Monday, February 25, 2013

Will you laugh with me?

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Lent 2C.  24 February 2013.


Genesis 15:1-12, 17,18


            I was, very recently, having a conversation with Bishop Ted Gulick, and the essence of what he said in part of our conversation really stirred my heart.  I want to share it with you.


            Bishops have a view of the Church that is unique, because they travel so much, and know so many people, both lay and ordained, and they get a sense of where we are, and where we are headed.  Anyone who has held a leadership position knows what this is like.  You see trends of behavior, or recurring stories, and you sense movement—even it you can't put your finger exactly on what might happen next.


            Well, in this conversation, the bishop said that he and his colleagues were sensing that the Episcopal Church is moving towards something wonderful.  He drew examples of meeting with high school and college aged people who are earnestly devout and utterly dedicated to the mission and ministry of Christ within—and this is very important—within the Episcopal Church. 


            The reason I say that that's important is not out of some institutional loyalty, but because I am always hearing of this movement within our culture of people saying they are spiritual, but not religious.  That they want to have a personal relationship with God, but they don't want to discover what that means within the discipline of traditional Church Faith.


            But the bishop said that these confirmands and college students, camp counselors at Shrine Mont, and young-ish folks all over the Diocese feel in their bones a connection with the Episcopal Church, and want to live that out either in ordained life, or in dedicated lay service.  He said they are thoughtful, wise beyond their years, intelligent, grounded, and not at all like many of us have worried the future generation would be like.


            I have to tell you that I was immensely encouraged by his comments.  And I hope you are, too, because there is a richness and an expansiveness to traditional Anglican Faith that is too precious to be lost.  We represent the fullness of Catholic liturgy and practice, and at the same time, a strong biblical Faith that uses tradition and reason—practical piety—as a grounding principle.


            On top of that, we strive to be a big tent, where people of various backgrounds feel welcome and at home.  People can disagree with each other and remain in communion with each other; and that has always been a hallmark of Anglicanism. 


            But perhaps you look around from time to time and wonder where these young people may be hiding.  Like most small churches, we have a smattering of children and young adults, and we always wish for more. 

            There are times in the ebbs and flows of parish life that it seems like most are combing grey or white hair, and the sounds of children are painfully absent. 


            Today, we read the story of God making a covenant with Abram.  God made several promises to him.  God called him to take his wife and cattle and servants, and leave Ur to travel to the land that God would give him.  And Abram did as the Lord had asked. 


            We pick up the story with God coming to Abram in a vision and saying, "Your reward shall be very great."  Abram does not understand how any reward could be great, because he has no children.  How can anything be great without others to come after to share the reward and carry forward the relationship that God wishes to have with him?


            So Abram pushes back at God a little bit.  "Lord, what will you give me?  I have no children, and the man who is going to inherit from me when I die is my servant."  God says, "No, your servant is not going to be your heir.  You are going to have your own child.  Abram.  Look up at the stars, and count them, if you can.  That's how many descendants are going to come from you."


            And Abram believed.  I don't know how he believed, but he believed.  And God said, "I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess."  And Abram asks again, "How?"  "How am I to know that you will be faithful?  How am I to know that you will do what you have promised me?"  So God makes a covenant. 

            He tells Abram to bring a selection of animals to him, and God passes between the sacrificed animals, saying "To your descendants I give this land.  I will be faithful to what I have promised."


            And the story continues with the visit of God to Abram and Sarai, where God changes Abram's and Sarai's names to Abraham and Sarah.  Abraham meaning the Father of Nations.  God tells Abraham that Sarah is going to have a child, and Sarah laughs, because she was advanced in years.  And because Sarah laughed, God tells them that they will name their child Isaac, which means laughter.


            It's a playful movement in the story.  You have all this serious talk about covenants and stars and "I am the Lord thy God," and then, as the promise is being realized, God understands the sensation of the unlikelihood of it all—at least, what seems to them as unlikely—and God has the child, born of his promise, named laughter.  (Why more people don't love God for this, I will never know.)


            Well, I have some news for you.  This story isn't just for Abraham and Sarah.  It's for Beckford Parish.  Maybe I'm intoxicated with the new wine of what the bishop was saying about young people.  But I, too, have a sense about the Episcopal Church.


            When I was about 20 years old, the Word of the Lord came to me and said, "Get up, and leave this place, and go to the Church that I will show you." 

            And I got up and I walked through the front doors of Emmanuel Church in Harrisonburg.  It was a Thursday evening Holy Eucharist.  No music. 


            There was no one at the door.  No one welcomed me.  I walked down the center aisle of the church, and looked up at the Altar where the candles and the Sanctuary light were lit, and it felt to me as if there were arms around my body, and a voice inside said, "You are home.  You have come home.  This is where you belong." 


            Before I had ever met the priest.  Before I had interacted with a single person, I knew this was my church.  And as I watched the priest celebrating the Holy Eucharist, I knew that this was my future.  And that living out my baptism would be from that side of the Altar rail.  I had nothing to go on.  I wasn't even a regular newcomer yet; but I believed.


            And I continue to believe in a God who calls people.  Calls them to churches, calls them to jobs that make mission and ministry possible.  God calls parish rectors, and senior wardens, evangelists, teachers, people who are inspired to start ministries to the poor, food pantries, homeless shelters, anything and everything to make the Word flesh again.  To put skin and bone on what the Risen Lord preached.


            God calls people to do things.  God calls churches to do things.  I think God is calling this church to renewed mission and ministry.  I don't know how.  I promise you, I don't have a set idea in my back pocket for what this would look like, but I believe it.  I think it will be authentic to who we are, and what we believe, and that the sign of its "rightness" will be in gifts the Holy Spirit provides and the sense of joy we feel in its unfolding.


            And I believe that when we discern that, that we will have children, as it were.  Actual children, youth; and metaphorical children, in the form of new people and energy and ideas.  And I believe that that will be a good thing, and blessing for us who are here now, and for the future of this parish.


            I think we need to be open to where the Holy Spirit may be leading, and aware that it must begin as an act of God's love, who sends, and inspires, and leads.  So I am asking for your prayers, and I mean your earnest prayers.  And if an idea or a vision comes to your mind, share it with me, or a vestry member, or anyone else. 


            Don't beat it down with silly things like not having the money, or not having the people, or whatever.  Pray, and imagine what God could do with this church.

            God told Abram that he would have a child.  He believed.  Sarah laughed.  I think God is saying we can have child?  I believe, and I'm starting to laugh.  


            Will you laugh with me?



Tuesday, February 19, 2013

A helpless foreigner was my ancestor

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Lent 1C.  17 February 2013.



Deuteronomy 26.1-11



            We entered Lent on Ash Wednesday.  One of the dominant themes of Lent is that of remembrance.  On each person who comes for ashes on Ash Wednesday, the ashes are imposed with the words "Remember."  "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."


            It's a tradition that we have a Lenten Study during the forty days of Lent, to teach, to learn, and to remember.  To bring back to mind the Holy Faith, and the story that connects us with our past, so that it can guide us into the future. 


            Remembrance can be a mixed bag.  I remember hearing someone say that every church has a glorious past.  One of my good friends is an Episcopal priest in the Midwest and he serves a church that liked to believe they had a thousand members.  He said in the first few months he was there, he kept hearing about "the good old days when we had a thousand members."  He went back to the service and membership registers, and discovered that they had never crossed five hundred.  But that's not how people remembered it.  Memory is like that.  We remember things the way we want to remember them.  And we try to blot out the painful memories.    


            One of the oldest functions of the clergy, going back to the Temple and the synagogue, and even further back to the holy men and women of antiquity, is to remember the story, and keep it straight. 


            The family gathers around the dinner table at Thanksgiving, and before long a story will emerge.  And as the story emerges, the questions come up about who said this, and "that doesn't sound like him," and so forth, until the voice is heard from that person in the family who keeps the story straight. 


            So much of our New Testament—in fact, most of the material that became the Gospels—are compilations of the way the story was told by different groups within the Church.  Matthew's church and Luke's church didn't tell the story the same way, because their memory of it was different. 


            It is that way, also, with the Old Testament.  The point of view, the memory, the story is brought together from strands of tradition and history, all attempting to remind the reader of the God who wishes to be in relationship with humanity. 


            Today we read from Deuteronomy, the Book of the Law.  What we read today is an ordinance about a liturgy of remembrance and thanksgiving that is intended to remind the people of their story.

            It is written that when the people came from their bondage in Egypt into the land that God was giving them, that they take the very first produce from the ground, and bring it to the priest, and to the place that God had chosen for a dwelling.  In time, this would come to be understood as the Temple in Jerusalem.


            And with that basket of the first fruits of the ground, the people are to come and give it as an offering, and to do so while retelling the sacred story—which is a creedal statement.  Just like our Nicene Creed is the story of God, creating, redeeming and sustaining, this was one of the first creeds:


            "A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there became a great nation, mighty and populous.  When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.  The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.  So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me."


            Do you see the connection of remembering the story to giving while giving thanks? 


            A wandering Aramean—Abraham—was my ancestor.  The use of the word "wandering" is close to the meaning of a sheep wandering.  Lost.  Aimless.  Without sense of direction or purpose. 


            So look at what God does.  God takes one, single, wandering man, and from those modest beginnings, God makes a covenant with him.  God says, "I will be your God and you will walk before me." God grew Abraham's children into a mighty and populous nation in a foreign country.  And when that people was mistreated, God acted.  Using both cosmic and human powers, God was faithful to his people and brought them out, and gave them a good land in which to live, and be in relationship with God. 


            Look specifically at God choosing a "wandering Aramean." That means a wandering foreigner or alien.  As I said before, the sense is that of sheep wandering away from the fold.  And it reminds us of Jesus having compassion on the crowds because they were "harassed and helpless, like sheep needing a shepherd."


            It's a central theme of the whole Bible, going back to "In the beginning…" when Adam and Eve are cast out and go from a state of perfect union with God—represented as an idyllic Garden—to becoming harassed and helpless.


            God's actions from then on have been to bring humanity back into relationship. 



            That is the creedal statement, and as it is recited, the offering is made.  God has acted to bring us back from our aimlessness.  God has used cosmic and human agency to redeem us from a wayward and sinful past, and as we remember that, we give thanks.  Here are the first fruits of our labors—the first fruits of what God has given us.


            It's a very powerful theological movement: from remembering history to offering the first fruits in thanksgiving.  Notice the two-fold movement.  The offering of first fruits were to come from every family to be presented before God.  That's the first part. And then it was to go out from the Temple.  That's the second part.


            Let me just read it to you:


            "When you have finished paying all the tithe…then you shall say before the Lord your God:  `I have removed the sacred portion from the house, and I have given it to the Levites, the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows, in accordance with your entire commandment…Look down from you holy habitation, from heaven, and bless your people Israel and the ground that you have given us…"  (Deut. 26:13-15)


            The offering goes from the baskets of the people to the Levites, who are the priests—(see, even back then they paid the clergy!)—but then out to the aliens, the orphans, and the widows—meaning the people who didn't have any resources to draw from.  If you were an alien, an orphan, or a widow, you were the poor.  And beyond poor, you didn't have any way of getting out of poverty.


            So the baskets of first fruits from each family are offered in thankful remembrance that God found us when we were harassed and helpless.  And then it is given to those who are currently harassed and helpless.  God finds the lost soul, and with the abundance that the lost soul receives, God is thanked with the means necessary to find more lost souls. 


            That's how the faith was to be remembered, celebrated, and kept going.  And ideally that's how it continues through the Church.  It's how the early church functioned.  They went back to this notion of offering in thanksgiving for the saving acts of God, except they brought it forward to the story of Jesus.


            Jesus is our Passover. We say that every Sunday.  Jesus's resurrection is our Exodus from Egypt.  Jesus is our Promised Land.  And with the first fruits of abundance from the salvation God offers us in Jesus, we reach out to more people who are harassed and helpless.  (Pause.)


            Lent is partly about remembering.  Remembering why we do what we do, and what our Faith really means.  If you want to go in search of what your faith—what the Church's faith—really means, then you can't separate it from the story of God.  And you can't separate the story from being thankful that God found a wandering Aramean and changed his life. 



            And it's all because God acted, and continued to act, on our behalf. 


            Remember.  Remember the Gospel.  It is in water with which we were Baptized.  It is in the oil with which we were sealed.  It is the bread and wine that we taste and touch.  It is in the people who taught us what it means to be a Christian.


            God has acted in Christ to change our lives so that we, through our thanksgiving, can and help him change others'. 




Monday, February 4, 2013

Anointed to travel a hard road

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Epiphany 4C.  3 February 2013.


Luke 4.21-30


            You may or may not notice, but the readings on Sunday tend to be sequential, though most often it doesn't really matter.  The lectionary writers try to make each reading more or less a self-contained story so that you wouldn't have to know what comes before or lies ahead; however…  and you have often heard me moan about this… it makes the books of the Bible seem so much more like a collection of short stories than a collection of books with their own narrative flow. 


            There is no way we can do this practically, but most of the New Testament was written to be read out loud for the Church to listen to and pick up on the recurring themes and dramatic moments.  For instance, the reading we have today from Luke is a continuation of the reading we were given last Sunday. 


            Jesus has come to his hometown of Nazareth, and entered the synagogue.  There is no mention of a rabbi, or any other official, simply that he has gone to the synagogue—as was his custom—and someone hands him the scroll of Isaiah. 


            Now, let's just pause for a moment to consider the unusual dynamics of this kind of situation.  It doesn't matter who you are, or what becomes of you, when you are around people who knew you when you were a child…  They may be proud of you.  They may be pleased to see you again.  They may like your clothes or haircut.  But you are just you.  You can't really teach them anything.  It's like the saying, "A consultant is just a regular guy from another town."     


            It's fitting that we read this text in Epiphany—a season dedicated to the ways in which the glory of God was manifested in Jesus.  When you think about the accounts of these epiphanies, they are all, up to this point, among people who would have been benignly appreciative.  We started with the Wise Men: okay..foreigners.  And this is Bethlehem in Judea, which is about 75-80 miles from Nazareth.  If you went by way of the roads through the towns and cities, it's probably closer to 90 to 100 miles.


            Then we have the Baptism of Jesus: fine, whatever, there were a lot of people there.  It took place in the Jordan river, which mostly ran through the Decapolis.  There is a little tributary that went into Galilee according to the old maps, but it ended some five miles from Nazareth.  We're still not quite home.


            Then there's the wedding in Cana with the water changing to wine—the first of Jesus' signs.  Cana is about 11 miles from Nazareth, as the crow flies.  Probably more like 15 miles, because you've got some hill country to navigate.  It's like going from Mt. Jackson to Woodstock.  It's Galilee, but it's still not really "home" home.


            And then, last week we got to Nazareth and Jesus was reading from Isaiah.  He read the words, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me…"  "Anointed" is a big word.  It is a buzz word, you might say, because Messiah means "anointed one." 


            To anoint is to have oil poured or rubbed onto your head or hands.  It is an ancient symbol of God's favor and blessing.  Kings and queens are anointed.  Queen Elizabeth II has often said that she considers the anointing she received at her coronation as conveying the most duty, and heaviest burden of authority.  You may know that when she was anointed, the television cameras were not allowed to film it, because it was considered the most sacred moment.  Several weeks ago I preached about Baptism being endlessly profound.  Anointing is, as well. 


            We know that when we get a cut on our skin, it will heal better if it is kept moist.  The old thinking was that it's better for the wound to dry out, but ancients were right: oil heals.  And there is something wonderful about that dual nature of oil, that it both heals and confers the power to bring about wholeness, which is what the Messiah was supposed to do.


            Jesus says, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."  After all of this, he rolls the scroll back up and sits down to teach.  Every eye was upon him.  It's Joseph and Mary's boy.  

            And he says, "Today, this scripture is fulfilled." That's where the reading picks up for today—with the response of the people in the synagogue. 


            And this is what they said: "Such a nice young man…"  "Hasn't he become such a nice young man?  I remember when he used to carry the bread to the table at the Seder, and do you remember the time he tripped, and it all went everywhere?!" "Why hasn't he married, yet?  Such a nice young man…"  "Isn't this Joseph's son?"


            It must be confusing for them.  I mean, by this time word had spread about Jesus.  He has performed some signs, and has been preaching, and he's become a prophet.  But now he's home, and it's complicated.


            He says, "I'm sure you all want me to do for you what I have done for everyone else, but let's face it folks, a consultant is just a regular man from out of town.  There were a lot of poor widows when the prophet Elijah was around, and you remember that he only went to one, and she wasn't even a Jew.  And you remember that there were a lot of lepers in Israel when the prophet Elisha was on everyone's lips, but none of them was cleansed except Naaman, and he was military commander from Syria."


            "Here's the thing: everyone wants to see some kind of display, but if that's what you're after, then you don't have a clue about who God is."


            And those were fighting words, or at least, words that weren't quite as "gracious" as the words he had spoken before.  Luke writes that they were all filled with rage, and look at what he writes… it's a dramatic change in tone.  "They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of a hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff."


            They expelled him.  But the sense of the text is much more than that.  It's like an irrational hatred, where it's not enough to just throw something away.  You have to throw it in the trash, put the trash in the truck, drive it to the dump and leave the truck behind.  Burn your clothes, take a shower, and then, maybe, maybe, it will be far enough away from you.


            In all these other manifestations or epiphanies of Christ's glory, none have been so fraught with conflict, because they've all been signs, did you notice that?  Appearance to foreigners from the east—no words from Jesus.  Baptism—great!, but a lot of people were baptized; it was meaningful, beautiful, but no teaching, no words.   Wedding party: water into wine, no words.  And now we've got a teaching as part of the manifestation of God.  It's at his own hometown synagogue and they want to put him to death.


            Why is the teaching so dangerous?  Because he has placed himself into the sacred story.  It's one thing to explain the sacred story that has been taught and preached.  It is quite another to say, "Just like Elijah didn't do things for you, neither am I."  He's putting himself on par with Elijah and Elisha; and he's revealing to them the difficult side of their story, which is that God doesn't just go around zapping his chosen people just because they are God's chosen people.


            As Richard mentioned in his sermon last week, it was really hard for a lot of people to accept that the Messiah was moving beyond the confines of the covenant to include the poor, the sick, the marginalized, and those who were considered ritually and physically unclean.  To them, it did not sound like good news—especially because Jesus was very truly one of them. (Pause.)


            I don't know quite what age I was when it first happened.  It happened to you, too, though you might not remember exactly, when you where a little boy or girl and had a friend whom you did everything with.  He or she liked you just as much as you liked him, and you ran around together, ate snacks and did everything you could together.  And one day you looked over and he or she was laughing at someone else's joke.  Or they decided to eat their lunch with someone else.  (Pause.)  That's a hard thing.


            And, you know, eventually the wounds heal.  You make other friends and you discover what it is to share your friendship around.  You discover the unique contours to each friendship—things you can talk about with him that you can't talk about with her, and you grow up.  You meet people who didn't know you when you were 5, 10, 20, 30 years old, and there's a tremendous freedom to that.  People are left to imagine your life until now based on how you tell your story, and who you marry, or whatever.


            But when you go home, and you are around the people who know…it's different.  If they're decent, loving people, then they're just happy to see you, and hope you are happy and fulfilled.


            I recently attended a little get together with some friends who went back to childhood and college.  There was a sense of delight simply to be present with each other.  But at no point—at no point—did any of us say that we had become what the Bible had prophesied. 


            And yet, I guess you could say in some respects, we had.  Three of us are now clergy.  I'm the only Episcopal priest, but I was the black sheep anyway.  The other two are pastors in the Church of the Brethren.  The others are teachers: high school and college.  And I think I can say that we are doing what we feel we were anointed to do, which can seem like a rather audacious thing to believe.


            None of us are the Messiah, of course.  There is only one Jesus.  But God continues to anoint people from their own particular backgrounds and send them out to people who didn't know them when they were growing up.  (Pause.)


            God did, in fact—though you may not believe this, or perhaps even want to hear me say it—but God did, in fact, call you, and anoint you.  It happened in water of Baptism, where you were grafted into the tree of life that is Jesus Christ.  Actually it happened even before that, according to the lesson from Jeremiah this morning.  God said, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you."  (1:4)


            If you went back to those people who "knew you when," they might or might not see it.  They most certainly would take offense if they thought you thought you were the answer to all the world's problems; however, none of that diminishes your call from God.


            I believe that God will be faithful to what he has promised, and what I believe God has promised is to bring about the salvation of the world.  What continues to astonish and confuse even lifelong Christians is that he does it one by one.  He asks each person, "Will you be faithful?"  "Yes, yes, yes…the Church believes, but do you believe?"  "Will you put your faith and trust in me?"


            The promise to Jesus and to you and me is not an easy life, or smooth road to success, but the path to the Cross.  Jesus said, "Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard to that leads to life, and there are few who find it."  (Matthew 7:13,14)


            Jesus went to his own hometown and they wanted to throw him off the cliff.  The road is hard that leads to life.  But God will be faithful.  God will be faithful to the one he has called and anointed.  God will be faithful to you.