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Sermon: Don't Bury Your Talents - Grow Them!

Pantheon Sunburst

A homily preached at 8:00 a.m. at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on Sunday, November 16, 2014.

23rd Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (RCL): Judges 4:1-7; Psalm 123; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30

I speak to you in the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

         Over 25 years ago, Mary Sulerud, then the assistant at Grace Church, took the reins of my EFM class from the rector who’d been elected bishop in Oklahoma. Mary provided our class an exercise to create a personal one-sentence prayer. The exercise invited us to 1) consider how we saw God using superlative and a title; 2) how we viewed ourselves; and 3) what we sought in prayer. Knowing there would be times when praying was hard and less than forthcoming, this short prayer was always there, if needed, to begin talking with God. My individual prayer still is: “Almighty Father, your Seeking Servant prays for Guidance.”

         So I wonder: How do you see God? What title might you give or what superlative would you pick for God? Is it a God of grace, God of glory kind of understanding? How is God known to you? Present or distant? Gracious or stern? How are you known to God? Are you committed and “all in” or just mildly involved and somewhat lacking interest?

         Almost half of Jesus’ parables have to do with money or commerce. But money is only the presenting metaphor. These parables speak of abundant life. In today’s story a rich man is about to go on a long journey. Before departing he entrusts his money to three slaves. He gives five talents to one, two to another, and one to the third slave. Lest we mistakenly think that the third fellow was seriously short changed, we should note that his one talent was a huge amount of money.

         Upon the master’s return we learn that the first two slaves doubled the amount they received. However, the third slave was fearful so he buried his one talent so as not to lose it. There was no increase. On a deeper lever this is not about money. It’s about taking what God has given to us and working with it without fear, being willing to take a risk.

         The parable in our Gospel lesson focuses primarily upon that third servant. Gifts that are not used are lost. The title “talents” is unfortunate, in that in our language we use the word “talent” to refer to natural aptitudes or abilities that people have. Today when we speak of a “talented” musician, artist or athlete, we hark back to this parable. A talent in Jesus’ time was a valuable sum of money. Consulting the New Interpreter’s Bible Dictionary, a talent is A LOT! It is a monetary unit roughly equivalent to 6,000 drachmas, which is a sum greater than 15 years wages for a daily laborer. Because of this parable, the word talanta or talanton from the Greek transliterated to “talent,” thus acquiring a different meaning.

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Sermon: Come to the Wedding Banquet

VTS Immanuel Chapel

A sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on Sunday, October 12, 2014.

18th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (RCL): Exodus 32:1-14; Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in us the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit, and we shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth. Amen.

         In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells a parable indicating that the blessings of God’s kingdom are available to all, but the invitation is not to be taken lightly. This is an interesting use of allegory, a story in which people, things, and events are used as metaphors to carry symbolic meaning. First, we see the invitation rejected by many (vv. 1-7); then the invitation is extended to strangers (vv. 8-9); and finally we see that invited persons are expected to be properly considerate (vv. 10-14).

           You might remember that in ancient marriages, a couple would announce their betrothal and then the man would begin to prepare a new place for the bride in his father’s house. When that was complete, then the groom and his family would process to the bride and the feast would begin. It might take months or years. No one knew for sure, but everyone knew it was coming and their presence was expected. So the Save-The-Date magnets were sent out long ago. Now, the day of celebration has come. Yet the expected guests are absent. Those originally invited are off tending to their own things rather than accepting the invitation to attend the banquet.

          

I cannot come.

           I cannot come to the banquet, don’t trouble me now.

           I have married a wife; I have bought me a cow.

           I have fields and commitments that cost a pretty sum.

           Pray, hold me excused, I cannot come.

           This represents a serious breach of ancient protocol. To accept the original invitation, to reply with Yes, means you will be present when the time comes; you are expected. Many commentaries says this parable speaks to the chosen elect of Israel first being called into covenant with God, and the judgment against Jewish leaders and Matthew’s community, who as insiders are exposed as false believers. The king’s servants and slaves are reminiscent of the prophets and martyrs of old who have announced the invitation to come to the banquet. Israel knows God is preparing this feast, as do we.

           Both the Exodus and Matthew readings are rich with images of festivals and banquets. We all know the joy of gathering. It often includes celebrating, eating, and drinking. It is a common and essential human form of communicating, of bonding, of re-membering and recollection, of hope and living. That’s why we gather at important times – such as the marriage of two people. A small circle of family and friends are invited. The coming celebration of Thanksgiving may be a good example. The feast is extravagant. All people are invited. No membership cards are required to gain access.              



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Sermon: "By What Authority ...?"

Scotland

A sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on Sunday, September 28, 2014.

16th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (RCL): Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be always acceptable to you, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

          I love movies. And my wife, Chrissie, will tell you: I love ALL movies. But now that I search for sermon material, I like to see movies with themes about God, heaven, faith and redemption, even if it’s a stretch, as in “Guardians of the Galaxy!” The latest film I saw, ‘Calvary,’ is about a good priest living in a small town in Ireland. It opens with Father James hearing a confession, in which the person speaks of being repeatedly abused as a child at the hands of another priest. The former offender is now dead, and the adult confessor has decided any retribution on the Church seems best carried out only against a good priest. Then the confessor announces he will kill Father James in a week’s time. The film follows this priest’s day-to-day dealings with all the town members. He discovers there is no shortage of domestic abuse, racism, suicidal tendencies and extreme immoral views. The lack of innocence runs deep. At the end, a series of criminal acts forces Father James to face his persecutor and the dark consequences from the Catholic Church’s past.

          “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” In today’s Gospel, we find Jesus teaching in the temple after having cleansed the temple. He drove out the moneychangers, tossed some furniture around, scattered merchandise, and totally disrupted the business of others. I recall from the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, our Lord screams, “My temple should be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves. Get out! Get out!” Now teaching in the temple, Jesus’ authority is questioned by the religious leaders who are supposed to be in charge of the temple.

          I think we all know that Jesus came to disrupt the usual order of things – and this includes authority. The religious authorities, the Sanhedrin, try to throw the rule book at Jesus when they ask him about the source or origin of his authority. “By what authority …?” It’s obviously not one the Sanhedrin had established. Jesus’ authority is not found in religious law. The temple authorities hide behind their self-invented authority. They observe the commandments to make themselves look good, rather than the call to serve their neighbor.

          The surprising thing is that true authority finds itself on the outside. Jesus is the supreme outsider in this story. He is outside the boundaries the religious authorities want to establish. And Jesus is also the defender of the outsider, which in this instance, includes tax collectors and prostitutes. He places himself with the marginalized, even unto death, on a cross, outside the walls of the city, with other criminals. (Just so you know, Jesus has inspired groups throughout the ages and even today) There are religious communities, like the Little Sisters of Jesus, a contemplative Roman Catholic community of religious sisters, and Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who lived this identity with the outsider, not simply in service to the marginalized but living, completely assimilating with the poorest. They live among groups that are inaccessible to other forms of church ministry, whose day-to-day living is marked by divisions, racism, poverty and violence. They hope that in doing so they can be a sign of hope and healing in this broken world.      

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Sermon: Lord, How Often Should I Forgive?

Pantheon Sunburst

A sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on Sunday, September 14, 2014.
14th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (RCL): Exodus 14:19-31; Psalm 114; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be always acceptable to you, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

            Sometimes it seems there have been many weeks of late where the rector or I could step in the pulpit and say, "Wow! It's been a week, right?"           

Just this past week, three major news stories came to the forefront as this preacher contemplated today's lessons


  • Additional video goes public showing now former Baltimore Ravens RB Ray Rice's fierce assault on Janay (then fiancée’, now wife) in a Las Vegas casino elevator.


    • The indictment of Charles Severance for three unresolved high-profile homicides in Alexandria.


    • The 13th Anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks on the United States.


            In today’s Epistle reading, Paul questions why we judge one another, since we all stand before the judgment of God. We all sin against one another sometimes simply because we are human and don’t understand other people. Paul writes to the Romans because that Christian community has significant struggles with diversity. Here Paul helps us understand that despite different practices in worship and personal piety, we should not judge one another. All Christians belong to the Lord Jesus Christ who died for all of us and will judge each of us.                  


In the Gospel, when Peter asks about the limits of forgiveness, Jesus responds with a parable that suggests human forgiveness should mirror the unlimited mercy of God. Jesus’ challenge back to Peter that we forgive seventy-seven times (or seventy times seven) illustrates God’s boundless mercy. When we hear the words of forgiveness in worship and humble ourselves before the cross of Jesus, we are renewed by our baptism to be signs of reconciliation in the world.          

Peter asks “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Rabbinic tradition taught that forgiveness would be offered three times. Third Century Rabbi Jose ben Hanina said, “He who begs forgiveness from his neighbor must not do so more than three times.” He based that on the Book of Amos (1:3, 6, 9, 11, 13; 2:1, 4, 6), where we could deduce that God’s forgiveness extends three times, but that judgment and punishment visits the sinner afterward. The Rabbis did not think that humans could be more generous than God.            

I find it curious that Peter doesn’t wait for Jesus; he answers his own question. Perhaps he even thought he was being generous.

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Sermon: Some of My Best Friends are Dogs

Gibbs

A sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on Sunday, August 17, 2014.

10th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (RCL): Gen. 45:1-15; Ps. 133; Rom. 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matt. 15: (10-20), 21-28


May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts,

be always acceptable to you, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

          I hope you know already: I am a dog person. Growing up with dogs my whole life, you might call me a “cradle-to-grave dog lover.” I am certifiably a ‘dog guy.’ Some of my best friends are dogs. For me, they are the best example of God’s unconditional love.

          You may be familiar with Paul Harvey’s “So God Made a Farmer" speech. It was used effectively in a Super Bowl ad last year ... just in case you saw that. Here's a different take making the rounds on the internet today.

          “And on the 9th day, God looked down on his wide-eyed children and said, ‘They need a companion.’ So God made a dog.

          God said ‘I need somebody willing to wake up, give kisses, pee on a tree, sleep all day, wake up again, give more kisses, then stay up until midnight basking in the glow of a television set.’ So God made a dog.

          God said, ‘I need somebody willing to sit, then stay, then roll over, then with no ego or complaint, dress in hats they don't need and costumes they don't understand. I need somebody who can break wind without a first care or second thought, who can chase tails, sniff crotches, fetch sticks, and lift spirits with a lick. Somebody, who no matter what you didn't do, or couldn't take, or didn't win, or couldn’t make, will love you without judgment just the same.’ So God made a dog.

          God said, ‘I need somebody strong enough to pull sleds and find bombs, yet gentle enough to love babies and lead the blind; somebody who will spend all day on a couch with a resting head and supportive eyes to lift the spirits of a broken heart.’ So God made a dog.

          ‘It had to be somebody who would remain patient and loyal, even through loneliness; somebody to care, cuddle, snuggle, and nuzzle, and cheer and charm, and snore and slobber, and eat the trash, and chase the squirrels. Somebody who would bring a family together with the selflessness of an open heart. Somebody who would bark, and then pant, and then reply with rapid wag of tail, when their best friend says, ‘Let's go for a ride in the car.’

So God made a dog.”

As I said, some of my best friends are dogs. But today's Gospel talks about dogs in a different way.

          Matthew’s gospel has Jesus teaching his disciples that true purity is a matter of the heart rather than outward religious exercises. Then almost immediately, this teaching is tested when a foreign woman approaches for help.

         

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