Psalm 119

Of the 150 psalms (Greek for “song”), psalm 119 is the longest. It is an “acrostic” poem spanning 176 verses in 22 stanzas; one stanza for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Acrostic means that each letter of the Hebrew alphabet is the first letter of the first word of each stanza (aleph, bet, gimmel, dalet, heh …). There are about a dozen acrostic poems in the bible. These literary techniques were done to help people memorize the scripture.

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The Big Ease

There is a spot on the surface of the earth in the Oklo (uranium mining) region of Gabon in Africa where radioactive material smoldered at “sub-critical mass” for thousands of years. It was a natural accumulation of radioactive elements brought together where their radioactivity was sufficient to generate enough heat to melt tons of metal and rock and ignite any biologic materials nearby, but not enough radioactivity for the pile to become critical and explode. With entirely natural processes, this pile of material cycled on and off every three hours creating intense bursts of heat and radioactivity for 150,000 years. You can mathematically model a nuclear chain reaction the same way you model an epidemic (or vice versa).

Right now, the entire globe is smoldering with this pandemic. You even hear on the news of “local hot spots” (a term borrowed from nuclear chain reaction modeling), outbreaks or critical areas. We have kept the terrible contagion from infecting ten or a hundred times more people in the same month or two (that would be like a nuclear explosion). Given the politics of anti-vaccination movements and lack of sound leadership, I am concerned that this disease will continue to smolder for a long time. Perhaps for several years to come.

The need for social distancing, precautions and so forth will not suddenly vanish because the potential for infection will linger like an unwanted guest far longer than anyone is willing to discuss these days. Getting 60 to 80% of the global population vaccinated is going to take a while. So how should we carry on in the meantime? Why should we carry on? And what value will the church add in the lives of its members and the surrounding community?

How should we go forward?

  • Hold virtual Sunday worship until we are told it is safe to resume in-person worship
  • Increased phone calls and letters to parishioners
  • Facilitate outside group meetings as advised
  • Gradually ease back existing church meetings based upon medical advice
  • Find expanded ways to use our church and enhanced video network
    • Educational programs
    • Entertainment
    • Outreach educational programs
  • Explore new ways to engage people at home
    • Small group, family lessons
    • Icebreakers, games, conversation starters

  Why should we carry on?

  • With courage, resolve and presence we demonstrate that the love of God is with us and for us
  • Only God’s love brought to the world by those who know it can cast out the fear, ignorance and darkness
  • We desire to make the world a better place

  What is our value-added to the community?

  • Grace Church does not guilt people into becoming baptized so they will be free from sin and go to heaven
  • We don’t sell fire insurance
  • We stress that the kingdom of God is right here, right now
  • We share the love of God with others to give hope and belonging
  • We develop solid spirituality and maturity in our children and youth
  • We reach out in support of the wider community with no strings attached and no guilt
  • We try to be the arms, mouth, hands, feet and heart of Jesus in a broken and battered world

We have used this down time to address a century of deferred maintenance on the property. Many things were deteriorating, and some things were not safe. We are turning our attention to what Grace Episcopal Church in Muskogee needs to become for the century ahead.

God bless you all. Stay safe.


Tikkun Olam

Tikkun olam is a concept in Judaism, interpreted in Orthodox Judaism as the prospect of overcoming all forms of idolatry, and by other Jewish denominations as an aspiration to behave and act constructively and beneficially. A Jewish concept defined by acts of kindness performed to perfect or repair the world. The phrase is found in the Mishnah, a body of classical rabbinic teachings. It is often used when discussing issues of social policy, insuring a safeguard to those who may be at a disadvantage.   The ideas behind the term have evolved over the centuries.  To modern Jewish ears, it is  the idea that Jews bear responsibility not only for their own moral, spiritual, and material welfare, but also for the welfare of society at large. To the ears of contemporary pluralistic Rabbis, the term connotes “the establishment of Godly qualities throughout the world” Read more…

Magic Bread Machine

I was told a few years ago in Washington, D.C., that I was one of very few Episcopal priests who actually used the word “Jesus” in preaching. Today we’re going to talk about relationships with Jesus. We might even use the word “Jesus” a lot this morning.

The setting for today’s story follows on last week’s feeding of the five thousand. The story begins with the people who remained overnight after having their bellies filled the day before. “They themselves got into their boats and followed Jesus to Capernaum.”

I have no scholarly backing for this, but from the few words describing this setting, it must be early morning and Capernaum must have been enough of a rowing job across the sea that for Jesus and the disciples to be there already would have meant that they departed while it was still dark. The people are hungry so they ask Jesus a loaded question. “Rabbi when did YOU get here?” Translation: “We’re hungry again. Are you going to feed us like you did yesterday?”

Let’s stop the story right there because our childhood memories of Jesus are going to help us understand what happens next. As children, many of us were taught that if we did not give our life over to Jesus, we would spend eternity in hell. You can see that today on a billboard sign coming back from Tahlequah. Jesus is pictured in the background as this hip looking white guy who might have just stepped out of a tattoo parlor. The sign reads “Eternity without Jesus is hell.”

Once presented with that rosy concept, most children and adults will say “I’ll take Jesus.” They may not believe all the rest of the stuff, but if for no other reason than to hedge their bets, they’ll go along with the program. “What if it’s true?”, they ask. So with this approach to Christian formation, we manipulate our children and adults into having a relationship with Jesus, even though they probably don’t even know what that means. Hook, line and sinker they have just purchased fire insurance.

Isn’t it odd that we manipulate people into believing, and as a result the new believers turn around and manipulate Jesus? It’s a theological “what goes around comes around” thing.

Back to Capernaum: Jesus sees the same kind of manipulation going on. He tells them, “You are looking for me not because you saw signs but because I filled your bellies yesterday.” For them, Jesus was a kind of magic bread machine that required no coins or expense. Many people today, thousands in Muskogee, preserve this kind of magic thinking. For them, all they need to do is stand up in church saying, “I have a relationship with Jesus”, and Jesus will bless them with full bank accounts, beautiful spouses, and well behaved children.

Trouble is, Jesus would have nothing to do with this nonsense.

Somewhere along the line, as children, most of us learn a thing or two about the nature of relationships. We learn that healthy relationships are based on self-giving and unhealthy ones focus on receiving. We learn that having a relationship with someone because of what they can do for you is wrong. We call that “using” someone else or manipulation.

Now here’s the interesting thing: The majority of people who call themselves Christians are just like the people at Capernaum. They profess to believe in Jesus because of what he can do for them. It is an unhealthy, manipulative relationship. They actually tell Jesus, “Give us some bread.”

Each time the crowd at Capernaum asks Jesus a question, he responds by talking about the bread of life that is imperishable, that leads to eternal life. Let me back you up to the purpose of the entire Gospel of John – that you may have faith in Jesus who reveals the nature of God. The five-thousand, who were fed, filled their bellies but missed the sign. Poet T. S. Elliot says, “They had the experience, but they missed the meaning.” Jesus tells them that. They missed the nature of God revealed by Jesus. It went right over their heads.

What is this bread of life, this imperishable food that gives eternal life? First of all, it is not something you can do on your own. You cannot be “spiritual but not religious” and really grasp God’s signs while hiking alone in the woods. God’s nature is revealed to us though Jesus Christ who is really, truly present right here in our community. It is what we do in our common life together; in our community, in our communion that enables us to see the signs.

Jesus constantly referred to his followers as sheep. That is why we don’t sit in our comfortable places and receive a little cup of wine and a morsel of bread. Like sheep, we must go to the altar rail, getting down on our knees, extending our hands in the ancient symbol of a person pleading for mercy. Like sheep we need frequent, regular feeding. Like sheep, we need to know there is a shepherd who will bring us back to the flock when we mess up.

Frankly, fire insurance is an easy sales job. This bread of life stuff is a lot more difficult to market. People won’t sit still long enough to get the concept. Then they won’t come to church often enough to experience the presence of Jesus. Finally when they become old and life’s infirmities slow them down, they may pause to ask themselves if they made the right decisions, but their life patterns are all set by then. A magic bread machine is a lot easier.

Week after week, we come to the altar rail. We leave all the messy stuff of life behind in our pews. We no longer worry about the problem we have with our brother or sister. We are alone, on our knees, with hands extended for bread, pleading for mercy. At the same time we are together shoulder to shoulder with other people in our community. We are in this together. Every now and then we get a little glimmer of heaven. We KNOW that there is a lot more going on than some bread, a little wine, and some old music. We absolutely know there is more. We return to our seats with the peace of God that passes all understanding. It doesn’t happen every time; hopefully, just often enough to keep us coming back.

When we are old and life’s infirmities have really slowed us down, we are going to pass through that glimmer we saw at the altar rail years earlier. We will know that Jesus has called us home.

Show up and engage with scripture

The first thing you need to know is that the Episcopal Church does not bestow “sainthood” on anyone. We have adopted many of the traditional saints of ages past such as St. Francis, St. Paul, and St. Mary. I am not sure where the cutoff date is, but at some point in the past, say the 19th century or so, the Episcopal Church simply recognizes significant contributions on our annual calendar. We have dates for Harriett Tubman and Martin Luther King, Jr. This week we celebrate the “Feast Day” for Jonathan Daniels. The story is important to our individual and national lives.

In 1965, Daniels was a seminary student at the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge Massachusetts. In March of that year, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. asked students and others to join on a march to the state capital of Alabama demonstrating support for the civil rights movement. At evening prayer in the chapel that week, Daniels reflected on Mary’s song we just heard in the Gospel. He wrote the following in his journal:

“I had come to Evening Prayer as usual that evening, and as usual I was singing the Magnificat with the special love and reverence I have always felt for Mary’s glad song. ‘He hath showed strength with his arm.’ As the lovely hymn of the God-bearer continued, I found myself peculiarly alert, suddenly straining toward the decisive, luminous, Spirit-filled ‘moment’ … Then it came. ‘He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things.’ I knew then that I must go to Selma. The Virgin’s song was to grow more and more dear in the weeks ahead.”

Jon worked tirelessly in Alabama, bringing black people to the local Episcopal Church, setting up tutoring programs, registering people to vote and protesting discrimination. Picketing local businesses landed him in jail for a week. Upon release from jail on August 20, the racially mixed group attempted to enter a local store for lunch. They were met at the door by a man with a shotgun. After a brief confrontation the man pointed his gun at the young black girl in the front of the group. They were less than ten feet from the shooter. Jon pushed the young woman to the ground. In the process, he took the gunshot in his chest. He died within minutes.

Dying for the cause of advancing the dignity and rights of people you don’t even know is one way to get on the Episcopal Church calendar.

They say that hindsight is 20:20. It is easy to look back in history and retroject our present values. We can look back with clarity on those days in the 1960s and say “Civil rights and the sexual revolution were difficult things in their day, but in the end, they were the right things to do.”

But in 1965 when the rector of the local parish was supportive but not totally enthusiastic about integration; when politicians on all sides mourned about the death of the country; when school boards refused Federal orders and when storekeepers took shots at young blacks, was the decision to join in protests and help with integration so clear cut? Would you have joined Jon Daniels? In our baptismal covenant we pledge to “respect the freedom and dignity of every human being.” Those are easy words to say, but how far would you go in carrying them out?

In our day, political and religious leaders have learned to grow their followers by fanning the flames of extreme positions, and systems of oppression have grown even more powerful and interlocking. What are the evils that we are called to confront and how far will we go? Are we even able to clearly identify the issues that oppress and marginalize people today? Can we do this without falling prey to one extreme ideology or another?

C. S. Lewis pointed out that evil does not go away. It just changes costumes. Can we recognize it when it walks in the room?

Life may not present opportunities to us as it did for Jon Daniels. We are not all destined to take a bullet for someone else. But we are expected to help others and respect their freedom and dignity. Christian living is not about going to heaven when we die. It is about making the world a better place for other people. The question is, how do we know what to do? How do we know when to act? Where do we get our marching orders?

Look at what motivated Jonathan Daniels. He was obviously attuned to the issues of the day. He had obviously been thinking and praying about the evils of segregation and the unfair ways that black people were treated. What was it that led him to delay his seminary training and head to Alabama into the unknown?

Two things: First was regular hearing and reading of scripture and serious reflection on it. How can we grow this practice here at Grace? One thing I plan to start this fall is a Wednesday night Bible study. I will lead one track for teens and youth. We will find another person to lead a parallel adult track. Both groups will discuss the same scripture every week. This year we will tackle the major stories of the bible. We also have Education for Ministry for adults as well as adult and youth Sunday school. What else can we do to ground our lives in scripture?

One goal of regular reflection on scripture is for you to have the same experience Daniels had where he said “I found myself peculiarly alert, suddenly straining toward the decisive, luminous, Spirit-filled ‘moment’…” Straining toward the decisive, Spirit-filled moment.

Second was his regular attendance in church. That Spirit-filled moment may happen to you at the grocery store or in your morning workout, but chances are much better that something stirring will happen to you at church.

The Episcopal church Daniels attended was in downtown Boston. It has always been a lively place with a huge diversity of social and economic classes. There the marginalized gather alongside the wealthy. It is a “high Anglo-Catholic” church with “smells and bells,” genuflecting, Latin psalms, chanted Eucharist, the whole enchilada. Prayers of the people at Church of the Advent in Boston are a riot of petitions. Poor people pray for situations in their neighborhoods while the wealthy pray that fair solutions can be found to the problems of the day. I knew people who attended that church during Jonathan Daniels’ day and it remained that way thirty years later when I attended it.

So regular worship and reflection on the Bible are the two things that set Jon Daniels on his path. You don’t have to go to seminary or be ordained to make a difference. You just have to show up and engage with the Bible.

We have baptized some babies and a few adults since I have been at Grace. I sometimes wish I had the guts to tell people that the Holy Spirit writes a tattoo across your forehead. “Warning, taking your baptism seriously might be hazardous to your health.” But it’s the best thing you’ll ever do.

How are we to live?

Come, eat of my bread
  and drink of the wine I have mixed.

Lay aside immaturity, and live,
  and walk in the way of insight

Lady Wisdom has labored to build a house. She has prepared a rich banquet and invites everyone to come and eat. She invites the already wise, the powerful and the rich, as well as the simple, the poor and those lacking wisdom. This banquet of meat and wine and this all-inclusive invitation should be familiar to you. We are made in God’s image and here we have the essence of the invitation – to gain the wisdom of God by sitting down with lady Wisdom for a meal.

If we look at the end of the book of Proverbs, we will see the opposite. Like Wisdom, Folly also competes for followers. Both Wisdom and Folly call out to people with the same words. Like Wisdom, Folly also prepares a banquet. Wisdom serves meat and wine – things not usually consumed by common people. In contrast, Folly offers only bread and water. The verses make it clear that the meal offered by Folly is death itself.

Almost a thousand years later, Paul tells his flock in Ephesus (in modern day Turkey) to “be careful how you live… as wise people, making the most of time because the days are evil.”

Last week I posed an important question that practically demands follow up. What are the evils of our day that we may be called to confront? Let me name two.

First up: Nuclear weapons. I am the nephew of one of the Manhattan Project physicists. I not only learned a great deal of science from my uncle, but I learned the inner story of the anguish of a faithful Christian who was partly responsible for incinerating a half million civilians in a matter of seconds.

Most of us simply cannot comprehend how forty pounds of plutonium surrounded by some special water could turn Tulsa into a crater; or on a smaller scale, how another radioisotope smaller than a grain of sand, when mixed in a drink could kill a person and contaminate everyone at the bar. Yes there are peaceful uses of nuclear physics in energy and healthcare, but our political solutions to contain this lurking evil are inadequate as you will see next.

The New York Times reports that two weeks ago, 82 year old Roman Catholic Sister Megan Rice with two male accomplices broke into the inner sanctum of the Oak Ridge Nuclear Reservation in Tennessee. They made it through all the levels of security, past big signs stating that “lethal force” would be used. They made it into the control room of the highly enriched uranium facility where weapons grade uranium is processed. They managed to splash bull’s blood on the controls and hung banners outside the facility before being arrested.

If this can happen in the most secure facility in the United States, how secure do you think the forty thousand nuclear devices held by the former Soviet Union are today? Some of these devices can fit in a small suitcase and be carried by hand. Others are the size of a soda machine.

I do not share this with you as an alarmist. We all know too well that politicians will not spend the time or money on an issue until the public insists on it. In this case, the stakes are way too high for us to wait for the next disaster before we take action.

My second candidate for modern evil is the scourge of drug abuse. Right now there are several babies in Oklahoma who are in comas because they ate their parents’ marijuana. We have young teenagers who have positive drug screens for four or five controlled substances. When asked about their home life, they respond matter-of-factly about the different drugs their parents take. We have school systems that have no good alternatives for the difficult to manage students. Nowadays, the school district simply “sends” such kids to on-line schools where the bored and unsupervised adolescent eventually turns to drug abuse.

Sister Megan Rice literally risked bullets and lethal force to make her protest against nuclear weapons. While we may not be in a geographic position to do much rid the planet of nuclear weapons, drug abuse and its cousin, lack of education, are all around us. I bet you cannot find a single city block in Muskogee where there is no instance of drug abuse or lack of education.

The city is beginning to notice our new buildings, but what kind of new heart are we giving to the city? What new needs can we address? How will the people out there recognize our renewed hearts in here?

Could we take the Mother Teresa approach? Could we take the kids who have been rejected in their education? Where lacking no other alternatives, the courts send them to “on-line schools”? In most cases the kids lack the role models and discipline to complete their studies on-line. Eventually, most of them will turn to crime and drug abuse. Can we obtain grants and volunteers so that we can take on the kids who are rejected everywhere else?

If we could turn around just one kid in five, I guarantee you the community would take notice. Such work is the bread of Christ that lives forever. Such work is the work of Christ himself.

Psalm 34 tells us to “Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.” We have ALL the ingredients needed to turn some of our city’s rejects into productive members of society. The only thing that stands in the way is the question: “For Christ’s sake, how much of yourselves are you willing to risk?”

Credible Witnesses

The word is out on Grace Episcopal Church. We have died and gone out of business. Bulldozers are tearing down the building and the parking lots are full of rubble. If you don’t believe me, then talk to the woman (not a member) who lives in the western part of Muskogee, the spouse of a prominent citizen, who was told these words by a neighbor who saw bulldozers tearing the front wall off the parish hall and dead bushes and weeds in the courtyard. There were no signs, so what else could one conclude?

That is what at least part of the community believes about this church. So I ask you, are we a credible witness to the love of Jesus Christ in this community, or do we verge on the edge of existence as a painful reminder to some that literal Bible interpretations are not necessarily what Jesus really meant?

Now there are concrete (no pun intended) things we can do to dispel the community buzz that we are out of business. Last week, the bishop suggested that we erect some temporary signs proclaiming “Grace is growing. Join us for worship on Sunday” He also suggested that we clean up the weeds and derelict appearance of the property so that people who drive by understand that we are very much in business.

Since some community buzz has already begun in a negative way, we might also consider some advertisements to help make our case. We need to make a positive buzz.

A construction project offers both peril and opportunity. Buddhists call this yin and yang. I call it common sense. Peril because if we ignore all the opportunities, we will simply pay for an expensive expansion of facilities for a small group of people. Opportunity because we can extend our best welcoming mat to the wider community and say “Come on in. We are renovating our campus to serve this community better. Join us and you will grow too.”

I want you to raise your hand to vote for one of two options: 1. We are renovating this campus for the existing members. 2. Come on in. Join us and you will grow too. Vote.

So the question emerges from here, why are we doing this? Are we giving our money to the building project and pinning our hopes on something that basically enables us to maintain our traditions? Or are we opening ourselves up to something totally new, to the Holy Spirit, so that not only are the buildings renovated, but WE are renovated? Are we re-novating ourselves in this project? Are we literally making ourselves new again?

Maintenance of existing traditions and structures versus mission to the wider community is what we are addressing today. When we change our buildings and church campus, what do we need to change about our worship, our Sunday education, and ourselves in order to do the work God has given us to do?

Because of the bishop’s visit last week, we have moved our monthly healing service to today. There are some here who claim that our healing has helped them battle cancer. There are some who have buried loved ones in the full dignity and blessing of the church. If one aspect of our mission is to go out like those first disciples, two by two, healing and casting out demons, then can we or should we expand this particular service as part of our mission here in Muskogee?

The world out there is watching us, whether we like it or not. Some folks out there want us to go out of business. For them our failure to thrive might be proof of the validity of their particular beliefs or proof that there is no God at all. But for all those who are out there spreading false rumors, there are a hundred more who need the work and the love we do at Grace – a hundred more.

Mission and ministry happen right where we are planted. We don’t have to go to a far-away place. When we bring the love of God, the compassion of Christ, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit to others, something happens that you may not have considered before. In the same way, when Jesus sent the disciples out two by two, they returned transformed. They were changed and you will be transformed too. Ministry is a two way street.

The question of whether we are renovating the facilities for ourselves or for the community around us is a red herring. The answer is both.

So in the midst of major construction, can we clean up our parking lots and property to tell the world that we are very much in business? Can we put up signs inviting those hundreds to join us?

When they begin to show up, you will be amazed at what happens next.


The poet-biographer Carl Sandburg is best known for his gentle spirit. Poet laureate under President Kennedy, he read some his work at Kennedy’s inauguration. Yet beneath that gentle veneer is a compassionate heart, a champion of the poor and downtrodden, and one whose early works were more of a conversation about our assumptions, our privileges, and how much of real people’s lives we continue to miss.

I will quote from Sandburg’s poem titled “The Eastland” which starts out talking about the worst civil maritime disaster in American history.

I will begin with what Sandburg’s reaction to today’s Gospel might have been had he been a cub reporter for the Chicago Times writing about the beheading of John the Baptist. Here’s an adaptation of Sandburg’s poetry:

Let’s be honest now

For a couple of minutes

Even though we’re in Jerusalem.

Since you ask me about it,

I let you have it straight;

My guts ain’t ticklish about what happened to John the Baptist.

It was a heck of a job, of course

Beheading a prophet because the governor’s wife was sleeping around

And didn’t like what he had to say.

The SS Eastland was a passenger ship used for tours in the Great Lakes. On July 24 1915, a Chicago corporation held a picnic for its workers. 2,500 people were on board that day. The company photographer wanted all the families wearing their Sunday best outfits to move to the top deck for a photograph. Most of the people were low income black families. Even though it was moored to the dock, the Eastland rolled over killing 844 people. The boat was overloaded to begin with. The corporation wanted a nice photograph for their annual report. Like the beheading of John the Baptist, the result was ghastly.

How often does our attention focus on the high profile news articles while the real injustice and the real crimes pass us by? How many Eastlands and John the Baptists and child militias of Joseph Kony do we have to read about before our heart will truly break, and we can see the real disasters all around us every day? Here is what Sandburg says where he compares the spectacular news and death toll from the Eastland disaster with what he sees every day going to work:

Well I was saying

My guts ain’t ticklish about it.

I got imagination: I see a pile of three thousand dead people

Killed by the con, tuberculosis, too much work and not enough fresh air and green groceries

A lot of cheap roughnecks and the women and children of wops, and hardly any bankers and corporation lawyers or their kids, die from the con-three thousand a year in Chicago and a hundred and fifty thousand a year in the United States-all from the con and not enough fresh air and green groceries…

If you want to see excitement, more noise and crying than you ever heard in one of these big disasters the newsboys clean up on,

Go and stack in a high pile all the babies that die in Christian Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and Chicago in one year before aforesaid babies haven’t had enough good milk;

On top the pile put all the little early babies pulled from mothers willing to be torn with abortions rather than bring more children into the world.

Jesus, that would make a front page picture for the Sunday papers

The poem goes on to talk about all the people going to work every day: the prostitutes, the laborers with their broken bodies, the children who work in factories and the women who dig through garbage barrels for food. Here is how it ends:

By the living Christ, these would make disaster pictures to paste on the front pages of the newspapers.

Yes, the Eastland was a dirty bloody job –bah!

I see a dozen Eastlands

Every morning on my way to work

And a dozen more going home at night

We construct our lives around a series of myths and beliefs. They help us cope with not just information, but emotional overload. They can blind us to reality causing us to ignore the violence around us or worse, to retreat from it in safe cocoons. Some of the myths and beliefs we live by have no basis at all in the Bible. Some of them help us justify our sense of privilege and place in the world above that of others.

Let us pray: Lord, save us not just from our unbelief, but from our beliefs. Save us from the beliefs and myths we have constructed that keep us safe and insulated from the hungers and needs of others. Save us from our need for privilege and security. Save us from the myth that because there is so much ignorance and greed and crime and violence in our community that we are overwhelmed and paralyzed by it all; that we cannot do anything about it. Save us from the assumptions that because our buildings are not finished, we must wait to try anything until they are completed. Save us from seeing only the spectacular while we miss the everyday disasters and violence all around us. Open our eyes Lord. Break our hearts Lord. Help us to be your hands and feet in this community. Save us Lord, from ourselves.

Consequential Faith

I just returned last night after six days on a mission trip with some of our youth. It was a fabulous trip. I hope, pray, and plan that we will have more youth going on this next year. The word “mission” simply means to be sent. We were sent this week to San Antonio. The trip was successful because WE were transformed and so were the people to whom we were sent. In short it was a trip with very positive outcomes.

Just before we embarked on this mission trip, Grace Episcopal Church in Muskogee enjoyed a bit of positive publicity where a Facebook post on Channel 8 in Tulsa referred to Grace as a very tolerant, accepting and loving community. I mention this because there are consequences to who we are and what we do. We want Grace Episcopal Church in Muskogee to form our youth and adults in ways that matter. Through regular Sunday worship, through our education and formation programs, and through mission work we form people around the heart of Christ. We want our children and our adults to have a faith that matters. I call this “consequential faith.”

But if current national trends continue, more than 50% of young people raised as evangelicals or as mainline Protestants will leave their Christian faith entirely. Research reveals that they leave the faith NOT because of the influence of culture, but because of what we teach them in church! Amazingly, BOTH mainline Protestants like our own church here, AND evangelicals are sending a message to our youth loud and clear. Here is what we teach them: “Faith is not important in your everyday life. Your religious identity is completely private and up to you. It is kind of like whether you choose to celebrate Christmas or Chanukah, Easter or Passover. Your faith commitment amounts to having good self-esteem and being kind to others.”

I grant you that these are all good things to do, but what do we teach our children that has truly important consequences for their life? How can this milk toast teaching of our faith ever compete against truly pressing global needs such as hunger, disease, water supply, and the treatment of women and children? The answer, of course, is that a milk toast faith will never compete with such pressing issues. If we do not change what we are doing, then we will end up with well-intentioned children who may be passionate about issues that engage them, but who essentially have no faith.

The faith tradition that we pass on to our children has become a bland, feel-good, and completely unimportant kind of Christianity. One writer calls this a “moralistic therapeutic deism.”

So what do we need to do in order to pass on to our children a lively faith that has positive consequences in their lives and the lives of others?

This mission trip is a first step. Why?

First we spent two days at Good Samaritan Community Center. Started by the Episcopal Diocese there in 1951 in a very poor Latino community, Good Samaritan has helped thousands of adults and children every year with meals, after school programs, tutoring, computer classes, music classes, art classes, supervised playgrounds, senior programs, counseling, social work, and other programs.

Some of the children have absent fathers while others may have fathers in jail. If you could have seen the sheer delight and glow on their faces when our kids played with them, you would know what transformation is. You would be witnessing a true miracle.

Next we spent two days at Mission Road; a residential institution serving the needs of about a thousand intellectually and developmentally disabled people every year. At the end of our visit, one of the staff there told us how important it was for us to volunteer there and work one on one with the residents (mostly kids). Many of them are “mainstreamed” where they attend public school. In school and in public, these kids are used to having other make fun of them. They may have a variety of disabilities, but they have feelings and they know the sting of humiliation. The staff person told us that our kids simply sat down with them and worked with them with no judgments or humiliation. We displayed a sense of acceptance these kids rarely experience from others.

For two days, our kids simply gave the love of Christ to others, accepting them on their own terms. I can stand before you today and tell you that for a hundred kids at Mission Road this week, it was a miracle even more consequential than feeding five thousand.

We can teach all kinds of Bible stories, theology, history and doctrine, but I think what we need to do is far simpler than that. We need to teach and DO three things:

Engage in mission – We need to be sent. We need to engage in the work of Christ for others NOT because we are going to fill someone’s belly or make them fell accepted, but because by sharing the love of Christ, we will ALL be transformed.

Give sacrificially – Our youth and the adults gave of their time this week. All of us could have done other things, but we chose to spend a week in San Antonio. A lively, consequential faith is one where we give not just from our excess but where we actually give up something precious to us. We give sacrificially of our time, talent, and treasure.

Work compassionately – The motivation for mission and sacrifice should not have anything to do with getting to heaven, being saved or even doing something FOR someone else. The motivation needs to be simple human compassion. When we read in the Bible that Jesus had compassion for the crowd or the Samaritan had compassion to the victim he found on the road, the word in the original text is far more graphic. It says literally that his guts were moved with emotion. I can tell you that this week, our kids and the adults were moved with compassion on a daily basis.

Mission, sacrifice, and compassion: that’s all we need to pass on to our children. Would you like to help?

Mustard Seeds

It was a busy Thursday with a 7:00 AM Building Committee meeting and a 6:00 PM confirmation meeting. Other meetings were scheduled and one was cancelled during the day. The outside door was left unlocked by the Building Committee. Around 8:30, a man came into my office so quietly he startled me. He walked with a shuffle. His limbs were thin. He asked if he could come in to talk to the pastor.

Somewhat reluctantly, I took him to the library where he sat on the couch. I have been scammed many times by people with hard luck stories. I have turned away a few people based upon appearance. This time, I let him in. His voice was raspy and thin. I could detect the south Bronx accent. He began to tell me his story.

He served Ladder Company Number 5 in New York. On that day in September 2001, he was the first one in to Tower 2. He carried out dozens of people in countless trips up and down the stairs. Caught between the fifth and sixth floor when the tower collapsed, it took him 17 hours to get out of the rubble. Only two out of nine in his company survived.

Brought up Roman Catholic, he said he converted to Episcopalian based upon how he was treated by the Episcopal Church. He knew the name of the church across the street from the site of the World Trade Center. He knew the name of the woman priest who was on duty that day and who converted the church into a food, rest, and emergency care center for the police and firemen. He told me he had visited a large church “over there” (here in Muskogee) that “looked like a bank.” He said the pastor there treated him like trash and would not help him. At age forty five, he was in the final stages of stomach cancer. He had lost eighty pounds.

He pulled up his shirt to show me the surgical scars on his stomach, looking more like a road map than human flesh. During the few hours he spent with us, he was in some distress. He showed me his stomach later and I could tell it was bloated. He talked to me about his memories of that day. He shared details and stories I cannot repeat from the pulpit. The stories and descriptions were too vivid and detailed to be part of someone’s scam. He said that he should not have survived that day. We talked about survivor’s guilt and he seemed to understand a little better.

He quoted John 15:13 “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” and he added to it, “Greater love is to lay down one’s life for people you don’t even know.”

I typically write my sermon on Thursday. I had started on it Wednesday night but I decided to throw that one away. It seemed like the sermon God wanted me to preach had walked through the door.

His shirt was soiled and he asked if we had any clothing. B.J. reached into our box of tee shirts and found one his size. As he started to put it on, I saw a tear in one corner of his eye. I said, read what it says. He looked and smiled as he read out loud, “Loving our neighbors as ourselves.”

The launching point for the story of the Good Samaritan is the question posed by the young Bible scholar who was attempting to trap Jesus. The question was “And who is my neighbor?”

Let me re-tell Jesus’ response: A man is beaten up by life’s journey and knocks on the door for help. One church says he looks like homeless trash and they throw him out. ‘He doesn’t sound like one of us’ they say to themselves. Another church invites him in, gives him food and drink, gives him a shirt to wear, prays with him and helps him with transportation. Which of these churches is a neighbor to this man?

Grace Episcopal Church in Muskogee Oklahoma is a church with tremendous compassion. We reach out to our local community and to those in need. That is why we need to dig deeper and make sure we can complete our building project with a functioning kitchen.

Grace Episcopal Church is also a church that teaches and forms people. We actually teach and form people to be compassionate servants of God. We do this through our programs with young people, adults, choir, mission trips, social events, and worship. We are a congregation that reaches people and teaches people. This is our role in Muskogee, and we do these things better than any place for fifty miles around.

We are small right now. I must confess to you that I worry about our future a lot. I worry about the building project and I worry about our operating budget. But when I can be part of the compassionate heart of this church, that worry goes away. It is as if God reaches out to jolt me out of my worry. God smacks me with a 2×4 and says “Look at who you are. Look at this church. Right now you are just seeds in the hand of the planter.”

And so we are.

We are mustard seeds in the hand of the planter. “With what can we compare the kingdom of God ? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

At some point in the life of every congregation, they experience being a tree or a shrub with branches and fruit and great size. Trees and shrubs have a life cycle. At some point they produce seeds and then die. At some point the planter takes those seeds and scatters them. After a while they begin to grow again.

With seeds of reaching and teaching in compassion, God has a plan for us; a hope and a future. All we have to do is make sure that we water and tend the garden.