Sunday, September 25, 2011

Pentecost 15A, 2001: Dancing with God

Lectionary: Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32; Psalm 25: 1-8; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

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

Recently, Steve and I went to the first ever clergy-spouse-partner retreat hosted by our Bishop and his wife at Kanuga. The first night after we shared dinner together, we did something radical for a group of priests – we danced! Yep! We danced – some of us well, some not, but we danced – and had a ball.

Dancing has always been important in my family of origin. My parents were amazing dancers – they could do the fox trot, the rhumba, the Lindy, the waltz – and they did it all with such style! My three sisters and I all learned and practiced these dances at every wedding and family celebration (and with our big family, we had a lots of practice!).

My father was a great dance partner. He never criticized us while we were learning. I remember being little, maybe 8 years old when Dad invited me onto the dance floor to learn the waltz. He put his hand out to me and said, “Come on. This is a waltz. It’s time for you to learn it.” I was hesitant because I’m the sort of person who would rather learn something in the privacy of my home rather than in public. But Dad, whose confidence in himself and in me was unwavering, simply waked me out to the middle of the dance floor, put my left hand on his arm which wrapped around my waist, and took my right hand into his up high. He leaned in close and with a smile I loved so much, said to me, “Just relax, lean back into my arm, and follow me. Look only at me. I will lead you. Trust me.” I did exactly what he said. We glided around the floor in what felt like a fantasy to me. When the music ended people were applauding. I looked around and noticed that everyone had cleared the dance floor. They were all standing around the edge applauding and cheering us! My Dad was beaming.

For me, the journey of life as a child of God is like dancing with my Dad. God, whose love for me is unwavering, will lead. All I need to do is relax, lean back into God’s arms, and trust. “Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation.” (the refrain from our chanted psalm)

In the gospel lesson today, members of the Sanhedrin, a group of high court judges who were the most learned, “faithful,” and powerful in the Jewish community, want to know by what authority Jesus is teaching and ministering. Is it by God’s authority or his own? Jesus offers them a trade: I’ll answer your question if you answer mine. If you can tell me by what authority John baptized, then I will tell you by what authority I teach and minister.

The question put these judges in a quandary. If they say John the Baptist acted on God’s authority, they condemn themselves for not following him. If they say John baptized on his own authority, they risk the wrath of the crowds who believe John to be a prophet of God. Finding themselves between the proverbial rock and hard place, they answered, “we don’t know.”

Fair enough, Jesus says. Then I won’t answer your question. Many commentators and readers of Scripture love to applaud Jesus for out-smarting the chief priests and elders, but I really don’t think that was his goal. Jesus wasn’t about winning intellectual contests. He was – and still is – always about reconciliation of the whole world to God, which he accomplished in all humility and obedience “to the point of death - even death on a cross. (Phil 2:8)

The members of the Sanhedrin, however, were not of that same mind. They were concerned with their own interests, namely, their power, authority, and reputation – like many of us are. The stories of people who put others’ needs before their own, or people who are humbly obedient, are rare. I think of the news story last week about the people who risked their own lives to lift a burning car off of a young motorcyclist and drag him to safety.

Then I tried to remember the last time I saw a news story about someone who was humbly obedient. How many shows currently on TV or in the movies extol the virtues of humility or obedience? How many paparazzi follow celebrities who are humble or obedient? Are there any celebrities who are humble and obedient?

So it isn’t just the chief priests and elders – it all of us. Humans have to work at living humbly and in true obedience to God. That’s one of the reasons we do this thing called “church” together.

Back to the gospel: we need to remember that the chief priests and elders are not Jesus’ enemies. They are, like us, people of God and part of God’s plan of redemption. So Jesus responds to them as he responds to all of us who struggle to live faithfully: with respect, with a teaching, and with an invitation.

“What do you think?” Jesus asks them, honoring that they are learned in these things. A father (a common reference to God in rabbinical stories) asks his two sons to work in the vineyard (a symbol for the kingdom of God). The first son refuses to obey his father, but later repents of that choice and goes to work in the vineyard. The second son agrees to obey, but fails to follow-up. Which one, Jesus asks, did the will of his father? The answer is obvious to the listeners: the first son.

Then Jesus concludes his teaching with one of the most comforting, inclusive statements in this gospel: “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” (Mt 21:32)

How is that comforting? Well, notice that Jesus does not exclude the second son (that is, the members of the Sanhedrin) from the kingdom of God. Instead, he invites them to lay down the burden of their own authority and rest in the mercy of God.

Jesus says, “Truly I tell you…” which is Scripture-code for “Listen up. This is important.” The ones you, who claim to have authority, have judged unworthy - the tax collectors and prostitutes, those whose sin is out there for all to see like the first son in the parable - these will be the first ones into the kingdom of God because they know they are sinners, and they are willing to repent.

But you who believe you have it all right and don’t need to change, you who pretend to obey while you sin in secret, you will find yourselves bringing up the rear, where you surely will learn humility.

Notice that no one is being booted out of the kingdom of God for being wrong or arrogant or misled. That isn’t God’s way. As God reminds us through the prophet Ezekiel: “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone… Turn, then, and live.” Turn and be humble. Turn and be obedient. Return to God and live. (Ezek 18:32)

When we gather each Sunday for worship and Christian formation (and we should ALL be gathering for worship and Christian formation), we come to know God who is revealed to us in Scripture, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers – sung or said. We come to be in the presence of the One who assures us that we will not be booted out of the kingdom for having made a mistake or losing our way.

We come to be freed from the burden of carrying our own authority; and we come to rest in God’s mercy.

We come to dance with God.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Pentecost 13A: Seventy seven times

Audio only - no text today. We did a children's sermon and demonstration instead. The demonstration involved a beach ball with "Jesus loves you" on it (3 times). The ball represented the grace of God and the rector tossed the ball to/at the children. The children held folded papers in their hands which represented sins to be let go, specifically forgiveness that needed to be received (for something we did or didn't do) or given (for something done to us).

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Pentecost 12-A: The Forgiveness Factor

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

High on the list of things I love about our Prayer Book are the Collects. In today’s Collect we heard: “Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts…” because when we rely on our own strength we stand alone, but God, whose love and faithfulness are steadfast, promises to be with us when we remember, proclaim, and exercize God’s mercy.

When the Israelites heeded Ezekiel’s warning to repent of their sin and return to God, they sank into despair, “Our sins weigh heavy upon us [they said] …how then can we live?” Their sins weighed heavy on them, as one commentator put it, because they did not remember God’s mercy, and so they feared “being at the mercy of God.”

But, as Ezekiel reminded the Israelites, God takes “no pleasure in the death of the wicked” but desires “that the wicked turn from their ways and live…” And God will wait patiently, providing us time and room to repent, to turn from our ways.

Jewish theologian, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, said: “There is always a dimension of God’s pervading affection where compassion prevails over justice, where mercy is a perpetual possibility.” Or as my daughter Jessica once said it: “The thing about God is the forgiveness factor.”

Grant us, O Lord, to remember your mercy as a perpetual possibility, to trust in the forgiveness factor with all our hearts…

God’s mercy is something we hope for in regard to our own sin, but do we hope for it as much for the one has sinned against us? Or do we wait, and wish, and watch for God’s punishment to fall on those who have wronged us?

What is our response to sin? What should it be? This is a particularly poignant issue as we approach the 10th anniversary of 9-11. The answer can be partially found in the video series on YouTube called: “The Forgiveness Series.” I’ve linked this on my blog: I’ll put it on our Facebook page too.

The Forgiveness Series is a documentary done in small parts interviewing first responders, individuals who lost loved ones in the terrorist attacks, and regular folk on the street, and asking them about forgiveness. One of the videos in the series is about Cheryl McGuinness, whose husband was a pilot on the plane that was hijacked and flown into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Cheryl said she knew what her response to the evil that day had to be: she had to forgive – for herself and for her children.

Here are a few other comments from people in that video: “The first step in forgiveness is deciding you want to do it. It can take years…” “Getting even is utterly weak. It’s the easiest thing in the world to do. To rise above that takes a lot of strength…” “What usually happens is that people carry around anger in such a way that they are crippled by their own anger…” “Forgiveness is really a gift you give to yourself. You free yourself of anger and resentment…” “…[Forgiveness] doesn’t mean you condone what was done, it doesn’t mean you want that person back in your life. It simply means that you no longer carry with you this polluting force that really poisons you.”

Studies have shown that holding onto anger and resentment in our minds and in our lives, affects our bodies. “Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you…like Cheryl did… with all our hearts…”

It remains a temptation, when we’ve been sinned against, to want revenge, to imagine God smiting our enemy and smiling on us as we watch them being punished for hurting us. But God’s wrath, as presented in Scripture, is always bound together with grace and mercy making space for repentance and restoration of life – for everyone.

Our wrath must be like that too.

Our beloved Episcopal Church, which is part of the world-wide Anglican Communion continues to struggle to find a way to live in communion with itself and with Anglicans throughout the world. Parts of the Anglican communion, even parts of the Episcopal Church, are using divisive terms like ‘schism’ and ‘excommunication’ and using Scripture to justify their position. In fact, this part of the Gospel of Matthew is often used to justify the excommunication of members from the body of Christ.

So let’s review Jesus’ instruction to us on how to respond to sin within the church. First, Jesus says, go to the person who sinned against you and meet with them privately. It’s possible that they don’t know they offended you or they don’t realize how offended you really were. Tell them when you’re alone so they’re not humiliated… because a humiliated person is more likely to be defensive than repentant.

If the person doesn’t listen, go back – and bring two others with you as witnesses so that you won’t be misinterpreted (this was a common practice in Jesus’ time). If that doesn’t work, take your complaint to the church. Seek the prayerful help of the whole community in restoring right relationship – because that’s the goal – restoring right relationship.

And if all else fails, Jesus says, let them be to you “as a Gentile, and a tax collector.” Now the Gentile and the tax collector were, in that culture, iconic examples of people living outside of community. That’s why this verse has so often been interpreted as biblical warrant for excommunication.

But it’s important to remember how Jesus himself treated Gentiles and tax collectors… remembering especially that the gospel we read today, is the Gospel of Matthew, who was a tax collector until Jesus called him to follow him.

So what does Jesus mean by this? If a person is outside of community, work to bring them in. If a person refuses to be reconciled, how many times do we offer it? In the verse that follows what we read today, Jesus says, “seventy times seven times” or in other words, as many times as it takes.

In some cases reconciliation is begun by our choice to forgive, to loose the sin, but accomplished by God, long after we have moved on or even died, because ultimately, reconciliation is the work of God (remember what Jesus did on the cross). Our partnership with God simply calls us to do our part – to loose the sin.

If we look at the body of Jesus’ teachings, we see Jesus calling his followers to be humble, to be welcoming to all, and to persevere beyond reason so that “everyone might come within the reach of [Christ’s] saving embrace.” St. Paul reminds us that Christians are called to live in harmony with each other to go beyond what is expected, reasonable, or even logical, in offering forgiveness and seeking reconciliation. That is, after all, what Jesus did for us.

When Jesus says, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” he is warning us, like Ezekiel warned the Israelites, that whenever we cling to sin, it will always lead to death. If we bind a sin on earth by withholding forgiveness (which means we have judged that sinner unworthy of grace) or by falling into despair (which means we have judged ourselves unworthy of grace) then that sin will continue to wield it’s negative power in our lives, leading us to despair and death – the ultimate in being lost.

But if we choose to loose any sin here on earth, it is loosed in heaven. In our Rite of Reconciliation of a Penitent, (BCP, 451) after the penitent has made their confession and received absolution, the priest says, “Now there is rejoicing in heaven; for you were lost, and now are found; you were dead, and are now alive in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Loosing sin opens the way for God’s grace to restore life. Christians are called to unbind sin by meeting it with forgiveness, to respond with love and do no wrong to one another, to overcome evil with good… over and over and over again.

This is not a call to become doormats for the wicked. It is a call to trust God with all our hearts
and to persevere in that trust beyond reason like Jesus did until every single one who is lost – is found and restored to life.

Today we will gather at our chancel and release whatever sin we are holding onto in our bodies and souls during our time of our healing prayer. Today we can loose the sin the continues to wield it’s negative power in our lives, and we can be free of it… remembering that we have already asked God to grant us the grace of trusting in God with all our hearts, trusting the ‘forgiveness factor.’

“Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts….”


Friday, September 2, 2011

September Newsletter Article: From one discovery to another

A Taoist parable: Once upon a time and old farmer and his son watched as their only horse, a beautiful stallion, broke out of its corral and ran away. The farmer’s neighbor came around to grieve this loss with the farmer: “How terrible that your only horse is gone! Such bad luck!” The farmer replied, “Who knows what is good and what is bad?” The next day, the farmer’s horse returned bringing a wild mare with him into the corral. The farmer’s neighbor rushed back to celebrate, exclaiming,“Such a wonderful event! A mating pair! You are truly blessed by this richness of good luck” to which the farmer replied, “Who knows what is good and what is bad?” The next day, the farmer’s son fell of the new mare and broke his leg. The neighbor returned, bemoaning the bad luck of the elderly farmer who now had no one to help him with this farm. The farmer simply replied, “Who knows what is good and what is bad?” The next day, the local warlord rode into the village and conscripted all of the able-bodied young men into military service. Seeing the farmer’s son was lame, they left him with his father. The neighbor thought to himself, “Who knows what is good and what is bad?”

We are cautioned over and over again in Scripture not to judge – one another or the present circumstances. Isaiah helps us understand why: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isa 55:8-9)

Anyone looking at Jesus’ life and ministry during his time might not have judged it too well. He was an itinerant preacher dependent upon the benevolence of his followers for his food and shelter. While his resume looked pretty good regarding pastoral care and healing, and his attendance numbers were good at the end of his ministry, Jesus was ultimately a ministerial failure: arrested, humiliated, publicly stripped and beaten, and finally, condemned to death and crucified by the powerful in his time. He even needed to borrow a grave.

But we look back at Jesus’ life and ministry and see something very different than the world saw then. We see the redemption of God unfolding in all of the circumstances of Jesus’ time – good and bad. God used it all. As Joan Chittister said, “the history of …God’s people has always been a good event, bad event situation, a continuing affirmation of life despite the unending threats of death.” (National Catholic Reporter, July 22, 2011)

In each of our lives, and in our common life at Redeemer, we confront circumstances like the farmer in the Chinese parable of the farmer. Some of us react like the neighbor, dancing in happiness or drowning in worry, spending our energy assigning credit or blame – forgetting that in all the cares and occupations of our lives we are ever walking in the sight of the Lord, (BCP, 100) who continues to use every circumstance – good or bad - to draw us closer to God’s self and to one another, according to God’s perfect plan of redemption for the whole world.

As we look at where we’ve been and where we’re going at Redeemer, we would be wise to remember that in every circumstance of our lives, God is there – loving us, guiding us, redeeming us, gifting us (yes, even the ‘bad’ circumstances are a gift), and then seeking to use the gifts given to us for the redeeming we are called to do with/for God.

God continues to form us and make us into the church God wants here in this time and place. As we move into our next program year, take a look at the many wonderful things God is doing in/through us:

EVENING PRAYER: Second Sundays at 5:00 pm in the church (new day and time). Evening Prayer is part of our long and rich Anglican tradition. There is no Eucharist at this service.

SERVICE OF TAIZÉ: Fourth Sundays at 5:00 pm in the church Take a break from the demands and stresses of daily life and join us in this ecumenical service featuring meditative prayer and song based on the practices of the monastic community in Taizé, France. Open to the community. All are welcome.

BIBLE DISCUSSION GROUP: Thursdays at 6:00 pm (new day) A weekly "no judgment zone" discussion group. Topics taken from the Bible and other spiritual books. Meets after Evening Prayer.

CENTERING PRAYER: Second and fourth Thursdays at 5:30 pm
Centering prayer is silent, meditative, receptive prayer resting in God’s presence. Come join us as we consent to the presence and action of God within.

EPISCOPALIAN ROSARY: These Rosaries (developed by our rector) and ‘how to pray' booklets are free to all who ask as an aid to their prayer life. Watch our online calendar for Rosary-making workshops which are scheduled as needed (and we need one soon!).

GROUP AND INDIVIDUAL SPIRITUAL DIRECTION: A time of entering into a sacred space together, to explore how we can live more fully into whom God created us to be. Individual meetings are by appointment.

MOVIE NIGHT! First Fridays at 6:30pm (new night) Popcorn and soft-drinks provided, along with BYOAdultBeverage. Next Movie Night! is September 2. We’ll be watching “The Lord of the Rings, the Two Towers” rated PG-13. Watch our online calendar for movie details.

PRAYER SHAWL MINISTRY: Wednesdays, 12:45 pm (new day and time) Beginners to experienced knitters and crocheters meet weekly after the Shepherd’s Table to make shawls.

Also in this newsletter, you will hear from Matthew Kiggen, our new Youth Minister, about our newly designed Youth Program. Deacon Pam writes about our newly re-formed Christian Formation program for all ages. Steve Sherer talks about the rebirth of the Parish Net program as the Parish Meal Ministry and how you can help with it. Lowrey Young and Jane Shooter update us on the formalization of our Shepherd’s Table and Food Pantry ministries, including the development of policies and procedures, volunteer training and more!

Our Music Director search is underway, so your prayers for this are much appreciated. We are also transitioning in our admin office again - Ashley has accepted a full-time social work position in Gastonia (where she lives). Since we only recently interviewed for this position, I have re-contacted our top two other picks and will be re-meeting with them this week. I hope (expect) this will be a short transition.

The vestry has also approved Phase One of the garden project – the Columbarium. Work should begin any day (behind the connector, between the admin building and the parish hall). Our roof is also scheduled to be repaired later in the fall.

We still need to get busy on our planning for a playground/outdoor worship/learning space for our children. Anyone feeling called to help with that? Let me know:

As you can see, there is a LOT going on at Redeemer. Our life together is full, blessed, and constantly forming! Come and find your place, and God’s will for your gifts among us. I close with a prayer written for our Taizé service on Aug 28: “Although within us there are wounds, Lord Christ, above all there is the miracle of your mysterious presence. Thus, made lighter or even set free, we are going with you, the Christ, from one discovery to another. Amen.”