The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Leveling the playing fields

Christmas Eve
Luke 2:1-14

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

So I have a confession to make. I’m a member of a bowling league. In case you had any questions about just how big of a nerd your priest actually is, let this serve as confirmation. I’m such a nerd, that I’m on a bowling league. I bowl once a week. I’m not any good, but I have loads of fun. And I’ve made quite a few friends in the process.

One of the reasons I decided to join this bowling league is, living here next to the church - as much as I love it - I realized that I needed some outlet that had nothing to do with the church. I needed some way to interact with other people in a way that was different from “priest and parishioner”.

So each week, I carry off my bag - complete with my custom drilled bowling ball and hideous shoes - and I go bowling. And I hang out with people who don’t care (and mostly don’t know) that I’m a priest. It’s wonderful.

But even so, every now and then, as we’re sitting in the back of the lane waiting for our turns, the other bowlers and I get to talking. Sooner or later, the question comes: “So what do you do for a living?” I guess I could just dodge the question: “Oh, I run a small non-profit.” It would be true enough, I guess. But that’s not really my style, usually. So I just answer.

“I’m a priest.”

It’s at about that time that the other party’s eyes begin to bug out. They start thinking things like, “What did I shout after that last gutter ball?? Did he hear?”

It’s really kinda funny.

But earlier this week I had one of those exchanges. The woman that I was bowling with asked the question, and had a pretty standard response once she heard my answer. But then she said something really funny. She said, “It’s been so long since I’ve been to church, the roof would probably fall in if I ever tried to go back.”

Of course she didn’t really think that the laws of physics that are hopefully at work holding up our roof would suddenly be suspended simply because of her presence. At least I hope not. But what was she trying to say?

I suspect it was something along the lines of, “I’m not good enough to go to church. That ship sailed a long time ago. Life has gotten in the way for too long now, and I don’t deserve to take a share of that anymore.”

The problem is, this is the kind of message that the church has been teaching for too long. We’ve built up barriers around ourselves and effectively communicated the lie that some people just aren’t worthy because of who or what they are, or how or why they do things.

The whole of the gospel message tells a different story, but perhaps nowhere more acutely than it does right now - in the Christmas story.

The problem with the Christmas story is, in our culture, it’s so peculiar and so shocking. But at the same time, it’s also so familiar that we hardly can hear it anymore through all the nostalgia that we’ve wrapped around it. But we shouldn’t forget: it is still the story of God finding a home amidst the lowest dregs of society. It’s still the story of God finding a home in us.

There’s a degree to which Christmas makes us all the same. Whether we are the wealthiest Wall Street banker or a humble, calloused laborer; whether we are the deeply pious, worshiping God with every breath, or someone who hasn’t given our faith (or maybe our absence of faith) a thought since this time last year. No matter who we are, Christmas brings us hope. Hope in spite of all of our deficiencies - those deficiencies that are always, no matter who we are, too many to number.

And that’s as it should be. We are all lacking. None of us deserve the radical outpouring of love that comes to us from God through Christ. None of us deserves a gift so great that the thrill of it makes the voices of angels explode in song.

But it is ours nonetheless.

The church didn’t fall down because we came to receive the gift of the love of God at Christmas. And it never will.

The gift is ours because we were chosen. We were chosen by the one who chose shepherds, foreigners, and even an unwed mother. We were chosen by the one who made a home in a homeless infant. God chose the outcasts and the untouchables, and God chooses us, too.

The somewhat frightening truth that lies behind the hope and expectation of Christmas is this: we don’t deserve it.

But we get it anyway. We get God’s love spread over us with a recklessness that only God could muster. A reckless slathering of love over the dregs of society that has always been the hallmark of the Most High God.

A love that makes the angels sing: “Glory to God in the highest heavens (and the lowest ditches), and on earth peace among those whom God favors” - even us. Amen.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

God's gonna trouble the water

Advent 4A
Matthew 1:18-25

In the name of God. Amen.

[sung] “Wade in the water. Wade in the water, children. Wade in the water. God’s gonna trouble the water.”

That song has been running through my head all week. We usually think of it around baptisms, but this year it’s been ringing in my ear as an Advent hymn. It’s sings of a promise you can count on. It’s an Advent promise. God’s gonna trouble the water.

This time of year is filled with so much hope and expectation. We’ve spent weeks now getting ready - decorating, shopping, preparing food, organizing plans for guests, making arrangements to be someone else’s guest… The list goes on. And in these last days leading up to Christmas, it will go on. For most of us, there are plans still being made and in the days ahead they will start to spring into action.

It’s true in the church. We, too, have been decorating, and getting the church ready for all the company we’re expecting, and making sure things are clean and organized. And there’s lots more preparing and planning to be done before we’re really ready - all in the hope that this Christmas will be an expression of our joy. Our joy in the presence of Christ in our lives. Our joy in being a part of this community. Our hope is that Christmas will be filled with joy in all ways, and that it will make for us memories to last through the years to come.

Joseph and Mary were also filled with hope. They were just embarking on the first journeys of their young love - they were unsure of where it might take them, but they were hopeful and planning, nonetheless.

And then God troubled the water. And how.

Imagine what it must have been like for Joseph. You can almost hear his heart breaking, if you listen between the lines: “Joseph, being a righteous man, and unwilling to expose [Mary] to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.”

Think about it.

The law was on his side. The prevailing will of the wider community was on his side. Joseph had every right to “expose her to public disgrace”. He could have turned her out into the streets. He could have had her stoned to death. He could have exerted his power as one who was betrayed to take his suffering out on her. Everyone would have understood. Most of his community probably would have even preferred it that way. But he was a righteous man. His pain was so deep that he knew that giving her pain would not bring him any relief. He knew that the economy of suffering didn’t balance out like that.

So instead, he resolved to “dismiss her quietly”. To let her find some way of eeking out a living on her own, for herself and for the child she was carrying. It seems harsh, maybe, but it was grace more abundant than anyone would have expected. And perhaps, in time, they both would find a way forward, even if it wasn’t the way that they had dreamed it might be.

But God wasn’t done troubling the water.

“An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit….”

“God’s gonna trouble the water”

For the past few weeks, we’ve been talking about wilderness. About how Advent is a wilderness - a place where life runs free of the binds we try to put on it, and God breaks through - through the tumult and the danger - to show us a clearing that we mightn’t have seen had we stayed where things were safer or more familiar.  To show us God's very self.

God troubled the water for Mary and Joseph. God stirred things up. For all of us. And out of that chaos came one who would save us from our sins. One who would show us - through confusion and disruption, of all things! - the clearness of the way to God.

Too often, our most fervent prayers are for the familiar. Even if it’s just, “O God, just don’t let things get worse.”

So, "troubling the water" may sound scary. But if you’re the one about to drown, those currents might just lift you up.

And that’s what God is about, in Advent, for sure, but at all times. Read the Song of Mary. Hear about God lifting up the lowly. Hear about God filling the hungry with good things. That’s God troubling the water. That’s what it looks like. And that’s the promise of Christ; that God will trouble the water; that God will stir up those stagnant places and breath in new life.

Over the course of the next week, as our plans fall into place (or not), and as they are executed as we had dreamed they would be (or not), in all things, I pray that we find a clearer recognition of God’s presence. If our travel plans hit snags… If the turkey is a little dry… If we find ourselves arguing with our families more than we would have liked… If some of the present just need to be returned… No matter what, look for signs that God is troubling the waters. Maybe where our dreams fall short of what we’d hoped, there will be new room for God to break in.

Christmas is a story of broken dreams that yielded unimagined hope.

Just ask Mary and Joseph.

Throughout all of our lives, there will be times when our dreams will be broken. At Christmas, certainly, but also at lots of other times. Often, it’s through the haze of that brokenness that the dream of God shines most clearly.

And when things start to seem a little too much to bare, remember this little prayer - “God’s gonna trouble the water”. Amen.


Our soloist at church today chose this as her anthem today - "Christmas Lullaby" from Jason Robert Brown's Songs for a New World.  It's a long-time favorite of mine.  Her performance was just spectacular, and perfectly appropriate for the day!  I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

In the wilderness with Christ

Advent 3A
Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:2-11

Come, O Christ. Be present in our hearts and make us your faithful servants. Amen.

We’re in the wilderness again.

If you were in church last week, you heard the story of John the Baptist - preparing the way of the Lord in the wilderness. We explored the ways that we are called to enter into the wilderness of our hearts to prepare a way for Christ in Advent.

And this week we’re back.

If you’re following along in your Bible, you’ll notice that the readings from last week and for this week are separated by some eight chapters. But they are together in the wilderness. This time it’s not John in the wilderness, but Jesus. John is, instead, in prison - but hearing the stories of Jesus. He’s heard that Jesus is doing great things. He’s heard that Jesus is in his wilderness.

John sends word to Jesus. He asks, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

You have to imagine that this question of John’s was more existential than philosophical. He was in prison. He had to have known that his life was in danger. If there ever had been a time in his life when a Messiah could have come in handy for John, it would have been just then.

But alas, as is so often the case, Jesus’ response must have seemed to John to be a bit less than he’d hoped: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

There was a shadow of a “yes”. But only a shadow.

John was probably hoping it would be a kind of full-throated yes. “Yes, I am he. I have come to overthrow the powers that oppress us, and soon you - and all my people - will be free.”

That would have been nice.

But instead we get this shadow of a yes. It’s there, but we’ve got to work for it a little. It like it’s a little less “Yes!” and a little more “looks that way…”

Throughout most of our lives as Christians, we spend a lot of time marveling at the reality we know of Christ’s divinity. We look with wonder at the miracles. We glory in the Resurrection.

We hear the doctrine: “fully God and fully human” but we tend to be a little more impressed with the “fully God” part of the equation.

In Advent, and indeed throughout Christmas, our focus intentionally shifts. Rather than standing in awe of the divinity of Christ, we are called to embrace the wonder of the humanity of Jesus.

It really is quite a miracle. Miraculous in its simplicity, even.

No matter how untrue it might be, it’s easy for us to become consumed by what we perceive as a cavernous divide between humanity and God. We feel so small when juxtaposed against such greatness. We feel so utterly different that it’s hard to recognize any common ground.

Throughout the story of our faith, we hear examples of God bridging that divide: loving the created humanity in the Garden; meeting Abraham in the wilderness time and time again; meeting Moses in the wilderness to call him to save God’s people; sending the kings and the prophets to a people in disarray. Nearly all of the stories of our faith are stories of God reaching out. Sometimes we get it. Sometimes we see past our predisposition to distance and see the nearness of God. But it’s so easy to forget. It’s easy to let our own humanity cloud our judgment.

And if Christ was fully human in the person of Jesus - fully human - you have to wonder what human baggage that came with. Was there doubt? Did he sometimes perceive distance between himself and God as well? Did he have wildernesses of his own?

One of the dangers we face as Christians reading the Hebrew scriptures - particularly at this time of year - is that it can be tempting sometimes to convert them to Christianity. I don’t want to do that. The writer of Isaiah wasn’t a Christian. But the Book of Isaiah does point to the hope of a Messiah - even if it wasn’t with the person of Jesus in mind.

“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing!”

When we enter our wilderness, we find Christ. What we initially perceive to be those desolate and dangerous places - those places that feel like they are most separate from God - those are the places where we encounter Christ. Those are the places where we realize just how close God is. And our wilderness rejoices and blossoms.

Like John, when we call out to Christ in our time of need, we may not find the answers we had hoped to find. We may not find that full-throated “yes” that we had prayed would save us from our wilderness. But we will find that through Christ the wilderness will bloom. It will rejoice with joy and singing.

At the end of his time in prison, John the Baptist was executed. He wasn’t saved by a messiah who would overthrow his persecutors. But he died - not a victim, but one redeemed by the closeness of God.

May God be so close for us. May we see, this Advent and always, that those divides which we had perceived are not the truth. Only God is truth, through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Unencumbered life

Advent 2A
Matthew 3:1-12

Prepare our hearts, O God. Amen.

I love this time every year - when we hear again a bit of the saga of John the Baptist.

It wouldn’t be Advent if we didn’t have John the Baptist - the wild man literally on the edges of society; both physically and socially. He wandered in the wilderness in the farthest reaches of the Promised Land, only barely still inside; and, he preached a gospel that was just as far outside the status quo as he was, himself - the gospel of a promise that runs deeper than the land.

Here in the city, wilderness might seem to be something of an odd metaphor. Surrounded by our streets and sidewalks, and apartments and stores, what can wilderness have to do with us? We have tamed the wilderness. We are in control.

Or are we?

Not too long ago there was an educational/documentary series on the Discovery Channel called “Life After People”. The premise of the show was basically that humankind is only barely holding wilderness at bay. If we were to suddenly disappear, wilderness would reclaim all that is now “ours”. Even the greatest, and seemingly most established cities would eventually - and perhaps sooner than you might think - return to some version of their natural state. Even our most seemingly secure monuments would soon become monuments to our weakness.

So, even though it might not look like it from day to day, the wilderness is all around us, encroaching even in the midst of our illusions of control.

And as true as it is in the natural world around us, so it is in our souls. No matter the degree to which we build up illusions of control for ourselves, wilderness is always at our edges, ready to reclaim what is rightly its own. Sometimes we lose our sense of control through dramatic events such as financial uncertainty, or the unexpected loss of a job. Sometimes it’s through the loss of a loved one or a cherished relationship. Sometimes it’s simply the trauma of life. Whatever the details, they are the times when we lose control over the encroaching wilderness and it suddenly seems to take over.

Sometimes it’s less sudden. Sometimes we’re going about our business as usual, and we look up to find the overgrowth that we’ve either neglected or simply not noticed - and there we are, inexplicably lost in a wilderness when we’d thought we had been in control.

One way of thinking of wilderness is that it’s a state of unencumbered life. It can be scary. It can be dangerous - particularly if we’re not prepared when we enter into it (or when it enters into us…).

But the wilderness is also a place of beauty - a place where God’s creativity outshines our own. It can be a place of inspiration.

Some observers of faith have, over the years, spoken of what they’ve called “thin places” - those places where all those things that seem to divide us from God wilt or fall away; those places where we actually, even if only for a moment, almost catch ourselves really believing in God’s presence.

I’ve found a few thin places over the years. Sometimes it’s as simple as a sunrise or a sunset that I noticed more easily than all the others that slipped past. Sometimes it’s through a relationship - a soul-friend through whom God seems to shine a bit more brightly. Sometimes it’s in a physical place. The mountains have always been thin places for me. The dramatic highs and lows, the stunning views, the crispness, the sense of quiet peace - they somehow add up to a clarity that I often miss in other terrains. When I was traveling in Jerusalem and the West Bank a few years ago I found another thin place. The prayers and presence of millions of faithful people had consecrated those ancient buildings and that land over the course of thousands of years to the degree that it was palpable. God had been so often invoked that I didn’t feel that I even had to try - God was simply there, to bask in.

I’m sure you have your own thin places - those places where you’ve come to accept the vulnerability of your wildernesses, and where you can be comfortable losing your illusions of control for a time.

John the Baptist, that wild - and maybe even crazy - man who dared to live in the wilderness, reminds us what Advent is about. Advent is about seeking to make the places in our lives a little thinner. It’s about clearing away the clutter in our lives that we use to try to keep God from breaking through.

Most of us tend to run from wilderness. We protect ourselves from it. But in Advent, as part of preparing our hearts for Christ, we are called to reach out and to embrace the crazy and wild people inside ourselves, and to allow them to carry us home - home into the wilderness. Home into the thin places where even in our unbelief we can’t help but to see God.

Wilderness is unencumbered life. We try to keep life in control, but sometimes we have to let it loose. Sometimes we have to let go of our efforts at control so that we can see God breaking through.

It’s scary. And yes, sometimes even a little dangerous. But only if we’re not prepared.

And that’s why we’re here - to prepare ourselves. To prepare ourselves to see that God’s creativity does outshine our own. To drop the illusions of control that we’ve set up for ourselves and to let the places we inhabit feel a little thinner. A little more natural. A little more holy.

It’s already there. We just need to notice. Amen.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

It's about time

Advent 1A
Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44

In the name of God: who was, and who is, and who is to come. Amen.

Advent is finally here. And there’s really only one thing to say: it’s about time.

If you’ve been inside a retail store in the past few weeks you’d probably think it was already Christmas. It seems to come earlier and earlier each year. The consumerism in our culture - and in all of us who are a part of that culture, really - demands that we fast-forward past the waiting and into the celebrating. We’ve lost our patience.

And the church says, “It’s about time.”

You hear the message every year - it’s not Christmas yet, we need to take some time for Advent.

We mark that in our liturgies: we try to build in a sense of anticipation through the music we sing and with periods of silence; we don’t decorate for Christmas yet; we don’t say Merry Christmas to each other yet. By the end of Advent, we start to look a little strange: the rest of the world has been celebrating Christmas for about a month, and we, in the church - the people for whom it should be most significant - have barely acknowledged it at all.

It’s about time.

We’re not good at waiting. We live in what I’ve often called a microwave culture. We don’t simmer; we zap. And there’s a degree to which that expression doesn’t even really capture it: perhaps we’ve even moved beyond the microwave culture to the point where even that seems too slow. Sometimes, when I’m reheating leftovers, I catch myself standing in front of the microwave wondering why the seconds tick by so slowly. I’m ready!

But here’s the thing: most times, once the microwave finally finishes its work, I look around and realize that I’ve forgotten to set the table. I was impatient, to be sure, but I wasn’t ready.

We often mistake the two - impatience and being ready. Being ready is about being prepared - about having taken the time and the steps necessary to accomplish a moment to its fullest potential. Impatience, on the other hand, is only about itself: a quest for gratification at the expense of potentially deeper satisfaction.

The readings for this morning begin to point our attention in a new direction - to the idea that God’s very self will be among us in a new way. It takes some time to wrap our minds around that. We can’t just thrust ourselves into this new way of seeing the world. If we do, we might not even see it. If we’re guided by impatience, all we will be able to see will be the seconds ticking by, and not the work left undone when the alarm sounds. Then, when it sounds, we’ll be left scrambling.

Paul, in his customarily eager approach to time, tells us, “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.”

Paul always believed that the return of Christ was just around the corner. He was eager, but not impatient. He used his eagerness to fuel his efforts at readiness, but didn’t allow it to devolve into impatience.

Jesus also seems to be saying the same kind of thing: “About that day and hour, no one knows… Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

But what does any of this have to do with any of us?

Even if you’re of the school of thought that says that a literal and majestic second coming of Christ to triumph over the powers of the world is just over the horizon, we have to admit that it’s been over the horizon for some two-thousand years. At some point, don’t we have to just hang it up and live our lives outside of the anxiety and anticipation? Can’t we just say, “I’m ready!” already and stop watching the clock? If we’re not careful it could drive us mad!

I’ve always believed that we have a way of finding what we’re looking for. If we’re looking for anxiety, we almost always find it. If we’re looking for fear, we almost always find that.

But on the other hand, if we’re looking for love, chances are that’s what we’ll experience. If we’re looking for hope, it will be around every corner.

What might happen if we found ourselves looking for Christ?

The church doesn’t just delay the celebration of Christmas until Christmas Day because we’re old fashioned. We don’t do it because we’re curmudgeonly determined to stand against the ways of the rest of the world.

We wait because we believe we’ll find ourselves in the midst of our looking for Christ.

Advent is more countercultural than it ever has been, but it’s also more important. As we, in our culture, become more and more impatient, we feel the ache of anticipation in waiting more and more acutely. That ache gives rise to impatience, and often at the expense of readiness.

We could jump right in to Christmas, but would we really be ready? If we didn’t practice looking for Christ, what would we find at Christmas?

You know what time it is. It is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. It’s time to get ready.

Advent is here, and it’s all about time. It’s about taking time to get ready. It’s about pressing back against our impatience and looking for Christ. Who knows what we’ll find…

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Be glad and rejoice forever; by your endurance you will gain your souls

Pentecost 25; Proper 28C
Luke 21:5-19
Isaiah 65:17-25

In the name of God: One, Holy, and Living. Amen.

It’s tempting on a day like today to turn away from the Gospel and focus instead on the Old Testament lesson. It’s like we have two diametrically opposing worldviews presented to us in the course of a single worship service.

Shall we focus on Isaiah, with its wolves and lambs eating together as friends, and long lifetimes, and prosperous living? Or shall we instead focus on Jesus, with his promises of wars and insurrections, and betrayals, and death?

The story Isaiah tells of what to expect in the future is certainly more pleasant to consider: new heavens and a new earth. But it would be a bit dishonest to look only there - at those comfortable words - and to ignore the difficult visions portrayed by Luke’s Jesus.

So which is it? Are we destined for comfort and peace according to the promises of God in Isaiah? Or are we destined for pain and persecution according to the promises of Christ in Luke?

We’re nearing the end of the Christian year. We’re one week away, actually. And over this past year we’ve heard a lot about the life of Christ as well as the Christian life. From the season of preparation in Advent to the celebration of Jesus’ birth; the giving of light and recognition at Epiphany; the long seasons of marveling at Jesus’ miracles and learning from his teachings; from journeying with him to the Cross in Lent to the exuberant joy and surprise of Easter and its succeeding celebrations of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. In practicing the Christian year, we practice the reality of human experience. There are ups and downs and all of them add up to the fullness of God’s dream for us.

The worldview we hear from Jesus today comes near the end of his time on earth. In the pages that follow, Luke walks us through the seemingly climactic last days - “seemingly”, because we all know that the real climax comes later; after the “last days”. But in the midst of those “last days” - before any of us knew how the truth would unfold - there would be great pain and fear and uncertainty. The disciples needed to be prepared. Their faith needed girding if it were to endure the days to come.

The Jewish people to whom the prophecy of Isaiah was written needed girding in another way. They had already endured unimaginable suffering, but it was, for the moment at least, easing. They had been in exile from their oppressors back home, but the exilic period was coming to a close. The good times were coming, but they had been so separated from those good times for so long that they could hardly remember how to be people of faith in the midst of them. The promise of “new heavens and a new earth” helps call them back into focus - to gird them with renewed hope in the promise of God.

Throughout human experience and even still in our own lives, there have been radical ups and downs. There have been lows from which recovery seemed impossible and highs so high we couldn’t see the ground. And both are true. Both represent parts of the faith and neither negates the other. Nor do any of the ordinary times in between.

It reminds me of a recent season in my own life, and one of the lessons I learned there.

Near the end of my time in seminary, I found myself beginning to reflect on the experience: I remember thinking so vividly in my first year that I thought I’d found heaven on earth. I had moved halfway across the country to a place I had never been and where I knew no one. I had taken a giant leap of faith and it had seemed to be paying off more richly than I could have imagined. New worlds were opening before me. New ideas were forming within me. New relationships were blossoming. I was beginning to know myself more than I ever had before. It was as if I were standing looking over the new heaven and the new earth about which Isaiah had prophesied.

And then there was fall and then there was winter in my second year. Suddenly, this “heaven on earth” seemed to be more like hell on earth. What had once felt like a leap of faith began feeling more like stumbling toward a far-off finish line. My “new world” turned out to be just New Jersey. The new relationships had blossomed into deep friendships - but they weren’t without their challenges. And knowing myself turned out to be not quite as easy as it had once seemed. There were days when it was hard to make myself get out of bed. There was an insurrection gurgling up inside me - and it seemed to be not for me, but on me.

And then there was fall and then there was winter in my third year. By the end of that final year of study and formation things had balanced out. I began to see that seminary was neither “heaven on earth” nor “hell on earth”, but instead was just earth. And like all creation, I could see that it was good. But though my experience had evened out a bit, the Isaiah-ness of my first year was no less true, nor was the Jesus-ness of my second. Just like this Christian year has been, the highs and the lows were all part of the same existence - neither canceled the other. Both represent truth, and both teach us aspects of our faith.

You have, undoubtedly, seen the same truth play itself out in your own lives. The joys and pains of every human experience - whether it’s through parenting or love or whatever else - always adds up to the fullness of an experience more true than any one of its aspects. And through the joys and pains of our lives the one common thread remains - just as it has remained through all of the highs and lows of the Christian life. The truth is that whether we are on top of the world or in the pit of despair, there, too, is God. No matter our circumstances, we are invited into deeper relationship with God.

It’s not always easy. Jesus teaches that again and again. But it’s also not always hard. Christ teaches that. Every Good Friday has on its heels an Easter morning begging to burst through. It’s the end of the church year, but there’s a new one waiting in the wings. There are yet more up and downs and good times and bad, and lessons to be learned in the midst of it all. Be glad and rejoice forever - even in the midst of it all. Because by your endurance you will gain your souls. Amen.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

All Saints' Sunday and Stewardship Campaign (all at once??)

All Saints’ Sunday C
Luke 6:20-31

In the name of God: who was, and who is, and who is to come. Amen.

Sometimes I wonder why anybody would want to be a Christian.

There’s this great misunderstanding out in the world that says that Christianity is about being nice and doing good deeds. But Jesus keeps telling us that it’s not. It’s about turning the world upside down to deepen our relationships with God and with each other - even when that’s not easy or nice - no matter how much the world disagrees.

Sometimes, in our own efforts at either growing the church or trying to make ourselves feel better about a life that can sometimes be hard, we find ourselves perpetuating the misunderstanding: If only we could be nice and do good deeds everything would be okay.

If that were the case, I suppose more people might want to be Christian; but life proves, again and again, that that is not the case. Sometimes life is hard - even for us good folks. Sometimes the powers and structures of the world push us down. Sometimes we catch ourselves participating the powers and structures of the world that push others down.

You can see why most people might want a cleverly packaged Christianity that wraps up nicely with clearly defined borders. It would be a lot easier that way. It would certainly be easier than the Jesus way.

But instead we get this: “Blessed are you who are poor… Blessed are you who are hungry… Blessed are you who weep….”

I often joke with parents at baptisms. So often they are nervous that the baby will crying during the baptism, but I tell them that it’s nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, it’s a good sign. I tease that it shows that the child knows what they’re in for!

The gospel lesson for today is another example of how true that little joke is. Christianity would be a lot easier to swallow if Jesus had just said, “Blessed are the people who get along alright and mind their own business.”

But, no. That’s not the faith we have received through the ages and continue to receive in our own lives.

Today we have an interesting confluence of events. It’s All Saints’ Sunday - the day we set apart to remember those saints, both known and unknown, who have led the faith through history even to us. It’s also a day when we recite our baptismal covenant - reminding us of and reaffirming the promises that we make to continue to lead the faith through to others still. Finally, it’s also the first Sunday of our annual Stewardship drive.

It’s a little unusual for us to be starting the Stewardship campaign so late in the year, but with all of the other business involved in calling a new priest and celebrating our 150th anniversary, it just made sense to push things back a bit this year. But it really is something of an unexpected blessing.

For so much of this year we’ve been focused on the past. And not the past only, but the past as it points to our inheritance, the future.

We have been richly blessed. We have these beautiful old buildings where we worship and learn and share in times of fellowship and community together. And we have this community itself: each week at the passing of the peace it warms my heart to see the eagerness with which you greet one another and show signs of love. The children of our church who sit together after services, and play together, and practice the genuinely loving relationships that they have been taught are signs of God’s blessings for us. We are blessed by a wealth of talented people who come together in this community to teach us and to feed us and to lead us.

I’m sure each of you could recount the blessings that you see in this place and in your neighbors around you. We could spend the whole day thinking of how good we’ve got it here. It would be easy to sit here and to pat ourselves on the back for the good thing we’ve got going.

But our faith in Christ won’t let us. The work of the Gospel is the work of turning the world upside down. Blessings come not only where we expect them, but also where we think they’re impossible.

In the next day or two you will be receiving an invitation to respond to the riches of God’s blessings in your life by pledging your support for the church. Over the next few weeks you will be hearing from your fellow members of the parish about how and why they respond to this same call. You will have a chance to take a share in turning the world upside down with us.

There’s certainly a degree to which this is a little bit about money. Okay - maybe even a lot. But even more, I hope the stewardship season will be about responding to the inheritance we have received in Christ, and about taking a bold stand to call ourselves people of faith even in the midst of a world that begs us not to do so. Just as those saints we remember today have done for generations. I hope it will be about daring to join with Christ in turning the world upside down and about taking the leap of trusting that blessings can be found where they had seemed most unlikely or even impossible.

Together we will prayerfully enter into the next 150 years of the ministry with which we have been entrusted.

It won’t be easy. The work of the baptized people of God almost never is. But together we will do it with God’s help. Amen.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Zacchaeus Effect

Pentecost 23; Proper 26C
Luke 19:1-10

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Zacchaeus was… a wee little man. And a wee little man was he.

You all know the story. We all sang that little song in Sunday School and Children’s Choirs. I would imagine that throughout the church children are learning and reciting that song, even today.

But one of the problems with these most well known stories from the Bible - like this one most certainly is - is that we can find ourselves lost in the familiarity to the degree that we don’t even really hear the story anymore.

I heard the story once, of a man who lived in Denver. Every day, just outside his office window, he could see the most beautiful mountains you could imagine. Through the seasons he could see the new growth in the spring, and the brilliant fall colors, and the first snows beginning to cap the mountains as winter came around.

But it became mundane. Through daily exposure, it became common. Soon, he forgot to look or to recognize the breathtaking beauty that was there before him.

That’s kind of the way the story of Zacchaeus can be for us. We’ve heard it so much, we’ve sung the song… Before long, if we’re not careful, it might begin to just blend in with everything around it. We might begin to miss the breathtaking beauty that is before us.

And the story of Zacchaeus is breathtakingly beautiful.

Throughout the stories of Jesus we learn to expect the unexpected. So much so that when it happens, we almost don’t notice.

Earlier this week I was gathered with the clergy of the Diocese of Newark in our annual Clergy Conference. It’s always a fun time - staying up too late with colleagues and friends, laughing at old stories, and relishing in the beauty of the Poconos. But it’s not just all fun and games - our bishop has made a commitment to try to use these events to expose the clergy of the diocese to some of the leading theological minds in the church.

This year we welcomed Sara Miles. Sara comes from San Francisco where she’s a layperson at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church. If you don’t know about St. Gregory’s, it’s an amazing parish with a unique liturgical style - so much so that it’s seen as a kind of tourist destination for Episcopalians traveling to the Bay Area. Every aspect of their worship and service are geared toward the aim of welcoming outsiders. They try to live by their belief that Christ calls us into unexpected company.

Sara has written two books about her experiences of coming to Christianity ten years ago through the community at St. Gregory’s: Take This Bread and Jesus Freak. With us, she talked about a lot of her experiences. What were probably most jarring to the many of the gathered clergy of the diocese were her thoughts about liturgy as it had been shaped by her worshiping community; but, the Zacchaeus effect was in full swing throughout her time with us.

Sara preached a truly radical gospel of full-inclusion. She was preaching to a generally friendly audience - most of us subscribe to that same radical gospel of inclusion, after all. But perhaps we subscribe so much so that we don’t even see it despite its beauty.

The thing about Zacchaeus that we often forget is not just that he was a “wee little man”, but that he was a wretched little man. He was a tax collector. But to get the full picture of what that means, you have to think through it a little further. He was a Jew who collected taxes from other Jews on behalf of the government that oppressed them all. And if that wasn’t enough, he didn’t even collect them fairly. He took exorbitant shares for himself - essentially stealing from his own people.

It’s really not quite enough to say that he was a sinner. He was the lowest of the low; despised by everyone. He was truly hated, and for pretty valid reasons.

In her time with us, Sara said something that stuck with me. While reflecting on her community’s commitment to welcoming everyone she said, “If you want to meet God, sometimes you’re just going to have to sit in the smoking section.”

Zacchaeus was the “smoking section” personified.

In the same way that on that day in Jericho, Jesus was to be found in none other than the home of Zacchaeus, so, too, are we going to have to go to those places where no one wants to be if we want to sit at the feet of Jesus.

But it’s not just about reaching out to the wretched. Sometimes we have to reach in.

There is a degree to which all of us are Zacchaeus. We all have our secret wretchednesses. We all have elements of our souls and our selves that feel broken and misused. It’s in those most undesirable places within myself, that I have found that I am most likely to find Christ living and breathing new life.

But whether it’s within ourselves or in our community at large, it’s not enough to simply trust that Christ is at work in the people and places of brokenness and discomfort. We must go. We must face the brokenness head on. We’ve got to sit in the smoking section if we are to see Christ.

It’s not enough to sit in the pews in church. It’s not enough to sit with our friends. It’s not enough to sit only with those parts of ourselves that make us feel most affirmed and comforted.

If we do, we are susceptible to the Zacchaeus effect. We are in danger of missing the mountains just outside our windows, or the wisdom hiding just under the surface in a story we know too well to hear.

No. We are called to walk with Christ into the heart of the contrast and the discomfort to sit at the table with outcasts and sinners - wherever that may be.

Christ lives in those relationships. Christ lives in brokenness. Christ lives where there had been death.


Sunday, October 10, 2010

Praise & Thanksgiving in the face of Fear & Trembling

Pentecost 20; Proper 23C
Luke 17:11-19

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

It seems that praise and thanksgiving are hard to come by these days.

And perhaps for good reason.

In recent years our sense of stability about our way of life seems to have been constantly pummeled. Beginning with the terror attacks of 2001, we entered this decade with fear and trembling. Since then, at nearly every turn, our fear and trembling seems to be too-often justified. We’ve found ourselves in the midst of two wars, leading to the death, injury, and mental illnesses of too may of the young women and men of this generation. We have endured a staggering financial crisis that has affected all of us to one degree or another - whether it’s extended unemployment, a lack of access to health care, a lack of access to credit in an economy that practically requires it, or simply from the crisis of confidence that comes from seeing the recession’s more tangible effects in those we care about all around us - we’ve all felt it in one way or another.

And if these crises born out of our own and our neighbors’ human error weren’t enough, a seemingly constant steam of earthquakes, fires, and hurricanes has undergirded this decade of fear and trembling. It begins to feel like everything in the world is stacked against us. We begin to wonder if we will ever climb out of the hole.

In the face of what seems to have become a culture of fear and trembling, it’s hard to give ourselves over to an attitude of praise and thanksgiving.

The culture of fear and trembling becomes kind of self-fulfilling. The more we experience it, the more we expect it. The more we expect it, the more we find it in new ways. It’s one of the truths of human experience that we tend to find what we’re looking for, and when we’re accustomed to looking for fear and trembling we’re rarely disappointed.

In the Gospel lesson for today we hear the story of a group of people for whom life has made it hard to see anything other than fear and trembling. We are told that Jesus and his disciples encounter a group of ten lepers.

Leprosy is an interesting designation in biblical literature. It doesn’t necessarily refer to the specific diagnosis of leprosy as a particular illness that we think of today, but to any number of different kinds of skin conditions - whether they be communicable or not; whether they be life threatening or not. Biblical leprosy could refer to a rash that can be transmitted between people - making it more understandable (though of course no less cruel) that the leper might be ostracized from his or her community. But biblical leprosy might also refer to any other malady of the skin - ailments as benign as eczema or acne.

But whatever the medical diagnosis, the symbolism of biblical leprosy is profound even in our own age: it was something beyond the afflicted person’s control that set them apart. Moreover, that which set them apart was right there on their skin - for all the world to see.

There was no hiding for a leper.

So, it’s really no surprise that most of the lepers didn’t turn back. They had been cast out from society. They had been ostracized and taught through all their social interactions to live their lives with fear and trembling from the margins. And in such a culture of fear and trembling, it’s hard to give oneself over to praise and thanksgiving.

One of the lessons of faith that is oftentimes taught is that when we find ourselves in doubt and lacking faith, we should pray as if our faith is resolute until it is. We find what we are looking for. If we are seeking deeper faith, it will come.

But by the same token, if we are caught in cycles of fear and trembling to such a degree that we have trained ourselves to see only that, the likelihood is that we will be correct.

It’s no wonder that the nine healed lepers never looked back. It’s no wonder that they couldn’t find the words for praise and thanksgiving. Praise and thanksgiving were foreign concepts for these who had been so put upon by society.

The real wonder of this story is not that the nine turned away, but that the one turned back.

The real wonder is that despite the systems of oppression that had hurt this man and taught him to live a life of fear and isolation, he still found a way, nonetheless, to return to the community and to express his praise and thanksgiving for the grace he had received.

We all know that we have plenty of reasons to be afraid. We have plenty of reasons to isolate ourselves. We are the lepers of the biblical heritage. Our experiences as a society through this past decade or so have made us sick and we wear it right out on our skin.

There’s no hiding.

The real challenge is not in being made well: our faith in Christ makes us well.

No, the real challenge is looking past our patterns of fear and celebrating that healing that we have been given.

If we look for fear, we will find it. But if we look for thanksgiving, we will find that, instead.

Our challenge is to look for occasions of thanksgiving. Fear is pounding all around, but that doesn’t mean that’s all there is. Fear is constantly demanding our attention, but that doesn’t mean that we have to supply it.

Thanksgiving is quieter, but more powerful. It’s usually not pounding, but always present. If we reach out and allow it in, it will always triumph over our every fear.

So practice looking for it. Practice finding gratitude even when fear seems to be the only option. It will draw you in from the solitude, and it will change your life. It will wear right there on your skin for all the world to see. And gratitude is just as contagious as fear. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

More than enough

Pentecost 19; Proper 22C
Luke 17:5-10

Almighty God, you are always more ready to give more than we either desire or deserve. Give us those good things for which we are not worthy to ask, except through the merits and mediation of Christ our Savior. Amen.

Those words of the collect today remind me of a story that I heard recently.

A young man was reflecting on his experience of receiving the Holy Communion. At his church, they used a loaf of bread, and each person would come and pinch off a little piece to receive. He had learned through the examples of others that you should pinch off just enough - a tiny piece, only big enough to have a taste, perhaps with the intent of leaving more for others.

It was kind of a self-denial approach to grace. The unintentional lesson was that only a little could be spared for each person if there were to be enough to go around.

For this young man, that lesson seemed counterintuitive to the greater lessons that he was learning by being a part of this worshiping community. He had been taught to appreciate and expect abundance from God, but his community was practicing scarcity.

So one Sunday, as he approached the altar, he resolved that he would not take just a little piece. He wanted to feel in a physical way the fullness that he already felt in his spirit from being a part of that worshiping community.

So he walked up to the minister who was serving, and he took all the bread that his hand could grab. A chunk so big that he couldn’t even finish it all with one bite.

As he told this story he admitted that the first thought that went through his mind was one of panic: Had he taken too much? Was it okay for him to want more than he was expected to take? Would there be enough?

Then he realized the truth: everything that the Christian message teaches us is that there IS enough. We shouldn’t be ashamed about taking too much of the blessings that are offered to us - only about taking too little and failing to trust in the abundance. It is only in our interactions with the world that lie beyond our Christian scope that we learn not to trust in abundance.

This is another side of the same message that we hear throughout the gospel, and again this morning.

The disciples and others had just heard the parable that we heard last week: the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. In it, Jesus instructs us to live our lives in a counterproductive way: to share the riches we have with those who are lacking - to even the scales in our lives on earth - so that we may all experience God’s blessings.

Then, in the few verses between that parable and the lesson we read today, the seemingly backwards message continues: Jesus instructs the disciples not to stumble from their righteousness, but even more, if any one does, to offer forgiveness every time it is sought. He says, “If the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent’, you must forgive.”

It’s in this context of radical generosity - not only of wealth, but also of spirit - that the disciples turn to Jesus and say, “Increase our faith!” It’s as if they were saying, “We don’t know that we have it in us to be the people of faith that you are calling us to be!” They weren’t being greedy or trying for self-advancement - they just didn’t know if they were up to the task that was being described to them.

I know I often feel the same way.

There’s a degree to which the Christian vocation is fairly simple: show your love for God by showing your love for God’s creation. But it’s often easier said than done.

When our fellow disciples stumble, it’s easier to be angry than forgiving.

When we see our neighbors lacking, it’s tempting to hoard our good fortune so we won’t face the same fate.

To reject the easy and the tempting in favor of the righteous requires great faith. It requires standing up against everything that the world outside of the faith community teaches - and maybe even against some of the things that the faith community accidentally teaches - and saying, “No. I know another truth.”

The young man who took “too much” bread knew that. He knew that he could trust in the abundance. He knew that the scarcity that he had been taught was only a mirage that obscured the reality of God.

Jesus knew it, too. When the disciples feared that they didn’t have enough, Jesus assured them that they did.

Earlier this weekend my father and I were talking about this text. When I told him what the appointed Gospel lesson was for the day, and about the line that says that faith the size of mustard seed would be enough to uproot the mulberry tree and plant it in the sea, my father’s response was, “Well, I don’t know why I’d want to do that.”

I laughed when he said that, but I think that’s exactly the point.

We may not have the power to perform supernatural miracles, but why do we need to?

We do, on the other hand, have more than enough power through the grace of God to perform miracles of another sort: We have the power to rise up against the erroneous teachings that assail us from nearly every side. We have the power to stand in the face of the world’s cries of scarcity and to proclaim the gospel of abundance that we know. We have the power to share our good fortune. We have the power to recognize forgiveness where there had been only judgment. We have the power to follow Christ, and to share in his example of service.

It may not seem like much.

Indeed, it may not seem like enough.

But it’s easier said than done. And, through the merits and mediation of Christ our Savior, it is more than enough. Amen.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Filling in the gaps

Pentecost 18; Proper 21C
Luke 16:19-31

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Too often in life, it seems that it’s the simplest lessons that can be the hardest to digest.

The parable that we read this morning looks to be, on the surface, one of those “simple lessons”:

The rich man lives a life of luxury - wearing the latest fashions, feasting each day on the finest foods. Meanwhile, at the gate of luxury, there lives a man of despair. So poor, so hungry, so diseased. And though their experiences in their lives are as divergent as anyone could imagine, those experiences converge in the way that all lives do - through death.

As we have come to expect in the literature of the parables, on the other side of this life, the two men’s roles are reversed. The rich man, who stored up his treasures on earth, finds that they have passed away. The poor man, who suffered greatly on earth, finds that his reward had awaited him all along in heaven.

Last week we considered the parable of the dishonest manager. The manager, remember, who was actually commended for being dishonest. It was a tough one. So far from what we expect from Jesus, that, like those who first heard the parable, we were forced to tease out the lesson from amidst the scandal.

This week we’re back to normal. The words of the Magnificat - Mary’s Song of Praise upon reflecting on the Christ in her womb - are borne out in the teaching of this parable. The song says, “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” Those words are something like a prologue to the Gospel According to Luke. Throughout the book we are taught again and again to care for the poor and to spurn our dependence on the physical comforts of this world.

So this should be one of the simpler lessons.

We could easily spend our time together today reminding ourselves to care for the poor. We could spend our time imagining the ways that we are like the rich man and considering how we might learn from Moses and the prophets in this life and avoid the fate that he faced.

We might even consider the ways that we are like poor Lazarus - oft-suffering and struggling - but in anticipation of the riches that heaven has in store for us.

Depending upon our situations, those would be perfectly fine things to consider and meditate about on this, the Lord’s Day: if you are suffering, keep calm and carry on. If you are comfortable, offer aid to those less fortunate.

It’s a fine lesson, and if you don’t take anything else away with you today other than that, you will have done well.

But there’s something more lurking under the surface of this story. Each time I read it, I’m struck by one word: chasm.

As Lazarus and the rich man are each reaping the rewards of their lives on earth, the rich man calls out to Abraham begging him to send Lazarus to offer relief to his suffering. In his response, Abraham says, “Between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can come from there to us.”

Though the parable has the circumstances of each of the men shifting after their lives on earth had ended, their relationship remains, in many ways, the same. In their lives, the men had suffered a divide in their ability to be in relationship with one another. After their lives, this spiritual divide seems to have become physically manifested in the chasm.

Many theologians have interpreted the sin of the rich man as one of “not noticing” the needs of the poor, but I fear it was something greater than that. In reality, the rich man in the parable gives himself away - he calls Lazarus by name. So clearly he had noticed Lazarus in his need.

How many times had he blithely walked by Lazarus while leaving or returning to the comforts of his home? How many times had he heard the cry of Lazarus, begging to sustain himself with the rich man’s wasted riches?

That great chasm was not hewn by God to keep the blessed and the condemned from one another. We chisel it away. Each time we turn a blind eye to the needs of our neighbor and walk away, our footsteps cut into the source, which upholds us. Each time we allow our own wants and desires to distract us from entering into true and holy relationships, we widen the gap.

The rich man knew Lazarus. He was his neighbor.

Who are your neighbors? More importantly, what chasms are you digging out?

It doesn’t have to be about “rich” and “poor”. Most of us don’t live in the kind of opulence that we read about from the rich man in this story. But all of us do have neighbors in need. Is there someone in your world who is lonely? Do you pass the same “faceless” neighbors each day and never reach out to be in relationship with them? We can widen the chasms between us by choosing to ignore those things that make us uncomfortable or that seem to be a hassle; or, we can fill in the gaps. We can choose to be in relationship and not just in proximity.

There’s a degree to which it’s almost harder here in the city. Sociologists have studied the phenomenon of “urban anonymity”. The theory is that despite the dense populations of cities, people are prone to be lonelier. We live and move and have our being within feet or sometimes-even inches of our neighbors, but we don’t see them, and they don’t see us. Life has placed us together, but we tear ourselves apart. We fix great chasms between us and them.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can fill in the gaps: with a warm smile or perhaps a “hello”. How would it feel to walk up to a shopkeeper that you’ve passed for years and take the time to make a formal introduction? What would it be like to get to know a bit of their story and to share a bit of your own? We don’t all have to be best friends, but we can choose not to look away. St. Francis said that we should preach the gospel at all times, and then, when necessary, use words. This is one of the simple ways that we can preach the gospel with our lives: to reach out and build relationships where there had been none or where they had been strained by our ignoring.

It’s a simple lesson. It takes commitment and practice. But how might it change the world?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Unexpected heroes

Pentecost 17; Proper 20C
Luke 16:1-13

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

I’ve been spending a lot of my free time lately watching The Sopranos on DVD.

It’s that kind of strange time that comes a couple of times each year between the seasons: the summer television shows have stopped for the year, but the shows that start in the fall have yet to begin. I usually fill this inter-seasonal time by watching more news or catching up on some pleasure reading. But sometimes I’ll watch a series on DVD that I haven’t seen or that I haven’t seen in a long time.

This time it’s The Sopranos. Some of my friends find this very hard to believe, but despite having lived in New Jersey for more than six years, I had never seen an episode of The Sopranos until just a couple of weeks ago. I had heard that it was an engaging series. I just never joined in.

Truth be told, I’m kind of kicking myself that it’s taken this long. It only took an episode or two, and I was totally hooked. The characters are just so complex.

The main character is Tony Soprano: a mob boss living in the New Jersey suburbs. He begins having panic attacks that have fairly intense physical manifestations, so he sees a psychiatrist in an attempt to find relief. As much as the series follows his life and his crimes and other exploits, it follows his experience of self-examination and eventual, though slow and stumbling growth.

A curious thing begins to happen as the series progresses: though we’re given plenty of reasons to be angry with Tony, we find ourselves rooting for him. He’s very much a villain in almost any other context, but in his story, he becomes something of the hero. Not in the chivalrous, good guy, helping old ladies cross the street or giving to the poor kind of way; but a hero nonetheless. Doing the best he can in his own context, no matter how undesirable or socially unacceptable that context may be. He stumbles often. In many cases he not only doesn’t attempt to change his negative behavior, he actually embraces it. But in his life, such as it is, he does what he can to learn and to grow. Even if that’s not much.

As I was preparing myself for preaching today, every commentary that I read – without fail – made some remark about the difficulty of preaching this parable.

That’s because there’s a degree to which this parable isn’t what we want – and certainly not we tend to expect – from Jesus. We expect stories of people who make bad decisions but eventually redeem themselves and restore themselves to righteousness: like we’d find in the parable of the Prodigal Son. We expect examples of paradox – people that our cultures tell us are bad, but who surprise us with good behavior: like we’d find in the parable of the Good Samaritan. We expect parables that tell us of the virtuous nature of God like we heard last week in the two short parables of the lost possessions that were sought until they were found.

What we don’t expect is the kind of thing that we heard today: a dishonest manager was about to be fired so he engaged in further dishonesty, and was as such, commended.

It just doesn’t add up. Which is probably why this parable isn’t one of the “greatest hits” that we all tend to turn to in times of crisis or insecurity. It requires a little more unwrapping than most of the others that form the bedrocks of our faith and morality.

We expect to hear about either a conversion from his dishonest ways, or a story of his getting his “just desserts”. Instead, we hear the story of a master finding the good in his servant – however grimly shrouded that good may be – and celebrating it.

Eugene Peterson – who translated and wrote a paraphrase of the Bible in contemporary language – interprets Jesus’ words and the lesson of this parable like this:

“The master praised the crooked manager! And why? Because he knew how to look after himself. Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens. They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits. I want you to be smart in the same way – but for what is right – using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you’ll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behavior.”

“Not just get by on good behavior.”

Like learning to root for a villain like Tony Soprano, even the villain in this story has something to teach us about being better Christians if only we could get past our own judgment to see the wisdom that is awaiting us.

Too often we, in the church, try to just “get by on good behavior”. Too often, still, we shave even that down and try to get by on just enough good behavior.

But Christ is calling us to more. Living the Christian life is not about getting by. It’s not even really about good behavior. There’s a bigger picture to see if we’ll open our eyes to it: we are called to “creative survival” – to “live, really live”, and not just to “get by”.

This is one of the keys to understanding the last line in today’s Gospel: “You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Serving wealth might be about survival; but serving God is about creative survival. Serving wealth might seem necessary for living – making a living, we call it; but serving God is about really living.

As a parish we’ve said to ourselves that we need to increase Sunday attendance and pledging. I believe both of these things are true, but why? Why do we need to increase Sunday attendance? Why do we need to increase the level of giving to the church?

Is it so we can survive – so we can keep the doors of the church open? Is it so WE can feel good about coming to church?

These are shortsighted answers. They are about getting by, but we are called to the bigger picture.

The real question is not so much about how we can find ways to keep doing what we’re doing here, but about how we can discern who God is calling us to be.

It wasn’t a neat and tidy parable this morning.

It’s one of the ones that requires some real work to cut into its core. And even then, it’s not really sweet and simple.

And the sermon today isn’t really neat and tidy, either. I don’t have the answers to the big questions that will lead us to the big picture: What will it mean for us to do more than just complacently get by on good behavior? Who is God calling us to be? How can we avoid looking for ways to survive and focus, instead, on looking for ways to really live? Who is God calling us to be?

Perhaps we’ll find the answers we expect where and when we expect them. But more likely we’ll learn from people and experiences that we couldn’t have imagined possible. Amen.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Lost and Found

Pentecost 16; Proper 19C
Luke 15:1-10

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

I lost my keys this week.

It’s funny how the lectionary texts seem to come around at just the right time.

I don’t typically misplace things. In fact, I’m the one many of my friends turn to when they’ve misplaced things. I’m both good at remembering where I saw them last and good at imagining where they might have been forgotten.

But lately I’ve been losing things or forgetting where they’re placed. Part of it is probably because I’ve just moved and haven’t quite found my way around yet. Part of it is because I’m used to living in much humbler accommodations. I’m attributing the lost keys to living on the grounds with the church, and simply not needing them every day.

I first noticed my lost keys on Friday afternoon. I had popped into the office to check on something for today, when a sudden, inexplicable shift in the pressure happened in the Rectory. Out of nowhere, the door between my office and the house slammed shut.

Instantly I felt in my pocket. Nothing. I stepped over to the door to see if I had left it unlocked, which, of course, I hadn’t.

Fortunately, Vanessa came to my rescue and let me back into the house, but the deeper problem remained. I had to find those keys.

For most of the next day I searched through the house, high and low. I checked the pants that I’d worn the day before. I checked on every flat surface in the house. I checked in the couch cushions. I checked under the bed. I checked places I’d check five times before.

I couldn’t sleep Friday night for thinking about where these keys had gone. When I tried to relax in front of the TV, I couldn’t get through a show because I’d go check somewhere else or somewhere again.

By Saturday afternoon, panic had started to set in. I was having terrifying visions of expensive locksmith bills for the church and my car; visions of wasted time and being unable to leave the house or drive.

But, then, when my search widened to places that they couldn’t possibly be, that’s exactly where I found them. They were in the office: sitting about ten inches from the place where I had waited the day before for Vanessa to come and rescue me. […I’m sorry, Vanessa…]

Of course this is something of a silly story of loss, but we all know what its like to lose things. To lose people. To lose relationships through the agonies of death or estrangement. We understand the fear and the confusion. We understand the sadness.

In the Gospel lesson this morning, Jesus tells two short parables that use somewhat “silly” stories of loss to convey a larger point.

We are told, “all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.” Some of the most undesirable people of society came to sit at the feet of the teacher. And the teacher was foolish enough to welcome them. The leaders of the community were “grumbling” – not so much because Jesus would dare to teach, but because Jesus would dare to welcome.

When we hear parables or other episodes from the Bible, we often imagine where we would fit into the story. Are we the shepherd or the woman: desperately searching for the one that was lost? Are we the sheep or the coin: isolated and alone, immobilized and unable to reach out to the one who seeks us?

Even beyond the parable – are we Christ: spreading the good news of the radical love of God even to those who seem most unworthy? Are we the “tax collectors and sinners”: most unworthy ourselves?

Are we the Pharisees and the scribes sitting in judgment of the love of God?

I think the default position for most people is to identify as the seeker. Like the shepherd and the widow, we’ve been there. Whether it’s for something silly like keys or something or someone more significant, we have all sought. We can identify with that role.

But similarly, not only have we all sought, we all are sought.

There’s a degree to which we are the tax collectors and sinners. We are the bottom rungs of society for whom the “welcome” of Christ seems least likely. But we receive it nonetheless.

But there’s also a degree to which we are the Pharisees and the scribes. We expect the welcome of Christ for ourselves and feel threatened when it’s shared with those on the outside. And we receive it all the same.

It’s like the parable of the keys that I lived earlier this week: when I widened my search to include those places where “they couldn’t possibly be,” I found them. So, too, when we widen our searching for the love of God to those places that logic tells us that it couldn’t possibly be, that’s precisely where we will always find it: among the misdeeds of the tax collectors and the sinners; among the arrogance of the Pharisees and the scribes; even among the misdeeds and arrogance in ourselves.

Though we are lost, we are sought. Amen.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

I'm back!

** Note:  I haven't posted for a REALLY long time.  My last post was my last sermon at St. Paul's, Chatham and this one is my first sermon at St. Paul's, Jersey City.  I told myself that I'd use this time between positions to write about some of the things that have been on my mind and in my worldview that I never seem to be able to get around to when I'm working.  But alas, with moving, and settling into the new place, and taking some time to visit family, and training my new dog (I got a dog, BTW!!), the month has passed and the idea box has been left untouched!

So hopefully there will be some other non-sermon posts again pretty soon...  But until then, thanks for sticking with me through the radio silence.  I'll be preaching every week now, so you can count on more frequent posts, even if it's only sermons!  But hopefully there will be a few other reflections here and there as well!

As for this sermon - it's a first sermon in a new parish, and it was a bit of a doozy of a text, so it may not fit my usual "style" (whatever that is...) but not to worry - we'll be back to our regularly scheduled programming shortly!**

Pentecost 15; Proper 18C
Luke 14:25-33

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

The text this morning is something of a difficult one for a priest preaching his first sermon in a new cure.

For several weeks I’ve been thinking about what I might say to you on this, our first Sunday together. I haven’t met most of you yet, so I had imagined that I might make this a kind of light, introductory speech. I thought I might begin with a little biographical sketch, tell you a little about who I am and what I stand for and how I got here. I thought I might tell a few funny stories from my Louisiana upbringing, and then bring it all to close with a very brief reflection on the text for today.

It’s often been said that the fastest way to make God laugh is to make a plan; and, if the Gospel lesson for today isn’t God laughing in the face of my plans, I don’t know what is.

The lesson for this morning is anything but light. It doesn’t exactly lend itself to a simple, get-to-know-you kind of homily. Did you hear? Jesus says, “Whoever comes to me and does not HATE father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and EVEN LIFE ITSELF, cannot be my disciple.”

Wow. Well… Nice to meet you.

If you know anything at all about me from what you’ve heard or what I’ve written, you certainly know that by this standard, I am no disciple. And today I’m supposed to be introducing myself to you and helping to show you how we can all be better disciples. One of the most important things about who I am is the deep relationships that I have with my family. I wouldn’t begin to know how to hate my father and mother. In fact, I love them quite a lot. My brother is one of my best friends. And I have to admit, despite it challenges and temptations, I’m pretty much a fan of “life itself”. So in this description of a disciple, I clearly fail.

So perhaps this is as good a place as any for us to start. We’ll begin our time together with me being thoroughly honest with you: I am a failure. I have so very far to go before I can really count myself among Jesus’ disciples. I have a lot to learn and I have spiritual growing left to do. And if truth were told, I’d have to admit that I probably always will. I believe – and even hope – that in the final moments of my life, a long time from now, I’ll be resting on my death bed, but still learning and growing.

But perhaps that’s not clear enough for all of us. I’d imagine there are some of you for whom it is easier to several familial relationships. Perhaps it’s conceivable for some of us even to hate our families. But that’s not really the point. So the lesson doesn’t end there. The Gospel goes on to give us two illustrations about the real lesson Jesus is teaching.

First there’s the builder. Before beginning a project, the builder thinks it through. Can he see it though to the finish? Does he have what it takes? Can he give the project all that it requires?

Then there’s the warrior. Before he enters a battle, he thinks it through. Does he have the support he needs for it to end successfully? If not, what are the ways that he can re-imagine his preconceptions of success?

Though it’s never said outright, the message Jesus is sending is something like this: I want you to follow me. I want us to be friends. I want us to LOVE one another. But it won’t be an easy road. And you should know that going in. Just as builders and warriors and everyone in the world must go about their work knowing full-well what it will mean for them in the end, so, too, should you. Spirit-work is costly. I want you to do it with me, but I also want you to know that it’s not easy. It’s not supposed to be easy, and it’s not going to be.

So while a lighter, get-to-know-you message might have been easier or possibly even more desirable for today, this is, perhaps, the most honest first message I could have shared with you:

I am SO excited for us to begin our work together. It’s been a long time coming for both of us. We have all been doing a lot of work for years – long before any of us knew each other – we’ve been preparing ourselves this moment. Even the more immediate and direct preparations seem to have been going on for a long time. It was back in January that I first met with Canon Jacobs at our Diocesan office to discuss the possibility of coming here and serving among you. When I met with the Vestry to begin to explore the possibility of my serving here, we had to turn the heat on in the Rectory, because it was still so cold out. And now summer is waning and our time together is only just beginning.

We’ve all had a very long road to get here.

It might be tempting to sit back now and say that the work is done or that we can rest. But we can’t. The work is just beginning. It’s not time to rest yet. Not for either of us. We all have more that’s being asked of us.

And not just because we’re starting out on this journey together, but because we’re Christians. To follow Christ is a lot of work. It’s risky work. It’s exhausting work. It’s costly in ways that we can’t even imagine. But it is our calling. And when we do it, we will find that it is our joy.

We are called to give ourselves to Christ. In return, we find ourselves in Christ.

It’s been said that the most valuable gift any person can give – next to their love – is their labor. In both our lives as Christians as well as our lives as members of this community, we are asked to give both – BOTH of our most valuable gifts – both our love and our labor.

I know it’s a lot to ask. But let me begin out time together by going on record in asking it of you. And just as importantly, let me go on record in reminding you to ask it of me. We are called to give both our love and our labor to Christ and to this, the community of Christ. To claim any less – for our work to have begun on any kind of a lighter note – would have simply been a lie.

There will be time for us to tell our stories – to be light and to have fun and to laugh and to play; to get to know one another and to cry together and to support one another – in many ways that’s the work that we’re called to do. But it’s not easy. It’s not easy to give yourself up that completely. It’s not meant to be easy. But it is rewarding beyond our imagining. And it is what we’ve been called here to do.

It will take time for us to grow into the community that God imagines for us, but we will do it. It will take a lot of work, but we will most certainly do it, and we’ll do it together.

So thank you. Thank you for joining me on this journey. Thank you for calling me to lead you. Thank you for taking this risk with me. Now let’s get to work. Amen.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

I see the moon

Pentecost 9; Proper 12C
Luke 11:1-13

**NOTE: This was my last sermon at St. Paul's, Chatham.  I was there for two years as seminarian, then away for two years, and now have been back for one interim year.  I'll begin on September 1st as Priest-in-Charge at St. Paul's, Jersey City

In the name of God. Amen.

I got a text message last night. It was from my Aunt Janet. She also sent it to my brother, her daughter, and our cousins. It simply said, in quotes, “I see the moon…”

It was a beautiful, very-nearly full moon last night.

Before long, texts were swirling back and forth between all of us. “Me, too!” “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” And my own favorite: “It’s cloudy here, but I know it’s out there!”

There are a thousand variations of the song to which Aunt Janet was referring, but the one we sing in our family is pretty simple:

I see the moon, the moon sees me,
The moon sees somebody I want to see.
So God bless the moon, and God bless me,
And God bless the somebody I want to see.

It’s just a simple old nursery rhyme that someone, somewhere decided should be sung. It was taught to me when I was a young child, and it’s always one of the “Greatest Hits” that we sing on porches and in back yards along with a symphony of bull frogs and cicadas whenever we are together.

As I’ve grown into an adult, and particularly in the years since I’ve moved away from my family, that simple little song has become more to me. I began to see that it’s not really about the moon, but about the “somebody”. Or in our case, the community of “somebodys” that make up a family. We sing it when we’re together and it brings us together when we’re apart.

Even in those times when no one emails or texts or calls, I doubt there is one of us who can ever look at the moon without thinking of that shared connection – without knowing that it shines on all of our others whether they see it or not. So it’s not just a song anymore. It’s a prayer that cuts through everything that might separate us and connects us to each other and to God who brings us together.

That’s exactly what prayer should do. It should cut through those things of the world that make us feel alone or unloved and unite us to the God who shows us that those separations we perceive simply aren’t true.

In the Gospel lesson today we hear shadows of another familiar prayer: “Our Father, hallowed be your name…” It’s almost hard not to join in. Like “Amazing Grace” or the 23rd Psalm, those words seem meant for community. We can sing them or say them alone, but they’re never better than when they’re recited in unison with a community of faith.

The disciples – the earliest community of people who followed Christ – were looking for a prayer to unite them. As John had taught his disciples to pray, Jesus’ disciples hoped for a prayer that would be their own – a prayer that would connect them not only to God, but also to each other.

I love Jesus’ response. He gives them a prayer – the familiar words of the Lord’s Prayer. We say it each time we come together in worship. It is taught to us from the earliest ages. Even before we can really begin to wrap our minds around what prayer is, we are given an example of a prayer to guide us through our lives.

But more than just the words of a single prayer, Jesus tries to teach the disciples about the nature of prayer. Essentially, the lesson is this: be honest. Say what you need to say, and ask for what you need to ask for, and trust in the loving relationship with God that I’ve tried to show you. God is not someone distant and to be feared, but someone intimate and to be trusted.

For nearly the whole of human history – as long as we have perceived of any kind of god interacting with the people and things of the world – we have been afraid. Because we don’t interact with spiritual realities in the same ways that we interact with our temporal world, we don’t always understand them. Most of us simply haven’t had enough practice. And it is only natural to fear that which is either misunderstood or perhaps not understood at all.

We can see vestiges of that propensity for understanding God through lenses of fear around the Old Testament lesson for today. It’s a piece of the story about Sodom and Gomorrah. If someone had walked up to you on the street yesterday and asked you to explain the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah to them, what would you have said?

Many Christians would say that it’s a story of God’s judgment and wrath against a community of unbelievers who had given themselves over to uncontrolled sexual immorality.

Perhaps some who have had exposure to biblical scholarship and theology might suggest that it’s an object lesson about Ancient Near Eastern values, and specifically about hospitality to the stranger.

But as I was reading through the excerpt that we read this morning, I heard something different: I heard the tale of a faithful person’s interaction with a God who was desperate to find a way to acquit the condemned community.

I remember hearing these words as a child and thinking how funny it was that Abraham was able to “talk God down” – like he was bargaining over the price of a car. But upon reading this again, I hear something different. God allowed God’s-self to be talked down. It was almost as if God was looking for a way out.

And it would make sense that God would be looking for a way out. What we know about God from Jesus is that God is never one who is looking for a way to punish, but one who is always looking for a way to forgive. God is neither as distant nor anachronistic as we often make God out to be. God is intimately connected with our lives right here and right now – wherever and whenever that here and now may be.

That’s how Jesus taught us to pray: to speak to God as we would speak to a friend.

As the moon rose last night a thin, but steady cover of cloud slid in to obscure my view. The moon that had been crisp at dusk, showing all of its fine detail, lost its focus in the haze. It was little more than a diffuse pool of light in the night sky. But still, I knew it was there.

And when I feel alone and unloved, and when I can’t find the words for any other prayer to surpass those feelings of separation, I can always walk outside and see the moon. And even if I can’t, I can still hear those words of my family prayer: “I see the moon…”

Jesus taught us to pray with a heart that mirrors the intimacy and openness of God’s heart to us.

But even when we can’t, we can always hear the words of our Christian family prayer, and they will bring us home.

Say it with me: “Our Father….” Amen.