Sunday, May 27, 2018


Grace Episcopal Church, Trinity Sunday, 27 May 2018

She Walks in Beauty, by Bette J. Kauffman

Picture this: Early morning light streams through the loblolly pines bordering a wide path inviting us into the forest. The tall, straight trunks of the trees channel and focus the light, such that the very rays of the sun become part of the landscape.

Ahead on the left, a small stand of long-leaf pines raises its white-candle growing tips to the sky. The long, graceful needles shimmer and glisten, touched by a light morning breeze.

Suddenly, a white-tailed deer pops up out of the thick brush on our left, and bounds across the path in front of us, all rimmed in early morning light.

Do you see it? Of course, you do!

My camera hung uselessly at my side, but at that moment, I raised it and made a picture anyway. I call it, “She Walks in Beauty,” and it is part of my Creation Considered project.

Today is Trinity Sunday. That means I have the completely impossible task of trying to made some kind of sense of our theology of the Trinity—God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three in one, one in three. And words fail me!

Of course, exactly what I have on these sheets of paper in front of me are some 1300 words! But if I had my druthers, this sermon today would be a walk in the Kisatchie National Forest. Or around the lake at Camp Hardtner. Or at Black Bayou National Wildlife Refuge.

I can’t explain the Triune God to you. But I can share some thoughts about the God-saturated universe in which we live and move and have our being. I can tell a couple stories about encountering God in and through creation, as well as every human being.

So… another story: Last week Fr. Michael and I got to spend some time at a clergy retreat at Camp Hardtner. When I arrived and greeted the Bishop, he said to me, “We’re going to have a deep encounter with the Holy.”
Little Blue Dragonlet (Erythrodiplax minuscula), by Bette J. Kauffman

And we did. Among the tools we used to do that were silence.., yes, silence. A bunch of priests and deacons got together and didn’t speak to each other for about 10 hours!

We read scripture and reflected upon it, both individually and as a group, using a method called lectio (“lexio”) divina—a relatively easy 4-step process for getting our own wishful thinking out of the way and letting God speak to us through the Holy Word.

We used prayer, contemplative prayer—a favorite of our Bishop—audible prayer, sung and chanted prayer—indeed, the prayer our Lord taught us to say.

I was the only one who did it with a camera—and I am completely serious in saying this: I go out into Creation to encounter God. That I do it with a camera makes it no less prayer.

In the few hours I had to walk around Camp Hardtner with my camera, I encountered 5 species of dragonfly—the enameled jewels of the insect world. I caught one fleeting glimpse of the thread-like body of a damselfly.. before it darted off. I fluttered around the pale lavender blooms of narrowleaf mountainmint with a pipevine swallowtail butterfly.

I buried my face in the citrusy sweetness of a magnolia blossom the size of a dinner plate. I smiled back at the sunshine faces of Coreopsis, with their energetic jazz-hand petals.

Passion Flower (Passiflora incarnata), by Bette J. Kauffman
Did you know that passion flower vine, with its 3-lobed leaves and its equally trinitarian arrangement of stamens above purple ray flowers, grows profusely along the top edge of the dike that forms the lake? The Latin name is Passiflora incarnata—referring literally to God who loves the world enough to come and dwell among us, to live and move and participate in our being through the life-giving breath of the indwelling Holy Spirit, as we participate in God through kinship with the Risen Christ.

Brothers and sisters, we live in a God-saturated universe. Humankind has struggled over the centuries to put into words and images our understanding and recognition of the God we simply cannot fully wrap our human minds and human powers of expression around. The scientist who named that plant did better than most!

Here are some less successful attempts. You have seen a zillion pictures. It stands at the end of the Mall in our nation’s capital. It is 555 feet of gleaming marble—itself a marvel of Creation. It is capped with a 4-sided pyramid, which is topped by a 9-inch aluminum tip.

Do you know what is inscribed on the top of the Washington Monument? On the eastern face of the pyramid at the top, projecting a message toward Jerusalem, the rising sun, interstellar space… are the words Laus Deo, which translate “Praise be to God.”

I find it totally endearing that our ancestors did that! But it’s poor theology. It was their deist tendencies coming through. The deist notion is that God is out there somewhere. The Creator ignited the big bang, but then sits back at a remote, safe distance and watches us hapless mortals duke it out here on Earth.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Of course, God is out there. But God is in here, too (indicating self). God is in the person sitting next to you. God is in this church, but God is just as present outside the door and down the street as well.

Wrong Way, by Bette J. Kauffman
Did you know we have our own, homely little example of Washington Monument theology right here in Louisiana? Next time you drive to Alexandria, pay attention to the blond brick church on the west side of the highway going through Pollock. Notice: On top of the steeple, a hand points skyward.

Amusing! Endearing! But bad theology. You want to point at God, point at yourself, point at each other, point at the homeless, mentally ill guy standing on a street corner saying, “I’m Jesus…” because he’s right! He is! Jesus told us that in plain language! 

God comes to us disguised as our life. That was said by author Paula D’Arcy. I remind myself of that often, especially when circumstances or tragedy or senseless violence or… whatever, tempt me to believe that God has run off and left us to struggle alone.

God does leave stuff up to us. Sometimes I hear people say, “Why does God allow that…  awful thing—poverty, sickness, loneliness, violence—why does God allow that to happen?

The answer is not very comforting. God doesn’t. We do. WE are in charge of that. The Triune God would never be happy with being loved by mindless creatures who have no reason, no heart, no soul, no ability to get things done, no agency and no autonomy to choose to do what is right.

We are wonderfully made in the image and likeness of God, which means we have all those things. And God expects us to use them. God calls us to be co-creators of God’s Kingdom here on Earth, and endows us—ongoingly—with the life force to do it!

And now I really need to run out of words. So I leave you with two things: 1) We really MUST take better care of this planet. It is the dwelling place of God. God put us in charge and we are doing a pretty abysmal job of it! I have dozens of suggestions, but here’s one easy one: Swear off plastic straws. They are the bane of the Earth. They end up in the gills of fish and the gullets of birds. They KILL. And we dump billions of them into the environment on a daily basis.

2) We must take better care of the human family. We are all bearers of God within us. And the ones the Bible tells us over and over again must be our top priority in caring for the human family are poor folks and immigrants, for by so doing, some… have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. That’s Hebrews 13:2.

Last word: if you ever want that “let’s go for a walk in Creation” sermon, it can be arranged. Probably not on a Sunday morning, but… I’m game. It can be arranged.

In the name of the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, AMEN.

The Panic Zone

Grace Episcopal Church, Monroe, Good Shepherd Sunday, 22 April 2018

Jesus said, I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.

Some evening in the past 12 months, I don’t remember exactly when, I participated in a meeting of Northern & Central Louisiana Interfaith at Bethel Church of God in Christ.

We began the meeting as we often do with an opportunity to spend 20 minutes in conversation with a person whom we did not know. Anticipating this process, I had chosen to sit next to a woman I did not know. When the time came, we turned to each other, made introductions and began to chat.

Interfaith uses these short, one-on-one encounters to initiate relationships among people. They are often guided by a question, something like “What brought you here tonight?” or maybe “What do you hope to gain from being here tonight?”

I don’t remember the specific question we used that night. I do remember that part of our agenda was to talk about United Way’s analysis of financial hardship in Louisiana. That study was published under the acronym ALICE, which stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed.

Whatever the specific question, it did not take long for my conversation partner to get to the point. I call it “the panic zone,” she said.

It’s that moment, she explained, when you realize that this week the paycheck is not going to reach, that for a wide variety of reasons—ranging from a car repair to the growing kid having outgrown his sneakers to some family member’s medication—whatever—once again, for some rather mundane reason, income will not cover basic expenses. The electric bill or the water bill or the rent is due, and there isn’t enough money to go around.

United Way’s analysis says that across Louisiana, 723,077 working households — 42 percent of the state’s total — are living from paycheck to paycheck, unable to save, must spend every penny they earn to pay basic costs of living and still fall short with regularity. These families are one major car repair or medical bill away from poverty, perhaps homelessness, very likely the clutches of the payday lenders.

Jesus said, I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also.

A sheepfold is a shelter, a refuge. It is a place where there’s food and water to go around. A place where everyone lies down together to rest, secure in the care of the shepherd, who vigilantly guards the entrance to the sheepfold.

It’s a place where the grotesque disparities of our world are unthinkable.

Today is Good Shepherd Sunday, and I wonder what thoughts, feelings and images each of us associates with the Good Shepherd.

I subscribe to an online series called “Soulwork Toward Sunday.” As the title suggests, each edition of the series (published along about Wednesday) begins with the lections for the upcoming Sunday and offers thoughts, meditations, quotes from related literature that invite the reader to reflect on and engage the lessons at a deeper, indeed, a soul-searching way.

A chief architect of Soulwork Toward Sunday is Episcopal priest Suzanne Guthrie, and she began her reflections for today by stating this:

Good Shepherd Sunday promises sentimental loveliness and nostalgia but instead delivers overwhelming challenges.

I venture to guess that the symbolism of the Good Shepherd is pretty comforting and heart-warming to most of us most of the time. We might not want to be anyone else’s sheep, but we don’t mind being Jesus’ sheep!

And that is because Jesus as Good Shepherd is about love. The Good Shepherd is not good due to moral rectitude; he is Good because he loves—enough to lay down his life for the sheep.f

And the sheep in the Good Shepherd’s fold are not there because somehow they have measured up or have managed to get through life thus far without making dumb decisions or wandering into blind canyons. They did not earn their way into this place of love and plenty and security.

But Jesus said, I have other sheep… I must bring them also…

Notice that even as we find ourselves resting in the comfort and warmth of God’s love, Jesus the Good Shepherd is focused on the ones still out in the cold, the sheep out there in the panic zone, the ones who live the risky lives of choosing between medicine and food, rent and electricity, payday lenders and homelessness.

Please be reminded that today I am talking about working families, not welfare families, working families. In some cases the wage-earners in these families work multiple jobs trying to make ends meet.

And they do necessary work. They are the nursing assistants who take care of our elderly in nursing homes. They work in restaurants. Their labor makes it possible for you and me to dine out at an affordable price, to buy fresh produce they cannot afford in the grocery store. Literally, the working poor subsidize our relatively comfortable middle class lifestyles.

Brothers and sisters, I believe that the plight of the working poor in U.S. America today is nothing short of a scandal of massive proportions. In comparison, the moral failings of people in high places—the kind of scandal that rocks Washington D.C. on a regular basis—is, in my view, much less significant.

Don’t get me wrong, I do believe that our elected leaders ought to be paragons of virtue.., but I don’t enjoy privileges as a result of them behaving badly in their personal lives. I do enjoy privileges at the expense of the working poor.

I thoroughly appreciate our Epistle reading today:

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us-- and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?
Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.

Great! Love that. Spoken like a true Deacon!

But I do not think charity is the answer to the plight of the working poor. I believe this can only be fixed with fundamental change, a fundamental overhaul of a system that is okay with producing vast disparities in quality of life, valuing some labor with salaries beyond what any person can possibly spend and valuing other labor not even enough to keep body and soul together, not even enough to feed a family and keep a roof over its head.

To me, those statistics generated by United Way, those 723,000+ families, they have faces and names—like Pat, the woman I met at Bethel Church of God in Christ, and her family.

I don’t have all the answers about how to overhaul the system, but I can tell you how NOT to do it. In the current legislative session, a bill to establish an extremely modest minimum wage in Louisiana died in committee. But just last week, a bill to fully fund TOPS, a program that is a huge boon to the middle class and up, passed in the House Appropriations Committee with flying colors—and by definition, given the state of Louisiana’s revenue stream, simultaneously threw the charity hospital system, higher education in general and families who care for elderly and disabled members under the bus.

That’s how to make it worse.

Here’s the bottom line: Jesus is THE Good Shepherd, capital G, capital S. But we who follow him, who bask in the warmth of his love and who shelter with him inside the sheepfold… we are the good shepherds, small g, small s. We must overcome our natural selfishness and focus—as he does—on those still out in the cold, still out there in the panic zone.

We have other sheep not yet in the fold. We must bring them also. That’s what following him means.

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

Feast to Serve

Grace Episcopal Church, Maundy Thursday, 2018

In the spring of 1995, I encountered a Nigerian writer through the newsletter of the Paul Robeson Cultural Center at Penn State University where I was teaching at the time. Her name is Buchi (“Butchie”) Emecheta.

She made a statement that I copied out of that newsletter, and have used many times since. She said this:

In Nigeria, you are simply not allowed to commit suicide in peace because everyone is responsible for the other person… An individual’s life belongs to the community and not just to him or her.

In contrast, individualism permeates U.S. American culture. We are all about individual rights and individual responsibilities, personal style and personal freedom, property and territory. 

We are suspicious of people who have too strong a sense of community. We really don’t think it takes a village to raise a child. We are quite certain that any nuclear family worth its salt really ought to be able to do it on its own.

We love stories of people who pull themselves up by the bootstraps, and succeed against the odds. We love the idea so much we have turned the noun, “bootstrap,” into the verb, “bootstrapping.” Google it and you will find a veritable invasion of bootstrapping verbs into various fields, ranging from computer programming to physics to corporate finance.

But we are called by God to community. Very soon, Fr. Michael will consecrate bread and wine, and we will share, once again, our communal feast of Christ’s body and blood.

On this holy Maundy Thursday night, we celebrate that event depicted so beautifully in the carving over Grace’s altar: Jesus calls Eucharistic community into being by blessing and sharing bread and wine with his disciples in his last meal with them on this Earth.

But what do we think it means?

Preparing for this homily, I googled the phrase “Eucharistic community.” How many websites would you guess contain the phrase, “Eucharistic community”?

Google is very good at counting things, including how long a search took. So I can report to you tonight that it took exactly .41 seconds for Google to locate 37,700 results for the phrase “Eucharistic community.”

But I ask again, what do we think it means?

I glanced through the first few pages of results, and some of them were mission statements of Christian churches. They said things like this example from a church in Wisconsin:

“We are a diverse and inclusive Spirit-based Eucharist community committed to the message of unconditional love given us by Jesus and to our call to imitate and reflect that love in our lives..,” and so on.

Sounds good, right? But if so many of us believe this, and come together so often to participate in this radical act of community… And that is what I think the Eucharist is: a radical act of community.

And if so, and if there are so many believers, how is it that our world continues to suffer so terribly from lack of community? Right here in northeast Louisiana we are divided by race and ethnicity; by profession and status; by railroad tracks, highways and a river; by politics, by age group, by fear and distrust; indeed, by righteousness itself.

I invite us to consider this evening that perhaps it is because we focus on half of the story. In preparing this sermon, I also googled “foot-washing community.” And what do you suppose I found?

It took Google exactly .26 seconds to find….. (drumroll please) 53 results. 

Jesus initiated two things on this holy evening: Holy Eucharist and love-drenched service to humankind. And please note, he does not make one more important than the other.

To the contrary, according to St. John… during supper… Jesus…got up from the table…and began to wash the disciples’ feet.

Fr. Michael, help me. We serve Holy Eucharist here at Grace how many times a week? Twice most Sundays and twice on Wednesdays—at least when school is in session… that’s four times most weeks.

But we wash each other’s feet once a year.

How did Holy Eucharist become a sacrament and not foot washing? I would be hard pressed to pin that difference to anything in the Gospel message.

Of course, actually washing each other’s feet on Maundy Thursday is symbolic of all of our service to each other and the world. Jesus himself said, I do this as an example of what you are to do.

But given our perhaps disproportionate emphasis on enacting Holy Eucharist vs. enacting foot washing, do we fully understand and embrace the depth of the interconnection between feasting at the Holy Table and love-drenched service to each other and the world?

Holy Eucharist Rite II Prayer C begins to get at the point. It’s at the top of page 372 in the prayer book, if you want to see for yourself. (BTW, a good reason for everyone to come to a Grace School chapel on a Wednesday at 8 a.m. every so often is that we use Prayer C.)

Reading in the middle of the first paragraph on p. 372: Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal.

We feast at the Table for strength and renewal to do the work as Christ’s body in the world.

But not even that fully expresses what happens in tonight’s Gospel story, so let’s go back there for a moment. It seems we can always count on Peter to model the hubris of humankind in a way that enables Jesus to teach us a profound lesson.

He says to Jesus, in what is really a kind of pride cloaked in humility: Lord.., you will never wash my feet.

And Jesus says to Peter: Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.

Please… and I know this has become a catch phrase on social media, but please… let that sink in for a moment.

Outside of love-drenched service, we have no share with Jesus.

I began this evening by quoting Buchi Emecheta on the radically communal nature of Nigerian culture. I want to go back to her now to say something about what we as a Eucharistic, foot-washing community face in our struggle to make community real in the world.

It is this: Emecheta understands the nature of the enemy. Nigerian society, like U.S. society, is divided into “haves” and “have-nots.” She herself is from the class of have-nots, and her books are about the yawning and seemingly insurmountable chasm between the haves and the have-nots. In her stories, poverty is the most divisive factor in society.

In short, Emecheta understands that poverty, in its many interconnections with race, culture, politics, even religion, is a wall, tall and thick, down the middle of the human community.

I suspect that much of the time some of us, and some of the time all of us, have a lot in common with the rich young man in that other Gospel story. We really want to negotiate with God about what the new commandment—love God and your neighbor as yourself—really means.

“Who’s my neighbor?” we ask. What do you mean, “love”? But I suspect the Nigerians have it about right: Everyone is responsible for everyone else. Our lives belong to God’s community.

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

Friday, March 2, 2018

Rock Star Parking

Wednesday of the Second Week of Lent, Church of the Redeemer, Ruston

My son Will and I have a friend who seems to be particularly blessed by the parking gods. Each time as she pulls into the parking space right in front of where she is going, she exclaims, “Ha, rock star parking!”

In today’s gospel lesson, the mother of James and John asks Jesus for rock star parking for her sons. In Mark’s account, mom is not involved. James and John, the Zebedee boys, also known as “sons of thunder,” ask on their own behalf. In both accounts, Jesus is reminded that he is going to come into his own at some point, and the Zebedee brothers want to be there, right by his side all the way.

At this point in his ministry, Jesus attracts crowds everywhere he goes. With the crowds come excitement and attention that spills over and is shared by those of the inner circle. It must have been exhilarating to follow Jesus in his travels as he preached and healed.

I have heard the story of the Zebedee brothers, their mother and their request interpreted as a bare-knuckle grab for power. The sons of thunder were into power, according to that interpretation, and they (or she) ask Jesus for a share of the power in the kind of earthly kingdom they think he is building.

Perhaps. Power grabs are certainly human ways of thinking and acting—yesterday, today and through the ages.

But power grabs imply planning based on some level of political knowledge and skill. In contrast, what I am most struck by today is the utter clueless-ness, not only of James, John and their mother, but of the other 10 as well.

Jesus has been trying to explain to them what is coming, what must transpire for him to come into his glory. ‘We’re going to Jerusalem where I am going to die!’ And the disciples so-o-o do not get it.

But with 2,000 years of hindsight and a written record to consult at will, we don’t get it much of the time. How then could the disciples have gotten it?

Perhaps that’s why I read the story today with sensitivity to the plight of the disciples, and with sympathy for their failings. Perhaps it’s why I’m inclined to think James and John are asking for something more akin to rock star parking.

(After all, wouldn’t “Jesus Christ Superstar and the Sons of Thunder” be a great name for a rock band?)

Or maybe James and John are just asking for the exquisite privilege of being close to this teacher they have come to love. They accept that Jesus will be glorified in some way. They know they want to be there to bask in the warmth and light of his glory.

So they ask for what seems obvious to their oh-so-human minds: Promise us that we will sit next to you forever. And don’t sweat the details, teacher. Of course we are able. We’re with you all the way.

What about the other 10? Well, can’t you just see this scenario playing out in our homes? Our churches? Our workplaces? What we hear in the voices of the ten is the classic human response of jealousy and fear of being left out when we think someone else has gotten the jump on us in getting a share of the goodies.

Jesus responds first, of course, by suggesting to James and John that they be careful what they ask for. Then he turns the incident into another lesson, not only for James and John, but for all.

The real deal, Jesus says, is just the opposite of what you think. In this world, the kings, the stars, the presidents and prime ministers, lord it over the very people who recognize their authority, perhaps elected them to office and look to them for leadership.

But among you, my disciples, the people of God, whoever wishes to be great must be servant, whoever wishes to be first must be slave of all.

What a topsy-turvy world the disciples must have thought they had landed in. I can almost see them looking at each other, shoulders shrugged and palms spread. What is he talking about?

In fact, I think we’re still wondering what Jesus was talking about. We’re still not terribly clear about what Jesus’ call to serve means, either to us personally or to the church.

We tend to think of our lives, consisting of careers, spouses, children, car payments, home mortgages, and so forth, as one thing, and Christian service as something we do on the side, something we are sort of obligated to as a response to these nice lives over here.

Or, in the case of the church, our corporate life consists of maintaining a beautiful space, offering a certain array of worship services weekly, generating enough funds to have a priest and maybe a secretary, and over here we do “outreach” with the left over funds.

In other words, service is that which we “tack on” to life. We donate a Saturday for which we have no other plans to participating in a Habitat for Humanity workday. Our church takes on serving a meal at a shelter. And good on us.  Those things need to be done.

But I don’t think service, defined as that which we do in our spare time or that which we support with our leftover dollars, is what Jesus has in mind. I think Jesus is saying that servanthood is a way of life. Or, better yet, that our lives are to be lived as a service to God. All aspects of our lives are to be imbued with an attitude of concern and caring for others.

We probably all have our favorite moments in the Book of Common Prayer. One of mine can be found in Holy Eucharist, Rite 1, the post-communion prayer (p. 339): And we humbly beseech thee, O heavenly Father, so to assist us with thy grace, that we may continue in that holy fellowship, and do all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in…

Let that sink in for a moment. We are to do the work.. God has prepared for us.. to walk in.

Servanthood is to be our way of life. You’ve heard the saying, “Don’t just talk the talk, walk the walk.” Servanthood as the walk we walk must come from the heart as well as the mind. It’s not just a matter of squeezing another meeting or day at the shelter onto the calendar. It’s a matter of who we are and how we do everything we do.

Servanthood as a way of life means that everything is our business. Yes, I know, we are well taught to mind our own business, to not stick our noses into other peoples’ business, and so forth. But if Jesus had not seen his very life as servanthood and the state of the entire world as his concern, how then could he have given his life as a ransom for all?

Understanding servanthood as a way of life means to experience joy and God’s grace in everyday acts of service, from feeding your own family to serving on the Altar Guild at church. But understanding servanthood as a way of life also means becoming aware—painfully aware—of the hopes and needs of the world. 

It means caring that a good many of the people we serve food to at the shelter are mentally ill and not receiving any medical treatment for it whatsoever.

It means making it our business that some 400,000 working Louisiana families earn so little that they are one major medical bill or car repair away from what one woman I met through Interfaith called the “panic zone”: That moment when you realize, due to one extra expense, the pay check isn’t going to reach this time. It’s a panic zone that drives people into the clutches of payday lenders, making matters worse–every time.

And I believe it also means taking our servanthood into the voting booth with us.

Bernice King, youngest daughter of Martin Luther & Coretta Scott King, said this:  

Louisiana in Winter, by Bette J. Kauffman

I invite each of us and our churches to a Lenten discipline of interrogating our own lives and activities—all of them: every task we undertake, every committee we form, every meeting we attend… How does this moment express our identity as servant of all? How is this thing we’re doing a way to walk the walk of servanthood?

In the name of God, Father, son, and Holy Spirit, AMEN.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Wednesday Happened

Grace Episcopal Church, Monroe, La.

I have a fantasy that one day I will write a perfectly “safe” sermon. By “safe sermon,” I mean one that ruffles no feathers, makes everybody feel good and happy, and perhaps most importantly, makes me popular. Even preachers want to be popular!

I thought for a time that today might be the day. Fr. Richard asked me to preach on this date, I said “sure,” and shortly thereafter checked the Gospel lesson, as is my custom. Right away, I thought, “Cool! I get to preach again about the baptism of Jesus.”

So my plan was to remind you that I had preached on our Lord’s baptism just a few weeks ago, then announce a pop quiz over that sermon… as an appropriate Lent One discipline, of course. After teasing you with that for a moment, I would relent and simply review that handy mnemonic of our baptismal covenant I included in that sermon.

You remember:
1.    Go to church.
2.    Be good.
3.    Tell others.
4.    Love everybody.
5.    Seek justice.

Then, after that review, and with our baptismal covenant in mind, I would turn to the question that came up at Theology on Tuesdays this month. For those of you who were not there: We had an interesting, wide-ranging discussion following up on Fr. Micheal’s annual meeting sermons about why we are here, what we come to Grace for, and what kind of healing force we want Grace to be in our community.

That discussion culminated in someone—I don’t remember who—but someone asked, “So what can we do?”

This deacon’s heart just about went into orbit.

So I was going to use today’s sermon to give you a list—a partial list to be sure, but a list nevertheless—of ministries… Well.., make that a list of ways God is already at work in this community that you could become a part of.

Habitat for Humanity would be high on the list. I am delighted that the director of Habitat is coming next Sunday to speak to you, and sorry I won’t be here to hear him.

I was going to tell you about a wonderful ministry that transforms the lives of girls and young women who struggle with unplanned pregnancy, addiction, eating disorders, sex trafficking…. You name it, they struggle with it. It’s called Mercy Multiplied and I will put some info about how you can check it out in Grace Notes for next Sunday.

I was going to talk about what I do in my not-so-spare time, the ministry that called me to the diaconate: the work of Northern & Central Louisiana Interfaith. But you and I can talk one-on-one or in small groups about that anytime.

So I had this fun, informative sermon planned for today.

Then Wednesday happened. You know, 17 dead teenagers. In a school. In Florida. Not that far from here. Not that far from the Pulse night club massacre. Not that far in time or space from blood in the streets of Las Vegas. Or Sandy Hook. Or Columbine, for that matter.

I still thought for a while I would write that other sermon. And then, along about Friday evening when I got serious about writing, I re-learned something I’ve actually known for some time: If I can’t write, I’m trying to write the wrong thing.

Try as I might, I could not write that sermon. Or, as we might say in Louisiana, that dog just would not hunt.

So now I am left with saying what is on my heart and my mind as I survey the carnage of gun-violence victims before us.. and behind us.. and all around us.

But before I do, I am compelled to declare—and this feels incredibly peculiar, but for some reason it seems important to say: I am a gun owner. I know how to use the guns I own. I have used every one of them.. to shoot targets, to shoot trap, and to hunt and kill game of various kinds. I intend to continue to own those guns.

So what I am about to say in no way conflicts with gun ownership and the safe, sensible use of guns for entertainment and hunting by mentally competent, upstanding citizens.

But my days of silence in the face of specious, politically driven arguments about how we can’t fix this problem because of our “rights” are over.

So do not tell me that “guns don’t kill people, people do,” because you know as well as I do that people with guns kill people—and more of them in a shorter period of time at a greater distance than virtually any other way. And if they have an assault rifle, make that quantumly more, faster, easier.

Don’t tell me how Timothy McVay did it with fertilizer… unless you want to be reminded that today, you can’t walk into a fertilizer store and purchase large quantities of that fertilizer without equal quantities of documentation–who you are and why you need it–because somehow, miraculously, we knew how to fix that.

Don’t tell me about shoe bombs on airplanes because today we all line up at the security check point and dutifully take off our shoes… because of one shoe bomb taken onto an airplane.. that turned out to be a dud.

Don’t talk to me about how we must interpret the 2nd Amendment in the broadest, most absolutist way possible. We don’t treat any other amendment to our constitution in that way. We cherish the 1st Amendment as well, but... when was the last time you saw a cigarette ad on television?

Don’t talk to me about how the first regulation is a slippery slope to taking away everyone’s guns. Nonsense! We have a long and proud history in this country of debate between pro-regulators and anti-regulators, and what comes out of it is a slightly meandering but mostly middle-of-the-road path that makes nobody completely happy but keeps us out of the trenches on both sides. We do it with driving. We do it with hunting. We do it with television and business practices and meat products in our grocery stores. We can do it with guns.

How about the argument that no law or regulation will keep guns out of the hands of criminals? That no matter what laws or regulations we enact, the wrong people will still get their hands on guns? Sure. That’s true. But that’s an argument for having no laws of any kind. Because no laws are perfect. No laws are perfect preventers of the crimes they address.

And what if, with reasonable, thoughtful laws and regulations, we cut the number of gun deaths… by half? Maybe by only a quarter? Maybe by ONE? Jesus said he would go to the ends of the earth for one of us! Is that not worth it?

Maybe before we answer, we ought to go face-to-face with the screaming mother of a dead teenager. Maybe we ought to look at our own children and grandchildren before we answer.

And, finally, don’t tell me the problem is mental illness. Every other country in the world has mental illness at about the same rate we do. No other country in the world tolerates the level of gun-wrought carnage that we do.

Some time in the last 48 hours, Bishop Jake published his words on this issue, and one thing he said spoke especially powerfully to me. He said, “My prayers are hollow, even false, if I do not act.”

I don’t know if you needed to hear this sermon today. I know I needed to preach it. Certainly, I know none of you contributes to or promotes gun violence. But as Fr. Michael preached two weeks ago, we’re either hurting or we’re healing. There’s no neutral ground on this issue.

We must demand change. Our legislators are too beholden to powerful, moneyed interests to do this on our own. We must demand it. And if we don’t, we are complicit. The blood of future victims will be on our hands.

Please pray with me: God forgive our past inaction. God help us find the courage to act, to hold ourselves and our leaders accountable. In your Holy Name…


Sunday, January 7, 2018

Ongoing Story

1st Sunday after the Epiphany, Grace Episcopal Church, Monroe, La.

Can it be just two weeks since we paused in wonder to gaze at a newborn in a manger? That we sang carols with the angels, knelt with the shepherds, and with Mary, pondered all these things in our hearts?

It always seems to me that time stands still.. and the universe holds its breath for just a moment.. that holy night.

And then, so soon—and especially this year, so soon!—come the words of John: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Wait. What? I am never quite ready for such grown up words, such an incomprehensible notion, such a mind-boggling truth. I really would rather just play with the baby for awhile!

But.. the Word became flesh and lived among us… and the consequences are real.

Then, in rapid succession comes 12th Night—the wisemen arrive with their gifts; yay, party time in Louisiana!—The Epiphany; Jesus is for ALL of us—oh, blessed night! And…

Boom! Here we stand, on the banks of a river.. out in the middle of nowhere.. listening to Wilderness John preach hellfire and brimstone. Although Mark’s account does not emphasize that, we know it from other accounts.

Here we stand. That babe in the manger is 30 years old in the blink of an eye, and we’re about to get a powerful lesson in what it all means, and in those very real consequences.

Jesus is baptized. The heavens open. God speaks: This is my beloved…

And Jesus is catapulted into the world to begin his ministry. To call disciples, to turn water into wine, to preach, teach, heal the sick, argue with the Pharisees, that is, the good church people of his day… That’s the consequence of being the Beloved.

We know where that path takes him. We know how that story ends.

Except, of course, it hasn’t ended yet. Except, of course, that we who choose to follow Jesus into and through the waters of baptism are the ongoing story. That’s the consequence of being beloved.

Did you hear both the connection and the distinction I just made? Jesus, called by God, “the Beloved” with a capital “B,” sets out on a path of ministry that leads to the cross. That’s the consequence for him.

We who follow him are made his brothers and sisters through the waters of baptism. That’s what we say. That’s what we believe. We are “beloved” with a small “b.” And the consequence for us is carrying out Jesus’ unfinished ministry in the world.

What else could you possibly do… with the wonderful and terrible knowledge of being God’s beloved?
Daniel Bonnell, The Baptism of the Christ

We celebrate the Baptism of our Lord every year at this time. It is a familiar story. We read one or another version of it, not only the first Sunday after the Epiphany, but also the first Sunday of November, All Saints Day.

We repeat our own baptismal vows—as we are about to do—multiple times throughout the year.

I suggest we think of Jesus’ baptism as his ordination experience. While praying, Jesus is named by God to be God’s own and in response to knowing who he is and who he belongs to, he goes out to do the work he is called to do. Sounds like ordination to me.

And as his baptism was an ordination experience, so too ours.

See, I think we’ve gotten way careless about our terminology and our thinking. Even I, when someone asks, am likely to name the orders of the church “bishops, deacons and priests.” But “laity” is also an order!

I was reminded of this in a striking way a few years ago. I was at a Diocesan task force meeting when Fr. Frank Hughes referred to “the five orders of the church.”

Five? I thought. What is he talking about? Everybody knows “bishops, deacons and priests.” After all, we pray for all of them every Sunday!

And when he then named them, it was a real face-palm moment for me. Of course, “laity” is an order—and the fifth, in case you’re wondering, is that special order of monks and nuns who choose to live out their call through vows of poverty, piety, community and service.

Baptism is an ordination. Some adults are ordained by the church to preach the word and administer the sacraments. But at baptism every person is ordained to serve Christ according to his or her calling. Every Christian is a "minister”—one who does ministry of some kind.

What exactly that might be varies a great deal and certainly changes over time for most people. The specific ministry one is called to in mid-life while raising a family and developing a career is likely to be quite different from ministry after retirement.

One of the special responsibilities of deacons in the church is to bring the needs of the world to the church and to lead lay people in servant ministry. That’s why Bishop Jake wants more deacons—not to DO all the service of the church, but to be catalysts for lay ministry, especially lay ministry outside these walls, lay ministry responding to the needs of the world.

That’s why you see my name linked in Grace Notes to the call for participants in the Episcopal Habitat for Humanity build coming up in February. Helping low income folks become homeowners is diaconal ministry because it changes peoples’ lives. It’s transformative.

And, indeed, that is what we promise to do… each and every time we repeat our baptismal vows.

Now.. NO PEEKING into prayer books! Our baptismal covenant begins with several statements of what we believe. We’re going to repeat those in a moment.

Then… we make a series of five promises. What do we promise? Test yourself. No peeking. I’ve developed some shorthand—an aid to memory:

1. Go to church. (teaching, fellowship, Eucharist) – Pretty easy stuff, right? We’re the good church people. We go to church for the fun of it.
2. Be good. (resist evil, repent) – Still no biggie. We wouldn’t be caught dead being bad on purpose… although we might be willing to stretch the concept of “good” a bit from time to time.

3. Tell others. (proclaim by word & example) – A little harder, maybe? Thank goodness, “by example” is one of our options, because telling people about Jesus, well, we kind of prefer to leave that up to priests, right?

4. Love everybody. (your neighbor as yourself) – I admit, this one gives me some pause, and not in the way you might think. It’s not the street person or the immigrant or the Muslim or the whatever. I have no trouble seeing Christ in them. It’s the Nazi. The KKK. It’s the smug, self-righteous Christians who are quite sure they have God all figured out.

5. Seek justice. (strive for justice and peace) – The dreaded liberal agenda, right? I mean, we know this is not just about the U.S. criminal justice system and its requirements of legal representation, fair trials, etc. We don’t have to say “social justice” to know that for God’s beloved, justice must include consideration of things such as access to health care, education, and affordable housing, the ability to care for a family with the sweat of one’s brow. Justice is not mere charity. Justice transforms lives. Justice helps people know they are beloved.

In fact, I don’t know a better way to measure ministry than to ask, Does it help people know that they are beloved?

Brothers and sisters, when we repeat our baptismal covenant, we are accepting our status as beloved.. and committing ourselves to being the ongoing story. More. We are asking to be catapulted into the world to declare God’s love and justice for all  human kind. If we were smart, we just might strap on crash helmets.

In the name of God, father, son and Holy Spirit, AMEN.