Sunday, September 7, 2014

Sermon: 'ekklesia'

Sermon for September  7, 2014
Proper 18, Year A, 13th Sunday After Pentecost
St. Philip’s In The Hills Parish, Tucson, AZ
The Rev. Vicki K. Hesse
For readings click here

Open our lips, O Lord,
That our mouth shall proclaim your praise.  Amen

Today’s gospel text draws us
directly into church conflict. 
That can be a difficult place to start.

The opening sentence launches us into a
“how to” process for disciplinary action.

I think that before we can explore
discipline within the church,
we need to ground ourselves on what church is.
On what is our “ecclesiology”
--- the theological understanding of church. 

In the book
The Churches The Apostles Left Behind[1],”

we find an entry way
into this “ecclesiological” discussion,
through imaginative poetry:
offered perhaps, by John the last apostle,
as he is dying in concealment. 

The poet writes,
“… when [my ashes] scatter, [and] there is left on earth
"No one alive who knew (consider this!)
"—Saw with his eyes and handled with his hands
"That which was from the first, the Word of Life.
"How will it be when none more saith 'I saw'?[2]
* pause *
How HAS it been when none more saith ‘I saw’?

I wonder:  how was it
when the last apostolic witness
disappeared from the scene?
… when churches could
no longer depend on the testimony
of those who said “I saw”? 
How did the church keep going? 

Well, of course we have scripture: the NT.
The NT written mostly after the death
of the last known apostle.
The NT describing Church
in the book of Acts and
the letters of Paul and Peter,
teaching about Church and
outlining how to live in community. 

Today’s NT text from Matthew includes
one of only two times that the word “church”
shows up in the Gospels.  
[The word Church, in Greek, is ekklesia,
which means the “called out ones of God.”]
The other time occurs also in Matthew,
when Jesus announces to Peter
that on him, the rock, Jesus will build his Church.[3] 

In this text, sometimes referred to as Jesus’
“Sermon on the Church,”
Jesus reminds the community
to deal with a sinful “brother” or “sister”
through his love.
That Love was the core of community.
That Love was the heart of their gathering.
His Love pulled the community together.

It’s impressive, I think,
that the Gospel writer knew the timeless truth
about how most people still work:
that often the offended
does not go directly to the offender.

Instead, the offended goes over the offender’s head
(to the authority) or
triangulates with someone else
to get the offender to change.  .  .  Timeless!

But Jesus says, “Go direct.”
Go to the offender, alone, to preserve honor.
Go to the offender with others, if needed.
Only then, through prayer and love,
with grace and forgiveness,
Only then, when the community gathers
and prays in Jesus’ name,
can a spiritual, not just an administrative,
solution arise.

And what did it mean for Matthew’s community,
to “let him be to you as a Gentile or a Tax Collector.” ?
That seems like a severe response to me.
But Jesus harnesses the cultural attitudes
toward these outcasts and
Jesus invited the disciples not to shun or expel,
but to reach out through his love,
with forgiveness that can be “loosed” in heaven
to welcome that person home. 

To survive in the world
after the death of the last apostle
who actually “saw,”
the church has had to show
a different way of including and loving and forgiving.
And what happens
when The Church
is not
including and loving and forgiving?

People leave.
Faith communities separate. 
Congregations divide.

According to a 2011 Pew Forum study[4]
there are 41,000 Christian denominations in the US. 

And there are all kinds of reasons that people leave:
·        In my own experience, some left the church in Oregon because of my relationship with my partner
·        Others left because they changed the color of the carpet
·        Some people left a friend’s church because they were benched on the church softball game and
·        Some because they changed the service times. 

When people leave church in anger,
death has dominion and grace is thwarted
– thwarted among the very people
called to extend grace to the world.

All these reasons point to what might be called
“bad ecclesiology.” 
That is,
misunderstanding of what it means to be church;
--- of what church is for.

To be Christian is
to be bound together in community of Jesus’ love
and to pray “Our Father”
even in the privacy of our own room.

Borrowing from one Bishop who said it clearly:
“Church is not a social club.
Church is not an interest group. 
Church is not a political party. 
It is not a support group. 
It’s not where you come to get your needs met,
not where you come to network,
not where you come to connect with
people who have the same political views…

The Church is the community
that is held together
by the radical love of Jesus Christ.  Period.
We come together because
we have experienced that love. 
We come together because /we hunger for that love. 
We don’t come together because of one another.
We come together because of Jesus. 
His love pulls us here.” [5]
At its core,
church is about the radical love of God
revealed in Jesus Christ
and if its not about that, its not about anything.

So when a brother or a sister offends,
God’s love empowers us to go direct:
and in love, with humility, grace and forgiveness,
and bring that our relationship back into community. 
And so a story about the Babemba tribe[6] in South Africa
and how they discipline. 

When a tribe member does something
hurtful or wrong, the tribe places that person
in the center of village, alone. 
The entire village stops work, and
everyone gathers in a circle
around the accused.  
For two days, each person in the tribe
speaks to the accused, one at a time,
recalling the good things the person has ever done. 

They share every incident and every experience
of that person’s positive attributes,
good deeds, strengths, and kindnesses. 

For the tribe believes that every human being
comes into the world as good,
desiring safety, love, peace and happiness. 
But in the pursuit of those things,
sometimes people make mistakes. 

The tribe, the community,
sees misdeeds as a cry for help. 
So they band together for the sake of
their sister or brother, and for their community,
to hold that person up,
to reconnect that person with their true nature,
to remind them of who they really are.
And the circle continues until that person
remembers the truth from which
they had been temporarily disconnected,
and says, “I am good.”   

When we are out of Christian fellowship
with one another, when we are disunited,
we are not going to get back to unity
by making people behave like us. 

Only by going deeper, as a community,
in the love of Jesus Christ. 
Only by getting to our core
can we find a holy communion. 

The core of our unity is the mutual love of Jesus Christ. 

As John the last apostle asks in the poem,
“How will it be when none more saith ‘I saw’?”

It will be glorious – filled with God’s glory –

and that is our mission -
To share and go deeper in
the love, grace, and humility of Jesus. 

To invite others to experience that love.
To share that peace of Christ
that the world cannot give and
the world cannot take away.

For there is no place else in our world
who is clear about that. 
The Church is the only agency
that can call people back to where they belong – by getting centered in the love of Jesus Christ.

How will it be?  It will be glorious
when two or three are gathered in his name,
and he is there among them. 

May we, as a church, yearn for his presence
and treasure his presence...
May we share the love of God so that this church
will always be the Church of Jesus Christ.[7]


[1] Raymond E. Brown, SS, (New York, Paulist Press, 1984), p. 13
[2] Raymond Brown quoting Robert Browing poetically describing John, the last apostle, expiring in concealment – how will it be when none more saith “I saw”? see
[3] Matthew 16:18, NRSV
[5] Inspired by Rt. Rev. G. Porter Taylor in this sermon:
[7] Taylor, ibid.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Sermon: Blessings upon blessings

Icon of Jesus at Church of the Multiplication, Israel

Sermon for August 3, 2014
Proper 13, Year A, 8th Sunday After Pentecost
The Rev. Vicki K. Hesse
St. Philip’s In The Hills Parish, Tucson, AZ
For readings click here

Lord, Open our lips
That our mouth shall proclaim your praise.  Amen

This week, a friend of mine heard
that today’s gospel story was
the multiplication of loaves and fishes. 
Given the proliferation of zucchini in my garden,
she told me to open with The Story of zucchini bread. 

“The what?” I asked. 
She said The Story that it was zucchini bread
that the disciples had.
So I googled “zucchini. Five loaves. Story.”
And what do you know? 
Here’s a zucchini bread recipe that makes five small loaves.  (show page[1])
It even concludes with,
“This recipe makes 5 loaves baked in small pans… perfect for making a little for yourself
and having some to give away, too.”

The gospel story is so familiar.   Is known…

not only because it is the only miracle
found in all four gospels,
not only because it takes place
in the familiar biblical wilderness,
not only because the recalcitrant disciples
sound like the whining Israelites,
not only because it  has echoes of The Last Supper,
but for all these reasons. 

Even as a well-known story,
there is rich good news here.

The scene opens with Jesus hearing about
the brutal murder of John the Baptist. 

Jesus was grief stricken, so he went to a deserted place.
Desolate.  Solitary.  Perfect for prayer.

Like the Phone Line Trail in Sabino Canyon –
not a stick of vegetation nearby, not a spot of shade. 

But the crowds. 
The crowds could not get enough of him. 
They followed him, making their way
through the dust, the rocks, the barrenness. 
They brought their sick and wounded to him,
their depressed and addicted,
their grieving and stressed. 

And Jesus had compassion on them and healed
all afternoon –
because he had the words
of the prophet Hosea ringing in his ears,
“I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”[2] 

Well, this made for a long day! 
As evening fell,
the rosey-blue sky anticipated the setting sun
and the wind began to cool. 
The disciples were tired of being the hot sun. 
They got a bit grumpy. 
They were hot and tired and wanted to call it a day. 

The disciples interrupted Jesus at his work. 
They told him,
“Send the crowds away
so that they can buy food for themselves.”

 “Ahem,” Jesus says,
You give them something to eat.”
Don’t make the folks leave this place. 
I know this region is a food desert, so
you give them something to eat.” 

Wait, what?  “We don’t have enough!”
the disciples mumble. 
We ate our PBJ’s long ago.  Our snacks have run out. 
Where are we supposed to find food
to feed all these people? 
And their parting shot:
“We have nothing here but
five loaves of bread and a couple of fish!”

In spite of all the changes between then and now,
their parting shot somehow sounds familiar: 
It seems that we don’t have enough. 
Big crowds of unmet needs tend
to overwhelm our sense of agency. 

It seems we don’t have enough strength
for the crowds of demands from our job, family, and household
It seems that our nation doesn’t have enough
jobs or medical care
for the crowds of people at our borders
It seems that warring nations don’t have enough
compassion to hold a cease-fire for the crowds of people hurt in the battles.

In our own desolate wilderness,
in our evening thoughts, 
we wonder to ourselves, Am I enough?

And Jesus says to us,
You give them something to eat.”

And the disciples replied,
“We have nothing but five loaves and two fish.” 
The crowds do not need to go away,
Jesus said,
bring your loaves to me. 

Jesus had compassion. 
Compassion for the most basic
and deepest needs of all. 
“I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” 
Jesus was gripped by this saying,
and mercy took the form of bread, that day.

And in front of those crowds,
in that deserted place,
at the end of a long hot day,
Jesus ordered everyone to “please be seated...”

Like the 23rd Psalm, lie down in the green pasture. 
Jesus knew that there was a pasture of green
in their hearts;
a pasture of hope and peace in that cosmic abundance. 
Jesus could picture it, so he took that meager offering.

He looked up to heaven and blessed it.

Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha’olam
blessed is God,
for bringing forth bread from the earth
and fish from the sea. Amen.

Jesus broke the loaves into pieces.
and gave those pieces to the disciples, saying
“you give them something to eat”

The disciples gave the pieces to the crowds –
the needy crowds,
the tired worn out crowds,
the many many crowds.

With a foretaste of The Last Supper –
Jesus took, blessed, broke and gave. 

And do you know what? 
That bread met everyone’s basic and deepest needs.  The crowds were filled – satisfied in their belly
and satisfied of their spirit. 

Jesus multiplied the bread to satisfy everyone.
It was enough.
It was more than enough.
Out of that meager offering,
all ate, all were filled and there were left overs!
(maybe it WAS zucchini bread?)

We, too, sometimes say, we have nothing but…
We have nothing but our prayers, our talents, our money, our time – it’s all so limited, we say…

And Jesus replies, bring your meager offering to me. 
Your crowds do not need to go away. 
What you have is enough. Who you are is enough.  

God, through Jesus,
multiplies our “bread” to satisfy all the crowds.
Our meagerness, in the hands of Jesus,
becomes bounty. 

1.     God empowers us directly with strength, inspiration and patience,
when we need it most,
when we have reached that deep empty space in our hearts and admit our powerlessness over the the crowded demands of our lives and we have compassion for ourselves

2.     God empowers a community of disciples
to respond to the border crisis. 
This week in the AZ Diocesan news[3],
an Episcopal priest from Southern AZ wrote about “ten ways to respond” to the border issues
through our own meager offering, with actions like
a.     learning the history of Central America and the US foreign policy of that region, 
b.    attending a border vigil in Douglas, or
c.      reading the book “Bishops on the Border” which inspires a fresh vision to respond to the border crisis with compassion.

3.     God empowers neighbor nations,
and those of other faiths,
to pray for peace and resolution. 
Just last week,
Temple Emanu-El and Weintraub Israel Center
hosted a multi-faith
prayer and conversation event. 
The event offered a glimpse of hope and peace
through the joined prayers of
Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikh, and Baha’i faiths.

While meager, the evening opened the way
for further conversation and softened hearts
for grace to enter in. 
With God’s empowerment,
we continue to pray unceasingly
for peace and resolution in the Holy Land.

Jesus himself came to the world,
was blessed, broken and given
to accomplish what we cannot
accomplish for ourselves, which is
a  compassionate, expanded reign of God.

And so I wonder, what is your meager offering?
·        Is it simply two hours, once a month, on a Saturday to make sandwiches for Casa Maria?
·        Is it to promise to God to be mindful in responding to the demands of the crowds?
·        Is it a letter to the editor, invoking compassion?
·        Is it writing a note to someone who is grieving?

Jesus will take our meager offering, bless it, break it and give it – multiplying it in miraculous ways that empower us to do God’s work in the world.

Albert Einstein once said,
“There are only two ways to live your life.
One is as though nothing is a miracle.
The other is as though everything is…”

The events that took place on that hillside
two thousand years ago
were a miracle to the more than five thousand
that were there. 

The events that take place today, in our world,
are the miracle of God’s love
for the six billion people
on the planet today –
God loves every single one of them. 

Jesus says, bring me your meager offering. 

And he will take, bless, break and give it
for a miraculous bounty for all,
with enough left over
to fill twelve baskets!


[2] Hosea 6:6
[3] Cited at on July 31 2014