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.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Pentecost 15-C, Proper 18 sermon: Faithfully malleable

Lectionary: Jeremiah 18:1-11; Psalm 139:1-5,13-17; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33

Change happens. It’s part of life. It’s part of being alive.

C. S. Lewis once said, “It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.”

Certainty, familiarity, and predictability are comfortable and can tempt us to resist change. Now it’s true that some changes are better than others and it can be hard to know which is which – but that’s where faith comes in.

For God’s people there is nothing to fear in change. We’re in good hands. As we heard in our Old Testament reading, The LORD says to Jeremiah: Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words. So Jeremiah goes where God directs him. And there as he watches the potter reforming a pot that has spoiled on the wheel, Jeremiah hears the voice of God say: Can I not do with you…just as this potter has done? Just like clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.

Telling the people through the prophet Jeremiah (twice, to be sure we hear it) that God’s plan is not fixed, God says: I will change my mind. God’s mind changes in response to our choices – in response to our faithfulness or our faithlessness.

That’s pretty amazing, isn’t it?

On the downside, this means that we can never fully ‘figure out’ God’s plan - it’s a moving target. So we can never be absolutely sure we know what to do to get it all right. But we aren’t called to be right. We’re called to be faithful. As we prayed in our Collect: Grant us O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts…

On the plus side, this opens to us an amazing truth: that what we do and how we live has an impact. What we do and how we live matters and affects the plan of God…or is that a downside? Not if we are like clay in the hands of our Potter - clay that is moist and malleable on the wheel where it is formed and re-formed into a vessel of the Potter’s design.

Have you ever worked with clay? You have to keep pouring water over it and kneading it to get the moisture deep into the clay - because clay that gets too dry becomes rigid and unusable. If we choose to be rigid, we must realize that we have also chosen to make ourselves unworkable by the Master Potter, who honors our choices, even when they are regrettable ones.

Thankfully God, has promised to be faithful to us, and IS faithful to us, even when we haven’t been faithful to God. And we aren’t faithful when we become so rigidly attached to something that we refuse to change or to allow God to change us.

When we find ourselves attached to anything, we need to remember what Jesus said in today’s Gospel. Speaking to large, enthusiastic crowds of followers, Jesus says: Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. You can almost hear the hearts of these people drop with a thud. But it gets worse… Jesus goes on to say: Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple… and none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions. That’s a hard lesson!

Those things we attach to - our possessions - include things like houses and cars; but they also include things like our job, our reputation or status, our independence or our need to be dependent. We can be attached to our secrets, our self-image… even our ideas about God. Jesus says that to be a disciple we must give up all of these and trust in God alone. We must voluntarily accepting suffering, even in the face of injustice – as Jesus did - and shift our priority of loyalty (which is how the word ‘hate’ translates) from self and family to God. We do not come first. They do not come first. God and God’s will for all of us comes first. Only then can we be called a disciple.

Once upon a time I was sitting in quiet prayer and study when the rectory doorbell rang. My dogs went crazy doing their protective, dog-thing: lots of noise and running around. I answered the door confident that whoever was there had heard the ruckus and knew I had 4-legged protection if I needed it.

On the other side of the door stood a large African-American man in a uniform with a name-tag. He introduced himself and launched into his spiel about a risk-free plan for controlling the cost of monthly gas payments. I interrupted his presentation and informed him that this was a rectory belonging to the church across the street, and anyway, it didn’t use gas as a utility.

He looked at the church and looked back at me and said, “Oh. OK. Are you the pastor’s wife or something?” I smiled and said, “I’m the pastor.”

I never know how news like that will go over, so I waited and watched while he decided how he felt about it. As it turns out, he was delighted and immediately our conversation changed. “What is your mission statement?” he asked. When I looked at him kind of blankly he said, “What do you stand for? What do you believe in? I mean, are you followers of Jesus Christ who said ‘I am the Way and the Truth and the Life?’” He’d obviously never met an Episcopalian before!

Finishing the quote he started, I said: “’Jesus said, ‘I am the Way and the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’ (John 14:6).” Then I added, “Jesus also said, ‘No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me. And I will raise that person up on the last day.’ (John 6:44).”

It pays to know a few Bible verses.

We shared a short conversation on what we believe as Christians, quoting the Bible often and faithfully. Though we were obviously speaking from VERY different denominational perspectives, we were truly and wonderfully grounded in and united by the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ.

We shook hands as we said good-bye, and suddenly, the man erupted into prayer. His prayer covered me with holy love and I received it gratefully, saying “thank you” to him and to God as he continued to pray. When he finished praying, we embraced. We were no longer strangers, but members of one family – Christ’s family – having been reconciled by the sharing of the Gospel.

This encounter made very real for me the opening of St. Paul’s letter to Philemon which says, When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. How proud Paul would have been of this man, this disciple.

I was blessed by my encounter with this disciple. A wonderful feeling had filled my heart. It was an experience of oneness with God and another human being that broke down all divisions, all earthly barriers, and inspired me with hope.

We are continually being formed and re-formed by God into disciples. As we grow and change according to God’s plan for us, I pray we will be asking ourselves the same questions this man asked me: What is our mission statement? What do we stand for? What do we believe in? Are we followers of Jesus Christ? How will people know?

I pray also that God will help us maintain our malleability, so that we can be molded and fashioned into the kind of disciples who can create moments where oneness with God and another human being can be known and experienced through us, where we can inspire others with the hope that is the truth of the Gospel.

Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts… that we may hatch and learn to fly on the wings of your mercy.