Tuesday, December 28, 2010

"I Wish You were my Child" - Christmas Eve

Let me say at the outset how happy I am to be here tonight and to serve as the Rector of St. Paul’s Church. Last Sunday I became even more aware of how blessed I am when the Lay Reader accidently prayed for “Keith, our bishop.” That faux pas led several people to ask me if I have a desire to be a bishop some day. The answer, for reasons not interesting enough to go into, is no. But even more than bishop, I do not want to be the Archbishop of Canterbury. Rowan Williams, who now serves in that capacity, has to find ways to hold together the Anglican Communion, which wants to fray and fragment over a multitude of issues. He has critics on every side. In fact, one wag has gone so far as to name her dog after him. She posts on facebook comments such as “I am having a hard time house training Rowan” and “Rowan was misbehaving, so I put him in his cage.” Well, much of that comes with the job and none of it appeals to me.

But here is the single most significant reason I would not want to be Archbishop: he is charged with presiding at royal weddings. Can you imagine the pressure? The Archbishop who married Charles and Diana reversed two of Charles’ many middle names and never lived down the mistake. Betting odds soon will be posted on the likelihood of Rowan Williams making a error during the April wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. I don’t want to hold a position in the church where an entire nation wagers on my performance.

Royal weddings are rare events these days, yet there is something in them that helps us better understand the language of our Christian heritage, much of which is rooted in royal imagery. When Kate marries Will her life will change dramatically. Until now she has been a commoner, but that will come to an end when she marries and is given a yet-to-be determined title; a title which will confer on her certain rights, privileges, and responsibilities.

The Judeo/Christian tradition has used many metaphors to describe God, one of which is King. St. Paul held that all who are in Christ are adopted into God’s family and made fellow heirs with Christ. So, for you ladies, if your heart swoons at the notion of being in Kate’s shoes, consider what it means to be adopted into God’s royal family. We are showered in God’s riches. We receive grace upon grace. Our past mistakes are washed away and we receive the comfort and assurance of God’s Holy Spirit. And, we are given an inheritance of eternal life. Paul’s writes that if we are a part of God’s royal family then we are God’s ambassadors; people who understand that our every act, our every deed, and our every word is no longer a personal statement, but reflective of our God and King and done in service to Him.

Do you see yourself in this way? Do you think of yourself as being a royal ambassador for Christ? I suppose there are three reasons why a person may not. First, you may never have thought about it. You may never have taken the time to work through who you are and who God is and what it all means. Second, you may have thought about it and decided that you would rather live life on your own terms. You don’t think of yourself as representing Christ, but rather as representing yourself, and that for you is good enough. Or third, you have thought about what God offers to you and have come to believe that for one reason or another you are not worthy to receive it. You think you are just not good enough as you are right now, or maybe have done something in your past that you believe turned God away from you.

Perhaps you see yourself in one of those three characterizations, or perhaps you would describe yourself in another way. Wherever you find yourself, I want to invite you to listen to this brief passage from Mary Ann Bird’s autobiography, The Whisper Test:

I grew up knowing that I was different, and I hated it. I was born with a cleft palate; and when I started school, my classmates made it clear to me how I looked to them: a little girl with a misshapen lip, crooked nose, lopsided feet, and garbled speech. When my schoolmates would ask, “What happened to your lip?” I would tell them I had fallen and cut it upon a piece of glass.

I believed that no one could really love me.

There was, however, a teacher in the second whom we adored. Mrs. Leonard was her name. She was short, dumpy, round, and a sparkling woman. Annually we would have a hearing test. Now, I was deaf in one ear; but when I took the test I discovered that if I did not press my hand tightly on my good ear, as I was supposed to, I could pass the test. Every year, the teacher, sitting solemnly at her desk, would whisper something and we would repeat it. That was the test. In past years they would say something like “The sky is blue” or “You have new shoes.” But not Mrs. Leonard. When she gave the test to me she whispered something which God must have put into her mouth; seven words which changed my life. Mrs. Leonard whispered, “I wish you were my little girl.”

On this night that we celebrate God’s gift of God’s very self to the world, if you cover one ear and listen carefully you will hear God whisper, “I wish you were my little girl/my little boy.” If you have never taken the time to consider who you are in relation to who God is, God whispers “I want to confer on you the rights, privileges, and responsibilities of being a member of my royal family.” If you have thought about it, but turned away, God whispers to you, “I want to deliver you from the tyranny of living for self alone, and help you discover a new life grounded in me, the Creator and Author of all that is.” And if you have come to believe yourself unlovely and unlovable, God whispers, “I love you so much just the way you are and I want you – especially you – to be my ambassador.”

We say that this night is a holy night, and we are right to do so. But this night can also be a wedding night or – to shift the metaphor slightly – the night when you become adopted into God’s royal family. Perhaps you are not quite ready for that. Maybe tonight should be more like an engagement. But at the very least let tonight be for you the beginning of a courtship where you come to explore God’s love for you and all the implications that it holds. On this night when we gaze on the Child of God born in a manger, we hear the ever-so-faint words, “I wish you were my child too.”

Monday, December 20, 2010

Emmanuel: The Fourth Sunday of Advent

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.

Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

On this Fourth Sunday of Advent we focus on the final antiphon in the hymn O Come, O Come, Emmanuel; the antiphon from which the hymn derives its name. Emmanuel: God is with us. It is an image taken from the 7th chapter of Isaiah and the historical setting is very important to understanding its meaning.

It is approximately 740 BC, Jerusalem is under siege, and the king – Ahaz – is in a panic. The Assyrians are threatening to invade the region and in response several of the local tribal leaders have formed an alliance. But Ahaz wants no part of this coalition and so the alliance attacks Jerusalem in hopes of putting a new king in place who will support their efforts. The prophet Isaiah comes to Ahaz and tells him that God will deliver the besieged city. His message is a mixture of prophetic pronouncements and policy statements, sprinkled with symbolic promises or signs to back up what he says as being God’s word. Proper names play a very significant role in these symbolic promises.

In verse 3 of chapter 7, God directs Isaiah to take his son to meet King Ahaz. The boy’s name is Shear-Jashub, which means “a remnant will return.” The presence of the boy indicates the promise of God. Isaiah then says to Ahaz, “Ask for a sign from God to convince you that this is so” – a common thing for kings of that era to do, but Ahaz is too afraid. So Isaiah gives him a sign: “A young woman is with child and she will name her son Emmanuel. And before the boy is weaned from his mother’s milk, this military and political threat will have passed.” The message is clear: a year from now this will all be over and we will be fine. Why? We will be fine because Emmanuel: God is with us.

Over the next few centuries Isaiah’s words came to be associated with an emerging messianic hope; a deep yearning and desire among God’s people for one to be born in whom God would be powerfully present. At first it was a desire rooted in the restoration of David’s throne; a yearning for a kingdom marked by self-rule and justice. But very early on, Christians came to see that Isaiah’s words of prophetic hope had been fulfilled in Jesus; that He was the incarnation of God – Divinity manifested in flesh and blood… the literal embodiment of God with us.

And when we sing O come, O come, Emmanuel we are proclaiming our faith that God has been with us in the past, expressing our desire for God to be with us in the present, and giving voice to our deep yearning for God to come again and be with us in the fullness of Glory.

Maria Boulding was a Benedictine nun and noted author who died in 2009. I want to read a brief passage from her 1982 book The Coming of God because it beautifully and thoughtfully expresses how our hope for God’s presence makes us distinct from those who do not share in our faith:

If modern men and women are to be more than simply agnostic about the long-term prospects for our race, their most fundamental hope must be that it will not end in meaningless destruction. If we are going to blow ourselves out of existence as though we had never been, or make our planet uninhabitable without finding an alternative accommodation, there is little point in hoping for anything else…

The hope that we are traveling towards a destiny, rather than a mere collapse, is linked with the faith that our origins were already purposeful. If we think that our existence is a mere fluke, the result of some wildly improbable mix in some primordial soup that threw up the conditions required to sustain life, then our whole human story is a chance bubble; it has no purpose and can be pricked as meaninglessly as it was formed. But if there is a Creator who stands outside the whole cosmic evolutionary process, and yet works within it by a wisdom and love that are present in even the tiniest movement, then human life has a purpose. It begins from God and is on its way to a goal which, however unimaginable, will give meaning to the whole adventure.

At every Eucharist we say, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” Maria Boulding has helped me to understand the come again part in a whole new way. Knowing where we are going shapes what we do along the way. It gives us direction to act and confidence that our actions make a difference. We who yearn for Emmanuel to return at the end of time become open to Emmanuel being manifested in and through us today.

And that openness and willingness for God to be present in us is critical, as the writer Vishal Mangalwadi points out:

The tragedy of our times is that while many Christians have confidence in the power of the Lord to return and change the world, many of us do not have confidence in the power of the gospel to transform society now.

Many don’t, but some do. I have been reading a book called Living Mission: The Vision and Voices of New Friars. It is about an emerging movement among a small group of Protestant Evangelicals who are choosing to live and minister in the poorest slums in the world. One person describes a slum as an urban area “characterized by overcrowding, poor or informal housing, inadequate access to safe water and sanitation, and insecurity of tenure.” If you saw the movie Slumdog Millionaire you have a sense of what these areas are like. The World Bank reports that one out of every six people on the planet lives in an urban slum – one billion people. Twenty years from now it will be one in four. The first friars embraced the notion of Emmanuel by setting aside home, wealth, and safety to live among people who did not know the Gospel and often times were hostile to it. The new friars are seeking to do much the same thing. What they offer is not so much a program or a handout… they offer themselves.

Craig and Nayhouy Greenfield are two of these new friars. They were living and ministering in a slum when she became pregnant with their second child. In that slum most mothers had succumbed to the notion that powdered milk was preferable to breast feeding. Nayhouy knew different since powdered milk required something not available in the slum… clean drinking water. Infant upon infant got sick and many died, still the local mothers held on to a bias against breast feeding. When Nayhouy’s baby was born it did not escape notice that the child – breastfed – grew up strong and healthy. The Greenfields write,

From that point on, the use of milk powder in our slum decreased. Through the simple, prophetic act of incarnational motherhood, we accomplished in our slum what poster campaigns, visiting educators and government campaigns had been unable to accomplish: transformation.

This is just one story of one couple in the new friars movement; a group of Christians who do not see themselves called to preach the Gospel to people in the slums, they see themselves called to live the Gospel in the slums. It reminds me of what the missionary Charles de Foucauld believed; he who sought to minister to Muslims some 100 years ago: “to witness to Christ does not require eloquent preaching or sanctimonious demands. It is requires you to shout the Gospel with your life.” It is an approach grounded in a theology of incarnation: if Jesus left heaven and relocated here to live with us, perhaps we best manifest Emmanuel by living with the people to whom we seek to minister.

Well, if living in a slum represents the far end of one spectrum of how we might choose to make Emmanuel present in and through us, there is a YouTube video that represents the other end. Perhaps you are one of nearly 23 million people who have already viewed it. It is a scene which unfolded a month ago in a food court at a typical suburban mall. Shoppers of all walks and descriptions of life are sitting around chatting and eating. Suddenly and without warning, a young woman talking on a cell phone rises from her chair and begins to sing the opening stanza of the Alleluia Chorus. Mall patrons begin to stare at her. Then a man in his thirties dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt stands and sings the second stanza… Alleluia! Alleluia! Two people walking on the perimeter of the food court stop, partner with a member of the mall’s custodial staff, and sing in unison, “for the Lord God and King reigneth.” Now dozens of people rise to their feet in join in song. It is a planned phenomena know as a flashmob and before the Alleluia Chorus is finished dozens and dozens of choristers have joined in while unsuspecting shoppers look on.

What impresses me about the video is the location. Here, in the most secular of settings our society has to offer, God becomes present as glory and praise are offered. As I watched the video I thought about how we tend to cage God inside the stonewalls of our magnificent churches. We neither expect nor desire to encounter Emmanuel in those places where we are about the mechanics of life: stores, offices, schools, sporting events, the living room, the kitchen. When we want God we will go to the place where we have consigned God to be found. Everywhere else… well, in all those other places we have other things on our mind. The video challenged me to imagine a world were God could be with us in every aspect of our daily life and work; to take seriously what we pray: “Almighty God, in you we live and move and have our being.”

Well, somewhere on the spectrum between relocating into an urban slum and rising up in a food court to sing the Alleluia Chorus you and I have the opportunity to be incarnational… to invite God to be with us and to be know through us. You and I can shout out the Gospel with our lives and become part of God’s great purpose of drawing all things into Holiness and Majesty.

We have spent these last four weeks focusing on our deep desire and yearning, on our discontent that God’s will is not done on earth as it is in heaven. God hears our cry and promises that a new world is on the way. As an assurance that this is so, God gives us a sign, an ancient sign from long ago. A young woman is about to give birth to a son and his name will be Emmanuel.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Dayspring from on High / Desire of Nations

O come, thou Dayspring from on high,
and cheer us by thy drawing nigh;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
and death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Desire of nations, bind
in one the hearts of all mankind;
bid thou our sad divisions cease,
and be thyself our King of Peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

I am using the four Sunday sermons in the season of Advent to explore the Old Testament images in the hymn, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. This hymn gives voice to our deepest yearning for the fulfillment of God’s promises; for a world where God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. This morning we focus on the images of Dayspring from on High and Desire of nations.

Dayspring. Have you ever longed for the advent of morning? The image of the dayspring always takes me back to my scouting days tent camping on a very, very, very cold weekend. Whatever temperature my sleeping bag was rated, it was significantly colder than that. I was freezing all night long. In my sleep I dreamt that it was morning and that one of the adults had started the campfire. I dreamt that I emerged from my tent and began to warm myself by the fire. But it was just a dream. I woke up in total darkness, deeply cold. When I fell back asleep the dream repeated itself… morning, fire, warm, but just a dream. This went on and on throughout the night, at least ten times before the real dawn broke and a warming fire was lit.

Longing for dawn. I think about those of you who have been awake all night in a hospital room, either as the patient or as the care-giver, waiting for the hope, the promise, or the relief of the new day. Maybe you have served on nightwatch or worked the nightshift, where the first light of day signals the end of vigilance or labor. I remember being without power after Hurricane Isabel tore through Virginia. I was surprised how quickly life reoriented around the sun’s rising and falling. Dawn brought with it the opportunity to pick up tasks unfinished at the onset darkness the previous day.

The image of the dayspring metaphorically draws on these kinds of experiences and attaches them to something much deeper. “Cheer us by thy drawing nigh.” “Disperse the gloomy clouds of night.” Gloom, whatever form it takes, has a heaviness to it that weighs us down. If you have ever struggled with depression you know this weight and how hard it is to bear. We all sense the weighty burden of our present gloomy economy. Each day’s business news feels dark, heavy, foreboding and we long for the dawn of a new day when the economy feels more promising, more hopeful, more cheerful.

Every job comes with its own unique set of challenges, but some career fields are especially weighty. I admire people who work in our legal system: police officers, investigators, lawyers, judges, prison officials, parole officers – people whose daily life and work exposes them to the worst of the world’s sin. I also admire people whose jobs place them squarely in the midst of the world’s brokenness: councilors, social service workers, and (more and more) teachers and school administrators – people on the front lines of compassion ministering to those whose lives have been ripped apart. And I admire people who work in the medical profession: doctors, nurses, therapists, people who work in care facilities, hospice workers – the folks who daily deal with the effects of disease and death. These are vocations set in life’s darkness and gloom and they carry a burden that can and does get the better of many who serve in these fields.

In ancient monastic worship, each verse of O Come, O Come, Emmanuel was assigned to be sung on a specific day leading up to Christmas. “O come, thou Dayspring from on high” was intentionally designated to be sung on December 21 because it is the winter solstice, the darkest day of the year. And just as we yearn on that day for the return of the light and the lengthening of days, so too we speak and sing and pray of our desire for the dawn of a new day when sin and brokenness and death are put to flight. We wait for a messianic era when the Sun of Righteousness will shine on all the world.

We hold that this new dawn is not just for us raised in the Christian tradition, but is for all creation and for all God’s creatures. We affirm that God is not merely our desire, but the Desire of nations, of all peoples. The theology behind this belief is quite straight-forward: since God created every human being in God’s image, every human being is infused with a desire to know his/her Creator.

It should not surprise us that people in every culture of every age and era have manifested a religious and spiritual dimension. Some dismiss this as the human response to mysteries beyond contemporary understanding: i.e., if you don’t understand the physics of lightening then you worship it as a god. Without question some aspects of religion have been and still are rooted in superstition. But there is something more than this welling up in every human soul. Each of us has a sense that something from beyond us calls out to us; that something which designs us sustains us and seeks to know us; that we are invited into some form of relationship with a Holy Presence who is far removed from us, yet intimately known within us.

You might think that this common trait of spiritual searching would unite the human race and create bonds of affection that reach across race, culture, and social order, but we all recognize this is not at all the case. It is cliché to say that more wars have been fought in the name of God than any other cause, but I see that as being a vast simplification of the manifold factors which direct human action and interaction. Still, too often religion has the effect of driving us apart rather than pulling us together.

Think of the images in O Come, O Come Emmanuel we have explored over the last three Sundays:

Wisdom from on high from which we receive guidance from the Creator of all things,
Lord of Might who leads from a position of moral authority,
Branch of Jesse who provides an enduring hope rooted in the past,
Key of David who opens a way for us to know God,
Dayspring from on high who initiates a new day free of sin, brokenness, and death,
And Desire of nations who binds all hearts as one and makes divisions cease.

Of these six, the Desire of nations is something we members of the human family could achieve on our own simply by acknowledging the value and benefit of peace. But of the six it also feels like the one farthest away.

There are two slightly different wordings for this verse. The one we sing goes…

O come, Desire of nations, bind
in one the hearts of all mankind;
bid thou our sad divisions cease,
and be thyself our King of Peace.

The other version reads…

O come desire of nations, bind,
all peoples in one heart and mind;
bid envy, strife, and quarrels cease;
fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.

We yearn for a world where weighty darkness and gloom are put to flight by the dawn of a new day and we yearn for a world filled with heaven’s peace. And as with the images we have already explored we find that our Advent yearning can and does lead to partial fulfillment in us even as we await the complete fulfillment of God’s promise.

The bedside nurse who ministers with compassion to a person dying, the teacher whose encouragement and support lift the sinking spirits of a troubled student, the police officer who overcomes the inner struggle to be jaded and finds a way to respond to each person with dignity and respect, the social worker who sees the client as being a person not just a case file… each rides on the first rays of the dawn of a new day. Every time we work through an argument to find a place of common ground, every time we rejoice in the achievements or shoulder the burdens of another, every time we do the hard work of reconciling a broken relationship, every time we refuse to respond to insult by inflicting injury, every time we celebrate cultural differences and discern our shared humanity in our distinctiveness… every time this happens heaven’s peace is manifested in our world.

God’s promise is that we do not have to manufacture these responses on our own. Whatever dayspring emanates from our lives comes from on high. Whatever peace we are able to offer or to find is of God’s doing. In Advent we yearn for light and peace in all its fullness and promise and what we find is that God is present in us as light and peace; light and peace which we can manifest to the world.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Branch of Jesse / Key of David

O come, thou Branch of Jesse’s tree,
free them from Satan’s tyranny;
That trust thy mighty power to save,
and give them victory over the grave.
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, thou Key of David, come,
and open wide our heavenly home;
make safe the way that leads on high,
and close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

I said last Sunday that we Christians should be the most discontented members of the human family. We hold on to a hope for a better world – a hope based in God’s promises. We yearn for a world free from want, suffering, hatred, sickness, and death. The four-week season of Advent gives voice to our discontentedness and yearning, which is expressed most clearly in the hymn O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. Its seven verses, rooted on Old Testament images and dating back at least to the 8th century, are a significant feature of our liturgy at the lighting of the Advent wreath. This morning we open our hearts and minds to longings for the Branch of Jesse and for the Key of David.

Jesse, as you may know, was David’s father. In 1 Samuel 16 we learn that he had eight sons, David being the youngest. God sends the prophet Samuel to Jesse’s house in the town of Bethlehem to anoint one of the sons as the new king. Samuel supposes this will be the eldest, a man who is tall and strong. But God has other ideas and uses different standards of measure and says to Samuel, “Take no account of how a person looks, for I do not see as you see. You judge by appearances, but I judge what is in the heart.” And based on this criteria God chooses David to be king.

The image of the Branch of Jesse is drawn from the 11th chapter of the book of Isaiah. Written at a time about 250 years after David’s reign, the kingdom has been divided between the north and south and the entire northern kingdom of Israel has been laid to waste by the Assyrians. Even the forests have been cut down. In our time it is not uncommon to see large tracts of land logged for commercial purposes or development. Initially it is not a pretty sight. Imagine an entire region devastated in such a fashion. Isaiah’s image proclaims a message a hope: just as new shoots grow out of stumps, so too will a new ruler rise up from the root or stump of Jesse.

This image of longing looks back fondly to a golden era and hopes for something from it that will endure and restore what has been lost or forgotten in the present time. It is rooted in a feeling that something has gone amiss; that somewhere along the way we have taken a wrong turn; that we need to get back to our first principles, back to our roots. When talk radio hosts speak about the intentions of the founding fathers, they are taping into a similar yearning, but we Christians long for something much deeper just politics.

The pace of change in today’s world has made looking back very difficult. From the dawn of human history up until the Industrial Revolution, change and innovation were not the norm. If you wanted to know how to farm or to hunt or to cobble a shoe, you learned the tricks of the trade from your elders. Wisdom and knowhow were passed down from one generation to another. Every now and then someone might figure out a better way to, say, create an arrowhead and this knowledge then was assimilated slowly into the culture. Morality and religion were transmitted in the same fashion; with younger generations learning from their elders.

Well, we live in a very different world where the dizzying rate of change renders yesterday’s knowhow obsolete. There is an old Jackson Browne song from his younger years where, in trying to sort out his relationship with his father, he says, “make room for my 45’s along beside you 78’s.” Well, back in the 70’s, at least both generations had records in common, even if they revolved on a turntable at different speeds. Neither of my daughters has ever owned a record. The big technological breakthrough of my youth involved converting my albums to cassette tapes. What do you think they would say if I offered to show them how to do this?

And this is just one small example of how more and more less and less of what an older generation knows is of use to the newest generation. The pace of change is so rapid that those of us who don’t keep up (or can’t keep up or won’t keep up) are left behind. This reality around technology has a way seeping into morality and spirituality. Young people, whose lifestyles are geared toward new technology rather than handed-down methods, are forsaking old religious and moral expressions in order to make up their own formulas on the fly.

Still, there is a yearning for something that endures; for something that is rooted in the practices of the ancient past. In the devastation of our present day, with its here today and gone tomorrow approach to just about every aspect of life, there is a longing for shoot to rise out of a stump; a shoot that will remind us of what it means to be human, that will help us to know how to treat one another, that will help us to connect with the Ultimate Source of all reality. Even with all that is right in our society – and there is much for which to be thankful – we look back and know that something is being lost, that there is something we must not leave behind. We yearn to know what it is and how to keep it with us.

If the Branch of Jesse is an image that looks backward, the Key of David is one that looks forward. It is an image derived from Isaiah 22, where the prophet pronounces judgment on a public official named Shebna. It seems that this fellow was some type of steward or comptroller in the king’s palace who kept the keys to the doors of the royal home and Temple. It was his job to ensure that the doors were open when they were supposed to be open and closed when they were supposed to be closed. It was an important position to be sure, but it seems that Shebna’s actions exceeded his station. He rode around town in a fine chariot (read here a luxury car well-beyond anything he could afford) and through use of diverted public funds was building an extravagant mausoleum for himself in a place reserved for royalty (and some people say the bible doesn’t speak to contemporary issues!). Well, this didn’t sit too well with Isaiah who pronounced prophetic judgment on the self-serving, over-reaching, embezzling civil servant. The keys, along with other symbols of that office, such as a robe and a sash, would be taken from him and given to a person worthy of the position.

The person who held the Key of David literally had control over who got into God’s house and who did not, over who got to meet with God’s chosen leadership and who did not. In the Book of Revelation, John picks up on the image and says that Jesus now holds the Key of David and adds,

“When He opens, none may shut,
when He shuts, none may open.”
(Rev. 3:7)

As the hymn suggests when it says,

“O come, thou Key of David, come,
and open wide our heavenly home,”

this image has been linked with access to heaven; the idea being that Jesus will allow some to enter while excluding others. If the Branch of Jesse looks backward for something that will endure, the Key of David looks forward seeking assurance; a powerful yearning indeed.

I wonder how deep this yearning is in us. I don’t remember the last time I heard an Episcopalian say, “I can’t wait to get to heaven.” Our great pursuit is to know God in the here and now. We long and yearn for a vital, dynamic connection with the Holy One, but struggle to find it. This is by no means a new challenge. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury in the 12th century, wrote this:

Lord my God, teach my heart where and how to seek You, where to and how to find You… You are my Lord, and I have never seen you. You have made me and remade me, and You have given me all the good things I possess, and still I do not know You. I was made in order to see You, and I have not yet done that for which I was made.

A thousand years later Anselm’s experience resonates with ours and his yearning to see God gives expression to a longing deep with us.
In John’s Gospel, the Apostle Phillip recognizes that Jesus somehow has connected with God in way that he and Anselm and you and I have not. So he says to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father.” Jesus answers him, “Phillip, have I been with you all this time and you do not know Me? Anyone who has seen Me has seen the Father” (14:8-9). This suggests that Jesus does not so much hold the keys to the door of an eternal place where we might want to be someday, but that He Himself is the key who allows us to know and see God through Himself. We, who yearn for a meaningful connection with the Divine Majesty beyond our knowing, find the key to this relationship in the life and words of Jesus Christ.

We yearn for something from the past which endures and for something in the present to connect us with God. I am encouraged that people are finding satisfaction for these longings in the life of the Episcopal Church. Young people across the country are entering faith communities like ours where ancient practices are celebrated: practices such as daily prayer, weekly gathering for worship and sacrament, the formation of a rich community life, and hospitality to the surrounding community. In an ever-changing world, these settings are helping people learn how to be joyful, how to be caring, how to be prayerful, how to be attentive, how to mourn, how to recover, how to receive mercy, how to forgive, how to rejoice… how to be all that God intends us to be. They are places where people discontented with the emptiness of life find both a branch from the past and a key in the present.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Wisdom from on High / Lord of Might

O come, thou Wisdom from on high,
who orderest all things mightily;
to us the path of knowledge show,
and teach us in her ways to go.
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, O come, thou Lord of might,
who to thy tribes on Sinai’s height
in ancient times once gave the law
in cloud and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

We Christians, it seems to me, should be the most discontented members of the human family. No matter what our situation or station in life, regardless of our material wealth or the state of our health, we should never be satisfied. You see we Christians believe in the promise of our Lord that His kingdom will come and His will will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Any pang of hunger, any act of hatred, any tear shed, any relationship marred by discord, any disease or death is a sign that the time we hope for is not yet here, that God’s promise has not yet been fulfilled. Unlike eastern religions, which direct adherents to disconnect from the ills of the world, our faith teaches us to wait patiently with all of creation for the coming of the Savior who will make all that is wrong in this life right.

The brief season of Advent is a specific time when we Christians embrace our discontentedness and deep yearning for a better world. Over the next four Sundays I want to offer reflections exploring what might just be best articulation of this hope that we have – the hymn O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. While its origin is unknown, we do know that its seven yearnings, rooted on Old Testament images, date back at least to the 8th century. And as you have already experienced this morning, our liturgy at the lighting of the Advent wreath revolves around this hymn and the scriptural passages from which it emerges. So this morning, we focus our thoughts on the longings for Wisdom from on high and for the Lord of might.

Both are spawned from interesting biblical texts and motifs. Wisdom from on high is associated with God’s creative activity. Through wisdom, as the hymn rightly points out, all things were made and brought into order. And the more we learn about creation, the more impressive this ordering appears to be.

The smallest things in existence are the strings that make up of the fabric of all reality - the so-called string theory. These strings are only 1 billionth of a measure called a yactometer. How small is that? Well, it is about 1 billionth the size of an atom. Starting with the mass of a typical human being and increasing or decreasing that by a factor of 10, we are closer in size to the theoretical limits of the universe than we are to one of these strings. As immense as the universe is, the tiny, tiny world is even more vast than that. Still, we Christians proclaim that God’s Wisdom has brought it all together and holds it in place. To this Wisdom we fix our yearning:

to us the path of knowledge show,
and teach us in her ways to go.

We are not craving book knowledge here. We long for a wisdom that Walt Whitman said is “of the soul.” It comes to us as gift from above – sometimes through prayer, sometimes through the witness of another. The writer and poet Philip Appleman penned one of the quirkiest, yet insightful prayers you may ever hear:

O Karma, Dharma, pudding and pie,
gimmie a break before I die:
grant me wisdom, will, & wit,
purity, probity, pluck, & grit.
Trustworthy, loyal, helpful, kind,
gimme great abs & a steel-trap mind,
and forgive, Ye Gods, some humble advice –
these little blessings would suffice
to beget an earthly paradise:
make the bad people good –
and the good people nice;
and before our world goes over the brink,
teach the believers how to think.

For us believers groping in the dark for how to think, the place to start is with God’s wise ordering of all that is. What, we should ask, is our place in that order? How does the God who created the world of the yactometer conceive our role in this life?

This question leads us to today’s second yearning, the desire for the Lord of might. It is a longing which conjures up a variety of images: perhaps the parting of the Red Sea, the defeat of Jericho, or the fire which consumed the prophets of Baal who contested with Elijah. We tend to connect this desire with God’s overwhelming, irresistible force. It says something very important that the text associated with the desire for the Lord of might is the giving of the Ten Commandments on ‘Sinai’s height.’ It tells us that this yearning is rooted not in power, but in moral authority.

We yearn for a voice, for a witness, for a prophet, for a Savior who will tell us, or show us, how to live in our complex world with its variety of beliefs and competing interests. It is a yearning not for military superiority and not for the purposes of a particular political party, but for the advent of a moral figure – a present day Martin Luther King or Gandhi – who will transform the world through the power of his or her vision of a better way to live.

The Christian Church struggles both for wisdom and for the power associated with moral authority. Two weeks ago I had dinner with my old college roommate who is now a Presbyterian minister. During our conversation he expressed frustration with the thousands and thousands of pronouncements that come out of his national church office and meetings. “We spend all this time working out these things, but why,” he said? “No one is listening to us.” Now I am sure that some of what the Presbyterians call for is a bit silly or trivial or misguided, just as are some of the things that come out of our Episcopal General Conventions. But for the most part, most of what our churches are saying is rooted in God’s wisdom. The problem is no one is listening and we don’t appear to have the moral might to draw attention to us.

As the early Christian Church lived out God’s wisdom through moral authority the world began to take notice. This notice led both to the growth of the church and to its persecution. I have been reading the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, the first generation of Christian leadership to emerge after Peter, Paul, and the other initial followers of Jesus. Ignatius served as bishop of Antioch. All we know of him comes from seven brief letters he wrote to churches while he was being transported to Rome for execution. His words reveal him to be a person of both wisdom and moral might. Listen to some of what he has to say to the church in Ephesus:

Pray continually for the rest of mankind…, that they may find God, for there is in them hope for repentance. Therefore allow them to be instructed by you, at least by your deeds. [What does this suggest about the might of moral authority?] In response to their anger, be gentle; in response to their boasts, be humble; in response to their slander, offer prayers; in response to their errors, be “steadfast in the faith”; in response to their cruelty, be gentle; do not be eager to retaliate against them. Let us show ourselves their brothers by our forbearance, and let us be eager to be imitators of the Lord [What does this say about Wisdom from on high?]…

These are the last times. Therefore let us… love the grace which is present…, let us be found in Christ Jesus, which leads to true life. Let nothing appeal to you apart from Him, in whom I carry around these chains (my spiritual pearls!); by which I hope, through your prayers, to rise again.

I love in Ignatius’ words the idea that what we yearn for in Advent can, to some degree, be manifested in us. The kingdom we pray for begins in us, with us, and through us. There is in us already a portion of the Wisdom we hope one day will order all things and to the degree we live Christ-like lives we manifest a glimpse of the Moral Might we hope one day will be the authority to which the entire human family yields. Rejoice, Rejoice, all ye who yearn. Emmanuel will come to thee. Still, remarkably, both the Wisdom and the Might we yearn for exists within us in some measure even now.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Christ the King Sunday

Luke 23:33-43

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.

Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”

And they cast lots to divide his clothing. The people stood by, watching Jesus on the cross; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.”

Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Today, the last Sunday in the Church Year, is known as Christ the King Sunday. We follow the Christian calendar in order to frame the rhythm of our lives around the rhythm of Christ’s life. In Advent we await God’s birth in the world. For the twelve days of Christmas we celebrate the gift of God’s self to the world. During Epiphany we mark the gradual revealing of God’s light manifested in Christ. In Lent we acknowledge the darkness of our lives and in our world; a darkness which seeks to overshadow God’s light. Throughout Holy Week we observe the rejection and destruction of God’s light. On Easter Day we rejoice that neither the worst we can do nor the most awful forces of this life can conquer the life which God offers to us. At Pentecost we recognize how the power which fueled the light of Christ falls upon each one of us and upon God’s Church. Over the many weeks that follow – through ‘Ordinary Time’ – we learn what it means to manifest God’s life and love in ordinary ways. We live into what it means to be the light of Christ in the world.

And after fifty-one weeks we come to the end of this cycle to recognize how Christ the King, the Light of the world, reigns in us and in our world and over all creation. The strange thing is that the Gospel reading does not give us a particularly compelling image of a reigning king, just as our world does not exactly evidence that God is its sovereign. And yet for those brief hours at the place called The Skull, we see the diverse and complex aspects of humanity brought together in one place and we see how God is present in the midst of it.

Consider who is gathered around the Cross:

There are some who cast lots for Jesus’ clothing; reminding us that there are now (as there always has been) those who seek to benefit from the misfortune of others; scavengers who seek to turn every situation to their advantage.

There are on-lookers; people who feel so disenfranchised they believe they have no power to affect the outcome of events around them. And most likely they believe they have no share in the responsibility of events beyond their control.

There are religious leaders; misguided figures whose thinking about God and perception of God’s ways has become so calcified that when God’s light comes into the world they believe it their sacred duty to snuff it out.

There are soldiers, people empowered to enforce the edicts of rulers who abuse what is entrusted to them by mocking and deriding and dehumanizing at every possible turn.

Of the two criminals, there is one who looks at the beaten, battered crucified figure of Jesus and says, “Some God you are! Is this the best you can do for us and for yourself? If so, it is not very impressive!” And let’s be honest, who has not responded to an unanswered prayer or a numbing heartache or natural disaster or any other number of possible, legitimate complaints, and not said to God in some form or fashion, “Really God? Is this the best you can do?”

And then there is the other criminal who looks at the mess he has made of his life and ponders the brokenness he has created and shadowy darkness he has cast throughout his days and begs for mercy.

It is quite a scene, isn’t it! And as I said, it is a pretty broad, fairly full representation of humanity. And in all its diversity I see aspects of myself. There is a facet of me in each of these people. Can you see aspects of yourself in each of them as well?

Each of the Gospel writers is at pains to portray Jesus, even at His crucifixion, as being in control of all that is unfolding. Each writer highlights that Jesus chooses to be on the Cross, that at any time throughout these events He could have stepped away. This tells us something very profound about the Kingship of Christ. It tells us that Jesus chooses to reign from the costly place where all these voices intersect. His throne is the Cross and it is positioned squarely in the center of life’s widely divergent demands; demands which are often in diametric opposition to one another.

There is within me, as I assume there is within you, a voice of consternation that wonders why God has not done more to effect good in our world. There is another voice which begs for mercy for all that I have done to damage God’s work in the world. There is a part of me that feels completely powerless in the face of life’s demands and there is a part of me that acknowledges I abuse what power I do have. I know how I can be an opportunist, a voice of ridicule, and a roadblock on the pathway to the kingdom. In all of this Christ chooses – chooses – to reign in my life from the place where all these competing interests intersect. And of all that you can say about the Church – universal and in its local manifestation here at St. Paul’s – Jesus Christ chooses to reign in our midst from the very center of all that we are.

It is from this position at The Skull that God’s triumphant reign is seen most clearly. So if we, the body of Christ, want to emulate this reign in today’s world and in the lives of our people, we will seek to position ourselves at the great intersection of the world’s contempt and complaint and corruption and cry for pity.

Jesus, as He reigns from the most unlikely of thrones, makes only two kingly pronouncements: “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do,” and “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” One recognizes the consequences of our limitations, but does not withdraw the radical graciousness of God’s love. The other suggests that even when we are caught up in life’s agony and misfortune we stand squarely in the kingdom of God; side by side with Christ as He reigns on the Cross.

We have come through the course of a year to learn again that we are loved in and through all things, even when we are at our worst, and that no matter what God is still God, reigning from the intersection of all that life has to offer.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Settling into Life's Second Half

Luke 21:5-19

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them. When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.”
Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”

The college I attended had an excellent, but demanding engineering program. On the first day of the first class of the freshman year, with all the engineering hopefuls gathered in one large classroom, the head of the department asked the students to look at the person on their right and the person on their left. After a dramatic pause he said, “This time next year, one of the three of you will be a business major, another will be in accounting. Only a third of you will graduate with an engineering degree.” It was a hard, sobering message to hear. It effectively communicated that the road ahead was going to be marked by challenge, anxiety, fear, and failure. No one was going to skate on through. Only a few would survive.

It is the same message given to med students as they begin their residency, law students as they prepare to sit for the bar, and young men and women as they begin basic training:

This is going to be hard.
This is going to demand your best.
This is going to push you past the breaking point.
Some of you are not going to make it.

It is not a new message about a current challenge. It is at least as ancient as the teachings of Jesus. Whenever you read the bible or listen to it being read in public worship, never forget that all of it – its various parts from different eras and settings – emerged during a time of terror. The gospels, for instance, were compiled in and around the Roman siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD. This led to the complete destruction of the Temple; an event so cataclysmic that it decimated not only the religious center of the people, but most of its governance and culture as well.

For those original readers of Luke’s Gospel, today’s passage was not a prediction of 21st century events – as some ‘bible-believing’ folks would have us think – but teachings by Jesus regarding events unfolding in their own day and the traumatic realities they lived with as a constant companion. Jesus says to them:

Following Me in the faith is going to be hard.
Being a disciple will demand the best you have.
You will be pushed past the breaking point.
Some of you are not going to make it.

But He also says something more:

You are not going to go through this alone.
I will be with you to see you through.
Make up your mind now (or other versions translate it as “settle it in your mind” or even “settle it in your heart”) that these things are going to happen.
As you endure, you gain your soul.

The tense of the verb to settle coveys the idea of a present action which has future implications. The idea is that as you tend to your spiritual life today, you are better prepared to face the challenges of the future. The more fully we know God’s love today, the more comforted we will be by it in the dark times to come.

You may find it interesting to know that the only other place in the New Testament where this usage of the verb to settle is found is in Peter’s first letter:

And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself restore, establish, strengthen, and settle you. (5:10)

Did you hear the connection between suffering and settling? Did you catch the order of the verbs: restore, establish, strengthen, and finally settle? It is almost as if something that has been broken has been repaired.

The verb to settle is found only one place in the Old Testament and it deals with the rebuilding of the Temple in the 4th century before Christ. There it speaks of the walls and even the altar itself, once restored and established, as being settled. It is a very powerful image that suggests as God loves and cares for the Temple so God loves and cares for us. The Temple, so broken that not one stone was left on another, becomes settled. We, who throughout our lives are broken, are restored, established, strengthened, and settled by God’s power working in us.

I keep a file of my sermons, organized by the readings for the 3-year Lectionary cycle. Fifteen years ago this Sunday I preached for the first time after my younger daughter’s birth. In that sermon I related my four-year-old daughter’s concerns: “Dad, we’re a family right? You and me and mom and Abbey and Maggie (our dog) and the gerbils. We’re a family right? And we’ll always be together! Right?” “Yes, dear, we’re a family and we’ll always be together,” I told her, knowing that some day it would not be so, but in my lying I was thinking primarily about the gerbils.

Looking back now, I can say with complete confidence that I never could have anticipated all that has happened in my life and if you would have told me about it ahead of time, I would not have been able to bear the thought. And yet here I am on the other side. I am not sure I would described myself as being restored, established, strengthened, and settled, because it feels more like an on-going process than something that has been completed. But here I am.

The speaker at our clergy conference last week talked about the two phases of life. In the first phase we act as if we get from life what we put into it. If we work hard and do the right things we believe everything will be fine. But at some point there comes a crisis so deep there is nothing (and I mean nothing) we can do to work our way out of it. It may be a mess of our own making. It may be something well beyond anything we did or deserve. But whatever it is it brings us to our knees. There, helpless, unable to lift ourselves on our own, God’s grace comes to us and – over time and through many, many tears – that grace sees us through. This is when the second phase of life begins… a phase when we realize that all of life is about grace: undeserved, unearned, unseen, but unmistakable grace.

This is the time when today’s final words of Jesus become our reality: as you endure you gain your soul. I sense what has changed in me over the last 15 years, emerging from the ashes of one crisis after another. I don’t know how else to describe it other than to say I am learning more and more how to live and move and have my being in God’s grace. I see it in many of you as well, you who have been born by grace through crisis and reborn into the second half of life.

Some five centuries before Jesus, the prophet Isaiah spoken poetically of our great hope in God. During the time of Judah’s exile and ruin, he envisioned a day when infants would not die young and people of many years would be plenteous; a day when you could build a house and count of living in it, plant a crop and know with certainty you would harvest it; a day when the wolf and the lamb will feed side by side, when lions will not prey on oxen, but eat straw with them. It is a vision only possible for a person who has looked at the student on the left and on the right and made it through – perhaps as a business major. It is a hope only proclaimed by a person who has endured crisis and been reborn into the second half of life. It is a message proclaimed by a one who has been restored, established, strengthened, and settled who believes that what God has done for him God will do for all. His message to us, which we proclaimed in our reading: Surely it is God who saves me.

Monday, November 1, 2010

God's Love for the Lacking: Pentecost 23

Luke 19:1-10

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

Flannery O’Connor, in her essay “Mystery and Manners” observed that when authors of fiction write about the rich, they are more concerned with what the person lacks than with what the person has. And although St. Luke’s gospel is not fiction, he took the same approach when he wrote about Zacchaeus. Luke lets us know who Zacchaeus was and what he has with two brief descriptions: he was a tax collector and he was rich. But Luke does not dwell on the benefits of this status; though we can be sure there were many. Zacchaeus had a better life-style than most, he lived in a prestigious Jericho neighborhood, and he enjoyed the best methods of transportation, the finest clothes, and the most sumptuous foods. All in all, Zacchaeus reveled in the privileges that come with affluence.

But when Luke wants us to know about Zacchaeus, he does not describe any of that. He tells us about what Zacchaeus lacks. Luke does not lay it out in black and white. You have to read between the lines to get the specifics, but they are there for us to see. You get the sense that Zacchaeus was isolated, that there was a hiddenness about him, that all his bravado was a mask for a deep-rooted sense of inferiority. The local community rejected him because of his occupation and his tactics of extortion. When Luke set out to tell us about him, he could not identify a single important family member, friend, or acquaintance in Zacchaeus’ life. And, perhaps most important, Zacchaeus was hiding from God. While he may have been short in stature, you get the sense that Zacchaeus believed himself to be even shorter in soul. What did Zacchaeus lack? He had everything the world offers, but nothing that comes from God.

The conversion of Zacchaeus – the personal transformation achieved with blinding speed – is one of my favorite stories in the Bible. The best sermon I ever heard on Zacchaeus had two simple points. First, Jesus tells Zacchaeus “I love you where you are.” Hiding in a Sycamore tree, cheating everybody in town out of their hard-earned money, alone and miserable and isolated, but nicely dressed! – Jesus says to Zacchaeus, “I love you where you are.” Then Jesus says to him, “I need you. I want you to do something for me. I want to come to your house for lunch.” And there, at Zacchaeus’ home, surrounded by all that ill-gotten gain, Jesus was able to look past all that was wrong with the little man’s life. He was able to see what Zacchaeus lacked.

No one had ever told him “God loves you right here, right now - no conditions, no qualifications, no catches, and no hidden fees. God loves you.” Do you realize what a radical statement this is? In Zacchaeus’ day it was believed that God loved you because you were a part of the Chosen Nation and because you followed all the rules and regulations and because you kept yourself ritually clean for worship in the Temple and because you made the right sacrifices at the appointed time. Basically folks believed you deserved God’s love because you did all the things necessary to earn God’s love.

2000 years later I don’t know that things have changed all that much. We still attach God’s love to conditions like attending church and quoting the bible and being a “good person” – however you might define ‘good.’ Now, as then, we want to put limits on God’s love. We are more comfortable with a Savior who says “Be a better parent, stop cheating people when you collect taxes, get to church more often, and serve on some committees. Do that for two or three years and then maybe you will be worthy of my love.”

The problem is, when we put those kinds of words on the lips of our Savior, then our Savior doesn’t really save us at all. It all rests with us and with our ability to get our own act together. When the Church says to a person that she needs to come around to the right kind of life before God can love her, then we are saying in effect, “Save yourself.” That is not the Gospel message of Jesus Christ.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor and theologian, wrote this:

"Christ is not concerned, himself, with being good. He is concerned solely with love for the real person, and for that reason He is able to enter into fellowship with our guilt and to take the burden of our guilt upon Himself. Jesus does not desire to look down on us as the only guiltless One while each one of us goes on to our ruin under the weight of our guilt. He does not wish to acquit Himself of the guilt under which we die. He wishes to assume it. A love which left us alone in our guilt would not be love for the real us. From His selfless love, from His freedom from sin, Jesus enters into our guilt and takes that guilt upon Himself in His body, on the cross.”

This is why we proclaim Jesus as the only Savior!

So Zacchaeus responds to unconditional love – perhaps the first time in his life he has ever known a love like that! And then he responds to Jesus’ call to service. Long-dormant gifts of hospitality resurface. He makes a meal for Jesus and His Disciples. And at that meal, overjoyed with a new sense of love and purpose, with a new sense of community and fellowship with God, Zacchaeus makes the kind of moral and ethical changes so many people would demand of him before they would allow God to love him. But notice the process. Notice that love comes first, purpose follows, and finally repentance and amendment of life are a possibility.

What do you lack? Do you sense that God loves you right now, right where you are? Can you discern God calling you to service – giving you a reason and purpose in life beyond surviving the daily grind and paying the monthly bills? These two spiritual elements seem to be prerequisites to real transformation. If they are not present, change will not occur.

By my reading of this account, Zacchaeus does one thing to initiate the change in his life. He climbs a tree. He is too short to see over the crowd as Jesus passes by. He is not well liked, so no one will let him pass through to the front. And goodness knows he probably does not want to be front-and-center when Jesus passes by anyway. So he goes to the back and climbs a tree and that alone sets him apart from everyone else in the crowd. That is why Jesus was able to see him.

If you are listening to my sermon this morning and thinking that you are not that different from Zacchaeus, that you are lacking something you can not live without, that you are putting all the wrong things in the place where only God can be, that you have never really sensed God’s unconditional love for you, or that you don’t believe you have anything of value to contribute, do me one favor… call me some time.

Climb a tree, as it were, and lets talk. There is nothing more important that I can do for you as your priest. When I was ordained I did not take a vow before God and the Church to point out all the places where people are lacking. I took a vow to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ so that all people might come to know the power of God’s love and the healing of His forgiveness. Call me some time and let’s talk. Let’s talk about you and about Jesus and about how Jesus can love and use a person just like you – right now, just as you are.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Prayer in the Check-Out Line

Luke 18:9-14

Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt:

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’

But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

I can honestly say that I have never prayed the Pharisee’s prayer in church. But I must confess that it is my typical litany as I stand in a checkout line - especially at Wal-Mart. I pass the time there by sizing up all the people ahead of me and making a mental list of their faults: weight, hair, make-up, clothing, body language, use of the English language... I suspect you know the drill. In my better moments I spend the time in prayer asking God to grant me the gift of seeing those around me as God sees them. Far more than being a better way to endure the wait, I need to be transformed in a way that appreciates the beauty and dignity of every human being; for each of us is created in the image of God and I find that my humanity diminishes whenever I diminish the humanity of another person. My heart, when filled with self-righteous contemptuousness, is not a pretty sight nor is it a suitable dwelling place for the Spirit of the holy and loving God.

I think St. Augustine knew what it was to have a heart like mine. Well after his conversion to Christianity he wrote this about his life-long struggle to know God’s love for all people:

I came to You too late, Oh Beauty, so ancient and so new. Yes, I came to love You too late. What did I know? You were inside me, and I was out of my body and mind looking for You. I drove like an ugly madman against the beautiful things and beings You made.

Denise Levertov, one of my favorite contemporary poets, wrote this in response to what we just heard:

Augustine said his soul
was a house so cramped
God could barely squeeze in.
Knock down the mean partitions,
he prayed, so You may enter!
Raise the oppressive ceiling!

I like her image of a contemptuous heart being like a cramped room; walls closing in on one another and a ceiling so low you must stoop or squat in order to move around. That kind of a room is no place you would want to be for long. It is not the image of what we hope our Christ-filled hearts will be like. And it is not how the Agitator God will leave us.

Augustine continues his story with this:

You were inside me, but I was not inside You… You called to me, cried to me; You broke the bowl of my deafness, You uncovered my beams and threw them at me; You rejected my blindness; You blew a fragrant wind on me, and I sucked in my breath and wanted You; I tasted You and now I want You as I want food and water; You touched me, and I have been burning ever since to have Your peace.

Here is what Levertov wrote regarding Augustine’s soul:

It’s clear desire
fulfilled itself in the asking, revealing prayer’s
dynamic action, that scoops out channels
like water on stone, or builds like layers
of grainy sediment steadily
forming sandstone. The walls, with each thought,
each feeling, each word he set down,
expanded, unnoticed; the roof
rose, and the skylight opened.

I love that image of prayer being like water running over stone, which, in time, scoops out channels in our soul; places where transformation happens, but perhaps happens slowly, unnoticed. Yet in time, the low roof on our hearts begins to rise and a skylight is opened, allowing God’s love to shine into those places inside us that once were dark.

For me, the check-out line is as good a place as anywhere to start the process. Can I allow the other to become more in my mind and my heart and my soul than a label like white trash, welfare mom, old lady, redneck, fat slob, or tax collector. It is a fundamental question: does God love just me – the wonderful me I imagine myself to be – or does God love all that God has made and called good? And if God loves all, how can I begin to allow that love to shine in my closed, cramped, dark heart? If I start in the check-out line and then move to rush hour traffic and then extend it to coworkers, fellow parishioners, neighbors, and family members… well, eventually (to shift the metaphor) channels will be carved in the solid stone of my hard heart through which a love from beyond can freely flow.

Some twenty years ago, The Rev. Carolyn Crawford told a story in a sermon that was so moving it was picked up by newspapers across the country. It was Christmas time and Crawford decided to go to a local Nordstrom’s store to do some shopping. Then as now, Nordstrom’s is a high-end retailer that prides itself on customer service. The store presented an elegant environment with beautiful decorations and Christmas carols played by a man in tuxedo at a grand piano. The store conveyed all the sights, sounds, and aromas of the season for its well-heeled cliental.

As Crawford browsed she noticed a woman in ragged clothes pushing an old shopping cart filled with tattered possessions. Figuring this bag lady would soon be escorted from the store by security guards, Crawford decided to follow at a distance and observe. The disheveled figure wandered from one department to another and surprisingly no one asked her to leave.

Eventually the woman made her way to the very expensive “Special Occasions” department where a stylishly-dressed saleswoman greeted her. They discussed the latest styles, colors, and fabrics that one might look for in a dress for a gala event. After searching through evening dresses in her size, the homeless customer chose about a half dozen to try on and the attentive saleswoman assisted her to the dressing rooms. Emerging several times and each time wearing a different dress, the saleswoman helped her evaluate her selections: “A perfect color for you.” “This one really works well with your hair and eyes.” “You look so elegant in that dress.” The bag lady who had shuffled into store was standing upright now, holding her head high with a renewed sense of dignity and worth.

“Can you hold this one for me?” she asked the saleswoman. “Well, of course I can,” was the reply. “And how long would you like to hold it for you?” “Oh, just a few hours,” said the bag lady. “That will not be a problem,” said the saleswoman, who never let on what both of them knew, that the bag lady would not be coming back to buy a dress she could never afford. And yet, with the same dignity and respect that she would show for any of the other wealthy customers, the saleswoman set aside the dress, asked what else she might do to be of service, and thanked the woman for shopping at Nordstrom’s.

After the homeless woman left the store, Crawford approached the saleswoman and asked about the incident. The woman replied, “Here at Nordstom’s, our only goal is to satisfy the customer. My job is always and only to serve and be kind.” And when she told this story to her congregation, Crawford gave her sermon the title “The Gospel according to Nordstom’s.”

Where should you start to live out the Gospel? Where should you pray for the ceiling to be raised on your dark heart? Where should you ask for God’s grace to flow and flow and flow over the hardened stone of your inner world? Well, a good place to start is wherever your thoughts (or maybe even your prayers) go something like this: “Thank God I am not like other people… especially like that person over there.”

Monday, October 18, 2010

Pentecost 21: The Courage to Will and to Persevere

Luke 18:1-8

Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said,

“In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’

For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’”

And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Jesus was not a part of the ruling elite nor was He well-placed in the religious hierarchy of His day. He came not from money, but existed in that class of people whose fortunes ebbed and flowed with fortunes and misfortunes of the day. And, in reality, it was more like degrees of misfortune and it was more like the varying severities of ebbing. Abuses handed out by the Roman occupiers, excessive taxation and onerous rents, and religious obligations piled one on top of another… this was the world in which Jesus was raised. So is it any wonder that He thirsted so mightily for the kingdom of God, for a reign of justice!

Today we hear Him tell His followers a parable about an indifferent judge and a persistent, pestering widow. The judge represents the epitome of power, a person in the human institution instructed by God to protect the weak and vulnerable. And in the Hebrew society, there was no person more weak and vulnerable than a widow. But this judge cares nothing for the widow, yet relents only when he tires of her nagging. God, says Jesus, is not like that judge because God cares deeply for us. His point is obvious: God, who loves us, will much more willingly respond to our persistent plea for justice.

This is yet another in a string of teachings by Jesus recorded in succession by Luke the Gospeler that, while being curious on the surface, conveys a straightforward meaning: justice never overcomes injustice without a struggle, inhumanity is never overcome by humanity alone, and the kingdom of God is never ushered in by quitters.

Justice never overcomes injustice without a struggle. Here in Virginia, one of the voices who speaks for Episcopalians and other faith traditions is the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy. Several years ago the center began to lobby against the exorbitant rates charged by payday lending businesses. The first year’s efforts during the General Assembly bore little fruit, but they did not give up. They worked to educate congregations and denominations over the next twelve months. This garnered more popular support for the cause, yet the second year’s legislation fell short again. So the center began to work more directly with two groups: those holding public office and media outlets around the commonwealth. By the third year a diverse group of legislators took up the cause and editorials in papers around the state came out in favor of reform. Still, no bill was passed. The center pushed forward and by the fourth Assembly broad and deep consensus was in place to enact reforms. Four years. Justice takes time.

And inhumanity is never overcome by humanity alone. No one person or group can muster from within the resources needed to make a wrong right. No significant social change is made simply by wearing out the soles of your shoes. Those who overcome also wear out the knees on their pants. If God wills it, God will provide the strength to accomplish it. Without that strength our human resources, while important and necessary, become depleted. Every parent knows this truth. Our love and our skill and our desire to raise our children are never enough. Parenting, like the quest for justice, must be nurtured and supported and strengthened by the Source that is above us.

And that kind of a prayer life is essential to keep us going because the kingdom of God is never ushered in by quitters. I suspect that most of us – with me at the head of the pack – can be characterized as complacent. Yes, there is much that we don’t like about our society and while we rail and wail there is not a lot that we are offering to make it any different. But every now and then we conceive of how we might make a difference. Maybe it is a Food Pantry or a reading program that pairs children with therapy dogs or a renewed effort at excellence in Christian formation. Or maybe, as it is now with several of our parishioners, it involves getting involved in local government races and issues. Whatever it might be, we must calculate the cost… how much of my time will it take? My money? My emotional strength? My spiritual reserves? Am I in it to see it through, or just in it until it gets tough? Or draining? Or unpopular? Think about anybody who has ever changed our society – say Martin Luther King – or who changed our community or who changed our parish. Was any one of them a quitter?

In a few moments we will baptize Olivia Ferguson into the Christian faith and life. Once I administer the water in the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, I will pray for her what has been prayed for each one of us at our baptism:

Sustain her, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give her an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.

An inquiring and discerning heart… well, that is important if you are going to know God’s will. A gift of joy and wonder in all God’ works… well, that is important if you are going to appreciate all that God does. A spirit to know and to love God… that speaks for itself. But have you ever paid attention to this part of the prayer: the courage to will and to persevere? It is an essential element of the Christian faith and life. If we don’t will God’s kingdom to come through us and if we don’t persevere in our efforts, then we are little more than a light hidden under a basket or salt that has lost its flavor.

Jesus offers today’s parable at a time in His life when He knows He is nearing the greatest test He will face. He knows that the justice He seeks will not come cheaply. It will be as costly as the cross. He knows that inhumanity will not become overcome by the offering of His humanity alone. He knows that the power of God will have to raise Him up from the power of death. And He knows that He will see it through to the end. There is no quit in Him.

Perhaps the last line in the gospel reading is the most telling as to what is on His mind: “When the Son of Man comes again, will He find faith on the earth?” Will He find anyone baptized into the Christian faith and life who has the courage to will the kingdom of God into reality and is able to persevere in the work this will take? What will He find in you? What will He find in me?

Monday, October 11, 2010

Penetcost 20: The Leper & the Pastoral Letter

Luke 17:11-19

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean.

Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan.

Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”

Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

Today’s Gospel reading finds Jesus at a borderline area – a place where people of different ethnicities meet and interact. Then, as now, these regions and relationships offer a variety of blessings and set in motion certain challenges. Jesus is in a vibrant and volatile area as He encounters ten lepers. The focus of the story as Luke tells it is not so much on the miraculous healing that Jesus effects, but rather on the one person who returns to give thanks… that person being a ‘foreigner.’

Let me use the context of this story to comment on a Pastoral Letter issued from the House of Bishops who met a few weeks ago in Arizona. Bishops of the Episcopal Church typically gather twice a year under the leadership and direction of the Presiding Bishop. From time to time the bishops use these gatherings to craft a Pastoral Letter which is then disseminated to the church. In the mid-nineties, for example, the House of Bishops issued a Pastoral Letter on Racism. Clergy are bound by canon law to make these letters available to the parish they serve. Sometimes the diocesan bishop will give specific direction on how this is to occur. It can range from reading the letter in public worship to including it in the monthly newsletter to posting in on a bulletin board. On the occasion of this letter, Bishop Hollerith has made no directive, so the manner of presenting it to the parish is at my discretion.

This most recent letter addresses the immigration crisis facing not only our country, but countries throughout the world. Clearly this is a sensitive, polarizing issue around which many have strong feelings. The letter is included in your bulletin and I will allow you to read it on your own at another time. I did not reproduce the thirty-some pages of supporting documents that the bishops included with the letter. If you would like to see that I will help you figure out how to download it from the internet.

Here is what I like about what the bishops have said.

First, their meeting in Arizona was scheduled long before that state passed its controversial law to crack down on illegal immigrants. Rather than move their meeting out of the state in protest, they used the location to explore the issue more fully.

Second, I like that the bishops met in person with a wide variety of people connected with this concern: “migrants, immigrants, the border patrol, local ranchers, and Christian communities seeking to minister to all these groups.”

Third, I like that the bishops speak to us as leaders of the church, as people who think first and foremost about the kingdom of God, about God’s will being done here on earth as it is in heaven. Their perspective shifts the issue from Republicans verses Democrats, from Fox News verses CNN, and invites (challenges) us to consider what a faithful, Christian position might look like. For me, at least, this is very helpful, for while I am proud to be an American and while most of my personal political leanings are conservative, my first and primary allegiance is to the covenant I made with God at baptism.

Next, I like that the bishops have rejected a viewpoint which holds that this issue must be resolved in accords with the way only one perspective sees it. When emotions run high, competing interests have a way of shouting past each other, never hearing what the other is saying and never benefiting from the wisdom that the other speaks. So, for instance, the bishops “acknowledge the duty of governments to protect their people, including the securing of borders.” In addition they call on the government to create “fair and humane immigration policies” that allow for “a reasonable path to citizenship for undocumented workers” and “a viable system for receiving temporary or seasonal guest workers, with clearly defined points of entry.”

Finally, I like that the bishops mark the difference between those people who cross the border of any country “to escape poverty, hunger, injustice and violence” and those who are “drug traffickers, terrorists, and other criminals.” One group we should do all in a power to keep out, the other are “ordinary people who are simply seeking a better life for themselves and their children.”

The immigration crisis is a huge problem for our country, magnified by our inability as a people to have civil discourse that results in common consensus which then empowers our public leaders to act.

What might we at St. Paul’s do in response to this Pastoral Letter? Well, first we might pray – individually and collectively. Our prayers might dive under the surface of the issue and consider the very real needs and concerns of migrating people. We are connected to them through our common humanity. Many are our brothers and sisters in Christ, related to us through baptism. They need and deserve our prayers.

Next, we can get more deeply involved in the House of Hope, a ministry to migrant workers on the Eastern Shore that we supported through this summer’s Vacation Bible School dessert auction. Several of our partner churches here in Suffolk had made mission trips to House of Hope and we have been invited to join them in future projects.

Finally, our bishops are not telling us what to think, they are telling us what they think. I for one always want to listen to what our bishops have to say, but that does not mean we are not able to speak. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Our bishops hope that we will speak to one another and speak with them and speak with other people in our community and speak with our elected officials. We can and should make our voices heard and it will make a difference. Ultimately what our bishops ask is that we speak as Christians, as persons whose lives are dedicated to the life and teaching and witness of Jesus.

The foreign leper that Jesus encountered was not an undocumented worker or an illegal immigrant because there was no such thing in Jesus’ time. There were no nation states with fixed borders to cross. A person was a Hebrew by virtue of birth, not citizenship. When the bible talks of a person being a “foreigner” it is talking about birth, not nationality. Our bishops caution against reckless reading of scripture that translates the biblical injunction to welcome the stranger and the foreigner into tacit acceptance of illegal immigration. Never-the-less, we cannot disregard Jesus’ example of radical openness to those outside His own ethnicity and heritage. And we cannot dismiss the reality that Jesus’ ministry of healing, as seen in today’s story, extended well beyond comfortable relationships and conventional social norms. It touched all because regardless of immigration status all of us our children of God.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Pentecost 19: Faith as Role & Place

Luke 17:5-10

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”

The Lord replied,

“If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”

“Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”

Habakkuk is an ancient prophet with an odd name, but a very contemporary spiritual struggle. He lives in a time in injustice and hardship. The evil prosper while the average, faithful, hard-working citizens suffer. He prays. He preaches. He points out what is wrong. But nothing changes… especially the part that is God’s to fix. And so he cries out, “O God, just how long is this going to go on? I’m going to sit right here and not move until you give me an answer.”

Have you ever felt that way? Have you ever wondered when a wrong will be righted, when a wound will be healed, when an agitator will be discredited? If so, then you know Habakkuk’s struggle with God. You believe in God’s word and you have a clear understanding of God’s will for this world and you have been told that God’s way will carry the day. But sometimes – perhaps many times – it doesn’t. What is wrong becomes the way, what is wounded only gets worse, and the wicked always seem to exact their will.

And so Habakkuk puts his foot down and demands a response from God. And here is what God says: “Write this out in huge letters on a big billboard: The dream of justice is still alive, but things like this take time. If it seems to be a long way off, or if it seems like it is not going to happen at all, you must be patient. The proud believe in only what they themselves can do, but the righteous live by faith in what I am going to do.”

Faith like this can be a challenge. Years ago I had a youth group meeting on a Sunday evening when the Cleveland Browns were playing their archrival Pittsburgh Steelers. I set the VCR to record the game and looked forward to watching that night after the meeting was over. I had hoped not to learn of the outcome, but one of the parents – while picking up their teenager – let slip that the Browns won an incredible game. So as I watched the tape, I knew the outcome. For most of the game the Browns were badly outplayed and losing. And for a while I wondered if maybe that parent had misled me. But in the final 8:00 minutes, the Browns returned not one but two punts for touchdowns and pulled off one of the most storied wins in team history.

As people of faith, we possess a word about where all of reality is coming from and to where it is going. All begins and ends in God. This is our hope. This is our faith. There are times when it is not at all clear how it is going to happen. Those times when we are down by 12 with time running out is when our faith begins to wane.

I wish the Lectionary had included in today’s reading the first four verses of the 17th chapter of Luke, because they provide very helpful context for what we heard. Let me read them for you:

Jesus said to his disciples, “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble. Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent’, you must forgive.”

Yes, forgiving is something I want to do. It is something I know I am supposed to do. But it is not always something I find easy to do. Given this teaching, it is no wonder Jesus’ followers ask Him to increase their faith. To this, Jesus responds with two more teachings. In the first about a seed He says that a little bit of faith goes a long way. And in the second (and this one is really curious), like a slave who comes into the master’s house after a hard day’s work, don’t expect a thank you… put dinner out on the table. What in the world does knowing your role and doing your job have to do with faith?

Let me offer this: in Genesis 4, after he murders his brother, God banishes Cain from Paradise. He is condemned to be a vagrant and a wanderer for the rest of his life in a place east of the Eden called “Nod;” a word that literally means ‘homelessness’ or ‘aimlessness.’ If homelessness and aimlessness is a punishment, than having a place and purpose is a blessing. Take Paul, for instance, who in today’s reading from 2 Timothy describes his own sense of calling and relates how it encourages him even when it causes him suffering.

Jesus tells His disciples that if they want more faith they should invest themselves more fully in the work God has given them to do. In the midst of life’s struggles and hardships and uncertainties, there is great comfort in the certainty of the daily round. Yes, sometimes the daily round becomes the daily grind. Sometimes it is little more than drudgery. But at its best, our roles in life have a way of containing us, giving us a sense of identity and place and purpose and meaning. Faith in the midst of hardship means being true to these roles, being authentic in the work we are given to do. “The servant who keeps on doing what he or she has been given to do,” Jesus says, “will have more than enough faith to meet the challenges of the day.”

From the time I began to understand the bible, the 37th Psalm has been one of the most influential passages of Scripture on my life and outlook. It proclaims much of what Jesus says about the role of the servant, but in a much less puzzling way:

Put your trust in the Lord and do good;
Dwell in the land and feed on its riches.

[Notice the connection between blessing and place]

Take delight in the Lord,
and he shall give you your heart’s desire.

Commit your way to the Lord
and put your trust in him,
and he will bring it to pass.

[This is the final score at the end of the game, although the outcome may look to be in doubt well into the fourth quarter]

He will make your righteousness
as clear as the light
and your just dealing as the noonday.

Be still before the Lord
and wait patiently for him.

[There is that word again, patience. It seems to be integrally linked with faith, doesn’t it!]

If faith is a multilayered cake, than today’s readings are just one slice. They don’t say everything there is to say about faith, but they do say one or two things that are important. First, faith can be a challenge as we live in the midst of what is not to be. And second, if we keep on doing the things God has given us to do – rejoicing in our role and place – we will find that this faithfulness has a way of fostering our faith.