Monday, December 29, 2014

A Moment of Memory & Imagination

Christmas memories.

Let me tell you a story and every word of it is completely true (wink, wink).  When I was a little boy I wanted a new bicycle for Christmas, but my mother, knowing that I had been a terrible brat and trouble maker all year, said I didn’t deserved it.  She told me I was going to need to take a long, hard look at my behavior and make some changes.  My mom told me to write a letter to Jesus, confess my sins, and petition the Savior for the bike I wanted.

Well, after I threw a temper tantrum and got sent to my room, I settled down and sat down to write a letter.

Dear Jesus,
  I’ve been a good boy this year and would appreciate a new bicycle.
  Your friend,

Now I knew that Jesus knew this wasn’t true, so I ripped up the letter and gave it another try.

Dear Jesus,
  I’ve tried to be a good boy and I really want a new bike.
  Yours truly,

Again, I realized this wasn’t true, so I crumpled up the letter, threw it in the trash can, went running out of the house, and headed straight to our neighborhood church.  I knelt down in a pew and told Jesus all the bad things I’d had done.  Finally, after an hour of unloading my burdened soul, I stood up to leave.  Just then I happened to notice the crèche figures in a nearby display.  I walked over and took in the beautiful sight.  Impulsively I grabbed the figure of Mary and ran out the door.

When I got back to my room, I sat down and wrote a final letter:

  I’ve got your mother.  If you ever want to see her again, you’d better get me a new a bike for Christmas.
  You know who!

Christmas memories.  This story is true.  Tonight, as every Christmas Eve, my mind drifts back to this day in 1995 when I was serving a church in a small town in Iowa.  The doorbell rang at the Rectory, which was located on the parish grounds.  It was early afternoon on a day when the temperatures were in the teens and a biting cold wind was howling out of the north.  Before me stood a man who introduced himself as Michael Araba from the Anglican Church of Nigeria who was in America hoping to study at a The Virginia Theological Seminary.  He was having immigration problems because his visa had expired and his only hope for renewal was to be at a meeting with officials in Rochester, MN the day after Christmas.  Michael was traveling with his wife and infant daughter.  Their car, in which they had slept the two previous nights, had broken down several times and their money was exhausted.  They had no way to continue on with their journey and nowhere to turn.

Michael came to the Rectory because it was the nearest Episcopal Church and he was desperate.  I gave him $150 dollars from the discretionary fund and, because he had only a sweater, I gave him one of my coats.  His wife and child were adequately clothed so we gave them a handful of diapers and wipes, some warm blankets, food, and a few of the girls’ toys for their baby.  They said they didn’t need anything else so, after I said a prayer with them, they were on their way.  There is not a Christmas Eve that goes by that I don’t think of that visit.  It was almost like the Holy Family had come to our door. 

Do you ever wonder why so many divergent thoughts flood your mind during a worship service, especially this service on Christmas Eve?  Far from being distractions to what we are really supposed to be doing, memories like these are vital and necessary ingredients in the complex recipe that makes for meaningful worship.  Something wonderful happens as we connect our story to God’s Story.  Something powerful happens when we are able to hear the sacred stories of the people of the Bible and through God’s Spirit find a way to see how our own experience is in communion with theirs.

A Roman Catholic theologian by the name of Johann Metz once said, “Without memory, the Church would cease to exist.”  No other time of the year is as pregnant with rich memories as Christmas time.  What memories of yours are coming alive tonight?  For those of you who grew up here at St. Paul’s, I wonder what you remember and who you are thinking about.  For those of you who have moved around, as I have, I wonder what memories you bring with you from other places. 

I have specific memories of Christmas Eve at every parish where I have served.  I think what I will remember most about St. Paul’s is the view I have of the Altar Cross from where I sit as we sing the carol “Silent Night.”  From my vantage point, it is backlight by the candles that are nestled in red poinsettia.  Dark on the front when the lights are turned off, the outline of the Cross radiates with a golden glow as it is illuminated by the candles’ flames.  It is a sight I have come to cherish and will always carry with me.

Metz distinguishes between two kinds of remembering.  First he says there is nostalgia.  This kind of remembering is merely a trip down memory lane, perhaps with the wish that we could live in the past, in the good old days.  While nostalgia has its place, it is not the aim of this evening’s worship. 

In addition to this, there is something Metz calls “dangerous memories” that have the ability to provoke us into some future activity that challenges the status quo of life.  I prefer to call it “creative remembrance.”  It differs from nostalgia in that it takes the memories of the past and, as Metz suggests, calls us to some kind of action in the future.  This happens most keenly when our stories fold together with The Story.  So, for example, when our memories of family gatherings, festive celebrations, and delicious meals mesh with the story of the Inn Keeper in Bethlehem, we find ourselves breaking through the clutter of the Christmas season to reach out to those in need of friendship, hospitality, and a helping hand. 

Creative memory might encourage you to make contact with a long lost friend or to reach out to someone in order to right a wrong of long ago.  Tonight, creative memory might inspire you to deeper ministry in our community or greater engagement with our parish.  There is no telling where creative memory might take you, but make no mistake, it is a vital part of what makes worship meaningful.

My German is not so good, but the expression “gabe und aufgabe” says that worship services like ours tonight consist of both gift and task.  The gift of worship is God’s self – revealed in word, in sacrament, and in our faithful gathering as the Body of Christ.  The task of worship comes to us through creative memory.  It is what we hear God’s Spirit calling us to do.  And we hear this calling by being attentive both to this present moment and to the remembrances that come to us.

You see, if it is true that Christianity is a story that is made real to us through remembrance, it is equally true that Christianity is also a dream.  It is a dream of the future that becomes a part of the present through our imagination and hope.  In this sense, worship is a moment that invites us to look both backwards and forwards. 

We are invited to bring the future to the present; to dream of a time when our endeavors to share the rich blessings God has bestowed upon us will usher in the elimination of need and want in this world; to dream of a time when our efforts at reconciliation will become a part of the foundation of Peace on Earth; to dream of the time when we will be reunited with those we love but see no longer.  We are invited through hope to imagine the joy of such a future and to make it real (at least partly) in this present moment.

So tonight we hear again The Story of the birth of God’s only begotten Child; a story reverently recorded and faithfully handed on for two millennia.  Our remembrance makes us contemporaries of the Holy Family and invites us to journey with the shepherds to the manger.  As we go backwards, the events of that night so long ago become a part of our present experience.  Through imagination and hope we begin to dream of the future where these events realize their perfect fulfillment.  That future too becomes a part of our present experience. 

Without memory the Church would cease to be.  Without imagination the Church would be ineffectual, gathering only for the vain purpose of nostalgia.  So tonight I call on us to be people who remember and to be people who imagine.  And in so doing our worship takes on a deep, rich meaning where God draws close and becomes known in a life-filling way.

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Lily and the Rose

On this fourth Sunday of Advent we take a welcome turn away from the themes of apocalyptic endings and wild looking wilderness prophets and focus on what finally feels like an appropriate figure as Christmas nears: Mary, the mother of our Lord.  She is a wonderful devotional figure who, down through the centuries, has inspired and fueled the arts: painting, sculpture, poetry, writing, music, and hymnody.  In this one humble young woman we find so much worthy to ponder.

And speaking of pondering, many of you know of my love of Christmas music.  Last year I came across a carol called “The Lily and the Rose”.  The lyrics come from an anonymous 16th century poem that is set to music by Bob Chilcott, who is described as being “a contemporary hero of British choral music”.  As a special treat, our own Al Reese is going to play this beautiful carol for us this morning.  I want you to follow the words (and you may want to watch a video of the carol on Youtube: and ponder what the lyrics are all about.

  The maidens came when I was in my mother’s bower.
  I had all that I would.

     The bailey beareth the bell away.
       The lily, the rose, the rose I lay

The silver is white, red is the gold.
  The robes they lay in fold.

     The bailey beareth the bell away.
       The lily, the rose, the rose I lay.

And through the glass window shines the sun
  How could I love and I so young.

     The bailey beareth the bell away.
       The lily, the rose, the rose I lay

Well, as you can tell, the music is beautiful, but the poem itself is, as one critic described, “elusive and layered.” 

At one level, it appears to be a poem about a young girl who has been given in marriage to an older man.  The maidens come for her on her wedding day and find her in her mother’s private room (the bower).  The ‘bailey’ may be slang for bailiff.  What he is taking away is not certain.  It could be the girl’s virginity (the white) – ‘the lily and the rose’ she lays down for her new husband.  Well, all of this is well and good, but it does not strike one as a Christmas carol.

Another interpretation has to do with an on-going war between England (the Rose) and France (the Lily).  The husband, or perhaps a more true love, is the victim of war whose dead body is carried away by the bailey.  Still, not much of a carol.

Chilcott himself says that the poem describes the Virgin Mary mourning the death of her son.  Bells are rung over the body of a corpse as it is carried away to a ‘Keep’ known as a ‘bailey’.  Another interpretation revolves around the French word ‘Belle’ – ‘the beautiful one’.  Jesus, the beautiful one, is born away to heaven by the bailiff – God.  In this interpretation, the white silver refers to Mary’s gift of her virginity to bear God’s son.  While it is a marvelous offering, it pales in comparison to the red gold of Christ’s blood shed for all humanity. 

So, why is this a carol? 

Most contemporary inspirational writing (both poems and lyrics) tends to downplay an ancient tradition of Mary contemplating her son’s death as she cradles his infant body.  Chilcott’s carol invites us to imagine Mary in her mid-forties holding the beaten and bloodied body of her lifeless thirty-year-old son.  In that moment every moment she had with him comes flooding back into her memory.  Pondering the angel’s announcement we heard today and reflecting back to events of his birth, the poem places these words on Mary’s lips:

How could I love and I so young.

In her grief, Mary is able to sense the greater good of her offering, along with the offering of her son.  In that dark moment the sun shines through the window – an image of hope – and Mary reflects back to her son’s birth in wonderment of her ability to love and care and bear all she has from such a young age.

There are three great scriptural images of Mary: when she hears Gabriel’s announcement and embraces God’s will, when she gives birth to Jesus, and when she waits at the foot of Cross.   There are other stories of course, but these three are the most central.  Chilcott’s carol binds together these moments by reflecting on innocence, wonder, and sorrow.  While being elusive and layered, it invites us to ponder levels of deeper meaning. 

What I like most about the carol is its beautiful melody.  But I also like that it challenges the notion that Christmas and all the events around it are static; that they are and have been described, quantified, and understood.  There is a temptation to wrap up the meaning of Christmas into a box as nice and tidy as any present under a tree and think, “there, that is it.”  But at its heart, the Incarnation is an event wonderful and complex beyond knowing and beyond description. 

Al and I spent forty-five minutes one afternoon pondering the meaning of this carol.  While I don’t know that we found ‘the’ answer, I believe we are richer for the experience.  It has reminded me that the Incarnation is a luminous moment radiating the mysterious glory of God’s infinite Being as it is cradled in the arms of a young mother.  It is something you experience more than you understand, something you feel more than you describe, something that moves and molds you more as you try less to make sense of it.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Advent, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner

In 1981 I had two season tickets to the Cleveland Browns home games.  Eight seats in the row just behind mine where also occupied by season ticket holders, but the two seats next to mine were not and, as a result, were filled by different fans each game.  On a cold, December day, two black men bought tickets to those seats.  The eight men behind me were white.  Just before halftime a confrontation erupted that nearly broke out into a fight.  The eight men had been kneeing the two black men and making racially provocative statements.  Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and everyone settled down.  I don’t know what happened just after the beginning of the third quarter, but one of the black men had had enough.  He stood up, turned around, and swung his heavy metal thermos at a man seated behind him, knocking him upside the head.  With that, all hell broke loose.  Eventually security came and took away the two black men and three of the white men seated behind me.  Midway through the fourth quarter those three men reappeared and called for the cheers of many seated in our section.  As they sat down, one of their friends asked them what happened.  One of the three now released fans replied, “We showed them our badges and they believed us.”  I was twenty-one years old at the time and that is when I learned first-hand that off-duty, suburban police officers could and did instigate a violent confrontation for reasons grounded only in race.

In almost forty years of driving I have been ticketed by a police officer maybe five times.  I recognize these as times to be calm, respectful, and compliant.  One incident stays with me to this day.  I was on a date with a striking blond-haired young woman, when I was pulled over for going 39 MPH in a 35 MPH zone.  The officer, a man in his late 20’s, did his best to intimidate and embarrass me.  It occurred to me that the only reason he pulled me over and the only reason he was treating me this way was to humiliate me in front of my attractive passenger.  Every person of color I know has at least one story like this, the only difference being they were pulled over because of the color of their skin and the intimidation was much more severe than my tame experience. 

The season of Advent is a season of longing; longing for a healing of the ills that infect our world and our common life; longing for a Savior who will deliver us from sin and evil.  This morning we hear our God speak through the words of the prophet Isaiah:

For I the LORD love justice,
I hate robbery and wrongdoing.

Our nation is founded on the idea that all people are endowed by the Creator with certain inalienable rights and our history as a people is marked by the difficult struggle to make this a reality for all people.  We have made tremendous progress over the centuries to live more fully into the implications of the values we hold, but events in Ferguson, MO and Staten Island highlight the painful truth that we have more work to do.

I am sure we here this morning hold many different views on the legal questions surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.  I am confident that we all condemn looting, vandalism, and violent protesting.  We may have questions or concerns about the role the media and social media play in fueling discontent.  But surely we can agree these incidents have brought to the surface deep divisions in our society created by ongoing inequality that leads to anger, brokenness, and mistrust.

In a letter to the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori, our Presiding Bishop, wrote that our first response to this tragic reality is deep lament.  She also called on Episcopalians to work for reconciliation so that each person will live in “the justice for which we were all created.”  It is this vision we hold up as the reign of God in our world.  What specifically is lacking at this point, as I see it, is that people of color have experienced incidents of police misconduct and brutality on the basis of race alone and believe that the legal system is tilted against them in terms of receiving justice.

I in no part believe those eight white police officers at the football game are representative of the majority of law enforcement officials in our country.  They are a small minority among those who courageously and selflessly do a very difficult and demanding job.  But there are police officers who abuse their authority because, as I said before, every African-American I know can tell at least one first-hand story of being mistreated for no reason other than the color of his/her skin.  This simply should not be.

I was told a story about our own Jim Moore, a judge here in Suffolk.  One day a white police officer brought before his bench a courtroom filled exclusively with black people cited for traffic violations.  Judge Moore dismissed every single case with one motion.  We need the system to hold those in authority to the highest possible standard if we are going to have faith and trust in our judicial system.  That it works well for me is not reason for me to turn a blind eye on those for whom it does not.

This is not just a timely topic for a sermon.  It is an implication of living into Advent.  In this season we long for light, for truth, for reawakening, for the dawn of a new day.  On the second Sunday of Advent we read from the 85th Psalm:

Mercy and truth have met together; *
  righteousness and peace have kissed each other.

Truth shall spring up from the earth, *
  and righteousness shall look down from heaven.

“Truth shall spring up from the earth.”  What a beautiful image depicting the necessity for us as a society (and us in the church) to be honest about our collective shortcomings.  “Righteousness shall look down from heaven.”  There is a link between the truth-telling we do in this world and the blessing of righteousness that God pours upon us.

A resource put out by the Episcopal Church made this observation:

Christ was born in the midst of a divided and violent society.  The Word was made flesh among a people who faced bias from their neighbors and persecution from the occupying Romans.

Jesus modeled a different kind of community.  Jesus broke bread with outcasts and sinners, with religious authorities and Roman officials.  Jesus pointed to a vision of the new community, and invites us to the difficult work of reconciliation.

I was just a child during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and most of what I know about it comes to me as history rather than actual experience.  Those protests saw their share of looting and violence to be sure.  But as a whole, it was deeply rooted in something spiritual; in the Judeo-Christian tradition of biblical justice.  Many of its leaders were religious figures who instructed the oppressed to act as Jesus taught us; turning the other cheek, walking the extra mile, forgiving others in order to be forgiven.  And those who protested and paid a great price for their witness received from their faith patience, strength, comfort, hope, and joy. 

I wonder about the connection between faith and our current protests.  There are clergy that are involved, local churches that very much are present and engaged, and leaders from various denominations who are speaking out.  But this is a different country than it was in Civil Rights era and religion is not central in the lives of many people.  It seems to me that our voice and witness is on the periphery at best.  We are voice crying out in the wilderness, but few, I fear, are listening. 

I set out this fall to do something that I still have not done.  I wanted to get together with some of my African-American clergy colleagues here in town in order to learn what they think about all of this.  I am curious about their congregations and what their members’ experiences have been like here in Suffolk.  I wonder how far it is from Suffolk to Ferguson – not in terms of miles, but in terms of experience.  I wondered if our congregations could come together to listen and to learn from one another.  Maybe, with a little encouragement from all of you, I will take that step to reach out.

I was very moved by John McCain’s speech on the Senate floor after the release of the report on torture.  You may or may not agree with his position, but his foundational understanding of America is spot on.

When we fight to defend our security we fight also for an idea… that all men are endowed by the Creator with inalienable rights.  How much safer the world would be if all nations believed the same.  How much more dangerous it can become when we forget it ourselves even momentarily.

I feel the same way about the issues and concerns raised by the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.  How much better would our society be if everyone was treated equally by the law and had confidence in the judicial system?  How much poorer we are when some people are targeted for abuse because of race and the system appears titled against them!

In Advent we wait and hope for a Savior.  When our Savior comes, the easiest place for me to welcome the Holy One is in my own heart; to allow God’s Incarnate Word to change me, to fill me, and work through me.  I suppose from there the Savior can begin to do the same in my family, among my friends, in my neighborhood, in our church, in our community, in our society, and eventually in our world.  But the Kingdom of God, if it is going to start anywhere, is going to have to start with me and with you.  O come thou long expected one.  Our hearts and minds are open.  We long for your reign of peace and goodwill.


Monday, December 8, 2014

Meeting John-the-Baptist on the Jesus Bus

On a July afternoon this past summer I was behind the wheel of black Chevy Camaro convertible driving down the Pacific Coast Highway in the beautiful state of Oregon.  Like many days in that region of the country, the morning’s fog and drizzle had given way to sunshine and a gentle breeze; providing a perfect opportunity to put down the top on my rental car.  With the magnificent scenery, the spectacular coastline views, and the fascinating small towns dotting the highway, I was in a state of perfect bliss and contentment.  This was exactly what I envisioned my vacation to be.

It came to pass (a wonderful sounding biblical phrase, isn’t it) that I happened to spy an old school bus parked along the side of the road.  It was impossible to miss because the vehicle had been painted in a wide array of bright colors.  Hand lettered messages and signs covered almost every available exterior inch.  4x8 sheets of plywood lined the side of the bus facing the road.  They had just been painted purple with large pink letters spelling out “NO WAR  YES JESUS”.  How did I know it was freshly painted?  Because the bucket and brushes were sitting out and paint was dripping from the signs onto the dirt and gravel pull off area where the bus was parked. 

Now, when I go on vacation I feel a certain obligation to my many, many fans to post on Facebook interesting and (if possible) humorous pictures of what I am doing.  I my mind’s eye I could imagine a picture of my black Camaro convertible parked alongside this crazy bus with its billboard-sized message and I knew it would make all of my followers howl with glee.  By the time I made the decision to do it I was several miles down the road, so I turned around and headed back to the bus.  I had just enough time to “think” (and I use this word here rather loosely) through my imminent encounter.  It occurred to me that I could not just pull up next to the bus and tell the owner I wanted to take a picture to make fun of it.  I realized I would need to fain an interest in the owner and what he was doing. 

So I pulled up, parked, and got out of the car.  I heard a dog barking in the bus as I began to survey all of its signs and messages.  A hand-written note taped inside a window caught my attention: “NO PICTURES.”  This mission was going to require some of my best, most shrewd work.  The owner appeared looking, well, exactly as you would expect – disheveled, unshaved, poorly dressed, and in need of a less than gentle scrubbing.  “This is some bus,” I said.  “I’ve never seen anything like it.”  “Haven’t you heard of Jesus people?” he replied.  “Well, yes.  They were around in the 70’s,” I said and then I threw out my trump card: “I am an Episcopal priest from Virginia.  I’m out here on vacation.”  “Oh,” he said, unimpressed.  “Your bus caught my attention.  Tell me about this sign,” I said, referring to the “NO WAR” message.  “Jesus put it on my heart last night to write it.  There is just too much war.  We’ve got to stop it.  That’s what Jesus told me to tell people.”

He took me to the other side of the bus where he had painted Jesus’ name in something like thirteen different languages.  I used my every charm to keep the conversation going, all the while trying to figure out how I was going to snap my coveted picture.  He described how he had been kicked out of a state park the night before for soliciting contributions.  That was when I noticed several old milk jugs affixed to the bus that asked for donations and I thought I had my chance.

I asked if I could make a donation and he said sure.  I took out my wallet, found a dollar bill, and put it in a jug.  “That church must not pay you very well,” he said to me.  “They treat me alright,” I replied.  “Why would you say that?”  “Well, all you can afford to give me is a dollar.”  I had a sudden, screaming sense that the tables were turned and I was in real trouble here.  “The other day a homeless family gave me a $20 bag of food for my dog.  Why is it that the poorest people are always the most generous while rich people don’t do much at all to help others?”  I stammered to make even a feeble response.  “Do you mind if I take a picture of your bus?” I asked.  “Help yourself he said,” as we came back around to the front side.  “Is that your car?” he asked, gesturing toward the Camaro.  “It’s a rental,” I said rather defensively, as a snapped a picture and hustled away.

I spent the rest of the day’s drive angry and defensive.  Who is he to say I’m not generous?  He has no idea all the good things I do to help others.  How dare he ruin my picture-taking fun by making me feel bad.  Heck, I don’t even believe in his ‘painted sign school bus ministry’, so why would I give money to support it?

At some point the thought crossed my mind that I had encountered a John-the-Baptist like figure in the wilderness.  His appearance, like his method and manners, was just a little bit odd.  I went to stare at him, as many people did with John.  And like John used to do to his gawking audience, I got told off in an ever so pointed yet polite way.  I wonder how many of the people who sojourned down to the Jordon River made the trip back home with their tail tucked between their legs.  How many of them were had by a wild man who saw right through them? 

As I drove south on the 101 the words of today’s collect rattled around in my brain:

Merciful God, who sent your messengers to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our redeemer.

Had God ‘sent’ the bus owner as a messenger, and, if so, what warning was I supposed to heed? 

In my pondering I came to understand what you probably already see.  This issue was not one of generosity.  It would not have been different if I had given him $5 or $10 or $20 or even $100.  The real point was I had failed to recognize and respect his humanity.  I saw him as nothing more than a means to get a laugh; a joke waiting to be told.  It dawned on me that I am one of many, many people who have approached him over the years from the same posture and perspective.  It occurred to me that he saw me through from a mile away and I got exactly what I deserved.

Believe it or not, the bus and its owner have a Facebook page.  I looked at it the other day and discovered that the painting process is an on-going work.  There is a picture of the bus parked in sandy area surrounded by other cars and enclosed by dunes.  The ocean is off in the distance.  The picture was taken from some distance away on a vista overlooking the setting.  There in the middle of it all, looking quite at home, is a mostly purple school bus with a brightly colored message written in large, swirling letters “Jesus YYY U.”  You can read it easily from half a mile away. 

I am sure he continues to draw in the scornful and contemptuous, folks just like me.  And I hope he has the opportunity to send them on their way wondering just how they got put in their places.  But, in this age when so many have turned away from religion altogether, at a time when an Arizona pastor makes headlines by suggesting we could eradicate aids by Christmas if we killed all the homosexuals, I hope that good and decent folks who rarely darken a church door approach the bus and encounter a strange man to be sure, but also a person who strives to live out God’s love as best he can.  I think the world could use a few more people like him. 

If I take an honest look at myself, I know that God is going to need to send a lot more prophets and messengers my way if I am ever going to be the kind of person God calls me to be.  And nothing personal, but I pray that God sends a messenger or two to each one of you.  Every now and again it does the soul good to get shaken up by a wild person in the wilderness.

Monday, December 1, 2014

An Apocalyptic Beginning to Advent

“The sun will be darkened.  The moon will not give its light.  Stars will fall.  The powers in the heavens will be shaken.”  If I didn’t know better, I’d think Jesus is describing what it is like to go out shopping early in the morning on Black Friday.  And while the rest of the country is shifting gears from Thanksgiving Day meals to Christmas preparations, we silly Episcopalians think now is the time to observe Advent by pondering images of the world falling apart.  While many other churches are starting to look backward to the heart-warming events of Jesus’ birth, we are paying attention to frightening cosmic mutations and the role Jesus promises to play in the future.  What are we to make of all this?

First, let us say this: we simply cannot abdicate this passage (and those like it) to the “Left Behind” crowd who, as one Lutheran theologian puts it, “view the Bible as an encrypted map of the future, leaked by God to code-breakers, who derive from it a deity who’s itching to snuff out the multitudes.”  This thinking is so pervasive in much of our contemporary culture that combating it is almost as difficult observing Advent rather than flipping from Thanksgiving to Christmas.

Next, notice how the passage begins: “Jesus said to his disciples, “In those days, after that suffering…”  If we want to understand the passage than we need to know what suffering he is describing.  The Gospel of Mark was written around 70 AD, almost 40 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.  A lot happened and a lot changed during that period and Mark crafted Jesus’ words more to speak to events in 70 AD than to be a historical reproduction of speeches made four decades earlier. 

In 66 AD, Jews refused to pay taxes to Rome and, in response, the Roman military plundered the Jerusalem Temple and killed over 6,000 people.  This action led to open, full-scale revolt and Roman officials in the Holy Land fled for their lives.  Vespasian was appointed to lead the Roman army to retake the region.  He started in the northern part of Israel - in Galilee - and eventually, in 70 AD, laid siege to Jerusalem itself.  The city and the Temple where completely destroyed.  The Roman military effort concluded with the Jewish defeat at Masada in 74 AD.  All told, historians estimate that over a million people were killed in the conflict.

This unfolding calamity was the only thing on peoples’ minds when Mark’s gospel was written.  It is their suffering to which Jesus refers in today’s reading.  It is not a cryptic description about some future event that may or may not be imminent in our time.  It was THE event of their time.

With this in mind, we learn two things from Jesus’ words.  First, he is not going to return to intervene in a military conflict nor does he show up to rescue the faithful, few elect while leaving behind others to suffer.  Everyone – the good and the bad, the believers and the unbelievers, the trouble-makers and the innocent bystanders – is in the same, painful, messy boat.  Jesus does not say he will come in the midst of the worst suffering to save a special few.  He says he will come after it. 

And second, Jesus says he will come in “power and glory” to gather the elect from “the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”  There is no mention of being taken away or left behind.  The gathering seems to be more about creating a post-suffering community who will love and care for each other.  This new community is where Jesus will be found.

When I hear these words of Jesus, my mind immediately recognizes a truth that overcomes us from time to time.  I go through much of life working my ways on the world around me.  I shape my day and I shape my week.  Some of the time, everything goes exactly the way I plan for it go.  Much of the time, it unfolds with slight variations, which, truth be told, make life interesting.  In the midst of all of this – from time to time – comes an event when the sun goes dark, the moon loses its light, stars fall, and the heavens are shaken.  Suddenly and without warning I am made aware that I am in control of absolutely nothing.  It is the feeling I had once when driving on an icy highway and my car began to slide out of control.  It wobbled through the median strip and across the lanes of on-coming traffic; even though I was still holding the steering wheel and pumping the brakes.  In that moment I was reminded how in life, like that car, there are instances that come in an instance when I am no longer determining the direction things are going.

You know what this feels like.  It is what happens when your doctor calls you into her office after you’ve had a battery of tests and says, “We need to talk.”  It is what happens when the HR department announces there will be down-sizing.  It is what happens when you open the door of your Buffalo house and discover 70 inches of snow between you and everywhere you thought you were going to go.

And it happened again to me last Sunday afternoon.  At 4:04 PM, I decided to walk from my house down the street to the church office to pick up a single page document I wanted to work with at home.  So sure was I of my plan that I did not bother to grab my cell phone or to lock my door.  As I walked to the church I saw numerous fire trucks and police cars parked around the Suffolk Towers and TV news van was setting up its equipment.  I asked someone what was going on and learned there had been a fire and the Tower had been evacuated.  Thankfully, no one was hurt. 

Many of the residents were gathered across the street at Main Street Methodist Church.  A lot of these folks are regular clients at our food pantry and I was concerned about them.  I went to the church and talked to the people there who, understandably, were shaken up.  Chris Ward – their church organist many of us know – had opened the doors and welcomed in people.  After a while, I went to Farm Fresh to buy some food to feed displaced Tower residents and first responders.  I called John Rector who called Beau Holland, and the three of us, along with a dozen members of Main Street Church, fed at least 75 people.  The residents where then taken to two hotels out at the Holland Road bypass for the night.  Four-and-a-half hours after I set out on my quick errand to my office, I got back home.

On Monday morning, the Tower residents where told they could not stay at those hotels and had to leave.  Most didn’t have transportation, but somehow managed to get back downtown.  By noon it was clear they had had nothing to eat all day and had nowhere to go.  We opened our Parish Hall and put out the leftovers from the night before. 30 people made their own sandwiches, enjoyed some potato chips, and drank coffee, lemonade, and ice tea.  Just before our Food Pantry opened, the folks were taken to the Super 8 Motel next to McDonalds.  I worried they would not have any breakfast and invited them to come back to St. Paul’s in the morning.  Kitty Quillin and Bev Judkins set out to buying something we could serve for breakfast.

On Tuesday morning, about a dozen folks from our parish showed up to make breakfast, but at the appointed time of 9:00 no one showed up to eat.  Within half-an-hour, we learned that the Tower folks at the Super 8 were hungry, but had no transportation.  The weather had turned cold and rainy, so walking was out of the question.  We packed up 30 to-go boxes and delivered breakfast to the hotel.  I asked if they need lunch and they did.  Kitty and Roy Waller were still at the church when I returned.  They agreed to make sandwiches and Kitty went to the store to buy more bread and chips.  At 1:00, I delivered forty-some boxed lunches.  I can’t even begin to describe how appreciative these folks were.  “Pastor,” they said to me, “Can you say a blessing for this meal.”  “I sure can!”  Knowing we had a lot of breakfast fixings leftover, I told them I would be back in the morning with more food.

Kitty and Roy got together another 30 breakfast boxes on Wednesday morning and I delivered them to some very grateful folks.  Later that morning, WAVY News 10 said they wanted to come to the church and interview someone named “Cookie.”  Amy, our administrator, who answered the phone call, said, “Do you mean ‘Kitty’?”  Try as I might, I could not keep Roy around to be interviewed.  He was having none of that.  But Kitty did appear in a story on the Wednesday evening news and did a fantastic job communicating the kind of compassion we here at St. Paul’s are all about. 

The Tower residents are supposed to be able to return to their apartments tomorrow.

So we begin this first Sunday in Advent with some crazy, apocalyptic language that, at first glance, seems to have nothing to do with ‘the joy of this holiday season.’  But we followers of Jesus know that the world is a difficult, dark place where suffering is all around us.  It is in the Holy Land.  It is in Ferguson, MO.  And it is right here in our own town.  We take to heart that Jesus does not promise one day to whisk us away from all that troubles this world, but rather promises always to reenter it in power and great glory.  This reappearing is never about rewarding a chosen few for staying removed from the stains of the world.  It is always about forming a community who is in, or has come through, suffering so that we, who are immersed in the power and presence of the Lord, can love and care for each other… and every person – all people – who are loved by God.

Monday, November 24, 2014

A Distant Comet & a Growing Food Pantry

What were you working on in 1984, thirty years ago?  That is the year I headed off to seminary.  It seems both like just yesterday and five lifetimes ago.  That same year a group of European and American scientists began to plan an audacious expedition aimed at landing a space probe on a distant, speeding comet.  Engineered in a clean room, the probe – named Rosetta – was launched in the spring of 2004.  It took ten years for it to reach its destination; a journey that included several delicate, deep-space maneuvers and a three-year hibernation to conserve energy. 

On August 6th, after travelling over 3 billion miles, Rosetta went into orbit around 67P, a comet roughly the size of downtown Suffolk.  It is an amazing achievement.  Imagine standing on the beach at the Outer Banks and trying to launch a golf ball to land in a moving bathtub on a beach in California.  That is what has been accomplished.

But the mission did not end there.  Rosetta carried with it a lander named Philae, which is about the size of a washing machine.  On November 7th, Philae successfully landed on 67P where it is now conducting experiments and transmitting data and images back to earth.  It has already detected the presence of water and amino acids (the building blocks of life) and this discovery may help us to answer some important questions: What was the early solar system like?  How did earth come to be covered in water?  Where did the stuff of life come from?  Rosetta and Philae will be on a wild ride for the next twelve months as they journey with 67P on the comet’s trip around the sun.

The mission raises for me some big questions: Who are we?  Where did we come from?  And, perhaps most intriguing, what are we capable of achieving? 

I wonder who is working now at an initial phase of a project that in several decades will revolutionize what we know or how we live.  I read recently sections of a book called Physics of the Future, which looks at technology we now have or are in the process of developing and relates how it will change everything about computing, medicine, energy, and space travel in the next ten, twenty-five, fifty, and one hundred years.  Much of it seems like science fiction, except it is not fiction.  It is science possible. 

We are doing things the builders of the Tower of Babel could never have dreamed.  And yet their story from the book of Genesis is still relevant to us today.  Theirs is a cautionary tale reminding readers down through the ages of the dangers of human overreaching; of striving so hard for achievement that something essential is lost in the process.

Today is Christ the King Sunday, the final Sunday of the church year.  On this day we proclaim, as St. Paul wrote, that Christ sits at the right hand of God in glory, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, in this age and in the age to come.   From this preeminent position Christ speaks to us with authority. 

In today’s Gospel reading we hear him lift up other questions for us to hold as we strive to learn who we are and test what we are capable of doing.  Christ demands that we also consider who we are with and ponder what is required of us to be in relationship with others.  These are the essential questions lost at Babel and the result was a fragmenting not only of language, but of human relationships in general.

I was hungry and you gave me food.  I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.  I was a stranger and you welcomed me.  I was naked and you gave me clothing.  I was sick and you took care of me.  I was in prison and you visited me.”

Who are we with?  Notice in Jesus’ parable there are two groups of people.  One group has no recollection of ignoring Christ because they never saw the need around them.  Or perhaps they did see the need, but never considered that Christ could care about anyone they did not care about.  The other group never understood that their acts of compassion were in fact offered to Christ himself.  Who are we with?  As we test ourselves to push our capabilities, what does it mean to be in relationship with others?  What does it mean that every person – every single human being on this planet – matters?

The Food Pantry is one way we here at St. Paul’s acknowledge those who are with us in our community.  As you may know, it has experienced tremendous growth over the past six weeks.  During the summer months we averaged between 75-85 clients each Monday night.  This fall we have been over 100 every time we have been open.  On October 20th, we set an all-time record with 117 clients on a single night only to see that mark eclipsed one week later when 151 people came through our doors.

Each client shops for up to five food items.  If you do the math, 100 people coming through the pantry on a given night means we are handing out 500 items of food.  This translates to as much as 2,500 items each month.  Because we have partnered with the Hampton Roads Food Bank we are able to get much of what we distribute at a greatly reduced cost.  Still, the dollars add up.  If each item costs roughly a dollar for us to purchase, you can see that we need to raise $2,500 a month to keep the ministry going.

Because this amount far exceeds congregational giving to the ministry we are beginning to look at creative ways to raise additional funding.  For the last few years we have been blessed to receive a grant from the Ruritans for $2,000.  This summer we applied for a grant from the Diocese of Southern Virginia’s Seeds of Hope fund and have been awarded $2,400.  For the Christmas Dinner Basket Distribution we have created a fundraising site with CrowdRise and have already received on-line donations from folks outside the parish.  All of this helps, but does not get us to where we need to be.

You can help.  Does your employer make charitable contributions?  If so, can you put in a request for our food pantry?  Does your employer make matching gifts, and if so, would the Food Pantry be eligible?  Your personal contribution to the food pantry could be doubled.  Are you a part of a civic group or organization that makes charitable donations?  If so, please consider making an appeal for our food pantry.  We are developing a “Facts Sheet” about St. Paul’s Food Pantry to help you make a compelling case to get support.  Do you have any other ideas that might help us do the work God is calling us to do?  If so, please feel free to contact me or anyone else associated with the pantry.

It is thrilling to be alive at a time when the human race is capable of landing a probe on a speeding comet in an effort to unlock mysteries hidden for over 5 billion years.  It is equally thrilling to be a part of any effort that connects one human being to another, that recognizes how need and blessing can be shared experiences, and to sense that the God who created the cosmos can somehow be present and known through these kinds of relationships.  Think about what we will proclaim in a just a few moments: that the body and blood of the King of Creation is contained in a little piece of bread and a sip of wine.  It is no less miraculous and equally as true that our King meets us and greets us through every human we encounter.  So, as we amass data from a space probe on a speeding comet telling us about what our solar system was like billions of years ago, here is something else incredible to ponder: present in each every person you encounter today is the King and Creator of the cosmos.  When you respect that person, you respect the King.