Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Take out a sheet of paper

and write the word "love" on it.  And then a comma, and again, "love."  And continue to do so again and again.  And when you are finished it will look like (though in handwriting):
Love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love...
You must do this by hand.  By computer, it will never work.  Much of this activity is allowing yourself to feel the feelings you have while writing the word "love" again and again.  What comes to mind?  Who comes to mind?  Are these "loves," as you write them, flowing out of you or flowing into you?  Or can you not tell the difference!  What does it look like to see these loves written by your own hand?
Now take this sheet of paper and place it somewhere where you will discover it in a couple days, perhaps by surprise.  When you rediscover this paper, it might take you aback, but the exercise will bless you.  And if writing it out seems to weird, just--when you are alone--say the word out loud, "love."  Does it change you? 
We are accustomed to an abundance of things.  We will never become accustomed to the abundance of genuine, compassionate love.  It endlessly transforms, and endlessly revives.
Next week is Holy Week.  I can envision God taking out a sheet of paper and... 

Monday, March 22, 2010

Lent 5C. 21 March 2010.


          This is the last Sunday of Lent.  This is not the end of Lent.  The end of Lent is next Sunday, Passion Sunday, or Palm Sunday.  The Church has referred to the time between Passion Sunday through the Triduum Sacrum as Passiontide.  I like that word, "Passiontide."


          I wonder if you've spent any time thinking about the word "passion."  It comes from the Latin, passio, which means suffering.  No one thinks of the word "suffering" now when they think of passion.  The old meaning has become obsolete, except in the Church, and then it always means the suffering/death of Jesus.


          The word "passion" is also defined: "to be acted upon by external forces."  Suffer also comes from Latin, sub, meaning "under," and ferre , meaning "to bear."  So, to suffer is to bear something.  Passion is "to be acted upon." 


          Both words suggest that the person who experiences suffering or passion is incapable of being in control.  If you are suffering, you are bearing up a difficulty.  If you are in the throes of passion, you are being acted upon, you are not in control.  It is likely that that's why passion has taken on a mostly sexual meaning—to be taken over, to relinquish control. 


          And since "passion" has come to mean something desirous, or sexual, we might be tempted to think that the Passion of Jesus was an act of desire—that Jesus wanted to give himself in the way that he did.  Well, that's an interesting idea, isn't it?


          If you want to think of Jesus's Passion as an act of his own self-offering love, then you are in very good company.  St. John the Evangelist certainly saw it that way.  The Cross, for John, was sign of the glory of God, the exaltation of all that God is in offering himself in the person of Jesus.  St. Paul certainly understood it that way. 


          But desiring to offer himself?  Well, I don't know.  What about the story of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane when he prays even to the point of sweating drops of blood, and when he throws himself on the ground, and prays, "Lord, if this cup can pass from me, yet not my will, but yours"?


          So there are two ways of looking at it: that he wanted to give himself and that he was anxious about it.  Of course, there is a third option.   And that is that both are true. 


          These are the kinds of thoughts that Holy Week is intended to produce.  So perhaps I'll let that be a little teaser, and at this point simply invite you to come to Holy Week services.  I especially want to invite those of you who have never really come to the services of Holy Week.  They are moving, thought provoking, meaningful services and I want to see you here for them. 


          I want you to think about asking friends to come, especially people who might not have any connection to a church.  The reason I say that is because Holy Week will teach you want it means to be a Christian.  It will ask you to walk beside the disciples and hold Mary's hand and cry with her. 


          It is good to come here in the same way that it's good to go to family reunions.  It will stir up some old memories—not all of them will be happy, but that's okay.  Life is more than just "what I like" and "what I don't like."  Life is a lot deeper than that.


          But I got in to all of this because the context of our Gospel lesson is one week before the Passover.  So it's one week before the final events of Jesus' life.  John writes,  "Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus whom he had raised from the dead.  There they gave a dinner for Jesus.  Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him."


          You remember the story of Jesus raising Lazarus, right?  You might turn to it in your pew Bibles, John 11, page 873.  Lazarus was very ill, and word was sent to Jesus to come visit and heal him.  And Jesus didn't come right away, but when he did come, Lazarus had been dead four days.  Jesus arrives at Bethany and Martha comes out to greet him.  Verse 21.  She says, "If you had come here sooner, he would not have died."  Jesus came closer to the tomb, and in Verse 32 Mary of Bethany comes and kneels at Jesus' feet and says the same thing, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." 



          And Verse 33, Jesus becomes greatly disturbed.  He goes to the tomb and tells them to roll the stone away—sound familiar?  And he prays and says, "Lazarus, come out."  And Lazarus came out.  Jesus says, "Unbind him and let him go."


          If you read along in John's Gospel, it is at this point—after Lazarus is raised from the dead—that the Pharisees and chief priests begin their plot to have Jesus killed.  So you see how the death and resurrection of Lazarus sets in motion the death and resurrection of Jesus.  The story of Lazarus foreshadows Jesus' suffering, or perhaps I should say, it starts the suffering, or passion, of Jesus, which we see in the story as he becomes greatly disturbed.


          For Lazarus to come out of the tomb, Jesus must now enter it.  Jesus must go where Lazarus has gone.  Jesus must experience death in order to give life to all people, not just to Lazarus.  So, all of this is in the background of this dinner party for Jesus.


          They've thrown him a party.  Martha and her sister Mary and Lazarus are the hosts, and there is Jesus with his disciples.  But this is not your ordinary meal.  There is a change in the air.  John does not really flesh this out, but Lazarus's presence is living proof that Jesus is not just a good teacher, or a good prophet—he is the Son of God.  And something in the air says, his days are numbered. 



          Mary gets up from the table.  She has a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard—likely from India.  And she gets down on her knees. 


          Now remember that she fell at Jesus' knees when she came to Jesus and said, "If you had been here my brother would not have died."  Well, this time, she takes this incredibly costly perfume and pours it on Jesus' feet, and wipes his feet with her hair.


          We can imagine this scene all we want, but I'm not sure we can get close enough.  The smell of rich, expensive perfume, the matted hair, the act itself—total submission, total worship, the gratitude, the emotion, the symbolism.  The symbolism alone is stunning.  Remember that in one week's time, Jesus will wash his disciples' feet.


          What is going through Mary of Bethany's head while she is doing this?  We don't know.  She is silent.  There are too many meanings to what she is doing.  This is not something you can completely explain.  And if you try to put words in her mouth, you begin to limit the depth of what is going on here.  Part of the beauty of this moment is the silence.


          A woman's hair is very special.  For her to get her hair all messed up by wiping Jesus' feet is to surrender her physical beauty and her dignity.  She is offering her very best and she is humiliating herself to do it.   What is a word that could really describe what she is doing?  Perhaps "passion?"  "To be acted upon by external forces?"  Is she in the throes of passion?  Maybe.  I would like to think so.


          I might get myself in trouble for saying this, but let me just throw it out there.  What if this is a moment of ecstasy?  Ecstasy means to stand outside of one's self.  Mary is driven by a desire to come out of herself.  To offer herself and her perfume.  She is not fully in control of her actions, but at the same time, she is completely willing to surrender herself to them.


          That's interesting, isn't it?  Not being fully in control of her actions, but at the same time, completely willing to surrender to them.   So there we are: the risen Lazarus seated next to the dying Jesus.  Life and death.  And Mary of Bethany in ecstasy.  (Pause.)


          And it is so beautiful.  So achingly, painfully beautiful, in the way that only ecstatic self-sacrifice is.  You want to look away, because it is so intimate.  The perfume, the feet and hair, the silence. 


          Judas tries to break in with something that will break the tension.  He says, "The perfume is a waste.  You could sell it and feed the poor." But Jesus' eyes never leave Mary.  He receives her ministry.  He receives her love, and he brushes Judas away.  If Judas doesn't understand this, he won't understand anything.  Because this is all of it.  This is the whole ball of wax. 


          This is the costliest sacrifice—offered in love.  The most meaningful thing offered in the most meaningful way.  This is the highest ministry.  The fullness of fullness.  It is beautiful beyond measure.  Beauty dying to beauty, to become even more beautiful.  Humiliation humiliated.  Love, Death, Life, all of it together in one act of self-emptying love.  Not in control of actions, and yet completely willing to surrender to them.


          Now wait a minute…are we talking about Mary of Bethany, or are we talking about Jesus on the Cross?






If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider making a donation to the church where you feel most at home.


The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

"I am he."

Well, I should learn to read the liner notes more carefully.  The twofold pattern of asking "Whom are you looking for?" is prefigured in John 18:4-7 when Jesus is being arrested.  Fascinating!  I wonder if this will preach on Easter.  (I think it will!)

Monday, March 15, 2010

"Woman, why are you weeping?"

John 20:13 and 15 contain the question to Mary Magdalene "Woman, why are you weeping?" First, by the angels in the empty tomb and then by Christ immediately after.

I have looked in every commentary and liner note I have, and none of them answer this question: Why did they ask her this?

The answer you will readily give is that it heightens the drama of her recognition of Jesus, whom she first believes to be the gardener. So their asking seems to have a grin behind it, like the parent who asks the birthday child, "Whose birthday is it?!"

I am uncomfortable with that answer. But is there a better answer? Were the angels and Christ, genuinely asking, or were they really toying with her? Why does John tell the story this way? What is the purpose of their question? Why do they wish to draw her out?

How intriguing that the angels and Christ do not "proclaim" at the tomb, but rather inquire. I'm digging, you can tell. Get a me dig.

Lent 4C. 14 March 2010.



Note:  I wrote this sermon with some trepidation, because the modern day Hasidic Jews are not the Chasidim that Christians understand to have been the Pharisees.  What we know about the Pharisees is mostly from St. Paul and the Evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John).  As part of my preparation I consulted with my New Testament professor from seminary, and a Rabbi in Winchester, wanting to be as historically accurate as possible.  To my surprise, in attendance at St. Andrew's was a retired professor from General Theological Seminary, who was very enthusiastic about the sermon, so perhaps--to use an old golf metaphor—"I hit it close."  I still have some concerns, but I have also learned that one should never get too comfortable with incomplete history. 


          I want to tell you about a group of people called "the separated ones," or "the pious ones."  They were a group of Jewish people who came into existence after the Babylonian exile.  The exile lasted for roughly fifty years, from 597 to 539 in the years before Jesus was born.


          The exile was understood by the Jewish people to be the direct result of infidelity to God.  If you are a devout Jew or Christian, that is how you understand it spiritually.  If you are telling the history from a purely secular standpoint, there was a power struggle between Egypt and Syria for control of Palestine, and Syria won.


          Much of the Old Testament is about the Babylonian exile.  And the reason for this is because after the Exodus, it was understood that the land of Israel was given to the Hebrew people.  So when King Nebuchadnezzar of Syria began to invade, the Hebrew people understood this as a result of their failure to remain obedient to God. 


          Moses had made clear—obey God, the God who gave you this land, and God will be with you and protect you.  Follow your own paths, and God will not protect you.  It was a very simple theology—in that regard. 



          So when King Nebuchadnezzar began deporting Jews to Babylon, and seizing lands, and threatening to topple the King of Judah and conquer Jerusalem, you can understand that this was a very traumatic set of circumstances.


          Some of our most beautiful, yet mournful biblical poetry comes from this time.  Some of the deepest biblical prayers of repentance come from the exile.  And for fifty years, those Jews who had been deported and kept in exile struggled to make sense of it all.  The only way they could wrap their heads around it was to believe that their disobedience was the issue. 


          So when King Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylonia, he sent the exiles back to Israel, and the exiles understood this to be God answering their prayers.  They came back home to Israel, rebuilt the Temple that had been destroyed, and strove to show God that they had learned their lesson.


          One of the groups of people who emerged from this history is the Chasidim, "the pious, or separated ones", who felt that "learning their lesson" meant that what caused the exile would never be allowed to happen again.  And part of what caused the exile—in their minds—was the intermarriage of Jews with non-Jews.  That was only part of it, but it was part of it.  The "separated ones" where to be separated from the non-Jews.  They would not marry non-Jews; they would not even talk with non-Jews.




          Now, this makes a lot of sense.  And you will see this kind of mentality whenever something traumatic happens.  For instance, you eat some food that disagrees with you, and never mind that it was just a bad batch of lettuce—no more salad for awhile.  It's a natural reaction, but it's not always a thoughtful reaction. 


          Sometimes people take these things to the Nth degree.  Better safe than sorry, right?  After September 11th, many people have become suspicious of Muslims.  Even though the radical Muslims are a tiny minority, people see someone in a burka or with a beard, and the thought goes through their minds, "What are they going to do?" 


          Better safe, than sorry, right?  So you can see how the Chasidim won a lot of followers.  After all, they had learned the lessons of the exile.  "We should follow them, we should listen them, they are going to keep us from being exiled again."


          But whenever you've got a lot of followers, there is always a danger.  Especially if people are following because of some extreme position.  The danger is to become so extreme that you begin to get really arrogant and you start to dehumanize the people who don't agree with you.


          Instead of thoughtful responses to change, you become reactionary, reflexive, so convinced that you are right and those who disagree are wrong, that the world begins to shrink.  You become friends only with people who think exactly like you.  You don't change anything. 


          You don't think of any innovation as good.  Change is bad.  Old is good.  And that's how "the pious ones" became.


          They began to impose very strict rules on people, to keep them loyal and to keep them in line.  Their motives—which had initially been pretty good—Avoid another exile, Be faithful to God—had become perverted by this extreme conservatism so that they were more concerned with power and self-preservation than with their original goals.


          The result of this became the belief that they were the true possessors of God's truth—they were "the pious ones, the separated."  Cream rises.  They were the cream of God's chosen people, and of all people—so the power, the position, all of it was just part of being true to their call.  They were the faithful. 


          We don't call them "the pious ones."  We call them the Pharisees.  I would have started out by calling them that—but if I had just said "Pharisee," you might have registered the word "hypocrite."  What I set out to communicate was that the Pharisees didn't just emerge from nothing.  Their very existence was an answer to a problem.


          In fact, there are some scholars who have suggested that the populist version of Judaism they taught actually laid the groundwork for Christianity.  There were other groups of Jews, you see.  You had the Herodians, who, as their name suggests, were perfectly happy with Roman governance.  You had the Zealots who were militantly opposed to Roman occupation.  The Zealots wanted to drive Rome out of Israel by force. 


          But then you have the Pharisees who were actually quite moderate politically.  They were willing to tolerate Roman occupation as long as they could promote their populist version of Judaism.  And what I mean by "populist version" is that they not only taught strict adherence to the Torah, but they added other traditions on top of that.  The result was a very distinct culture that was okay with secular Roman rule, but unequivocally faithful to traditional Jewish customs.  What I am trying to say is that if you or I had been alive at the time of Jesus, we would probably have been Pharisees. 


          There was another group of Jews that was the "priestly class" called the Sadducees.  You had to be born a Sadducee.  You had to be able to trace your Sadducee ancestry all the way back to be a Temple priest, and of course, you had to be a man.  By contrast, the Pharisees were very democratic.  They were the ones who taught and preached the Torah.  They were the faithful ones. 


          So when the Pharisees come up in the Gospels, and you feel like shouting boo/hiss, like they're the villain in some old fashioned melodrama, hold on a second.  These folks were moderate, democratic, thoughtful, reflective, very conservative, but understandably so. 


          So when people who were not Pharisees, but rather notorious sinners, came to Jesus to hear him, they reacted.  These are the people who caused the exile—these are the unfaithful ones. 


          And Jesus responds with a story about a Father who had two sons.  There was the son who wanted to have nothing to do with his father's land—no desire to keep the farm going.  So he tells his father, "I've had it.  Give me my inheritance, and cut me loose."  So the Father lets the son go, and the son squanders all his inheritance on wine and women.  After losing all his money there was a famine in the land, and the son could not make his way, so he decides to come home with his tail between his legs.  And when he does his Father runs out to meet him.  He throws a party.  Kills the fatted calf, and everyone comes and celebrates. 


          But then there was the other son.  The other son had been faithful.  He stayed on the farm, and kept to his father's rules, and was a good boy.  And when he sees that the Father rejoices over the other son's return, the faithful son sees red.  It doesn't add up. 


          The Torah says, "See, I am setting before you today a blessing and curse: the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today; and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn from the way that I am commanding you today, to follow other gods that you have not known."[1]


          It seems like God changed the rules.  And that's the problem.  God said, "Stay faithful, don't do this, don't do that."  And the people who listened and stayed faithful—what is their reward?  They get invited to go celebrate the return of those who messed up. 


          The parable was told to the Pharisees who were grumbling about Jesus consorting with prodigal sons.  He was as good as saying "All your faithfulness, all your little rules that you have created to stay faithful…well…good for you.  But not everyone can handle that.  God's got faithful ones and he's got unfaithful ones.  He's got people who think they've got it all figured out.  And he's got people who are trying to put their lives together with paper clips and bubble gum.  And he loves them both, because they're both his sons."


          The bottom line of the relationship has nothing to do—really—with obedience.  The obedience is great, of course.  Obeying the laws of God will mean living a better life.  It is how God intents the human life to be led.  But that's not the bottom line.  The bottom line is that he's the daddy and we're the children.  And there is no child of God who has ever gone so far from him that he won't take them back.    


          So you see, it's not that one of the sons is a prodigal.  The father is the prodigal.  The father is the one who willingly lets the son do what the son wants to do, and then wastefully rejoices when the son "comes to himself" and realizes what he has done.


          God throws open the doors, and puts a robe on his son's shoulders and a ring on his finger.  Why?  Because he's his son.  And the other son, the faithful one: you come, too.  Come on.  Loosen up.  We have to celebrate.  The younger one was dead and has come back to life.  Now he knows who he is.  Now maybe he will be a faithful son, like you.


          But it's still hard to go to the party, isn't it?  Can you go to this party and eat some meat from the fatted calf and drink the wine?  Look at that ring on his finger and the robe.  Doesn't he irritate you a little bit? 


          No?  Then, look at the brother.  Look at that frown on his face.  Look at the self-righteous sulk.   Look at his old robe and sandals.  No ring on his finger.  His hands are dry and calloused.  No plate in his hands, no wine.  Doesn't he irritate you a little bit?


          The younger son shouldn't have done what he did.  The elder son shouldn't have done what he did.  How can it be okay and not okay?  This is not how life is supposed to be, you know?  You're supposed to have winners and losers.  The pious ones and the faithless. 


          I remember hearing a preacher say "If you're okay with this story, there is something wrong with you.  But if you're not okay with this story, there is something wrong with you." 



If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider making a donation to the church where you feel most at home.


The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842


[1] Deuteronomy 11:26-28




Monday, March 8, 2010

Lent 3C. 7 February 2010.


          A couple weeks ago I was watching Maggie play with a book.  It was a book about numbers.  In this book there are colorful illustrations of numbers, and each page has a little flap, and if you lift the flap you see the number of items behind the number.  So, for instance, if the number is 10, you lift the flap and you see a picture of ten jelly beans. 


          Well, this book is still a little beyond Maggie, and if I had had any doubts about that, they were quickly dispelled as I watched her lift the flap and then proceed to tear the flap out of the book.  To her, at this stage, she is simply exploring her world, trying to figure out how little things work.  But she has yet to learn that when you tear something up, it's torn up forever.  It will never again look the same way.   She will learn this one day.  She will learn that actions have consequences. 


          I remember hearing a sermon from a clergyman who was trying to get his congregation off the dime, and he said, "If you always do what you did, you'll always get what you got."  Well, that's often true, isn't it?  But the fallacy of that statement is that sometimes we do things just right and still things don't work out the way we want.


          We buy into this notion that with more effort and more insight, we can fix everything that needs fixing.  It's part of our cultural self-understanding as Americans.  We built this country, after all, right? 

          There is, I think, a prevailing mind-set that America was built with earnest prayer and elbow grease, and that there is nothing we can't do if we put our minds to it.  You will hear this in the background of any political campaign.  We, the people, made this country, and we can fix what's wrong. 


          And then after that comes the finger pointing.  The problem is the progressives.  The problem is the conservatives.  The problem is the these people over here who want us to do this.  And see the myth is that we could control the problems if only X, Y, an Z were different.  But in actuality,  there are limits to our ability to control. 


          I'm not saying, so what?  Laissez-faire.  I'm saying that sometimes things happen that are not direct consequences of something we have done—even though we rush to explain things that way.


          It happened in Jesus' day.  Luke 13, "There were some present who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices."  The story goes that Pontius Pilate had slaughtered some people from Galilee who had gone to the Temple to offer some sacrifices.  When the Galileans were killed, they were offering their sacrifices, and the blood from the sacrifices and their own blood had co-mingled.  It was a tragedy.  It was the kind of thing that would have made headlines. 


          In May of last year, Dr. George Tiller of Wichita, Kansas went to church on Sunday morning.  Dr. Tiller was one of the few doctors in this country who provided late term abortions. 


          Dr. Tiller was an usher at Reformation Lutheran Church, his wife sang in the choir.  A man named Scott Roeder showed up at the church with a gun and killed Dr. Tiller. 


          And people looked at that, and some said, "Well, he gave abortions..."  And others looked at where it had happened, and shook their heads.  "It happened in church.  Can you imagine that?"


          But in the background of it all is the attempt to make sense of it, so that the incident can be controlled.  Because if we can control it—the line of thought goes—by making sense of it, we can avoid this happening to us.  "The man was an abortion doctor.  We are not abortion doctors.  This won't happen to us."


          You see, it's because he sinned.  That's why the doctor was murdered.  That's why the Galileans were killed while offering their sacrifices in the Temple.  And Jesus says no.  Jesus says, "Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?  No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did."


          And he goes on, "Or what about those eighteen people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?  No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did." 

          When Jesus says, "Do you think they were worse offenders [or sinners]?" what he is really saying is "You do think they were worse sinners.  But they weren't."


          Hurricane Katrina hits the Gulf of Mexico and is bearing down on New Orleans.  Just after the levees broke and the full devastation of the city became apparent, I was talking to someone who had been there.  "New Orleans is a bad place," she said.  She never said, "They deserved this."  But just under the surface of the conversation there was this idea—"God is cleaning up the mess.  Somehow, they deserved this."


          Jesus says no to that kind of thinking.  It can seem so pious to want to rationalize things that way, but it doesn't work.  We cannot draw the line from action to consequence quite so easily.  Because what we are saying is that we are not suffering, because we knew how to avoid the sin.  And that then opens up the most seductive activity, which is self-righteousness.  Clean-living.  I may not be a saint, but at least I can avoid that.  And Jesus says no. 


          Of course we should strive to avoid sin, of course.  But the line from sin to punishment cannot be drawn by the human hand.  We cannot account for the capriciousness of life. 


          You fall in love and get married—but you cannot possibly foresee the road ahead.  She may develop an illness that is part of her genes.  He may end up in car accident.  And there you are—in a life that you might never have chosen. 

          Some couples can stay together, some fall apart.  How do you make sense of it?  How do you get control?  "He must have sinned."  "She must have sinned."  "That's why they're in trouble."  And Jesus says no, that's not how it happens.


          For years and years and years people have been shaking their heads about Haiti.  A poor country, starving, lonely people.  Some of them have been so desperate for freedom and economic help that they've made rafts out of sticks and have tried to paddle to America. 


          People have been so desperate for food that they've made mud cookies.  It's just water, dirt, and a little bit of oil.  And people have eaten those things, filled their bellies with dirt and died. 


          I remember when I was in high school hearing stories told as if they were Gospel truth that the whole country of Haiti had made a pact with the devil.  They had sacrificed a pig and were worshiping satan.  That's how you explain the poverty and the misery, they said.


          At 4:53pm on Tuesday, January 21st of this year, a 7.0 earthquake occurred.  The epicenter was 16 miles from the capitol of Port-Au-Prince.  At the time of my working on this sermon, there are 222,550 people who have died as a result.  Over 1.2 million have been left homeless. 


           And as the news of devastation continued to mount, what did I start to hear?  The same stories I heard back in high school about devil worship and pig sacrifices.  It's because they're not Christian, right?  According to the CIA World Factbook, 96% of Haitians are Christians of one stripe or another.  Only 66% of US citizens are Christians of one stripe or another.[1]  We get earthquakes, too, you know.


          But people want to draw that line between sin and punishment.  The Tower of Siloam falls and eighteen people die.  How do you explain it?  Just after 9/11 the stories began to emerge about people who were supposed to be in the Pentagon in that part of the building when the plane hit.  Or at the World Trade Center.  And something in them said don't go.  Or someone was sick and stayed home.  But where do those stories leave the grieving families of those who did go to work?  What are we really saying? 


          The tower falls.  Were they worse sinners?   No, says Jesus.  But, unless you repent, you will die as they did. 


          Well, how did they die, if they didn't die because of their sins?   They died going about their lives, unaware perhaps that life could end so soon.  And perhaps Jesus is saying that we should not think of our "clean living" as insurance that things won't happen to us.  That we should be mindful that

there is capriciousness to life, and that we should not assume that we have plenty of time to get our house in order.



          Repentance, in this context, is being aware that our lives are fragile and we need to not leave sins unconfessed, or relationships broken.


          And he tells this parable about the fig tree.  The fig tree had no figs for years and the owner of the vineyard tells the gardener to cut it down.  It shouldn't be wasting the soil.  But the gardener says, "Hold on, let's give it another year.  I'll dig around it and put down some fertilizer.  Let's see if it can turn around.  Maybe the tree doesn't know it can grow figs." 


          So the tree gets another year.  How long do you think we have?  Another year?  Another year to seek God, to tell our families how much we love them, to get our house together, to grow some figs. 


          I am more and more convinced that the unease many people have with who they are, or where their life is, comes from a lack of authenticity.  If you wish to find satisfaction with who you are, you must come to know yourself, and be able to love yourself, as God loves you. 


          This is easily said, but it is a process.  Many people never undertake to discern themselves, and so they fear death more, because they feel like strangers in their own skin.  God knows you.  God loves you.  God wants you to know yourself and love yourself, as he loves you. 


          But the fullest answer to these things was lived out by Jesus himself.  You could say that the tower fell on him when he was crucified.  He offered his life, yes, but he was also the victim of circumstances. 


          Jesus went to the cross, and in so doing, relinquished any control he had.  He not only faced death, he faced the very same uncertainty that you and I face.  When he was raised from the dead, he showed us that all those awful things cannot hold on to us for ever. 


          Towers fall all the time.  But those who fall under them will be raised.




If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider making a donation to the church where you feel most at home.


The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842


Thursday, March 4, 2010

"At the center of our being

is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal.... This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God written in us.... It is like a pure diamond blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it, we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely."
--Thomas Merton

Monday, March 1, 2010

Sermon given on Lent 2

written for
Epiphany 5C.  7 February 2010.

on which day church was cancelled due to snow


          About two Sundays ago I told you about a friend of mine who was a parish priest for thirty-odd years and retired to work for an organization that helps people in El Salvador.  You might remember what he said to me, "Now that I'm retired, I have finally figured out what I want to do with my life." 


          Not that you would have ever doubted, but that story is absolutely true.  In fact, before I preached that sermon I emailed him, just to make sure that I was remembering his words correctly.  I suppose what has interested me about his story is that he did, for years, what I am now doing, which I consider to be meaningful work—yet at the end of it, God tapped him on the shoulder and said, "Now…now…this is what you're going to do. Today this Scripture is fulfilled. The poor will be helped today.  You can't just kick back now and do nothing…you still have ministry to do."


          And that is the Gospel imperative for all of us—to be constantly renewing our devotion to God in prayer and acts of service.   Because, you see, there is always a call for it. 


          There is always a call that comes from the deep yearning of God for his people.  It is always the same and it is always different.  It is always the same in that the substance of the call is always:  "God needs you."  But it is always different, because God has made each person different, with different gifts and abilities. 

          St. Paul was right to identify that some people are called to oversee, and some to speak in other languages.  Some are called to be pastors and teachers, and some are called to work miracles. 


          The miracles one has always interested me a little.  That God has called some to work miracles.  I wondered about that one for a long time—I really thought about it, because when I think of a miracle I think of something completely out there…beyond the beyond.  But then I realized that I know people who work miracles all the time.  They can go up to just about anyone and make them feel better—people who have no light in the their eyes, no spark of anything going on.  But around these miracle workers, there is just something about them.  And they don't even realize that they have this gift, but it's a miracle whenever they're around. 


          Some folks are gifted at organization and bringing concepts together.  They often don't think that they're all that spiritual, but we need them…God needs them.  But God has given all of us gifts, and God is constantly calling us to use them.


          Frederick Buechner said, "Vocation happens when our deep gladness meets the world's deep need."  Think about that.  Our Christian service happens when our deep gladness meets the world's deep need.


          God does not call us to tasks that are too burdensome.  The gifts of God are given through us to other people.  So we are then collaborators with God in the salvation of the world. 

          We are part of the answer.  Our deep gladness meets the world's deep need.  Christian service is, or at least, should be, a joy.


          The call of Simon, James, and John is an example of this.  Simon, James and John had been fishing all night, and Jesus is preaching near the shore.  The crowds get too big and they keep pressing in on him to hear what he had to say.  So Jesus gets into one of the boats and teaches from the boat.  When I think of this scene I imagine a beautiful day, don't you?  It's such a picturesque story.  And after he finished his teaching, he said to Simon, "Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch."


          And Simon responds, "We have worked all night long but have caught nothing.  Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets."  And when they pulled up the nets, they had so many fish that the nets began to break.  So Simon signaled to their partners in the other boat to help.  And there were so many fish that both boats began to sink. 


          Simon Peter falls at Jesus' feet.  He is amazed.  He is terrified.  He is in the presence of holiness; he knows that, and that is why he kneels.  Just like when Jesus turned the water to a super-abundance of wine, the super-abundance of fish reveals the manifestation of God's glory in the person of Christ.  This is the one we have been waiting for.  This man, Jesus, is the Messiah of God.  Everything points to this.  The super-abundance of people listening to him, the super-abundance of wine and the catch of fish.



          What has been impossible, Jesus has made possible.  But more than that.  That which has been grueling, disheartening, depressing, burdensome, has become easy—and not from Simon's efforts, but from collaborating with Jesus.  Or I suppose I should say, "answering the call."


          They bring in the fish, but they leave the fish behind.  They do not go and sell the fish and think, "Wow!  God provided fish and we made a lot of money!"  The super-abundance is a sign of God—and they follow.  No longer fishing for fish, but fishing for people.


          This then becomes a metaphor for what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.  Following him is following someone who is able to create wine from water, or fish from an empty sea.  He is showing us that when we are truly responding to the call of God, the abundance of God's favor—not necessarily money—but God's favor will be with us.  The work will not be too burdensome.


          But there is also this enduring mystery to the call of God for the people of God: it continues on an on.  Look at when Jesus tells Simon to put out his nets.  Not after a night's sleep with breakfast, a cup of coffee.  They had been fishing all night. 


          They had been striving for this abundance on their own steam for hours and hours, overnight.  Nets down, nets up.  Nothing.  Nets down, nets up.  Nothing.  Hours of this.  It must have seemed like for ever. 



          And so the call of Christ comes to them after hours and hours of tedious, fruitless work.  Jesus calls the tired, weary fisherman to put down his net once more.  And from the moment Simon answers the call, there is no more talk of "been there, done that." 


          Which is a challenge of its own kind to those of us who would like to sit back and let others do the work.  God calls the parish priest who has labored for thirty years—he's retired.  Time to relax?  No.  And what does he say?, "I finally figured out what I want to do when I grow up."  No more weariness…there are too many fish in the boat to be weary. 


          I know two very dear men who taught in different seminaries for years and years.  One is an Episcopal bishop, the other is a cleric from another denomination.  They have both retired from church or seminary work at least three times.  Each time they retire, the phone rings.  "Can you preach for me?"  "Can you lead a class?"  What can they do?  Say no?  There are too many fish in the boat to say no.  God is calling.


          I know a Roman Catholic priest who is in his nineties.  I think the only reason God won't take him is that he can't find a replacement.  He is simply too gifted for words.  He is the kind of man who works miracles—like I was talking about before.  To be in his presence is to be in the presence of God.  If you were to call him up, even if you didn't know him, he would help you with any problem you'd care to name.  You would feel the love of God pouring through the telephone at you.  It wouldn't matter that you're not a Roman Catholic…he wouldn't care a bit about that.  The boat is too full of fish to care.  The water is wine again. 


          But don't let me only talk about clergy.  You know that clergy are like fertilizer.  Gather us together and we stink, but if you spread us out we might do some good.


          There is a man I know who was audited by the IRS several times.  There was nothing at all wrong with his taxes—the problem was that the government could not believe that he was giving as much as he was to his church.  They pulled him in several years in a row.  They said, "There is no way anyone gives this much money to a church in a year."  And he produced the statement from the church, and all the cancelled checks. It was all there.


          This man goes to church every Sunday, serves as a chalicist and lector, if the church needs someone to do something—he's the one.  What does he want?  Nothing.  Special attention from the priest?  Nope.  Is he trying to pay his way out of a guilty conscience for years of scandalous living?  Nope.  He's not trying to get anything.  There are too many fish in the boat for that.  The only thing I ever saw from him was a bend in his knee that said, "Master, depart from me; I am a sinful man."


          Discipleship.  The call comes again, and again, and again…  There are people who hear it, and they discover more deeply what it is to follow Jesus; and there are people—God loves them just as much!—who want to sit there with a t-shirt on that reads, "Been there.  Done that.  No, thank you."  But until we draw our last breath, there is still time to answer the call.


          There is a woman who died about twenty years ago.  She had retired after years and years of nursing.  After raising two daughters, and working long shifts in hospitals, she discovered that her gifts for organization could be used in her church's food pantry.  She bought two large deep freezes, and put them in her garage.  She made the weekly run down to a large food bank.  She brought back the bulk items, rewrapped them for individual distribution, and essentially ran the food pantry.  It was perfect.  She was a nurse, she had the skills to organize and dose, and all of that.  And she was fine doing all that work.  She loved it.


          But she was a nurse, and one day the opportunity arose to visit Belize on a medical mission trip.  She saw things she could not believe.  They served her iguana, which is a delicacy in Belize.  She helped heal people who had been injured in unthinkable ways, working side by side with field doctors.  Incredible ministry.


          Now, if you had suggested that she just relax and not answer the call, she would have been nice to you, but she would have done what she did anyway.  She didn't want anything at all—except to be faithful to the call.  There was an abundance in her life, and it became more and more abundant. 


          As she grew ill and close to death, she put her hands on my head one day and prayed for me.  She asked God to bless me.  I will never forget that.  I didn't realize in the moment how meaningful it was.  But she was someone who actually did what Simon, James and John did.  And when you're around someone like that, it can get under your skin. 


          I want you to think about her.  Right until the day she died she was still praying, still, in her own way, working for the kingdom of God.  She would never wear the t-shirt that says, "Been there, done that."  If you need a name to call her, you can call her "Amanda."  I called her "Grandmother."


          I never got a chance to look in those deep freezes in her garage after she died.  I'm sure that there were blocks of butter, maybe some frozen beef stew.  But I'd like to think that they were filled with two boat load of fish. 


          The call comes again.  Will you answer it? 


          There are too many fish to say no.




If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider making a donation to the church where you feel most at home.


The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842