I was talking with another priest, a likable guy, and he started to say that he believed there was no place in the pulpit for anything political.  Just “stick to the Gospel,” he said.  Now, my first reaction, as a person who is conflict-avoidant, was to let this pass without comment.  But then I thought, “No, I disagree with this, and I can state my view just as he has stated his.”  So I did.  I said, gently, that I believed Jesus’ Gospel touches a great deal on political issues – poor people, aliens, care for the sick and weak, care for children, avoiding war and violence.  I don’t see how one can preach the Gospel without preaching on these things.  In other words, to speak for God means to take risks that people will be uncomfortable, unhappy, and perhaps hostile with you. 

The other priest must have been conflict-avoidant, too.  He didn’t say much more. 

So, speaking for God is dangerous.  But we have seen how necessary it is, especially when people in distress aren’t able to speak for themselves.  Poor people are in constant fear that the rest of us know nothing about.  They are easily dismissed from jobs and evicted from homes if they are perceived as “troublemakers.”  Young immigrant Dreamers have no vote in the only country they’ve ever known as home.  You’ve heard of a “victimless crime.”  Well, Dreamers are “crimeless victims.”  They’ve done nothing wrong, but they are at terrible risk now.  Is this God’s desire?  The God who said,

The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.     Leviticus 19.34

Our country, despite all our rhetoric about freedom and equality, was built on the aching backs of a host of aliens violently brought here, entirely against their will, to work in the fields of this country.  Enslaved peoples, “aliens,” were denied all rights, including parental rights to their own children.  They had little power to speak for themselves.  Someone else had to speak for them, and at great cost, some did. 

After the Civil War, our nation reverted to a new form of the old order: a separate and very unequal dispensation for whites and blacks.  Abraham Lincoln was killed; Jim Crow was lifted up in his place.  Again, African Americans had little voice and were often denied the vote.  Who would speak for them? 

Martin Luther King rose to that terrifying vocation, and it came out of his understanding of the Gospel of Jesus.  One cannot “love your neighbor” and oppress him at the same time.  God’s Kingdom stood in judgment of the United States of America.  King believed he must speak.  And he was willing to pay the ultimate price. 

We know he had hesitations, moments of doubt.  The movie “Selma” helped me understand Dr. King as a person, a human being filled with frailty, fears, and failures.  He was no perfect saint.  But he was a prophet.   He took on that vocation that Jonah tried hard to avoid.  And his prophecy has borne fruit in our country.  There is still a long way to go.  Recent political and social debate tells us that racism is alive and well in a city near you!  “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance,” was a maxim quoted by abolitionists.  Our work is far from done.  New prophets will be needed to speak for God in new times, in new ways.  Aldous Huxley expanded the maxim to say, ‘Eternal vigilance is not only the price of liberty; eternal vigilance is the price of human decency.”  We would do well to heed those words today.  

In conclusion, the church is always at great risk of being co-opted by the society, the culture in which it lives.  So are its preachers.  I can tell you, it’s easier to preach about welcoming Jesus into your heart, than it is to preach about how we must change ourselves, our relationships, and our societal systems.  Dr. King said,

“Although the Church has been called to combat social evils, it has often remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows….  How often the church has been an echo, rather than a voice,  - ...rather than a headlight guiding men and women progressively and decisively to higher levels of understanding.” 

And, I might add, higher levels of love.  Love is, in the end, the final goal, and the final arbiter of our lives.  Have we loved our neighbor?  Is Love Practiced Here?  


 

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