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The Wideness and the Wildness in God’s Mercy

Sermon Notes: 4th Sunday after Epiphany, Year C, 2013
Scriptures: Luke 4:21-30

I mentioned in last week’s sermon that the reaction to Jesus’ words wasn’t quite foreshadowed by the verse that the lectionary selection stopped on, “Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing'” (Luke 4:21). In reflecting on today’s Gospel, it’s not surprising that one person I heard comment on these readings said “Jesus just picked a fight!”

I would offer qualified agreement with that statement. Jesus is picking a fight, but not a direct one, with the people of Nazareth (though not only them–with us as well).  To understand what Jesus is doing here, I believe it will be helpful to consider a few things that can highlight important aspects of Christ’s interpretation in Luke 4:23-27.

I was recently reading a review of a collection of interviews that has been brought together about the late author Madeline L’Engle (an Episcopalian, by the way). The reviewer mentions that L’Engle suggests in one of her books, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, that a piece of art can “know more than the artist who created it” (read the review here). L’Engle writes:

When the artist is truly the servant of the work, the work is better than the artist; Shakespeare knew how to listen to his work, and so he often wrote better than he could write; Bach composed more deeply, more truly than he knew; Rembrandt’s brush put more of the human spirit on canvas than Rembrandt could comprehend.

When the work takes over, then the artist is enabled to get our of the way, not to interfere. When the work takes over, then the artist listens.

But before he can listen, paradoxically, he must work. Getting out of the way and listening is not something that comes easily, either in art or in prayer (page 24).

In other words, an artist, when obedient, comes to *do* more than the artist can do. The artist is  called beyond themselves to accomplish something true. This reality is not limited to artists, but applies to each of us. We are all capable of bearing witness to things that are better, greater, more true than we could create or conceive on our own. Indeed, we are capable of it even when we don’t understand intellectually what is happening.

We are called to an obedience which draws us beyond ourselves, away from the comfortable sins we often believe to be stable virtues. We are called to a way of living which recognizes that in the end, it is God who sets the parameters of what we ought to do and who we ought to be.

L’Engle begins her reflection on artists being called beyond themselves with a discussion of the Virgin Mary, where she states that “Mary did not always understand. But one does not have to understand to be obedient. Instead of understanding–that intellectual understanding which we are so fond of–there is a feeling of rightness, of knowing, knowing things which we are not yet able to understand” (p. 22-23).

If this is true, if we can be obedient without understanding, if we can hear the call without knowing from whence it comes, then we have to recognize that any one of us regardless of belief could become a witness to the ways of God. We have to be careful with this, it’s true, but we also can’t deny that this is a biblical reality. Consider, for example, that Cyrus of Persia is called the anointed of God, despite the fact that Cyrus did not know the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and despite the fact that he likely didn’t have a special fondness for the Jewish people. Nevertheless, when Cyrus destroys the Babylonians and grants the exiles the freedom to return to their homeland, he is honored as the anointed instrument of God, who accomplished much more in the grant narrative of history than he could have known (Isaiah 45:1).

A modern example of someone with no connection–as far as I know–with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, with the Gospel of Christ, who was nevertheless instrumental in what I can only describe as a witness to the love of God, to the sort of action that God calls us to. A person who was a sort of modern day Cyrus, enabling the travel of many Jewish people. This time though, it was a travel away from their homes, but toward safety.

Chiune Sugihara is named by Israel as one of the Righteous Among the Nations, a group of gentiles who stood in various ways, and gave assistance to Jewish people during the horrors of the Holocaust. Sugihara became the Japanese Consul General in Lithuania in 1940. In defiance of his government he issued visas that allowed thousands of Jewish families to escape, through Russia, then to Japan and on to various countries in the West. One article states that:

From July 31 to Aug. 28, 1940, Sugihara and his wife stayed up all night, writing visas.

The Japanese government closed the consulate, located in Kovno. But even as Sugihara’s train was about to leave the city, he kept writing visas from his open window. When the train began moving, he gave the visa stamp to a refugee to continue the job.

It is estimated that Sugihara’s visas saved as many as 6,000 Jewish people in the midst of WWII, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center estimates that there are as many as 40,000 people alive today because of Sugihara’s actions.

In one sense what Sugihara did was very simple: he wrote and issued documents. He put pen and stamp to paper. But in another sense what he did required something dramatically important: he got out of the way! He knew what was right and he did it.

What about your career? Get out of the way…

What about your standing among your countrymen? Get out of the way…

What about possible danger to your own life? Get out of the way…

He knew what was right, and he did it, and his actions have had an importance far beyond paper work, and even far beyond the immediate impact. Six thousand refugees have become forty thousand people alive today, including the first Orthodox Jewish Rhodes Scholar.

Do what’s right and get yourself, and everything else, out of the way.

In reality this is the fight that Jesus is picking with the folks listening to him in that Synagogue in Nazareth: get yourself out of the way. Listen, really listen to God;hear what he is doing.

As Christians we have to be honest and acknowledge a troublesome history of interpretation of this text, as though somehow Jesus’ examples indicate that God has moved on from the Jewish people, that his message is no longer for them. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Both examples are of prophets whose primary ministry is to the people of Israel. In this respect, they are like Jesus. They are like Jesus also in the fact that their ministry and the love of the God they testify to is not bound by human boundaries or nationality. 

The message of Christ to the people of Nazareth is simply this: The promises are being fulfilled, but they are not promises to you alone.

Jesus calls them out on the fact that they want some special sign, some deed of power because this is his home town. That sense of specialness is part and parcel of the sense of specialness that would wright others out of God’s plan of salvation.

Indeed, it’s the same sense of specialness that led Christians to wrong write the Jewish people out of God’s plan, as though God had turned his back on them.

The promise is for all people, and Jesus is showing that it has always been so. God’s care for a gentile widow and the General of a hated enemy demonstrate the wideness of God’s love and care, a wideness of divine love embodied perfectly in the person of Jesus Christ.

We’re called to get out of the way. To be grateful for the grace of God, and get out of the way so that grace can shine through us and be a beacon to others.

Get out of the way. We’re called to do what is right, and share what is right with others.

Get out of the way. We’re called to be witnesses to, not sole proprietors of, God’s grace. We are called to recognize that God’s love is for anyone and can work through anyone, and we’re called to testify to whose love is being displayed in such moment.

The final verse of the hymn “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy” expresses this well:

For the love of God is broader
than the measure of the mind;
and the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.
If our love were but more faithful,
we should take him at his word;
and our life would be thanksgiving
for the goodness of the Lord.

In this Holy Eucharist which we share, this service of Thanksgiving, pray that we may all offer our lives in thanksgiving to God, and rejoice in the goodness of the Lord and hear the words of the Apostle in a new way:

“Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine: Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever. Amen” (Ephesians 3:20-21 , BCP 102).

There's a Wideness in God's Mercy by Beverly Hills All Saints' Church Choir on Grooveshark

Sermon for the 5th Sunday After Epiphany: Never fear, none of us are good enough

Scripture: Isaiah 6:1-8, (9-13) ;  Psalm 138 ; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 ; Luke 5:1-11
The Call of Isaiah

I’ve read and I’m told that the Church is in trouble.

According to George Barna, 3500 to 4000 churches close their doors each year in America.  Some agencies put the number at more like 7,000.

As one church planter put it:

“I foresee a quickening of churches dying in America over the next twenty years.  There are tens of thousands of churches filled with communities that have shrunk below 100, 70, 50 and are filled with an aging population.  Many of these churches will not know how to survive.” (Drew Goodmanson)

I’m told the Church is in trouble.

Only 15% of churches in the United States are growing and just 2.2% of those are growing by conversion growth.  In other words, many others are playing a shell game with the already-Christian, as they move from one congregation to another.

I’m told the Church is in trouble.

According to some estimates churches lose over 2.5 million people each year to “nominalism and secularism,” the majority of whom may never set foot in a church community again.  Perhaps you know some folks in this category, or perhaps you were in the category for a while.

Specifically, in the Episcopal Church, according to Dr. Kirk Hadaway (program officer for congregational research) in the most recent state of the Church report to General Convention: “The age structure of The Episcopal Church suggests an average of forty thousand deaths and twenty-one thousand births, or a natural decline of 19,000 members per year,” a population larger than most dioceses. The advanced—and still advancing—age of our membership, combined with our low birth rate, means that we lose the equivalent of one diocese per year.”  This is, of course, assuming that most of those 21 thousand babies grow up and continue to practice their faith in the Episcopal Church or elsewhere–a rosy expectation that experience has proven to be false in most cases. (click here to download the State of the Church Report as a PDF)

I’m told the Church is in trouble.

Our experience in the Episcopal Church is not unique.  The Southern Baptist Church–which, along with the Roman Catholic often acts as a bit of a foil in conversations amongst Episcopalians–The Southern Baptist Church has the highest proportion of members over the age of 70 years old of any denomination.

In 2008, their outgoing president Frank Page, warned that, should current trends continue as many as half of all Southern Baptist Churches could close by 2030.

And if the Church is in trouble, you might expect evidence to be visible among leaders.  Unfortunately it is.

According to Ashland Theological Seminary and the North American Missions board (also found on this blog):

  • Fifteen hundred pastors leave the ministry each month due to moral failure, spiritual burnout, or contention in their churches.
  • Fifty percent of pastors’ marriages will end in divorce.  Anecdotally at least, the number seems higher for second career clergy.
  • Fifty percent of pastors are so discouraged that they would leave the ministry if they could, but have no other way of making a living.
  • 90% say their Seminary Training did not prepare them for what they face day-to-day in the congregation.
  • Eighty percent of seminary graduates who enter the ministry will leave the ministry after their first position and within the first five years.
  • Only 10% reach age 65 as a pastor.
  • Almost forty percent polled said they have had an extra-marital affair since beginning their ministry.
  • Seventy percent said the only time they spend studying the Word is when they are preparing their sermons.

Pastors’ Wives/spouses:

  • Eighty percent of pastors’ spouses wish their spouse would choose another profession.
  • The majority of pastor’s wives surveyed said that the most destructive event that has occurred in their marriage and family was the day they entered the ministry.

I’ve heard the Church is in trouble, and looking at these realities would seem to confirm it.

It would be tempting, even for me as a clergy person, to look at the evidence and say that it demonstrates dysfunctional and inept pastors or troubled congregations.

But the thing is, I think that the majority of people in those congregations that end up closing, and the majority of those pastors who ended up throwing in the towel on their ordained ministry are faithful people who had their hearts in the right place.

And maybe that’s an even scarier prospect.

There’s no easy scape goat.

But the fact of the matter is that there aren’t any qualified leaders in the Christian community–not the way we’ve been conditioned to think about it.

None of those pastors were “good enough” to be pastors.

Perhaps some of them made the mistake of believing that they were.

Our first reading this morning has something to say about that.  I’m thankful that it is a reading that I’ve heard at every ordination service I’ve been to.

In it, we hear the account of Isaiah’s call to be a prophet.

The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.  And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”

Consider Isaiah’s reaction to God’s presence.  He does not pretend to be worthy.  He does not presume to stand before God as a holy person, prepared for whatever task.

“I am lost,” he says, “for I am a man of unclean lips…”

One of my friends, quite an evangelical, explained his decision to prostrate or lay face down at his ordination service, something usually more associated with the Anglo-Catholic wing of Episcopalians/Anglicans.  Looking at Isaiah as an example, he said “when God’s in the house, you hit the deck.”

This is the proper response of humanity to holiness.

So no one is fit to be a pastor or priest without divine intervention.

And I’m sorry to be the one to have to tell you this, and it may come as a shock–but none of you are fit to be Christians without Jesus Christ.

Consider the way Isaiah’s story unfolds:

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Archbishop Rowan Williams’ sermon at All Saints’ Margaret Street, London

Sunday 01 November 2009

For the 150th year of the consecration of the church, All Saints’ Day.

Lectionary: Isaiah 65:17-65:25; Hebrews 11:32-12:2

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

‘Seeing we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that so easily besets us.’ (Hebrews 12.1)

When Etty Hillesum the young Jewish writer who died in Auschwitz, was on her way via the transit camp in Westerbork to the train that would take her to the death camps, she scribbled a few last notes to friends. And in one of those notes she tried to explain what she believed was going on: ‘Someone [she said] has to take responsibility for God in this situation. That is, someone has to behave as if God were real. Someone has to make God credible by the way that they meet life and death.’ And she — at first sight a very unlikely candidate for this dignity – attempted to do just that to make God believable by her life and her death.

Witnesses establish the truth by giving evidence. It really is as simple as that. When we celebrate the Saints, we celebrate those who have given evidence, who have made God believable by how they have lived and how they have died. The saints are the people who recognise that arguments will finally not win the day. God does not make himself credible by argument. God does not respond to our doubts, our intellectual querying, our uncertainty, by delivering from Heaven a neatly annotated list of logical propositions with which we cannot disagree. (I’m afraid that Professor Dawkins can bang on the doors of Heaven as long as he likes if that is what he expects to happen.) God deals with us by our life and a death, by Jesus. And God continues to deal with us by lives and deaths that make him credible, that make Jesus tangible here and now. All those people who flocked into Westminster Cathedral a couple of weeks’ ago to pay their respects to St Therese of Lisieux were recognizing that in her Christ became tangible for her generation and for ours and that is what the Saints do.

{Read it all It’s worth it.}

Something from my wife…

I don’t know how I forgot to do this, but I want to point your attention to my lovely wife’s blog, and her post “Rules for listening to your spouse’s sermon.”  While it’s hilarious, there’s also a great deal of truth there… at least I know that I’ve sometimes caught an odd expression on her face and wondered “Oh no… what sort of heresy have I spouted unintentionally!” ;-)

I might add that it takes almost as much effort to get used to preaching to a congregation that includes your significant other as it does to get used to hearing them preach.

Those who are not indifferent

Sermon Notes for Proper 21, 18 Pentecost, Year C
Scripture: Amos 6:1-7; 1 Tim. 6:11-19; Luke 16:19-31

Lazarus and the Rich manThe other day I had a conversation with the guy who cuts my hair, and he asked me if I’d heard about or had read the book entitled The Secret. I told him that I had heard of it but that I hadn’t read it (I didn’t tell him what I heard about it), and I was interested to hear what he would say. So he tells me his impression of this book. “It’s about energy” he said, “and everyone has positive and negative varieties. When you focus on bad things, bad things are attracted to you. When you focus on good things, good things come to you.” “So” he says, “you want a nice car, you just have to be positive and think that you’ll get that car and you’ll find a way to get it.” So things like getting sick and other bad things that happen to us are because of our negative energies.

You can see, probably, why such a belief would be popular in modern America. It’s practical, simple, easy to understand, and if something good happens, you get to take all the credit. And we have a lot of opportunities in our country for good things to happen to us. I’m not sure this idea would be so popular with or comforting to a cancer patient, or someone who’d just lost a loved one or had any number of bad things happen to them. “Too bad you’re going through that, guess you didn’t keep up on your positive energies.”

The whole frame of thought that The Secret and other examples of the “new thought” movement come out of is profoundly negative because it encourages people to self-aggrandizement, and to take credit and responsibility for things that are, in the nature of our world, largely or entirely out of our control.

Of course, this isn’t a new idea…you may have thought it sounded a bit like Karma in Hinduism, but it also bears similarities to some ideas that are present in scripture.

That’s right, these are biblical ideas. What I mean is that they are in the Bible, not that they are held up as good or commended. But we see examples of this when Job’s friends insist he must have sinned and brought his calamity upon himself. We see it in the Gospels when Jesus is asked about the man born blind: who sinned, this man or his parents? Of course Jesus doesn’t confirm their prejudices but instead sees it as an opportunity for the grace of God to be made manifest.

But people in that time, as much or more than people today, believed that people’s status in life and especially any disease or physical affliction they might have were a direct result of their (or their parents’) own moral fault or sin. That’s certainly what Jesus’ hearers would have been thinking when he started telling them the story of Lazarus and the rich man that we find in our Gospel reading this morning.

“Surely,” they’d think, “the wealthy man is blessed by God. Not only can he afford to wear white, but purple cloth as well–and cater such a feast daily! He must be truly holy.”
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Sermon for Proper 7c: In the Midst of the Storm

Last sermon given at Trinity Winchester

Scriptures: Zechariah 12:8-10;13:1; Galatians 3:23-29; Luke 9:18-24; Psalm 63:1-8

I’ll never forget a conversation I had once. This person contacted me because he’d seen something I’d written and I suppose he saw that I was a Christian.

I can’t recall what I had been discussing or debating in my writing, and I doubt it was very important, but I remember this guy contacting me and starting to ask me questions about Jesus.

As we talked he stopped asking so many questions and instead started to “inform” me of some of the things he knew about Jesus, my answers having revealed my ignorance of several events he thought were very important for Jesus’ life and teachings.

For example. “Did you know,” he said, “that Jesus went to India…”

Well, no, I didn’t know that… it’s not in the Bible and I really don’t think there’s any evidence outside….”

“Well” he interrupted, “you know that Jesus was a Druid, right? He went to England and Ireland with his uncle Joseph of Arimathea and learned from the Druids while he was there…”

If the DaVinci Code had been written I would’ve been sure I was speaking to Dan Brown’s cousin…and if this guy had read it, I don’t doubt I would have gotten a nice summary of all its theories as well.

It became apparent in our conversation he believed any claim about Jesus except the ones found in the scriptures.

It didn’t matter how much effort I put into trying to explain how improbable it would have been for Jesus or any of his relatives to travel to Britain and back, to say nothing of the fact that the Jews, despite those lapses in the Old Testament, weren’t known for their openness to foreign religion, and I’m sure Jesus would have been even less so.

In spite of all my efforts, I’m not sure I changed anything. He may have left our conversation believing that Jesus was really a Hindu-trained Druid while I, well, I still believed he was and is who the Bible says he is—the Son of God, the Word made flesh, my Lord and Savior.

You see, we all want to claim Jesus as our own. But too often we want to claim him on our terms, as a sort of trophy or trump card for what we already believe, rather than on his terms as our Lord.

And of course if we can truly claim Jesus, it is not because we have chosen him but because, as he says, he has chosen us.

One of the great Christian ethicists of the last century, H. Richard Niebuhr once said that Jesus:

can never be confused with a Socrates, a Plato or an Aristotle, a Gautama (Buddha), a Confucius, or a Mohammed, or even with Amos or Isaiah. Interpreted by a monk, he may take on monastic characteristics; delineated by a socialist, he may show the features of a radical reformer; portrayed by a Hoffman, he may appear as a mild gentleman. But there always remain the original portraits with which all later pictures may be compared and by which all caricatures may be corrected. And in these original portraits he is recognizably one and the same. (Niebuhr, 13)

We live in a day and age when people are trying to justify many things in the name of Jesus. Too often by claiming a Jesus of their creation.

But this isn’t a new thing. And thankfully we’ve been given some guidance.

Consider our gospel lesson this morning, where Jesus asked his disciples “‘Who do the crowds say that I am?’ They answered, ‘John the Baptist; but others, Elijah; and still others, that one of the ancient prophets has arisen.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered, ‘The Messiah of God.’”

There are lots of people out there claiming that Jesus is this or Jesus is that—that he’s John the Baptist, or Elijah, that he’s one of the Ancient prophets arisen.

Later on we know that there are enough people calling Christ a blasphemer and traitor to crucify him…

Today we might hear people saying “Jesus was a good man,” or “Jesus was a good teacher,” or “I like what Jesus said, but not what the Bible says he said…” Where exactly they’ve heard anything else legitimate, I don’t know.

We might hear people say that Jesus was a lot like Buddha—a good man who gives us a good example.

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Latest sermon audio

I’ve just uploaded my latest sermon audio files, from the Second Sunday of Easter:


“The Whole Message of this Life” The Rev. Joseph B. Howard, Second Sunday of Easter: Acts 5:12-29; Revelation 1:1-19; John 20:19-31; Psalm 111

And the Fourth Sunday of Easter:


“It’s Believing that’s Seeing” The Rev. Joseph B. Howard, Fourth Sunday of Easter: Acts 13:15-16, 26-39; Rev. 7:9-17; John 10:22-30;

Also, I need to give a HT to Eric Twist over at “Of Priests & Paramedics“, since it was the pic from his blog that inspired the direction of the second sermon.

No need to be perfect…just follow Jesus

Sermon for Proper 21b
Scripture: Mark 9:38-48
Theme: You don’t have to be perfect, just follow Jesus.

The Disciples are an interesting bunch. We can see that all through the New Testament… there must have been something about them that prompted Jesus to choose them as his closest followers and students. We get a glimpse of just how unique they are at the beginning of Mark’s gospel when he recounts how it was that Jesus called the first disciples to follow him.

Let me set the stage for you.

Mark opens strongly but differently than Matthew and Luke—he has no birth story… instead, like John the Evangelist, he opens with John the Baptist “baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4).

Mark provides us little background information about John—in the Gospel of John he is referred to as a “man sent from God.” In Mark, John simply “appears” as if from nowhere, “baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4).

In Mark’s Gospel, everything has a purpose, there are no extraneous details and you get the sense that we are going somewhere… toward a destination, with no false endings, no time to wait around and talk about unimportant things, about anything that doesn’t take you closer to the center of the whole story…

So when Mark takes the time to tell us how Jesus called the first disciples we know there is something important going on, something we’re supposed to learn… not only the sort of importance we might think of from the simple fact that these were Jesus’ first and closest disciples, but something in particular is important in the way they were called—in the way they reacted.

You could tell from their reactions… instead of asking Jesus a hundred questions about what he meant and who he was when he said to them: “Follow me,” they laid down their nets and followed.

So there was something that Jesus saw in each of his disciples, particularly the 12, his inner circle, that inspired him to choose them as his closest followers. And yet, they weren’t really that special, were they? I mean, no more special than anyone else… they were fishermen, and tax collectors…political dissidents and people working with the Roman establishment.

They were every-day people… and Jesus called them…

And they followed.

They followed him through his ministry, through the towns and villages, into the Synagogues and out into the desolate places where he prayed. They followed him when he healed, taught, prayed. They were faithful disciples of Jesus.

But they weren’t perfect.


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