Category Archives: Pastoral Messages and Sermons
Sermon: Advent 1B (2017)
Mtr. Jen Fulton
St. John of the Cross, Bristol
“Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
My first child took her own sweet time in being born. For weeks I had been going to my doctor’s appointments, and for weeks I had been told that all was ready, and that I would give birth any time now. My hospital bag was packed. I was well-versed on the signs of labor. I knew exactly where to go when labor began, and how everything at the hospital would progress. I was ready.
But my beloved eldest took her own sweet time. A week after her due date, and the day before my doctor was scheduled to go on vacation, my husband and I went to the hospital to induce labor. And even then, she took her time, and nothing felt or went the way I thought it would. My husband and I spent most of that day playing cribbage. They said that I was having contractions, but I couldn’t feel them. The doctor kept coming in to check on me, and every time she would do something to try to speed things up. But my Alex was born when she was ready to be born—over 12 hours after they began to induce.
Giving birth to my second child was completely different. A few weeks before my due date, my body showed absolutely no signs of being ready to go into labor. My doctor was concerned about my weight gain and swelling, and so sent me to the hospital for some tests to make sure that everything was fine for me and for the baby. It was, so he told me to go home—it would be awhile yet. That afternoon, I put Alex, the oldest, in front of the TV—something I rarely did—because I wasn’t feeling well. I thought I was coming down with something. At 5:00pm, I was supposed to start making dinner, and at 6:00pm I was supposed to pick up my husband at the commuter train station. When I picked him up, I told him that I wasn’t feeling well, that I hadn’t made dinner, and so I was sorry but we were going to pick up some Taco Bell on the way home. I barely ate. My husband kept asking me if I thought I was in labor, but I kept saying, “No—it isn’t time, and besides, I don’t think this is the way it’s supposed to feel.” He called his sister, who said I was in labor. I called my doctor, who also said I was in labor, and that I’d best not wait to go to the hospital.
My bag wasn’t packed. I didn’t know which hospital entrance to go into. We didn’t have adequate plans for who was going to take care of our oldest. I wasn’t prepared at all. By the time I got to the hospital, the labor was so advanced that I had missed the window for any pain medication.
I had been fooled once into believing that the time was near. It’s not that I thought it would never happen. It’s more that between my experience the first time and being told the second time that the time for labor was nowhere near, I was lulled into believing that I had plenty of time. I failed to prepare. I failed to keep watch. I missed the signs.
In a Scripture passage that we did not hear today, Romans 8:22, Paul says that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. That’s a lot of groaning, a lot of childbirth. The whole creation is groaning in preparation for the full coming of Christ—for the full realization of God’s Kingdom. The whole creation has been groaning for the past 2,000 years. Together as priest and congregation, we are entering our fourth Advent season together—and we have all been instructed to stay awake, to wait in joyful expectation for the coming of our Lord each year. Depending on how long you have worshipped in Christian communities that observe the season of Advent, you have been instructed to stay awake, to wait in joyful expectation for the coming of our Lord, over and over and over again.
Much of the time, we are people of faith. It’s not that we don’t believe that Jesus will never come again. It’s more that we’ve been instructed to keep awake, to be prepared, so often, that we’ve been lulled into believing that we have plenty of time. And so we fail to prepare. We fail to keep watch. We miss the signs.
It probably doesn’t help that Advent falls during the hustle and bustle of Christmas preparations. Here, we have a deadline. By the evening of the 24th of December, our shopping needs to be done, and our wrapping, and our baking and our decorating and all of it. And that may feel as though we’re preparing. As though we’re keeping watch. But what we’re preparing for and watching for is worldly. Many of us may be asleep to what matters. We fail to watch and to wait for Christ. We fail to be awake to God at work in the world.
Which is a pretty good argument for Advent. I have come to love the liturgical year, with all of its seasons, because they all serve as reminders of the people that we are meant to be. Christmas reminds us that we are people of the incarnation—who know that God is with us. Epiphany reminds us that we are people of revelation—who have seen the wonders that God does and the wonder that God is. Lent reminds us that we are people of repentence. Easter reminds us that we are people of the resurrection. Ordinary time reminds us that we are normal people called to be faithful in and through the patterns of day-to-day life. And Advent—Advent reminds us that we are a people who watch, who wait for Christ, who stay awake to God at work in the world. Even when it seems as though we have been laboring at this for an awful long time. Even when the world would lull us into complacency, or distraction, or sleep.
As we begin this season of Advent, our gospel reminds us of three things. Well, it reminds us of more than three things; it’s a really rich gospel. But I’m going to pull out three things for us to chew on.
First: Christ will come again. The Kingdom of God will come in its fullness. God will tear open the heavens and reunite heaven and earth. God will stir up God’s might, and come to save us, to restore us. God will kindle a flame in each one of our souls. God will transform us into better versions of ourselves. Yes, it’s been a long time. 2,000 years. But let’s think about this for a moment.
The Old Testament spent much of its time predicting the first coming—the birth of the Messiah. And generations upon generations upon generations waited. Moses never saw the Promised Land. The Psalmists never knew Jesus. Neither did the prophet Isaiah. They went into exile. They returned to a temple that had been destroyed. They were ruled by the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Romans. All of those people, waiting. Or not. At times the wait seemed too long, and they built golden calfs or worshipped Baal or depended too much on the law to save them. But Jesus was born—the Messiah came. And so many people missed it. They had been waiting so long, they missed it.
And now, we wait for the second coming—the return of Jesus and the true fulfillment of the Kingdom of God. And generations upon generations upon generations have waited. And truthfully, folks, I don’t know why. I wish I did—I wish I understood the mind of God and what God is up to and how time works for God, exactly. But I don’t. What I do know is that God has proven God’s faithfulness even during long waits. God’s covenant is good and sure. Christ will come again, and we will know the fullness of God’s reign.
Second: we don’t know when, and we’re not meant to know when. And it’s not that people haven’t tried. Here’s the list that I found of predictions of apocalyptic events that were supposed to take place in the past. It’s 19 pages long! 19 pages! Jesus does not mean us to know when he will return. Rather, he is urging us to live as if his return were just around the corner.
Third: In this in-between time, God has put us in charge. Wait . . . What? Let’s make sure of that. Jesus says, “It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands that doorkeeper to be on the watch.” He puts his slaves in charge. God puts us in charge. God has given us each work to do on God’s behalf, and put us in charge.
Sort of. To unpack this a bit, let’s talk about the movie Ben Hur. How many of you have seen Ben Hur? OK. So you remember that the movie contains and is famous for its epic chariot race, yes? For those of you haven’t seen the movie, Ben Hur has this epic chariot race. For the filming, an enormous set was constructed and then teams of stunt men were trained to drive four-horse chariots. One of those trained was Charlton Heston, and he was worried. He was worried that he wouldn’t be able to pull it off. So he went to the director and voiced his concerns, and the director said to him, “Charlton, you just stay in the chariot and I’ll guarantee you win the race.”
This might be pretty close to what God would say to us. In this life, God asks us to stay in the chariot, to stay in the race, and that takes some real wakefulness. That requires that we stay alert and balanced and do some work. But God has assured the win. God has defeated sin and death, and is defeating sin and death, and will defeat sin and death. Remember point #1? Jesus will come again, and will make everything right. But God calls us to participate in that by staying in the chariot, by participating in the race, by taking care of the house and keeping watch.
So the waiting is not a passive waiting. It’s not a sit-and-stare-at-the-wall type waiting. It’s a get-busy-and-get-to-work-doing-God’s-will type waiting. It’s a waiting in which we participate in the tearing open of the heavens, in the uniting of heaven and earth. We can’t do it alone. But man, Jesus is really clear here. We are supposed to be keeping the house in order. We are supposed to stay in the chariot, stay in the race. We are supposed to be the Body of Christ here on earth. We are called to be the Jesus movement.
In the reflection on today’s readings published by the Living Church, I found this wonderful, baffling sentence: “Waiting for God is his arrival.” Waiting for God IS his arrival.
I suppose that this is where my whole labor analogy at the beginning of this sermon breaks down. Waiting for a child to be born is not the child being born. But waiting for God IS his arrival.
When we light a candle on the Advent wreath, Christ arrives, because we have witnessed to our hope that Christ will come again, and in doing so, we have made Christ visible and present.
When we are faithful in our worship, Christ arrives, because in our worship, we make Christ visible and present.
When we feed the hungry, visit the imprisoned, tend the sick, shelter the homeless, clothe the naked, comfort the despairing, Christ arrives, because we make Christ visible and present.
When we are waiting in expectation, not passively, but actively, doing the work that God has given us to do in anticipation of His return, Christ arrives.
Perhaps not in his fullness, but he arrives nonetheless.
Waiting for God is his arrival.
So my friends, let’s get busy waiting! I know it’s been a long time. I know we say this every December. I know how easy it is to be lulled into complacency, to be distracted. And I don’t know when the waiting will end. But man alive, we are a people who wait. Not passively, but actively, in expectation and in faith. As though every moment were a vigil. Jesus will not disappoint. God will not disappoint. And waiting for God is his arrival.
Sermon: Proper 28A
Judges 4:1-7, Psalm 123
Mtr. Jen Fulton
St. John of the Cross, Bristol
“So our eyes look to the Lord our God, until he show us his mercy.” In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
A few weeks ago, a group of us were looking at today’s lesson from the book of Judges, and someone at the table asked why this lesson was even in the lectionary for today. I gave a rather flippant answer; it went something like, “Because . . . Deborah.” Now it’s true that I like to see the women of the Bible highlighted by the lectionary. But even I must admit that that shouldn’t be enough to earn this particular reading a place in the lectionary. So why is this reading in there?
The answer, I must admit, is I don’t know.
I could blame my lack of answers on two handy excuses. One of my sermon prep days was eaten up by a lunch in Valparaiso that I forgot about until the morning of. The second of my sermon prep days was eaten up by a case of food poisoning that I probably got at that lunch. But the truth is, I probably wouldn’t have figured out why this particular section of Judges is in the lectionary anyway.
But I did find out one very interesting thing: this is the only reading from Judges in the entire three-year cycle of the Revised Common Lectionary. In other words, this is the only reading from Judges that you will ever hear on Sunday morning.
This shouldn’t be particularly surprising, because Judges is . . . well, disturbing at times. It’s full of illicit sex and violence. It’s full of religious conflict and war. It’s often politically incorrect, by today’s standards. The main characters are a rather questionable, morally ambiguous lot—and that’s putting it kindly.
Funny enough, when I did some research on why Judges is so ignored by so many Christian denominations, I also found a lot of people claiming that the book of Judges is irrelevant to us and to our lives.
So, let me get this straight. Judges depicts a time full of illicit sex and violence, religious conflict and war, political incorrectness, and leaders that are a rather questionable, morally ambiguous lot (putting it kindly). Sure—that’s not at all relevant to our situation today. [profound eye roll] Folks, I don’t know why the creators of the lectionary included this exact section from Judges, but I do know that if we want to know how God acts and what God does during times full of illicit sex and violence, religious conflict and war, political incorrectness, and leaders that are more than a little questionable and morally ambiguous, then we should be studying the Book of Judges. It has something to teach us.
Add to this the fact that Judges also depicts a people intent on worshipping other gods, and it definitely has something to teach us. We might not worship other gods per se, but we certainly worship—or at least put our faith in—other things, things other than God. Things like money, leisure, capitalism, comfort, security, a political party, and technology. Yes, Judges definitely has something to teach us.
So I’m about to do a rather strange thing and use our specific reading from Judges today to address the book as a whole, and what it teaches us about how God acts and what God does during troubling times. Because, you know, we won’t hear anything else from Judges on a Sunday morning ever, so we might as well address the whole thing, right?
But first, a little background is in order.
If you’ve been coming to church this year, and if you’ve been listening to the Old Testament readings, you’ve got most of the background. The Israelites were enslaved in Egypt. God appeared to a man named Moses in a burning bush and told him to go to Pharaoh and demand that he let the Israelites go. There were plagues, and there was the parting of the Red Sea, but the people were finally set free. God formed a special covenant with them, and promised to lead them to a land—the aptly named Promised Land. After much wandering in the wilderness, and under the leadership of Moses’ successor, Joshua, the people entered the Promised Land and settled there, alongside the Philistines and the Aramaean tribes that also lived there. As Joshua had predicted, the Israelites failed to keep their covenant with the Lord, and at the same time often found themselves either threatened or dominated by foreign oppressors.
In other words, the Israelites had made it to the Promised Land, but didn’t live there in perfect freedom. Their disobedience prevented their enjoyment of the promised blessings. And since they weren’t yet a monarchy, they didn’t even have a king to lead them. God was supposed to be their king, but they weren’t faithful to him.
Enter the Book of Judges.
Judges actually tells basically the same story over and over again. In each story, the Israelites do evil in the sight of the Lord. Then, the Israelites are threatened or overcome by foreign oppressors. Next, the people cry out to the Lord to help them. Finally, in his compassion, God raises up a judge from among them, and things are made right again for the Israelites. This cycle is repeated again and again.
It is important here to keep in mind what a judge is really supposed to do. We think of a judge as someone in a black robe making legal decisions. But for the biblical authors, a judge was simply someone who brings justice—who makes things right, who defends the oppressed, who saves the people from their own folly, who recovers the divine promise that seems to have been lost. That means that every time the Israelites screwed things up, the Lord, in his compassion, would send someone who would make things right, defend the oppressed, save the people from their own folly, and recover the divine promise that seemed to have been lost.
And God did this over and over and over again.
Which means, my friends, that this is the way that God works. It’s the way that God worked then, and it’s the way that God works now. We live in a time full of illicit sex and violence, of religious conflict and war. Our leaders are a rather questionable, morally ambiguous lot. We worship and place our faith in people and systems and things instead of fully in God—we depend on them to save us. But into all of this, God is continually at work to bring justice—to make things right, to defend the oppressed, to save us from our own folly, to bring to us the full divine promise that often seems to have been lost. This is how God works. This is what God does.
And God does this even when it’s not entirely obvious. In the book of Judges, there were periods of time in which there were no judges—God seemed to be silent, refusing to bring forth justice and to fulfill God’s promises. But God always heard the people, always remembered his love for them, always kept his covenant, always brought forth justice.
In these post-resurrection times, we know that sin and death have been defeated. We know that the cross was victorious. We know that God is leading us to the Promised Land—to the fullness of the Kingdom. But it’s not always obvious. God can seem strangely absent.
Hurricanes in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. An earthquake in Mexico. Monsoon flooding in Bangladesh. A mudslide in Colombia. Flooding and landslides in Sierra Leone. Wildfires in California. Terrorist attacks. ISIS. North Korea’s continued missile testing. Racial violence in Charlottesville. A church shooting in Texas. In fact, depending on what you count as a mass shooting, nearly as many mass shootings in the U.S. as days in 2017. The opioid crisis. Domestic violence. Sexual violence. The death of our friends and loved ones. Our very real grief and loss. And that’s just a start to all that is wrong in our world.
My friends, I would never want to respond to any of this with empty religious platitudes, but the Christian hope is hardly a religious platitude. The Christian hope—the hope that begins with the book of Genesis and continues through Judges clear through to the resurrection and then the book of Revelation—is that God is at work through all of it. Setting things right. Defending the poor and oppressed. Saving us from our own folly. Recovering the divine promise that seems to have been lost. When I look at just the past year in our communities, in our country, and in our world, I cannot always see how God is at work. But with the psalmist, I say that my eyes look to the Lord, until he shows us his mercy. Join me in that, my friends. Together, may our eyes look to the Lord, until he shows us his mercy.
The second thing that I would like us to take from the book of Judges is this: God often works with and through those we would least expect.
Look at Deborah, for example. I hate to break it to the biblical authors, but Deborah was a woman! She was a woman, and a prophet, and a judge, and a military leader. All of this, somewhere roughly around the year 1200 BCE! This is astounding! What besides God could have led her to sit under the palm of Deborah, pronouncing judgment? What besides God could have led the Israelites to seek her out for judgment? What besides God could have led her to summon a man—Barak—and to give him military counsel? This was not included in our reading for today, but Barak responds by saying that he won’t go to war unless she goes too! The famous Song of Deborah in chapter 5 says that the chiefs of Issachar came with Deborah, and Deborah is referred to as a mother in Israel. This is a mother as had never been seen!
God worked with and through someone that no one could have expected. And God called the people to respond in faithfulness to this person—this woman!—that they never would have expected!
And she’s not the only judge that wasn’t what one would expect. The first judge, Othniel, was a younger brother in a culture that valued eldest sons. Ehud was a left-handed man at a time when all variation from the norm was held suspect. Gideon was from the weakest clan in Israel and was least in his family, and was kind of a goof who kept questioning God and putting him to the test. Jephtah was the son of a prostitute. And Samson—well, Samson led a rather checkered life. I’ll admit, I do not approve of Samson at all. Yet somehow, God worked with and through all of them. Somehow, God used them to further God’s purposes for Israel.
Which means, first of all, that God can and does work with and through any of us—as long as we cooperate by responding to God’s call. Even if we’re kind of a goof about it.
But it also means that we need to look for God at work in the people that we do not expect. In the women. In the youngest sons. In the left-handed. In the weakest and the least. In the goofs. In the children of prostitutes. In the people of whom we do not approve. In all of our modern-day equivalents of these people. In other words, we need to look for God at work in everyone. You never know who is lending a hand in recovering the divine promise that seems to have been lost. And you know, those of is here in the pews tend to talk about how we need to help the least of these, to treat the least of these with compassion, and we do so with good reason. Jesus does too. But we—we need to go deeper and to be ready to follow the least of these, for God just might be working through them.
So. God is always at work. And God is often working with and through people we’d never suspect, in ways that we would never expect.
‘Cause our God is a weird God, full of surprises. Our God is fond of bizarre plot twists. God’s ways are not our ways, nor are God’s thoughts like our thoughts. And our God is faithful. Our God is making things right, is saving us from our own folly, is fulfilling the divine promise that often seems to have been lost.
You know, my sermons are usually punctuated by anecdotes—stories of my family, of my past or my present, of things that I’ve read about or seen or watched. But there were no anecdotes in this sermon. And the reason is simple. This week, I couldn’t see how God is at work in our broken and sinful world. There were no obvious examples for me. And I couldn’t see how God is working in the people that I wouldn’t expect. No obvious examples there either. But despite the fact that I couldn’t find proof for my assertions, I place my faith in God anyway. In the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, of Deborah, Ruth, and Esther. In the God of the Judges and of the Kings. In the God of the exiles and of the remnant. I place my faith in Jesus. I place my faith in the Trinity. I place my faith in God’s promises. My eyes look to the Lord our God, until he show us his mercy.
Together, may all of our eyes look to the Lord our God, until he show us his mercy.
I have to admit, our Old Testament lesson for today made me laugh. Out loud.
It wasn’t the Scripture itself that made me laugh, exactly. It was more the fact that we were given this Scripture passage on the last day of our Stewardship season—the day that our Planned Giving cards are due.
You see, in this passage from the Book of Joshua, Joshua is near death. Let’s remember for a moment that Joshua took over for Moses when Moses died. Remember him? The Israelites had been in slavery in Egypt when God appeared to Moses in a burning bush and told him to go to Pharaoh and demand that he let the Israelites go. There were plagues, there was the parting of the Red Sea, but the people were finally set free. In response to their release from slavery, they were given all of the law and the Ten Commandments, asked to respond to God’s call to them to be holy as God is holy, in thankfulness for their deliverance. God also promised them a land—the aptly named Promised Land. But they messed up, and they whined, and they built this golden calf and worshipped it, and they questioned whether God could really help them defeat the peoples inhabiting the land of Canaan when they arrived. And so they wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, being made ready for the fulfillment of God’s promises. Moses died without ever entering the promised land, and Joshua took up the mantle of leadership. And here, in our reading for today, he is about to die, and delivers an address reminding the people that God would fulfill God’s promises to them, and that they are called to obedience and faithfulness. He calls them to service to the Lord, to renew their covenant with their God.
And as I remembered all of this history, as I read about this renewal of the covenant, all I could think of is that this calling the people to renewing their covenant, in calling them to covenant faithfulness in thanksgiving for God’s blessings and love—well, that it’s like Joshua had just collected their Planned Giving cards. ‘Cause that’s kind of what we do every stewardship season, right? We renew our covenant to God and to this parish, and we respond to God’s call that we give of ourselves through our time, talent, and treasure in faithfulness and in thanksgiving for God’s deliverance. So it’s like Joshua had just collected the Israelite’s Planned Giving cards, and his response? It’s not exactly what I would do.
And that made me laugh. Out loud.
In fact, it tickled my fancy so much, that I realized that I wanted nothing more than to reenact this scene with you, on our stewardship ingathering Sunday—the day our Planned Giving cards are due. So—I wrote a script. And we’re going to act it out together. ‘Cause I think we need to hear what this sounds like, and because gosh darn it all, Scripture can be fun! (Have volunteers had out scripts.)
So here’s what’s going to go down. I’m going to play the role of Joshua, because you know, delusions of grandeur and all, and you all are going to play the role of the Israelites. I’ve adapted the Scripture a little to fit our circumstances, but basically it’s the same. So, ready? Here we go.
* * *
So my stewardship sermons, had I depended on Joshua as a source, would have sounded something like this:
Mtr. Jen: “My friends, thus says the Lord, your God: Long ago your ancestors—Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor—lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods. Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan and made his offspring many. And from his lineage came a man named Jesus, Emmanuel, my only begotten Son, who lived among you and died among you and rose again, thereby saving you all.
Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve God in sincerity and faithfulness; put away the gods that your neighbors serve—wealth and comfort and security and power and leisure and all the rest—and serve the Lord. Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom or what you will serve; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
And then, you all turned in your Planned Giving cards, and replied,
Congregation: “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; for it is the Lord our God who brought our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. It is the Lord our God who died and rose for us, so that we might be freed from the slavery of sin and death. God has protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the people through whom we passed. He gave us this parish, this Body of Christ. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God. This is the sign, and our promise.”
(The Planned Giving cards are presented to me.)
Me: “Phfffff! You blockheads! You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. If you forsake the Lord and serve other gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good.”
Congregation: “No, we will serve the Lord!”
Me: “OK—You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, so serve him y’all.”
Congregation: “We are witnesses.”
Me: “Then put away the other gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the Lord, your God.”
Congregation: “The Lord our God we will serve, and him we will obey.”
And so I make a covenant with you people today, and accept your Planned Giving cards.
* * *
Well, that’s certainly one way to go, eh? You know, on our Stewardship Sundays, the vestry makes you brunch and then we write you thank-you notes, but this works too.
Actually, while I would never use this as a stewardship strategy—it’s not my style—there are parts of this that do work.
Let’s take a look at the parts that work.
We’ll start with my favorite line of the whole bit: “Phfffff! You blockheads! You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God.” You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God.
My friends, I am afraid that that is absolutely true. To serve someone is to perform duties or services for them, to be of some specified use for someone. But our God is a holy God. Our God is omnipresent and omniscient. Our God is transcendent. Our God is a completely different order of being than us—in other words, our God is not just a greater, stronger, more powerful version of us. Our God is completely other. And if that is true—then our God does not need our service. Our God does not need us to perform duties for him, or to be of use to him. Our God does not need our money, or our time, or our talents. Because our God is a holy God.
Yet Joshua says, “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” Why? And the Israelites go on to proclaim that they too will serve the Lord. Why? Why do we continue to come here on Sundays, on Wednesdays, to turn in our Planned Giving cards, to do all this? When our God does not need any of it, because God is God, and we are not. Why?
Because a call to serve the Lord is a call from love itself. And this God who IS love awakens within us a responding love in the deepest center of our being.
There is no other reason that God would care enough to free the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt. There is no other reason that God would bring them to the promised land. There is no other reason that God’s Son would take on human flesh and become one of us—Emmanuel—God with us. There is no other reason that Jesus would die an excruciating death. There is no other reason that we would be freed from the slavery of sin and death. There is no other reason that God would be in the constant process of leading us all to the Promised Land—the Kingdom of God—God’s full and utter reign. There is no reason that God needs to do any of this, except out of a love so deep, so high, so broad that it can only BE God in Godself.
There is no reason that God should have brought all of us—a motley crew of broken and damaged sinners—together into a fellowship of love, except that God loves us.
A call to serve the Lord is a call from love itself.
And I would propose that that’s why Joshua proclaimed that he and his household would serve the Lord. He was responding to love with love.
And I would propose that that’s why the Israelites proclaimed that they too would serve the Lord. They were responding to love with love.
At the end of the day, I don’t really know why exactly you come here. I have some ideas, some of you have given me some indication, but I don’t really know. At the end of the day, I don’t know what led you to fill out and turn in your Planned Giving cards.
But I hope—I hope and I pray—that you are simply responding to love with love. That you are responding to the God who IS love. That you are responding to the love that you find here, in us. And that all that you do—both here and not here—springs from a responding love in the deepest center of your being.
So that at the end of the day, we all will put away the other gods that are here among us—the wealth and comfort and security and power and leisure and all the rest—and that we will incline our hearts to the Lord, and to one another.
The Israelites, of course, were not faithful to their God or to their promises. And we aren’t either. Not always. But I want to thank you all now for the times that you were faithful stewards of this parish. I want to thank you all now for the times that you were faithful stewards of God’s creation. I want to thank you all now for the times that you were faithful stewards of the people we never see here. I want to thank you all now for all the times that you were faithful.
The Lord our God we will serve, and God we will obey.
Sermon: All Saints’ Sunday A
Mtr. Jen Fulton
St. John of the Cross, Bristol
Bishop Frank Gray, retired bishop of this diocese, always says: “Stewardship is everything we do after we’ve said ‘yes’ to Jesus.” That bears repeating: “Stewardship is everything we do after we’ve said ‘yes’ to Jesus.”
And that means that stewardship really is much bigger than this stewardship season. It’s much bigger than what you put on your Planned Giving Cards. The Planned Giving Cards and how you follow through is a part of stewardship (and as priest of this parish who would rather that we keep going for another 175 years, it feels like a pretty important part to me)—but it’s just a part. Your lives should be lives of stewardship. Our lives should be lives of stewardship.
And that means that it is perfectly appropriate to look at the saints in our lives—both those Saints with a capital “S,” the giants of the faith the superstar Christians, and the saints with a lowercase “s,” all believers across time and space—as examples of how to live lives of true stewardship.
So, we’re going to do that today. This sermon is a sermon written in three Acts, with a wrap up afterward. So here we go.
Act 1 is entitled “Time.”
There are times when I feel as though Jackson Kemper is following me around. Which is a weird concept, since Jackson Kemper has been dead for 147 years, so perhaps I’m following him around? At any rate, I cannot seem to escape from Jackson Kemper.
Jackson Kemper was an Episcopal priest, until 1835, when General Convention decided to consecrate missionary bishops to preach the gospel west of the settled areas of this nation. Kemper was the first chosen. He became known as the bishop of the “Whole Northwest,” which includes Indiana, Missouri, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Nebraska. I have spent a good part of my life in Indiana, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, and so I cannot seem to escape from Jackson Kemper.
In Kenosha, Wisconsin, where I grew up, Kemper Hall was one of THE buildings in town. Kemper Hall was originally an Episcopal school for girls that shut down in 1974, when I was three. But the campus and some of the adjacent mansions eventually became Kemper Center. Big charitable events were always held there, and Kemper Center became the center for the arts in Kenosha. Neither of these were exactly my scene growing up, but one did not live in Kenosha without knowing the name Jackson Kemper.
So it was with some interest that I learned that my seminary, Nashotah House, was founded by Bishop Kemper.
And it was with a rather amused interest that three years ago I learned that on December 29, 1843, Bishop Kemper sanctified this plot of ground and laid the cornerstone for this church.
I’m telling you, this member of the Communion of Saints won’t leave me alone.
One of the things that amazes me is how much of his time would have been spent in travel as the Bishop of the Whole Northwest. I know, kind of, because I travel around to these same places all the time: to Kenosha to visit my family, to Nashotah for study and reunion events, and to here. It’s a lot of time in the car. And Kemper wouldn’t have traveled by car. The time he must have spent just traveling for the good of God and God’s mission is astounding.
Truth be told, there are days when I romanticize this a bit, because you see, this diocese has pointed out many times how the membership of this parish is pretty far-flung. Our vestry alone lives in Middlebury, Mishawaka, Bristol, Elkhart, and Michigan. Our members also hail from Goshen, Ligonier, Osceola, and Wakarusa. And then the diocesan events! They take me regularly to Donaldson, South Bend, Warsaw, and more. Some days I feel like I spend an awful lot of my time in the car.
And when I get sick of it, I picture Jackson Kemper on a horse (did he ride a horse around? I don’t know, but I like to picture it that way), riding around the whole northwest, doing God’s work. And it inspires me to keep driving, to keep doing God’s work myself.
Jackson Kemper is embedded in the DNA of this parish. Jackson Kemper is a part of your history as well.
How might Jackson Kemper and the Communion of Saints inform your use of time—your attitude towards it—your understanding of how God might use it?
Act 2: Talent
My Dad is the best lector I’ve ever heard, hands down.
“Lector” is simply the word that St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Kenosha, Wisconsin used for those who read at church on a Sunday. And I know that I’m a bit biased, but my Dad is the best.
At this parish that was big enough and wealthy enough to pay three full-time priests and have 8 Masses each weekend, my Dad was the head lector. He was the one that the priests always looked for if the scheduled lector didn’t show up. He was, and probably still is, the best.
And this was at a time in this parish that the lectors were honored. There was one lector per Mass, and that lector read both readings, the petitions (what we call the Prayers of the People) and the announcements. The lector was a member of the altar party, processing in and out with the lectern book held aloft, sitting at the altar with the priest and the altar servers. Reading into a microphone that carried one’s voice across this massive space—the lector was an honored position.
And every time I sat in Mass and watched and listened to my Dad, I near ‘bout burst with pride.
He spent most of my childhood out of work, collecting unemployment, trying like crazy to keep our family afloat, and I discovered later that all those years out of work left him struggling with depression. But I didn’t even know that some might consider my Dad as lesser-than. Never even occurred to me. Because my Dad was a lector. And a darned good one. He was entrusted with God’s word. And he knew that it was a sacred trust.
Every Christmas Eve, our parish’s Midnight Mass began with the church sitting in total darkness, and in that darkness, my Dad would find his way to the lectern and the microphone, and would proclaim the words of Isaiah from memory: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined. . . For a child has been born for us, a son given to us . . . and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” And in those moments I would know the light of Christ, would feel myself bathed in it, even as I sat in darkness. It shone through my father’s voice.
I was in the 6th grade when he began to train me. He taught me how to process in. How to speak into a microphone. How to sit up at the altar still and modestly. How to be graceful when I messed up. But more than that, he taught me how to read Scripture for the sense of it—how to know when Paul was saying the really important thing that needed rhetorical emphasis. How to tell an Old Testament story in a way that made the point clear. How to proclaim like a prophet. He taught me that it was no small thing, being entrusted with God’s word. And while I would go on to fight it, he taught me that this was part of my call—to dare to proclaim, to help people to really hear God’s voice in their lives.
Neither of us knew at the time, of course, that it would lead me here, to this place.
But there is absolutely no doubt that my Dad’s use of his talent, and his encouragement of mine, resulted in this.
What are your talents, and how might you surrender them to God, for God’s use, more completely?
Act 3: Treasure
December of my 5th grade year, my mother sat down and had a talk with me and my sister. My Dad had been laid off for 3 years. In a town where everyone was laid off, work was hard to come by. His unemployment benefits were about to run out. And my Mom needed us to know that this would not be a normal Christmas. We were already used to our Christmases being more humble affairs than the Christmases of our friends, but this Christmas would be different, even for us.
We would go to church like always, she said. We would each get one present from them. Christmas dinner would be boxed spaghetti and canned sauce. Something we could afford.
My little sister cried. I didn’t, because I was a big girl, after all. But I felt like crying.
It turns out that there was no need for tears, or anxiety.
Because on Christmas morning, our parish came through. That morning, we had 4 turkeys and 6 hams sitting on our doorstep. We had boxes and boxes of non-perishable food. We had presents. We had gift certificates to grocery stores and department stores and restaurants. We had more than we could possibly use. My Mom put one turkey and one ham in the oven, and fit what she could in the freezer. And then my Dad and I drove around town, delivering turkeys and hams to his out-of-work buddies from American Motors and Snap-On Tools.
And that morning, we went to church, and I knelt in my pew in thanksgiving, and promised God that I would pay it all back someday. Of course, God doesn’t need me to pay it back—I knew that even at the time. I just didn’t have the words I needed to say that I would live the rest of my life doing my best to spread God’s love around.
What’s funny is that I can see now how that Christmas was a pretty big fail from a church administrator’s viewpoint. Someone should have overseen the charitable giving at our parish to make sure that we didn’t get more than we needed, more than we could use. Someone should have assured that the wealth was spread around a bit more. Someone should have coordinated the communication of members’ intentions.
But I didn’t see any of that at the time. What I knew that Christmas morning, was that through God and through God’s church, my cup overflowed. I knew something of God’s radical abundance. When I close my eyes and think back, I can still feel how that felt.
And gosh darn it, I want to pay it back, with interest. I want to spend the rest of my life spreading God’s love around, and helping others know that their cups also overflow, that our God is a God of abundance.
The things that our treasure makes possible . . . It’s truly astounding.
That, my friends, is the end of the three Acts. Now we begin the part where I try to bring it all home.
So here goes.
I want to make two things perfectly clear. First, God does not love you because you are useful. God does not love you because you are productive or because you are generous. God does not love you for your time, talent, and treasure. And neither do we. God loves you, and we love you, because you are God’s beloved son, beloved daughter. Pure and simple.
Second, God does not need your money. God does not need your time or your talent. God’s Kingdom will come in its fullness, even if we all hoard it all.
But once we’ve said “yes” to Jesus, our lives take on a different shape, a different meaning. Jesus transforms us into better versions of ourselves. And that means that we are called to give of our time, talent, and treasure. For our own sakes. For the sake of others. For the sake of the Church. For the sake of the Kingdom.
And that—that being good stewards, that giving of ourselves—knows no season. That’s a lifelong endeavor. But we do have seasons in the church, and we have seasons in this parish. We have bazaar season. We have Angel Tree and food basket season. We have backpack season. We have Strawberry Social season. We have building maintenance seasons. We have Sunday mornings. We have Wednesday evenings. We have preparing the budget season.
And all of these things—all of these things that keep our doors open and our lights lit and our worship going and our outreach happening and our fellowship flourishing—they require your time, talent, and treasure. And don’t think, for even a moment, that when you give of yourself to this parish that it just does what you mean it to do. Jackson Kemper, my Dad, the people who gave my family turkeys and hams and nonperishables and gift certificates and presents—none of them knew how their time, talent, and treasure would lead me here. To this place. Doing the things I do. And we don’t know, not really, how the things we do together will impact God’s people. Because God has this marvelous way of using what we do in unpredictable and crazy ways.
So let’s think crazy for just a moment.
We cannot imagine what God would do if every one of us lived our lives in the realization that our time is not our own—that God can use it all. That doesn’t mean that we don’t take care of ourselves—God needs and wants us to take care of ourselves. But even that time is not our own. We cannot imagine what God would do with this church if we all showed up for church every Sunday, and we dedicated the rest of our lives to God.
We cannot even begin to imagine what God would do if every one of us used our talents fully, and for God’s glory and the good of others.
We cannot even begin to imagine what God would do, and what this parish would look like, if we all tithed 10% of our income—the biblical standard. Or if we’re not there yet, if we gave proportionally of our income, working our way towards a tithe, with that as our goal.
God doesn’t need any of this. And God loves us regardless, and we love you regardless. But man alive, what might God do with our time, our talent, our treasure?
Stewardship is everything you do after you’ve said “yes” to Jesus. Stewardship is what the Communion of Saints does through God and with one another. And you’re a part of that.
How will you respond?
Dear Friends in Christ,
Lent is a season of reflection. It comes from an old English word meaning “a lengthening.” And as the days become longer, we watch for signs of spring when nature sings a song of renewed life, energy and growth. This year I wonder if spring will ever come. But I know the season will turn and we see new signs of life.
Lent can also be a dangerous time. People come to the church looking for discipline and a new way to live, they come to be challenged and prepared for the despair and joy of the cross to come. The problem with Lent, however is we contain it to six weeks of doing good rather than creating a Lent that becomes a life. This year I would ask you to look at Lent with a life-giving lens and consider new ways to serve, give, and live that give life and joy not just for yourself but for others.
Let’s turn Lent upside down. Let’s be a little crazy. What if we gave up giving up and gave away faith: life-giving faith to those around us? How about a season of Lent that gives life? What if we woke up our faith…or stirred up our faith…and gave away our faith? What if we didn’t contain this to just the season of Lent but extended this beyond Easter? How about extending this for the rest of our lives! What if what we did for Lent became our life?
This year for the Season of Lent I will be focusing on the preface for Lent that we say at the Eucharist… that is “Let us prepare with joy for the Paschal feast”. Maybe that seems narrow to some. But I would like us to do just that, prepare with joy and build a Lent that feeds; to build a Lent that leads to life.
Our Wednesday evenings in Lent will be a night of food, conversation and prayer. Each week you will have a choice of four prayers to pray for the week. Over dinner we will share in the Eucharist and have conversation of how the prayer we prayed came to life in the week past. The program will begin at 6:00 pm and conclude by 7:30 pm.
I ask you begin to prepare for the season of Lent with this prayer from Stephen Charleston’s book Cloud Walking:
I pray a holy season for you, a season of answered prayer. I know there must be a longing in your heart, a hope you carry close. It may be a sudden change, a deep desire, even an older wish made long ago by a well of memory you believe may have gone dry. I will turn my own spirit toward you. I will join you in the stillness or the sorrow. I will lift my voice beside you. I will be the echo of your call. And while we wait together, to hear the reply, to see the result, I will share this season with you, the season of answered prayer. Cloud Walking, Stephen Charleston, © 2013 Red Moon Publishing p. 31.
With my deepest gratitude for all that you do
and all that you are, I am…
Yours in Christ,
Dear Friends in Christ,
Happy New Year! Welcome to the season of Epiphany!
I hope that the preparations made in Advent have brought you closer to Christ. As we enter into this New Year I pray that your relationship with Jesus is foremost in your life.
As we gather together for the annual meeting January 19th we will reflect upon the year past and look ahead to the year to come. May we look with eyes of faith that we will remain steadfast in our service to those in our community. May we look with eyes of hope and holy anticipation that we might see new ways to serve those around us. May we also look to the year ahead with excitement and holy expectation: What might this year bring to St. John of the Cross? What does God call us to be this coming year? How might we live into that calling?
May we look to the future with hope, faith and trust that God will lead the way.
With my deepest gratitude for all that you do and all that you are, I am..
Yours in Christ,
I leave you with prayer – a thought for a New Year.
“All marks of time are an illusion, but even illusions have their place, so I step over this threshold, with a reminder of God’s timeless grace. May the days ahead bring you the challenge to be who you are called to be. May they offer you a warm hand of healing when you hurt, strength in every struggle, the sheer joy of new discovery. May you know the peace that passes understanding, the hope that lifts your spirit to new horizons. May you know love. May your talent be tested. And may the paths you follow, the causes you embrace, the truths you tell, bring you closer to the meaning of your tomorrow.”
“Cloud Walking A Spiritual Diary” The Rt. Rev. Steven Charleston. RedMoon Publications, Oklahoma City OK 2013
Gloria in excelsis Deo
The Christmas story is filled with spectacular moments. Crowds surge into Bethlehem. Shepherds look into the sky, witness the angelic hosts, and hear heavenly voices in song: “Glory to God!” But it is the blessed Virgin, in her silent worship, who recognizes most powerfully that God has done something utterly extraordinary.
God breaks in… “The Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14). And we have seen the glory of Christ, full of grace and truth.”
God’s answer to hardened hearts is utterly unexpected. God doesn’t thunder at us from afar. No great announcement… no loud bang…. no grand entrance… just a mother, a father, a child born in manger. He could have been born in a palace fit for a king… but chose more humble surroundings.
During this Christmas season let us reflect how we celebrate the wonderful truth of Jesus Christ through metaphor, story, and poetry, and how our special Christian language enlivens a vision for our community and challenges us to find common language to share our experience of God with others. What child is this? It is the Christ child who is brought to us for our salvation. Let us remember, in our fast paced world of high technology, the simple story of the messengers, the manger and the Christ child.
May the true gifts of this season be yours:
The gift of Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love
that is found in One born in Bethlehem,
Christ Jesus our Lord.
With my deepest gratitude for all that you do and all that you are, I am…
Yours in Christ,
My friends in Christ,
There are times when I sit on the dock and look out at on the water and it is very still. This typically happens late in the day and when the reflections are stunning. I call it ‘mirror time’. The reflection truly looks like a mirror image of the landscape. For this to take place, the sun has to be just right and the water as still as can be. It doesn’t happen every night… but when it occurs it takes my breath away.
Mirror time – when the reflections are just as brilliant on the water as it is looking at the actual houses and trees. It is the way the sun reflects off the windows as well as the way it lights up the colors on the trees. Beautiful images are always difficult to put into words, and one way I can sum up all that beauty is: Mirror time.
That is when I realize that not every moment in my life is an absolute 100% reflection of God’s love and grace. If it were, I wouldn’t be human. But as often as possible I try to reflect the love that God has shown and given to me. To be that reflection of God’s love is being aware of our time, treasures and talents. When we look at things in that reflective mindset, we can see that all we have is really God’s. It isn’t given to us because of our achievements or what we do or who we are, but rather it is given out of God’s love and grace. There is a story written by Bishop Greg Rickel that reminds me about God’s generosity in this newsletter, please take a moment to read it.
All that we have God has given us. For the ministry to continue in Bristol, Indiana, through the parish of St. John of the Cross Episcopal Church, it will take all of us. Each and every one of us… We must work on our invitation. We must always provide hospitality. We must be willing to share our faith with others. This year I ask that you consider your giving, your pledge, your stewardship, remembering that all you have been given is by the grace of God. As you prayerfully consider your pledge this year I pray that it will be a mirror image of God’s gift to you. Amen.
With my gratitude for all that you are and for all that you do, I am
Your servant in Christ,
I found this prayer and it spoke to me. I use it often for centering prayer. It settles deep into my bones. I leave you it with you as a prayer for the summer. May it speak to your heart.
With my gratitude for all that you are and for all that you do, I am Your servant in Christ. Rev. Carol+
May today there be peace within.
May you trust God
that you are exactly
where you are meant to be.
May you not forget
the infinite possibilities
that are born of faith.
May you use those gifts
that you have received
and pass on the love
that has been given to you.
May you be content
knowing you are a child of God.
Let this presence settle
into your bones and
allow your soul the freedom
to sing, dance, praise, and love.
It is there for each and every one of us.
Be still and be aware of God’s
presence within you and all around you.
May there be peace within.
Teresa of Avila
Dear Friends in Christ,
Most of us are familiar with the forty days of Lent and the twelve days of Christmas, but beyond Easter Sunday, how familiar are we with the Great Fifty Days of Easter? Easter isn’t just a day, it is a season. It is also a season of great joy. Because Christ is risen, the fasting of Lent gives way to the feasting of the Easter season and the celebration of new life.
The Easter season begins on Easter Day by celebrating Christ’s resurrection from the dead. Each of the Gospels gives an account of the resurrection: Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, and John 20. And yet, that is just the beginning. From the gospel stories of the empty tomb, we move through the rest of Eastertide hearing of the various accounts of the risen Christ appearing to the disciples: while in a room with the doors locked, on the road to Emmaus, while fishing on the Sea of Galilee, and more.
According to the Acts of the Apostles 1:3, Jesus made appearances to the disciples over the course of forty days. On the fortieth day, he ascended into heaven, which we call “Ascension Day” (forty days after Easter Day). Just before he ascended, however, Jesus told his disciples to stay in Jerusalem, and that the Holy Spirit would soon come upon them with power, and they would become his witnesses “in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8).
So, they stayed in Jerusalem, gathered in an upper room in prayer over the next several days. Then, on the tenth day (the fiftieth day after Easter Day) the Holy Spirit came upon them on the Jewish feast of Pentecost. Traditionally, Pentecost was both an agricultural festival and a celebration of when Moses received the Torah. Holding these two events side-by-side, we might say that just as the Spirit of God delivered life to the ancient Hebrews through the gift of the Torah, so the gift of the Spirit is given to bring life to all humanity.
For Christians, the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost marks the gift of the abiding and indwelling presence of God in all believers; the Spirit that is given to help us to be mature in our faith and guide us into all truth. The Spirit of God is given to forgive, strengthen, heal, teach, and be our constant companion on the journey of life.
All of this is to say that the mystery of Easter is profound. It is the story of a God who embraces our poverty, so that we may embrace the richness of God. It speaks to us of death, birth, growth, change, and transformation. It is a mystery to which we shall return again and again during our lifetime, and each time we do, its mystery will only grow. So you see, Easter really is much more than a day. May God richly bless and keep you this Easter season and always.
With my deepest gratitude for all that you do
and all that you are, I am…
Yours in Christ