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

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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

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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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