Sunday, December 26, 2010

Showing Up

The Three Kings make their way to the All Souls Creche

A sermon for the First Sunday after Christmas Day, December 26, 2010. The lectionary readings are Isaiah 61:10-62:3, Galatians 3:23-25;4:4-7 , Psalm 147 or 147:13-21, and John 1:1-18 .

I hesitate to talk about another Internet site in a sermon, lest the congregation think I do nothing but surf the Web. Nevertheless, I (like some of you) get more emails than I can read or want, but occasionally one surprises me. This season’s “keeper” has been a wildly creative Youtube video called the Digital Nativity, made by someone (or someones) called EccentricPT.

It basically tells the story of the birth of Jesus as though one is looking at a computer screen. After a click on GoogleEarth shows us a satellite image of Nazareth, we are looking at the Virgin Mary’s Iphone as she gets an instant message from the Angel Gabriel, “Mary, you’re going to give birth to the Son of God.” The story continues as screens are clicked and all of early 21st century technology tells a very old story.

As the telling progresses and Jesus is born, Joseph posts a picture of the baby on Facebook. The number of “likes” rises astronomically. He then creates an event called, “Meet the Baby.” The location is the Stable in Bethlehem. If you’re familiar with Facebook, one can create an event, and then send the invitation out to people, or others can simply stumble into the event’s posting. Then one has a choice to respond either, “I’m attending, maybe, or no.” For the event of “Meet the Baby,” we see the name Joseph, since he created the event. And then we see various guests’ names appear as attending. Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar. According to scripture the three kings actually do attend, the occasion of which we celebrate on Epiphany, or El Dia de Los Tres Reyes, January 6.

I’ve read that this “attending” feature on Facebook and on other social media presents special problems. Usually, the list of those who are attending, the guestlist, is public information. The problem is that very few people want to say publicly that they’re not attending. Some email invitations give you space to explain, and that’s a good thing, but still, the statistics show again and again that there are events—especially charity events, social events, fundraisers, openings, to which several hundred people will respond “I’m attending,” and yet, only eight or ten people actually show up.

Showing up is the hard part to lots of things. Showing up for work, showing up for some commitment, showing up for appointments. It’s hard when you depend on public transportation, or when your car breaks down, or when you forget to look at the calendar (or, if you’re like me, and on occasion you’ve forgotten to synchronize your hand-held calendar with your office calendar.)

The term, “showing up,” has come to mean a lot more in popular meaning. For a child to grow up in a loving family, the parents need to “show up,” – for soccer games, and school meetings, and arranged times for pick up or dropping off. In relationships of all kinds, the key to being in relationship has to do with “showing up”—not just physically, but also emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. And we all fail at this. We fail from time to time because we’re human. We fail because we get tired, or cranky, or distracted. We become self-consumed, living life by continually checking the “maybe” column, while refusing to commit to anything that might nudge us out of places that are familiar, comfortable, and private.

In the Christmas story there is a lot of “showing up,” going on. Early, Mary shows up for God, agreeing to be there for God, to be anywhere for God, simply “to be” for God. Then Joseph, who is tempted to run away, or as the scripture puts it (to divorce Mary quietly). But instead, Joseph shows up. The innkeeper shows up by opening his stable. The shepherds show up, as do angels and others, and eventually the three kings. There’s a lot of showing up, but all because of one major, overwhelming, earth-changing appearance.

God shows up. And there’s no “maybe” to it.

In the Incarnation, God comes into the world in a whole new way, physically and bodily, like one of us. He comes into fleshly existence, he is born as Jesus in order to feel like us, to hurt like us, to love like us, to eat and drink and sleep on the earth, even to die like us. But he rises again, and death will never be the same for those who believe.

As we anticipate the unfolding of Christmas and the visits of the Three Kings to meet the baby at the stable, we can think about our own opportunities to “show up.” As we move into a new year, it’s a good time to think about the ways and times that God has shown up in especially strong ways in our lives. It’s a good time to be grateful for all those who have shown up for us when we’ve needed someone most. And it’s an especially good time for us to think about the ways we’ve shown up for others, the ways that perhaps we’ve not always shown up, and to commit to being present in the new year—present for God and for one another.

The Word has become flesh and dwells among us: full, present, and alive.

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

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Day

Detail of the All Souls Altarpiece

A sermon for Christmas Day, December 25, 2010. The lectionary readings are Isaiah 52:7-10,Hebrews 1:1-4, (5-12) , Psalm 98, John 1:1-14.

The other week, the Foundation Fighting Blindness had its second annual “Dining in the Dark" dinner. [See the Washington Post article here.]

About ten years ago, some in Europe and here began turning out the lights for dinner. But not just turning out the lights. All door and window cracks are covered up. Cell phones and watches and other things that light up are not allowed. (At the dinner the other week, it was reported that whenever the flicker of a cell phone was seen, the people around that person began shouting, “Cheaters!”) This way of dining was created as a way of heightening the senses, of helping people really pay attention to the food (even as they paid exorbitant prices for the experience.)

But the dinner for the Foundation Fighting Blindness had another goal. It raised money, but it also invited people with sight to experience a little bit of what being blind might be like. Those helping to put on the fundraiser walked around the room wearing special night-vision goggles. But the wait-staff were all people who were blind or visually impaired. They had been trained earlier in the day.

Darkness and light are primary images for Christmas. A dark church glows with candles and merry faces. The first scripture reading last night was from Isaiah: The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.” And then we have today’s Gospel.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world….And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of the father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

God has come into the world in human form. That means that God understands how we feel (whether good or bad), how we move (whether easily, or with some challenge.) God understands what it’s like for us to be in relationship with other people—the difficulties and the absolute joys of family, of friends, of possibility. The Gospel actually hints at the relationship of the Holy Trinity within God—that ongoing dance of light that is Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit. At Christmas we celebrate the incarnation of God, God’s becoming flesh, and it’s this “becoming flesh” that allows God to lead us through the dark and to be with us in the light.

At that Foundation dinner, some of the wait staff were people who couldn’t see. But that meant they had other senses that were heightened. Because they knew what it was to walk in darkness, they could lead others.

We have probably felt this kind of help and support from other people. It’s the person who has been there before—who has survived the cancer, the heart attack, the difficult family, the divorce, the death of a loved one, the pull of addiction—it’s the person who has walked through the darkness that is often able to help us find the way out.

Because God has come into the world in Jesus Christ, God has that same ability, but to an infinite degree. Having experienced rejection, sadness, pain, suffering, temptation, death, hell--- Jesus rose again to lead us in love, laughter, joy, peace, serenity, and the ability to live—to live in our own skin in this life, and to live in spiritual bodies in the next.

Christmas is earthy. It is rooted in reality. It is about the here-and-now, the relationships in which we live, and the relationships in which we put energy in a new year.

Frederick Buechner expresses the importance of the skin and bone, of body and limb, of the incarnate, when he points out that

All religions and philosophies which deny the reality or significance of the material, the fleshly, the earth-bound, are themselves denied. Moses at the burning bush was told to take off his shoes because the ground on which he stood was holy ground (Exodus 3:5), and incarnation means that all ground is holy ground because God not only made it but walked on it, ate and slept and worked and died on it. If we are saved anywhere, we are saved here. And what is saved is not some diaphanous distillation of our bodies and our earth but our bodies and our earth themselves . . . One of the blunders religious people are particularly fond of making is the attempt to be more spiritual than God.” (Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, p. 43.)

This Christmas, may God give us patience with our bodies and the bodies around us, so that we might perceive the life of God in the flesh, so that we might celebration the incarnation of God in our world.

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

Words for Adoption

Nativity window at All Souls

A sermon for Christmas Eve, midnight Mass, December 24, 2010. The lectionary readings are Isaiah 9:2-7 , Psalm 96, Titus 2:11-14 , and Luke 2:1-20 .

One of my favorite sites on the Internet is called Save the Words. It is a promotional site, in some ways, for the Oxford English Dictionary. When you reach the site, the screen to your computer is quickly wallpapered with words. Words like, plenishere, essomenic, crassulent, and macellarious appear. As you pass your curser over this screen-of-words, you hear little voices. “Hello!” “Pick me.” “Yo, over here.” “Me, me, pick me!” The words want your attention because the words are lonely and are seldom used.

If you click on a word, the definition is shown, along with a sentence using that word. I learn that “adecimate” means “to pay a tenth of one’s income, especially to the church.” (Ahh, what a quaint, old-fashioned, seldom-used word—but I digress.) With each word, there’s a little form which can be filled out if you agree to “adopt” the word. If you adopt a word, you are promising to use the word, in conversation and correspondence, as frequently as possible, to the very best extent of your ability.” This is all a fun and very clever attempt to save words that are endangered, words that are disappearing, words that are forgotten.

There is power to words, whether seldom used or overused. They can enlarge or enliven. They can also cut or castigate. Words can be chewed. We especially rdo this with words of scripture—we chew them, like ruminants (cattle, sheep, goats, deer and reindeer) chew the cud. We mull over scriptural words so we can (like the old prayer says) “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them.” In the manger, as elsewhere, there must have been a lot of ruminating going on the night Jesus was born.

The Gospel for Christmas Day proclaims, “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” The birth of Jesus is described as a word, a word spoken, a word whispered, a word offered. And in tonight’s Gospel we see how various people hear this Word of God. They hear it. They ruminate upon it. And they begin to respond to it. But I imagine the characters in our Gospel each hearing God’s word in a slightly different way.

For Mary, I think she hears a word of love. She hears of God’s love for her from the beginning of time. “Full of grace,” she is called. And so, she is calmed, and soothed, and told by God’s angel that everything is going to be all right. Fear is swept aside by angel’s wings and Mary dares to believe. God loves her. God is bringing new love into the world through her.

For Joseph, the Word of God, this little, tiny, baby boy of a word, it must have sounded like new life. I love the tradition that Joseph was a good bit older than Mary, and so as foster father, Joseph sees in Jesus a chance to live again, perhaps to get a few things right this time. Joseph may fallen into the habit of imagining God as some tired old man in the sky, distracted and disinterested. But here, God reminds Joseph that nothing could be further from the truth. The life of God is young and vital and new, always and everywhere. It has to do with energy and creativity.

The shepherds are listening, and they hear a word of excitement and adventure. Their lives are about to change. The day-in and day-out of tending sheep (while romantic and manly and all) must have gotten a little old. But God comes into their lives so that nothing will ever be quite the same again. Even the sheep will look different as creatures of God’s work and whimsy.

The angels are listening, and while they must have been used to the goings-on of God, even they must have been flummoxed by the birth of Jesus to an ordinary young girl, in an outlying area, in a lonely barn. But the angels hear in God’s word beauty, and so they add their words and make music. “Gloria in excelsis Deo.” Or if they were like the angels in our new altarpiece and didn’t know Latin, they simply sang “Happy Birthday.”

God’s word is spoken and born, but it sounds different in different ears. Joseph is surprised when he hears how Mary has heard God’s word. Mary is surprised when she hears how the shepherds have heard God’s word. And King Herod is going to be very surprised at the sound of God’s word for him. I would probably be surprised to hear how God’s word sounds to some of you, even as I something about the way I hear God might surprise you. The Word that is made flesh can sound like a word of love, or rejuvenation, or adventure, or beauty, or many other things.

And so, what word do you hear? What word might you adopt, if you were given the opportunity?

Christmas is a season of adoption. God adopts us as beloved children. God adopts human flesh and becomes one of us. But we, too, are invited to adopt the Word of God, to adopt a word of God. What would you pick? Which will you have? The love of God? The new life of God? The adventure, the strength, the passion, or the beauty of God? It’s ok to ask for it. It’s ok to reach out and make it yours. It’s Christmas, after all.

Scripture says that Mary “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”
May the Word of God speak to us and through us, this Christmas and always.

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

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Eve Children's Mass

The children and their families place the nativity figures in the creche in the Mary Chapel.

A homily preached at the All Souls Children's Mass at 4 p.m on Christmas Eve. The Gospel was Matthew 1:18-25.

If you were to draw your own picture of the birth of baby Jesus, what would it look like? Is it a barn out in the country, or a garage in an alley of Washington, DC? Is he born on a bale of hay, on a used mattress found in the trash, or in a borrowed crib? How would you picture it?

This year, Louis von Rago, a member of our church, painted a new altarpiece for us. And it’s funny, if you look at it. There’s a cat in the barn (because everybody knows that there’s always a cat in the barn), and there’s a great light in the barn. It almost looks like it’s on fire. But it’s not on fire—it’s just a whole lot of light because, as Louis says, “The Holy Spirit’s in there and the Spirit’s really busy.” The angels are funny. One is playing a saxophone. One’s playing a guitar. Some are singing “Gloria in excelsis Deo” and others (who must not know Latin yet) are singing “happy birthday.” And we’ve added other people, haven’t we? We’ve added all sorts—we read the Gospel story about how angels came and shepherds came. We know the other stories in scripture about how the Wise Men come, and the shepherds. We might even know other traditions about other people who come to the manger—there’s a song about a little drummer boy, and in our own crèche, you bring others—Barbie and GI Joe sometimes appear, and we’ve had various Transformers come to see the Baby Jesus. Barney came one year, but I think the other animals laughed at him because he was purple and all…. Dora and Diego might come by, but then, they’re so busy, who knows?

So, again, if you were to draw or create your own crèche, your own manger scene, who would be there? I hope you would be there. And I hope everybody you love would be there. And I also hope even the people you might not like very much—people who’ve been mean to you, or ignored you, or said ugly things to you—I hope they might be invited too, because God’s love can change all of us. Jesus is born to bring love and to help us be more loving. By watching him, by worshipping with him, by loving like he loves, we become closer to God and God comes closer to us.

I’m thankful for our funny crèche. And I’m thankful that around Jesus, there’s always room for everybody—the people who love us, the people we love, and the people we need God to teach us to love.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The All Souls Altarpiece

The new Christmas altarpiece for the Mary Chapel, completed in December 2010, was made entirely by parishioners. The altarpiece was constructed by John Coates and painted by self-taught artist Louis von Rago, based on a design by Ed Perlman. Intended as a celebration of the love and light of Christ that comes into the world at Christmas, it combines both traditional and contemporary elements. It is meant to be especially accessible to children.

Among the traditional symbols are those from scripture: the angels, the sheep, the ox, and the donkey. Following traditions in art history, flowers can take on biblical and theological meanings. White lilies represent the purity of the Virgin Mary but also foreshadow the crucifixion of our Lord, as some white flowers are a part of the mustard family, whose Latin name is Cruciferae. The red carnation is known in Northern Europe as Naegelblume or nailflower, because its blossom was thought to represent the serrated edges of a medieval nail. Together, the flowers represent all creation’s joy at the birth of a savior, but also connect his birth with the death and rebirth we celebrate at Easter.

The more contemporary symbols include shepherds wearing “technicolor dreamcoats” and multicultural angels playing instruments (including a saxophone) who sing “happy birthday” as well as “Gloria in excelsis Deo.” The black sheep among the others represents all of God’s children who may come to Christ through unconventional paths, many of whom form the heart of this parish. The manger is complete with a barn cat, whose sainted relative (a cat who has died and gone to heaven) can be seen watching from the top left side of the roof. The All Souls altarpiece serves as a background for our needlepoint nativity figures, also made by parishioners.

A contemporary altarpiece with needlepoint figures in an English Tudor chapel might seem incongruous—except for the theological truth these things represent. Like the householder in the Gospel of Matthew, we seek to “bring out of our treasure what is new and what is old.” At All Souls we combine ancient and modern, old and new, the comfortable and well-worn with the jarring and contemporary. Our God is large, and so is our faith.

Glory be to God in the highest.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

God's Timing and Ours

The Annunciation Window from St. Mary's Church, Bedingfield, England.

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 19, 2010. The lectionary readings are Isaiah 7:10-16, Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18, Romans 1:1-7, and Matthew 1:18-25.

They say that timing is everything—whether we’re in the right place at the right time to get the interview, to meet the right person, or to get this year’s latest gadget at the store—timing matters. A Judeo-Christian understanding of God suggests that God arranged the world according to time—light and dark: one day. Seven days and nights: one week, and so on. From a biblical point of view, God seems to like time, and seems especially partial to segments of forty—forty years, forty days.

But when we look closer at the stories about God’s working in our world, and when we think about the ways in which God has worked in our lives—I think we often find that God’s sense of timing is very different from ours. And many times, it seems that God has very bad timing, indeed.

In today’s Gospel, God’s timing seems completely off. Mary and Joseph are engaged to be married, but during this time, God visits them both. First, there is the visitation of the angel to Mary, which we hear about from the Gospel of Luke. We don’t know what Mary must have thought, but imagine—God is asking her to do this incredibly hard thing and she could have responded in other ways—she could have waited till she was older, till the political or economic climate got a little better, till Joseph had a better job, till they were able to be in their own house, till she and Joseph were married. But according to Luke, Mary understood this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and she felt like God was behind it all, so she said “yes.” Even though God seems to be a little early. God seems to be rushing things.

Joseph must have seen things in an even more different light. If tradition is right and Joseph was a good bit older than Mary, who knows what he must have thought when he learned that she was going to have a baby. Matthew suggests that Joseph was going to simply break the engagement very quietly, not make a big fuss out of things, but they would simply go their own ways. But then an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream. And Joseph learns that God is behind all of this, and that it’s going to take a lot of faith, a lot of trust, a lot of daring… but it will be ok because God is behind it all. Joseph wakes up from his dream with a new-found faith. But he must have thought God was showing up a bit late.

In our first reading from Isaiah, God tells the people of Israel that they will be given a sign, and this will be the sign of a savior. In other words, God’s in charge, even though it might have felt like they were spending too much time in exile, too much time in disarray, too much time wondering if God even still cared. But into this confusion, God says, “hold on a little longer, help is on the way, in time….

We do our best to manage time. We have watches and clocks and phones and all sorts of devices to help us show up, perform, compete, or finish “on time.” Because we pay so much attention to it and invest so much in time, it can sometimes fool us into thinking we’re actually in control of time. Until the Metro stops, or the beltway is clogged, or a child needs to come home from school right during a big meeting, or any number of life’s interruptions reminds us that time is a made-up thing, and sometimes life happens at its own pace.

For many people, the holidays are sad because loved ones have died around this time. Death and disease don’t pay attention to a calendar. Too many people we know who have just bought a house, or just had a child, or just begun a new chapter in their lives have suddenly lost their job. Companies, out-sourcing consultants and HR departments rarely pay attention to the timing of peoples lives when cutting positions.

In my very first parish a young family, with a small child and a baby, had been visiting the church for a while and I went to visit them at their house. As we were talking, they finally asked if I they might be able to have their eldest child baptized in the church. Well, of course, I responded. We’d love to have the baptism. And then the couple got a sort of odd expression and said, “Well, we’d also like to ask you something else.” Sure, I said. “Would you also be willing to marry us?” “Of course,” I said, we can do that too. The couple then relaxed and began to explain that they had both been working at extremely demanding jobs and were working toward buying a house. They found the house of their dreams, bought it, and began to work on it, and then found that she was pregnant. Then all of their energy went into getting ready for the child. And then, before you knew it, it was four years later. They had never really gotten around to getting married. A few weeks later, we baptized both children. Then, in another month or so, we had a wonderful wedding. I don’t think one could easily separate out their timing from life’s timing, from God’s timing. It was all mixed up, and that’s the way it often is for us.

The trick to faithful living, I think, is to try to be aware of when God might be trying to break in, and to be open to God’s Spirit when this happens. It might not be according to our watch or plan or expectation. It might not be convenient in the eyes of others. But we can learn from Mary and Joseph and see how they dealt with God’s timing.

When Mary was visited by the Angel Gabriel, sensing that God was behind it, she said yes. But she also went to visit her cousin Elizabeth. She checked in with someone she trusted, someone who also knew God, someone she could trust.

When Joseph heard that God had visited Mary, we’re told that he had a dream. I think this also means that he mulled things over, he prayed, he discerned, he slowed down and allowed for possibility and for promise. Perhaps he did the equivalent of taking his own watch off for a while and listening.

Most of us probably wouldn’t get through a day if we completely took our watch off, or refused to look at a clock, or ignored the passing of time. I’m not suggested that we should. But I am suggesting, especially in such a busy time as Christmas, that we might be alert to God’s timing—sometimes God comes early, and we have to catch up. Sometimes God comes later than we might have wanted, and so we’ll have to reconcile our expectations with reality and adjust. And then, there are those times when God comes, with angels or without, and almost seems to stop our clock. And we’re left reeling and wondering, “what just happened.”

Theologians sometimes talk about God’s time as “kairos time.” Kairos comes from the Greek word for “the right time, the most opportune time, the supreme time.” We’re used to thinking of what they call “chronos” time, chronological, sequential, time that can be counted and measured. It’s no coincidence that “kairos” also means “weather” in ancient and modern Greek, which points to its tendency to be unpredictable—wonderfully so, at times, but troubling and surprising when you’re caught in a storm. When Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, how many times must I forgive my brother or sister—as many as seven times?” Peter is asking in “chronos” time.

But Jesus answers with “kairos” time, as he says, “I don’t say seven times. I say seventy times seven.” Forgiveness can’t be counted up and tallied. Neither can love.

The Good News of this season is that whether we’re noticing kairos time or chronos time, good times, or bad times, God is present. God steps into time. God becomes human like us, with us, along side us, for us. God interrupts the plans of Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, Zachariah, Herod, the Wise Men, the Shepherds, and centuries of believers, and me and you. But the interruption is one of love. God is love, and this love is the light of the world, for this time and for ever. Let us make time for God, even as God confounds our timing.

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

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Homily for St. John's Eye Hospital

A brief homily offered at the Service of Lessons and Carols at Christ Church, Kensington, on December 5, 2010. The event was sponsored by the Order of St. John of Jerusalem and raised money for the work of the St. John Eye Hospital in East Jerusalem and the St. John Clinics in Gaza and West Bank.

There is a tension to the season of Advent. On one hand the church is encouraged to wait and to watch, to pray for the Day of the Lord. But on the other hand, we are told to prepare the way [now], to get ready, to be alert and stay awake.

In scripture and song we have heard how God’s hope builds to a culmination that hangs upon the word of one young, Jewish girl named Mary. And Mary has a choice.

Perhaps she will wait. Perhaps she will wait on some further word from God, a better set of circumstances, a husband with a steady job, or simply a more convenient time.

Or, she will respond. She will act. She will try to live into God’s word, even as God’s Word takes on new life within her.

We, like Mary, have choices-- as individuals, as families, as congregations. We can choose simply to wait, and allow God’s will to unfold (in God’s own good time). Or we can make our waiting meaningful and productive. We can do our part to assist God’s kingdom on earth, (doing all those things the prophets talk about) beating swords into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks, and walking in the light of the Lord. We can do that here, now, and every day.

And so we don’t always just wait. We also act in faith.

The St. John Eye Hospital is one place where many of us in this room and beyond have decided to act. With regard to those in East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank (a third of whom are under the age of ten) we have not been content simply to wait.

When we heard that children could not have need eye procedures because of the lack of equipment, we sent $10,000 for equipment which was used in the clinics. When the people of Christ Church, All Souls, and others learned that it only takes $2,000 to cover the cost of a cornea transplant, we got busy, we raised money, and over the last few years, twelve transplants have been done. Two corneas came from Tissue Banks International, in Baltimore, and one was even hand-carried to the hospital by Victoria Sheffield, a St. John’s Board Member from our area.

When could still send toys for children in the hospital, we did that. Some of you have done amazing things on your own. Our local fundraising committee has been busy—showing us how to have fun or learn something (while we reach for our wallet). Last year, Father Hague and some of you visited Jerusalem and took baby blankets and medical supplies. Dr. Larry Schwab and Martha Schwab have visited, worked, and assisted. Others from our churches and the Washington, D.C. chapter have visited the hospital and clinics, and in so doing, have enabled a ministry of presence and relationship.

Though we continue to pray for the peace of Jerusalem, we pray for our leaders—both political and ecclesiastical—we do not only wait. In different ways and in different contexts, we sing, and bake, and encourage, and harangue “for the faith and in the service of humanity.”

And there is more to do.

More education and medical outreach needs to be done (and that costs money.) More equipment needs to be purchased and put to work. With more money for transportation, medicine, and medical salaries, more operations can be done. More eyes can be opened more vision made clear, and in so doing, a better future emerges.

As we continue through this season, may our waiting be full and productive. May we be ever alert to opportunities for service, for love, and for sharing the light of Christ. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Advent I

A sermon for the First Sunday of Advent, November 28, 2010. The lectionary readings are Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122, Romans 13:11-14, and Matthew 24:36-44.

In today’s Gospel Jesus reminds the people who are listening to him about Noah. The people in Jesus’ day must have known the stories of Noah from Genesis, how God became disgusted with the mess of humanity and decided to do away with everybody—everybody except for Noah and Noah’s family. Noah was saved because he paid attention to God, because he was listening for God’s voice, and probably because there was also in Noah the propensity to take care of others—not just his family, but even the creatures of the earth, the things that creep and crawl, that climb and claw.

I doubt that many people in Jesus’ day really thought much about whether Noah was an actual person, or whether he literally built and ark and filled it with animals. But I bet a lot of people, then as now, could understand a little bit of Noah as someone who gets a sense of what he should do to be faithful to God. Once this sense is gotten, preparations are made, things are put into place, and then it’s time simply to wait for God to act, to move, to make things happen, to point to the next step. I bet a lot of us have been at that place—we may not have been building an ark, but we’ve begun something that involved God (at least at the beginning). And then there’s a time of waiting, and wondering. For Noah, it meant wondering whether the rains would really come. Would there really be floods? Would his preparation and faithfulness really pay off? And then what would life be like after all the drama, when the waters are dried up and the animals are set free?

Jesus points to this time in-between, after one has felt God’s presence at the beginning, but before one has begun to feel God’s presence moving into the next step. It is a scary place and a vulnerable place. Jesus knows that whether we’re talking about Noah or us, or perhaps even himself, it’s difficult to wait, to watch and to listen for God.

How good, then that we have such a season as Advent, when the Church invites us to practice these spiritual disciplines of waiting, watching and listening. Advent helps us live with the in-between. The Church remembers and retells the story of the coming of a Messiah, the one who was born in the manger, Jesus of Nazareth. But the other aspect of our waiting and watching has to do with the Second and Final coming of Jesus, as is hinted in the prophetic scriptures and especially in the Revelation to John.

The liturgy helps us to recall the first coming of Christ, and our prayers help us to stretch forward for the second coming, but there is also a third way in which Jesus invites us to spend this season. That third way has to do with our living in the kingdom of God, not as it began, nor as it culminates, but right now, as it continues to unfold.

Throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus spoke about this kingdom, this commonwealth, this holy realm and way of God’s presence among us. “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” “The kingdom of God is very near you,” he says. And finally, in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, “Lo, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you!” Jesus invited apostles, disciples, strangers, friends and enemies, to see the kingdom of God that was already around them. And that’s his invitation to us.

In today’s Gospel Jesus cautions that we should be ready, but it’s not for most of us to go up on a hill and wait for God to come. In describing how we are to wait, Jesus describes some in the field (from which one is taken to be with God.) Others are grinding meal or making bread, and again, one is taken to be with God. We could continue the list—one will be teaching, while one is taken away. Another will be in a meeting, one at a store, another watching the children, and another working outside. In short, since we do not know when or how or where, it is for us to do the work God has appointed for us to do, and to carry on with faith, with love and with charity.

Saint Paul says in today’s reading that it is time for us to wake from sleep, and Jesus invites us to live in readiness for God’s next move. Live wakefully, with eyes and hearts open.

The season of Advent is not about escape or retreat from reality—it is about allowing God’s increasing light to shine upon us and from within us. The Collect of the Day captures the prayer of the season, really, that “we may cast away the works of darkness” and put on the armor of Christ’s eternal light. May we walk with faith in the light of Christ.

In the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Christ the King

Detail of a window at All Souls, (c) Ron Ross, used with permission.

A sermon for the Last Sunday after Pentecost: Christ the King, November 21, 2010. The lectionary readings are Jeremiah 23:1-6, Psalm 46, Colossians 1:11-20, and Luke 23:33-43.

The Royals have been very much in the news this week with the announcement that Prince William will marry Kate Middleton. Whether you can’t get enough of the news and speculation, or whether you’re a completely anti-monarchist and tired of it already—it’s been hard to avoid the news. As we move closer to the wedding date, it will be even harder to avoid all this talk of kings and queens, princes—all this talk of royalty.

Especially in our country, founded as an experiment in democracy without royalty, language of a king or a queen can be problematic. For some, it brings a knee-jerk reaction—get the gun, call the troops, let’s defend the borders. For others still, it provokes a kind of teary yearning for a realm of someone like King Arthur, full of romance and chivalry, religious sentiment, and good taste.

All the more problematic, then, when we read scripture and celebrate liturgies that speak of God as King, or that speak of Jesus as king.

A little like some reactions to current monarchies, some theologians and preachers rebel against this language. Instead of the “kingdom” of God, they might speak of the “kin-dom” of God, or the commonwealth of God. But to avoid calling Christ “King” is to miss a major point in today’s Gospel. It is to miss a major point in Christian theology.

The image of a king is important because Jesus does so much to deconstruct that image. He turns it inside-out. He re-defines it. As people bring to the idea of “king” their own images and desires, Jesus holds a mirror up so that we might inspect those images more closely, and try to see the one behind the mirror—both our true self, as well as Jesus the Son of God.
At the cross, the soldiers mock Jesus and make fun of him, calling him, “king.” “The king of the Jews,” they name him. “If you’re such a great king, then do something. Show off. Save yourself.” And Jesus is silent. But then one of the thieves who is also on a cross next to Jesus understand something of his kingship and asks for favor. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” The thief can’t really have any idea what he’s asking, or what kind of a king Jesus is, or what kind of a kingdom his may be—but he sees something in Jesus and his way, in his love that forgives, and receives, and leads to the love of God. And so the thief wants “in.” He asks for entrance, and Jesus gives it.

In this Gospel we see the kind of king Jesus is—that even from the cross, he extends his kingdom and invites everybody in.

The reign of Christ the King is like that—ever unfolding, ever extending, ever including each one of us.

It is a kingdom of reversals. As the Virgin Mary sings, “He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree. He has filled the hungry with good things; and the rich He has sent empty away.” To live with Christ as King is to live with an awareness of this reversal.

His is a kingdom of outcasts. When we read the Gospels it is a wild array of people who come to hear Jesus, who follow him, and who make him their Lord. Some are prostitutes, some are tax collectors, some widows, some soldiers; some are very rich, some are very poor, but they are unlikely to meet except for their meeting in the presence of Christ. To live with Christ as King is to live in continual welcome of the outcasts, of those who have nowhere else to go.

And finally, his is a kingdom of possibilities. To live with Christ as King is to live in expectation, to live in hope, and to live in faith. It is a kingdom of second chances, and third chances and fourth and fifth and sixth chances.

Even as we might wrestle with our perception of the kings and queens of our day, living in our world, on this Sunday, we can give thanks for Christ the King. We can give thanks he continues to reinterpret the meaning of power, of rule, of authority, as he continuing empties himself of those things so that we might be full. And being full, we empty ourselves so that others may be lifted up.

May we rejoice in this kingdom of reversals. May we open our doors to a kingdom of outcasts. And may we open our hearts to a kingdom of possibilities.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Monday, November 15, 2010

All Souls' Day

A sermon for All Souls' Day, November 2, 2010. The scripture readings are Wisdom 3:1-9, Psalm 130, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, and John 5:24-27.

You may be familiar with the recent film, "Never let me go," or perhaps the beautiful book it is based upon by Kazuo Ishiguro. It is a strange story. In a somewhat forgotten, out of the way English boarding school, there are students, who turn out to be very special. They seem like normal students. They laugh. They play. They hurt each other. They fall in love.

But it turns out that they are actually clones—they are genetically engineered and are meant to live only for their usefulness, as organs are harvested for what is perceived to be the “greater good” of society.

There are art classes at Hailsham and the young people take great pride in what they create. But later in the story, it turns out that the whole reason for the art classes was the teachers’ attempt to show the State that the students (the clones, really) actually possessed souls. The effort fails.

The story raises the question: What is a soul?

What does a soul look like? Can it be seen? Can it be felt? Can it be studied? Is the soul just that part of us that responds to God? Is it that part of us that helps us feel emotion or have compassion for someone else? What, exactly do we mean when we talk about a soul?

Those of you who are familiar with my preaching will have noticed that sometimes, when I get stuck for an idea, or need a little help thinking about a particular word, I look at the writings of Frederick Buechner. Buechner is a writer, preacher, and sometime Presbyterian minister, and he often cuts through my ordinary sense of a word to help me notice something deeper.

And so, in his little book, “Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC,” I looked up the word, “soul.” This time Buechner provided no definition. Instead there are cross-references. Under the heading, “soul,” Buechner writes, “see Spirit, Healing, Sex.”

Right there, Buechner reminds us of what St. Paul was trying to convey in so much of his writing—that the Greek idea of a spirit and body split might be helpful for philosophy, but it doesn’t describe what we know of ourselves. It doesn’t describe how God has created us. And it doesn’t even begin to describe what happens when we die.

The popular notion that the body dies and turns into dust while the soul floats up into the arms of God is not a Christian understanding of death. Body and soul cannot be separated so neatly. Scripture tells us that we die totally in this world, body and soul die. But then, in God’s mystery and miracle of new birth, both are raised to new life again.

Whatever is uniquely “John” about me in this life—the way I look, the way I move, the way I hurt, the way I rejoice--- all of that will die but be raised up again. I don’t know if I’ll have gray hair (prematurely gray hair, mind you) in heaven, but I think there will be something about me that you’ll recognize there and say, ahh, yes, that’s John over there.

Like Buechner says, the soul includes spirit, healing, sex, and it includes so much more—taste and smell, and sound, and movement, and feeling, all that we are is formed and informed by our soul. In tonight’s Gospel Jesus promises a day when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God. They will hear their name, they will see the Good Shepherd, they will embrace everyone they’ve ever known, and be received into the arms of God. These are physical things, only possible with a body, what Paul calls a “spirit-body” but a new kind of body nonetheless.

On All Souls’ Day we remember those who we have known and loved who have died. But even as we remember them, even as we miss them, we give thanks that we will see them again. We give great thanks, and we can take great joy in the reality that “the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God. In the eyes of the foolish they seem to have died … but they are at peace . . . in the time of their visitation they will shine forth, and will run like sparks through the stubble. They will govern nations and rule over peoples, and the Lord will reign over them forever.”

Thanks be to God for the giving us souls to love and rejoice and live for ever.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

All Saints' Day

A sermon for All Saints' Day, November 1, 2010 (Since this parish also celebrates All Soul's Day fully, we anticipated the All Saints' celebration by observing the feast on Sunday, October 31 and November 1. May the liturgical purists forgive us.) The lectionary readings are Ecclesiasticus 44:1-10,13-14 , Psalm 149 , Revelation 7:2-4,9-17 , and Matthew 5:1-12 .

There’s a story about Austin Farrer, who as chaplain at Keble College went every morning to celebrate the Holy Eucharist. He was devoted, but his friends sometimes wondered why he bothered. “Doesn’t it get lonely in there, with just one or two students, and them, half asleep?” Dr. Farrer replied, “Quite to the contrary. What with all of the apostles, prophets, saints, martyrs, angels and archangels—well, it’s a wonder there’s any room for us at all.”

I sometimes think of that on weekdays for Morning Prayer. While there may only appear to be several of us, I can almost see Dr. Sterrett in the back, praying with us. Rev. Blackwelder is also here. There is Helen, and George, and Frank, and Margaret—telling us (gently) how the words should be pronounced.

We stumble into what Austin Farrer understood: that he was surrounded by the communion of saints. He knew that he wasn’t alone. He knew that he had help.

Talking about help from the saints can be tricky, even in an Episcopal Church. Our own tradition is mixed regarding saints. We name churches St. Mary’s, St. Botolph’s, St. Peter’s, All Saints’—but we are uncertain as to what precisely we should do with these saints. Do we put them in stained-glass windows and keep them one-dimensional? Do we think of the saints as lucky charms, good for the naming of a child or the excuse of dessert on a saint’s day? Are the saints simply a religious affectation, the romantic indulgence of an Anglophile?

In short, do we pray to them, for them, with them, or in spite of them?

The New Testament writers use the word “saint” somewhat loosely. In many places all the faithful are referred to as saints. Paul addresses his Letter to the Romans, “To all God's beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints.” In helping the Corinthian church sort out its squabbles, Paul suggests that the aggrieved parties not go to secular courts, but go “before the saints,” the local gathering of Christians. In Revelation, John shows us various pictures of the saints in light, ordinary believers—some who have died for their faith, others who have died natural deaths—but ordinary believers made extraordinary by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Saints are marked people. They are marked by God with the word, Sanctus, or Holy. Some teach and lead, moving us closer to God. Some antagonize and agitate, all for the glory of God. Some offer mercy and show justice for the glory of God. And some really do exude a kind of holiness. They live transparent lives through which one sees the love of Christ. Saints are marked people.

But we too are marked. We are sealed by the Holy Spirit at baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever. We carry the mark of holiness and while the best of us might reveal a bit of the holy here and there, for the most part Sanctus is a name and a way that we are growing into.

In Revelation, John the Divine has a vision of what heaven must look like when people have fully grown into their sainthood.

. . . [A] great multitude which no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!”

Revelation shows us the future but it also helps us understand the past. Those everyday saints who struggled to be faithful in this world, who prayed to God and prayed for each other have been raised to new life into heaven. There they do what they did in this life—they show forth God’s love, they sing God’s praises, and they pray. They pray for one another and they pray for us.

I know that when my grandmother was alive, she prayed for me. I know that my Sunday school teachers prayed for me. Friends and perhaps those I didn’t even know prayed for me. Many of them have died. But my faith tells me that they have been raised to new life in Christ. They are with God and they are changed, but they are still praying for me and for all the world to be consumed in God’s love. Like love itself, love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things,” prayer, too, never ends. And so the saints, the great ones, the ordinary ones, and those who are still improving—they pray for us.

The saints surround us and help us and pray for us, and that’s a good thing. It’s a good thing for us to have help especially for Gospels like today’s. The Sermon on the Mount is a seemingly impossible invitation to holiness. The Beatitudes, that lovely listing of “blessed be’s” sets the Christian standard so high, it feels unattainable.

But we have help. We have help in those who have gone before us who wrestled with these words of Jesus. Some didn’t quite meet the mark. Others came to embody the beatitudes. They became so closely identified with the blessings, that they themselves became blessings in the lives of others.

The Beatitudes point us in the direction of holiness. We’re (very few of us) there yet, but we’re on the way. The saints remind us to stay on track, and they help to show us the way.

As the great children’s hymn reminds us

They lived not only in ages past;

there are hundreds of thousands still.

The world is bright with the joyous saints

who love to do Jesus’ will.

You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea,

in church, or in trains or in shops, or at tea,

for the saints of God are just folk like me,

and I mean to be one too.

May the saints inspire us. When we are tired, may they strengthen us. When we are lazy, may they shame us. When we are alone, may they surround us. And may they fill our lives with increasing love until the day that we join them before God in everlasting praise.

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


Revelation Window from Highland Baptist Church, Louisville, KY

A sermon for the Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost, November 14, 2010. The lectionary readings are Malachi 4:1-2a, Psalm 98, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13, and Luke 21:5-19.

At about 5:30 in the morning, I really thought the end of the world had come. It began with a bang, then a muffled thump, then a scratching and shifting, then more banging. It sounded a little like an enormous radiator turning on, like a giant ship creaking into a berth that is too small. I haven’t been in an earthquake, but I imagine it sounding something like this, except that the building was not shaking. But something was attacking the Stable Inn, the little conference center where we stayed during our recent mission trip to South Africa.

At first I thought it was a dream, but the noise was too loud, and too random. It would quieten down, and then start up again, even more ferocious. Were we being attacked by a lion, or an elephant? No—we were Springs, a small town about 15 miles from Johannesburg. Was the building coming apart? Maybe. Was a truck about to back into my room? Possibly. Finding jeans and jacket, and looking around for a club or a weapon, I decided that I had to go outside and see what was going on. If this was the end, well, I had said my prayers, and I suppose I was ready to go.

I went outside, my heart beating in my throat, and looked back up to the roof. And there, spread out over the tin roof of the hotel, were 7 peacocks—playing, chasing each other, having a grand peacock time, at our expense. Then I REALLY wished I had a suitable weapon.

Hearing all of that racket, in a strange place, I actually did wonder for a minute or two if that was the end of me. But as it so often the case—I was worried about the wrong thing. I had nothing to worry about then. I might have spent more and better time wondering how the experience of being with Sharron Dinnie, her congregation and Kwasa Center, might change me or affect the outlook of those of us from All Souls? I might have spent more time considering how I use the resources God has given me, about how I might be called to share those resources more creatively-- as opposed to worrying immediately about my own safety and wellbeing.

I don’t know about you, but I often worry about the wrong things. I worry about old age, but don’t pay enough attention to what I’m eating now. I worry about family members who will die one day, and yet I don’t connect with them now the way I could. I worry about things that scare me in the abstract, while ignoring the practical, here-and-now, everyday things that I attend to, which might even affect those more outlying, abstract things.

When it comes to thinking about the end of the world, about death, or about when Jesus comes back, about what some call the “rapture,” a lot of people do just that—they eagerly read the latest “Left Behind” novel by Timothy LaHaye and Larry Jenkins—but I wonder to what extent they’re willing to change their lifestyles so as perhaps NOT to hasten the ending of the planet. During Advent, our Adult Forum will be with Seth Walley, who will lead through a study of “the rapture,” the end times, some of the literature around it and some of the questions we might have.

Sometimes I hear people get upset about the Book of Revelation, as though it’s filled with scary stuff about the end of the world. I point out that Magiddo is a big hill in Israel where most of the major battles were fought. To say, “Mt. Magiddo” is to say, “Har Magiddo,” which became “Armageddon.” 666 is thought to be a twisted and bad number only because 7 is thought to be a perfect a number. Anything less than 7 would be off, would be warped, would probably be the sign of something trying to pretend to be perfect. On and on, the coding and symbolism continue. The Book of Revelation is a book of encouragement, written to Christians during a time of persecution. It would be as if a rabbi during Nazi Germany wanted to write a letter of encouragement to Jewish congregations—he would necessarily fill it with misleading images and symbols to fool the Nazis, but these symbols would be understood by their intended audience. It’s that way with Revelation. I sometimes marvel at the energy people will put into being afraid of odd terms found in Revelation, while the real thing to fear is the lack of biblical literacy by people who claim to be Christians.

Throughout scripture there is particular literature called, “apocalyptic” (from the Greek word for “the lifting of a veil” or “revelation”). Apocalyptic literature reflects a particular mood for a particular time—sometimes, it’s when a prophet preaches that the end times are near. Other times, people begin to sense that they are living in the last days when there is a calamity like famine or drought; or when there is an invasion or a war; in the days leading up to a new millennium or even during times of rapid cultural change.

In today’s Gospel Jesus speaks of in such a time, of such a time. He makes it specific when he says that even in Jerusalem, the centerpiece of Israel’s worship, the symbol of God’s presence among his people—the temple, Jesus says, will soon be no more. The day will come, Jesus says “when not one stone will be left upon another; [and] all will be thrown down.” The disciples hear this and they become alarmed—whether they think Jesus is going to storm the temple and help bring it down, or whether some calamity is on its way—the disciples ask him, “Teacher, when will this be?” And, how will we know when it will be about to happen?

Sensing their anxiety, Jesus slows them down. He begins to warn them about those who will come and take advantage of their sense of the final days. Some will make the most out of a sense of impending calamity, and some will do what they can to exploit fear. Some will say, “the time is near,” Jesus cautions. Others will say “wars and insurrections are coming.” But again, Jesus says, “Do not be terrified,” because certain things will happen along the way. In classic language of the end times, language that might have been from Isaiah or Daniel or Enoch or John the Baptist, or John the Divine, Jesus says, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom… famines, earthquakes, plagues…” And then Jesus seems to warn them that as his followers, the religious leaders are going to question them and perhaps punish them and perhaps even persecute them.

But in the face of all of this, Jesus counsels that they should remain calm. They shouldn’t even plan beforehand what they might say. They should trust in God and trust in Jesus. He says, “not a hair of your head will perish,” which is not quite true given that soon after, Stephen is persecuted, John is killed, and many, many others will die for their faith.

But beyond being a history lesson, what does this say to us?

Most of us do not risk being persecuted for our faith. Much of our culture regards Christian faith as superstition. It’s an emotional or psychological crutch. It’s thought to be quaint; just a nice, old-fashioned cultural affectation.

For some in the church, perhaps that is an accurate characterization. But for others of us, our faith holds within it the same power it had for those early disciples. Something about the presence of Jesus in our lives—this Jesus who was born, lived a life like ours, was crucified, and was raised from the dead—this Jesus still lives through us and gives us the strength, the courage and the tenacity to live in these final days—whatever shape that “finality” may take. Whether (in the words of one preacher, Fred Craddock) “we go to Christ or Christ comes to us.”

I think the great challenge of living as a Christian in our day, in our culture, is not worrying so much about raptures, and end times—but by trying to live a simply faithfulness in relationship to one another, in our families, in meetings, with our colleagues, at the school conference, in traffic, in the line at a store, on the kids’ soccer field,… wherever we may be.

Today’s Gospel ends with Jesus promising, “By your endurance you will gain your souls.” By enduring—that is, simply living out our faith—getting up in the morning, saying our prayers (when we remember), loving our families (if we live with them) and going through the activities of the day, with as much faith and trust in Jesus Christ as possible. This is our preparation. This is our practice. This is how we become prepared for whatever may come.

The offertory motet today is by Mendelssohn, and even though the melody may not stay with us, I pray that the words would be engraved on our hearts:

They that endure to the end, shall be saved.
They that endure to the end, shall be saved.
WE that endure to the end, shall be saved.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Monday, November 08, 2010

No distractions

Detail of the All Souls Window by Ron Ross

A sermon for the Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost, November 7, 2010. The lectionary readings are Job 19:23-27a, Psalm 17:1-9, 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17, and Luke 20:27-38.

You may have seen the results of a recent survey taken by people who drive in Fairfax County. Of 1,500 people surveyed, “75 percent said they think using a cell phone while driving is a distraction,. But 54 percent admit to doing it themselves.” 15 percent admitted to texting while driving, and they didn’t even ask how many people fiddle with the radio while driving, deal with children in the back seat, juggle food and hot coffee, or put on makeup. There are a lot of distractions both inside the car, and outside. When you think about it, it’s sort of a wonder that when we drive, we get anywhere at all.

We definitely would not get very far if we stopped along the way for every distraction that presented itself. To read every billboard, to notice every new thing, to pay real attention to the cars around us—we’d be dealing with distractions all of the time.

Even though he’s not driving, it seems Jesus is having to deal with distractions—the kind of distractions that are trying their best to slow him down, to get him off track, or to even to make him veer off course and lose his way.

In the Gospel we just heard a group of religious leaders try their best to distract Jesus and to throw him off his mission.

The Gospel reading takes place as Jesus has already come into Jerusalem. The procession we recall on Palm Sunday has already happened. Jesus has overturned the moneychangers’ tables in the Temple and he has gotten some attention. The Sadducees were a powerful group in Jerusalem, and in today’s reading, Jesus comes up against them. Their beliefs were based on the first five books of scripture only, and they believe that these had been authored by Moses.

If it wasn’t contained in those books, then there was no reason to believe it. But Jesus talks about things not contained in the books of Moses. And Jesus talks about eternal life. But the Sadducees don’t believe in eternal life, not for a minute. So when they ask Jesus a question about it, he suspects that they’re trying to trick him.

Both Jesus and the Sadducees know the longstanding Jewish practice that if a man dies and he has no children to continue his family, his brother should marry the widow to provide for the brother’s family to come. And so, the Sadducees ask Jesus a hypothetical: what if each of the seven brothers dies, but at each point along the way, a remaining brother marries the widow. At the resurrection, whose wife will she be?

Jesus sees the distraction and refuses to be tripped up by it. He tells them that if they were really so concerned about the resurrection and believed in it, then they would be more concerned about getting their own lives in order, not asking questions about marriage. Marriage is for those of “this age,” Jesus says—those who need to provide for a family or provide for the wellbeing of others. The typical marriage in First Century Palestine, like much of the first millennium, was more about property and possessions than it was about love and sharing.

But whenever Jesus talks about marriage, he talks about it as something that always points beyond itself. Marriage doesn’t exists as an end in itself. It doesn’t exist simply for the two partners, or even the nuclear family. Marriage is a preparation for something to come, a training ground for love, a hint of something even more incredible to follow, something that will be even better than the closes of human relationships, at the resurrection.

In talking with the Sadducees, Jesus resists the urge to get distracted by talking about marriage or the treatment of widows or even of the justification of the Sadducees as a religious group. Instead, Jesus keeps his focus. And he keeps moving toward the cross.

Jesus tries to wake up this crowd when he says, “Ours is not a God of the dead, but of the living, for to God all of them are alive.” Anything that is not a part of that life—the life of God—is less than it can be, and anything that tries to turn us away from that life is a distraction.

As we continue to celebrate this week after All Saints Day, we can say with faith that death, itself, is a distraction. This is not to say that we deny death, or that those who face their own death or the death of a loved one are not in real pain. But what it does mean is that at a very deep level, there beneath the distractions of pain and loss and hurt and heartache, our faith gives us what we need to look death in the face and laugh at it. The words of St. Paul put it well when he says, “We shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.” (1 Corinthians 15)

The other readings for today, in their own way, also attest to this power of God to dispel the distractions.

In the Old Testament reading we see Job, who even in the very midst of death—the death of his family, the death of his career, his health, even his future (it seems)—he clings to the life of God. Job refuses to be done in by the distractions around him, especially when his friends try to create complicated theological justifications for what he is experiencing. Instead, Job cries out for life: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth.”

Likewise, to the people at Thessalonica, Paul says, “the Lord is faithful. He will strengthen you and guard you from the evil one.” These are appropriate words as we approach Veterans Day this Thursday, when our country remembers those who have often strengthened and guarded us.

But distractions do still come. We may not have Sadducees coming up to us and trying to trick us with questions about the resurrection, but we do have plenty of people who will try to trick us with religious arguments, with scripture taken out of context, with confused theology, with simplistic thinking. Whether it is the campaigns political or the campaigns theological that attempt to sidetrack us; whether it is the attack from the right or from the left, from the friend or from the stranger; or just our bodies growing old and rebelling against us—distractions come in many ways.

Prayer helps. Meditation lessens the distractions; contemplation keeps us clear. But today’s Gospel also reminds us simply to focus on Christ and on his focus—the cross that is leads through death to live everlasting. Look for life, in other words, in every situation.

Distractions will continue to dance around us, occasionally needing to be swatted into their place. We might even fall for a few of them; but hopefully we won’t get too far off course. But with our eyes on the cross, like Christ, we can live life fully. We can celebrate life. We can radiate life.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

No comparison

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

A sermon for the Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost, October 24, 2010. The lectionary readings are Sirach 35:12-17, Psalm 84:1-6, 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18, and Luke 18:9-14.

Most of you know that I’ve just returned from a mission trip in South Africa. Heidi and Marcia return later this week. I’m sure that the others and I will talk and write more about all that we saw and felt, but one aspect of my own experience helps me approach today’s Gospel.

In South Africa, from the moment our plane landed, I was aware of my tendency to make comparisons. My impulse was to see what was different and what was similar. It’s a kind of default for me. I guess I feel that if I can identify how things are in relation to what I’m used to, then whatever new place I’m in will begin to make better sense to me.

And so I notice: I notice they drive on the left side of the road like Europeans; we drive on the right. They speak of “robots” at intersections, whereas we call them “traffic lights.” They have eleven official languages. We (sort of) have one. And then, there are lots of similarities.

Both countries struggle to figure out how a particular group of people who have not always had a fair chance in the past might best be given equal opportunity for the present and future. Both countries struggle with immigrants who arrive from other countries and are willing to take the worst jobs. Both countries deal with diversity and difference. And churches in both places deal with many of the very same issues.

On and on, the comparisons went, until I began to realize that I was wasting a whole lot of energy playing this mental and sometimes verbal game of “notice what’s similar or different in this picture.” I began to realize that I was missing some of what was right in front of me.
Perhaps South Africa, and especially the people I was meeting, might better be enjoyed, might better be understood, by my simply receiving them as they were and not trying to fit them into my view of the world based on where I come from and what I perceive as the norm.

It was the diplomat and economist, Dag Hammarskjöld, who wrote, “To be humble is not to make comparisons.”

He wrote, “Humility is just as much the opposite of self-abasement as it is of self-exaltation. To be humble is not to make comparisons. Secure in its reality, the self is neither better nor worse, bigger nor smaller, than anything else in the universe.” (Markings).

While I certainly don’t claim humility, I do think Hammarskjold’s words speak to my own experience in South Africa, and also speak to the point of today’s Gospel. If we were to take Hammarskjold’s advice, I think we would be very careful in our reading and hearing of the parable in today’s Gospel from Luke. Jesus is not calling us to compare ourselves with either the Pharisee or the tax-collector. Instead, he wants us to try to move beyond comparisons, and begin to depend upon the grace of God.

Perhaps the Pharisee seems familiar from what we’ve heard in church before. Since Sunday school—even in popular culture—the Pharisee is almost always typecast as the “bad guy.” It’s hard to imagine a good Pharisee, one who is kind or generous. It’s perhaps hard to imagine a female Pharisee. But the fact is that the majority of the Pharisees were probably good folks—hardworking, law-abiding, giving, praying, “doing” believers who tried as best they might to follow the ways of the God of Israel.

The Pharisee in today’s Gospel says as much in his prayer. I don’t think his prayer is as boastful as it is factual. He’s simply repeating what he’s done. He’s undertaking a kind of spiritual examen, reviewing his day, reviewing his week. Where did God show up? Where did God not show up? He has fasted twice a week, he has tithed (giving at least a tenth of all he has). He’s an upstanding member of the community.

In our day, the Pharisee would most likely be in church on Sunday morning, serve on community boards, attend PTSA meetings, maybe even coach soccer, and probably volunteer for a local charity or run in a money-raising marathon. If you can picture respectability, then you can picture a Pharisee. And it’s wrong for us to assume that this respectability is just a veneer. The Pharisee feels strongly about his beliefs, takes his commitments seriously, and lives out his values.

The tax collector, on the other hand, is a traitor. Palestine at this point is under Roman occupation. And so, the tax collector is a Jew who is collecting money from his own people to give to the Roman state. Tax collectors in the popular imagination were no good. They were thought to be liars and cheats, greedy and only interested in themselves.

In our Gospel, the Pharisee thanks God for the gifts God has given him. But the tax collector—strange even that we might have wandered into the temple—the tax collector asks for nothing but the mercy of God. There is no indication that the tax collector has quit his dirty-work. He hasn’t suddenly decided to take a new job or follow a different course. And it’s not even clear that the tax collector expects to be heard by God, much less answered by God.

The issue here is not that Pharisees are bad and tax collectors are good. It’s not about comparing the good, honest, upstanding folk who might be in church on Sunday with the folks who partied so hard last night that they’re still in bed this morning. The point of the Gospel come out in the prayers of the two characters.

The prayer offered by the Pharisee was very close to a common prayer offered by any faithful Jew in the temple, with one exception. There’s one little word that pops out, translated in the English as the word, “like.” The Pharisee gives thanks to God that he is not “like” other people, especially the tax collector. For the Pharisee, gratitude has crossed over into a sense of elitism—something that happens easily whenever we get into “we/them language.” The Pharisee’s prayer is false prayer as he compares himself with the tax collector. And had the tax collector in some way compared himself with the Pharisee, whether favorably or unfavorably, it would have been just as false. Neither person is any more deserving of God’s grace and mercy than the other.

Effective prayer reminds us of our complete dependence upon God. Faithful prayer is not a listing of what we’ve done right, or even what we’ve done wrong. The tax collector never loses sight of that. He knows that he really has nothing going for him but the grace of God, and so it’s for this reason that Jesus says the tax collector left the temple “justified,” or “in line with God.”

Those words of Hammarskjöld come back to me: “to be humble is not to make comparisons.” Earlier I spoke of how my making so many comparisons in South Africa obscured what I might really see and what I might really experience.

And I think the same dynamic plays itself out in our relationship with God and with other people. Though we are created in community and God loves us as God’s children, each of us is unique. Each is incomparable. Each lives and dies by the breath of God.

As Paul writes, each of us is “rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue [us] from every evil attack and save [us] for the heavenly kingdom.”

May we resist the temptation of making comparisons. May we rest in the grace, mercy, and love of God that sustains us and keeps us alive.

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

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Returning Thanks

The Grateful Leper

A sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, October 10, 2010. The lectionary readings are 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c, Psalm 111, 2 Timothy 2:8-15, and Luke 17:11-19.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day in Canada, and in some ways our scripture readings help us to help them celebrate it. Ambrose of Milan said “No duty is so urgent as that of returning thanks.” I’ve always loved that phrase, “returning thanks,” as though thanks comes from somewhere else, moves through us or visits us for just a little while, and so we should be careful with it, hold it gently, and then, when it’s time, let it go back to the its source. But in reality, we sometimes don’t return the thanks. We might misplace it, or forget about it. Or we squander it and pretend it wasn’t a gift, but rather, something we deserved and earned and won. The thanks we get, the thanks for which we are grateful, the thanks we return (or don’t return) is like a blessing—a gift that comes.

In our first reading, it takes Naaman a while to return thanks, to return to give thanks, or to understand where his blessing has come from.

Naaman might be powerful and successful, but he also has leprosy. Lepers were called “unclean,” and the sense was that they were not only physically unclean (and perhaps that’s how they got the skin disease in the first place) but also spiritually unclean, as though they were being punished by God for some reason.

We can understand something of what the culture of fear and suspicion around leprosy might have been like, if we remember the early 1980’s when the outbreak of AIDS meant also an epidemic of fear and ignorance. Others here may remember what it was like in the early 20th century around polio. Philip Roth has written his latest novel, Nemesis about the “nemesis” of polio, and about especially about one man’s fear that he might get it. When two boys from the main character’s neighborhood contract polio, everyone begins to look for someone or something to blame. Imagine that culture of fear in the Bible when we hear about lepers.
Naaman probably tries not to show his fear, being a military man. But he certainly looks for healing. Naaman hears about a great prophet and healer in Israel, Elisha (the heir to the prophet Elijah). The king makes it possible for Naaman to go and visit Elisha, and he makes his way to the cave where Elisha is staying. Naaman gets to the opening of Elisha’s cave, and Elisha sends a servant out to talk to Naaman. The servant says, “Here’s what you need to do: Elisha says for you to go and wash in the River Jordan seven times. That should do the trick. You’ll be fine.”

Well! This great military commander Naaman is insulted. Did he travel all the way to Israel only to be told by a servant go and wash in the river? Does he not even get to see this supposedly great prophet?

Naaman is angry, he criticizes Elisha. He makes fun of Israel and its rivers, and on and on he goes, in an absolute rage. Had he continued to mouth off, had he continued to try to fit things into his own way of seeing, he would have completely missed the opportunity before him. He would have missed the presence of God, and the healing of God. Just before they leave Israel altogether, one of Naaman’s servants pulls him aside and begins to talk a little sense into him. It’s as though this servant understands the nature of grace, the nature of blessing—that when a blessing comes from God (whether it’s in the form of healing or some other blessing), it comes lightly, and so it should be grasped and grabbed, but received and allowed room. Naaman eventually goes down to the water, he bathes seven times, and he is healed. Not only is he healed of the leprosy, but it also sounds like he might have been healed from a little of his arrogance and pride. And then Naaman returns to Elisha and makes a big statement. It’s a statement of faith, but also a returning of thanks: “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel. Your God is God.”

There is healing in our Gospel, as well. He is on the way to Jerusalem and is approached by not one, but ten lepers. They greet him with words that will echo on Palm Sunday, recognizing his power and his ability to forgive and cleanse: “Jesus, master, have mercy on us.” Their words are a desperate cry for help, they’re from the heart, and they seem to get his attention.
With these 10 lepers, Jesus does an astounding thing. He responds to them as though they’ve already been healed—he doesn’t send them to bathe in special waters, he doesn’t spit into the dirt and make a potion out of it for their healing—instead, he effects the healing in them even as they ask for it. Next, he follows the Jewish custom of encouraging them to go and show themselves to the Temple priests.

Jesus heals the disease, but he knows that it will take a little more for the fear and suspicion around the disease to heal, as well. It’s a little like when one of us has been healed, has gotten better, has been restored to health, and yet friends and family treat us as though we’re still fragile. Jesus knows that for the lepers to be received back into their families and villages, they needed the official approval of the Temple priest, the sort of cultural equivalent of a “clean bill of health.” And so the ten former lepers follow Jesus’ instructions and they go to the temple. All, except for one.
One comes returns, and returns thanks. The one cured leper happens to be the Samaritan, the foreigner, the half-breed, the one despised by both Jews and the Gentiles. This cured leper had been doubly cured. Not only was he cured of a disease, but he was healed of racial and cultural divides as well. Perhaps because of his living in-between, he understood the nature of blessing, the nature of a grace, the nature of thanks--- as something that visits us, and gains life as it is shared and returned.

In the Collect of the Day we have prayed that God’s grace might always precede and follow us, making us continually given to good works. It’s not our works that produce the grace. It’s not our works that even provide the setting or space for grace. But grace that allows us to do good and faithful work. It is grace that comes before, during, and after. But it is always and everywhere God’s grace, not our own. And so the Spirit helps us to live in this grace, thankfully.

We pray for God’s healing of disease and ailment. We pray for God’s healing of creation, where it is broken or wasted or in trouble. We pray for God’s healing of racial and ethnic and cultural divides. And we can pray for God’s Spirit to help us return thanks and live lightly with grateful hearts.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


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