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

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Belonging and Membership

Proper 29B, Christ the King

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

One of the ways that I made my way through college was as a bank teller.  I loved it.  While my friends worked in malls or at restaurants and had unpredictable hours and worked on holidays, I had a set schedule.  And though I didn’t make as much money as many of my friends, I always knew how much I would make – I wasn’t dependant on tips or sales quotas or anything like that.  I just showed up when I was supposed to and counted money.

It was strangely satisfying work.  I could look back at the end of the day and see the thousands of dollars that had come across my desk, the hundreds of transactions that I would perform, and as if by magic, it almost always added up.  And on those rare occasions when it didn’t, it would always become clear what had gone wrong in the days ahead: some paper misfiled or some rogue number inverted.

There was order and clarity.

I worked for two rather small, locally owned banks that both, while I was working at them, “merged” with larger, more corporate institutions.  In both cases, the new corporations brought with them better pay, better benefits, and new technologies that made my work even easier.

It was a good life.

At the second bank I worked for, I worked as a floating teller.  Each day I would get a call telling me where I was to work for that day.  I filled in for other tellers who were out sick or on vacation, and I rarely worked at any one branch for more than a few weeks at a time.  It appealed to my burgeoning wanderlust, even though I was only traveling within a few dozen miles in a corner of southeast Louisiana.  I enjoyed having the opportunity to work with a variety of people and in a variety of markets.  There were the typical suburban branches, but I also got to work in downtown branches, rural branches, and branches on what most would have called “the wrong side of the tracks”.

Those were my favorites.

I remember in particular the Plank Road branch in Baton Rouge.  It was in an impoverished neighborhood very much on the “wrong side of the tracks”.  There were off-duty police officers stationed at the branch at all times – mostly to keep the homeless people from loitering and drinking all the coffee.  But it gave my time there a sense of adventure.

I loved the ladies who worked in that branch.  They were from the neighborhood, but had “made good”.  They were somewhat looked down upon by the rest of the bank, but in this little corner of the kingdom, they were on top – respected in the community as some of their own who had risen above.

It didn’t take me long to encounter the reality that the corporate policies in which I had been so thoroughly trained didn’t work quite the same on Plank Road as they in the other parts of the bank.

One of my first customers at the Plank Road Branch was an older, African American woman named Mrs. Jackson.  I forget exactly what it was, but the transaction that she was requesting was something perfectly innocent, but that required a variation from our normal corporate policies.  Policies were rigid things meant to protect the bank – and me – from the customers.

I’ll never forget Mrs. Jackson’s face when I refused her transaction.  She wasn’t angry, but seemed to be hurt, more than anything.  She looked at me with sad eyes and said, “But I’m a member of this bank!”

There was an essential difference between how I had been trained to see her, and how she had come to see herself.

I had been trained to see myself – in my capacity as a teller – as belonging to the bank.  As one who belonged, it was my duty to protect the bank from all those individual invaders on the outside.

But Mrs. Jackson saw herself differently.  Through years of coming to the same building and building relationships with the same people, she saw herself not as an outsider – not even as an individual, but as one who belonged – part of the body of that institution.  She saw her relationship with the bank as corporeal as my own.  Through all of the corporate transitions she had not been trained in her new role: she saw herself as a member, but I had been taught that it was my job to dis-member her – to make her into an outsider.

Mrs. Jackson was from a different time in the life of that institution – a time when people belonged.  And while she asserted her belonging, I worked to cut her off – to make her no more than an individual.

It’s not unlike the story that we hear in the Gospel lesson today.  As was the case with Mrs. Jackson and me, we hear Pilate and Jesus engaging in fundamentally different understandings of belonging.  In the arraignment, Pilate seizes the issue of belonging to determine the charges against Jesus.  As the designate of the Roman Emperor, Pilate knows to whom Jesus belongs.  Or at least he thinks he knows.  The question is, to whom does Jesus believe that he belongs – or perhaps more importantly, who does Jesus believe belongs to him?

It’s no wonder that this passage should come across as sounding kind of confusing.  Jesus is answering questions that are different from the ones that Pilate is asking.  They are coming from such different perspectives that they are only barely speaking the same language.

Jesus is accused of insurrection.  To determine the validity of the accusation, Pilate presents Jesus with the only two possibilities that he can imagine: are you claiming to be a king in opposition to the emperor, or do you belong to our kingdom?  Jesus’ answer is beyond Pilate’s ability to imagine: “My kingdom is not from this world.”

They volley back and forth, but Pilate was never able to find a common language with Jesus.

Today, in the church calendar, on the cusp of a new liturgical year, we find ourselves in a position not unlike Pilate’s.  We celebrate today, the idea of the Reign of Christ.  But our culture is centuries removed from any experience of this kind of monarchy.  Even in those Western societies where monarchs still exist, they are by no means the kind of absolute monarchy that would have posed a serious threat to the Roman Empire.

Though we don’t have a common language to speak about this kind of ruler or monarch, what we can understand is the same kind of thing that Mrs. Jackson understood – something about belonging.  In proclaiming the Reign of Christ we are saying that we belong.

We are not just individuals at worship, but members of the Body of Christ.

We are not just customers of some Christian Enterprise, but we are members – sharing a stake.

So much of our culture tries to dis-member us – to make us individuals.  Individuals are so much easier to control than members of a Body that is greater than its parts.  Just as I participated in a system that tried to dis-member Mrs. Jackson, so, too, are all of us tempted by different kinds of participation in the cult of individualism.

Christianity is about belonging.  And belonging is never about individualism.  It is about recognizing the myriad of ways that our existence is tied up in one another.  In proclaiming the Reign of Christ, we are proclaiming our belonging and our membership.

Like Mrs. Jackson, we are called to claim that membership.  Amen.

(this sermon was previously posted here)

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Israel, Palestine, instability, and birthpangs

Pentecost 25, Proper 28B

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

Last year, at the beginning of Lent, in the early Spring, I had the opportunity to visit Jerusalem for the second time.  My first time there had been in 2007, and since then, new archeological excavations had taken place around the Temple mount.  These newest excavations reveal the street level of the first century.  You can walk up to the gate to the Temple through which Jesus would have walked on that first Palm Sunday.  You can step on the same stones that the city’s first century inhabitants walked across.  You can place yourself in those places of awe that we heard about this morning.

The Temple, of course, is no longer there.  But its base remains, and even it towers above that old, long-since covered street.

The stones around the base are amazing.  Each one stands far higher than anyone’s head, and stretch out multiple reaches across.

Even as the ghost of a long-since razed building, the stones that remain reflect the majesty that once was.  It doesn’t take much in the way of imagination to recognize the imposing structure that this base once supported.  It’s easy to see how the disciples would have been impressed.  From their small towns and fishing villages in the northern reaches of the region around the Sea of Galilee, the Temple must have looked to them as permanent and as immovable as the God it was built to represent.

But nothing lasts forever.  Even those things that look most immovable never are.  That’s the danger that can come in choosing where to place your faith.  Even the earth itself can shake.  Even those things in our lives that seem most stable and sure are permeable and malleable.  Nothing is forever.

The challenge, instead, is to find faith amidst the shifting changes of this life - to look for God, not in the steady and the reliable and the expected, but in the moving, growing, and emerging.

Those times in our lives when things seem most moving, growing, and emerging, however, can be some of the most challenging times - times when we cling to objects and symbols of stability in the fervent hope that they will give us strength when it seems most lacking.

For most of this past week I was in St. Louis, doing work with the international Episcopal Church.  Every three years, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church meets to set policies and directions for our church all around the world.  But between these triennial meetings, the work of the general church happens through a series of committees, commissions, agencies, and boards.  After the General Convention in Indianapolis, more than 750 people applied to serve on these various “interim bodies” and about 130 were chosen by the President of the House of Deputies to serve.  The meeting this week was a gathering of all of the interim bodies at one time and in one place to try to facilitate collaboration where it’s necessary and appropriate.  I’m serving as the Personal Representative of the President of the House of Deputies to the Standing Commission on Anglican and International Peace with Justice Concerns.

As a body dedicated to international Peace with Justice concerns, clearly one of the major issues that we spent a lot of time thinking about and praying about and strategizing about is the ongoing unrest in Israel and Palestine.  Having visited the region, it’s one of the justice issues in the world that is closest to my heart.

When I first heard and processed the designation “Holy Land”, I foolishly judged it as overly sentimental, and guessed that it was representative of a particular theological slant that’s pretty far from my own.  But the thing is, on visiting for the first time, I came to realize that it really is a holy place - as Celtic faith traditions call places like that, one of the “thin places” - where the distance between the creator and the created seems a little less severe.  Everywhere you go, it feels… Holy.

It’s kind of like a “chicken or the egg” question - is the Holy Land holy because three of the worlds great religions were bred in that tiny space, or were three of the world’s great religions bred there because it’s so inherently holy?

Either way, it’s clear that those ancient streets and structures have been sanctified by centuries of prayer.

For several years now, the Episcopal Church has had a very clear policy stance with regard to the Israeli/Palestinian dispute - we support a peaceful, two-state solution.  Our church believes that Israel has every right to exist in that sacred space that has been regarded as the “Promised Land” to those often oppressed people for thousands of years.

But at the same time, our church equally supports the right of an independent, autonomous, and sovereign Palestinian state to exist.

Just like our Jewish brothers and sisters, the Palestinian people have held that land as their home for thousands of years.  And just like our Jewish brothers and sisters, the Palestinian people have endured great hardships and oppression throughout their history.

We do not support Palestinian terrorism.  But at the same time, we do not support the Israeli oppression of the Palestinian people.

On a good day, it’s a difficult line to walk.  On a good day, when everything is looking as peaceful and as stable as it ever does in that region, the peace can be too-easily shattered.

So this week, as the Episcopal Church’s Standing Commission on Anglican and International Peace with Justice Concerns was meeting, and setting our sights to focus, yet again, on striving for peace with justice in Israel and Palestine, even on that very same day, we heard reports of new war breaking out in that holy, and yet perennially unstable land.

It seems somehow exaggerated in Israel and Palestine, but one of the truths of this life is that the most stable thing we can find is varying degrees of instability.

Think about it in your own life.  We build illusions of stability for ourselves - tall buildings, and infrastructure, and family systems.  But it can all change in an instant.  Buildings can fall.  Systems can fail.  Relationships can change, and sometimes even die.

But what Jesus knew was that those human structures and institutions, while comfortable and even sometimes awe-inspiring, are not, in and of themselves, the basis of our faith.

I’ve regularly asked, throughout my process of discerning to come be your priest, and even since I’ve been here - what would happen if this parish ceased to exist?  There are two underlying questions within that: first, what would it mean for you?, and second, what would it mean for this community?

This is a beautiful building, and our music is glorious, and our liturgy is strong and honest.  But are even these things enough foundation for a faith?

Jesus knew that our human structures, no matter how majestic or how glorious or even how efficacious, were not the end game.

All things would eventually come to an end.

But the “end” isn’t really the end.  Though creation’s fallibility and instability might be revealed, the constant nature of God as the eternal-creator is the heartbeat that undergirds all of the changes and chances of this life.  Even what looks like the end, isn’t really the end.  It’s the birthpangs of a new creation.

The question isn’t whether or not we’ll find stability.  We will for a time, sure, and it will go away some other time.  The question isn’t how we hold on to stability or cling to it.  It isn’t even how we might go about building it.

The question, instead, it what we’ll do with these birthpangs when we’re faced with them.  Will we confront our instability and use it to mold out a new, better creation as co-creators with God?  Will we endeavor to shape the impermanence we face into justice?

Or will we prop up what is falling down?  Will we cling to the past and ignore the needs of our now?

The Temple walls may be magnificent.  They may be awe-inspiring.  They may even help us turn our minds to God.  But they are not, themselves, gods.  God is much more.  God cannot be contained in these nor any walls or structures.  God is always on the move.  Always growing.  Always emerging.  When we try to tie God down into structures or systems or practices - that’s when we know we’ve lost the way.

In the days ahead, I ask your prayers for Israel and Palestine.  No one side is entirely innocent and no one side is entirely guilty.  No matter the politics of it, I believe that God hasn’t taken sides in this struggle and never will.  So let us pray - not for one or for the other - but that this instability and strife may be, like all others like it, the birthpangs of some new era of God’s will for us all.  Amen.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Defined by generosity

Pentecost 24, Proper 27B
Mark 12:38-44

In the name of God: the giver of every good gift.  Amen.

It’s probably no accident that the story of “the widow’s mite” shows up in the lectionary cycle in the fall - when most parishes are either engaged in, or are about to begin their annual stewardship campaigns.  This time of year the story of the widow and her exemplary generosity reaches us with an accompaniment of barely inaudible groans.

The chorus is rather predictable: look at this poor old woman, she gave everything she had, can’t you give at least a little more?

But there are at least two problems with this all-too-familiar refrain.  First, it doesn’t tend to work.  Manipulation and guilt may, in some cases, lead to short-term results, but they’re essentially useless if the goal is to build stronger relationships in a community or to cultivate deeper expressions and understandings of the Christian faith.

But, perhaps more significantly, I’m not sure that’s even what the story is about.

If we look at the bigger picture, it seems pretty clear that Jesus wasn’t particularly interested in supporting the stewardship campaign for any institution.  Institutional advancement was simply never his goal.  Institutional revolution: sure.  But supporting an institution for the sake of having it survive through another fiscal cycle?  Not so much.  That’s not the Jesus I follow.

Moreover, that’s just not the kind of compelling narrative that could ever spur a people through centuries of persecution, or lure the people of the farthest reaches of the earth into any faith.

So forget everything you ever thought about the widow’s mite.  Shake it off.

We can do better.

We can give more of ourselves to this story than just the same old things we’ve always thought.

While it’s true that money is important for the continued functioning of the church, I think this story is about something more - something deeper: it’s about the spiritual discipline of generosity.

Too often we equate the idea of generosity with financial giving.  Some of that is out of necessity, but some of it is about laziness.  It’s easier to write a check than it is to search your soul.  It’s often easier to find some cash than it is to find that point of connection with the community and with the wider world that causes your heart to sing.

But real generosity isn’t about the giving, so much, as it is about that heart-sing moment.  It’s not about checking a box or fulfilling an obligation, but about giving so completely of yourself that you can’t imagine anything else that you might do instead.  It’s about letting the spirit of generosity define you.

Over the past week or so I’ve been moved by the expressions of generosity I’ve seen following in the wake of the hurricane.  Some of the most striking images I’ve seen have come from the Episcopal Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew in Brooklyn,New York, where my friend Michael Sniffen is the Rector.  You may remember Michael as the preacher at our Celebration of New Ministry in September.

His parish is set in this grand, old 19th century building in the once-wealthy Clinton Hill section of Brooklyn.  The church will seat 1700 people, and while they’re growing, they’re still about 1500 people shy of needing all that space.

In the days just after the hurricane had passed, they began collecting essential supplies to aid the relief efforts so desperately needed by their more aversely affected neighbors not too terribly far away.  Through Michael’s recent connections with the Occupy Wall Street movement, the community organized to form Occupy Sandy - an organic relief effort defined by neighbors helping neighbors.

The church became a distribution point for both supplies and thousands of volunteers.  Somewhere along the way, one of the volunteers setup an wedding registry for needed supplies, and donations began pouring in from all over the country.  In the past few days, that cavernous old church has been stacked with the things people need - from food and blankets to diapers and cleanup equipment.  The stacks reach higher than your head and stretch out all across the church.  More than $100,000 worth of supplies has been donated and the items are constantly being distributed to the surrounding communities where they’re most needed.

St. Luke and St. Matthew isn’t a wealthy parish.  They don’t have a huge endowment.  They don’t have thousands of people showing up every Sunday.  But what they do have is space.  And that’s what they gave.  And it’s changing the world.

I’m imagining what worship must be like for them there this morning: the opening procession snaking around stacks of supplies, the congregation huddled in the first several pews as most of their space is otherwise occupied.  It’s bound to be a bit of an inconvenience, but at the same time, it must be deeply moving to be so literally surrounded by expressions of generosity.

As I think about that parish and the risks they’ve taken to be so generous to those in need, I wonder what expressions of generosity we might find if we were willing to risk being open to the needs of our neighbors.

Whatever inconveniences the people of St. Luke and St. Matthew may find, I guarantee you that they will also find that this commitment to generosity will change them.  It will define them.  It will open them up in ways that they didn’t even know were possible.

That’s what happens when you are generous with yourself.

Generosity isn’t about writing a bigger check to maintain the status quo.  It’s about giving of yourself in whatever ways that you can.  It’s about making your heart sing.

It’s true that we need bigger checks.  In the upcoming pledging season you’ll hear all about that.  We need those checks to meet rising costs, and to supply the kinds of programs that will help us to reach our community.

But even more than that, we need our hearts to sing.  We need to find that explosive, viral strain of generosity that can infect us.  We need to find that mission that will define us.  We need to find that path to the needs of our neighbors.

When we do, it won’t be about our needs anymore.  It won’t be about these long robes, or the respect we get.  It won’t be about the best seats in the synagogues or the places of honor at the banquets.

It will be about generosity.  Let that be the spirit that defines us.  Amen.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Dancing with the Saints

Icons of the Dancing Saints at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, CA
All Saints' Sunday, Year B

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

All Saints’ Day is about dancing in that breath between life and death.

It’s a day of conflicting realities.  We remember and mourn those who have died.  We honor the great cloud of witnesses that surround us and uphold us.

But even in the midst of the reality of death, we hear stories of resurrection.  In the midst of mourning, we celebrate new life and renewed understandings of community as we reaffirm our own baptismal vows, and extend those vows once again to the newest member of our community, Selena Faith Murphy.

The Feast of All Saints is a dance between conflicting truths.  And that’s why the story of Lazarus works so well today, of all days.

Me emerging from "the tomb of Lazarus" in Bethany, 2007
A few years ago, I had to the good fortune to study the gospel lesson appointed for today on Monday in Holy Week while traveling through Jerusalem.  In the chronology of John’s account of the life of Jesus, the story of Lazarus comes just before Jesus heads into his suffering and death in Jerusalem.  We all know how that all progresses, and the story of Lazarus stands as a kind of foreshadowing of how the story of Jesus would unfold in Jerusalem.

Jesus would die, to be sure.  Just as Lazarus had died just days before.  But the power and finality of death would be brought into question through the lens of Christ.

One of the hallmarks of the Christian faith is this idea of resurrection - the idea that no matter how final death may seem to us, in the Christian experience it is never the final word.

Death is expected.  We all die.  But life bursting through the bonds of death?  No one could have seen that coming.

But truth be told, that’s not even what really surprises me when I hear the story of Lazarus.  The thing that never fails to take my breath away is the way Jesus’ humanity breaks through his divinity so clearly in this passage.  It’s probably some kind of heresy to say so, but I’m always so much more impressed by Jesus’ humanity than by his divinity.  We’ve all heard the words of the doctrine - fully God and fully human.  But it’s the human part that makes me a Christian.  And I think it’s the human part that can set our faith apart from all of the other pursuits of spirituality in its many forms and understandings.

It’s always humbling when I remember that about this faith of ours: that God does not just work from the great beyond - whatever that may be - but God works through people.  People just like us.  The creator needs the created.  And it’s through our encounters with Jesus that this becomes most clear.

Through so many of the stories of our faith we forget that.  We spend our time in awe of Christ, our Lord, at the expense of really embracing and understanding the humility and the humanity of Jesus, our brother.

If all you remember from the story of Lazarus is that Jesus brought him back to life, you’re really missing something.  Jesus was not JUST God.  Jesus was a human being.  He was a part of a community.  And when encountering the suffering of one of his own, he suffered, too.

“Jesus began to weep,” the gospel says.

He was not just “God on high.”  He was one of us: suffering with us, grieving with us.

The whole experience was a lesson for Mary and Martha and all the community - Jesus is always a teacher.  The raising of Lazarus was a miracle, certainly.  That divine essence is recounted time and again throughout the gospels.  But beneath the teacher and the miracle worker is something more.  Something we too often forget.  Something human.  Something just like us.

The lessons are often lost on us in our feeble attempts at understanding.  And the kinds of miracles we read about seem too outrageous to fully wrap our minds around them.

But humanity is real.  Emotion is real.  And it’s that humanity that connects us to God.

With Selena after the service
If all you remember from the baptism today is what a sweet and beautiful baby Selena is, you’re missing something important, too.  Today, Selena is not just a sweet and beautiful little girl; today, she is a symbol to remind each of us of our place in this community.  She is a living reminder of the vows we make as Christians, and of the hope we have in Christ: that no matter how strong death may seem, life comes out stronger - no matter how powerfully fear may confront us, hope rises up out of the community with more power, still.

That’s the dance.  Even as we face death, we celebrate life.  Even as we mourn, there is joy.

The steps of this dance may seem too challenging to navigate, but we don’t take them alone.  We dance with our brothers and sisters of this community.  We dance with little Selena.  We dance with the saints who have gone before.  And through it all, we dance with God’s help.

Just about every Christian calling is a challenge, but they all come with the promise of God’s help.

In a few minutes, when you renew your vow and reaffirm covenant, remember that you’re not alone.  You share in that covenant with all of us here in this room, with the church scattered about the world, and with all the saints who still lead the way.  And in all things, we dance this unlikely dance with God’s help.  Amen.

(portions of this sermon appeared previously in a different sermon, published here)