The Good News!

Welcome! I am the Rev. Ken Saunders. I serve as the rector of St. James Episcopal Church in Greeneville, Tennessee (since May 2018). These sermons here were delivered in the context of worship at the various places I have served.

[NOTE: Sermons (or Homilies) are commentaries that follow the scripture lessons, and are specifically designed to be heard. They are "written for the ear" and may contain sentence fragments and be difficult to read. They are NOT intended to be academic papers.]

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Year B - Pentecost - May 20, 2018

The Rev. Kenneth H. Saunders III
St. James Episcopal Church
Greeneville, TN

Year B - Pentecost - May 20, 2018

It is such a joy to be here at St. James in Greeneville... the long-awaited time has come for us to be together as we begin, what I hope will be for us a long and fruitful partnership in ministry. 

We are gathered on this day that we celebrate the Great Feast Day of Pentecost… The day we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church. The Holy Spirit – that the 3rd person of the God Head, the Paraclete or comforter, the Ruach Elohim, or the mighty breath of God. 

The mighty Wind that initially moved over the waters of the deep in the beginning of creation, that moved over the masses, those gathered there, in the city of Jerusalem, and that same wind still moves among God’s gathered people here today…

The followers of Jesus where all gathered there in one place and at once the Holy Spirit came upon them, divided tongues as of fire appeared on each of them and they begin to speak in different languages... Different Languages to the gathered assembly, and the whole crowd heard the word of God; each in their own native language.

I hope you enjoyed our little exercise this morning with reading a couple of the phrases from the 2nd Chapter in Acts in another language. Having been in Greeneville a week, I’m not sure how many native Hungarian speakers we have. But you eached seemed to find a language, even if it was in East Tennessean, you all did real well. I know that your search committee chair, Phil Thwing, spent some time in the service in Germany and was able to pull off a pretty good German.

We do this sort of Liturgical Drama to give us the feeling of how crazy things must have been for the folks gathered together there in Jerusalem. The only problem with this creative idea is that the net effect is sometimes more a mishmash of murmuring that you can’t understand at all.

It gives us more of a feeling of Babel than of Pentecost. You remember the story of the Tower of Babel from the Book of Genesis… the story of how human pride made folks think that they could actually reach the heavens on their own power and then God’s response was to scatter them speaking different languages. This left entire world tongue-tied.

Ever since then people have struggled to understand each other. Their lack of ability to communicate over the years has lead to frustration and confusion…frustration and confusion that has led to violence and wars...  and, unfortunately, that frustration and confusion still exists.

Our world today is still tongue-tied… What CAN be misunderstood WILL BE and usually IS misunderstood. But Babel, the story of the first clash of cultures and failure to communicate, is more than just a mythic explanation of the differences among nations and languages. It is an accurate description of the human condition itself…

We often do not understand one another even when we speak in the same language. We all remain bogged down by our inability to accept the differences among us in how we live and in what we think and even of how and what we believe.   

But at Pentecost, the Spirit of God came down upon the disciples, resting on each of them and thereby bringing them, and us, the ability to come together once again. 

The disciples got a crash course that morning in the language of God. It should probably be fair to say that after Pentecost, our days of Babel should be over. But maybe our Babel today is perhaps the result of how humanity forgot the grammar of grace and the language of God?  

The great differences among us… Differences in communication and speech, in culture and race, in wealth and poverty, these differences should have all been scattered in “the rush of a violent wind.” As Acts tells us, these differences should have been burned away by tongues of fire.

On the Feast of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came down and ignited the apostolic flame and it spread like a wildfire – out of control…  so out of control that the people were able to understand the words that the apostles were speaking about the power of God…  And they understood the message, each in their own language. What an incredible and confusing site that must have been.

So confusing that some were even accusing them of having too much to drink. Peter perks up (not one of his most brightest moments) and comes to their defense, telling them that it is only 9 o’clock in the morning and that the prophecy of Joel has been fulfilled… That the Spirit of the Living God had been poured out on all flesh and was alive right there in that place and was witnessed by all of Jerusalem.

The church is gathered here now, 2000 years later, here in Greeneville, TN and the Spirit of God continues to pour out upon us... bestowing upon us and all flesh the gifts of wisdom and reason, judgment and strength, knowledge and reverence and a wonder filled with awe.
And what I ask is, why don’t we recognize it? Do we recognize when the spirit is working, blowing, and speaking to us? And when we do think we recognize it, what are we doing with it??  Brothers and Sisters, God is alive right here, right now, today, present with us and the spirit is being poured out upon us...  how are we to respond?

We respond by being open and ready to receive the Holy Spirit so that same Spirit can work in our life, and empower us with courage, wonder, wisdom and reverence to restore the world. The disciples were still in Jerusalem, and they were starting to come out of hiding. After all, it had been 50 days since Jesus’ first appearance of being alive after a horrible death… And it was 7 days after the disciples saw Jesus raised into the heavens. 

They remembered Jesus’ promise…  his promise that they would not be alone, that He would send them a comforter and protector. And when the disciples were there that day, they experienced it – and it gave them the wisdom and power to communicate the power of God to everyone there in Jerusalem.
I know some of you enjoyed the royal wedding yesterday, and our Presiding Bishops rousing message of love and witness lived out through the restoration of the world. He talked about love as a a raging fire... and equated the power fire to the power of love.

I want to throw you what I call a fun fact to know and tell: you may know that tall funny looking hat that the bishop wears… it’s called a miter? It is made to look that way on purpose – made to look like a big tongue. A great tongue of fire sitting on his or her head, like the tongues of fire that landed on the heads of the first apostles on Pentecost. 

The miter is a symbol of that apostolic flame the flame that continues to burn throughout the church. See, every bishop in the Episcopal Church is ordained in what we call apostolic succession (that's one you want to write that down in your notebook of churchy words) where you can trace the lineage of ordination (even the bishop that ordained me) back to the original apostles. 

To ensure this sacred legacy, Bishops gather together to ordain other bishops… This is done by 3 apostolic bishops (or more) laying hands on the newly selected bishop… thus conveying orders all the way back to the original followers of Jesus… kind of like a 2000 year old game of apostolic tag… 

At a bishop’s ordination, the bishop accepts a responsibility to bear the apostolic witness to the faith and guard the unity of the church... At Pentecost, the Spirit of God comes down upon the apostles, resting on each of them and thereby bringing them, and us, all together once again. The disciples got a crash course that day in the language of God.

As the Spirit used the speech of the disciples on Pentecost to reshape and redirect the lives of those who listened to their words, so that same Spirit on this Day speaks to us in order to reshape, remold, and move us… Move us and empower us with passion and boldness, with that raging Pentecostal fire within us that will help us unite in faith and restore the world… 

But ONLY if we are willing to listen, and be open… and love one another.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Year B - Christmas Eve - December 24, 2017

The Rev. Kenneth H. Saunders III
Trinity Episcopal Church
Towson, MD

Year B - Christmas Eve - December 24, 2017

This Christmas sermon is on audio. In order to provide context, the audio selection begins at the Gospel reading and continues with a introductory piece immediately following the gospel, "Would You Harbor Me?" performed by the Trinity Choir. The sermon follows.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Year B - 1 Advent - December 3, 2017

The Rev. Kenneth H. Saunders III
Trinity Church
Towson, Maryland

Year B - 1 Advent - December 3, 2017

Isaiah 64:1-9
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:24-37
Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18

Chicken Little likes to walk in the woods. She likes to look at the trees. She likes to smell the flowers. She likes to listen to the birds singing.

One day while she is walking, an acorn falls from a tree, and hits the top of her little head. - My, oh, my, the sky is falling. I must run and tell the lion about it, - says Chicken Little and begins to run. She runs and runs. 

By and by she meets the hen. - Where are you going? – asks the hen. - Oh, Henny Penny the sky is falling and I am going to the lion to tell him about it. - How do you know it? - asks Henny Penny. - It hit me on the head, so I know it must be so, - says Chicken Little. - Let me go with you! - says Henny Penny. - Run, run.

So the two run and run until they meet Ducky Lucky. - The sky is falling, - says Henny Penny. - We are going to the lion to tell him about it. - How do you know that? - asks Ducky Lucky. - It hit Chicken Little on the head, - says Henny Penny. - May I come with you? - asks Ducky Lucky. - Come, - says Henny Penny.

So all three of them run on and on until they meet Foxey Loxey. - Where are you going? - asks Foxey Loxey. - The sky is falling and we are going to the lion to tell him about it, - says Ducky Lucky. - Do you know where he lives? - asks the fox. - I don't, - says Chicken Little. - I don't, - says Henny Penny. - I don't, - says Ducky Lucky. - I do, - says Foxey Loxey. - Come with me and I can show you the way.

He walks on and on until he comes to his den. - Come right in, - says Foxey Loxey. They all go in, but they never, ever, never come out again…

Sometimes signs are misunderstood or misinterpreted…

Sometimes we get all worked up because we think we know what’s going to happen... because we’ve felt a proverbial acorn of sorts drop on our head. This can cause us to act frantically and get upset and, in turn, get others to act frantic and upset. Until the whole thing leads to a tragic end…

The story of Henny Penny (or Chicken Little) is about interpreting signs. Chicken little felt an acorn, and she thought the sky was falling…

Jesus tells us to look for the signs… The sun will be darkened, the moon will not give light, the stars will fall from heaven, and all the Heavens will be shaken. And then we will see Jesus himself up in the clouds with in all his majesty and kingly glory. He is warning us to prepare ourselves… Prepare ourselves for his return.

He points out that when we see things like this, it is a sign that he is near. However, we don’t need to get all excited running around like chicken little, worried about what will happen, or when it will happen… We need to trust that Jesus has said - it’s absolutely going to happen - He's going to come back. And it’s going to be when we least expect it.

After Jesus has told us about his return, He tells us what our responsibility is. He tells us to watch, be alert, wait, and anticipate. He doesn’t tell us that this is a passive waiting. Jesus explains what we are supposed to do. He explains his instructions by comparing it to man going on a journey, and leaving his servants in charge.

Jesus has gone on a journey or sorts, and he has left us responsible… Jesus has left us responsible - in charge of building up the kingdom while he is away…

As his church, we will all be held accountable when Jesus returns... accountable for what we have done with what he has entrusted to us. Accountable for what we haven’t done while he was away.

So, do we sit idle, staring into space, waiting for the moon or the sun to go out? Do we run around frantically, fussing over this or that, thinking that the sky is falling and ending up being eaten by the fox? Or do we do what Jesus says and wait?

The Church should engage in what I like to call active waiting. Not overly worrying about the signs that will be so blatantly evident we won’t be able to miss them or ignore them. But we should go about doing the work that Jesus has given us to do... To heal the sick, feed the hungry, and clothe the naked. To strive for justice and peace, and keep striving to bring the kingdom of God to this broken world.

If we are doing the things that Jesus taught us, then when he returns, he recognize us... he will know that we are his church. That we are his people… his body gathered here on earth. He will recognize us, and know us.

But if we sit idle and do nothing... or if we act crazy and run around like chick little, getting everyone convinced that the sky is falling... Then Jesus will have a hard time recognizing us as his church.

Jesus says we can learn lessons from the ways of nature around us… He uses the example of the fig tree, and says when the branch becomes tender and the leaves spring forth, we know summer is near.

The same way, we can look around us and see the signs. The leaves are changing color and falling off of the trees, the air is getting cooler, the sun sets earlier and the days are getting shorter... We know, by these signs, that winter is near.

Winter is near, but It doesn’t freak us out. Winter is near, and we know we must prepare. Prepare by maybe getting some firewood, and making sure we have oil or fuel for the heater. We prepare by getting the winter coats out of the storage in the back of the closet. We prepare by getting those snow shovels and snow blowers staged, or maybe making sure the tire chains are ready. We can’t live in this area, and not know how to prepare for winter.

But, how do we prepare for the coming of Jesus?

Jesus tells us to keep watch. That’s what the season of advent is about. It’s about intentional, active waiting and preparing for Jesus. Preparing our hearts, preparing our minds, and preparing our lives by doing those things he has given us to do. 

It’s about staying alert! Jesus calls us again to stay awake, to notice, and keep watch, because truthfully, he is always coming... the sad thing is that if we are not paying attenting, we are in danger of not being able to recognize it. 

This is our most important task as his followers - to stay alert and be watchful. We are called to watch at ALL times... watch for Jesus, honor the image of God in each other... To search for it and honor it... We are to use our words and our actions to build up, not tear down.

Keeping alert and preparing for Jesus is not easy. It demands our complete attention to everything that we are and everything that we do... and it affects the relationships we have and the world that we live in.

If chicken little would have just looked up, she would have probably realized it was just an acorn that bopped her on the head. If she would have just paid attention to the signs around her and if she had been watchful and prepared, then maybe things would have turned out to be life giving, and positive, instead of life ending.

Jesus expects his disciples to follow. Follow where he leads the way. And the church has a job to do as we prepare for his return. Whether Jesus comes back today, tomorrow, next week, or in another thousand years, it doesn’t matter, TODAY is the day of our salvation.

If we looks closely at the signs, they should ALL point to the Only One who holds ALL the answers... all the answers to all the questions, issues and problems of this world.

So, my bidding today is Come, Lord Jesus, Come…

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Year A - All Saints' Sunday - November 5, 2017

The Rev. Kenneth H Saunders III
Trinity Church
Towson, MD

Year A - All Saints' Sunday - November 5, 2017

Revelation 7:9-17
Psalm 34:1-10, 22
1 John 3:1-3
Matthew 5:1-12

If I told you - that you, as a baptized Christian, a believer in Jesus Christ, were a saint, would you believe it? Or would you feel guilty, because for some reason you felt like you have come up short?… For some reason, you would be embarrassed because you didn’t feel worthy of sainthood.

Being a saint, or being called a saint, it’s not comfortable for many people and it’s not easy. Saints have been identified throughout history as ones who are recognized as holy… or having that unique closeness to God. At this point, I would ask if it’s just not comfortable, or is it not fashionable?

Society has shown us, by its actions that being a saint is not important… That being holy is something that religious people do… That It’s not relevant to our life. Society has hijacked the Sabbath… one of those big 10 that we talked about last week and said work is the ruler and rest is the enemy…

Society has replaced God with other things of worship… Like the Dow Jones index or the latest sports superstar… Society has told us that it’s not cool to love and follow Jesus, to walk in Jesus way, and do those things that help us develop a closeness to God. To nurture our relationship in a community of believers… to seek to understand more closely who we are, by understanding to whom we belong… Not possessed, but empowered by God to make a difference in the world.

Today is ALL SAINTS’ SUNDAY. And we understand saints to everyone with a faith and belief in God in Jesus Christ. We believe God is the creator, redeemer, and sustainer of life, love, and relationship… God is the source and the radiance of ALL being, yet we are timid and afraid to claim it for ourselves. God loves each and every one of us… So deeply, it’s indescribable!

There aren’t words in any vocabulary that brings justice to the depth of that love… When Jesus walked on this earth, he showed us how much God loves us… He showed us by what he taught… He showed us by what he did… Up on the mount, Jesus taught the complete reciprocal of what society taught (and still teaches)…

Society taught (and still teaches) that if you are strong and rich and powerful that you must obviously be blessed… Jesus teaches the opposite when he says, blessed are the poor, and meek, and merciful… Don’t misunderstand… meekness isn’t weakness, but a bridled strength under control.

Society teaches that if it feels good, regardless of how vile or corrupt, that you are certainly blessed… Jesus teaches… Blessed are the pure in heart…

Society teaches that you don’t need a savior, that if you work hard enough and are a good person, then you can save yourself...  Jesus teaches that following him has worldly consequences, but great rewards… Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.

Society teaches the evils of selfishness my & mine… Jesus teaches that the hungry and thirsty will be filled. No wonder most of the folks who say they follow Jesus are scared to admit it in society… Sainthood is difficult and in 2000 years it hasn’t gotten any easier.

Today, we celebrate the saints… Not just those whose day shows up on the liturgical calendar… But ALL THE SAINTS… Those past, present, and yet to come… Those who have a faith and trust in God in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Today we have a special opportunity to bring, into our community, into our fellowship Dominic Reagle, Charlotte Burton, and Everly Bryan. Those little saints, those innocent souls whose parents have said that they want them to grow up in this world believing in something that this world does not know or even comprehend…

They want them to have the faith to make sense of their life when their life doesn’t make sense… They want them to have the strength of Christ when they are weakened by the trials and tribulations of evils of this world…

They want them to love others as God loves them completely and inexhaustibly… seeking to serve justice and respecting the dignity of every human being…

That’s a tall order… And we know it’s not easy to be a saint. It’s never been easy to be a saint. That’s why the whole community of faith is here – gathered together promising with them to help uphold the promises, helping them uphold the faith… Help them to grow and learn and love and become life giving and reconciling presence in this world.

That is our purpose as proclaimed followers of Jesus Christ as part of the Jesus Movement in the world. To nurture and develop a closeness with God modeled after the teachings of Jesus. Our purpose is to become saints…

Sainthood is not easy brothers and sisters, and I call you brothers and sisters because even though some of us are grown we are all children…  Children of God and joint heirs with Christ… Brought to God by adoption in baptism and each loved by God beyond measure… Loved and given an inheritance that we will not understand until it comes to fruition and is revealed to us…

So when we finally experience the heavenly kingdom, we can sing…  "Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen."