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Sermon: All Saints' and Iconography

A Sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on November 1, 2015.

All Saints' Sunday-23rd Sunday after Pentecost: Wisdom 3:1-9; Ps. 24; Rev. 21:1-6a; John 11:32-44

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.

        On All Saints' Day, we celebrate the victory won for all the faithful departed, but we also grieve for our beloved dead, knowing that God honors all our tears.  We bring our grief to this table and find here a foretaste of that heavenly banquet to come foretold by the prophet Isaiah.

       We see that glorious vision of the righteous, resting and at peace, in the hand of God, in our Old Testament reading from the Wisdom of Solomon, written shortly before the time of Jesus.

       The New Testament reading from The Revelation to John is a vision, written down shortly after the time of Jesus, of the new heaven and new earth in which God fully resides with God’s people so that mourning, despair, and pain have been eradicated.  The renewing words from our God who spans all time are trustworthy and true.

       And from Jesus' own story, we have John's Gospel which tells us that Jesus weeps along with Mary and all the gathered mourners before he demonstrates his power over death. And finally, through the raising of Lazarus, Jesus offers the world a vision of the life to come, when death and weeping will be no more.

      No doubt by now, you have noticed the projected image on the upper walls of this nave.  This is one of the wonderful features of this new Immanuel Chapel to have the option of using walls as canvas to accentuate our worship.  I've wanted to put an image up on these walls and use it in a sermon.  Thankfully, the Rector found this for today.  I think we can use this image to explore why we celebrate All Saints'.

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Sermon: Servant Leadership & Melchizedek

A Sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on October 18, 2015.

21st Sunday after Pentecost: Job 38:1-7, (34-41); Psalm 104:1-9, 25, 37b; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45

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

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

       Before seminary and ordination, I spent well over twenty-five years as a happy layperson in the church, trying on different roles and ministries as my parish had available.  I served on vestry or as a warden, worked on the Altar Guild or served as Christmas and Easter president, sang in the choir or served at the Altar, made pastoral calls or Eucharistic visits.  There was great learning all along the way.  I now realize that that laboratory of ministry helped prepared me for different roles of service, where I could try things on and work stuff out.  Sometimes it was good; at other times, it could have gone better.

One particularly challenging role was being a mentor to younger members of the parish.  Whether it was Sunday School, youth group, or special events like church lock-ins, weekend retreats, or pilgrimages, the expectation of what we were trying to accomplish frequently challenged what the 'yutes' wanted to do.  "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you."  It was Service Project night, but they really wanted to play Lazar Tag.  We expected them to plan a mission trip, but they wanted to organize a ski trip.  We wanted them in bed by 11:30 p.m. while on pilgrimage, but they were curious about the party down the hall at the hostel.  (Even those of us who are not parents get refined in the fire) This crucible is where I truly learned what it means to be a servant and a slave to many.

Today, Mark’s Gospel opens on the way to Jerusalem, with disciples obsessing over who’s Number One, asking Jesus to grant them seats of honor in heaven.  This prompts our Lord to say something about God’s take on matters of importance and power.  Here Jesus makes it plain that the reversal of values in God’s community is a direct challenge to the values of the dominant culture, where wielding power over others is what makes you great.  Yet Jesus responds by announcing that he and his followers will “rule” through self-giving service.

Repeatedly in Mark, and especially in The Fourth Gospel according to John on the day of his death, Jesus is described as a servant who wills that all his followers will join him in a life of service.  Perhaps not always, but certainly in our culture, being a servant is not always seen as an attractive role.  We really don’t like that term servant, and we are repelled by the word slave,but we use it instead of terms like "the help."

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A Sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on September 20, 2015.

17th Sunday after Pentecost: Proverbs 31:10-31; Ps. 1; James 3:13-4:3,7-8a; Mark 9:30-37

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

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

       From today's reading from James:  “For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.”
           Much of my work experience prior to seminary and ordained ministry here at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill came while working at Visa U.S.A., the bank card company between August 1979 and March 2006.  I began part-time work while taking college classes.  With plenty of opportunities to do new and different things, I began to see Visa less as a job and more as a career.  I pursued full-time positions in various customer services departments supporting the banks and merchants using Visa's products, services and network.  And as I learned and experienced more, I was given both formal and informal responsibilities to expand my knowledge as well as to train and mentor new staff.  My development and interests included several lateral moves that provided me new challenges and opportunities.

Over the years, I became a Subject Matter Expert (SME) on many topics.  Due to my experience, I often counseled individuals in changing their track of employment, emphasizing ways to gain knowledge and apply it in their existing roles.  Later, I was tapped by management to create a new team, providing critical support functions for other customer service areas.  After helping brainstorm regarding the role, responsibilities and staff requirements for this new group, I was promoted to director to manage the newly crafted team.  Individual coaching of staff and carefully molding thorough, constructive, and fair performance reviews were traits of my management career.

A few years later, I was offered an opportunity to become director of another, larger department. I had long aspired to that particular role because I had served in every capacity or level within that office, except as its director.  My on-the-spot acceptance, without the benefit of contemplation  and prayer, consultation with my wife, and any form of discernment, turned out to be a poor choice and threatened to end my relationship with the company.  I realized the error of my ways shortly after I changed positions. I had to work to overcome feelings of failure and embarrassment to surrender that post and seek a different role.

It was then that I had to admit, to myself and others, including my wife Chrissie, that envy possibly, and more certainly, selfish ambition, had gotten the better of me in that moment.

“The greatest good is wisdom,” according to St. Augustine.  Those words would be a fitting summary for this New Testament teaching on the vital subject of the wisdom from above.  James contends that this wisdom is not merely something which is intellectually understandable; it must be demonstrated practically in our Christian lifestyle.  This “wisdom” is sophia, which we might characterize as "practical knowledge": the stuff we learn and know and carry around in our gut.   

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Sermon: Dogged Discipleship

A Sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on September 6, 2015.

15th Sunday after Pentecost: Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Ps. 125; James 2:1-10, 14-17; Mark 7:24-37

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

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

        Two women check out at the grocery store, one in front of the other. One is mixed-race; with blue eyes, she looks white. The other is a black woman. They happen to be sisters-in-law who grew up together and have raised their kids together in a wonderful multicultural family.

          The first, who looks white, writes a check for her groceries. The young checker; strawberry blonde, freckled, delightful and warm, carries on with light banter: “Hey, how you doing? Isn’t it a great day today?” Completing her purchase, the ‘white’ woman steps aside to wait for her sister-in-law.

          The second woman, who looks black, steps forward. The checker looks at her and there is no conversation as she writes her check. The woman’s ten-year old daughter immediately notices the difference of the moment. The checker then says, “I need two forms of ID.” The daughter is suddenly embarrassed, looking to her mother, tearing up, wondering if she is going to allow this to happen. ‘Why is she doing this to US?’

          In line behind them are two elderly white women. The mother considers what needs to be done while trying to avoid becoming that ‘angry black woman.’ She tries to second-guess all the drama, but decides to say nothing and produces her identification. But to make matters worse, the checker pulls out the ‘bad check book’ to see if her license is listed among those who have passed bad checks. Humiliation hangs heavy in the air. Now the young daughter is in full-blown emotional distress.

          The sister-in-law watching all this steps forward to question the checker. “Excuse, me, why are you doing this?” The checker says, “What do you mean?” “Why are you putting her through all these steps?” “Well, this is our policy.” “No, it’s not your policy. You didn’t do that with me.” Then flustered checker says, “Oh, but I KNOW you. You’ve been …” “NO, she’s been here for YEARS. I’ve only just moved here three months ago.”

          Now the elderly white women in line begin to say, “We can’t believe what this checker has done to this woman. It’s totally unacceptable.” And the manager walks over to ask, “Is there a problem here?” The sister-in-law says, “Yes, there IS a problem. Here’s what happened.”

          She used her white privilege. Even being half-black and half-white, she recognized what that means, and she made the statement. She pointed out the apparent discrimination and injustice. She, as a result of that one act, influenced everyone who was there.

          What would have happened if the ‘black’ woman had shouted, “This is unfair. Why are you doing this to me?” We can’t know for certain. Would it have had the same impact? It’s hard to say. However the one woman knew she walks through the world differently from her sister-in-law, and she used her ‘white privilege’ to educate and make right a situation that was wrong.

          Let’s just admit upfront that humanity is, indeed, a strange lot!


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A Sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on August 9, 2015.

11th Sunday after Pentecost: 2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33; Ps. 130; Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6:35, 41-51

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

O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

       A friend of ours from California visited recently, and one thing we did together was go out for a meal. A local restaurant, Bilbo Baggins here in Alexandria, had been recommended to her, she being a fan of J. R. R. Tolkien and the Hobbit series, so there we went. Of course, as it is in most restaurants, the first thing that comes to the table along with water is some kind of bread. And usually, my wife Chrissie and I decline bread when it is offered, but I think this came without asking, and dining with our friend, we wouldn’t have said No unless she had.

       When it came to the table, I was glad there wasn’t much bread because it looked really good. There were those individual pats of butter and the bread looked so fresh, soft and yummy. So the invitation was right there! Of course, I had some and it was very, very good.

       Bread isn’t really considered a luxury, except perhaps by those who have none. Bread is not dessert or a feast or even a delicacy, but to those who hunger for something and lack everything. Bread is an everyday staple, available to most, but not to all. Bread is basic nourishment, but even Jesus said while tempted in the wilderness, “Man does not live by bread alone.” Sadly, some have to. They have no choice. It may be all that they have, if that. Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, remembered in his book, "Man's Search for Meaning," the ration of a 5 oz. piece of bread as the only food given prisoners for four days.      

Most every culture on earth has some sort of bread, whether it is pita or tortilla or naan. There are breads with yeast, breads without yeast, and sometimes its soda bread. Bread isn’t just for holidays or special occasions. Sometimes, it is given to new home owners or to visitors as a sign of welcome and hospitality. Bread is the substance of everyday life. Jesus taught us to pray for "daily bread."

       Today we’re in Week Three of Chapter Six in John’s Gospel! And throughout this chapter, we see how people respond to Jesus. And from what we have read, I would say they are hungry throughout this chapter – hungry for bread certainly – and although they don’t know it yet – they yearn for the true bread of life which will fill and feed their hearts, minds, bodies and souls.

       Seven times in the Gospel of John, Jesus paints a picture of himself. He shows us what he looks like. Seven times Jesus says, “I am…”   The Light of the World, …the Gate, …the Good Shepherd, …the Resurrection and the Life, …the Way, the Truth, and the Life, … and I am the Vine.” But today, again, Jesus says, “I am the Bread of Life.”

       We heard these words last week to end the Gospel, and again this week to open the Gospel. “I am the bread of life. They who come to me will never go hungry, and they who believe in me will never be thirsty.” This is one of the greatest passages of this Fourth Gospel and, indeed, of the entire New Testament.

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