Entries by Jeff MacKnight

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Proper 10: 07/16/2017

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Sermon, Proper 10A                                                                     Jeffrey B. MacKnight
16 July 2017                                                                              St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda

 

Last week I went to get blood drawn for routine tests for a physical exam.  It had to be fasting since the night before, and my appointment wasn’t until 1:30 p.m.  I was famished!  I went to the lab at the doctor’s office and had 3 tubes of blood drawn.  My daughter Maggie went with me. 

Next thing – Maggie heard an announcement on the P.A. system: “Code blue in the lab!”  I woke up flat on my back in the hallway while 6 staff people looked down at me, took my blood pressure, and raised my feet.  My doctor was there, smiling when I asked him, “Who are you?” 

This mildly embarrassing, but rather hilarious, incident points to a simple truth:  we all need sustenance, nourishment, to survive and thrive….  While a few people fast voluntarily for spiritual reasons, in general, hunger is not a helpful state to be in: when we are really hungry, we can’t learn, we can’t grow, we can’t communicate or function very well.  In extreme cases, we pass out.  I have a new respect for people who suffer from hunger.  We need to do all we can to stop it – especially in East Africa where famine looms yet again. 

Jesus tells a parable about seed sown, by God presumably.  Lots of seed is sown, but it needs nourishment, water or it won’t grow.  Jesus tells us it can fall:

  • On the Path – birds come and ate them up
  • On the Rocks – no depth, scorched by the sun
  • Among Thorns – it is choked
  • On Good soil – it takes root, grows, and bears fruit – a hundredfold!

We as God’s people need to be fed, or we’ll “pass out” before we can do God’s work in this world, before we can help someone who is struggling, feed someone who’s hungry, or speak out when somebody is getting a raw deal….  So, how do we get fed spiritually in this crazy world?  What keeps us going?  What inspires us and gives us strength? 

Spiritual food doesn’t come from the grocery store…it comes in other ways. Traditionally, we think of studying scripture, meditation, communion with nature, inspiring sermons (like this one!), and of course bread and wine, humbly received at the altar, through which Christ himself feeds us.  These are solid, time-honored sources of nourishment for our souls. 

But there are other sources of nourishment that are more active and outward-looking….we can be fed spiritually not just saying our prayers, but out in the world, in action, seeing and doing God’s work in a variety of ways. 

This last week at St. Dunstan’s, I’ve been fed as I have tried to feed others at special moments in life: a burial, and a wedding.  As the church we have much to say, much to offer at these moments of inflection in life.  At weddings and funerals, the church is filled with people who may not know God very much, and we have an opportunity to share what we know and believe. 

I’m also thrilled to report the success of our community-wide meeting on refugee policy and prospects last Thursday night.  Kelly Gauger of the State Department Refugee office gave a riveting account of the fast-changing administration policies and court decisions, as her office tries to help as many people as possible.   All 44 of us in the room on a hot July night were energized to find ways to support refugees desperate to find a safe place to live and work.  Two-thirds of the group were from outside St. Dunstan’s: churches, synagogues, and civic groups.  This shows that St. Dunstan’s can make a real impact in our neighborhood, in Bethesda, and in Washington.  I felt fed, renewed, and energized at the end of the evening. 

Back to Jesus’ parable of the sower and the seeds: it’s humbling, but in this parable, we are the dirt…the soil in which God plants.  We need to be the best soil we can be for God to plant God’s word…

We need to bring our best selves to church to hear and receive that word…our most open, expectant selves, our most hopeful selves, ready to be fed, enlightened, inspired, and challenged by that word.  Then we also need to be alert to see God at work in the world, and hear God’s call to us to take action when things aren’t right.  That might mean calling a Senator to advocate for poor people, working at a soup kitchen, raising money for transitional housing, standing with a disabled person or a transgender person, or finding a refugee a home.  We need to be the fertile soil in which God can sow the seeds of life. 

We don’t control God’s planting….  The good news is that God scatters seed widely, profligately, prodigiously, lavishly, even wastefully.  There is plenty!  We just need to be open, receptive, fertile, and ready…and we need to get the food we need, spiritual food as well as physical food, so that we are strong and ready to be God’s hands and feet and voice in the world.  We need to get fed ourselves, so that nobody will have to announce, “Code blue in the lab!” for us.  AMEN.  


 

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Proper 7: 06/25/2017

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Sermon, Proper 7A                                                                       Jeffrey B. MacKnight
25 June 2017                                                                              St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda

 

Jesus said, I have come, not to bring peace, but a sword. 

When was the last time you hesitated to raise a subject because you knew it could cause conflict?  The other night I was out in the yard, chatting with neighbors, when a young mom expressed her negative views about having her young son vaccinated.  I don’t agree, but I didn’t speak up, because I didn’t think it was my business, and I’m not that well informed.  My kids are way past that! 

But on other issues, I feel I must speak up and speak out.  One of these is health care for all people.  I like to point out that Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan is the first recorded instance of health insurance.  The Samaritan agreed to pay what was needed, for a perfect stranger.  Why?  Because human dignity requires it. 

I know that not everybody agrees with me on this, but at this critical moment in our nation’s political battles over healthcare, I feel compelled to speak.  I believe this is a Gospel imperative, and the U.S. is cruel in the way we allocate healthcare.  For years, St. Dunstan’s has paid copays for medicine people need to live – insulin and syringes, HIV medications. I’m tired of this.  It is beneath dignity for human beings to have to beg for these necessities.  Ours is the only wealthy nation I know that requires human beings to grovel for basic care, for medicine.  Children’s care is on the line in Congress right now too.  How is it that some children – like our well-insured kids – should get great care, and others get little or none?  Where is the justice in that?  This is not a partisan political issue for me.  It is an issue of humanity, of compassion, of justice.  It’s very much a religious issue, because Jesus said so. 

Jesus said, I have come, not to bring peace, but a sword.

Now, I don’t speak lightly of what Jesus said we must do, and I don’t like it when others take liberties in that way.  Jesus preached a unified vision of God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. So, we should ask:  what exactly are these Kingdom values that Jesus would not compromise?  Notably, although many religious folks focus on it almost exclusively, sexual morality was not high on Jesus’ list of moral issues.  He spoke little about that, only to affirm that we should keep our marriage vows.  And I’m all for that. 

Jesus was a compassionate person – he reached out when people were suffering.  And he knew that compassion translated into common life, into the Kingdom, is justice.  The more I study the Gospel texts, the more I see that Jesus’ primary concern was justice, particularly for the weakest in society.  Everybody deserved a decent life, a decent share of the earth’s resources.  If sick people didn’t get care, there was no justice.  If the poor were in misery, there was no justice.  If children and orphans and widows were destitute, there was no justice.  If peasants were buried in debt and defrauded of their land through foreclosure (which they were), there was no justice.  If the rich were getting richer, and the poor were getting poorer, there was no justice.  Economic justice is a religious issue…very much so. 

In Jesus’ time, the Roman occupiers took a huge portion of the production of the land and people through taxation – to support the Roman elite, infrastructure, and military.  Maybe Jesus didn’t expect any better from them.  But the Jewish leaders in occupied Palestine were answerable to Yahweh, the God of Israel.  These priests of the Temple claimed devotion to a God who cared for poor people, sick people, weak people – their own people – Jewish people!  Yet they collaborated with the Roman government to ensure their own comfortable lives. 

I’m reading a history of the USSR from Krushchev in the 1950’s up to Putin’s new Russian dictatorship.  One theme that comes through is how the middle and upper management – the “elite” – were rewarded by the system.  There were perks such as cars and chauffeurs, deluxe apartments, dachas in the country, which were provided by the Kremlin – as long as these bureaucrats toed the party line and didn’t question the exploitation of masses.  From first century Palestine to twentieth century Moscow – it seems there is nothing new under the sun. 

No wonder Jesus symbolically upset the Temple courtyard, where a brisk business of buying and selling sacrificial animals was taking place.  (We’ll look at that sacrificial system in more detail next week – watch for Trail Notes in Thursday’s Trailblazer.)  The Temple had become a machine to extract money from the poor and create a very comfortable lifestyle for the priests and bureaucrats.  Surely this was not what God wanted. 

A few weeks ago, I visited England to spend time with a friend Ray. I had a cut on my finger that became infected, so Ray took me to the local NHS walk-in clinic.  I signed in – a foreigner! – and waited about 30 minutes until I was called.  The nurse quickly dealt with my need and sent me on my way, without charging a cent.  Ray is receiving excellent care for his cancer as well, all without worrying about catastrophic medical expenses and possible bankruptcy, on top of the stress of having a serious illness.  How I wish the U.S. had a system like that.  I know it’s not perfect…nothing is.  But it is fair and generous.  It is compassionate.  It is just. 

Jesus said, I have come, not to bring peace, but a sword.  Sometimes, when it’s important, we have to speak up for what we believe is right.  AMEN.  


 

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Easter 7A- 05/28/2017

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Sermon, Easter 7A, Sunday after Ascension                               Jeffrey B. MacKnight
28 May 2017                                                                             St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda

One day in the Garden of Eden, God comes to Adam and Eve and tells them God has two gifts — one for each of them. The first, God says, is, well, the ability to pee standing up. Adam starts jumping up and down excitedly and loudly declares that he wants it. Eve, listening to him jabbering on and on about it, rolls her eyes and asks God what God has in mind for her. "Brains," says God.

That’s the kind of story that would put a smile on our daughter Maggie’s face – she’s a strong young woman with views.  Just what we hoped she’d be. 

I still remember like it was yesterday the day my wife Leslie and I took Maggie to Dulles airport to fly to Edinburgh, Scotland to begin veterinary school there.  That was 4 years ago now.  I knew it was the right thing for Maggie – a wonderful opportunity for her to pursue her life-long dream.  That made it the right thing for Leslie and me, too.  But I still was overwhelmed by the sadness of so much separation in the coming years.  Standing in that soaring, iconic airport terminal, outside the security barrier, my eyes brimmed with tears – I was far from the strong, stoic father image that’s common in our culture.  I just didn’t want to let her go. 

Perhaps that’s how the disciples felt about Jesus when he set out for a different kind of ascension, when he had to end his time walking the earth with him.  Maybe they had some understanding of why this had to happen, why this was the best thing for the spread of Jesus’ good news; maybe not.  But I don’t doubt it was a sad, painful parting.

Jesus’ ascension from earth into heaven is a way of describing the end of Jesus’ appearances on earth, and his return to his Father God.  Jesus had prepared his disciples, his followers, as well as he could.  He had trained them to go out and preach, teach, and heal in his name.   They knew his vision for the Gospel to spread beyond Palestine into Asia Minor, Rome – to the ends of the earth.  But were they ready?  I’m sure they would have loved to stay with Jesus, listen to him teach, and enjoy the warm bonds of fellowship they had formed.  But that was not to be.  The times, they were a-changing. 

St. Dunstan’s congregation is in a similar place, I think.  Like the disciples – we are a scrappy band of folks, with lots of opinions, but a common bond of devotion to Christ and his ministry in this place.  We cherish the traditions we’ve enjoyed here, the good times of the past – and rightly so.  We have much to cherish and be thankful for. 

In particular, I sorely miss the band of founding members of our church, who worked and sacrificed for decades here.  When I arrived, they were elders, and they amazed me because their support was unwavering, but they did not try to control the parish.  They wanted it to change and flourish, not be shackled to some image of the past.  That was a remarkable combination: steadfast support and good humor, along with a willing “letting go” of the reins.  I think of them often, and give thanks for their faithfulness and friendship.  On this Memorial Day, I remember them. 

But – and there’s always a “but” – I’m not sure Jesus will let us stay the way we once were.  It’s a new world, and people are not flocking into the churches as they once did.  They still need to hear about the love and forgiveness of Jesus – that hasn’t changed.  But fewer folks are coming through these doors.  So Jesus is leading us out – out onto the sidewalks, the streets, the shops, the schools, the offices and workplaces – to be Christians in the world. 

Our “inner circle” as a congregation is smaller than it once was, but our impact in our neighborhood, in the city, and even in other parts of the world is as strong as ever!  Thousands of people encounter St. Dunstan’s through children’s programs, musical events here, and outreach projects, in addition to those in worship and fellowship and formation.  Many of those will never come to worship with us, but still we are offering a Gospel of hospitality, of open discussion and inquiry, of beauty and art.  Many of us are involved in refugee ministry now – I’m amazed how many are going to the Orthodox church this Saturday to support refugees in the camps.  Today we make sandwiches for hungry Washingtonians, as we do every month.  We are working more with neighboring congregations.  St. Dunstan’s is a small but mighty church!   

It’s hard to let go of the way things used to be…just as it was hard for the disciples to let go of Jesus’ physical presence with them.  But they had no choice…and frankly, we have no choice.  As a parish priest, I was much more comfortable when thoughtful worship, creative programs, and pastoral care was enough to build up a congregation.  I would love to go back to those days.  But we can’t.  The world moves on; the church moves on, into new forms that we probably can’t even imagine.  God will sustain God’s Church the way God chooses.  We cannot control what that Church will be like, no matter how hard we try to hold on. 

Over the last four years, Leslie and I have learned to let go. We’ve had to trust. Maggie has grown and changed, and she will become the young woman and dedicated vet that she needs to become.  The strain and stress of letting go, of change, will be worthwhile. 

And so it is with the Church.  After 33 years of ordained ministry, I understand Jesus more and more, and I can predict the future of the Church less and less.  But a future there will be.  We need to be like the wonderful founders of St. Dunstan’s, who supported this lovely community at every turn, yet set it free to become what God would make of it.  Each of us is a member of this body, the Body of Christ, which comes into being as Jesus’ human body ascends into the heavens.  Each of us has a call, a ministry to do.  Maybe you know what God is calling you to do, and you are firmly engaged.  If you are unsure, I’d be glad to talk with you about your call. 

What I know is this: together we can be the hands and feet of Christ.  Together, we are stronger than we are alone.  Together, we can navigate the uncertain road that lies ahead of us, certain only that God is with us and that God is love. 

 


 

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Easter 3A- 04/29/2017

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Sermon, Easter 3A                                                                     Jeffrey B. MacKnight
29 April 2017                                                                          St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda

 A seven-year-old asks his father, "Dad can you do my homework for me so I can play more video games?" Dad replies, "No son, it wouldn't be right." The son says, "That's probably true, but just do the best you can."

What’s that got to do with the Emmaus story?  Well, one thing is that nobody else can do for us what we must do for ourselves.  Some experiences in life we just have to go through, we have to see for ourselves, learn for ourselves – whether it’s homework from school, or how to live and love in a relationship, or coming to faith in a turbulent world of evil and doubt. 

Today, Cleopas and another disciple – I’ve always assumed it was his wife, whom I think of as “Anna” – are walking home on Easter afternoon, dejected after the cross, the death of their beloved teacher.  They had heard that Jesus was seen again – alive – but they just couldn’t believe it.  Maybe you feel that way too – at least sometimes.  (It’s funny that we talk about “doubting Thomas” but not “doubting Cleopas.”) 

Nobody goes looking for a leader who gets killed.  Think of how our country felt when Jack Kennedy was murdered, or Martin Luther King. 

We were bereft, numb, wondering how we could go on.  Cleopas and Anna felt that in an intimate way – they had known and loved Jesus dearly.

So they put one foot in front of the other, and trudged the few miles back to their home village of Emmaus, thinking their great adventure with this wonderful man was just a brief flash of joy.  Back now to the plodding drudgery of peasant life in Judea. 

But you heard the story: a stranger approached and began to walk with them on that dusty road.  He asked about their experience in Jerusalem.  Then he began to talk about the Hebrew scriptures, how the messiah, the Christ, of God would be a suffering servant, one who would go through the pain of life with us, and die as we die, and be raised to new life. 

Spiritual writer Richard Rohr says:

To understand Jesus in a whole new way, you must first know that Christ is not his last name, but his eternal identity both before and after the Resurrection. The raising up of Jesus is not a one-time miracle that we must believebut a revelation of the constant and only pattern.

Life – death – new life.  That is the pattern laid out by Jesus.  On Easter I spoke of that pattern laid out so clearly in nature – the yearly changing of the seasons, the deadness of winter followed by the explosion of spring – something we enjoy so vividly here in Washington.  It’s easy to see this pattern in nature.

I also see that pattern in the generations of human beings.  Leslie’s and my kids are in their mid-twenties now, pursuing their educations to prepare them for their chosen vocations.  And I see in them, and other young people, an energy, drive, and creativity that bodes well for the world.  They are so full of life, and dreams, and ideas!  They are passionate about life, about making a contribution to the community, about saving the planet.  And I believe they’ll find solutions to problems that my own generation has failed to find.  It will require our generation to let go, to release the reins of power in various ways, to die, even, in order to allow new life to spring forth.  It’s all part of the pattern.

And as I get older, this seems very right…in fact, necessary.  Again, Richard Rohr says:

I think this is Jesus’ major message: there is something essential that you only know by dying. You really don’t know what life is until you know what death is. Death, which seems like our ultimate enemy, is actually the doorway. This is how Jesus “overcame” and even “destroyed” death.

Now this is not to romanticize death, whether it’s physical death, or a death experience that we live through - the loss, conflict, or despair that can mark our lives.  Death is rarely easy; it’s usually painful.  But seeing our experiences as part of a larger pattern set forth by Jesus can help us make sense of our suffering.  We do learn through our death experiences, and we can face them with equanimity – and even joy – when we know that they make way for new life. 

So, what is it that God wants to show you – to teach you – through this pattern of life and death and new life?  What is the “road to Emmaus” you are called to walk?  Will you meet a stranger along the way?  Cleopas and Anna expected nothing that weary day, and yet the stranger walked the trail with them, talked with them, made their hearts burn within them.  But still they did not recognize him.  That didn’t come until they sat down to eat, and he took bread, and blessed it, and broke the bread.  Finally!  They knew it was the Lord!  And everything was changed.  Death was swallowed up by life.  The pattern was clear.  May it be so for us, too. 

“Be known to us, Lord Jesus, in the breaking of the bread.”  AMEN. 

 


 

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Easter 2A- 04/26/2017

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Sermon, Easter 2A                                                                    Jeffrey B. MacKnight
26 April 2017                                                                          St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda
 

 

Two guys were jawboning about their wives.
Stan:  My wife treats me like I’m a god.
Steve: So she worships the ground you walk on?
Stan:  No – she ignores me until she wants something!

There are at least two types of doubt abroad in the world today.  First, doubt about God may be a rather casual thing: treating the idea of God as insignificant or irrelevant to real life…that is, until we’re in a pinch, or we want something, like Stan’s wife.  Then things might change…  you know what they say about everybody being a believer in foxholes.

Many in the world today seem quite indifferent to organized religion, doubting its validity.  Surveys tell us that religious participation is low, while interest in spirituality is high.  Our modern era has been called post-Christian, because church membership is no longer a societal norm.  People today don’t come to church because “everybody does it;” they simply don’t come, unless they decide it’s important to them to make time.  Through most of the last millennium, the Christian religion, represented by a powerful church, was automatically a part of the lives of the majority of Western people.  What a change in the last 50 years! 

 [Interestingly, St. Dunstan’s pews have been less full this year during Lent, but more full at Easter this year.  Maybe the mystical power of Easter – life rising out of death – resonates more than the Sunday by Sunday observance of a penitential season.  I don’t know.  What do you think?  I’m grateful for the Easter crowds, in any case!]

The second kind of doubt involves a very intentional, thoughtful consideration of the existence of God, the veracity of miracles, and the credibility of specific doctrines such as the virgin birth of Jesus or his bodily resurrection.  Many practicing Christians express trouble with at least some of these assertions of our faith.  Our Episcopal approach allows for this kind of doubt, or wondering.  Not all Christian teachings are central to our faith.  For instance, we might doubt the bodily resurrection of Jesus, but still believe that Jesus was and is alive again in a spiritual way.  For many, that constitutes a powerful belief in the resurrection.

So, doubt can come either out of not really caring much at all…or out of caring very much indeed – enough to wrestle with our faith quite seriously, sometimes in great anguish. 

Speaking of anguish, I believe Jesus acknowledged, and indeed authorized, doubt by sharing his own struggles with God in his life.  On at least two occasions, Jesus expressed doubt.  The first, of course, was in the Garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus foresaw his own death and asked if this cup might pass him by.  Here Jesus seems to doubt God’s goodness.  We can all identify so well with that plaintive cry.  In our own lives, it’s probably not about facing crucifixion.  But we might very well pray ourselves, “O Lord, please don’t ask me to face this cancer, this dementia, the loss of my spouse, my child’s mental illness….”

The second time was on the cross itself.  As we heard on Palm Sunday, Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  As a human being, Jesus felt abandoned by God.  He doubted God’s love and care at that moment.  Who wouldn’t? 

Some would minimize Jesus’ doubt, pointing out that Jesus was speaking to God, and in that sense affirming God’s existence at least.  Maybe they have a point.  But the anguish and despair are still there.  And it may be in those very moments of pain that we feel closest to Jesus, that he is most real to us, not just in our heads, but in our hearts and our guts. 

So Thomas has been dubbed “Doubting Thomas” all these years, when really, he just wanted to see Jesus in person, as all the other disciples had done.  Jesus didn’t dismiss Thomas’s need at all; in fact, Jesus seems to come back for Sunday dinner a week later, just to meet Thomas and resolve Thomas’s uncertainties.  Jesus didn’t condemn Thomas for his doubts. 

Now, I can’t erase anyone’s doubts about God or Jesus or Christian faith – not yours, and not my own.  And I certainly wouldn’t either diminish their importance or demean anyone who expresses doubt.  As one who doubts myself, I’d be hypocrite to do that, and if there’s one thing that really grates on Jesus’ nerves, it’s hypocrites! 

If God wanted us to be sure and certain about all these religious matters, God could have made everything abundantly clear.  But God doesn’t.  God works through nuance, story, metaphor, and paradox.  Faith is an ongoing project.  If it were just facts, how thin a soup religious would be…how boring and empty.  And humans would no longer have our freedom to accept or reject, to buy in or decline.  We would be puppets. 

So all I can do is invite you to keep coming back, coming back for “Sunday dinner” here, because that’s where the disciples met Jesus, and that’s where Thomas resolved his doubts about the risen Lord.  There are a thousand other things you could be doing right now, but this is the best place to meet God. 

And God seems quite happy to meet us in whatever we state we find ourselves: full of faith, asking questions, or doubting the whole enterprise!  Maybe we come out of habit or determination.  For the friendly community in a hostile world.  Maybe we only come when we’ve got something we want: we’re in need of a prayer answered, some guidance or clarity. 

Whatever brings us here, there’s a welcome from God, and from this congregation.  Together, we acknowledge doubts and questions, find faith together, and walk in hope, because God meets us and feeds us here.  “Ours is not a caravan of despair.”  That image comes from a poem by Rumi, shared with me by Ellie Tupper.  Rumi was Muslim, but he captures a spirit of God’s welcome that works for all of us: 

Come, come whoever you are.
Wonderer, worshipper, lover of leaving.
It doesn’t matter.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vow a thousand times
Come, yet again, come, come. 
                                                                                                Jalal al-Din Rumi

[Another great Rumi quote:

Go on! Drink the wine of the Beloved!
In that faith, Muslims and pagans are one. ]

 


 

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Sermon: Easter -4/16/2017

Posted 6:27 PM by
Sermon – Easter 2017                                                                  Jeffrey B. MacKnight
16 April 2017                                                                            St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda

God is Green

Happy Easter, everybody! 

A week ago we had a little surprise at our house: no hot water. When I checked out the water heater, it was leaking slightly, so I knew it had to be replaced, which fortunately we got done the next day.  But even a brief time without hot water reminded us of what a lovely luxury it is – hot showers loosen the tension in my back and help me wake up in the morning!  Clean, fresh water is a great gift of Creation that it’s easy to take for granted.

Many of us grew up saying grace before meals, reminding us of the goodness of God’s creation:

“God is great and God is good….” 

Even as children, this prayer helped us remember that God’s Creation is good – very good – and gives us both life itself, and much joy.  Everybody loves food; it is a natural channel for our gratitude. Water and food – two blessings we might take for granted, but in the rest of the world they are still precious privileges.

This Easter, coming so close to Earth Day, I propose a new prayer for us – a prayer not just for food, but for the whole Creation:

“God is great and God is green,
Your great glory we have seen
in Creation.  Bless the earth;
Bring us all to second birth.”

Every Easter we hear the story of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, showing that God wants to bring new life out of death.  God demonstrated that in Jesus; God wants to redeem and save each of us.  No past sin, failure, or mistake can change God's love for us, God’s desire for us to be alive, and joyful, and whole.  Whatever you think cannot be forgiven or overcome, God can transcend.  If God can raise the dead to life, God can vanquish our human sins and offenses. 

But this year, I want to focus on a broader picture: the redemption, the salvation of the whole Creation.  Christianity teaches that God not only loves each and every human being, but God loves the world, the earth, the cosmos.  “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son….”  Jesus comes not just to save individual humans from our brokenness; Jesus is the Christ of Creation who brings renewal to the whole world and all its creatures.

St. Paul writes in Romans 8 about his “hope 21that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; 23and not only the creation, but we ourselves.”  Our salvation is tied up with the salvation of the whole earth.

Springtime in Washington helps us see how overwhelmingly beautiful this gift is – all Creation springing forth into life: a riot of colors, textures, fragrances, and a green everywhere: such an intense, vivid green.  We are really blessed to live where each season (with the possible exception of winter) is such a display of God’s handiwork!

Back when the world was new, Adam and Eve were set up in a beautiful Garden – a symbol of all that is good in Creation.  But they rebelled against God’s rule. (Human beings don’t seem to like to be told what to do.)   God sent them away from the beautiful garden of Eden: they were alienated from the earth.  Genesis tells us that God cursed the earth itself because of human sin.  Since then, we have become alienated from the very world we live in.  We have used the earth, not as a cherished home, but as a cash-cow we could exploit.  We all know that the earth is sick now – staggering under the weight of human exploitation and abuse, just as surely as Jesus staggered under the weight of his heavy cross. 

In the resurrection story, you noticed that Mary is mistaken when she first sees Jesus.  She doesn’t recognize Jesus.  She thinks he is the gardener.  Well, I’ve come to believe that he is!  He is God’s gardener, bringing forth life from the earth.

I’m not much of a gardener, (I have a very brown thumb), though I really wish I were, especially as I get older.  I’m working on it.  Connecting with the earth, and participating in God’s giving growth, moves me more and more.  I enjoy the simple things, like a few flowers by the front door, and around the back patio.  I love the sound of a swiftly flowing stream of fresh, cool water, kicking up a spray that catches the sunlight.  A brisk walk with the dogs (dogs are another sign that God loves us). 

Maybe this Easter, we could think of our lives as a garden, and ourselves as junior gardeners – God’s apprentices, so to speak.  How can we bring beauty into our own lives, and into the lives of those around us?  How can we better tend our earthly home – from picking up litter, to reducing our energy use?  What garden tools might we need?  Well, a rake to clean out what is old and dead.  A shovel to dig holes to plant God’s new tree of life.  And most of all, we need the fellowship of other gardeners, to encourage and teach one another – I have a lot to learn!  We can think of the church as a garden club – where all are welcome to join in celebrating and tending God’s creation. 

I am quite sure that a clean, green earth is God’s vision, God’s preferred future for our world.  God has immense power to bring new life out of death, but humanity must cooperate; we must partner with God in tending the Garden we have been given.  We may not live in Eden, but that doesn’t mean our earthly home cannot be beautiful, fragrant, and supportive of all kinds of life. 

This Easter, God is bringing new life, both to us as individuals, and to the whole earth.  And God wants us as partners – to be God’s junior gardeners to help till, plant, nourish, and enjoy the fruits of the earth – fresh water, wonderful foods, beautiful flowers and foliage. This is both a gift, and a challenge to us.  Together, we can work with God for the salvation, the rebirth of the earth. 

God is great, and God is green. Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed!   


 

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Lent 3: 03/19/2017

Posted 4:15 PM by
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

Posted 1:03 PM by
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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