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Creation Season 2017: Spring

Posted 3:08 PM by
Sermon, Creation – Spring                                                            Jeffrey B. MacKnight
Proper 23A                                                                                 St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda
15 October 2017


I cannot come to the banquet, don’t trouble me now,
I have married a wife, I have bought me a cow.
I have fields and commitments that cost a pretty sum.
Pray hold me excused; I cannot come. 

“I’m too busy.” Oh, it’s so easy to get into that mindset!  Not one more thing!  There are always other things I need to do.  I’m already tired.  I’m behind at work.  The house is a mess and needs cleaning.  And none of us has enough family time. 

It’s true we need to be careful about how much we take on in life – we can end up spinning like a whirling dervish all the time.  Which are the flowers and which are the weeds?  We should choose our activities and commitments with some care.  Last week, I spoke of winter as a time of fallowness, of waiting – there is a time for that. 

But some opportunities come along and feel like an invitation to something important.  Instead of just brushing them off, they demand a real decision: is this a good opportunity?  Would it do me good to do this?  Could God be calling me to do this? 

Last July – I ran across an announcement for a lecture up in Catonsville near Baltimore – not exactly convenient.  But I had heard the lecturer, Amy-Jill Levine, before and knew she was fascinating – she is a Jew who teaches New Testament at Vanderbilt.  I decided to go, and found myself re-energized to study Jesus in his Jewish context. I’ve been reading her books these last two months, and our Wednesday Bible Study group is using the New Testament she edited for our study of Mark’s Gospel.  Levine has given my faith a boost.

Now let’s look more closely at Jesus’ parable. It seems natural to assume that the king who held a wedding feast for his son represents God.  There’s very troubling language of violence and retribution attributed to this king.  But all the stuff about violence was probably added to the parable after Jesus’ time – I don’t believe God sends troops, destroys people, and burns cities when we don’t come to God’s parties.  That sounds much more like humans being vengeful – and in fact it reflects historical fact 40 years after Jesus told this parable, when the city of Jerusalem was burned to the ground by the Romans. 

Rather, we see God inviting us to be God’s guests at the great banquet of creation, the feast of life.  God makes everything ready; God clothes the earth in “the beauteous garb of spring” as we would put flowers on the table for a special meal.  God sends out the invitations – to all of us – and then God waits.  There’s no coercion involved – no troops will be sent, no cities burned if we don’t come. We don’t have to accept the invitation. God just waits on us. 

I am by nature a cautious person.  I’m sure many times that has prevented me from saying yes to an invitation or an opportunity that seemed risky to me.  I’ve lived by what I call the principle of least regret: given a choice to make, which one am I least likely to regret later?  That’s a safe approach, but not always adventuresome. 

If I had my life to live over, I think I’d try to be a little less cautious, a little more spontaneous, more adventurous, more open to what God might be inviting me to do. 

One think I do know – I don’t regret the times I’ve taken a chance, struck out into unknown territory.  Leslie and I just celebrated our thirtieth wedding anniversary this week.  (And they said it would never last!)  The decision to marry is one of the greatest adventures in life, and perhaps among the riskiest.  Who can really know if two people can continue as partners over so many years, so many changes?  We know the rate of separation and divorce is high.  People get hurt all the time in intimate relationships.  What makes us strike out into the unknown and make lavish promises “till death do us part”? 

I think it is the sense of possibility, the sense that something new and wonderful has a chance of being born and growing. There is every risk of failure. It’s not a sure thing, but there’s an invitation to try.  Now, it goes without saying that Leslie was taking a much greater chance on marrying me than I was taking with her.  Her grandmother, when she learned that I was a priest, said, “Oh Leslie, don’t marry a priest – there’ll be no end to the trouble!”  And she was right.  But there has also been no end to the joy and adventure and satisfaction. 

Obviously, our wedding was in the fall.  But our engagement – the time of invitation, the time of decision – was in the spring, that season of newness, of possibility, of excitement and growth and opportunity.  “’Tis the spring of souls today” as the Easter hymn puts it.  It is no mystery why we celebrate Easter in the spring – when else would we?  New life and resurrection are the bywords of the season. 

So, on this October Sunday, we transport ourselves – for the moment – into the mindset of Spring: we consider new possibilities with an open mind.  We try to separate the weeds from the flowers.  We wait for God’s invitation to the great feast, and pray we don’t miss it.  The good news is that God invites everybody in: the slaves were sent out into the streets to gather everybody – the good, the bad, and the ugly.  At this moment, you may see yourself as a pretty good person, worthy of entrance.  Or you may be thinking you’ve really messed up, and God wouldn’t want you.  But actually, it doesn’t depend on you. The invitation depends on God, and God is inviting you in.  It’s the invitation of a lifetime!  Don’t miss it!  


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Creation Season 2017- Winter

Posted 8:15 PM by
Sermon – Creation: Winter                                                          Jeffrey B. MacKnight
8 October 2017                                                                           St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda

A Texas A & M student decided that he would raise chickens on his wheat farm. He bought a bunch of chicks, and when he planted them, they died. So, he bought some more chicks and planted them a little deeper, and they died. So, he called up his Agriculture instructor at A & M, and explained his problem. The instructor disgustedly said, "You fool, you know I need a soil sample before we can find the problem." 

That’s pretty much my experience planting things.  My brother and I once got seedlings and planted a whole strawberry patch, looking forward to a big crop of juicy sweet berries.  None came up.  We later learned we planted the shoots upside down. 

Jesus was a better gardener.  He said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain.  But if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

This is perhaps the simplest, but most difficult truth Jesus tried to convey.  The image is simple: a seed, some soil, time…and new life. So far, so good.  Then we add the part about dying. We’d rather do without that bit.  We don’t want to believe that it’s true.  We don’t want to have to die in order for new life to arise. 

And so, day to day, we tend to just keep going, at all costs.  No time for stopping, for dying!  We keep on keeping on.  We stay busy, we don’t stop.  Rest and sleep are for wimps!  Idle hours are wasteful, even somehow shameful!  Dogs may sleep when they are tired.  But humans fret and drink Red Bull.  In all of God’s Creation, only humans are so driven, and feel guilty for idleness, for not producing. 

In Nebraska, where I grew up, winter wheat was a major crop.  It was planted in the fall, and then it rested, in the dark cold earth, all winter long.  Then, lo and behold, in the spring it came up, the most vivid, fresh pale green you can imagine!  It took patience, but all that winter rest and idleness was not for naught: the yield was tremendous. 

My spiritual guru Richard Rohr writes of the Christian path of descent – we must go down into darkness before we can rise to new heights.  This is not what the world teaches!  This is not what we want to hear!  But it is the pattern Jesus sets forth for us: in his teachings, and finally in his own life.  Rohr says we must encounter true darkness, failure, and disappointment in our lives, before we can rise into a more mature spiritual place.  He says there is no way around it. 

These are the winters of our life, when we have to stop doing, because it won’t work anymore.  We have to wait in the dark, feel the cold, and watch for an opening, a point of light, toward which we can stumble.  We meet God at that point, I am quite sure.  And with God’s help, we build something new.

This descent often comes to us as a major loss: of a spouse, a friend…God forbid, even a child.  It can be a major failure that we must confront.  The death of a relationship, or a marriage, or a job. Or maybe, just a point in life where we realize, with all our striving, there’s still an emptiness.  All the trappings of success are just not enough. 

For some, we might call this a midlife crisis.  It may mean a change of career or lifestyle.  It will mean a reordering of values, priorities.  It will mean a new humility, because we now know we can be brought low.  We’ve encountered death. It also means a new compassion for other humans at their hour of need, their point of weakness…because we’ve been there. 

Last Sunday nine of us gathered to discuss a book about dealing with loss and resilience: Option B by Sheryl Sandberg.  We all agreed, it’s not a great book.  Sorry, Sheryl!  But it led to a great discussion – an honest sharing of our times of loss, of desperation even – the winter of our lives.  Many of us had lost dear loved ones, or a treasured way of life that was ended.  The tender compassion in the room – among some who had only just met each other! – was palpable.  We all knew we needed each other’s love to carry on.  We opened the hatch and went back down into dark places, yet somehow we were buoyed up.  We weren’t “staying busy” or doing productive work, but God was working in us.  We faced death, but we glimpsed new life beyond it.  We shared hope. 

Yesterday, I was doing an autumn thing: cleaning the leaves out of the gutters.  There were many leaves; there will be many more.  It was a beautiful, sun-dappled afternoon.  All those leaves were fresh and new and green last spring!  Now they are brown, and they need to be moved aside so that the rains can come and wash the world clean, the rivulets running down the roof, through the gutters and the downspouts back into Mother Earth.  Full circle.

Life is like that.  We must accept it as a whole: winter with summer; bad with good, love with loss, death with life.  There is the path of ascent; there is then the path of descent.  There is the tilling and the planting, the nurturing and the watering, the reaping and the harvest celebration.  Now the green blade riseth from the buried grain…

This is the pattern imbedded in God’s Creation, and laid out for us in the life and death of our Lord Jesus.  Seeds buried.  Life rising.  Love blossoming.  Winter returning. 

When our hearts are wintry, grieving or in pain,
Thy touch can call us back to life again,
Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been:
Love is come again like wheat that springeth green.         
(Hymnal 204)


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Creation Season 2017- Autumn

Posted 8:12 PM by
Sermon, Proper 21A                                                                     Jeffrey B. MacKnight
1 October 2017                                                                           St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda


First, a bit of advice. 

If at first you don’t succeed,  …try shortstop!

That has little to do with today’s scriptures, but the playoffs are nearly here, and I really thought it was funny. 

Today we begin Creation Season, and this year we are focusing on the four seasons.  We begin with Fall – Autumn – whatever you like to call it.  For me, there’s a poignancy to Autumn: many memories of starting new school years and new church years, getting ready and wondering how they’ll go.  There’s also the dying part – the dying of the summer, the leaves coloring spectacularly and flinging themselves to the ground like some dramatic prima donna in an opera, only there are millions and millions of them, everywhere, reminding us that the natural world is shutting down – for a while. 

Autumn, I think, points to transitions in our own lives – when one season is ending and we don’t know quite what the next will bring.  Sometimes it feels like dying – when the kids first go off to school, or when they leave home, or a good friend dies, or we’ve chosen to leave a job or activity or relationship that’s been important to us.  And it’s much worse if we didn’t choose: if we’ve been laid off our job our forced to quit something for some reason.  I know we’re all thinking of the folks in the Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands – they’ve lost so much - that’s a real death experience.  Not to mention in Mexico and Texas and Florida.  It can feel like a death, even though we know rationally that there will be something new, a new season, perhaps after a fallow time of rest.  For many of us, Autumn summons up a lot of history. 

As such, it may be a good time to stop and consider our lives, re-examine how we live, and see if there are changes we’d like to make. 

Jesus told a parable today about aligning our actions with our words…  Two sons told to go work in Dad’s vineyard.  Jesus’ parable illustrates how easy it is to say one thing and do another.  Actually both sons are guilty of this – neither one does what he says he will do.  Of course, one of them seems more virtuous, because he ends up following his father’s direction even after he refused at first.  But the disconnect is there in both. 

We could talk more about these two sons, and their words and their behavior, but generally we can all agree that it’s best to do what you say you’ll do.  I can still go back to occasions when I haven’t done what I promised to do…and feel the hot shame of that.  Maybe you can, too. 

But that’s kind of a scolding approach to the parable.  More often than not, Jesus is not trying to scold us.  His real goal, I believe, is to call us to live a richer, fuller, more satisfying life.  He called it abundant life, eternal life, fullness of life.  So another approach to this parable, which appeals to me more, is to flip it over and talk about the things we say we’ll do in life – for our own good – and don’t necessarily follow through on.  I’m talking about the resolutions we make to treat ourselves better, to be kinder to ourselves, to have a bit more fun in life, to enjoy our families and friends more.  (I’m not really talking about resolutions to lose weight and get in shape, good those they may be for us.  That gets back to the realm of scolding.) 

I’ll start.  I’ve been thinking and saying for a couple of years now that I really am going to get back to regular piano playing again – I know it brings me joy and a kind of serenity that’s rare.  Other life demands had crowded out the piano for me, and I wanted to get back to it. 

And yet, I have not done it.  I have no good excuses.  I’m not so busy that I couldn’t make time to play at least a little every day.  But I have not.  So why the disconnect?  Why don’t I do what I say I’ll do?  Why can’t I give myself and honest YES?  Maybe preaching this sermon will give me the push I need to get on with it.  I hope so.  You can help me by asking how the piano is going….

I believe we are experiencing an Autumn in the life of our parish as well – here at St. Dunstan’s.  Churches go through cycles, and we are a smaller congregation now than we were for many years.  That means we’ve had to make changes in our life together – how we do things with fewer people.  We miss the old crowds on Sundays.  Churches are going through this all over – it’s a pattern in many American churches.  It sometimes feels like a little death – the death of the way it was.  We wonder what the Winter will be like.  It’s all the more important to gather together and keep warm – keep the home-fires burning – during this time of change. 

I have been thinking about the year coming up – 2018 – which will be our 60th anniversary year as a congregation in Bethesda.  How will we reflect on that marker?  How will we celebrate this milestone?  Are there things we say we are, that we haven’t followed through on?  Are there disconnects between what we say and what we do?  These are all good questions for us to consider.  I can sense Jesus prodding us gently to do that. 

We should also ponder our hopes and dreams for St. Dunstan’s.  What do we want our future to look like?  What are we willing to do – to invest – to help make that future a reality?  What can we give an honest YES to?  And also - What would we like our surrounding community to know about St. Dunstan’s?  And how will we tell them? 

Jesus always has a way of gently calling us to reflect on how we live, and notice the disconnects that may be there – the disconnects between what we say and what we do, between how we live and how we really want to live.  Maybe Autumn is a good time to do that, as old things are passing away and new things are yet to come.  Sometimes we need a little nudge to move in the direction that’s best for us – move to a place where we might be more joyful, more connected to others, and more of a gift to the world around us.  There’s no shame in change, in letting go of what is old, and making room for what is new.  Jesus’ whole life was about that, culminating in a very painful death, followed by a most glorious resurrection.  That is the source of all our hope. 

So I hope this can be a season of honest reflection for us, and openness to change.  If at first you don’t succeed, …try shortstop! 





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