« May 2006 | Main | July 2006 »

Second Sunday after Pentecost, Year B

The Episcopal Church's General Convention will run late -- not ending at the closing Eucharist tomorrow morning, but going into additional legislative sessions. When it's all over, my honey and I will jump in our car and drive from Columbus back to our home in Maryland, making for a very late night after a very long couple of weeks. I think just to be safe and ensure that I don't leave y'all in the lurch, I'll refer you to a lectionary reflection I edited, penned by the Rt. Rev. John Bryson Chane of the Diocese of Washington (DC). It's a timely reflection especially in light of the GC rollercoaster, but I think many other preachers will find it useful. You'll find it -- not surprisingly -- at The Witness. And if I do have time this week, I may post some further thoughts of my own.

Blessings,

Dylan (looking forward to going home!)

June 20, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Proper 6, Year B

2 Corinthians 5:1-10
Psalm 92 OR Psalm 92:1-4, 11-14
Mark 4:26-34

Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love, that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness, and minister your justice with compassion; for the sake of our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
-- BCP Collect for Proper 6

It's an apt prayer for the church during this General Convention. While we can only know provisionally, we want to proclaim the truth as we understand it boldly; especially because our perception of God's justice is never complete, we wish to minister it with compassion. And if we look at the world through the lens of Jesus' ministry and God's mission, we see endless opportunities to do both, innumerable places where Good News and compassionate justice are desperately needed.

That's never more apparent to me than at convention. The exhibit hall hosts hundreds of organizations seeking to inform the church about and bring healing and transformation to various needs of the world. Just reading all of the resolutions inviting participation in God's mission of justice and reconciliation in some corner of the world takes hours; serious advocacy for more than a handful at any given time is beyond any one mortal's capacity. Listening to the stories, looking at the figures, and taking in testimony could keep me in meetings from 7:00 a.m. until 11:30 p.m. or later every day of the week. And I can't help but think for everything I can't do whether that one extra bit of effort might have made a difference. How would I feel if this initiative failed because I was in bed, out to lunch, hanging out with a friend instead of alerting people to some development, using my voice, at least praying for the situation?

And then I have to chuckle at my hubris. Jesus offers an excellent corrective for people like me -- people who at times mistake the invitation to participate in God's mission for an invitation to play God, who alone is the world's Creator -- in the two parables of this Sunday's gospel.

The first parable is my second favorite in the gospels. (What can I say? I'll always have a soft spot for the so-called "Parable of the Unjust Steward" in Luke 16.) Commentators call it the "Parable of the Seed Growing Secretly," and it's the shortest parable in the canon. A farmer scatters seed, and it grows, "he knows not how. The earth produces of itself." No farmer, no matter how clever, can MAKE seeds grow. She can participate in the process by influencing conditions to make them more conducive to growth -- watering, composting, and so on -- but the gifts of life and growth come from God, and only from God, who graciously created a fruitful earth and gives without calculation of deserving the gifts of sun and rain.

This picture is a wonderful corrective not only to activists teetering on the edge of exhaustion, but also for those who talk of the world God made as if the most basic truth about it is that it is fraught with dangerous evils. The world isn't perfect by any stretch, but it was made and is being redeemed by a God whose grace exceeds our wildest imaginings. The most basic truth about the world is that it arcs irresistibly toward the justice for which it aches, and each day is bursting with opportunities to experience God's grace, joy, peace, and love. Like St. Paul, we can be confident that even if an earthly tent can be destroyed, the home and identity we have as new creations in Christ are eternally rooted and eternally lasting, and the smallest of mustard seeds will produce great and fruitful trees.

With that confidence comes a lightness of spirit, a sense of abundant life and even, dare I say, fun -- even or especially in situations the world sees as heavy and hopeless. We need that lightness. A life of activism and of mission that is fueled mostly or solely by a sense of desperation or thirst for martyrdom is bound to be a short career, and probably a less effective one. God calls us to participate in God's mission, but God provides opportunities along the way for sabbath, for quiet, for laughter, and each of us was made to enjoy those good gifts even as we strive to further their availability to every child, woman, and man. Being faithful is not just about working in mission; it is also about knowing when to rest and play, giving thanks for all of God's abundant and good gifts.

It is a good thing to give thanks to the LORD,
and to sing praises to your Name, O Most High;
To tell of your loing-kindness early in the morning
and of your faithfulness in the night season.
-- Psalm 92:1-2

Thanks be to God!

June 15, 2006 in 2 Corinthians, Justice, Mark, Parables, Psalms, Redemption, Year B | Permalink | Comments (1)

Trinity Sunday, Year B

Romans 8:12-17 - link to NRSV text
John 3:1-16 - link to NRSV text

Those of you who plan to tackle the doctrine of the Trinity this Sunday might want to check out my sermon from Trinity Sunday in 2003, and I've blogged about this Sunday's gospel here and penned a lectionary reflection on it for The Witness here. I'm grateful for this Sunday's selection of readings, though, as the reading from Romans works particularly well with John 3. The point of being "born from above" or "born again" in John's gospel is not what those of us from individualistic cultures tend to emphasize when we talk about it, namely the chance for an individual to have a new beginning.

To be sure, Christ does offer new beginnings, new life, the possibility of real and important change for the individual. I wouldn't want to lose that; it can be a healing and liberating word in cultures like mine. If I had doubts before, the teenager who commented on the "Finger-paining and Forgiveness" post on Grace Notes, my personal blog, would have dispelled them. I'd posted about an activity I did with the high school youth group at the last parish I worked in. That activity was in part my answer to another activity that's often done in youth groups, usually in a "True Love Waits" context to encourage teenagers not to have sex. What happens is that the group is broken up into teams, with each team getting a tube of toothpaste, a paper plate, and some toothpicks. The teams are then told to race to see who can get all the toothpaste out of the tube first. Once that's done, the teams are told they must race to see who can get the toothpaste back in the tube using the toothpicks. It's a hopeless task, of course, and once the teams give up, the youth group leader shouts, "Aha! And neither can you get your sexual purity back once you've given it away!" It's my opinion that this activity -- especially if the application is about sex -- is awful. I don't think that leaders build trust when even in a game they ask people to do something they don't really want or expect to be done. More importantly, I think the message of the activity slights God's power to redeem. Instead, my youth group did an activity where we each wrote (symbols and such were fine, as it was only for the writer's eyes) one or more arenas in which we'd like to see God's transformation and healing. We offered those with the general confession, and burned them. That much wasn't new to the group. But then we took that ash, and stirred it into some tubs of white finger paint, and the group was invited to use that and all of the other colors to make a mural. At first, the group was reluctant ("yuck -- we have to use the ashy gloppy stuff too?"), but they plunged in with vigor. And what they found is that the "icky gloppy stuff," when incorporated into a larger picture with other colors, other textures, other ideas from a larger supportive community, wasn't icky any more. And we talked about redemption and what it means to us.

I believe that God is working that kind of redemption in us individually as we journey with a community seeking God. And yes, I believe the "born again/born from above" talk in John 3 does bring in some of that kind of redemption. But like the "Finger-painting and Forgiveness" activity, John's language of rebirth has its greatest power, I think, because it's about incorporation into something larger than ourselves. Because although God loves us with as much intensity as God would if each one of us were the only person in the world to love, God in God's love sets us in community. When we are "born from above," we are born into a family of faith, with God as our father and mother, Christ as our eldest brother, and with countless others beloved by God as our sisters and brothers.

This transformation isn't without cost: being "born from above" into the family of faith renders all other ties of blood or nationality irrelevant, and in a culture that says "God, mom, and apple pie" in the same breath, taking Jesus' word seriously can make a person seem eccentric at best and dangerously antisocial at worst. Being "born from above" dislocates us from the network of relationships we were born into in flesh and blood. But God doesn't just dislocate; God relocates us in a new network of relationships -- sometimes even with the same people. We can see our families not just as a set of cultural obligations or a path to respectability, and we don't have to relate to one another in the rigidly constructed ways our culture might dictate. We are invited to relate to others, whether related to us by blood or not, as sisters and brothers, beloved children of the same loving God.

Take that deeply in, and you'll find much more transformed than just your inward disposition. Take in that every child of God is your sister or brother, and you'll feel personally swept up in wanting each one fed, given clean water, an education, decent health care, a real chance in life. Take in that every child of God is your sister or brother in a family of faith following Jesus, and you'll find yourself with genuine desire and taking pleasure in coming closer to the kind of free and full interchange of every gift to which you have access that characterizes the communion of the Trinity.

That's bound to transform your life, your outlook, your heart, your mind. But that's not all. The global fellowship of those living more deeply into that network of relationships characteristic of those "born from above" will transform the world, as questions of what is most loving for others become central even with respect to our sisters and brothers we've never met, those in generations to come and across the globe. That's revolutionary -- and that's Christ's gift to us in an eternal life that starts NOW.

Thanks be to God!

June 8, 2006 in Baptism, John, Kinship/Family, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Redemption, Romans, Trinity, Year B | Permalink | Comments (3)

Day of Pentecost, Year B

Acts 2:1-11 - link to NRSV text
Isaiah 44:1-8 - link to NRSV text
1 Corinthians 12:4-13
- link to NRSV text
John 20:19-23 - link to NRSV text
OR John 14:8-17 - link to NRSV text

Sometimes, in my more cynical moments, I think that the phrase "Holy Spirit" for us tends to be something we stitch into sentences to lend them more authority. "Spirit" is for many people a nebulous kind of word denoting a vague feeling of enthusiasm. We "get in the spirit of things" and have "spirit squads" at football games. It's interesting to me also how frequently the word is used in everyday situations in which the speaker is trying to get those listening to conform to an expectation: "where's your team spirit?" for example.

It's often not all that different in the church. The Holy Spirit doesn't get all that much airtime in a lot of pulpits aside from the Day of Pentecost, and when she does, this talk often functions primarily to lend a spiritual authority to a proposed course of action in a way that people find it difficult to contest. Say "I think that this candidate for youth minister is the best fit for the congregation" and people can talk about whether or not that's so; say "as I prayed about this, I sensed that the Spirit is calling this candidate" -- especially if you're wearing a collar -- and a lot of folks will find it difficult to refute, or even to find more evidence to affirm except for similarly vague testimony: "oh yeah ... as soon as I hard you say that, it just resonated with me." I'm sure you can think of examples you've heard in which "this is what the Spirit is doing" translates roughly to "I feel pretty good about this course of action."

I don't believe it's quite as nebulous as that, and this Sunday's readings are an excellent starting place (to which I'll add a couple more as we go on) from which to think about discernment of the Holy Spirit's activity, the question of what the Holy Spirit is doing among us and how we can participate in it -- something that I think has some important things to say especially to those of us in the Episcopal Church who are looking toward General Convention this month.

Most of what I have to say boils down to this:

The Holy Spirit is the person who empowers those called by God to participate in God's mission.

That mission is reconciling all the world with one another and with God in Christ. That's the grand arc of what the Spirit is doing -- empowering participation in that mission.

We see it in Isaiah 44 and Acts 2. Isaiah says:

For I will pour water on the thirsty land,
and streams on the dry ground;
I will pour my spirit upon your descendants,
and my blessing on your offspring.
They shall spring up like a green tamarisk,
like willows by flowing streams.
This one will say, "I am the LORD's,"
another will be called by the name of Jacob,
yet another will write on the hand, "The LORD's,"
and adopt the name of Israel.

Acts 2 describes a community gathered from all nations -- people divided by language and culture brought together on pilgrimage and sent forth in mission. Prior to Acts 2, this assortment of pilgrims were not a people. They gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of Pentecost, the feast of the giving of the Law in the desert, where wandering tribes were formed as one people of Israel. And as we follow the story of these pilgrims of Acts 2 who were gathered, empowered, and scattered to see others of every nation similarly empowered, we see more of what God's mission is.

As I've written about before, we see in Acts 4 in particular that the reconciliation in which these people were to participate was no pious abstraction; it had and has dramatic material consequences for how we live together in the world. Acts 4:34 says directly (in the Greek -- most English bibles are missing a crucial conjunction here) that the apostles' testimony had power, FOR those who had houses and lands sold them to make sure that there was not a needy person left. And lest we think that's just about a local congregation and we have no obligation to others whose faces we haven't seen, the collection for famine-stricken Jerusalem (portrayed in Acts 11:27-30 as well as in St. Paul's writings) shows that all who are Baptized into Christ's Body, all who share Christ's Body in the Eucharist, are bound to care for others around the world as for their own family, their own flesh. As surprising as it was to see that kind of care between people from across the known world in Acts, perhaps it shouldn't have been so very surprising given how prophets such as Isaiah portray the Spirit's activity: in drought that brings famine, the Spirit brings the waters that give life to the land and those who live by it; and among those judged to be no people, beyond the bounds of those for whom one need care, the Spirit testifies to adoption as God's beloved children and our family.

That's what the Spirit does. The Spirit makes us one -- not like people bound to one another and tossed into a sea where their ties to one another paralyze and drown, but brought into relationship with one another that is as free as it is close, that is life-giving air and light. It's a unity that is not, as Paul makes clear, uniformity. Sisters and brothers in Christ have distinct gifts for ministry and mission. Like Peter and Paul in the conflict Paul describes in Galatians 2, they may hold radically different or even mutually exclusive opinions on vitally important issues -- issues all sides hold to be about the very truth of the Gospel and the call of God's people. What Christians may NOT do, however, is treat one another as expendable; they may not leave sisters and brothers hungry, thirsty, bereft of family and of honor.

That's not a "thou shalt not" in a finger-wagging way, or in a "do this or get kicked off Christian island" code; it's a function rather of our very identity. Those immersed in the life of the Spirit are caught up in what the Spirit is doing. And the Spirit is fueling the reconciliation of the whole world with one another and with God in Christ. We can choose to fight it or we can choose to ride it (and those who have done both know very well which option is exhilarating work and which is solely exhausting!), but that's the wave swelling in the world God made and loves.

What does recognizing that mean -- and what does it mean especially for discernment? St. Augustine put it very concisely when he said, "Love God and do what you will." At first glance, that sounds like a recipe for libertine excess. Do WHATEVER I will? But that ignores the first part of the statement: "Love God." Loving God isn't a warm fuzzy feeling, though we may have those feelings at times; it's a choice to be in relationship with God, to align oneself with what God is doing in the world. That's not the same as trying to accomplish on our own steam what we think God wants to happen. I've blogged before about the common misconception that surfing is about paddling hard enough to propel oneself down the wave, when really it's about finding a spot on the wave and pointing oneself in a direction such that the gravity which pulls you down its face is also moving you parallel to the beach, always to that next section where the wave hasn't yet broken. In that sense, surfing isn't so much about paddling as it is about falling; gravity is the chief force at work, and the wave arranges things such that gravity can take you where you need to go if you point yourself in the right direction. The Spirit is moving; the wave is swelling. Love God: point yourself in the direction the wave is going. The rest is graceful falling.

That's why Jesus could summarize the Law as loving God and loving neighbor -- a statement that Paul echoes in Romans. Paul spent most of his ink trying to help communities figure out what all that implied in practical terms, of course, and communities from before his time to our own time and beyond have disagreed passionately about the specifics. Paul's list of specific was pretty short, if Galatians 5 is any indication: exploiting one another, treating people as objects and objects as God, is out; love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control are in. There is no law against this fruit of the Spirit. One may as well try to outlaw the tide, for all the luck you'll have enforcing it and all the fun you'll (NOT) have in the attempt.

So how do we experience the Spirit? We look for places in ourselves, in our communities, and in our world in need of reconciliation and we plunge into the healing and wholeness that God in God's grace is bringing into being. We participate in racial reconciliation, in sharing resources and passing laws that narrow the gulf between rich and poor, in looking for signs of that reconciliation happening and fruit of the Spirit growing in those around us and those seemingly unlike us -- because we're not so different in the one thing that matters, in whose children we are and in our call to live more deeply into that reality.

That's be to God!

June 3, 2006 in 1 Corinthians, Acts, Galatians, Holy Spirit, Inclusion, John, Justice, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Pentecost, Reconciliation, Romans, Year B | Permalink | Comments (0)