Monday, October 24, 2011

As I saw the images of Moammar Gadhafi

being bullied in the moments before he was executed, my mind did not see what was literally happening.  Instead, the images seemed to me to be so close to depictions of Jesus in the moments leading up to his crucifixion.  I did not see a dictator or tyrant.  I saw a man--bloody, near death, humiliated, scorned, and scared.  And again, I thought of quite another man.  

Did we need to see that?  Well, I suppose it depends on what you mean by "we" and "need."  The answer is a flat no, if you were born, raised, and have always lived in America.  The answer may be yes if you were born and raised in Libya.  Maybe you needed to see this human being be belittled so that you could be sure he could recognize himself as a human being before he died.  But did you, really?

No, Gadhafi was not like Jesus in the way he lived.  But Jesus allowed himself to become very much like Gadhafi in the way that he died.  And if you've ever wondered if Jesus really does know what it is like to experience the totality of human life--look no further.  

I would like to believe--and you can certainly disagree--but I need to believe that in those last few moments before Gadhafi was killed, Jesus spread his light in the darkness again.  I believe that it's possible that the horror of love pierced the darkness and ignorance of that life--poorly lived--and said, "Truly I tell will be with me in Paradise."  

The Jesus I know would say that. 


Monday, October 17, 2011

Proper 24A. 16 October 2011.

For the audio version, click here and select 18th Sunday after Pentecost.


          I remember when I was in college that I somehow came across a book—I think it was a history book, but I'm not exactly sure now.  I don't remember the actual title of the book, but it was second titled, "The Age of Anxiety."  I don't believe it was the poem by W. H. Auden by the same title, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948.  Nor was it the symphony of Leonard Bernstein that the poem inspired—which then also inspired the ballet by Jerome Robbins.


          "The Age of Anxiety," as that era is called by historians, means Europe during the 1920s, or more generally the early part of the twentieth century.  I was probably reading this book as part of a survey course in western civilization—and when I say I was reading it, I cannot guarantee that I, in fact, read the book.  I can say that the book was in my presence—in my dorm room.  It spent anywhere from three to five days cohabitating with other books near me, and I may or may not have read parts of it in connection with an assignment. 


          I can say with absolute certainty that I absorbed that part of the title which brought the book to my mind— and that that title attached itself to my soul in the way that disturbing things often do. 



          The title sits on my mental bookshelf, along with a handful of other images and thoughts that try to keep me from falling asleep at night.  I keep it next to Elie Wiesel's classic book Night in which he recounts his experiences surviving life in a concentration camp.  I keep it with memories of being about seven or eight, when in the middle of the night a firefighter pounded on the door of our house, and explained that we needed to evacuate, because a gas leak had been discovered somewhere on the block. 


          The Age of Anxiety.  (Pause.)  Again, Europe during and after the Great War, and World War II, which was the source of unprecedented trauma for the cultures of all the countries affected by it.  The philosophical and theological movements that were part of the early twentieth century either explicitly or implicitly responded to the trauma of those years.


          We cannot calculate the change in our religious culture that stems from the minds of Einstein, Nietzsche, Bonheoffer, Jung, Freud, Eliot, Proust, Pound.  It was, I believe, the theologian Paul Tillich who wrote: "Today it has become almost a truism to call our time an age of anxiety."


          If you look at the art and culture of the late 1800s and early, early 1900s, you will notice the almost sublime innocence of the late Victorian and early Edwardian eras in England.  The church composer William Harris wrote that majestic choral setting of Edmund Spenser's poem, "An Hymne of Heavenly Beautie." 



          If you read the liner notes from the Cambridge recording it reads, that the song "seems to evoke with infinite nostalgia the vanished Edwardian England of Harris's own youth: a world where the sun always shone, mellow and golden, through the cathedral windows, where life was secure, leisured and elegant (for the fortunate few) and, above all, where there was no inkling of the cataclysmic World War to come."  The Age of Anxiety.  (Pause.)


          I always associate that phrase with the second title of that book that sits on the shelf in my mind.  Occasionally, I will pull this book down from its perch and thumb through the pages.  They are all blank.  I don't remember a single word, but I can project onto the blank pages my own recollections of what I've been taught, and I imagine black and white photos of war torn Europe. 


          As my thumb flips deeper and deeper into the book, the photos become more familiar, as I see some of the men and women who were beginning to retire when I was a child.  Soft, kind, white-haired men in polyester suits, and women who still wore hats and gloves to church and talked about gardens and canning.  They lived through the Age of Anxiety.  I see the little white flowers on their dresses, and their sturdy black leather clunky shoes.


          I thumb through that book until the pages run out, and then I put it back up on the shelf, and stare at the cover.  And whenever I do, I can't help thinking about the sheer poignancy of that title. 

          Yes, that was an age of anxiety—but is it shortsighted, or even (at worst) disrespectful to call it The Age of Anxiety.


          It seems to me that the world has never known a time when "the sun always shone mellow and golden through the cathedral windows," or "where life was secure, leisured and elegant…"  It may have seemed that way to a privileged few in every age, for a time, and it will always seem that way when you visit that beautiful elegant lady who lives just up the street, whose name is Nostalgia. 


          Nostalgia is a sweet, sweet woman.  I love her dearly.  She wears these beautiful sundresses and is always happy to receive you.  Somehow it is always autumn at her house, and it is always afternoon, getting on toward evening.  She will invite you to sit on her back porch with a glass of iced tea, and you can stare up through the yellow and gold leaves on the trees in her backyard. 


          I love Nostalgia.  I visit her all the time, and I'm always happy when I do, because she can take the most awful experience and filter it through an uncritical appreciation of how little we knew, and how much we hoped.  She can squeeze a seemingly meaningless interaction when I was twelve years old into a syrup of sentiment that makes me realize how impossible it is to live my life to the fullest.  No…  You have to look back to see the beauty. 




          Nostalgia waves her air brush over the roses to make them drip with dew.  She gilds every casual remark with a tinge of melancholy.  She drops the soft words that fell from our parents lips into the wells of our memory, until the ripples become tears falling one by one.  (Pause.)


          She doesn't know this, of course, but after I visit Nostalgia… After the iced tea,  after the spell of her company has faded…  As I'm walking, or driving home, I catch sight of the book again, "The Age of Anxiety," and again, I wonder…isn't every age an age of anxiety?


          Isn't there always something to life that keeps us from the idyllic sort of peace that we imagine could be ours, if only…  Is it because we are Americans that we do this?  Is it because we believe, somewhere beyond all the fuss and fury of this temporal existence, there is a real America that is happy, peaceful, prosperous, and blessed, if only this and this and this and this were different? 


          Well, maybe…but we cannot change this and this and this.  We have always been trying, though.  Human beings in every age have tried to get some kind of mastery over each other and over the future.  We depend on some measure of control, or we'd go crazy.  But what would it be like if we really did have to start again?  What if our society had to start over, and even shrug off the nationality and geography that gives our lives a context?




          The Hebrew people found themselves out in the wilderness.  No more slavery, yes…but no more Egypt with its wealth and power.  And Moses prays, and prays, and prays…  He was anxious about the future.  There was no game plan beyond the voice of God within him.  And he was looking for help.  Someone else. 


          He prays to God, "See, you have said to me, `Bring up this people'; but you have not let me know whom you will send with me.   Yet you have said, `I know you by name,' and that I have found favor in your sight."  Look God, these are your people.  I'm trying to do what you've asked me to do.  It's just you and me, here.  I need more to go on. 


          Talk about an age of anxiety.  There was no safety net.  No hospital, grocery store, or bank.  There was nothing but desert, and people, and faith that life was, eventually, going to be better.   Moses wanted someone to be with him.  Someone to help him along and take away some of the anxiety. 


          It is a prayer that comes from the deepest place of human need.  It goes all the way back to the child holding on to the parent's hand in a new place.  These people look nice enough, but who knows?  Mommy needs to go now; Daddy needs to get to work.  It's time for you to play with the other children.  No, no, no…not yet.  Not yet.  Stay here.  I have to go.  Will someone be with me?  Yes.  But daddy has to go…





          That's how we have to answer our children, but that's not how God answers that need—that fundamental need for someone to be there.  Instead God says, "My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest."  In the Hebrew "my presence" is closer in meaning to "my face" will go with you.  My being…  I am.


          And that is the fundamental answer that God gives to every child crying out for help, I am.  I am here.  I will go with you.


          Every age is an age of anxiety.  At certain points along the way we all stare up at the sky and wonder, with the Psalmist, "What is a man that thou art mindful of him?"  Are you really up there, God?  Will you not send someone with us to help ease the loneliness and to take away the anxiety?


          God said, "I will be with you."  And God has always been there for those who have eyes willing to see him.  He has been there in the faith of Moses.  He has been there through all the prophets and sages in ages past. 


          And the Word became flesh.  God is there eternally and perfectly in Jesus—who, by the power of the Holy Spirit is present within the Church.


          You and I have been placed among people who know both the anxiety of living amidst adversity, and the faith that God is going to be there through it all.  This is the exodus from Egypt.  This is the exile and return.  This is cross and resurrection.  The holy hope and faith that makes us who we are. 


          We are the people of God.   





If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider giving 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.


Wednesday, October 5, 2011

"People who are really humble

who know themselves to be earth or humus--the root from which our word "humble" comes--have about themselves an air of self-containment and self-control.  There is no haughtiness, no distance, no sarcasm, no put downs, no airs of importance or disdain.  The ability to deal with both their own limitations and the limitations of others, the recognition that God is in life and that they are not in charge of the universe brings serenity and hope, inner peace and real energy.  Humble people walk comfortably in every group.  No one is either too beneath them or too above them for their own sense of well-being.  They are who they are, people with as much to give as to get, and they know it."

Sister Joan Chittister, OSB from Wisdom Distilled from the Daily, pg. 64.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Proper 22A. 2 October 2011.

For the audio version, click here and select 16th Sunday after Pentecost.


          I try not to do this too often, but I want to tell you a little story about my daughter, Maggie.  Maggie is three years old.  And like Peter, being the child of two Episcopal priests, she doesn't stand a chance of being "normal."  Every little book that comes close to the size and thickness of The Book of Common Prayer is called a prayer book or a Bible.  And she will carry it around, periodically opening it, and singing from it, or mumbling as if in prayer. 


          It will therefore come as no surprise to you that occasionally she decides to hold revival meetings in her room.  Just the other week I came back from my run and was heading off to the shower, and discovered an entire congregation of some of the local stuffed animals—every head bowed, and every eye closed. 


          Every once in awhile, Maggie will announce that she will be leading Morning Prayer, in her room, and will ask us to come.  Karin and I will go to her room, and Maggie will sing a little song, and then announce that she is ready to deliver her sermon. 


          Now, you must understand that she is very traditional.  In the synagogue, it was the custom for the prophet or the rabbi to sit to teach.  Maggie will pull out a little chair and sit down to preach. 


          I am about to offer you the entire sermon from a couple weeks ago.  It has been very much on my mind, and I hope that it will be meaningful to you, too.  Maggie said, "God is everywhere, and God loves us."  That's it. 


          She may have heard this from Barbara Collins in Sunday school.  She may have heard it from her teachers at either the Presbyterian preschool, or the Methodist day care.  I am not kidding when I say that this may have come out of her own heart and spirit and mind through whatever processes of discernment she is capable of at her age.  I mean that sincerely, because I was Maggie's age when I first believed I should seek ordination.  The spirituality of children can be both cute and serious.


          It has long been said that children are the church of tomorrow, but I have always liked how Bishop Lee would correct that expression to say that children are also the church of today. 


          But back to Maggie's sermon.  After the power of the cuteness has faded—you and I are left with the theological profundity contained in that single—though compound—sentence.  "God is everywhere, and God loves us."


          Technically, Maggie's sermon is an aphorism, or a proverb.  The structure is two simple declarative sentences: Subject, Verb, Adverb (God is everywhere), then Subject, Verb, Noun, (God loves us), which are linked by a comma, and the conjunction "and." 


          She has yet to learn how to illustrate her ideas with parable, symbolism, or rhetorical devices, the absence of which only serves to make her statements more powerful.  Though she did not make eye contact with either Karin or me, and while her voice did not carry the message with gravity and force, the simplicity of her language, but the depth of her theology made me feel that I was at the Altar of God.  And Karin and I looked at each other—stunned and amused in equal amounts—and realized, in a way we had not yet fully believed, that the Holy Spirit is not just for grown-ups.


          I wonder if you realize how counter-cultural, and indeed, even subversive her sermon is.  Maggie said that God is everywhere.  You don't have to be a Christian to believe that.  You can be a devout Jew, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist, and believe that God is everywhere.  You can ask people directly if they believe that God is everywhere, and I would be willing to bet that most people would say they agree.  But if you were to get into people's minds—if you were able to get deeply into the consciousness of even people like us who go to church!—and ask the question….  For REAL.  Do you believe that God is everywhere?  I think that most people—truthfully—would say "Well…uhm…hmm..?"


          I think we want to believe it.  In our best moments, we probably do believe it.  But I'm pretty sure that most of the time there is an asterisk next to the "yes," which leads down to a footnote that has a question mark at the end of it.  (Pause.)  And that is nothing new in the fabric of Christianity, and in the fabric of common life in this country. 


          It continues to shock many devout Christians that the founding fathers of the United States of America were mostly Deists.  They were culturally part of the Church, but the spiritual contours of this country were such that many believed that God was like a divine clockmaker who created the world and then wound it up like an eight day clock, and let it go.  God then observes his creation from a distance, intervening only in moments of great necessity, or perhaps not even then.  "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."


          God is at a distance, looking on, listening to prayers, but staying out of the way.  It is possible to think of God in that way while reading today's Gospel lesson—the allegory of the wicked tenants.  The landowner builds a vineyard and appoints it beautifully with everything necessary for a healthy and prosperous business.  God leases it out to tenants, whose job is to tend the vineyard and return the produce.  When the harvest time comes, the landowner—from a distance—sends his slaves to collect the produce, but the tenants beat the slaves and send them away.  It happens again and again, until finally, the landowner sends his son.


          Now, it may be that the tenants think that the landowner is scared to come on his own.  They've beaten up everyone, surely they can beat up the landowner.  So when the son comes, they think, let's kill the son.  The landowner is too scared to come on his own.  With the son dead, he will surely be too sad and scared to come on his own.  So they kill the son. 


          And Jesus asks the Pharisees who are listening, "What will the landowner do?"  And they respond, "He will put those tenants to a miserable death, and give the vineyard to more faithful tenants."  And Jesus says, "Haven't you read Psalm 118?  `The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is the Lord's doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes'?  Therefore, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that returns the fruit of the kingdom."


          Do you really believe that God is everywhere?  Do you, in your heart of hearts, really believe that God is truly everywhere, and able to see what you've done and haven't done, and doesn't care that you've been enlarging your own sense of importance at the expense of the people you are here to serve?


          Or do you believe that God has simply wound up the clock and let you do whatever you want, and is too scared and feckless to come to you for an account?  With this story, Jesus is able to cut right down between the flesh and the bone, between what the Pharisees say or think they believe, and how their behavior lives it out.


          It's a rough parable.  Actually, it's an allegory.  And if it were only suited to the scribes and Pharisees, it would let us off very easily.  But it's not.  These parts of the New Testament were not written to preserve the frustrations of Jesus at the behavior of the religious establishment in his day—they were written to the church—painful as that idea may be.


          Painful to think that Matthew took down this lesson, and said, "Okay Church, let's always remember and never forget what this looks like, and what Jesus said about this manner of infidelity.  Let us never delude ourselves in only saying that we are accountable to God, because God sees and knows and cares, but let us make sure that our actions bear it out."


          That is first part of Maggie's sermon, you see?  "God is everywhere."  God does indeed care, very deeply, when he sees the mistreatment of his creation, by the people who call themselves "the faithful."


          But thankfully, Maggie's sermon has a second part.  God loves us.  And that is the more positive side of this allegory. 


          The vineyard is precious to God.  Far too precious to be ignored, or to be left in the hands of those who only call themselves faithful, but are truly unfaithful.  The vineyard, and the produce of the vineyard are worth so much, that God is willing to send messengers. 


          Classically, of course, this is understood as the prophets, and the Old Testament fathers and mothers who continue to serve as icons of faithfulness in the story of God's relationship with us.  Abraham and Sarah, Isaac, and Jacob, David, Solomon, Joshua, Ruth, Naomi, Isaiah, Micah, Elijah, Elisha.  People whose faithfulness—even to this day—challenges us to greater devotion.  Again and again, God sends the Holy Word of comfort and peace, compassion and healing—God's presence with and for the creation he so deeply loves.


          God did not come on his own—he sent angels: messengers.  Did you know?  Did you know that in Greek and Hebrew the word "messenger" is the word "angel."  In Greek it's  άγγελος, and in the Hebrew it's ךלאמ (mehLAkh).  Angels—when mentioned in the Bible—are understood as coming from God, and they are thought of and depicted in art as spiritual beings.  But the raw sense of the word is just "messenger."  They do not speak their own Word, they speak the Word of God. 


          And the Word of God came down through these messengers—these people who believed in God and believed that the only life worth living was to be in relationship with God.  The Word of God was taking flesh in them, though imperfectly.  They had their faults; they wanted to be able to be better examples of what they taught, but they kept going.  The vineyard was tended all along the way by these beautiful people, and the beautiful message of hope and salvation they offered.


          Yet, again and again those messengers were mistreated, ignored, derided, or they simply self-destructed.  Finally, God sent his son, thinking: Surely they will respect my son.  And so the Word became flesh for real.  And lived among us.  Pitched his tent beside our tent.  And God was in our midst.  The message and the messenger are one.  God from God, light from light.  For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven.  


          "He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.  He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.  But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God…"  (John 1:10-12)


          And you know the story.  The Cross, the shame, the Resurrection and Ascension.  And the message still goes forth.  The stone that was rejected has become the cornerstone.  Jesus, the Word made flesh, is and will always be, the Way, the Truth and the Life.  (Pause.)


          St. Matthew, when he was writing his Gospel, probably never envisioned the Church being passed along for 2000 years through other messengers.  He may have seen one or two come along before he died.  I'm almost certain he believed when he was being martyred in Ethiopia that Christ would be coming tomorrow or surely the day after.  But I know he is pleased that what he preached and taught and lived, continues to be preached and taught and lived.  By you, and me. 


          It is so simple that even a three year old girl, barefooted, sitting on a Mickey Mouse chair…  Not even making eye contact, and the message is still powerful.  Do you remember her sermon? 


          "God is everywhere, and God loves us."





If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider giving 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.