These are a few of my favorite things...

I have been thinking a lot lately about some of the worst sermons I have ever heard. Maybe its because the only station that comes in on our alarm clock is the "Victory Radio Network" (where the truth comes in waves). Our son has just figured out how to use the sleep and snooze buttons and loves to stand there, turning it on and off (not bad for 13 months). So, while I am folding the laundry, I find myself listening bits and pieces of what my husband like to refer to as the "false teaching." Most of it is too cheesy for my Episcopalian brain (and fairly unsentimental personality) to tolerate. Most of it is also just junk. And as I listen to it, I am reminded of the worst sermons I have heard over the years (all of which were given in the hallowed pulpits of Episcopal churches).

Worst Children's Sermon: When I was looking around for a place to do my internship (whilst in seminary), I happened upon this little gem in one of the most coveted placements. The preacher (the rector, by the way) began holding up a drawer and pulling stuff out of it - it's his "junk drawer". He went on to talk about how the church is like God's junk drawer, with all sorts of different things he can use to get his job done. (It happened to be "Homecoming Sunday" where they were showing off all their programs - it took up three rooms - thus God's junk drawer.) When it came to the interactive part, he asked the kids "Where do you find God?" And this beautiful little girl, probably about 5 years old, all dressed in a ruffly and lacy dress, raised her hand and said, "In our hearts." The church practically melted. But apparently that wasn't what the preacher was thinking about - "No," he said (she looked crushed). He continued (and I quote, because I will never forget this - it echoes in my head from time to time) "In the church. God opens up the roof of the church, looks inside and says, 'hello, my people - my junk drawer." Nice. Just like Toastmasters taught ya - always wrap it up with your main point, cuz people are too stupid to think for themselves. Especially little 5 year olds who think God is in their hearts. Sheesh...

Most Unprepared Sermon: This little gem made both me and my mom laugh uncontrollably in the pews. The preacher stood before the congregation, took a dramatic pause, exhaled, and then said, "There's not enough quiet in the world these days (insert various examples of noise). Let's sit in quiet for the next few moments. Amen"

Worst Easter Sermon:
My first position was an assistant for someone who was a self-proclaimed gnostic (another beaut by him was all about being a gnostic). I don't think he believed in much. I could probably fill twenty pages with the crap he preached, but this one was pretty good. Even a parishioner of mine asked me afterwards, "Do you think he really should have preached that on Easter?" I should probably add that his daughter was someone who literally saw and talked to dead people. For the first five minutes, he talked about resurrection and life after death, not bad. But then he decided to describe life after death. His daughter, you see, has talked to people on the other side and told him what it was like. We were with people we loved, even our favorite pets. We lived in beautiful houses, had well-manicured lawns (I am not kidding) and never lacked for anything. We drove our fantasy cars and had the perfect job for us - the one God wanted us to have in life. And we did it well, too. (I am not kidding). So, don't worry about hating your job or what you drive or where you live or if you are starving because in the next life you will get everything you ever wanted. Because that's Jesus' promise to us on this Easter day, when he rose from the dead to give us eternal life. I should also add that I was sitting in the celebrant's chair, which faces the congregation. Needless to say, I was glad I had worked on my poker face the day before.

Worst Baptismal Sermon: Same guy as above- probably all I need to say. The week before, he had read an article about water crystals. You see, these scienticians, er, I mean, scientists, had done an experiment where they grew water crystals. To some of these, they played classical music - to others they played horrible rock music (like ACDC or something). To others they said "I love you" and to others still they yelled obscenities at them over and over. It seems that the crystals that were indulged with love and classical music grew into the most magnificent formations - perfect and symmetrical. The others grew deformed and some were even stunted from growing. You see, that's what happens when we are baptised. We have water poured over us, and we have the living water of Baptism within us. If we listen to rock music or are the receiver of recurrent obscenities, that living water will become deformed within us. But if we hear that we are loved and listen to classical music, then we're okay. It's science. It has to be right. When I looked over at the soon-to-be-baptized-baby's parents' faces, which were white, and whose mouths were hanging wide open. That's right. It's up to you, folks, whether you screw up this kids living water or not. Good luck!

Worst All Saints Sermon:
The guy stood in the pulpit and read the hymn "I sing a song of the saints of God." Said Amen, then sat down.

I know there are more, but I am tired and you are probably tired of reading these.

What are your favorites? Any good ones out there? I know there are worse ones. There have to be!


Proper 28, Year C - Sunday, November 18, 2007

I preached this sermon this morning. (I write for the ear, so if you can't figure out the long rambling, completely grammatically incorrect sentences, try saying them out loud.) Seemed to speak to the masses. Honestly, I was preaching it to myself, but isn't that usually the case?

There are times, when I am standing in front of a huge stack of dishes or staring at the unbelievable pile of laundry in the basement that I find myself totally unable to move, immobilized by the overwhelming task at hand.

I start to panic, thinking about ALL the THINGS I have to do, how there’s never enough time, and in the split second before I start making my lists or plowing into the work I am motionless, not knowing even where to start.

Paul warns us this morning to steer clear of idleness, or disorder, as the Greek would say. But we don’t have to be warned. We already know that being idle is bad – the message is all around us. That is why we busy ourselves doing things, working hard, cramming in exercise and sleep and maybe time for ourselves when there is nothing else to do or no one else to demand from us.

To be idle is to stop moving and in our fast-paced world those who stop or go too slow in the wrong lane are tailgated and bullied out of the way. And so, while we scurry around keeping from being idle or are pushed out of the way if we’re not fast enough we watch as parts of our lives lay seedless because while we do … do … do, what we are … (apart from that doing) is eroding before our eyes.

The problem is that those things which are demanded of us from the outside are often very important – vital, even and rarely can be put on hold. Those things that are demanded of us from the inside – from our very depths – they are easier, for some reason, to push aside. They are drowned out by all the other noise around us and by all the work we HAVE to do. Our inner needs are easier to overlook and neglect, and the still small voice that is God, the still urging that freezes us just before we rush into doing more STUFF – that spirit that moves with in us to keep from being idle – gets neglected. And that’s why we’re tired and stressed, worn thin and too darn BUSY.

There will always be too much to do. There will always be more need than we can ever satiate. There will always be potential that is not realized. There will always be a great vastness that we can never fully fill. And the temptation will either be to freeze, unsure of what to do or where to begin. Or to push our needs aside and go back to the mindless minutia that soothes us into believing that when we do stuff, we are accomplishing great things.

Either temptation – to freeze or to put aside our needs – is dangerous because they both lead to idleness. Don’t be fooled into believing that business is the opposite of idleness. Business only covers up our spiritual and internal laziness. Doing stuff – getting things done – is rewarding because we have a product; we can see the results. But the work of the soul, the hard work of the spirit, that is much harder to pinpoint concretely. Those results take time, are slow to reveal themselves, and don’t have much value in the world. And so we put it off, in favor of getting something done.

The other problem is that nurturing ourselves, the person God created so long ago, and nurturing our relationship with God is a demanding and overwhelming task, especially if we haven’t done it in a while.

I read a story about a monk who went to his monsignor in despair because he was so far behind in his prayers that he was afraid he would never catch up. The monsignor replied with this story:

A man had a plot of land that had become a wilderness of thistles and thorns. He decided to cultivate it and said to his son: “Go and clear that ground." But when the son went to clear it, he saw that the thistles and thorns had multiplied. He thought, “It is going to take FOREVER to clear and weed all this" so instead of doing anything he lay on the ground and went to sleep. He did this day after day. When his father found him doing nothing, the son explained his discouragement. The father replied, "Son, if you had cleared each day the area on which you slept, your work would have advanced slowly and you would not have lost heart."

It is easy to become disheartened, to be overwhelmed, but we are called to cultivate our weedy and thorny selves, and our thorny and thistle-y world all the same.

Sometimes I leave those dishes in the sink and watch TV and for an hour. I get lost in some show and forget about the dishes. But when I get up again and walk back in the kitchen, there they are waiting to be cleaned. And the same is true of ourselves and our relationship with God. We might avoid it for a while, but the need remains, and God calls us back, begs us to relationship with him, and demands that we grow. And such growth can be scary because while we are digging around in the dirt and pulling up weeds, we might discover things we have hidden or forgotten about for a long time. We might have to admit that we have be negligent, that we have been sleeping, instead of pulling up the weeds and tending the land.

But we need not be afraid.

First of all, God already knows everything – the things we try to hide, the fact that we haven’t prayed as often as we should. God sees everything inside us and he loves us just the same. In fact he loves us because of what we are – those things we have done and those things we have left undone – and he loves who he has created us to be.

Secondly, if we are willing to put our trust in Him he will not let us down. When we trust our busy hands to him and give our idle hearts over to him, He will quiet our hands and strengthen our hearts to do the hard work he calls us to do. The hard work of the soul, of the spirit - loving God, loving our neighbor, and, yes, even loving ourselves. When we trust in him, he helps us to follow the sometimes crooked and rocky path, rather than the one that is straight and easy. He encourages us to get our hands dirty pulling out the weeds that would choke our fertile ground.

He tells us to cast our nets fearlessly into seas that seem to be without fish – those seemingly empty places – the empty pews, the empty purses, the empty hearts and relationships. And when we are willing to cast our nets in places that seem without gain, he gives us the miracle that fills them to the point of bursting. He lets us believe that they will be filled and they are.

If we trust in God, we can take those moments of paralysis and turn them into graceful pauses, where we recognize that still small voice telling us to slow down and focus on what’s important. Not the dishes or the laundry, or that phone call you need to return, or the person whom you can never seem to please, but the One who only wants You, the real you, the one He created and knew even before you were born.

Then we can shift from being ‘mere busybodies’ (as Paul writes) and to live into his will for us; to become that which he created so long ago. Then we can get out of the rut of idleness and live out God’s will for this world – helping those in need, spreading the Gospel without fear, boldly loving as He loves us – one still small moment at a time. Amen.


On the Subject of Dangerous Books and Movies

Or, "My Encounter with the Satanic Bible and A Plot to Kill God"

Years ago, I served as chaplain at a boarding school. One of the staff members called me, having confiscated a copy of The Satanic Bible from one of the students. The staff member, a retired drill sergeant, was very concerned; as a young priest in his first call, I remember a thrill of fear and excitement: my first confrontation with the Evil One! Had we uncovered a coven of practicing Satanists in our midst? I imagined finding myself in a student’s dorm room, chanting, “THE POWER OF CHRIST COMPELS YOU! THE POWER OF CHRIST COMPELS YOU!” while the student projectile-vomited pea soup at me.

I was somewhat disappointed when the drill sergeant handed me a dog-eared paperback. I had pictured something leather-bound (or bound with something worse), covered with ancient sigils, not a mass-market paperback published by Avon. Opening the book was cause for further disappointment. Instead of ancient rituals in an archaic language (Nicol Williamson in Excalibur comes to mind), there are simply instructions on how to be self-centered and self-involved; how to get ahead by stepping on people. It was a frappe of Ayn Rand, Machiavelli, Tyler Durden (minus the wit) and Donald Trump—with, of course, the requisite goatee and upside-down star tattoos. (Also throw in a smattering of Wicca and a lot of pre-Christian symbolism).

Is the Satanic Bible a “Dangerous Book” for boys and girls? Just how dangerous is it to write or read a book that advocates worship of the enemy of all humanity?

There is another book that has been referred my way by concerned parents: The Golden Compass. It is, apparently, a book about killing God—or at least, about challenging an oppressive fictional religious institution. Soon, it will be a movie about killing God—a movie that will be marketed towards children—along with its own line of action figures. Good thing, too, because my brother and I shot up all our Star Wars figures with a BB-gun about 20 years ago.

Did I miss something? Didn’t we already try to kill God a couple thousand years ago? How did that work out for us again? Didn’t God show us that He is willing to take the worst we can throw at him, and still He comes back at us with love and forgiveness?

There will likely be an uproar about The Golden Compass. Christian groups will protest; people will be offended. Somebody will undoubtedly shout, “WON’T SOMEONE PLEASE THINK OF THE CHILDREN??” Pat Robertson will organize a Prayer Sunday to reduce ticket sales. The actors involved will be seen as suffering for the cause of secular humanism. Bill O’Reilly will have a field day in between harassment suits. Stand Firm will have a “humorous” article comparing the movie to the Episcopal Church.

All the while, the Christian community will continue to show the rest of the world that it has no confidence in God. We fear that the Satanic Bible will corrupt our youth. We fear that young children, having seen a movie about killing God will go out and actually “try this at home.” We fear that the Gospel message itself is so unappealing that we must actually try to stifle the “competition.” All the while, we are diverted and distracted from preaching the Gospel, because we are so focused on showing everyone else what is wrong with them.

We become so distracted by the sins of others that we miss the true “Dangerous Books” in our midst: The Left Behind series (an utterly non-Biblical account of how Kirk Cameron Saves Christmas, with comic book and movie spinoffs). The Purpose-Driven Life—a really good idea rendered completely unreadable by its host of advertisements and plugs for other Purpose-Driven Products. (If I just buy this Purpose-Driven Bible Reference Card and these Purpose-Driven fuzzy dice for my car, I will be SAVED!!!)

(Yes I have read the books).

We miss the most dangerous, most truly Satanic idea of all—an idea that has derailed the church militant for centuries: we can bring about the coming of the kingdom ourselves, on our own terms, and in our own time. And when (not if, but when) we do so, we ourselves will claim a place at Jesus’ right and left hands. In short, the Most Dangerous Idea is that we are more important—and more effective—than Jesus.

Let the world make its movies about killing God. Let the world publish its Satanic Bibles. We can spend our time reading, studying, and preaching a truly dangerous book—a book that challenges the powers of this world: the Bible.

If we Christians actually ever focused on this dangerous book, we might actually understand what Christ wants us to be about.


When is the Yellow Pages not the Yellow Pages?

When it's the OYP Group.

There is a new scam in town. Relatively new, that is. It targets churches and small businesses.

Here is how it works:

A company called "the OYP Group" or "the Real Yellow Pages" gets your church name from a database and enters you (without contacting you or without your consent) into their business directory. It is a "complementary listing" that is good for one year. This is not the phone book and it is not the local yellow pages, although the representatives deliberately attempt to mislead you into thinking that they are. This company is based in Canada and has several dummy addresses in the United States (usually New York). The OYP group currently has hundreds of complaints filed with the Better Business Bureau in just about every state.

At the end of that free year, a person (with poor command of the English language) calls and identifies themselves as being with the Yellow Pages. They ask if you would like to renew your listing in the Yellow Pages. At this point you either say yes or no. Regardless of what you say, your church is now in the next step: invoices.

Your church receives a series of invoices for a two-year listing in this company's "yellow pages." Inquiries made by you are met with evasive language and statements such as "You signed an oral contract."

The next step involves calls from the company. They are legitimate-sounding calls that try to get you to pay the bogus invoice. If the invoice is not paid, your church moves to the next step.

Your church will begin to receive calls from an "Independent Collections Agency" or an "Independent Legal Department." In reality, this person is calling as part of the OYP group--it is an internal call, and there are likely no true lawyers involved. The person will be very understanding, and offer to reduce your invoice and promise not to hurt your church's credit if you pay now. But the offer is only good for that day. If the invoice is not paid, your church moves on to the next step.

(At which point the church has probably already contacted an attorney and reported this scam to the Better Business Bureau. The BBB typically advises that these invoices not be paid, and there has not yet been a recorded case of a business' credit rating suffering from not paying a bogus invoice. The attorney will likely direct the company to direct all further correspondence to him/her).

You will be called regarding the invoice again. The caller will claim to be acting "on your behalf." They will refuse to answer any questions regarding what organization they are with. The caller will tell you that you are not being recorded, but will later hint that you are. As the call goes on, the caller becomes more and more aggressive and will constantly interrupt; the caller will ignore any directives to communicate with your attorney. The caller will attempt to do anything and everything to keep you on the phone. The caller makes threats about your business' credit rating and in some cases, will make other kinds of threats as well. The best thing to do is hang up. (Some people say you can really freak them out by telling them the call is being traced).

As you can guess, our church was contacted by these people. We have been on the "Do Not Call" list for several years. We made no agreements with them. They have wasted a great deal of time (mostly theirs, but some of ours as well) trying to collect on a bogus invoice. Why do these people continue? They must earn enough money from other people to justify continuing the scam.

Why churches? I think it's because churches tend to have higher staff turnover and do not tend to have many safeguards in place--especially when offices are staffed by volunteers or secretaries without much training or experience. Church staff are more likely to be friendly and open to conversation when answering the phone as well.

Why am I posting this? This summary is a mishmash of my own experience and those of numerous colleagues in several denominations, as well as a few news reports. Obviously, it makes sense to agree to nothing over the phone as a rule. There must, however, be enough people who have succumbed to this aggressive scam. Otherwise, why would they continue?

Well, here's my message to the OYP group staff:

When ripping people off stops working out for you, come by a church and do something meaningful with your life.


Calling Lloyd Bentsen!

Bob Duncan:

I read Martin Luther. I studied Martin Luther. Martin Luther was a favorite of mine. Bishop, you're no Martin Luther.