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Sermon: 12/18/2016

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Sermon, Advent 4A                                        Jeffrey B. MacKnight
18 December 2016                                          St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda

A kindergarten teacher announces to her class, "Tomorrow, we will have show and tell. I would like everyone to bring in a symbol of his or her religious faith." The next day, a little boy steps forward. "Hi, my name is David. I'm Jewish, and this is a star of David." Another little boy comes forward. "Hi, my name is Kevin. I'm a Catholic, and this is a crucifix." Finally, a little girl steps to the front. "Hi, my name is Susie. I'm a Baptist, and this is a casserole." 

We might well ask ourselves what an Episcopal kid would bring to show and tell!

Signs are important. 

Signs.  Isaiah – a child would be born as a sign – that war and conflict would soon cease.  This happened in Isaiah’s time – 8 centuries before Jesus. 

Yet we see Jesus as a similar sign from God – a sign of how life is, and what our destiny is.  A sign of hope, even when things are clearly not as they should be.  A sign of God being a part of our human journey.  The crucifix – the cross with a suffering Jesus upon it – is a fitting sign of this life, although it does not tell the whole story…the story of final resurrection, vindication, redemption of all that we hold dear.            

Although there is much beautiful Advent music, I do listen to Christmas carols in December.  The ones that tug at my heartstrings most are the ones that include the whole sweep of human experience – from birth and fresh new life and possibilities, through the real struggles of human life, the pain, the losses, and finally confronting death itself.  One of these has stayed in my mind this season.  It’s a beautiful old Basque carol.

1. Sing lullaby!
Lullaby baby, now reclining,
Sing lullaby!
Hush, do not wake the Infant King.
Angels are watching, stars are shining
Over the place where he is lying.
Sing lullaby!


2. Sing lullaby!
Lullaby baby, now a-sleeping,
Sing lullaby!
Hush, do not wake the Infant King.
Soon will come sorrow with the morning,
Soon will come bitter grief and weeping:
Sing lullaby!


3. Sing lullaby!
Lullaby baby, now a-dozing,
Sing lullaby!
Hush, do not wake the Infant King.
Soon comes the cross, the nails, the piercing,
Then in the grave at last reposing:
Sing lullaby!


4. Sing lullaby!
Lullaby! is the babe a-waking?
Sing lullaby!
Hush, do not stir the Infant King.
Dreaming of Easter, gladsome morning,
Conquering Death, its bondage breaking:
Sing lullaby!
 

The sign that is Jesus  points to that whole sweep of human experience: life, death, and new life again.  We say it in the liturgy:

Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again. 

We remember his death.  We proclaim his resurrection.  We await his coming again. 

We Anglicans love Christmas, perhaps even more than Easter.  The story of a wondrous birth, with a bright star overhead – that is a great sign indeed.  We should love it, celebrate it, sing about it, treasure it.  And so we do. 

And that sign is all the deeper because we know what will come – the human life, full of moments of laughter and elation, times of worry and darkness, and yes, dark valleys of almost unbearable sadness, pain, and loss.  It’s all part of the package.  Every child is born into this uncertain world.  Jesus is the sign that God is with us through it all, and that redemption comes in the end:

Hush, do not stir the Infant King.

Dreaming of Easter, gladsome morning,
Conquering Death, its bondage breaking:
Sing lullaby!

So if I were asked about the symbol of our Anglican/Episcopal faith, I’d be hard-pressed to choose just one, because our faith is a journey.  We are on the trail together, starting with our Hebrew Scriptures and heritage, leading to the revelation of Jesus’ life and death on the cross, and on into resurrection and whatever new thing God has for us.  And I’m sure our journey includes lots of casseroles too.  As we turn now to the joys of Christmas, find a quiet moment and thank God for the journey of your life, what was, what is, and what is to come…dreaming of Easter, gladsome morning, conquering death, its bondage breaking.  


 

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Sermon: 12/11/2016

Posted 4:46 PM by
Sermon, Advent IIIA                                      Jeffrey B. MacKnight
11 December 2016                                          St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda

When John the Baptist asked Jesus if he was indeed the Messiah of God, Jesus replied: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.  And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” 

My brother-in-law Andre visited over Thanksgiving and told this joke –
 “What did the blind man say when he walked into the bar?  Ouch!” 

Andre’s one of the most active, hard-driving, yet gracious people I know.  Due to a rare congenital condition, he lost his eyesight a few years ago in his late 50s, first in one eye, then in the other.  He is now legally blind.  He has had to live with his blindness since – not an easy change to accept, much less adapt to.  He was cast into the wilderness.  He also got fired from his job because of his blindness.  Oh, and he happened to contract cancer too. 

Andre set out to reorder his life.  Andre and his wife Nancy moved to a house closer to public transit in Denver, where they live, so Andre can get around town on his own. Andre has gotten a service dog Pelham – a smart and gentle yellow lab who serves as his eyes. 

One of Andre’s greatest loves is bicycling – the heavy duty, long distance kind.  Without his sight, he has had to learn to ride tandem: in the back, not in the driver’s seat. He said that’s required learning humility.

Andre has learned to be amazingly independent – still an excellent chef, he’s also astute with technology.  But he’s also learned to ask for help when he needs it – something most of us need to work on. 

Jesus’ message of healing at first seems like welcome news for all of us, and at a deep level, it is.  But there is a catch: in order to receive Jesus’ healing, we must first accept our blindness, our deafness, our state of utter need.  We have to admit that we are not in control, we are not sufficient unto ourselves, we are wandering in the dark, in the wilderness.  We have to be humbled.  We need help.  That’s why Jesus added, at the end, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”  Blessed is anyone who can admit his state of need, blessed is she who can ask for help. 

Franciscan spiritual writer Richard Rohr observes that the Christian life is a process – of traveling from our original order, through a state of disorder, and finally into a third state: reorder.  My brother-in-law Andre has certainly traveled this difficult path.  He had no choice.  It’s been hard.  Rohr says: 

We dare not get rid of our pain before we have learned what it has to teach us. Most of religion gives answers too quickly, dismisses pain too easily, and seeks to be distracted—to maintain some ideal order. So we must resist the instant fix and acknowledge ourselves as beginners to be open to true transformation. In the great spiritual traditions, the wounds to our ego are our teachers to be welcomed. They should be paid attention to, not litigated or even perfectly resolved. How can a Christian look at the Crucified One and not get this essential point?  The Resurrected Christ is the icon of the third [state], or reorder.

Once we can learn to live in this third spacious place, neither fighting nor fleeing reality but holding the creative tension itself, we are in the spacious place of grace out of which all newness comes.

There is no direct flight from order to reorder, you must go through disorder, which is surely why Jesus dramatically and shockingly endured it on the cross.  He knew we would all want to deny disorder unless he made it clear. But we denied it anyway.

Richard Rohr’s words are wise.  In other words, we’ve been blind, often on purpose.  Blind because we don’t want to see – see our failings, our sins, our disordered lives, our deep emptiness. 

I think the darkness of Advent is a symbol of this kind of blindness.  The church is wise to keep insisting that we pause in the dark place before we experience the brightness of Christmas.  There’s no shortcut.  We need time to journey through the wilderness, the darkness, the disorder, before God can bring something new into being in us, a new and marvelous order. 

I just got a new set of tires on my car.  That’s pretty easy to do on a car, but not in our spiritual lives.  As I get older, I realize that Advent is a season that makes more sense to those of us who have a lot of miles on us.  We get battered a good bit by life, even when life is good.  We may wish we could just get a new set of treads, but we can’t – not that easily.  We have to wait for God to do that…to allow us to wake up one day after a long time of clouds and thick darkness, and realize that we are being renewed.  There is a new light shining in the world, and in our hearts. 

That’s what Advent represents: that journey through hardship toward  peace, through darkness into a new light.  We can’t rush it; it has to happen in God’s time.  I don’t think children can get this, but we older folks do.  I’ve come to love Advent and its darkness…maybe even more than Christmas.  The light and joy of Christmas are lovely, but the darkness and quiet of Advent have much to teach us.  Let’s dwell here expectantly these next two weeks.  AMEN.  

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Bishops Visit 11/20/2016

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Click here to read the Sermon delivered by Bishop Mariann Budde during her visit to St. Dunstan's on November 20, 2016.

 

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Consecration Sunday Sermon 11/13/2016

Posted 4:31 PM by
Sermon: Consecration Sunday, Veterans Day                               Jeffrey B. MacKnight
13 November 2016                                                                        St. Dunstan’s

 

 

Two hunters from Minnesota get a pilot to fly them to Canada to hunt moose. They bag six. As they start loading the plane for the return trip, the pilot tells them the plane can take only four of the moose. The two lads object strongly. "Last year we shot six, and the pilot let us put them all on board; he had the same plane as yours." Reluctantly, the pilot gives in and lets them load all six. However, even with full power, the little plane can't handle the load and goes down a few moments after takeoff. Climbing out of the wreckage, one Minnesotan asks the other, "Any idea where we are?" The second replies, "Yah, I tink we's pretty close to where we crashed last year." J

Sometimes life feels like that! 

Today our heads are crowded with competing thoughts, concerns, hopes, and worries.  It’s been quite a week: a big upset in the presidential election – some of us are happy and some are not.  Most of us are surprised, I’d say, and wondering what the Trump presidency will look like for the next four years.  The Church is not here to render judgment on politicians, favoring some over others.  In fact, followers of Jesus do not put their trust in the goodness of any political leader.  But the Church is very much here to critique all politicians, all national decisions and legislation, in the light of the values of Jesus our Lord.  Here at St. Dunstan’s, we’ll continue to look at our national life through the lens of Jesus’ life and teachings, as we always have.  We have a different, and higher, set of standards by which to judge our society, our world. 

The odd Gospel you heard today is from Palm Sunday, when Jesus finally rode into Jerusalem to face the Temple officials, the Romans, and finally the cross itself.  He rode in, not on the tall white horse of a conquering warrior, but on a little donkey-colt.  He was making a political statement – or, I should say, a critique of all human politics.  He was setting himself in contrast to the “powers that be” in his world: the Roman occupation of Palestine.  Just as the Roman legions rode into Jerusalem from the west, with chariots and armaments and great horses, to “keep peace” during Passover, Jesus rode in from the east on his little donkey.  He knew that every political leader would need to be countered by a people devoted to God, God’s radical and equal love for every human being.  The powers of this world will always need this check, this critique, this counter-force.  And we need it now. 

I want to focus on one little sentence in this Gospel: not the Hosannas of the crowds, but the 6 words used to secure that little donkey-colt from a sympathetic owner.  Those 6 words are:  “The Lord has need of it.”

How Jesus arranged for the little colt, we don’t know, but the words he used are clear enough: “Please give this, because the Lord needs it.”  What other need could supersede that?  All our plans, our personal desires, our hesitations fall away when we really hear the call of God saying, “The Lord needs it: the Lord needs you, your time, your money, your devotion and prayer.  Never mind your own plan, right now, the Lord needs you.”  Have you ever heard that voice in your life?  Had that overwhelming sense of call, of conviction, of action?  I hope you have.  That call changes us. 

“The Lord has need of it.”

This week we also observe Veterans’ Day, a time to stop and give thanks for the sacrifices of all who have served this country in the armed forces.  I think of my dad, who joined millions of Americans in the forties to fight in World War II.  In that war, the enemy was clear, vicious, and well-defined.  But I still stand in awe of those people who dropped everything and risked – or gave – their lives.  I believe most of them understood that call to be from God and country: “The Lord has need of me.” 

The wonderful Christian priest and writer Barbara Crafton wrote yesterday, reflecting on the American Civil War (after just finishing Shelby Foote’s huge history of that horrific conflict).  She notes the unfathomable cost in human life – well over 600,000 lives lost as both sides slaughtered our own brothers and sisters who saw this country differently.  We face such a split in the U.S. today, and it is a dangerous time for us.  Crafton writes:

 This must never happen again.

War never brings peace. It always sows the seeds of the next war. Violence on a smaller scale is the same: it may triumph in the moment, but it never persuades. The most violence can win is compliance based on fear, and a grim resolve to even the score next time, a resolve that can last for years.

We cannot designate our fellow Americans as enemies. We can be opponents, but we must not be enemies. We can be passionate, but we must not hate.

We can contend for what we think best. In order to do that, we must stay in contention. If we foreclose on relationship, we are no longer in the civic conversation.

“The Lord has need of it.”

Finally, we come together today at St. Dunstan’s to offer our financial pledges for the year ahead – another kind of sacrificial giving for God’s work right here in our own neighborhood.  Our church stands as a testimony to our values here: God’s love for every person, hospitality and acceptance of all, a safe and happy place for children every day, service and advocacy for people in need.  People see our banners on Mass. Avenue and know that this is a safe and welcoming place.  We don’t judge by race or social status or wealth or other characteristics; because Jesus doesn’t judge by those things. We look for Christ in every person. 

So today – in the midst of all that swirls around us – I ask you to vote for these values, with your pledge of support.  The Lord has need of it.  And I ask you to make it a bit more generous than you are comfortable doing, so that our church can thrive.  If you’ve already submitted a pledge, consider increasing it a bit.  Our budget challenges are great this year, because some revenues we used last year are not recurring.  Your leaders will work with what you, collectively, give, and we’ll devise the best possible budget to use those funds.  We shall live together by the decisions you make today. 

I conclude with the words of our own bishop, Mariann Edgar Budde.  Reflecting on the shock of the election, she calls for us to know our neighbors, especially the ones we disagree with, whose lives are painful and difficult in ways we do not know: 

Speaking on behalf of the Diocese of Washington, I pledge that I will take an active part in the healing of America. In faithfulness to God, we will seek the welfare of the cities, towns and communities in which we live. As Americans, we give thanks for the peaceful transfer of political power and we respect it.

“The Lord has need of it.”  The Lord has need of us – each and every one of us – today, in this country, in this city.  The Lord is asking for our hearts, our hands, our voices, and our dollars, to make peace with justice.  Will you answer?   


 

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Sermon: 11/06/2016

Posted 4:19 PM by
Sermon, Proper 26C                                                                    Jeffrey B. MacKnight
30 October 2016                                                                       St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda

Today’s story is about repentance: Zacchaeus, the tax collector who repents of his evil ways. 

I have a confession to make: I strayed into temptation and sin on Friday. I was out to take in the brisk fall air and changing leaves, when I was caught up in a long procession of cars leading inexorably into perdition. 

When I arrived, the people were like lemmings, drawn like moths to a flame. My chest tightened; the crowds made me nervous. I knew I had no business being there, but I joined them in their blind obedience. I succumbed, as Zacchaeus succumbed 2000 years ago, to the power of temptation, avarice, like a sheep led to the slaughter. But I was fortunate; I managed to escape before the worst had happened, and I am able to stand before you today. 

Of course, by now you know where I was – at the grand opening of the new outlet mall in Clarksburg! It is a colossus beyond my wildest imaginings, like a small island city marooned in ocean of asphalt. A temple where only money, greed, acquisition, and the latest fashions are worshipped. 

The Bible tells us that the love of money is the root of all evil. Not money itself, but the love of it. That’s where Zacchaeus comes in. As a tax collector for the Romans, he loved money: he built his own wealth on the backs of others, by collecting as much as he could extract from lowly Judaeans. He no doubt used fear and threats…

But something changed in Zacchaeus. He must have heard Jesus preach and teach, maybe at first by accident. But he was smitten, captivated. He began to believe that a new life was possible, one not built on greed and intimidation. 

One day, he heard that Jesus would be coming by. He climbed a tree, we’re told, so he could see, because he was of small stature, that is, short. But in truth his stature was small in every way: he was not much of a human being. Anyway, he climbed that sycamore tree. 

I think maybe he climbed into that tree for another reason too – that he did not want to be seen. He was still unsure; he was not ready to look Jesus in the eye.  What would that involve? What would be required of him? 

[Our son Colin: when he had been naughty, we would give him time out. At the beach house where we went for many years, there was a low, scrubby tree outside the kitchen door. Colin would climb up into that tree when he was given time out.  At times, he’d just go up there on his own. He had some distance, but he could keep an eye on what was happening too. Maybe that sycamore tree was Zacchaeus’s time out tree….]

Back to the story: Jesus spotted Zacchaeus and called to him to come down out of his hiding place. Jesus acted as if Zacchaeus had already decided to change his life, to repent. Jesus invited himself to dinner at Zacchaeus’s house (we don’t know how Mrs. Zacchaeus felt about that!). And then it happened:  Zacchaeus did change, he did repent, right there in front of God and everybody.  “Look!  I’m going to give half my wealth to help poor people.  And if I’ve defrauded people, I’ll pay it back fourfold!” Zacchaeus, wealthy chief tax collector 10 minutes ago, is now Zacchaeus, generous man of God. Talk about repentance. 

Now I have long suspected that this is not the first time we have met Zacchaeus.  Last week, we heard the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector in the temple praying. The Pharisee was a self-righteous prig, but the tax collector was feeling the weight of his sinful life, the ways he had hurt people and exploited his position.  He simply asked for mercy. I believe that was Zacchaeus. That was the moment he was convicted of his sinfulness. Later, when he comes down out of that sycamore tree, into the arms of Jesus – this is the moment of his repentance, his transformation into a new man, a new human being, redeemed and made new by God!

Because that’s what repentance does for us – we are transformed into new human beings, freed from the terrible weight of our past lives, the weight of competition, self-doubt, regret, climbing the ladder, keeping up with the Joneses, and wondering if we can ever be good enough. When we repent, we turn our lives over to God, and God does an amazing thing – God embraces us just as we are, and loves us. 

This is the end of my sermon series on practicing love. It’s also our last Sunday of Creation Season. I hope you’ve enjoyed the music, readings, and visual displays of Creation in the church. I thank the parish artists who lent their beautiful works to line our walls! And I ask your prayers and your efforts to protect and care for God’s good earth, our atmosphere, and our waters, so that future generations can enjoy what we have enjoyed. 

It’s meet and right to end on repentance. We all have tracts in our lives where we don’t want God to go, because we’re not proud of what we are or what we’ve done.  But repentance can set us free – free to be the men, women, and children God made us to be – free to be lavish in love, magnificent in generosity; free to give freely, because we are so grateful for all that we have received. The most joyful people I know are the most giving, the most loving, the most generous.  They have found God’s secret to a great life. I want to be like them! 

In case you are still wondering, my day got better after my misadventure at the outlet mall. I escaped that web of seduction with my life and my wallet intact. I ended up at the top of Sugarloaf Mountain – a place of inordinate natural beauty and peace. God was merciful to me, a sinner. 

 


 

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Practicing Love Sermon 7: Practicing Love Series 10/23/2016

Posted 2:11 PM by
Sermon, Proper 25C                                                                     Jeffrey B. MacKnight
Practicing Love in Humility                                                        23 October 2016

This is a story about two young men meeting at Georgetown University:

            Both men of color
            Both immigrants
            Both dreaming of becoming entrepreneurs

But there was a difference, that trumped everything: One was a student, and the other was a janitor, cleaning the study rooms each night.  He was invisible – like the house elves in Harry Potter stories – always cleaning up after everybody, but never acknowledged. For over 10 years, the custodian, Oneil Batchelor of Jamaica, reported that not a word was every spoken to him by any student. Then one student finally broke that ice last year.

A nod one night. A hello the next.

All that changed when one student decided to look, to see, to acknowledge a fellow human being. 

“Once you see, you can’t unsee it,” said  Febin Bellamy, the 22 year old student. Mr. Batchelor and Mr. Bellamy would develop a friendship, and out of that came a university movement to cross boundaries and learn of the dreams and concerns of all members of the Georgetown community. Mr. Batchelor, a talented chef, received startup funding for a new catering business, Oneil’s Famous Jerk Chicken. 

Today’s sermon is about practicing love in humility, and that’s what Febin Bellamy and Oneil Batchelor were finally able to do  – really seeing another person as a human being, a precious child of God, worthy of dignity, opportunity, compassion. Worthy of a hello. Worthy of listening to. Worth knowing. 

Our parable today, from the Gospel of Luke, demonstrates pride and humility in high relief.  The Pharisee is bragging about his wonderful deeds, and is contemptuous of the other man in the temple. That man, a despised tax collector, acknowledges his sin, and asks only for God’s mercy.  We easily condemn the Pharisee as a pompous blowhard.  He was doing the right things, but with the wrong attitude! We nod in assent when Jesus affirms the tax collector.  In our hearts, we don’t want to see ourselves in either man – not the pompous prig, and not the shady tax man either. But truly to learn from Jesus’ story, we must see ourselves in both men. Only humility will allow us to do that. 

Here, our Christian faith is at is most countercultural. The world teaches us to get ahead, show our stuff, and climb the ladder of success. Humility teaches us that other human beings deserve the same respect as we do.  We are all equal in the eyes of God. All are sinners, yet all are beloved.  It’s really hard to live that way in this world, not to mention this city!

But humility is really quite freeing. Humility about our own lives, our place in the world, frees us from the need to keep up with the Joneses, show off what we have or what we know (or whom we know). It’s humbleness that allows us to say, “I’m not the center of the universe. I don’t need to garner all the attention…I don’t have to be admired for how attractive I am, or how successful I am, or how rich I am, or even how good a person I am.”

When it comes to our money, humility allows us to see that others’ needs may be more important than our own desires, in God’s eyes. That other children need our support, not just our own children. Humility can allow us to say to our own children, “You have enough.  I need to give some of what God has given us to children who need basics, like groceries and school shoes.”

Our children have never lacked for anything they needed. I’m hugely grateful for that.  But we have had to say no to many of their desires along the way, to give consistently to the church and to other charitable projects. That, to me, is part of practicing love in humility, and it’s also a good witness for our children to see. If you have children in your home, try talking to them about what you give to and why, and what it costs you. Perhaps try bringing your children into the decisions on your charitable giving. You might be surprised at what they must say. 

Back to Jesus’ parable – in the end, both those men praying in the temple have a lot of growing to do, and both have real potential to become more Christlike. The Pharisee is doing good things; he just needs to work on his attitude of superiority, which he uses to distance himself from the rest of humanity. He needs to examine why he does this distancing, which denigrates other children of God. He needs to repent, and get to know some non-Pharisees! 

The tax collector has probably done some really bad things, and he knows it. Tax men were notorious for extortion in those days (nothing like our modern IRS agents!). He had a lot to answer for.  He would need to apologize to his victims, and make restitution where possible. His cry for mercy in the temple is not the end of his path, not a “get out of jail free” pass, but the beginning of a long road of rehabilitation.

Jesus’ parables always spur my imagination. What happens later?  In this story, I imagine a day when the Pharisee and the tax collector, after repenting and working on their own sins and foibles, meet again, and actually get to know each other as people, as fellow humans, as children of one God.  Maybe they would have a similar experience to that of Oneil Batchelor and Febin Bellamy – the Georgetown janitor and student. Maybe they have something to share with each other, to teach each other. Maybe each of them needs to feel loved. Maybe, we all do.  

 

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Practicing Love Sermon 6: Practicing Love Series 10/09/2016

Posted 5:18 PM by
Sermon: Practicing Love through Thanksgiving                         Jeffrey B. MacKnight
9 October 2016                                                                          St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda

I don’t know about you, but I really don’t like to ask for help. I remember the first time my back went out several years ago. I bent over slightly, and felt that sickening pop, and I couldn’t stand up straight again. Later, after several scans, I was told I have a herniated disk in my lower back – a common condition, and there’s not much they can do about it without cutting you open….

So I asked for help (I had to). I tried the chiropractor, but that didn’t do much. I did physical therapy. And finally, I had a course of steroids, and it was like a miracle. I could stand and straighten my back again! What a blessing. I was so thankful to be healed.

Today Jesus tells the story of ten lepers. Those lepers, they kept their distance from Jesus. In fact, lepers were required to keep their distance from society, and shout a warning when they approached, lest anybody “catch” their disease. What an isolating, lonely way to live. 

But they found the courage to cry out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” After all the humiliation they had endured, they had the guts, and the hope, to cry to Jesus whom they had heard was a healer. They asked for help.

Jesus responded: “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” The priests were the ones who authenticated healings, and would allow the lepers back into society. They would be set free!  Off they went, gazing down at the fresh pink skin on their hands and arms, rejoicing in their new, healthy bodies.

We are the lepers – if not physically in need of healing, then certainly emotionally, spiritually in need. We’ve all hurt people, and been hurt. We’ve made mistakes. We’ve been selfish. We have our weaknesses, our foibles our herniated disks. We carry the scars of life on our own skins – visibly or invisibly, they are there. 

And then…one of them – just one out of ten – turned back, praising God, and fell down at Jesus’ feet, and thanked him….and he was a Samaritan, a foreigner. Why not the others? Did they forget so quickly the awful state they’d been in? Did they think at all about this man Jesus who set them free? What would I do? Or you? Jesus seems very human in his sadness at this.

Then there is Naaman – a proud man, a military officer, used to deference. But he too was a leper.  A slave girl in his house told him about the God of Israel, who could heal him. Naaman came, with all his horses and chariots, to see the prophet Elisha. Elisha told him how to be healed, but Naaman thought it was ridiculous. He was proud. O my goodness, doesn’t that sound like us?  Would we stoop to wash ourselves in the sorry little Jordan River?  Or would we say, “Naw, this is silly.  I don’t believe in this stuff.  I’m an important man – too important to be doing this!” 

We are prideful, it seems, by nature. Look at the world – the posturing and preening of our leaders, celebrities, movie stars. We all want to be important, more so than the next guy. We don’t want to appear weak, or needy.  

Christian life is really all about coming back to give thanks. It’s about swallowing our pride, asking for help when we need it, and rejoicing when God grants us some healing, some new hope, clear new pink skin, a back that can stand up straight. Christian life is living in an “attitude of gratitude,” as they say. Knowing we need to depend on God, and responding with thanks for every gift. 

Giving thanks – that’s how we finally are free of our pride, our need to be self-sufficient, our desire to be stronger or better or richer than others. With gratitude, all of that falls away. What a freeing thing!

And what’s more, thankfulness heightens our pleasure and delight in the simplest of things – good hot coffee, a great meal, a walk in this gorgeous fall weather, the first red leaf spotted in a tree, the laughter of a toddler at the grocery store (and that’s just from my day yesterday). Oh and of course, the nuzzle of one’s favorite dog!

These are simple gifts – the best kind. We launch our Annual Giving Campaign today with this theme: Simple Gifts – for the Church and for the World.  I hope you’ll think about the simple gifts in your life, and take special joy in thanking God for each and every one of them. Just try it – starting with gratitude. It will bring you joy. 

One way to give thanks is to pass on the blessings to others around you. Your pledge to this church is one good way to do that. We all know that without your consistent, committed giving, St. Dunstan’s can’t survive. And yet, faithful people have helped this community survive and thrive for 58 years now. So much ministry has flowed through these walls, and out into the world around us for all these years; so many people have been touched and helped; so many baptisms and marriages have been celebrated here; so many saints have been commended to God here, after their deaths. So many children have learned about Jesus; so many youths have learned the joy of serving people in need. So many people visited in hospital or nursing home; so much joy in Easter and Christmas services, so much music offered to God and enjoyed by all of us. 

And overarching it all is one thing: Giving Thanks to God. That is the essence of the Eucharist.  It is the Christian life. Thankfulness frees us from our fears, our selfishness, our need to get ahead and outshine others.  Fear, self-centeredness, pride – those are the diseases of our day, the leprosy of this age. And the cure is ready at hand: gratitude; thankfulness to God. Jesus offers us the cure, the key to a new life. It is a simple gift, but a profound one. Let us take it! And let us be the one who, in his joy, returns to give thanks for the mighty work of God in our lives.  AMEN.   


 

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Practicing Love Sermon 5: Practicing Love Series 10/02/2016

Posted 5:19 PM by
Sermon, Practicing Love through Faith                                      Jeffrey B. MacKnight
2 October 2016  Creation Season                                               St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda

 

The Faith of a Mustard Seed

One day, a snail was mugged by a couple of tortoises. When the police arrived on the scene they asked, "Can you tell us what you remember about the suspects?" The snail replied, "Oh, I don't know, it all happened so fast!" 

I’ve never been accused of being a patient man.  When I am in action mode, I like to get things done, preferably now.  “There’s no time like the present,” is one of my inner proverbs.  But not everything moves quickly in life.  That’s where faith becomes absolutely necessary.  I struggle with that.  When I don’t see change and movement, I get discouraged.  I need faith more than I need anything. 

To persevere in hope, we must be able to envision a future, work, pray, and stay the course until it can come about.  “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for; the conviction of things not seen,” says the Bible.  All of my complaining to God over the years about the slowness of life has not changed anything.  But God has been changing me – ever so slowly.  Like it or not, I realize I am now the tortoise…if not the snail! 

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, `Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. Luke 17:5

When have you longed for something to come to pass, and persevered until your vision was rewarded?  Was it getting a college degree, buying a house, changing a neighborhood, recovering from an illness, fighting an injustice?  It takes faith to do these things.  Even the faith of a mustard seed can move mountains, over time. 

Last week I sponsored an event in Alexandria for Five Talents – the Anglican organization I’m involved in that works in eight of the poorest countries to help people, mainly, women, learn to save, start a business, and support themselves and their children.  As an international development NGO, we are small, but mighty.  We struggle to raise our small budget of under a million dollars.  But still, we have changed the lives of over 360,000 people with our programs since 1999.  Families earn money, eat more than one meal a day, and can pay the fees to send children to school.  Lives change, with the faith of a mustard seed.  It’s exciting to see.  The other night at our event, we heard from Peter and Harun who work in South Sudan – a new country, very unstable.  As you’ve heard and read, there is violence in certain parts of South Sudan.  But Peter and Harun are joyful, energetic, hopeful people – excited about their work, and grateful for the support of us Americans who contribute.  South Sudan has been at war a long time – a generation has gone uneducated.    So we start with literacy training, and numeracy training (numbers) – the 3 R’s – and then move to business training, savings groups, and small loans for starting businesses.  The local churches are among the few intact, respected institutions.  We work through them. Over 21,000 persons are participants in Five Talents programs there right now, transforming lives. The faith of a mustard seed.

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St. Dunstan’s grants to Five Talents the last few years have supported the program in Indonesia.  It’s tricky to work there, because it is a Muslim country, and not very open to other religions. But the church is there, so Five Talents has a base. A front page story on Five Talents website features Nuriah:

Nuriah is a mom who cares for her two biological children and four adopted orphans. Her catering business serves low-wage factory workers in an industrial area of Jakarta. 

Previously, her business relied on funding from loan sharks who charged exorbitant interest for quick cash. Her profits disappeared each month in repayment and she struggled to provide food and clothing for her children. Now, with access to secure savings and loans through Five Talents and GERHATI, Nuriah has been able to expand her business without incurring debt.

Nuriah-catering3

"Economically, we are getting better and I make better relationships with the people around me. I can buy the children the clothes they like and now I can give them pocket money. . . It is not difficult anymore for me to care for my family. It is easier now. I have savings for the days to come."

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The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, `Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. Luke 17:5

Our own Bp. Budde wrote this week about faith:

I was among the millions who watched the first presidential debate on Monday evening…. As bishop, I don’t take public positions in support of any political party or candidate. But I share the view that this is a pivotal election, and that as Christians living in a democratic society, we have a responsibility to participate in civic life for the good of all.

How Christians are called by God to exercise our citizenship is not always clear and we are not of one mind.  How can we use our faith to help us navigate and grow during these stormy and chaotic times?

[Here is Bp. Budde’s answer]:  

Faith is for times like these, precisely to help us navigate through storms and trials. This is our time to live by whatever faith we have, those bits of goodness, grace and love given to us, knowing all the while that not everything is up to us.  We may never feel as if we have enough, or that we can do enough. It doesn’t matter. We’re here now and we all have an offering to make. Jesus himself assured us that we don’t need very much to move mountains, that a little bit of faith, a little bit of love, a little bit of righteous anger goes a long way.  

The decisions we make, as a nation, on November 8, are very important. And on the morning of November 9, some of us will wake up tremendously relieved and others deeply disappointed. But no matter the outcome, we will rise that day, as every day, as followers of Jesus and citizens of this land. We are here for a time such as this.

As I said, I like things to move, to make progress, to get on with it.  But the Kingdom of God works on different time than we do – it may seem like a tortoise…it often does, to me!  The pace of my own progress in life may seem on the order of a snail.  Still, God is at work in us, in creation, in the rings of a treetrunk, in the growth of a child, in the rising of the sun, in the slow, excruciatingly slow arc of history, as it bends…bends toward justice. 

All it takes is the faith of a mustard seed. 

 


 

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Practicing Love Sermon 4: Practicing Love Series 9/25/2016

Posted 2:35 PM by
Sermon, Proper 21C                                                                Jeffrey B. MacKnight    
25 September 2016 Lazarus and Dives                                   St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda                                                                                                                  

One of the oldest sermon stories in the book involves a Baptist, an Episcopalian, and a Methodist meeting in hell.  They begin to compare how each of them ended up in that fiery pit. “I once danced a jig at my daughter’s wedding,” said the Methodist. “I once drank a pint with my buddies,” admitted the Baptist.

The Episcopalian paused, and then confessed, “I once ate an entire meal with my salad fork.”

We Episcopalians do like our formalities and rituals! But Jesus’ parable today leaves no doubt what is truly important. Poor Lazarus and the rich man known as Dives – such a graphic story, so easy to picture in our mind’s eye: the purple robe of the rich man; the sumptuous food and drink arrayed on the dining table; the sores covering the skin of Lazarus, skinny and malnourished, lying at the back door. Not surprisingly, this parable is often depicted in art. In our sermon series on Practicing Love, I see this story as a teaching moment about practicing love with our wealth.

First, a question: Is the parable – and Jesus - saying that wealth is evil? No, in fact wealth can be very good, although it clearly presents us with challenges. God does not wish people to be poor! What this story is about is compassion – something the rich man sorely lacked. 

This weekend, as a great new museum opens on the National Mall, I can well imagine Dives as a white man, dressed in the finest clothes, sitting in his grand house, feasting. I picture great white columns, like the plantation house at Twelve Oaks in Gone with the Wind.  In my mind, Lazarus is a poor old black man, enslaved, dying, no longer useful to his master. As a slave, he was not permitted to share in the wealth of the land on which he toiled….

We know how the story goes. Both men died, death being an equalizing factor. Lazarus goes to heaven and rests, finally, in comfort in the bosom of Abraham … (hence the spiritual song, Rock-a my soul in the bosom of Abraham).

Dives goes to torment in hell…. burning up, tormented with thirst, in absolute agony. The whole scene is dreamlike, bizarre. Dives can look up and somehow see Lazarus with Abraham in heaven. Dives calls out to Abraham to send Lazarus down with a drop of water to cool his tongue. But Abraham says no: Dives and Lazarus are both receiving the just deserts of their lives on earth.  Again, you may know the negro spiritual: 

Old Father Abraham, pray let Lazarus come:
Dip his finger in the water, come and cool my tongue,
Cause I'm tormented in the flames!  (by Brother Claude Ely)


Then something happens in the story. Dives prays for mercy for his brothers, that they will not share his fate. Presumably, they are living the life of wealth and ease that Dives lived, without any compassion for others. This is a positive sign for Dives: for the first time, he is thinking of others, not himself (even if they are just his brothers). Perhaps there is a germ of mercy and compassion in him after all. 

Dives prays that someone be sent from the dead to warn them. Still, Abraham says no. If they didn’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not listen to someone who rises from the dead. 

We should note the way this parable pulls together the entire biblical history: the patriarch Abraham, the great liberator Moses, who led the Hebrew slaves to freedom, and finally Jesus, the one who did rise from the dead. Wow! All these figures are central to the Christian faith of enslaved persons in our own American history. By telling these stories  and singing their songs, slaves found hope :

When Israel was in Egypt's land, let my people go;
oppressed so hard they could not stand, let my people go.
Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt's land;
tell old Pharaoh to let my people go.

I began speaking about wealth, and lest you think I’ve taken a strange turn to the history of slavery in America, slavery was all about wealth.

French economist Thomas Piketty has shown that the monetary value of enslaved human beings in the U.S. was greater than all its industrial capital in that era combined. Slavery was all about wealth: creating wealth, accumulating wealth, and concentrating wealth among a few white people. We’ve come a long way from those benighted times, but we have a long way to go. 

One of the bright lights in our own day is the new Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened yesterday on the Mall. I’m told that the museum tells this story chronologically. Visitors begin on the lower concourses, experiencing forced African emigration to America, and the descent into enslavement. Later, the era of Jim Crow segregation and rampant economic oppression. One older black gentleman seeing the museum for the first time, was viewing black sharecroppers toiling in a field. He was heard to comment, “This is depressing…. revisiting those days….” 

A museum leader responded: “Yes, it is very depressing. But imagine being able to tell that man, in that condition, that in 2016 a handsome museum in Washington D.C. was just opened by an African American president…that would bring him joy.”

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and feasted sumptuously every day.  At his gate lay a poor man, Lazarus…” The inequity between rich and poor has dogged human civilization throughout history. The problem is not wealth; the problem is how we use wealth, and misuse wealth, and hoard wealth when God wants it to be shared. Nobody need be hungry or homeless in our land. Nobody need be enslaved and forced to labor solely for the enrichment of a master. Finally, thanks be to God, we are learning these lessons. And for us here today, who live comfortable lives, who may even dress in purple and fine linen sometimes! There are no better words to leave with than these from the first letter to Timothy:

“As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty…they are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share….” Amen to that.  


 

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Practicing Love Sermon 3- Practicing Love Sermon Series 9/18/2016

Posted 1:09 PM by
Sermon, Proper 20c                                                                    Jeffrey B. MacKnight
18 Sept 2016                                                                           St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda

My part time job in high school was working in a grocery store as a checker, or cashier. No bar codes then; every price was entered by hand. There was a great chance for error. I was a steward, responsible to both the customer, and the grocery store. We handled a lot of cash, and I remember the dressing-down I got a few times when my cash drawer was short at the end of my shift. 

Since then, now and then I notice a store cashier has made a mistake in my favor, or given me too much change, and I know his cash drawer will be short as a result. He’ll get in trouble, as I did. So I point out the error. People suffer when we are not honest. 

That’s kind of what today’s parable is about: a steward, or property manager, has to give an account of his management, his stewardship, to the owner.  We’re told he had “squandered” his master’s goods. He was at best sloppy, and at worst, a thief.   

So he makes a plan – not to amend his ways, but to cover his derriere.  Remember Andrew Carnegie: How to Win Friends and Influence People?  This property manager must have taken the course!  He was a pro…but not in a good way. He decided to swindle his master even as he curried favor with the master’s debtors, writing off their debts so they’d be kind to him in the future.  Not a very admirable guy.

But strangely, Jesus finds one thing to admire: the steward’s cleverness, shrewdness, resourcefulness. He told his disciples they would need to be every bit as shrewd and resourceful, if they wanted to make any progress for the Kingdom of God in this world. Preaching God’s Word is countercultural; it requires care and street smarts to be effective. 

Our sermon series is on “Practicing Love,” and today we’re looking at how to practice love with our money. Both Jesus’ parable, and our reading from Amos, lead the way here. Throughout the Bible, wealth and money are part of our relationship with God, part of our spiritual and religious life. There's no separation between what we earn and own, and how we practice love in the world. 

There are several levels of interpretation here in this story. 

  1. The literal – doesn’t take us very far: how can Jesus commend a dishonest man?  That’s certainly not the meaning here. 
  2. The underlying point – shrewd, smart, effective actions are required to reach a goal.  We can’t be lazy or naïve and expect to make progress.
  3. The deepest truth – God wants God’s stewards to be faithful and careful, whether we are given a little or a great amount of wealth.  Wealth is a seductive force in our lives; it’s easy to end up worshipping our possessions instead of our God. 

We are stewards in the same way as this manager: what we have is not really our own, it is God’s – it is what God gives us to do good in the world. And in some way, God will make an accounting of us in the end. This is a call to all of us to take care of what we have been given, and to use it as God intends. Your leaders here at St. Dunstan’s work very hard not to squander what God gives us through you – your pledges and offerings…. We are thankful for your gifts, because they allow God’s work to be done here. 

Here at St. Dunstan’s, we are also frugal – a good word, in my book.  “Economical in use or expenditure…not wasteful.” Frugality is not about denying ourselves all pleasures or even extravagances. It is a thoughtful approach to what acquisitions will bring us true joy over time, rather than a short burst of pleasure that fades quickly. This usually means buying less, but buying carefully, buying quality that will last.

The prophet Amos cries out against people who build their own fortunes as they exploit poor people, who “trample on the needy…” He rails against the selfish and greedy behaviors in his own day. The old words may be confusing. But Amos is denouncing the rich who are rushing through the sabbath so they can get back to selling their goods, who are shortchanging the measures they sell (“make the ephah small”) and overcharging their helpless customers (“and the shekel great”); making slaves of poor people because they owe small amounts (“buying the poor for silver…[or] a pair of sandals”). Yes, this kind of debt slavery really did exist.  Not the kind of management that the Lord God wants!  Amos is one of the greatest prophets against greed and exploitation of poor and weak people. He hated it when people kept up religious practices, but exploited the poor around them. You may recognize Amos’s most famous words: “I hate, I despise your feasts… [and] your solemn assemblies! But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5)

When it comes to our relationship to money, there are two areas for Christians to watch out for. One is practical: how we handle the money that we steward in this life? Are we careful, honest, not wasteful, frugal even? Do we exploit other people’s weakness or ignorance in financial dealings? 

This leads to the spiritual side of things. Do we love money and what it can give us, more than we love our neighbors, or more than we love our God? Do we see our wealth as gift from God, to be used for God’s will? Do we use our money to practice love, or do we gather and hoard our money, building ever bigger barns to house our wealth?

If you survey all of Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels, I believe you will find that Jesus hated two things most of all: greed, and hypocrisy. (I think he got this from his spiritual grandfather, Amos!) Greed, and hypocrisy – these are the two greatest spiritual diseases that afflict us. Why? Greed, because it offend against God’s generous creation, which is meant to be share by all creatures.  Hypocrisy, because it prevents us from spiritual honesty – seeing ourselves as we really are – as God sees us – which must be the first step towards becoming what God calls us to be: generous, honest, humble people, who seek to practice love every way we can. 

Breaking free of our love of money allows us to worry less, and share more.  Becoming spiritually honest about ourselves allows God to work in us, to bring more grace, more serenity, and more integrity to our lives. God doesn’t seek to guilt us, or punish us, but to transform us into new people. Are we ready to let God work his miracles in us?

 

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