Sunday, January 23, 2011

The movement of grace

A sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, January 23, 2011. The lectionary readings are Isaiah 9:1-4, 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, Matthew 4:12-23, and Psalm 27:1, 5-13.

Each Sunday when we proclaim the Gospel, we take the special Gospelbook from the altar and we move with it. We usually step into the congregation at least a little bit. At the High Mass, we move with a whole group of people—a thurifer with incense, acolytes with their candles, as we are led by the cross. If it looks a little like a parade, that’s intentional, since in the reading and celebration of the Gospel, we are proclaiming that Jesus Christ lives among us. We listen for him in the reading and then in the interpretation, and then in the sacraments of bread and wine, of body and blood.

While there’s always some movement in our proclamation of the Gospel, today’s reading almost seems to call for special staging. There’s a lot of movement in this Gospel, and it almost seems like the kind of time that we might be a little more dramatic than usual. We could read portions of the Gospel as we move through the whole church, pausing at various places, and continuing on this way, and that way.

If you notice, everybody’s moving in today’s Gospel. They’re moving from darkness into light. They’re moving from sin into new life. And they’re moving from what is familiar and safe toward places that are new and uncertain.

The first image of movement begins in our Old Testament reading from Isaiah. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” Isaiah speaks to a people in exile, a people cut off from their homeland, a people yearning for a way forward. They are hoping and praying for a better way forward.

In our second reading, the Apostle Paul is preaching to the people of Corinth, where they, too, are looking for a way forward, but they can’t decide who to follow. And so, they each pick a different way and they argue about that—some claim to follow Paul, others claim to follow Jesus. Still others claim to follow Cephas, and Apollos, and who knows who else. What is clear is that the Corinthians are not getting very far because they’re all trying to go in different directions. They’re still stuck in darkness but they’re so busy fussing that they don’t even seem to realize that they’re stuck.

And then we hear today’s Gospel in which those words and images of Isaiah are recalled as Jesus emerges as a leader who shows the way. But his way isn’t easy. “Repent,” he says. “Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near… Follow me.”

The word that he uses, “repent,” is familiar to people who have been around the church a little. Sometimes the word is used as a battering ram or as a threat, but it’s intended as a word of hope, a word of encouragement. Many have heard before that the word means “to turn around.” If we wonder what that looks like, we can begin by looking at Paul, who wrote our second reading to the Corinthians. His was one of the most dramatic turn-arounds. He was a Pharisee, a sort of religious professional concerned with people keeping all the religious laws, and he persecuted Christians. But then he changed. He turned. He repented, and became not only a follow of Jesus, but also a promoter of Jesus and the way of Christian love and life.

And that’s what can happen when one actually follows Jesus. There can be a real turning—a turning around, a turning toward something new, a turning into a person better than you might have ever imagined.

Too often (if you’re anything like me), we turn, but we keep on turning. It’s as though we are stuck in a revolving door—we turn around, sometimes making a big fuss out of the new direction we’re going or the new habit we’re adopting-- in a New Year’s resolution, or in the season of Lent-- but then before we know it, we’ve simply turning around and around. And we keep on turning until we eventually grow dizzy and we lose heart. Sometimes we’re flung out of the revolving door and fall on the ground, broken and battered.

But the kind of turning, or repentance, that Jesus leads us through involves leaving something behind, turning in a new direction, and moving forward with others.

Paul says that “If anyone is in Christ, that person is a new creation; the old has passed away and the new has come!” The old is passed. The door can be shut and the key thrown away, as we turn.

We leave the old habit, or sin, or resentment behind, and we turn in a new direction.

We allow Jesus to take our hand and turn us in a new direction so we can’t even see the old anymore. Some versions of Christianity make an enormous point of this particular part of the turn-around. “Put your faith in Jesus,” and everything will be just fine. Faith becomes a one-on-one between me and Jesus, but that’s only part of the conversion. There’s another part to repentance.

That third part of repentance happens as Jesus puts our hand in the hand of another. We don’t go through it alone, and the person who experiences forgiveness in solitude from God alone usually only exists in movies and over-edited lives of the saints. More often, in order to keep facing the new direction, moving into the new place of forgiveness and light, we move with others, who also are looking to repent, to change, and to renew their lives in Jesus Christ. Grace can be apprehended alone, but I think it’s most often felt in relationship.

There’s a great story about this communal understanding of grace in a new book by Jay Bakker, [Fall to Grace: A Revolution of God, Self, and Society] the son of Jim and the late Tammy Fae Bakker. A young man named Jared tells his story. His father was a minister and Jared was a rebel. He did everything he could to go his own way. In his late teens he drank and drugged and slept around a lot. He was the “other guy” who broke up two marriages. But at the age of 23, he discovered his latest girlfriend was pregnant. It was about that time that he went to his parents’ house, looking to raid the kitchen, and his father asked him to step outside for a minute. Jared writes that while his father had been strict, he’d never known him to be violent, but at that moment he was afraid. But he went outside. His father looked at him and asked, “are you doing drugs?” At a kind of breaking point, reading to get out of the revolving door or turning round and round, Jared blurted out, “Yes!.” And then he went on, “there’s something else. You’re going to be a grandfather.” There was silence. There was a pause. And then something amazing happened. His father got tears in his eyes, looked at his son, and said very quietly, “So, what are we going to do about it?”

What are WE going to do about it? In that little word of “we” Jared understood grace—the forgiveness and grace of his parent, but also the forgiveness and grace of God, since that kind of acceptance transcends human emotion and is really impossible without God. The revolving door stopped and repentance moved forward for Jared.

This is why we are “church.” This is why any Christianity that is not communal quickly becomes something else entirely. We need one another and God works through one another for healing and forgiveness.

And so, as I suggested earlier, today’s Gospel is a Gospel-on-the-move. It falls flat if it stays in the pretty silver book on the altar. It dies in this place if there is no echo from our reading. It remains useless if its movement doesn’t continue through this service and move with us into the world, as we go out changed, forgiven, and freed.

Friends, the Good News this day is that whatever there has been in our lives that has separated us from God, or separated us from other people, or separated us from our truest selves—these things can be left in the dark. We, who have walked (and lived) in darkness have seen a great light and on US has the light of God’s grace shined.

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

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Finding our place in the dream of God

Captivity and Resitance, by Romare Bearden, African American Museum of Philadelphia.

A sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, January 16, 2011. The lectionary readings are Isaiah 49:1-7, 1 Corinthians 1:1-9, John 1:29-42, and Psalm 40:1-12.

Yesterday I was able to go to a concert given by the group Sweet Honey in the Rock. The group began year ago, but has cycled new members through over the years. It remains an amazing a capella group of African American women who sing about justice, about hope, and about life.

The concert yesterday was in celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. What was so refreshing for me was the way in which they celebrated. They didn’t offer dramatic readings of King’s words. There was no slide-show of his life. Instead, they had done the hard work of what we Episcopalians might call “reading, marking, and inwardly digesting” his words, so that the performance managed to convey and invite the audience into the life of Martin Luther King.

The group helped the audience thing not only about the calling of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but also about our own calling—what are We doing to create a better world? What are WE doing to heal the divisions that still exist. To what extent are WE following the dreams of God? To what extent are we living into our own calling?

When I use the term, “calling,” I mean to describe one’s deepest sense of purpose, one’s sense that this is the right thing to do and the right time to do it, I mean one’s sense of being selected by God to do a specific thing.

In our reading from Isaiah, we hear Isaiah’s own sense of God’s calling: “The LORD called me before I was born, while I was in my mother's womb he named me.” God said, “You are my servant, in whom I will be glorified.” Isaiah wonders if he heard God right. But God says, yes, “it’s you I’m talking to.” From time to time Isaiah wonders and checks in with God, each time hearing another version of, “You are my servant, . . . in whom I will be glorified.”

If you think about that for a minute, those are amazing words because they mean that God needs Isaiah in order to get things done. God needs Martin Luther King, in order to get things done. God needs us, in order to unfold and reveal the kingdom of God in our world.

The Gospel is about the revelation of God’s kingdom and plan, especially about the revelation that is Jesus, and recognition of Jesus. It’s about John the Baptist’s recognition of Jesus as the Christ, as God’s anointed one; and it’s also about several of the disciples as they recognize Jesus for who he is, and in so doing, recognize themselves.

There are two sides to understanding one’s calling—the first has to do with recognizing the caller, who is God. But the second part comes in recognizing ourselves in the midst of God’s calling.

John illustrates what it’s like to recognize the one doing the calling. He sees Jesus as the Lamb of God. We might think of a lamb as a soft, weak thing. In Judaism the lamb was an animal of sacrifice and as a symbol, the lamb represented innocence and blamelessness. But a lamb also had undeniable strength. Because of the lamb, people were forgiven. Because of the lamb, people were joined again to God.

And so when John names Jesus as the Lamb of God, he is in part prophesying, perhaps in part hoping, and in part stating what he has already seen to be true, that through Jesus people are brought closer to God. Through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, we experience the healing of sins, and the resurrection to eternal life in God’s love.

John recognizes Jesus. The other disciples, Andrew and another, see Jesus, but also begin to recognize themselves.

When Jesus sees the two disciples, he asks them, point blank, “What are you looking for?” The disciples don’t really answer him, but instead, they ask for more time. They aren’t sure what they want, but they know they want to know Jesus a little better. After a while, Andrew goes to his brother and says, “We have found the Messiah.” But what he’s also saying is that he has found himself; he has found his calling.

Of course, sorting out one’s calling is more difficult than simply opening your heart to Jesus, and “poof,” an entire game plan is presented. It’s much more subtle than that. Whether you should be a fireman or a secretary, a nurse or a schoolteacher—whether you should buy a house, or take a new job, or pursue that special person… I don’t know the specific answer to those or many other questions…

But I do know how to find the answer. It lies in doing what the disciples did—spending time with Jesus, absorbing his words, absorbing his vision of the world, hearing God’s word through Jesus, hearing the promises of scripture and watching as they’re fulfilled in everyday living.

Frederick Buechner talks about the two sides of finding one’s calling—of recognizing the caller, but also of recognizing ourselves in the midst of that calling. He explains that to be called is to have a vocation—the Latin word, “vocare” means simply that: to call; and so a vocation is simply one’s calling—whether that be over time, or in the moment.

Buechner points out that there are always different voices calling us to different kinds of work—the trick is sorting out which voice is from God, which from society, which from a voice of super-ego or sole self-interest. The trick for the Christian is to find 1) the work that one most needs to do, and 2) the work that most needs to be done. In other words, Buechner says, vocation is that place where “your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

The meeting of our deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger happen in prayer, in worship, in fellowship and community; in struggle, in grief, in joy… in the midst of the sacraments. We live into our vocations together.

May we continue to be a people who dream the dreams of God. May we find the resources to follow, and may we find the risen Christ even as we find ourselves.

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

Monday, January 03, 2011

Our place in the Holy Family

"We are Family" by Kate Cosgrove

A sermon for the Second Sunday after Christmas Day, January 2, 2011. The lectionary readings are Jeremiah 31:7-14 , Psalm 84 or 84:1-8, Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a , and Matthew 2:13-15,19-23.

In Henri Nouwen’s book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, he writes about his relationship with a work of art, Rembrandt’s famous painting of the prodigal Son and the Father, in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. It depicts the famous parable Jesus tells in Luke’s Gospel about a son who asks for his inheritance early, goes out and squanders it all away, and finally returns home, ashamed, scared, and penitent.

You’ve probably seen a copy of the painting at one time or another. It shows a fairly dark background, full of shadows, with a number of different people looking on. In the foreground, there’s a young man kneeling, embracing an older man. The young man is wearing rags while the older one is draped in finery. The older one has both hands on the back of the young man, as if to say, “It’s all right now. You are home. You are forgiven.” As Nouwen contemplates the painting, he does what Jesus would probably have us all do when we hear that parable of the prodigal: Nouwen places himself in the story. He is quick to identify with the younger son, the one who runs away, almost spends away his life, and finally returns home in humility. But he also identifies with the older brother in the story, who resents the fun and freedom enjoyed by the younger one and is furious at the forgiveness of the Father. But it’s difficult for Nouwen to go further in identifying with the characters in the story.

He writes, “For a long time the father [figure] remained “the other,” the one who would receive me, forgive me, offer me a home, and give me peace and joy. The father [or mother] was a place to return, the goal of my journey, the final resting place.”

Nouwen’s own story progresses. His faith grows and he feels like God is trying to teach him something through the art of Rembrandt. Finally, he begins to sense that God is called him to identify more with the father in the parable. He’s being called to step into the role of the Father-- to offer forgiveness and acceptance, to offer loving guidance, forbearance, and hope. He is being called upon to point to the love of God our heavenly parent, but at the same time, not to relinquish his own role in forming and offering help to others.

He writes,

As the [parent] I have to be free from the need to wander around curiously and to catch up with what I might otherwise perceive as missed childhood opportunities. As the [parent], I have to dare to carry the responsibility of a spiritually adult person and dare to trust that the real joy and real fulfillment can only come from welcoming home those who have been hurt and wounded on their life’s journey, and loving them with a love that neither asks nor expects anything in return. (p. 132)

Nouwen is called to grow up and grow into spiritual parenthood.

Parenthood comes in many forms. Some become parents in a carefully planned and organized way. Others have parenthood put upon them unexpectedly. Still others (while not having children of their own) might find themselves in the role of parent, or foster parent, or aunt or uncle, or friend in a more circuitous, mysterious, God-filled kind of way. Some have a strong and preconceived idea of what parenthood means, and might miss other ways of being parents as God presents them.

In today’s scripture we see a snapshot of Joseph as a parent.

Earlier in the Christmas season we heard how Joseph received a visitation from the Angel Gabriel. It came as surprise. It came as shock. It was different from what he had imagined it might be and it may have taken a little while for God’s plan to sink in. But eventually, Joseph is “in.” He’s completely dedicated to Mary, to the Baby Jesus, and to God’s will for their lives, come what may. Christian Tradition has often imagined Joseph as a much older man who had already had children who had grown up, for the most part. Whether he did, or didn’t, we don’t really know, but in any event, what is striking is the degree to which Joseph steps into the role of parent and is willing to do anything for the welfare of his child.

In today’s Gospel we hear of some of the challenges that confront this young family from the very start. And yet, Joseph and Mary move forward, unafraid, with new-found confidence and faith in God. Joseph is warned about King Herod’s plan to destroy all the male children in the realm, so Joseph takes Mary and Jesus and goes to Egypt. He’s still worried even after Herod’s death, and they eventually settle in Nazareth.

While we don’t know the details, it seems like Joseph continues to protect and lead. We can imagine him showing Jesus how to work with wood and how to continue in the family business of carpentry. We read about how, when Jesus is a little older, he wanders into the temple gets into conversations with the rabbis there. Joseph must have watched and see the way in which Jesus was heading, the things he was interested in, and gently guided him along the way, as best he could. He probably still worried about Jesus and worried about the future, but he did his best to steer Jesus in the right way, and then he trusted God.

The Gospel we have heard today is sometimes used on the First Sunday after Christmas Day, when much of the Christian Church observes the Feast of the Holy Family. The Holy Family usually refers to that intimate cluster of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus, and many a preacher will draw conclusions that suggest the modern family should look much the same. But I wonder if God’s vision of Holy Family isn’t much larger? Didn’t Jesus say as much again and again? When asked about his family, Jesus points all around him (babies and old people, rich and poor, pleasant and unpleasant) —not in any way to ignore those who had brought him into the world and nurtured him, but to expand it to include all those who followed him, who loved him, and who sought to love God through him.

At our 11 a.m. Mass we baptize Jeremy and Thomas Dubois. As with other baptisms, there are godparents, or sponsors, to use the technical term that has been used since the early church. And I know that, as with other baptisms, no matter how mature or experienced or holy the godparents and sponsors might be—they will be nervous. What does it mean to answer “yes” to the questions asked in the Rite of Holy Baptism? “Will you be responsible for seeing that the child you present is brought up in the Christian faith and life?”—that’s a pretty big question. “Will you by your prayers and witness help this child to grow into the full stature of Christ?” -- another HUGE question.

But just because we may not stand literally as a sponsor for one being baptized, as the Body of Christ, as representatives of the Church Universal, we share in that dedication. We share in being responsible for helping people grow in the faith. We are, each of us, called (at some point or another, it might be today or next year, it might be this week, or far in the future) but we are each called to grow up in our faith and to serve as spiritual parents for others. We’re called to do what Nouwen said so beautifully, “to welcome home those who have been hurt and wounded on their life’s journey, and to love them with a love that neither asks nor expects anything in return.” If we’re able to do that – to welcome, to receive, to love—then we will continue to grow into God’s Holy Family in this place and beyond.

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


Subscribe in a reader

Religion Blogs - Blog Top Sites