Sunday, July 18, 2010

Paying (and Praying) Attention

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, 1570-1575, by Jacobo Robusti Tintoretto, Munich.

A sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, July 18, 2010. The lectionary readings are Genesis 18:1-10a, Psalm 15, Colossians 1:15-28, and Luke 10:38-42.

Simone Weil was a French philosopher who struggled with Christianity at a very deep level. Among her thoughts, written down in her notebooks, was an oft-quoted sentence about paying attention. “Absolute attention,” she writes, “is prayer.”

In the lesson from Genesis we see what happens when Abraham and Sarah simply pay attention. Abraham could have ignored the three strangers. He could have simply gone on about his business when he saw them. He could have been afraid of getting involved. He might have “passed by on the other side,” like some of those in the Good Samaritan story last Sunday. But instead, Abraham went out of his way to show hospitality. He seems to have recognized something special about them, some hard-to-put-your-finger-on quality. Perhaps it was holiness. Perhaps it was simply honesty. But whatever it was he saw, Abraham decided that it was worth the risk of being hospitable. And so, Abraham brings some water and lets the strangers wash up; he brings some bread, and dinner is served.

Abraham’s hospitality not only feeds strangers and makes for community. It also creates space. Henri Nouwen, in his classic little book, Reaching Out, explains that true hospitality does create space. It creates a free and friendly space for the other. Nouwen talks about the difference in visiting a friend who has every moment scheduled and planned, where the rules are firm and the expectations clear. This is very different, he notes, than visiting a friend who says, “Here is a key to my house. The refrigerator is stocked and what’s mine is yours. I hope you will feel at home.”

The way in which Abraham and Sarah receive the strangers creates space, allows for mystery and opens the way for a miracle. It is these three strangers who turn out to be angels of the Lord, with the outrageously good news that Sarah is going to bear a child.

Abraham and Sarah were able to be attentive. They were able to be absolutely attentive. They found that absolute attention is prayer, that absolute attention can allow one to see the miraculous movement of God.

In today’s Gospel, there is both attention and activity.

Martha is very active. She is busy, involved, and committed. I’ve always liked Martha. She works hard, she doesn’t suffer fools gladly and she makes things happen. I always pray for more Martha’s to be around in my church kitchen. But Martha also scares me a little, because I see a lot of her in myself.

Mary, on the other hand, is contemplative. She is quiet, calm, prayerful and deeply, DEEPLY attentive. She attends. She apprehends. She GETS Jesus; and all that he brings; and all that he means; and all that he promises; and all that he fulfills. It is because of this deep attention, this prayerfulness, that Mary is able to recognize Jesus as the Son of God, as God Incarnate, as God Among Us. It is because of her attentiveness that Mary has (in the words of Jesus) “chosen the better part.”

While Jesus says that Mary has chosen the better part, notice that he in no way criticizes or scolds Martha. It’s only when Martha has become exhausted, when she is frustrated and angry and tries to get Jesus to side with her over her lazy sister that Jesus helps Martha see what she is doing. He slows her down. He asks her to breathe. “Martha,” he says, “you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful.”

This one thing that is needful might be called prayer. It might be called “the ability to see clearly, to apprehend a thing or a person for its true qualities.” It might also be called simply, “attention.”

The Church gives us moments that invite our full attention. These moments are called Sacraments. Prayer is the practice of paying attention. Holy Communion is the activity of giving attention, to God and to one another.

May the Holy Spirit slow us down and help us be attentive. May the Spirit help us, like Abraham and Sarah, to see miracles in our midst, and like Martha and Mary, to eat and drink and rest with Jesus Christ our Lord.

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

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Help for Getting out of a Ditch

The Good Samaritan by Van Gogh, after Delacroix, 1890.

A sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 11, 2010. The lectionary readings are Deuteronomy 30:9-14, Psalm 25:1-9, Colossians 1:1-14, and Luke 10:25-37.

In today’s Gospel the lawyer asks about the commandments. He wants to know what he needs to do in order to have things be right for when he dies, when his heart stops beating, and the only thing he sees in front of him is the face of God. “What must I do to inherit eternal life,” he asks. Jesus asks him what he knows about God’s law, what has he been taught? And the man replies with the well-known verse: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus applauds the answer. “You’ve got it,” he says. “Do that and you’ll inherit eternal life.” But the lawyer asks that other question, “Yes,” teacher, but “who is my neighbor?”

It’s a big question. It’s a question asked by countries, as foreign aid, disaster relief, and immigration are debated. It’s a question asked in our communities as we all face needs that more-than-surpass resources. And, then, it’s also a question that people of faith ask, especially since Jesus so often mentions the neighbor. If we’re going to follow Jesus, if we’re going to be Christians of any sort, we need to know something about our neighbor.

But this question alone, “Who is my neighbor” can be misleading. Too often, it can become a kind of puzzle of piety, a fill-in-the-blank for faith. The assumption sometimes (the assumption of the lawyer, and perhaps our own assumption on occasion) is that once we can just identify our neighbor, then we can begin to do ministry to her or him, and we will be saved. We just launch a mission study or report, and then areas of need can be carefully categorized and charted. Needs are assessed. The “needy” are identified. Then a committee or task force ranks these, a new venture is named with a snappy acronym or slogan, a program is begun, and ministry happens.
It is very much a ministry of doing unto others, but doesn’t necessarily take into consideration being neighborly.

I’m not knocking long-range plans and I’m in no way criticizing an organized approach to mission or parish life. But if we only ask, “Who is my neighbor?” and then go and “do unto them,” we may be missing something of the Gospel. We can miss the reception of God’s grace and we can miss how grace is meant to be the motivating factor in being neighborly.

Back in our Gospel, when the lawyer wonders, “Who is my neighbor?,” Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan. Jesus turns the lawyer’s question around. Rather than asking who IS the neighbor, Jesus suggests the real question is, “who has acted as a good neighbor to another?” The real question that gets us closer to the kingdom of God is the question we can ask ourselves, “When have I been neighbored?” When has someone been neighbor to me? When have I been down on my luck, shoved aside and overlooked? When have I felt beaten and bruised, neglected and forgotten?

The point of the Good Samaritan story, I think, is to see ourselves in the ditch.

People often come by the church, trying to get out of a ditch. Sometimes they call, because in many listings, All Souls is right near the top, alphabetically. Sometimes they walk by and ring the doorbell. And then, sometimes when they see me on the street, dressed as a priest, they ask for money. I’m sure they ask you, as well. When this happens, I’m usually pretty careful. I ask good questions and I think I try to discern whether a person is scamming me or not. [Whether I should try to discern, or simply give when asked, is a topic for another sermon.] But I do have a weak spot.
If someone is ever stranded and is trying to get home, or get to their friends, or get “wherever,” I’m usually good for a few dollars. Even if it turns out the person is lying, I gamble on someone who says they are stranded because I remember once being stranded. I remember that particular “ditch.”

I was stuck in a train station. This happened I was in seminary (the first time around). I carried no credit cards and was between checks. I had just completed an internship in New York, had taken the train back to Princeton and had several pieces of heavy luggage. When I got to Princeton Junction, I found that I had missed the last shuttle into Princeton. There were no cabs. My friends were all away for the summer, and no one was around. And so I slept at the train station that night, waiting for the train the next morning. The neighbor didn’t come for me that night. Oh, I was in a safe, clean place—a far cry from really being lost or being stranded altogether, but that brief experience of dependence, of being out of control, of being vulnerable—has stayed with me. And it is that kind of experience that compels me to show compassion to (to “suffer with) others. Remembering the times when I’ve been in a ditch helps me to be neighborly to others. I’ve been in other ditches—when I was sick and someone called, when I was broke and someone loaned me a few dollars, when I was heartbroken and someone simply cared. I bet you have known a few ditches, as well.

One of the most famous “ditches” in religious imagery comes from the 14th century, from Julian of Norwich (1342-1416). When she was 30 years old, Julian almost died from a fever or some other ailment, and while she was sick, she received a vision from God. She wrote down her vision, but continued to pray to God for more insight. Twenty years later, she wrote down an extended version of the vision.

A part of her vision imagines a Lord and Servant. Julian sees a great Lord who has a devoted servant. The Lord sends the servant off on some errand, and the servant is excited to do it. But then the servant falls into a ditch. The servant “is greatly injured” as Julian writes. [The servant] groans and moans and tosses about and writhes, but cannot rise to help himself in any way . . . And all this time his loving lord looks on him most tenderly . . .with great compassion and joy.”

She goes on to explain that the great tragedy in this accident is that the Lord sees all of this and understands that the servant has simply fallen into a ditch. The Lord commends and approves the servant “but he himself was blinded and hindered from knowing this will. And this is a great sorrow and a cruel suffering to him, for he neither sees clearly his loving lord, . . . nor does he truly see what he himself is in the sight of his loving lord.” That can be the real tragedy of being in a ditch—we come to think we’re all alone, we’re forgotten, and that even God doesn’t see or care.

When Julian begins to understand her vision fully, she begins to see that Adam is the servant, who falls and is then raised up. But Christ is the Second Adam, and is the servant who willingness goes into any ditch or deep place, to redeem us, to be with us, and to love us. Christ is with us here and until that day when, (as Julian says) “every passing woe and sorrow will have an end, and everlasting joy and bliss will be fulfilled, which day and time all the company of heaven longs and desires to see” (Showings, p.276).

The collect for today asks God to grant that we might “perceive and know what things we ought to do, and that we might have the grace and power faithfully to fulfill them.”

In addition, may the Holy Spirit remind us of the times when we have been in ditch, so that we might call upon the memory of such times as we continue to love our neighbor.

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

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Heroes, Heroines, and Us

Electronic Superhighway:Continental US, Alaska, Hawaii (1995) by Nam June Paik, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC.

A sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, July 4, 2010. The lectionary readings are Isaiah 66:10-14, Psalm 66:1-8, Galatians 6:(1-6), 7-16, and Luke 10:1-11, 16-20.

As we celebrate Independence Day, it’s appropriate that we’re often led by historians. They remind us that amid the picnics and concerts, the appliance sales and all of the red, white, and blue, there are real people who made our independence possible. There were real people who stood up, who wrote and sang and stitched and fought so that we might live in the country we do. We remember those names, of Betsy Ross, George Washington, Dolly Madison, and Paul Revere. More recent historians have helped us remember a larger picture, including the stories of people like Crispus Attucks, Prince Hall, and Sally Hemings, and those whose stories are still being told and shared. It’s right that we learn about our heroines and heroes, but it we keep them and their ideas only in the past, then Independence Day is a waste. They were real people, who lived lives like we do, and yet, because of their decisions, their sacrifices, their choices, their ingenuity and resourcefulness, they changed the course of history. If WE fail to be changed, to be enlarged or to learn from them, then their contributions mean very little.

A similar thing has to do with our reading of scripture. We can sometimes hear the old words and stories as hopelessly abstract and distant. People were different then, we say. They believed different things about God. They had different power structures. Often, in the name of faith, they oppressed and enslaved and conquered. We congratulate ourselves on having done well to move beyond some of that and we’re glad to be the people God has brought us to be. But like those in our more recent history, the people whose lives are reflected in scripture were real people who, at their best, were somehow captivated by the Spirit of God and they were changed. They became more than before. They made decisions and took off in new directions that changed the world. And in the Communion of Saints, their faith flows through us. We can learn from them. We can be changed because of them.

The Gospel from Luke tells us about such people—people long ago, but people, nonetheless. We heard how Jesus gets his followers organized. He picks 70 people. This number of 70 might be significant for a number of reasons— 7 and 70 are important in the Hebrew scriptures. Moses picks 70 elders to help him, and there’s even the tradition (Jesus would have known) that the primary version of the Hebrew scriptures translated into Greek in the 3rd century BC(E), called the Septuagint, was translated by 70 scholars picked by King Ptolemy, who worked for 70 days to translate the text.

For whatever reason, Jesus picks the 70 and he sends them out in pairs. If you notice the verses we heard from Luke, you’ll notice that there was a break. The first section, verses 1-11 of the scripture, has Jesus give his instructions to the 70, like a coach in the locker room before a game, Jesus is giving them a sort of spiritual pep talk. Offer peace. Travel lightly. Get to know people. Be gracious. Be careful.

The middle verses, the ones we did not hear consist of a series of statements about some of the places who did not receive the good news brought to them. “Woe to them,” Jesus says. It’s as though word has come back that some of the 70 who have gone out are being given a hard time, and so someone—whether Jesus or someone else Luke hears of—is commenting on these places that seem obstinate, unwelcoming, and unfriendly.

Then we have the last section, verses 16-20. Here, it seems the 70, or some of them, have returned. They’re reporting success. They even seem a little carried away with how successful they’ve been, “Lord,” they say, “in your name even the demons submit to us.” Jesus then reflects on this, and his long experience with the devil, as though to say, yes, demons are out there. They always have been and they always will be, but in the end, God wins. Rejoice in the victories you have over the snakes and the scorpions and the serpents of the world, but don’t let it go to your head. Just be grateful to God, Jesus says, and keep close to me and to each other.

This reading can seem like it’s about spiritual heroes, the greats of the faith who left family and homes and jobs and went out as missionaries extradinaire. But I don’t think so. I think they were probably pretty ordinary people who responded to Jesus and tried to do their best.

We, who are baptized in Jesus’s name are also called to “go out,” even if we never move very far. We encounter others in our homes, in our families, at work, at play, in the neighborhood, in the supermarket. And wherever we go, we are called to take our faith with us and to deal with others with faithful heats. And that’s where some of Jesus’s advice to the 70 comes in handy. It becomes good advice for us, as we live our lives.

Be as lambs among wolves. Go into the world with gentleness and respect—love, even. But don’t be na├»ve. There are those who would be our enemies. There are those who do us in. There are those who would do us harm.

Know that the kingdom of God has come near you. Jesus promises that the kingdom of God begins in this life, as we grow in his love and his ways, this kingdom unfolds all around us and even within us. The kingdom is not a physical place to be visited. It is not a set of rules to be followed, or set of doctrines to be held. The kingdom can look like some of those qualities mentioned by the Apostle Paul to the Galatians: a place where people share in carrying each other’s burdens, where people are forgiven and olds wrongs forgotten, where a spirit of gentleness prevails, and hope never gives up.

“The kingdom of God has come near.” Elsewhere in the Gospel stories, Jesus gives us other images for what the kingdom of God looks like, for how it arises or how it’s uncovered. The kingdom comes in surprising ways—it’s like water turned into wine. It’s like yeast that grows in bread. It’s like a pearl uncovered in the depths of dark water. The kingdom of God is very near, and it’s this sense that we’re to embody, to embrace, and to share in the world.

And then, Jesus warns that there will be those who won’t understand his message of love. There will be those who, for whatever reason, don’t recognize or hear or want a God of love. The images offered by the Prophet Isaiah are strong images, but they can be overwhelming. God is like a mother who consoles her children on the breast. She gathers them close and loves them. She nurses and carries us, she lets us play on her knees. For some—broken down by circumstance or relationship, by addiction or disease, such an image of God seems invasive and dangerous. Jesus says, “Shake the dust off your feet.” Move on. Offer the love of God as best you can, but if people cannot or will not hear, move on. The kingdom of God is near and those who receive it, will receive it.

Those who have gone before us in the recent past of our country’s founding, as well as those who have gone before us in the distant past of our faith, would have us become like them, at their best.

In 1630, as people crossed the ocean to come to this country, John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, preached a sermon to that early group of Puritans looking for a place to worship and live in freedom. Well into his famous sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity,” he says, “Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck, and to provide for our posterity, is to follow the counsel of [the Prophet] Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God . . . We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.”

May we learn from those who’ve gone before us and may we be guided by them. As we continue to struggle with how to be faithful AND free, may we do so with the knowledge that the kingdom of God is very near.

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


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