Sermons at St. John's Episcopal Church
Towards the Horizon| The Rev. Jesse W. Lebus
Towards the Horizon
What an amazing day: the readings - I love parables, I love the Kingdom of God, the story of David being called from the ranks of his siblings and when we hear Paul’s words, when we mark them and inwardly digest them, what an effect...how does it feel to hear it proclaimed that if anyone is in Christ...there is a new creation.
And speaking of being in Christ, right after I step out of this pulpit, we’re going to baptize Ava Elizabeth Hildebrand... listen to what is said over the water, hear the prayers that are prayed….and who will be there with Ava, among her family and friends? Her Father, on father’s day...a new creation indeed!
Here’s why I love parables: Jesus told them, not for certainty but for discovery. When Jesus says the Kingdom is as if someone did this and that and the Kingdom of God is like a seed that does this and that, you know what we want? We want an explanation. I wanted one from my library and from the internet, conversation and commentaries, you all want one from me and the disciples wanted one from Jesus.
For millennia our cry has gone up: “Give us the static, edifying word that confirms what we already believe and affirms what we’re already doing…”
A touch of sarcasm of course, but it mirrors a popular approach… one that’s currently en vogue with many of our politicians who are using scripture for the sake of satisfying their worldview and justifying their actions, rather than using scripture for the sake of discovery.
In 1993, Stanley Hauerwas published a book called Unleashing the Scripture and in it he compels us to take theological inventory. He wrote of the pitfalls associated with assuming that we “have all the 'religious experience' necessary to know what the Bible is about.” As the result of such a presumption, Hauerwas wrote, the Bible risks becoming “the ideology for a politics quite different from the politics of the Church."
Of course the politics of the church concern the Kingdom of God and not the fiefdoms of ideologues. And so Jesus told parables for discovery not for certainty. He told them, not for explanation, but for exploration. The word parable, according to it’s etymology, its roots, is something that is thrown alongside. Para: alongside. It’s where we get the word parallel.
So just imagine that these parables run parallel to our lives, never actually intersecting... but between them, between their constant alignment, between the Word of God and ourselves, is a force that compels us to go back and forth between the two as we move forward... and as a result, the revelation of God’s kingdom appears in a mutual, reciprocal, even circular motion...not in a one-to-one, end result expectation.
The purpose of this life of faith, where Jesus and his parables travel alongside us, is not to arrive at some point of intersection, the kingdom of God does not rest on that distant horizon where the lines seem to meet... the kingdom of God, as Jesus tells his followers, is near, is at hand, is within you. The Kingdom of God is here... and between the Word and our lives we can taste it, even we catch a glimpse of it.
And on a day like today, as we walk alongside Jesus, as we hear his parables, as we baptize Ava, as we share in the Eucharist meal, here, today that glimpse of the kingdom comes into a little sharper focus.
These parables remind us that seemingly small things, grow silently and sometimes slowly into magnificent things. Even their length, the number of words, speaks to how something so small can come to mean so much. They capture the Kingdom in its very mystery and even in its apparent weakness. Yes it’s weakness, because those things which appear small, insignificant and ineffective are often disregarded.
We live in a world filled with threats and large scale social and geopolitical problems. I’m not presenting this as something new but as something very real. We have been reminded, in the wake of two recent high-profile suicides, that there is a one-way ticket out of this difficult life... And we Christians swing in with little more than a simple message: in Christ there is salvation. And not a few folks want to say: “Give me a break!”
But we keep on repeating the old story because we believe that somehow, some way, it’s going to work. If we yoke these two parables now, we can see both how puny our efforts may look and our ardent faith...that even though we don’t understand how these kingdom seeds grow, they do whether we are watching or not, whether we are tending them every moment or not.
They grow silently and mysteriously in people’s hearts. The seeds didn’t look like much to begin with and they grow without making much noise. Go and sit next to our vegetable garden across the pond after we plant another row of seeds in the earth...you could sit on the edge of those beds all day and throughout an entire night and you’d never hear a blessed thing.
There is much in these parables to inform the hope that’s in Ava’s baptism. Her own life, like the Kingdom, has been planted, it’s sprouted and yet what will grow from here...the how and why of who Ava will become in the fullness of time is a mystery to us. One day she will talk and walk, make friends and go to school… but who knows from there…the possibilities are endless...
And the Kingdom of God, like a mustard seed, so small and seemingly insignificant, which will be nourished in her today, it can become something so grand and sustaining and restorative. The day will come when the results of the kingdom’s silent, steady growth will be impressive. But for the time being we love it even in it’s smallness.
And wasn’t David the smallest, a shepherd boy not even invited to cozy up to the fire, the youngest son and yet it he would grow - slowly, mind you - into the one who would unite the nations of Israel and Judah. He didn’t always delight in the law of Lord, we know that, but he will be forever remembered as a leader of people, a king, who was faithful, forgiving and repentant.
In a Kingdom where God reigns, it’s not the great who are called forth but the meek...God seeks not power, celebrity and prestige to bring about his Kingdom, but sacrifice. It’s a selfless sacrifice embodied in the baptismal vows that we will share in, it’s the sacrifice necessary to offer ourselves our souls and bodies to receive holy communion and to live in unity, constancy and peace.
Maybe that’s the Kingdom of God...unity, constancy, peace...it’d be hard for me to tell you exactly what the Kingdom of God is, and maybe a bit hypocritical, considering my opening reflection, to do so. I do seek the kingdom daily, in prayer and scripture, I try to bring it closer through my own thoughts, words and deeds...I look for it and sometimes I do indeed see it, sometimes dimly, sometimes clearly, but I can’t tell you what it is…
...You can seek it yourself, you can do your best to bring it into focus...I can’t tell you what the Kingdom of God is... but I can tell you what it’s like...it’s like a seed that grows despite the sowers shortcomings, it’s like a tiny seed that becomes a tree for ALL of the birds, it’s like a family united, it’s like a parent who loves his child, it’s like the child...the seed of our faith, the bearer of our hopes, hovering near the edge of the font, just a splash of water away from a journey that will lead her towards an unknown horizon: exploring, discovering, along the transforming along the way.
May we, between our own lives and our constant companion God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, catch fresh and transformational glimpses of the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom which is already here, among us and within us. Amen.
BlueGreen Theology| The Rev. Jesse W. Lebus
I wonder if any of you are familiar with The Canticle of the Creatures…it’s a wonderful poem, a troubadour’s song and a statement of faith.
It was written in the first quarter of the 13th century by Francis of Assisi. He was at the end of his life, an illness and the prevailing medical practices of the time had left him with wounds for eyes, cauterized by white hot iron.
And speaking of wounds, you know his hands and his feet… and a portion of his side were covered in what some have speculated were the sores of leprosy… some believe those sores had another explanation.
Regardless, that he was able to dictate this litany of praise (of praise mind you, this is not a lament) that he composed this litany of praise while on his deathbed - senses and body mangled - is a testament to God’s grace working in his life.
The Beauty of the canticle is in its expression of humanity's relationship to creation. For Francis, the world, the universe even, and all that is contained therein - or out there - was related through God, connected in Jesus, and united by the Holy Spirit.
It’s why he called his companions fratellini… the little brothers. The Canticle of the creatures expands upon the theme:
All praise be yours, my Lord,
through all you have made,
and first my lord Brother Sun, who brings the day;
and through whom you give us light.
How beautiful is he, how radiant in all his splendor;
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.
The Canticle goes on to address sisters moon and stars. Brothers wind and air and sister water, brother fire and sister Mother Earth.
All of these elements by their very nature give praise to God and in return we are called to give praise to God through them. Our own hymnal contains a resounding and rightfully popular paraphrase of this canticle, All Creatures of our God and King, lift up your voices let us sing, Alleluia!
The Canticle of the Creatures calls us to see ourselves as part of something bigger, it asks us to decommidify our relationship to the natural world. To encounter all things, not just people, as our brothers and sisters.
My experience, as with most things faith based… it’s easier said than done. It’s easier to say that everything is my brother or sister than to live as if all things really are my brothers and sisters.
But if you can even get that far…just to say with your lips, that you are related to the world around you, if you can bring yourself to say brother Swan, or sister Cold Spring Harbor. Brother oyster or sister watershed… if you could start by just saying it…
How then would you respond to the question we heard this morning, from the first letter of John? “How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?”
Did you know that Sister Cold Spring Harbor is in need? Rising levels of nitrogen and bacteria, and declining levels of oxygen have left her commercially non-viable for shellfish, other native species are losing their toe hold as well…don’t let brother bald eagle, in all his majesty… and don’t get me wrong here … thank God for his presence… but don’t let the bald eagle be a red herring…
There is much in regards to our local ecology that needs our help, there are brothers and sisters in our backyard, that are in need.
BlueGreen theology is the understanding that that we are related to God’s creation which exists, in the varied shades of Blue and Green. BlueGreen theology is the understanding that this blue and green… and - of course - brown and yellow and amber and red and grey and purple world is the very world where we encounter the living God!
But BlueGreen theology requires more than merely understanding, more than word and speech. It requires, as John’s letter continues, “truth and action.”
Because this earth, our fragile island home, spinning in this vast and expanding universe is the only context in which we come to know the risen Lord! We must answer the call to steward this gift not to exploit it.
You probably already know this but lawn fertilizer run off accounts for the over abundance of nitrogen in Cold Spring Harbor. And the bacteria, that’s primarily the result of seepage from outdated and under-maintained septic systems.
Jesus Christ is indeed the Good Shepherd, he guides us, loves us, brings us into the fold, shepherds us into the kingdom...But the green pastures around our homes needn’t be a neon hue of vivid lime, our still waters still need life stirring in them.
I know we can do this… I know we can make a difference, we can make adjustments in our lives because I know from first hand experience that God’s love does abide in the hearts of those who gather here.
An active response to our belief that we are indeed related to the world around us, surrounded by brothers and sisters, is at the heart of our BlueGreen Theology mission. Many of you have helped clean beaches, counted Horseshoe crabs, scrubbed oyster cages, stirred compost at the Grow-to-Give garden.
And with the help of a small and dedicated committee we are hoping to do more. In the coming weeks we will make pledges on behalf of the church to reduce our consumption of single-use plastics and to quit using harmful pesticides and weed killers. We are hosting nature photo shoots and bird counts. We are partnering with local agencies to offer resources and volunteer help.
Imagine, St. John’s receiving a grant that allowed us to convert our spillway, where the water runs over from the pond towards the sound... imagine if that could become a source of hydroelectric power...
Everything that is worth doing requires some effort. It takes discipline to remember each time to tell the server, “no straw, please.” And how often have you arrived at the checkout line with your reusable grocery bags still in the trunk of your car?
And modernizing your septic system? That’s a serious endeavor. But whether it’s eliminating old habits and developing new ones, or making a substantial investments in our front yards it’s worth it, because our brothers and our sisters need our help.
To some extent I know that I am preaching to the choir, many of you were BlueGreen Theologians before Gideon even coined the term, but as a church, a substantial group of people gathered, we have the chance to show the community that these issues matter to us.
By engaging in the work we are called to, serving our brothers and sisters of creation, the people, the water and the earth, we can show the world around that love does indeed abide in us.
By living into our BlueGreen Theology we can show the world that St. John’s is a place ...
Nicknames, or The Grind| The Rev. Jesse W. Lebus
Nicknames, or The Grind
Growing up in Kentucky, in my circle of friends, no one had immunity from nicknames; they were pervasive. Both males and females were subject to the tribal impulse to latch on to one particular trait, or one finite event and never let you forget.
There was Heavy Hands, Bowhead, Off-Road, Smart Monkey, Scary Monster, Mean Cousin Ike and Creeper.
Usually they were short and snappy, but sometimes not. Like our friend Matt “Can I Have a Bite” Thompson. Or my friend Kristin, who arrived at an all-ages concert donning a new short hair-do. With in a matter of minutes she became “Who’s the New Guy?”
The nicknames we pinned on each other were usually teasing and humbling, to say the least. Even Grateful Dave. He wasn’t particularly thankful, but he did hate the Grateful Dead.
They were often drawn from singular one-off events, like the time when my rather wavy hair grew out and I brushed it one day after a shower.
Poof. It was practically standing on end. Whoever was sleeping on the couch that morning, opened their eyes, looked at me and said, “What’s up Big Weave?” He rolled over and went back to sleep… the nickname did not. Currently, among this group of lifelong friends, I’m known as Rev. Big Weave.
So that’s the thing about nicknames, They’re usually unflattering; they often reflect singular instances and, finally, they’re hard to shake.
If the apostles were anything like my friends it wouldn’t have taken long before they were really laying into Thomas. “Oh look doubting Thomas decided to join us…” “Hey, doubting Thomas, pass the bread…” “I doubt you’ll believe me Thomas, but I caught a fish this big…”
Maybe it wasn’t the apostles, but whoever coined this rather scandalous moniker, whether Biblical translators and scholars, or preachers and teachers, it’s come down through the ages…
One reasonable statement, “Unless I see and feel… I will not believe." And for two millennia he’s doubting Thomas. No one calls him the twin, you know, just Doubting Thomas.
But, despite their sticking power, rarely do nicknames reflect a person’s whole character. Yes, Matt “Can I have a bite” Thompson might’ve had a penchant for asking for a taste of your food, but there’s more to him than that.
Scary monster… not scary at all. Creeper… not really a creep. Mean Cousin Ike. Not mean, not even a cousin.
Likewise, there was more to Thomas then the nickname implies. In the first three Gospels, Thomas is nothing more than a name, but in John’s Gospel, we find a disciple, a person, dynamic and whole.
When Lazarus became ill, Jesus wanted to return to Judea, where he knew his life would be threatened. "Let us also go,” Thomas told the other disciples, “that we may die with Him.” He did go and his devotion might have even convinced the others to follow.
At the Passover before his death, Jesus told the disciples that he would be leaving them. Not afraid to show his ignorance, Thomas asked, "Lord, we do not know where You are going, and how can we know the way?" This statement and question reveal him to be a seeker of truth and understanding.
In this morning’s gospel, Thomas, a devoted apostle and seeker, only requested to experience what his fellow disciples had the privilege to experience. To see and feel, that he too could believe. Seems a bit unfair to remember him only as a doubter.
Baseball season started this week. Our New York teams have performed favorably but any fan will tell you it’s too early to be excited, too early to do anything but watch. With a 162 to game season stretched over 7 months, not including post season, the entirety of April is considered too early.
162 games provide a ball player with plenty of opportunities to make a mistake. Even the best players can’t escape the occasional fielding error, strikeout, balk or walk.
These 162 games and their endless number of plays and at bats are what coaches, players and fans call the grind. Through every at bat and defensive play, through every game and every week… traveling back and forth across the country… all they can hope for is to shake off the mistakes and play with relative consistency.
A crucial trait of every MLB player, regardless of their position on the team, is the fortitude to avoid being defined by their last mistake. It’s a characteristic that requires inner strength and poise… it’s a characteristic required of those of us who would believe in Christ.
When Jesus said “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe," it wasn’t a criticism of those who had seen but a message for those of us who won’t see. “You won’t see me as the disciples have seen me, you won’t feel me as the disciples have felt me,” says Jesus, “but believing in me, that I am risen...and that will free you.”
We are, as disciples, living the grind… we encounter, day in and day out, opportunities to lose faith, moments where our capacity to believe seems to fade. Even the most faithful among us make bad calls, strike out and drop the ball. But Jesus Christ’s life, death and resurrection have freed us from our last mistake.
Christ has conquered death, closed the yawning gates of hell. We are no longer prisoners to old stories, we are free to tell new stories about ourselves… so seek the Lord where he can be found and shake-off that old nickname, in Christ we have a new name, Child of God, inheritor of the kingdom, beloved! May we show forth in our lives what we profess in faith!
Alleluia, the lord is risen.