Category Archives: Sermon Archives

Race Matters: Peace and Justice (The Rev. Eric Kimball Hinds)

It has been a tough football season for the Oakland Raiders who have managed only 1 win this season and play the 49ers today. Regular church goers likely missed the Raiders 52 point loss last week as the game had a 10:00am start. But if you watched the news you may have seen a clip taken on that day—from the pre-game player introductions where five of the Raiders opponents—5 Rams players came out of the tunnel from the locker room with their hands up in the air in a gesture that many immediately recognized. In the words of a Boston globe editorial it was a pose that “was both haunting and familiar.” The players imitated the “Hands up, don’t shoot” posture and mantra used by many of the protesters who have gathered in Ferguson, Missouri, in the wake of the grand Jury decision not to indict the white police officer (Darren Wilson) involved in the deadly shooting of Michael Brown who was black.

The mixed reaction to the Rams players protest—highlights the complexity of venturing into the public arena—even if one’s intention is good—to actually succeed in improving dialogue and the effort to promote positive change. For the players part: they live in the St. Louis area, are familiar with the suburb of Ferguson, and know something about how a black person can be treated differently across much of our society. On the other hand it is clear that the conflicting interpretations of how the events unfolded in Furgenson are rooted in experiences of race that differ greatly—and lead to very different conclusions.

The events are further complicated by the fact that any case that rises to national prominence is complicated by the fact that the exact circumstances—rarely provide a perfect, unambiguous, case study. And so it is difficult to build trust, and move a conversation constructively forward where there are basic differences over facts and perceived motivations.

I am often frustrated by how difficult it seems for us—as a community and as a country to enter into any meaningful dialogue about race that has the potential to heal wounds and build bridges to a better future. I gained an insight into just how difficult it is to judge matters concerning race one day almost 20 years ago when I went out to lunch with a newly ordained clergy colleague. John Thompson Quartey graduated from General Seminary in NYC four years after me. I first met John when he served as Seminarian at the parish where I was the assistant. John’s family came to the United States from Ghana and John grew up in the city of Newark. I was one of John’s sponsors at his ordination to the priesthood and he was one of the few black clergy in the Diocese of Newark.

On that day we had lunch, I traveled to Ridgewood, NJ to meet him. Together we walked to a middle eastern restaurant and from the moment that we were seated—I could see that John was becoming increasingly agitated. We had barely sat down and he abruptly called the waiter over, and from my perspective, uncharacteristically used a rude manner to send him away to go get

some pita and hummus—“and bring it right away” John added. While John was still fuming he mumbled that “he better not charge me for this.” This was so unlike my experience of John that I asked him what was wrong. John went on to describe that when he came here last time as someone else’s guest—they were seated, welcomed, and were promptly provided with pita and hummus on the house. And it was in that instance that I realized—what I would have dismissed as simply inconsistent service, a difference in the temperament and capabilities of the wait staff—John interpreted as being intentionally slighted on the basis of his race; And I suddenly realized how difficult it must for a person of color to discern those cases where a lower level of treatment and courtesy is intentional and rooted in prejudice—from those instances where the situation is simply a case of general indifference and incompetence—measured out equally regardless of gender, race or any other difference. During my lifetime I have observed many cases of obvious prejudice; but with John I reached a new level of awareness as to just how pernicious and destructive are the effects of racism.

On this second Sunday of Advent we encounter John the Baptist calling people to a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of their sins. It is interesting to note that John is speaking broadly to religious people. To a people well acquainted with the law. Who know how they are supposed to act and treat others. They knew the requirement to care for widows and orphans. The laws to treat others fairly, the law to welcome the stranger—a law that is written with the admonition “for remember the people of Israel were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” And yet in the time of John the Baptist there were significant divisions between the religious factions within Judaism. Divisions between Jews, Samaritans and foreigners. Divisions that spoke of prejudice. Actions that worked to deny the full humanity of groups defined as other. And so we can note that our modern struggles with race and differences have been with us for a long time.

One could argue that the first two significant and tangible actions taken by the Episcopal Church to make progress in the area of race reconciliation took place in 1794 and 1795. Those are the years when Absalom Jones and his African American church in Philadelphia were admitted as a congregation to the Episcopal Church (1794), followed by Jones’s ordination as a Deacon in our Church in (1795). Ten years later, in the year 1805 Absalom Jones became the first black priest of our church. In the first year of his ministry his parish—St. Thomas Church grew to over 500 members. In his preaching Jones denounced slavery and worked on behalf of the oppressed and distressed. The inclusion and witness of Absalom Jones within our own tradition reminds us of the important role that our Church can accomplish in our day—not merely as a voice of reconciliation, but also as an engaged community active and dedicated towards advancing the recognition and full inclusion of all people in our society.

Meaningful contact and the establishment of relationships that cut across racial divides is an important aspect of promoting racial harmony. And In most parts of our country free and open conversations about race are hindered by a lack of proximity and contact between different racial groups. One does not have to travel far to notice rather significant divisions that occur simply as a result of geography and economic class. Some of you are lucky to work in places that are well integrated, where healthy contact and interchange across race occurs on a daily basis. But for many of us simple geography, and even our own traditions, work to separate us from one another. It was Martin Luther King Jr. who ironically observed that “It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.”

I suspect that the actions of the five St. Louis Rams players were motivated by a desire

to demonstrate empathy not just for the family that lost a son—but for those who feel frustrated and to some extent excluded from the larger society. This morning I would like to open a conversation and mention three tangible things that our congregation might consider doing to promote and advance racial reconciliation.

The first is the possibility of participating in one of the six week reading and reflection groups that are being organized by The Urban Peace Collaboration within our Diocese this upcoming January and February. The Urban Peace Collaboration has selected the book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander as a starting point for discussions about where we are with regard to race by looking through the prism of our criminal Justice system. These discussion groups would represent an intentional effort for all involved to arrive at a deeper level of appreciation and understanding of a complex and disturbing issue.

The second event and conversation that you might consider, is participating in all or part of the three day conference sponsored by Trinity Church Wall Street titled “Creating Common Good.” The Trinity Institute Conference takes place January 22nd-24th and features: Princeton Professor Cornel West, Barbara Ehrenreich [pronounced—Erin-reick] (Author of nickel & Dimed), Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich and The Most Reverend Justin Welby, the current Archbishop of Canterbury. As a Diocese and Parish within the Episcopal Church, we have the possibility of participating remotely in this conference dedicated to social justice—and addressing the issues surrounding pervasive and chronic economic inequality. The conference hopes to provide practical tools for communities to make tangible economic changes.

The third possibility for action is to reach out within our own diocese and to participate with me in the yearly Absalom Jones Celebration Service. This year St. Cyprian’s church in San Francisco will be hosting the service on Saturday February 9th at 11:00am. The preacher will be The Rev. Dr. Kwasi Thornell, who served as National president of The Union of Black Episcopalians with Bishop Marc Andrus celebrating. This service has the potential to bring together people separated by the hour on Sundays mentioned by Dr. King

In surveying the news of the past few weeks perhaps you have often felt the crushing weight of problems that feel like they will never be solved—and the hopelessness of simply being a spectator. I wonder if John the Baptist had those same feelings? If he did, John got over them when he went out into the world and announced that a time of change was coming—and urged people to take action.

I can think of no better way to conclude this collection of thoughts this morning than to read the collect assigned for the feast day of Absalom Jones. Let us Pray: Set us free, heavenly Father, from every bond of prejudice and fear; that, honoring the steadfast courage of your servant Absalom Jones, we may show forth in our lives the reconciling love and true freedom of the children of God, which you have given us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


Sermon preached by The Reverend Eric Kimball Hinds at The Episcopal Church of Saint Matthew, San Mateo, California on 7 December 2014, The Second Sunday of Advent, Year B. Lessons: Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:18.

Beauty & Holiness—Hidden in Plain Sight (The Rev. Eric Kimball Hinds)

A fairly nondescript white man in jeans, with a long-sleeved T shirt and a Washington National’s baseball cap, emerged from the Metro station at L’Enfant Plaza Station in Washington D.C. and positioned himself against a wall beside a trash basket. From a small case he removed a violin. The man placed the open violin case at his feet, and at 7:51am, on a Friday in January, in the middle of rush hour, he began to play. Over the next 43 minutes the 39 year old violinist played six classical pieces while a total of 1,097 people passed by. Perhaps you have encountered a similar situation, coming upon a street musician—and with a small sample of music you have the unexpected opportunity to decide if you will linger and listen—or move on and continue with your routine—to attend to the task or journey at hand.

The situation of encountering a street violinist—forcing an unexpected decision—stands in dramatic contrast to the laser focus of the Israelites—who as we encounter them this morning were thirsty voicing incessant complaints—demanding that Moses provide them with water in the midst of their suffering. In the midst of the desert their thirst is all consuming, and they blame Moses for their aguish.

When we read this story we intuitively know it to be true. We know how we are prone to complain when things go wrong and do not go as according to plan. Physical pain or discomfort is perhaps the most debilitating, but we can add all sorts of unpleasant circumstances including psychological or emotional discomfort to the list of things that create circumstances which can serve to blind us to all else. This fact is brought into sharp focus this morning when we consider that the people of Israel are actually looking back longingly at their days of captivity in the land of Egypt. We see in this passage how the magnitude of suffering caused by widespread thirst has obliterated from memory the great saving deeds of God that lead to their escape from slavery and a life of oppression.

One of the gifts of being a part of a religious tradition with deep roots is the way our life of faith can orientate us to the world in a way where we are open to experience the beauty, grace, and blessing of God in our everyday life. When one mentions Christian prayer—the image conjured is often that of a person cloistered, narrowly focused upon God in a way that is as solitary as it is silent. This image is the opposite of the deep strand within our tradition that holds that the purpose of prayer is to open ourselves to the possibility and presence of God in every aspect of our life. Time set aside for prayer goes hand in hand with the notion that we will not discover—that which we are not on the alert for or open too.

The Irish author, John O’Donohue, has written extensively about prayer and our deepest desire

to draw closer to God—our desiree to draw closer to the beauty and wonder of God’s created world. He writes

There is a quite light that shines in every heart. It draws no attention to itself, though it is always secretly there.   It is what illuminates our minds to see beauty, our desire to seek possibility, and our hearts to love life. Without this subtle quickening our days would be empty and wearisome, and no horizon would ever awaken our longing. Our passion for life is quietly sustained from somewhere in us wedded to the energy and excitement of life. This shy inner light is what enables us to recognize and receive our very presence here as blessing.

O’ Donohue also observes that: To participate in beauty is to come into the presence of the Holy.God is a pure verb, a permanent event, an eternal surge, a total quickening. The ancient wisdom of the Psalmist also captures this notion that our deepest longings seek for affirmations of the goodness of God. Psalm 63 begins

Oh God, you are my God: eagerly I seek you,* my soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you,

as in a barren and dry land where there is no water 

Of the almost 1,100 people who passed through the D.C. Metro Station, a mere 27 individuals contributed coins and bills that totaled $32. Only 7 individuals stopped to listen to the world renowned Joshua Bell, who played upon his almost 300 year old Stradivarius violin. The experiment of a concert violinist playing in an unexpected public place was conceived, executed and reported by staff at The Washington Post—and the event highlights the notion that while the human soul may well thirst for many things—left to ourselves we are prone to overlook even examples of sublime beauty—in our very midst.

This morning’s Gospel reminds us that Jesus interacted with the world with a profound sense of the deep potential of every human being. And that even the lot of notorious sinners of his day, tax collectors and prostitutes, reflected something of divine goodness, and merited a response and treatment better than only contempt, dismissal and scorn. Far from being merely a set of beliefs to follow and adhere to—Jesus demonstrated and lived a faith that shows that at it’s heart Christianity is a way to Be and to Experience the world

From the early centuries Christian mystics have exhorted believers to slow down—to pause, and to be still. To watch and to listen. For he goodness of God is all around—it is at the very heart of creation. To be discovered like water gushing forth in the desert. There to be experienced, to revive and to refresh one’s soul.imgres.jpg Joshua Bell

Sermon preached by The Reverend Eric Kimball Hinds at The Episcopal Church of Saint Matthew, San Mateo, California, on The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, 28 September 2014, Year A. Lessons: Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78:1-4,12-16; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32.

You can see the you tube video of Joshua Bell here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LZeSZFYCNRw

We Have to Start Somewhere (The Rev. Lindsay Marie Hills)

Image

I don’t think Jennifer Whitney, photographer for the New York Times, realized the profound nature of the image she took this photo this week, when she pressed down on her camera to capture the events unfolding in front of her.

At left, a tall, crew cut, man dressed in a head to toe forest green uniform, with a gun and baton strapped around his waist……stands in stark contrast to the small Honduran boy who stands at the center of the photograph.

The Border Patrol agent is writing on a clipboard..

the little boy, his eyes looking wistfully up at the man….are marked with hopeful anticipation.  In his hands he holds a frothy bottle of ice water.

All captured in a single snapshot.

The boy, Alejandro, Age 8, was illegally trafficked into the US by Mexican Drug cartels, for close to 8,000 dollars.  He told the border patrol agent that he came by himself in search of his parents in Texas or his Aunt in Maryland.  He carried no addresses or phone numbers…..just a copy of his Birth Certificate in hand.

As Californians, we are well aware of immigration both legally and illegally.

For better or worse, it has been part of our story, as a state where people come from all over the world with a “strike it rich” mentality that harkens back to the Gold Rush…..

In 1983, the groundbreaking film El Norte, captured some of the harsh realities of immigrants in search of a new beginning.  Mayan Indian peasant, brother and sister, teenagers, are caught in the thick of the Guatemalan Civil War, where they barely escape massacre as the Guatemalan army destroys their village and family…..they escape knowing that their only hope may be California…..the journey ahead of them  is marked by abusive and shady Coyote’s who rob them and leave them for dead….in perhaps the most dramatic scene in the movie and the one that has been impressed in my head since I saw the movie in high school, is the siblings crawling through the sewer pipe laden with rats….[1]

Some 30 years later…..not much has changed.

The public narrative until recently…..has focused primarily upon adults entry into the states….while recent reports about detention facilities filled at capacity has brought public attention back towards children caught in the middle of a messy system of despair, violence, poverty and hope.

Since October more than 52,000 minors have been apprehended at the border without their parents.[2]  These children are fleeing from the gang violence that plagues their countries…. primarily from central America – El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala….not Mexico as we often are lead to believe….

In Nogales Arizona, a 120,000 square foot warehouse sits, where hundreds of children are housed “in holding pens….with barely room to walk, as mattresses line the concrete floor, which also has long bleachers bolted to it….” as they wait for processing.

“the logistical challenges of caring for children are clear.”[3] Border Patrol agents once responsible for capturing and deportation are suddenly serving as babysitters….for countless children….awaiting reunification with family members,  and if they are arriving from Mexico immediate deportation.

Anyone who has ever worked with children….knows the challenges of “entertaining” a dozen kids let alone a thousand of them….combine that with meeting their basic needs, of food, shelter, and safety and its not surprising this influx of unaccompanied minors has been labeled a humanitarian crisis

Robin Reineke, a classmate of mine and the founder and executive director of the Calibri Institute, a border agency committed to identifying the remains of those adults and children that haven’t made it to el norte and informing their next of kin,  points out that while the hipe around children in detention facilities is immediate, pressing, and pulls on our heartstrings….the larger issues revealed in this influx is the role the US plays in foreign policy, and acknowledging the role we may be playing in the economic instability of these countries in the first place….leading to increased levels of violence within the country and the eventual push north.[4]

And then there’s the challenge that many Christian’s face this Sunday….when they hear the Gospel message…., a continuation of last weeks Gospel, Jesus continues to offer the disciples direction and guidance as they embark on this new journey of discipleship.  Last week we heard about the likely struggles and challenges that they will face, while this week we almost hear exclusively about the rewards of discipleship.

“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous;

The rewards of righteousness, the prophet’s reward all for welcoming the outsider.

Welcoming….is not always easy work, even though we sometimes think it is….

We THINK it is easy…. because we do a good job welcoming our friends and family into our homes, into our lives…and building relationships with them….

When the reality about Welcoming…

is  that it is often controversial, political, and challenging.

Welcoming often divides families, communities, neighborhoods, countries…..

Basic human impulse for self protection often kick in….making the act of welcoming an incredible vulnerable act….

Welcoming while not always easy, it is something that we can work at….

Welcoming is about finding that perfect balance….

balancing personal safety, common good, and radical hospitality all at the same time….

“While operating with a clear awareness of power and patterns of inclusion and exclusion.”[5]

While in our human-ness we struggle with welcome…..
The truth remains that God does not….

God’s welcome is all encompassing, it reaches beyond anything we could possible imagine, it stretches beyond all borders…..

In the act of welcoming…..the transitive property plays itself out….

If we welcome the outsider, we welcome Christ, and if we welcome Christ we welcome God….

And yet in the midst of our own hopelessness and sometimes-even to the point of paralysis to the many in need of welcoming we often find ourselves wondering where are we to begin?

And that’s where the gospel continues

whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

A cup of cold water…..to someone in need,,,,a simple gesture….

A bottle of water….to a boy tired from a long journey…. a simple gesture….

 

And yet Jesus reminds us there is no such thing as  a simple gesture…..

“anything done in faith and love has cosmic significance for the ones involved….and indeed for the world God loves so much.”[6]

It is through that snapshot…..that single photo, that the depth and profundity of the Gospel is made clear……

Alejandro, is one of many children caught in the midst of a global system of violence and foreign policy, and yet he seeks something so basic.  His big eyes staring at the Border Patrol Agent…..drinking the cold water…cold water that made him feel welcome….that gave him hope…..

 

Immigration is a huge…messy….big…..issue…..

Foreign Policy is a huge…messy….big…..issue…..

52,000 children misplaced is a huge…messy….big….issue….

 

it seems like there really is no good place to start…..

but maybe….just maybe…..….it is starting with that single cup of water.

That single bottle of water……and seeing where that simple yet life changing act leads us…….


Sermon preached for Proper8A:  

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/El_Norte_(film)

[2] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/21/us/us-plans-to-step-up-detention-and-deportation-of-migrants.html

[3] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/19/us/border-centers-struggle-to-handle-onslaught-of-children-crossers.html?action=click&contentCollection=U.S.&module=RelatedCoverage&region=Marginalia&pgtype=article

[4] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robin-reineke/the-urgent-humanitarian-c_b_5531512.html

[5] “Radical Welcome”

[6] https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3265

Easter 7A: Finding Our Place in Sacred Story (Rev. Lindsay Marie Hills)

Perhaps more than anything….Storytelling is at the very root of our religious tradition…..

The stories are told….

The stories are heard…

The stories are passed down from generation to generation….

The Old Testament reveals to us the stories of our past, where we come from…and the unfolding relationship between God and God’s chosen people….

As we begin this season after Pentecost, we begin to realize that these stories begin to unfold from the beginning…..with the creation account we heard last week, the story of Abraham this week…..and will continue to carry us through this season all the way up to All Saints Day,  chronologically following the story of God’s people…..from Genesis through Deuteronomy.

The New Testament writings reveal to us how people lived in the time following Jesus’ death and resurrection….how the newest “Christians” made sense of it all? How they lived out their faith in conflict and peace, struggling to make sense of the Resurrection and their call to discipleship.

During the season of Pentecost, these stories unfold in fourteen weeks of rather uninterrupted accounts from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome.  In which Paul, reveals that he is set apart by God for preaching the Gospel, he also seeks to encourage and assure them about those things that God has given to them.  Aware of the unfolding conflict between Gentile and Jewish Christians in the Roman Church, he then proceeds to offer support and guidance to the early church. (Wiki “Paul Letter to the Romans”)

Then there is the Gospel.  Where, after a brief stint in John, we return to Matthew’s account of Jesus’ life, as is generally characteristic of lectionary year A.

And it is hear where we encounter the reality of fear.  In this portion of the larger missionary discourse, Jesus offers direction to the disciples, telling them several times about the terrible things they will encounter as disciples, and then as if to sugar coat it he quickly tells them, to have no fear…..to not be afraid….. before he continues to tell them all the bad things that might happen to them…..

this passage might also invoke a sense of fear in us….

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth, I have not come to bring peace , but a sword.”

the seemingly mild mannered Jesus, born in a manger among animals, halo above his head……is held in stark tension to the Jesus we hear about in todays gospel.

This somewhat sharp tongued Jesus, declaring that he has “come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against his mother” reminds the disciples that while they shouldn’t be afraid, they should also know that Jesus seeks to offer radical shift in social relations, power and authority, that will not always be well received….and that at times might cause conflict even among family members.  That the road to discipleship will both destroy and create new relationships……

Jesus seeks to teach the disciples that through discipleship they too will fall subject to the same pain and discomfort that he is exposed to in his ministry…but at the same time they will also experience the joy and rewards of following him.

—–

These stories along with those told in the psalms…help guide us through our worship and our common life together, reminding us of where we are from and where we are going…

Sacred Scripture becomes the way in which we as Christians understand

who we are,

why we are and

who we are called to be……

these stories are the fibers that knit us together both as individuals and communities of faith, but also bind us to other communities of faith…

I’d like to invite you to close your eyes for a moment…..

think about where you find yourself today…..in the great stories of our faith…..

what story from the bible jumps right into your mind…..

what story can help guide you during this particular season of your life….

Maybe you find yourself on the road to Emmaus, at the well with the women…..or maybe you find yourself in exodus struggling to find the promised land……

where does your personal story meet our sacred story?

wherever you find yourself…be there….pray from there……

PAUSE

And if you couldn’t think of it right away…I encourage you to think about that question in the weeks to come….

Where does your personal story meet our sacred story?

The practice of being able to find ourselves in scripture is not one that necessarily comes naturally to us….

we often listen to the stories cerebrally understanding their meaning or studying them….

…but when we are able to extrapolate from our own daily lives…..and begin to weave ourselves back in to the sacred story….

 

We are able to see both scripture and our lives in a new way….. that is where the magic truly happens…..that is where grace is born.

—–

What about St. Matthew’s?

What is our story?

What is our communities story in the larger story of this block, this deanery, this city, this diocese……

Where does our community sit in the larger survey of sacred stories….

—–

Although I have not been a part of this community very long, I got rather emotional this week, seeing the back hoe take out the plants outside my window and the parking lot…

in my sadness I turned the corner and there were a couple families outside the Baldwin entrance with preschool and kindergarten age children….looking at the back hoes….sooo excited because they had never seen one sooooo big before…..and the parents were eager to learn what was going on here……

I saw a man driving down El Camino with a look like “oh my gosh I didn’t know there was a church there, Where did they come from?”

I overheard to passerby’s on the street corner wondering “what was going on?” and “how beautiful that church is”

All around us the story of St. Matthew is shifting….

In the midst of this shift……where do we find ourselves in scripture…..

Are we the parish in exile, feeling dry and parched as we travel through the dessert looking towards the promise land, wondering if and when we will ever make it there?

Are we the parish at the Wedding Feast in Cana, where though we think we have run out, we realize that God continues to provide from God’s abundance?

Are we the parish listening to Jesus, assured by him telling us to not be afraid, but reminding us that things will not always be as they are….or as they have always been.

What is our sacred story?

And where is it leading us?

What will it teach us about God and about ourselves, and about the community around us?

Easter 6A: A Lost Generation (Rev. Lindsay Marie Hills)

Last fall, I was invited to participate in an online bookgroup by an old classmate from high school and middle school.  I had never done one of these online book groups….but was touched by her personal invitation to be apart of the group.  The text had been chosen “You Lost Me:  Why Young Christians are Leaving the Church and Rethinking Faith.”  By David Kinnaman.

I grew a bit anxious when I heard the book selection…because I am clearly on the other side of that threshold…..I know why I left the church… in college.

But I know that my friend, unlike myself never came back to church….and now identifies as somewhere in the agnostic – atheist spectrum.

The two of us were raised in nuclear Roman Catholic households….both of us with parents married for almost 40 years…

And yet we have gone very different directions in relationship to Church. Making the invitation to be in an authentic dialogue about our experience with the church so refreshing..

The premise of Kinnaman’s book weaves together both quantitative and qualitative findings about youth dropout rates in a way that seeks “to explain the next generation’s cultural context and examine the question How can we follow Jesus —And help young people faithfully follow Jesus –in a dramatically changing culture?”(Kindle -location129)

Unfortunately the book does all to good a job painting the reality of youth ministry in America…”.beginning with the dropout problem that hinges on two simple facts”

1)   teenagers (13-17 year olds) are some of the most religiously active Americans.

2)   (while) American twentysomethings are the least religiously active….

The ages 18-29 are have become the black hole of congregations….and are often missing from churches….reflecting a 43% drop off between the teen and the early adult years in terms of church engagement….an overwhelming 8 million twenty somethings who once were active and invested teenagers…..gone from our communities before their 30th birthday,” becoming what has been coined unchurched (Kindle location 243)

What often happens with this missing group…..is rather than ask questions, seek information, or learn about the cultural shift……

we sit back and WE make excuses for why they aren’t at church….….

-”they are just too focused on their careers”…..or

-“its ok they will come back when they have to baptize their children.”

These, among others, are common “outs” offered by well meaning church-goers to help make sense out of their absence…

but its often those very excuses that help keep us in denial about why they are really gone….and why they won’t come back.

While the book is not perfect, and definitely leaves room for discussion, it does,

I think….get a lot of things really right about the lost generation and how and when we fail them….

It also does a great job of outlining how we, sometimes unknowlingly, KEEP the lost generation….just that…..lost

And while I must admit….it sounds like a depressing read….its actually not as depressing as I may make it sound, namely because it addresses the common reasons for departure from church, and how we might begin to think about meeting the needs of this growing generation and of the generation following them….

Less one feel totally helpless at the end of the book, it also includes a helpful “50 ideas to find a generation” which were generated by congregations attempting to “cultivate a new mind for understanding and discipling the next generation.”

Another thing that makes this feel hopeful….is that we aren’t alone in this exodus phenomenon.  .

We often think that the missing generation is something unique to mainline Christian denominations…..but a recent documentary titled “Un-mosqued,” highlights that it is no longer just a Christian phenomenon.

In a recent NPR story,[1] they explored the new documentary and why it is causing such a stir.

The film “depicts a younger generation of American Muslims, drifting away from Islam and while Christian churches haven’t generally accepted their responsibility in pushing young Christians away…, UnMosqued, goes straight for the jugular and is not shy in blaming the current Mosques for their failure to meet the needs of young adults.

I was enthralled as the story unfolded….talking about so called “third spaces” emerging where young adults are trying to gather outside the mosque to form new Muslim communities….similar in many ways to what Episcopalians often refer to as “fresh expressions.” Examples of dinner  “churches” or dinner “mosques,” congregations meeting in coffee houses or in the fields of farms, communities of faith reclaiming an earlier “house church” model of worship where people can worship God free from the burdens of our physical buildings and all that so often comes with them.

In a time when Christians and Muslisms are at war with one another around the world….there was something refreshing about the story….in that we aren’t the only ones that have screwed up…. And we really aren’t as alone as we think….

other organized religions are struggling the same as we are….

Struggling to make sense of a changing world….

Struggling to understand the mystery of God in the midst of that changing world.

And

Struggling to help others…understand that mystery.

On his second missionary Journey, Paul travels from Philippi, to Thessalonica and finally to Athens.  In the portion we hear from Luke’s Acts of the Apostles today in our first reading, we hear Paul’s sermon to the Athenians.

In his exhortation to the people of Athens, he brilliantly introduces the gospel in a way that is accessible for the “unchurched” to hear….he begins….with what on a first read might seem like flattery….”Athenian’s I see how extremely religious you are in every way.”  But what is most important is that Paul acknowledges the holy among them, acknowledging first the spiritual nature of their beliefs…even if they might just be superstition.

He meets them where they are.

And it is from that point that he seeks to teach them about  the mystery of God.

Paul skillfully introduces his hearers to Christ by teaching them about God’s interrelationship with humanity.

“God is creator of the universe, such that humans find their being in Him –we are created in the image and likeness of God. He is the sustainer of the universe –we are dependent on Him and He is independent of us. The purpose of God’s creating and sustaining role is that we may know him—enter into relationship with Him” [2]

and it is that link to humanity that Paul then uses, with a splash of familiar Greek poetry to illustrate his point…

28For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ 

Paul’s message was a message to the unchurched….to those who had no connection with Jesus Christ….

And from the portion of the reading that follows, that we didn’t hear today, we know that some were converted through their encounter with Paul and his sharing the story of the resurrection with him.

“Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some began to sneer, but others said, ‘we shall hear you again concerning this.’  So Paul went out of their midst.  But some men joined him and believed…among them were Dionysius…and a woman named Demaris….”

Perhaps the success of Paul was his ability to honor the truth about people’s experiences with the sacred.

I know I have talked about chapel several times this year, and one of the exercises that we have been doing this year is to answer children’s questions about God, faith and life, in the context of our Episcopal identity.  This past week, Chaplain Amber was faced with the question, “why do we have so many different religions?  Why isn’t there just one religion?”

I thought her approach to this very difficult question was particularly refreshing….she talked about how in the beginning of time the mystery of God was born throughout creation, and then how people from the very earliest cave dwellers….to Hindus, jews, Christians, and Muslims all really sought to make sense of that same “mystery of god” in their own unique way….often times drawing on the traditions of the past, but creating something new for themselves….and how at the end of time, on the opposite side of creation, that we might understand end times, as a time in which, all our ideas of the mystery of God will coalesce….

24The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands

but rather it lives inside each of us….from generation to generation….

Paul grappled with Mystery of God…

the Athenians grappled with the Mystery of God.

 

Just as we grapple with the mystery of God… in the midst of our changing world….

Just as our Muslim brothers and sisters grapple…

And it seems like perhaps one of our greatest challenges may be to remain open minded to the ways the mystery of God, reveals itself to us in the midst of this changing world…

but perhaps more importantly HOW we respond to that Mystery….to that Spirit?

how we can make that mystery be known to the lost generation in a way that honors where they are…or even prevent generations from being lost in the first place?

If we don’t carry on the important work of Paul….who will?

If it is truly In him we live and move and have our being,  we have no choice but to respond prayerfully and powerfully to the changing world around us, attempting to make sense of the mystery of God in the midst of us, in a way that seeks to transform our relationship with God, one another, and the unchurched….authentically, faithfully and lovingly.

[1] NPR “Unmosqued”  http://www.npr.org/blogs/codeswitch/2014/05/23/314867358/unmosqued-examines-muslim-variant-of-unchurched-youth

[2] “The Areopagus Sermon,” Rev. Bryan Findlayson, Lectionary Bible Studies and Sermons, Pumpkin Cottage Ministry Resources. Includes detailed textual notes.  Available:  http://www.lectionarystudies.com/studyot/easter6aaot.html

 

A Vineyard Rooted in God’s Love (The Rev. Eric Kimball Hinds)

Somewhere around the time that services were first held here at St. Matthew’s, the oldest documented Zinfandel vineyard in California, was planted in the Sierra Foothills. It is a vineyard that has survived the natural perils of disease and weather, along with the human trials of change of ownership and fluctuations of demand in the wine market.

As the vineyard approaches the 150 year mark, Terri Harvey, the current owner, personally tends to the property and she has remarked “You have to respect the vines, I get out here and think about how long they’ve been alive. I do all the pruning myself, out of respect. Each one of these old guys has arms going every which way. You gotta study each one and figure out which way to prune it.” A neighboring vintner added [Gur-Arieh] “These grapes that she has, they’re phenomenal,…her grapes have complexity and elegance. I don’t know if it’s the age or the terroir [climate], but they’re wonderful.”

This morning we heard the Gospel writer John recount how Jesus draws upon the imagery of a vine and vineyard to describe his relationship with God and his followers. I am the true vine says Jesus, and my Father is the vine grower. This statement immediately establishes a relationship between Jesus and his Heavenly Father, and then the discussion quickly advances to talking about the branches of the vine–the conversation advances so quickly in fact that we could miss an important layer of meaning–miss a part of the richness of the vineyard imagery. By the time of the first century there was already a rich and long tradition of referring to Israel as a vine planted by God. It is an image that not only implies growth and bearing fruit, but one that also evokes a sense of the vine taking root and establishing itself deeply in a soil selected by God.

This morning we have an interesting compliment of lessons; for in the Epistle, the first Letter of John, we have a discourse on Love. It is a passage that ranges from the simple declaration that God is Love–to a discussion about how God’s love may be perfected in us. As a prelude then–to this whole discussion is the notion that–when Jesus declares himself to be the true vine, He is laying claim to a rich history, a root system that reaches deep into the past, a history that has been nurtured and fed by God’s abiding love from the very beginning.

At a time of despair for the people of Israel, the prophet Isaiah reminded the people of God’s Love with these words (Isaiah 54.10)

For the mountains may depart

   and the hills be removed,
but my steadfast love shall not depart from you,
and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,
says the Lord, who has compassion on you.

When the Law was first established with the people of Israel, God reminded followers that love was to extend beyond the bounds of family and friends. Early on, in the book of Deuteronomy (10.19) this principle was established: You shall also love the stranger, for you were (once) strangers in the land of Egypt. And The manifestation of God’s love–is so beautifully captured in a passage from Micah (6.8)…and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? In fact the whole history of the people of God is deeply rooted and sustained by God’s steadfast love. And so in John’s Gospel this morning with the proclamation that Jesus in the true vine–we pick up the imagery of the branches and the notion that somehow–We–through Jesus, are grafted into that love.

Love is a word, that Perhaps like no other word, has the potential for endless abstraction and reflection attempting to extract and assign new relevance to the word. And yet about love, it was Earnest Hemingway who simply wrote (Death in the Afternoon, Chapter 11) All people talk of it, but those who have it[–]are marked by it….

These two passages, one from the first letter and the other from the Gospel of John–in a way speak for the whole of the New Testament in that they remind us that above all Jesus was marked by the love that he embodied and that he shared. And in his ministry, first traveling between the villages of the region of Galilee, Jesus highlighted one of the essential qualities of love–and that is that it is not a scarce commodity to be hoarded or guarded–to be only sparingly given out to a select few, rather Jesus demonstrated quite the opposite, that love and compassion for others is a quality not only meant to be shared, but that it is a commodity that when shared actually multiplies. This is a fact that his followers found to be true and it is why images of abundance abound in the Gospels.

The parable of the sower where the Word (read Love) of God is dispersed with abundance and wild abandon is a wonderful example. The story of the feeding of 5000 is at its heart a narrative that attempts to capture the power of sharing with others, and the way that love and compassion expand to replace the fear of scarcity with the joy of abundance. In the New Testament the life that we are grafted into is the vigorous growth of the branches, supported by the vine–a body with roots that are grounded in the abiding and steadfast Love of God.

The challenge of this morning’s lessons it seems to me–is our natural inclination is to attempt to hold on to love, that when one finds a source of love, our first impulse is to hold on to it–and to even hoard it–lest it depart from us or slip through our fingers. Our attempts to secure love for ourselves could be rather like venturing to save and hold on to a fine and rare bottle of wine. And yet this is contrary to the way that Jesus lived. Jesus risked sharing a love for the world widely, with abandon and abundance.

It is an example of a vineyard, ancient in its origins, capable of yielding an exquisite vintage with a very simple formula for success. God is the vine grower, Jesus is the vine, and you are the branches: branches intended to yield a vintage of Joy, Abundance and Love.


Sermon preached by The Reverend Eric Kimball Hinds at The Episcopal Church of Saint Matthew, San Mateo, California, on 6 May 2012, The Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year B. Lessons: Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 22:24-30; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8.