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Lent 3: 03/19/2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

The conference begins with this thesis:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 


 

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Lent 2: 03/12/2017

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do justice
Love Kindness
Walk humbly with our God.

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

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

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

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


 

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Lent 1: 03/05/2017

Posted 1:05 PM by
Sermon, Lent IA                                                                          Jeffrey B. MacKnight
5 March 2017                                                                             St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ruling the world, if only Jesus would worship Satan

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what is really important to us as Christians?

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

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

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

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

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


 

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Ash Wednesday: 03/01/2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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