Sunday, August 28, 2011

Freed from being a roadblock

A sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, August 28, 2011. The lectionary readings are Jeremiah 15:15-21, Psalm 26:1-8, Romans 12:9-21, and Matthew 16:21-28.

In last week’s Gospel Jesus called Peter a rock. Peter was so strong and solid and reliable that he is named as the one upon whom Jesus will build the whole Church. But this week, it’s as though Peter (like us) has experienced an earthquake. Things are shaky, unpredictable, unstable. Peter is still like a rock, but this time, its more like he’s a big rock that’s fallen out of place and now sits in the middle of the road. He’s in the way. He’s like a rock in the middle of a path that makes one stumble—which is why in today’s Gospel, Jesus calls Peter a stumbling block.

How has “Peter the Rock” become “Peter the problem?” Well, I think it has to do with Peter’s image of Jesus and Peter’s perception of what God is up to. Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, Peter recognizes Jesus is the Messiah, and he says as much. But no sooner does he acknowledge Jesus as Lord-- that Jesus is the Messiah, that Jesus is the Christ of God-- that Peter begins to get his own ideas about what all of that means. He begins to imagine Jesus not in the image of God’s making, but in the image of Peter’s making. Jesus becoming a king or, becoming a great leader like the Caesar, or at least like a Temple priest or local ruler. Like the other disciples, Peter may have also come to have certain expectations about how he would fit into this new kingdom of God, with Christ as King—maybe Peter would be put in charge of something important. Maybe Peter would have a position of responsibility. After all, hadn’t Jesus called him the Rock? Great things were coming, it was only a matter of time.

But then when Jesus begins to explain to the disciples that he “must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised,” Peter says, “No.” No way, Lord. God forbid it, Lord. This must never happen to you.” And with that statement (a statement that surely represents Peter’s unwillingness to accept the will of God), Peter falls out of his place as a foundational rock for the church. He becomes a stumbling block. Jesus is sharp with Peter: “Get behind me Satan,” he says. The word that is translated as “satan,” means “accuser,” one who (like the devil when Jesus was tempted in the wilderness) suggests cutting corners, taking the easy way out, and looking out for number one above all else. “Get behind me, Satan,” Jesus says. “You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

It’s when Peter’s OWN agenda gets in the way of God’s, that things get “clogged.” It not only slows down what God can do in Peter’s life, it also slows down what God can do around Peter. A similar thing happens to Jeremiah in our first reading.

Jeremiah has the work of speaking hard truth to a lazy and self-satisfied Jerusalem. With Babylon to the north and Egypt to the south, Jeremiah warns Jerusalem that it should look to God. But then, even as he warns the city, Jeremiah falls victim to his own despair, and becomes self-consumed. He laments to God, “I’ve done my part. I’ve said the difficult things and I’ve stood up for you, God, but no one listens.” Jeremiah begins to doubt his ministry and even to doubt the goodness of God. He asks, “Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed? Truly, you are to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail.” Jeremiah, through his own doubt and despair, becomes a kind of stumbling block to God’s way, but God picks him up and puts him where he needs to be, as God says, “I am with you to save you and deliver you, says the LORD. I will deliver you out of the hand of the wicked, and redeem you from the grasp of the ruthless.”

Last week, we recalled how we, along with Peter and believers from every age and place, are called by God to be like building blocks, like living stones that make up the church. As living stones we provide strength for the weak, refuge for those not accepted elsewhere. We attempt the feed the hunger (both the physically hungry and the spiritually hungry) and we do our part to be, rock-with-rock, stone-alongside-stone, like a high tower for the world, a symbol that reminds a busy world that there is another world, with different values, and God’s love and mercy are in the center of it.

But sometimes we fall out of place, like stones that fall out of a wall?

We might do it like Jeremiah. It’s hard to live a life of faith, and so we might get to a place of doubt and despair. We become self-consumed and wonder when we’re going to get our share.

Or perhaps we fall out of faithful place like Peter. We get our own ideas about what God’s kingdom should look like and what our place should be within it. We are filled up with our own sense of what we want, or what we think we deserve, or how God should be blessing us.

We might do it in other ways. St. Paul warns us against becoming stumbling blocks for others through our living—when we say one thing with our lips, but say another with our lives. We can become stumbling blocks for God’s way through our attitude or outlook, through arrogance that holds ourselves apart from others, or even through negligence that surrenders to the world, assuming that God has no plan, or that God has forgotten us.

The Good news of today’s Gospel is that once we are called, carved, created to be God’s living stones, God never forgets us. There’s no earthquake strong enough to shake us out of God’s care, out of the family of faith. Each of us is precious and has his or her place in the building of God’s kingdom. When we become stumbling blocks, God will get us out of the middle of the path and put us in a more faithful place. Even when we are like stones that have fallen out of place, and we’re even obstructing others, God picks us up and puts is where we need to be.

God’s grace and favor go with us always, helping us to be God’s house of living stones. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Abide in Love

A homily for the marriage of Daniel Schoos and Alistair So, Saturday, August 27, 2011. The Gospel lesson is John 15:9-12.

They say that rain is a lucky thing for a wedding. It’s a lucky thing because in the course of every marriage there are sure to be a few tears along the way. But if it rains on the wedding day, each drop of rain cancels out a possible, future tear. Alistair and Daniel, may this be the case for you.

Our Gospel reading uses a old-fashioned word to talk the relationship between God and Jesus and between Jesus and us, his disciples and friends. “Abide,” he says. “Abide in my love.” He goes on to say what this funny, old-sounding word really means—it means living out the commandments (you remember, especially the ones about loving God above all else, loving neighbor as much as we love ourselves). And then Jesus confuses everything, really, when he says that the way to keep the commandments—the real, true, holy, life-giving, long-lasting, ABIDING way of keeping the commandments of God--- is to love one another as Christ has loved us.

Those famous words of St. Paul that are often used at weddings remind us of what Christly love looks like.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.
It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking,
it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.
Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
It always protects, always trusts,
always hopes, always perseveres. (1 Corinthians 13: 4-7, The Message)

And so, in a marriage, as with any relationship of love, we are to abide, to (as they said in England during World War II) “Keep calm, and carry on.” Those are words particularly suitable for the East Coast as Hurricane Irene does her damage, but as a friend of mine said the other day—the hurricane inside his head can do a world of damage independent of an earthquake or a hurricane. That’s because we bring ourselves to the relationship.

David Whyte is a poet who has written an interesting book (The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship) that tries to help us bring ourselves into relationships. He suggests that the old idea of “balancing” work and marriage, of “balancing” friendships outside the primary relationship with the marriage, and of “balancing” personal time with couple time—is a lost cause. The idea of achieving balance is a myth. It just sets us up for failure.

Instead, Whyte suggests that we think in terms of a “marriage of marriages.” In other words, our lives are composed of three marriages—the marriage we might have with another person (whether real or hoped for), the marriage we have with our work or vocation, and the final, often neglected marriage—the marriage we have with ourselves. Each one is non-negotiable, Whyte argues. Each one deserves attention. Each one deserves notice and nurture, and so a marriage of marriages means that there is conversation, openness, argument sometimes, and lots of give and take.

Alistair and Daniel, you both already know a lot about this—you have already built a marriage and marriages, but notice the people in this room and those who would like to be in this room. We’re all ready to cheer you on. We’re offering our best wisdom, our best humor, and our deepest prayers for your continued marriage. May it be a marriage of marriages, offering love overflowing for all you encounter.

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

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Remembering the Rock

A sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 21, 2011. The lectionary readings are Isaiah 51:1-6, Psalm 138, Romans 12:1-8, and Matthew 16:13-20.

When I first began working at my former church, my office was in an unused room on the their floor of a building that was built in 1895. Parts of that building needed some work. But I loved the church, I loved the people I was working with, and I loved the ministry I felt I had begun--- so an occasional mouse, frayed electrical cords, drafty windows, and make-do office equipment seemed of little consequence. Until the ceiling fell down.

There had been a long-unnoticed leak of a radiator in the room above. The water had made it way through the old plaster.

It’s for that reason that every time I walk down the narthex stairway into the undercroft, I look at the welcome table, and I immediately stop and wonder if the ceiling has fallen in. And then I remember the rocks.

There has been a small pile of rocks in the undercroft for several months now. It began as a show-and-tell demonstration by Dale Lewis, then junior warden, to begin to try to show us what is happening to some of the stone, that forms the walls, that make up our church building.

As I understand it (which may not be quite right), some years ago it seemed like a good thing to replace the mortar between the stones with cement, which would not have to be replaced. The problem with cement though is that it is not porous, and doesn’t allow any moisture or water to seep out from between the stones.

So when water gets in there (which it does), it has nowhere to go, so it works on the stone, cracking the already-brittle rock, and causing damage that is not only expensive, but also potentially dangerous. And so, on our list of things to do and to keep up, is the pointing of the stone around the church. It’s not a romantic use of money. It’s not easy to put a brass plaque on. But it’s essential and necessary.

Moving from physical rock, to symbolic rock—remembering the rock (that is in us) is one of the most important things we can do.

Isaiah, says, "Hearken to me, you who pursue deliverance, you who seek the LORD; look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug.”

Isaiah pictures the Lord God as a rock. God doesn’t change. God is always there. God is immune to custom or convention. Water does not erode. Pollution does not damage. God provides shelter and represents strength and power and stability.

The people of Israel struggled with false idols. They got bored with rock and replaced the Rock of Ages with fake things, with pretty things, with things that charmed and wowed and took up time and money and attention. They struggled with the basic question—what lasts like rock? Is anything rock-solid?

Jesus put a question very much like this one to his disciples. He asks them: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

Here, Jesus uses the Old Testament term, “Son of Man,” and it must have worked as a kind of verbal hyperlink for the disciples. It would have triggered all kinds of associations: Ezekiel is called Son of Man. Daniel is called Son of Man. It is a phrase that encompasses prophecy, a special chosen status by God, and more than a hint toward messiahship.

And so the disciples tell Jesus what the people are thinking about him. You’re a prophet. A great prophet, a mighty prophet. Some say you’re Elijah returned. Some say John the Baptist. It’s an insight for us into how people saw Jesus at this point. They don’t seem to have connected him with the Son of God, or the Messiah.

But Jesus questions on. Who do YOU say that I am.

And Peter, with clarity, with faith and with daring, says “You are the Christ. The Son of the Living God. “

And to Peter, whose name in Aramaic means Rock, Jesus says, “Your name means rock, and on you, the rock, will I build my church. And the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."

Jesus founds the Church upon Peter and the other apostles. He breathes on them and gives them the Holy Spirit. The term, “apostolic succession” points to this beginning. In its fiercest form, apostolic succession would insist that the church exists in a clear line drawn from Saint Peter through all the bishops of the church to this very day. But there’s another understanding of apostolic succession (especially championed by the early Church Fathers) that suggests faith is what is passed down, faith in Jesus handed down from community, to community, to community.

If we look at today’s Gospel closely, Jesus proclaims Peter the Rock on whom he will build the church, not because of Peter’s goodness or worthiness. Peter’s declaration of faith, “you are the Christ” becomes the foundation. The church will continue to be built on those who have this kind of faith, who believe that Jesus is the son of God, the way, the truth and the life, in whom is the forgiveness of sins and the resurrection to eternal life.

Peter is the rock. But if we think about, he’s not exactly the most solid rock. Jesus predicted that Peter would deny him, and Peter in fact denied him three times, warming himself by the fire.

Sometimes we’re like Peter. We crumble, too-- under stress, in doubt, in fear. Our faith is like Peter’s—it worries and wonders, and needs assurance.

But Peter gets that assurance. In the last conversation we have between Jesus and Peter, after the crucifixion, after the resurrection, Jesus shares breakfast on the beach with his disciples. He asks Peter, “Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me? “Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep, Jesus says, Feed my sheep.” Peter gets assurance and we do too.

Jesus assures us that we, like Peter, can become stronger. We can be strengthened through Christ, and we can be strengthened through one another. “Feed my sheep,” Jesus says; and be fed by my sheep. But Jesus might have just as easily said, “remember the rocks”—the rock that you are and the rocks that surround you. Peter seems to understand this as he writes, “Like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house” (1 Peter 2). The real rock, the true church shows itself wherever faith is proclaimed—believe in Jesus as the Son of God, our savior and friend, the way of our eternal life.

The true church shows itself wherever that faith shows plays itself out in the feeding of the sheep. The tending of the lambs. The care of one another. At our baptism we are made rocks—not to stand alone, but rocks that need each other, like a well-built wall, and its in that way that we find the foundation we need for faithful living, and the way we begin to provide a faithful foundation for others.

There’s a wonderful old hymn that goes, ‘Built on the Rock the Church doth stand, even when steeples are falling.” The final stanza sings

We are God's house of living stones, Builded for His habitation;
He through baptismal grace us owns Heirs of His wondrous salvation.
Were we but two His name to tell, Yet He would deign with us to dwell,
With all His grace and His favor.

May we always have faith to remember the rocks—remember the rock that is Our Lord Jesus Christ, and remember the rocks we are and are called to be, and to remember the rocks that surround us, offering strength and support.

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

Sunday, August 14, 2011

A Human Jesus who Heals

Jesus and the Canaanite Woman by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669)

A sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, August 14, 2011. The lectionary readings are Isaiah 56:1, 6-8, Psalm 67, Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32, and Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28.

If you look in the back of our church, on either side of the great big stained glass window in the middle, you’ll see four narrow stained glass windows. They’re called lancet windows, because they have a little pointed arch at the top, and since about the 13th century, when they became especially popular in French Gothic churches, people have thought they resembled a lance, or an arrow in that way. Our four windows represent each of the evangelists in the Bible— John is there, closest to the entrance. Next is Luke is represented with an ox. On the other side of the baptismal font is Mark is represented with a Lion. And then on the far side is represented by a human being. Because all of these figures usually have angel wings on them, the Matthew symbol is sometimes confused with being an angel, but traditionally, it is the human being that has been thought to represent the themes of this Gospel best.

Richard Burridge, who is the dean of King’s College, London, has written a great little book about just this thing—not our windows, but the idea of four different pictures representing one Christ. (Four Gospels, One Jesus?: A Symbolic Reading, Eerdmans 2nd ed, 2005) He begins the book with an extremely helpful analogy based upon four portraits of Winston Churchill at Chartwell. One shows Churchill as a statesman, one as a warrior, one as a quiet painter at leisure, and one as a family man at tea. Burridge notes that in each of the pictures, there’s a cigar. One could look at only one picture and get the idea that these were four different people, brothers maybe. And yet, there’s that cigar that unites each of the pictures. Burridge suggests that, while there’s no cigar in the Bible, and in a similar way, the four evangelists offer us different portraits of Jesus—portraits that are different, but unified by their Christology, the fact that each shows us Christ, the Son of God, who came, and died, and rose again for our sake.

But the perspectives are different. Mark’s Gospel shows Jesus in a direct and clear way, a Jesus who sometimes roars like a lion. Luke shows a compassionate and justice-oriented Jesus, who like an ox, carries the burdens of others. And John’s gives us a Jesus who, like a high-flying eagle, sees all, and understands all, encompasses all—even from before the beginning.

Matthew underscores the humanity of Jesus. In Matthew, we see Jesus the Jewish teacher, Jesus the child who has a whole genealogy, and Jesus who (though as theology reminds us is fully God), Matthew reminds us of Jesus’ full humanity, as well.

I think we see some of Matthew’s take on Jesus in today’s Gospel. The reading is in two sections—the first, having to do with Jesus’ teaching about the words we use, the things we say, being far more important to worry about than the things we eat or the things we put into our bodies. Jesus is the teacher of Israel here, interpreting the Law, and reinterpreting the beliefs and customs of the Pharisees, a particularly religious segment of Jews. But no sooner is Jesus shown as the great teacher, the one who twice before in this gospel quotes the prophet Hosea, “I desire mercy not sacrifice,’ This merciful, good, godly Jesus refuses mercy to the Canaanite woman.

There is, as they say, “history,” here. There is history not between Jesus and this specific woman, but between Jews and Canaanites. Ever since the Exodus, when Moses led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, had the Canaanites been the “other,” the feared ones, the outsiders, the enemies, and the bad guys. It was common slang to refer to them as dogs, and to call a female Canaanite the name for a “female dog” would have sounded just as nasty and mean then as it does today in the street. We might understand someone we know, after a long day, being confronted with a woman (a foreign woman) whose child is in need, and we can understand someone maybe dismissing her. Maybe you or I might have done the same thing. Certainly the disciples seem against her. They say to Jesus, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” And so Jesus appears to snap at the woman, suggesting that his message of hope and mercy and salvation is for the Jews only, not for just anyone, not for everyone, but for the people of Israel. Jesus seems to speak out of an understanding of Israel as the elect of God, but also understanding that election as limited and exclusionary.

But look what happens. The woman persists. She keeps on asking. She begs, she cries, she demands, she argues, she talks back…. however we might describe it, this woman has fight in her, and it’s fight enough to take on God. And God hears. And Jesus notices. “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And the woman’s little girl is healed.

A lot is going on in this story. It would have been an easier story to tell and scripture to preach, had it simply stopped before the pesky Canaanite woman comes along. Then, it would be a simple morality tale. Jesus, the great teacher, the holy one, the wise one, turns inside-out the customs and beliefs of the self-righteous religious. It’s easy to be on the side of Jesus against the Pharisees. We don’t imagine we are like the Pharisees, worried about this little thing or that little thing—no, we’re contemporary folk, no superstitions here. We take Jesus’ words to mean “it doesn’t matter what we eat or drink. Doesn’t matter how much we take (while others starve) or how much we use up (while others go without). Jesus is not about rules, but about how we talk to each other, and so let’s speak peace to one another and be kind. Thanks be to God, and Amen.

But the Gospel doesn’t end there. The reason it continues, I think, is that Matthew doesn’t want us to stay in the that smug place of looking across the way, criticizing the Pharisees, and feeling like we’re somehow free and clear to go our own way. He shows us how easy it is to forget God’s mercy. He shows us by showing us Jesus, who one minute extends God’s mercy, but the next, seems to lose his train of thought.

And so the first lesson of the Gospel still stands: it is more important what comes out of our mouths than what goes in. But both may be important, it’s just that what we say and speak and shape with words is MORE important.

The second lesson is to watch out—because it’s easy to forget the mercy of God and easy forget how to extend that mercy to others.

But there’s a third lesson, too. And that’s what we can learn from the Canaanite woman. She shows us what faithful persistence looks like. She shows us what prayer can look like. She shows us how to take our questions, our fears, our worries, our deepest hungers and deepest hopes—straight to the heart of Jesus, where there is mercy and where there is healing.

The Church gives us a tradition of understanding Jesus as fully human and fully divine. We affirm this in the Nicene Creed as we say a shorthand version of what the early councils of the Church argued and prayed over for several hundred years. Both fully God and fully human is the big picture, but in day-to-day living, I think we often experience swings in our understanding and perception of God.

Sometimes Jesus is overarching and transcendent, eternal and mysterious. But at other times, Jesus is like us—snapping at a stranger, talking back to his parents, cutting short the question of a friend, and probably hitting his thumb with a hammer all those years he was helping Joseph in the workshop.

I suppose this “full humanity” of Jesus could shake some people’s faith. But for me, rather than shake my faith in the Incarnation, this just deepens it, for me. It reminds me of the depths to which God has gone to be like us, to risk making mistakes, to risk looking foolish, to risk not being believed, not being loved.

This is the extent to which God has come for us, so that when we cry the prayer of the Canaanite woman, “Lord, help me,” God is already answering, loving, and healing. Thanks be to God for his mercy. Thanks be to God for his healing presence.

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

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Hide and Seek with God

A sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, August 7, 2011. The lectionary readings are 1 Kings 19:9-18, Psalm 85:8-13, Romans 10:5-15, and Matthew 14:22-33.

When I was little, I remember playing the guessing game, “I spy.” If we were playing here, I might begin, “I spy, with my own eye, something beginning with …. H!” And then, you would begin to guess what it is I’m spying that begins with an “h.” “Hat?” No, not hat. “Hymnal?” you guess. No, not hymnal. And so we would proceed as you name as many things as you can think of and see until eventually, when there’s not much else left, and so you might guess, “handbell,” and you’d be right. By process of elimination, (by saying “not this, not this, not this and not this) you get to the thing of value, the thing pointed to, the desired thing. This is a little like Jim, the character from the BBC show “Vicar of Dibley” who finally gets around to things the long way by saying “no, no, no, no, no….yes!”

It’s not only in a game that we do that. It’s also a practice for life. Sometimes a vocation or a career choice is made only after trying a number of other things and one by one, checking them off a list. Sometimes finding the right kind of relationship takes that sort of process. And for some, and I find that I’m among them as I grow older and my faith changes and deepens, we draw closer to an understanding of who God is, only by first saying who God is not. While this may sound vaguely Buddhist, it is deeply Christian, following a long line of spiritual thought and practice. A 4th century spiritual teacher (Evagrius of Pontus) taught people to pray by saying, “Strive to render your mind deaf and dumb at the time of prayer, and then you will be able to pray.”

I find this way of negation, this “negative” approach to God helpful for various reasons. First, it can be helpful when our mind or our world is just too cluttered. I recently spoke with someone who, because of their upbringing in a violent family, spoke of his understanding of God as “polluted” by people who had claimed Christianity used religion as a battering ram. When one’s image or idea of God is like that, then it probably needs a process of negation. But secondly, I also find this “via negativa,” the negative way of approaching God as helpful whenever we feel cut off from God, when we feel like we’re in a desert place, or when we feel like we’re sinking. To realize that God is present in absence can be a powerful thing.

The scriptures today give us examples of God showing up where God is not.

In First Kings we hear about the prophet Elijah. Earlier in this chapter, Elijah has been preaching against Queen Jezebel and she has put out a death warrant on him. By the point of the story in today’s reading, Elijah is worn out. He’s tired, he’s afraid, and he doesn’t know what to do, so he comes to a cave, exhausted. Perhaps he’s running away. He spends the night until he’s interrupted by the Word of God—we’re not sure if this interruption is a dream or an angel or some other means of God. But Elijah answers and lets loose: He complains, “I’ve been zealous for the Lord,” he says, but “I alone am left, and they are seeking to take my life.” The Word of God then tells him to go and stand outside the cave. There, Elijah has this amazing experience of God—but not God. It’s as though God takes every image Elijah has God, every idea, every concept, and then bypasses it. God is not in great wind, splitting rocks open it’s so strong. God is not in the earthquake. God is not in the fire. Where God is, is in what some Bibles have translated a “still, small voice.” But even that term does not quite hold God. The New Revised Standard Version, from which we read in worship, translates God’s coming as “a sound of sheer silence.” This is sound that is not sound, but in this full silence, this unspoken Word, Elijah hears strength and encouragement and purpose from God. Elijah leaves the cave, changed, and empowered by the spirit of God.

God shows up strangely in our Gospel, as well. The story picks up where last week left off. After preaching and feeding the thousands, Jesus goes away to a quiet place to pray. He sends the disciples on ahead, to cross over the water in a boat. Jesus goes out over the water to meet them, the disciples are afraid, and Jesus has the interaction with Peter about faith and doubt.
I think we can look at this in at least two ways: the first is slightly cynical and suspicious of Jesus, as we notice that here he practically sets up the disciples. It’s like Jesus sends them straight into their deepest fears: to go out on the water and get scared. He knows them. He knows what will happen when they leave him and begin to doubt themselves, and doubt their experiences with him, and begin to doubt God. And yet, Jesus sends them on.

But another way to look at this is from a lighter perspective. I wonder if we don’t sometimes read scripture with far too serious an attitude. What if Jesus is basically playing a kind of hide and seek with the disciples? Of course, it’s no ordinary game of hide and seek—their lives depend on it. Their souls depend on it. But when Peter falls in the water and Jesus boosts him up and supports him, I can almost hear laughter in Jesus’ question, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” It’s as thought Jesus says, “You might have thought you were alone, but I was here. You might have thought you were lost, but I’d find you soon enough. You might have thought you were sinking, but I’ve got you, now and forever.”

Belden Lane writes about the game of hide and seek as he learned something new from his children and. He says that he used to worry about his son, because his son couldn’t get the game right. Every time they would play, as soon as his son found a good hiding place, he would yell “ready!” Belden writes that, to his mind, this missed the whole point of the game: to hide well. But eventually, he realized that from his son’s perspective, HE was missing the whole point of the game. The whole fun of hide-and-seek is in being found! Lane quotes Meister Eckhart, the 13th century Dominican who said, “God is like a person who clears his throat while hiding and so gives himself away.” [Solace of Fierce Landscapes, p. 179] God becomes hidden in order to be found.

I don’t know where you all are on this hot, August morning. It may be that you have no patience for this God of “hide-and-seek.” It may be that the way of arriving at God by saying and seeing where God is not, doesn’t work for you, or doesn’t work for you at this point in your life. That’s fine. Christian spirituality has sometimes spoken of two great ways of approaching God—neither is independent, both are complimentary, but one way uses images to think of God, to pray to God, to approach God. God is parent. God is king. God is energy. God is Jesus.
But others do sometimes feel called into this holy game of hide and seek, in which God is not, so that God can be.

It’s hard to be alive and awake in our world and not have some fear. We fear the instability of the markets. We fear for our safety. We fear for our children's future. We fear for our jobs. We fear for our health. On and on the list goes. But in the midst of these very real fears, at one level the scriptures today are about God whispering outside a cave and about God-in-Jesus walking on water. But at another level, the scriptures (as with the prayers and the whole tradition of our faith) remind us that God is closer to us than our own breath. God holds us. God sustains us. And God will never leave us.

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

Saturday, August 06, 2011

In memory of Erling Hansen (1948-2011)

Havre de Grace, MD

A sermon for the Mass celebrating the life of Erling Hansen (1948-2011), offered at All Souls on August 6, 2011.

I love the personal names, the proper names of the immediate Hansen clan: Knut, Erik, Katrine. Though I’ve only met several of you today, I’ve known your names for some time. The surname, comes initially from the first person called Hansen, who was the “son of Hans.” Erling, means the “heir of the clanchief,” not the Earl himself, but a little Earl of sorts, an Erling.

Names are important to most of us and we can see in scripture that names are often very important to God. Sometimes when one has an important interaction with God, one undergoes a name-change. Abram becomes Abraham. Sarai becomes Sara. Peter is renamed Cephas, meaning “rock.” We grow out of names and we grow into names. And sometimes a name becomes a part of us.

This can happen with place-names, as well.

Erling and I shared a common history with the place known as Havre de Grace, Maryland. Supposedly named by Lafayette because it made him think of Le Havre, Havre de Grace is the place where the Susquehanna River meets the Chesapeake, and Erling and Deion kept a boat there. I served a parish there, though we did not overlap until I came here to All Souls.

It’s no small thing to me that Erling felt comfortable and alive in a place named “harbor of grace.” The “harbor” part makes sense, given Erling’s love of the water. We are born in water, we are baptized in water, we are blessed with water at our burial. Erling spent a lot of time with water. “Harbor of grace” is also appropriate given the grace and the peace with which Erling lived (and died.) In this community, and I would imagine in other areas of his life, Erling brought grace, pointed to grace, encouraged others toward grace, and he embodied grace.

Tomorrow’s scripture reading at the Gospel would have in some ways been an appropriate reading for today. It’s the story in which Jesus goes away to pray alone while the disciples take the boat out. They’re far from land, in the middle of the water. But out of nowhere, Jesus approaches, as though he’s walking on the water. Peter ventures out on the water to reach Jesus but when the wind picks up, Peter becomes afraid and begins to sink. Jesus catches him (with a laugh) and says, “why did you doubt?”

We doubt for lots of reasons. But the part of Erling I knew stood in the midst of winds and storms of all kind. He remained calm. He remained loving. He remained connected to those he loved and to the God he loved. Jesus and Erling look to us now and say, “why do you doubt.” It’s all going to be fine. There is grace: sweet, still, clear, calm grace. The water has not so much as a ripple. There’s barely a breeze, because in every direction, as far as the eye can see, there is love, and there is grace, and there is God.

Thanks be to God for the life of Erling Hansen. May his soul rest in peace and rise in glory.

Miracles of multiplication

Mosaic of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes, St. Savior in Chora, Istanbul. Photo © Dick Osseman.

A sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 31, 2011. The lectionary readings are Isaiah 55:1-5, Psalm 145: 8-9, 15-22, Romans 9:1-5, and Matthew 14:13-21.

As we begin to move into August, our parish and others are thinking about September 11. Stories come to mind, memories flash. Especially as I read today’s Gospel, I think of another miracle of loaves and fishes. September 11, 2001 was a Tuesday, but by Wednesday, the Seamen’s Church Institute, an Episcopal ministry based near South Street Seaport, had begun to coordinate food for the men and women who came to New York to help recover and clean up. By Thursday, emails and faxes were going throughout the Diocese, and a simple rota was drawn up so that a church from Manhattan along with a church from the Bronx might be in charge of lunch. A few people from Yonkers might team up with another few from Brooklyn to cover dinner. On and on, it spread. Filipino Episcopal ladies would bring empanadas and pancit. Haitian Episcopalians would bring rice and beans and fish. It was a kind of United Nations of food, and for each meal, it initially looked like there wouldn’t be enough. But with each aluminum serving bowl and each plastic utensil, the food seemed to grow.

Out of a little, came a lot. Out of the hearts of those who wanted to help, came God’s love the way of God’s love is almost always to multiply and grow and expand.

With a little bit of faith, with time for God to break in, with a miracle in the presence of Jesus Christ, paralyzing problems can become holy possibilities.

In today’s Gospel, I imagine the disciples were probably at their wit’s end. It was late in the day, they must have been tired, hungry, maybe a bit cranky. We know from other scriptures that the disciples sometimes became a little jealous of Jesus’ time—and so I bet the disciples were trying to get rid of the people. But Jesus tells the disciples to feed the people.

The disciples have almost nothing—but they eventually have no choice but to bring to Jesus the little that they have. They bring the five loaves and the two fish. And somehow, and some way, all the people ate, and they were satisfied.

The disciples bring the little that they have. They bring their limitations, their faults, their shortcomings, their impatience, their pride, their anger, all of their bounty, which is really quite small and insufficient, but they give it to Jesus.

Jesus took their offering and he blessed, broke and gave. What was ordinary became holy. What was insufficient is what was able to feed all—with some left over.

What might seem like a paralyzing problem— with the touch, the blessing, and the sharing of Christ, becomes problem is changed into a holy possibility.

Maybe we have known this aspect of sanctification (of something being made holy), in our own lives. But too often, if you’re like me, it’s easy to forget its power. Probably it is the devil who convinces us that we are alone, that we are isolated, and that we need to solve every problem ourselves.

To return to some of the images of our Gospel and other scripture, we’re human-- we get hungry and thirsty. We need food and drink. But we believe that we thirst alone. We believe we’re the only ones who are hungry. But in the first lesson from Isaiah, God calls us into relationship, into community with another, into fellowship. God calls us closer-- Especially when we’re thirsty and have no water, especially when we’re hungry (no matter whether that hunger is for food, or friendship, or love, or whatever.)

But this well-known Gospel story of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes reminds us of a paradigm for holy healing. It’s a method practiced by many.

Almost any twelve step program of recovery begins the same way: First we admit that we are limited. We admit that we are powerless—over the thing, the substance, the person, the habit, the emotion, whatever. This means being honest with our own deficiencies and understanding that we are not all that we might be.

The next movement is to give our “little” over to God, to place it on his altar, as it were. Whether we are hungry for real food, or hungry for something else. Whether it is a lack of patience, a lack of compassion, a lack of love, a lack of faith—whatever is our little, we place before God with a prayer simply that God would help and heal us.

And then finally, we await God’s action in prayer and we share the process, and the presence of Christ with someone else. We share our limitations, our lack, our little. And it may just be that in the sharing of our pains, the multiplication, the blessing, the holy healing comes from an unexpected direction.

If we allow him, if we dare to follow him, Jesus takes problems that seem paralyzing and makes of them holy possibilities.

May we know the blessing of God’s abundant love, may we share this love with others, love abundant and overflowing.

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


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