Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas Day 2012: Purity like Mary's

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

Today's sermon was extemporaneous and is available in audio form only.

Merry Christmas!

Christmas Eve Midnight Mass 2012: We are the sign

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

We gather on this great and holy night to joyfully receive the gift of our Redeemer,
to collectively behold him with sure confidence of his love for us and his purpose for our lives. Having prepared ourselves during Advent for this moment, we stand together now ready to be reborn with him, as daughters and sons of God.

It is truly a joyful moment - for us and for the whole world. The reason is, we are not passive observers in the story of Christmas or in the continuing plan of redemption. We are active participants.

We aren’t here tonight simply to recount the first chapter of the greatest story ever told. We’re here to live it again.

Each of us is alive in this moment of time, having been sent by God to participate in making manifest the will of God on earth so that everyone will come to know the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ. Each of us has our part to play, our obedience to give, and our shame to bear as we live into our purpose.

Luke’s gospel narrative demonstrates this for us in Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds. They show us how doing our part requires us to trust God’s love, promises, and the plan of salvation knowing that the working out of that plan unfolds over time.

Luke begins the story of Jesus’ birth with a discussion of the Roman census, which was a means of establishing an accurate tax base. The Roman government wasn’t concerned about justice or fairness, and there was no doctor’s note to get you out of going to register. It also didn’t matter to the Roman government whether the rich and the poor Jews were being taxed fairly or giving proportionately. It only mattered that money came in to support the Roman governors.

Being a righteous man, Joseph, who was a descendant of the great King David, could have said, ‘No, I won’t go register. I won’t participate in this unfair, earthly institution which will feed the monster Roman government that occupies our land. And I won’t submit myself to the public shame Mary’s condition will bring to me.’ He could have said that, but he didn’t.

Instead, he took his pregnant girlfriend 90 miles to Bethlehem to register as he was required to do. By doing so, Joseph publicly and legally claimed Jesus as his son, legitimating him and Mary according to earthly institutions.

Joseph’s journey also fulfilled the prophesy that the Messiah would be born of the house of David (which his adoption of Jesus made official) and in the city of David - Bethlehem. By giving his trust and obedience to God, Joseph participated with God in bringing about the will of God on the earth.

Mary also had her part to play, her obedience to give and her shame to bear. Coming up pregnant prior to her marriage to Joseph, Mary could have been stoned to death for adultery. She could have said, ‘No’ to the public shaming her pregnancy would bring her - but she didn’t. She told the angel Gabriel that she would do whatever God asked of her. By giving not only her ‘Yes,’ but her body and her life to God, Mary participated with God in bringing about the will of God on the earth.

As the plan unfolded for Mary and Joseph, it brought one degradation after another, culminating on this night with their inability to find a decent place to lodge. We traditionally translate this problem as “no room at the inn” but a better translation is: “no room in the guest quarters.” (New Interpreter’s Study Bible, Abingdon Press, 1855.)

It may have been that there really was no room. The census would have brought lots of visitors to Bethlehem all at once. Given the shameful circumstance of Mary’s condition, however, it was more likely that Joseph’s family simply wouldn’t admit them into their homes and the only place made available to them was the space where the animals were kept. It would have been a serious insult to Mary and Joseph.

In the big picture, however, the Word became Incarnate to reconcile the whole world to God. Even his place of birth demonstrates that truth. The poor, the judged, and those excluded from civilized treatment on earth are given a place of honor in God’s plan of salvation.

Even the shepherds, the first to hear of the birth, were as lowly as the manger that held the infant Messiah. When heaven opened up and the glory of God shone on them, the shepherds were given their part to play.

The angel told the shepherds that the Messiah of God had been born in Bethlehem and there would be a sign for them there if they chose to go see it: a baby in a manger wrapped in swaddling cloth. The shepherds talked about it, then offered their collective obedience and went immediately to find this sign.

The shame they bore? They were dirty, smelly shepherds and they weren’t likely to be welcomed into the presence of, much less conversation with, “civilized” people.

That didn’t stop them, though. Despite the potential for rejection, the shepherds went to Bethlehem, found the baby, and made known what they had seen and been told – and everyone was amazed by what they said. By believing the good news of salvation announced by the angels, by seeking and finding the sign they were told about, and by speaking their truth despite the risk of rejection, the shepherds participated with God in bringing about the will of God on the earth.

But these events took place almost 2,000 years ago. What does it mean for us today? Why do we gather now to remember it?

In his book, “Jesus Today” Dominican priest, Albert Nolan, says: “On the whole, we don’t take Jesus very seriously… by and large we don’t love our enemies, we don’t turn the other cheek, 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.” (Jesus Today, Orbis Books, xvii).

Why? Nolan suggests that many of us believe these to be great ideals, but that actually doing them “isn’t very practical in this day and age.”

Well, I think Mary and Joseph might have said the same thing in their day – the shepherds too. Following Jesus has never been practical. It isn’t supposed to be. Following Jesus is revolutionary!

And that is why we’re here today. The message is the same for us as it was for the shepherds. We are the ones being invited to not be afraid, to go see for ourselves the sign of God’s salvation in our world.

Where do we find such a sign in this day and time? Well, that’s simple. All we have to do is look inside and recognize that we ARE the sign. I share with you a prayer from St. John of the Cross to Emmanuel:

How gently and lovingly
You wake in my heart,
Where in secret you dwell alone;
And in your sweet breathing,
Filled with good and glory,
How tenderly You swell my heart with love. (From: “Living Flame of Love”)

We are the church – the body of Christ born again this night into the world. Our purpose is to do our part in the reconciling work of Christ.

We are the players in the Christmas story we live today, right now, in this place and time. We are all Mary, giving our “yes,” our bodies, our lives to God. We are all Joseph, giving our trust to God. And we are all the shepherds, collectively giving our obedience, seeking the presence of God in worship together, then proclaiming the truth we know to a world that aches to hear it.

“Joy to the world, the Lord is come. Let us joyfully receive our King.” Amen.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Advent 3, 2012: Breath and fire

Lectionary: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Canticle 9; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

John the Baptist says: "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Don’t think you’re home free just because Abraham is the head of your family tree. “Even now the ax is lying at the root of [those] trees; [and] every tree (that is every one of you) that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the… unquenchable fire.”

How’s that for Good News?

If we are to hear what’s good about this, we will have to listen with new ears and a dose of humility.

Let’s start with the basic message of what the Good News is: God promised to save the whole world and to reconcile us to God (which means to co-exist with God) that we might live eternally in the love and presence of God. That promise was fulfilled in Jesus Christ, the Messiah of God, who is the son of God and the son of Mary, and who lived, died, and rose again, thereby reconciling us to God. God in Christ, who was resurrected from the dead, then gave us the Holy Spirit, who is God, and who dwells in us, and called us to participate in the continuing work of redemption until he comes again.

Does that sound about right?

In our gospel story, John the Baptist, who was sent to prepare the way for the Messiah, is teaching those who have power, and privilege, and who understand salvation to be their right rather than God’s gift. John calls them to a baptism of repentance, urging them to change the way they live their lives, to get back on the path of righteousness (right relationship).

John makes this message concrete when the tax collectors, who were notorious for getting rich by exploiting the poor, ask him how they should repent. Be honest, John says. Take no more than is required. And when the soldiers, who were Mafioso type body guards and enforcers for the tax collectors, ask how they should change their ways, John instructs them to be humble, gentle, and honest in their work.

When one is lost, learning how to get back on the right path is Good News.

Using language familiar to his listeners, John explains that those who have strayed from the path of righteousness, including some from the family of Abraham, will be cut off at their roots and thrown into unquenchable fire.

Fire, as you remember, is symbolic language for God. John is describing a kind of spiritual do-over. The fire is unquenchable – just as God’s love and desire for our redemption is unrelenting. Being consumed by the fire of God’s love and purified in that love is a gift, and sometimes it’s the only way to change the course of one’s life.

The Good News here is that in God we can start over. The fire of God’s love will consume us, purify us, and make us new.

The listeners of this gospel story were people much like us. Most of them had enough to live comfortably. Some had more than enough. When they asked how they should repent, John answered them: "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise."

This is Good News on so many levels.

First, it opens these people up to a world in which they are not the center of attention. Being the center of attention is a way of life that seems attractive but it is actually a trap and soon becomes an obsession. Look at our culture of celebrities.

Secondly, it connects them to others, building in them empathy, respect, and a willingness to enter into friendship with people they used to judge and avoid knowing.

Third, it frees these people from their attachment to things. It makes relationships their priority. John tells them to give ‘their stuff’ away, to be as generous with others as God has been with them.

Imagine also what Good News this is to the weak, the poor, the exploited, and the hopeless. They are the ones who will receive the coats that will be shared. They are the ones who will receive the food that is no longer being hoarded and held away from them.

They are also hearing the ones who have enough, the ones who have been exploiting and harassing them, being told to change their ways. If that happens, they know they will no longer be judged or blamed for their poverty, but lifted out of it.

This truly is Good News.

Finally, John acknowledges to the gathered crowd that he is not the Messiah. He is baptizing with water, but the Messiah, who will come after him, will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire – both words that refer to God.

Holy Spirit, which is translated from the Greek word,‘pneuma’ also means ‘wind’ or ‘breath.’ The Messiah will baptize with the breath of heaven – the very breath that gives life to all that is living and breathes new life into those who are dead.

The Messiah will also baptize with fire – which is the presence and passion of God. Sharing in the presence and passion of God means knowing that we are connected, to God and to one another, bound by the eternal love of God.

And that means we will no longer be able to separate ourselves into groups of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ or even us and God. We will live in the unity of the Love that is God.

Our awareness of our connectedness and unity with one another and with God will transform the world, and the will of God will be manifest on earth as it is in heaven. No one will have to tell us to be honest, or gentle, or humble in our dealings with one another. We will bear this fruit because we will know that
the root we truly spring from is God and we will share the character and nature of God who dwells in us.

Lives transformed by the Good News of our salvation – that is the call of our baptism as much now as it ever has been – as much as it was for the people John the Baptist was teaching… as much as it was for the people to whom Zephaniah was prophesying: “Rejoice… O daughter Jerusalem! … the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.”

Rejoice. Be joyful. Hear the Good News of your salvation. There is no destruction to fear – only new life to embrace.

Let the fire consume you and be grateful it is unquenchable because it means that God never gives up on us. God always provides the chance for new life, purified life, life in the presence and passion of God.

When we truly trust God we don’t fear for our lives, we surrender them to God just like Mary and Jesus showed us how to do. Like Mary, we give up our expectations for what our lives might be and give ourselves fully to God whose plan is so much more than we can ask or imagine. And we trust as that plan is revealed to us over time.

Living in the truth of the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ, we remember that resurrection is always God’s response to death. We know that if God calls us to die (literally or figuratively), it is so that heaven can breathe new life into us and into the whole world. So, we can offer ourselves to God, not out of fear, but anticipating joyfully the new life God is waiting to give us.

Muslim poet and Sufi mystic, Rumi, offers this prayer to God: “I have one drop of knowing in my soul. Let it dissolve in your ocean.”

As we enter our final week of Advent preparation, may we faithfully enter the unquenchable fire that purifies us and sets us free from all that divides us and distracts us from the truth of the Good News.

May we drown in the ocean of God where we find the peace that surpasses all understanding.

And may we trust in the bountiful grace and mercy of God to deliver us again and again from death into life. Amen.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The goal of Advent

A message from the rector (found in the December, 2012 newsletter)

Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. This is a familiar Advent theme, and 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. Get up! Open your eyes, breathe deeply, and get going. There is much to do in the ‘already but not yet’ world in which we live!

There are people suffering right here among us and around the world. There are people hungry for food, for friendship, and for God! There is much to do.

During his earthly ministry, Jesus healed the sick, connected with the excluded, and loved even those who executed him. Our earthly ministries should do likewise. We are here on this earth as a people chosen by God, chosen to be partners in the plan of salvation, just as Mary and Joseph were two millennia ago. But doing that work takes preparation – intentional, prayerful, continuing preparation.

That is the purpose and the goal of the season of Advent. All around us the Christmas season is kicking to high gear - carols are already playing in stores and restaurants. Holiday decorations and lights are up all over town. The tree was lighted last week at uptown Shelby. And this season, more than most others, also strains on our time, our attention, and our energy. I would guess that there are some among us who are already bracing for the stress, the depression, and the fatigue this holiday season brings… not to mention the debt.

Advent gives us the opportunity to step out of the madness, to quiet the chaos of the season as the culture experiences it and make space in our souls and our lives for God, so that the amazing event we await - the Incarnation - has the opportunity to have its transforming effect on us.

Advent calls us to include at least some time for quiet reflection and prayer. And from my experience with prayer, it is impossible to dread and fear anything while in the presence and embrace of God.

Redeemer is providing an alternative experience: Advent services designed to allow us to enter the peace, touch the mystery, and be in the Presence of God. Join us the three Thursday evening of Advent at 6:00 for a Soup Supper, then stay for our Advent Services:
* Dec 6: Service of Healing and Light - a traditional service of meditative prayer, songs, and readings from Scripture. The service begins in darkness and welcomes the light of Christ gradually, intentionally, fully. This service includes healing prayer, including anointing with oil and laying on of hands. Officiant: The Rev. Deacon Pam Bright
* Dec 13: Evensong - a traditional service of Evening Prayer sung by the Redeemer choir. Let the hectic-ness of the holiday season fall away into the quiet of prayer, grounded in Scripture, as we all prepare for the coming of the Savior at Christmas. (There is no Eucharist at this service.) Officiant: RoseAnn Evans.
* Dec 20: Advent Service of Lessons & Carols - a traditional celebration of Advent hymn-singing and reading from Holy Scripture focused on the coming of Jesus Christ, the Messiah of God. Officiant: Michele Wiltfong.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Christ the King, 2012-B: Living in accordance with divine truth

Lectionary: Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14; Psalm 93 ; Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18:33-37

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

Hoow many of you have ever seen a 3-D movie? I saw Avatar in 3-D and it was amazing.
It was amazing to me that I could even share in the 3-D experience.

You see, growing up, I could only see in two dimensions due to an issue with my eyes. I wasn’t able to see in 3-D until 8 years ago following some laser eye surgery. Up until then my world looked pretty flat, like a picture or a photograph.
I remember (years ago) chaperoning a school trip to Disney’s Epcot Center where we took the kids to one of the first ever 3-D showings. I watched as the kids would reach out toward something that they said looked like it was right in front of them. They would back up when it looked like something was coming at them quickly.

To me, everything just looked like two blurry images, one mostly red and one mostly green,
sitting almost on top of each other. Looking through the 3-D glasses with 2-D vision made me feel like my eyes were crossing, so I took the glasses off and watched a flat but enjoyable show.

When the surgery gave me three-dimensional vision I had to learn to “see” my world all over again. Stairs were the best thing I re-learned. They had always looked like stripes to me and if there were shadows on them, it really very hard for me to see them at all. With new new-found ability to see depth, I finally understood what I was looking at, when it came to stairs, and they became much easier (and safer) for me to maneuver.

Many people had tried to explain depth to me over the years, but it was simply outside of my ability to see and comprehend until the surgery opened my eyes to it. This is kind of what it was like for Jesus as he tried to answer Pilate’s questions about kingdoms and kingship.

Pilate asks a question from an earthly experience - one bound by place and time, kind of a 2-D question: “Are you the King of the Jews?” (which would be the crime of sedition). “Am I a Jew?” (which would be the crime of treason). Your own people have handed you over to me.
Why? What have you done? Pilate needed a reason to put Jesus to death.

Jesus answers with eternal truth… a 3-D answer, you might say, and it’s something Pilate simply can’t comprehend: If my kingdom were of this world, my followers would be fighting to save me because that’s how things work in the world. “But, as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate hears Jesus’ reference to his kingdom and asks, “So you are a king?”

There was just no way for Jesus to answer that question. “King” is too small a word, too small a concept for the Incarnate God.

King is your word, Jesus says, not mine. I came to testify to the truth. Those who belong to the truth listen to me and obey me. Pilate did neither, nor did the religious authorities. Do we?

As we celebrate our patronal feast, the Feast of Christ the King, I want you to know that some people prefer to call this the Feast of the Reign of Christ. (And since this isn’t in our Prayer Book yet, we’re free to play with this a bit)

I like that. I like the Feast of the Reign of Christ. It’s more in keeping with Jesus life and teachings. Jesus never sought titles or privilege while he was among us – quite the opposite. He arrived as a helpless baby born to a poor, unmarried girl.

His ministry leadership was comprised of some fishermen, a tax collector, a doctor, a zealot, and some women – hardly a powerful or threatening group. Jesus’ ministry was about bringing in a new age – the reign of God - and he spent his time focused on the poor, the sinful, the excluded, and the powerless.

Rather than gathering up the things earthly rulers did to secure their reign, e.g. armies, riches, and lands, Jesus spent his time giving things away, e.g., food, healing, forgiveness. Yet, something about Jesus and his followers threatened the authorities and caused the religious leadership to tremble. That thing, I think, was truth.

In his presence, everyone knew that Jesus was the embodiment of truth and whenever we are in the presence of real truth we know our bubbles are going to burst – bubbles we’ve carefully and collectively constructed to make ourselves feel safe and in control. When those bubbles burst, we feel nervous and insecure because we realize how small we are in the presence of so great a truth as God.

That’s why so many religious leaders – then and now - break God down into small, comprehensible, controllable bits. But there is nothing small or comprehensible or controllable about God. And there is nothing to fear about that. It’s the truth. We can expect it, trust it, and count on it. We can surrender to the truth that God is God and we are not. And thanks be to God for that!

The reign of Christ isn’t about power, or glory, or privilege for a deity. It is now and always has been about salvation, about reconciling all who have been separated or lost back into the unity and presence of Love, who is God.

That’s why everything about Jesus’ earthly life and ministry kept catching the earthly authorities by surprise. They knew how a zealot would act, or a would-be warrior king. But they had no way to understand or respond to someone who acted out of selfless love, someone who would die in a moment in time so that all people could live eternally.

“For this I was born”…Jesus says…”for this I came into the world.” Christ our King does not rule over us using power or force, but reigns in love. Our King is not a great warrior or a mighty soldier, but a humble child, a sacrificial lamb.

We who hear this story today are witnesses of Jesus’ testimony, and we are invited by our King to listen to his voice. Listen, as it is being used here, is not about using our ears to hear, or even about paying attention to what is being said.

It’s a practice of living in accordance with divine truth. (The New Greek Lexicon, Wesley J. Perschbacher, ed., Hendrickson Publishing, 14.) In Greek, the word for “listen” and the word for “obey” have the same root and it refers to a way of being, not to something we do.

And the way of being to which we are called is found in the testimony of Jesus Christ. His is a testimony of humility, faithfulness, and obedience to God’s will, even in the face of injustice and suffering; of walking non-violently toward what may, at times, seem like certain death trusting that is actually the path of life and truth.

“For this [Christ our King] was born…for this [he] came into the world.” May we who belong to the truth listen to his voice.

May we who belong to the truth listen to his voice. So let’s say together now words that will commit us to that. Please open your Prayer Books to page 832, and let’s pray together prayer number 61: A prayer of self-dedication.

Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to thee, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly thine, utterly dedicated unto thee; and then use us, we pray thee, as thou wilt, and always to thy glory and the welfare of thy people; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Community Thanksgiving Service, 2012

Lectionary: Joel 2:21-27; Psalm 126; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Matthew 6:25-33

Good evening! Let us bow our heads and pray:

“Almighty and gracious God…Make us we pray, faithful stewards of your great bounty, for the provision of our necessities and the relief of all who are in need, to the glory of your Name.” Amen. (BCP, 246)

On October 13, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln, in the midst of a Civil War, made the following statements in a presidential proclamation for Thanksgiving Day:

“The year that is drawing toward its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful yields
and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible
to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God… No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God.”

How humbling it is for us to hear these words, knowing they were spoken in the devastating chaos of one of our country’s most difficult historical moments. There was no “us” and “them” in the Civil War. Everyone who died was one of us.

Whole cities were burned, industries were destroyed, and families were torn apart, ideologically and actually. During that time, many people had real cause to worry about the basics of human existence: food, shelter, clothing, medical care.

And yet, in the midst of the awful reality being confronted, a day was set aside to remember the greatness and graciousness of God. This is our Thanksgiving Day legacy.

In the face of whatever difficulty, chaos, or devastation we confront, it is important for us to set aside time, as we have done tonight, to remember the greatness and graciousness of God, and to remember God’s call to righteousness.

In our Gospel reading from Matthew, Jesus says, “Do not worry about your life but strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” This teaching of Jesus is directed to those who have enough, those who know prosperity.

Growing up around a lot of money I learned that no matter how much money you have, someone else has more. For some people, what they have never feels like it’s enough… even though it is.

“Don’t worry about your life…” Jesus says to them. Don’t become absorbed by your own desires. Desire instead the kingdom of God, go after it, ask for it, demand it… Be about the business of making the kingdom of God manifest on the earth.

To do that, brothers and sisters in Christ, we must live in righteousness, that is, in right relationship with God and with all whom God has Created, because, as we heard in the letter to Timothy, Jesus Christ came and offered himself as a ransom for ALL.

There is no one created by God who is outside the love and redemptive plan of God. It is up to us, however, to be the hands that reach out, the heralds that speak the Good News.

We live in a time when we hear a lot of discussion about who deserves help and who doesn’t. At Redeemer, we get calls every week from people who want to come to the Shepherd’s Table to eat or to get a bag of food and supplies from the Food Pantry. They want to know what documentation they should bring to prove they’re deserving of our help.

Bring nothing, we tell them. Just come and eat with friends.

We live in a society that also likes to fit people into boxes: this one is the right age, has the right disability, is on Medicaid. They go in the “we will serve them” box.

This one is disagreeable and ungrateful… It’s probably their own fault they’re poor and in need. They go in the “we won’t serve them” box. After all, we don’t want to enable such bad behavior.

I had a conversation like that just this week.

‘Oh – we know that person,’ several agencies told me. ‘They’re always angry and accusatory.
They made me feel uncomfortable. One person said “unsafe.”

As I listened, I thought: we fear strangers, not friends. In the end – the outcome was the same:
The disagreeable poor person didn’t “qualify” for any services.

So I asked these agency representatives: How many happy homeless people do you know? How happy would you be if you had to beg someone you knew was judging you to get what you need to live?

How many of these “disagreeable” people had to learn to be disagreeable in order to survive on the streets? …or in response to disrespectful treatment from people they needed to ask for help? Maybe, as in the case of long-term victims of domestic or sexual abuse they grew up hearing mostly abusive discourse and haven’t had much opportunity to practice polite conversation.

Jesus cared for the stranger, the sinner, and the outcast and calls us to do the same. There is always a story to hear, a wound that needs a salve. But people will only share stuff like that with a friend.

And the “don’t judge” thing Jesus was always mentioning? It’s pretty important. And it goes both ways.

When I left my abusive first husband, who was a doctor, he emptied our bank accounts leaving my infant daughter and me with no access to money. I was forced to apply for Food Stamps for a short time.

As I stood in line to receive them in the clothes I bought as a doctor’s wife, I heard comments from the others in line who were judging me for taking help I obviously didn’t need. I guess I didn’t look poor or hungry enough for them.

Everyone has a story, and their wounding or burden may not be obvious.

If we are to heed Christ’s teaching on how to be his follower we must learn to listen as friends not strangers and without judgment. We must learn to care for all those God leads into our lives
as sisters and brothers of the same parent – our heavenly parent. And we must work to become as generous with others as God is with us.

Some years ago I went on a mission trip to Romania. Part of my work there included serving homeless children - street children.

One of “my children” was an 8 year-old beggar named Çoni. Çoni was smart, savvy, and doomed by his poverty. One day, as we walked along the city streets of Cluj, this precocious little guy ran off and begged some money (which, by the way, he could do in 5 languages).

Then he went to a fruit stand and bought a banana. I sat on a nearby park bench and watched as he stood on tiptoe to pay the vendor.

When he returned to where I was sitting, he broke the banana in two and offered me half. I was overcome by the generosity that came so naturally to him.

To Çoni, I was a friend, and worthy of half the banana he just begged. Çoni certainly didn’t have enough to eat and he had no promise of food for the future. Yet he shared his banana with me all the same. The generosity of love shown by that 8 year-old street child transformed me and forever changed how I approach people of all kinds.

There will always be something that will tempt us to worry about ourselves, what we will eat, what we will wear... But the call of Christ on our lives compels us to turn our attention from ourselves to the kingdom of God.

It compels us to answer the command to love God and our neighbor – even the stranger who makes us uncomfortable. It compels us to trust God to guide us to listen in friendship to the stories of wounds and burdens borne by our sisters and brothers who are suffering and to provide for their needs as faithful stewards of the abundant bounty of God.

We do this all for the glory of God and for the welfare of all God’s people because “the Lord has done great things for us and we are glad indeed.” Thanks be to God! Amen.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Pentecost 24B, 2012: Agents of transformation

Proper 27 Lectionary: 1 Kings 17:8-16; Psalm 146 ; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44

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

I’m not a big TV fan, but I do enjoy the Brit-coms. One of my favorites is called “Keeping Up Appearances” a BBC show from the 90’s about a middle-aged, middle class English woman named Hyacinth Bucket (spelled: b-u-c-k-e-t).

Hyacinth got into all kinds of predicaments in her efforts to convince others (and even herself) that she was a wealthy, refined, aristocrat – things she valued more than being authentic. Hyacinth was so pre-occupied with living the life she wished for that she missed out on living the life she had.

In our gospel story today, the scribes, who were respected, powerful religious leaders in those days, were condemned by Jesus for their preoccupation with appearances. ‘Look at them’ Jesus says, ‘They wear expensive clothes and sit at the head table at all the right parties. They demand your respect and thrive on the power you give them. They do what’s expected of them in return, praying long prayers, but only for the sake of keeping up appearances. “They will receive the greater condemnation.” Jesus says.

Then Jesus goes to the temple treasury where the people are putting in their offerings for the support of the temple. He watches as “many rich people put in large sums.” Then he watches a poor widow put her measly few coins in the collection plate.

Seeing an important lesson about the kingdom of God presenting itself, Jesus calls his disciples near and teaches them. But this isn’t a discussion about money. It’s a discussion about learning to see the new thing God is doing in the world – a world where the poor widow is honored and the rich religious leaders are condemned. By this teaching, Jesus is helping the disciples let go their preconceived notions about social and church structures so that they can see and participate in the new world God is creating right in front of them.

This is very much in keeping with our Bishop, Porter Taylor’s opening address at our diocesan convention this weekend, and so I share some his words with you today:

“We journey inward [in prayer], we journey outward [in mission and ministry, but]… we journey together… [and] there is something sacred about working together… When we cannot talk about our “issues,” we can always work together. We can always feed the hungry and give shelter to the homeless and be agents for God’s reign.

Conversation and commitment are what matter. We cannot wait for a new Church to emerge because this day is the only day we have to be agents of transformation. Let’s be creative; let’s be inventive; but let’s get on with walking in the way and widening the walls and waking up the world. Let’s be about our core essentials: Christian Formation, Justice/Outreach, Evangelism, Communication, and Stewardship and liturgy. Let us find the best ways to move forward in these areas together.

…This togetherness enables us to hang on to one another even when we don’t agree. In Advent I will authorize under my specific guidelines the use of the liturgy of Same Sex Blessings passed by General Convention. These are liturgies for provisional use between General Conventions (emphasis mine). The Episcopal Church has not sanctioned same sex marriage. As a Church we are going to try out this liturgy for three years and in 2015 come together to listen to our experiences and decide what to do. We have had blessings in WNC for some time. All that this will do is to make the liturgy uniform. Remember “All May, Some Should, None Must.” While some will feel as if my guidelines are too restrictive; others will feel as if they are too radical. That diversity is who we are… I am confident that we are so committed to our Lord and his Church, that his strong love will pull us through our differences together.

I am pleased to say that our diocese is already creative and innovative and funner. People were not waiting for this address to do new things for our Lord and His Church…I want to say a word about the work that Beth Turner, Valori Shearer (sic), Beth Lilly, Karla Woggan, Rob Lundquist, Thomas Murphy, John Simpson, Augusta Anderson, Pattie Curtis, Osondu McPeters and others I forgot to mention are doing with Young Adults. It is creative and also traditional. They are gathering people into the faith through the blessed sacraments and scripture and prayer.

I am also committed to us being more creative in proclaiming the Good News... As a Church, we must be about what Jesus was about: unity and diversity. We need to bring in more people of color—especially Latinos—more young adults.

To put it simply, we need to be more flexible in how we do Church. This means I need you to be the ones to initiate creative experiments. We must get over our fear that if we do something new, my parish or our diocese will suffer. Let’s let the Spirit work… because it’s not our Church; it’s Christ’s Church and he is the bishop of our souls.

So, intentional, clearer, more focused yet innovative, creative, funner. This is my charge for 2013.”

In his sermon at our Eucharist Saturday night, +Porter reminded us of the uncontainability of the Christ we follow, our Savior who broke open the tomb and, leaving death behind, inaugurated a New Age, bringing new life to the world – resurrection life. +Porter said: “Let us rejoice that we cannot predict what Jesus will do anymore. He is free. Our calling is recognize him wherever he is. Our calling is to learn to see him in unexpected places. And most of all our calling is to believe in his power to make all things new…”

The life, mission, and ministry we live as a parish, a diocese, a denomination, a part of a world-wide communion of followers of Christ, are gifts from the Almighty Giver, who, as we will hear in our Offertory Hymn (# 665) bestows bounteous gifts on us every day. Everyday our world is new and different because of the gifts of God bestowed daily.

We can refuse the gifts of God if we choose, holding out for the life we wish for or prefer to the one we have. Or we can open our eyes to see the life God is giving us to live and be transformed by it. Then we can open our hearts and carry this abundant life, this resurrection life to all who lack it or just don’t see see it.

Today is the only day we have to be “agents of transformation.” So, let’s answer our Bishop’s charge to be creative and inventive, and let’s walk in the way, widen the walls, and wake up the world…together. Amen.

Note: For the full content of Bishop Taylor's address and sermon, click here.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

All Saints Day, 2012: Living like the saints we are

Lectionary: Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 24; Revelation 21:1-6a; John 11:32-44

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

In his book, The Magnificent Defeat, Frederick Buechner said: "…to be a saint is to know joy. Not happiness that comes and goes with the moments that occasion it, but
joy that is always there like an underground spring no matter how dark and terrible the night. To be a saint is to be a little out of one's mind, which is a very good thing to be a little out of from time to time. It is to live a life that is always giving itself away and yet is always full." Source.

“To be a saint is to be a little out of one’s mind…” he said. Finally, a qualification for sainthood I can meet! I live a little bit out of my mind all of the time. I always have, especially when it comes to my spiritual life. I know many others (even some here) who could say the same, but mostly don’t because, well… people will think they’re out of their minds.

Buechner is right though – a saint is one who has access to an invisible well-spring of live-giving water no matter how dark and terrible a night they are experiencing. The truth is we are all saints. We all have access to that spring. Christ promised it and it is true. We also have a cloud of witnesses, the whole company of heaven, praying for us and walking with us through the vicissitudes and fortunes of our lives.

When I was only 4 years old, I experienced a terrible trauma in the world. While it was happening, a lady came to me (in the spiritual sense) and held me her lap in a tender embrace. She whispered love and comfort to me even while violence was happening to me in my earthly experience. I knew I was safe with her and that I would make it through the nightmare I was experiencing.

This is the first spiritual experience that I can remember and it blessed me with a deep and lively spiritual life that has kept me connected to God and the saints in heaven all these years. I knew from this experience that no matter what was happening here on earth, I was always safe because I had friends in heaven who would come when I needed them. I knew that God was holding me and my life in a love that was true and powerful – truer and more powerful than anything the world could offer.

Growing up Roman Catholic, I first understood this lady to be Mary, the mother of Jesus – which is where my life-long devotion to the Rosary originates. I later came to understand that the lady who came to me, the lap that held me that day – was God. It was God herself who comforted me. It was God himself who protected me. That was when I came to understand the gender fullness of God.

I was too young back then to judge my spiritual experiences as unusual, or crazy. They were just mine.

I knew that Mary was Jesus’ mother, but I experienced Mary as my mother too, my heavenly mother who would come near whenever I needed her. Because of that, I believed - in the innocence of my childhood faith – that all of the saints in heaven were also there for me.

As a Roman Catholic, we may not have spent a lot of time learning the Bible, but we did learn the saints, and I for one, am grateful we did. I was hungry to know the breadth of the spiritual friends available to me and I couldn’t wait to meet them in the books I read and on the saint’s days we celebrated in church.

As I grew in my life of prayer, I learned how to ask for their help when I needed it. For example, most of you know that I am an introvert. Well, as a kid I was also a tomboy. As an introverted tomboy, I used to relish my time alone in the woods, communing with nature and restoring my peace.

I have always loved bugs, snakes, and critters. I felt like they were my friends too and that they participated in my prayer as I sat in the quiet of the woods watching them be. I felt like the trees lifted their branches in prayer with me as we praised God.

I used to pray the Sanctus with them in the woods. I believed I could because I believed then what I would later come to hear in the Episcopal Church in Eucharistic Prayer D (the one we’re using today): “Countless throngs of angels stand before you to serve you night and day; and, beholding the glory of your presence, they offer you unceasing praise. Joining with them, and giving voice to every creature under heaven, we acclaim you, and glorify your Name, as we sing (say)… Holy, holy, holy, Lord, God of power and might. Heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest.” (BCP, 373)

Is it any wonder I found my spiritual home in the Episcopal Church?

The communion of saints is real for me. I hope they are for you too. If they aren’t now, I highly recommend them to you. To get to know them, all you have to do is ask, then wait with an open heart.

For the more Protestant among us, let me say it like this. We pray for one another all of the time, don’t we? It’s what friends do. We don’t hesitate to ask someone for their prayers when we need their support or want to share our joy. We don’t ask them for prayer because we need them to intercede for us – we all have direct access to God ourselves. We ask them because we want their companionship in prayer as we navigate difficult moments or celebrate happy ones in our lives.

The same is true about our spiritual friends among the communion of saints in heaven. These are friends who went before us and know what it’s like to try to live faithfully here on the earth.

It’s also true about our spiritual friends among the communion of saints on earth. They are the simple and the special, the ordinary and the extraordinary… the young and the old… the brilliant and the simple-minded. They are whoever is present in our lives, whoever God has given to us to love.

Some of these saints challenge us and try our Christian virtue. Some of them open our closed minds by their innocence or their faith. They soothe our tired souls with their compassion, and nourish us with their prayer and friendship.

It is these saints, the saints on earth, who enable us to obey Christ’s command to go to those, like Lazarus, who are walking around spiritually dead or dying from their earthly experiences and set them free to live in the fullness of joy found only in Jesus Christ who overcame death and the grave once for us all.

So let’s bring down the boundaries we’ve built up in our minds and in our faith - the ones that keep us safe and sane and separated from one another. And let’s be a little out of our minds, being led by God in that procession of saints who were, saints who are, and saints who are yet to come.

Let’s claim the spiritual strengths each of us has been given for the benefit of the kingdom. Then let’s nourish those strengths, here in the company of this faith community, so that we can give them away.

Let’s live like the saints we are, knowing that the more we give of ourselves and our lives, the more we and the world will experience the fullness of God’s love, and the more the kingdom of God will be manifest on the earth. Amen.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Pentecost 22-B: A journey of faith

Proper 25 Lectionary: Jeremiah 31:7-9; Psalm 126 ; Hebrews 7:23-28; Mark 10:46-52

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

Today’s reading from the gospel of Mark is the conclusion of a very long and patient teaching by Jesus which Mark begins describing in chapter 8. On this journey, Jesus is helping his followers understand their own blindness so that they can be opened to the enlightenment that comes from God alone.

This is Jesus’ final journey, so he’s preparing the disciples to be bearers of the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ to the whole world. But this salvation - what it is, who it’s for, and how it will happen, isn’t anything like they are expecting. It isn’t much like we have come to expect either, so this lesson is as important for us now as it was for the disciples then.

(See the MAP insert in the bulletin)

The journey begins in the northern part of Israel with the story of the feeding of the 4,000. A crowd has gathered and they have nothing to eat. Jesus has compassion for them because they are hungry (actually and spiritually), and tells the disciples to feed them.

With what? All we have are a few loaves and fish. But their faith in Jesus and willingness to obey, even in the face of evidence that it’s impossible, makes way for God’s abundance and grace to be manifest.

Next they head for Dalmanutha (near Magdala) where Jesus is tested by the Pharisees. Frustrated by their blindness and lack of faith, Jesus decides not to stop and engage with them. His time had not yet come.

So they head to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. On the way, the disciples realize they forgot to bring bread and worry that Jesus will be upset with them. Jesus asks them: “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? ...Do you have eyes, and fail to see?” (8:17-18)

So, on they go to Bethsaida where Jesus cures a blind man, but the cure isn’t immediate. It takes a couple of tries. Sometimes our faith and our spiritual sight take time to happen.

They continue north to Caesarea Philippi. This is where Jesus asks the disciples who people say he is, and Peter responds: ‘You are the Messiah.’ (8:29) Jesus affirms Peter’s revelation but sternly orders the disciples not to tell anyone.

NOW the time has come. God’s promise of salvation is about to be fulfilled, but it isn’t what anyone is expecting: Jesus says, “… the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders …and be killed, and after three days rise again.” (8:31) Salvation in Jesus won’t be a regional military victory, but a world-wide, eternal reality and it will happen in a most unexpected way - on a cross.

Peter forbids Jesus to speak like that and Jesus rebukes Peter: “Get behind me Satan! …If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. (8:33-35)

A quick stop at a nearby mountain for the transfiguration, then they go on to another healing – a boy whom the disciples were unable to heal. Frustrated again, Jesus gets direct: “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you?” (9:19)

Then he teaches them for the second time, “the Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”(9: 31) Mark tells us that at this point, the disciples didn’t understand what Jesus was saying, but now they’re afraid to ask.

Southward they go through Galilee to Capernaum and the teaching continues. In Capernaum, you’ll remember, Jesus caught the disciples arguing over who was the greatest among them. So Jesus offers a teaching which upends their expectations about the rich, the powerful, and the insiders.

In the kingdom of God ALL are welcome, including the least, the powerless, and the outsider – and he makes very clear what the insider’s responsibility is to the outsider: if your hand, that is, one of your members, causes one of these who is new in their faith to stumble, cut that hand off.

Onward they go to the region of Judea… As usual, crowds form and Jesus stops to teach them. Here again the Pharisees test Jesus, asking about divorce. Jesus contrasts the hardness of heart of those who crush faith and life with rules against the tender innocence of dependent children. All who wish enter the kingdom of God, Jesus says, must be like these children.

Then they run across the rich young man whom Jesus held up as an example of how hard it will be for one who is secure and self-reliant to enter the kingdom of God. As you remember, this teaching astounded the disciples whose expectations are finally beginning to crumble. Jesus repeats his teaching about salvation in the kingdom of God: “many who are first will be last and the last will be first.” (10:31)

Next Mark tells us about James and John asking for a place of honor when Jesus is glorified. By now you can almost hear Jesus’ sigh. He knows they’re still thinking in terms of military victory, not eternal salvation. I can’t promise you the honor you seek, Jesus says, but I can tell you that “The cup [of salvation] that I drink you will drink [too].” (10:39)

The rest of the followers, whose blindness also persists, are perturbed. Why should they get such a great honor? Patiently, Jesus repeats (yet again!) his teaching about salvation in the kingdom of God: “…whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. …” (10:44)

Finally, they arrive at Jericho, which is about 15 miles north of Jerusalem. The journey draws to a close much as it began, with the healing of a blind man: Bartimaeus, who was sitting on the side of the road – or as we might say it – who was ‘sidelined.’

When Bartimaeus hears Jesus coming near, he cries out for mercy. Even when “members” of Jesus community order him to stop, Bartimaeus keeps on asking.

Mark tells us that Jesus stood still. Hearing Bartimaeus’ cry for mercy, which is a call that hopes for relief from suffering, Jesus stopped what he was doing – he stopped the journey - to engage with him. This being the conclusion of the journey, however, Jesus sends his followers to bring Bartimaeus to him. He sends the disciples to do what every modern church member is called to do: invite IN those who are sidelined, powerless or dependent, saying, ‘Be of good cheer, because Jesus is inviting you to come.’

The disciples lingering blindness didn’t prevent them from leading Bartimaeus to Jesus. And there, Bartimaeus is made whole. So are the disciples, because that’s how God does things.

As Bartimaeus’ sight is restored, both his actual and spiritual sight, the same is true for the disciples, who broke open their habitual and learned boundaries in order to welcome Bartimaeus IN as a follower of Jesus on the way.

Mark’s gospel continues with the beginning of Jesus’ passion story. We, however, will stand still here, and ponder this powerful journey and what it means for us as followers of Jesus Christ.

It means that although our expectations of salvation and the kingdom of God may be off we can expect that Jesus will be as present and patient with us on our journey as he was with the disciples in their journey.

It means that we, like Jesus’ disciples, answer God’s call to us recognizing that we possess some lingering blindness, knowing that our blindness won’t prevent us from leading those whom the world has sidelined to Jesus who is their source of healing, restoration, and wholeness.

It means that when we are faithful, when we hear the call for mercy from the Bartimaeuses in our world, and answer them, we know that THEY and WE will be made whole.

It means that we, who are followers of Jesus Christ, are called to be like him and respond with mercy, that is, with motivation to relieve their suffering.

It means that relying on our faith, we maintain a willingness to obey even in the face of evidence that it’s impossible, so that we can make a way for God’s grace and abundance to be manifest in the world.

We’ve experienced this recently in our mission work at the Shepherd’s Table. As you know, we’ve begun Life Skills classes between breakfast and lunch. We asked our guests a question similar to the one Jesus asked Bartimaeus: ‘What would you like us to do for you?’ And they answered us.

We’ve offered everything from drying and using herbs to reconciling a bank statement. An exciting new development is that now we are working on becoming an off-site G.E.D. location for Cleveland Community College. Nearly 20 of our guests have already signed up!

It’s important for us to ask the question that Jesus asked Bartimaeus because 1) it honors the dignity of the one being served, and 2) it acknowledges that our lingering blindness may lead us to think we know what those who are on the sidelines need, though our efforts may actually be a stumbling block to the fuller restoration God is waiting to give – to them, to us, and to the world.

Let us pray together the Collect for the Holy Spirit (BCP, 251): Almighty and most merciful God, grant that by the indwelling of your Holy Spirit we may be enlightened and strengthened for your service; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Pentecost 20B, 2012: Seek the Lord and live

Proper 23 Lectionary: Amos 5:6-7, 10-15; Psalm 90:12-17; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31

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

As many of you know, I am the child of a recovering alcoholic. In fact, I’m my Dad’s A.A. baby which means I was conceived and born in his sobriety. I grew up immersed in the teachings of Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon. I knew my Dad’s story well, having heard him tell of his descent into a prison that was truly hell for him and for everyone who loved him, and how though A.A. he found life and freedom again – one day at a time.

My dad was and still is very active in “the program,” as he calls it. Growing up we often awoke to find some guy asleep on our couch, “drying out” Dad would say, especially around the holidays. I don’t ever remember feeling like they were intruders in our home or our holiday. We knew somehow, that we were modeling for them what family was (imperfect as we were).

My Dad was a tough guy – a street kid from Washington Heights in NYC. He was a boxer in the Navy and a pretty aggressive businessman. But I learned more about sin and salvation, about non-judgmental compassion and service to God from Dad’s ministry to those alcoholics than from almost anywhere else – including church.

I thought of this as I pondered our lectionary for today which calls us to examine what we believe about sin, goodness, good works, and salvation, and it asks us to be honest about it.

The Old Testament reading from the prophet Amos offers a simple message: “Seek the Lord and live.” What is there to seek besides the Lord? Ourselves, and our own desires.

When we do that, the prophet warns, we lose our way and head into destruction, and what the consequences of that looks like are clearly described by Amos. But is isn’t just our own destruction the prophet warns us about. When our attention is focused on ourselves, on our own desires, our own will we do harm to others as well. Ask any alcoholic

Many people approach the Old Testament, especially the prophets, as if they are threatening:
do the right thing or be wiped out by a vengeful God. I watched a documentary last night about a Christian sect whose leader preaches mostly about hell which he says is “a literal hell, with literal fires burning right now.” (Now ‘m not making a judgment here about what he believes. He could be right.) But he goes on to say, “I was saved, because I didn’t want to die and go to hell.”

In that same documentary, I learned of a place called St. Patrick’s Purgatory, which is believed to be a portal into hell. It’s on an island in Ireland, and pilgrims still go there to fast, make sacrifices, and do penance in hopes of avoiding hell in the next life. The legend says if you go there three times you will never enter into hell.

I confess that I cannot understand salvation this way. I can’t understand becoming a follower out of fear rather than in response to the overwhelming Love of God.

When the prophet Amos says, “Seek the Lord and live” he’s saying that God, who is Love, is the source of life. The breath of God, the spirit of God gives us life. What can exist outside of the will of God? Who can live unless God chooses to breathe life into us?

“Seek the Lord and live.” Our life is found only in God who is gracious, and when God’s grace is upon us, the works of our hands are prospered, that is, we are given to good works.

In order for the graciousness of God to be upon us, we must, as medieval mystic Meister Eckhart said, detach from all else – from ourselves, from our wills, from our desires. We must turn our attention from what we want, from our goals, and seek only what God desires… what God wills.

But that’s hard to do. We live in a world which constantly tells us that we should want to be happy, beautiful, successful, and adored. We live in a world where “true love” is found buffet-style on reality TV, where body plastic has become the norm, where apprenticeships are won by the most manipulative and deceitful, and where personal value is calculated by the number of followers one has on Twitter or the heftiness of one’s bank account.

The message is: more is better. More stuff. More clout. More blessing. It’s an addiction in its truest form, and it isn’t so different for the rich man in today’s gospel story. A faithful believer, the rich man asks an honest question of Jesus – how can I be sure I will inherit eternal life?

Jesus answers like a rabbi would: ‘You know the commandments… don’t murder or commit adultery… don’t steal or bear false witness… don’t defraud… and honor your father and mother.' Isn’t that an interesting group of 6 of the 10 commandments Jesus chose to highlight?

And anyway, who can tell me… what number was the “thou shalt not defraud” commandment? It wasn’t. Jesus interpreted the “thou shalt not covet” commandment (# 10) for this rich man, who probably didn’t want much of what his neighbors had.

‘But I’ve kept these commandments from my youth,’ the rich man tells Jesus. I’ve lived a righteous life. See how blessed I am.

Jesus looks at him, looks deeply into his heart, and sees the sin there. Our Prayer Book says, “Sin is the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God…” (Catechism, BCP, 848) And as Paul Tillich says, sin is the state of being that separates us from God. Like this rich man, we can obey all of the rules and still sin.

So Jesus looks deeply, thoroughly, lovingly at this man and offers him a balm for his deepest suffering: freedom from his sin.

“There is one thing you lack,” Jesus says to him. ‘Detach from your stuff – from the symbols of your happiness, the evidence of your blessing. Give to the poor – empty yourself and your life of all that distracts you. Then come and follow me.’

Or, as Amos said it, ‘Seek the Lord and live.’

Mark tells us that the man was shocked by what Jesus said, and that “he went away grieving because he had many possessions.” It doesn’t say the man didn’t do as Jesus asked, only that he left deeply saddened and distressed by what God had asked of him.

I think most of us have this same kind of response when we get real about what God is asking from us… partly because God’s desire for us is so radically different from what the world teaches us to desire for ourselves; and partly because it’s just plain hard to detach.

After his encounter with the rich man, Jesus turns to his disciples and helps them detach from an idea that is a hindrance to their understanding of and service to God: the notion that living righteously will bring God’s blessing and living sinfully will bring God’s curse upon our lives.

Jesus says to them, "How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!" This totally unhinges the disciples, who wonder… ‘if one whose life is clearly blessed by God can’t enter the kingdom of God…’ “Then who can be saved?”

Peter responds like the rich man did. ‘But Jesus, we’ve done that. We’ve left our homes and our families to follow you. What else do we need to do?’

And Jesus assures them, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll be rewarded for your faithfulness, here in this life and eternally. But remember, it is God’s way, God’s will that is at work here so it may not look like or be like you’re expecting.

There are many who think they will be first in line to the kingdom of God because of their goodness or their good works, but they will be last because God knows the sin that lives in their hearts. And those who know their sin and stand humbly in the presence of God, those who willingly hold the last place in line will be the first ones welcomed into the kingdom.

Good works cannot save us. Following rules cannot save us. Only God can save us – and God has done that already in Jesus Christ because God loves us.

Our salvation doesn’t make us sinless. It makes us forgiven. It makes us free.

I close with the Prayer for the Victims of Addiction because it applies to all of us: O blessed Lord, you ministered to all who came to you: Look with compassion upon all who through addiction have lost their health and freedom. Restore to them the assurance of your unfailing mercy; remove from them the fears that beset them; strengthen them in the work of their recovery; and to those who care for them, give patient understanding and persevering love. Amen. (BCP, 831)

Note: The icon used as illustration is an 18th century Russian icon of the prophet Amos (Iconostasis of Transfiguration Church,Kizhi monastery, Karelia, Russia).

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Pentecost 19B sermon by Deacon Pam: How hard is your heart?

Proper 22 Lectionary: Genesis 2:18-24; Psalm 8; Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12; Mark 10:2-16

When Mother Valori asked me to switch Sundays with her, I thought "Yeah!I've won the lectionary roulette! I won't have to preach on 'cut off your hand, cut off your foot'...Then I realized "Divorce! I got divorce!"

As I prepared for today, as I read through commentaries and lectionary discussions and sermon helps, I was struck by how many of them advised that I run, not walk, away from this lectionary, saying things like:

"Most will try to avoid preaching on this Gospel lesson, and who can blame them; we know you don't want to talk about this lesson from Mark, talking about this teaching on divorce is fraught with difficulties and the potential for misunderstanding." But at the same time some of those same folks said "but you must, you must, especially if the lessons are read aloud in your church-you must."

So what's with these seemingly divergent thoughts?

I think in part the writers felt it had to be addressed because it's difficult to put something like that out there and not say something about it. It's similar to part of the Gospel from last week that I've already mentioned-the part about cutting off your foot or your hand - it's not a lesson you can ignore or skip over. Whether you like it or not, you going to have to deal with it.

I think the writers were also thinking about the typical church family. Think about Redeemer for a second.

Some of us are married, some are divorced and some are divorced and re-married. Some of us are single and long to be married. Some of us, because of sexual orientation, can't get legally married-or divorced-in most states, yet have the same relationship issues as any married couple. Some of us dealt with it in our families of origin as children when our parents decided to divorce. It would be hard to find someone that doesn't have some relatable experience, whether in one's own life or that of a friend or family member.

And it is important to talk about it because of how this passage has been used by the church to judge those who have gotten divorced. I have certainly thought a great deal about people I am familiar with, people I know and care about, who have been wounded, have been marginalized, often in God's name, because of divorce.

Divorce was an issue in Jesus' day as well. Keep in mind that marriage, and divorce, have changed a great deal and looked much different then than now. Some religious leaders taught it was legal for a man to divorce his wife only in cases of infidelity; others felt is was lawful for almost any reason. While we don't know definitely if it was what they believed or if they just wanted to 'set him up' so to speak, the Pharisees who approached Jesus to test him were referencing the latter teaching.

They were referring to a passage in the 24th chapter of Deuteronomy that states if a woman does not please her husband, if he finds something objectionable about her, he could write a certificate of divorce and send her away. Notice the man can divorce his wife; women were not allowed to divorce their husbands under Mosaic law.

It is thought by some scholars that when Jesus mentions women divorcing their husbands in his later discussion with the disciples, he was either referencing Roman law or, the explanation I prefer, he was upending culture and law and making women equal with men.

Divorce in Jesus' time was devastating for women; at best, as this law demonstrates, women were treated as second class citizens and at worst, as something less than a human. They were treated like possessions, acquired by their husbands through the legal contract of marriage. They were powerless and they were always the victims of divorce. Because women were largely dependent on their husbands, divorce left them with almost no economic options.

Jesus' answer back to the Pharisees is less about the legality of divorce and much more about the attitude and state of their heart. He points out that while they are correct about the letter of the law, the law is not reflective of the will and heart of God but is rather a concession by Moses to human failings and human desires.

Jesus' teaching was designed to protect the "least of these" in a system where they were dismissed for the slightest provocation and to point to the real problem - hardness of the human heart. If their hearts weren't hard, Jesus is saying, there would be no need for a law permitting them to send their wives away when they became too old or sick or feeble.

And while we can be quick to feel righteous and think how terrible this practice was, we can be guilty of the same thing - in our intimate relationships, in our families, with our friends and with those in the world about us. How many people have we dismissed - perhaps in our hearts and minds, perhaps overtly - because we found in them something we didn't like, something we found objectionable, something we found displeasing. Hardness of heart wasn't just a problem in Jesus' day and isn't an issue only in marital relationships!

Think about all the things that are reflections of our own hardness of heart...

Are we insensitive to the needs of others? Do we justify not helping because we feel we've given enough and it's time for them to do it themselves or turn to someone else?

Do we fail to love and show hospitality out of prejudice and fear toward those who are different from us?

Are we carrying around resentments and anger that are killing us, poisoning our relationships and eroding our trust because we refuse to forgive someone who has hurt or disappointed us?

Have we turned a deaf ear and closed our hearts to the thoughts and ideas of those who have a different point of view? Have we allowed them voice and a place at the table with us?

Have we narrowed our vision of what God asks of us? Do we refuse to open our hearts and minds, to step into the fuller life and deeper love to which we are called? Do we criticize and find fault with the ministries of others, perhaps out of fear God might be calling us to do more as well?

It is easy to pass judgment, isn't it? And it's so easy, so tempting, to let our hardness of heart, and that of those around us, go unchallenged.

Judging the decisions others have made and especially using those decisions against them, whether we are talking about divorce or something else, is not what God calls us to do.

Jesus stood with and for those on the margins - women, children, the sick, the mentally ill, the poor, the hungry, the other, the alien. As his followers, that is our call as well - to soften our hard hearts and to show through our words and our actions that we believe the kingdom of God belongs to all.

Let us pray.

O God,
take away our hardness of heart,
our disappointment, our despair, our greed, our aloofness, our loneliness,
our hatred and our fear.
Help us to see our own errors
and not to judge those around us.
Open our eyes which are often blind to the needs of others.
Strengthen us and fill us with your love;
teach us
to use our power with care.
Bring new life where we are worn and tired and
forgiveness where we are are wounded.
May your thoughts become our thoughts,
and your ways become our ways.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Pentecost 18B, 2012: ALL Christians are meant to be prophets

Proper 21 Lectionary: Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29; Psalm 19:7-14; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50

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

Moses said: “Would that all the LORD's people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!" (Num 11:29)

My former bishop, The Rt. Rev. Bob Gepert, was fond of saying that all Christians are meant to be prophets. Bp. Gepert said this often and he meant it.

I remember that the first time I heard him say this, it shocked me a little and I found myself thinking, ‘Surely not everyone is called to be a prophet.’ I immediately thought of the Scripture verse that tells us that we are given gifts so that some of us will be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers…” (Eph 4:11) Though I was a bit shocked at first, I also felt deep down that he was right, so I’ve spent some years pondering this.

In general I try to avoid comprehensive statements – the kind that include the words ALL or NONE, ALWAYS or NEVER. But I think I’m with Bp. Gepert on this one. All Christians are meant to be prophets.

All followers of Christ are meant to be inspired teachers and proclaimers of the will of God…which is what being a prophet means. In order to do that, all Christians must be intentionally formed in our faith and encouraged to mature in that faith.

Regardless of our age, we all begin each leg of our journey of faith as “little ones” – people who are new or young in our faith. For those of you, like me, who began in a different faith tradition, do you remember what it was like learning Episcopal-speak?

I remember once being told that what I needed was in the narthex and having no idea where that was. I had been a Christian all of my life, but was, at that point, a “little one” when it came to being an Episcopal-flavored Christian. With time and continuing exposure to the Episcopal way of things, we find our rhythm and learn the language, customs, and perspective of our tradition.

For all Christians, a continuing involvement in a community of faith also enables us to see evidence that God grants gifts to everyone and often uses the least likely (in our estimation anyway) to serve, or to open the door to a life of faith for someone else. This is something the people of God have long struggled with: being as inclusive as God would have us be.

This is illustrated for us in our Old Testament reading. Moses complains to God that leading these people is too much for him. I love how Moses makes his complaint (I can relate): “Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, 'Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child…” (Num 11:12)

‘It’s too much for me,’ Moses says. ‘If this is how you’re going to treat me, Lord, just kill me now!’ So God tells Moses to choose seventy from among the people who can help him lead. ‘Meet me at the tent of meeting,’ God says, “I will come down and talk with you there; and I will take some of the spirit that is on you and put it on them; and they shall bear the burden of the people along with you.” (Num 11:17)

Moses obeyed, and brought the seventy to the tent of meeting. When the spirit of God rested on these chosen ones, they began to prophesy.

While Moses and God were making this new support staff, two men who weren’t at the tent of meeting also began to prophesy – in the camp where everyone else was. These men were Eldad and Medad and the Scripture tells us that the spirit of God rested on them too.

But someone ran to Joshua, who was one of Moses’ chosen 70, to tattle on Eldad and Medad. Joshua, in turn, asked Moses to tell Eldad and Medad to stop, but Moses, who was spiritually mature, wouldn’t hear of it and replied: “Would that all the LORD's people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!"

We see Jesus’ chosen ones dealing with a similar problem in the same way in our gospel reading. John asks Jesus to stop a stranger from casting out demons (which, by the way, the apostles had just failed to do earlier in this chapter). Make him stop, John says. He isn’t in our membership book.

Jesus’ response is radically inclusive, and crystal clear. “Don’t stop him,” (v 39) Don’t stop anyone who is manifesting the love of God.

Then Jesus turns and issues a very stern warning to the community of faith gathered there. ‘If any of you who have been around awhile, impedes a “little one,” that is, someone who is new or young in their life of faith, from using their gifts and manifesting the love of God, there’s gonna be trouble.’ Sounding a bit like Mickey Blue Eyes, Jesus warns: ‘You would be better off being tossed into the chaos waters wearing a cement overcoat. Fuggetabowdit.’ (Just kidding! There’s no record of Jesus ever saying 'Fuggetabowdit')

The next part of Jesus’ teaching isn’t a recommendation for self mutilation. Jesus is speaking to the community of faith as a body – and this may be where St. Paul derived his use of that metaphor for the church.

‘You are one body with individual members. If one of you (say, the hand) sins – remembering that to sin is to separate from God – cut it off.’ In other words, if one among you inhibits the community from manifesting the love of God, or causes the community to separate from the presence of God, “cast [that one] out, for the sake of the [whole] community.” (Source: © 1996-2012 Chris Haslam)

So the two sides of this coin are: Be inclusive - don’t stop anyone from manifesting the love of God /and/ Be discerning – do stop the one who interferes with the community as it works to grow in faith and manifest the love of God through its members.

This is a tough teaching, but it’s true… and it’s important.

We are blessed at Redeemer that God has brought to us a diversity of people who bring a diversity of gifts. And I commend the people of Redeemer for making room for everyone to use their gifts to manifest the love of God.

Some who are chosen to serve in ministries here may seem like surprising choices at times. Others are not even in our membership book! But Redeemer is living what our Lord is speaking today, because at Redeemer, ALL are welcome to manifest the love of God through their gifts.

So I guess there are two comprehensive statements I am comfortable making now:

1. ALL Christians are meant to be prophets.
2. At Redeemer, ALL are welcome to manifest the love of God.

Let’s pray.

Open our hearts, Lord God, to your grace and truth; fill us with your life-giving Spirit and make us your prophets. Grow us in our faith and help us to live in peace with one another in our community, that we may love others in the power of your Holy Spirit and manifest your love in our world. This we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

(Adapted by Mother Valori from the Baptismal prayers, BCP, 305)

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Pentecost 17B, 2012: Co-creators of Love

Proper 20 Lectionary: Wisdom of Solomon 1:16-2:1, 12-22; Psalm 54 ; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37

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

We believe that God is love, that God is the creator of all that is, all that ever was, and all that ever will be. We believe that God’s plan of redemption is perfect, and God’s justice is sure, even knowing that how that looks often surprises us.

We believe that humanity and all creation have been redeemed by the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. We know that we are living in the
‘already-but-not-yet’ part of the plan. Redemption has already happened, but the
process of redemption, the work of it continues until Christ comes again. We know that we are partners with Christ in this work, making us co-creators of love.

If God is love and creator of all that is, then who or what in all of creation is not of God? Yet, throughout the world we see pain, loneliness, hunger, poverty, abuse, oppression, war, betrayal. Are those of God?

When a two year old is diagnosed with leukemia and dies before she starts pre-school, is that of God? The platitude – everything happens for a reason – isn’t very helpful.

We don’t know why some things happen because we can’t see the plan of God in its fullness. Other times things happen because someone sinned, and it has nothing to do with God or God’s plan.

People sin. Terrible things happen in the world. Wrong things happen. When believers witness terrible things, wrong things, our Savior asks us to wait in faith. What we wait for is the fulfilling of God’s promise of redemption. This is the essence of Jesus’ teaching to his disciples these last few weeks in our readings from the Gospel of Mark.

Waiting is hard because as we wait we have to trust. Our power, our knowledge, our best intentions aren’t enough. Only God is enough.

In our Offertory hymn, are these words (v 3): “Teach me thy patience; still with thee/ in closer, dearer company/ in work that keeps faith sweet and strong/ in trust that triumphs over wrong.” Trust that triumphs over wrong. This is what Jesus was trying to tell his disciples they would need.

The worst was about to happen. Jesus has told his disciples several times now that he is going to be betrayed and killed. You remember that Peter didn’t want to hear that. ‘No Lord. Don’t let it be so.’

And Jesus pushed back at Peter saying, “Get behind me Satan.” ‘Don’t distract me, don’t tempt me away from the path of redeeming love being laid by God. Yes, it’s going to be awful, so you must have the kind of trust that triumphs over wrong.’

This time when Jesus reminds his disciples of the awful reality about to happen, he adds the promise of redemption: “The Son of Man is being betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed he will rise again.” Wait. Death is not the end. God’s love triumphs even over death.

Let’s let that sink in for a minute. God’s love triumphs even over death.

If we really believe that, then what is there to fear? What is there to keep us from flinging our proverbial arms wide open and welcoming everyone and everything life has to offer – knowing that everyone is included in God’s plan of redemption, and everything that happens presents us with an opportunity to be co-creators of love?

The hardest part of being co-creators of love is that we must approach everyone and everything as the Son of Man did. There was no one with whom Jesus wouldn’t connect – the clean and unclean, rich and poor, male and female, slave and free, young and old.

And when he did connect, he didn’t judge them, even when the evidence was there to convict them. Instead, he forgave them, healed them, strengthened them to live, and empowered them to love.

Jesus brought light and life to those trapped in darkness and sin and calls us to do the same. As we do this, we risk success. What if we succeed? What if we become known as the greatest church with the greatest followers of Jesus Christ in history? What if we become famous and admired, heroes and she-roes of the faith? What if we get a saint’s day in Lesser Feasts and Fasts?

Isn’t that like what the disciples were arguing about as they traveled to Capernaum? Can’t you just hear it? Peter says, ‘I’m the greatest. I’m the rock on whom Jesus plans to build the church!’ John says, ‘Yeah, well I’m the beloved disciple!’ Matthew says, ‘I’m the best liturgist.’. And everyone knows Luke is the best healer.

When they settled in for the night, Jesus asked the disciples, “What were you arguing about on the way” (like he didn’t know!) They were busted and they knew it.

But Jesus, as patient and loving as ever, took what was one of the last opportunities he had to teach them. He sat down and called the disciples to him. When a rabbi does that, it means class is in session.

‘Do you want to be great?’ Jesus asked. ‘Then you must turn away from the desire for worldly greatness and be last of all and servant of all.’

At this point, I’m picturing the blank stares on the faces of Jesus’ listeners as they try to figure this out.

Then Jesus took a little child, and holding that child in a loving embrace, he demonstrated what he meant. To the world, this child is helpless, powerless, has little to offer, and no clout whatsoever. But to heaven, this child is the face of redemption because: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me, welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

In other words, when we connect with the helpless, the powerless, the weak, the poor, the excluded – we connect with God. They are the means by which we are co-creators of love and partners in the continuing work of redemption. As one of my favorite singer-songwriters, Dar Williams, said: “Every time you opt into kindness/ make one connection/ used to divide us/ it echoes all over the world.” (“Echoes” by Dar Williams, My Better Self album)

A child is open, trusting, and relies on her parent to know and take care of what she needs. A child offers his love freely. He knows he’s part of a family and isn’t expected to ‘go it alone.’

How are children welcomed - or not - in our churches? Do we see them as the face of redemption… as an opportunity to connect with God?

In his book “The Peaceable Kingdom” theologian Stanley Hauerwas says that “it is the privilege of Christians, as well as their responsibility to tell God’s story to those who know it not.” (44) How are we meeting this responsibility – to our actual children, and to the children of God in our local community?

“But…” Hauerwas says, “…God’s story is not merely told; it must be lived.” (44) How are we doing with this one?

Are we proclaiming by word and example the good news of God in Christ? Or are we coming to our church club just enough to ensure our reputation as a good person bound for heaven? Are we connecting our lives with the lives of the helpless, the powerless, the weak, the poor, and the excluded – recognizing in them the face of redemption?

Hauerwas said, “it is through the need of another that the greatest hindrance to my freedom, namely my own self-absorption, is finally not so much overcome as simply rendered irrelevant.” (44) I can tell you that I hear the transforming truth of this from people who volunteer at our Shepherd’s Table ministries.

As followers of Christ, you and I are walking on a path of redeeming love that is laid out for us - moment by moment - by God. Like the labyrinth, this path takes unexpected turns but always leads us home. We can’t get lost.

The path flows according to the needs God is entrusting to our attention and to our care, so… we go with the flow! It is our privilege as Christians, and our responsibility.

I close with the prayer written by the founder of Centering Prayer – Trappist monk, Thomas Merton:

MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.