Sunday, July 29, 2012

Does God get hungry?

Logo for the organization, Bread for the World

A sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, July 29, 2012.  The lectionary readings are
2 Kings 4:42-44, Psalm 145: 10-19, Ephesians 3:14-21, and John 6:1-21.

At today’s adult forum, we concluded our discussion of the book, Take this Bread, by Sara Miles.  Some of you have been reading along with us.  Some who are linked to our church through email, newsletter, or website have also been reading with us.  And others have told me that they’ve packed the book with them to read on vacation.  It’s a good book.  We’ve had good discussions.  Every person who has read it probably has difficulty with some aspect of the author’s story, or her theology, or her perspective on the church, but the book has made us think.  And especially, the book has helped us to think more deeply about food. 

Take this Bread is a personal story about a secular, cynical, worldly, rebel-rouser of a journalist who one day walks into an Episcopal Church, takes Communion, and everything changes for her.  “Something outrageous and terrifying happened.”  She says, “Jesus happened to me” (p. 58).

It turns out that God uses that moment to integrate Sara Miles’ life, to bring it into a form that began to make sense if a whole new way. And all of this centers around the Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven.  She writes,
Food was a lot of what had grounded me before, shaping my family, my work, my relationships.  It had meant a five-gallon plastic bucket full of broken eggs.  It had meant a generously offered bowl of rice porridge in the jungle.  It had meant the thin blue milk leaking from my own breasts.  Now food, in the form of communion, was collecting all of those experiences in one place and adding a new layer of meaning—not on my time but on God’s. (p. 72)
“Jesus happened to me,” she says.  When she was hungry, Jesus happened to her, which is to say, God happened to her.  God came to her and began to feed her, began to fulfill her, began to transform her.  A morsel of bread was multiplied. 

That seems to happen a lot in today’s scripture readings.

In the Second Book of the Kings, Elisha the prophet appears almost as the Iron Chef.  He’s the sort of person who can take a couple of things out of the cabinet and the refrigerator, you turn your head for a moment, and Elisha has whipped up something amazing.  Just before the reading that we heard, there’s another food story with Elisha.  There’s a famine in the land, so people are desperate and they throw everything they can find (which isn’t much) into a stew.  But then someone notices that there’s something in the stew they can’t eat.  Elisha is called in.  He throws a little flour into it, something changes, and the stew becomes good, and there’s plenty for everyone. 

In today’s reading, a man approaches with just a little bit of food.  Again, Elisha does his thing—he blesses it, he invites God into the mix and the recipe somehow quadruples so that a hundred can be fed. This old story of Elisha sets up the main act in Kitchen Stadium (another reference to Iron Chef) which happens with Jesus.

This is one of the most famous of all miracles:  the feeding of the thousands.  It appears in all four Gospels.  Jesus sees a large crowd of people and Jesus asks Philip, “Where will we get enough food to feed all of these people?”  Andrew speaks up and says there’s someone who might be able to help, there’s a boy with five barley loaves and two fish.  Jesus takes what the boy offers, prays and gives thanks to God, and the food is multiplied.  There is enough for everyone. 

Many are fed from very little. Some scriptural commentators through the years have been careful to dodge the miraculous aspects of the tale. Some have suggested that perhaps the people really had food with them, but it was only with the promptings of Jesus that they were moved to share their food with one another. Some suggest that people went nearby and got food. Others, though, cling to the miraculous in the story.  Perhaps if you’ve ever been really hungry, have not known where the next meal might come from (whether physically or spiritually); you’ve been hungry and then have suddenly and miraculously been FED; then you recognize the miraculous in this story and know its truth.  The crowd of people that day is not only fed with food to eat, but also with what scripture calls “the fullness of God.”  They get spiritual strength too.  They get psychological sustenance and emotional nurture.  They get what they need and even what they did not know they needed.

Psalm 145 sums up it all up nicely when it says, “The eyes of all wait upon you, O Lord, and you give them their food in due season.  You open wide your hand and satisfy the needs of every living creature.”   Our choir sometimes sings a setting of this psalm that brings to life the beauty of that idea, the idea that no matter what, no matter where, God “gives them food,” God gives us food.

But that’s not always true, is it?

I would love to be the pious preacher who might leave the sermon there, and say, “Just have faith.  God will provide.”  But life proves different.  The drought in the Midwest reminds us that this is not always necessarily the case. The current famine in West Africa raises the question.  The number of people waking up hungry today in this country and elsewhere calls the psalm into question.  The eyes of all wait …

Earlier this year, Save the Children published a report on world hunger (A Life Free from Hunger) that estimate 2.6 million children are dying every year from causes that stem from hunger.  The head of Save the Children says that every hour of everyday 300 children die from malnutrition-related causes.  To put that into context, think about to the Oyster-Adams School in Woodley Park:  about 600 kids go there.  If world hunger were concentrated in our neighborhood, the school would be wiped out in two hours.

Where is Elisha the biblical Iron Chef when you need him?  Where is Jesus the miracle-maker ? Where is God “happening” (to use Sara Miles’ phrase) in a world that is hungry?  Do we, as people of faith, dare to suggest that God is feeding us in Holy Communion, and yet God is not showing up for hungry children?  And what about those who suffer from spiritual hunger in our country, in our city, in our parish—how is God with them?

Well I believe God with them.  God IS in the bread and the wine of the altar. And more radically, I believe God even shares in our hunger. 

For some, it is heresy to suggest that God can even feel, much less God can feel things that we might feel.  This offends the idea of an all-knowing, all-doing, all-being God.  But if we look and listen carefully through the scriptures, if we listen through our own experiences of God, and if we pause to pray at the cross of Christ, I think it makes perfect sense to imagine that God, too gets hungry. 

God hungered for companionship and created the world.  God hungered to feel and know and life like us, and so became incarnate from the Virgin Mary.  

In the Beatitudes Jesus says ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” (Matthew 5:6)  Jesus shares in the hunger of the prophets and of the poor.  We could say that on the cross, Jesus hungers for God. 

One of the earliest stories of Jesus after the Resurrection is that he appears to the disciples on the beach, cooks fish for them.  Jesus calls the disciples to join him.  “Come and have breakfast,” he says, and then he eats (John 21:12).

God can hunger, because God can feel.  God knows what suffering is.  The theologian Jurgen Moltmann argues for the centrality of the cross, the cross on which Christ died.  Moltmann argues that Jesus the Son suffers abandonment by the Father as he dies; but God the Father suffers in grief the death of the Son. For Moltmann (and for us) “the grief of the Father is just as important as the death of the Son.”  (The Crucified God, p. 243). But the painful gulf of separation between Father and Son is still spanned by their love—love which is the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is the powerful love which flows out of the suffering on the cross, and flows into our own suffering, whether that be hunger spiritual or physical. 

The idea that God hungers does at least three things, I think.  First, it tells us that we are never alone.  No matter how hard, how hungry, how thirsty, how low—God has been there.

That God hungers also calls us to do all we can to relieve the hunger of the world, as scripture reminds us, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2).  As Jesus says, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:34-35).

And finally, the idea that God hungers gives us the promise that one day, just as it was with Jesus after the Resurrection, our hunger, too, will be satisfied.   

In the Resurrection, all things find their completion, “the eyes of all look to God, and God does indeed satisfy the needs of every living creature.”  All are fed, all are satiated, all are invited to the feast with God in glory to that table, where with “Angels and Archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we sing and praise God’s name… saying, Holy, holy, holy…”  Revelation describes the scene where

We will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
   the sun will not strike us,
   nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be our shepherd,
   and he will guide us to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. (Revelation 7:16-17)

Even in the midst of hunger, may we live into the promise of Christ.  Come and eat, for the banquet is ready, the table wide, and there’s plenty for everyone, for ever.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Fearless Prayer

Every week, Tuesday through Friday, several of us gather in the church for Matins, or Morning Prayer, at 7:15 a.m.  Though some aspects of the service change according to the season, one consistent part is the use of the Song of Zechariah, also known as the Benedictus, on page 50 in the Book of Common Prayer.  This canticle from the Gospel of Luke (1:68-79) remembers the Old Testament prophecies of a messiah and announces the birth of John the Baptist, who prepares the way for Jesus.  The Benedictus works as a bridge between our reading from the Old Testament and the New Testament.      

One of my favorite lines in the Benedictus comes after we bless God for being faithful to us over time, for showing us mercy, and for delivering us from enemies.  We remind ourselves that all of this is part of God’s intention so that we might live “without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life.”     

God has created us to live without fear.  In a culture like ours that is so fear-based, so fear-driven, and so fear-filled, I find this daily prayer to be extremely helpful.  Because of God’s promises, I don’t need to live in fear.  Because of God’s mercy and love and saving power, I don’t need to be afraid.  Because of Christ’s victory over the grave, death doesn’t scare me.

We live in a world of natural disasters, mass murders, and random violence, but as people of faith, we can do at least three things.  First, we can pray—not in a magical way but in a way that invites God deeply into our hearts to show us how to go forward, what to say and what to do.  Second, we can do whatever good thing happens to be right in front of us.  Rather than worry ourselves overly about things and people we have no control over, faith allows us to focus our energy to love and serve those in our very midst.  And finally, we can refuse to be limited or constrained by fear—not denying it or ignoring it, but allowing God to transform fear into love.  With Christ we can cling to all that is the opposite of fear:  tenacity, growth, strength, imagination, daring, and eternal laughter. With Christ we can grow in serving God as freed and forgiven people “all the days of our life.”

Sunday, July 22, 2012

A wide, wide Church

Wristbands given out by All Souls Memorial Episcopal Church
at the Capital Pride Parade, June 9, 2012.

A sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, July 22, 2012.  The lectionary readings are Jeremiah 23:1-6, Psalm 23, Ephesians 2:11-22, and Mark 6:30-34, 53-56.

If God said to you one day, “I’d like to re-make my Church. I’m putting you in charge of quality control.  You get to choose who’s in and who’s not in.” What would be your standard?   The ones who don’t get in aren’t consigned to any bad place—they just have to go to their own churches, say, or wait for a little while, or go to a special place where they’re properly prepared for your church. 

“So,” God says, “who’s in?”

Would your friends get in?  or your family?  Or perhaps not your family?  Who would be in your perfect church?”  If God asked me this—and if I were honest—I think I would probably say that I’d like everyone in my church at least to view scripture the way I do—that it’s a sacred book that in some places may not be factually true, and yet, scripture teaches, and imparts great Truth.  That would be a good starting point.  I also think I might like a church where everyone could sing, but of course we’d all agree on which hymns to sing and which anthems the choir would use. 

To imagine who might populate our “dream church” can be helpful exercise sometimes.  It helps to expose what is often under the surface for some of us.  It also may help uncover our motives for being in a particular church or following a particular way.  I think it’s helpful, as well, because if you’re anything like me, it usually turns out that my idea of a perfect church, a perfect gathering of God’s people—is usually a very different idea than what God created and still creates. 

The scriptures today work together to show us God’s vision, God’s dream of his called and gathered people.  The readings remind us of the broadness, the expanse, and the array which is to be the church of Jesus Christ.

Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians gets right to the point— though, admittedly, Paul writes in terms that may sound strange to us today. He writes about the “circumcised” and the “uncircumcised,” hardly a topic one might expect for a Sunday morning in July. But he’s really just using shorthand for a conversation about Jews and Gentiles, Gentiles being everyone who is not born Jewish. By the time of the Letter to the Ephesians, the early Church was filled with at least two kinds of people—some were former Jews who had decided to follow Christ. Many probably still thought of themselves as Jews, even thought they had, in many places, been driven out of the synagogues. But these Jews who followed Jesus were also successful at inviting non-Jews to join the movement. We have stories in scripture about some of them:  There was the Ethiopian Eunuch, there was the Centurion Cornelius, and before long there were many, many more.

But there’s a conflict going on in the early church at Ephesus. It’s not exactly clear what the problem is, but some scholars think it had to do with new Jewish converts who felt that since they were really Jewish (circumcised), that they deserved a more immediate entry and a higher status in the community than those who were Gentile and had never been Jewish.  They wanted a kind of HOV lane for salvation,  a kind of “Hebrew origin variety” easy-pass.

Among some early communities there was even the question of whether a Gentile man who joined the Christian Church should become circumcised like a Jew in order to be a good Christian. Should Gentile women adopt the customs of faithful and orthodox Jewish women? These questions may sound strange to us today, but they were HUGE question for early Christians.

And so, it’s in this atmosphere that Paul preaches, “You who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace.”

Paul goes on to write with assurance to the newly converted, “you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.”

Paul says that we, all of us, are to be one household. If you go to Israel today and look at any of the archeological sites you can see what a household in the first few centuries looked like. It might be a couple of rooms, but then when the children grew older, a sleeping loft might be added on. Then when a child grew up and got married, an addition would be built on to the house, and so the household grew.

With each new addition, another room would be added. It didn’t matter if the new person was liked or disliked. It didn’t matter whether they brought anything in particular to the household. What mattered is that the new person was family, and they were welcomed, and they were included.

The other scripture readings for the day point to various dynamics with the church. The Old Testament reading warns that there will be those leaders who will seek to separate and divide. Some will attempt to scatter the flock and drive them away. But God will create a remnant of those who follow God, and this remnant from every land, and bring them home. And among this new family, there shall be no fear and none shall be missing.

In the Gospel, I wonder if this isn’t one of those places in which even Jesus questions his calling.  One can imagine a contemporary church growth consultant pointing out to Jesus that he would do much better if he were to focus on a particular demographic and tailor his message accordingly.  “Your vision is too big.  You can’t be all things to all people,” they would say.  In today’s Gospel, it seems like Jesus is getting tired and is trying to get a little break.  “For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.”  And with that, Jesus tries to go off to a “lonely place.” It’s almost as though Jesus, himself has enough of a following, an already full plate, a more-than-full agenda.

But then, before long, God sends more people.  God expands the word, the appeal, the message, and the healing.  And God gives Jesus the power he needs to keep on.  Jesus teaches and heals and loves with the knowledge that God’s love is for everyone.  There is no end to the wideness of God’s mercy, to the fullness of God’s fellowship.

A few years ago Martin Smith preached a great sermon at the confirmation service at the cathedral.  He told a great story about a young boy at St. Columba’s Church.  Martin noticed in worship that at the end of the prayers, the little boy would give his mother a “high five.”  After a while, the mother asked him why he was doing it, and he replied, “When we’ve finished a prayer, don’t we all say ‘I’m in!’?” 

“I’m in” perfectly captures the idea of an Amen.  Amen has been used not just as a punctuation mark to a prayer, but a way of our entering into the meaning and the intention of the prayer, of claiming our part in it, of saying “I’m part of the team.”  But it also means that there is a team.  There are others who have our back, and also lead out in front. There are people covering the sides.   Sometimes it’s our calling to play a different role, but faith is never, ever a solo sport. 

Whether it is the worldwide community of believers who are trying to get along, or the Episcopal Church, or a local parish like this one—the good (but sometimes difficult) news of the Gospel is that all are welcome. It doesn’t matter if you are a life-long Christian. It doesn’t matter if you are still trying to figure God out.

God spreads a table before us in the presence of those who trouble us. God anoints us with holy oil, and fills our cup until it’s overflowing. God’s goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our life, and we will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. We’re in—each one of us.

May God continue to remind us of his holy welcome, and may God continue to show us how to welcome one another.

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

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Bearing Witness

Westminster Abbey, West Door, Four of the ten 20th Century- Mother Elizabeth of Russia, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Archbishop Oscar Romero, and Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

A sermon for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost, July 15, 2012.  The lectionary readings are Amos 7:7-15, Psalm 85:8-13, Ephesians 1:3-14, and  Mark 6:14-29.

Some of you will be familiar with William Ury, who works in negotiation, mediation, and conflict management.  He’s a part of the Harvard Negotiation Project and has authored a number of books.  In his little book called The Third Side, he begins with a true story of something that happened to a friend of his. 

He tells the story of a friend of his, Herman, who was walking with his wife in Lower Manhattan.  As they began to cross a street at the corner, a car came speeding and screeched to a halt, barely missing them.  Furious, Herman slammed his fist on the hood of the car.  You can imagine what happened next.

A young man jumped out of the car and began shouting, “What are you thinking, hitting my car?”

“Well, you just about ran over me and my wife.”  And the shouting match was on, escalating, and threatening.  In that the couple was white and the drive of the car was not white, the whole scene took on racial overtones.  A crowd began to form, encircling the noise and what seemed any minute to break into violence.   Just as people began to take sides, Herman noticed an onlooker.  This was an older, black man.  The man didn’t say a word, but began to gesture with his hand, palm down, moving it up and down as if to say to the young driver, “Okay, now, cool it.”  The young man, the driver, visibly struggled to control himself, but suddenly got back in his car, got in, and drove off without another word (The Third Side, 4).

This older man who was silent was a third party.  In the conflict, he’s what Ury would call “the third side.”  And in some cases, like this one, the third side, intervenes in the conflict—prevents the conflict from escalating—simply by being present, by being a witness.  By being present.  By basically saying (without even needing to say) I see you.  I see what you’re doing.  I see what’s going on. 

The Greek word for witness is marytys, or martyr in English.  A martyr, among people of faith, is often portrayed as one who is persecuted or who dies for his or her faith.  But in its truest sense, a Christian martyr is simply one who bears witness to Jesus Christ.

Today’s scriptures are not the cheeriest.  They speak of difficulty and demand.  The Old Testament lesson gives a brief profile of the prophet Amos.  Amos is given the hard job of speaking out against power, in this case against King Jeroboam.  The king’s own priest gets wind of it, tells the king, and then begins to speak out against Amos.  It’s as though the religious power structure turns against him.  “Go preach and prophesy somewhere else,” they tell Amos.  But Amos says, I’m not in this to make a name for myself.  I’m little more than a migrant farm worker.  (The biblical sycamore tree is different from a European sycamore.  What Amos is talking about is also called a Mulberry Fig, and produces a fig-like fruit.)  Amos basically says, “Look, I’m a nobody.  But God called me and told me to step up and tell the truth.”   

How different would things in Pennsylvania have turned out if the so-called, so-regarded “nobodies” had had the courage to speak the truth?  How different would things be in churches (Catholic ones in this country, Anglican ones in Canada) if the regular, everyday folks had the courage and gumption to speak the truth when they saw abuse?  How different would Wall Street be?  Or downtown Washington?  Or wherever it is that we work and live and move?

But, you may say, we just heard in the Gospel what happens to people who speak the truth.   John the Baptist DID speak the truth, and we have the awful story that is all too current—literally in other parts of the world, but just as real in our world as people lose job, reputation, friend, retirement, social standing—when they speak hard truth.  With King Herod, power prevails, in the short run.  And that’s the thing so easily forgotten.  The powerful appear to win, but they only have the advantage for now. 

The Letter to the Ephesians gives an eye into God’s long-run plan.  God has a “plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”  That’s a huge plan.  It means that in Christ everything will find its completion and fulfillment.  In Christ, everything will grow to its right purpose and ending—event those who are cut short in this life.  Everything and everyone is redeemed and perfected, brought to completion in God’s good love.

That sort of hope doesn’t allow us to rest content with injustice in this world, assured that life in the next will be better.  Instead, hope in God compels us to live forward, in the open, in the light.  It’s that hope in which we live, toward which we point… that hope to which we bear witness. 

These are heavy scripture readings for a warm day in July, and especially for a day in which we celebrate the baptism of Emersyn. 

But there’s something appropriate about babies crying at a baptism.  They may cry because they’re up too early and it seems like it’s time to eat.  Or maybe they cry because they see people praying, and preachers preaching, and choirs singing, and so they just want to be a part of things and makes some noise.

But a few tears are in order.  Maybe babies cry at baptisms because they know, at some level, that it will not always be easy to be a person of faith, to be a person of integrity.  It won’t always be easy to live a life that follows the loving, just, and merciful way of Jesus Christ.  But this is the beginning and we’ll do our best to get Emersyn off on a good start. 

We baptize her with water—water like God used at the beginning of creation to create and give life.  Water that quenches the dry places and washes clean.  Water like Jesus was baptized with, water like in that “river whose streams make glad the city of God.”

After baptizing with water, we anoint with oil.  In our work, oil makes an engine run, and things gets clogged up and stalled when it runs out.  Oil makes a lamp burn with light.  In so oil in anointing seals with the Holy Spirit, to keep our spiritual engine running, and to keep the fire of the Spirit burning within us.

And then, after getting poor Emersyn wet and oily, we give her a candle lit from our Paschal Candle.  And we say, to her, “Walk always as a child of the light and keep the flame of faith alive in your heart.”

Will Emersyn one day be like the man in the story I began with?  With she have the calm and courage to stand for peace, for truth, for Christ?  When we are in situations that call out of us every ounce and memory of faith, what will we do?  What will we say?  

May God strengthen us with the faith of martyrs, so that as we have been adopted as Christ’s brothers and sisters, we might live with him today and for ever. 

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

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Promises, in a Larger Context

A homily for a wedding at All Souls on July 14, 2012. The scripture readings are Song of Solomon 2:10-13; 8: 6-7; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, and John 15:9-1

If I asked you to think about some of the promises you have made, what would they be? 
Kids makes promises “for ever and ever” as blood brothers, or “blood sisters.” A finger is pricked, mixed with saliva, and the deal is sealed.  Playground infatuations result in promises that “one day we will get married,”  and every once in a while, that actually happens.  

I made a promise to the good people at Honda, when I bought my car.  People sign promissory notes.  And often, that's the way promises go.  They are a kind of contract.  Promises get set down on paper. 

But there are other promises. 

A young person who is bright or kind or generous is said to be “promising.”  In other words, the promise hasn’t yet been realized.  It’s on the way.  It’s a one-day kind of thing. 

Whenever a child is baptized, the parents and godparents make promises on the child’s behalf.  In our tradition, this is what baptism means—it’s not so much about the particular person naming his or her faith (that happens at confirmation, or really, throughout life),but it’s about the parents, making promises.  The godparents make promises.  The community of faith makes promises. 
As the Episcopal Church thinks and prays its way into new prayers and orders of worship for marriage and wonders what words to use to describe marriage, we’ve again and again looked at the ritual and liturgy for Holy Baptism as the model for marriage. 

This means that rather than marriage being based on the exchange of property, one man giving his possession to another, marriage is increasingly (and I think, rightly) being understood as an exchange of promises similar to those we make at baptism. 
This means that what happens today is larger than Jessica and Ryan.  They make promises to each other, but we also make promises to them.  These promises are open-ended.  The promises at marriage are not like a contract that lays out all its terms and tries to allow for every possible circumstance in the future.  Instead, the promises are made “to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death.” 

Those are some big promises-- so big that it's tempting to write into them escape clauses and footnotes and special circumstances.  But there is no “full disclosure” for such promises, because we don’t know what the future brings.  A promise is made in good faith, in deep faith, even in shaky faith, but in faith that God will give us what we need to fulfill the promises we make. 
One theologian has said about promises:

A promise is a declaration which announces the coming of a reality that does not yet exist. Thus promise sets man’s heart on a future history in which the fulfilling of the promise is to be expected. If it is a case of a divine promise, then that indicates that the expected future does not have to develop within the framework of the possibilities inherent in the present, but arises from that which is possible to the God of the promise. This can also be something which by the standard of present experience appears impossible.  (J. Moltmann, Theology of Hope).

A promise comes to us from the future.  It belongs to God and we move into it. 

Jessica and Ryan, today you make some big promises.  Know that you don’t make them alone, nor do you alone have the power to fulfill them.  The promises are part of God’s promise to you, and God is ever-faithful, ever-loving, ever-present. 

God loves you more than you can possibly imagine. 

God will be with you no matter what.

I promise.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Making sense and losing it for faith's sake

Thomas reaches to touch the wounds of the Risen Christ,
14th or 15th century, St. Denys Church, Rotherfield, Sussex

A sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, July 8, 2012.  The lectionary readings are Ezekiel 2:1-5, Psalm 123, 2 Corinthians 12:2-10, and Mark 6:1-13.

You may have seen today’s comic strip, “Rhymes withOrange.”  It pictures two bears sitting on a picnic blanket in a park or forest.  There’s a teapot between them and both are sipping from their cups.  One bear says to the other, “What delicious tea!”  The other replies, “It’s hibiscus and honey infused with overturned garbage and compost scraps.” 

Bears are known for their keen sense of smell.  But the idea of smelling hibiscus with a hint of garbage seems all too real to me, given the recent power outages and the incredibly high temperatures we’ve experienced. To step outside and breathe deeply, one will take in all kinds of odors multiplied and made stronger by being cooked in open air.   But this season assaults all our senses, if you think about it.

To walk outside is to be hit with a bright light.  The sun seems to be everywhere at once. And at night, especially when the power was out, streetlamps and windows were dark, the streets of Cleveland Park seem curvier than usual, and the stars more numerous.  Our skin feels the difference between standing in the sun, resting in the shade.  Our ears hear fireworks, and churchbells, traffic and birds, and tourists who are tired, and hot, and lost.  But the tastes of summer almost make up for the other assaults, don’t they? Ice cream, and fresh tomatoes, melons, and drinks of water (and other things) that restore life. 

But what happens when the senses are overcome, or shut down, or get short-circuited in some way?  What happens when we’re completely in the dark, when the only taste on our tongue is a bitter one? 

The scriptures today invite us to think about our senses, but also to think about the way they stop short of something else. Together they help us ask the question, “what does it mean to walk by faith, not by sight?” (2 Corinthians 5:7).

In the first reading we meet Ezekiel, the prophet of God who is adept at walking by faith. Again and again, he’s asked to walk by faith, to believe that God is leading him and is showing the way. Ezekiel’s senses are sharp to begin with, and he allows God to move him them, but also a little further.  In today’s reading, Ezekiel is warned that there are going to be lots of people who will not get it. They won’t understand. Their eyes will fail them. Their ears will let them hear only what they want to hear, but be deaf to the Word of the Lord.  And yet, God says to Ezekiel, “if you’re true to yourself, true to the person I’ve called you to be, then they will know one thing, at least: a prophet has been among them.” So don’t be afraid, don’t be dismayed, just keep praying and moving and being faithful.

Jesus has the same problem in many places as he preaches and teaches and heals. In today’s Gospel he runs into local opposition. The very people who know him best cannot reconcile the Son of Mary with the Son of God. It’s doesn’t compute. It’s doesn’t flow. It’s as though their senses are all clogged up, somehow closed off from God.  When they look, all they see is Mary’s son, Joseph’s stepson.  What they hear just sounds like the same old stories.  To perceive Jesus as the Christ, to receive Jesus as the Son of God, come to redeem us and live in us and be with us through death and into everlasting life--- this takes faith. As Jesus moved through Nazareth, he was “amazed at their unbelief.”  And he and his disciples could accomplish very little there.  And so they moved on to places and people who were open, who could perceive, who dared to live by faith.

In the second reading, Paul tells the people of Corinth about someone he knows (and I wonder if it was really Paul, who’s distancing himself from the story and using the rhetorical, “I know someone who…).  This person was caught up into what Paul calls the third heaven.  The person had an experience beyond the normal senses. Paul covers a lot of ground in the life of faith as he points to this person who has known God through a sublime, rare, spiritual experience, and Paul himself, who most days has to seek God in the kingdom of here and now, of aches and pains, of thorny people and situations and thinking… who knows what Paul refers to here, but whatever it was that afflicts him, he uses it to remind him to turn again and again to God. So God’s grace comes in ways that work through the senses and in spite of the sense.  God’s grace brings forth faith from us--- grace reaches into us to pull out faith, like the sun reaches into the earth and brings forth green things that sprout, and grow, and blossom.  

Paul knows about the senses.  His first encounter with Jesus Christ was an overwhelming of his senses, as he was blinded by a vision, and “in the darkness of having no sight is led across the boundary of what, for him, had not been credible:  faith in Jesus Christ.”  In a little book of meditations for Holy Week, Martin Warner uses the senses to contemplate the mystery of Jesus Christ, but then, as Warner says, we’re drawn into a relationship with God through the experience of our senses, “but also through the challenge to leave them behind.  It’s like “diving into the sea,” he says. “a new world emerges in which we feel strange and unfamiliar with what governs it and how we inhabit it.” (Martin Warner, Known to the Senses, viii.)

Through the ages, people searching for God have been led through the senses into deeper faith. In the 3rd century, men and women left cities and went into the desert to fine-tune their senses.  The desert mother and fathers, and all who tried to learn from them since, have sometimes prayed for the lessening of the senses so that faith might be developed more strongly. Some have maintained the “custody of the eyes” so that one’s gaze might be directed more upon God. (In a culture as saturated with appearance and presentation as ours, that might be a good practice from time to time.) There is the tradition of fasting, so that one’s hunger might be less, say, for carbohydrates and more for Christ. (By noticing our emptiness, we can make better choices about what fills us.) There is the tradition of silence so that the inner voice of God’s Holy Spirit might be heard.  In these ways, Christian ascetics have taken seriously this spiritual training of the senses—the training, itself being a kind of faith—so that a deeper faith and reliance upon God might be developed and sustained.

God works through what we see and feel and taste and hear, but there comes that place beyond, that other “sense.”  In the Gospel the power of Jesus to heal and restore, to enliven and to convey God’s love becomes limited—not by some outside force, not by the devil, not by the will of God, but rather, because the people had no faith.  Jesus marvels at their unbelief, their inability to see beyond seeing, to hear deeper than sound, to taste the food of eternity.

May God quicken the faith that is in us.  May we take vacations this season—times in which we allow our over-stimulated and over-used sensibilities to vacate our bodies, so that we might be newly open to faith.  Whether it's through long walks, visits to quiet places, a retreat or even silence in the midst of a crowd, may we take time this summer to practice training our senses, that me might not always depend upon what we see or hear or taste. May the Holy Spirit develop within us the kind of faith that leads us through loving trust; that allows God to work wonders, make miracles and do mighty works.   In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Humility that allows for Healing

Fresco from the Catacomb of Sts. Marcellinus and Peter, Rome, early 4th Century

A sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, July 1, 2012.  The lectionary readings are Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15; 2:23-24 Psalm 30, 2 Corinthians 8:7-15, and Mark 5:21-43.

Not too long ago I was talking with a couple who were trying to figure out a difficult problem. There seemed to be no easy solution, no obvious answer. It wasn’t a life or death problem, but one of those nagging, intractable, “simply-won’t-go-away” problems.  I knew that I was out of my league with their situation. I had no suggestions, no advice, no ideas. Finally, very much at my wit’s end, I looked at these two people, both of whom are of deep faith, and I asked, “By any chance, have you prayed about this?” 

There was silence for a minute. And then they both burst out in laughter. I began laughing too, immediately understanding that we were all laughing because we were realizing the most obvious thing in the world one might imagine a Christian might do, and yet, we had not thought of it until that moment. They had tried all kinds of things and talked to various people, but they had not yet gotten around to praying, to asking for help from God.

It’s a situation that I know all too well in my own life. I like to tackle problems and strategize solutions and too often, after I have made a decision or done some kind of action, I think look to God, almost as an afterthought to ratify my decision. 

Rarely do I live in the awareness of my need for God. 

In today’s Gospel, Jairus, the leader of the synagogue, asks Jesus for help. Jairus was probably a fairly capable guy—I bet he was responsible and organized and knew exactly how to run a tight meeting. But he was at his wit’s end. His daughter was sick and some were saying that she was dying. And so, out of resources, out of ideas, with no more options, he reaches out to God. 

The other other story in today’s Gospel fits in with the one about Jairus. Mark the Evangelist sometimes likes to tell stories like that: he begins a story, and then right in the middle he begins another story. But then he finishes the first story and we then see that the middle story simple serves to highlight and focus a part of the first story. The old lectionary skipped over the middle story, but we have it today, in verses 25 through the first part of verse 35.  It’s the story of a woman who has suffered from a flow of blood for twelve years. She has tried all the things she knows to try, and in a note that sounds like someone trying to navigate healthcare in our age, the scripture says that she “had suffered much under many physicians and had spent all that she had, and was no better but rather grew worse.” But then she reaches out for Jesus, as he passes. She touches just the hem of his garment, but she is healed. 

Both the woman in the street that day and the man who ruled the synagogue have the humility to recognize their limits and ask for help. They reach for God and find that place where God in Jesus looks them in the eye and says, “Do not fear, only believe.”

In the Sara Miles book we are reading this month and discussing at the Adult Forum, she writes early on about her experience talking with leaders and participants on all sides of the conflict in Central America in the 1980s.  One of the people she interviews was a Jesuit professor, priest and activist named Ignacio Martín-Baró.  Martín-Baró and the others associated with the University in San Salvador (“CUA,” or Universidad Centroamericana "José Simeón Cañas), and its activities after the revolution and its aftermath consistently got death threats, but they kept speaking, teaching, writing, and inviting speaking from every side of the issue to come and share their views.  Miles writes that she couldn’t grasp how Martín-Baró could be so unworried.  But the stress, the danger, the threat, the risk… “didn’t seem to penetrate.  He wasn’t trying to be brave; he wasn’t reckless: He simply wasn’t scared.” (Take this Bread, 45).  In 1989, Martín-Baró, six other Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter were all murdered by members of the Salvadoran Army.

God did not make death… the Wisdom of Solomon offers.  “God created all things so that they might exist; the generative forces of the world are wholesome…”  And so there is a life-force, a kindness, a purpose, and a movement to creation that we can tap into.  To ask for help, to ask for healing, is simply to reach out for this generative, life-giving, healing force that is the love of God.

The reading from 2 Corinthians has to do with the other side of help-- with generosity, with our lending a helping hand to those in need. But being generous also has to do with our being honest about our own neediness. Think of the stingiest person you know and I bet you’ll find that it is a person who thinks that he or she has no needs and can take care of himself or herself. On the other hand, isn’t it often the case that those who are needy themselves are often the quickest to respond to others in need? They know what it’s like. They’ve been there. 

Richard Rohr is a popular writer and priest of the Franciscan tradition. In one little book, he says, “to finally surrender ourselves to healing, we have to have three spaces opened within us—and all at the same time: our opinionated head, our closed-down heart, and our defensive and defended body” (Breathing underWater: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, 8-15).  To keep the head open, some kind of contemplative prayer or meditation helps.  To open up the heart, we take a look at our past, be honest with our relationships, allow for creativity, and actually allow our heart to broken, at some point.  For that third part—keeping the body open—Rohr says that the “body is like the ignored middle child in a family.”  Having been ignored for so long, the body gets revenge through compulsive eating, sexuality, anorexia, and addiction…”  The body needs to be reclaimed as being a part of God’s “good, generative force.”  God called it good.  God calls US good.  And so, we try together, to pray and to live our prayers that God might open within us, “head, heart, and body,” so that we might be healed and might share healing with a wounded world. 

As we celebrate this week that includes Independence Day, much of the national celebration will probably focus of the celebration of strength and success and power.  Those can be good things and for them, we can offer honest thanks.  But also, at least in our own lives, may we also be clear about our weak places.  May the Spirit reveal our deficiencies, our inability to fix everything and control everyone. May we be aware of our neediness and ask for God’s help, that we, too, may know God’s healing and resurrecting love.

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


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