Saturday, November 14, 2015


The watchword in Nevada is Total Ministry.
But back in my days in Atlanta the watchword was Servant Leadership.
It’s closely related to Total Ministry.
Robert Greenleaf developed it for business
            and Bishop Bennet Simms of Atlanta adapted it for the Church.

Part of Total Ministry went down easy.
That part said we lead by serving.
That part is in the Bible. It’s true and it’s necessary.
The other part was harder to swallow.
But it is also in the Bible, also true and also necessary.
It’s the part that says we serve by leading.
I’ll show you how it works.

There was a drought in Zarephath.
A widow there was destitute, on the brink of starvation.
But God didn’t send her Meals on Wheels with a lasagna.
He sent Elijah.
Aside from being a foreigner with a strange religion,
            Elijah was poor and hungry himself.
For months he had been living off the leavings of ravens.

He had travelled a long way.
He was hot, tired, thirsty, and hungry
            when he arrived at the widow’s door.
He asked for water, which she gave him.

Then he asked for food but she said there was none to spare.
 All she had was enough for a small snack for herself and her son,
a small snack they would eat and then die of starvation.
Elijah might have said,
            “Oh I am so sorry. I didn’t know.
            I must have the wrong widow.
            I’ll go ask someone else.”
Instead, the prophet said, go ahead and fix me dinner.
You and the boy can eat later.

Pretty shocking.
The man of God came – not just begging but – demanding
            that the poor woman to give what she couldn’t spare.
It was so shocking that she opened her heart.
She took a leap of faith.
And by that act of trusting risk-taking generosity,
 she and her son were saved.

Flash forward 900 years.
The Samaritan woman had gone to the well for water.
She was an outcaste in the town of Sychar. So she went alone.

But there was Jesus waiting for her.
Again, a strange man from another country with a foreign name
            and a foreign God.
And what did Jesus do?
Jesus came to serve and not to be served, right?
But look what he does.
He didn’t draw the water for her.
He didn’t volunteer any wisdom or religious insight.
He didn't reassure her it was ok to be an outcast.
He asked her to give him a drink of water.
He started --  just as Elijah did  -- by asking her for something.

For a Samaritan woman to give water to a Jewish man
            was a ritual purity violation, a taboo.
It was against both their religions,
            but he asked her to do it anyway.
Jesus was evoking her generosity for the same reason.
            Elijah asked the Widow.
When we open our hearts to give, we discover that
it is only such and open giving heart that can receive.

That’s the truth behind the Prayer of St. Francis,
            “Grant that I may not seek to be consoled but to console,
             to be understood but to understand,
             to be loved but to love.
            For it is in giving that we truly receive,
            It is in pardoning that we ourselves are pardoned,
            It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”

Now the moral might be that ministers should go about
            understanding, pardoning, and forgiving
            out of their advanced spiritual state.
That might be the moral  -- but it isn’t.
The moral is you need to ask for stuff.

Not long ago, in an Episcopal Church,
there was a poor old woman just getting by.
But she always put a little money in the collection plate.
It made the priest feel guilty, so one Sunday as she was leaving, he said,
            “Lettie the Church is doing fine
             and I know you are struggling, so you really don’t need
                        to put anything in the plate.”
The old woman drew up to her full height,
looked hard at the young priest and said,
            “How dare you try to take away my right to give to God!
             How dare you!”

Now if you think I’m talking about money, I am.
But not just money.
I am talking about the basic fundamental nature of ministry.
It isn’t giving people what they seem to need.
It’s drawing out of them what they need to give.
Ministry is holding up a vision of the Kingdom and saying
            “How about it folks? Want to do something beautiful for God?”
The Church isn’t a service station refilling
people’s spiritual gas tanks with pious thoughts.
The church is a mission to change the fallen world into the Kingdom of God.

When I say the Kingdom of God
I mean what Jesus described in the parables
where everything was so radically different from our experience. 
I mean the new world described in the book of Revelation Ch. 21
            “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain
            for the old order has passed away.”
We have a mission to take down the old order
and open the door to that peaceable kingdom.

I have clergy friends who rebel against that,
            call it works righteousness, says it doesn’t leave room for grace.
But bless their heats, they are dead wrong.
Jesus was obsessed with inaugurating the Kingdom of God.

But here’s the thing we have to remember about
defeating the ways of the world with the Kingdom.
We can’t do it without God.
And God won’t do it without us.
God’s gift is the opportunity to be part of this mission.
It’s the only way our lives ultimately make a difference. 

So clergy new and old,
            if you really want to help somebody become whole,
            to help them make their lives amount to something,
            invite them into the mission.
Value God’s Kingdom in your heart
            enough to want more of it than you can do alone,
            so you have to ask for help.

I’ve seen priests who set the table for themselves,  
            keep the elements on the credence table
so nobody has to bring them to the altar –
priests who read all the lessons, say the prayers of the people,
and administer both the bread and the wine --
priests who prepared the service leaflet,
            played the music, kept the books and mowed the lawn.
Their congregations were deeply grateful as they lay atrophying
            and dying because they had no mission.

Jesus said his food and drink was to do the Father’s will.
That's spirutal nourishment.
Those priests I was talking about 
            gobbled up all the spiritual nourishment
            while their congregations starved.

You’ve to to ask people for stuff.
Ask them for money.
Ask them for time.
Ask them to show up for a meeting.
Ask them to call their Senator to talk about justice.

Whatever will advance God’s kingdom on this broken bleeding Earth,
ask people to do it.
Invite them to the party.
Grab them by the shoulder pads and throw them onto the field.
Give them a chance to act like Christians.
Elijah did it that way. Jesus did it that way. Paul did it that way.

Fellow clergy, the old order has already passed away for us.
In the old order, if you want something done right
            you have to do it yourself.
But in our world, if you want something done right,
            get somebody else to do it.

Sunday, November 8, 2015


To get the point of a story sometimes you have to know
what was going on at the time it was written.
When the author wrote the Book of Ruth,
Judah had lost its power.
It was a colony of Persia
but there was an intense nationalist movement
                        to return to the old glory days.
Judah wanted to be an Empire again like in the days of King David.
David was the symbol of Jewish greatness
He was their George Washington, Abe Lincoln, and FDR
            all rolled into one.
That's why he is the main character in today's lesson
            even though he doen't show up till the very last word.

The other thing afoot was an immigration problem.
There had been an influx of immigrants
from their neighbor country, Moab.
A lot of Jewish men had married women from Moab.

The new Jewish leaders wanted Judah for Jews.
So they ordered those men to divorce their foreign wives
            and the government set out to deport them
along with their mixed-race children.

But there was a problem.
In the United States we have the 14th Amendment
            that makes people born here citizens.
Just as we have the Constitution,
            Judah had the Law of Moses.
Leviticus Chapter 19 verse 34:
            “You shall treat the alien in your land the same as a citizen;
            . . . You shall love the alien as yourself,
            for you were once aliens in Egypt.
            This is God talking.”

Deuteronomy 10 verse 19 says the same thing.
Exodus 23 verses 9 – 12 say it in more detail.
Plus multiple provisions to insure hospitality
            to aliens in specific ways.

But the government wanted to deport those little Moabite brats,
even if it meant disregarding the Law of Moses
-- just as some of our leaders today
want to get repeal the 14th Amendment;
as well as deport 11 million people from our midst.
Judah’s political context when the Book of Ruth
            hit the presses was remarkably like ours in 2015.

So let’s look at the story:
It begins with a famine in Judah.
When times were hard there, a Jewish woman,
            Naomi, and her family emigrated to Moab to find work and food.
Eventually Naomi’s husband died,
            but her sons supported her.

Both sons married Moabite women.
Then eventually both sons died.
So Naomi, with no means of support,
            went home basically to die herself.
She told her daughters in law to go find Moabite husbands
and she packed up to go back to Judah.
But her Moabite daughter in law Ruth wouldn’t have it.
She said to Naomi, “Entreat me not to leave you.
            Whither thou goest, I will go.
            Whither thou dwellest, I will dwell.
            Thy people shall be my people;
                        and thy God, my God.”

So Ruth the Moabite went to Judah with Naomi
            and took the most menial job available,
            gathering the gleanings from the fields.
There she attracted the attention of the rich Jewish landowner, Boaz.
With a little coaxing from Naomi, Ruth seduced Boaz,
            and he married her.

If the story stopped here, it might just be the case
            of a desperate immigrant woman sleeping her way to the top.
But the Book of Ruth ends with a zinger in today’s lesson.
Boaz and Ruth gave birth to Obed, the father of Jesse,
            who was the father of . . . . . . David.
Stop. Hold on.

David the Super Jew, the Father of Judah, the sign, the symbol,
and the epitome of Jewish nationalism
            was himself one of those half-breed Moabite brats
            the current leaders wanted to deport.

Several centuries later, Matthew began his Gospel
with the genealogy of Jesus.
In order to show that Jesus was the prophesied messiah.
Matthew needed to prove Jesus was descended from David.
In fact, he traced Jesus’ heritage all the way back to Abraham.
It’s a patrilineal genealogy, meaning it goes down the line by fathers.
However, Matthew included 4 mothers in the list.
All four of the women had – shall we say -- colorful stories.
At least three, maybe all 4, of them were not Jewish.
All of them were outcasts.
But without them, there would have been no Jesus.

So what’s the point of the Book of Ruth for us?
We don’t want our preachers applying Biblical morality
 to political life.

So I am not going to say anything about 
how the government treats immigrants.
If the Bible makes a point about it, I can’t help that.
I just won’t say it myself lest people accuse me of talking about politics.

Instead I’ll draw two other points.
The first is about the Church.
Most Churches are really good at making new people feel at home
            so long as they are a lot like the people already there.
When folks don’t fit for any reason – age, color, social class, education,
            political persuasion – you name it – we may not be rude;
            but we have a cool way of letting them know they don’t fit.

Well, Ruth didn’t fit. Neither did Jesus’s great grandmothers,
            Rahab and Tamar both charged with prostitution,
            Bathsheba the Canaanite adulteress,
            or the illegal alien Ruth who seduced Boaz.
The Blessed Virgin Mary may not have enjoyed the best reputation
in Nazareth when she turned up pregnant out of wedlock.

Is it any wonder that Jesus always spoke up for the outsider,
            the excluded, the people who did not fit?
Those were his people.
That’s why his Church is here to be a place
            where people don’t have to fit in order to belong.

But that kind of hospitality doesn’t come naturally.
It’s a spiritual discipline.
And it starts with how we treat ourselves.

We are all pretty complicated.
There are parts of us we are proud of.
We show them off in public.
But there are other parts of ourselves
            we are ashamed of.
Maybe it’s an anger or a fear, a weakness or a need.
There are parts of ourselves that are not welcome,
            parts of ourselves that are like aliens
            and we want to deport them.

Psychologists will tell us that the passionate drive
to deport 11 million aliens
isn’t really about people from other countries.
It goes back to our desire to get rid of parts of ourselves.
From the standpoint of the Church,
            the immigration furor doesn’t just look like a political flap.
It looks like a symptom of a spiritual problem,
            the same spiritual problem that shrinks congregations
                        and keeps us painfully self-critical as individuals.

But there is healing for that spiritual problem.
At the very center of our being, we each have a soul
            and our soul looks a lot like Jesus.
It is, in fact, the inner Christ.
Our soul looks at all of those outcast parts of ourselves,j
            the parts that are burdened with judgments and guilt and shame.
And that soul says,
            “Come to me you who are weary and heavy laden,
            and I will give you rest. . . .
            As the Father loved me, so I have loved you.”

If we start with a spiritual discipline
            of accepting the unacceptable in ourselves,
            treating ourselves a little more hospitably,
            we will be better able to welcome into the Church
                        those folks who don’t fit,

                        those folks so dear to the heart of Jesus. 

Wednesday, November 4, 2015


Today’s Old Testament lesson is about faith.
Elijah was God’s man in Israel
            standing up against the King.
Fighting the powers that be can get you into trouble,
            so Elijah soon found himself a fugitive.

Then the Lord said to Elijah,
            “Go stay with a widow in the village of Zarapheth in Sidon.”
Nowadays, a widow is apt to have Social Security, Medicare,
            perhaps an annuity fund and a paid off house.
But that wasn’t the situation in 700 B.C.
Widows were flat broke.

To bring it up to our day, you’d have to imagine
            that the Lord told Elijah to go stay with
                        a homeless bag lady
            and she would take care of him.

To make things worse, she wasn’t even a Jew.
She was from Sidon, a neighboring country
            which was not a friend.
Not only was she a widow
            without a penny to her name,
            she was another race, another religion, another nationality.
She had no natural obligation to lift a finger for Elijah.

But Elijah did as the Lord told him.
He went to Sidon, found the widow, and begged for food.
She said, “I have only enough to prepare a single dish of food,
                        about one good tortilla.
            My son and I will eat it and then die.”
But Elijah said, “Feed me first.”
And you know what, she did.

That Elijah should hike all the way to Sidon
            to throw himself on the mercy of a foreign widow
                        he had never met is amazing.
What’s even more amazing is that she gave
            what she thought was her last meal
            and her little boy’s last meal, to this stranger.

Is it possible either one of them was that sure of the other?
I don’t think so.
But they were both willing to put their lives
            in God’s hands.
It was a good bet.
God saved them all.
God miraculously and unforeseeably provided for them.
That’s how they lived.

Something has been really clear to me the past few weeks.
It has been clear and on my heart in a good way.

Every breath I take is a gift of God.
I have no claim on this life of mine.
I have not earned it. I have no right to it.
If anything, I have failed to use my life
         to God’s glory so often,
         that it is only by God’s compassion and mercy,
                  that I have been given this new day.

I have no right to this life.
I have no guarantee of a future.
But, God’s generous heart keeps giving me
         sunrise after sunrise, sunset after sunset,
         and people to share it all with.

I have not a clue why God does this.
All I know is that God is like that.
God does this sort of thing.
God does it for me. God does it for you.
“I am the vine and you are the branches,” Jesus said.
Our life comes from him.
Without our connection to Jesus,      
         we wither inside.
We may keep putting one foot in front of another,
         but it isn’t real life.
The loving energy, the creative spark, isn’t there.

But when we put our trust -- not in our own power --
         but in his generosity and mercy,
                  then we are strong.
Then we can work wonders in the name of Jesus
         by the power of the Holy Spirit.
“I am the vine. You are the branches,” he says,
         Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.”

To abide in Jesus means to trust in his love,
         not our own cleverness, charm, and hard work,
                  to sustain us in life.
Do we have some money? It’s easily lost.
Are we strong? Someone else is stronger.
Are we smart? No one is smart enough.
The psalmist says, “Unless the Lord builds the house,    
         those who build it labor in vain.”
We cannot make ourselves safe.
It is not in our power.
But the steadfast love of the Lord abides forever.
“Though the mountains fall and the hills turn to dust” Isaiah says,
         “the love of the Lord endures.”

“Surely it is God who saves me.
I will trust in him and not be afraid.
         for that Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense
         and he will be my Savior.”

 This is a completely different way of being in the world.
It is free from fear,
         so it is free from greedy craving,
         free from gnawing jealousy,
         free from violent grasping.

When we trust God instead of our possessions
for our well being,
         we are free to be generous.
We are free with our time,
         free with our attention,
         free with our compassion and delight.

Faith is the fount of freedom.
Without faith, we are all prisoners of fear.
But with faith, we can fly.

“For freedom Christ has set us free,” Paul said.
All it takes to know the peace of God
         which passes all understanding
                  is to trust in him, and him alone, for our life.