Monday, March 18, 2019

Freedom



Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!

Welcome to our first attempt at a Celtic Eucharistic liturgy.  You may already have an inkling its spirituality sets a different tone from what we normally encounter on a Sunday morning.  It is more Trinitarian and focused on God’s guidance, God’s protection, and God’s mercy.  The God meet through Western Christianity has taken on a therapeutic persona.  Our God is there when needed, available for council and comfort, wise but not meddling, and encouraging of all our good endeavors.  God, as made known through Celtic spirituality, is engaged in a cosmic struggle while remaining unimaginably close to us.  This closeness is manifested through companionship and connection to the mystical beauty of the countryside.  Today we encounter the God of Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings, rather than the God of Jan Karon’s Mitford series. 

Our reading from the Book of Genesis blends comfortably with Celtic spirituality.  It is concerned with one of the most basic functions of all living organisms – the need to propagate.  It finds spiritual truth and hope in the stars of the night sky.  And it presents us with an image of God far different than a white-bearded, grandfatherly figure sitting on a golden throne floating on a billowy cloud.

God and Abraham engage in the ritual of an ancient Middle-Eastern covenant ceremony.  Today, when two country’s leaders sign a treaty, they exchange pens.  In Abraham’s day the ceremony was much more graphic.  Various animals, both large and small, are gathered, killed, and their carcasses cut in half.  The halves are pulled apart to create a bloody path in between, which those entering into the covenant walk barefoot between, their feet and clothing becoming stained in the process.  As they walk they recite a series of blessings and curses – the conditions of the covenant and what will follow based on adherence or disregard.  In essence, each party expresses a willingness to be like the slaughtered beasts through which they walk if they prove unfaithful.  (And you thought getting a mortgage was an undertaking!)

God promises to provide Abraham with a son, and even more, that his offspring will be as innumerable as the stars.  Abraham wants to believe, but needs a sign.  God directs him to lay out what is necessary for a covenant ceremony.  As night approaches Abraham falls into a fitful, trancelike sleep.  The text tells us a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch pass between the animal pieces.  These two symbols – perhaps related to how God protects the Israelites fleeing from Egypt as a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night – stand for God in the ritual.  Abraham himself does not enter into the gruesome walk; indicating God already deems his faith sufficient to seal the covenant and God assumes all the consequences for failure by Abraham or his offspring.

Middle-Eastern covenants bind behavior by defining how each party will and will not act and what each party will offer and receive from the relationship.  The bible tells us God enters into covenants with Noah, Abraham, Moses, and the people of Israel (through the ceremony we read about in last week’s Old Testament lesson).  As we partake of the Body and Blood of Christ we remember we have entered into a new covenant with God made possible through the work Jesus our Savior.

Each of the biblical figures who enters into a covenant with God does so freely.  The same is true for us.  We are neither forced nor coerced.  We can follow or we can forge different path.  We can act with affection towards others or we can be alienated one from another.  We can be like chicks huddling under the protective wings of the mother hen or we can run amuck in the world.  The choice is ours.  God gives us the freedom to choose.  But why?  Why does God allow us to obey or to disobey?  Why does God assume the consequences of our unfaithfulness?  Why did God create a world where things can go so wrong?

I just finished reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Gathering Moss, which I quoted in a sermon last fall and then received as a gift for Christmas.  It has been a wonderful devotional-type read that has helped me to feel closer to our natural world.  Kimmerer describes the interconnectedness of every aspect of forest life.  Every organism, great or small, has a role to play.  It finds its niche in greater community – taking what it needs, giving what it doesn’t, doing something that is necessary for others.  For instance, did you know that a slug moving over moss picks up spores on its slimy underside and carries them several inches, thus providing the possibility the moss will reproduce in a new location?

Within the vast network of a forest there is little freedom.  Yes, the slug may turn this way or that.  A bird may choose to float on the wind or to work against it.  A falling leaf may or may not be carried off by the breeze.  Still, all things great and small are predisposed to do their particular part.  So why are we humans so different?  Why can’t we be a part of the bigger system without having the possibility of doing so much damage to it?  Why, at times, do was take more than we need, refuse to give what we have, and neglect to do our part for the common good?

In one chapter of her book Kimmerer describes a time she was hired to consult on a private development.  An extremely wealthy individual building a mansion on a huge expanse of property wanted to recreate an authentic Appalachian forest on the site.  No expense was spared in this effort and Kimmerer was called in to consult on the mosses involved, which hints at the scope of the undertaking. 

Well, it turns out you can’t just pick up a clump of moss from one place, put it down in another, keep it moist, and expect it to survive.  Moss, in all its varieties, is delicately situated in a place with specific kinds of nutrients, air-quality, sunlight/shade, partnering organisms, and a host of other factors.  You can’t just pick it up and move it.  Kimmerer notes the owner behind the project really did want to want to recreate an authentic ecosystem and took elaborate steps to make it happen, but his desire to control the process of growth ruined what he hoped to create. 

She then quotes Barbara Kingsolver who wrote, “It’s going to take the most selfless kind of love to do right by what we cherish and give it the protection to flourish outside our possessive embrace.”  I have read and reread this quote nearly a dozen times and there is so much in it I still can’t quite get my head around. 

It’s going to take the most selfless kind of love to do right by what we cherish and give it the protection to flourish outside our possessive embrace.

Celtic spirituality is grounded in creation as the Creator had made it.  God has created the forest to be a dynamic, interconnected ecosystem that, while random, lacks the freedom of choice.  God created the human family desiring we each have freedom.  While God could force each person to be like a brood finding love, protection, and comfort under divine wings, our response means more when it is entered into freely.  God’s selfless love eschews the possibility of a smothering, possessive embrace.  Our free will, our faithful response, elicits God’s deep joy.

We see so much in our world which must please the One who created all things and we so much which must not.  Our own lives are no different.  We choose at times to be faithful and we choose at times to forsake the terms of the covenant we have embraced.  But through it all we are free.  The choice is always ours.  Today, through our Celtic liturgy, we bind ourselves again to the strong name of the Trinity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  May we know God close enough to be a companion and source of strength and may we sense the restraint of God’s selfless love which invites our faithful response without smothering us in a possessive embrace.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Remembering



Last Wednesday we launched into our annual Lenten journey.  This first Sunday in Lent begins with the familiar story of Jesus being tempted by Satan in the wilderness.  It will end on Palm Sunday with the reading of his passion and death on a cross.  Over the course of Lent we will rehearse familiar liturgies and rituals, gather weekly for a meal and spiritual nourishment, refrain in worship from saying a particular word of celebration, mark the days by fasting, and in many other ways prepare with joy for the Pascal feast.  All of this helps us to remember… to remember our Lord’s walk we know as the Way of the Cross and to remember not even the grave can contain God’s Spirit. 

The rhythm of doing this annually may be arbitrary, but it is a good one.  Most likely as soon as the first human beings discerned the yearly cycle of the seasons they began to celebrate annual rituals.  Some of these are related to the movement of the sun while others are based in moments of birth, union, and death.  Some involve an entire nation while others are deeply personal.  Some take place on a specific day, others stretch out for a longer period of time.  Each, in its own way, provides an opportunity to pause, to remember, and to reflect.  Absent such rituals we would soon forget those things that matter most; the things that shape, mold, and define who we are.

In this morning’s first lesson we read of the origin of one of the first annual rituals celebrated by God’s people once they enter the Promised Land.  They gather at the town of Shechem, which is lies about halfway between Jerusalem to the south and the region of Galilee in the north.  God instructs the people to erect an altar of unhewn stones on which to place their offerings.  God directs them to carve the commandments into the stones so that as the years pass by the people will not forget them.  The altar is to serve as a permanent reminder of the covenant they have made with God.

Every year the people regather in this spot to make an offering of the first fruits of the field.  Imagine surviving on what you stored for the winter months, some years cutting back consumption as supplies run thin, collecting the initial produce of the new growing season, and (rather than eating it) offering it to God.  This ritual makes several profound statements:

· Give to God the first of what you have, not what is left over.

· Trust God will provide.

· The need to be thankful is more significant than my need to be satisfied. 

The Deuteronomy text instructs that some of the offering be given to the priests.  This is what sustains them until the collection of the next festival’s offering.  And the text states what is left is to be shared at a community meal (so yes, there is a biblical mandate for the Pot-Luck dinner but no, it does not specify fried chicken, deviled eggs, or something made with Jello should be served).  Still, this directive to gather as a community suggests one cannot live out the faith through private devotion and individual piety alone.

As each person makes an offering, the contributor recites an ancient creedal history:

A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.  When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.  The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.  So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.

Why does every person recite this and why do it every year?  Well, you only remember the parts of your story you tell and retell.  And what you tell has a way of shaping who you are and what matters most to you. 

The men of the parish I served in Richmond used to gather monthly for a bag lunch.  Charles McMurdo – one of the church’s founding members – always brought something from the past for what affectionately become known as “Mr. Mac’s Show & Tell.”  One month he passed around a copy of a parish budget from the early 50’s.   Typed on a single side of a 5x7 sheet of paper, it showed the church’s annual expenses to be a whopping $24,000.  All gathered zeroed in quickly on the Rector’s salary package, which came in at the princely sum of $6,000 for the entire year.  This, of course, solicited barking about returning to the good olde days.

My eye, however, was drawn to the line item in the budget for diocesan giving.  It designated $6,800 for support to the wider mission of the church, a figure just shy of 30% of all the parish’s income.  Why such a staggering commitment?  And to deepen the mystery, by the time I was called to serve as rector some forty years later, the percentage of giving had fallen below 5% and the total amount was… still $6,800.  Why had the founding members been so generous and why did the amount of giving become frozen over the years?  Mr. Mac could offer no insight.  None of the other longtime members had a clue either. 

While pouring through old documents years later I learned that the parish’s spacious wooden property had been purchased by the diocese and given to the church as a site to erect its facilities.  This too was something Mr. Mac and other founding members did not recall.  I theorized diocesan giving in the early church budget reflected a sense of gratitude and partnership, but as the memory of the connection between gift and giving faded, commitment to diocesan funding waned.  As the percentage decreased, over time this budget item became more of an obligation resented by leadership than an offering of thanksgiving.  All of this happened because the story had been forgotten.

Reflecting on the power and importance of stories, I have come to see how they foster mystery, meaning, identity, and wisdom:

·  They connect us to the Divine Being behind all creation, thus putting us in touch with the fundamental Mystery found in all things. 

·  They allow us to ponder what has significance and purpose, thus giving us a sense of the meaning of life.

·  They link us with our ancestors in the faith by inviting us to appropriate their stories as our own, thus giving us a sense of identity and place.

·  They enable us to understand the precedents for what we encounter, thus equipping us with the wisdom of time-honored ways of acting and reacting.

Story telling and remembering, as individuals, as a family, as a community of faith, and as a nation is so essential God’s people did it through the offering of the first produce of the new growing season after a long, meager, drab winter of nothing but rations for dinner.  As Jesus noted while fighting off temptation, every stone can be turned to bread, but this will not satisfy your deepest spiritual need.  We need the stories of God’s encounters with the human family and the mystery, meaning, identity, and wisdom they provide.

So we begin our Lenten journey by remembering to remember.  We affirm our need to tell our stories – our personal stories, the stories of our family, the stories of this church, the stories of our community, and the stories of our nation – as we revisit The Story of God’s love made known in Jesus Christ.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

More than the Worst...


Local news programs now have a graphic for it with dramatic music at the intro: Crisis in the Commonwealth.  It covers stories of two officials who worn blackface several decades ago and a third accused of inappropriate behavior.  No matter your position on these allegations and the seriousness with which they should be taken, each has changed the way we look at the person accused.  Now, when our current governor passes away, the headline of his obituary most likely will reference something he did at a Friday night party while he was in med school. 

A week or two after these stories broke, USAToday published an article chronicling what it had learned by examining more the 800 yearbooks from across the country published during the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s.  They discovered dozens and dozens of photos we deem today to be racially offensive.  They ranged from partiers wearing blackface to an entire fraternity staging a mock lynching.  Thankfully such events are not tolerated today, but they do speak of the environment in which we have been shaped, from which God continually beckons us toward the Kingdom.

While we here tonight may not share the same perspective on these events, there is one thing about them linking us together.  They give each of us cause for concern – what if that thing I did back in the day comes into the light of day in today’s world?  I sleep easy knowing there is nothing hidden in my past that could land me in jail.  Nor is there anything in my past that might cause my holy orders to be suspended.  But if made public there are a few things that would change the way you look at me: “I can’t believe when our priest was x years old, he _______.” 

I suspect there is not a person alive who doesn’t have a skeleton or two in the closet.  Some are things we did, but outgrew.  Others are mistakes we made and have learned how to live with.  Some are behaviors, attitudes, and actions acceptable (or tolerated) back in the day, but today are completely unacceptable.  Others might be things never permissible or even thinkable.  And for some, the mistakes reside not only in the past, they preside in the present and have the potential to do significant damage to us and to those we love if exposed.

I remember long ago having a conversation about the difference between shame and guilt with the priest who welcomed me into the Episcopal Church.  Guilt, he observed, is something a person feels regardless of whether or not anyone else knows what you have done.  A child who regrets stealing from a candy store even though no one knows about it may experience guilt and confess to a parent.  Or, the child may be perfectly at peace with his actions until a parent walks into his room as he stuffs his face surrounded by empty wrappers.  In this scenario, the child feels ashamed only when his actions come to light.  Guilt has something to do with how you feel about your actions.  Shame has something to do with regretting how you appear to others. 

Perhaps you live in fear… fear of being found out.  Fear because there is a time bomb ticking in your past and one of these days it is going to explode.   Or maybe you are riddled with self-recrimination... how could I have been so stupid?  Maybe you believe there is no way you can wipe the slate clean, no way you can remove the stain and pain of your own actions and behaviors. 

We gather on Ash Wednesday to remember our mortality… to remember we are but dust.  And there is plenty in the liturgy to remind us just how dirty our dust is.  The truth is we are the product of a sinful world and we are sinful people and we do more damage than even we realize.  This moment invites us to make peace with these truths.  It invites us to accept our human frailty: to acknowledge the log in our eyes, the wart on our face, and the skeleton in our closet. 

We respond to this invitation not groveling like the Prodigal Son in an attempt to earn our forgiveness and not with trepidation, fearing the consequences of being exposed, but by knowing we are enveloped in a relationship of love.  No matter how dirty we are, God embraces us with loving arms. 

Someone once said to me, “Keith, you are not defined by the worst things you have ever done.”  At the time I was dealing with the consequences of something hurtful I had done, so this comment was tremendously helpful and healing.  It didn’t mean I could run away from my actions and the impact they had on others.  Mistakes are mistakes.  Wrong is wrong.  Sin is sin.  But it did mean I did not deserve to be thrown onto a garbage heap and banished for the rest of my life.  And as damaging as my actions had been, the most significant harm was internal.  I really struggled to live with myself and love myself.  The thought of what I had done was like an anchor dragging me under.  Accepting I am not defined by my worst moments has been like a life-line to which I fiercely cling.

The season of Lent has real value in that it calls us to examine our lives and to repent.  However, we can do real damage to ourselves if we engage this process apart from the truth we are loved for who are, as we are or if we believe our worst moments speak most clearly of our lack of value and worth.  Only in the light of these truths are we able to stand before God bearing open the darkness in our hearts and in our past.  In the light of these truths, we are able to live into our best instincts, to serve as God has called us to serve, and to hope all we do that is good and gracious will be a blessing to this world.

I think about our governor – a person I do not know firsthand.  There is absolutely nothing he can do to erase a picture on his yearbook page.  Still, my assumption is he has grown in his ability to respect the dignity of every human being.  Like all of us, he is guilty of being mortal; of trying to do his best and at times falling short.  I will think of him throughout this season of Lent, not as a person who has fallen short, but as a fallen short person who has much to offer – way too much to be defined solely by something from his distant past.  I will think of him as being not that much different from me, and not that much different from anyone else here this evening.  And I will think of how God sees us as something much better than the worst we have ever done and how God calls each of us to something even better.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Should the Adaptation End Here?



Hollywood loves to take a good book and turn it into a movie.  However, many books don’t translate well to movies, hence, in opening credits you may see something like “Screenplay by Jill Jones, adopted from Al Smith’s book A Ton of Troubles”.  While most adaptations attempt to remain faithful to the original book, some do not.  Characters may be added, subtracted, or even combined.  Entire storylines may be dropped.  And, most grievous of all, the ending may be changed.  More than one moviegoer has walked out of a theatre muttering, “How could they do that!  The book was so much better than the movie!”

If I was tasked with taking the written accounts of Jesus’ life and turning them into a screenplay, my movie might just end with today’s gospel reading.  It is such a climactic moment.  It is a stunning highpoint in the story.  In a sense, what more needs to be said?  Jesus’ true divine nature eclipses his human flesh as he stands head and shoulders above Moses (the giver of the Law) and Elijah (the founder of the prophetic movement).  Their presence with Jesus on the mountain signals the fulfillment of every expectation of the ancient Scriptures.  It is a cue the orchestra, roll the credits, close the curtains, and turn up the house lights kind of moment.  What more do we need to know?  What further epiphany needs to happen? 

This year’s Epiphany season has lasted nine Sundays and over its course we have come to see Jesus as one foretold in days gone by, attested to by God’s voice at baptism, revealed through miracles and healings, and amplified through his teachings.  Today’s Transfiguration is the icing on the cake.  It is the ultimate crescendo.  It is the final piece to the puzzle.  The story, as adapted by Keith Emerson, ends right here.

I’d like to be able to take credit for my version, but the truth is another person came up with it before me.  Peter!  He is there on the mountain when all of this happens and he (like me) is impressed.  Realizing he is privileged to be present at the pinnacle, he makes a very practical suggestion: “Let’s erect a couple of shrines, capture this moment, and stay in it forever.”  What better place in the story of Jesus to insert “and they all lived happily ever after”! 

Because of this story, personal, profound spiritual moments are often referred to as ‘mountaintop experiences.’  They are high points in a person’s life and they stay with us forever.  However, they don’t last forever.  Somewhat like molded clay’s experience in a kiln, the connection we experience with God on a mountaintop prepares us for a lifetime of service for what lies next.  We are not meant to remain in the spiritual kiln.  The purpose mountaintop moments is to prepare us for what comes after.

What happens to Jesus and Peter immediately after the mountaintop is telling.  They return to the crowds and become immersed again in the world’s deep needs as they encounter a young boy tormented by epileptic seizures.  Peter’s story in no way reaches the finish line as he witnesses Jesus’ changed appearance.  It is just one moment that shapes him for service over the next thirty-some years of his life.

Are you familiar with the story of Julian of Norwich?  The Black Death swept through her region in 1373 and at age 31 she became seriously ill.  As a curate administered last rites for her, Julian began to receive a series of visions – fifteen in the span of several hours and one more the next day.  She recovered a week later and in time wrote about her visions in a text known as Revelations of Divine Love.  It is the oldest existing English book written by a woman.  Famous for its phrase “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well”, her work has inspired poets such as T.S. Elliot and prime ministers, such as Winston Churchill.  Julian went on to live out her life as an anchoress in the Norwich church, where she prayed for her community, assisted the clergy, and received numerous visitors seeking her counsel.  Julian’s renown spread throughout England and beyond. 

What interests me about Julian’s life is that her deepest, most significant religious experiences (her visions or ‘showings’) last little more than twenty-four hours.  In fact, her mountaintop moment came during a time of perilous illness.  And while she surely had more close experiences with God over the course of her life, nothing came even close to what she experienced in 1373.  The mountaintop was not the end of her story, rather it launched her into a lifetime of prayer and service.

The same is true for Jesus.  As he converses with Moses and Elijah they discuss what must take place in Jerusalem.  Jesus’ most profound ministry occurs after he sets out for the Holy City and it continues all the way to the Cross.  If I would have told it, his story would have ended on the mountain well before the low point of Calvary.  But my adaption would have missed the point.  This great mystical moment is not intended to shelter him from life’s challenges.  Rather, it serves to steel him for all that is to come.

As it was for Jesus, so it is for us.  Our moments of profound religious clarity are few and far between, but they are enough to fuel a lifetime of witness to what lies just beyond.  These moments fill our hearts when we encounter the world’s deep need.  They provide sustaining hope in the face of every discouragement.  They stay with us as we walk through the dark valley.  And they promise that when our mortal bodies lie in death the end of our story has not been written.  Jesus was able to walk down that mountain and walk into all God called him to do because he knew in the end he would rise in glory. 

My adaption might be called “The Easy Road” while the Gospel story is called “The Way of the Cross.”  In the end, The Way of the Cross is the way of life, so there is no way my adaptation should end on today’s mountaintop.

 

Monday, February 25, 2019

Imprecations



Jesus said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”  Many hold these to be the most unique of Jesus’ teachings.  His other insights, such as love your neighbor, are found in the ancient Scriptures.  By highlighting them Jesus elevates them above other important, but less weighty, commandments.  Walter Wink, a Christian writer and scholar, calls loving your enemies “the litmus test of authentic Christianity” in our time. 

If you bristle when hearing this, you are not alone.  My first reaction to it is to try to chop it down, to find a way to mitigate it’s meaning, to make it more manageable and less demanding.  I don’t want to be judged on my ability to love, aid, bless, and pray for my enemies.

If loving your enemies is not your cup of tea, try this on for size:

The wicked are perverse from the womb; *
liars go astray from their birth.

They are as venomous as a serpent, *
they are like the deaf adder which stops its ears,

Which does not heed the voice of the charmer, *
no matter how skillful his charming.

O God, break their teeth in their mouths; *
pull the fangs of the young lions, O Lord.
 
  Let them vanish like water that runs off; *
let them wither like trodden grass.

Let them be like the snail that melts away, *
like a stillborn child that never sees the sun.

Before they bear fruit,
let them be cut down like a brier; *
like thorns and thistles let them be swept away.

The righteous will be glad
when they see the vengeance; *
they will bathe their feet
in the blood of the wicked.

Does this sentiment strike you are a tad too vile?  Does it make you recoil?  Does it seem far removed from the teaching Jesus puts before us this morning?  What is the source of this hateful passage?  Well, it comes from the 58th Psalm, verses 3-10.  That’s right, it is a part of our bible, our canon of sacred and inspired writings. 

The 58th Psalm is one of many known as the Imprecatory Psalms – named after the word imprecation meaning “a spoken curse”.  Almost 25% of the psalms have a verse or passage falling into this category.  Some of the curses are rather benign, such as “Let them be caught in the snare they have set for me.”  Others are completely over the top… “Let his children be waifs and beggars; let them be driven from the ruins of their homes” or “he will heap high their corpses and smashed heads over the wide earth.”  On Sunday mornings, sometimes, but not always, when you hear the introduction “Portions of the X-numbered Psalm are appointed to read in response to the first lesson,” the part left out is a spoken curse, an imprecation.

We leave them out for good reason.  Often they are barbaric, vindictive, and appear to be antithetical to the teachings of Jesus.  It is far easier to ignore them, dismiss them, or pretend they don’t exist than to reconcile them with Jesus’ instruction to love, aid, bless, and pray for our enemies.  Michael Curry, our Presiding Bishop, is well-known for saying, “If it isn’t about love, it isn’t about Jesus.”  It is difficult to imagine how these spoken curses are acts of love, so how can they in any way be associated with our Lord?  After all, his dying words on the cross were not words of imprecation (as we might expect), but rather, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

Still, we in the Christian tradition hold all words of Scripture are inspired by God.  Keep in mind, these psalms are not an irrational outburst of someone pushed past his or her emotional limits, but the products of reasoned and prayerful reflection and insight.  And while it is tempting to say the Imprecatory Psalms are reflective of an Old Testament ethic of law while the New Testament is based on an ethic of love, it is worth noting Jesus and several New Testament writers quote from these same psalms.  More than one person has said they are a part of Scripture to remind us of the gap between God’s highest good and our own defective prayers, but this also seems a bit too convenient a solution.

How do we square Jesus’ teaching to love our enemies with the spoken curses riddled throughout our sacred Scriptures?

For those of you who have joined St. Paul’s in the last four to five years, you missed out on knowing me during my “bad neighbor era.”  Almost every neighborhood has a person who, when he moves away, launches everyone else to throw a block party celebration.  For the first five years I lived in my house I lived next to that guy.  I won’t go into the stories because, well, I might lapse into post-traumatic stress, but let me just say my ex-neighbor was an irrational donkey’s behind who delighted in making my life miserable. 

As infuriating as he was, the truth is I did not hate him.  What I hated – and hated with a passion – was his behavior.  If, at any point, he had approached me and said, “I have come to realize I have been a difficult and unpleasant neighbor and I am going to change my behavior and undo everything I can that I did just to be spiteful”, then I would have welcomed him as a friend.  How likely was this to happen?  Not very, but even imagining it speaks to a deeper truth.  It was the behavior I abhorred, not the person.

It is easy to lose sight of this truth.  The distinction between person and action can be blurred easily.  Loving your enemies does not mean loving their unlovable behavior.  It does not mean we are to excuse the inexcusable.  It does not mean putting up with what is problematic and pretending everything is OK.  As long as my ex-neighbor continued to act in a way that diminished my ability to flourish and demeaned me as a person, I was unwilling to dismiss his behavior.  Still, at least in my heart, I tried to maintain a distinction between who my neighbor was and what my neighbor did.

I don’t pretend this distinction solves completely the challenges posed by the Imprecatory Psalms, but it is a place to start.  The spoken curses voice just how hurtful and destructive certain actions and behaviors can be.  They attempt in no way to minimize the destructive acts of our enemies.  Jesus’ teaching calls us to love our enemies while hating the wrongs they perpetrate.  It is surely one of the most difficult of his teachings to follow and perhaps this alone makes it one of the most important.

My earnest prayer is that God, even while hating some of the things I do, will love me.  If I ask God to extend this mercy to me, how can I not extend it to my neighbor?    

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Blessings & Woes



As Luke’s gospel has unfolded before us during these Sundays in Epiphany, time and again we have been told Jesus has been teaching – in his hometown synagogue, in the town of Capernaum, and by the lakeside as he sat in Peter’s boat.  But until today we have not been privy to the content of his message.

In the reading for this morning, Jesus is standing on a level place.  It is an expansive, open plain.  A great number of people from all over the region have come to see him.  Some need healing while others need relief from troubled spirits.  They are a rag-tag lot – the outcast and downtrodden, those who do not have the benefit of education or the comfort of material possessions. 

Jesus looks at them and then turns to his disciples and says, “Do you see these folks in their pitiful conditions?  Believe it or not, they are truly blessed.”  And then addressing the crowd he says…

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.

Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.

Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.  Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven.

But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.

Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry.

Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.

Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets.

The beatitudes as St. Luke records them speak to real socioeconomic conditions rather than to spiritual well-being.  They declare God’s partisan commitment to the poor and the oppressed.

It is a message so scandalous that revisionist interpretations of it began to appear as early as Matthew’s change of the “poor” to the “poor in spirit” and his change of those who “hunger” to those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness.”  Matthew spiritualizes the beatitudes so that we who are not poor and not hungry and not weeping and not hated can still have access to the kingdom of God and its blessings.  This is not entirely a bad thing and Matthew’s gospel provides a necessary compliment to Luke’s.  But if we dismiss Luke’s hard words we run the risk of domesticating the teachings of Jesus, which clearly envision a time when fortune and misfortune will be reversed.

A theologian by the name of Gustavo Gutierrez says that…

God has a preferential love for the poor not because they are necessarily better than others, morally or religiously, but simply because they are poor and living in an inhuman situation that is contrary to God’s will.  The ultimate basis for the privileged position of the poor is not in the poor themselves but in God, in the gratuitousness and universality of God’s agape love. 

More than any other gospel, Luke expounds on the dangers of wealth.  The woes we hear this morning pick up a thread from Mary’s Magnificat: God sends the rich away empty.  Luke proclaims the teachings of Jesus state the rich are shortsighted and are lulled into false security if they believe their present abundance ensures their future comfort.  He records Jesus’ words encouraging us to lay up treasures in heaven, not here on earth.

I am aware of several reactions I have when I hear the beatitudes of Jesus in Luke’s gospel… 

·  A part of me wants to say, “I am not rich.  I am not well fed.  I do not laugh.  I am not well spoken of.  Therefore, I do not fall under these woes.”  But, when I am honest with myself, I know that I do.  I know that I have all the advantages the crowd around Jesus does not.

·  There is a part of me that becomes defensive.  It hardly seems fair to have blanket condemnation thrown over all people with means. 

·  A part of me is mystified.  Why would a loving God who wants good things for all people be so unhappy with those of us who are blessed? 

·  A part of me feels guilty.  I overspend, overeat, and overindulge when so many have so little.

·   And there is a part of me that hears a trumpet call in Luke’s gospel: a trumpet call to love and service and sacrifice. 

I know I can’t solve the world’s poverty problems, but I can begin to tackle them one person and one family at a time.  I can do with a little less and give a little more.  Enrolling in Episcopal Relief & Development’s automatic monthly payment program enables me to partner with development projects in 35 countries touching the lives of over 3 million people.  And I can take care of what I do have so that when I need it no more it can be useful to someone else. 

I can’t provide food for every hungry person in the world, but I can contribute my time and my wealth to St. Paul’s Food Pantry.  I can donate household goods and cleaning products to support For Kids in their work of setting up homeless people in a permanent residence.

Life is good for me.  At this time there is little for me to weep or mourn, but this doesn’t mean I can’t comfort those who do.  There are people in our parish and community who grieve the loss of someone close.  There are people who live alone with little or no contact from others.  When you reach out to someone who is lonely, it makes a difference, a huge difference.  I have great respect for people who visit prisons and the ministry they do there.  These are places of tremendous weeping and mourning.  I think of children and young people growing up in broken homes who have lost the love of one or both parents.  Theirs is a special kind of weeping and another caring adult in their life will be gladly welcomed.  I think of so many of the people who come to our church seeking a light in the darkness of their present moment.  All we do and all we give that goes into offering a weekly service of public worship speaks of God’s comfort and hope to those in desperately need of it.

I’d like to think I have a good reputation among my friends, in the parish, and around the diocese.  And while it does not make sense to seek out hatred, insults, and cursing, I can reject the impulse to gossip when others gossip, to criticize behind another’s back, to seek discord instead of peace.  I can stand with those who are unfairly attacked.  I can reject racism, prejudice, and all forms of injustice directed at minorities.  I can muster the courage faithfully to side with the right. 

Surely these are the things Jesus seeks from those of us who are advantaged.  We are in a position to provide the blessings Jesus so clearly wants to impart on the poor, the hungry, the weeping, and the attacked.  Yes, we are receiving our reward now in this life.  We can use our reward either for selfish ends or for Godly pursuits.  In our abundance we can come before God, not begging for more, but seeking direction.  Who can I touch?  How can I serve others?  How can I love as Christ loves me?  Christ gave Himself for me, how can I give myself to others in his name? 

This I believe: When we who are blessed by the world’s standards share with those who are not, God is pleased.  There will come a day when we will be poor or hungry or weeping or hated.  On that day and in that hour God’s compassion will be stirred because we have actively sought to reach out to others.  On that day, God will stir those who are blessed to come to our aid.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Fishin' n' 'Ketchin'



Jesus said, “Follow me and I will have you fishing for people.”

A stranger in a small town happens upon a little boy fishing at a local pond.  “Any good fishin’ ‘round here?” the stranger askes.  “Some,” the boy replies.  “What do you catch?” the stranger askes.  “Nothing,” answers the boy.  “But I thought you said there was some good fishing around here,” says the puzzled stranger.  The boy looks up at him and says, “Mister, there’s a big difference between fishin’ and ‘ketchin’!”

I grew up in an era when everybody went to church.  Our church was so full it had two different Sunday School hours, each with a class for every individual age and grade.  Our youth group teemed with young people – it was nothing to have 50 kids or more at any particular meeting.  If you wanted to attend the 11:00 service on Christmas Eve you needed to be there by 10:00.  I can’t say the church of my childhood did a lot of ‘ketchin’ because it did not do much ‘fishin’.  Back in the day it just seemed the fish jumped into the boat.  Like I said, everybody went to church. 

That began to change toward the end of the 1970’s, at least in the church where I grew up.  Attendance at youth group meetings was half of what it had been.  The early Sunday School hour was nixed.  Empty spaces in the pews began to appear at holiday services.

The numbers for the Episcopal Church are not pretty.  We had nearly 3 million members when I was ordained in 1987.  Our denomination was already in decline at that time, having lost some 400,000 members from our peak years in the mid-sixties.  Membership in the Episcopal Church today stands at 1.7 million, a 44% drop.  People argue about the reasons for this – liberal policies, cultural changes, my preaching.  The truth is, when you decline by nearly half all these reasons and more contribute.    

I hope you have taken the opportunity to look at the Bishop’s Search Profile on our diocesan website.  It is very well done and informative on many different levels.  Here is one thing I learned from it: parishes in our diocese can be grouped into three areas those that are growing, those maintaining, and those declining.  16 parishes report they are growing, while 15 state they are maintaining.  72 parishes in our diocese report they are in decline.  That is a staggering number! 

For the record, we at St. Paul’s are one of the fifteen holding our own.  Our average Sunday attendance in 2007, the year you called me to be your rector was 92.6.  It rose to 102.3 the next year, which is the high level mark during my time with you.  The low level came in 2017 when our average attendance was 79.2.  While my health had its ups and downs last year, at least our attendance was up – 86.6 people on a typical Sunday. 

Fishin’ and ketchin’ 

It is not that the Episcopal Church is broken while all the others are thriving.  The hopeful(?) truth is we are losing members at a rate significantly less than most other denominations.  Our society as a whole is turning away from regular participation in organized religion.  Only 20% report they attend a church service at least once a month.  Just 6% of all churches are growing.  Every year 1,000 new churches are launched, which may seem like a lot, but 38,000 are needed just to keep pace our country’s population growth.  Every year 4,000 churches close their doors.

Yes, there are a few “bigger is better” churches that attract hundreds and even thousands of people to their services.  The reasons for their success are as varied as the reasons for the decline of other churches, but the jury on their sustainability is still out.  One of my sisters attends what used to be the largest church in the Akron area.  While it has successfully planted sister congregations in growing suburbs, its original inner-city location is in significant decline.  The average age of its membership is older than ours and its future is anything but assured.

John and Wanda Rector and I spent the last two days in Williamsburg attending our annual diocesan council.  Our featured speakers told us about a British church movement called “Fresh Expressions”, which are new and diverse efforts to reach “dones” and “nones” – those who have been a part of a church, but left and those who have never been a part of a church.  We were told 50-60% of today’s population may never set foot inside a church, not even once. 

I listened intently and took copious notes, hoping to find the answer for parishes like ours.  As an aside, in the two evenings we were in Williamsburg, the Rectors and I enjoyed filling in crossword puzzles.  Of the two – figuring out the future of the church and figuring out the answer to obscure clues, crosswords turned out to be the easier puzzle by far!

Actually, the good news is this effort making headway, breathing new life into near-dormant English churches, is not all that much different from what we do here at St. Paul’s.  Fresh Expressions encourages people to pursue their dream while inviting others to join them.  It may or may not be held within the walls of a church building.  Its focus may be personal growth, service to others, spiritual enrichment, or just about anything.  Fresh Expressions looks a lot like a quilters’ group, reading sessions with therapy dogs, summer meal programs, a small group bible study, a hiking club, and a host of other initiatives we have right here in our parish.  Not all Fresh Expressions last forever.  But each is a way for people to come together and at some level sense God is in their midst. 

When Jesus asked a small group of fishermen to head back out on the waters to cast their nets, he was talking to a group of grizzled veterans adept at what they did.  They had been fishing all night, but had nothing to show for it.  The ‘ketchin’ had eluded them.  Still, at Jesus’ behest, they were willing to give it another try.  I like how in the other miraculous catch story Jesus calls from the shore and encourages the same frustrated fishermen to cast their nets on the other side of the boat.  Somehow, doing the same thing they had always done, but doing it in a new way, allowed them to accomplish what they had been unsuccessful in doing.  It is a potent image for the church and for our parish in this time.  It reminds us ultimately Jesus is the one who finds the fish.  We must be willing to keep doing what we do well, but perhaps do it in a new way. 

Fishin’ and ‘ketchin’. 

By my count, over the course of the last seven days nearly 500 people came into our building.  For every person who attended Sunday worship six people came here for another reason.  By any measure, this means we are doing a lot of fishin’.  Some day, some of these people may become regular worshippers and financial contributors.  Many may not.  But we have set our sights on something much bigger than membership stats and operating budgets.  In and through this place we want folks to know and experience God’s love for all people made known in Jesus Christ.  We want them to know this so deeply that they are strengthened to make God’s love known in and through them. 

I am not discouraged by the church’s present nor by the prospects of its future.  Our future may not look like what we see around us today and it most certainly will not look like the church of my childhood, at least not any time soon.  But bigger does not always mean better and bigger does not necessarily imply more faithful.  I dare say more people at St. Paul’s are involved each week in a hands-on effort to express God’s love than ever were at the much larger church I grew up in.  And I don’t know that 500 people ever came through its doors on a typical week because it saw itself as more of a Sunday country club than a missionary outpost.

The image of the church as fishing for people is still a good one, but if it was the only one all we used in order to determine if we are doing our job all we would need to do is count the people and tally the money.  Using these metrics alone, we would fall on our knees and confess our ineptitude.  The truth is we are casting our nets, perhaps more so than ever.  Another image Jesus uses for the church is light.  “You are the light of the world.”  Jesus said, “You don’t hide a light.  You put it on a stand so it can give light to the whole house.”  Does St. Paul’s radiate with God’s love for the world?  Absolutely.  Do we shine this light only behind our closed doors once the worship service has started?  Absolutely not!  Will our light draw more fish into our boat?  Only time will tell.  Will God’s mission in this world be thwarted?  Never.  Will St. Paul’s have a place in God’s mission?  As long as we to be a part of it.