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, August 3, 2014

Year A - Proper 13 - August 3, 2014

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

Year A - Proper 13 - August 3, 2014

Click here for the Lectionary Readings

 
Almost the whole month of July, we heard stories of sowers and seeds, and fields, pearls of great value and fishing nets…  all the images that Jesus uses in his parables to describe what the kingdom of God is like...
 
Last week, Sara even took us through a wonderful litany of what the kingdom of God may be like… and then challenged us to think about what the kingdom may be like for us, in our day and time… We have heard a lot about what the Kingdom of God may be like – but I like to think of the kingdom as the very best thing that I could ever imagine, actually better than the best thing I could ever imagine.
 
Jesus takes us away from his parables and descriptions of the Kingdom, away from the phrases ‘the kingdom of God is Like…” to a place away…  he gets into a boat and withdraws to a deserted place by himself. He goes off to get away in order to rest and recuperate.
 
However, Jesus has gained a reputation as a great healer and the crowds don’t leave him alone. They follow him on foot to the place where he is, and he has compassion for them and heals their sick. We need to understand that this was an enormous crowd, almost of an unimaginable in size = five thousand men plus women and children.
 
It was getting late in the day, so the disciples came to Jesus and told him to send the crowds away so the people could go and get something to eat in the nearby villages and towns… but Jesus, does the unimaginable and tells the disciples not to send them away, but for them to give them something to eat.
 
The disciples scurry around and gather up what provisions they can find among themselves. The disciples come up with 5 loaves and 2 fish… barely enough for the 12, let alone a crowd of thousands. And then, in a very simple act, Jesus takes what is given to him, gives thanks, and distributes it among the multitudes.
 
There was no show… no lightning bolts from heaven or booming thunder. Just a simple act of thanksgiving and then giving…
 
When we studied this scripture this week in our clergy Bible Study on Wednesday morning, I asked the question. “what is the miracle?” I was trying to go deeper into the scripture and take a story that seems so familiar and try to understand what Jesus wants us to learn…
 
The miracle could have been just that Jesus simply took what was given and made it enough to satisfy everyone… Or it could have been that Jesus caused more bread and fish to appear… Or it could have been that the gesture was so bold, that Jesus and the disciples were so willing to give everything that they had for the benefit of others… that people gave of themselves to provide for others. Thereby causing the miracle of the breaking forth of the kingdom of God.
 
However, what I think actually happened is irrelevant. The truth in the act of the feeding of the multitudes was that enough was made out of very scarce resources. Enough for 5000 men, and women and children. Enough, that after it was distributed and everyone got their fill, 12 baskets of scraps were collected.
 
In the previous weeks, we heard a lot about what the kingdom of God is like… but this morning, we actually get a glimpse of that very kingdom breaking forth into this world.
 
The Kingdom of God is right here in front of us and we get a very vivid picture of what the world should be as the Kingdom of God breaks forth… and everyone has enough regardless of who they are. There is no more ‘the kingdom of God is like…’Because we are living it and experiencing it through the account of Jesus feeding the multitudes.
 
The people are gathered together… there, in a deserted place, unknowingly seated at the foot of the creator of the universe… and he makes no claim to his authority or majesty, but he gives up everything he has in order to feed the others around him.
 
That is what the Kingdom of God is. The kingdom of God is a Kingdom where the compassionate king gives all for us… The king gives up his food so that we might have enough to eat. The king, full of love, gives up everything, even his life, so that we might live and have everlasting life.
 
Today we leave the parables of the kingdom behind for a preview of the real thing. And once we have experienced the kingdom, once we have encountered God, we are like Jacob, and we are forever changed.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Year A - Proper 11 - July 20, 2014

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

Year A - Proper 11 - July 20, 2014

Lectionary Readings for Proper 11A

 

When I was a child, I liked the pretty little yellow flowers that were in our back yard. You know the ones I’m talking about… The ones that after they matured became fluffy white balls of seed that with one blow, would go off into the wind and the wind would carry it off. Of course, I was a child… and as a child I didn’t know this pretty little yellow flower… this plant (this dandelion, - otherwise known as an Irish daisy, a bitterwort, or strangely enough, a priest’s crown) was actually a weed… I didn’t know, until I went to the feed and seed store with my father to get some dandelion killer for our lawn… Weed killer so that it wouldn’t choke out our grass. Weed killer… because those pretty yellow flowers were undesirable… they were a nuisance when trying to grow lush green grass.

It’s easy for us to go along in life thinking we know the difference between weeds and wheat. Judging this or that to be a nuisance or worse yet…  this person and that person as undeserving, worthless, or in the way. We are quick and critical as a society to judge – deciding who is in and who is out, based on the color of skin, income bracket, or what school we did or didn’t attend. We think that we are the wheat, and if anything is different from us, then it must be the weeds.

Even in our jobs we come across weeds… We sometimes feel that our jobs are so infested with weeds, that we either hide within them or we let them distract us from our mission. I’m talking about the things that bog us down… e-mail, phone-calls, and those endless meetings… things that can make us look like we are working hard bringing about the kingdom of God, but really, what they really are is indicators of our own souls – torn between the good and evil, right and wrong, normal and not normal.

Jesus uses the parable of weeds and wheat to explain the coming of the kingdom of God, when God will be the final judge between the good and evil of this world, between the weeds and the wheat. He uses the parable to explain a time when there will be no more worry about evil, or death and destruction.

I believe that Jesus’ parable also applies to the church today… it’s an excellent parable for the church to hear, because in the church… in the one body, the church, there are both weeds and wheat. Yes, the gathered church is this crazy mixed bag of destructive weeds and productive wheat.

Destructive weeds that draw the church from the mission of bringing forth the kingdom of God. Damaging evil judging weeds that grow up right alongside the wheat… the faithful, believing, pious, and righteous, children of the living God.

The first kneejerk reaction is do what the servants of the field wanted to do… to do what my father wanted to do… to go pull the weeds, to get them out of there, because they are a nuisance when trying to grow good wheat… when you are trying to make good and faithful disciples, there’s nothing worse than having the evil one around messing up our plan, drawing us from the task that God has given us to do… But that’s not what Jesus says do… Jesus says that if the weeds are uprooted, then the good wheat will be disturbed also, and so we are not to be the judge… the owner of the field… Jesus… the son of Man is the only judge.

Because our propensity is to choose wrongly, maybe it’s more like we are both… both the weeds and the wheat existing together within ourselves, entangled and intertwined in our hearts, in our souls, and in our minds, the balance of evil and good making us both weeds and wheat.

But maybe we are just wheat - because we are all children of God, made in the image of the creator, adopted in our baptism as heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ – inheritors of the Kingdom of God.

Paul gives us a wonderful definition of how we are members of God’s family when he says, “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of adoption.  When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ – if in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”

So… what are we children of God to do in this crazy world of weeds and wheat? We are to do exactly what Jesus says and remain steadfast and faithful and let God be the judge. But that is admittedly so hard to do, especially if you think that you’re the wheat…

The symbolism found in Jacob’s dream in the passage from Genesis gives us a place to begin thinking about our tasks as children of God: “He dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!” What a great dream!

Jacob realized what a powerful message there was in that dream and so he set up a pillar – an altar made from the rock that was his head-rest, and gave it the name, Bethel (which means house of God), setting that place aside as holy and sacred.

Jacob received a message from God in that dream – the promise of a family and descendants that would stretch far and wide, across the centuries and down through the generations. The promise of family was as important then as it is for us today.

All of us are offered a great message and reminder in the reading from Genesis this morning. The ladder! – that ladder connecting heaven and earth is there for us! and - as those angels that were going up and down on that ladder, joining humanity to heaven… so we…  we who say that we are followers of Jesus… we must be like those angels.

We must be those people who play a part in joining the world to heaven by the way we live our lives. Now that sounds like a lot of work…  But we are human, and living in a very human world full of weeds and wheat… And because we are human, we are guaranteed to have hard days – lots of them – more, it seems, for some than for others.

But, if we are serious about claiming to be Christian... claiming to be the children of God that we are, then we must be willing to accept the angelic role of helping connect heaven to earth. And that activity that sounds like it’s lots of work – is actually our ministry. It becomes our purpose and our passion. It becomes our reason of life.

Each one of us has been given some special talent, some gift of ability or personality or some resource that we can use to help others travel up and down that figurative ladder between heaven and earth. Each and every one of us is called to be a messenger…  an angelic messenger of God’s love to others. And our command from Jesus himself is to love ALL… Jesus says in the lesson this morning that we are not to worry about what’s weeds and what’s wheat, but we should let God sort it out.

If we love ALL then we just might break the mold, and we give that person that we initially think is a weed a chance to become wheat.

As a child, not knowing what I was doing, I blew on the dandelion and made the seeds go everywhere… It is with that innocence that we approach love, love of the weeds of this world not knowing the difference between the weeds and the wheat… knowing and trusting that it’s God that plants the “good seeds,” and they grow up, and become healthy and vibrant grains of the finest wheat.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Year A - Proper 7 - June 22, 2014

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

Year A - Proper 7 - June 22, 2014
 
 
The reading that we just heard from the Gospel is difficult… We stumble into this just after last Sunday, Trinity Sunday, when I actually tried to stand up here and explain the unexplainable… The difficulty in this passage though is NOT that it’s unexplainable.. I think that it's because the passage is just more difficult just to listen to.
 
I love my parents, so the literal thought that Jesus came to set man against his father and daughter against mother are difficult words to hear. So we need to look beyond the text into the truth of what the text may be telling us.

It is better today to set all the scriptures and the collect we read in context – in a group of explanations. You see – sometimes the readings in the lectionary are all set up for us. So all I’m here to do this morning is help you untie the knots.

Let’s look at the scripture readings today very closely… The first thing that jumps out at me is that I recognize that they all deal with relationship… This is what I think this whole season is about… The season after Pentecost (the long Green season). It's about our growth as Christian people. It's about how we grow in are formed, informed, and transformed in Christ… and about how we live into a relationship with God and each other.
 
I said last week that the way I understand God, especially God as revealed to us in the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit... It's that God is God of relationship in relationship. God is in relationship within God’s self; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and God is in relationship with us, God’s people.
 
In our passage from Genesis, there is a troubling juxtaposition between Isaac, who is the son of Abraham and Sarah and Ishmael, the son of Abraham and Hagar (the Egyptian). This is an argument over the validity of the relationship… That is the stumbling block for me... It seems to be the whole issue… Sarah doesn’t think that Ishmael has any right to Abraham’s inheritance because he was born to Hagar, her Egyptian servant. The strange part of this whole scenario, is that it was Sarah’s idea in the first place - for Hagar to be with Abraham... Because Sarah could not have any children of her own, and Abraham did not have any heirs... it was because of this that she arranged for her servant, Hagar, to have a child with Abraham. So Ishmael is a product of Sarah’s own idea…  and she’s not happy… So, she decides to remedy the situation by sending Hagar and the child away, but God has other plans... God tells Abraham not to worry, a great nation will be made of Ishmael too…
 
Then we switch gears from an argument over the validity of relationship, to an explanation of the foundation of relationship. As followers and believers of Jesus Christ we participate in a divine relationship. Paul says to the Romans… we have been buried with Christ in baptism, and because Christ was raised, we too will walk in newness of life. Jesus is the foundation of our relationship with God… A relationship that begins at our baptism, and developing a faith that sets us free and continues to free us from the encumbrances of this world - so that we can be united to God for eternity. We are children of God, by relationship created by God, and adopted and claimed by God in Christ at our Baptism. There is no argument over the validity of our relationship.
 
And then it brings us to the Gospel... The part that’s hard for us to understand… In this passage, Jesus explains relationship to us in ways we are not accustomed to... in ways that are difficult to understand… In the passage Jesus first explains to us, everyone is equal in the eyes of God. And as the great equalizer, Jesus then goes all out to make the point that ONLY God can be the most important thing in our lives. He goes so far as to set that against our conventional understanding of what it means to be in relationship with each other… especially family. Man against Father; Daughter against mother… Even daughter in law against mother in law (see – it’s biblical!) Not even families,which are most people’s most important things in life, can come before God!
 
That’s a tough statement… Putting God first can be really difficult thing. Jesus even acknowledges this… It tells us that it takes commitment and sacrifice… It takes a willingness to bear our own cross…
 
So, relationship is difficult, especially if we try to put things in the proper order… God accepts us as who we are, and we are validly adopted – and we are God’s children… and as God's children, we participate in a relationship with Jesus that is rooted in our baptism, a relationship that guarantees us everlasting life with our God.
 
And the only requirement of this whole thing… The only way to develop and nurture that perpetual love and reverence for God’s Holy Name that we yearn for in todays collect, is to put God first.
 
Put God first in our lives, put God first in our families, and Put God first in our relationships...
 
It's difficult for us, and more often, we cry out to God like the psalmist… and we want God to bend God’s ear to us... we want God to keep a watchful eye over us, and we want God to make us happy with signs of favor. We do all this just like the psalmist…
 
We want God’s favor... We want God to respond to us...
But we don’t respond to God and put God first.
 
Think about what would happen if we put God first... If we even tried to make God the priority in our lives, our world would be much different than it is today…
 
Regardless of who we are – like Abraham. If we put God first, God will use us to do great things... And we will have God’s ear and watchful eye. We will be happy and we will see signs of God’s favor.
 
In Jesus, we are participants in the divine relationship.
If we put God first, we become recipients of God’s promises of salvation and eternity.
If we put God first…  Everything else falls into its proper place.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Year A - Christmas II - January 5, 2014

The Rev. Kenneth H. Saunders III
Trinity Church
Towson, MD
 
Year A - Christmas II - January 5, 2014
 
 
One of the greatest Bible study techniques that I know of is to put yourself in the context of the story as one of the characters. This way you can become one of the characters, see the landscape from their prospective and live the story as if you were them. I find this most helpful when we’re dealing with stories we know very well, or think we know very well. This method helps us gain a deeper understanding of what the story may be telling us.
 
There are a few characters in today’s reading from the Gospel according to Matthew that we can use as our lens through which to view the world around us… The obvious are the Magi or ‘wise men’… I am not sure why the church (or the carols of the season) call them Kings. Maybe it was to fulfill the prophecy that “All kings will bow before him.” (Psalm 72:11)
 
Nothing from the scripture leads us to believe that these guys were royals. They were, however, obviously foreigners – believed by scholars to be Astrologers – Zoroastrians from the east… followers of Zoroaster, the ancient religion of Persia that still exists today. Our scripture doesn’t give them names or tell us how many there were… it just says that they brought with them 3 gifts; gold, frankincense and myrrh and were in search of a child that was born who they knew to be the King of the Jews. They didn’t know his name, or where he was to be born, but they followed a bright star (or comet) that led them to Jerusalem, the land of the Jews.
 
Then we have King Herod Antipas, who was the son of Herod the Great. Antipas was a puppet king, put on the throne by Caesar Augustus and ruled Judah as a client state for the Roman Empire. He wasn’t a very popular character as he was always on guard for people who were seeking to assassinate him or have him disgraced and removed from power.
 
The scripture tells us that he even needed to call together the chief priest and scribes in order to find out where this child might have been born, who was thought to be the messiah. A child called “King” by the strangers, a child that could be a threat to his throne.
 
This morning, for our consideration, I would like to put ourselves in the position of the strangers, the wise men… the Magi…  I saw an interesting sign in a yard the other day…  it said “wise men still seek him.”
 
If we put ourselves in the story as the strangers…  (the foreigners, the magi)… we find ourselves on a journey to find someone. Someone who we know is worthy of our respect (or homage.) Someone to whom we should go to and welcome… Someone worth our time and effort to bring gifts and enter into relationship. This person’s worthiness has been revealed to us by our study of the heavens – the stars. We have located a bright star that directed our path and brought us to a foreign land – the land of the Jews.
 
When we got there, we asked their King, King Herod, where we might find this newborn child, worthy of our respect, who was born to be King of the Jews. He was extremely surprised, and we were shocked that the current King didn’t know of anyone who was born to be king. He acts peculiar and seems to be in great fear of the news… But we follow his guidance and head out toward Bethlehem to find the child.
 
The great star continues to be our guide and it lingers over the place where we found the child and his mother. We are so glad to be able to pay our respects and offer our gifts to this great child who is to one day rule the nation of Israel.
 
The strangest thing, though… We were warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, so we returned home by another road… 
 
There are a few things we can learn from our focus on the magi this morning… We can learn that God’s revelation comes sometimes through outsiders. In this case God was revealed to strangers from another land not the Jews. Revealed to gentiles, folks outside the realm of God’s chosen people. God revealed God’s self to strangers in a foreign land and sets them out on a journey.
 
What is somewhat ironic for us who hear this information today, is that these strangers are from an area of the world at odds and at war with our country today. These magi were more than likely from the area where the modern countries of Iran and Iraq exist today. So there is something else for us to think about… God’s revelation doesn’t just come through strangers in this case… but God’s revelation may come through enemies or those we may deem unworthy of God’s love.
 
It seems to me that the Jewish leaders, King Herod and the scribes and priests, have closed their hearts and minds off from God’s revelation. So, we in turn should learn to keep our hearts and minds open in order to fully receive and understand God’s love and how God may be working through us and among us. God’s revelation comes through in ways that sometimes defy our own religious and cultural norms: we should realize that even outsiders can be bearers of God’s revelation.
 
We also learn that God speaks through the non-human as well as human world. Many things reveal God’s truth: the heavens above, the deer walking in the snowy woods, the flying eagle, or our own animals – like my cat curled up next to the fireplace. The whole earth reveals God’s presence. Science as well as scripture can reveal divine truth.
 
God even speaks to the magi through dreams… God can speaks through the unconscious as well as conscious mind. Every aspect of our being can become a vehicle for God’s divine revelation and God’s divine grace.
 
Finally, we learn that the magi return home by another road. In response to God’s inspiration and revelation in a dream, the wise men take an alternative journey home. Many of us, as a new calendar year begins, are not where we thought we would be, and some of us may not think we are where we should be. We are all struggling with many different changes and challenges in our families, in the economy, our health, and our relationships. We are all traveling by different roads, different roads than we expected to be on.
 
However, we, like the magi, can experience divine revelation in these different, alternative, and often challenging pathways of our life.
 
I believe what it says on that sign, that “wise men, still seek him.” And in order to find him, we should remain open to the revelations of God’s love that exist in the world all around us… 
 
Today is the 12th day of Christmas and tomorrow is January 6th - the Feast of the Epiphany. The wise men from the east had an Epiphany… a revelation and realization that there was a great thing happening in this ordinary world… And they understood, and they watched and they followed… In the coming season that follows today, we are called to do the same…  to seek to understand, and to watch, and to follow. Because the glory of God has been revealed to us, so let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Year C - Proper 24 - October 20, 2013

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

Year C - Proper 24 - October 20, 2013

Scripture Readings

We live in a world of instant gratification… from the human desire to have immediate pats on the back for a job well done, to the microwaves oven sitting on our kitchen counters. In the world of our rushing around to find the source of that instant “feel good” – an unhealthy sense of urgency has taken over our culture. It is displayed in our culture by the fast paced trading on the stock market – causing our stocks to rise and fall in a matter of seconds.
 
It is even seen in commercials on TV… We are told that we need everything from instant weight-loss to those work from home businesses that will make us instant money… I even went to staples the other day… They are actually selling the “easy” button that is so popular on their TV commercials… You have probably seen the one, where when you press the big red button, and what you want from their store instantly comes to you. And those state farm commercials where you sing the jingle and get instant service… The images in our society of this “instant” need will make your head swim…
 
The internet is a direct result of this need for instant gratification… It is an instant source of knowledge – to can know what the weather is here or in Katmandu, what the current news issues are here or in Katmandu, and it even gives us the real time sports scores… I remember in the course that I took this past June it was common for us to look up facts on the internet concerning what the instructor was talking about, and then cut and paste them into our notes…
 
This need for instant gratification and spontaneous reward has even worked its way into our prayer life… When we pray to God, we want instant results… It is somehow that we want the Almighty, Omnipotent, creator of heaven and earth to be reduced to our easy button. We think that if God doesn’t give us instant answers, then we believe that we are somehow not good enough, or deserving of God’s infinite graces.
 
We fall into that rut again of thinking our faith is quantitative and not large enough or our prayers are not sincere enough… We think that God isn’t listening… It is then that we often either give up, or feel defeated… Jesus tells us a parable this morning about a widow, and a judge… The widow has a need for justice in a time and place when widows did not rate anything in society. They were on the bottom rung of the ladder and had no rights and they were often exploited and oppressed. Unlike today, widows were not even allowed to inherit their husband’s estate, and if they didn’t have any sons to take care of them, they were often forced to return to their father’s family.
 
Interestingly enough… The Hebrew word for widow (almanah) means “one who is silent” or the “one unable to speak” So this widow, who was not even allowed to speak in society on her own behalf, is pleading with a judge for justice… She knew the judge… he didn’t respect anyone or anything, not even God, do you think he had the time or even the desire to spend a second discerning the appropriate justice for this widow?
 
The widow is persistent in her pleading and doesn’t give up… It almost seems like she gets a bit feisty in her pleadings because there is some language in the scripture that indicates the Judge may have thought she would become physical… 
 
So the judge takes action and grants her justice… almost as if to brush her off or somehow get rid of her. But Jesus takes this image and puts God’s love for the faithful in contrast… If this Judge, who doesn’t respect anyone, not even God, grants justice to the persistent widow…  How much MORE will God do for us… us who cry out to God?… How much will God bless those who are persistent and faithful with their prayers?
 
Over the past few weeks, we have really started to fill our tool box for discipleship…  fill it full of useful equipment that we will need   in our ministry to others as we seek to proclaim the kingdom of Jesus Christ to the whole world. We have learned to be moving forward, and mission focused… Jesus has made sure that we know how to receive others with radical hospitality, and how to serve them without prejudice… We have loaded up our tool box with prayer, love, and faith… We even learned a couple of weeks ago, that if we had faith the size of a mustard seed, the tiniest of seeds, then we could do tremendous things like move mountains.
 
Today, Jesus adds to the metaphor of the mustard seed of faith, and teaches us about persistence. Yes, we must have faith, but our faith requires persistence… Persistence to keep close to God, even when it seems to us that God is far off… Persistence to keep praying even though it seems to us that God may not listening… The scripture indicates that we should to show our faith in God through the persistent actions in our life.
 
This parable often gives folks the false impression that we can somehow conform God to our needs for instant gratification. That we can somehow “wear down” God and get God to do what we want God to do by our persistent prayers… But – that’s not the point at all… Our persistent prayers to God are NOT a means of controlling God… God is not some genie in the sky that grants us wishes. God will not be controlled like that…
 
Our prayers to God are the mechanism that guides our hearts and minds… that causes changes in our life as we grow to be formed, informed, and transformed by God’s love for us and God’s will for our lives. Our prayers to God are the way we all grow and are formed in our faith.
 
This is how our minds focus on and how our soul connects with the One who created us. It is the way we know who we are and who’s we are… As our Prayer Book says prayer is our response to our God with or without words. In faith, we keep praying, and in faith, God keeps listening. We show our faith by the fact that we are even praying at all. Trusting that our God hears us and will respond to us…
 
When we pray, there are rarely any instant answers or even any instant gratification. There is no easy button that will automatically give us what we desire… But we keep on praying with persistence hoping and trusting that God will deliver to us what we need.
 
We know God is always faithful. But we also know that God will always acts in God’s own time, and if we are paying close attention, we may even recognize it.