Wednesday, July 20, 2016


As I shake my head sorrowfully at so much I see in the news this week and saw in the news last week and the week before that, my memory turns to this sermon from last year about Jesus' way in this wounded world.

For the past few weeks we have been reading
         about what a fine fellow King David was.
Actually, he had a pretty rough rise to power
         and was something of a motorcycle gang outlaw
         before opportunistically laying claim to the throne.
But a lot of 2nd Samuel and all of Chronicles appear
         to have been written by the royal press secretary.
A couple of weeks ago we read how David gathered thousands of his people
         and fed them all a decent meal.
King David was an impressive benefactor to his docile servants.
Still, we have today’s lesson
         in which we see how that power has corrupted the good King.
It isn’t just the adultery. It’s the murder of Uriah.

Israel’s first king, Saul was crazy as a coot. David was a murderer.
Solomon was an oppressive tyrant who taxed half his people into ruin
         and forced the rest into involuntary military service
         so he could greedily expand his empire.
After that the kings got really bad.

Flash forward a few centuries to our Gospel lesson.
Jesus had been teaching about a new kind of Kingdom,
         the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom built on love
instead of dominating power, a Kingdom of peace, justice, and mercy.
So the people got the notion he was campaigning for office.
Then Jesus gathered thousands of them as David had done
         and he fed them as David had fed them.

The crowd reasoned, if it walks like a king and quacks like a king,
         it must be a king.
So they planned an insurrection to make put Jesus
on his granddaddy David’s throne.  
But that isn’t the kind of kingdom Jesus had in mind.

In a few months, Jesus would be waiting in a garden
         for people coming to take him the cross.
That time he stood his ground.
But this time, when they were coming to take him to a throne,
         Jesus high tailed it.

Yes, the Romans were a gang of thugs
         but having them overthrown by another gang of thugs
                  wouldn’t change anything.
They’d done that before when Jewish rebels threw out the Greeks,
then turned out to be oppressors themselves.
The road to peace is not war.
The kind of power Jesus wanted and already had
         was not the dominating power you exercise from a throne.

So when Jesus heard they were going to make him king,
         he skedaddled.
I suspect he did it somewhat because he didn’t want the job;
         but mostly he did it for us.
He knew we didn’t need that kind of a king.
We needed a savior who moved the world with love.
We are apt to underestimate love.
We think love is soft and won’t really do much.

But Francis Spufford, author of Unapologetic, says:
         “The universe is sustained by a continual and infinitely patient
                  act of love.”
Dante wrote about the
         “love that moves the sun and all the lesser stars.”
Lady Julian of Norwich had a vision of a hazelnut
         and asked God what that little nut was.
God answered, “That is the entire universe.”
Lady Julian said, “How can it exist? It is so small.
         What keeps it from falling into nothingness?”
God answered, “It exists because I love it.”

There are so many things in the world we cannot compel
         with guns, tanks, and armed drones.
We cannot create life with the means of death.
Only love can do that.
So Jesus, who taught us about this different kind of kingdom,
         the Kingdom of God, would not wield the worldly power
         of domination – only the heavenly power of relationship.

Our Epistle lesson tells us what that means for us.
Paul says,
         “I pray that God may strengthen you in your inner being
         with power . . . and that Christ may dwell in our hearts
         as you are being rooted and grounded in love.”//

I hardly know where to begin saying why I love this text so much.
First, it is about strengthening us.
Our religion isn’t about being nice and namby pamby.
It’s about being strong – not a brittle surface strength –
         but deep strength.
“That God may strengthen your inner being with power.”

And it’s about our being filled with power.
 Now look where that power comes from.
“That Christ may dwell in your hearts.”
Our religion is about a Christ who isn’t just up in heaven
         helping us out when we are in a fix.
This is a Christ who rejected the worldly throne
         because he wanted to live in us instead.

Linda and I used to live with a Christian community
         of musicians named The Fisherfolk.
They sang a very simple little song with these verses:
         “The Lord desires a throne not of gold nor of silver.
          The Lord desires a throne in you.”

This Christ who lives in us is the one who calmed
         the raging sea.
He healed the sick, the lame, and the bind.
He looked Pilate in the eye blinking.
He broke open the gates of hell.
And he conquered death itself on Easter morning.
That’s power.
And he lives in us.
That power is in us.
God puts it there.

But what kind of power does God give us?
It is the power of love.
It is the power that grows inside us, Paul says,
         “as we are being rooted and grounded in love.”
Our power is none other than the power
         that sustains the universe “by a continual and infinitely patient
                  act of love.”
It is the same power of love that in Dante’s words,
         “moves the sun and all the lesser stars.”
It is the power of love that God told Lady Julian
         holds the fragile cosmos in being.
It’s big power. Really big.
But it is not the life crushing power of violence and dominance.
It is the life giving power of caring.

The other words I love in our lesson are
         “rooted and grounded.”
This love is not an airy-fairy thing.
It isn’t a passing feeling, a mood, or an emotion.
It’s deep and solid as the earth, only more so.

An Episcopal priest named Becca Stevens
         has founded 22 Magdalene Houses
         to shelter, educate, and heal
         drug addicted street prostitutes.
Becca took one such woman in recovery, Doris,
         to the ocean in Florida.
As a Nashville streetwalker,
she’s never seen the ocean and was just amazed by it.
Standing in the water as the tide was rising,
         she threw her hands up to the sky and said,
         “Has this been happening my whole life?”

Becca said, “Yes, Doris, as long as the moon has been
         going around the earth, these tides had been moving.
         But long, long, forever long before that,
         a greater power was moving – the power of God’s love.”

And that’s the power in which we are rooted and grounded.
When we confirm a new church member,
         we don’t pay, “Oh God make this person nice.
         Oh God teach this person the rules and scare her into obeying.”
We pray “Strengthen O Lord your servant with your Holy Spirit.
         Empower her for your service,
         And sustain her all the days of her life.”

We embrace this faith, we receive these sacraments,
         We study God’s word to be “rooted and grounded in love”
-- “O the deep, deep love of Jesus,” another hymn says.
and that’s the love God instills in us.
That love will get us thorugh the hard times of life – Praise God –
         Because we all need that.
But it’s not just for getting us by.
It’s for becoming a force that will change this broken,

         fallen, suffering world into the Kingdom of God.

Sunday, July 17, 2016


Our lessons are about hospitality
            – Abraham and Sarah entertaining God in the guise of 3 men
                        in their tent under the oaks of Mamre
            – Mary and Martha entertaining Jesus at their home in Bethany.

Hospitality wasn’t something we talked about
            in the Baptist Church of my childhood.
Hospitality was associated with Southern Living Magazine,
                        not the Bible.
It was something they taught in home economics.
So as a chauvinistic young Texan, I didn’t respect it.

I still remember the first Episcopal sermon I ever heard
            on hospitality.
It was about the mustard seed that grew into a tree,
            extending its branches to welcome the birds.
I thought the priest was reducing the gospel to something trivial.

But it wasn’t trivial to him. He was Japanese,
            and the Japanese make an art of hospitality.
It is a spirituality expressed in the tea ceremony ritual.
In Japan, hospitality isn’t just a nice thing social custom.
It’s a spiritual thing,
Later I learned that hospitality was the core
            of Benedictine spiritual practice.
Benedictine monasteries were open to anyone.
The monks’ job was to welcome and serve
            those who came their way.
They housed and cared for travelers, the sick, and the dying.
Hostels, hospitals, and hospices are all centers of hospitality
            born of the Benedictine tradition.
For them too, it was a spiritual thing.

Finally, I learned that hospitality was the highest moral duty
            in Ancient Civilizations like the Greeks
                        in Homer’s time and before.
It was the highest moral duty of desert dwellers in the Middle East
            during the days of Abraham and Jesus.
Hospitality was the path to wholeness and holiness.
So it is important to get it right, both in church and at home.
So let’s see if our two stories can help us
get this hospitality thing right.

Abraham was sitting at the entrance to his tent
            when he saw three strangers,
            and immediately asked for the privilege of being their host.
He was not just willing – he was eager
            – to serve the stranger at his gate.
So Abraham and Sarah bustled about baking cakes,
            butchering beef, pouring milk, setting the table.
It was a busy, scurrying kind of welcome.

There is something good in that.
It is active caring, practical caring, comfort-giving work.
But it can go wrong.

Maybe Martha had read Genesis
            because she welcomed Jesus the same way.
She was scurrying about too, fretting over getting it all right.
She was so intent on her practice of hospitality
            that she wasn’t paying any attention to her guest.
She was, the Bible says, “distracted by many things.”
Blessed Martha is the patron saint of multi-tasking.

But do you see the problem?
How would you feel if your arrival set your host in a dither?
A dither says “you are a nuisance, a burden.”
 Now Mary practiced a different kind of hospitality.
The Bible says, “She sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to him.”//

Martha, was in a state, all frustrated and ruffled.
She saw Mary just taking it all in and it made her angry
            – so angry that she blew up at someone.
But notice: she didn’t blow up at her lazy sister.
She blew up at Jesus. “Lord do you not care . . . .?” she demanded.
She was working so hard at being a host, she went from ignoring her guest
            to yelling at him.

We might see it as a problem yelling at the Savior.
But that isn’t the problem Luke wants us to see.
It’s that she’s yelling at her guest.
Hospitality can turn itself inside out.

Jesus said, “Settle down now Martha.
            You are worried and distracted by many things.
            But only one thing is needed.
            Mary has chosen the better part.”

You see Mary paid attention to Jesus.
She sat down and listened to him.
Abraham, after his initial scurrying around, got to that point too.
Once he served the meal, the Bible says,
            he stood beside them under the oak tree while they ate.

So what can we learn from these stories?
The heart of hospitality – the part that makes it feel real,
            the part that makes it a spiritual discipline,
            the path to wholeness and holiness –
the heart of hospitality is open, kind attention.
It is just being still, looking and listening.
It is acknowledging the other person is present and they matter.

Hospitality is dropping our agenda
            to simply see and hear another person.
It is seeing and hearing someone
            for their own sake, appreciating them as they are,
                        valuing them for being who they are.
Hospitality isn’t just for guests.
It’s a way of being in the world.
When we were raising our children,
            I was like Martha, always fretting,
            working too hard at it, parenting too intensely.
It made my kids wonder what was wrong with them
            that I was so anxious.
I regret that.

When I was a parish priest,
            I was like Martha, always fretting,
            working too hard at it,
            trying to make the church better, improve it
            – which was a sure fire way to tell the people
                        they weren’t quite good enough.
I regret that too.

I should have known better.
I used to go to an annual workshop in
            New York for mental health workers.
The workshop title was “the healing power of unconditional presence.”
The teacher, Dr. John Wellwood, believed that wounded people
            heal when other people just sit with them
            – just listen to them unconditionally, without an agenda
                        to change them, fix them, or improve them.
That’s hospitality. Just not messing with people.
Not advising them, teaching lay, laying our agendas on them.

It isn’t easy. It ‘s hard to set aside our judgments,
            our projects, our grid of good and bad.
It is hard to shift into neutral, so we can just be still and listen.
But that’s hospitality.

When it sinks in we find a spiritual treasure.
If we practice hospitality with other people,
            long enough, we begin to practice it with ourselves.
As all the different feelings ebb and flow in our hearts,
            as all the random thoughts scamper through our minds,
            we learn to welcome them in a calm, neutral way.
That is very hard. It isn’t what we usually do.
Usually, we latch onto some thoughts and feelings.
We hold onto them until they get a hold on us.
Other thoughts and feelings we try to banish, repress, exile
            because we don’t want to think that, don’t want to feel that.

But hospitality just sits with them like Mary sitting with Jesus,
            like Abraham standing under the oak tree beside his guests.
Hospitality isn’t afraid of our thoughts and feelings.
It doesn’t pat some on the head and slap others in the face.
When we become serene in the presence of our own inner dramas,
            we can become serene with other people.

Hospitality moves from the outside in, then out again.
We start with welcoming others,
            then it sinks into our hearts as deep serenity,
            then it comes back out as an even more authentic hospitality.

So, brothers and sisters, whether the stranger that come to us
            are strange people or strange passions,
            “Never neglect to show hospitality to strangers,

                        for by doing so, many have welcomed angels unawares.”