Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day sermon, Yr A- 2010: The Scandal of Christmas

Lectionary: Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14(15-20)

Joy Carroll Wallis, an author and Anglican priest, tells the story of a Christmas song that came out about 10 years ago, written by Cliff Richard, a popular British musician. The song is called, “Saviour’s Day” and it includes these lyrics: “Life can be yours on Saviour’s Day, don’t look back or turn away.”

A teen magazine, reviewing this Christmas song wrote: “This song is OK, but there’s no holly, no mistletoe…no presents around the tree, no Santa, in fact, this song hasn’t got anything to do with Christmas at all!” This is pretty typical of how the world sees, isn’t it? But God sees things differently, and asks the same of us.

The real meaning of Christmas has become a scandal once again in our culture. But it’s the wrong scandal…it’s missing the point. People struggle to find the politically correct way to wish each other well. Whether you say Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays, somebody’s going to be insulted. Christmas decorations seem to appear in the stores shortly after school starts now and rarely (if ever) make it until the twelfth day of Christmas – The Feast of the Epiphany, on January 6.

Christmas as a scandal is not a new thing. The same was true of the first Christmas and they too were focused on the wrong scandal.

According to the Gospel writer, Joseph, who is descended from the house of David, must travel to Bethlehem to register in accordance with a decree from Caesar Augustus. Mary, who is engaged to Joseph, is pregnant and near delivery, so they travel together.

Ordinarily, travelers like Mary and Joseph would have stayed with family or friends who live in the area. But Mary and Joseph can find no place to stay. The Christmas story, which we know so well, says ‘there was no room for them at the inn.’

We need to remember that in first century Palestine, an inn was not a hotel. It was the guest room in a typical “peasant house in which family and animals slept on different levels in the same enclosed space…” Mary and Joseph had to stay in the part of their friends’ house where the animals were kept, and the baby would have been placed in a feeding trough” to keep him above hoof level, so he wouldn’t get trampled accidentally by an animal.

But noting the real scandal in this story, Joy Carroll Wallis suggests that Joseph and Mary might have been shunned…their family and friends morally outraged, because Joseph showed up on their doorstep with his pregnant girlfriend” and it wasn’t even his baby.

People looking at Joseph and Mary saw sinners whom they felt justified in rejecting and excluding. But God saw partners in redemption.

The Messiah was being born in their home, and they missed it because they were busy moralizing…hence the scandal of Christmas. The judgment of God, who is the only real moral authority – is (are you listening?) salvation for the whole world. And this salvation is in Jesus the Christ.

By taking on flesh Jesus links heaven and earth, eternity and time, from ages past to this present moment reconciling us to himself and ensuring that everyone is included in God’s plan of salvation …the clean and the unclean, the Jew and Gentile, the saint and the sinner.

Now there’s a scandal!

Some would have God limit grace only to those who deserve it. Well the truth is, none of us deserves it, yet all of us receive it, because that is the nature of the extravagant love of God.

Luke affirms this in his telling the Christmas story. The first to hear of this scandalous birth were the shepherds in the fields.

For most of us, the thought of shepherds brings to our minds peaceful, pastoral images… we see Jesus with a lamb wrapped around his shoulders, the Good Shepherd, lovingly caring for his sheep, even leaving the 99 to seek the lost one. But that’s because we have the benefit of 2000 years of the transforming love of God imposed on that image.

In the first century, “Shepherding was a despised occupation…they were scorned as dishonest people who grazed their flocks on other [people’s] lands.” They didn’t bathe much so they didn’t smell good – and worse yet, they were ritually unclean, which means, they wouldn’t have been allowed in church.

And this particular group of shepherds to whom the angels appeared, was the lowest of the low. These were the shepherds working the grave-yard shift. But God, who sees differently than the world does, chose these shepherds to be the first to see the Light, the presence of God, which, Scripture tells us, shone all around them when the angel spoke.

Today, it is us whom God is choosing. We are God’s present partners in the plan of redemption. We are the believers described in the letter to Titus as: people who are zealous for good deeds. Zealous because the light of God’s love fills us to overflowing and we want to share it – we can’t help but share it. Mother Theresa of Calcutta used to say, “If you know how much God is in love with you, you can’t help but live your life radiating that love.”

What we often interpret as our own good works is really God’s love radiating from us into our world. In other words, it isn’t by our efforts that good works happen but by God’s love working in us.

Last Wednesday we served over 600 people at the Shepherd’s Table (our feeding ministry). On our own, we couldn’t do this. A year ago, no one would have believed we’d be doing this. But knowing that God is doing this work in us makes anything possible.

The good news of Christmas is for us, a present reality, not just an event in ancient history that we remember and talk about. Christ is being born in us again right now. We gather together to hear again this scandalously good news, and hopefully, to be amazed and changed by it.

Tonight (today) we are reminded to look with God’s eyes, not with the world’s eyes, and we seek this child Jesus in our midst, remembering that salvation extends to the unworthy and the lowly, as well as to the righteous. And hopefully, like those shepherds in the Gospel story, we will be so moved by the reality of this good news that we’ll want to run and tell everyone we know about the true meaning of Christmas - which (I’m sorry) has nothing to do with mistletoe, or presents, or Santa…

For us, Christmas is about responding with love to the God who loved us first… to the God who loved us enough to become one of us, to share our vulnerabilities, and take all our fears into his tender embrace…. to the God who loved us enough to bring IN all whom the world would prefer to keep OUT.

So, as we celebrate together tonight, let’s sing out our praise: Glory to God in the highest heaven! For to us is born this day a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Advent 4A: Listening as an act of love

Lectionary: Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25

About four years ago a non-profit group called StoryCorps set out to gather and record the stories of regular people whose lives and experiences are representative of our collective American narrative. The purpose of the book was to hear from the un-famous who are otherwise invisible to the celebrity-hungry news media.

While a few of the stories in this book are about people who have done extraordinary things, most of the stories are about ordinary people doing ordinary things: a grandmother telling her grandchildren about falling in love with their grandfather; one friend telling another what their friendship means to them. The book is entitled Listening is an Act of Love, and, as they say on their website: “Everybody’s story matters. Every life counts.”

We’ve been talking a lot about the importance of listening since I arrived here at Redeemer, but especially during this season of Advent. For believers, listening truly is an act of love. Listening demonstrates a love of God, our Holy Parent, who desires to speak a new thing in us, recreating us according to a plan of perfect love; it demonstrates a love of neighbor who need to know they aren’t invisible and that they matter; and it demonstrates a love of self, because we are nourished by the experiences of our neighbors and the relationship with God that listening affords us.

But listening isn’t enough by itself. When listening is an act of love, it always has a response.

In the Gospel of Matthew an angel of God spoke to Joseph in a dream saying, ‘don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife… she has not been unfaithful to you. ‘God is acting in this moment. The son she bears is from the Holy Spirit. When he is born, you must name him Jesus (which means ‘God saves’) for he will save his people from their sins.’

The angel was asking Joseph to receive into his home and his care one whom society insists “good people” should reject. If Joseph had wanted to, he could have had Mary stoned to death for being adulterous. But being a righteous man, he was willing to just dismiss her quietly, to dissolve their marriage contract. That would have spared her life, but it also would have destined her to a lifetime of ostracism. She might have ended up a homeless beggar.

In order to take this young, unmarried woman (which is what ‘virgin’ means), who is pregnant into his care, Joseph would have to put his own reputation aside because in that society, a man with an unfaithful wife would have been scorned by the “good people” of the village. We know, however, from his response, that Joseph’s prayerful listening was an act of love, because when he awoke from his slumber, he did as the angel of God [had] commanded him. He walked forward in faith, letting go his own plan for the future, his reputation, and committing to quietly endure whatever judgments were made against him by his own community.

Joseph could have said to himself, ‘God doesn’t speak to someone like me.’ Or he could have reasoned that God wouldn’t ask us to violate the rules God gave us to govern our behavior. Or he could have written off the whole thing as nothing more than a wishful solution to an embarrassing problem. But he doesn’t.

When he awakens, Joseph does as he was commanded to do – as strange and uncomfortable as that was. Joseph continued living quietly as he had done before, a righteous man, right in his relationships with God, with his neighbors, and within himself. He maintained his obedience to the law (the Torah) while at the same time honoring his promise to take Mary and the baby he named Jesus into his care and protection.

Joseph didn’t know how God would redeem this situation for him, he simply trusted that God would. Joseph’s response to God’s call to him allowed God to become known in the world in a way that had never happened before. His ‘yes’ to God was just as important in bearing the light of Christ to the world as Mary’s ‘yes’ to God was.

Joseph’s willingness to listen and respond to God’s call to him stands in contrast to Ahaz in the story from Isaiah. Ahaz clings so tightly to the law he knows in Deuteronomy (the one that says, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” 6:6) that he can’t release his grip on what he thinks and believes and typically does even when God asks it of him. God is ready to act. God is asking Ahaz to open a way for God to be made known in a new way, but Ahaz just can’t do it.

We’re not so different from Ahaz sometimes. We often cling to what we feel comfortable believing and doing.

Yet, God continues to act in ways that call us out of our sense of comfort, beyond our notions of right belief and right action, and into new ways of living in holiness and righteousness. God continues to ask us to walk forward in faith, letting go our plans for the future, letting go our reputations, and committing ourselves to endure even the judgments of our own community, while God acts through us to redeem in ways we never could have imagined.

During Advent, we have been listening. But as we’ve said, when listening is an act of love, there is always a response. As the season of Advent draws to a close, we are called to awaken from our collective slumber and DO as we have been commanded. And this is what we have been commanded: to bring the good news of our salvation in Jesus Christ to all nations and peoples, so that everyone we meet has the opportunity to hear the Good News, see the living God in us, and come to believe.

St. Paul tells us that we have been prepared to do this, having received grace and apostleship (an apostle being one who is sent – sent on a mission). The Episcopal Church is, according to our official name, the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society. We are by definition a gathering (an ecclesia) of apostles – a people who are sent on a mission.

And our mission (should we decide to accept it) is to use everything we’ve been given and risk everything we have, so that God’s love can be made manifest through us in new and unprecedented ways.

As we practice our last week of Advent together, I pray that we will let our listening be an act of love for God, our neighbor and ourselves; that we will listen faithfully and fearlessly and hear the real and actual ways God is calling us, the people of the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, Shelby, to act.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Advent 2A sermon: Overwhelmed by hope

Lectionary: Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12

During my career as an advocate for victims of violence it became clear to me that the bottom line of my job wasn’t providing counseling or legal assistance, or even obtaining housing or employment for the people I served. The bottom line of my job was providing hope – offering a new way for these people to see themselves, the world, and their future.

I can’t tell you how many times I was asked, ‘Why do you care? Why are you helping me?’ My answer to them was: ‘because you’re breathing.’ My unspoken response was: ‘because I see Christ in you’ and I have promised in my Baptism to “respect the dignity of every human being.’

Yet, for so many of these people, the circumstances of their lives had convinced them that they weren’t worthy of kindness. They often had trouble trusting anyone – even someone offering to help.

Many people who left my shelter to get on with their lives continued to hold the belief that they were worthless, essentially alone, and doomed to a future much like their past. Every once in a while, though, one of them would make a choice for healing and restoration of life – and when that happened, it was powerful.

A transformation happened. It was an interior transformation, but it was something I began to recognize in their eyes, in their posture, in their voice. I knew it when I saw it and I would rejoice knowing that this one was going to make it. It was as if they had been infused with power. They knew where they were going, they knew they wanted to get there – and there was no turning back.

One day, a woman who had been on her own for a few years, came back to the shelter to visit us and to thank us. Things were going really well for her and she shared all of the wonderful details with us! At one point she said, “I used to think that I didn’t deserve anything good in my life. I was so hopeless. I can’t believe I ever thought that way!”

For this woman, it was a simple change in thinking that allowed a new reality to emerge in her life. This kind of change in thinking is what John the Baptist is calling for in the Gospel reading from Matthew.

Repent [he says] for the kingdom of heaven has come near. This is the realization of what had been prophesied, he said. And his message must have been pretty effective, because Scripture tells us that people from Jerusalem and all over Judea were going out to him …and they were [being] baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

In order to truly understand this Scriptural text, I think it will help to look at the original Greek of some words that are familiar to us and allow ourselves to receive a greater fullness of their meaning.

Repent: Μετανοεῖτε in the Greek, means to “change your mind for the better,” but it also carries a moral component – recognizing and “abhoring past sins.” This is an ‘I can’t believe I did that…I can’t believe I thought that…’ state of mind. It’s a light-bulb moment, a revelation that leads to a change of life.

Kingdom: βασιλεία in Greek, isn’t a location – it means “the right or authority of the Messiah to rule.”

Heaven: οὐρανῶν, also isn’t a location, it translates as “the universe and all that is seen in it.”

• And finally, the phrase: has come near, ἐγγίζω translates as: “has been joined one to another.”

John is proclaiming that we need to change our minds, change our thinking because the Messiah, who has the right and authority to rule over the universe and all that is seen in it, has come, and in him heaven and earth have been joined one to another.

That is what the Incarnation is all about, and it changes everything.

In verse 6, the people from the city and surrounding areas were going to John to be baptized, which in the Greek means ‘to be made clean by dipping into water.’ Another layer of the meaning of this word is: ‘overwhelmed.’ Listen to how that would sound: ‘the people came to John to be overwhelmed… made clean in the water.’

Verse 6 also says that as they were being baptized, the people were confessing their sins (ἐξομολογέω). This translates as, “…to acknowledge openly and joyfully, to give thanks, to praise.”

No wonder so many people were going out to him! John wasn’t just a religious weirdo dressed in camel’s hair and eating strange food. He was a believer proclaiming a long-awaited truth: that God’s promise of salvation for the world had been fulfilled in the person of the Jesus, the Messiah, who was coming after him to baptize them - to overwhelm them – making them one with the life-giving spirit and presence of God.

Baptism changes everything – how we see ourselves, how we see our world, and how we see our future. And on this Second Sunday of Advent we are called to examine just what that means for us.

In the oracle of the peaceful kingdom found in the reading from Isaiah, the promise of hope is found in the assurance that once God’s chosen one inaugurates the new age of righteousness, peace and harmony will spread until it encompasses all of creation. Advent calls us to discern how this hope will live in and through us in the world today.

Living in a world where we can watch the news 24 hours a day can make this vision of ever-increasing world-wide harmony a little hard to imagine. So - do we believe in the possibility of it? Or do we hold it as a nice concept that makes sense in church, but has little relevance in the real world?

If we believe it, are we willing to work for it?

In the epistle, Paul tells the church in Rome that what was written in Scripture was meant for our encouragement – that we might have hope…that we might live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Jesus Christ. Speaking to a people who were experiencing the growing pangs of increasing diversity as Gentiles of various kinds became included in the church, Paul reminded them: Welcome one another… just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.

Advent calls us to discern how welcoming we will be as we experience similar growing pangs; incorporating new people, new ideas, new life into our story at Redeemer, Shelby.

Sadly, for some Christians, Scripture isn’t a source of instruction on hospitality, but rather a weapon of coercion and exclusion. How often have we heard the Word of God preached and the News is anything but Good? Even today’s Gospel… how many will zero in on a partial picture that focuses on the language of condemnation – burning in unquenchable fire – rather than on the judgment of God in the context of the Incarnation?

The reason is: fear works as a motivator. You can fill churches with people who are afraid not to be there. But Christ brought us freedom, not fear, and (as I often say) his church shouldn’t be used as ecclesiastical fire insurance.

The Advent invitation given by John the Baptist calls us to something different. It calls us to repent: to change our thinking and allow a new reality to be formed in us.

As we practice our Advent together, let’s look collectively at how our joy might have become dulled and our passion for the amazing good news of our salvation in Jesus Christ might have lost its gusto.

Come to the waters of baptism and be overwhelmed again by hope!

Friday, December 3, 2010

December Newsletter article: Creating our legacy - The Year of Our Youth

Advent is a time of waiting in quiet confidence for the voice of God to speak a new thing into being. Scripture tells us that just as God once spoke all of creation into being, God is constantly renewing the face of the earth, recreating according to a plan that is perfect, full of mercy and loving kindness, and always beyond our ability to imagine. I believe that. I have seen it. I am seeing it now.

A year and a half ago, I was in a search for a new call, a call that led me to Redeemer. My search came down to two very different churches – Redeemer and a large, urban church in Michigan. I was clear (or at least I thought I was clear) that I felt called to a larger church in an urban setting with active ministries and a support staff of clergy and laity. The other church had all that. Redeemer did not. Yet, it was Redeemer’s call I was prayerfully compelled to accept. Everything I had ever learned and done in my personal and professional lives was being called for here at Redeemer, and the love building in my heart for Redeemer eventually took precedence over all other considerations.

As I have walked with Redeemer from where we were then until now, I have been guided by a vision of Redeemer’s shining future – a future glorifying God and serving God’s people – a future God has already inaugurated. Now I can look back and see that I had understood my call rightly. I just couldn’t have imagined it as being manifest at Redeemer – but God could, and did.

Redeemer has all it needs to become a large church with active ministries - not that there’s anything wrong with being a small church. But years ago, the people of Redeemer heard and answered a call to build facilities meant for something big. Those facilities have already begun receiving the big-ness of the ministries they were designed for: The Shepherd’s Table and Food Pantry are now serving almost 500 weekly. That’s BIG! Way bigger than we ever imagined!

We have all we need. God has blessed the people of Redeemer (of every age and status) with an abundance of gifts meant for service in the name of Christ. Good thing too – because there are people all around us right here, right now, who are searching for a church that is truly welcoming, grounded in faith not fear, and ready to receive the gifts they bring – a church that is focused on serving God, not just itself. These people are beginning to present themselves to us. All we need to do is open our arms of love to them, embrace them, and welcome them home. We also have people among us who have been on the fringes for months or years, waiting to re-start their lives of ministry. Redeemer’s ministry of hospitality is being recreated now to serve all of them – and it’s going to be BIG. Way bigger than we can imagine.

But the biggest thing of all, I think, is this: 2011 is being declared The Year of Our Youth. When we first discerned our ministries together (remember those purple sheets?) our first priority was to establish a feeding ministry. Check. Our second priority had to do with our children. We said we wanted a space in the nave set aside where young children could see the altar, play quietly on a carpet with kid-sized chairs, and have a little freedom to move around as children do without disrupting the worship experience of others. We said we wanted a playground so that our young members’ energy could be expended safely and in the presence of symbols of our faith (remembering that the grounds are an exterior worship space).

The goal of The Year of Our Youth is to build in our children and youth what we spent last year building in our adults: a sense of their identity as Christians who are Episcopalian along with mission-mindedness and real opportunities to serve. This too has already been inaugurated: our Children’s Chapel space is nearly ready and worship there is set to begin again on a once-a-month basis in January. We have dedicated a room in the newly refurbished undercroft for our teen-aged youth that will give them a “space of their own.” This space needs to be filled with the kinds of technology that will help in their formation as Christians: audio, video, karaoke, TV, DVD player, etc.

We have offered the Rotation Model - a format for Christian Formation that is limited only by our imagination and allows for many people to share their gifts three weeks at a time – a very manageable commitment. There are lesson plans ready for any who want them to enable them to answer this call to serve. We are also about to begin incorporating the gifts of our children and youth in the worship services in new ways, making manifest our belief that Baptism is full membership in our church.

The Year of Our Youth promises to be BIG – way bigger than we can imagine now. But then again, who could have imagined that salvation would come to the world by a baby born of a poor, unwed teen in a small town? God could – and did.

As we practice the seasons of Advent and Christmas together, let’s let go of all that hinders us or God’s plan for us. We can do that “in unity, constancy, and peace” as our Eucharistic Prayer says, because we know that God is constantly renewing the face of the earth, recreating us according to a plan that is perfect, full of mercy and loving kindness, and always beyond our ability to imagine.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Advent 1A Sermon: Subversives for Christ

Lectionary (Year A begins): Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-4

A clergy-friend of mine grew up as a preacher’s kid in the rural south. He was the older of two boys and his father was the pastor of a large Pentecostal church. His mother was a stay-at-home Mom who was the organist at his father’s church and taught Sunday school.

One day, my friend’s little brother, who was about 8 years old, came home from school and his mother wasn’t there. Since this had never happened before, he became frightened. What he didn’t know was that car trouble had caused his mother to be late returning from the grocery store. But this was before cell phones and voice mail.

When his mother finally arrived home, she found her 8-year old son curled up on the floor, sobbing. He thought the rapture had come and his family had been taken up to heaven, but he’d been left behind to suffer the tribulation alone.

How many of you have heard of “the rapture”? (The preacher observes how many hands are raised) How many of you have read the “Left Behind” book series? (The preacher again observes how many hands are raised)

Let me be clear: the rapture is a doctrine not supported by the Episcopal Church. “The rapture” was a teaching developed by John Nelson Darby, a 19th century Irish lawyer who became an Anglican preacher, then later started the Plymouth Brethren. Darby is considered the founder of dispensationalism, a theological approach described as “an oddity of Church history.”

This approach breaks Scripture down into compartments or "dispensations” which mark the end of the world. The dispensations begin, according to Darby, with the rapture, the moment when all faithful believers are taken up to heaven all at once. This will happen so suddenly, they say, that in a flash, all that will be left of those ‘raptured up to heaven’ will be a pile of their empty clothes and the shocked looks on the faces of the people who watched it happen.

The unfaithful and believers who lived in sin will be left behind to suffer unspeakable horrors during the next dispensation: the Great Tribulation – a period of seven years of chaos and persecution. After that (the next dispensation) will be the battle of Armageddon, and after that (the next dispensation) – will be a thousand years (a millennium) of justice and righteousness on the earth.

Following that will be the (the final dispensation): the Last Judgment when Christ will send anyone who has ever lived either to eternal bliss or eternal damnation. This, they believe, will bring to a close the story of human history begun in the Garden of Eden.

Another famous dispensationalist was Cyrus I Scofied, who authored the Scofied Bible, often called the handbook of fundamentalism. Published in 1909, Scofield’s Bible is still much used in the church today. It was published just before the start of WWI, and became popular as people tried to cope with what looked to them like the end of the world happening all around them.

Although dispsensational millenialists tend to focus primarily on the Book of Revelation, today’s Gospel from Matthew is a favorite of dispensational millennialists because they believe that in it Jesus prophesies the rapture.

So let’s look at our Gospel reading and see. It begins with a statement by Jesus that no one, not even Jesus himself, knows when the Day of the Lord will be. So the Scofield Bible and all of those supermarket tabloids that predict a date for the end of the world, find no support in Scripture.

Next Jesus references the story of Noah found in the book of Genesis saying, 37For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. People were doing what they usually did, eating drinking, and marrying, until the day Noah entered the ark, 3 …they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, [Jesus said] so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. So, according to Jesus, those left behind after the flood were… Noah and his family – who were chosen by God to stay on the earth in order to restore it.

So far, Scripture shows us that the doctrine of the rapture has it backwards. Those left behind in the story of Noah, did not suffer tribulation - they lived in a covenanted relationship with God – a covenant promising mercy, forgiveness, and salvation.

Back to the Gospel: Jesus continues, 40Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Please note that the word ‘behind’ in is not in the Scriptural text – not in the Greek and not in the English. The text also does not indicate which one might be a bad outcome and which one might be good.

Jesus, however, does give us the context for understanding this – the story of Noah. Remember, then that in that story, the ones taken off the face of the earth were not the faithful ones. The faithful ones were “left behind” (as it were). The understanding that is faithful to our Scripture, then, is that being left on the earth is not a punishment, but a call from God to be partners in the work of the reconciliation and restoration of the world.

Back to the Gospel: Jesus continues, Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. It isn’t clear whether this refers to our personal end (our death) or our collective end (the end of the world as we know it).

But it doesn’t matter. The point is, wake up! Don’t waste the gift of life by proceeding through it as if in a slumber. Open your eyes – pay attention! Get up and get going! There is much to do in the ‘already but not yet’ world in which we live – and we have been chosen to do it! There are people suffering right in front of us and around the world. There are people hungry for food, for friendship, and for God!

The Episcopal Church has asked us to remember that Wednesday, Dec. 1, is World AIDS Day. Whole communities of people in Africa and other 3rd world countries are being decimated by this dsease. Children born of infected mothers have no access to the medicines that can treat them and many are left orphaned to die alone of the disease that took their parents from them.

There is much to do.

During his earthly ministry, Jesus was a subversive. He healed the sick, connected with the excluded, and loved even those who executed him. In our earthly ministries, we are subversives for Christ. We are here on this earth as a people chosen by God, chosen to be partners in the plan of salvation.

In the bulletin insert from TEC, we read (on the back page): “We are subversive. We seek to bring the love of Christ into the secular world because we believe that ultimately the world will be restored to God. In the meantime, we work and pray to transform what is into what shall be.”

But being a subversive for Christ takes preparation – intentional, prayerful, continuing preparation. That is our purpose and our goal during the season of Advent – to prepare ourselves so that we can bring the love of Christ into the secular world (I would prefer to call it the slumbering world) to prepare ourselves to be partners with God in the work that transforms what is into what shall be.

All around us the cultural Christmas season has kicked into high gear. Christmas carols are playing in stores and restaurants, holiday decorations and lights are up all over town. I would guess that there are probably some among us who are already bracing for the stress, the depression, and the fatigue this holiday season brings… not to mention the debt.

For Christians, however, it isn’t Christmas yet. It’s Advent – a time of watchful waiting. Being subversive means living our identity as Christians in the midst of a culture that rushes through the waiting and heads right for the prize. And what is the prize? ...Christmas presents! It’s all about us.

Look - it’s OK to prepare for a joyous Christmas morning filled with present-opening, but we can’t overlook the importance of practicing Advent. It’s important, in fact, it’s subversive to quietly leave the chaos of the cultural approach to this season and prepare our souls, so that the amazing event we await – our prize: the birth of the Savior – can have its transforming effect on us, and through us, the world.

To encourage this, Redeemer is offering special Advent services on Thursday evenings: Taizé, Evensong, and Lessons & Carols. Come and worship with us, and bring a friend.

Let’s be subversives for Christ and practice Advent together. Let’s make time to prepare ourselves to be partners with God in the work that transforms what is into what shall be.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Christ the King Sunday, Yr C: Radical freedom

Lectionary:Jeremiah 23:1-6; Canticle 16; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43

I’m sure you’ve heard it said that the opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference. If you love someone or something, you care about them and care for them. When you don’t love, you don’t care.

At our diocesan convention we spent some really valuable time exploring the concepts of fear and love as presented to us both by our featured speaker, Dr. James Lemler and by our Bishop, who in his address to the convention, proclaimed that as Christians we are “called to leave behind our fears.” As I’ve continued to reflect prayerfully on all of this, I’ve realized that the opposite of fear isn’t bravery – it isn’t even love – it’s freedom.

If there is anything we can learn from the life of Jesus it is that he was radically free: free to trust in God and expect the impossible; free to love even the unlovable and welcome them with an equally radical hospitality; free to proclaim the truth by his words and actions, even knowing the that the powerful in the world would push back against it.

In his book, “Jesus Today, A Spirituality of Radical Freedom,” Albert Nolan talks about Jesus’ radical freedom: Jesus “trusted God without hesitation or reserve. He could then quite confidently challenge others to trust God too. He encouraged, strengthened, and liberated people to believe that the impossible could happen.” (Nolan, 88)

And the impossible did happen – over and over again. The blind could see, the lame could walk, 5000 were fed by a couple of loaves and fish, and ultimately, the cross was transformed from a humiliating defeat into the means of salvation of the whole world by the forgiveness of sin.

It was the radical freedom of Jesus, his unhesitating trust in God, that opened the way for freedom and peace. Jesus could give up even his very life on that cross because he knew without hesitation that God’s redemption was certain. The present moment was, for him, just the next step in God’s plan – not the end of it – despite all the evidence at hand in that moment.

How well, how often do we trust God without hesitation or reserve? At our convention, Dr. Lemler talked about “practical atheism” - those times in our lives when we convince ourselves that we need to take control of something because God isn’t. We are willing to wait for God to act on our behalf as long as
1) it doesn’t take too long;
2) it doesn’t hurt too much; and
3) we see evidence that God is acting according to the plan we had in mind;

That’s because, on “the whole [Nolan says] we don’t take Jesus seriously - whether we call ourselves Christians or not. There are some remarkable exceptions, but by and large we don’t love our enemies, we don’t turn the other check, we don’t forgive seventy times seven times, we don’t bless those who curse us, we don’t share what we have with the poor, and we don’t put all our hope and trust in God.” (Introduction)

Why don’t we? I think the answer is simple: fear. In my sermon at Morning Prayer on the last day of convention, I discussed the many faces of fear. That sermon is on my blog, but I know that most of you don’t read the blog, so I’ll review the three faces I discussed that day and add one more.

1. WE FEAR BEING WRONG – which is why we fear what is different from us. How you dress, how you pray, the language you speak, the color of your skin, whom you marry… if you are different from me, which one of us is right? And how can I make you wrong?

2. WE FEAR PAIN AND DISCOMFORT. Ours is a world of quick fixes. Got a headache? Take a pill. Don’t get me wrong - I’m glad that I can take a pill when I have a headache! But that isn’t the way of spiritual life… 40 years in the desert… 3 days in the tomb. Christians are called to wait through the discomfort and trust in God who is already working to redeem and whose grace is enough.

3. WE FEAR DYING – which is strange for a people who profess to believe in the resurrection and who know the end of the story – that death is not the end for us, it is simply the next step in God’s perfect plan for us. What follows death every time, without fail, for believers is resurrection – new life. Still, we fear dying.

4. WE FEAR SUCCEEDING – because that would mean laying aside our favorite excuses and walking ahead in faith. A friend of mine had a terrible thing happen to her years ago. Her community of friends gathered around her, upholding her in prayer, seeing to her needs – as you would hope. It seems, however, like my friend decided she had filled her quota of “bad things” and will tolerate no more. When the littlest thing impinges on her comfort, she cries out and gathers her community around her to take care of her. This is a gifted woman whose gifts are now dying because the flow of her life is mostly inward. Little flows back out – it’s all about her and her comfort.

This particular fear also has the added complication of humility. When we succeed, we must own up that the success wasn’t ours, but God’s. As God’s instruments, we don’t get to take credit, and the world likes credit-taking.

Radical freedom... How do we build that into our faith and into our lives?

We remember the victory of the cross which we celebrate today. Jesus’ love was for God and for us. He put himself and his own comfort last in order of priority, sacrificing himself for our sake. We are called to do likewise.

We remember that Jesus redefined leadership – kingship as the Bible calls it – showing us that true leadership is the way of humility (that is selflessness) and service in the name of God. That's what leads to life.

We remember that the notion that we have any power or authority is in error. God alone possesses power and authority. Isn’t that what Jesus said to Pilate at his trial? Any power or authority we possess is given to us by God and we are stewards of God’s gifts which are to be used for the glory of God and the welfare of God’s people.

We remember that it is God who acts to forgive, heal and renew. We don’t know if Jesus forgave from the cross. We do know that he called upon God to forgive and by doing so, he showed us how to respond to the darkest moments in our lives: calling upon God to act, then waiting while that happens.

Finally, we remember that for Christians, death is truly the gateway to eternal life. Unless we are willing to die to the ideas we cling to about God, about church, about this church, about life; unless we die to our need for control, or certainty, or comfort – we can not have the life Jesus died to give us.

We are a people called to run at full speed into a life of joyful, radical freedom - trusting God without hesitation or reserve, and expecting the impossible to happen – for the glory of God and the welfare of God’s people.

Today, we mark the day of our rebirth; the day we choose to be radically free and open to God’s leading for ourselves and our church. Today, we lay our fears down and look up at the cross, knowing that the only truth that matters happened there.

We are a people forgiven, healed and renewed. Today, we choose to live as if that’s true. Today, this becomes our mantra, our theme.

When we sin (and we will as long as we are incarnate in our bodies) we will repent and return to God, giving up ourselves in obedience to the will of God – as Jesus did on the cross – and opening ourselves to receive the renewal God has waiting for us SO THAT we can be instruments of God’s transforming love in the world, stewards of God’s gifts for the renewal of the whole world.

I’ll close today with the prayer I closed my sermon with last Saturday at convention - and with the same explanation. As you know, I begin my sermons with the sign of the cross in Spanish. I also usually do the peace in Spanish first, then in English. I do this to honor one half of my half-breed identity: my Spanish half. I will close now using a prayer that honors the other half: my Irish half.

It’s the Prayer of St. Brendan and I think it’s relevant to our rebirth:

Lord, I will trust you.
Help me to journey beyond the familiar
and into the unknown.
Give me the faith to leave old ways
and break fresh ground with you.

Christ of the mysteries, I trust you
to be stronger than each storm within me.
I will trust in the darkness and know
that my times, even now, are in your hand.

Tune my spirit to the music of heaven, and somehow
make my obedience count for you.


Monday, November 15, 2010

Meditation for Morning Prayer at Convention

Lectionary: Psalm 133; Isaiah 63:7-9; Acts 20:28-32

En el nombre del Padre, y del Hijo, y del Espiritu Santo. Amen.

It’s been interesting these last few days exploring the concepts of fear and love as presented to us by Dr. Lemler (our featured speaker at convention). As often happens with me, these reflections kept bringing to my mind the words from a song. The song is by Dar Williams, an indy artist, and the phrase that kept running through my mind was: “Go ahead, push your luck, find out how much love the world can hold.” (Album: Green World, Song Title: After All)

Yesterday, the Bishop reminded us that we are "called to leave behind our fears.” To do that, it would help to understand and learn to recognize the many faces of fear. There truly are many faces of fear, but we’ll just look at three of them now.

1. WE FEAR BEING WRONG – which is why we fear what is different from us. How you dress, how you pray, the color of your skin, whom you marry… if you are different from me, which one of us is right? And how can I make you wrong?

2. WE FEAR PAIN AND DISCOMFORT. Ours is a world of quick fixes. Got a headache? Take a pill. Thank God too. I’m glad that I can take a pill when I have a headache! But that isn’t the way of spiritual life… 40 years in the desert… 3 days in the tomb. Christians are called to wait through the discomfort and trust in God who is already working to redeem and whose grace is enough.

3. WE FEAR DYING – which is strange for a people who profess to believe in the resurrection. Still, we fear dying. But as we heard from the Psalmist: “the ordained blessing of the Lord is life evermore.” Life in God, life in the eternal presence of God is the promise for us. But to know this life, we must die to ourselves. We must be willing to lay down whatever “practical atheism” lingers in our lives (as Dr. Lemler said) and trust God.

So, how do we do that? Risking yet another quote from Dr. Lemler, we “use what we’ve got” and build our spiritual muscles. In the Book of Common Prayer, on page 461 is a prayer called “For Trust in God.” I commend it to you. It’s a great way to start the day, every day. Also in that section, which is the section called “Ministration to the Sick,” is a prayer for the sanctification of pain – ours and others – which sets the pain apart and helps us discover its holy purpose.

We need to remember: it isn’t all about me (I really, really want that video we saw yesterday, the "Me-Church" video). When someone attacks us, or reviles us, or breaks relationship with us, we must respond with love first, then prayerfully reflect on which face of fear we are seeing in them so that we can be instruments for God’s love to transform their fear into faith.

Jesus said, Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you – as Ruby did that day on the sidewalk by her school. (Note: This refers to a story the Bp. told in his sermon at our Eucharist last night) We know this. We know what we’re supposed to do. Jesus said, When someone slaps you on the face - what do we do? Finish it for me (the preacher invites the listeners to respond): ‘turn the other cheek’ (they say). Right – we know this stuff.

Wait in the discomfort and trust God who is already working to redeem.

Finally, we need to remember the cost of Christian discipleship (as the Bishop said yesterday). When we proclaim by word and deed the Good News we know, when we carry Christ’s love into the world, we become lightning rods for fear. Drawn by the light of the living Christ in us, people will come to us, their faces reflecting their fears, hoping to be set free from the fear that binds them. We can’t do that, but God can – in and through us.

So - go ahead, push your luck, find out how much love the world can hold.

I began this meditation using words that honor one half of my half-breed identity: my Spanish half. I will close now using a prayer that honors the other half: my Irish half. It’s the Prayer of St. Brendan. If you can, if you are comfortable - take a deep breath, close your eyes, and receive the gift offered by this prayer:

Lord, I will trust you.
Help me to journey beyond the familiar
and into the unknown.
Give me the faith to leave old ways
and break fresh ground with you.

Christ of the mysteries, I trust you
to be stronger than each storm within me.
I will trust in the darkness and know
that my times, even now, are in your hand.

Tune my spirit to the music of heaven, and somehow
make my obedience count for you.


Saturday, November 13, 2010

November Newsletter article: A very merry Rebirth-Day to us

On November 21, the Feast of Christ the King, which is our patronal feast, we are having a Rebirth-Day party and everyone is invited! On this day we will mark the end of the celebration of our 150th anniversary. We will also mark this as the day of our rebirth.

There is a rich and varied history that forms our identity at Redeemer. The happy events in our past affirm our hope for the future. The painful moments have made us stronger. Since February, we have been honoring our forebears in the faith at Redeemer. Now the time has come for us to go forward and create our own legacy.

That’s why we are marking this date, the Feast of Christ the King, as the day of our rebirth. All that was, all that went before, is done. It is part of us, but nothing in it hinders us (unless we let it). Claiming our Baptismal promise of being marked as Christ’s own forever, we know that the truth for us is, “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation…everything old has passed away, see everything has become new!” (Col 5:17) It truly is a new day at Redeemer.

On this day, we will remember and give thanks that we have already seen God’s plan at work restoring us, and through us, the world. The Shepherd’s Table is a gift God has given us all. Beyond its fundamental purpose of feeding the hungry, The Shepherd’s Table has restored life to tired souls among us, strengthened relationships with our partners in mission at Westside Praise and Worship, and glorified God who is acknowledged and praised weekly with all who come to eat and serve there. The Shepherd’s Table is for us, a living example of what happens when we trust that God’s grace is sufficient, and that God’s power is made perfect in our weakness. (2 Cor 12:9)

On this day, we will also formally renew our commitment to God and to one another, renewing our baptismal vows together and re-clothing ourselves in love, “which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” (Col 3:14) This will be our day of Jubilee (Lev 25:8-27:24), our day of release from whatever debt or sin holds us bound. “Forgive us our sin as we forgive those who sin against us…”

As we gather in “holy convocation” (Lev 23:7) at our Rebirth-Day party, we will bring a Rebirth-Day gift. Giving freely and generously to God who has given freely and generously to us, we will return our forms that pledge our time, talents, and financial commitment to the church - an offering set apart for the Lord. (Num 18:28). Watch for these forms to be sent out this week.

Finally, on this day, we will remember the three members of our vestry who will be retiring in December - Karen Lattimore, Brett Niblack, and Maggie Watson – and we will thank them for their faithful leadership these last three years. They have worked hard (and I mean hard) with the vestry to build Redeemer’s new foundation. Because of their devotion, their free gift of their time and talents, Redeemer has been made ready to forge ahead into the new day and the new year God is preparing for us. Don’t forget - the new year for the church begins Advent 1 (Nov 28) and we have another party planned for that - the Advent Festival and Chili Cookoff!

We have so much to be grateful for at Redeemer. So let’s gather up, party hearty, give thanks, and get going creating our legacy! Redeemer has a 150th anniversary remembrance gift for you too when you come! See you there!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

All Saints Day sermon, Yr C: Blessed, holy, and worthy of praise

Lectionary: Daniel 7:1-3,15-18; Psalm 149; Ephesians 1:11-23; Luke 6:20-31

Happy All Saints day! According to one definition (and I like this one!): a saint is “a dead sinner revised and edited. But that’s not the whole story, is it?

The Old Testament uses two words Hebrew words:
• קדיש /kadesh/ [which means] "holy" and
• חסד /hasid/ [which means] "loyal, faithful; pious"

The New Testament uses the Greek word hagios [which means] “holy; holy one" to describe all faithful Christians. The Prayer Book says this: the communion of saints is the whole family of God, the living and the dead, those whom we love and those whom we hurt, bound together in Christ by sacrament, prayer, and praise. (BCP, 862)

As we processed in today we remembered and honored those saints who lived and died before us, ones we consider to be exemplars of the faith.

The preacher invites those in costume to call out the names of their saint.

But as St. Paul reminds us in the letter to the Ephesians, the saints are the members of the Christian community. That means we are saints too, exemplars of the faith in our day.

There are also the saints who are yet to come, those not yet born, whose images are unknown to us but whose lives will be affected by our actions now. These are the ones who will come to know God by the witness we live and proclaim today.

The preacher points out the “stained-glass mirror” gets help carrying it to the center of the chancel and explains the features in it: the shape of the church at the bottom; the church’s steeple with the cross connected by a line with the downward facing Holy Spirit in the form of a dove (see the feet?).

This is a representation of what we believe. The church is here on the earth, and by the cross of Jesus, we have been reconciled to God. We are connected, reconciled to God in Christ, as promised.

Our costumes and icons honor the saints that were, those that have gone before. Persons/children are invited to stand in front of the stained-glass mirror. This is a reflection of the saints that are. Look - there’s St. Taylor, Sts. Will and Matthew, St. Lily, St. Timothy...

Then the mirror which is pointed upward toward the ceiling. This is a reflection of the saints that are yet to be, those whose images we don’t yet know, but heaven knows.

Why is this important? Because I think we give ourselves an easy out and let ourselves off the hook when we conceive of sainthood as something that happens after we die, or when we hold up saints only as heroes or sheroes of the church, holier than most others. Then we can say to ourselves, ‘I’ll never be that holy’ or ‘I’ve already messed up too much, so sainthood is beyond what’s possible for me.’

Well it isn’t. Sainthood is already our reality.

If we have donned the white robes of Baptism then we are members of the community of the faithful and beloved children of God. And if we are members of the Christian community, then we are saints.

But the expectation that as saints we must be sinless or miraculously powerful is in error. Humans sin. And only God is powerful to redeem. But that’s the point, isn’t it? God IS powerful, and willing, and always ready to redeem.

The gospel reading today provides a kind of Word-mirror which which reflects for us the qualities of saints, that is, those who share life in Christ. These aren’t people who rise above their humanity. On the contrary, Jesus makes very clear that saints are deeply and totally human. And he calls them blessed, that is, consecrated (set apart), made holy, and worthy of praise.

Jesus says that saints are blessed when they know poverty or lack of spirit, because knowing they need God, they place themselves in God’s care, and find themselves in God’s kingdom. Saints are blessed when they suffer loss, or desire justice …when they are generous with mercy in the face of sin, … when they work to bring peace out of conflict …when they keep God’s will as their priority, even though they may suffer indignities and injustices themselves for the sake of the gospel. Blessed are they, Jesus says.

One saint I loved was an 8 year-old beggar I met in Romania. Some of you have heard me talk about him before. This little boy was smart, savvy, and doomed by his poverty. But while he lived he was a saint, at least for me. One day, as we walked along the streets of Cluj Napoca, this precocious little guy begged some money (which, by the way, he could do in about 5 languages), then went and bought a banana. As he returned to where I was sitting near the fruit stand, he broke the banana in two and offered me half. I was overcome by the generosity that came so naturally to him. Blessed was he, and holy.

Another saint I loved was my beloved aunt and God-mother, whose bitterness and anger, though justified by the circumstances of her life, made her quite unlovable to many, but her authenticity – I could say her purity – made her beautiful to me. Blessed was she and worthy of praise.

The call to purity, to blessedness in our Scripture readings isn’t about the color of our souls or the rightness of our behavior. It’s about our willingness to rely totally on God. Those who rely on themselves, or put their trust in their wealth, or their good reputations will be sadly surprised to learn that they were wrong. Our hope is in God – and only in God.

As we suffer and struggle through the days of our earthly lives, as we celebrate and shine with the light of Christ in our world, we do so always in the care and grace of God. Our trust is in God who continually (eternally) holds us close and speaks in our hearts, so that as we live the fullness of our lives, individually and as a community of faith, we do so according to God’s will.

Then we too are blessed, holy, and worthy of praise.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Mother Valori's October article for The Shelby Star: Living Resurrection Life

I love the story of doubting Thomas found in the Gospel of John (20:21-31) because it goes straight to something most of us fear - our doubt. Yet we all experience doubt somewhere along the way on our Christian journey. The story of doubting Thomas gives us permission to doubt and Jesus’ response to Thomas gives us comfort that our own doubt won’t cast us away from our Savior, but will lead us to living the resurrection life he died to give us. Jesus doesn’t make Thomas feel bad for doubting. He allows Thomas to put his fingers in the crucifixion wounds, and he does so graciously.

Maybe Jesus responded tenderly to Thomas and the other disciples who doubted because they had important work to get to - Jesus was preparing to send the disciples out to continue his work of bringing in the kingdom of God. When Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit onto the disciples, he said: “If you forgive someone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you retain their sins, they are retained.”

Forgiveness interrupts the cycle of sin, and when the cycle of sin is interrupted the grace of God can heal and restore wholeness. Forgiveness is something God gives us first. God doesn’t wait until we deserve forgiveness (thank God!). God just forgives us. But, Jesus said, if you don’t forgive someone’s sins, then the cycle of sin is not interrupted, and the harm from the sin will continue to affect the generations that follow. We retain sin by withholding forgiveness, holding onto our righteous indignation. We retain sin when we reject forgiveness which is offered to us because we are afraid or too proud to own up to our sin. Whenever we retain sin we lose the opportunity to bring God’s healing and wholeness to the brokenness in our world.

We are called to live our lives as believers in the power of Jesus’ resurrection. If we believe, then we participate with Jesus, bringing his radical forgiveness into our world - our families, our communities, and beyond - so that the healing power of God can interrupt the cycle of harm caused by sin.

This kind of forgiveness is almost as hard to comprehend as the resurrection itself. But, just as Jesus was gracious with Thomas who doubted, Jesus will be gracious with us as we try to get this forgiveness thing right. Jesus knows how hard this is… He came to live as one of us and he forgave from the cross. Jesus also knows that we can’t do this on our own, that we can only do this by the power of his life-giving Spirit, so he gave it to us saying, “Do not doubt, but believe.” Believe and live in the power of the resurrection of Jesus! Believe…and forgive.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Pentecost 22-C: A humble confession

Lectionary: Joel 2:23-32; Psalm 65; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14

Mechthild of Magdeburg was a medieval mystic known for her poems, songs, and writings on spiritual matters. She was a remarkable Christian whose wisdom continues to benefit those of us who learn from her. One of Mechthild’s poems speaks directly to Jesus’ parable in our Gospel story:

In pride I so easily lost Thee --
But now the more deeply I sink
The more sweetly I drink
Of Thee!

It’s a concept that is counter-intuitive. We don’t like to sink because it means letting go of our own efforts. It’s more natural for us to fight to live, to kick against the current and struggle to keep our heads above water. But Mechthild presents such a beautiful image of the truth of our lives as Christians – drowning, as in the waters of Baptism, means letting go of self and relying totally on God for our life, our breath, our very survival.

In today’s Gospel story, the Pharisee assumes that God will be pleased by his good behavior, so he reminds God that he fasts, prays and tithes, that he doesn’t steal, cheat on his wife, or exploit his own kind for profit. He’s not like that tax collector over there. (whom he assumes does all those things because most of them did).

But the prayer of the Pharisee reveals to us that he is not in right relationship with God. He is relying on himself, his own efforts, and it has led him astray. As Mechthild once said: “When I … cherish some sourness in my heart… my soul becomes so dark… that I must… humbly make confession… Then only does grace come again to my soul…” The Pharisee’s prayer shows that arrogance has darkened his soul and soured the purity of his heart.

The tax collector, on the other hand, knows that his life isn’t anything to brag about so he makes a humble confession instead, praying simply: God, be merciful to me a sinner. And this is the prayer that pleases God. This is the heart that presents itself purely and is therefore justified.

Rather than celebrating disparity, as the Pharisee did, the pure of heart will long for unity and work for reconciliation. The pure of heart will not stand alone in their temples reveling in their closeness to God, they will be out there among the sinners, the suffering, and the scorned, embodying God’s love and giving generously from their gifts so that all they meet will know that they are not alone, that they matter to someone, and that they are beloved of God.

But we don’t want to be too hard on the Pharisee. He was faithful and he was praying. And if we’re not careful, we might find ourselves silently giving thanks to God that we are not like the Pharisee… but we are. Everyone is …at least sometimes. Like the Pharisee, we often get distracted by our score-keeping - measuring our value by the good things we do, the success of our efforts - rather than keeping our hearts pure, trusting in God’s plan for us, not in our own ability to judge the present moment.

Notice also that Jesus doesn’t tell us in this parable whether or not the tax collector repented. That’s because that isn’t the point of the story. The point is that we are all sinners in need of mercy which God gives us generously.

It’s a lesson that is part of our history as people of God. In the continuing story from the prophet Joel, the people of Israel have broken the covenant so habitually that they don’t even know how to be in relationship with God anymore. And God’s response (through the prophet) is this: Rejoice O children of Zion, for God has vindicated you. God has delivered you from blame and from harm. Everything you need will be given to you – to overflowing, as only God can give, and you shall praise the name of the LORD your God who has dealt wondrously with you…You shall know that I am in [your] midst [God says], and that I, the LORD, am your God and there is no other. Then, when the Day of Judgment comes, everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved.

This is how generously God responds to us. How can we possibly cling to any fear? How can we resist offering a pure, trusting heart back to God?

Jesus showed us the path of the pure of heart – a path that led to the giving up of his life on the cross. We remember this each Sunday in our Eucharistic Prayer, when we ask God to unite us to [the] Son in his sacrifice that we may be acceptable through him. (BCP. 369). We are made acceptable through him… not by our right behavior, or even by right belief. We are made acceptable through Christ, the Savior and Redeemer of the world (BCP, 368) who humbly gave up his own life so that we might live eternally in him.

Jesus made clear that those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. To be exalted is to be lifted up - as Jesus was on the cross. We are called to do with our lives as Jesus did with his. We are called to humble ourselves and give up control of our lives, trusting God with all we are, all we need, and all we should do.

That’s why each Sunday, as we gather for Holy Eucharist, we confess our sins against God and our neighbor. We intentionally remind ourselves that we sin – not just as individuals, but also as a community, as a people.

But we also remember in our Eucharist how God has dealt wondrously with us – bringing us out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, and out of death into life… We hear over and over again the amazing truth that we have been sanctified by the Holy Spirit of God. (BCP, 368, 369) To be sanctified is to be made pure, to be freed from the power of sin, and to be set apart for a holy purpose.

We have a holy purpose and it isn’t what we think – it isn’t anything that we do by our own efforts. Our holy purpose was described for us in the second letter to Timothy. Paul is dying. He has been deserted by his friends, whom he has forgiven, and he says: …the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all… might hear it.

The message – that’s our purpose – to be instruments God can use to proclaim the message, individually and corporately, so that all might hear it. Our actions, our decisions, and our words proclaim our message. So the question is: whose message are we proclaiming? If we are spending our time proclaiming any message but the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ for the whole world, then we have strayed like the Pharisee did.

So, setting aside all of our pet priorities, that is, anything that separates us from one another or from God, let us surrender our hearts to God, sinking deeply together right now, in this Eucharist, into the waters of our Baptism. Let us let go of our plans, our fears, and our pride, and rely totally on God for our life, our breath, our very survival. Then will we have pure hearts to offer to God. Then will we be the ones through whom the Good News is faithfully proclaimed.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Pentecost 21-C: What we can do about domestic violence

Jeremiah 31:27-34; Psalm 119:97-104; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8

Note: October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. The Abuse Prevention Council here in Shelby, which serves victims of domestic violence, asked me to write a sermon that could be shared with other clergy in our area to be preached on this date in the hopes of raising awareness and eliciting a compassionate response.

(A true story.) Early in my career as an advocate for victims of violence, my life and my approach to my work as a shelter director were transformed by a toddler… a little 4-year old girl named Lizzie. Lizzie suffered from fits of rage, something commonly seen in children who witness or suffer extreme violence at a very young age.

Lizzie’s rages usually lasted 10 to 20 minutes at a time and were triggered by sounds, smells or events that were connected to her memories of abuse. During these rages, Lizzie was unresponsive to reason. In fact, she would try to hurt anyone who tried to comfort her or stop her from hurting herself.

The doctors and therapists brought in to diagnose and treat Lizzie, told her mother and me that Lizzie needed to learn very clear boundaries around her behavior, and that we all had to be diligent and consistent, immediately interrupting Lizzie’s violent behavior and rewarding her good behavior. Lizzie will respond, they said, when the limitations on her behavior are clear to her.

Well, we tried. For weeks, every time Lizzie went into one of her rages, her mother, supported by our staff, worked hard to gently, but firmly interrupt the violence, using time outs, rewarding good behavior, putting Lizzie in what they called a “restraining position” so she couldn’t hurt herself or the one holding her. We did everything the therapists had suggested, but Lizzie wasn’t responding. In fact, her violence towards herself and others during her rages was increasing.

Lizzie’s mother and the shelter staff began to fear Lizzie and her rages.

One late afternoon, I was talking with Lizzie’s mom in the living room when another woman who was staying in the shelter returned home, carrying a large package. She asked one of the kids playing outside to help her close the door behind her. As sometimes happens, when the little boy closed the door, he slammed it shut.

Lizzie, who had been playing quietly on the floor in front of us, jumped up, ran behind the little toy kitchen in the corner of the room, and curled up on the floor in a fetal position. A rage began to overtake her, and her mother responded immediately, per the instructions given by the therapists.

But Lizzie would not be comforted. She hit and kicked at her mother, biting at her and screaming ugly things. When her mother tried to pick her up to put her into the restraining position, Lizzie wriggled out of her arms and began running at full speed into the furniture.

Her mother, totally overwhelmed, sat down on the floor, put her hands over her face, and began to cry.

I caught Lizzie in my arms as she ran across the room, sat down on the floor, and began to rock her in my lap. As Lizzie screamed and struggled to get free, I spoke softly to her, saying only that she was loved and that everything would be OK. I held her firmly, but not in the restraining position. She punched and swung at me, even bit me once on the arm, but I continued to softly speak words of love to her.

Eventually, Lizzie stopped struggling and rested in my arms, her breaths short and sharp from her recent tantrum. A minute later, Lizzie looked up at me, her eyes still puffy from crying and asked, “Am I a good girl?” “Yes, darling, Lizzie. You’re a good girl.” I assured her. A moment later, Lizzie was asleep. That was the last fit Lizzie ever threw.

By the grace of God, I realized in that frantic moment that what Lizzie needed wasn’t boundaries or limits or discipline. What she needed was tenderness and the assurance that she was loved.

Being only four years old, Lizzie lacked the words she needed to describe how the violence she had witnessed and suffered made her feel. She was too scared to tell anyone that she thought she must be bad and somehow to blame for the nightmare she lived. She was too little and too vulnerable to speak her greatest fear – that she wasn’t loved. So instead, she acted out. Like the woman in the parable of the unjust judge, Lizzie did what she could to get the justice she deserved.

Those who listened with earthly ears couldn’t hear Lizzie’s pleas – but God did – and just like Jesus promised in the parable, God acted swiftly to grant her justice.

God cares deeply about the powerless, the vulnerable, and the abused - and so should we.(Ref: Jn 3:16-17, Mt 25:40)

That’s why today, as we remember that October is Domestic Violence Awareness month, we open ourselves to hear the pleas of those in our midst who suffer. Last year, the Abuse Prevention Council here in Shelby, provided shelter to 107 women and 56 children. They advocated and filed for 818 orders of protection hoping to keep these women and their families safe from their abusers.

Even though most cases of domestic violence are never reported, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that:

• an estimated 1.3 million women are assaulted by their intimate partners each year.
• boys who witness domestic violence are twice as likely to abuse their own partners and children when they become adults.
• 30% to 60% of those who abuse their intimate partners also abuse children in the household.
• the cost of intimate partner violence exceeds $5.8 billion each year, $4.1 billion of which is for direct medical and mental health services … and yet…
• less than one-fifth of victims reporting an injury from intimate partner violence sought medical treatment following the injury.
(Taken from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence Facts Sheet at

Imagine the cost if the other four-fifths of victims were reporting these assaults and seeking treatment for their injuries.

Statistics like these can cause us to lose heart. How can we ever make a dent in a problem of this magnitude? Well the simple answer is: we can’t, but God can.

What we can do is be the faithful ones the Son of Man desires to find on earth. We can be proclaimers of the Love that came to live among us, gave his life for us, and reconciled us to God. We can be the mouths that speak hope and the hands that offer safe, tender, healing comfort.

To be the kind of faithful instrument God can use, we must make ourselves ready – and we do that by being prayerful – which is the point of Jesus’ parable in Luke. Prayer is a discipline, a strength we build by practice. Prayer makes us ready, individually and corporately, to be evangelists, proclaimers of the Good News in favorable and unfavorable times.

Prayer enables us to be the light of Christ’s love in the darkest moments in the lives of our sisters and brothers who suffer. Prayer is that grace, that gift from God, that enables us to taste and share the reconciliation Christ achieved for us, and as the psalmist says – it is sweeter than honey to our mouths.

But unless our prayer brings us to do something real to manifest the love of God in our world, it is fruitless.

Here’s what we can do:

• we can inform ourselves about domestic violence. Our local Abuse Prevention Council (APC) can help, or go online to
• we can financially support the APC and their efforts to rebuild the broken lives of the women and children they serve
• we can volunteer our time, talents, and expertise to strengthen the services the APC can provide
• we can pray. Prayer is not the least we can do. It’s the most we can do.

Let’s close, then, with the sweet taste of this prayer
(called For the Oppressed):

Look with pity, O heavenly Father, upon the people in this land who live with injustice, terror, disease, and death as their constant companions. Have mercy upon us. Help us to eliminate our cruelty to these our neighbors. Strengthen those who spend their lives establishing equal protection of the law and equal opportunities for all. And grant that every one of us may enjoy a fair portion of the riches of this land; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(The Book of Common Prayer, 826)

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Pentecost 19-C: Faithful waiting

Lectionary:Lamentations 1:1-6; Lamentations 3:19-26; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10

Sometimes the most faithful thing we can do is nothing… nothing but wait and trust in God.

Back in my other life when I worked with battered and bruised people who had been betrayed by persons they loved, the hardest thing I had to teach them was to wait; to stop reacting to the problems they thought they saw; to take a step back and wait until a bigger picture was revealed or until the way through could be seen.

For Christians, this is faithful waiting and it isn’t a passive process – it isn’t just sitting back while God magically fixes everything that isn’t right. Faithful waiting is open, trusting, active, and expectant. Faithful waiting is also an important spiritual discipline for every mature or maturing Christian to practice.

Our Scriptures today walk us through this process of faithful waiting:


The story behind the book of Lamentations is this: in 587 Babylon destroyed Jerusalem and its temple and deported almost everyone - only the poorest and the weakest were left. The first five chapters of Lamentations are a response to this catastrophe. It has been said, “When we’re wounded physically, we cry out in pain, when we’re wounded spiritually, we lament.” These poems in Lamentations are honest prayers - open, unshielded, crying out to God, expecting to be heard and anticipating a response from God that puts things right.


In this response to the first reading, we see the shift from despair to hope. When our souls are bowed down, when we are weighed down by our troubles, the grace of God fills us and we remember what we already know about God: that the “steadfast love of the LORD never ceases” and God’s “mercies never come to an end,” that God is faithful and always acts to redeem... always.


Paul reminds us through his letter to Timothy, to seek renewal of our faith; to rekindle the gift of God that is within you, through the laying on of hands. In other words, get up and go get what you need. God is waiting to provide it. Power and love and self-discipline are given to us as gifts, but we must open ourselves to receive them.

Please turn in your Prayer Books with me to page 461 – the section of our Prayer Book called “Ministration to the Sick.” There, on the top of the page is a prayer for “Trust in God. “ Let’s read this prayer together:

“O God, the source of all health: So fill my heart with faith in your love, that with calm expectancy I may make room for your power to possess me, and gracefully accept your healing; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

Submitting ourselves to anointing and laying on of hands (an ancient practice) brings us into the presence of the power of God in an unique and wonderful way; and it strengthens us to answer our holy calling… to fulfill God’s purpose for us and for the world.


Jesus tells the disciples, if you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could imagine the impossible. For instance, you could say to this tree (Note: the tree Jesus is describing typically has deep roots and thrives in dry areas - it doesn’t do well in wet areas) … you could say to this tree ‘be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and you could expect it to obey you.

For nothing is impossible with God.

And that is what Jesus is teaching in the Parable of the Mustard Seed. As with the other parables we’ve heard these last few weeks, this parable is about God. God designed the mustard weed to be prolific – it was kind of the kudzu of ancient Israel. It grew anywhere and everywhere the tiny seed landed creating a huge plant that overtook whatever else was there.

Birds would eat the seeds of the mustard weed and spread them in their droppings. The birds didn’t have to go to extraordinary lengths to spread the seeds of the mustard weed, they just lived their normal bird-lives, eating and being nourished by those seeds. And by the grace and design of God, the mustard weed was planted far and wide.

Like the mustard weed, God has designed the Good News, spread through our everyday living of it, to flourish anywhere and everywhere.

And this is our holy calling – to nourish ourselves with the holy food of Word and Sacrament… to live everyday faithfully waiting for the next step in our journey of faith to be revealed to us by our merciful God. We don’t have to do extraordinary things – God will. We can count on it. All we have to do is live our lives, remaining open to God, trusting in the faithfulness of God, actively seeking the presence of God, and expecting the best from God.

In a few minutes we will pray together, and lay hands on one another. As we do, we remember that God hears our prayers, and we can expect that God will answer our prayers.

Today when we notice that little voice in our head that says: “God has so much more to deal with than my little problem…” or “Those kinds of miraculous things don’t really happen anymore…” we remember that if we have faith the size of a mustard seed we will witness the amazing power and grace of God at work in us - and in the world through us.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Holy people with a holy purpose

October newsletter article by Mother Valori+

The other day I was in a meeting in my office when a bird flew into the glass door, hitting it with a thud, then falling to the ground. My heart broke. We could see the bird still breathing, so I went out and blessed it offering up healing prayer, not knowing if it was God’s will that the bird should live or die. The bird continued to lay there with its mouth wide open, breathing heavily. Its eyes were blinking, but it didn’t move. I prayed over the bird and kept talking to it, stroking it lightly on the back of its head and neck, praying that it wasn’t in pain. I told the bird that whether it lived or died right now, it wouldn’t be alone. The bird continued to just lay there.

After a while, I began to be concerned that the person with whom I was meeting might need to get on. My legs were also beginning to ache from squatting over the bird in order to pet its neck and back. I wondered how long it would take until the outcome for the bird would be evident. I dreaded seeing the bird die, but I also feared it being in pain.

Suddenly, the bird kicked itself up into a standing position to the delight and surprise of both of us keeping vigil. It hopped a few steps away and settled to rest in a soft green weed. The bird’s mouth was still open and it was still breathing hard, but now that it was standing I could get a closer look and see that nothing looked broken and there was no blood anywhere.

I entered into my next meeting, keeping an eye on the bird as it sat there on the weed. It stayed where it was for a long time, and then suddenly, it was gone. I rejoiced at its disappearance, knowing it was back on its way to the regular rigors of life as a bird. Overwhelmed with emotion, I cried.

Life is like that, though. Glass doors arise in our lives seemingly out of nowhere. We hit them with a thud and fall to the ground – the wind knocked out of us. As we wait (for what may seem like an inordinate amount of time), healing happens invisibly within us by the grace of our merciful God. When the time is right, we hike ourselves up on our feet again, wait some more while the last bit of disorientation clears from our heads, then launch back into life.

After the bird resurrected, my friend said to me, “Now that’s the way to start a day… saving a life.” I understood what he meant, but it was God’s work, not mine, that restored the bird to life. All I did was participate with God by offering myself as one who prays and seeks God’s will; one who stays near comforting the injured so they don’t feel alone; and one who rejoices when the will of God is made manifest and life is renewed.

When I arrived at Redeemer a little over a year ago, I reminded everyone that there was much healing work still to be done. We have been doing that work, and it is hard, and some of it takes longer than it seems like it should.

There was a time when the church and our membership needed to be protected from real harm. During that time an accidental underground was formed. This group was a source of strength and perseverance as the parish went into crisis. They relied on one another to understand and respond to the many confusing, even shocking realities they were confronting.

Feeling betrayed by their pastor and/or their friends in the church, and abandoned by their Bishop, this group coalesced into a loosely associated leadership team that heroically guided the church through the years of chaos that followed. They did that by trusting one another.

They were successful at keeping the church going as the ministry of the rector disintegrated, and they worked hard to spare their beloved community further harm. As this group asserted its care and leadership for the church’s life in the in-between time, it became almost sentient – perceptive and responsive. It was probably unavoidable that many who disagreed with them felt excluded.

Let me be clear - these were/are good people who love their church and their church family. It was their love that enabled them to uphold the church as the wounding happened and carry it forward. But like the Pharisees in Jesus’ time, they were/are worried about being blind-sided again, about making a mistake and being hurt again by an enemy – especially an enemy that comes from within like before, someone they should have been able to trust – their priest.

In Jesus’ time, worrying like this led the Pharisees to close themselves off from God’s redemption. They were too afraid to trust and be re-created by God even though the Savior was right there in their midst. The same is true for this group now. When they cling to a status quo of their own making, believing it to be safe, they are, in reality, cutting themselves (and potentially others) off from God’s redeeming work in our midst right now.

There is no harm threatening Redeemer now, so behaviors and perspectives that were helpful then are no longer helpful now. The only threat we face now is the same one most churches and many individual Christians face: that of refusing to be re-created by God.

We are friends and more than that, we are a holy people with a holy purpose. We are called to love and serve our Lord together. As we continue to move forward, I remind everyone not to judge people or circumstances, and to remember that our leadership will change – it’s supposed to. Our membership will change – that’s life in church. Our budget will change – and as I said in my sermon last Sunday (September 26), money is not the focus of our attention – living faithful lives is. Still, good people among us will worry – and we’ll love them for it.

It’s still a new day at Redeemer. As we launch ourselves into our common life of faith, a life being formed by God, I pray we will do so as friends, that we will relax and trust that this is God’s church and it is God who is recreating us. There is nothing to fear. “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Gal 5:1)

Things are going well at Redeemer. We are serving God’s people in new and wonderful ways as we are called to do. We will continue to do the hard work of healing, trusting in God to restore us to wholeness and celebrating the many ways we see that happening already.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Pentecost 18-C: The trap of privilege

Lectionary: Lectionary: Amos 6:1a, 4-7; Psalm 146; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31

The following is one of my favorite prayers from a book by Mother Theresa called, Meditations from a Simple Path:

“Dear Lord, the Great Healer, I kneel before You, Since every perfect gift must come from You. I pray, give skill to my hands, clear vision to my mind, kindness and meekness to my heart. Give me singleness of purpose, strength to lift up part of the burden of my suffering [brothers and sisters], and a true realization of the privilege that is mine. Take from my heart all guile and worldliness, That with the simple faith of a child, I may rely on you.”

Mother Theresa’s prayer pleads for the will and wisdom to be faithful, and to answer God’s call for justice – the same call issued through the Prophet Amos, the psalmist, St. Paul, and even Jesus himself in today’s readings. It’s a call for an inward change (meekness of heart and a true realization of our privilege) that has an outward effect (strength to lift up the part of the burden suffered by others).

Privilege is the right to have…and the right to have immunity from guilt for having. But being comfortable, being privileged can be a trap – a trap that creates a blindness in us. Our attention narrows and becomes focused on ourselves. We come to believe that we deserve all of the good things we have and we redefine ourselves according to those things.

In his book, Let Justice Roll Down: The Old Testament, Ethics, and Christian Life, Theologian Bruce Birch says, “those who enjoy the fruits of wealth and luxury without regard to the plight of the poor and needy are as guilty as those who actively exploit them.” And this is just what Jesus is addressing in his parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke’s gospel.

In that story, the rich man goes on about his life not thinking much about the poor man, Lazarus, who sits nearby, hungry, and covered in sores. He doesn’t even notice when Lazarus has starved to death right outside his gate. When the rich man dies, he is surprised to find their roles reversed. Now he is suffering and on the other side of a great chasm Lazarus being comforted. It seems that the rich man had forgotten Amos’ warning: Alas for those who are at ease…they will be the first into exile.

And that is the trap of privilege. Being rich is not bad, or wrong, or even to be avoided. The problem is failing to grieve over the ruin of Joseph as Amos says, failing to care enough about those children of God who suffer poverty, degradation, and humiliation … failing to care enough to do something about it.

Another part of the trap of privilege is our masterful ability to justify and rationalize our protection of it. American slave owners in the 19th century justified their ownership of persons stolen from Africa by agreeing to believe that Negroes had no souls, and therefore, were not human. This, of course, alleviated any guilt for their inhumane treatment of them.

They rationalized the continuation of their ownership of slaves by asserting that they were, overall, good people, beneficent masters. The Negroes were actually better off as their slaves than they would be on their own, so their continued forced imprisonment was really a compassionate act.

But the ultimate justification of their privilege had to be their claim of Scriptural support. Christian slave owners made themselves immune from Jesus’ command to love their neighbors as Christ loved them, by agreeing to single out a passage of Scripture and interpreting it as supportive of the institution of slavery. Scripture, they said, confirmed that slavery was part of the natural order established by God. They were, therefore, slave owners according to God’s word - as they chose to understand it.

It took a Civil War to undo those justifications and it nearly destroyed our country. Those who suffered and died for the abolition of slavery are saints and martyrs whose singleness of purpose freed us from a terrible sin – the trap of privilege.

Lately, the claim of a natural order established by God as found in Scripture is often directed at issues of sexuality, sexual orientation, and gender. But try as we might, we will find no immunity here either from Jesus’ command to love one another as Christ loved us.

It has been said that in today’s world, America is the rich man and Latin America is the Lazarus at our gate. In her book “Healing a Broken World” Cynthia Moe-Lobeda quotes a Mexican strawberry picker who says, “Our children die of hunger because our land, which ought to grow food for them, is used by international companies to produce strawberries for your tables.” We who are comparatively blessed with wealth or power or position, are called to open our eyes to a ‘true realization of the privilege that is ours,’ to notice the plight of those around us who have little or nothing, and then to imitate God who, as the psalmist says, gives justice to those who are oppressed and food to those who hunger… [who] sets the prisoners free…opens the eyes of the blind [and] lifts up those who are bowed down.

The Christian’s call to social justice is one we inherited from our Jewish forebears. It is a call Jesus lived out during his ministry on earth. Jesus confronted the oppressive systems of his time calling them to account and offering them opportunity to repent. He modeled how to welcome the stranger and how to treat those whom society labeled as sinners. He demonstrated how the covenant people (God’s people) had been redefined when he ate with Gentiles and sinners and called women to be disciples.

In response, they killed him, choosing instead to protect the status quo. It seems that sort of redefinition and inclusion proved too hard.

We confront a similar problem today. We understand ourselves as good people, and rightly so for the most part. We’re trying to do the right thing according to the will of God as we understand it from Scripture, tradition, and reason. And I know that most of us here are already actively working to make things better in our world. Our Shepherd’s Table and Food Pantry are evidence of that here at Redeemer.

So the question for us is: Are we willing to be redefined by God or will we protect the status quo instead? Will we, like the rich man in Jesus’ parable, be distracted by money and privilege and understand it all too late?

In the end, St. Paul says, money and all that money can buy aren’t worth setting our hopes and attention on … for we brought nothing into the world [and] we take nothing out of it. Besides focusing too much on money and things can cause us to wander away from our faith, and it distracts us from living the life that is really life, the life of faith to which we were called.

I hope we will remember this as we begin to think about our stewardship campaign (which will begin next month – God willing). Money is only money and it is not the primary focus of our attention and effort – living lives of faith is. God will provide what we need to do the work God is calling us to do. Really.

I’ll close with Mother Theresa’s prayer, slightly revised: 'Dear Lord, Great Healer, we come before You, knowing that every perfect gift comes from You. We pray you… give skill to our hands, clear vision to our minds, kindness and meekness to our hearts. Give us singleness of purpose, strength to lift up part of the burden of our suffering [brothers and sisters], and a true realization of the privilege that is ours. Take from our hearts all guile and worldliness, that we may faithfully rely only on you.'

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Pentecost 16-C sermon: Forgiveness, Reconciliation, Redemption

Lectionary: Exodus 32:7-14; Psalm 51:1-11; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

On Labor Day at our Shepherd’s Table cookout, I noticed that one of our “regulars” was sitting by himself in a chair near the window. I asked if he’d had something to eat. “No,” he said. “I ate before I came.” “Why did you come then?” I asked. “To save sinners” he said, “Some of them don’t believe and I invite them to my church where they can be saved.” From previous conversations with this young man I can tell you that he practices a form of Christianity that focuses on fear, sin, and condemnation and he passes out little cartoon booklets that illustrate this fear-based approach.

“They’re already saved,” I said. “Jesus did that by his cross and resurrection. You can’t save them and neither can your church.” Then putting on my most pastor-like voice I said, “This is my church, and we don’t build the kingdom that way around here. We trust God to finally bring about the plan of salvation. In the meantime, we offer food and friendship in the name of Christ. I can see the passion you have for Jesus, and you’re always welcome to come here and eat, but while you’re here, I must insist that you let these people eat in peace.”

Two days later, the young man returned for lunch at the Shepherd’s Table. Again, he sat alone. No one will sit with him because he harangues them. I got a plate of food and sat with him, welcoming him back.

I noticed the booklets in his shirt pocket and asked him to see them. The first thing I read in both booklets was about sin and the threat of eternal punishment. “Where is the good news in these?” I asked him. He answered with the phrases he’d been taught to say – even though they had nothing to do with what I was asking.

Finally, I asked the young man this question: “Why did Jesus come?” I ask you the same thing now. Why DID Jesus come? What was his ultimate purpose? Was it to threaten us into good behavior? Was it to coerce us into believing? Why did Jesus come? If your answer doesn’t include news that is GOOD, keep thinking while we look at our lessons for today.

Our Gospel reading today is from the 15th chapter of Luke, which consists entirely of three parables: the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Prodigal or Lost Son. All of these parables speak to us about redemption in terms of the recovery and reconciliation of that which had been lost. Our Gospel reading today offers us the first two of these parables, the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin, for our reflection.

The story of the shepherd who leaves the 99 to find the lone lost sheep is a familiar, beloved story. Seeing ourselves as the sheep and Jesus as our Good Shepherd, this parable makes us feel like we matter, and we like that feeling. We like believing that if we were the one who wandered off and got lost, our Good Shepherd would leave everyone and everything else behind in order to find us, then carry us home, rejoicing. While understanding the parable in this way makes us feel good, and loved, and valued… it misses the point of Jesus’ teaching. This parable isn’t about us – it’s about God whose nature it is to seek and save the lost. It’s about God who rejoices each time there is reconciliation.

Still, there’s benefit in looking at the sheep. Sometimes our similarity with them is uncomfortably on target – which is why these parables are so effective. Sheep live in community, but much of the time their attention is focused on themselves – on finding and consuming that which will satisfy their hunger. So with their eyes looking down at the grass around their feet, they move on from place to place - wherever the grass seems greener or more plentiful. Most of the time, the sheep doesn’t know it’s gotten lost until it finishes eating, looks up, and discovers that no one else is around. At that point, the sheep will cry out – looking for a response from the flock or the shepherd. If there is no response, the lonesome sheep may panic and make dumb or dangerous choices. Or it may freeze, unable to make any decision at all, eventually dying of starvation right where it stands.

Notice in the parable that only one sheep in the flock knows it‘s lost, even though there are 99 other sheep who, as the text says, are in the wilderness (a Biblical term for lost). Being part of a large crowd of sheep in the same place, doing the same thing, gives the flock a sense of security. But it’s a false sense of security – they simply haven’t noticed their vulnerability.

In the second parable Jesus talks about God’s redeeming work in terms of a woman recovering a lost coin. That by itself would have shocked the already disturbed Pharisees who were listening. Not only was this rabbi welcoming and eating with tax collectors and sinners, now he’s comparing God’s work to woman’s work! But as juicy as that is, it isn’t the point of this parable.

In today’s language, the woman in this parable might be searching for a winning lottery ticket. That’s why when she finds it, she calls to her friends and neighbors saying, Rejoice with me for I have found the [winning lottery ticket] I had lost.

An interesting thing about this parable is that the story about the lost coin doesn’t conjure up the kind of beautiful pastoral images the parable of the lost sheep does (i.e., where the sheep is draped over the shoulders of its loving shepherd). As theologian/author Rev. Robert Farrar Capon says, most people don’t feel sorry for the coin which has been lost… and that’s the point.

The parable isn’t about the coin – or about us. It’s about God whose nature is to search diligently and work hard, sparing no expense, to find that which had been lost.

At the end of both parables Jesus says that heaven rejoices over one sinner who repents…, one person who recognizes that he is lost and calls out to God for rescue; one person who turns her attention away from satisfying her own hunger and looks to God and God’s way instead. We act perversely, as God tells Moses in Exodus, when we rely on ourselves instead of on God. We turn away from what is right and good when things other than God - like money, or status, or relationships, or power, or drugs – are what bring us satisfaction and fulfillment, get us moving and define our purpose.

Yet God uses even our sinfulness to redeem. As St. Paul says: … I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost [sinner], Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.

We who are followers of Christ are not a body of perfectly behaving, sinless persons. We are a collection of fully human, imperfect people, who forgive others as we have been forgiven and who welcome the least, the lost, and the excluded to the banquet table, just as Jesus did.

We aren’t called to save anyone – just to witness what we know… that the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ isn’t about sin – it’s about forgiveness of sin. It isn’t about punishment – it’s about reconciliation. It isn’t about condemnation – it’s about redemption.

That’s why it’s so important for us to worship together regularly. We need to hear again and again what’s good about the Good News of our salvation in Jesus Christ. We need to hear it in Scripture, taste it in Holy Communion, and see it, say it, (and in some churches smell it) in our liturgy. We need to praise and celebrate together with people who care enough to help us see when we have lost our way, people who will remind us to rely on God instead of ourselves.

When we gather together for worship, we stop our lives for a just a moment and remember why Jesus came – what his ultimate purpose was – then we strengthen ourselves to be partners with him in that redeeming work. That’s how we build the kingdom of God around here.