Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Deep, silent prayers

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Proper 12C.  28 July 2013.


In loving memory of Susan Massie.


Luke 11.1-13


            Tomorrow I will be on vacation until Monday, 19th August.  I will be coming back for the Rev. Walter Clark's Burial Office next Saturday, so it may not seem that I'm away much; however, the next three Sundays I won't be at the Altar or the pulpit.  So let me take just a moment to say something that I often think, but don't say, and that is, thank you.  


            I am very grateful that you let me into the sacred space of your inmost thoughts to speak about the narratives of our faith, the aspects of our belief, and perhaps most of all, the devout wish that we would not really be leading lives, but rather that Christ would be leading them.  It may not seem that way sometimes.  I think quite often we feel neither leading nor led, but rather that we are trying to survive life.


            When I was a younger man—not that I'm aged now—but when I was younger, I believed that I had more control.  When you are just starting off you feel invincible; and you can plan your day without too much trouble.  Having children changes that, but so do experiences of great adversity.


            Shortly after Peter was born, I endured one of the toughest periods in my life to date.  It wasn't that I was a new father, though that was part of it. It was being the rector of a church that could not defend itself adequately against parishioners who wished to cause trouble and dissention.  And I recall, in the darkest days, that my salvation could only be found in God.  Nothing else could touch it.  No amount of affection from anyone could reach the pain I felt.  That I could not—through force of desire, and honest behavior—bring health to the parish I once loved, and vowed to serve.


            My anchor through those storms was the Lord Jesus Christ, to whom I have vowed my fidelity and diligent service for the remainder of my life.  The only moments of pure salvation, were found in the daily private recitation of Morning Prayer. 


            I would go into the guest bedroom in the rectory, (which was bitterly cold in the winter, because we didn't heat that room, unless someone was visiting) and I would turn to the page in my Daily Office book, and for thirty minutes, I would recite the deathless prose of Thomas Cranmer and Charles Price.  I would read from the Bible and the Coverdale Psalter, each in their turn, and then I would sit in the silence of that cold room.


            I know it doesn't make sense, but there was something strangely wonderful about the cold.  I have no idea why, but the cold was ironically pleasant and comforting.    I had no words to speak.  I was unable to form a coherent prayer to God, because, as the Psalm (109) reads, "My heart [was] wounded within me."           


            I continued to say the prayers in the book, and visit the sick.  I continued faithfully to celebrate the Sacraments, and I preached the best sermons my mind and heart could offer, but I could not say anything to God that wasn't filled with pain.  And the salvation of my soul was the God-filled silence.  Deep, prayerful silence. 


            I took walks then—I had yet to become a runner—and I walked all over the town.  Verses of hymns would come into my mind, and I would sing them when I knew no one could overhear me.  I was deeply, and silently sad.  At one point, I was speaking by telephone to a seminary friend who is now a priest in Iowa, and she said to me, "I can hear in your voice that you have been hanging on the cross." 


            And God saw the silence of my heart, and heard the prayers I could not say, and one day I went to the mailbox and there was a letter from Woodstock, Virginia.  So, I am grateful to be here, and I am grateful for the weekly experience of being welcomed into the sacred space of your souls.  It is a privilege that I do not take lightly, because I know that you and I together, in these times—we are handling the things of God.  Just as the Altar Guild and I handle the chalice and paten with tenderness, so too should we handle the sacred stories of the Bible, because they intersect with our lives; they give richness and dignity to them.


            But let me, please, come back to prayer.  What Carl Sandberg and Susan Massie referred to as "deep, silent prayers," because they are the ones we offer the most. 


            Last week we encountered Mary and Martha, and I spoke of the criticism of Martha as being simply that she was distracted, not that she was busy.  Being busy and being distracted often coexist, but it is possible to be busy and still be centered.  It takes discipline. 


            It takes discipline to live in a daily awareness that God is present and active within us and around us.  And through cultivating that awareness of God, we become less distracted, because God can guide us.


            In our lesson this morning, which follows the issue of distraction, raised by the story of Martha and Mary, the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray.  It was a reasonable request, which Luke alludes to by adding, "as John [the Baptist] taught his disciples."


            "Lord, teach us to pray." 


            Sometime ago—I wish I could remember where—but I heard or read that people come to church mostly to learn how to pray.  Perhaps it would be better to say, "how to interact with God."  It's not that people don't know how to say what's on their minds; but that people—especially people who are sensitive, thoughtful people—are not always confident that what's really on their hearts and minds is getting out.  And if it is getting out, there is a worry that somehow God would be displeased to hear it.


            Or, alternatively, if the prayer is for someone to be healed, or a situation to change, that there is a way of asking that is more acceptable to God, and that God is waiting to be asked in the appropriate manner. 


            I'm sure you will remember teaching your children that a request should contain the word "please."  A child will say: "Can I have a popsicle." And the response might be, "Can you say `please?'"  And the child responds, "Please." 


            My parents called it the magic word.  I wonder if that's part of why we wonder if there is a special way of addressing God that we've been missing when we pray again and again and don't feel that we have received what we've asked for.


            Maybe God, at times, seems so completely "other," or the problem so insurmountable that we wonder if God is waiting for the right combination of words.  Is the problem that we're not saying "in the Name of Jesus," or the word "Amen"?  In my religious past, I have heard in sermons that prayers are like radio waves, broadcasting to anyone out there, but they wouldn't reach God unless the Name of Jesus was used.  That you had to say the Name, or that you had to use verses of Holy Scripture to support your request. 


            When I became an Episcopalian, I came from a background where public prayers were not found in a book, so I took great comfort in the Collects.  But a woman who had been a lifelong Anglican once said, "I finally found a spiritual life when I stopped reading the prayers from the book."  This bumps us up against the dual nature of prayer in the Anglican tradition—that prayer can be both public and private, and that both expressions have a vital place.


            In fact, Lancelot Andrewes, who is one of my favourite Anglican divines—he was, in fact, the main translator for the first five books of the King James Version.  Andrewes wrote a book he called the Preces Privatæ, which means private prayers.  Even though Andrewes was dedicated to the public piety of the English Book of Common Prayer, he still maintained a private collection of his own prayers in Latin, because they were meaningful to him. 


            But I think the prayers that are the most honest, most urgent, and most authentic are the ones we cannot bring ourselves to say out loud.  Or if we can say them out loud, we have difficulty letting them go.  These are the prayers we live—the deep, silent ones.


            About a month ago, I found myself going about life, and a sentence came into my mind that attached itself to my soul.  I didn't go looking for it.  It was like a burr that attaches itself to your trousers when you hike through the woods, and just sort of clings there.  The sentence was a prayer, and it was simply this.  "Lord, you are all compassion."


            I've never seen that sentence in print, although the Psalms often speak of the compassion of the Lord.  It is not a prayer in the sense of asking for anything.  It's a simple declarative sentence—a definite statement.  "Lord, you are all compassion." Where did the "all" come from, I wondered.  Surely it is enough to say, "Lord, you are compassion."  This equals this.  God is love; love is compassion.  But something wouldn't let me drop the "all," and I wondered why. 


            Finally I reasoned that it was because the sentence is attributing all compassion to its source.  God is the source of all compassion.  God shares his compassion with us to use—for ourselves, for others, and as a stand alone gift.


            And I found myself saying this sentence as I drove my car, as I ran in the morning, as I showered.  Each time I said the sentence out loud it changed me.  I think that's the best kind of prayer. 


            William Temple, many years ago Archbishop of Canterbury, believed that prayer is intended not to change God but to change us.  Perhaps sometimes that is true, but I think prayer also changes God.  I think God bends an ear when we are able to acknowledge, without distraction, that God is the emanating source of love and compassion. 


            Jesus clearly ministered from an uncomplicated trust in the compassion of his heavenly Father, and taught his disciples to do that, to say, "Our Father…"  "Daddy…"  That was his answer to the disciples who wanted to know how they should pray.  And Jesus said, "Like this, `Daddy'…"


            What follows is a series of ascriptions and petitions that are short, and to the point.  "Your kingdom come, your will be done.  Give us.  Forgive us.  Lead us.  Deliver us.  Daddy." And then he goes on to say, "Be diligent.  Ask. Search. Knock.  You know what it is for a daddy to give good things to his children.  How much more will your heavenly, compassionate Daddy give to you."    


            So, let me leave you with this.  There are prayers that rattle around inside of you all the time.  Prayers for healing for yourself and others.  Prayers for peace.  Needs and wants.  The desire for direction in your life; or for the intervention of God in situations beyond your control.         I'm giving you this prayer.  "Lord, you are all compassion."  Take it with you.  Write it on a Post-It note and stick it on your bathroom mirror.  Say it out loud when you are alone.


            It's not an incantation.  It won't necessarily replace any other prayers.  But it might open your heart and your eyes to the ways God is already at work.  And it might help you to give voice to the prayers you don't know how to offer. 


            I give you this prayer with my love, my gratitude for letting me speak in the sacred space of your souls, and with my "prayers for you all.  My deep, silent prayers."


Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Too distracted to find God

Proper 11C.  21 July 2013. 

Luke 10.38-42


            If any of you watch these cops shows on television, you will see that the incident scene is marked off with yellow tape.  "Do not cross this line."  There are some stories in the Bible that I sometimes think ought to come with police tape around them. 


            Not that you shouldn't read them, but that so much has changed since those stories were recorded that if we encounter them with our modern sensibilities, we might easily form the wrong conclusions.  Or we might be injured by the text in a way that no one ever intended.


            There are people who say, "The Bible says what the Bible says."  Well, okay.  But the Bible does not speak with one voice.  Divine inspiration is not the same as divine dictation.  Luke was not standing next to Jesus at all times, taking down every word.  We would likely have a very different understanding of Jesus if the methods of recording and remembering him were more precise.  I can't imagine how he would handle a modern press conference. 


            "Yes, in the back?"

            "Yes, thank you, Lord, the other day your disciples said you needed to pay a tax, so you instructed one of them to catch a fish, and when they caught the fish, there was a coin for the tax in its mouth.  Now.  Could you please just tell us, first, how you did that.  And second, what does that sign really mean?[*]


            Do you see what I mean?  I'd love to know about that story, but Matthew gives us what he gives us.  The police tape ought to mark the text, because neither the event, nor the meaning are obvious.  There are inferences and subtleties that have been lost in the mists of time.


            Today's Gospel lesson about Martha and Mary might need police tape around it.  Jesus and his disciples come to the village where Martha and her sister Mary live, and they welcome Jesus into their home. 


            Mary sits at Jesus' feet, which is the posture of a disciple—to sit at the feet and listen.  Disciples in that day were men, women where wives, housekeepers, and mothers.  Martha is busy and frustrated.  She wants help, and should rightly expect help from her sister.  She says to Jesus, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has let me to do all the work by myself?  Tell her then to help me."  But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.  Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."


            Now, this text has done, or has been used to do, a lot of damage.  In the first place, you have two archetypal, or conventional roles for women:  You have the busy woman who is trying to be a good hostess, a good wife, and mother.  She's got a list a mile long and she can't sit down.  We love her; we need her.  At times she makes us feel like we ought to do more.    


            And then you have Mary.  Mary is relaxed, maybe a little too relaxed.  She's the one who drinks wine in the afternoon, and can't really get her mind around what to do this weekend.  Her friends call her spiritual; she likes to do craft projects. 


            Now, these kinds of stereotypes hurt.  They hurt because they are old and outdated, and I would hope that all of us know that women and men are more complicated than that.  Martha (the busy one) may have prayer time every morning, and Mary (the laid back) may have spent hours cleaning the bathrooms and kitchen.  You cannot reduce these women to one instance in their lives when one is distracted and one is focused.


            In the past, this text has been used to emphasize devotion over service—to say that the devout life, for women especially, is to sit at the feet of Jesus and pray.  Not that service isn't important, but to say that Jesus has indicated an order of preference.  First be about devotion, and then, if there is time, be about work.  And there was a hefty measure of condescension, and even misogyny in that, as if to say, "Don't worry your pretty little head over it."


            So if you cross the police tape and just look at the text without any other information, you might be led to believe that that's what's going on.


            Additionally, you might be offended that a man has just passed judgment on the activities of two women.  Even if that man happens to be Jesus, he is still a man.  And if you cross the police tape and look at the text in isolation, you might be offended.


            But here is the context that I think we miss when we read this story through the lens of our contemporary mindset.  We forget that every encounter Jesus has with women raises their status and gives them compassion.  The woman who touches the hem of Jesus' garment to be healed from her hemorrhage is addressed as "Daughter."  The woman who is caught in adultery is not stoned, but forgiven.  The woman from the city, who barges into Simon, the Pharisee's house, interrupting the dinner party with her tears and hair and ointment—she is given even more respect than Simon, and told that she is forgiven for all her sins.


            If we read this lesson, not as 21st century Christians, but as a citizen of first century Palestine, it's a story of reversal.  The woman's role was to serve, not to listen to teaching.  So when Jesus says that Mary has chosen the better part, he is pulling the status of women up from mere service to discipleship.  By implication, he is suggesting that Mary take off her apron and join Mary, thereby inviting Martha also into a more intellectually and spiritually fulfilling life.


            But I have something kind of interesting to share with you about this.  Luke was a brilliant narrative writer, and when you read his Gospel in little sections, like we do Sunday to Sunday, you miss some of this. 


            What I wanted to do was find a story that said the same thing, but used men instead of women—just to get beyond the gender stuff, but I discovered that Luke has already done that for me!


            You see, Luke sets this story immediately after the parable of the Good Samaritan—which is all men.  In that parable Jesus doesn't speak about devotion at all.  The parable is only about service.  So if you take that message in isolation, you think, "Well, Jesus wants us to serve and give and go and do.  God doesn't need prayer; God needs people with oil and bandages.  Silly church!  You get yourselves together on Sunday and sing and pray, and what does that do?  Nothing.  You should be out there by the roadside."


            So we come the version for women—Martha and Mary—and we know how this should end, right?  But in a reversal, Jesus celebrates the one who sits at his feet.  What is going on here?


            Well, it's a contrast.  Jesus doesn't really criticize Martha for being about service, really.  What he criticizes is that she is distracted by it. 


            And if you look at the two stories—the Good Samaritan and Mary and Martha—perhaps they are both stories in which people are distracted: the passers-by who don't help the man who has been injured; Martha who can't focus on her house guest. 



            And then in both stories, you have two minority outcasts: Mary (a woman, a second born sister) and a Samaritan.  Both are socially lower in their contexts, but both of them can see what the others cannot: that whether you encounter God face to face, or in the presence of someone injured by the side of the road, you can see him if you're not too distracted. 


            Both Mary and the Samaritan can find the holy, because they are not distracted.


            Now, I cannot criticize anyone for being distracted.  Karin will tell you that I sometimes watch the evening news with my cell phone in one hand, checking email, and her iPad in my other hand looking at Facebook.  If I have any spiritual gift, it's the gift of being distracted.  In fact, I recently purchased a book about improving my memory.  And if I can ever find that book, I will read it.


            A question many devout people ask is when to go from a posture of prayer to actually doing something.


            If you will let me speak personally for a moment, this is a very relevant issue for clergy.  In order to remain a healthy and effective cleric, you have to be a person of prayer and study.  And in order to remain and effective cleric, you also have to answer the phone, or make the phone call; visit, speak, prepare and do.  The two needs compete with each other all the time. 


            Eugene Peterson, who is a Presbyterian minister, wrote a book many years ago called The Contemplative Pastor.  He wrote that a cleric should not schedule his or her life so tightly that she can't drop everything to talk.  That a cleric should be more devoted to prayer and study than to administration and meetings, because the role of a cleric is to be a holy person.


            I'm sure Peterson would want to say that the reason for that is to encourage everyone to live a more centered and devout life.  A life more richly grounded in the presence of God than in the emails and bills, and what my grandmother called "the vulgarities of living."


            Some people have a temperament that is more suited to prayer, and some to service; and if you wrestle with balancing the two you are not alone.  You can be distracted and be a person of prayer, too.  Just because you don't get up and do, doesn't mean that you're centered on the devout life.


            But to sit at the feet of Jesus.  To pick up the Bible, and The Book of Common Prayer, Forward Day by Day.  I could point to a million other things that might distract you, but…  There is a woman I know who likes to tell me, "Every morning, before I put the first bite of food in my mouth, I thank the Lord for bringing me safely through the night and letting me live another day.  And I know that the Lord is with me at all times."  She just turned 91 years old this month.


             Mary sits at the feet of Jesus.  Martha is invited by implication to join her—to settle their minds around the Lord.  It lifts her status, honors her spirituality and intellect, but it all begs the question, how do we do it?  How do we listen?  How do we pray?  Next Sunday we will read of the disciples asking that question.  "Lord, teach us to pray."  And next Sunday, we'll talk about that.  But for this Sunday, let's just sit at the feet of Jesus and listen.


            Perhaps sometime this afternoon you might take half an hour and do it.  Turn off the TV, put down the computer, or whatever, and sit at the feet of Jesus.


            St. Anselm of Canterbury wrote:  "Come now, little man, get away from your worldly occupations…escape from your tumultuous thoughts. Lay aside your burdensome cares and put off your labor. Give yourself over to God for a little while, and rest for a while in him. Enter into the chapel of your mind, shut out everything except God and whatever helps you to seek him once the door is shut. Speak now, my heart, and say to God, "Lord, I seek your face; Lord, it is your face I seek."[†]




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Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel

[*] Matthew 17.24-27

[†] Anselm's Proslogion, Chapter 1.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Buddy, you've got some work to do.

Proper 10C.  14 July 2013.[1]

Luke 10.25-37


            It happens quite a lot.  Not all the time, thankfully, but often enough to be troubling, that a text will come up for preaching that is not met with great interest.  Normally, the lessons appointed contain a parable or a narrative that is familiar enough to be comforting, and at the same time strange enough to be interesting.  Without too much effort half a dozen topics for a sermon spring quickly to mind.  But then, there are times, like today, when the text is so familiar that the preacher feels constrained by the meaning that most people know.  Such is the case with the parable of the Good Samaritan.


            The parable is so well known that I would guess many people—none of you, of course—but many, could probably be persuaded that the events of the story actually happened.  And they may have, but not in the Bible.  This is a parable. C. H. Dodd said that: "At its simplest, the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its application to tease it into active thought."


            And though the parable was offered by Jesus, and written down by Luke, to tease the mind into active thought, you would not have thought so when I gathered with my clergy buddies to discuss the text for today.  In fact, after the topic for discussion was announced, eyes began to roll, and one cleric, heaving a sigh, said, "What can you say that hasn't already been said?"


            Have we reached a point of familiarity with this text where I could simply read it, and sit down?  I thought about that.  But then I realized that to do so would set a very dangerous precedent.  If we begin to ignore the familiar texts, then what shall we do when Christmas comes and the second chapter of Luke is read, and the Church gathers at the nursery window with its nose pressed up against the glass, and the pulpit is asked to show us the baby?  


            What happens when Easter arrives and the story is read, and just after the women run away in fear the Church sits in the bleachers of the stadium built around the open tomb, waiting for the pulpit to announce that Christ has risen. 


            So, here is the Good Samaritan.  "Thank you, Father, thank you Reverend, thank you preacher, you can sit down.  We've heard this one."  Well, wait a minute.


            I was looking at the guide on the television and saw that a program was coming on that was about Pope John Paul II and his thoughts on suffering.  I decided to watch some of it, and in the first few minutes the Pope began speaking of the Good Samaritan.  He said that we should all have that "Samaritan nature"—which we are meant to understand as the nature of offering one's self in service to those who suffer. 


            He was speaking biblically.  He was using the parable, but his sermon—like most sermons—deflected the listener from the scandal of this text. 


            You see, when one is trying to decide how to approach this parable for preaching, you can approach it from the perspective of the person who can help someone in trouble.  The parable then becomes a challenging, but oddly comfortable lesson in morality—an almost impossible standard of grace and love in the midst of human misery.  We can sit comfortably, watching the scene unfold, while smugly sneering at the priest and Levite who walk by. 


            From this approach—which is the most common reading—when we say "Good Samaritan," we actually allow the two words to write themselves into the text.  Samaritan has come to mean good.  But Jesus doesn't call the Samaritan good—he simply describes the actions of the Samaritan, and from those actions the Church has called him good. 


            "Good Samaritan" has a very set meaning, but the surprise of the parable when Jesus first told it, is that anything good could be said of any Samaritan.  The Samaritans and the Jews worshiped separately.  They had much of the same history, but they had their own scriptures, their own temple, their own religious practices. 


            I suppose you could say that they were the Protestants, and the Jews were the Catholics.  But, erase that analogy from your mind, because it doesn't really hold up.


            The division between the two is hard to clarify. I'm not sure there is a general contemporary analogy.  I have read some commentaries that suggest an equivalent would be to recast the characters as an American traveler who is tended to by a member of al-Qaeda.  But I cannot agree with that, because though it is very rhetorically powerful, the meaning of the parable would then be to shock the congregation—to ask you to stretch your mind to encompass the possibility that good things can come from people who have treated us so violently.  And while that is indeed possible, it is not the way Jesus tells the story.


            It's not that someone is ministered to by people who previously have been hostile or abusive.  Because if it is, then the point of the parable would be "you never know, someone who might want to kill you, might want to help you" and there is no helpful meaning to that at all.  To preach that message would be to ask you to embrace the dangerous uncertainty of life, always naively optimistic that the burglar at the window may wish to bring you a plate of cookies. 


            Who would be a modern day Samaritan?  It is a difficult question to ask.  The lines of race and social position are the lowest hanging fruits in the tree of analogies.  But if the point is as simple as racial awareness and acceptance, or that people of other cultures can be good people, too, then it is a good message, but it's not really central to the parable.


            You see how a parable really does—as Dodd said—arrest "the hearer by its vividness or strangeness…leaving the mind in sufficient doubt…to tease it into active thought"?


            If we stay with the comfortable idea of the morality lesson, then I can simply scold us for our indifference to those in need—say that we should do more and care more—and we can hang our heads, promise to do better, drink some coffee and go home.  But the parable refuses to be that simple.


            It's not that Samaritans were terrorists, or complete foreigners—though they were foreigners.  They were their own ethnic group, so there is a racial element to the story, but the heart of the lesson, to my mind, is the discomfort of the man Jesus is talking to.  The man who has come to Jesus wants eternal life, and he explained to Jesus that he has loved God with all his heart, mind, soul, and strength, and his neighbor as himself. Jesus has responded that he's on the right track, but the man wants to justify himself.  He wants a final benediction on everything he is doing.  He wants to show himself perfect or maybe even "worthy."  So he says, "And who is my neighbor?"


            It's a loaded question, really.  Neighbor should mean the people like you, the people you live beside.  But then Jesus tells this parable.  He doesn't define neighbor, which would give the man the easy list of whom he should care for, and whom he could dismiss.  Jesus describes what a neighbor does, and by making those acts of compassion come from someone who is different, Jesus suspends the social system and defines "neighbor" by how someone behaves.


            The parable itself is a morality lesson, but watching this story told to the lawyer confronts us with the possibility that God's own standards of grace and mercy can come through the hands of someone we do not like.  And you might say that's an easier lesson.  Someone we don't like is easier to handle than the shocking rhetorical power of the person being a terrorist.  But wait a second.


            You don't have to worry much about being cared for by someone you're scared of.  The chances of that happening are very, very slim.  But the idea of compassion coming from someone you just…don't…like…


            I don't want to admit this, and I'm sure you don't, either, but there are people we do not like.  It's not that they are bad people.  It's not that they have aggressively meant us harm or anything like that.  But there are people, you know who they are, who we simply do not wish to be around.  I don't want to be one of those people to you, and you don't want to be one of those people to me.  No one wants to be someone someone else does not like.  And none of us likes to think that there is anyone we really don't like, but there we are.


            And if you look at those folks, it wouldn't take long to identify the aspects of their manner or personality that annoy us.  The idea of making an itemized list is repulsive because we don't want to do that.   We would never wish them harm; but they will never be invited to dinner.  And there you have the Samaritans.


            The person you might never admit to anyone you do not like is the Samaritan, who—says Jesus—if you were to get in a car wreck, or fall down the stairs, or need a shoulder to cry on, might be the only person who would help you. 


            Standing between you and death with wine and oil and bandages in his hands is that man, that woman.  If he could see the distain in our hearts, he would shrivel up and die.  If he could hear the inner voice in our heads as we've sized him up time and again…would he still be carrying us on his own donkey to the nearest inn?  Paying two day's worth of wages to make sure we have a bed to sleep on tonight?  Promising the inn-keeper that anything we need he will gladly repay..?


            You would think that such an act of compassion would simply melt us into a puddle on the floor, but that's not exactly what would happen.  No, if we are to welcome such overwhelming grace, then the hatred we have borne for the Samaritan must die within us.  And it is not the simple, easy, painless death of an idea that passes into obscurity.  No, no.  It is nothing less than a crucifixion.  Physical pain can never touch the pain of realizing that for all our highest prayers, and noblest actions, we are still fallible humans, very much in need of redemption.


            The Good Samaritan is not a cozy moral parable at all.  It can cut right down to the bone.  God says,  "I do not merely like the people you like.  I will come to all people.  I will work through all people—even those, perhaps especially those you would rather cast aside.  Do you really think that heaven will just be you and your friends?"  (Pause.)


            As the parable ended, Jesus said to the man, "Which one—the priest, the Levite, or the Samaritan—which one was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?"  And look how the man responds.  He's supposed to say "the Samaritan," right?  But the man cannot even say it.  He says instead, "The one who showed him mercy."  "The one."  "That one."  "That guy."  The mistrust is so deep, he can't even say the word "Samaritan."


            Who is the neighbor?  Who are you willing to let stand between you and God?  "That guy…over there…" says the man.  And Jesus says, "Go and do likewise."  Go learn that heaven will be more than just you and your friends.  In other words, "Buddy…you've got some work to do." 


            When you read it like that, we've all got some work to do, don't you think?







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Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel

[1] Adapted from Proper 10C. 2010. A special note from a guilty conscience.  Recently I have been drawing heavily from previous sermons—"the barrel," as it's called—but not from laziness.  The fact is that, as I have re-read these, I have felt unable to improve upon the essence of them, and it seems to me that the Holy Spirit is still moving within me about them.  So I'm preaching them again as if for the first time.  Next week's sermon will be new.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Hearing and being heard

Proper 9C.  7 July 2013.[*]

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20


            As I step into the pulpit this morning, mindful that we have just celebrated one of our country's defining holidays.  In 1776, the Declaration of Independence was signed, declaring that this country was no longer a group of British colonies, but a country in its own right—free to do as we pleased.  And as we celebrate that event, we can marvel at the ability of our American ancestors to avoid many of the pitfalls of other countries.  While we were in our infancy as a nation, decisions were made that became part of the DNA of our culture.


            America began as an idea, and from the idea became a movement.  If you look at every business, church, country, any and all organization devised by human beings, they all started the same way.  A person or people had an idea of something better, something different, and that idea won followers, and from those followers, a movement emerged.  I say "movement" for lack of a better word.  But there is a point in the development of an organization where there are people who have adopted an idea and are all moving in roughly the same direction.


            Movements are fun.  There are people who like being part of movements, but not organizations.  They like the excitement—other people are working together closely, battling adversity together, to bring about something new. 


            It could be anything at all—a new country, a new 7/11.  But inevitably, movements end.  They either fizzle out and die, or they succeed and become organizations. 


            The fire in those people, when the idea is brand new, cannot easily be passed along to another generation.  Part of the joy of that fire is that it is new, and the original team was the original team.  The people who come after—even if they were the sons and daughters of the original team do not have the same vision to carry on.  Their vision is going to be at least slightly different.  They don't want to "re-invent the wheel."  They don't want to fight the same battles. 


            This is something the Church is always facing.  Like all organizations, parish churches began with a handful of devout people who wished to worship together and to bring about the Great Commission of Jesus to spread the Gospel.  That's a movement.  And the movement succeeded.  Our church, along with many other churches dotting the landscape of this and many other countries, is proof of that success. 


            Most churches are small churches, like ours, because authentic Christianity is an intimate religion.  Christ's teachings draw people together.  The Sacraments draw people together.  When Christians wish to offer themselves to a church, they want to know the people around them.  They want to know that they share a common story.  They want to be sure they can trust their faith in an organization.


            We take for granted that Christianity is a commonly acceptable faith.  In America, all religions are welcome, at least in principle, but let's face it, Christianity is the norm.  So, even though some places are hostile to the Church, we are welcome to worship as our denomination prefers.


            I am trying to work my way around to saying is that the Church is generally accepted as an organization—because organizations have made it through the movement phase to the place of being innocuous.  People see the steeple and the stained-glass and they register "church."  And that category can mean things that you and I would never dream of.  It can mean things that simply aren't true.


            Some years ago I remember going to a church function with my wife at St. Paul's Memorial Church in Charlottesville.  Karin was then one of the associate rectors of the parish.  I was there in coat and tie, happy to be just a spouse.  It was a wine and cheese reception, and I was enjoying myself, and a man came up to me and said, "I am so glad I found this church."  I said, "That's great, why do you like it so much?"  He said, "Because it's a big church and it's liberal here."  He said, "I have been through every red door in this area"—he meant he'd visited every Episcopal Church—"and," he said, "they're all just a bunch of closed-minded snobs.  What do you do?"  I said, "I'm the rector of a bunch of closed-minded snobs."  I didn't say that, but let's just say the conversation didn't last very long.


            But see, in his mind, that's what little churches meant: closed-minded snobs.  You and I know better, but we also know that there are people who have come to church and been made to feel that this is not for them.  So "church" means something very different for them.  The organization is socially acceptable, but you only go for weddings and funerals.          


            I will never forget a woman who visited my last church.  We were part of the Garden Club tour.  And a woman was walking through the buildings like this was a museum of some extinct animals called Christians who once roamed freely.  And she saw me in my collar and said, "And who might you be?"  I said, "I'm the parish priest."  She said, "Oh, this is an active church."   I said, "Yes, this is an active church."  "People come here."  "Yes, ma'am, people come here.  You are welcome to come here, too."  "I may do that, young man."  I never saw her again.


            The organization is fine—even venerable.  There are many churches, here is one of them.  What does the organization stand for?  What is Christianity about?  Well, you and I know the answer to that.  It's about the reconciling love of Christ, who stretched out his arms on the cross and rose again.  It's about being part of God, and being known by God, and God knowing us and loving us.  But I don't think that's what most people who don't come to church think.


            The organization has been around a long time, you see.  And being humans, churches are fallible places.  Churches have not always kept to the Gospel, or they've been places of turmoil and scandal.  Some churches have decided not to be known for what they are for, but what they are against. 


            And the result of this is that you've essentially got two different things.  You've got Christianity.  And you've got the Church.  But for many people who don't really know, the two can get lumped together.  So if you don't like what the Church is doing, then you might sour on Christianity. 


            The problem is that people have heard, but they haven't heard. 


            In our Gospel lesson, Jesus appoints seventy people to go ahead of him into the towns and villages where he intended to go.  He gives the seventy a lot of instructions about what they are to carry and how they are to carry themselves.  But he only gives them one thing to say, beyond a greeting.  Just one sentence.  You won't believe what it is.  When I read it, in preparation for this sermon, I tried to pretend it was the first time I ever read this text, and I couldn't believe it.  See, I thought the sentence would be, "Come hear Jesus preach when he comes to your town."   But that's not it.  The sentence is, "The kingdom of God has come near to you."


            Now, doesn't that seem strange?  And if the seventy are rejected, they are still to say, "The kingdom of God has come near to you."  It's crazy.


            "The kingdom of God has come near to you."  To you.  Those are words of movement.  They are not words of organization.  "The kingdom of God has come near to you."  What do you say about those words?  It's a statement.  It just stands there.  It doesn't ask you anything.  It doesn't invite you to do anything, or to go anywhere.  It just stands there looking at you.  "The kingdom of God has come near to you." 


            That was the message of the first evangelistic mission.  One person saying to another person, "The kingdom of God has come near to you."  I am not sure that I have ever heard someone say those words directly to me.  They are implicit in the organization of the church, but I have never heard of a church using that message in any meaningful way.


            What I gather from those words is that the nature of the kingdom of God is to come near to people—and specifically to you, whomever you are.  This is personal.  "The kingdom of God has come near to you."  What can you say back?  The sentence is not offensive, but it's not static, either.  I suppose with a little thought it prompts one to ask, "How can I come near to the kingdom?"  But not necessarily. 


            Everyone has heard of the church.  They may even have heard of Jesus.  I don't think you can live in America and not bump into the overt aspects of Christianity.  There are churches everywhere.  There are bibles in the nightstands of every motel.   Everyone has heard, but not everyone has heard. 


            The Gospel is aided mightily by the organizational church, but only to the extent that those of us who inhabit these sacred buildings never forget that we are a movement.  And that movement is a movement of the Holy Spirit, bringing God to people who "sit in darkness and in the shadow of death."


            There has never been a time in the history of the Church when it was easy to do evangelism.  People have always nodded their heads and said, "Oh, yeah…that's that Jesus stuff."  And many Christians have shied away from evangelism, because they don't want to get labeled a fanatic, or some such thing. 


            Can I just tell you what I think evangelism really means?



            Lately I've become convinced that what Jesus was having the disciples do was to be willing to enter the lives of other people with humility.  To listen to their pain, and to share their vulnerability.  Because when people connect with each other at that level, something holy happens.  You know what I mean. 


            When someone really listens to you, and your response to them is authentic and natural and connective, the Holy Spirit is present.  I think that's what evangelism is really about.  Not that Billy Graham's version is wrong, but think about it…


            You and I know, because we know, that what really changes you…where you live in your mind and heart are were the joys and struggles are faced.  For a lot of people, life is a lonely and bitter experience with precious few people who care and listen and love, no matter what. 


            The kingdom of God comes near when you and I are able to be vulnerable with others, especially others in need.  It doesn't mean that you solve their problems or give them money.  The disciples didn't go around offering money to the poor—the offered themselves to the poor. 


            And of course, not just the poor.  Everyone needs to connect.  Everyone needs someone to love them who isn't trying to take something in return.  That's what the kingdom of God really is, you see?  Giving, not taking.  Loving unconditionally and freely, because that's what we've received from God.



            I think God is hoping that the people who are called by God's name will be willing to be vulnerable to people in their need.  I think we already do that with each other pretty well.  We have room to grow, but giving it beyond these walls is what I believe God wants us to do. 


            So perhaps I should say: Everyone has heard, but not everyone has been heard. 




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[*] Adapted from Proper 9C.  4 July 2010.



Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The mantle is passed

Proper 8C.  30 June 2013.

2 Kings 2.1-2, 6-14


            You may have noticed that for the last several Sundays, we have been reading from Second Kings, the stories of the prophet Elijah.  It is hard to overstate how important Elijah is in the narrative of the Hebrew people.  He was considered a man of God on par with Moses.  I'm sure you will readily call to mind the story of the transfiguration of Jesus, when Jesus' face and clothing are shining, and he is observed by Peter as speaking with apparitions of Moses and Elijah. 


            The story of Jesus' transfiguration and that conference with Moses and Elijah is meant to link Jesus with all of the story that has come before.  Moses had long since died, and Elijah, as we read today ascended into heaven in a whirlwind.  I'm sure you will recall that the Old Testament ends with the promise that God would send the prophet Elijah back to herald the coming of the Messiah.  And John the Baptizer is understood, theologically, to be the symbolic return of Elijah.  But I'm getting ahead of myself. 


            Elijah did many wonderful things.  He raised the widow of Zarapheth's son—you remember that?  I mentioned that in my sermon on the widow of Nain, how that story is meant to bring the Elijah story forward, and fulfill it.  For the past two Sundays we've been reading about Elijah and King Ahab and Jezebel. 

            On June 16th, we read about Ahab killing Naboth and stealing his vineyard because he wouldn't sell it.  Elijah goes to Ahab and tells him that God will be bringing disaster on Ahab for his sins. 


            Last Sunday we read that Jezebel threatens Elijah with death, so he flees to the wilderness, and while he is in the wilderness an angel prepares food for him—very much like the story of Jesus in the wilderness.  You will recall that after fasting forty days and nights, and being tempted, the angels come and minister to Jesus and give him bread.  The stories are very similar and, of course, that is intentional.


            Today the lectionary brings the story cycle of Elijah to a close by offering the description of how Elisha, his protégé, came to succeed Elijah as a prophet.  Elijah has been told by God to anoint Hazael king of Aram, to anoint Jehu king of Israel, and to anoint Elisha the son of Shapat of Abel-meholah as his successor.  So today we read the story of the two of them walking together to Gilgal.


            Now before we get into the story I need to say something about the role of the prophet.  Prophets, in the ancient meaning of that word, are men of God.  Some of them, like Elijah are treasured and respected and essentially make their way through life by faith.  They don't work jobs; they may consult and consort with various people, but as the story of Elijah is told, you will notice that they have no home or family.  They live by faith and they simply go and do and say whatever they believe God is telling them. 


            We really don't have anyone like them in our day and age in this country.  We have no culture of the godly vagabond, the man who perhaps looks a little seedy, but is really a man of God who works wonders.  The only thing I can think of that comes close is the missionary who spends most of his time in foreign countries, and when he comes back, he stays in the homes of devout people who have helped support and finance his missionary work.  It's a radical lifestyle and I have one or two friends who have lived it.  But you and I probably cannot imagine a prophet in Shenandoah County who goes all over, visiting people and working miracles and criticizing mayors and the Town Council. 


            All right, now…Elijah and Elisha are walking from Gilgal and Elijah tells Elisha to stay, because the Lord has sent him as far as Bethel.  Elisha refuses to stay; he does not want to leave Elijah.  So they continue.  Elijah again tells Elisha to stay, because now he believes the Lord has sent him to the Jordan.  Again, Elisha refuses.  At this point, they are joined by the company of fifty prophets, who stand at some distance. 


            Elijah takes off his mantle, his cloak, and rolls it up and strikes the water.  The water parts in two and the company of prophets watch as Elijah and Elisha pass through the water on dry ground.  Sound familiar?  They are re-enacting the Exodus story. 


            All of this indicates layers and layers of history and theology.  It cannot be read as a literal history, because it isn't a literal history.  All of this account is intended to convey that what is going on is a transferrence of the power and narrative of God's people that Elijah embodied to his successor.           Elijah wasn't just a man—he was the enfleshment of the story of God.  He represented the communal events and memory of Israel, much like Martin Luther King, Jr. represents the struggle for Civil Rights in this country.


            When the men had crossed the Jordan—symbolically coming into the Promised Land again—Elijah says to Elisha, "Tell me whatI may do for you, before I am taken from you?"  Elisha asks to inherit a double share of Elijah's spirit."


            A double share has a very specific symbolic meaning here.  The double share is the inheritance of a firstborn son.  Elijah doesn't have any money or possessions to pass along.  The only commodity Elijah is understood to have is the power of his spirit, the power of his personality—things that can't really be inherited like possessions. 


            Elijah responds that what he has requested is a hard thing, but that if Elisha can see him as he is being taken away, Elisha will be granted the double share.  So they continue along and suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire separate them.  In the commotion, a whirlwind picks up Elijah and carries him into heaven.  Elisha shouts after Elijah as he ascends, but there is no response.


            When the dust settles, Elisha finds Elijah's mantle—his cloak—on the ground.  He picks it up and carries back to the Jordan.  He cries out, "Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?" and he strikes the water, and the water divides again, as it had when Elijah was there. 


            The meaning of it is simple, but profound.  In fact, the event remains a popular idiom to this day: the mantle has been passed.  The anointing and power of Elijah was passed along to Elisha, and now Elisha's ministry begins.


            The story, as I have shown, is layered with historical symbolism, because there is no education and licensure at this time.  It's not like a person now who feels a call to ministry and is interviewed by his or her parish and the standing committee of the diocese, sent off to seminary for a few years, and more interviews and internships and chaplaincies until finally one is ordained and consecrated.  And even then, usually you start off in a curacy, working under an experienced priest, learning the stuff they don't teach you in seminary, until finally, perhaps, you are called to serve as a parish priest.


            God tells Elijah that Elisha should be anointed to succeed him, and through a brief tutelage and recitation of the story of the people—the mantle is literally passed.  The clothing indicates the transfer of spiritual authority in much the same way that a newly ordained deacon, priest, or bishop is vested according to their order after the prayers of consecration. 


            But remember that what is going on here is not just the transfer of spiritual authority from one individual to another.  This is a symbolic moment in the story of God's people.  Elijah was the living embodiment of the story—the relationship, indeed the covenant, of God with his people.  What happens here is a microcosm of a much larger truth, that a generation passes wisdom and authority and spiritual power and story on to the next.  This is about the sacred traditions being passed along so that the covenant may continue.


            We ourselves are inheritors of this story.  In fact, if I may put it bluntly, this is our story.  I think the Church often reads these stories with the interpretive lense of condescension.  As if these are really the stories of the Jews, and we're not Jews so, whatever…nothing to do with us…


            But let's recall that the Old Testament is as much about Jesus, and about us as the founding fathers are about our present government.  Jesus did not come to do away with, he came to fulfill.


            The story of Elijah's ascension foreshadows the ascension of Jesus; and the mantle that is passed to Elisha is passed to the Church.  We are left with the same charge of carrying the covenant forward in our day, and re-presenting to a new time and a new generation this sacred Faith. 


            I want to say just a few words about what I think that means and does not mean.  So often this message is turned around against the Church as if to say that we are Elijah and where is our successor?  As if our failing has been that we don't have more people in church because of us.  The fact is that all we can do is invite people to come, and we should do that.  I ask you please to be thinking of people in your life you can invite to church.  I think you would be surprised at how kindly people will respond if your invitation is simple and honest. 


            But I want to be very clear that our success is not about someone saying yes.  It is God who calls people.  It is God who answers prayer and offers the sacraments and heals and does things we cannot even dream of.  Our task is simply to be people of authentic faith—trusting that God works in us and through us.


            Let me say that again: Our task is simply to be people of authentic faith.  God love us and wishes to be in relationship and covenant with us as we are; not as we think we should be.  Whom we are to become is God's business, and who comes after us is also God's business.


            God chose Elijah, and God chose Elisha.  The power and wisdom and faith did not come through force of their desire, or because of some sort of family privilege; it came because both of those men, and many more before and since, have lived lives of authentic faith.


            So that's what we are doing this morning and hopefully everyday.  We, the Church, have been given this tradition to keep and tend for as long as God allows; and as long as there are people who wish to live earnestly devout lives, there will always be a Church.  There will always be faith and hope and love, until the trumpet sounds.






Please support the mission of Christ with your time, talent, and treasure.



Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel