Monday, March 29, 2010

Our Place on the Way of the Cross

The Procession to Calvary, Pieter Brueghel the Elder, 1564.

A sermon for the Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday, March 28, 2010. The lectionary reading are Luke 19:28-40, Isaiah 50:4-9a, Psalm 31:9-16, Philippians 2:5-11, and Luke 23:1-49.

On Friday night we walked the Stations of the Cross, using the traditional prayers and readings, and making our way around these ceramic stations within our building. Each one (of course) represents a particular spot along the way through Jerusalem, as Jesus made his way toward Calvary, the hill where he would be crucified.

Last Friday, as it was so beautiful outside, I began wishing that our stations were like the ones in Montreal, at the Oratory of St. Joseph, high atop Mount Royal. If you’ve ever visited, maybe you’ve seen their Gardens of the Way of the Cross. There they have sculptures representing each of the Stations of the Cross, but if as you navigate them, you’re also walking through beautiful gardens with at view of Montreal.

Those gardens play a role in a 1989 movie called, “Jesus of Montreal.” The story involves a priest or abbot who hires an actor to play the part of Jesus and to update the monastery’s annual passion play. He tells the actor who will play Jesus to go and hire the other actors and then reinterpret the story, update it, make it big, so that more people will visit. And that’s what the actor-playing-Jesus does. He “calls” his friends to follow him in this project. He rescues a woman from an almost abusive working situation, he invites others out of their degrading work, and as the story goes on, we realize that it’s basically the Gospel re-told. The actor playing Jesus acts like Jesus as he calls people to follow him, and each person is changed in some way when they respond to that call.

Whenever I watch or think about that movie, I begin to imagine who in the cast I might relate to. Like when I walk or pray the Stations of the Cross, I sometimes meditate on which one of the characters who appear in the story are like me? If I were in their place, what would I have done? Would I have acted more quickly, or more boldly… or less faithfully?

We hear about some of those people in the Passion according to St. Luke. Are there any you especially relate to? Are there any who seem familiar or remind you of someone?

I doubt many identify with Pontius Pilate, but there may be times when we feel a little like Barabbas—we’ve escaped some blame or punishment that might have been due to us. We might identify with the crowd—the crowd that is so easily caught up in the mood of the moment, caught up in abstract understandings of “justice” or “holiness” to the extent that it loses all sense of right or wrong. Simone of Cyrene simply walks into town and is sort of thrown into things. But I bet that when he hears the whole story, he’s probably glad he was in the right place at the right time and able to help Jesus in some small way. We have perhaps sometimes been like the women of Jerusalem, the ones who mourn and grieve, who get caught up in their sentiment for Jesus, but miss the practical implications of their feeling. The soldiers are simply doing their job. The criminals following their fate—except for the one who asks Jesus to remember him, to pray for him, to ask God to show him mercy. Other accounts add other characters—the woman who wipes the forehead of Jesus, Mary and John, the other disciples, the others who look on. And so it is tempting to imagine who we would be, if we were there. It’s tempting to imagine how we might respond, if we were there.

On this day and on Good Friday, we often recall the words of that great spiritual, “Were you there?”

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?
Were you there when they pierced him in the side?
Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?

Well the faithful answer, really, is “No. We weren’t there.” We can meditate upon those events, we can re-member them, we can perhaps even be changed by them, but the real question for us now, for us on this day, and especially as we begin this holiest of weeks is, “Are you HERE?”

Are you here, where Christ is alive again and reigns not from a tree, but from highest heaven and from within the hearts of all the faithful.

Are you here? Where miracles continue as bread and wine become body and blood and we are made one people in spite of all that might separate us, in spite of any cross, in spite of death, in spite of hell.

Are you here—are you awake, alert, aware, ready to be here and anywhere for the goodness of God to be tasted and felt and lived into and extended to a hurting and hungry world?

Holy Week invites us to remember, but it also invites us to be present and alive in our own day. We remember how Jesus was celebrated by a faithful few as he went into Jerusalem for the Passover, and so we pay attention to the mood of the mob and our place within it. We remember how he shared the Passover meal with his friends, and so we continue to receive his presence in the breaking of bread and in sharing what we have with those who hunger. We remember how he served his friends by washing their feet, and we open ourselves to serving others in God’s name. We remember the time in the Garden of Gethsemane, the betrayal, the mock trial, the crucifixion, and we pray for those in our day who suffer injustice and oppression. We remember the waiting in darkness and silence, in fear and hope, even as we acknowledge those feelings in our own day. And then, next Sunday, we remember and imagine what it must have been like for those first friends of his to learn that he had risen from the dead. And we welcome Christ to rise again in new ways in our lives.

The service we use when we pray the Stations finishes with a prayer that captures much of the intention of this day. We pray that even “as by [Christ’s] death he has recalled us to life, so by his love he may raise us to eternal joys.”

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

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Welcoming the Prodigal

The Return of the Prodigal by Romare Bearden

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 14, 2010. The lectionary readings are Joshua 5:9-12, Psalm 32, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, and Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32.

This week I met a very nice lady from Connecticut who was curious about our church. She was asking me about Lent and was curious about Rose Sunday, and finally asked, “What’s your sermon on this Sunday?” I explained that it would be the Parable of the Prodigal Son and that I was trying to look at the parable from the standpoint of each of the various characters. The lady then looked with a completely deadpan expression and asked, “What will you say from the point of view of the fatted calf?” Then we began to wonder about the point of view of the pig, whose food gets eaten. Considering these and other complications, I changed my mind and decided to take a different approach to the Gospel.

The beauty of this story-form called a parable is that unlike an allegory, a parable has several points and can change according to one’s point of view. The same story can change in meaning over one’s life, which is the fun of reading scripture over and over again.

The story is a welcome one for those who relate to the prodigal—St. Augustine related to him, having spent some of his early years running, living beyond his means, using people to rise socially, fathering a child out of marriage, joining an heretical sect. But Augustine came home, and he came to know the welcome of his mother Helena, who had been praying for him, and he came to know the welcome of his spiritual father, Ambrose. He spent the rest of his life coming to know the heavenly father—who is the combination of all that is maternal and paternal, the one who seeks us out and finds us. Augustine writes, “The prodigal son was sought out and raised up by the One who gives life to all things. And by whom was he found if not by the One who came to save and seek out what was lost?”

One could also pretty easily step into this story and understand something of the older brother. Some of us might relate to the older brother who has stayed at home and done his work—and yet gets no feast from the father. But I wonder if there’s not more than resentment in the older brother—but perhaps also, isn't there just a little bit of envy? Notice that he assumes the younger brother has spent time with prostitutes, though there’s no other mention of that little detail in the story. Charles Wesley, the great hymn writer, once thanked God that in his youth he had escaped the more “grievous sins” and that he had not been one of the “young corruptors,” as he put it. But, he said, the reason he didn’t sin more was because of a kind of “sacred cowardice.” It was not his goodness that had kept him from sin, but the only the fear of the consequences. (Do we ever stop to wonder what trouble we might get into if there truly were no risk of getting caught?)

Today's Gospel presents us with characters we can understand. There is the younger child who runs away, who becomes lost, and who loses himself. But then he is found, and in the finding he finds himself. He comes to himself.

There is the older child who watches all of this and doesn’t understand, who simply grows angrier and angrier and angrier, until at last the rage breaks.

But there is also the father who forgives. Jesus tells the story, “While [the younger son] was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him." And then it’s party time. “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.”

Laetare! Rejoice. As we heard in the introit earlier, “Rejoice in gladness, after having been in sorrow, exult and be replenished.”

Henri Nouwen wrote a great little book, entitled The Return of the Prodigal Son. It’s a reflection upon the great painting of the story by Rembrandt, and also a reflection of Nouwen’s own changing experience of the painting and this story in the Gospel.

As much as he loved the painting, there was a problem in the story for Nouwen. As one who returns to God like the younger child in the parable, Nouwen was familiar with the judgment and authority and majesty of God. But he did not know where to begin when it comes to experiencing the love and mercy of God. As he puts it, “I know that I share this experience with countless others. I have seen how the fear of becoming subject to God’s revenge and punishment has paralyzed the mental and emotional lives of many people. The paralyzing fear of God is one of the great human tragedies.”

But God is beyond our experience of a human parent—even the very best mother or father we can imagine. This is a God who, like the parent in the Gospel story, shows vulnerability in being willing to forgive.

Nouwen believed that Jesus tells the parable of the lost child who is found not so we can related to the prodigal, not so we can relate to the older child, but so that we can relate to the parent; the parent who forgives.

The life of faith is a growth into spiritual adulthood. It is the business of children, after all, to grow up. Saint Paul writes, “We are children of God. And if we are children, then we are heirs, heirs of God and join heirs with Christ, provided that we share his sufferings, so as to share his glory.” (Romans 8:17)

What would the Christian church look like if it were filled with spiritual adults? The spiritual adult does not blame the problems of the church of a bishop or a few bishops, but takes responsibility for being the body of Christ. The spiritual adult in a parish does not always sit back and wait for the clergy or vestry or unnamed and unknown volunteers to do everything, but takes responsibility. And just imagine the power of a church that is filled with spiritual adults who offer forgiveness and welcome. I can’t help but wonder if one reason so few young people are in church these days has to do with the fact that so few of the adults have ever really grown up themselves. If a church offers no wisdom, no maturity, no leadership, then why should a young person bother?

Jesus told this parable to the religious leaders of his day, the Pharisees and scribes who were murmuring about the sinners who Jesus was spending all his time with. In telling them this story, he was encouraging them to grow up.

May the grace of God work on our hearts to help us to grow up in our faith. May we be brought to the place where we can offer forgiveness without reservation, generosity without question, and where the homecoming feast at the altar may be never ending.

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

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Love, All

Life Magazine cover, 1925.

A sermon for a wedding. Though it is unusual to celebrate a marriage during Lent, this was a small service with family in a private home. The scripture readings were 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, Psalm 67, Colossians 3:12-17, and John 15:9-12.

We should say at the beginning that Carol and Gordon are NOT getting married simply to have a steady tennis partner, though there are certainly worse reasons for getting married. But their love of tennis, and their love of each other got me thinking about the game of tennis, and especially gave me a chance to look up a question I’ve always had, but never really pursued.

Where does the crazy scoring of tennis come from? You know, the points scored are 15, 30, 40, and then the most baffling score—“love” used to describe zero. If you don’t know tennis, we can illustrate it by imagining when Carol and Gordon first begin a game, Carol serves, they volley a bit and then she hits a nice shot out of Gordon’s reach. This is the first point and she has made it, and so the score is now 15-love. 15 to zero.

Well the long story on the history of tennis scoring is that no one seems to know for sure. Some have suggested that the points originally had some connection to the numbers on a clock: the 15 minute marker, the 30 minute marker, the 45 minute marker (later shortened simply to 40, since that was easier to yell while you’re grunting out a serve.)

As for “love” being the term for zero, there are several suggestions. One imagines that it derives from the French, “l’oeuf,” or egg, since zero sort of looks like a round egg. This is surely the case in cricket, where a “duck” or “duck’s egg” is a score of zero.

Another suggestion for the “love” used in the scoring of tennis has to do with a number of Dutch and Flemish immigrants coming into England in 16th century. There was a phrase using the word, “lof” which meant “honor,” and so if one were playing a game and not scoring, clearly one was doing it for the honor of the thing, rather than some reward.

This gets closer to another explanation for “love” in tennis scoring. And that is to do with the phrase we know in English of doing something “for the love of it.”

I like that explanation best of all, since “For the love of it,” describes well what we do today. It seemed appropriate that today’s Washington Post carried a story about couples who are now legally able to marry in the District of Columbia, and yet some are asking hard questions: should we get married? What’s to be gained? What (of our relationship) might possible be lost, should we get married formally? Might the dynamics, the shape, the feeling of this relationship change in some way if we use the “M” word, and actually get married?

Surely Carol and Gordon have been through these conversations. They know what marriage is, or at least, what it has been. And yet, they also know enough about themselves and each other to know that every marriage is different. A marriage is not a thing that is enshrined before a priest and then remains the same. Marriage changes every day, every minute, really.

Marriage is truly, for the love of it. There are of course some material, social, and legal gains, depending on the couple; but for most people, marriage that is a life-long commitment-- with vows and declarations of “I do” and “I will”-- is mostly, for the love of it.

As the famous words of St. Paul to the Corinthians remind us, if one goes into love with a selfish motive, one is going to be disappointed. The opposite is true, if one goes into love with no sense of oneself, as though one’s personality were an “oeuf” or a duck egg, a zero, then the marriage is also probably not going to go all that well.

I today’s Gospel Jesus spreads the love he knows and embodies to any who would follow him. And he spreads this love for joy, and so that joy – the joy of all – may be full, complete, and overflowing.

And so, grateful for the love of God that flows into our lives, grateful for the love of friends and family that sustains us and encourages us, we celebrate formally the marriage of Carol and Gordon. May God bless you on and off the court, and whether there are wins or losses, may God always help you remember the love of it, part of which is the love of God that surrounds you, that keeps you, and that blesses you. May the score continue to be what we all feel this day: "Love, all." In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Turning and Returning to God

The Return of the Prodigal, Rembrandt, c. 1662, The Hermitage, St. Petersburg.

A sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, March 7, 2010. The lectionary readings are Exodus 3:1-15, Psalm 63:1-8, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, and Luke 13:1-9.

George Herbert entitled one of his poems, “Repentance.” It begins with a confession, it asks for God’s mercy and then at the end there is a wonderful kind of statement of faith.

[God] wilt sinne and grief destroy;
That so the broken bones may joy,
And tune together in a well-set song,
Full of his praises,
Who dead men raises.
Fractures well cur’d make us more strong.

That last phrase is the one I love the most, “Fractures well cured make us more strong.” We fail and fall. We break and sometimes break other people. But through repentance and forgiveness we are built up. We are made even stronger than before.

Repentance runs through the scriptures for today, just as it runs through the season of Lent.

In today’s Gospel there seems anxiety about a number of things, but in the face of each, Jesus calls for repentance.

There’s a report that Pilate has murdered some people from Galilee for offering sacrifices. People seem to have been wondering whether God was showing partiality by allowing the massacre to happen, while protecting others. Jesus says not to worry so much about trying to figure out why some suffer and others do not. We need to repent.

Another concern has to do with a tragedy in which people are killed—a tower falls and innocent people die. But again, Jesus says those who died were no worse or better than others. “Unless you repent,” Jesus says, “you will all likewise perish.”

The church often reminds us that the word “repent” comes loaded with meaning. When Jesus uses the word, it often has to do with turning around, with changing one’s mind. It’s like when the prodigal son “comes to himself” and changes his mind before he is able to change his behavior. In the Hebrew scriptures and the tradition inherited by Jesus, repentance includes even more. It has to do with turning and re-turning, and carries with it the idea of being sorry for something and the desire to put things right.

Repent, Jesus says. As with most of his teaching, Jesus urges us to stop judging other people, to stop trying to figure where we are in the pecking order of God’s favor, and to stop living for ourselves alone. We are asked to turn and to re-turn. Turn to God and follow in the way that Jesus leads.

In the first Lesson today Moses makes a turn, if not a U- turn. Remember that Moses had killed an Egyptian, he was seen as a bully by his own people and so he ran away. When God speaks to him in today’s reading, God is asking Moses not only to turn to God, but to return to his people, to the place where he was rejected, to the place where he had been enslaved. For Moses there is tremendous risk in repenting, in turning to face and follow God. Moses is afraid. He is confused. He feels unworthy of leading this people, especially in that the people he is to lead have already rejected him once before. But Moses is able to hear God’s word and to believe God’s promise.

Moses turns and it is from his returning that we trace our own salvation, “out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life.” For Moses there will be times when he will be tempted to give up on his people. There will be times when the people of Israel will be tempted to give up on Moses and on God. But through the grace of God, they move ahead repentant, freed and forgiven.

We are called to repent. But repentance can take many different forms.

For some, repentance may involve a very first turning to God. Maybe you didn’t grow up going to church. Maybe you’ve never gotten around to being baptized or confirmed. It may be that you’ve never really been bothered by the question of God before, but recently, something has shifted. Perhaps you’re getting older. Perhaps there are children in your life now. Perhaps you’re dealing with mortality for the first time. It may be a good time to turn to God.

Repentance might mean re-turning to God. Perhaps you’ve been away for a while. It may be that the church threw you out, or that you felt thrown out. But you’re back. Welcome. You have been missed and it is a good time to re-turn to God.

Sometimes our turning to God means doing something like what Moses was called to do—to return to some of those difficult places of family, origin, and places where we began. Sometimes spiritual growth comes only after we have dealt with some of our own personal history: being honest, speaking the truth, and laying it all on the altar of God to be transformed, to be hallowed, to be turned into an offering and a blessing.

And finally, perhaps we are called to repent in the old fashioned way: to say we are sorry and to move in a new direction.

In one of the toughest neighborhoods in Los Angeles, Father Greg Boyle, S.J. (a Jesuit priest) has been offering repentance in a very tangible way to former gang members. Father Greg’s organization, now called Homeboy Industries, has long had the slogun, “Nothing stops a bullet like a job.” And operating with that slogun, he’s done everything he can to help young men and women get what they need (education, skills, support) in order to find work. But early on, Father Greg noticed a big problem. Many of the former gang members had tattoos that clearly identified their gang associations. This put people off, kept them from getting jobs, and prevented the young man or woman from truly moving on, from turning in a new direction. And so, Homeboy now offers free tattoo removal, typically providing an average of some 250 free treatments a month. The program is called, “Ya’Stuvo,” the Spanish slang for, “that’s enough, I’m done with that.”

For most of us, the sin that clings to us is invisible to others, but when we look in the mirror, or when we pray, it might feel like a tattoo that has been burned into us and there’s no way for it to be fixed. But in confession (whether we confess in silence, or to a friend, or to priest, or in community), confession is our way of saying, “Ya’Stuvo.” – ‘I’ve had it. I’m done with it. I’m moving on.” And in forgiveness, the forgiveness that God assures us is ours for the asking, we get a kind of spiritual tattoo removal. We are made clean. We are washed. We are restored to our baptismal state. And we’re ready to move on.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells the story of a fig tree that is not producing. It’s not changing, it’s not growing, it’s not doing much of anything. The owner suggests that it be cut down and thrown out. But then the gardener has another idea—why not wait a season, give it some time, nurture it, and see what happens. It may yet produce.

God waits for us. There is grace in God’s waiting. But when we turn to God, when we re-turn to God, there is rejoicing in heaven, for we were lost, and are found, we were dead, but are now alive in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Through God’s grace we learn and live into the truth of George Herbert’s words that “fractures well cured, make us more strong.”

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


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