Watch Yourself.

Romans 11:13-24

“13 Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I glorify my ministry 14in order to make my own people jealous, and thus save some of them. 15For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead! 16If the part of the dough offered as first fruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; and if the root is holy, then the branches also are holy.

17 But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the rich root of the olive tree, 18do not vaunt yourselves over the branches. If you do vaunt yourselves, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you. 19You will say, ‘Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.’ 20That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand only through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe. 21For if God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps he will not spare you. 22Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity towards those who have fallen, but God’s kindness towards you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off. 23And even those of Israel, if they do not persist in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. 24For if you have been cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these natural branches be grafted back into their own olive tree.”

There was an article in Foreign Policy magazine this week revealing the March Madness irony of Americans’ stubborn hatred of Duke basketball–you see, in the world of international affairs, the United States is Duke.  There’s a reason the U.S. is called a superpower, why we’ve got a bad reputation throughout the world, why Europeans are sometimes storied to turn up their noses at people with American accents.

Both Duke and United States have an attitude of Manifest Destiny, both have been rather successful despite their pride.  Like Duke, like the United States, so are 21st-century Christians, especially us in the West.

It’s as if Paul is standing before us today!  We are Gentiles.  We are wild olive shoots.  We’re wise to remember that none of us is here on our own merit or because of our own resourcefulness.  Listening to these words rubs me the wrong way a little bit–“the root supports you,” “perhaps he will not spare you,” and “do not become proud.” How can someone else, someone like the Apostle Paul, tell me that I’m not exceptional?  Like the United States, like Duke, I have an attitude that I’m somehow an exception to the wisdom of Scripture; I’m not under judgment because I’m a 21st century Christian.

Of course, the truth is that we are.  We are grafted into an olive tree that’s thousands of years older than we are, that’s weathered hundreds more storms than we can imagine, that’s survived droughts, floods, scorching sun, erosion, brutal pruning, and frigid frosts.  The root, Paul says, is what keeps the olive tree alive; the root of God’s people is Jesus.  We’re physically connected to the Almighty through Jesus–our brother in humanity, our true nourishment in the Eucharist, and our pure lamb of sacrifice, slain for our shortcomings, our sin.

What we do when we come to worship, when we pray, when we study Scripture and listen–it’s nothing new.  We’re imbibing the root’s nutrition, which God has been providing for us through the Holy Spirit for thousands of years.  Being grafted in, added on to an already-thriving, already-healthful tree, we’re fortunate to benefit from the “rich root” of the olive tree.  We’re receivers.  Part of the reason that we worship the way that we do, and that we care about and bother to remember people like Thomas Cranmer, whose feast we celebrate today, is because we recognize that the Church, God’s people, have been around for a long time before we came along, and Lord willing, will be around for a long time after we’re gone.  We are not the trunk of the tree.  We aren’t in charge; it’s not our job to change the course of history–God already has.

As master gardener, God has taken a great risk in allowing all these wild, scrappy, untested shoots onto his one precious olive tree.  Not only could the wild bits wreck havoc on the tree, but the wild bits themselves may die–grafting is a tricky business, uprooting and cutting off bits of a perfectly happy plant and sticking in onto another, after cutting into that plant, too.  We’re grateful that God is as masterful as a gardener can be; if anyone can keep those wild shoots alive and thriving, it’s Him.

As part of this cultivated, long-established olive tree, we wild shoots may feel uncomfortable at times; it’s not our show, it’s not our game, not our “natural” home.  Becoming part of this tree means that we aren’t wild anymore; we’re under the care of a gardener, being protected from wild elements, but also being pruned and trained to grow in a way that makes us better, even though it may feel uncomfortable, or even painful.

Therefore, let us “not become proud, but stand in awe” (v. 20) of the tree to which we’ve been added.  Because of God’s kindness, as Paul puts it, we’ve been made to belong as God’s people.  Let us not take that title as an opportunity to boast, but as an invitation to humble, holy living, full of listening, full of flexibility, full of awe.

(from Friday, March 21st, 2014 – preached at Seibels Chapel, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Columbia, SC)

No Rights

Today we celebrate the feast of Florence Li Tim-Oi, the first woman ordained priest in the Anglican Communion; she served during World War II during a time of duress in Asia.  Because of the controversy of her ordination, she resigned her license after the end of the war.  I want to consider why our church ordains women and what that means for who we believe God to be, and what we believe to be the vocation–or job–of every Christian.

Having been raised–theologically-speaking–in the house of Stanley Hauerwas at Duke, “rights” language makes me very uncomfortable.  It’s not that women have a “right” to serve just like men do, as priests–none of us, as followers of Jesus, has a right to do anything, so the argument goes.  What I mean to say is that when we were drowned in the waters of baptism and raised up out of them by the grace of God, all our rights were washed away–the only claim that any baptized person has is our belonging to God in Christ–we follow the lifestyle that leads to the cross.  It’s not about us as individuals anymore, it’s about what’s best for God’s kingdom and God’s people.  Our only right is to pick up our cross and walk in Jesus’ footsteps.

Looked at this way, women ought to be ordained and to serve as priests, bishops, and whatever else in the church because God gifts both women and men with the sorts of talents that are useful for church leadership, development, evangelism, and the like.  Part of my frustration growing up was that my parents told me that I should use the gifts God had given me–which were pretty clearly gifts for leadership, teaching, and speaking in public–and my church was telling me that I couldn’t do those sorts of things because I was a girl.  An early Christian and theologian said, “that which God has not assumed, God cannot redeem”–what was important about Jesus–God in the flesh–was not that he was male, but that he was human.  God assumed humanity, became a person, not God-became-male.

So if God doesn’t care if you are a man or a woman, as the passage in Galatians says today (3:23-28), I wonder if God cares if you are ordained or not.  In the Gospel (Luke 10:1-9) lesson, Jesus sends out 70 of the people–probably all men–who had been following him around, instructing them to try out this ministry-and-evangelism thing.  Perhaps they were like itinerant preachers, or circuit-riders, the way that Methodism spread in the United States, but I suspect they may have been more like immigrant workers, or bi-vocational evangelists–people who did “normal” work, but who shared their faith in the God who became a person because of his love for each human.

My uncle was visiting this week, and one morning he told me about his work at a major home-improvement store.  He talked about how he builds relationships with customers, whether they are regulars or someone he just interacts with for 30 seconds or a few minutes.  When someone is looking for a realtor key holder (those cases that have a code to punch in that holds the key–i don’t know what those are called otherwise!), he shows them where they are, but if they seem open to it, he asks them what it’s for, and as they start to have a conversation, he helps them think through the implications of the change they’re making to their home (whether it’s for security, or convenience, or whatever).  Even though he’s just a “normal” worker, he reaches out to the people he comes in contact with and walks with them in their lives, if only for a few minutes, to help them know they’re not alone, to offer his expertise and wisdom, and to help them to make the best decision for their project.

Every Christian in every job is called to this kind of work.  God came to earth in Jesus to prove how much he wants to know each of us; Jesus didn’t run away even from being murdered on a cross to show us that he loves us more than he loves anything else, even life; God raised Jesus from the dead to reveal that he is the most powerful force in the universe.

As baptized Christians, we come forward to receive the Eucharist in order to be healed and be filled with that same power; when we allow God to be active in our lives–giving up our “rights,” he does more through us than we could know or imagine on our own.  God has called each and every one of us to be missionaries for the sake of his kingdom and his people, to go out as sheep in the midst of wolves, trusting in his will.  We are primarily identified by our status as Christians, not as men or women or as priests.  We’ve all been given a vocation in baptism, and that is to grow in relationship with God through Jesus Christ, and to introduce others to Him.  Amen.

Fumble! (too soon, Duke fans?)

Only about 30% of people even make New Year’s Resolutions anymore.  Of them only 20% manage to make a lasting change, having kept their resolution for 2 years (  On this, the third day of the new year, we’re probably already struggling with the resolutions, or intentions, or goals we’ve set for ourselves in this auspicious year of 2014.

What happens in our minds when we fumble?  When we eat  that extra helping of dessert we didn’t really quite mean to eat, or binge-watch shows that make us feel like we’d like to dip our minds in some bleach; what we say to ourselves when we fail?

Most of us (me, for one!) live under a very stressful fallacy that we can perform perfectly.  That we really can not-fail, not-fumble, not-trip-up.  We fail.  To focus on failure and on shortcomings can be debilitating.  What if we brushed the mistake off instead, took a deep breath, and bravely turned around to do something else?  So much energy is wasted in lament and guilt and self-punishment–what if we learned that we would indeed fumble and that when we fumbled, we should simply pick up the ball and try again (I think that football analogy doesn’t quite work…)?

Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)