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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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Pantheon Sunburst

A sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on Sunday, August 3, 2014.

8th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (RCL): Gen. 32:22-31; Ps. 17:1-7, 16; Rom. 9:1-5; Matt. 14:13-21

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.

         Today we move, from the past several weeks where Jesus taught about the Kingdom of heaven through parables, into the realm of seeing marvelous works of

God performed through Jesus for the needs of the people.

Five loaves, two fish, over five thousand fed.

How many of you here actually believe in miracles? (Show of hands?) I do. I hope that, if you’ve been here at Immanuel, you’ve heard me share stories of miracles in my life: my sister’s healings, my mother’s battle against alcohol, or my longtime friend surviving a catastrophic accident. I stand here to claim unabashedly that I do believe in miracles.

But what are ‘miracles?’ Hearing the word, what comes to mind? (Anyone?)

Turning to Dictionary.com for a current interpretation of ‘miracle,’ it says:

  1. An effect or extraordinary event in the physical world that surpasses all known human or natural powers and is ascribed to a supernatural cause.

  2. Such an effect or event manifesting or considered as a work of God.

  3. A wonder; a marvel.

We can imagine different ‘miracles’ which, when you relate them to Matthew’s gospel, they’re not really miracles at all. Of course, you may have guessed I’m talking about sporting ‘miracles.’ They caught us off-guard, surprised us, gave us great joy …or sometimes, much sorrow.

There’s the “Miracle on Ice” when the USA ice hockey team beat the Soviets at the 1980 Olympics to later gain the gold medal. Maybe it’s a game-winning shot at the buzzer, a bases-loaded walk-off homer to come from behind, a Hail Mary pass, or even Darrell Green’s punt return against the Chicago Bears in the playoffs … you get the point. I’ll be glad hear your thoughts on sporting ‘miracles’ at the door. But, much as we think we really need a win, sports miracles are not what we really need in life.

Human needs are those things without which we cannot live. They are basic things like food, water, shelter, clothing, sleep and health. We consider these physical needs; needs pertaining to bodily life and existence. And there are other needs: emotional and mental. We need to feel both great joy and real grief, and we all need to be intellectually challenged. But we also need life in community, to know another human’s acceptance. In our relationship with God and our life in Christ Jesus, we also need to know forgiveness for our human frailties, and salvation from everlasting separation from God. These things are the deepest, least understood of human needs: our spiritual needs.

At times, there is much confusion in the church concerning human needs. Some believe the church should be most concerned with meeting peoples’ physical needs, claiming that Christians spend too much time preaching, teaching and confessing Christ. Their rallying cry is ‘More Deeds, Less Creeds!’ On the other hand, others say the church should focus solely on spiritual needs, arguing that real Christians with proper knowledge will know how to serve those needs through resources other than the church. Neither of these camps is bad. Neither is really wrong. But it’s not an all or nothing idea. It’s hard to separate physical and spiritual needs.

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Sermon: The Kingdom of heaven is like ...

Waves and Gulls

A sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on Sunday, July 27, 2014.

7th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (RCL): Gen. 29:15-28; Ps. 105:1-11; Rom. 8:26-29; Matt. 13:31-33, 44-52

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

A boy watched his father, a priest, write a sermon.

"How do you know what to say?" the son asked.

The father replied, "Well, God tells me."

"Oh …then why do you keep crossing things out?”

I went back and forth on what to preach this week. With all the world’s troubles, some continuing far too long, others now coming to the forefront: An airliner shot down, another swept from the sky over Taiwan, another crashing in Mali; warring factions in the Middle East, in Israel and Palestine, and yes, still Syria; outsiders clamoring to become insiders in the U.S. and the hard actions of managing borders or debating immigration reforms with lives hanging in the balance; the prevalence of gun violence in our country; ongoing poverty; homelessness; hunger; pain; grief over troubling illnesses; and the unexpected loss of loved ones. Sadly, my list is not complete; it goes on and on. These are the hardships, distress, persecutions, famine, nakedness, peril and sword of our day that St. Paul wrote about in Romans.

When I think about what is happening in our world and try to link it to today’s Gospel, I really wonder … What is happening to the Kingdom of God??

First, some semantics regarding the synoptic Gospels. Two expressions for this kingdom of which Jesus spoke, the “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of heaven”– represent the same thing. To devout Jews, the word “God” was too sacred to be used casually or regularly. Matthew, writing primarily for Jewish readers, therefore normally speaks about the “kingdom of heaven,” whereas Mark and Luke prefer the alternative “kingdom of God,” as an easier expression for non-Jews to comprehend. If I use them interchangeably, I mean the same thing, just as Jesus did.

There are six parables in Matthew’s gospel today. Six times when Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like…” Six times where Jesus tries to give us a glimpse into what the kingdom of heaven will be like and what we might expect. I spent much time with these parables, reading and rereading them. I may have heard them more often than the disciples did! I prayed for guidance on what to share. I called to the Holy Spirit, inviting her to dance with me. I was stymied by the many examples these parables put forth. Each could be a stand-alone sermon. And, truth be told, I was stumped further with each new report on lives lost, countries at war, people abandoned, feeling hopeless. What IS the Kingdom of God like?

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Sermon: Seed, Soil and The Word

Roma

A sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on Sunday, July 13, 2014.
5th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (RCL): Gen. 25:19-34; Ps. 119:105-112; Rom. 8:1-11; Matt. 13:1-9, 18-23

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

Continuing through Matthew’s gospel, we move from missionary texts of sending disciples into the world to preach good news, and shift the next several weeks to hearing some of the Parables that Jesus taught. Like an artist or painter that uses colors and images as a medium to tell stories on canvas, Jesus is a masterful storyteller who worked through parables.

Today's gospel is called The Parable of the Sower. But others know it as The Parable of the Soils. This parable in Matthew can also be found in the other synoptic gospels, in Mark [Ch 4] and Luke [Ch 8]. In each instance, the gospel writers not only record the parable itself, but its explanation as well. And because we have Jesus' explanation, this parable is valuable on two levels. Jesus' explanation not only gives us the spiritual truth of this parable, but it also gives us guidelines that might help us interpret other parables.       

You may know that a Parable is defined as a short allegorical story designed to illustrate or teach some truth, religious principle, or moral lesson. It is a statement or comment conveying a meaning indirectly by the use of comparison, analogy, or the like. As many of us learned in Sunday school, Jesus shares a seemingly earthly story laced with a heavenly meaning to speak about the Kingdom of God.

Early Christian literature appears to designate as “parable” any saying of Jesus who’s meaning in not immediately clear in terms of Christian faith and theology. Jesus, as an artist, created pictures for us to interpret. Some parables such as the Prodigal Son are clearly examples of the love of God for the outcast. These require no explanation.

But as explained in the verses omitted from today’s gospel [vs. 10-17], Jesus’ message was sometimes concealed from those were hostile towards him. Through parables, Jesus taught publicly about the Kingdom of God, yet members of the religious order and authorities of the Roman Empire could find nothing in his message considered rebellious or subversive.

Stories have a way of separating people. Some hear and some do not; that is, some catch the meaning and others miss it. Jesus chose the parable as a verbal picture to teach, a strategy by which he separated those who were honest and sincere about understanding the Kingdom from those who were only curious or were critical of his ministry.

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Sermon: The Promise ... Tested

Scotland

A sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on Sunday, June 29, 2014.

Third Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (RCL): Genesis 22:1-14; Psalm 13; Romans 6:12-23; Matthew 10:40-42

        Please be seated.

           Before I begin, I hope you saw the bulletin announce that today has been designated as Social Media Sunday in the Episcopal Church to “spread the Good News.” So I invite those of you who dabble in either Twitter or Facebook to feel free to tweet or post any quotes or thoughts that are significant to you from this sermon. This is risky for me, but hopefully fun for you. Please silence your phones and use the hastag #Episcopal when posting. While I’m at it, please permit me a selfie with you. Thanks.

____________________________________________________________

           All of us had, has, or will have, the promise we have heard from our Creator either tested or challenged. And we will ALL be brought up short by it. Whether as normal a life process as retirement or graduation that might leave us feeling purposeless, or perhaps as devastating as losing a loved one unexpectedly or receiving a diagnosis of a terminal illness, each of us hears that promise from God individually and uniquely. So our circumstances of the challenge or test will be different. What do we do with that challenge? How will we respond when tested?

           Today’s Old Testament lesson from Genesis 22 is known as “The Testing of Abraham” or “The Binding of Isaac.” Isaac is bound upon an altar by his father Abraham at the direction of the Lord God to be offered as a burnt sacrifice.

           This is one of the hardest, most difficult, off-putting, and certainly frightening accounts we read in the Bible. Ellen F. Davis, in her book, Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, opens her chapter on “Take Your Son” with these words: “Abraham and his God are appalling. If this is a test, then it would seem that both have failed miserably, both the One who devised the test and the one who submitted to it.” God tested Abraham to the limit, to see if he would believe that God would keep his promise that Isaac would be his heir, the son of promise. Like cardiovascular workouts that strengthen the heart, lungs and stamina of the human body, and muscles that are gained by pumping iron, faith can mature through trial and tribulation and the divine provision of God.

           Ten chapters earlier in Genesis 12, Abram was seventy-five years old, his wife Sarai was sixty-five and unable to have children, and they were childless. Nevertheless, God made a great promise. “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make

your name great, so that you will be a blessing. ... in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen 12: 1-3)

           There is God’s promise to Abram. But how would it be realized? This man and woman were old, childless, and she was barren. To fulfill that promise, God would have to grant Abram a child, for you need offspring to become a great nation. Could the promise be fulfilled?       



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Sermon: Trinity Sunday

Pantheon Sunburst

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