Sunday, December 29, 2013

let Me Go There with God's Fierce Love

I continue to read and be challenged by the poetry of the Welsh Anglican priest, R.S. Thomas.  Listen carefully to this piece titled The Coming:

And God held in his hand
A small globe.  Look he said.
The son looked.  Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour.  The light burned
There; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows: a bright
Serpent, a river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
With slime.

On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky.  Many People
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs.  The son watched
Them.  Let me go there, he said.

Through his poem Thomas challenges us to engage with God’s fierce love for this world; a world with slimy rivers, bare trees, and starving people.  This is not a poem for a Hallmark card or Norman Rockwell painting.  It is too grim and gritty for that.  What it is is a reflection of our cultural and societal turmoil of the last century or so; a century of world wars, genocide, disease, and environmental destruction.  The bare tree with the crossed boughs to which all hurting people look is of course the cross.  It is precisely to this location that the Son desires to go. 

In the season of Christmas we encounter a baby wrapped in swaddling cloth and lying in a manger.  It is an image that radiates warmth and brims with sentimentality.  But the baby is here for reasons far beyond this.  This baby is here to bring God’s holy love to a hurting and broken world.  And we who gather this day are invited to let this love dwell in the deepest and darkest parts of our lives because Jesus says (to use Thomas’ words), “Let me go there.”  Then, as God’s love finds a home in us and begins to grow – daily transforming us into something more holy than we could ever be on our own – we are invited to share the love we have found with others.

Steve Garnaas-Holmes, the Methodist pastor whose blogsite Unfolding Light I mentioned in my sermon last Sunday, recently was involved in a ministry to distribute gift bags to inmates at a state prison.  He and eight other people greeted each inmate, shock their hands, and then gave them a bag.  He reports that there were 1380 inmates in the prison.  Garnass-Holmes described the experience this way:

To encounter such a wave of humanity, eye to eye, hand to hand, hit me deeply.  They were in all states of age, race, health, stature and personality.  Some were meek, some imposing; some fit and some in shambles, some appreciative and some aloof.  But they are all neglected, condemned, and treated as less than human.  One guy said, “This is the only touch of normalcy all year.”

For each particular inmate the greeting lasted only a few seconds.  For those doing the greeting the experience took a couple of hours.  It was for Garnass-Holmes a deeply spiritual experience:

I prayed that somehow they might… unconsciously behold some grace, experience some love.  It was like serving communion: one after another of God’s beloved people coming by, each with their own story, needs, wounds, sins and gifts, each getting a little symbolic gift in a brief holy moment, a gift of pure love no matter their past.  You hope they get it.

He goes on to write that just as God asked Joseph to trust that Mary’s child was of God, so too are we asked to trust that God is present and at work in everyone we meet.  Sometimes that easier to do than others, isn’t it.  In the silence before the worship service begins it is easy to sense that God is present and at work as we observe someone light a candle and say a prayer.  It is not as easy when we encounter a person who is rude and disrespectful.  Some of the men in that prison had done horrible things, but Garnass-Holmes holds to the belief that something holy is at work inside each one of them.  He admits that some of them are “pretty rough mangers”, but still Jesus says, “Let me go there.” 

The great challenge of Christmas is twofold.  First, can I accept that God loves me just as I am; that the dark and broken recesses of my heart and my mind and my soul are the exact places where Jesus wants to dwell; the rough manger where he will lay?  And second, can I see that in every person I meet and in every person I try to avoid and in every person I want to ignore and in every person I try to forget and in every person who I abhor that there is something holy at work in them as well?  This is God’s fierce love that cannot be quenched, but it can be disregarded.  It is this love made know through the birth of a baby that we celebrate this season.  It is the reason the Word became flesh and dwelt among.  It is the reason why the Word abides in us even now through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit we receive at baptism. 


Sunday, December 22, 2013

A Faithful Partner to Mystery

Years before the 1992 release of John Gray’s book Women are from Venus and Men are from Mars, I knew there was something very different about me and my sister.  I think my awareness first came into focus after a middle school youth activity at the church where we grew up.  When we got home my mom asked me what I thought of the event.  “It was fine,” I said.  “Did you have fun,” she asked?  “Yes,” I said.  Then she asked my sister what she though and my sister spent the next two and a half hours describing a church function that lasted only an hour and a half.  Flash forward twenty years and I found myself serving as a priest in a parish when a dear woman made one of the most quotable remarks I have ever heard, “If you can’t talk to my husband about golf or the weather you are going to have a very short conversation!”

This morning we heard about the birth of Jesus as described by Matthew’s gospel.   On Tuesday night we will hear the same event as told by Luke.  Luke follows the story from Mary’s perspective while Matthew traces it through Joseph.  True to all the stereotypes about men and women, Luke’s gospel has detail and drama and flourish and feeling.  Matthew’s gospel follows the model of a ‘Joe Friday’ police report – just the facts mame.  We heard a spiel about Joseph’s anxiety dream and then the basic facts.  This definitely is the way a guy would tell the story.

In spite of this minimalist approach to storytelling, Joseph has been, and remains, a character whose life is well explored; sometimes in surprising ways.  A little while back, the rock group The New Pornographers (whose lyrics, I feel confident, never before have been quoted from this pulpit until now) released a song from Joseph’s perspective:   

Rumors are flying
All over Galilee these days
And Mary, I’m trying 
To be cool

When my friends walk by
They cannot look at me 
In the eye
Baby, I’m trying

You’re asking me to believe in too many things

I know this child
Was sent here to heal our broken time
And some things are bigger
Than we know…

You’re asking me to believe in so many things

And then there is this song released a couple of years by The Killers (a group whose songs I am sure you hum to yourself as you drive home from church):

Well, your eyes just haven’t been the same, Joseph…

Are the rumors eating you alive, Joseph?

When the holy night is upon you

Will you do what's right, the position is yours…

When they’ve driven you so far that you think you’re gonna drop

Do you wish you were back there at the carpenter shop?

With the plane and the lathe, the work never drove you mad

You’re a maker, a creator, not just somebody’s dad

From the temple walls to the New York night

Our decisions rest on a man.

Both songs explore how difficult it would have been to be in Joseph’s position.

Steve Garnaas-Holmes, a Methodist pastor, publishes a daily meditation on his blogsite called Unfolding Light.  This is his reflection from earlier this week:

in the dumb background,
saint of the detour,
of the unknown road,
no belief or wisdom is asked of you,
only your willingness.

Much is taken;
that divine thief in the darkness
has stripped you of your desire,
your hand upon the tool,
your way,
the plan in your head
with which you needed no other plan.

Now you are asked
to become a tool without knowledge,
faithful partner to a mystery.

“A faithful partner to mystery.”  I like that a lot.  When I think about that husband whose conversations were limited to golf and the weather I remember him as being a faithful partner to mystery.  His wife, she was the spiritual one: loving, nurturing, prayerful, reflective.  He was none of these things, but he knew how and when to sit, stand, and kneel during the service and he knew how to stand by his wife and how to support his family and how to contribute to the work and mission of the parish.  There was more than a little bit of Joseph in him.

During a 1936 lecture on the spiritual life, the writer Evelyn Underhill gave credence to what I am saying.  Listen carefully to what she said:

The riches and beauty of the spiritual landscape are not disclosed to us in order that we may sit in the sun parlor, be grateful for the excellent hospitality, and contemplate the glorious view.  Some people suppose that the spiritual life mainly consists in doing that.  God provides the spectacle.  We gaze with reverent appreciation from our comfortable seats, and call this proceeding Worship.

No idea of our situation could be more mistaken than this.  Our place is not the [sanctuary] but the stage­ – or as the case may be, the field, workshop, study, laboratory – ­because we ourselves form part of the creative apparatus of God, or at least are meant to form part of the creative apparatus of God.  He made us in order to use us, and use us in the most profitable way; for His purpose, not ours… 

Underhill goes on to say that sometimes we know how God is using us while other times we don’t.  Other times we are content with what we are doing, but it gets taken away and we are called to do something else.  And then there are those of us labor at the same task for years and years.  None of it – not a bit – may seem particularly holy or spiritual, but Underhill points out that everything we do in life – from our vocation to our volunteer efforts to simply being a part of a family and a community – can be used by God (as she says) in a profitable way.  No matter what the circumstances, she describes our response as having “all self-willed choices and obstinacy drained out of what we thought to be our work; so that it becomes more and more God’s work in us.”

It seems to me that every Mary needs a Joseph.  Every person whom God calls to do great things needs someone – actually, more like many, many people – who will be faithful partners to mystery.  These people, like Joseph, are not the ones through whom God acts dramatically, but their role is still significant and their participation necessary.  They may only be able to talk about golf and the weather but their contribution is measured not in words, but rather through deeds. 

The holy mystery that was present in Mary needed a faithful partner.  It found this partner in the person of Joseph.  Who bears God’s mystery in your life?  How are you a faithful partner?


Monday, December 16, 2013

John the Disillusioned

The doorbell rang and when the homeowner went to answer it he encountered a tearful man with a bucket who said, “I am trying to raise money for a family in desperate need.  The father has been out of work for year and the mother suffers from a chronic illness.  They have five children and almost no food to eat.  If that isn’t bad enough, their landlord is about to kick them out of their house.  The entire family could be out on the street in a matter of days.”  Well, the person who answered the door was quite moved by this story and asked how much money was needed to pay the rent.  “Exactly $4,000,” said the man with the bucket.  Pulling out his checkbook and a pen, the homeowner said, “I have been very blessed all my life and I’d like to pay off their debt myself.”  “That is so wonderful of you,” the tearful man replied.  Handing over the check the owner asked, “How have you come to know so much about this family and their situation?”  The now-relieved man with the bucket responded, “Oh, they are my tenants.”

Think about a time when you were down and out; a time when life really laid you low.  Someone once quipped that just when I thought I had hit rock bottom a person standing above me tossed me a shovel and ordered me to start digging.  Very few of us manage to get through life without having an episode or two like that. 

This is the exact place we find John the Baptist in today’s gospel reading.  He is in prison, having been arrested for criticizing publically King Herod’s adulterous marriage to his brother’s wife.  Last week we heard about John’s wilderness ministry of calling people to repent and to prepare.  He believed that God’s Messiah was coming and coming soon.  This person, as John conceived it, would lead the people with a baptism of fire.  This person would take a winnowing fork to everything in society that needed to be cut down.  In short, John believed that the Messiah was going to lead a revolution that would overthrow Roman rule and restore the kingship of David’s royal line. 

John proclaimed that Jesus was the person God had raised up for this messianic role.  He baptized Jesus and then he waited for Jesus to act.  And he waited.  And he waited.  And he waited.  And then he was arrested and imprisoned.  And then he waited some more. 

But eventually he could wait no longer.  He sends a few of his followers to ask Jesus if he is going to fulfill his duty of Messiah (as John understood it), or should John start looking around for someone else to do the job.  You can imagine John sitting in a prison cell with his life hanging in the balance thinking to himself that now might be a good time to get the revolution going.  He must have looked out the cell’s window each morning wondering if this would be the day that Jesus was going to lead an overthrowing mob to rise up and free him.  But all he hears about Jesus is that he blesses little children, parties with sinners, and has a penchant for telling perplexing stories about something called the ‘Kingdom of Heaven.’  John is at rock bottom and he is being told to pick up a shovel and dig even deeper.

Again, think about what it was like when your life was at point like this.  Looking back on it now can you see how discouragement and disillusionment worked hand in hand?  Discouragement: nothing that you tried seemed to work.  Disillusionment: everything you had come to believe about life and how it is supposed to unfold turned out to be wrong.  Think about the future that John envisioned and how he dedicated his life for it.  How discouraged and disillusioned must he have been as he sat in that cell? 

John had good reason to be disillusioned because, frankly, he was wrong.  He was operating out of an old and outdated theological worldview.  He held that God cared only about the people of Israel.  He held that the role of the Messiah was to start a rebellion in order to rule from an earthly throne.  And he held that the only work required of the people of Israel was to purify themselves in preparation for the restoration of something from the glorious past.

John came to this view through a narrow reading of Scripture and a heavy dose of cultural influence.  You can pick and choose your way through the bible and paste together a series of verses that point exactly to what John expected.  But this is something akin to looking at a rich, colorful mosaic and focusing only on the green tiles.  If you do that you see something very different and very distorted.  And messianic distortion was rampant in John’s day.  Individuals and groups popped up everywhere predicting this and that.  John himself seems to have joined a commune known as the Essenes who retreated to the wilderness to prepare for the arrival of God’s chosen one and the establishment of a new Israel.

But God’s plan was not to have the Messiah perpetuate a centuries-old cycle of violence in order recreate a geographical kingdom.  What God desired was to renew a loving relationship with the entire human family, to do away with death, and to vanquish the horrible affects of sin.  The author Rob Bell gets it right when he says, “God is not behind us dragging us backwards into some primitive, regressive state.  God has always been ahead of us pulling us forward, into greater and greater peace, integration, wholeness and love.”  Perhaps the single greatest difference between Jesus and John was that John found his vision of the future by looking to the past whereas Jesus’ vision of the future was something entirely new and never before seen.  John’s hope was to recover something lost whereas Jesus’ hope was in something to come that no one had yet imagined.

So John’s followers come to Jesus with John’s question: “Are you the Messiah or are we to wait for another.”  Jesus answers them by saying this: “Go and tell John what you see and hear: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”  His words have the effect of encouraging John to relook at Scripture in order to take note of the blues and the yellows and the reds and the golds.  God’s plan and deep desire is right there.  It has always been there.  We just haven’t noticed it yet.

Matthew’s Gospel does not tell us how John received this answer.  It is also little unclear as to how much or how little time passed between this episode and when Herod had him beheaded.  We will never know if John had time to do the revisioning work Jesus encouraged him to do, or if he was still discouraged and disillusioned when he was executed. 

But I like that today’s reading ends with Jesus proclaiming first that there is no person born of a woman greater than John.  By this Jesus highlights the important role John played in the coming of God’s Kingdom and that he played his role well.  Jesus then adds paradoxically that even the least person in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than John; indicating how blessed you and I are by our understanding of God’s work in Christ (when we get it right).

What a blessing it is to see the world as it truly is and to have some accurate sense of where God is calling it to go.  The actor Michael J. Fox, when asked what it is like to live with Parkinson’s, said, “My happiness grows in direct proportion to my acceptance, and in inverse proportion to my expectations.”  If he was given the time, I think John the Baptist might have said just the same thing:  My happiness grows in direct proportion to my acceptance of what Jesus is doing, and in inverse proportion to my expectations.”

John managed to do great things but did not have life figured out and it tore him up.  He was discouraged and disillusioned.  He needed to learn that finding the Kingdom of God has much to do with laying aside your expectations and accepting what you hear and see God doing.  Where are you in all of this?  When have you been like John?  In what ways are you still like him?  When and how have you been able to let go of your expectations and accept the Kingdom of God for what it is? 

Monday, December 9, 2013

Advent & Social Distance

I knew Tyler when he was in his mid thirties.  He is from the fourth generation of a banking family in a small Iowa town.  Tyler graduated from Stanford University, where he lettered on the school’s exceptional swim team.  He is smart, athletic, personable, and well-off financially.  On nice days Tyler walks fifteen blocks from his home on Grand Ave. overlooking the Mississippi River to the family bank on Main Street.  Not only is it good exercise, but I think the walk does something else important for Tyler: it keeps him in touch with the community he serves.  I use the word ‘serve’ very intentionally because Tyler says the bank exists not to make money, but to help the town.  He holds that as the community prospers the bank prospers. 

Back when I knew him, Tyler’s office was situated by the front door and opened to the teller’s stations.  This too was important.  Tyler knew who was coming into the bank, both in a particular sense, but also in a general sense.  He knew the gas station attendant coming in to make a deposit.  He knew the home nursing aid who stopped by to pay a bill.  He knew the widow whose life-savings were invested through his institution.  His office location and his daily walk keep him in touch with the community’s diversity.  He is aware of his blessings, conscious of his responsibilities, and mindful of the impact his life has on many, many people.

Contrast that with this.  It has been over a decade now since the Enron scandal broke.  It is such a sad tale made possible in large part because its executives lived and worked in isolation and exclusion from the rest of the world.  Their offices were located on the top floors of the headquarters.  They enjoyed an exclusive food service, private elevators, and a dedicated parking deck.  At the end of the day, executives drove luxury cars on superhighways to their opulent homes in gated communities with members only country clubs.  Enron’s executives were elitists in every sense of the word.  In fact, they were so isolated that they had no idea anyone anywhere lived differently than they did.  Greed and corruption were rampant at Enron because that is what executives did to maintain their ‘normal’ lifestyle.  When it all came crashing down the executives were stunned that thousands lost jobs and millions of investors suffered financial loss.  Whatever their moral failings were before they started working at Enron they were exacerbated by isolation from the rest of the world.

In this morning’s Gospel reading we hear again about the ministry of John the Baptist.  He was a curious person with a curious appearance who had a curious diet while engaging in a curious ministry in a curious place – the wilderness.  Perhaps the most curious thing about it all was its popularity.  Mark’s Gospel tells us that people from all over the Judean countryside and from the city of Jerusalem went out to John’s remote location to hear him preach and to be baptized.  Think how different Americans who live in rural areas are from those who live in urban centers.  Think  about how little people from these diverse backgrounds have an opportunity to interact.  What John accomplished, in effect, was the equivalent of getting people from red states and blue states to gather together, to have contact with one another, and to engage one another.

When John saw that corrupt religious leaders were in the crowd, Matthew records him as calling them a brood of vipers who needed to bear fruit worthy of repentance; in other words, it was time for them to change their ways.  Interestingly, Luke records it a little differently.  In Luke’s Gospel John refers to everyone in the crowd as a brood of vipers.  They then ask him what they should do to repent and he gives specific counsel to ordinary folks, to tax collectors, and to soldiers; again indicating the diverse nature of those gathered.

So in addition to encountering a prophet and beyond the religious experience of having your life transformed through baptism, John’s ministry did something else that was very significant.  It created contact between groups of people whose worlds seldom mixed.  The worth of this is easy to overlook and its value cannot be overstated.  Social distance was then, as it is now, a corrosive force in society.

We live in an unimaginable age communication.  There are hundreds of ways for us to connect with people all around the world.  Yet in spite of this technological revolution social distance between groups and classes of people is expanding.  Would you like an example?  Earlier in the year I saw this facebook post from a person I know who lives in the Midwest: “I don’t know what the big deal is.  I don’t know a single person whose life has been negatively effected by sequestration.”  That is social distance.  It leads us to believe that if I personally don’t know someone effected by something than it must have no effect on anyone at all.  It is the principle is at work with the federal cuts to food stamps.  If I don’t know a particular person who hurt by this then no one is hurt by it.  Right?

Social distance makes it easier for people to exaggerate small differences between groups and classes while ignoring the more significant ways we humans are related to one another.  Thomas Pettigrew, a researcher at the University of California, has done work analyzing ethnic hatred.  He has verified that extensive interpersonal contact counteracts prejudice by letting people from hostile groups get to know one another as individuals and even friends.  Even in regions where ethnic groups experience significant conflict, those individuals who have close friends in the other group exhibit little or no prejudice.  They are not able to demonize “others” because at some level they know them to be “just like me.” 

Let me tell you two unlikely people who have stepped out of a world of privilege and isolation in order to learn about the lives of the world’s poor – Bill and Melinda Gates.  I’m sure you know that they have put the majority of their considerable wealth into a trust aimed at eliminating poverty around the world.  The couple has visited dozens of countries and hundreds of villages were they have met more people than most of us will meet in a lifetime.  These contacts have helped the Gates to understand the many, many significant ways we humans are connected to one another.  They make it impossible for them to turn a blind eye to the suffering they see and has led them to respond with their wealth and with their lives.

The Gates Endowment releases a yearly report that chronicles the work of the fund.  Much of it is aimed at improving agriculture because Gates believes this is the best method of fighting hunger and poverty while making life better for billions of people.  The report also criticizes countries and conglomerations that are not doing their part in this work.  Bill Gates is on record as saying, “I am willing to be viewed as a troublemaker by people who are happy with the status quo.”  That is a quote worthy of John the Baptist himself.

Well, you and I don’t have the wealth of Bill Gates.  But here is the thing: it is not how much you have that matters, it is what you do with what you have.  At this time of year, with its focus on family and getting together, the annual advent of John the Baptist reminds us to look out beyond ourselves.  It calls us to gather in some way with the community in which we live.  It encourages us to look around and to recognize the sameness we share with those who might seem different by some other, inconsequential standard.  John invites us to close social distance and to step out of isolation.  He invites us to have contact with people we about whom we have ieas, but no real experience.  From this coming together John knows our hearts will be challenged and changed and we will begin to bear fruit worthy of repentance.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Kairos Time

Every summer in my late teens and early twenties I went with friends to see concerts at an outdoor venue called Blossom Music Center in Ohio.  Must-see acts each year included James Taylor and Jimmy Buffett and I never missed seeing the group Chicago either.  Perhaps you recognize these lyrics to one of their songs:

As I was walking down the street one day
A man came up to me and asked me what
The time was that was on my watch... and I said

Does anybody really know what time it is?
Does anybody really care?

Alright, I admit the music makes the song more than the lyrics, but these words kept coming back to me as I pondered today’s readings.  Each lesson in its own way invites us to think about time.  In one way or another each asks to if we know what time it is. 

We began this morning’s liturgy with these words: “Advent is the time for the human heart to wait, while trusting in God’s eternal time.”  And you responded with the biblical cry, “How long, O Lord, how long?”  “Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light,” we prayed through the collect of the day.  When do we do this?  Now in the time of this mortal life.”  “In the days to come.” we read from the prophet Isaiah, “the Lord’s house will be established.”  It is a promise that both is here and is yet to come.  In this sense it is an ‘Advent promise.’  Paul wrote to the Christian church in Rome, “You know what time it is, how now is the moment for you to wake from your sleep.”  And finally we heard the words of our Lord speaking about his imminent return: “About that day and hour no one knows… only the Father in heaven… So you must be ready for the Son of Man will come at an unexpected hour.”

In New Testament Greek there are two different words for time.  Kronos (from which we get words like chronology) is used to describe sequential time like that represented by a clock.  Kairos refers more to the quality or nature of a moment, like when we say it is time to act.  Many mark the season of Advent with kronos time by counting down the days to Christmas, but today’s readings invite us to think of these four weeks more as kairos time.

Kairos time is like when a golfer stands at the tee and measures the wind speed and direction by tossing a few blades of grass into the air.  The golfer is trying to determine what club to use, how to adjust the swing, and when just the right moment will present itself to attempt the shot.  Kairos time is like when you are playing a video game that requires multiple things to come into just the right alignment so that you can scoot your frog across the road without having it get run over.  Kairos time is like the moment when a parent holding on to a child’s two-wheel bicycle senses that the moment is right to let go for the first time. 

Kairos time signifies an opportune moment, perhaps even a moment that will never come again.  Listen to Mary Oliver’s poem about the fall titled Last Days and tell me what you think it says about both kronos and kairos time:

Things are
  changing; things are starting to
    spin, snap, fly off into
      the blue sleeve of the long
        afternoon.  Oh and ooh
come whistling out of the perished mouth
  of the grass as, things
turn soft, boil back
  into substance and hue.  As everything,
    forgetting its own enchantment, whispers:
      I too love oblivion why not it is full
        of second chances.  Now,
hiss the bright curls of the leaves.  Now!
  booms the muscle of the wind.

“Why not is full of second chances.”  Kronos time suggests that we can always go to the park tomorrow to take that walk or we can always pick up the phone another day to call that friend.  But kairos time suggests not.  Moments come and moments go and some moments will never present themselves a second time.

Ian Markham, the Dean of Virginia Theological Seminary, in an e-mail this week to alumni, quoted Thomas Merton who said, “The Advent mystery is the beginning of the end of all in us that is not yet Christ.”  That is kairos thinking, isn’t it – to recognize how in this moment God is working in you to do away with something that is not of your high calling as a child of God.  What a shame it would be if, rather than watching for that moment, Advent yielded to kronos time and become little more than a hectic hassle to have everything ready and just right for Christmas.

Do you know what the kairos time might be in your life this Advent?  Maybe it is time to let go of a grudge.  Perhaps it is time to sit down with someone who can help you work through your cares and concerns.  Maybe it is time to have a fiscally responsible Christmas.  Perhaps you have been stuck and now is the time to get moving forward.  Maybe the time is right to say I’m sorry.  Could it be the right time to start a particular healthy and life-giving discipline?  Might it be time to let go of a destructive practice or habit?  Perhaps this is the moment to slow down and pay attention to something small and seemingly inconsequential.   What might the kairos moment be for you this Advent?

Last week in the cycle of Holy Women, Holy Men, the church remembered James Huntington who founded the Order of the Holy Cross.  It began as a monastic community in the early 1880’s ministering to immigrants on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.  And although it moved several times, Huntington’s commitment was always to a life marked by prayer, the sacraments, and social service.  In the community’s rule, which he wrote, Huntington stated, “Holiness is the brightness of divine love, and love is never idle; it must accomplish great things.”

That statement, I think, would be wonderful to carry throughout this Advent season.  The brightness of divine love in you is never idle.  It works to accomplish great things.  Why not set aside your kronos To-Do list – you know, all those things that have to be done between now and the 25th – and make a kairos list.  It might have very little written on it.  It may be as short as write a letter to your sister or figure out how to volunteer at an animal shelter.  Whatever is on your list, at the top it should read, “Allow the power of divine love to accomplish great things in and through me.”

Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel reading have been taken out of context by the rapture theologians and misinterpreted to mean that Jesus is going to take some away and leave behind all the bad people.  However, in the context of the lesson, those who are taken away are the ones who have not been asleep.  The person left in the field and the woman who remains at the grinding wheel are the ones who failed to stay awake.  The two who remained awake perceived what was happening, remained conscious through the mind-numbing hum of the humdrum, and kept hold of God and life.  We might say that they understood the kairos nature of time while the two who were left behind lived only in kronos.  Their narrow focus on time as a valuable commodity meant that they missed something important.  They missed a kairos opportunity that presented itself only once. 

Listen to how that song by Chicago ends:

And I was walking down the street one day
Being pushed and shoved by people trying to
Beat the clock, oh, no I just don’t know
I don’t know, and I said, yes I said,

Does anybody really know what time it is?
Does anybody really care?

We begin this brief season of Advent by hearing the words of Paul, “You know what time it is, how it is time to wake up.”

Monday, November 25, 2013

Kingdom Relationships

Fifty years ago last Friday, Nellie Connelly, riding in a motorcade sitting next to her husband, Governor John Connelly, took in the joyous crowds that lined the streets, turned in her seat, and addressed John F. Kennedy: “You certainly can’t say the people of Dallas haven’t given you a nice welcome, Mr. President.”  “No, you certainly can’t,” he replied.  Those were the last four words spoken by a man whose speeches moved nations and molded generations.

Famous last words.  The last thing Conrad Hilton said was this: “Leave the shower curtain on the inside of the tub.”  Bob Hope’s sister asked him where he wanted to be buried.  The comedian’s response became his last words, “Surprise me.”  The last thing a long-time writer for a television soap opera named Charles Gussman said was,  “And now for a final word from our sponsor.”  James French, sitting in the electric chair, turned to gathered reporters and said, “Hey boy, I’ve got tomorrow’s headline for you: ‘French Fries!’”

Famous last words.  See if you can guess who said this:

·   “I found Rome brick, I leave it marble.” – Emperor Augustus.

·   “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” – Nathan Hale.

·   “Strike the tent.” – Robert E. Lee

·   “Don’t give up the ship.” – James Lawrence

·   “Roger, go at throttle-up.” – Dick Scobee, pilot of the space shuttle Challenger

·   “Oh wow.  Oh wow.  Oh wow.” – Steve Jobs

On this final Sunday in the Church Year – a day when we acknowledge and celebrate the Kingship of Christ – we hear two of our Lord’s final ‘seven words’:

·   Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.

·   Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.

Off all the things we have heard Jesus say, of all his teachings and parables recorded in Luke’s Gospel that we have read over the span of this liturgical year, these are the last two things we hear Jesus say.  Remembering dying words hardly seems like a fitting way to celebrate kingship, does it.  But these words, so intentionally spoken, reveal something significant about the Kingdom over which our Lord reigns.  First and foremost, it is not a kingdom marked by geographical boundaries nor is it controlled by money or by might.  It is a Kingdom of relationships.  “You will be with me,” Jesus tells the thief.  “We will be in relationship with one another this day and forever.”  Wherever and whenever a person is in relationship with God there is the Kingdom.  Whenever and wherever two or more people who are in relationship with God are in relationship with one another, there is the Kingdom of God we call the Church.

“Father, forgive them” – for any relationship to survive and thrive there has to be forgiveness because at some point or another, and then over and over again, we hurt one another.  By forgiving those who put him to death, Jesus highlights that Kingdom relationships are to be resilient and should always rise above anything any of us does to harm or destroy them.  The hardest work we are called to do as followers of Jesus is the work of reconciliation – the work of restoring and repairing broken relationships. 

When a person is ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church, he or she promises to preach the Word of God and to administer the Sacraments in such as way that the reconciling love of Christ is made know.  This vow – which goes far beyond preaching and liturgical practice – is perhaps the most difficult to keep.  We in the priesthood are not called to be perfect.  We make mistakes.  We hurt people.  People hurt us.  We are just like everyone else in this regard.  What sets us apart is the vow we take to seek reconciliation; to make healed and whole and healthy Kingdom relationships our utmost priority.  It is a vow not rooted in good behavior, you know the “I’ll be a bigger person and be the one to bury the hatchet first.”  It is rooted in the essence and life of our King.

What do you know about the life of Elizabeth Barrett, the famous Victorian era poet?  Her first books were published when she was just twelve years old.  At age fifteen, she injured her spine and, as a result of complications during her recovery, was considered to be an invalid.  After a family tragedy, her father refused to allow any of his children to marry and as a result Elizabeth became a recluse.  And still she continued to write.  At the age of 39, one of her publications caught the attention of another writer, Robert Browning.  He visited Elizabeth and wrote to her frequently.  He encouraged her to get out of bed and to resume a normal life, but his efforts were met with strong resistance from her parents.  They refused to let Browning see their daughter, but love would not be denied.  Eventually Robert helped Elizabeth break free from her domineering family.  The two were married and moved to Italy where the sunny, warm climate helped Elizabeth to make a complete recovery from her long-time maladies.

None of this mattered to her parents.  They disowned her and cut off all ties.  Elizabeth persevered, writing a letter to her parents every week for over ten years.  She told them over and over how much she loved them and longed to be reconciled.  One day she received a huge box in the mail from them.  It contained every letter she wrote to home and not a single one had been opened and read.  These “love letters” now comprise a precious part of English literature that have touched the lives of countless many, but it is sobering to think that the people for whom they were intended closed their hearts to their author, their daughter.

I’ll say it again:  Kingdom relationships are to be resilient and should always rise above anything any of us does to harm or destroy them.

Let me tell you another story, this one with a different ending.  Two brothers lived on adjoining farms.  One day they had a deep quarrel and ended all contact with each other.  The feud became so bitter that one brother dammed up the creek that provided water for both farms, cutting off a vital resource for his brother’s livelihood.  Well, that brother became so disgusted at the sight of the growing pond on his brother’s farm that he hired a carpenter to build a fence so the he would not have to look at his brother’s property.  The carpenter worked tirelessly all day, but rather than build a fence along the water, he built a bridge over it.  When the other brother saw it he was so moved by what he supposed to be a gesture of goodwill that he walked halfway across the bridge.  The brother who hired the carpenter, on seeing his brother on the bridge, walked out to meet him.  The two embraced and made tearful, heartfelt amends.  After a while they noticed that the carpenter was packing up his tools and getting ready to leave.  The brothers implored him to stay, but the carpenter refused, saying, “I still have other bridges to build.”

One of the most impressive structures ever created is the Golden Gate Bridge.  It is a 1.7 mile expanse of that spans the bay between San Francisco and Marin County.  Construction lasted over four years.  The bridge is built of 83,000 tons of steel, 80,000 miles of wire bundled together, and at least 600,000 rivets in each of the two main towers.  At its opening, the bridge’s chief engineer said the Golden Gate Bridge is built to last forever.   Imagine the work and materials that went into spanning a gap of less than two miles.  Now imagine this: the gap of brokenness between us and God, and the gap of brokenness between individuals and groups within the human family, was spanned by Jesus Christ with just two pieces of wood and three nails.  It is a bridge we can walk to be reconciled with God and one another, or it is a bridge we can avoid.  The choice is ours.

Think about the flow of today’s liturgy.  We move from hearing God’s word to making a confession as we become aware of the ways we have fallen short.  Confession gives way to contrition, forgiveness, the restoration of broken relationships, and ultimately to communion together at our Lord’s Table.  This is the deep desire of Christ the King.  It is the culmination of his life and work.  His reign is found whenever and wherever Kingdom relationships are found.