Monday, November 27, 2017

Glorious Hope

Christ the King 2017, Grace Episcopal Church, Monroe, La.

St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church over on Bon Aire Drive is the first Episcopal Church I walked into 20 years ago. One of the first things I noticed was the crucifix at the front of the church. Grace has one just like it over in the parish hall, and so does St. Alban’s in their parish hall.

I was raised in a very Roman Catholic part of southeastern Iowa. In fact, the county paid tuition for my siblings and me to attend a Roman Catholic parochial school because it was cheaper than busing us, the only protestant kids in the neighborhood, to the nearest public school.

So I was plenty familiar with crucifixes. Moreover, the ultra-protestant church of my childhood taught against them as both idolatrous and emphasizing Jesus’ death over his resurrection.

Thus to encounter Christ the King, crucified but alive; on the cross, but wearing kingly robes and a crown, spoke volumes to me. It was one of those features of the Episcopal Church that invited me in.

Today is Christ the King Sunday, when we celebrate an aspect of Christ’s identity—his kingship—separate from all else.

The majority of references to Jesus as king in the New Testament occur in the Passion narratives in the Gospels. What a sharp contrast—to juxtapose Christ’s kingship with that moment when state and religious authority seems so powerful and in charge.

But of course we know that Christ becomes king—not by the usual earthly methods—but by way of the Cross. Jesus himself made it quite clear that his kingship is like no other. His ministry on earth was one of peace, liberation and above all service. Jesus the Christ radically redefined and transformed the concept of kingship.

So today’s Gospel lesson has Christ the King on his throne with us—the human family—assembled before him. But this king is not concerned with the state of the economy, or taxes, or foreign trade or immigration policy. This king is concerned with one thing alone: Have we been taking care of each other?

Like the lessons of the past few weeks, it contains that disturbing concept of judgment, and the possibility of being thrown into outer darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth.

So I wonder… where do you locate yourself in this story?

Notice the surprise of the righteous: WHEN, Lord, they ask, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you? 

I am delighted by that. What a lesson in humility and selflessness: to have done the work of the kingdom without even realizing you were doing it. What a moment of joy to hear Jesus say, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me. 

But I am also taken aback by it, for it requires me to come to terms with my own little morality problem. You see, I am both a sheep and a goat.

The problem isn’t wanting to do right, take care of people, feed the hungry, visit the sick and befriend the stranger… I’ve always wanted to do right.

The problem is wanting to BE right—which so often comes with built-in judgment of others who won’t accept my charity with sufficient gratitude, who make poor decisions about money or lifestyle that get them into trouble all over again, or who dare to criticize the system that has served me well.

Or judgment of those who insist on calling God by other names. Or who do good even while insisting that God doesn’t exist! Sooo many ways to pass judgment on other people!

The moment I see myself among the sheep, I find myself glancing over at the goats… and there’s my own face looking back at me.

Looking back over the past few weeks of parables, I am the servant given five talents who doubles them. But I am also the one who gets one talent and fearfully buries it in the yard. I’m even the master who relentlessly punishes the timid one, even though I know Jesus said, The meek shall inherit the earth. And I’m the poor schmuck who shows up at the wedding feast in the wrong clothes, as well as the crazy king who goes ballistic and throws him out over a mere wardrobe malfunction.

We humans are expert at throwing ourselves into outer darkness—and passing judgment on each other is one of our most popular ways of doing it.

But the moment I say that, I must also recognize that we humans are called to bring about God’s kingdom here on earth. And to do that requires resisting evil. And resisting evil requires making judgments.

We must take stands against wrong, even when we do not agree on the definition of  “wrong.” Or maybe we agree that, for example, racism and white supremacy are wrong, but we do not agree on what constitutes an example of it. Or we agree that poverty or people dying for lack of health care are wrong, but we do not agree on the best way to fix the problem.

These disagreements about really basic and important things are high profile today for a couple of reasons. One is the internet and social media, but I’m going to leave that to another sermon. (I sometimes think they should be called “anti-social” media.)

Another is a culture of relativity that says, “All opinions are created equal.” I have done my share over the years of promoting that culture in trying to make room for some of my favorite but unpopular stands.

But it’s not true.

Some opinions are based on data, historical facts, fair and thorough analyses of competing claims and points of view. Others are based on ideology or wishful thinking.

Some opinions are based on the actual experience of being oppressed by virtue of one’s skin color, or gender, or sexual orientation. Others come from the perspective of being mainstream, a member of dominant social groups. That would be me, most of the time.

Some are based on the experience of living on the socio-economic margins, dealing with the panic of a major car repair when the paycheck barely reaches from one to the next under the best of circumstances. Others come from the point of view of a savings account that can be raided on a rainy day.

To evaluate a human opinion, a human perspective.., to take a stand on what is right or wrong and how to fix it, we must—of course—listen to each other. You have heard that before. But we must also examine ourselves. We must ask, Who am I in taking this stand.

I have no easy answers. Welcome to the conundrum of my daily life: How to listen, take stands, show the way of Christ as I understand it—without shutting down conversation—especially when my instinct is to grab people by the shirt front and scream, “What is wrong with you?” Expletive deleted.

Here we are, the last Sunday of the church year, celebrating Christ the King.. and heading into Advent—a perfect season for doing some soul searching.. in preparation for God to come among us once again.

And so I invite you to spend some thoughtful, prayerful time with the question, Who am I in the stands I take? Who am I in this interaction, with this person, at this moment in time? How is my story, my perspective, my challenges and, yes, my privileges, making room—or not—for the other person’s story?

But Advent also directs our hearts and minds beyond the babe in the manger.. to that completely outrageous and utterly glorious hope that Christ is King and will come again in power and great glory to reconcile and redeem us all in the end.

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

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Choosing Chosen-ness

Grace Episcopal Church, Monroe, La.

I don’t like this story.

I mean really.., listen to that punch line again: “Many will be called, but few will be chosen” (NRSV, Matthew 22:1-14). What an un-Jesusy thing to say.

And what an awful punishment to mete out to the poor schmuck who shows up at the wedding banquet in the wrong clothes! For those of us with the fashion sense of a turnip, this is not good news.

So let’s go back to the beginning of the story and see what sense can be made of it. Jesus is speaking in parables again, and we know full well that Jesus’ parables telling us what the Kingdom of Heaven is like often turn the world as we know it inside out. This one is no different.

It begins with a king throwing a wedding banquet for his son. A lot of us have been there and done that, and we know that you invite relatives and good friends—people you know and care about—to a wedding banquet.

But, shockingly, in this case, the invited guests do not come—even after being invited twice. Some appear to be just too busy. They go off to work the farm instead, or to the office to take care of business.

Others get downright ill-tempered about it and abuse—even kill—the messengers delivering the invitation. It’s almost as though they don’t trust the king who has sent the invitation.

Perhaps they fear the king will have invited folks they don’t normally hang out with—like people of other political or religious persuasions or socio-economic statuses, and then what would you talk about for two whole hours?

Maybe they’re afraid they’ll get to the banquet and be asked to do something they don’t like doing or don’t feel good at, like share a story from their own life, maybe something the king has done for them.

Maybe they’re worried about what it will cost them in terms of missed work, having to buy a gift, or having to share out of their own plenty with those who have less.

Or maybe they just resent the king’s claim on their time and their life.

Perhaps some of these reasons for not responding to an invitation sound familiar to you. They sure do to me.

Whatever the case, they don’t come. And guess what? You can’t be a guest if you ignore or reject the invitation.

And so the king, being upset as wouldn’t we all be, sends out new messengers to gather up anyone and everyone from the streets and byways to come to the banquet—and they come.

What an odd assortment of characters must have been in that crowd! “The good and bad,” Jesus said; come they did and commence to party.

They became the kings honored guests—not because they were relatives or friends or of the right political persuasion or socio-economic status. And not because they had earned the king’s favor in any way. The king’s messengers invited everyone.

And they became the kings guests because they chose to respond to his invitation.

This story reminds us that “choosing” and “being chosen” are two sides of a single coin. It’s a 2-way street. We can’t be chosen if we don’t choose back.

Think about the people in your life. Can you choose a “best friend,” if that person does not want to be your best friend?

Anyone in this room ever have a crush on someone who didn’t return the sentiment? Doesn’t go very far, does it? Not much fun, is it? Even a business partnership requires a mutual choosing.

If you’re married, think about how that happened. One of you probably initiated the relationship, made the first move. But it was a mutual choosing.

And it didn’t happen just once. To stay together you must choose each other, over and over again. Being in relationship means constant choosing chosen-ness. A million big and little things—annoyance, distractions, “epic disagreements”—will require you to choose each other over and over again.., even when you are not aware that that’s what you are doing.

And finally, think about the pain of choosing someone who does not choose you back. Or, worse, who chooses you for a time, and then un-chooses you.

Losing a friendship, losing a marriage, losing an employer-employee relationship; all are painful un-choosings that can send human lives into a tailspin.

Are you worried about the guy who gets thrown out because he’s not wearing the proper clothes? He chose back, but not really. He came to the party half-heartedly. He’s there, he’s making an appearance.., but he’s sitting in the corner.. or the back pew.. looking to make a quick escape… before anything much can be asked of him. Been there and done that, too.

See, it’s a whole lot easier to go to church than to put on the wedding robe of God’s Love and actually follow Jesus. It’s perfectly possible, even rather easy, to say, “Yes, Lord, I love you, I choose you…” but then to be certain there’s nothing we can do to solve the problem of health care for all of our neighbors.

We can go to church week after week, year after year, and be more worried about the price of produce at the grocery store than about whether the people who pick the produce can feed their kids by the sweat of their brow. We can say, “Lord, Lord,” and never once wonder how many jobs the people who wait your table at the restaurant might be working to make ends meet.

How often have we been too busy, too hurt, too angry, too fearful… to accept the chosen-ness God offers us? How often have we responded, but half-heartedly, or grudgingly.., or with a sort of empty piety?

I am reminded of Jonah. Not responding to God’s claim on us can send us straight into the belly of the beast, where we will surely weep and gnash our teeth.

But here’s the Good New: With all of our faults and limitations, our stinginess, our blind self-righteousnes, we are whom God wants. Jesus says, “The many…” which I take to be inclusive: “The multitude of humankind.” Or, as we might say in the deep south: “all of y’all.”

God chooses us—over and over again. Every minute of every hour of every day, God chooses us. That’s the beauty of it. If we don’t choose back at this moment, we’ll have another chance in the next. If we don’t care for this neighbor in the ditch today, we will encounter another tomorrow….

We are invited to the banquet we call the Kingdom of Heaven—and not just one of some far off future “next life,” but the one Jesus insisted was within and among us, the one we pray for here on earth each and every time we pray the prayer Jesus taught us to pray.

And more. We are invited to be God’s love here on this earth. We are called to become God’s hands and feet responding to the pain of the world. And by the grace and love of God, we become what we choose back.

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

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Who am I?

 Grace Episcopal Church, August 27, 2017

A few years ago, I was sitting on a friend’s couch in his living room writing a profile for some social media platform on the Internet I wanted to try. I don’t remember the details, like what social medium it was or what I wrote. I’m pretty sure that profile no longer exists today.

But I do remember turning to him and asking questions that sounded a lot like the ones Jesus asks his disciples in today’s Gospel story. What’s the most important thing about me? Who am I to people? Who am I to you?

Many interpretations of today’s Gospel story focus on Peter’s declaration of faith: You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.

Awesome, Peter! You nailed it. But remember that this recognition of the divinity of Jesus is not new. Just a couple weeks ago we were looking at the story of Jesus walking on the water, and Peter’s similar declaration of faith when Jesus stills the storm.

We all must consider and decide who Jesus is, and I do believe that for us today, especially us “good church people,” coming to that declaration of the divinity of Jesus is a good bit easier than it was for the disciples.

Early Christians struggled mightily with the question of who Jesus was and is. You don’t have to be much of a church historian to know that it was a gathering of Bishops in Nicea in AD 325 that finally ended the debate.

Today we reaffirm what the Bishops decided every time we say the Nicean Creed—which is pretty often! And I doubt we hesitate for a moment when we say those words affirming the divinity of Jesus.

Today I want to come at this story from a different angle, that of the questions Jesus asks his disciples: Who do people say I am? Who do you say I am?

Why would Jesus ask those questions? I don’t think he was just testing the disciples. I think he was asking a genuine question: What does all this mean? Who in the world am I? It must have been confusing at times, being fully human and fully divine.

This Gospel story is one of those moments when I experience Jesus as fully human. We do believe that, too, you know, even though I think for us today, it can be hard to remember.

So that’s my first question for us today: When and how does it become really, really real to you.. that Jesus was just as fully human… as he was fully divine?

Now here’s my bigger point: Like Jesus, we need to ask the question, Who am I? Who do other people say I am? Who do those closest to me say I am? Who.. am.. I?

I’m not suggesting some sort of shallow preoccupation with what other people think. My mother, may she rest in peace, always made sure her children had on clean underwear. “You might be in an accident,” she would say, “and what would people think.”

No, I’m talking about who we are at the deepest possible level, and that is who we are in relationship to God. It is just as fundamental to our faith to ask, Who am I? as it is to ask who Jesus is.

One of the stories told about St. Francis of Assissi is that he often prayed all night, and one of his frequent prayers was, Who are you, oh God? And who am I?

Back in 2010, I decided it was time to add my own voice to that massive outpouring of verbiage on the Internet commonly known as “the blogosphere.” I created then, and continue to maintain—albeit somewhat erratically—several blogs. One is a sermon blog, where you can find this sermon later today if you’re so inclined.

And, of course, one of the first things I had to do to begin blogging was create a profile. Unlike the one I mentioned earlier, this profile still exists. And on the day I created it, I was apparently in a good place, because here’s what I wrote:

To my students of communication at a regional university, "Dr. K." To the people of the Episcopal parish to which I'm assigned, "Deacon Bette." To myself, beloved of God, lover of humankind.

Pretty cheeky, don’t you think?! If only I knew exactly what that last part meant: Beloved of God, lover of humankind.

Don’t get me wrong. I do have an explanation, a reason I believe it, if you will. But it’s mostly an exercise in thinking, less so one of experiencing myself and other people in those terms.

I was being pretty glib when I wrote beloved of God, lover of humankind. But I’ve never changed it. I haven’t changed it because it makes me think. It still makes me ponder.

I ponder it because it seems so implausible. I’m with the psalmist all the way in saying ‘who are we, God, that you should take note of us?’

I have had moments, not only of thinking it true, but of experiencing being held in the arms of a God who loves me. I cannot imagine a life more desolate, more despairing, more meaningless… than one lived without glimpses of the love of God—of the intimate, personal, experiential kind.

So here’s one thing I do know from those experiences: The second part of what I wrote, lover of humankind, is completely impossible without the first part, beloved of God.

And here’s another: Way too much of the time, I don’t act like I know.. that I am beloved of God. I can tell that by how I think about and treat other people.

That’s why this is an important question. If we don’t know who we are, then we can’t possibly know who everyone else is. It is precisely when we are being impatient, defensive, argumentative, resentful, judgmental… angry enough to want to lash out, whether physically or with our snappiest verbal put-down… In those moments, we have forgotten we are God’s beloved.

So I invite you to ponder these questions….

In your own life, how do you know yourself as God’s beloved? At what moments do you experience the enough-ness.. –may I make up a word? –the absolute enough-ness of knowing you are God’s beloved? And how does that shape your view of yourself? The world? Other people?

And then try this: Think about people behaving badly—and I mean behaving badly, as in marching in the streets spouting slogans and waving flags historically saturated with racism, homophobia and anti-Semitism. I mean behaving badly as in proclaiming the supremacy of people of their own kind, striking terror in the hearts of people who do not look like them, or were not born here, or who practice some other faith. Behaving badly as in blowing up other people in the name of religion.

Then ask: How do we call out the hate? How do we name the evil and take a clear and unequivocal stand against it, all the while knowing ourselves AND the hater—that other person preaching and doing the evil… How do we know.. and show.. that all of us… are fully.. and equally.. beloved of God?

That is the question that keeps me awake at night. I have no easy answers, no formulae, no list of practical steps. We will not always get it right. But we cannot compromise with evil. Name it and call it out we must.

Jesus is Love Incarnate. That’s who he is! And love is what he does.

We are his Beloved. That’s who we are! And if we know that, love is what we will do.

So let us ask as Jesus did, Who does a sad and broken world--out there beyond these sacred walls--say that we are? Do they know us as… love?

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

Monday, April 24, 2017

Practicing Resurrection

 Easter Vigil, Grace Episcopal Church, Monroe

When it comes to resurrection scenarios, St. Matthew seems to have taken a page out of the book of Cecile B. DeMille--maker of epic movies with religious themes of my youth.

By contrast, in St. Mark’s resurrection scenario, the stone is already out of the way when the women arrive. A young man in white seated quietly inside the tomb tells them Jesus is not there. The scene ends in dumbstruck silence with the women running away, afraid to tell anyone what they had seen.

But Matthew is all high drama. An angel in blazing white descends from heaven before their very eyes, single-handedly rolls a mighty stone out of the way… and triumphantly sits on it. The men on guard duty—not the women—the men…  swoon at the sight.

Then the angel makes his magnificent proclamation, the women turn to go—according to Matthew, in fear and great joy… and suddenly… Jesus himself stands before them. The women fall at his feet and worship him.

But I left out a very important detail. Matthew puts his high drama in motion with nothing less than… an earthquake.

Can it escape our notice that just yesterday, at high noon, an earthquake punctuated the last breath of Jesus the Christ… on a cross… in a place of death called Golgotha?

Can we forget that in 2015, almost 9,000 people died in an earthquake in Nepal?

That in early March 2011, an earthquake in the Pacific sent a giant tsunami wave of destruction crashing into Japanese shores, killing almost 16,000 people, injuring more than 6,000 and leaving utter devastation in its wake?

Or that one year earlier, an earthquake leveled the capital city of Haiti, killing thousands and leaving millions homeless?

We are all too familiar with earthquakes, and the human tragedy they cause. So what in heaven’s name is one doing, here, right in the middle of our resurrection story?

Nora Gallagher is a novelist who has also written several books about her own spiritual journey. One of them is called Practicing Resurrection. It is an account of how the loss of a beloved brother throws her life into a tailspin, and of her return from walking straight down a wrong vocational path, dragging a failing marriage.

Gallagher’s struggle back requires her to re-examine everything: her call, her work, her marriage. It leads her finally to an exploration of nothing less than life after death. She finds that “experiences of resurrection are not believing six impossible things before breakfast.” Rather, she proposes, “Maybe resurrection, like everything else, needs to be practiced.”

We have all been there, in one way or another. Human existence is a series of earthquakes, large and small. Some are beyond our control. I have never experienced an earthquake of the natural kind, but I understand that little can be more terrifying than to feel the very earth move under our feet. It is the ultimate loss of control.

Other earthquakes are of our very own making. We march resolutely into dead ends and struggle to find a way back out again.

And as Matthew illustrates by putting an earthquake smack dab in the middle of the resurrection story, joyful events can also create upheaval in our lives. A baby is born, and mom and dad must create a new marriage out of the ashes of the honeymoon, a marriage in which gazing into each others’ eyes is replaced by advanced skill in “keeping an eye on” 16 things at once, from the shrinking pile of clean diapers to the toddler about to stick its finger in the puppy’s eye.

We don’t have to be “control freaks” to long for some control, some ability to maintain our balance as we face big challenges and small ones of daily life. But we have so very little. Fr. Richard Rohr defines human suffering precisely in these terms. “When are humans suffering?” he asks. “When they have no control.”

It often seems to me that it is precisely when we think we finally have it together, that we are finally on top of our game, that life hands us the most deadly, life-destroying blows. And we suffer.

Someone we love dies. A spouse or lover leaves us. A friend betrays us. We are downsized by our employer. Our company fails. An economic downturn takes much of our nest egg. Our politics turn nasty. Our children and grandchildren are sent half way around the world to fight a war that we are just not sure is worth the sacrifice of young, beautiful lives.

We aren’t in control, and much of the time it looks like God isn’t either.

But God chose to become human, to suffer and die on a cross in order to rise again in power over death. How do we understand that? As a one-time event? An economic transaction in which Jesus “paid a price” to God.. or was it to the devil? that we can live happily ever after.. some day in some glorious future?

That kind of thinking certainly creeps into our religion, but it is wrong-headed. It diminishes the meaning of resurrection by making it a mechanical transaction trapped in history, and our lives something to be “gotten through” for some period of time while we await the coming of Glory.

As Fr. Rohr observes, it makes our religion a mere “evacuation plan for the next world.”

The fundamental story of our faith is that something always must die before something new, better, more beautiful can be born. And the thing that must die is typically our own beloved ego.

Earthquakes are destructive, but the human ego even more so. It is the human ego that leads us to destroy others in myriad ways, physically and emotionally, individually and as nations, with our need to be right, to save face, to feel secure, to divide the world into black and white, good and evil, us vs. them… to take sides and to believe that God is on ours.

About two weeks ago, the ULM Canterbury group I serve spent some time together examining our baptismal covenant—the one we are all about to witness and renew. We had no trouble with the first three promises. You know: Go to church. Confess your sins. Be a good example.

The last two promises we make—the ones about seeing Christ in all persons, seeking justice and respecting the dignity of every human being led us straight into a discussion of refugees from war-torn countries and our response to them.

I listened in awe as those young people spoke of their struggle to find balance between the heartbreak they feel for the people and their fear of consequences of people of different beliefs and values living among us. They want to be like Jesus, but the scary political rhetoric of the day plays on their very human fears. And so they struggle.

In Matthew’s resurrection story, the women fall down and worship Jesus. But in fact Jesus never once asked us to worship him. What he asks is that we follow him. And to follow Jesus the Christ, we must practice dying so that we can practice resurrection.

To let go of our need to be right, our need to be in control, to be safe and secure… not only feels like dying, but is a form of dying. And if we can do that, if we can follow Christ through the suffering and through the ashes of our hurts and losses and failures, if we can accept the healing that the infinite love of the cross offers us, the earthquakes of our lives become the very path to living our faith and sharing God’s love with a hurting world, which is to say, the very path to practicing resurrection.

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

Sunday, January 15, 2017


St. Alban's Episcopal Church, Monroe, La. 

This past week—a week of preparation for my last semester of full-time teaching—was deranged. Completely deranged. I spent the week dealing with one crisis after another.

Some of the crises belonged to others—like students, who didn’t manage to get advised and enrolled in classes in the fall, and now were desperate to get into already full classes in order to stay on track to graduate.

One would like to say, “Well, your failure to get advised and into classes is not my problem.” But the truth is, one can’t really do that. And so I went to work and did what I had to do to get them into some classes.

But the hardest part about the week was that the biggest and most difficult of the crises—the hurricane of a crisis that kicked off the week—was a crisis of—guess what!—my very own making.

You see, I too didn’t get something important done before the end of the fall semester. I failed to request renewals of funding for several graduate students for whom I am responsible as Communication Program graduate coordinator.

And much to my chagrin, when I ran to the Dean’s office with renewal forms Monday of last week, I was told we were out of money.

Thus ensued a couple days of scrambling, recalculating, negotiating, begging and identifying students who either weren’t returning or had decided not to come to ULM, thereby freeing up some money. By mid-week I thought we had things covered and I breathed a huge sigh of relief.

Within hours of that sigh of relief, I received an email from a new international student I had not heard from in over a month and had decided was not coming. Her money had been used to fill a gap for another student left by my failure to do renewals.

 “I’m here in the U.S.,” her email said, “ready to accept my graduate assistantship.”

I just about came unglued. I felt like the most incompetent boob to walk the planet.

I share that this morning in order to say this: The stories we tell about ourselves... are not the stories God tells about us.

Let me say it again: The stories we tell about ourselves are not the same, indeed, bear little resemblance to, the stories God tells about us.

Listen to Isaiah: The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me. 

Brothers and sisters,, do you hear that? You, me, all of us. We were named by God.. before we were born!

Now, I’m not assuming that means God chose “Bette Jo,” spelled “b-e-t-t-e j-o,” then put a bug in my daddy’s ear. But do notice that in today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus does something like that. He gives Simon a new name—Peter—the name we know him by to this day.

So, clearly, this naming business is important. Our name, and who named us, is part of our human story. Anyone here not know who named you? Or who you might be named after?

Naming is an act of love. Whatever else God might have in mind for each of us, our first name, the name God gives us in the womb, is Beloved. Beloved, as in, the one I, God, have chosen. 

The tricky part about that, of course, is that God gives that name to all humans. Indeed, all of creation, but that’s another sermon.

The moment we start thinking that we are more beloved than the next person, that immigrant over there, that person using food stamps in front of us in line at the grocery, that redneck with the beer gut, that dang Democrat, Republican or whatever… that’s when we’ve already forgotten who—and whose—we are.

And I say that as a person who forgets it.. all the time.

In May of this year, as one of my last acts of service to the University of Louisiana Monroe, I will again call the names of the students as they cross the stage to the applause of their families and friends to receive their diplomas. I spend a good bit of time getting ready to do that, finding out the proper pronunciation of the names—including the challenging foreign ones—and practicing, so as to get it right. It is one of my favorite tasks. It is a calling, and I will miss doing it.

And it is appropriate that this task I love so much is, indeed, an act of service. Note that Isaiah goes on to tell us more about who we are to God. 

And he said to me, Isaiah says, “You are my servant…in whom I will be glorified.” 

So we are not only God’s beloved. We are God’s beloved servants. We have work to do. We were not put here just to bask in the light of God’s love! How could we? How could we possibly respond to such love by doing nothing?

Some people say, indeed, some preachers in some religious traditions say, that if you tell people they are God’s beloved, that God loved and named them in the womb, and that God does and will love them regardless of what they do, you are thereby giving people carte blanche to behave any way they choose, any immoral, evil, ugly way they choose, without fear of consequences.

To which I say, Nonsense! That is not how it works.

To the contrary, when you see someone behaving in an immoral, evil, or just mean spirited way… pray for that person. Instantly. On the spot. In your heart might be better than out loud! But pray for them because that person has forgotten who and whose they are. That person has forgotten, or perhaps never knew, that he or she was named and chosen by God before being born.

You see, in those moments when we truly get and accept who we are—God’s beloved servants—when that resonates in our heart, mind and soul; when we claim that name—we will respond to the world and everyone in it with love, kindness and generosity. In light of such a gift, such unearned and complete grace, we cannot do otherwise.

Now..., I began this sermon with a story and I don’t want to leave you hanging. Yes, with the help of other people of good will, my grad student funding crisis was happily resolved. I am back to feeling modestly on top of my game.

Indeed, I ended the week helping a young man who flunked out of school a few years ago figure out how to get past his failure, get back in school and move on toward his goals. I’m excited! were his parting words to me.

But the larger value of these stories from academia is this: We live within merit systems. I have spent my adult life writing test questions, designing assignments, correcting, critiquing, sending things back to be redone, and ultimately awarding grades. More than once I have had to explain to unhappy students how they, indeed, earned the grade they received.

The version of the merit system that dominates your life is probably different in detail. Those of you who work in medical fields have the special stress and burden of knowing that your failure could have dire, even fatal, consequences.

But ALL of our merit systems have the ability to hurt, to wound, to frustrate, to beat down… the human spirit. It depends on how we use them. Merit systems dominate human endeavor, and that’s not going to change anytime soon.

The challenge for God’s people is twofold. First, we must remember that God, thankfully, does not operate by the merit system. And we are beneficiaries of that.

Second, we must remember that however practical and useful the human merit systems within which we function might be, they are ours, not God’s, and the people to whom we apply our merit systems—from the wayward student to the welfare recipient to the violent terrorist—are every bit as much God’s named and beloved as we are.


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

Friday, April 15, 2016


Grace Episcopal Church, Monroe, February 24, 2016

When I was a child, perhaps 8 years old, the pastor of the Mennonite church my family attended retired. I do not remember the details of how a pool of candidates to replace him was chosen. But I will never forget the culmination of the process. 

Five men stand at the front of the church. Prayers invoking the Holy Spirit are prayed—several looong prayers. An elder of the church holds up to each man a row of matchsticks, all appearing to be identical—from the outside. Concealed by his hand is the fact that one of the matchsticks is way shorter than the others.

Each of the five men takes a matchstick, and the man who chooses the short one is thereby “called” to be our next pastor.
Choosing Mathias

Casting lots to determine God’s call was standard practice in Mennonite churches at that time. It was based on scripture—specifically, the story just read of the choosing of St. Mathias to replace Judas. We Mennonites believed it to be the way to get ourselves out of the way and let the Holy Spirit decide.

The Bible offers many stories of God’s call to various people. Some are dramatic. Every time I hear the story of Isaiah being touched on the mouth with a live ember, I shiver in awe and apprehension. What must that have been like!

On the other hand, God’s call to the boy Samuel was so subtle that Samuel thought it was the old man in the next room. Perhaps it is only grown-ups who require supernatural phenomena to get their attention!

Or, more accurately, perhaps when God is actually able to penetrate our defenses and be heard above the din of our busy, busy lives, we experience it as supernatural. It shouldn’t be. It should be as natural as the air we breathe.

It is also clear from call stories in the Bible that feelings of unworthiness in the face of God’s call have a long and honorable history: Moses, Isaiah, Amos, John the Baptizer and more.

Nevertheless, such feelings do not constitute justification for avoiding the call. God’s grace is sufficient, and working through imperfect, unworthy vehicles like us is precisely the plan. Clutching our sins and gazing at God in disbelief is never a substitute for answering the call.

That does not mean you are called to ordained ministry, although you might be. It does not mean you are called to change jobs or careers or move to a new place or reinvent your entire life, although you might want to do that.

It does mean that whatever you are doing with this one glorious and precious gift we call life, God is at work loving and reconciling this world, and you, me, all of us… are called to be a part of that.

We are all called. If we have been baptized into Christ’s one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, then we are called to be ministers of that church in the world. The thing that unites all followers of Jesus is that we are all called.

The only questions are, what is each of us called to do? And how do we know?

Please do not hear in any of this the tired notion that “God has a plan and if you just pray hard enough and are good enough, God will send signs—like drawing the short matchstick—to tell you whether to take this job or that one, move here or there, sell the farm or not, start that business or not, be ordained or not, etc., etc.”

Consider the possibility that God really does not care much about those specifics!

Caroline Fairless is an Episcopal priest who has wrestled with this question of “call.” She came to the priesthood by way of a lover committing suicide, and she struggled mightily to experience herself and her call as authentic.

In her autobiography, she describes a particularly challenging life transition in which she found herself quite indecisive and praying madly for direction. Dear God, shall I go here or go there, or perhaps not to a parish at all but into some other kind of work for the church?

Then one day she is out walking the dog, who insists upon snuffling through every bush along the sidewalk. As she stands with her face in a bush that seems to be growing right before her very eyes, she remembers a conversation reported to her by a friend about his own conversation with God about his call.

It went like this:

Friend: Well, God, is this what you want me to do?


Friend: Do you want me to be a minister?


Friend: So, yes? Or no?

God: You already are a minister.

Friend: Okay. Word games. How about a priest? Do you want me to be a priest?


Friend: So, yes? Or no?

God: You already are a priest.

Friend: But ordained? Seminary trained? Do you want me to be an ordained minister?

God: I don’t care. It doesn’t make any difference.

Friend: You don’t care?

God: I really do not care.

Fairless and the dog continue down the path, she struggling with the decision she must make about which of her options constitutes the “right call.” Suddenly, she says, I hear a smile, somewhere in the universe, ‘It really doesn’t matter, Caroline. It just doesn’t matter.’

By the end of her autobiography, Fairless is able to see and claim that the Spirit is in her and working through her, regardless of what, exactly, and where, exactly, she is doing whatever she is doing at any given moment in time.

Here’s what I think, she concludes. I think it’s not so much the particulars of God’s call—almost anything will do—(blasphemy, you say!). The call is to the person. The field hardly matters. Priest or plumber, carpenter, bus driver, poet, teacher, the call is to me. I am to be the richest, fullest, most loving, generous, kind, bold, fearless, funny, creative partner to God… and to you… that I can be. The context is secondary.
I do not mean to make light of the question of what, exactly, we are called to do. Countless times throughout history, human beings have inflicted great cruelty and suffering upon each other in the name of God’s call.

We do it because we are no less human for having been called. And so our own human motives, our rich imaginations and wishful thinking, our arrogance, our hope that our own answers to the mysteries of God are the only answers—these things and more get all tangled up in our sense of God’s call.

Tonight’s Gospel lesson is huge help in sorting out this business of being called. Jesus offers us the concept of “abiding,” and specifically of abiding in his love.

That means a lot more than “poke your head in the door once or twice a day.” It means more than “give thanks before every meal.” It even means more than “consult me about every decision you have to make.” I really can’t conceive that God wants to micro-manage our lives!

For our Lenten study, I and the Canterbury group at ULM are using this workbook and a series of short videos produced by the Brothers of St. John the Evangelist (available free online) to consider “growing” a rule of life. Rules of life give us focus and direction and support—like a trellis does a climbing rose—to grow and abide in Jesus’ love.

And when we abide in Jesus’ love, we will know what God calls us to do. It’s stated right here: This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. And he goes on to say, ‘I have chosen you and appointed you to go out and bear fruit that lasts.’

What more do we need to know? Does it really matter whether we do that in a law office or a classroom? In a hospital or a TV studio? As a construction worker or a banker? As a garbage collector or a brain surgeon? As a lay person, a bishop, a deacon or a priest?

My friends we are all called, and at the most basic and foundational level, we are all called to the same thing: We are called to participate in God’s reconciling love already at work in the world. Everything else is window dressing.

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

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Going Out of Our Minds

 Lenten Lunch Series, Grace Episcopal Church, Monroe, 2/23/16

What in the world has gotten into Mary? Mary, the blessed mother of Jesus, that is.

Mary, who upon learning of her most extraordinary pregnancy, a pregnancy she had every reason to be mortified by… but who instead sings a song—a song of joyful acceptance so magnificent that we have made it part of our daily devotion to God. That Mary. 

Mary, who pondered everything in her heart on the extraordinary night of her son’s birth, and who heard Simeon’s prophesy when she took her child to the temple for the naming ceremony. That Mary.

Today, that Mary stands with her other sons on the outside edge of the crowd surrounding her son Jesus (Mark 3:19-35, NRSV).

Jesus' Mother & Brothers
Her openness and acceptance of her son’s extraordinary nature seems to have evaporated. She and her “normal” sons are there to take Jesus away and lock him up because he has gone out of his mind.

Notice that she does not even go to his side herself. Is she afraid of her crazy son?

Is she embarrassed by his teaching of ideas so foreign to the family religion? Mortified by his rejection of the traditions of his own people?

Whatever has gotten into Mary, she sends messengers to fetch Jesus so she can take him away. And Jesus rebukes her and his brothers.

He does it gently. Teachers everywhere will recognize the strategy! When an answer is hard, preface it with a question! When you need to lead people to a challenging conclusion, help them participate in getting there by posing a question.

Jesus was master at this. He did it all the time when engaging with the religious leadership of the day. He rarely responded to the scribes and Pharisees with a direct answer, but almost always with a question.

And so he asks, “Who are my mother and my brothers?”

Then, turning not to his mother and brothers, but to those who had been absorbed in his sermon on forgiveness, he embraced them and whoever does the will of God as his immediate family.

When I came to Louisiana almost 20 years ago, I was struck by the tightness of family life here.

I first noticed it among my students, who seemed to have no ambition whatever to go out into the big, broad world, who wanted careers that would keep them right here in northeastern Louisiana.

I asked the department secretary about it, and she said, in her southern drawl that I cannot imitate, “Oh, yes, Dr. Kauffman. We would pitch a tent in our Momma and Daddy’s front yard and live there forever if we could!”

My late husband and I also noticed that no one was around most Sundays. We’d go to church then to coffee hour, kind of hoping to encounter some friendly souls we could hook up with for lunch or afternoon activities… but those who came to coffee, sipped quickly and were off. “Sunday family dinner,” we were told when we asked about it.

Invoking communal traditions and talk of family values are pretty sure-fire way to generate warm, fuzzy feelings in people. So much so that our politicians bandy those terms about in search of votes for themselves and their pet laws and policies.

Sadly, the content of the terms is rarely offered or asked for. A bit of Socratic method would serve us well here. What “heritage” do you mean? we might ask, the heritage of crawfish and jazz? Or the heritage of segregation and Jim Crow?

How do you define “family” and what “values” are you invoking?

You see, “heritage,” “tradition,” “family” and “family values” can become defense mechanisms.

They can shut down our minds and make us resistant to change. They can make us feel okay about excluding people—indeed, families—who do not fit our norms and standards and view of the world.

In a word, they can become idolatries.

And that, I believe, is what Jesus is teaching us in this story. He is asking us to question our most cherished values.

He is asking us to step right out of our comfort zone and open ourselves to all of humankind in a radical new way.

He is asking us to let go of fear and embrace the vast human family. 

Indeed, Jesus is asking us.. to follow him.. in going out of our minds. 

Many of you know I have long been involved in Northern & Central Louisiana Interfaith. The first lead organizer of Interfaith was a white man by the name of Perry Perkins. One of his first contacts was Rev. James Johnson, a black man and pastor of New Light Missionary Baptist Church.

Upon Mr. Perkins explaining his vision of Interfaith as black folks and white folks, Jews and Christians and Muslims, from northside and southside and across the river, well-off and poor, all working together for the good of the entire community, Rev. Johnson famously said, “You are the craziest white man I have ever met.”

A few years ago on the occasion of his retirement, I had the opportunity to turn that statement around and tell Rev. Johnson that he was the craziest black man I had ever met for signing on, which he did! And the crazy vision that is Interfaith persists today. 

How have YOU left behind your own most cherished traditions, beliefs, even family values.. and followed Jesus in going out of your mind? 

In the name of Father, Son and Holy Ghost, AMEN