Here is a selection of recent sermons by our rector, the Rev. Derrick Muwina, Ph.D.
November 3, All Saints’ Day, 2019
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This is one of my favorite days of the church year. That might be because of the sugar high from all the Halloween candy, coupled with the extra hour of sleep I got this morning! But All Saints’ is a great day because we sing great hymns and we take time to remember the saints of the church on whose shoulders we stand. In old Christian tradition, All Saints’ was a day to remember the those who are named as saints—St. Paul, St. Mary, St. James, St. Luke, St. Peter. And then the following day was All Souls’ Day, a day to remember all the Christians who had died in the faith but do not carry the title of saint.
With time the two celebrations have somewhat merged so that All Saints’ Day is the celebration of all Christians, both those who have died and the living. We do this because we believe that there is a powerful spiritual bond between those in heaven, called the Church Triumphant, and those still living here on Earth, called the Church Militant—that is, the body of believers.
So today we celebrate the communion of saints to which we belong. For one thing, the word “saint” in the New Testament refers to anyone who has been baptized. Paul addressed his letters to the saints in Ephesus, Colossae, Corinth. And you heard in our prayer this morning that God has knit us together in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of his Son, Christ our Lord. The living and the dead and those to come are held together in one communion and fellowship in our Lord Jesus Christ.
But it is tempting to look at the saints and imagine them to be people of virtue and holiness. After all, the men and women we recognize as saints were responsible for extraordinary accomplishments that most of us can only dream about. There is a hymn about saints that has this opening line: “I sing a song of the saints of God, patient and brave and true.” It’s a great hymn with great stuff in it, but that opening line isn’t one of them. Because the saints by and large were not “patient and brave and true.” They were often cantankerous, and craven, and dishonest.
St. Peter, the chief disciple, was impulsive, ill-tempered, and unreliable. He denied Jesus, not once, not twice, but three times. St. Paul, the great apostle to the gentiles, was full of self-pity, egotism, and accusation. St. Jerome, one of the brightest minds in the church and the man who translated the Bible into Latin, never took criticism well. He once wrote a nasty public letter to another theologian addressing him as “my most simple-minded friend.”
And then we have Mother Teresa, now St. Theresa. She could occasionally be caustic with any of her sisters whom she suspected of being lazy! Writing to one convent she said, “You live with the name of the poor but enjoy a lazy life.” And by the way, the confessions written in her diaries reveal that she suffered moments of extreme emptiness and despair. Many, many times she reached out to God and still felt empty. She even doubted the existence of God.
But as flawed and imperfect as they were, the saints allowed God, the light that sets the world free, to shine through them.
And not because they possessed a special holiness and perfection, but because they allowed God to work through them. After all, holiness is not synonymous with perfection. To be holy means to be set apart for God. The holy person accepts the call to dedicate their entire life to God and strive to live life according to the way that Jesus has shown for us, to the best of their abilities. So that when we make mistakes, and we will, we remain constantly open to correction. When we sin, and we will, we always repent and seek to be reconciled.
Sainthood is not something that we seek. We are called to it.
In our Gospel reading today we hear Jesus calling us to a way of life, the saintly life. You might know these as the beatitudes: Blessed are the poor, blessed are the hungry, blessed are the mourners, Jesus says. In other words, blessed are the ones who are struggling and on the edge. The broken ones, the ones who have messed up in their lives, the ones who yearn for a peace and wholeness that the world cannot give. They are blessed because in spite of and maybe because of their lives they make room for God. They are blessed because to be blessed in one sense is to be unburdened, to be released, to be freed! Being a saint has little to do with being perfect or achieving extraordinary things in your life. Saints are the ones who have taken life’s pains and injustices and their shortcomings and instead of being overcome by them, they let God’s love flow through them and use their experience to unburden others, to bless others, to speak truth to power, and transform the world.
But it is equally tempting to look at saints and see a kind of courage of which only a few are capable. I mean, who can look at the life of Mother Theresa and not see great courage? Who can examine the life of Dr. King and not see grit of will and mind and spirit? Yet Dr. King was a reluctant saint. He had no ambitions to become a national leader and the face of the civil rights movement. All he wanted to do was get his Ph.D. from Boston University, get a wife, move back south, and pastor a church like his father and his grandfather. When the bus boycott began in 1955, he assumed it would take a few days and so it didn’t worry him to host meetings in his church and be a leader at the time.
But as days turned into weeks and weeks into months, Montgomery was on edge. A steady stream of threatening phone calls started coming to his house. As many as 40 a day. And one late Friday night in Jan 1956, Dr. King came home after a long day of strategizing. He found his family already asleep. He was emotionally and spiritually worn out. And then the phone rang, and the voice on the other end said: “Leave town immediately if you have no wish to die.” He felt a surge of fear run through his body. He hung up the phone. He started pacing around his kitchen, and with trembling hands, put on a pot of coffee and slumped into a chair at his kitchen table overcome with fear, his coffee untouched. Then he prayed to God to give him an exit plan without appearing a coward. He prayed, “I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.” And at that moment he experienced the presence of God as he had never experienced it before, and a voice spoke to him, saying, “Martin, stand up for justice, stand up for truth, and God will be at your side forever.” Almost at once, his fears began to fade. His uncertainty disappeared. He was ready to face anything.
Three days later his house was bombed. His family escaped by a hair. But he says, I received the news of the bombing with calmness. To be a saint is not about being some sort of fearless superhero for God. God is not looking for any of that in us. God is not looking for your ability, God is looking for your availability. The saints did great things not because they were able but because they made themselves available to God. And the beauty is, should you ever be afraid of stepping into saintliness, the voice that spoke to Dr. King on that kitchen table on that frightful night is speaking to you now, saying, “Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; for God is at our side forever.” Amen.
October 6, 2019
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Jesus had just told his disciples to be on guard against causing someone else to stumble. For it was better, he said, to be thrown into the sea with a millstone around your neck than do to such a thing. And as if that warning were not enough, he followed it up with this command: If someone sins against you seven times a day, you are to forgive seven times. Given these challenging commands, not to speak of the other conditions that were necessary for following him, such as leaving their families behind and giving up their possessions, it is no wonder that the disciples asked the Lord to “increase our faith!” The disciples feel inadequate to the task of following Jesus.
And on the surface, this request seems reasonable and even a good thing. For what could be wrong with asking Jesus to increase your faith to that you can do what Jesus requires of you?
Yet a reading of this passage in the Greek suggests that Jesus is irritated by the request. For by asking for their faith to be increased, the disciples are saying that they still do not get it. He says to them, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” And again, the Greek here suggests not a conditional clause, which implies if only the disciples had the faith of a mustard seed. Instead, it suggests that Jesus is rejecting the very idea that they have too little faith. Instead he’s saying, “If you have the faith of a mustard seed, and you do indeed, then you have faith enough. Therefore, it is not matter of increasing their faith; rather it is a matter of appreciating the faith they have, for this faith will allow them to uproot a mulberry tree or, as the Gospel of Mark says, “move a mountain.” It is not the disciples’ perceived lack of faith that’s the problem, but rather their lack of understanding of the faith that they already have, as small as it might be. Jesus is not so much chastising them for their lack of faith as he is opening them up to a new understanding of the power of the faith they already possess.
Now faith is one of the most misunderstood aspects of the Christian life. In the modern world faith has become synonymous with belief. In other words, faith is what you have if you don’t have evidence; faith as belief means we are prepared to believe or willing to accept without evidence. And within the church, faith is often understood as acceptance of particular doctrines or creeds. But faith is not accepting something without evidence, it is not the acceptance of creeds and doctrines, but it is rather TRUST in GOD. Trust in God that arises not in our head or out intellect but, as Marcus Borg says, “from the deeper level of the self.” The philosopher Kierkegaard says that faith is like floating in a vast expanse of water. If you struggle, if you tense up and thrash about, you will eventually sink. But if you relax and trust, you will float.
When I began teaching my daughters¬ how to swim, the biggest challenge I had to overcome was to get them to relax, to trust me and to overcome the fear of sinking. So, in the context of the Christian life, faith is trusting in God fully as our rock upon which we are established. As the Psalmist says, “The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer, my rock in whom I take refugee, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold” (Psalm 8:2).
And the opposite of trust in God is mistrust. And mistrust leads to anxiety. And when we are anxious our worldview narrows, we become short-tempered, and afraid and less present to each other. Now I need to say that there are forms of anxiety, the cause of which is a chemical imbalance in a person’s brain, and a biomedical approach is needed to treat it. But there is an anxiety that springs from our souls because we realize that life is precarious and the universe unpredictable. So it is that we live with the constant fear that the rug is going to be pulled out from under our feet—fear that the lives we have worked so hard to build up will be torn down in a blink of an eye. I have known people who are anxious all the time. They worry all the time. They worry so much that when they are not worried, they start to worry because they are supposed to be worried! But there’s a way out of the crazy maze of anxiety and worry and it begins with putting out full trust in God.
And if faith is trust in God, it also means faithfulness to God. It means to God is what faithfulness means in a committed human relationship. We are called to be faithful to our spouses and partners, at the deepest level of self, not just our intellect or our possessions but our whole self: All that I am and all that I have, all that you are and all that you have, not a part of you, not half of you or three quarters but all of you! And again, faith as faithfulness to God does not mean faithfulness to creeds or doctrines. It is faithfulness to the God of whom the creeds and doctrines testify.
And the opposite of faithfulness is unfaithfulness. In relation to God, unfaithfulness is idolatry. When God gave the Law to Moses, the first commandment was this: “You shall have no other gods but me.” Our world is full of false gods, idols, just as many and as compelling as the idols of the ancient world. Our idols may not be objects hewn from wood or stone, but many are the things that come first before God, especially the idol of self-aggrandizement, the fulfilment of the self to the exclusion of the needs and desires all others! But faith is about our response to God—not about what we are able to do, but what God is able to do and is doing in our world.
Do you trust God enough to surrender your whole life to God? Do you trust God enough to be led to a better place in your life? Do you trust that God has already given you the faith and the strength that you need to withstand the pain and disappointments in your life? If you don’t, you should, because the thing about faith is that it is possible because God acts first. God became human in the person of Jesus Christ so that you and I might find refuge in God, our rock and redeemer. Amen.
September 22, 2019
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The parable from our Gospel reading is a tough one. In fact, for a very long time this passage was never read on Sundays. It was deemed too difficult, and so they left it out. And we can see why. Jesus tells a parable about a manager who learns that he’s about to lose his job because he has mismanaged his master’s wealth. The manager knows that he’s too lazy to work with his hands and too self-important to beg; without this job life is going to be extremely difficult. So he comes up with an exit strategy: Make as many friends as possible by reducing their debts owed to his boss. By doing this he is going to have friends when he no longer has his job. So, with a stroke of a pen a hundred jugs of oil owed becomes fifty, a hundred containers of wheat becomes eighty. When his boss learns about his scheme, he commends him for his creativity! What’s going on here? Was Luke half asleep when he wrote this portion of the Gospel? The clue to what is going on here is found in the previous chapter.
In chapter 15 Jesus tells three parables that take up the entire chapter: (1) the parable of the lost sheep, (2) the oarable of the lost coin (which we read last week) and (3) the parable of the lost son, also known as the prodigal son. In these three parables you have predictable actions that are met with unusual if not outrageous reactions.
In the parable of the lost sheep, the shepherd leaves his ninety-nine sheep to go look for the one that has wandered away. Sheep wandering away is not unusual. What’s unusual and outrageous is that the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine in the wilderness, exposed to predators, to go after the one sheep. According to Shepherding 101, that is not good management, and any shepherded who does this sort of thing will quickly be out of sheep.
Then we have the parable of the woman who searched all night for a lost coin. Coins getting lost? Nothing unusual. You’ve probably misplaced valuable things before. What’s unusual and outrageous is that after finding the coin she calls her friends over to celebrate and probably ends up spending more money than what she recovered. According to Financial Management 101, that’s not prudent.
The parable of the prodigal son follows a similar pattern. Here you have a son who claims his inheritance while his father is still alive, and when he gets it, he goes and squanders it away with a wild lifestyle. He hired himself to take care of pigs, and so hungry was he that he ate some of the pigs’ food. When he comes back to his senses and returns home knowing full well the egregious nature of what he had done, his father who welcomes him home and even throws a party for him. Now is it unusual for a child to rebel against a parent and act irresponsibly? No. What’s unusual is a parent who gives in to a child’s demand knowing what a windfall like that would do to them. What’s unusual is a parent who welcomes a child back home with open arms after that child has just squandered their inheritance. When your children mess up big time like that, it’s not the time for a party but for serious talk, and sanctions, and rules. According to Parenting 101, that is bad parenting.
So you see the pattern here in the parable of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son.
This same theme carries over to today’s parable of the dishonest manager. Again, it is not unusual for a manager to be dishonest with wealth that does not belong to him. We all know stories of managers who’ve mismanaged property and wealth entrusted to them; that’s not uncommon. And it is not uncommon either that someone whose job is on the line would try all sort of tricks to save themselves. What’s unusual is for the employer to commend a manager for his creativity in cooking the books. Especially when the owner of the property is going to suffer a financial loss. According to Management 101, commending a bad manager is bad management. The best course of action for an employer who finds out that a manager is mismanaging their property and is being creative in their accounting is to get rid of them before their bad management infects the rest of the staff. That is, fire the said manager and maybe even report to the authorities.
But just like the shepherd who goes in search for the lost sheep, the woman who throws a party to celebrate after finding her lost coin, the father who lovingly welcome his rebellious son, this employer’s actions are acts of outrageous grace. They make little sense. And no one acts more outrageously with grace as God does. But such is the nature of God’s grace.
The church teaches that grace is God’s love freely given to humanity. Even when we mess up, and we really do mess up, we still experience God’s forgiveness of sin. But grace is not a pass to do whatever we want to do. As Paul said in Romans 6:1-2, shall we continue to live in sin so that Grace might abound? No! So we don’t have clearance to do whatever we want, but if we do find ourselves doing whatever we want and falling short of the glory of God, failing those we love, injuring ourselves and other people, we have the Grace of God available for us.
Grace requires that we receive it. It is never forced on us. We simply receive it. That is why theologically speaking we receive the sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ, which are signs of the inward and spiritual grace of God given to us. That is why when we come to receive, we put hold out our cupped hands as a sign of receiving. St. Cyril of Jerusalem said, “Receive communion by making a throne, one hand under the other, ready to receive our Great King.” We are not taking or snatching. We receive the grace of God through communion by being completely open to the gift of grace that God is offering us.
But there is a complication, I think. Our culture has trouble with this idea of grace. We are deeply suspicious if not secretly dismissive of it. We believe that everything has to be earned. Everything is for sale. After all, there’s no free lunch! I give you something, you give me something in return. It’s all transactional but grace-less. And our failure to receive grace reveals itself in a graceless attitude toward each other and even in our national policies. An economic system that preys on the most vulnerable is graceless. An economic system that puts young people in debt before they have even begun their lives is a graceless system. An economic system that puts profits over the health and well-being of our elderly and children is a graceless system. A justice system that is more punitive than corrective is a graceless system.
It is impossible to give what you don’t have. If we don’t have God’s grace then we cannot extend it to other people. And even more so impossible when our loyalties are divided between God and the pursuit of wealth and profit. Jesus is not saying that you can’t be wealthy and be his disciples, but rather that you cannot make your life goal the pursuit of wealth and be his disciples. Our loyalty, our allegiance, is to God alone. And the thing is, God doesn’t want just a piece of your life. God wants your entire life, every aspect of your life. As C. S Lewis says, “Give God an inch and he will take an ell.” Amen.