Monday, January 20, 2014

Be Ignited!

Larry Walters has always been a personal hero of mine.  Several years ago he got bored sitting in a lawn chair in the backyard of his Los Angeles area home so he went to a local army surplus store and bought forty-five used weather balloons.  He took them home, tied them to his lawn chair, and began to fill them with helium.  He strapped himself into the chair just as it began to rise off the grass.  Walters hoped he might go about a hundred feet or so into the air just to see what the neighborhood looked like from above.  Well, old ‘Lawn chair Larry’ (as he came to be known) got a little bit more than he bargained for.  Yes, the chair, with him strapped in it, ascended 100 feet into the sky, but then it kept rising… and rising… and rising!  Before Larry Walters knew what hit him, he was sitting in a floating lawn chair 11,000 feet in the air; right smack in the middle of a major air traffic pattern for the Long Beach Airport.  Just imagine the surprised look on pilots’ faces as they caught sight of this flying chair drifting in front of them.  Flights had to be diverted for over two hours. 

Now, lest you think Larry didn’t think through this undertaking before setting off, think again.  He carried with him some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (a good idea), a six-pack of beer (and doesn’t that explain a lot!), and a BB gun, which he used to shoot tiny little holes in the weather balloons so that, over time, he began a slow decent back to mother Earth.  When he landed – and, oh did I mention his balloon got tangled in a utility line and caused a major power outage? – he was both arrested on the spot and mobbed by reporters.  “Were you scared?” one reporter shouted at him.  “Yes!”  “Would you do it again?” another asked.  “No.”  “Why did you do it?”  Without flinching, Lawn chair Larry replied, “Because you can’t just sit there all the time.  Eventually you have to do something.” 

You can’t just sit there all the time.  Eventually you have to do something.

To my way of reading it, there is a comical undertone to today’s gospel reading.  John baptizes Jesus and spots him walking around the next day.  They are in the wilderness along the Jordon River.  Apparently many people are there just hanging out with John.  John has many followers – disciplines, in fact.  When he sees Jesus on that second day he launches into a lengthy sermon about how Jesus is the one they all should follow, but nothing much seems to happen. 

The day after that, when John sees Jesus walking by, he says to two of his disciples, “Look, here is the Lamb of God.”  Well, that seems to work and the two start to trail behind Jesus.  Eventually he turns and confronts them, “What are you looking for?”  These are the first words Jesus speaks in John’s gospel and they are simple and straight-forward, but have a deceptive depth about them.  The answer given by the disciples could not be more superficial, “Where are you staying?”  Jesus takes them to where he is camping and they sit together there for the rest of the day. 

Whatever Jesus says to them is enough to convince them that he is the real deal.  Before nightfall, one disciple, Andrew, heads off to find his brother Simon.  “We have found the Messiah,” he tells him.  So Simon goes with his brother to find Jesus and when they meet Jesus gives him a new name – Peter.

For me at least, I see a little bit of old Larry Walters in all of this.  John, his followers, and even Jesus are just hanging out in the wilderness.  Everyone is expecting something to happen, but no one knows what.  John, God bless him, does all he can to get people to pay attention to Jesus, but no one does.  Finally two do follow and when Jesus asks them what they are seeking they might as well have said, “We can’t just sit here anymore.  Eventually we want to do something!”  And with that they are off and running.

Christianity, it seems to me, is neither a noun nor an adjective.  It is a verb and an action verb at that.  Christianity is about acting out your faith.  It is about doing something with the relationship God has initiated with you.  I like to say that the mission of St. Paul’s Church is as simple as “Building Faith, Making Friends, and Meeting Needs in Downtown Suffolk.”  It is a statement about action.  It is about doing something with what God has started in us.

Sometimes that doing starts off rather innocuously, but eventually looks like a lawn chair soaring at 11,000 feet.  Do you know how St. Paul’s Food Pantry began?  About ten years ago or so, before I was called to be your rector, the parish secretary wanted to have some food to give to people who came to the office door looking for help.  A bag here and a bag there became something more regular and at some point Nancy Bangley began giving out a bag of food items every Monday morning from 10:30 to noon.  25-35 people stopped by on any given Monday and by the time I came here in the fall of 2007, Nancy knew most of the clients by name.  I remember she and I went over to Pine Street to check up on someone she hadn’t seen for a few weeks.  I believe Nancy also organized the Christmas baskets distribution.  As I recall, the first year I was here she gave away 40-45 complete meals.  It was a big effort and some folks took off the morning to help. 

Three years ago we made the decision to move the Food Pantry from the office area to its current location in the Christian Education Building.  We also changed the opening time to Monday evenings because we wanted to get more volunteers involved.  Nancy Meakin, Bev Judkins, Jim & Elizabeth Gordon, and George & Elizabeth Jenkins have put their heart and soul into this ministry along with Nancy Bangley.  Many of you have dropped in from time to time and contributed in your own way.  In 2013 the Food Pantry handed out 3,052 bags of groceries – all filled with items clients picked out for themselves.  At Christmas we had 122 turkeys and complete dinners available for our regular clients and others in the community.  Every single meal was given out.  Larry Walters would be proud of our efforts!

Christianity it a verb.  It is about doing something because after a while sitting around just does not cut it anymore.

It was the first day of basketball practice at Brooklyn high school.  The coach handed a ball to each player and said, “Boys, I want you to practice shooting from the spots you might expect to be in during the game.”  One of the boys immediately went to the bench, sat down, and held on to the ball he had been given.  You see, he was the twelfth player on the team and the person least likely to get into a game.  He was content to let the team’s star players do all the work.  He figured his efforts were not needed.

In the Letter of James it is written that faith without works is dead.  That is another way of saying Christianity is a verb.  One person famously noted that faith without works is about as useless as a screen door on a submarine.  That basketball player didn’t understand that his role, while diminished, never-the-less was still important.  He needed to fill his role to the best of his abilities.  Gene Wilkes, in his book Jesus on Leadership, writes, “Confusion arises when you equate higher ‘positions’ with leadership…  As long as ‘position’ is honored above discipleship -- being a follower -- church leaders will honor the ambitious over the obedient.”  In other words, don’t look at me or at the bishop or at some particular saint and think, well I could never do that so I guess there is nothing I can do.  You can’t just sit on the bench or in the lawn chair all of your life.  Eventually you have to do something with your faith.

Earlier this week I came across a poem by Mary Oliver titled, “What I Have Learned So Far”:

Meditation is old and honorable, so why should I not sit, every morning of my life, on the hillside, looking into the shining world?  Because, properly attended to, delight, as well as havoc, is suggestion.  Can one be passionate about the just, the ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit to no labor in its cause?  I don’t think so.

All summations have a beginning, all effect has a story, all kindness begins with the sown seed.  Thought buds toward radiance. The gospel of light is the crossroads of — indolence, or action.

Be ignited, or be gone

In today’s gospel reading we find a handful of followers who are ready to be ignited by Jesus Christ.  They are tired of sitting.  They have to do something.  They will get more than they bargained for, to be sure.  Once ignited, their lives will be changed forever.  Their lives will not be nouns or adjectives.  They will become a verb.

Christianity is a verb.  What is ready to ignite in you?