Sunday, October 27, 2019

October 27, 2019 - Proper 25C

In the name of God ☩ Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

“Trust in God and don’t be a jerk.” Isn’t that what the parable that Jesus tells about the Pharisee and tax collector says? While trusting in God and being nice to other people are both good life lessons, if that’s all we take away from this parable then Jesus is little more than a Middle-Eastern version of Aesop. Jesus’ teachings were radical and led to those around him wanting to kill him; and a fable with the moral of the story being “trust in God and be nice” isn’t radical and certainly isn’t a capital offense. The parables though are subversive and surprising stories about how God’s ways our not our ways, and the reversal of the tax collector being justified is such a surprising twist that we know this is more than a simple story about humility.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

October 20, 2019 - Feast of St. Luke and Proper 24C

In the name of God Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.
            On this blessed morning, we have before us one of those short stories by Jesus that we call parables. What makes the parables so compelling and powerful is that they are stories that begin on earth and take us into the Kingdom of Heaven. As such, a parable is not something that we take, analyze, and then learn a lesson from; instead, a parable is a gift that we receive and enter into. We don’t study a parable to transform its meaning for our modern lives, rather a parable transforms us. This morning I want to quickly give you the fairly standard reading of the parable and then get to two examples of how the parable has continued to be true throughout history.
            The parable of the persistent widow, or the unjust judge, both titles work, is a parable using the literary device called “how much more.” Many times in Luke’s writing, he uses this tool to show how even a flawed person can do good things, reminding us that the good God will always do good for us. A good judge is one who compassionately and fairly applies the law. Luke’s judge is not that sort of judge; he doesn’t fear God and he doesn’t respect any person. So when this widow, someone without many legal rights, comes to him to plead her case, he really couldn’t care less about her. So this judge dismisses her and tells her to “get lost.”
            Now, in this parable, we don’t know what the widow’s case is about. She might be in the right or she might be in the wrong. But that’s not what matters. She is persistent and scrappy and decides that she’s going to get justice by annoying this judge until he hears her case. Well, it works. This unjust judge might not fear God or respect people, but he doesn’t like being bothered, so he makes the problem go away by listening to this widow. And if this unjust judge is willing to grant justice because he doesn’t want to be bothered, then how much more will our very good and very just and very loving God grant us justice? It’s a parable of grace because God doesn’t make us argue our faith or prove our worth. It doesn’t matter if we are good people or bad people, and the reality is that we are all both. But we are found righteous not because of the merits of our case, but because of the mercy of God who forgives us and grants us justice in Jesus Christ.
            This isn’t a parable about providing a formula for prayer. The point of the parable is not “If you annoy God with incessant prayers, like this judge, God will eventually get tired of hearing from you and give you what you ask for.” Parables aren’t about us, they always point us to the grace of God. So it would be a very incomplete reading of this parable to come away and think that the point is that we just need to be persistent in prayer. Instead, the parable points to the fact that we can trust in God to grant justice; and, indeed, this is exactly what God does on the Cross. Our sins are not forgiven because we are persistently faithful, but rather because God is persistently and relentlessly loving. This parable wants us to put our faith, trust, obedience, and hope in the God who persistently grants justice. And because we know that God is always with us and for us, we then have a firm foundation to stand upon when we demand justice in our own day.
            There are two stories about this sort of persistence rooted in faith in a persistent God that I want to consider as we celebrate our patron saint, Luke, and this parish that bears his name. The first is related to this afternoon’s debut of our Becoming Beloved Community video and panel discussion. Black faith is something that is certainly about persistence rooted in the persistence of God. About a month ago I realized that I, unintentionally, had a rather narrow focus when it came to what, or rather, who, I was reading. So far this year, I’ve read 54 books and when I went through my list to see how many of the authors were white males, it found that only seven were written by women and four were written by non-whites. If it’s true that you are what you eat, then it’s also probably true that you think what you read. The next several books that I will be reading will be authored by black theologians.
I’d commend such an audit to all of you. Think about what you are engaging with. Who is writing the books you read? Who is making the music that you listen to? Who is producing and acting in the shows and movies that you watch? Who are the politicians that you find yourself supporting? If the people that you read, listen to, and follow are all people that look exactly like us, then I’d suggest that we need to widen our vision. Scripture tells us that humanity is created in the image of God, but if we’re only looking at one corner of that image, then we’re missing out on a lot. And I’m not saying that white men should be ignored, that would essentially end my career, but I am saying that I have found great richness in paying attention to a greater diversity of voices.
One of those voices has been an Episcopal priest and scholar, Kelly Brown Douglas. She splits her time between being the Dean for Episcopal Studies at Union Seminary in New York and being the Canon Theologian at the National Cathedral in Washington. In a book called Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, she writes about the black faith, the way that black people experienced Christianity. She says that black faith is rooted in the understanding that God is the God of freedom. By that, she means that God is ultimately free and can do whatever God chooses to do, and that God is most fully expressed in the acts of liberation and freedom.
This faith insists that God works for justice, the very same trust that the parable points us towards. With this trust in God’s justice, black faith is grounded in the hope that God’s got the whole world in his hands. So even when we are surrounded by pain and brokenness, there is an abiding trust in God to make all things right. And because of this, black faith is about resistance to anything that denies freedom. Since God is about freedom, freedom is our calling and our cause.
In the parable, the judge says “I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out.” That’s really not the most accurate translation – the term the judge uses comes from the sport of boxing, so a more linguistically faithful translation would be “I will grant her justice, so that she doesn’t keep giving me a black eye.” This is what black faith is about. With hope and trust in God to grant justice and freedom as the foundation, black faith then expects, demands, and works for justice in this world. Because to demand justice is to worship the God of justice. With this understanding of black faith as articulated by Brown Douglas, I have come to more deeply understand the persistence demonstrated by people who have suffered so much discrimination. The Beloved Community video and panel discussion this afternoon is an expression of this hope and trust in God to make all things right and gives us all an example of what a persistent faith in a persistent God is all about.
Another place where the truth of this parable can be seen in our own history as a parish. St. Luke’s was established in 1753 by an act of British Parliament, but it wasn’t until 75 years later, in 1828, that our first, and current, church building was constructed. This very church in which we are sitting is a testament to a persistent faith in a persistent God. When St. Luke’s was established, it was really more about establishing colonial boundaries than it was about setting up a congregation. And when you read the letters from the second half the 1700s, you read about the struggles of establishing a congregation in Salisbury, the western frontier at the time. And the reason why we have this great legacy of faith at St. Luke’s is because of a group of scrappy women who remind me of the widow from the parable.
When the first Bishop of North Carolina, John Ravenscroft, came to Salisbury on September 7, 1823, he Confirmed thirteen people, all women, who in the face of adversity and struggles for funding, nevertheless persisted and got this church built. They reestablished the heart of St. Luke’s as a worshipping congregation, and because of their persistent faith in a persistent God, we are here today.
My brothers and sisters, as we celebrate this parish today for the Feast of St. Luke, we do so with a reminder in Jesus’ parable that God is fiercely persistent and reliable when it comes to granting justice. And this trust in God has been seen throughout history in the form of a persistent faith in a persistent God. Because of the history of St. Philip’s congregation in Salisbury, we are blessed to have a more diverse congregation than we typically would have. When St. Philip’s, a historically African-American Episcopal congregation, was closed in 1970 and absorbed into St. Luke’s, those members brought with them a faith that is rooted in God’s desire for freedom, and we have all benefited from having that aspect of the faith lifted up in our community. We see this persistent hope in the 75-year struggle through obstacles to establish this parish not only as a geographic boundary, but as a beacon of abundant grace, intentional worship, and beloved community in Salisbury.
And so now, it’s our turn. We are the St. Luke’s of 2019. As Jesus’ parable shows us, we are grounded in the grace of God who persistently loves us. We have the examples of black faith and faithful women in our history to inspire us in this faith. We have a patron saint, Luke the physician, who knew something about the power of God to heal wounds and bring reconciliation even in the midst of illness and disease. This is our legacy – a persistent faith in a persistent God.
We are blessed with the opportunity to participate in this legacy. And we can do this by taking part in these conversations about race and the Beloved Community, by giving generously in our stewardship drive to make sure that St. Luke’s persists and thrives as a parish, by finding our peace not in making a strong case for ourselves but in trusting that God has already declared us to be righteous. The question that our patron saint asked 2,000 years ago as he recorded the Gospel is still one for us to wrestle with today: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Sunday, October 6, 2019

October 6, 2019 - Proper 22C

Grace, mercy, and peace to you in the name of the Triune God Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
            St. Luke’s is truly an amazing place. I’ve been in a lot of churches, as I’m sure you have, and St. Luke’s is right up there in terms of architectural beauty: the wood, the organ, the stained glass are all stunningly beautiful. Our Prayer Book tradition gives us intentional worship that roots us both in the historic faith and opens us to the movements of the Holy Spirit in our modern world. As the spiritual writer Henry Nouwen notes, a church’s greatest asset is always community, and we are blessed to have an amazing community full of wonderful people. Truly, it is an honor and privilege to serve a congregation that is so healthy, dedicated, vibrant, and full of great people. St. Luke’s is also home to vibrant ministries – we have strong programs for children and youth, an outstanding music program, we offer Morning and Evening Prayer throughout the week, we have a group for seniors and for young families. We are active in Meals on Wheels, at Rowan Helping Ministries, and we are leading Salisbury in conversations about the racial divide in this city through our work around Becoming the Beloved Community. Indeed, St. Luke’s is a place to come and see the difference that Christ makes.
            And to top it all off – we’re growing. I was recently talking with some people who attend other churches in our community and they were lamenting that their attendance is slipping. But that’s not the case here, as we focus on abundant grace, beloved community, and intentional worship, people are noticing. We’re adding new members. Current members are attending more frequently. And we’re growing not only in number, but also in spiritual depth. Every day, I pray for the growth of this parish, not at all for selfish reasons, but because the Holy Spirit is moving through this congregation and I want more and more people to come and see and experience the life-changing and world-transforming love of God.
            Indeed, we have received such a gift. The most important gift is, as St. Paul puts it in 2 Timothy, that “God saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” We have been lovingly created, redeemed, and invited to participate in this grace of God. This faith has come to us on down the line through faithful generations past and we are stewards of this faith.
            As St. Paul writes to Timothy, he mentions that the faith first lived in Timothy’s grandmother, Lois, and mother, Eunice. One of the things that I love about historic churches, such as ours, are the plaques that are everywhere. Those names remind us that it was the faithful work of previous generations that brought us to this moment. It reminds us that faith is always received. Someone had to teach us the faith. Often, it is a mother or grandmother, but sometimes it’s a father or an aunt, a campus minister or a priest, a coworker or an author. Who is your Lois or Eunice? Who taught you the faith? Say a prayer of thanksgiving for that person.
             And while we have received a great legacy of faith from these brothers and sisters in Christ who lived in ages past, this legacy is also one that we will join. There will be a day when St. Luke’s is filled with people that none of us have never seen, who are yet to be born. And so while we look back into history with gratitude for what has been received from God through those faithful generations past, we also look to the future that the Holy Spirit is leading the Church into. We are stewards not only of the past, but also of the future. These blessings that we have received are not to be used up, but rather passed along.
            As St. Paul counsels Timothy, he tells him “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” When it comes to stewardship, that is really good advice. When it comes to money, most of us are afraid. Do I have enough? Will I have enough to retire when I want to? Once I’ve retired, will I have enough to travel, enough to last my whole life, enough to pass down to my family? Will I ever have enough to pay off these student loans or credit card debt? Will I have enough to go to college? And if I give any of my money away, will that really put me in danger of not having enough?
            When it comes to money, there is no such thing as “enough.” We all know that expenses always rise to meet income. And so our relationship to money is often one of fear. As St. Paul put in another of his letters, “For freedom Christ has set us free!” We think that we are in control of our money, that’s why we invest it, we manage it, we budget it. But more often than not, our money is actually in control of us because our relationship to money is one of fear and scarcity. Christ did not die for us to be slaves to anything, money included. If you want to know whether or not you control your money or your money controls you, give it away. And not just a little bit. When that offering plate goes by, it’s not like the tip jar at a coffee bar. It’s not for putting in a token amount. It’s for putting enough in to make it clear that you don’t need that money and that money isn’t going to control you. Now that takes practice and it takes prayer, but generosity is a spiritual discipline, and the more we practice it, the more our relationship with money will be transformed from one of fear to one of gratitude.
            Since it isn’t a spirit of cowardice that we have been given, St. Paul says that it’s one of power, love, and self-disciple – all things to bear in mind as we’re talking about stewardship and are preparing to make our financial pledges for 2020. Power is about potentiality. In physics, power is about the ability to act or influence movement. This is what stewardship does – by giving generously and significantly, we can enable the further growth of this parish. I can only imagine what amazing things God is going to continue doing through this parish and I pray that when given those opportunities that we will be able to respond.
            Next in the list is the spirit of love. Love, at its core, is always oriented towards the other. Love is never selfish, it is self-giving. When you make a pledge to the church, it’s an act of love because, just like God’s action towards us in Christ, it is about giving. And while all contributions are valued, pledges really are encouraged. First and foremost, a pledge is helpful in the spiritual disciple of generosity because it’s about planning and intentionality. Pledges also help us to plan for growth. If the Spirit moves you to increase your giving over last year but we don’t know about that increase, we can’t plan to grow with it. A pledge isn’t a contract, you can always change how much you plan to give based on what happens in life. There’s absolutely no shame in that. If you’ve never filled out a pledge card, please, prayerfully consider doing it this year so that we can be faithful stewards of your giving.
            And then in St. Paul’s list, he says that we are given a spirit of self-discipline. When it comes to stewardship, it really does take self-discipline. Part of the reason why I tend to be so passionate about stewardship is because it’s not fundraising, it’s a part of the salvation of God. I’ve talked to some clergy who really don’t like preaching about stewardship because they feel like they’re begging for their salary. Let’s put that to rest – this isn’t about my paycheck, and to be honest, it isn’t even really about the church’s budget, as important as that is to the mission of this congregation. At its core, stewardship is about your salvation. As I’ve already said, when you give money away, you are liberated from the control it has over you. But the self-discipline that is required to give away 10%, or even 5%, of your income guides our priorities. It reminds us that materialism is not the be-all end-all. It reminds us that we find love, fulfillment, joy, and purpose not in things, but in relationships. When we invest in relationships through pledging, we are not only supporting this church, but we are also being transformed to live a more holy life.
            As this section of the letter draws to a close, St. Paul exhorts us to “Guard the good treasure entrusted to you.” The theme for our stewardship campaign this fall is a familiar line: The Gifts of God for the People of God. We hear that each week as we gather as a beloved community for intentional worship to receive abundant grace. When we hear that, we usually think about the bread and wine of the Eucharist, of the Body of Christ of which we are made members and the Blood of Christ which shows God’s redeeming love for us. Those are good things to think about. But the gifts of God are numerous and unlimited. God’s gifts include the mission of this church, the community that gathers here each week, and the ways that we are growing as a parish. And these gifts are intended not only for us, but for all the people of God. We receive these gifts in order to share them. We receive and give, and we give and receive. This is the holy rhythm of generosity.
            Each of you is a gift of God. The life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus is a gift of God. The Holy Spirit that dwells within us and blows through this church is a gift of God. The legacy of St. Luke’s is a gift of God. And these gifts are for the people of God. As stewards of these gifts, we give thanks for what has brought us to this moment and we respond in power, love, and self-discipline to share these gifts with generations yet to come. The gift of a growing church has been given to us, I pray that the Holy Spirit will make us faithful stewards of this gift for all people. As you consider your pledge for 2020, bear in mind St. Paul’s words not as a command to donate money, but rather as the invitation that they are to enter into the grace, mercy, and peace of Christ Jesus: Guard the good treasure entrusted to you.