Sunday, November 25, 2018

Living Divine Truth

Today we celebrated the Feast of Christ the King.
Lectionary: Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14; Psalm 93; Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18:33-37

Note: If the above player doesn't work on your device, click HERE for an alternative audio format.

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

How 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 a congenital issue with my eyes. I wasn’t able to see in 3-D until 2004 following some eye surgery. Up until then my world looked pretty flat, like a picture or a photograph.

I remember once 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 in their seats 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 my 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 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 God, the Ancient One, the Alpha and the Omega who stands incarnate before him.

“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?

Some people prefer to call this day the Feast of the Reign of Christ. What I like about that name is that 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 – the reign of love a love focused on serving the other yet never devaluing the self; and Jesus spent his time focused on the poor, the sinful, the excluded, and the powerless even as he went to those quiet places to pray.

The reign of love Jesus ushered in is different from anything on earth. 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 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.”

By his life and ministry, Jesus redefined kingship. His leadership had nothing to do with garnering power, or riches, or anything for himself. And he never used force to get his way. The reign of Christ always was and always will be about love. We who hear this story today are witnesses of Jesus’ testimony, and we are invited to listen to his voice.

Listen, as it is being used here, is not just about using our ears to hear. 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 life and ministry.

His is a testimony of humility, faithfulness, and obedience to God’s will, even in the face of injustice and suffering. His is a testimony of walking non-violently toward what may, at times, seem like certain death trusting that is actually the path of life and truth for us and for the whole world.

“For this [Jesus] was born…for this [he] came into the world.” May we who belong to the truth listen to his voice and follow his way of being in the world.

I’d like to close with a prayer from Marjorie Dobson:"Go as far as you dare, for you cannot go beyond the reach of God. Give as extravagantly as you like, for you cannot spend all the riches of God. Care as lavishly as you are able, for you cannot exhaust the love of God. Keep moving on for God will always be with you."


Saturday, November 24, 2018

Community Thanksgiving service: We matter to God

Preaching at the Community Thanksgiving Service at Ascension Lutheran Church in Shelby.

Lectionary: Isaiah 49:8-16a; Psalm 131; 1 Corinthians 4:1-5; Matthew 6:24-34

The great and present myth of the modern world has to be multi-tasking. We have convinced ourselves that we can do more than one thing at a time – and do both of those things well.

Many of us eat our meals in front of the TV. Some of us knit while listening to an audio book, or exercize while listening to music.

When we eat in front of the TV we are either paying attention to what’s on the TV – OR we are mindful of the food we are eating – its taste, texture, and how much of it we’re eating. We can’t attend to both things at once.

How many of us have sat down in front of the TV to eat only to notice a few minutes later that our food was all gone and we hardly remember eating it? And you can ask my daughter how many times she’s had to recall me to the cell phone conversation we were having because my attention had drifted to something on my computer screen.

Humans can attend (truly attend) to only one thing at a time. And this is the lesson Jesus is trying to teach us in the gospel of Matthew.

Using words familiar to the listeners of his time, Jesus continues his sermon on the mount saying, “No one can serve two masters; a slave will either hate one and love the other or be devoted to one and despise the other.

Jesus’ listeners understood that to love someone or something is to give attention to it, to be loyal to it – “devoted,” as Jesus says.

They understood that to hate someone or something is to ignore it and to abandon it for something else. These words (love and hate) were also commonly understood to mean ‘to choose’ or “to not choose.”

Jesus is lovingly reminding us that this limitation of our humanity is a fact. He isn’t making a judgment – he's just reminding us of a truth about us. As much as we’d like to believe we can choose both (God and earthly wealth) we can’t. One of them is going to be abandoned for the other.

So, which one do we choose? And which one do we abandon? And maybe more importantly, how often do we make these choices – which way do we choose most?

Jesus tries to assure us, using the beautiful imagery of birds and wildflowers, that the only thing we need is God – who knows what we need and desires to give it to us. Why? It's a simple question. Because God loves us.

“Why do you worry about what you will eat or drink? Why do you worry about your body or what you will wear? …Strive first for the kingdom of God and… righteousness [that is, right relationship], and all these things will be given to you as well.”

In the divine economy,the more we give of what we have, the more we have to give. It’s a blessed cycle of abundance,and what drives it, what underlies it… is Love – God’s love.

God is always faithful. That is the character of God. No matter how unfaithful we are or how disrespectfully we act, God continues to be faithful to us, always seeking a relationship of love and tender closeness with us. Even in the face of our continuing sinfulness, God continues to forgive. God turns the other cheek for us and expects us to do the same for one another.

God’s promise is now what it has always been: God chooses us eternally, God is devoted to us eternally and God never abandons us.

In Isaiah we hear God speak through the prophet this message: “Sing for joy… For the Lord has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his suffering ones… I will not forget you [God says], see I [keep] you as a [tattoo] on the palms of my hands.”

God is our true and life-giving Master. It is God, and God alone, whom we serve.

Jesus reminds us not to worry because worry in itself is a distraction. When we worry, we are failing to trust that God’s love for us is real, that God’s love is enough in every circumstance we find ourselves. When we worry, we disrespect ourselves by forgetting how much God loves us. When we worry, we give ourselves and our willspriority over God and God’s perfect plan for us.

Yet no matter how often we stray, God will always call to us to return to Love where we find comfort for what hurts us, peace for what upsets and distracts us.

What God wants in return is very simply our love –our attention, our devotion. I remember the first time the truth of this sank in – that God was actually seeking MY love. Think about it: the Almighty God wants our love. Our love matters to God. WE matter to God. Knowing this makes it so much easier to set worrying aside – forever.

Close with Hymn: Christian brother, Cecil Frances Alexander, said so beautifully:

When the “tumult of our life’s wild restless sea” disrupts our peace, Jesus says, “Christian, follow me.” (v.1)
When the many tempting treats in the “vain world’s golden store” have captured our attention and tempted us to love things and to prioritize ourselves over God, Jesus says, “Christian love me more than these.” (v. 3)

“Jesus calls us! By thy mercies, Savior, make us hear thy call,give our hearts to thine obedience,serve and love thee best of all.” (v. 5) “By thy mercies, Savior, may we hear thy call…”

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Pentecost 26-B: Birth pangs as gift

Lectionary: Daniel 12:1-3; Psalm 16; Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25; Mark 13:1-8

(Note: if the above player doesn't work on your device, click HERE for alternative audio format.)

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

Unlike last week, the Collect for this week is one of my favorites. In this common prayer we are encouraged to enter into Scripture for the purpose of holding fast to our hope in the face of a world where hope isn’t always plentiful. And our hope is life in Jesus Christ: eternal life, everlasting life.

As Episcopalians, we engage Scripture as a love story, a long, continuing love story between God and God’s people. While it tells us something about the lives of our forebears in faith, we don’t hold Scripture to be a historical narrative, but rather an experiential one.

For example, in the reading from Daniel, God spoke to Daniel in a vision, telling him that there would be times of great anguish, and in those times those with good judgment, who can see and understand what’s happening in the context of God’s overall plan of salvation, along with those who continue to build right relationships, will be lights in those times of darkness.

Jesus is telling his disciples the same thing… The world is impermanent. Everything that seems strong will eventually come undone. What is permanent is God’s plan of salvation for the whole world. So when you see things coming undone, when you experience times of great anguish, fear, destruction, and hunger, remember that this is just the beginning… God is already redeeming all things. Those are just the birth pangs – the signs that new life is being formed.

The letter to the Hebrews informs us that as followers of Jesus, we have a new way to live while we are on this earth – with true hearts and the assurance of our faith. That doesn’t mean no anguish will happen, it means we have a different way to respond when it does: by provoking one another to love and good deeds.

That’s an interesting statement, isn’t it? We are to provoke one another to love. When we do, however, it helps to remember that provocation often leads to anger. We must, therefore, rely on our righteousness that is, our right relationships with God and with one another, to carry us through the provoking. We are being provoked right now to love and good deeds. We know this because we can see the anger and anguish that is present in our community.

Our hearts, therefore, must remain true in full assurance of our faith, that when the stones of our earthly structures begin to crumble, we remember that, for the people of God, the end is always the beginning. Death always leads to new life.

We are a resurrection people. This is our faith, our hope - the one thing to which we cling without wavering, for we believe that Jesus, who promised and delivered this to us once for all and for all time, is faithful even now, leading us always as we pass through our earthly cycles of death to new life.

So when Jesus says to us, ‘not one thing you have built will survive… all will be thrown down’ we receive that as a gift, not an indictment. It isn’t that we built it wrong, or that it wasn’t good or holy or important. We know that anything we humans can build, no matter how faithfully we build it, is incomplete and impermanent in the divine reality. The Good News is that God will always lead us to that completeness – to a fullness of life, of love, of relationship, of purpose. As God does that, it will look like the end of what we built, but it isn’t. It’s just the beginning, the birth pangs, the signal that new life is coming.

Anyone who’s ever had or witnessed birth pangs knows they are uncomfortable. And the closer the birth comes, the worse the birth pangs feel. Right before the birth, the pangs feels like crisis. Hearing the wise, experienced, assuring voices of the community of doctors, midwives, doulas, and family who have been there before, gives the new mother the strength to persevere through the crisis. Imagine if they were to cut off their relationship with her at that moment! That would be awful! Relationship matters.

The wise know the mother is in a moment of crisis and that new life is about to come. So, no matter what she says or how she yells at them, they stay near, being lights in her darkness, speaking words of comfort and assurance through the crisis.

Then suddenly there is new life and it is miraculous to behold. Everything that went before melts into the fullness of joy the presence of this new life brings.

If we’re awake and paying attention to our world and even our church, we’ll find plenty of evidence of birth pangs. As wonderfully made humans, our suffering, our stress is expressed in our bodies as well as in our thoughts. Some of us get headaches or stomach aches or tightness in the chest. Some of us lose our appetites, others are compelled to comfort eating or drinking. Some get angry at the one or ones they see as the cause of their distress, others turn the feelings inward and get depressed.

This is the human experience and it is a gift from God. Speaking in and through our bodies, our embodied spirits, is God’s way of alerting us that the cycle of death to new life is underway and that we need to reconnect to the source of life and embrace our hope to make it through. Thankfully, our Psalmist shows us how to pray ourselves there: ‘Protect me, O God for I take refuge in you; You are… my good above all other… my portion and my cup… I keep you always before me… my heart therefore is glad and my spirit rejoices, my body shall also rest in hope… for you will not abandon me in death… you will show me the path of life and in your presence there is fullness of joy.’

When we pray this together, we are made one by the prayer and the Source to whom we pray it. Our relationships are made right and true, and able to carry us through any moment of anguish, any experience of crisis as God births new life in us. That’s why the author of the letter to the Hebrews advises us to not neglect meeting together during the time of our provocation; but to persist in being together, encouraging one another all the more as the pain increases and the birthing nears.

Let us close by praying together today’s Collect (in your reading insert). Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Pentecost 25-B: A deeper understanding of stewardship

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

Note: If the above player doesn't work on your device, click HERE for an alternative audio format.

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

Story of the Shönie, the tiny beggar in Romania.
The story of worship at the Orthodox cathedral and ushers shooing away the beggars.

Such a stark contrast, and a true-life experience of the lesson Jesus is teaching in today’s gospel.

Jesus said, “Beware of the scribes... (notice; contemplate; see with eyes and discernment) They like being first – they look great, get respect, and the best seats in church and at parties…but they have their eyes on the wrong prize and they don’t even know it. This is the danger to be aware of… to discern and contemplate.

Then Jesus sat down and watched as people put their money
into the treasury box. (Take note, those who believe their clergy shouldn’t know members’ pledge amounts. There’s a pastoral perspective demonstrated here.)

As expected, the rich put in large amounts of money and a poor widow came up and put in two little coins. The gospel tells us that Jesus used this to teach his disciples (us) a new way, a deeper way to understand stewardship. The lesson isn’t about wealth vs poverty. It’s about the divine order where the first shall be last and the last shall be first.

The rich and the scribes gave a lot, even generously, but their position in life enabled them to make an offering to God without giving up their security or position. Their offering didn’t require trust in God, or even an encounter with the grace of God – it was, as Jesus said it, all for show.

The widow, gave of her poverty – which actually translates as “the being last, the means of life, life in all of its manifestations.” So, the widow gave not only what she had to live on, but also, she gave of the entirety of her life (sound familiar?). And in response, God blessed her offering, as only God can do, which is what is described in our OT reading.

That story begins with God sending Elijah out to find a widow (which in Bible-speak means: a vulnerable person) whom God has already made contact with, and even knowing how little meal and oil this person has, God has commanded her to feed the prophet when he arrives.

Elijah obeys God and when he finds the widow, she explains just how vulnerable she and her child are. The prophet responds with that oft-used phrase spoken by or on behalf of God to the vulnerable: “Do not be afraid.”

The prophet, the bearer of God’s word to the world, tells this vulnerable one to go and do as she was planning to do. But first, he says, give me a portion of what little you have. Risk giving the entirety of your life as God asks of you and watch as the resources of heaven pour in for all to see and experience on the earth.

When we feel vulnerable, we tend to cling to the little bit we have, but God asks us to release our grip on our earthly resources, let go our fear, and give the entirety of our lives to God, who blesses us in our vulnerability and generously pours the resources of heaven into our earthly lives.

This is what has motivated your vestry’s stewardship covenant (refer to bulletin back cover).

They are our Elijah in this moment of our common life. They have committed to being intentional about stewardship as giving of our resources in this season of pledge commitment, but also of the entirety of our lives all year long, all the time.

It will help us to admit that we are among the first. Most of us don’t wonder if we will have another meal today – or ever. Most of us enjoy the respect of our local community and get invited to parties where food and drink are in abundance.

But there are times when we feel like the vulnerable person in Zarapheth. As Interim, I’ve heard that vulnerability voiced as wondering whether St. David’s will have the resources to live into its divine purpose this coming year, or whether you will be able to call a full-time or part-time rector next year.

In the moments of our vulnerability, each of us is called to hear the voice of Elijah and let go our fear and trust in God’s promise to provide all we need to live and serve God in our corner of God’s garden.

In the moments of our vulnerability, each of us is called to be Elijah and go out to find the vulnerable ones with whom God wants to connect and cover with abundant grace.

Like the widow at Zarapheth, we are called to commit our earthly resources - and even the entirety of our lives, believing that God will bless our offering as only God can do and our metaphoric jars of meal and oil will never be empty.

Like Shönie, we are called to make relationship our priority. (Story of Shönie sharing the banana.) We are called to be like Shönie, to make relationsip ourlike because for us, as disciples of Jesus, it’s all about connecting ourselves to one another and to God in whose love we all thrive.


Sunday, November 4, 2018

All Saints Day: The purpose of Church

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

(Note: if the above player doesn' work on your device, click HERE for an alternative audio format.)

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."

As we celebrate this feast of All Saints, it’s important to remember that a saint isn’t someone who overcame their humanity and lived a life of perfection. No, a saint is someone 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. Jesus promised and delivered that to us. 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.

The communion of saints is real for me -not just a theological doctrine. I hope they’re real for you too. If they aren’t, I highly recommend them to you. To get to know them, personally 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. 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 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 the life-destroying power of death and transformed it into a doorway to new life.

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 gifts each of us has been given to do our part to make Jesus’ dream of “on earth as it is in heaven” a reality. 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, in the divine economy, the more we give of ourselves, our treasures, and our lives, the more God will give us to give away, because the more we give away, the more the world experiences the fullness of God’s love, and heaven is made manifest on the earth.

If anyone was wondering what the purpose of Church is – there it is. Amen.