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Life is hard

Sermon preached on Proper 12A (July 27, 2014) at St. Peter’s by-the-Sea, Narragansett RI on the occasion of my final Sunday as the Director of Ministry.  You can read the lessons here.  

Life is hard. There is no way around it. Life is simply hard. For me, and maybe for you, today is hard. There is no way around it. Today is simply hard.

Many people say that when a person prepares a sermon, what they are really preaching is what they need to hear most. When I first read the lessons for today, I was less than amused. What was being said is exactly what I did not want to hear. But, in a way only possible by the Spirit, today’s lessons could not have been more appropriate. These lessons are exactly what I need to hear, and I hope that they provide a similar encouragement and support to you.

I wonder how many of you thought today’s Epistle – the lesson we hear from Paul’s letter to the Romans – sounds familiar? If 1 Corinthians 13 – love is patient, love is kind – has become the lesson for weddings, today’s lesson from Romans has become the favorite text for funerals. There is something incredibly profound for those who mourn in this lesson. “For I am convinced,” Paul writes, “that neither death, nor life . . . nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God.” One of the most important pastoral privileges is to stand with those who have been weighed down by the power of death and cannot proclaim with Paul, “No, these things cannot prevail.” When we are surrounded by death, when we face the painful reality of being separated in this earthly life form a loved one – it is easy to see how moving these words can be, that nothing – not even death – can separate us from the love of God. But, this message and the power of this lesson, goes far beyond the liturgical setting of a funeral.

Separation is a genuine issue in our lives. Each and every day with each and every decision we make we are faced with the reality of separation. To chose one thing inherently means we leave behind something else. This leaving behind is a source of great pain in life. One cannot become an adult without leaving childhood behind. One cannot raise children without the full expectation that they will go away and leave us behind. One cannot become postulant and go to seminary without leaving a parish community behind. At the very heart of what it means to be human is separation from those things and those people we love. This is the genius of the eighth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans.

Paul writes eloquently about the powers that cause separation. Paul understand this conflict, he understands the cosmic forces that cause separation. He understands leaving behind a way of life in order to follow God. So Paul lists the many forces at work in the world around us. Hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, sword, death, life, angles, rulers, things present, things to come, powers, height, depth, and anything else in all creation.

Hardship is the first thing listed, and as such it is easy to overlook and pass by it without a second thought. This is something we should not overlook, because hardness of life is a struggle that presents itself to us each and every day. Life is hard. We must make difficult decisions, do things we do not wish to do, be faced with circumstances we have never been prepared for, leave behind things and people we have come to know and love. The best pastoral care we can extend to one another is to stand along side, to be a companion along the way, to help each other find ways through the hard stuff of life.

From hardness Paul goes on to talk about distress. Let’s talk about a frequent force in life. When we cannot complete all that we want to finish, when we do all that we can do and it is still not enough, when we are unable to figure out what we need to do next, we are in distress. Have you ever felt this way? Have you ever not been able to accomplish everything? Have you ever felt that what you have to offer is never enough? Have you ever felt that no matter how hard you try you can never accomplish those last few things on your to-do list? I know I have. I know that I will not get to those last couple of emails, phone calls, or meetings I hoped to as your Director of Ministry. This distress, this seeming failure, can easily overwhelm and over take us.

Paul moves on, from hardness to distress and distress to persecution. The prevalence of persecution makes this force especially significant. The violence done to women and men as a result of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, socioeconomic status, physical ability, political affiliation, and so on. The violence committed for no other reason than the continuation of more violence and hatred. Maybe you have been victim to this violence, to this persecution and oppression. I know there are people in our midst, people we may not even realize, who have experienced the devastating pain of being named other – of being cast off and set aside.

One of the saddest things about this type of violence is that we are the creators of such boundaries. We are the ones who create the status of other. It is our duty and responsibility to recognize where we build up and sustain societal expressions of power and privilege. We must recognize that we benefit from someone else being put down. We must recognize that the Church is at times, the worst offender of naming someone other.

These forces are completely overwhelming, and have seemingly tipped the scales completely over. How easy it would be to just let these forces of separation knock us over and become further participants and bystanders to their work in the world. How easy it would be to accept that this is just the way life is. But, Paul – this great apostle to the gentiles, the apostle to you and to me – reminds us that this overwhelming reality is not the last word.

In the midst of all this, it is remarkable that Paul proclaims, “NO!” Shall these things prevail? Shall these things have the capacity to undo us, to undo the most central element of our lives – God’s love? No! Paul is convinced, and we should be too, that nothing will ever prevail against God’s love. The conflict of the powers is engaged head-on, and the victor is God’s love. It is God’s grace, power, and love that will have the last word, that will overturn all the binds and oppresses us, that will flip the scales in the other direction – the direction of the true nature of creation the nature of the Kingdom of God.

So what is this Kingdom of God, to what should we compare it? The kingdom of heave is like a mustard seed. The kingdom of heaven is like yeast. The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea. Mustard and yeast, a thief and a merchant.

If we take a second look at the characters we find in this rapid-fire list of parables, you might be struck by the fact that they are a little shady, subversive, and corrupt. Mustard is a weed a farmer would pull from a field, but here God’s empire is compared to the mustard seed, starting very small but growing into a shrub. Yeast, the agent that bloats and rots corpses and what a woman would clean from her house in preparation for Passover, is a positive here. God is fermenting the kingdom of heaven within the world, just like the woman mixes – or spoils – flour with yeast. What about the man who finds the treasure in someone else’s field? He sells all that he has, gets rid of every possession, in order to buy that field. By the way, he doesn’t tell the current owner that there is a treasure on his property. What was he even doing digging around someone else’ field in the first place? His action is a theft.

Now merchants were not highly regarded in biblical times. Their motives and everything they did was suspect. This merchant, however, puts himself out of business to make the ultimate purchase. Once one has sacrificed everything to make the ultimate purchase, there is nothing left to buy and sell.

These parables elevate convention-subverting persons and things to describe discipleship in the kingdom of God. Whatever else they mean, these parables hint that God’s kingdom – and therefore good citizenship in God’s kingdom – is fundamentally different from Rome’s. It is fundamentally different from the secular culture around us.

These parables present a radical challenge to us living in the United States, where the Christian faith is predominantly a middle-class, convention-supporting religion. While church going does no occupy the same mainline practice as it once did in the 1950s, we still operate under a mainline mentality. These parables challenge what it means to be a mainline mentality by asking what is means to prepare – to be trained – to be a disciple fit for the kingdom of God.

The church’s work in every age is to form disciples who value contemporary equivalents of weeds, yeast, thieves, and merchants. We are to value that which is cast aside and use it to proclaim the Gospel in our midst. We are to put our own greed aside to help those who have nothing – to realize that we are called to give up some of our power so that those who have been put down can be raised up. We are to shed everything of this world that binds us so that we can obtain the ultimate possession. We are to take that which we wish to deny in ourselves, that which we have been told is wrong, bad, evil, and no good and use it to build the Kingdom of God.

It is easy to think we are not good enough, that we have not done enough, that we do not know enough, that we are not worthy enough to do that which we have been called to do. To think we have no place being a business owner, a teacher, a community member, a parent, a spouse, a priest, that we have no business being a seminarian. It is easy to be overwhelmed by the forces at work in the world that try to do nothing more than tear us down. It is easy to allow those forces to do that work, to believe the world when it tells you that you are not rich enough, pretty enough, fast enough, or smart enough to carry out your work. But when all this gets in our way, we join our voices with Paul and proclaim that nothing can separate us from the love of God – that nothing can separate us from the reality of the goodness of our creation. We remember that the Kingdom of God does not subscribe to the wills and understandings of this world, because that which the world names a weed, God uses to build the kingdom.

We live in a world based on fear and scarcity. In a world where we are told there is not enough to go around. But I wonder, what would it mean for us to live without fear? I wonder what it would mean to live a life of abundance? If God’s promises are true, if Paul is correct, than nothing will ever stand in our way. If we truly believe the Good News of God in Christ there is always enough to go around, there is no reason to live a life of any fear, anxiety, or scarcity. If we trust in God, God will have the last word and the Kingdom of God will prevail. This is the work set before us, this is what we are called, implored, begged to do.

As followers of Jesus we are called to participate in God’s work in companionship with others, walking alongside them as equals. We are to reach out to the world God so loved, the world far outside our Church doors, the world that may not know the story of Jesus and of God’s unconditional love for humanity. We are to tell the world of God’s power over death and all that separates us from the life abundant God offers.

Together as Director of Ministry and congregation we have begun to do this work. We have fed the hungry, clothed the naked, given the gift of joy to those in despair in ways that I still cannot even begin to comprehend. Together we have trained to be disciples of Jesus. Thank you for trusting me to lead you in this ministry, thank you for joining in being a weed in this world, thank you for counting me as a member of this truly blessed community.

My friends, life is hard. Each and everyday we make decisions that cause us to leave behind those people and things we know and love. But in the midst of all this we have no reason to fear, and every reason to rejoice.

AMEN

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The Most Amazing Relationship

Sermon preached on Trinity Sunday (June 15, 2014) at St. Peter’s by-the-Sea, Narragansett RI.  You can listen to the sermon here.  

Today is one of my favorite feast days in the life of the Church.  As such, I find it baffling that all week long my Facebook feed has been filling up with clergy lamenting on having to preach today.  The Trinity is one of the most – maybe even the most – complicated doctrine the Church holds.  A poor metaphoric choice can easily lead the preacher down the path of heresy.  The Trinity is like water that can be found as a solid, liquid, or gas.  Nice try, but that’s modalism and it’s heresy.  The Trinity is like the Sun, which is star, heat, and light.  That understanding is arianism and it is a heresy.  How about the three-leaf clover metaphor?  That’s partialism, and you guessed it that is a heresy too.  Like I said, the Trinity is a very complicated thing to understand.

So if the Trinity is so hard to understand – if it is in fact beyond human comprehension why do we bother preaching on it?  Why bother having a Sunday dedicated to this doctrine?  If you ask me, it would be completely foolish not to.

TrinityIn a recent interview, I was asked what my image of God is when I pray.  My image of God is one of relationship.  Not only is God in relationship with God’s self – three in one and one in three – but God also desires nothing more than to be in a deep and abiding relationship with each and every one of us.  All that we are and all that we believe as Christians is based on this – God loves us so much that God will do absolutely anything to build and maintain this relationship with us.  We know the extent of this love; we know what happens on Good Friday.  This relationship, this desire to love us completely, even when we do not love ourselves in the same way or return that love to God, is what this day, this Trinity Sunday, is all about.  Understanding the Trinity is how we understand our relationship with our Triune God.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus says to baptize people in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  But, what if we had been given a different formula?  What is there was no Trinity?

“I baptize you in the name of the Father.”  To only recognize the Father, leaves out the person and work of Christ and the ongoing activity of the Spirit.  This would mean being baptized into a God full of mystery and power, but it would also mean being baptized into the fullness of a God who is detached.

“I baptize you in the name of Jesus.” In this we miss the Maker of heaven and earth, we miss that which is larger than what we can see, understand, or even image.  Only baptizing people in the name of Jesus also leaves out the continual presence of God with us today.

“I baptize you in the name of the Holy Spirit.”  Here we miss the awesomeness and creativity of God the Father.  We also miss the work of Jesus Christ, who is God in human flesh.  Without this work, we miss the redemptive work of God – the God who rose from the dead for our salvation.  If we are to leave that out, we might as well go home now because we are clearly wasting our time.

This is the relationship we are drawn into – we are immersed into by virtue of our Baptism.  We are in relationship with the creative, mysterious, and awesome God the Father.  We are in relationship with the God in human flesh that brings our salvation, God the Son.  We are in relationship with the presence of God that is the ongoing workings of God the Holy Spirit.  When we are in relationship with this God we are not powerless in the world, but we are powerful.  We are connected to God’s creative work, we are redeemed, and we are filled with the spirit that works wonders in, among, and through us.  This is what we celebrate this day.  We celebrate the most amazing relationship we could ever be invited into.

By virtue of our Baptism we have been invited into this relationship, but relationships are not one-way streets.  We must accept the gift of this relationship, and participate in its growth and development.  We do that by living into the very act that gave us this invitation in the first place – our Baptism.

Last Sunday as Tucker and Charlotte were baptized, we reaffirmed that which was promised for us at our own baptisms – that which many of us have affirmed for ourselves in confirmation.

Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?  Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?  Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?  Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?  Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

First and foremost, we build our relationship by being present with God and learning about God and how God works in our lives.  We participate in our continued lifelong formation as disciples of Jesus.  We pray.  We celebrate that which is the heart of our life of faith – the Holy Eucharist.  We come week by week to be strengthened, healed, and renewed:  to come closer to the Holy and participate in the foretaste of the heavenly banquet.

We know we will fall short, that we are human.  When that happens we cannot beat ourselves up.  We cannot tell ourselves that we are not good enough, that it is always our fault when things go wrong.  We cannot blame ourselves for things beyond our control.  So when we fail to get things right, we must remember where our center is and go there.  We must turn to God to be healed and strengthened, and go out and try again.

We must live our lives so that all people know we are disciples of Jesus.  We must in our words and actions proclaim this Good News of Great Joy that has been embedded deep within us.  We must not be ashamed of this most glorious relationship we have entered into with God; and what does any person do when they are in an amazing, powerful, and love filled relationship? – they tell the whole world.

We must share in our Gospel mandated work to seek Christ in the people and places we think are most unlikely.  Will you love your neighbor?  I am not just talking about the person who lives across the street, but the person across the world, the person who is other than you are, the person who supports the other political candidate, the person who has participated in hurting you.

We must use our prophetic voices to call out the injustices of the world.  The places where people are being systematically oppression, the places torn apart by endless war and violence, the places where the created order is being used and abused to the point of no return.  We cannot rest until every person is treated with the love, dignity, and respect they deserve by virtue of their being beloved children of God.  Take a moment and imagine what the world would look like, if in fact, we treated everyone like the beloved child of God that they are.

GoMakeDisciplesJesus says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.  And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Jesus is calling us and all nations – the entire world – into this life.  It is scary, it is hard, it is down right impossible to achieve on our own.  But thanks be to God we are not left comfortless, we are not left alone, we have this beautiful, awesome, love filled, and holy relationship right in front of us.

When God the Father created the world and calls everything good and invites us to share in the power of creation; when Jesus ascends into heaven and bestows upon us the power and responsibility preach, teach, heal the sick and raise the dead; when the Holy Spirit descends upon us like tounges of fire to enliven our souls on that great day of Pentecost we have two choices.  To say no and turn our backs on the greatest gift we have ever been offered or to say yes and share in this most holy relationship.

If you ask me, Trinity Sunday ought to be a bigger deal.  We cannot continue to let it silently sit there on our liturgical calendar.  We cannot as a Church find ways to skirt around it, because we do not understand.  Today is a day to celebrate.  To celebrate the precious invitation offered to us in Baptism to be in relationship with the Triune God.  To celebrate our place in this life as disciples of Jesus.  To celebrate the fact that we cannot even begin to comprehend the nature of God, but that we do not have to understand to change the word in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  And that is why I love Trinity Sunday.

 

AMEN.

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From Observation to Participation

Sermon preached at St. Peter’s by-the-Sea for the noon Ascension Day (May 29, 2014) Eucharist.
This sermon was preached without a manuscript, you can listen to the sermon here.  

 

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Collects for Ascension Day

Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things: Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen. 

Grant, we pray, Almighty God, that as we believe your only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into heaven, so we may also in heart and mind there ascend, and with him continually dwell; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.  

 

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Why? Because of Love

Sermon preached at St. Peter’s by-the-Sea, Narragansett RI on Good Friday (4/18/14) at the 7pm liturgy.  You can listen to the sermon here.  

The Jesus Storybook Bible: Every story whispers his name.

The Jesus Storybook Bible: Every story whispers his name.

This past week in our Wednesday pre-school chapel service, I read the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. There is something deeply profound and incredibly daunting about teaching crucifixion to a group of four year-olds. I knew they would have questions, and sure enough I was not wrong. “Why did God do that?” “Why did Jesus have to die?” How could I answer them? I still – and I think always will – wrestle and struggle with these questions. As I read the story, I came across the following words, “You see, they didn’t understand. It wasn’t the nails that kept Jesus there. It was love.” Why did Jesus have to die? Love. Not just any kind of love, but a never stopping, never giving up, unbreaking, always and forever kind of love. God loves us so much that he gives his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Jesus dies on the cross to save us from ourselves, to save us from sin and death, to restore us to wholeness and right relationship with God.

It is easy to come to this day thinking that Jesus dies on the cross so we do not have to. That instead of punishing us, God punishes Jesus. But, it seems to me, to do that takes away the true meaning and power of the cross. Jesus died for me, so I do not need to worry. I can keep going on with my life as I always have because Jesus has paid the price for my sins. This misses the point. The cross, this day, the central plotline throughout the entirety of the New Testament is not about retribution. It is not about the models and standards of societies penal justice system. It is not about Jesus being tagged in to take the punishment we deserve. What is going on this day is all about restoration.

Think back to the Gospels we’ve heard throughout this season of Lent. They all portray a marginalized person – someone left out, someone broken and suffering – and how they are restored to wholeness, how sight is restored, how life itself is restored. A restorative approach to the cross, rather than a punitive one, recognizes and addresses our underlying brokenness; brokenness that so often leads to hurtful behavior. What happens when we look at the cross through the lens of our own brokenness and the ways we fall short instead of through the lens of capital punishment? What happens when we recognize that our brokenness and the brokenness of the world is reflected in Jesus’ brokenness on the cross? What happens when we choose to accept this radical gift of love, to allow it to break us open and heal us?

Jesus has not come only to forgive sin, but to liberate us from everything that could possibly separate us from God and life, whether that means crushing illness, dehumanizing poverty, or spirals of destructive behavior. When we understand the cross in this way we can no longer allow ourselves to ignore the cross for all but one day a year. Breaking free of punitive theology, allows us to in a healthy and helpful way contemplate the mysteries of the cross in our daily lives.

I recently came across a quote from a Nicaraguan peasant named Oscar. Oscar understands the connection of the cross with our daily lives. Here is how he puts it:

Lots of people in Holy Week think only about the sufferings of Jesus, and they don’t think about the sufferings of so many Christs, of millions of Christs that exist. And Jesus didn’t want them to be wailing for him but to wail for the others that were going to suffer like him or worse than him.

Each and every day people through out the world face suffering and death – brutal torment and torture. It is the absolute worst side of humanity. But, Christ’s suffering and death on the cross says something to those in these most horrific situations. It shows that the Lord and Savior, the Redeemer of the world suffered as they suffer. More than that, he chose to suffer out of love for us all. No matter what our brokenness is – be it physical brokenness at the hands of others or emotional brokenness by our own self-deprecation – Jesus chooses to suffer with us.   He suffers so that we might be released from our brokenness and bondage and made whole once again. That we might live as God intends us to live. This is the most amazing kind of love there is. This is the most amazing gift we could ever receive – to have a Redeemer that loves us so much he will go to the cross and suffer for our restoration and redemption. How can we even begin to respond to this love?

This season of Lent, I have been reading from a book of meditations titled, “A Time to Turn: Anglican Readings for Lent and Easter Week.” This is a fabulous collection of works from people throughout the history of the Anglican tradition. But, one meditation, more than any other, has captured my heart and my imagination. Last Friday, I read a mediation on the cross from Poems, Centuries, and Three Thanksgivings by Thomas Traherne. In this meditation, Traherne wrestles with how to respond to this love that Jesus offers us on the cross.

Lord Jesus, what love shall I render to you, for your love to me, your eternal love! Oh what fervor, what ardor, what humiliation, what reverence, what joy, what adoration, what zeal, what thanksgiving! You are perfect in beauty, you are the king of eternal glory, you reign in the highest heavens and yet came down from heaven . . . And shall not I live for you? O my joy! O my sovereign friend! O my life and my all! I beseech you to let those trickling drops of blood that run down your flesh drop upon me. O let your love inflame me: love so deep and infinite . . . What shall I do for you?

What shall I do for you, O preserver of all: live, love, and admire; and learn to become such to you as you are to me . . . Why, Lord Jesus, do you love us, why are we your treasures? . . . Show me the reasons of your love that I may love all others too. O goodness ineffable! . . . O you who are most glorious in goodness, make me abundant in this goodness like yourself, that I may as deeply pity others’ misery, and as ardently thirst for their happiness as you do . . . Holy Jesus, I admire your love.

LoveWe are called to love as Jesus loves, to see the sufferings of the world and stand up against it. When we stand before the cross of the crucified Christ this day, we stand before the sufferings of all people. Jesus does not want us to wail for him, but for all of God’s children who have been cast down and broken

Who do we see when we look at the cross? Where is there suffering in our comunity, our nation, our world? Who have we put down in building ourselves up? Who have we crucified to preserve our power and privilege like the authorities crucified Jesus?

We are called to put our brokenness, shame, failings, and sin, at the foot of the cross and leave them there. This day we are reminded of our call to accept the radical gift of love that Christ has offered us. But, we are also called to share that radical gift of love with the world. It only takes one look at the newspaper to realized that this world of ours needs a lot of love. This world of ours needs the restorative, redeeming cross that we stand before this night.

May we go forth from this place reminded of the radical gift of love God in Christ offers to us. May we allow it to restore our brokenness to wholeness and strength. May it empower us to go out to do the same for the rest of the world.

Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name.

 

AMEN.

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John 19:34

Sermon preached at St. Peter’s by-the-Sea on April 18, 2014 during the Three Holy Hours liturgy for Good Friday.  You can listen to the sermon here

GFIconThe thing I love most about reading, hearing, and studying Holy Scripture is the way that new insights are revealed each and every time I engage a passage. Even when I think I know the story inside and out something new still comes forth. However, I did not anticipate this happening with today’s Gospel passage. This is a Gospel that I, like I suspect many of you, know well. We hear this every year on Good Friday, I love listening to sung versions of it, and in the past several weeks I have regularly been rehearsing chanting this Gospel for our liturgy this evening. But here is the great thing about the Holy Spirit and Scripture, yesterday morning as I sat in prayer with this lesson, something new jumped out at me.

Remember it is the day of Preparation, and the Jews did not want bodies left on the crosses for this Sabbath of great solemnity. So the soldiers begin to break the bones of the two criminals who were crucified with Jesus. Then they get to Jesus, they see he is already dead, and they decide to do something different. Here is what struck me; chapter 19 verse 34 says, “Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out.” At once blood and water came out.

In all the time I’ve spent with this passage in my life, I do not think I have ever given this verse a second look. I don’t know that I’ve ever paid this verse any attention whatsoever. Now maybe that is because I do not really understand the first thing about biology or anatomy; or because I am not a fan of blood and gore, but for whatever reason this time was different.

Blood and water are simple and ordinary things – yet they are so important. These two things literally make life. It should not be surprising then, that these two things are central symbols in our life of faith.

Thomas H. Troeger, Homiletics professor at Yale Divinity School, wrote about this connection in his book “Preaching While the Church is Under Reconstruction: The Visionary Role of Preachers in a Fragmented World” Listen to what Troeger has to say:

 Years ago someone gave me a medical article that attempted to account for the flow of blood and water from the crucified Jesus on a purely physiological basis. As reasonable scientific speculation it might have been well founded, but as a piece of theology it was bankrupt. It depended upon a literalism that abrogates the imaginative accuracy of John’s community and the liberated slaves. The true cross is the tree that grows among the community of the suffering.

Connecting blood and water, the symbols of communion and baptism, with the crucifixion of Jesus was an act of theological construction that bonded John’s community to one another and to Christ . . . John’s community did not travel back to Jerusalem. They made their pilgrimage to the cross where they lived. They made their pilgrimage every time they broke bread and poured the wine, every time they welcomed a new disciple with the ritual sign of water in the name of God. Theirs was not an archaeological theology of the cross, an attempt to return to the originating event. Through their worship they fed on a living theology of the true cross.

Being struck by this verse gives the opportunity to shift our view of the cross; to shift our view from death and suffering to life and wholeness. Troeger illuminates the connection of our sacramental life with that of the cross. With this understanding, every time we participate in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, every time we baptize a new Christian we are bound to the cross. When we participate in these Sacraments we must know that we can only participate because of the cross.

Last night we remembered the Last Supper – a holy and sacred meal consisting of ordinary things turned extraordinary. It is when we are told that the blood of Christ pours out over the world as a sign of the relationship between God and us. When we participate in the Blessed Sacrament we allow Christ to penetrate our very being in a way unlike any other.

Tomorrow night and Sunday morning, new Christians will be baptized. They will be washed and made clean with water. In those waters they will die to an old way of life, they will die with Christ of the cross – and be raised into a new life, a life illumined by the glories of Christ’s resurrection. A resurrection that is only possible because of the cross.

We have the opportunity this day to stand in front of the cross, in front of the crucified Christ. We have the opportunity to stand and face the ways we have fallen short, the ways we are broken. We must stand beneath the cross and allowed ourselves to be washed clean by the blood and water that flows out of Christ, to be made new, to leave behind all that holds us in bondage – all that holds us in sin and death.

But we must not, we cannot, stop there. We must not allow the grace of God and the glories of the cross to end with us. In Troeger’s book, he quotes a Nicaraguan peasant named Oscar. Oscar understands the connection of the cross with our daily lives. Here is how he puts it:

Lots of people in Holy Week think only about the sufferings of Jesus, and they don’t think about the sufferings of so many Christs, of millions of Christs that exist. And Jesus didn’t want them to be wailing for him but to wail for the others that were going to suffer like him or worse than him.

As we stand at the foot of the cross of the crucified Christ, we also stand below the cross of so many – too many – persecuted and oppressed peoples. Our call in Baptism, our call in receiving the Blessed Sacrament of Bread and Wine; our call in being washed by Christ’s blood and water which flow forth from him is to not be caught up in the historical nature of these events, but to recognize how they still are working in our lives today – how the true cross is in our midst. We must allow the cross and our lives to join together so that the meaning of each is continuously expanded by the other. We must ask: Where is blood and water flowing in our community? Where is the cross now? Who is praying, “My God, my God why have you abandoned me?” We must act to answer those questions, to stand with those who know nothing other than brokenness and death, to bring all people to the saving embrace of God so they know that the Savior and Redeemer of the world suffered as they suffer.

Blood and water are powerful things. They empowered John the Evangelist’s community in the face of violence at the hands of the Roman Empire; they empower millions of people suffering in the world to know they are not alone; they empower the Church to stand up to the corrupt powers of this world and say No to all that breaks down the people of God. They empower each one of us to know that we cannot fully celebrate the glorious Resurrection of our Lord and Savior without the Cross. This is not a day we can gloss over to more quickly get to the wonderful celebration of Easter morning. This is a day we must allow ourselves to sit with regularly. It is a place we must allow ourselves to dwell. If you are anything like me, we need more time to face our own brokenness and allow the loving embrace of God to make us whole again.

May we come before the cross this day and every day. May the blood and water of Christ pour out over us – make us clean and new, nourish and strengthen us. And may we take seriously our call to glory in the cross of Christ, to confront our own shortcomings and brokenness, to bring its restorative and healing power forth from Good Friday to the rest of our lives.

AMEN.              

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The Tone of Initiation

B-12FOriginally written for St. Peter’s by-the-Sea E-Net for January 12, 2014. 

In all cultures the rites of initiation have been the models for other rites of the community.  How people are initiated into the community sets the tone for everything else that happens.  This is true for the Church and our rite of initiation – Baptism.  This Sunday we have the opportunity to initiate new members into our community.  This Sunday we will receive Leonardo, Logan, and Shawn into the household of God, and invite them to join us in confessing the faith of Christ crucified, proclaiming his resurrection, and sharing with us in his eternal priesthood.

What we will do this Sunday sets the tone for everything else we do.  We will vow – we will promise – to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers; to persevere in resisting evil, and when we fall into sine, to repent and return to the Lord; to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ; to seek and serve Christ is all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves; and, to strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being.  We do all of this with, and only with, God’s help.

This Sunday we have the opportunity to be reminded of what it is we are called to and how we are to do it.  We will join in prayer, in song, in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist.  We will be strengthened to live into that which we have been called to do – that which was promised by and for us at our Baptism and each and every time we renew our Baptismal vows.

Will you join us this Sunday in welcoming Leonardo, Logan, and Shawn into this wonderful and amazing journey we have been called to?  Will you welcome them and support them in this work?  Will you come to get a glimpse into the kingdom of God breaking into the world in our very midst?

The Lord has shown forth his glory.  The Lord is showing for his glory in us: Come let us adore him.

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The Power of Word

Sermon preached at St. Peter’s by-the-Sea on Sunday December 29, 2013 (Christmas 1A).  You can listen to the sermon here.

“Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.”  Rudyard Kipling.

ImageDespite the abundance of words we encounter on a daily bases – in television, radio, books, magazines, blogs, Facebook, tweets, the list goes on – despite this over saturation, words have overwhelming power.

Think about the phrase, “Merry Christmas.”  How many times have you heard and said these words in the last several days?  How many more times in the days to come?  For us as Christians, these words mean something.  These words embody for us the joy, hope, and holiness of the incarnation – of the Christ child coming into the world.  We do not say “Joyful Christmas,” “Holy Christmas,” or any other variation of words that convey the same understanding as “Merry Christmas.” That is because in a way this phrase has been canonized for us.  It has become so important for expressing what this season means that these words in themselves have become holy.  But, what happens when these words are taken and used for other things?

Sometimes when words are twisted, when the meaning is changed, they become even more powerful.  They can even attempt to erase the word’s original intent and meaning.  “Merry Christmas” is a phrase that has been taken over, not by Churches and faithful worshipers, but by commercialism.  See how the words “Merry” and “Christmas” change when used in a commercial advertisement. “Make Christmas more Merry. One day sale at fill-in-the-blank-department-store.”  Make Christmas merrier by purchasing more things, participating in the myth that we do not have enough – that our own personhood is defined by what we have.  The “Merry Christmas” uttered in shopping malls means something rather different than the “Merry Christmas” we are greeted with in this sacred space.

This morning in the prologue to John’s Gospel we hear of another word – we hear of the Word: The Word that was with God in the beginning; the Word through whom all things – the entirety of creation – was made; the Word that becomes flesh – Jesus the Christ.

We hear in this morning’s Gospel that “the Word became flesh and lived among us.” Eugene Peterson, in his biblical paraphrase The Message, writes that the Word, “moved into the neighborhood.”  The Word – the most powerful of all words – comes to be amongst us.  The Word comes to dwell with us not to destroy or punish, but to restore us to the light. To bring us back to the heart of what we have been called to – the Truth.  Theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez once suggested that the best contemporary understanding of “the Word became flesh” is “the Word became poor.” God becomes incarnate taking on the tangible, vulnerable, human form.  God comes among us to heal us, to bring light where there is darkness, to bring wholeness where there is brokenness.  That is what we celebrate this Christmastide, that is what the incarnation of our Lord and Savior is all about, the coming of the Word into our lives – into our neighborhood.

If we believe that the Word has indeed come to be among us, if we believe that the Word is saturated in own lives than we must be mindful of what we say and do.  In today’s Gospel, we not only hear about the Word, but we also hear of the one who prepares the way – John the Baptist.  Many say we are called to be Christ like, but what if we tried to be more like John.  We hear that John “came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.” This leaves me to wonder, what do I testify to? What does my life – my witness – lead others to believe in?  I wonder if you’ve ever asked yourself those same questions?

Throughout history people have used Christianity to point towards something other than Truth and Light.  Christianity has been used as a tool of violence.  It has been used as a justification for slavery, oppression of women and those seen as societal outcasts.  Throughout time – and still today – the Word is twisted and manipulated to suit political gains.  The light and truth of the Word is changed to bring darkness.  This incredibly powerful Word is used and abused to erase that which the Word came to achieve – light, peace, grace, and truth.  If we believe that God is in fact among us, if God is not some distant being, then we must pay attention – we must change our ways.  We can no longer ignore the light and presence of God, because it is too inconvenient or simply too disruptive to our daily lives.

This is the most central claim of the Christian faith.  God became one of us, that we might know God more fully.  That we might come to know and be transformed by God’s nature and God’s love.  As Athansius said – the divine becomes human, so that human can become divine.  Let that sink in for a moment.  The divine becomes human, so that human can become divine.  If that is not shocking and even scandalous, I don’t know what is.

So what does this mean for us? How do we come to know the Word? How do we come to recognize that which John testified to – the true light, which enlightens everyone, coming into the world? While many understand this season to be one of happiness and cheer, to truly understand light we must know darkness.  For if we do not know darkness do we really need the light of Christ?

Look at the story we heard just a few days ago.  An unwed, young women, gives birth to a child.  This birth is unlike anything she could have imagined.  Instead of being surrounded by family she is surrounded by animals.  Instead of being at her home, she is in a manger.  Mary and Joseph are alone, and for that night, they are homeless.  The story of Mary is one of shame.  This is not how things are supposed to work.  Yet God is born, a weak helpless child, to lift up the cast down, to raise up the lowly.

Where does your own brokenness lie?  What are the dark places of your life?  In this season of the incarnation we are invited to open our lives.  To receive the gift of God’s grace.  Do you hear that still small voice of God calling out to you?  Will you open your heart – your life – so the Word can dwell in you?

Now more than ever it is important to come together.  To be present in community, to hear the word of God as revealed in Holy Scripture, to be nourished with the Word and Sacrament.  When we do this we allow the spirit of God to penetrate our brokenness and make us whole.  It’s like reading a good book over an over again, it gets inside you, it becomes part of you, in a way that reading something once can never do.  When we come and participate in the regular life of this community – or any community of faith – we allow the Word to break us open and make us a new creation.  We become children of God.  And what better time of year to be children?

There is something magical about children on Christmas.  The joy and excitement, the unknowing of what is wrapped under the tree, the light and hope in their eyes.  That is because Christmas is all about children.  We hear in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, that with the coming of Christ we are now children of God.  We heard that “God sent his Son, born of a woman . . . so that we might receive adoption as children.” By welcoming and receiving the Word in our midst, the Word that is imbued in our very being, we too become children.  This Christmastide may we embrace our childhood in God, and if we are children than we are also heirs.  May we share in the childlike joy, hope, and excitement at the gifts we receive: Gifts of God’s grace, love, truth, and eternal joy.

AMEN.

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When We Gaze Upon God

This began as a short reflection on the lessons for Proper 27C for the St. Peter’s E-Net.  When I started writing this is what came out.  

Over the last several weeks, we have been hearing, reflecting, and praying on some very challenging passages from the Gospel according to Luke.  It seems to me that one of the messages Jesus is continually trying to get across is that the values of this world – the ways of this world – are not the values and ways of God.

In this Sunday’s Gospel, the Sadducees try to trick Jesus.  They begin to ask questions, not as a way of creating open dialogue or for the growth and benefit of those involved in the conversation, but as a way to try to manipulate Jesus to gain power over him.  The Sadducees try to put Jesus in a situation where he will appear to the crowd as being neither trustworthy nor knowledgeable.  But, Jesus doesn’t fall for this.  Instead he takes the opportunity, he takes this teachable moment, to talk about the nature of heaven.

In this passage, and over and over again in scripture, we hear that the ways of earth and the ways of heaven are not the same.  One of the more well known scriptural examples of this comes from Isaiah, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”(55:8-9).  But, Jesus takes it a step further than just saying that heaven and earth are different.  Jesus answers the question asked by the Sadducees by saying that in heaven even the lowliest of the society would be considered “like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.”  This is one radical statement.

This Gospel passage lifts up the fact that the mystery of the resurrection revealed by Jesus, is that heaven is a place where those who have been dehumanized will be restored; those who have been oppressed will be set free; those who have been treated as inferior will be raised up; those who are last will be first.  All those people who do not fit into the systems of power and privilege in our society will be lifted up and seen as the truly beloved children of God that they are.  They will no longer be seen as property, as second class, as something to be used, abused, and tossed aside.  In heaven, in the kingdom of God, these children will know the joy and peace that was denied them in their earthly life.

In this passage we hear Jesus proclaim that “[God] is God not of the dead, but of the living.” The God of the living is a God of restoration, newness, forgiveness, and liberation.  This is a God that breaks down the bondage and slavery of sin and destruction that we live in: that we play a part in.

What is glaringly highlighted in this Gospel is that those of us who participate in, and benefit from, systems of power and privilege have much to be concerned with.  If those who are held in bondage and oppression will be liberated and set free, what does that mean for the rest of us?  What does that mean for The Church?  What does it mean for us, in the words of Nancy Lynne Westfield, if “Resurrection is especially for the least, the lost, and the left out, a place of honor and respect as we experience the joy of God’s love in the resurrection?” What are we to do?

Pope Francis, in a recent sermon said, “The Church is not the Church only for good people.  Do we want to describe who belongs to the Church, to this feast? The sinners.  All of us sinners are invited.” He went on to say, “You either participate fully or you remain outside. You can’t pick and choose: the Church is for everyone, beginning with those I’ve already mentioned, the most marginalized.  It is everyone’s Church!”  I wonder how we welcome the most marginalized into our midst?  How do we make our parishes inviting places where all people – the most marginalized in particular – are welcome to the great feast we are called to share?

We are called to come participate fully in this life of the Church.  To come seeking forgiveness for our participation of the oppression of other people; to seek healing for the ways we have been hurt; to break down the societally imposed barriers between “us” and “them.”

This past week, Br. Mark Brown offered a powerful meditation titled “Gaze” as part of the SSJE offering Brother, Give Us A Word.  Br. Mark wrote:

God, in Christ, has set his face toward us in the hope that we would set our face toward him.  That we would not only grasp his garment, but take hold of him and gaze directly into his face.  There is infinite power in this reciprocal gaze.  There is eternity in this mutual delight.

I think Br. Mark’s words offer us a way to transform our hearts: a way for us to seek forgiveness and a change of life.  If we share in this reciprocal gaze with God, if we experience this mutual delight, there is a way we can begin to break down the systematic oppression of other people.  There is a way we can begin to break the bondage of slavery that takes hold of our lives.

We have been invited to come as sinners to the great feast of The Lamb.  To take heart that despite our shortcoming, our failures, our sinfulness we are beloved children of God. When we come to the altar we begin to experience the in breaking of God’s redeeming love in the world.  When we share this most sacred and holy meal we are empowered to see all people as beloved children of God.  When this happens, we will truly experience the kingdom of God in our midst.  We will know what Jesus proclaims when he says that God is God of the living; when he teaches and describes what heaven is like.

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Stop Pledging!

Sermon preached at St. Peter’s by-the-Sea on Sunday October 27, 2013 (Proper 25 C).  You can listen to the sermon here

Stop Pledging! Now do I have your attention?

Today’s Gospel from Luke continues the string of challenging Gospels we’ve been hearing from these last several weeks.  These Gospels have focused on Jesus turning the status quo on its head.

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A few weeks ago we heard proclaimed “you cannot serve God and wealth.” Today we hear, “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” We hear about the Pharisee and the tax collector; the one favored and the one despised.  But, who is it that goes back to his home being justified, being forgiven and made righteous in God’s eye?  When we look at this parable through our own societally constructed lens, it makes absolutely no sense.  But, society and God do not see eye to eye on the truth of the Gospel reality.  The justice we understand in our society, the justice of the Pharisee, is not the same as God’s justice.

There are real fundamental differences between the Pharisee and the tax collector.  It seems, at least for me, it is much easier to be the Pharisee than it is to be the tax collector.  The Pharisee says, “God I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”  How easy is it for us to lift ourselves up, to be proud of all that we have done.  “God I thank you that I am not like those people: immigrant people; gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender people; undereducated people; people who use the community market.”  While I hate to admit it, I am guilty of thoughts like these – of the spiritual pride that Jesus is condemning in this Pharisee.  And I would bet some of you are too.

This Pharisee is entrenched in the societal norms and values of his day: of power and privilege; of status and money; of having rule and control over others.  He is locked into the systems of social and economic competition and the hierarchy of honor and prestige that favors the dominant and powerful.  Just as we heard last week with the unjust judge, this system – through the power of prayer – is reversed.

So what about this tax collector?  Tax collectors are not known to be the most – let’s say – upstanding citizens of the day.  They were seen as collaborators with the hated Romans, unscrupulous, dishonest, greedy.  Not the sort of person we assume to be justified by God.  But the tax collector – a devout man – offers a very simple, yet deeply profound prayer.  “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”  He is beating his breast, unable to look away from the ground, and all he can say is, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”  The simplicity, candor, and complete and absolute trust in God, make this the perfect prayer.  The tax collector knows that no matter how sinful he has been, he can still be the recipient of God’s mercy.  This tax collector goes home being justified, being made right with God, because of this prayer.  He is willing to stand before God without any excuses, without any pleading or deal making, with only a single request – God’s mercy.  What a beautiful example of faith and trust in God.  Now we do not know what happens to the tax collector after this encounter in the temple, but that does not matter.  This parable is only concerned with the tax collector’s trust in God’s mercy.  If the tax collector can find mercy before God, if the tax collector can find the faith and courage to stand openly before God, what is our excuse? What could possibly come in the way of God extending mercy to us? Extending mercy to me and to you?

This tax collector relies completely and totally on God, while the Pharisee thinks that he has reached his status point – his achievements – on his own accord.  The Pharisee prays about all the things he has done: praying, fasting, tithing.  The Pharisee might as well be saying, “Hey God!  Look how awesome I am!”  The faithful tax collector is ashamed of what he has done, and his prayer to God is one of forgiveness and mercy, not prideful boasting.  The greatest sin in this parable is not the collective actions of the tax collector, but the pride of the Pharisee.  The Pharisee has fallen into the sin of arrogance because he has attempted to exalt himself above others, even above God.  And, we hear what happens to those who exalt themselves.

Having looked at the Pharisee and the tax collector, I want to go back to my opening statement.  Stop pledging!  There is nothing like a little shock value to get the blood flowing in the morning.

As a Church for the last few decades we’ve created the words pledging and stewardship to be synonyms.  “How is your parish with stewardship? Is everyone up to date with their pledge?” Stewardship is about a lot more than filling out and keeping up with a pledge card.  Stewardship is about a way of life.  Stewardship takes a lot more than ten percent, it takes one hundred percent of your life.  Now don’t get me wrong, making a pledge is an important thing.  Pledging is how we fund the budget, how bills are paid, how staff are paid, and how ministries are funded. But, we cannot stop there.  If all we do is pledge – even if we have reached the important milestone of the tithe – we are not living into the lives God has called us to.  If we find ourselves saying, I pledge or I tithe, and I attend Church we are just like that boastful Pharisee.  When we think of stewardship as pledging and only pledging, when we do it because we have to, this becomes no different than paying country club dues.

Stewardship is an attitude; it is a way of life.  Living as good stewards, we do not give of our talent out of a sense of obligation, but we give out of a sense of joy.  Out of the sense that everything we are, everything we have, our entire being is a gift and blessing from God.  When we understand stewardship as a way of life, when we give thanks and praise to God for all the good gifts we’ve received, then this time together, the monetary offerings we make, the sacrifices of time and talent become holy things, not obligations to make us feel good or to assure ourselves that we have paid our dues.

Everyday I receive a meditation from Richard Rohr, author and Franciscan priest.  His meditation from yesterday speaks more profoundly than I can about the importance of not following in the footsteps of the Pharisee – the importance of not thinking to highly of ourselves:

Why does the Bible, and why does Jesus, tell us to care for the poor and the outsider?  It is because we all need to stand in that position for our own conversion.  We each need to stand under the mercy of God, the forgiveness of God, and the grace of God – to understand the very nature of reality.  When we are too smug and content, then grace and mercy have no meaning – and God has no meaning.  Forgiveness is not even desired.  When we have pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps, religion is always corrupted because it doesn’t understand the mystery of how divine life is transferred, how people change, and how life flows.

It seems to me that we have a choice.  We can be the Pharisee or we can be the tax collector.  We can be good pledgers or we can be good stewards.  We can trust in ourselves or we can trust in God.

What does it mean for you to be the Pharisee?  When do you boast of yourself instead of boasting in God? When do you fail to rely on God’s grace and mercy?  When do you come before God praying, be merciful to me, a sinner?”

I invite you to open yourself to God, to receive the gift of God’s grace and mercy.  I invite you to join me at the altar to receive the most blessed sacrament of our Lord and Savior.  I invite you to join me in making our prayer, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

AMEN.

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First Day of School Drive

Originally written for the St. Peter’s E-Net sent out September 1, 2013.  

Every morning I begin my day with prayer.  Part of that time includes reflecting on Brother, Give Us a Word a daily offering from the Society of St. John the Evangelist. Today’s word is offering.  Bother David Vryhof writes the following about offering: “The problems that surround us will always be overwhelming, our resources will always be  insufficient, but God tells us to offer them anyway.  Do what you can  do; give what you  can give – even if it seems ridiculously insufficient.” This year, we decided to provide a new offering for our Community Market families – The First Day of School Drive.

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Going back to school can be a complicated emotional experience.  There is the joy of seeing friends, and the excitement of a new year.  There is also a myriad of more complicated emotions; sadness that the summer is over, the nervousness of being accepted, etc.  For a growing number of kids in our neighborhood, there is yet another challenge for going back to school – not being able to afford the supplies a student needs to succeed.

As the registration forms came in, I became more and more nervous about the number of kids who needed supplies: ten, twenty, thirty, forty kids!  That is a lot of backpacks, notebooks, folders, and glue sticks.

With donations from the congregation and shopping done by our volunteers we were able to get all the supplies 1185812_583765275014192_522333686_nneeded for all forty kids from the Community Market.  A fabulous group of volunteers gathered yesterday to fill these backpacks with all the supplies these kids will need; and today parents and kids will come and pick them up.

It is easy for us to think that our efforts are not even beginning to make a dent in the needs of the community, or that maybe we should not even bother because we cannot end the need.  Now more than ever, it is important that we keep doing whatever we can no matter how ridiculously insufficient it may seem.  Here is why: Yesterday afternoon, a mother with her two children came by to pick up their backpacks.  The mother was so incredibly grateful that we could help provide what she is not able to.  But, the best part was the reaction of her two kids.  As her daughter opened her bag she shouted, “Look at all the cool stuff I got!” Her brother was just as excited that his bag was cooler than any bag he has ever had.

It is an amazing gift to be part of this experience for these families, to see that joy and excitement on the kids faces, and the sincere thanks and gratitude from the parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles.  No matter how little we think we are doing, we are make an amazing difference in the lives of those in our community.  As Br. David reminds us that we are called to, “Do what you can do; give what you can give – even if it seems ridiculously insufficient.”

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