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Practicing Love Sermon 2- Practicing Love Sermon Series 9/11/2016

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Sermon, Proper 19C                                                                     Jeffrey B. MacKnight

11 September 2016

Homecoming Sunday St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda

Practicing love, by Seeking the Lost

A priest, a minister, and a rabbi were very competitive. Lost in the woods, they decide that each will find a bear, and attempt to convert it. Later they get together to compare the results. The priest begins, "When I found the bear, I read to him from the Catechism and sprinkled him with holy water. Next week is his First Communion." "I found a bear by the stream," says the minister, "and preached God's holy word. The bear was so mesmerized that he let me baptize him." They both look down at the rabbi, who is lying on a gurney in a body cast. "Looking back," he says, "Maybe I shouldn't have started with the circumcision."

As we start a new church year, I’ll try not to start with circumcision! I’d rather go with preaching God’s holy word. The Gospel of Jesus is the strongest medicine we’ve got for this old world, so we’ll start with that. So welcome back, on this Homecoming Sunday. Welcome home.

Now please think back to a time you were lost….

Perhaps as a child, in a huge store, or in the woods – you may remember feelings of fear, anxiety, even terror or panic. 

Another kind of lost – as a teenager who doesn’t fit in, as a young adult who hasn’t found her niche - her path in life, as an older person who has lost a significant other through death or separation and feels bereft - lost without the anchor of another human being. Feelings of sadness, even despair can well up in us at these times. Last week, the New York Times ran a big article on how feeling lost and lonely can actually damage our physical health. 

Think of the lostness of the survivors of 9/11 deaths…one 9/11 widow we know bought Leslie’s parents’ big old family home in Summit, NJ… maybe to try to recover some sense of love and connectedness in a place that had teemed with children and life and love. Our nation still aches from that horrible act of wickedness 15 years ago. 

In today’s Jesus story, tax collectors and sinners gather to listen to Jesus. Why? Jesus didn’t condone their bad behavior, but he made them feel included, welcome, despite their past lives.  Less lonely, perhaps. Less lost. 

The self-righteous Pharisees appear, and grumble as usual, about Jesus befriending sinners.  They seem to resent the fact that Jesus welcomes them. But the Pharisees still come and listen to Jesus. I always wonder why they come….

Jesus responds with a parable: a shepherd and his flock of sheep – 100 sheep, a nice round number. One of them gets lost in the wilderness. What does the shepherd do? Does he give up on the lost one, and protect the ninety-nine? No. He leaves the many, and seeks out the one who is lost. He brings her home, and gathers friends to celebrate. This is a recurring theme in scripture. 

Jesus talks a lot about the lost – parables of the lost sheep, the lost coins, and most of all, the lost son…the parable we know as “The Prodigal Son.” That son, a rash young man, chooses to leave home and family, ask for his inheritance, and go live a wild life. What did he hope to find?  We don’t know, but we do know that he was soon a very lost young man….

The choices that father made have always fascinated me. In this case, his son was an adult.  The father granted him the freedom to travel, and even gave him his legacy in advance.  The father did not chase him down. But the father did lament his son’s absence, and watched every day for his boy to return. How long, we don’t know. But eventually, he came home: weary, destitute, and regretful.  His father was overjoyed!  He gathered his friends to celebrate, just as the shepherd did for his lost sheep.  “I once was lost, but now am found; was blind but now I see.” 

Our cat Chandler was feral when Maggie rescued him in a snowstorm.  Once he got out the door and ran for it.  We looked everywhere. 

I gave up on finding him, but Leslie put food out every night.

She sat on the stoop some nights, waiting with treats…. After 30 days, hesitantly, fearfully, Chandler came home.  He was caked in dirt, thin as a rail: a sad bedraggled kitty. But he was home.  And we celebrated!

So how do we get found? 

The solution to the lostness and loneliness we all feel at times is community, and ministry – actual service to another.  I learned long ago that for me the best antidote to a general sense of ennui, listlessness, or discontent is to get up and go do something for somebody – make a visit, make a phone call, feed somebody, write a note (remember when we did that?), volunteer for a good cause, shovel the neighbor’s sidewalk, you name it.  Guaranteed, I’ll feel better. 

If one lonely person reaches out to another, the result is two people who are now connected, less lonely than before. When we visit someone who is sick or lonely, we don’t just benefit him or her, we find community, and purpose, and love ourselves. The world becomes a little warmer, a more loving place. Everybody wins!

For us, people of faith, the deepest way to be “found” is to be found by God – to realize that God has loved us since our birth, rejoiced with us in good times, and suffered with us in bad times. Even when we wander far away from God, like the prodigal’s father God is waiting, watching for us to come back.  It’s hokey, (and this certainly dates me!), but I think of Glenn Campbell’s old song: “It’s knowing that your door is always open and your path is free to walk…that keeps you ever gentle on my mind.”  God’s door is always open; God’s path is free to walk. That’s great news. 

Our door at St. Dunstan’s is open, in the name of the God of Love, to all who come. And we need to go out into the “highways and byways” to invite people in.  In the modern world, that’s our neighborhoods, our schools, our workplaces, the gym, the club – everywhere we meet people.  Many of those people are lonely, feeling lost. We have a lot to offer to them.  Of course we are Episcopalians; we are allergic to being pushy! We don’t start with circumcision! We start with invitation, with listening, with sharing ourselves, and welcoming the lost sheep home.  That’s what “Homecoming” is all about. Let’s renew our commitment to practice love in this world.  AMEN.  


 

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Practicing Love Sermon 1- Practicing Love Series 9/4/2016

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Sermon, Proper 18C                                                   Jeffrey B. MacKnight
4 September 2016                                                       St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda

 

Practicing Love…in your family

An Amish boy and his father went to a shopping mall. They were amazed by almost everything they saw, but especially by two shiny, silver walls that could move apart and then slide back together again. The boy asked, "What is this, Father?" The father responded, "Son, I don’t know; I have never seen anything like this in my life!” While the boy and his father were watching with amazement, a grumpy-looking lady moved up to the moving walls and pressed a button. The walls opened, and she walked into a small room. The walls closed, and the boy and his father watched the small numbers above the walls light up, rising one to eight.  Then the numbers came back to one.  Finally the walls opened up again and a gorgeous 24-year-old blonde stepped out. The father, not taking his eyes off the young woman, said quietly to his son ... "Go get your mother." J

Families are easy to poke fun at…there’s so much material!  We live in close quarters…we’ve got history together…we know how to push each other’s buttons….

How is it that families, where love seems such a natural thing, can be so difficult, so unloving, so destructive sometimes? 

Jesus had hard words to say about family.  His own family situation is a bit vague, but the Bible tells us about his mother Mary, his father Joseph (at least his earthly father), and some brothers and sisters.  But Jesus was often at odds with his family.  They tried to shut him up when he started preaching, and he rebuffed them.  He said the words we heard in the Gospel today: “Whoever …does not hate father and mother, wife and children…cannot be my disciple.”  What did he mean by that? 

Jesus was speaking in hyperbole, of course.  We aren’t meant to “hate” anybody – not even our enemies.  But clearly Jesus was saying that his Gospel values outweigh even our devotion to our families.  If our families prevent us from following Jesus, we must choose Jesus.  Following Jesus was (and is) countercultural, and in his day, the choice to be his disciple was a radical one.  Families would not approve! 

Families can bring us such joy and laughter and just good fun!  But sometimes our families ask too much…. They can try to control us, shame us, and place unfair burdens on us.  Boundaries are so important in families…  For instance:

  • One relative of mine was so disruptive that I finally had to limit visits to a couple of hours, and not allow overnight stays at our house.
  • My cousins have rampant substance in their family, and they had to watch as their brother destroyed his body with substance abuse and finally died at an early age – not because they didn’t try to help, but because their brother would not, or could not, accept it.  We’ve all heard of “tough love,” knowing when to step back and detach.  It’s the hardest kind of love to practice, in my experience. 

But not everybody has a family, and that can feel like a big void.  My mom and dad were good at welcoming individuals into our family circle, when they had none of their own.  Leslie and I try to practice love that way too….  And of course our church congregation is a natural place to create family – not by blood but by adoption into Jesus Christ.  People who have no family, or who have been ostracized by their families, or who are far away from family…all can find a home here at St. Dunstan’s.  That’s who we are – a core value here.  All are welcome.  No exceptions. 

Last week someone here asked about practicing love with our adult children.  I tell you, I’m learning about that as I speak!  We want the best for our children…and we hate to see them make choices that seem unhelpful, or even destructive.  And yet, the emphasis has to shift from “children” to “adult.”  Adults have freedom to choose, to find their own path.

Jesus didn’t have any adult children (I don’t think), but he did show us his responses to adult persons who were making life choices.  I think of the story of the rich young man – a young man who, I believe, Jesus already knew.  This young man had a lot going for him; he had many choices and opportunities.  He asked Jesus what was the most important choice for him to make: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” 

He had the right question.  Jesus looked at him answered him.  “Follow all the commandments.”  “Done.” And then Jesus looked at him in love and said, “Go, sell all that you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come and follow me.” 

Jesus set a clear choice before the man, but he didn’t want to make it.  Jesus knew what that young man needed to do to have a full, beautiful life, and Jesus practiced love by telling him. 

Unfortunately, the man loved his possessions too much, so he went away sad.  (I’ve always imagined that that young man came back to Jesus later, when he was a little older and wiser, and found his true calling as a disciple.  But we’ll never know.)

In this story, Jesus is fathering the young man; he treats him as a beloved son.  But Jesus does not force his will on him.  Jesus does not force his will on anybody, really.  He leads, he offers, he suggests, he persuades, sometimes he entreats us.  But he does not force us.  That’s how he practices love.  (The father of the prodigal son acts in a similar way.  He lets his son go and seek his fortune; when the young man comes home, destitute and weary, his father welcomes him home.)

So families provide us with some of our greatest blessings, and also some of our greatest challenges in practicing love.  It’s complicated.  One of my best teachers on human nature and human relationships was a rabbi named Edwin Friedman.  He studied family systems and made some remarkable discoveries about how families work.  If you are interested, we could talk more about all of this. 

But for now, this family of St. Dunstan needs to gather with our founder Jesus, around his supper table, and renew our familial bonds with each other, and with others in our lives.  Next week, we’ll focus again on practicing love…with those who are lost, like the lost sheep that Jesus went after.  It’s Homecoming Sunday, and a time to pause and remember the anniversary of the Sept. 11 tragedy, too.  Brunch at 10 a.m. Please come.  AMEN.  


 

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Father's Day 06/19/2016

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Two women met walking down the street. One had a brown paper bag under her arm. The other asked, "What do you have in the bag?" "A bottle of scotch. I got it for my husband."  "Good trade!"

It’s Fathers’ Day, so I hope all you folks will treat your fathers and husbands with extra care and love.  Fathering these days is not an easy role to play.

We don’t know if the men in our scriptures are dads – they could be.  (Some might say that the fact that both of them are at their wits’ end would be a good sign….)  In Luke, Jesus pulls his boat up on shore and encounters a very disturbed man.  He came from the city, but now he is completely alienated from society – the story tells us that all the usual signs of living in community are absent from this poor man’s life: he doesn’t wear clothes, he lives in a graveyard, he thrashes about and scares people, he breaks loose from any attempts to shackle him.  He is a wild man, and he is possessed by evil spirits – demons, and lots of them. 

Some of us men today may feel a secret kinship with this fellow – we are trying to live up to expectations in a highly ordered, demanding world, and we’re not sure we are up to it.  Our sense of alienation – of not fitting in – may be on the inside rather than the outside….  We may feel shackled in less obvious ways than this guy, but shackled nonetheless – by jobs and mortgages and lawns and commutes and inlaws and tuition and quotas to meet and soccer to coach….

So how does Jesus relate to this man?  First, Jesus has to deal with the evil spirits.  In fact, they recognize Jesus as a danger and they address him.  Jesus demands to know their name (an assertion of his authority over them).  They confess their name is “Legion,” for they are many.  The demons know they are beaten; they ask to be released into a nearby herd of pigs, and Jesus permits this.  The pigs indicate this is not Jewish territory.  Jesus is freeing people from outside his own religious tradition – and the demons are responding!

Somehow, knowing the presence of God in Jesus sets this man aright. After his liberation, the man is restored to his humanity, his dignity – he is clothed, sitting quietly, in his right mind.  Jesus has given him a second chance, a new life, a fresh start.  What a gift!  How will he use this gift?  What will his new life look like?  Jesus asks only, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” 

Aha!  So he has a home to return to – maybe a spouse, and maybe some children who need their dad, who missed him in his craziness.  Jesus only asks that God be praised for this transformation…because the source of all our transformations from death to life is from God. 

Elijah is the other troubled man in our lessons today.  We know him as a tough, gruff prophet of Yahweh, who battles the drift in his society, in Israel, away from Yahweh toward worshipping other Gods – Baal in particular.  Elijah has just had a big success defeating all the prophets of Baal – there was lots of drama, fire, and then victory.   And yet, he has sunk into despair.  Queen Jezebel promises to kill Elijah within 24 hours.  Elijah runs scared.  Then, stepping out of time, Elijah has a “Moses moment” with God.  All the Moses signs are there: forty days in the wilderness, a journey up a mountain, and finally, meeting God. 

And how does he meet God?  Not in a dramatic, showy moment…emphatically not.  We’re told there was a great wind, but no God.  There was an earthquake, but no God.  There was a fire, but no God.  Finally, there was “a sound of sheer silence,” or in a better-known translation, “a still, small voice.”  And when Elijah heard that, when he settled down and listened, there was God. God was present.  Elijah’s fears were swallowed up in God’s greatness.  His despair was overshadowed by God’s faithfulness.  His anger was overcome by God’s love and peace.  God gave Elijah a second chance, a new life, a fresh start.  What a gift! 

Elijah continued his life faithful to God, but more grounded in God’s love and peace.  He would, in the end, have the special honor of being swept up into heaven on a chariot of fire!  Not a bad way to go! 

What can we take away from these stories

Being a man has never been easy, and it isn’t easy today.  No matter what our situation may be, in terms of family, work, lifestyle, we face many demons that can pull us off course – especially if we are trying to follow the path of Jesus.  Elijah was attracted to the way of violence; in the end that path proved to be a dead end.  Only the whisper of God could restore him.  The man with demons may have sought his salvation by running away from home and community; he found nothing but frustration and alienation.  He was freed by the healing touch, the loving embrace of Jesus.  Knowing that God was with them; that made all the difference.

So let us pray for all our dads and father-figures, trying to do their best in a changing world, sometimes overwhelmed and crazed by its demands.  May they still hold fast to that which is good: our God-given values of reverence for God, and love of neighbor, of peace.  I’ve come to accept and honor my own dad more and more, not because he was perfect or was a hero in some way, but because he kept trying, kept loving, kept engaging – even when at times he suffered from some pretty destructive demons.

For myself, I try to be a dad who’s loving and dependable, who celebrates what my children are and what they seek to do in life, and who holds up values of love, mercy, and compassion.  I try not to endorse the world’s values – money, prestige, winning at all costs – with Maggie and Colin.  At times I fail miserably in this. 

Friday at lunch, Leslie and I had a waiter whom Leslie has gotten to know.  Kenny proudly announced that he and his girlfriend had their baby two weeks ago.  Many photos were shared of the tiny blonde, Laura Mae.  Kenny said he thought it was time to get married, and I inwardly rejoiced that a stable new family would be formed for that little blonde girl.  Here’s a new dad, working as a waiter, suffering from lack of sleep, and yet overjoyed to have the opportunity to share in God’s creative work as a dad.

May God bless Kenny in his new vocation as a dad, and all of us who are fathers, and all our dads, who have loved and struggled with their demons as we do with ours.  May we know the presence of God in our lives, and find our rest in Jesus, in that still, small voice of calm.  AMEN.  


 

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Pride Sunday 06/12/2016

Posted 5:59 PM by

We gathered on June 12 to celebrate the inclusive love of God for all of us, marking Pride Sunday in the LGBTQ community. Our observance became poignant with the tragic news that morning of 50 people being killed in a shooting rampage at a gay nightclub in Orlando. Our hearts go out to all who suffer violence and hatred, simply based on who they are and whom they love. JBM

A little story:

A tourist arrives at a restaurant and is told there are no tables available. "What if the President arrived. Would you have a table for him?" he asks. "Of course!" replies the hotel staff. The tourist responds, "Well, the President isn't coming. I'll take his table."

“For everyone born, a place at the table.” 

Since I first heard this wonderful song, these words have haunted me…in a good way!  In 8 words, they capture the essence of the Kingdom of God, the Way of Jesus.  And in such gentle terms.

It’s often said that our Jewish forbears are people of the book, and that is true.  Christians are too; but even moreso, we are people of the table.  Not just any table, but the welcome table, the banquet table where everybody’s invited.  Where hungry people are fed.  Where lonely people find company.  Where hurting people find comfort and support.  Where those who thirst are satisfied.  Where we find Jesus. 

I have a lot of images for this table in my head:

  • My mother-in-law’s Thanksgiving Day table – extended to include anybody who showed up, needed a great meal and an extra helping of love.
  • Hogwarts, where Harry Potter went to train as a wizard, where he first felt at home and loved, where the banquet tables in the Great Hall were magically filled with delicious things to eat, where the food never ran out. 
  • Our own parish hall, where hundreds are fed with sandwiches each month, where parishioners young and old gather for meals, simple to fancy. 
  • And of course, this altar table, where we meet Christ in bread and wine. 

“For everyone born, a place at the table.” 

Let’s take a look at today’s Gospel – it’s all about the table.  Look in your Bibles for Luke 14:12-23.  It should be on page _______in the pew Bibles.  In verse 12, Jesus advises his hearers to invite all kinds of people when they have a dinner – poor people, disabled people, marginalized people.  Then Jesus tells a well-known parable about a man who held a great banquet.  When all was ready, the invited guests decided not to come.  They gave a lot of excuses.

The banquet host then throws open his banquet to all in the town – whoever wants to come in.  They do, but there is still room.  So the host sends word to all in the countryside, far and wide…until the banquet hall is full of people.  In verse 23, the host even says to “compel” people to come in, that my house may be filled…a bit of hyperbole, I’m sure, but we get the point!

The trigger for this parable is revealing.  Back in verse 15, one of the dinner guests sitting with Jesus made a strange exclamation:  “Blessed is the one who shall eat bread in the kingdom of God!”  That remark tells us that this parable is about God’s Kingdom…about how God welcomes all people and longs for his banquet table to be full.  “For everyone born, a place at the table.” 

So, I haven’t even mentioned Pride Sunday, and our sisters and brothers (and ourselves) who are Lesbian or Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, our just questioning their identity in some way.  Why?  Because the issues of inclusion, of hospitality and welcome, of equality -  these are all Kingdom values for all of us.  It’s not just about LGBTQ folks; it’s a core value for all of us who follow Jesus.  The banquet is for everybody. 

In Jesus’ day, it was lepers who were set apart and shunned from society.  Jesus marched up to them, named the real disease, which was prejudice, and healed it with the grace of inclusion.  In 19th century America, the issue was the enslavement of fellow human beings.  The followers of Jesus, finally, named that sin of inequality and cruelty – a sin which ran utterly contrary to our founding values! -  and banished it – at great cost - from our nation.  In order to move away from these sins, we must name them, acknowledge them. 

In our own lifetimes, we have overturned more stereotypes and prejudices – those against other races, against equality for women, against disabled people, and now, against gay people.  In order to move away from these sins, we must name them, acknowledge them, and set out to undo – to repent from – the attitudes and structures which have kept them alive in our society.

At the end of the day, Jesus calls us to a new ethic, a Kingdom ethic.  You can describe it in several ways:

  • Love your neighbor as yourself.  (And love of self means we can take pride in who we are: beloved creatures of God!)
  • Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. 
  • For everyone born, a place at the table

Or, if you prefer, the stunning, powerful words of St. Paul from the book of Romans (and this is the same Paul who said a couple of nasty things about gay people!):

“For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor thins present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” 

I’d say that about covers it.  AMEN.  


 

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Ascension Day 2016 05/07/2016

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Home.  I want to think with you about what home means. I’m thinking that’s what Jesus’ Ascension into heaven is all about:  Going home. 

I grew up in Nebraska, for the most part, and I came to love the spare emptiness of the landscape, and the unaffected warmth of people there. I was always fascinated by the pioneer folk who left relative comfort and stability in the East to venture west and start a new life – homesteading, they called it – the making of a new home. 

Nebraska was my home, but in some sense I didn’t feel at home.  Something else called me, though I wasn’t clear what that was.  Eventually I came east to seminary, and then after a few more years back in Lincoln, I decided to leave again.  A voice inside me was saying, “Go east, young man!” Of course I was full of doubts.  I am at times painfully risk-averse.  I seek security where I can get it.  Why would I strike out to make a new home in a place I’d never been?

Somehow, this connects to today, the feast of our Lord’ Jesus’ final ascension into heaven.

What if home is not where we came from, but where we are going…where we are headed, our destiny with God?  What if we really, truly believed in a God who loves us and won’t let us go?  And we lived that way?

That’s one of the reasons I’m fascinated by Jesus: his laser focus on God, his trust in God.  His ability to be honest in relationships, to love deeply without trying to own or control other people.  His fearlessness when he risked loss. 

Today we are contemplating Jesus’ ascension – his final departure from his earthly life among us, and his return to his home with God.  Somehow, he always seemed to know this was his destiny.  He was able to sit lightly with the seductions of this world, because his roots were already planted in God’s world, the kingdom.  How did he do it?

I don’t know how he managed it.  (That’s one of many reasons I am not Jesus!)  He had a lot more trust in God than I do.  My ability to rest in that trust is terribly uneven.  It wasn’t as if Jesus had a charmed life, either.  He had a hard life: he was always poor, and often without a home, a fixed address, without visible means of support.  But somehow he seemed to be able to create a home wherever he was at the time.  He did not need to build a protective shield around himself.  He was not defensive, even though he often disagreed with people.  He was not always worried about his future, the way I am…the way we Americans are taught to be, with our constant striving for self-improvement, our career plans and our 401k’s, our real estate and investment portfolios, and anxieties that eat us up.  In all of this, I think we are trying to create a safe, secure home…and yet we still live in fear of losing it. 

Jesus had some freedoms that many of us do not have, in that he did not have an immediate family of people he was responsible for. That’s a serious concern for most of us.  On the other hand, at some level he knew he was living for the whole human family...he was God’s messiah – he came to save us all! 

But what amazes me is Jesus’ apparent sense of personal freedom, his freedom from fear.  And the only place I can figure that Jesus could get that freedom is from knowing his destiny, knowing that no matter what happened, he would go home with God in the end.  That’s what the ascension means.  Back home with God in the end. 

(It’s easy to get caught up in questions about what “actually happened” – the vision of a literal ascension into the clouds his pretty hard to believe!  But the real meaning of this event is the reunion of Jesus with his Father God.) 

So what would it mean for us if we could really believe that we can trust in God’s love, that our destiny is with God in the end?  How does that free us up to live more boldly, more exuberantly, more generously?  Can we lessen our fears of the unknown, if we really believe we’re going home in the end?

We are still living in the world as we know it, with all its joys and all its struggles.  Jobs are tenuous these days.  Children have troubles growing up.  Health problems rear their ugly heads. We see the anxieties in our political debates and campaigns. It can get to be a bit much; it can get us down.  But the pattern for our lives is set out in Jesus’ life.  The journey does not stop at the foot of the cross; it moves right through that, on to a place of fulfillment, joy, celebration. We came forth from God, and we are going home to God.  That’s our true destiny. We’re going home. 

T.S. Eliot said,

We shall not cease from exploration.  And the end of all our exploring will be tso arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.  


 

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Easter Sermon April 10, 2016

Posted 1:44 PM by

[We get a lot of joy and insight from our animals.  Recently our cat was heard to opine, “I think sleeping dogs should have to tell the truth, just like everyone else!”]

Jesus said to Simon Peter,

Simon, son of John, do you love me?

The other night I had a bad dream – an anxious, fearful dream…

My big black dog Paddington – Paddy – could not get up.    He’d lost use of his legs and hind end.  We’ve been through this with other dogs, it’s horrible, and leads to a painful and difficult death.  I was in tears to see my boy suffering. 

Now, Paddy and I are very close.  He’s way too young to be failing physically…  Paddy is only three, although he’s about to have his fourth anniversary of being three…  (He and I agreed early on that Paddy would never age beyond the three year mark.  J  Too much risk in growing old….)

Simon, son of John, do you love me?

The next morning, I got up, stumbled downstairs in my early-morning stupor, and let the dogs out as usual.  Paddy took off at a gallop, his black locks flying, and ran a few loops around the yard, his domain.  What a beautiful sight that was!  Paddy was not dying, he was alive and well and beautiful!  It was resurrection.  

That experience tells me a lot about love, what it means to love someone completely….My love for Paddy (and the pain of imagining him suffering), and Paddy’s love for me – as unconditional and joyful as I can imagine.

Jesus wanted to restore his relationship with Simon Peter, who had messed up pretty badly, denying knowing Jesus not once, but three times.  That relationship needed a resurrection.  I have no doubt that Jesus has already forgiven Peter; but now he creates a channel for reconciliation so that Peter can truly receive that forgiveness, and their love for each other can be restored.  And so it is with each of us….

It can be hard to tell the truth, especially about ourselves.  If we’re honest, we know that we betray Jesus all the time.  We don’t stand up for Jesus’ values; we don’t always respect the dignity of every human being we meet.  We can be short-tempered and insist on getting our own way.  When situations get difficult, when relationships are strained, we may feel like running away.  I have felt that at times. 

But Jesus doesn’t run away.  Jesus comes back, showing all his scars, limping no doubt…but he comes back.  And therein lies all the difference. 

Reconciliation means not giving up; not walking away.  God’s love has reached across every barrier to embrace us.  Our love for each other must do the same.  Reconciliation is a close cousin of resurrection.

Jesus asked,

Simon, son of John, do you love me?

Jesus asks us today,

Good people of St. Dunstan’s, do you love me?

  • Do we love Jesus? 
  • Do we love Jesus and his new law of love more than we love our own views and opinions? 
  • Do we love Jesus more than we love the sacred cows and golden calves and other livestock we have set up in our lives to worship? 
  • Will we truly walk in love – together – as Christ loved us? 

What does that love of Jesus look like in a congregation?  In my experience this love is both strong, and fragile.  It doesn’t mean we’ll never disagree or fight; but it does mean we will go the extra mile to seek reconciliation, as Jesus did with Simon Peter.  It means we’ll work together for the common good, in spite of disagreements.  It means we’ll tackle our problems together, without insisting on our own preconceived solution. 

St. Dunstan’s is hugely blessed as a Christian community with many resources – we have beautiful facilities, a loyal congregation, and a desire to serve in our neighborhoods.  We also have our challenges, as all churches do these days.  As society changes at warp speed, we and other churches are trying to adapt, to envision what a local church needs to be and do in this age of speed and technology and hectic lives.  This is hard work.  It requires some new thinking, and lots of experimenting.  There will be some successes and some failures. 

Here’s some of what we are learning about loving Jesus and each other in the church in 2016:

·       It’s all about relationships.  Without building one-to-one relationships and small groups, people aren’t fed – even by a glorious liturgy.  We won’t all agree on priorities, social justice issues, or even which hymns to sing.  We just need to agree to love Jesus and seek his kingdom.   

·       It’s all about food – sharing food is the oldest form of human community.  We do a lot with food, and we probably need to do even more! Today’s “Spring Social” is a great example of how food brings us together.  We’re thinking of doing more with breakfast on Sundays next year….

·       It’s all about welcoming and invitation: INVITE, INVITE, INVITE is some good advice we’ve received.  Have you invited anybody to the Cabaret on April 23? 

·       Above all, it’s all about God – the God we meet in Jesus, the God who loves lavishly, forgives easily, challenges us wisely, and always seeks to reconcile broken relationships.  This isn’t easy in a human community; I have often failed to love as Christ loves us; many of us have.  Sometimes it may seem easier to “let sleeping dogs lie.”  But it’s never too late to try, and try again.  We’re on the trail, on a journey together.  That’s what God’s people have done since Abraham left his home, since Moses and the Hebrews left Egypt, since Jesus set out with his disciples to change the world…one precious person at a time. 

One of our newer parishioners in the last few years said to me, “I have attended Episcopal churches all my long life, and I have never felt the warmth of friendship that I feel at St. Dunstan’s.  I am so grateful to be here….” 

Simon, son of John, do you love me? 

We have something precious here – the capacity to love God, and love each other, and share that love openly when new people cross our threshold.  Jesus has shown us the trail of forgiveness and reconciliation, just as he did with Peter. We are people of many nations, with many needs and many gifts to share.  We are people of various social and political views.  But when we come together here, we focus on one thing: Love…the love of God we see and know in Jesus.  If we always strive to do that, God will bless this congregation.  AMEN.  

 

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Easter Sermon 2016 "Stones" 03/27/2016

Posted 1:16 PM by

“Jesus is not in there!  Oh, wait…he’s just changed his Facebook status to ‘risen.’”

So how about you?  What’s your status today?  Buried? Trapped?  Sleepy? Happy?  Fearful?  Worried? Distracted?  Stoned?  Weighed down by some heavy stone that keeps us from the light?  How many of us today claim the status, risen[JM1]  to new life?

This Easter my thoughts have turned to stones: the stone that sealed Jesus tomb, the stone wall I sometimes feel that I have hit in life, the stone that can harden my heart against vulnerability and hurt….  (Sometimes I feel like the characters in fairy tales who have been turned to stone by the wicked witch….)   Stones can be stumbling blocks.  Stones can be barriers that trap us and divide us…from each other, and from God. 

What’s the stone that blocks your way right now?  That you need to ask God to roll back, to move aside? 

·       The smooth, hard stone of not enough, not enough: not being good enough, smart enough, successful enough, beautiful enough, thin enough, dazzling enough

·       The heavy stone of guilt over past words and deeds, that sits in the pit of the stomach

·       The corrosive stone of bitterness, of being unable to forgive, of holding a grudge

·       The deadly, sharp-pointed stone of irritability and anger

·       And then there is the dark stone of sorrow, of sadness over losses we cannot control and cannot reverse.  That sadness can become an abyss….

I don’t know about you, but I’ve tried for years – decades – to cure myself of these afflictions, to fix myself into the person I think I ought to be (or others think I ought to be).  The other day, I was thinking I really had a handle on this thing called living; then, I said the wrong thing to someone I love, and realized I had caused hurt and damage.  Ugh.   It’s sort of like lugging heavy rocks up a hillside, only to have the rain come and bring them back down in a rockslide…and I’m back where I started.  I just can’t fix this on my own. 

So what’s the solution to this human condition of being trapped under the stone of “not enough”?  It’s a human problem, but there is no human solution.  We cannot heal ourselves.  But Easter tells us there is a divine solution; that God has declared that we are enough, we are sufficient, we are acceptable in God’s eyes,  even in our fickle affections, our gross imperfection, our sin.  How can God do this?  Through forgiveness, through love.  God’s love makes us enough, acceptable…delightful, even!  We are a joy to God, and maybe even a joy to ourselves.  That stone that God moved from Jesus’ tomb frees not just Jesus from his bondage, but frees us all from our bondage – whatever that may be in this moment.  Let yourself enter into the story

After Jesus took his final breath, around three on that Friday afternoon, the scene begins to change…there is transformation, from the horror of torture and death, the worst that we humans could do, to a quiet, gentle wind of love and caring.  A kind Jewish man named Joseph of Arimathea went and asked if he could care for Jesus’ body.  He gently wrapped it in a linen cloth and laid it in his own new tomb, a cave carved out of the soft rock outside Jerusalem.  He rolled a large, disk-like stone across the entrance to seal it. 

The women who traveled with Jesus and supported him – Joanna, Mary Magdalene, and another Mary the mother of James – saw his hasty burial before the Sabbath began, and they went to gather the spices and ointments required to prepare Jesus’ body for a proper burial on Sunday morning, the first day. 

Then, interestingly, the action stops.  There is a long pause.  A “grand pause,” it is called in music.  “On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment.”  It’s as if all creation needed a moment to rest, to absorb what just happened, to regroup. 

Then, on the first day of the week – of course it is the first day: a new beginning of a new creation! – these brave women went to the tomb, carrying the heavy spices for burial.  And you know what they found.  The stone was rolled back, and the tomb was empty.  There was no body to anoint and prepare for burial.  This morning marks a new creation, where death no longer rules; where fear no longer holds us hostage.  God has acted. 

The Good News is that God has transformed us in Christ, forgiven us, and declared that we are beloved – it’s done, complete!  We don’t have to try to fix ourselves.  We have only to live into our God-given identity as children of the one loving God who made us.  It’s as if God is saying to us:

“You are a new creation in Christ.  You are mystery.  Let the mystery unfold.  Let the secret be told.  Be bold, be daring!  Be reconciled.  Be glad. Be thankful.  Be compassionate.  Be forgiving.  Be who you are.  Be that new creation in Christ!”

Without being transformed by God, I have no chance of rising above our lower, baser natures – our selfishness, irritability, narrow-mindedness, rigidity.  I’m stuck in an endless loop-tape of screwing up, of not-enough.

It is because God has first loved us, and called us, and transformed us…raised us to the new life of Christ…that it is even possible to live a new way.    We are able to love – truly, deeply love and forgive – because God first loved us.  The huge stone that stands in our way has been rolled back.  We were not meant to live in dark caves.  We are meant for the light, the air.  Jesus created the path; he blazed the trail from the dark land of sin and selfishness, to the sunny warm land where love, joy, mercy, and forgiveness prevail.  We have only to take a step into the light, to walk in love as Christ loves us. 

So what is your status today? Peaceful?  Energized?  Or weary and regretful?  If it’s not what you’d like, are you willing to let God reset it for you?  Can you accept the free gift of Jesus’ love, and let God reset your status as “forgiven, loved, and free”?

Step aside and let God work in your life.  Stop clinging to the stone that traps you, and let God roll it away.  Let the light of God’s love – unconditional love – shine into the darkness, shine upon you on this Easter morning.  In the words of a song by our own Bob Tupper:

(Give Eb chord)

   Eb                  Ab              Eb             Bb

Roll back the stone in my heart, dear Lord Jesus.

Eb                  Ab                      Eb                   Bb

Roll back the stone that keeps love trapped inside.

Eb                  Ab                  Eb                 Bb

Roll back the stone. Let me walk as your servant

          Cm                     Fm                  Bb7sus4     Eb

In the world, knowing always you’re here by my side.

 

(Refrain of song by Bob Tupper, 2003)

 


 


 

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Palm Sunday, March 20, 2016

Posted 7:08 PM by
Palm Sunday 2016                                        Jeffrey B. MacKnight
20 March 2016                                              St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda

Shakespeare said,

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances….”

There are two dramas in Jesus’ life that are often portrayed as plays:   The nativity story, of course; and the Passion of Jesus, his crucifixion and burial.   

Today, after Communion, we hear the Passion presented in parts; all the men and women merely players.  We know the story well.  At least we think we do. Yet like all great stories, it is always new, ready to gut-punch us in some new spot where we don’t expect it. 

Our reading of the Passion Narrative on Palm Sunday rotates among Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  Each one has a distinctive feel, and they vary in many details if you compare them.  Luke has a particular lens: we see and hear the story through the eyes and ears of individuals in need of healing, we feel their fear and sorrow, their shame in betrayal, their utter sense of powerlessness and vulnerability.  We hear this especially in Jesus: his gentleness, his refusal to resort to violence.  The most profound “last words” of Jesus come from Luke

             “Father, forgiven them; for they know not what they do.” 
“Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” 
“Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!”

Each year, we take the scripture and make a script for reading it in parts, with a narrator tying it all together.  The congregation is usually invited to participate by being the voice of the crowd at Jesus’ trials…the crowd who turn on him and shout, “Crucify him!”  It is jarring, and it’s meant to be.  None of us has clean hands.

But in Luke, there is no crowd, only the chief priests and elders.  So I have assigned to you, the congregation, several parts.  You will take your place in the drama: you will be Peter, denying ever having known Jesus.  You will be the elders, urging Pilate to kill Jesus, based on trumped up charges.  You will be the thief who hangs next to Jesus, who recognizes Jesus as a righteous man, whom Jesus grants a place in paradise.  And you will be the Roman centurion who gazes on the macabre spectacle of a vulnerable, innocent man hanging on a cross; and who praises God saying, “Certainly this man was innocent!” 

Which part in this drama has your name on it this year?  I can easily identify with cowardly Peter, trying to save his own skin.  I understand the priests and temple officials, trying to protect the status quo, their small claim on power and prestige in the hostile Roman environment.  I get Pilate, whose job it was to keep the peace in occupied Jerusalem, never easy among the Jews, and especially not at Passover.  I like to keep the peace, sometimes too much, sometimes at the expense of truth.   

But I’ve never identified much with Judas, the traitor.  Since I have lived a fairly respectable life, Judas’ wanton betrayal seems foreign to me.  And yet I do betray Jesus and his law of love.  My deeds are not as obvious, but I, like Judas, want Jesus to be someone he is not…I want him to rise up and vanquish my enemies.  I’d like Jesus to stop talking about the centrality of the poor people among us, and the need for sacrifice.  I compromise Jesus in his refusal to use violence to attain his goals.  I stop short of following Jesus into the risky, vulnerable places he goes.  When push comes to shove, like Peter I cry, “I do not know the man!”

I don’t know with whom you might identify on this Palm Sunday; only you and God know.  But I hope you let this great drama wash over you once more today, and keep your hearts open to God’s challenging and cleansing Spirit.  We men and women are the players on God’s stage.  That is why we are here. 

Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy was an Anglican priest of Irish descent in the early 1900s, who went to war as a chaplain and embedded himself with the troops in the trenches of World War I.  Studdert Kennedy went to where the pain and horror were, and there he ministered…pretty much what Jesus did.  There he met Christ in the face of the least and the lost.  He was also a gifted poet, and expressed his faith in his verse.  Finding God in the most unlikely places, he wrote these lines which have always spoken to me:

In a manger, in a cottage, in an honest workman’s shed,
In the homes of humble peasants and the simple lives they lead;
In the life of One, an outcast and a vagabond on earth,
In the common things He valued and proclaimed of countless worth;
 
And above all, in the horror of the cruel death He died,
Thou hast bid us seek Thy glory in the criminal crucified;
And we find it – for Thy glory is the glory of love’s loss,
And Thou has no other splendour than the splendour of the Cross. 

 


 

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Annual Meeting Address 02.21.2016

Posted 4:43 PM by

Today we are talking about growth – growing our parish in ministry, in people, and in resources.  The life and health and future of St. Dunstan’s Parish depends on how we can grow as God’s people here.

We heard how Jesus called his disciples together, not to hang around the clubhouse of the Jesus Movement, but to go out into the world on a mission.  He preps them: he gives them his own power and authority to proclaim the kingdom and to heal.  But he tells them to carry no extra earthly provisions.  He makes a clear point about this mission: go and offer my message, my healing.  If people receive it, great!  If people refuse it, then move on to the next village. 

This is how the church grows – not by staying in our building, but by circulating in the world….  As fishermen know, the ones who bite, bite.  The ones who don’t, don’t. 

Speaking of fishing….

The Packers and the Vikings had an ice fishing tournament. The first day the Packers caught 100 fish and the Vikings didn't catch any. The second day the Packers caught 200 fish and the Vikings didn't catch any. The third day the Vikings were getting worried so they dressed their quarterback up like a Packer and sent him over to see why the Packers were catching so many fish. When he returned to the Vikings, they asked, "What's the deal, are they cheating?" The quarterback said "You bet they are. They are drilling holes in the ice!" 

When Jesus called his disciples, he said, “I will make you fishers of people!”  Our beloved church is at a real pivotal juncture right now.  We can no longer chill out like the Vikings, waiting for the fish to jump magically into our bucket.  We’re going to have to go out, drill through some ice, and go after the fish ourselves.  We’ll have to experiment with different kinds of bait, to see what people are hungry for here in Bethesda. 

We heard good news at our Annual Meeting, where Fred Bentley and Praveen Jeyarajah presented our plans to strengthen our membership and work for growth.  We’re blessed to have great leaders.  But leaders can’t do it alone….

We’ve stood up two new teams – one for membership and one for growth.  If you are on membership, please stand.  And growth… 

Will you actively support these good people in our mission?  Will you say yes when they ask for your help? 

We have much to celebrate here at St. Dunstan’s; much to be proud of:

Huge service in our community…SOME and MoW for decades

$140,000 in outreach from our capital campaign - $50K to Bishop Walker School, $25K to Samaritan Ministry for their building

Our building is more and more a community center here – many children every day, school events, concerts, neighborhood meetings, kids using our playground and our Trail entrance

Why do we do this?  Why is this so important?  Because these are ways to spread the love of Christ…build up God’s people…welcome the stranger…teach compassion.  St. Francis said, Preach the Gospel at all times; when necessary use words.  That’s what we’re doing…

We’ve built a fellowship where all people are welcome and respected.  We accept people as children of God.  We honor Christ in all people  That’s not nothing in a world where presidential candidates freely demonize Muslims, Mexicans, and gay people.  What we have here is precious – so precious we need to share it. 

One of our guest teachers asks us to think about how we recommend a great new restaurant we have found.  Can we do the same with our church?  Can we say, “You should try our church…why don’t you come with me this Sunday, or to the cabaret, or to the picnic, or a concert….”?

Years ago, my mother invited many people to church with us.  One woman was a coworker of my mom’s at the county welfare department.  They were both caseworkers. Her name was Linda.  She came and stayed at our church…and ended up marrying the priest!  (Don’t expect that to happen here….) 

One last thought.  I’ve always liked the joke: How many California psychologists does it take to change a lightbulb?  Only one, but the lightbulb has to want to change. 

Nobody can change us if we don’t want to.  I can’t make you do anything you don’t want to do.  Our growth teams can’t change this parish on their own.  We as a congregation have to want to change.  We have to be brave enough to change, to speak up, to reach out to people we know.  We have so much to offer – such a great message that God loves every person and wants us to live lives of love and service.  People need to hear this!  People are hurting out there.  People are lonely out there.  People are hungry for a message that endures, that affirms, that calls us to be our best selves. 

But if we don’t want to change, it won’t happen.  I’ve been with you 16 years and I hope to journey with you to St. Dunstan’s next peak, our next heyday.  Please walk with me to proclaim the kingdom of God and bring healing in this broken world.  AMEN. JBM


 


 

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Sermon 02.14.2016 Lent 1

Posted 4:38 PM by
Video: P.B. Michael Curry – Lent message, the Jesus Movement
    It’s not a settlement, it’s a movement – in motion, changing, growing  

It’s Valentine’s Day!  Did you hear the one about the husband who approached his wife and asked "If I died tomorrow, would you remarry?" The wife thought for a minute and said "Yes, yes, I think I would." He went off for a while and then returned.  "Would you let him use my golf clubs?" "Oh no, no, no," said his wife. "He's left handed."

All of us are subject to temptation, I guess.  We’re in good company: Jesus had to struggle himself with the devil in the desert. 

How can we make ourselves stronger as we are tempted by so many things in this life?  How can we make our congregation stronger, so that our community will shine with the love of Christ on Mass. Avenue? 

Many temptations can lead to little lapses – fudging taxes, lapses of integrity at work, irritability at home, envy and jealousy of our neighbors who seem to be doing better than we are.  Sometimes there are big lapses: infidelity to a partner, dishonesty in business, vengeful reprisals against someone who crosses us.  There’s no shortage of temptation in our lives! 

But on Valentine’s Day, we remember how much we love each other, and might feel a twinge of regret that we don’t always act like it. 

This Lent, we are focusing on a Rule of Life….a pattern of living that helps us live in love and in faith.  Now you may think of a monastic rule, where monks and nuns rise at 4 a.m. to pray each day, wear hair shirts and sackcloth,  give away everything they have, and read through all 150 psalms every week in church. 

It doesn’t have to be like that.  A Rule of Life for the rest of us can be very simple, to help us live more sanely, more generously, more lovingly, more joyfully than we would without it…

Nine of us spent the weekend on retreat exploring what a rule of life might mean for each of us.  We all know some of the traditional elements – daily prayer, moderation in our appetites, acts of compassion.  We discovered that this can be much more about being intentional about practices that feed us and bring us joy and peace…and not about punishing ourselves with demands that we can hardly meet.  It may mean less about adding hard things to our to-do list, and more about committing ourselves to a do-not-do list.  What could a do-not-do list look like? 

· I will not beat up on myself, or on other people, when we make an honest mistake. 

·When I am tired, I will not feel guilty about stopping to rest when I can. 

· I will not say yes to things when I need to say no.

· I will not claim all the credit, or take all the blame, when it doesn’t all belong to me. 

· I will not neglect the ones I love the most.   

Does that sound like a rule of life that might help you live better?  I know it would be good for me. 

Congregations can have a rule of life too – common norms that we all support, to make our community as healthy and Godly as we can be.  Our vestry consultant Ed Kelaher mentioned some of these rules of healthy congregations:

· I will pray that God will send the Holy Spirit into our church, and I will pray for our leaders who have hard jobs, and for our ministries.

· I will always work for the greatest good of the church, even when I don’t get my own way. 

· I will express thanks to God and to all the people who make our church a beautiful community of faith. 

· I will not engage in negative talk to my friends about some else in church; I’ll speak directly to the person.

Before Jesus really got started preaching and teaching about the Kingdom of God, he was led by God’s own Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  Why did God do this?  For one reason, it was so that Jesus would know the many temptations that all of us face in life – to be selfish, to indulge our appetites too much, to show off, or to try to manipulate other people, or manipulate God.  For another reason, this time of hunger and temptation was meant, I believe, to harden Jesus, to toughen him up, to make him strong to face what he would have to face.  This was Jesus’ “boot camp,” his basic training for life. 

Maybe we can look at our temptations in life in the same way, and derive some benefit from the struggle – renewed strength, renewed trust in God.  Lent is a good time to take another honest look at your life as an individual child of God, and see if some changes need to be made.  It’s a good time to examine our life as a Christian congregation – the Body of Christ – and ask not what our church can do for us, but what we can do for our church.  Temptations will never go away in life; it’s up to us to face them openly and honestly, and ask God’s help to overcome them.  And God is so happy to be asked!  So happy to be invited into our lives, even our messy lives, to walk with us.  That’s what Jesus learned, and what Jesus is trying to teach us today.  AMEN.  


 

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