Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Funeral Sermon - B. Kim Murray

I first met Robin Murray in April of last year. I was here for my interview visit and she and I and Kaycee and Kathy Rogers went to breakfast at Amazing Foods together. I remember that breakfast fondly for many reasons, pretty much all of which had to do with the company I found myself in and the conversation we had (and of course, partially because of the delicious food). What Robin told me that day was that she was a golf widow, which was also my first experience with that term. Kim, Bear to his friends, was seriously fond of golf. From what I have heard, he golfed three days a week, eleven months of the year. I have also heard that he only talked about two subjects, golf and Robin, for he had found himself a wonderful wife and friend in Robin.

Kim was also a member here at St. John's and a participant in our weekly Wednesday night bible study group, a missionary representative on our Honduras mission trip and loved delivering Christmas presents with the Daughters of the King to Sugar Valley Lodge. He had a hearty laugh and he was a straight shooter, you always knew where you stood with him. He had good relationships with many in our community and I know that there are many here today who will miss him.

Thankfully, Kim had a relationship with God and he knew the Christian promise and hope. He knew that he had been baptized and marked as Christ's own forever. As Jesus says in the gospel passage today, the only requirement for eternal life is belief. While belief is not always easy to maintain all the time, we can be comforted by the promise Jesus gives us. Anyone who hears what Jesus says and believes in him will have eternal life. 

Even better, Jesus promises that the kingdom of God is already at work. The hour is coming and is now here, says Jesus, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God - Kim is listening directly to Jesus now. Death does not have the last word when one believes in Jesus Christ. 

Perhaps you doubt Jesus. Perhaps you doubt that any of us will have eternal life. Perhaps you doubt that Jesus has conquered death. The reading from Lamentations which we heard earlier speaks to the steadfastness of God.  The Bible shows over and over again how steadfast God is in keeping his promises. Over and over again, humanity makes mistakes and messes up, yet God is always there and always keeping the promises. God's love for us never ends.One of the many names for God used throughout the Bible is Comforter. Not the big fluffy kind which we all put on our beds in the middle of winter, but the kind who is present every time you need him. God is the Comforter who is present in the midst of grief and trouble. Every time something bad happens, God is right there with us, working in ways we cannot see. Holding us with great love. 

In the midst of the sorrow of losing a wonderful man, faithful husband, and marvelous photographer and golfer, God is present with us, keeping his promise. All who believe in him will have eternal life. God is faithful, even in the midst of death. Jesus walked through death and death could not conquer. So, while we know death separates us in this world, death does not have the last say.

As always, Robin, rely on God. But also rely on the community of faithful believers gathered about you this day. It is through each other that God works, through conversation, connection, and community. God will be with you, as well as the members of St. John's, to help you in the midst of your grief. Trust in God's promises and be comforted. As it says in the Pascha Nostrum, the Christ our Passover, that great Easter chorus, "Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive. Alleluia!" Amen.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Proper 22A - The Parable of the Wicked Tenants

Martin Luther once said that sometimes you have to squeeze a biblical passage until it leaks the gospel. Sometimes it is simply harder to find the good news than other times. Some passages practically preach themselves and its almost an effort to find something to say without simply repeating the passage, while on the other hand, some passages need squeezing to figure out.

In order to work through the gospel passage from Matthew today, I am going to look at each of the characters of the parable Jesus tells the crowds, including the chief priests and Pharisees.  We are going to start by looking at the tenants, then the servants, then the son, and lastly the landowner.

The tenants.  In thinking about the tenants, I can understand how they probably had a connection to the land and the work of tending the crops and watching them grow. Working with the land brings a connection which still many farmers and gardeners know very well. Watching plants grow and become something useful and beautiful is a wonderful business. Unfortunately, the tenants also got a little greedy and covetous. They wanted what wasn't theirs for their own. They were in the business of stewardship, yet they wanted to own. They were renters, yet they wanted to be owners. They wanted to keep everything for themselves. And in a way, since they collaborated together, they were conspirators, working collectively against the landowner. They were obviously determined people. They went out of their way to do something different to each of the servants sent to them. I imagine they were normally pretty good people, and certainly didn't think of themselves as bad people. Perhaps they had felt threatened by the servants who came to collect and acted out of fear, worried they would have nothing left to live on after the owner had taken all the harvest. They were thinking about themselves first.

The servants of the landowner. They went out as sheep into the midst of wolves... especially the second group of servants. They would have known what had happened to the first bunch. Which probably would have made them question why they were going and if they should have taken some personal protection with them. Who knows, maybe they did. Yet, they followed their master's instructions and went to do as the master asked them. We don't know what they would have felt, though I imagine some trepidation on their part, not knowing what would happen. They were obedient to the landowner.

The son of the landowner. I feel bad for the son in a way and also not totally bad for the son. He didn't have too much choice in the matter, his father sent him to look after the family landownings and to take care of the family business. He did have some choice, so he could have said no. He must have realized that the situation wasn't good. If the landowner trusted his son to go do his business, then he would have already known that the two groups of servants hadn't made it back alive. He probably guessed that his future was very uncertain with the tenants. Yet, he still obeyed his father's wishes and went.

The landowner.  I must admit, the landowner amazes me. He must have been a very generous and gracious man! I mean, after the tenants had killed the first bunch of servants, I would not probably have given them a second chance. I probably would have gone in there with some highly skilled security professionals to take care of business. Yet, he gives them multiple chances to do what they are supposed to do. He keeps forgiving them and showing them grace and mercy. He gives them three chances! At least, that we know about.

When Jesus asks the chief priests and Pharisees, the crowd in the Temple where he is teaching, what will happen after the son is killed, they answer by saying, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” Yet, what Jesus says to them next, tells them that that is not what the landowner would do. The landowner had more than enough reason to kick the tenants out before the son was killed, yet he did not do so.

Matthew tells us at the end of this passage that the chief priests and Pharisees do realize that Jesus was talking about them. They were being greedy and covetous like the tenants of what is God's. Of course, we all would like to think of ourselves in the place of the landowner or the son or the servants... gracious and generous, obedient and servant-like. Unfortunately, the real question is... how often are we like the tenants? Holding back from God, wanting what is not ours, not listening to God's messengers, or even his Son? The easy analogy is God being the landowner, Jesus being the Son, the prophets of Israel being the slaves, and sadly, the rest of humanity being the tenants.

The former Noble Prize winner in Literature, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, wrote, "The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart." Especially in our current society, where everyone wants to blame someone else, another state, another socio-economic group, or the other political party, we have to admit we are more like those tenants than we would ever want to admit. We have choices to make, and sometimes we make them out of fear or greed, like the tenants in the story. We want to think of ourselves as good people, but sometimes evil gets the best of us.

Thankfully, like the landowner in the parable, God is full of mercy and grace and forgiveness. God gives us new chances everyday. New chances to choose the good, to choose to follow the call, to be good stewards of all the abundant gifts God has given us. Like that landowner, God will continue sending us messengers after messengers after messengers, letting us know he cares, waiting for the fruits of the Kingdom. God forgives every time we make a mistake, and helps us get back up and moving forward again. May we all use our new chances this week to choose God's kingdom. Amen.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Stewardship Questions and Answers, Part 3

What happens if I pledge and cannot keep my pledge?
We realize due to circumstances outside of anyone’s control, people are not always able to keep their pledge. We ask that if you find yourself in such a situation that you tell the priest so that we know for budgeting purposes.

How many people do pledge to our church?
The last pledge campaign at St. John’s was in 2014. We had 32 participants in the pledge in 2014. We are hoping that our participation rate will exceed that of 2014 this year!

What is the tithe?
The tithe is a scripturally based understanding of giving back to God through the church. Tithing is the practice of giving the first 10% of all your income to the church.

Who decides how much we should give?
You do! We ask that you take some time to pray and look at your own budget to discern how much you can give to the church.

How can we support our church without money?
There are many ways you can support the church without giving money. Other ways are leading a fundraiser, volunteering for a ministry, volunteering during clean up days, inviting people to visit and join our church, and praying for our church.

Can I pledge something besides money?
While we need monetary funds for many things in the church, we are also in need of support in many other ways. Time and talents, and other gifts, can be pledged by speaking with the priest. 

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Working in the fields of the Kingdom

Will you go and work in the fields of the Kingdom?

My parents have had this scene happen to them many times. I remember such instances with my brothers... they would ask one to make dinner and he would immediately say, No! Of course, after a couple of minutes he would realize that if he didn't make dinner, we weren't going to be eating dinner and he would get up and make dinner. While on the other hand, my youngest brother used to say yes to pretty much anything you asked him. Whether or not he was actually do what he agreed to do was very much up in the air. (He has gotten better about this... sometimes now he actually says no. He used to play the game where he would say yes and then procrastinate as long as he could to see if someone else would do it for him.) Naturally when Jesus asks the chief priests and elder who is doing the will of the father, they have to answer honestly and say the first son, because he actually did what the father asked. He said no at first, but he still did what was asked of him. While the second son doesn't actually do anything. 

For better or for worse, God created humanity with the gift of free will. We are able to make choices for ourselves, to say yes or to say no. We are able to choose to do what others ask us to do or we can say no. Usually with other people I caution saying yes or no to everything, the best way forward is typically discernment about what they asking you to do and whether or not you can do it. Interestingly, we have the same ability when it comes to God. If God asks us to do something, we have the ability to make a choice. Jesus always allowed the people around him to make that choice. From the beginning to the end of his ministry, Jesus allowed people the choice as to whether to follow him or not. As an old priest I once knew said, "Judas was free to betray him, Peter to deny him, and the disciples to desert him—and they did. And so the question lands in our own laps again. Will we GO and work in Jesus' field of souls as free citizens of his Kingdom that begins in its planting and its watering here on earth?" (H. King Oemig) 

Will you go and work in the fields of the Kingdom?

The first son in the gospel passage answered the question with a resound, "I will not." Yet, at some point, he experiences a change of heart. He changes his mind about doing what his father had asked him to do. We don't know why, we don't know how it happened, yet we know it did. He goes out to the fields and works. Jesus almost makes it sound like it is so easy to choose to do God's will, though we know it is not always that easy. Kingdom work, working in God's fields, the way God wants us to do so, is not the easiest thing to do in the world. In fact, it would be much easier to say yes... and then not do it. Which is in fact the route the chief priests and the elders seem to have taken.

Sadly, the chief priests and elders were too concerned with their own authority and power, as evidenced by their question to Jesus at the beginning of the passage, than to go work in God's fields. "By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?" Voltaire suggests that we should judge people based more on their questions than their answers. Whoever asked this question gave their own concerns away. They were having personal authority issues. The chief priests and elders said that they belonged to God and walked in his ways, and yet they were not willing to do what God through Jesus was suggesting they do. At the end of the passage they have to acknowledge that their behavior betrays them. Whereas, the tax collectors and prostitutes... who certainly didn't start out following God, end up being the ones who do God's will, because they were the ones repenting, being baptized by John, changing their hearts and starting to live new lives, following God through Jesus. The tax collectors and prostitutes were going into the Kingdom of God already. 

Will you go and work in the fields of the Kingdom?

Luckily for us, this is a question we get to answer over and over again. We are always being given opportunities to go work in the fields of the Kingdom of God, and every time we are given the opportunity, we have the free will to say yes or no. 

[Today, we will baptize Deacon, at 4 months old, into the family of God. But this doesn't mean he doesn't have this choice ahead of him. He does. He has his entire life as a family member to make the journey, to learn and grow and build and make mistakes and carry on.  To decide for himself, as all of us do, whether he will go and work in the fields of the Kingdom of God.]

All of us have this option, and even better, it doesn't matter when on the road we start saying yes and going. 

You've heard the expression, better late than never? God seems to have an interesting sense of timing and late doesn't seem to be in God's vocabulary. Every moment, any moment, is the right moment to start following Jesus. To experience a change of heart and mind and go out to do the work God has given us to do. Even those chief priests and elders... they still had time, time to have a change of heart. 

God gives us grace. Makes allowances for changing our minds, we are able and allowed to do so. God gives us grace when we decide we don't want to follow his way, and when we experience that change of heart that takes us back to following his path, God welcomes us back with open loving arms. God cuts us some slack. We should probably do that for ourselves and others as well. 

So when you are going... when you are wandering around this big wide world... when you are living your daily routine in Franklin and the surrounding area, listen to what God is calling you to do. Listen for the question, Will you go and work in the fields of the Kingdom? Don't worry about it if you make mistakes along the way, if you say yes or no, if you go or not go at first. It is never too late to begin to follow Jesus.  


Sunday, October 1, 2017

Stewardship Questions and Answers, Part 2

 How much should we give?
There is not a magic number for how much anyone should give. Traditionally, the tithe is set at 10% of total income. However, any amount which stretches you to know that you are giving without sending you into (more) debt is acceptable.

How can we help our church have more money?
Naturally, giving to the church is one way people can help the church have more money. Other ways include doing fundraisers for the church, inviting people to visit and join the church, finding grants and scholarships for different ministries of the church, and praying for the financial stability of the church.

How can children tithe?
It is a great idea to involve your children in giving back to the church! Children can tithe or give back in many ways alongside adults. If they have an allowance, they can save 10% of their allowance to give back to God. If they don’t, they participate in volunteering to work fundraisers, volunteering for appropriate service projects, and giving clothes or toys as donations when the church does drives.

How long could we sustain our church with only investment income?
Less than 3 and a half years. Partially because some of our investments have restrictions on them determining for what they can be used. Our music, choir, and altar flower ministries would all far outlast the building, the staff, and any programs we would be able to fund on investment income.

Am I the only one who doesn't tithe?
NO! People give at lots of different percentages of their total income. While we do not know how many people at St. John’s do tithe, because we don’t know people’s salaries, we do know not everyone can afford to tithe, as much as they might wish to.

Would it help if I were only able to give $5 more each week?

YES! Every little bit helps. An increase of $5 every week ends up being a $260 dollar increase over the course of a year. $260 would completely fund some of our Bible study and formation groups, or even allow us to start a new one.