Sunday, November 29, 2020

1 Advent, 2020-B: The hope of Advent

 Lectionary: Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37

Last Sunday evening I enjoyed a wonderful conversation with our children and youth at their weekly Zoom meeting. One of our youth asked a great question which led to a short discussion about how to understand the apocalyptic language in our gospel readings last Sunday and today. 

As we enter this season of Advent, which inaugurates a new liturgical year for us, we find ourselves in the midst of a pandemic and rising revelations of racism. It is a time of tribulation for us, much like our forebears in the faith knew, so it helps to find the hope in the apocalyptic vision.

Apocalyptic language is a literary form found in several places in our Scripture, but especially in the Book of Daniel and the Revelation to John. Historically, apocalyptic literature arises out of times of trouble and the vision it offers is one of ultimate salvation by God.

Apocalyptic writings are rich with symbolism and dualistic language such as light and dark, good and evil, and groups on the right and on the left. It even has code language meant to tell the story of the tribulation being suffered while protecting the writer and the community from retaliation by their oppressors.

The gift of apocalyptic literature is that it affirms the real suffering being experienced while holding that suffering as momentary - birth pangs that will eventually lead to a new life in a new age, one in which God has set things right.

What trips us up is that apocalyptic literature cannot be read literally. It isn’t history or doctrine. It’s a very dramatic expression of the vision of God’s ultimate plan of salvation, a plan our small human minds can’t begin to comprehend. Attempting to read apocalyptic language literally is like trying to read Dr. Seuss literally. It’s impossible, but more importantly, it misses the point being made, and since Jesus made several really bold points in today’s gospel using apocalyptic language, it’s worth taking a look at them.

Our story begins with, “after that suffering.” In the preceding verses in this chapter from Mark, the disciples are watching the construction of the temple in Jerusalem and marveling at how magnificent and strong a building it is. As he usually does, Jesus uses the opportunity to teach and he describes a terrifying time of the destruction of the temple, war and violence, false prophets and famines.

Shaken from their reverie to fright, the disciples ask when will all of this happen? Jesus’ answer is in today’s gospel reading. “After that suffering” Jesus says, you will see what looks like the restoration of the chaos God had brought to order in the story of creation in Genesis: the sun and the moon will go dark and the stars will fall from the firmament Then, quoting from the apocalyptic book of Daniel, Jesus tells them they will see the “‘Son of Man’ coming in clouds with great power and glory.” This is the first very bold point Jesus is making.

Jesus, who often refers to himself as the Son of Man, is identifying himself with the Son of Man from Daniel who came to inaugurate a new age for God. Jesus goes on to say that this Son of Man will send out his angels to gather his chosen ones from the farthest reaches of heaven and earth. This is a bold identification of himself as divine, as God.

But the boldest claim is probably at the end of that paragraph. Connecting his listeners to the prophet Isaiah who said, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever.” (Isa 40:8) Jesus says, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” Most of us are so relieved by the message that we miss the fact that Jesus is identifying himself here as God in an unambiguous way.

Another huge point so often overlooked is Jesus’ statement that when we see these things taking place, we will know that God is near - “at the very gates,“ he said. Every time we see these things, not just once, but in every age, we must remember that we know it means God is near. So when we hear ourselves asking “where is God in all of our suffering?” our faith reminds us to give thanks because we know it means that God is near, at our very gates.

Sadly, what many people end up focusing on is when the end of the world will happen. Well, try as we might, we can’t pin God down to a moment, a day, or even a millennium because Jesus’ second coming is happening now and will continue until it is completed. Then we will see and perceive the Son of Man in all of his power and great glory - the fullness of God who is all in all.

Our faith reminds us that Jesus said, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him (Jn 3:17), and that he would not leave us orphaned (Jn 14:18).To do that, Jesus breathed his Spirit into humanity uniting himself to us forevermore. 

This is the unexpected new thing God did in Jesus: inaugurating a new age where the divine Spirit of Christ dwells in the mortal bodies of each of us, and in all of us as the body of Christ. This is the hope Advent calls us to remember and ponder and now is the time for us to re-awaken to this new thing already happening in us and through us. The spirit of Christ has been given to us as a gift from God. 

Are we awake to the astonishing nature of that gift? Are we sharing it as Christ bid us to do? 

The light that has been given to us shines on the darkness in our own hearts as well as into the world. We are mistaken if we believe that being temples of Christ’s spirit rids us of our own inner darkness. It doesn’t. It illuminates it for us so that we can see it and choose to let go of whatever hinders God’s plan for us, for our parish, or for the corner of God’s garden we serve. 

This is how we practice the season of Advent. If we choose to now, we can enter this season with hope… the expectation that we can trust the light of Christ that is in us to illumine the path of new life God is revealing to us right now. As we proclaimed at the lighting of the candle for this first Sunday in Advent, “Christ is coming. Christ is always coming… always entering a troubled world, a wounded heart.” 
 Let us pray. Give us grace, Eternal God, to prepare ourselves to answer your invitation to new life. We pledge to use this season of Advent to prepare ourselves and to listen, certain that you are with us, leading us into new life. By your redeeming love, transform us and make us ready to be sent forth as bearers of your light, temples of your Holy Spirit, and sharers of your holiness. Amen.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Christ the King, 20-A: Connection and relationship

 Lectionary: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Psalm 95:1-7a; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46

In our Collect today we acknowledged that the people of the earth are divided and restricted by sin. We know that sin binds, isolates, and inhibits us. 

Sin disrupts the shalom of God. We have created a world where many of us wonder if we’ll ever feel safe or secure again as we cope with some pretty big issues: a resurging pandemic, rampant racism, melting ice caps, ever increasing food and job insecurity, and an uncertain economic future for our churches, our businesses, our nation, and the world.

When faced with problems as big as these it helps to remember that God is big enough, loving enough, and involved enough to help us. That’s why in our Collect we ask God for restoration and release from the sin that binds and restricts our freedom to love.

Contemplating our current situation in the world, it’s tempting to use today’s gospel as justification for praying to God to heal some and curse others, but that would be wrong. While it is right and good to tell God what we need, the true benefit of prayer is that it brings us into the presence of God where we are given a spirit of wisdom and the eyes of our hearts are enlightened. It is in prayer, both private and corporate, that our minds and hearts are realigned to God’s own, which is what righteousness is.

Then, no matter how desperately we enter into prayer, we remember that God, who created the whole universe and all that is in it, is the strength that covers our weakness and we comprehend that if our behavior is right and good it’s because we are living into the truth of who we are: Christ’s body, “the fulness of him who fills all in all.” Right behavior is not the way to faithfulness; it’s the fruit of it - which is the point of Jesus’s apocalyptic story in today’s gospel.

When the eyes of our hearts are enlightened and we know ourselves to be the actual bearers of the love of God into the world today, then we will notice the suffering of our sisters and brothers and act to tend to their needs because we are connected to God. Our seeing is motivated by the eyes of the divine who dwells in us, so we notice the one who is hungry, or naked, or lonely in our midst.

Here’s a true story that exemplifies that: once upon a time, there was a high school teacher named Keanon Lowe, who came upon a student at school armed with an automatic rifle. "I felt compassion for him,” Keanon said. "In a fraction of a second, I analyzed everything really fast. I saw the look in his face, [the] look in his eyes… [I] looked at the gun, realized it was a real gun and then my instincts just took over."

And his instinct was to hug the boy, (pause) During the embrace, the student cried out that he felt alone, that no one cared about him. “I care about you,” was Keanon’s immediate reply. Every story could be this way.

Every story. Wherever sin separates us Jesus, who is in us, is ready to act through us to reconcile and make us one, to hold us in the embrace of his love. This is the practice and protocol of the reign of Christ.

One last thing about Keanon Lowe: he believed he was placed there in that moment to save that young boy. I believe that too because I believe that about all of us. 

We are the means by which the redeeming love of God happens in the world. By our very presence and preparedness, we prepare the way for the Lord. We remind that world, by our words and actions, that we are all one, held together in an embrace of divine love.

It is because of our connection, our relationship to God that we can notice suffering and tend to it. God will act through us as instinctively as God acted through Keanon Lowe, who by the way, bore the kingdom of God into that school and into that boy that day.

In our gospel story, Matthew talks about eternal life and eternal punishment. Eternity, by its very definition has no beginning and no end, therefore it can’t be something that happens after we die. It’s now. It’s always.

Also, since God is eternal, our connection to God is connection to eternity. Disconnection from God feels like eternal punishment because it is disconnection from the only truth there is, the only life there is, and we don’t have to die to experience it. 

I’ve experienced hell more than once in my life. What made those experiences hell for me was that I’d lost my grip on my relationship with God. I felt disconnected, existentially alone, and eternally lost.

I wasn’t, of course, because Christ marked me as his own forever at my Baptism. So, while I may have felt disconnected from God, God was not disconnected from me. God was waiting like a shepherd to guide me back to the rich pasture Ezekiel describes, the richness of relationship with God.

While I was in hell, my entire focus was on myself. I was drowning in my own suffering. I felt alone and lost, scared, and angry about it. I was dying. There truly was no life within me. I had no idea how to go. I was stuck. I couldn’t have noticed anyone else’s suffering because my focus had turned inward. I could only think about me. I was in hell and each moment was an eternity. 

We are all God's sheep, imperfect vessels made perfect by God alone. We are imperfect church communities enlightened by the Christ who dwells in us.

When we believe that God dwells in us, we can step into any darkness, any suffering, and allow Jesus to do through us what he always does, what the prophets of old said he would do: set us free from all that separates us and guide our feet into the way of peace.

As a church we are called to be connected to God, to one another, and to our local community so that the least of those among us know they are not alone, they are not lost. As one of my favorite indy artists, Dar Williams, said in a song: “If you're lucky you'll find something that reflects you, helps you feel your life, protects you, cradles you, and connects you to everything.” (Dar Williams, “Hudson” Album: My Better Self)

That’s what church is. That’s what church does.

Today is our Stewardship in-gathering. We are collecting the pledges of financial support for our work as church in the coming year. It is my prayer, as we prepare for our new year together, that we break ourselves open and allow the grace and mercy of God to show us how to be the kind of church through which God can rescue the scattered sheep among and around us and restore them to us, where they can be healed by the presence of Jesus in us… so that God might continue to build us up with new family who are looking for a place where they can be loved, protected, cradled, and connected… so that we might have that many more hands, that many more hearts, that many more gifts to use to answer Christ’s call to serve the least, inside and outside our gates, who are members of our family - the family of God.

Then when we come to the end of our lives we can run joyfully into the arms of Christ our King who will say to us with a broad smile and open arms: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” Amen.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

23 Pentecost, 20-A: Purity and purpose 

Lectionary: Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25; Psalm 78:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13 

En el nombre del Dios que es Trinidad en unidad. Amen. 

In our Collect today, we affirmed that Jesus came to destroy the works of the devil, then we asked God to grant us the hope to purify ourselves as he is pure. I wish we could talk together so I could ask you what you make of this prayer. There are two terms in it that stood out for me as a priest and pastor: the devil, and purity. My experience is they are often misunderstood and certainly misapplied, so let’s discuss them. 

The devil is a persona that has evolved over the centuries and the meaning today is radically different from the biblical understanding. Remember that Jesus said to Peter, get behind me satán. Satán, however, is not a proper noun but a descriptor - and it means tempter, distractor from the path of the will of God. By loving Jesus and wanting to protect him from the fate that awaited, Peter (the video mistakenly says, Jesus here - sorry!) became satán to Jesus. 

The lesson is, we all can - even when we are acting out of love. To purify ourselves then, we must return to the path of the will of God. That’s it. That’s what purity of heart is, biblically speaking, and this connects us to the gospel parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids.

This is a hard parable to understand. As we know by now, parables are meant to wake us up, shake us up, and cast out our certainty like a rock thrown into a lake, leaving us standing there watching the ripples flow out into the still water wondering what just happened.

As I stood prayerfully on that proverbial lakeshore watching the ripples, I saw the church, the body of Christ in general, and Calvary in particular. Suddenly I understood that the wise bridesmaids are those who know their own divine purpose, the divine purpose of their vessel and how to use it, keeping them on the path of the will of God.

In the parable, the bridesmaids have a purpose - they are to serve the bridegroom who is coming by lighting his path using their lamps. The wise ones knew what they would need to take with them because they understood their own purpose and the purpose of the lamp.

The foolish ones brought their lamps, but no oil. You can almost see the meme for this: You had one job!

The lamp is an empty, useless vessel without the stewardship of the bridesmaids. This is a powerful wake-up, shake-up kind of moment for those of us who are the church. Our church buildings are our lamps - the means by which we shine the light of Christ in the world. They have a purpose, but without our stewardship, they are useless vessels.

Our stewardship, however, isn’t as simple as weekly attendance, participation in ministry, or annual pledging, although those are important. Our stewardship includes an understanding of our divine purpose as the body of Christ in this time and place and how God is calling us to serve. Our beautiful building is the vessel of our community. It is at once the repository of the many resources God has given us and the vessel from which we serve in our corner of God’s kingdom. It’s our home base but it is a useless vessel without our stewardship.

Another lesson we have been blessed to learn during this pandemic is that our buildings offer us support but are not the source of our identity or our worship. We have been set free from that certainty and our building can now reclaim its rightful spot as a tool, a vessel for the accomplishment of our service to God and God’s people. 

The source of our identity is Jesus Christ and he is not constrained by a pandemic or inhibited by an election. Therefore, neither are we.

On Wednesday morning, the day after the election, as I was praying, I heard the wisdom of God speak to me. I was praying out of habit and with a hope that I might not get caught up in the anger and contempt that is peddled in so much discourse right now.

I was brought to remember a Jewish midrash story I heard years ago in a religion class I took in undergrad at Rutgers about the parting of the Red Sea in the book of Exodus. According to the midrash, when Moses and the Israelites got to the other side and watched the sea crash in on the Egyptians, killing them, they rejoiced in their salvation at the hand of God. But God admonished them saying, ‘There is no reason to rejoice! Those now dead beneath the Red Sea waters are my children too.”

The church is not concerned with who sits at the Resolute Desk in the White House. We are concerned with the suffering of our neighbors, many of whom are truly and deeply suffering. Many were suffering before the election and many will suffer as a result of it. How do we serve them - all of them? 

The church is concerned with noticing evil, that is, whatever divides us or causes pain, sadness or undue burden or whenever someone is excluded or disrespected. Wherever we discern evil, the church’s mission is reconciliation.

As the Episcopalians, our identity is Via Media, the middle way, established by Elizabeth I in order to stop the killing of Protestants by Catholics, and Catholics by Protestants during the Reformation Era. We are all English, she said, and we must find a way to live together in peace.

To accomplish that, Elizabeth commissioned a team of theologians, writers, and poets, led by Thomas Cranmer to produce a book of worship that would spiritually feed the Catholics and Protestants among her people. Our Book of Common Prayer has its roots there and remains the symbol of our unity today. We do not seek uniformity of doctrine but unity in prayer.

Whatever differences our diversity raises up among us, we are made one body, one spirit when we pray and worship together. As priest and theologian Henri Nouwen says, “Every time we encounter one another we are offered an occasion to encounter the sacred.”

A bond of relationship builds over time enabling us to discern the path of the will of God in our time and live it together, in all our diversity, in the name of God and for the sake of God’s people and creation. One simple but stunning illustration of that is our habit of praying the Lord’s prayer together where we proclaim the coming of God’s kingdom, on earth as it is in heaven. Whether we’re talking about the pandemic, the election, the persistent, destructive malignancy of racism, and the other -isms that divide us, we count on God delivering us from these evils. We repeat this prayer often to remind ourselves of God’s redeeming love so that we aren’t led into the temptation to despair or abandon hope while God acts to redeem - and God is always acting to redeem.

We, as Calvary Church and individually as members of it, are the means by which the light of Christ shines in the world, in downtown Columbia, today. We, in all of our diversity, frailty, and wisdom have a purpose: to radiate with the light and the truth that we all are beloved children of a loving God. All of us.

The church, our church, is a place where the truth of everyone’s belovedness is intentionally and counter-culturally lived out. When the world blames and excludes someone for being poor and hungry, we welcome them into our midst and feed them. When the world derides someone for whom they love, we celebrate that God is the author of all love. 

 Our church’s divine purpose is to shine the light of the truth of everyone’s belovedness until everyone believes it… and lives it… and glorifies God for it. 

I close with a prayer from Bishop Steven Charleston, retired bishop of Alaska, and a member of the Choctaw nation: “Give your heart to love today, not to old thoughts of who you were, but to the new idea that your kindness could change another life. Give your mind to hope today, not to the usual list of impossibilities, but to a single faith that goodness is the purpose of history. Give your spirit to peace today, not to the anger of the moment, but to the welcoming road of grace that leads to the home for which you have longed. Give your hands to the work of justice today, not in resignation but in certainty, knowing that what you do will make an enormous difference.” Amen.