The Good News!

Welcome! I am the Rev. Ken Saunders the rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Towson, MD (since May 2011). These sermons here were delivered in the context of worship.

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

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Year C - 3 Lent - February 28, 2016

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

Year C - 3 Lent - February 28, 2016

I was immediately caught by the phrase in today’s collect… “we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.” As much as we think that we have it all figured out and that we have it all together, we don’t! Not without the help of something else… Not without the help of someone else.

I can remember as a young child, full of ambition and pride, knowing and feeling like I could actually accomplish something on my own. You can probably remember a time like that too… Pick the task… Maybe tying your shoes, dressing yourself, or riding a bike. We can sometimes remember when we first did things by ourselves.

I can remember the time when my mom and dad thought I was old enough to order my own meal at the local Carroll’s drive in. (was Carroll’s a thing in Baltimore?) I’m now showing my age… Anyway, I can remember taking the change and walking up to the counter at Carroll’s (Because they were both eat in and dive in) and ordering my first meal… I was so proud of myself…

But our collective prayer that was written in the year 590 says, “we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.” The church has been praying this for over 1425 years, and yet we still think we can do it all by ourselves…

Moses didn’t think he could do the tremendous task of bringing the Israelites out of Egypt by himself… That’s not the example that we get from Exodus. When given the great task by the mighty voice coming to him out of a bush he says, “who am I that I should go to Pharaoh” as if to say… I’m not able, I can’t do this by myself… And the voice then assures Moses… “I will be with you!”

Let’s think back again on those tasks that we remember… That we think we did all by ourselves, like Tying your shoes, dressing yourself, or riding a bike. I can assure you that when it came time for you to learn to tie your shoes someone taught you! For me, it was my grandfather… and he didn’t only teach me how to tie my shoes, he taught my kids how to tie their shoes… So, tying my shoes is not something I did by myself. And neither was dressing myself, or riding a bike…

If you can ride a 2-wheel bike, you can probably remember someone helping you, coaching you… maybe holding the back of the seat and giving you a gentle push. We all had help in one way or another.

In our baptismal vows, we ascribe to the covenant and promises … with God’s help…  I will, with God’s help. We say it allowed “I WILL, WITH GOD’s HELP!” We are not expected nor or we encouraged to do it any other way…  And we are definitely not encouraged to live the Christian life alone.

Part of our formation…  part of our learning is our dependence on being taught… it’s our willingness to engage… Our willingness to reach out for help and encouragement. In my opinion, It’s part of why we have many of the issues that we have today with narcissism and self centeredness…  

It all part of the stresses of life that have been wrapped around us by a society that expects everyone to have it all figured out… all figured out – all the time – all by ourselves. So we drive ourselves crazy as we puff out our chest and go in to tackle it… and not ask for help or input, because society thinks that asking for help is somehow considered a weakness.

The 1400 year old collective prayer says, “Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.”

The fig tree is not producing fruit… It’s not producing bad fruit, it’s not producing good fruit… It’s not producing ANY fruit… And somehow, the owner of the vineyard thinks it’s the tree’s fault. Obviously he’s forgotten that it’s just a tree… and like any part of God’s creation, it needs to be cared for… None the less, the owner wants the gardener to cut it down. He says, “Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?”

The gardener pleads with the owner to give him another year… to nurture and fertilize the tree… to give the tree a chance...

We are all given a chance, a chance to learn… a chance to ask for help…  Help from God - the only One who can help us. A chance to relinquish some of our worldly control and stubbornness, and let go of our need to do it all by ourselves.

A chance to realize that we are not just a waste of soil, but we are held fast by the right hand of God like the Psalmist says. A chance to be nourished and given the opportunity to bare the good fruit.

But to also remember, when we do bare the good fruit, and if we follow and trust in God to do so… When we do, it was only done by the grace of God… And we didn’t do it ourselves…

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Year C - Christmas 2 - January 3, 2016

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

Year C - Christmas 2 - January 3, 2016

#magionthemove picture shared from the Rev. Jenny Cooper Gettys
Here we are, it’s the 10th day of Christmas and we pick up the story of the nativity of Jesus this morning with a visit from eastern strangers. The reading calls them “wise men.” Some translations call them Magi – from which we get the word Magic. They are speculated to be from as far east - as far as the orient, or from as near east as near as Persia (which is modern day Iran). We don’t exactly know how wise they were, but we do know that they knew something that the rest of the world hadn’t figured out yet. They were scholars who studied the stars in the western sky and decided to take a chance that one particular star they saw might lead them to something significant.

The Jewish world at the time was looking for and waiting for a messiah (a savior). The special “anointed one” of God that was promised by the prophets to come and heal and restore Israel…

Promise made, much like the ones we heard from Jeremiah, about a scattered and forgotten people being gathered together - the blind and lame being healed and led back to right relationship with God. Led back to a rejoicing community that will sing praises of joy and gladness because they were redeemed and delivered from the hands of their oppressors.

The people of Israel knew what they were looking for, they knew what they were praying for and they got it, but they didn’t even realize it.

What is significant to the story is that these different people com from a different land, a foreign land, and even though they were not Jews, they knew who this special child was and they came to pay their respects and worship him.

When Herod the Great heard about the strangers and what they were doing, he was terrified - afraid that his political life was over, and that he and the Herodian Kingdom would be overthrown. Afraid that somehow the Davidic Kingdom was being restored. We know that Herod didn’t want to worship Jesus. Herod wanted to kill him and selfishly protect his own power.

We can only imagine how everyone in the house felt when those eastern strangers showed up knocking on doors. Strangers asking questions, wondering where the baby was who was born to be “King of the Jews.” They finally find Jesus in a house in Bethlehem, and they knelt down and worshipped him. These strangers from a strange land. And these wise eastern strangers, these men brought with them gifts to present to the child… Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh.

There’s an old joke going around, we know that these were wise MEN, because if they were wise WOMEN, they would have brought more practical gifts.

However, there are some interesting things about this story that we probably need to pay some closer attention to…

The first thing is not readily noticed. Probably because the song has more lore in it than scriptural fact. It is the number of these strangers. The scripture doesn’t say how many there were. We know that there was more than one, and that in itself is significant. This wasn’t a random act of one confused traveler. This was an intentional journey. For these strangers, this journey was a pilgrimage of discovery and hope. Hope in a restored Israel with a righteous King, and hope in a renewed and restored world.

We do know that these strangers brought 3 gifts with them. Maybe that’s where they got the three from. Because it wouldn’t be hospitable to show up empty handed.

Over the years, theologians and scholars have thought that these gifts were significant to who these eastern strangers thought Jesus was.

They say that Gold is important because it was associated with Kings. Herod certainly had his share of Gold. It would be only natural for someone regarded as a king to be presented with Gold.

Frankincense is the incense used in worship. Incense that is still used in worship. Originally, we can imagine it was used to ward off the stench of the carcasses of dead animals that were sacrificed and possibly the bodily odors of others. But it’s so much more than that. Burning incense symbolizes our prayers and offerings as the smoke rises to the heavens… We know and are reminded that God is there to hear us and receive our prayers and show us grace and favor. So it would be natural to give incense to someone who was thought to be righteous and faithful.

Myrrh is a precious perfumed oil that is used to anoint a dead body. Care for the deceased is a sacred act in most every culture. Scholars speculate that the gift of Myrrh is a foreshadowing of Jesus’ tragic death.

We don’t know what the reason for the gifts, we just know what they are. We can only speculate why these eastern strangers brought them and presented them to Jesus. These eastern strangers…  the magi… the wise men, who may have been wiser than we realize.

Wise enough to look for God and follow the signs that they recognized in order to find the perfect manifestation of God’s self the person of Jesus the Anointed one – the Christ.

Wise enough to seek God out amid struggles and stresses of the journey of life. They didn’t come because it was convenient. They came from far away and made a difficult long journey just to have an opportunity to kneel for a minute and worship this newborn righteous King.

Wise enough to honor God with gifts of wealth and symbols of worship and honor and respect… Representations of human livelihood and vitality.

We don’t know who these Eastern Strangers were. The scriptures leaves it very vague. Their only appearance is in the Gospel according to Matthew, and it is still somewhat a mystery.

A mystery which shows us that the reign of the living God is much bigger than just the nation of Israel…

A mystery that shows us that strangers… those that don’t look like us or act like us, sometimes know more about what’s going on than we do…

A mystery which allows us to have hope, have hope and rejoice in the possibility of a renewed and restored world.

It’s amazing how a simple story of 12 sentences can reveal to us a God who not only loves us but will make everything right that we have made wrong. It’s the part of the Christmas story that the modern church has lumped in with the Shepherds and the stable, instead of it owning its own respected place as it relates to the mystery of the incarnation.

I have a friend from seminary that is on social media. I remember her as super creative, and I loved what she has been doing recently with her posts, so I thought I would share it with you. It’s called “magi on the move.” Since Christmas, she has been posting a group of figurines representing the magi, much like the figures we have here in our crèche.

The fun part is that there isn’t just 3 of them nor are any of them the same. In one picture there has got to be 10 or 14 big and tall, short and small. And, much like the flat Jesus photos that we took over the summer, these magi figures can be seen at different places on their journey… even at a visitor’s center asking for directions…  searching for the one who was to be the ruler and shepherd of God’s people. Probably much like we know that those wise men did so long ago in search of a child that they knew would deliver Israel and restore the world.

My friend and colleague was pretty wise herself. And, in this fun expressive way, came up with a method to remind us what we all seem to have forgotten.

That like those eastern strangers of old, we need to be wise again.

We have forgotten how to search for God. We need to be wise enough to keep seeking and searching for God. And then we need to let God show up in those unexpected places.

We need to wise enough let God into this dysfunctional world and let God restore it with equity, truth, and peace.

We need to be wise enough to give of our resources in order to help continue the mission of restoration, so that not only us, but future generations will benefit from knowing God’s love.

We are called to be wise ambassadors for the Kingdom of God, bringing about restoration in our own lives… but not just our own lives, we need to be about the loving work God has given us to do and help restore the lives of others.

So that the WHOLE human race will be restored and will know the love of God through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Year C - Advent 1 - November 29, 2015

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

Year C - Advent 1 - November 29, 2015

Jeremiah 33:14-16
Psalm 25:1-9 
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

Here we are again at the beginning of another church year. There is a feeling of freshness about today as we break out the advent wreath and the blue vestments and as we start counting down the days of our Lord’s return in great glory to renew the face of the earth. The world is on the threshold of salvation and God is fulfilling God’s promises, not only to Israel, but to us.

One of the most thought provoking things that I have seen as this season begins is a picture that is floating around on social media that says, “You cannot spell adventure unless you begin with advent.”  - and I would go further to say that you cannot have an Adventure unless you start with  an Advent! Brothers and sisters, we are all on a grand adventure of living out God’s promise to restore the world and bring forth the kingdom of justice and righteousness and this is a celebration of the beginning. This is our Advent.

Advent is the beginning of our grand adventure…  and it’s a bit scary if we stop and think about it. The unknown lurks in the shadows of Advent. What is --- is yet to be revealed. Some of you have heard me say before that Advent is living in that thin ‘tween space of the already and the not yet… between what has happened and the beginning of what is yet to happen.

It’s sort of ironic that this is the time of year when folks break out the Christmas greeting cards and reconnect with friends and family over the miles. For me, it’s always a joy to get a card from someone that lives far away. I remember a friend in the family that lived in Ireland, Nellie, who would send me a Christmas card every year without fail. Each year, the card would have a different kind of image of a Christmas scene and words of well wishes and prayers for the New Year. It warms my heart to this day to even think about it. To think about the way I felt encouraged and together with her even though an ocean and many miles separated us… Even though I was far away.

Cards and letters have a special way of connecting us and helping us, especially through hard times… the dark times in our life when we feel forgotten and alone. Cards and letters can make us feel supported and remembered, and they can help us feel encouraged and appreciated.

At Timothy’s request, Paul sent a letter to the church in Thessalonica… The Thessalonians were struggling with persecution because they had started to follow the ways of a person named Jesus. In this new way, they had given up the ways of their pagan idols. This was a radical shift from what was socially, politically, economically, and religiously acceptable… it put stresses on families and on friendships, it caused turmoil in the workplace and in the marketplace.

The one thing that I think the Thessalonians got right – is that they knew that the world was on the threshold of salvation and they invested their whole selves, everything that they had and were in preparing for the kingdom of God to come. They let the teachings of Jesus take over every aspect of their lives as they were in the advent of their adventure.

But times for the Thessalonians were hard, and they felt like they were in the dark, struggling with their newly kindled faith. And Paul is removed and not able to return to them… and he so desperately wants to be there with them and help them endure their hardships, but the only thing that he can do is write to them and give them a letter of encouragement and hope.

That is the portion of Paul’s letter that we read today. Paul longs to be there with them face to face to help them withstand everything that is being thrown at them. To help them endure and hold fast to the faith that is in them.

How then shall we live, in a world so desperate to rush into store and beat people over the head for sale items just one day after being thankful for everything that they already have? How do we live counter-culturally in a time when gluttony and greed is rewarded and is a socially acceptable display of strength and power? We’re not too far off from having to live like the Thessalonians did when they were persecuted for being different, who had to remain drastically counter-cultural in order to keep the faith.

It sounds a bit like what Jeremiah did for the people of Israel in our Old Testament lesson, reminding them of God’s promises. Giving them encouragement and hope… At this time, Israel was in exile and the prophet Jeremiah points them in the direction and calls them to wait on the Lord for a time of equity and virtue… A time when things that were cast down are being raised up… a time when the old things are being made new… a time when the darkness, pain, hunger, war, and famine will be no more… the things we need to engage and participate in to help usher in the Kingdom of God… things that are of the Kingdom of God.

The community that Jeremiah is speaking to has been defeated and is in darkness, they have been cut down and are in a foreign land with foreign rules, and foreign rulers – in an area that doesn’t know the God of Israel. Jeremiah is sending word from his prison cell to the others in exile, who also feel forgotten and lonely in the darkness of their life.

But, Jeremiah tells them not to worry, that everything will be o.k. – that God has the ability to raise up a righteous branch… a new leader that will rule justly… and he says, “in those days Judah will be saved”… in those days, we will be saved.

We are in the advent of our adventure and we are in a time of uncertainty and darkness. Regardless of how many Advents we have celebrated as a church, we are only still right at the beginning…

There is so much hate and evil in this world, we long for a time when a great leader will rise up and govern us… a righteous leader that will help lead the way - to assure us of God’s love and care for us, to show us the plan of salvation.

Jesus is that leader… and Christ Jesus is that leader who encourages us and teaches us that if we stay alert, and we don’t get all tied up in the worries of this world, then we will begin to develop whatever we need in order to endure the hardships of our adventure.

But we don’t want to have to endure the hardships… We want to avoid them and just skip to the end where everything is perfect and restored. It’s only natural for us to want to get to the end before we ever get started. If you have ever traveled with a small child on a long journey, you have probably heard the phrase, “are we there yet?” “Are we there yet?” is our juvenile way of not being able to wait and anticipate what’s coming.

Jesus says that there will be signs along the way. I know that road signs always help me on long trips. They helps me to count down the miles that I have left to go. Sort of like the advent wreath here helps us mark time during the season… Road signs ease something inside of me as they helps me to visualize the destination, which allows me to enjoy the adventure even more.

“Are we there yet?” The Kingdom of God is breaking forth into the world, and we get to be the midwife. It’s an exciting adventure as we help others understand with words of encouragement and hope that if we remain faithful we will experience God’s plan of salvation… the plan that God has prepared for the whole world.

It’s the dawn of a new church year; a new era, a new and fresh beginning, and we are at our advent, waiting to begin the great adventure of ushering in the kingdom of God.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Year B - Christ the King (Proper 29) - November 22, 2015

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

Year B - Christ the King (Proper 29) - November 22, 2015

2 Samuel 23:1-7
Psalm 132:1-13,(14-19)
Revelation 1:4b-8
John 18:33-37

I put together a project for Trinity a couple years ago. It was called, where does God show up? Some of you may have participated in it either in a committee meeting or vestry or another group. My main intention was to have us, as a gathered body of followers of Jesus, to start to tune ourselves in to where the Kingdom may be breaking forth breaking forth into this world.

I’ll admit, it’s not an easy process.  Anytime we engage in an activity like this, we start to try to look deep and go to those places where it’s sometimes difficult to go. Deep into our thoughts… We realize very quickly that in order to get a glimpse of the Kingdom, we need to remain optimistic and hopeful, remembering all of God’s promises...  promises that all will be well...  everything will be ok, because all things will be restored in Jesus. That our sins, which divide and enslave us will become non-existent, as we are freed and brought together.

But, How do we recognize the Kingdom of God? What does it look like??

We have a difficult time describing something that is hard for us to see or imagine, especially if we haven’t spent much time thinking about it. With everything that surrounds us, we would probably do much better at telling folks what the kingdom is not, rather than what it is.

On this Christ the King Sunday… The very last Sunday of the Liturgical Year… All the readings today point to Christ Jesus, the anointed one of God, as King...  but not just King… THE King of all Kings, and not just Lord… THE Lord of Lords.

In last words attributed to David found in the 2nd book of Samuel, David seems to be reviewing his life, trying to determine if he would be considered a good king... a good king who who ruled over his people justly in a healthy fear of God, being like a light or a beacon of hope to his people, providing order and security… Or did he rule without God, being like a prickly thorn. Being a tyrant king that no one liked to be around. Someone who causes the people torment.

I believe that David had his issues, as we all have issues, but I do believe that David thought himself to be a good King. But is it the Kingdom of God?

I would think that at various times in David’s reign, people thought the Davidic Kingdom was of God, if not the very Kingdom of God…

So, what does the Kingdom of God look like?

The Kingdom of God is just. The people within the kingdom of God are in harmony and they have hope and security. There is no worry or torment.

In the Revelation of John the Divine as he was on the island of Patmos, John records a vision of the Kingdom, where Jesus is on the throne, surrounded by many faithful witnesses.

John refers to King Jesus as loving… one who sacrificed himself to free us from sins. A king that makes us the go-between, the priests, to help others recognize the Kingdom. John goes on to say that everyone in due time will recognize Jesus as Lord and King. And, those that don’t believe and don’t submit to his just rule, or those that fought him and his way will find themselves dwelling in misery.

So, what does the Kingdom of God look like?

The Kingdom of God is a glorious kingdom filled with loyal and faithful followers who become ambassadors of a King... Ambassadors of a King that gives up his very self to make everything right and restores the whole creation to perfect harmony. The Kingdom of God is a Kingdom that everyone will recognize because of its righteous King, Jesus.

Jesus is brought before Pilate after he was unjustly arrested and Pilate questions him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus seems surprised that Pilate has come to such a conclusion. After questioning Jesus and his actions, Jesus replies, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here… I came into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Then in one of the most profound responses… Pilate asks him, “What is truth?”

So, what does the Kingdom of God look like? The kingdom of God is a place not like this world as we know it. It is a place where the truth of God, the love of God, and the ultimate kingship of God is known. It’s not a structural or political jurisdiction that Pilate expects, like the kingship of David, but it’s a universal and cosmic kingship where God reigns supreme.

This world… the world as we know it is broken and hurting. There is hatred, and famine, and war, and horror and killing, and fear, and oppression, and evil. It can be seen most recently in the downright hateful reactions of people as they fearfully reject helping others because of their nationality, religion, or even the color of their skin – fearful that they might somehow be terrorists. Yes, I am referring to the Syrian refugees, mostly women and children that are fleeing from there war torn country where, if they stay would mean certain death. Brothers and sisters, If we act in fear, then evil has won.

We so desperately need Jesus, our courageous, loving and righteous King to guide us into all truth, because I’m not sure that the kingdoms of this world have any clue what truth is.

We as Christians… we know truth, because we belong to the truth… We, as Christians are ambassadors of the Kingdom of God. We belong to the kingdom and it’s our responsibility to answer the calling of truth and respond with open hearts and open minds. If we let the fear and hate in, it becomes an evil cancer that eats at the truth that is in us.

We are people who know where God shows up, and we know what the Kingdom of God looks like, even though our feeble words, ideas, and descriptions fail sometimes to do it any justice.

So, what does the Kingdom of God look like? 
I would like you to just close your eyes for a minute… Close your eyes and take a deep breath… 

Picture a world where there is no hate… only love. 
Where there is no separation… only harmony, hope, and security.
Where there is no worry, torment, or fear… only righteousness, freedom, and peace.

Can you picture such a place?  I know it’s difficult, it's difficult because we've never experienced it…
But as people of truth… as faithful believers in Jesus Christ, we have what it takes to make a difference in this world… We have what it takes to make a dent in the horrors, by responding in love… to take away the fears of this world, by responding in courage.

But, being ambassadors of the Kingdom of God is difficult work... So we need to remember that we are working for a loving King Jesus, who gave up everything in order to give the world a chance. God loves this world, as broken and hurting as it is… God loves the world right into its perfect restoration. And God loves us, as broken and hurting as we sometimes are…  God loves us right into forming us into the ambassadors that God needs to be the agents of the Kingdom.

We have work to do, and it’s not going to be easy… We have so much work, I suggest that we solicit as much help as we can get. Bringing forth the kingdom of God is hard work, it’s messy and costly work…

Our work is this… in 3 steps...

Our work is to look for and recognize where God shows up in the mundane of everyday life and celebrate it! Give it a chance…  This is not blind optimism, this is constantly searching for the glimmers of grace that always seems to show up. At work or at school or at church, they are right there in front of us. God is there wanting to show us all glimpses of the glorious Kingdom.

The next step is witness to what you have recognized… after you see the almighty, say something about it. Tell your story of salvation. Be an ambassador for the Kingdom and usher it in. If we are waiting for the world to point it out, we will all be lost. We need to be the ones to share the kingdom with others.

Finally, we are ALL called to respond… This is the costly and messy part. You many have heard the saying… “Jesus has no hands in this world but ours.” This is so true... We are called to respond with our actions, our lives, and our resources to this hurt and broken world, being Christ's hands at work in the world around us.

Jesus works through us as ambassadors for the kingdom agents of God’s grace and healing, advocates of God’s love and peace. When is the last time you reminded someone that God loves them? Reminded them that not only you love them, but God loves them? 

We have a great and loving God, and we know God through the kingship of Jesus Christ, who came into this world to testify to God’s truth, God’s love, and God’s abundant grace… Jesus, the king, gave himself up completely through death and was raised on the third day. Jesus, who is present with us today in the nourishing sacrament of the bread and wine, his own body and blood…  Ever-giving us the source of sustenance and strength to do the work of bringing forth the Kingdom…

The Kingdom of God, here on earth, and as our Lords prayer goes...  Here on Earth, as it is in heaven…  amen!