June 18, 2007

"God's Year to Act"

A sermon for a service of U2charist sponsored by the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan, Journey of Faith Church, and Christ Episcopal Church, and held at Christ Episcopal Church in Dearborn, Michigan, June 16, 2007

Isaiah 58:6-12; Psalm 40:1-11; 2 Corinthians 8:1-15; Luke 4:14-21

It’s great to be back in Michigan, where I’ve got good friends, new friends, and a great deal of history. I was born in Southfield, just a few miles from here, but I spent my teenage years in Los Angeles. And like a lot of people in sunny southern California, I learned to surf. I loved it, but wasn’t at all good at it, especially at first. I got a lot better almost instantly, though, when I finally got one insight that’s absolutely fundamental for surfing.

I imagine that even if you haven’t surfed yourself, you’ve seen enough surfing in movies and such to know pretty much how it goes: You take your surfboard to the beach. You paddle out to where the swells are forming. When a swell comes along that looks like it’s going to be a good wave, you start paddling. Once you’ve caught the wave, you can stand up and ride it.

There’s a common misconception, though, among beginning surfers about the role of paddling in that process. When I first tried surfing, I thought that it was the force of my paddling that propelled the board such that I could catch a wave. The harder I was finding it to catch a wave, the more frantically I paddled. I ended up with very sore shoulders and hardly any rides. Then I started to think what propelled the board was a current in the water, and I got very frustrated not being able to find this magical current on any given wave.

But then finally someone explained to me what really propels your board in surfing. It’s GRAVITY. A wave is a moving hill, and as long as you’re on a slick surface pointed downhill, you’re going to slide forward. Catching a wave is just a matter of lining yourself up with the wave so that you’re pointed downhill, and continuing to ride it is just a matter of pointing your board just close enough to parallel to the shore so that as the wave continues to break, you continue sliding downhill without reaching the bottom.

In other words, surfing is basically well-planned falling. It’s aligning yourself with what’s going on in the ocean and with the forces operating in the world -- gravity, friction, and so on -- such that the most natural way forward becomes an exhilarating ride. I still pretty much suck at surfing, so I’ve only caught that perfect ride a couple of times, but I can say even based on those couple of times that it’s an amazing feeling. You’re in touch with these elemental forces, and there’s something that feels very wild and powerful about that, but being aligned with them, there’s also something profoundly peaceful about it. Noise and distractions, including all of those self-conscious thoughts and anxieties, melt away into one feeling of "YES"!

I’d say that there’s no feeling like it in the world, except that I believe there is. Engaging God’s mission of justice for the poor can feel a lot like it. Let me put it this way:

The perfect wave is starting to swell in this world, and being aligned with it is one heck of a ride.

What do I mean by that? Take a look at the Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs. Eight points:
1) Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger.
2) Achieve universal primary education.
3) Promote gender equality and empower women.
4) Reduce child mortality.
5) Improve maternal health.
6) Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases.
7) Ensure environmental sustainability.
8) Develop a global partnership for development.

Eight points to change the world. And we’re talking about a big change. Here’s how things are now in this world. Right now, more than a billion of the world’s people live on less than a dollar a day. Right now, one child every three seconds -- 30,000 children a day, 11 million children a year -- die of preventable diseases. Half a million women die every year while giving birth. 2.6 billion people don’t have access to basic sanitation that would allow them to stay healthy. I will never forget the images of those caught in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and I never want to forget that there are billions of people in the world for whom every day of their lives is like the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

It’s what Bono, U2’s lead singer, calls “stupid poverty,” because it could be eliminated if just seven-tenths of one percent more of the wealth of the richest nations went toward sensible development in the poorest. Stupid poverty. It’s stupid because we let all of this heartbreak happen when it wouldn’t happen if we put our hearts and our heads together.

Right now, the U.S. spends more than THIRTEEN TIMES more on defense than on aid. Right now, our government is not fulfilling the commitments it made previously. Americans are generous in their charitable giving, but only two percent of Americans’ charitable giving goes outside the borders of the U.S., and we tend to give it haphazardly, when someone asks, or when a crisis reaches our T.V.s. A recent study by Claude Rosenberg and Tim Stone (Note 1) showed that if U.S. citizens budgeted in charitable giving to address the Millennium Development Goals -- if we figured out what we could afford and gave it regularly, instead of writing a check haphazardly, as someone asked for it -- American charitable giving would go up by ONE HUNDRED BILLION DOLLARS a year.

One hundred billion. I’m not a numbers person myself. That sounds awfully abstract. So how about this:

Nineteen billion dollars a year between now and the year 2015 could ELIMINATE starvation and malnutrition from this world.

Twelve billion dollars a year between now and the year 2015 could give every child in this world an education through primary school.

Fifteen billion dollars a year from now through the year 2015 would provide access to clean water and sanitation for everyone in this world.

Nineteen plus twelve plus fifteen. That’s forty-six billion dollars a year -- less than HALF of what planning to give and following through with those plans would generate if every American did that.

If we make that commitment and follow through on it, then, in the year 2015, everyone gets enough nutritious food to eat. Everyone gets access to clean water. And every child gets an education, EVERYWHERE IN THE WORLD. Three of those eight goals met with American people like you and me planning to give what we can and then following through on those plans. And then there’s what would happen if our government followed through on the commitments it’s already made. Just seven-tenths of a percent more in intelligent, coordinated aid for development -- in putting our hearts and heads together -- and the Millennium Development Goals are more than achievable.

I’m going to turn 45 in the year 2015. Most of us in this room will still be around then. And I would love to come back here in the summer of 2015 for a party where all of us can get together and say, “Hey, remember when we all got together and sang U2 songs all night? Yeah, and we decided to join this movement -- to step up, to tell our friends, to call our senators and our representatives? Remember back in 2007, when we said we were going to have this party in eight years?”

And then we can lean over to any kids at that party who are too young to remember what it was like in 2007, and we can say, “You know, there was poverty then. Back then, there were kids who died of malaria because they didn’t have a $3 mosquito net. In 2007, there were girls who couldn’t go to school because they had to spend all day carrying water from the river, and back then people got sick from drinking the only water they had to drink after all that work.” And there are going to be some kids at that party in 2015 who are going to say, “NO WAY,” because they live in a world in which none of those things happen any more, and they just don’t remember that they ever did.

That is going to be some party, sisters and brothers. That is going to be some party all over the world, where every one of us can tell the story of what it was like then, and what you did -- and what you did -- what all of us did -- that changed the world forever.

So I hope you don’t mind if right now I invite myself to that party in 2015. I hope you’ll invite yourself to it right now too. And I hope that you and I will spend the next eight years inviting everyone who will listen to that party. Can I get an Amen?

That’s what I’m talking about. That’s the wave we’re going to ride. In our gospel for tonight’s service, we heard Jesus telling everyone in his hometown synagogue what his mission in the world was. He said:

God's Spirit is on me;
he's chosen me to preach the Message of good news to
the poor,
Sent me to announce pardon to prisoners and
recovery of sight to the blind,
To set the burdened and battered free,
to announce, "This is God's year to act!"

God’s Spirit is on me, because God has chosen me to preach the message of good news to the poor. Christ’s mission in the world. This is what God does in the world when God becomes flesh and dwells among us. Christ’s mission.

And we -- you and you and you and I -- are the Body of Christ. We are the very body of Jesus in the world. We have on us the Spirit that Jesus sent to every one of us. That’s why I know that when you hear what God is doing in the world -- what Good News for the poor there is -- there’s a part of you that feels the excitement of that perfect wave when it starts to swell. Here it comes. There’s a part of you that says, “YES!” You are the Body of Christ in the world. God’s Spirit is on you because God has chosen you to bring good news to the poor. Chosen YOU. Anointed YOU. Given YOU the gifts of the Spirit to prophesy -- to speak truth to power, to invite everyone you know and even people you don’t know, or don’t know yet, to that party we are going to have on that day when every one of us can say, “the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing!” YOU are the Body of Christ, chosen and gifted to ride the wave of the mission of Christ in the world. What can one person do? I don’t know, but I know what the One Body of Christ can do because God’s Spirit is upon you. It requires your generosity and it requires your voice. But this isn’t momentum that you have to create by yourself with frantic occasional paddling. This is a WAVE, and what your calls and your letters and your generosity are going to do is line you up to ride it.

God’s Spirit is upon you because God has chosen you to bring Good News to the poor.

That’s what the invitation to this party looks like, and I want to invite every person here right now to invite one or two of the people around you to it. I want to invite you to turn to someone next to you, put your hand on their shoulder if you both feel comfortable with that, to look that person in the eye, and say:
God’s Spirit is upon you because God has chosen you to bring Good News to the poor.
Right now.

[The congregation does this.]

God’s Spirit is upon me because God has chosen me to bring Good News to the poor.

Write that on a note and put it on your bathroom mirror to see in the morning and at night. Put it in your wallet to see when you pull out a credit card. Send a note to your friends from this service in a few weeks to remind them. Pick up the information from the ONE Episcopalian campaign. Pick it up, plan to line yourself up to ride this wave, follow through, and ride it!

This is God’s year to act! Surf's up!

Thanks be to God.


1 - "A New Take on Tithing," Stanford Social Innovation Review, Fall 2006

Sarah Dylan Breuer coined the term "U2charist" and, with the Without Walls network for alternative liturgy in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, created the first U2charist service, held in April of 2004 in Baltimore, Maryland.

June 18, 2007 in 2 Corinthians, Current Affairs, Isaiah, Justice, Luke, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Ordinary Time, Psalms, Stewardship, U2charist sermons | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 01, 2005

"Three Miracles at Jesus' Spontaneous Dinner Party": Proper 13, Year A

Memorial Episcopal Church, Baltimore, Maryland
July 31, 2005

Nehemiah 9:16-20
- link to NRSV text
Psalm 78:1-29
- link to BCP text
Romans 8:35-39
- link to NRSV text
Matthew 14:13-21
- link to NRSV text

Have you ever wondered why it is that, when we gather as the church to remember Jesus, we do it with a meal? If you think about it, it could have been anything. We could have built statues to remember Jesus, or held a dance. We could have made it a poetry reading, a teach-in, a weekly golf tournament -- but we didn't. When we gather as the church, our central act together in remembrance of Jesus is to have a meal -- the Eucharistic meal.

I know, it doesn't seem like much, as meals go. I have a friend who likes to say that when he receives one of those communion wafers, he finds it easier to believe that it's really Jesus' body than to believe it's really bread. But this is supposed to be a meal -- a feast, even. An abundant and lavish one, held in remembrance of someone -- Jesus of Nazareth -- who had a reputation for being, as the Irish scholar John Dominic Crossan puts it, "a party animal." We have a feast to remember Jesus, complete with breaking out the wine (which really ought to be our best stuff) before noon on a Sunday, because Jesus was remembered, as Matthew 11:19 puts it, as "a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners."

This is not the Jesus a lot of us grew up with, whose hair may have been a little long for our parents' taste, but whose name came up mostly when our parents wanted us to behave, hang out with the right kind of people, behave like the good citizens they may have (rather naively) thought we were. But today’s gospel doesn’t fit in with the picture of the well-mannered Jesus of popular conception anywhere near as well as it does with the “party animal” Crossan describes, and that’s the point I want to start with today.

I know that this isn't what usually comes to mind first when we think about the feeding of the five thousand. Usually, when people think about this story, they think about the miracle, by which they mean the multiplication of the loaves. Admittedly, that part of the story is pretty impressive. Not only did God's power produce enough food to feed five thousand people -- not counting the women and children, as Matthew emphatically points out (Matthew 14:21) -- but there were twelve baskets of leftovers. Twelve baskets, like twelve tribes of Israel -- in effect, this story tells us that there was such plenty represented in this feast that there were enough leftovers to fill doggie bags for all of God's people. Truly impressive stuff!

But as far as I’m concerned, that miracle of mutiplying loaves pales in comparison to a couple of other miracles in this story that I think are even more impressive, even more miraculous demonstrations of God's power acting in Jesus' ministry.

To set the scene for those miracles, it's important to know that in Jesus' culture, people really took seriously the old maxim that "you are what you eat," and not from a nutritional viewpoint. I'm talking about purity, about keeping kosher. You are what you eat; if you want to be a kosher kind of guy, the right kind of person, you've got to eat the right kind of food. This might initially sound like a fairly simple matter: if it's pork for dinner, you just keep passing the plate. But if you've ever had a serious food allergy -- or if you've ever had a guest who did -- you know just how complicated things can get. Who knew that peanut oil was in some brands of ice cream? Think how complicated it is to try to avoid not just one ingredient, but anything not prepared in the right way.

If it's really important to you, there are only two ways to be sure that what you're getting is kosher. One is to be in the kitchen, not only hovering over everything on the ingredient list, but making sure beforehand that no surface has been contaminated. The other is dicier: if you know your host family very, very well, and if you know for SURE that they know how to keep their kitchen and what you can and can't eat, you just might be able to trust them to prepare a meal you can safely eat.

So there it is: keep a close eye on every ingredient and how it's prepared, or at the very least make absolutely sure that you don't eat with anyone unless she knows how to prepare it all AND she really understands how important it is to do it right, and you just might be able to share a meal.

And then think of this with respect to the story in this Sunday's gospel:


Imagine those five thousand people at Jesus' spontaneous dinner party whispering: does anyone know who baked the bread? What kind of fish was this? Was it cleaned? This was some kid's lunch??! Does anyone know who his mother is? That would say something about whether the food is OK ...

But that didn't happen. Instead, five thousand people take one guy's word for it -- not a family member, not their best friend, not even someone they knew well -- and they sit down to eat food when -- and I mean this literally -- God only knows where it came from. Jesus inspired a miraculous trust in those who came to him, the trust that made everyone there willing to forget about years of "you are what you eat" conditioning to accept bread from Jesus without knowing or asking about where it came from and whether it was safe or kosher. Five thousand people -- not counting the women and children -- found their lives so transformed in encountering Jesus that all of their fears of dangers to be avoided, of what it would mean if they joined the ranks of those seen as impure, gave way to enthusiasm for sharing the feast before them.

Think about the kind of trust Jesus must have engendered in people to get that kind of response. That's real, life-changing spiritual power in Jesus' presence, a miracle at least as impressive as the multiplying loaves.

But that isn't the end of it. There's one more miracle in this story, and I think it's the most impressive one of all. In Jesus' culture, it wasn't just "you are what you eat"; it was also "you are who you eat with." Some of that was just a logical extension of purity observance, because it wasn’t just the ingredients that could make the food -- and you -- impure; it was also the hands passing the food. Imagine the scene of that spontaneous dinner party in this Sunday's gospel, and imagine that you'd just experienced that second miracle of being able to trust Jesus to provide you with food that's good. But Jesus isn't the peanut vendor at the ballpark; he’s not hurling individual portions with miraculous accuracy directly to you. Strangers brought the bread to Jesus, who blessed and broke it ... and handed the pieces to the disciples, who handed them to others in the crowd, who handed them to others, and so on across countless pairs of hands before it got to you. Take that bread, and you're taking into yourself not just whatever was in the field where the wheat was grown and in the kitchen when it was baked, but also what was on the hands of every other person in that crowd.

That's reason enough to be skittish about who you eat with, but that's not all. There's also the business of honor, crucial in Jesus' culture. A man’s willingness to do business with you, to consider allowing a daughter to marry your son, to acknowledge you as a person worth acknowledging, depended on how honorable he saw you as being. And "you are who you eat with" was the operative rule that said that your character would be assumed to be the same as the character of your companions at dinner. Eat impure food, and you're impure. Eat with a rebellious son or a tax collector and you're not going to be seen as being any more honorable than they are.

But along that hillside, over five thousand people were willing to receive not only Jesus and the bread that he blessed, but also the strangers with whom they shared it. Every one of them became, on that dusty hillside, one with every other. This was a completely spontaneous dinner, so there was no checking the guest list or asking for credentials. Distinctions between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, priest and tax collector -- indeed, all the distinctions around which wars were fought between nations, families, and brothers -- just didn't count any more.

And I'm not just saying that in the naive way that lets college-educated white people say “oh, I don’t pay any attention to the color of a person’s skin.” The privilege that comes with my skin color means that I’m not going to be pulled over because of it, that I’m unlikely to be shot because of it, that I’m more likely to get fair treatment in court because of it, and so I can afford to pretend that I don’t notice color. That’s NOT what I’m talking about when say that in Jesus has the power to make irrelevant all the categories we use to divide. What I'm talking about is that radical force that turns mountains and valleys to plains, bringing down the mighty and raising the lowly. What I’m talking about is the end of a world in which some people aren’t counted as a world dawns in which EVERYONE counts. I'm talking about real change, a world in which a child from any neighborhood in Baltimore has the same chance at education, self-esteem, and all of the privileges that a child from the suburbs takes for granted. I'm talking about a world in which a child from any village in the Sudan has access to the running water and lights to read by at night that is taken for granted by children from across Baltimore.

When I talk about that third miracle from Jesus' lakeside feast, I’m talking about the miracle that fires us up to give flesh to that vision of a world in which every child has a chance -- in which God’s kingdom comes and God’s will is done, on earth as it is in heaven. Jesus taught us not only that this is possible, but that he was sending the Holy Spirit to give us what we need to make it happen. Every meal he shared with his disciples, with sinners and Pharisees, or five thousand strangers, was a living parable of that possibility, of that vocation that is his gift to us.

Thanks be to God!

August 1, 2005 in Eucharist, Inclusion, Justice, Matthew, Miracle Stories, Ordinary Time, Purity, Year A | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

June 26, 2005

"Freed to Love with Integrity: The Good News of Matthew’s Hard Word": Proper 8, Year A

Memorial Episcopal Church, Baltimore, Maryland
Proper 8, Year A; June 23, 2005
Isaiah 2:10-17; Psalm 1-18; Romans 6:3-11; Matthew 10:34-42

In the name of the one who created us for love, the one who frees us to love with integrity, and the one who sets us in communities of love, one God, Amen.

The bulk of this Sunday's gospel is hard to hear for us all across what I call the theo-political spectrum. Those who (like me) emphasize that Jesus' work among us is as reconciler and that Jesus consistently condemned violence are disturbed by Jesus' saying "I have not come to bring peace, but a sword" (Matthew 10:34).

Perhaps even harder for many of us to hear is Jesus' saying that he has come to set parents against children and children against parents. If that makes you feel uncomfortable, you're not alone. The language that passed Jesus' lips about this was almost certainly more like Luke's, which has Jesus saying, "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters ... cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26). There's no trick of Greek vocabulary or ancient Aramaic translation that blunts the meaning of the word "hate" there. If you look at how that same word (misein) is used in other places in the New Testament and in Greek literature in general, you’ll see that there’s no way around it: the word is used to mean the opposite of love (agape), the kind of emotion that persecutors feel before they put the persecuted to the sword.

The temptation, when a text like that comes up, is to gloss over it. When a preacher reads something like that in the gospel for the coming Sunday, you’re very likely to hear a sermon about the collect. It’s just too hard to take: how could talk about swords and division turn out to be Good News?

Well any preacher, or any Christian, who trembles a bit during the reading of this Sunday’s gospel is in very good company. Matthew used a lot of the same written sources for his gospel that Luke used, and it’s likely that when Matthew was confronted with Jesus’ harsh language about sons and daughters coming to “hate” their fathers and mothers, Matthew did what we’re tempted to do: if he couldn’t just gloss over it and hope that nobody else had heard about this shocking word from Jesus, the remaining strategy is to backpedal – like the wind! Take those shocking words, and soften the language so that it’s about loving parents or children more than Jesus.

But even with Matthew’s wording, we’ve still got a mouthful here. "Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me" (Matthew 10:37) is still a radical and potentially offensive statement. I think about a bio I once read from an Episcopalian candidate for vestry which said something very like "family is, and will be forever, the absolute foundation of my life, the church, and society." What does Jesus' claim that he came to set parents against children and children against parents do to that? Those who loudly proclaim a Jesus whose "family values" exalt heterosexual marriage and parenthood above all other relationships and priorities can't be biblical literalists about passages like this Sunday's gospel, so they often resort to invented obscure meanings for Greek words to try to dull the force of Jesus' proclamation. Fortunately, we progressives don’t have to take these things literally.

... I’m still not going to just dust my hands off and preach on the collect, though.

We don’t have to take Jesus’ words literally here, but I want to challenge us – me included – to take them seriously – not because we have to, but because I believe that that this bunch of books left to us by ancient performance-art prophets and wild-eyed saints is actually GOOD NEWS, and when we gloss over the parts that make us initially uncomfortable, we run the risk of passing by some words that could serve not only as a healthy challenge to those whose claim to moral privilege and political power too often goes unanswered, but also as an encouraging, inspiring, and liberating word to us.

So what is that inspiring and liberating word in today’s gospel? What the heck is Jesus talking about when he says that he's come to set Mom against her daughter, Dad against son, children against their parents?

One side of it is that Jesus is talking about a fact. In a culture that wants to pay lip service at least to the importance of “family values” above all else, sometimes justice, integrity, and wholeness -- qualities characteristic of Jesus' work among us -- can divide parents from children.

I'm thinking about Zach, a young man of sixteen who lives in Bartlett, Tennessee. Zach loves the Harry Potter movies and The Lord of the Rings and rock bands like Good Charlotte and No Doubt, but he'd usually rather read a book than watch T.V. He has an online journal -- a web log, or “blog” -- that describes a good amount of typical teenage drama in sentences that sometimes run on or lack a few capital letters.

Zach hasn't posted anything new to his blog in nearly a month, though. He's been sent away to a place where he's searched bodily every day, he isn't allowed to have keys to his house or a phone to call a friend, or even a photograph or memento to remind him that he has friends with whom he can hang out or play video games, friends who care about him. He was sent against his will to a place where even Bach and Beethoven are banned as secular music and a possible influence to sin.

Zach was sent there by his parents when he finally worked up the nerve to tell them that he's gay. His parents found this place -- a place run by a group called "Love In Action" -- where they hoped that Zach would, with their treatment, become heterosexual. They told Zach that they were sending him there. Zach ran away, but when he came back to try to reconcile with his parents, they did send him there, very much against his will.

That’s the news I got from all of the conventional news organs – the newspapers, the newsletters, the editorials, the other blogs. It’s bad news too, to hear about what goes on in our culture in the name of things like love, or freedom, or democracy, or even in the name of Jesus himself.

But that’s not the only news I read. As a Christian, I read this book, this bible, not as the bad news that sends Zach to a prison camp, but as a source of Good News, the kind that sets Zach, and you, and me, and our world FREE. It’s this book, and reading it both carefully and prayerfully, that tells me what Jesus really comes to do -- to heal, and to love, and however long it takes to grow, to nurture the peace that comes with the fruit of the Spirit. And I stick with this book because when, as in Zach’s case, it separates a son from his father, I know that, in Paul’s words, “it is for freedom that Christ has set us free,” and Christ is at work in this situation to bring freedom – freedom that both Zach and his father need. I don't know Zach or his parents personally, but just from reading Zach's blog, I wonder whether the best thing I can pray for Zach is that this conflict will be the start of something much better, that he'll find a way to BREAK AWAY from his parents while staying safe. Zach needs to be among people who, though they're not related to him by blood, will receive him as a beloved brother, a child of God whose every capacity for self-giving and life-affirming love is a gift from God.

I spent the day last Sunday in just that sort of community, standing with people from this parish at a booth at the Gay Pride festival, handing out fortune cookies and brochures and cards with Good News for anyone with ears to hear – that the kind of beloved community and chosen family we all were born to seek is HERE, wherever two or three gather in the name of our shocking and life-giving Savior. That’s GOOD NEWS, for us and for the whole world, as I read about in a very, very Good Book.

But can be very difficult to stand in a place like a Gay Pride festival with a cross around your neck. There are so many people who think – whose parents and pastors may have told them – that all the Cross or the Bible has to offer is condemnation. Worse, yet, there are people who are attracted to the Cross and the Bible for just that reason – because there’s something in them that loves the idea of a judgmental God who hates and wants to punish all the same people that they do.

But they’re not reading carefully enough. If they did, they’d catch a glimpse of what energized St. Paul to proclaim Good News among all people – even, or especially, those who at first could see him only as a lunatic or a heretic. If they did read the whole story – if WE read the whole story – we might find something even more audacious and inspiring to dream about than the best of what we knew to hope for before.

I’ve read to the end of this very Good Book, and I’d like to share with you one of the dreams it’s given me – a dream for Zach. As I said before, I hope and pray that Zach could find the kind of community we’ve experienced here – a community where he could be received as a beloved child of God, and start to take in just how extravagant and unconditional God’s love for him is. But it doesn’t stop there. My dream, my hope -- my vision, as someone who believes with all her heart that the God of Israel, the God who became Incarnate in Jesus, is present and active and powerful to heal and redeem -- is that Zach could, with the support of his new sisters and brothers and an unshakable sense of just how much God loves him, find the strength and the courage to forgive his parents, and that they would be moved to reconcile with him, receiving him as an adult with his own integrity, not as a disobedient son, but as a beloved brother in Christ.

Is that even possible? At the very least, it does take a willingness to risk it, which in turn has to come from a glimpse of the immeasurable height and depth of God’s love for each one of us. But it is possible, with God. That's the Good News in this hard word of Jesus about the gospel inspiring sons and daughters to break from their parents. Our culture wants to paper over cracks and wounds to get us to limp along in relationships with others, relationships with money, relationships with power, and even relationships with God that seem to work superficially, but won’t allow us to experience real freedom, real love, real justice. So it’s Good News that Christ has come to break us out of those old and harmful patterns.

But that isn’t all. The Good News we proclaim – the Good News of this Good Book – is that there is no brokenness, nothing so disordered as to be completely beyond the reach of God's power to redeem. That’s the story of the world, and our story when we claim it. There are a lot of people out there who have told Zach and you and me that what God wants and what the Bible commands is about being good, following the rules that keep the powerful in power, the rich getting richer, the respectable keeping others invisible. But when we take the story of God’s people as our own story and when we wrestle with that story -- all of it -- in community, there is no prior obligation, no person, no cultural imperative, no unjust law, no earthly power that can keep us from our identity in Christ. Our freedom in Christ divides us from all that would oppress us and restores us to one another as members of one Body of Christ, called to ministry and maturity in Christ, co-heirs with the one who sets us free.

Thanks be to God!

June 26, 2005 in Conflict, Isaiah, Jesus' Hard Sayings, Matthew, Ordinary Time, Reconciliation, Romans, Year A | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 17, 2004

"Wrestling with God: Conversion and Community" - October 17, 2004

Wrestling with God: Conversion and Community
Sarah Dylan Breuer, Director of Christian Formation
St. Martin's-in-the-Field Episcopal Church, Severna Park, Maryland
October 17, 2004; Proper 24, Year C

Genesis 32:3-8, 22-30
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Luke 18:1-8a

October has been an eventful month for me. Most of the last two days have been occupied with intense interviews for the ordination process – and I mean they were INTENSE. They asked really challenging questions, and here was the most challenging one I got:

“What question could we ask about your family life that would be most difficult for you, that would really get your heart rate up?”

I had to think about that one for a while, but then I had to say that they should probably ask me about my trip to California a couple of weeks ago for my grandmother’s funeral.

That trip brought up all kinds of complicated feelings, as my grandmother and I had a fairly complicated relationship.

It was in many ways a contentious relationship. Grandma believed that the Bible should be read ONLY in the King James version or a paraphrase of it. When I started studying Greek and Hebrew, she was deeply grieved, and she said so – often. It was a caring impulse – she wanted to make sure my salvation wasn’t in danger – but her deep disappointment, palpable in each of her frequent letters, was hard to take. She didn’t mind arguing her point, either. Even her grace at the Thanksgiving table would often contain some pointed requests for God to bring me back to God’s Word, and away from the “traditions of men.”

For that reason, it felt a little odd when I was asked to give her eulogy. But upon reflection, I knew just what I could say. I talked about her profound and lifelong love of Scripture. It was a love totally apparent in nearly everything she said, and it became even more apparent later that week, as I helped to sort through her things. The bookshelf nearest her bed must have had at least fifteen Bibles, each one peppered generously, in every book from Genesis through Revelation, with her notes. And by her bed were dozens of sheets of paper, marked over her last days with dozens of Bible verses she knew by heart and had written to strengthen herself as she was dying.

We contended often, and I think that was because we both cared so much about the same thing – about Scripture, the love of which came to me in large part through her. I think that’s why, after all our contending, I inherited what I think might have been her most prized possession – the huge family Bible, purchased within a generation after the family’s arrival at Ellis Island. That Bible is and always will be a sign to me that relationships that are contentious can also be deeply loving.

And many of us have a fairly contentious relationship with the Bible. Today’s epistle says that "All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17). This is a true saying, and worth repeating, even as we confess one (and only one) Word of God, no book, but a person: Jesus, the Christ of God, the Word made flesh in Nazareth and dwelling among us still. Our study of Scripture informs our sense of who Jesus is and how we are called to respond to his invitation to follow him, but Jesus, not Scripture, is our end. Scripture is inspired and useful, but Jesus is the Truth, and the Way, and the Life.

And furthermore, much as I give thanks for the printing press and the Internet, these media are a mixed blessing in creating the illusion that we can read the Bible in our "prayer closets," in isolation from community. In the ancient world, writing materials were very expensive, so copies of scriptural works were difficult for individuals to obtain, and most Christians would have been unable to read anyway. As a result, the early Christians studied Scripture in community, pooling resources to obtain copies of books and reading them aloud together, in community.

In a context like that, it's easier to follow 2 Timothy's counsel, which I'd say doesn't start with verse 14 (where our lectionary picks it up), but in verse 10, in which the author counsels us to learn not only from Scripture, but from Paul’s life -- his conduct, his aim, his faith, his patience, his love, and his steadfastly holding to a response of love even when persecuted. If we want to know how Paul read the Scriptures, we should look at how he responded to God’s call in his life, and specifically his life in community.

When I think about those moments of conversion in my own life in which Scripture was key, it becomes clear that the presence of the Spirit that made conversion possible was mediated not solely by my reading Scripture on my own, but also (and in some ways, perhaps more importantly) by the example of others in community. I love studying Scripture, and if I may paraphrase St. Paul, I thank God that I have opportunity to do it more than most people. I commend intensive study of the scriptures at every opportunity to all; there's nothing more useful for those of us with the hubris to serve as teachers.

It's useful. I'd say it's necessary, if we're to be proficient, equipping God's people for every good work. But it's not sufficient. There's something else we need, something that 2 Timothy 3:10-11 hints at, and that I draw from our Hebrew Bible and our gospel reading for this Sunday. We need contact. We need community.

Not that community is all hearts and flowers and happiness. All communities go through conflict, and conflict isn't fun. But conflict in community isn't a distraction from the spiritual; it is a place in which we can encounter God, find blessing, and experience conversion. In Genesis 32:3-30, Jacob is in the midst of a feud with his brother that's serious stuff -- he believes that his brother may be coming to kill him and his entire family, "the mothers with the children," as verse 11 (omitted in the lectionary) says. And that's where God shows up. Even Jacob's encounter with God isn't exactly lovey-dovey; it's an all-night smackdown that ends with Jacob dislocating his hip. But Jacob holds on to his opponent, saying, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me" (verse 26), and Jacob leaves blessed by God, empowered to reconcile with his brother Esau.

As in our Hebrew Bible reading, the parable from this Sunday's gospel starts with seemingly irreconcilable differences, as a widow seeks justice from a judge whom the text explicitly says neither fears God nor respects anyone. But she won't let go; no matter how many times the judge dismisses her, she keeps coming back. She won't let the matter drop until she sees justice. At the end of the story, we might be tempted to say that the widow wins and the judge loses, but I think that's a misleading statement. The widow won her case, but the judge got a gift even more valuable; he received the gift of conversion.

When the widow wrung the verdict she sought from the judge, her efforts turned the judge from a man of injustice to a man who does justice. The man who at the story's beginning is identified only as an unjust judge who respects no one, having done justice and listened to the widow, will need a new name, just as Jacob received a new name. The widow reminds me of Desmond Tutu, calling in the darkest days of apartheid to the soldiers who threatened him, saying "It's not too late! You can still join the winning side!" Like Tutu, the widow refuses to demonize her oppressor, to treat him as if he were the evil man everyone -- including the narrative voice in the text -- says he is. So the widow wins, and the judge joins the winning side.

Desmond Tutu and the widow alike contended for justice unyieldingly, but in a way that left open the possibility for reconciliation. They contended in the tradition of Jacob, now called Israel, the one who wrestles with God and men. And Israel, the ones who contend, is from then on the name given to God’s people. It’s our name, as God calls us not to easy answers, but to wrestling, to contention.

Tomorrow, the Lambeth Commission chaired by Archbishop Robin Eames issues its recommendations – recommendations which some are saying, or even hoping, will be the end of communion, a definitive break in fellowship. They won't be. They won’t be not only because of the facts of our polity, because any recommendations issued by the commission will have to go to the primates' meeting, and then to the Anglican Consultative Counsel. That's also true because God’s call to us is still to wrestle – with God, with Scripture, and even with one another. And there are too many of us who will not let go. On the commission and off it, from cathedral thrones to parish pews and in the streets, there are too many of us who will refuse to go away until justice is done -- for African children in danger of dying of malaria for want of a $2.50 net, for martyrs who put their lives on the line every day for human rights, for those tortured in Abu Ghraib or in Cook County Jail in Chicago. There are too many of God’s people who won't let go until our wrestling partners and angels -- we refuse to respond to them as enemies or demons -- become sources of blessing and justice. And then there is God – our loving, gracious God who will contend with us, and who won’t let go until each of us have received the new name and the blessing God promises.

Thanks be to God!

October 17, 2004 in Luke, Ordinary Time | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

September 19, 2004

"Unjustly Forgiven" - September 19, 2004

Unjustly Forgiven
Sarah Dylan Breuer, Director of Christian Formation
St. Martin’s-in-the-Field Episcopal Church, Severna Park, Maryland
September 19, 2004; Proper 20, Year C
Amos 8:4-7; Psalm 138; Luke 16:1-13

The parable in today’s gospel has a reputation for being one of the most difficult to understand in Jesus’ ministry. But after spending the better part of two years studying it for my master’s thesis, I came to the conclusion that it’s not as obscure as it might seem, once we get over our resistance to the most obvious interpretation. I’m convinced that the most obvious interpretation comes from looking at precisely what it is that the steward in the parable does, shocking as it is.

In fairly straightforward terms, here’s the plot of the parable:

A very, very rich man lives in a big city (a city like Jerusalem), with a lifestyle of luxury made possible from the income of the estate he owns in the countryside. He’s hired a manager (ot steward) to run it while he parties in Jerusalem, and all of the work of planting and harvesting is done by peasants whose grandparents might have owned the land, had they not lost it in payment on a debt. So now the peasants work the land as tenant farmers, buying what they need from the company store (at prices far above what their grandparents paid for the same goods), with whatever is left over after they pay their exorbitant rent to the landowner. The harvest is never quite enough to pay the rent plus what each family needs, so the family is slipping further and further into debt, working harder and harder to pay what can't be paid – there’s just no way to pay the kind of large debts that accrued under that system of tenant farming. The immediate face of this system is that of the steward -- someone who might have come from the same families as the people who now suffer under his management, but who managed somehow to get the education needed to keep records and to lose the backbone needed to refuse to participate in something so clearly unjust.

At the very beginning of the parable, the landowner fires the steward because of rumors that the steward was squandering the landowner's resources (and “squandering” isn’t necessarily a bad word here – the sower in another of Jesus’ parables squanders seed by tossing it on roads and in bird-feeding zones, and the shepherd in last week’s parable potentially squanders the ninety-nine sheep by running after one lost sheep). So, having been fired, the steward is no longer authorized to do anything at all in the master’s name. The farmers from whom the steward probably came aren’t about to take him in either, given that up until now he’s allied himself with the landowner by taking a job that involves collecting exorbitant rents, running the company store, and generally dealing unjustly with the farmers. That kind of behavior is why the steward is called “the steward of unrighteousness” in verse 8.

So what does the steward do? Something extraordinarily clever. He gathers all of the farmers who owe the landowner money, and he tells them that their debts have been reduced from the rough equivalent of “a million bazillion kajillion dollars” to something that maybe could be repaid, (maybe) freeing the family to make choices about next steps. With quirks of how records were kept, the steward’s creative accounting involves a few subtle strokes of the (forger’s) pen – much like what students do in changing a handwritten ‘D’ to a ‘B’ on a report card, or in a crooked accountant’s deletion of a zero or two from the records.

The farmers think that the steward is still acting with the master’s authority in all of this; the steward doesn’t tell the farmers that he was fired any more than he tells them that the landowner didn’t authorize any of this generosity. The result is that the farmers believe the landowner is more generous than just about anyone else in his position would be. The landowner is now a hero in the farmers’ eyes – and the steward, by extension, is also.

The landowner comes for his customary visit to pick up the wealth the steward has collected for him, and he gets a surprise that is both exhilarating and challenging:

The streets for miles before he reaches the estate are lined by cheering farmers. They’re shouting his name, telling him he’s a hero.

One of his loyal servants at the estate house breaks the news to him that his ex-steward has told the farmers that the landowner forgave their debts. Now he has a choice to make.

The landowner can go outside to the assembled crowd – the people shouting blessings upon him and all his family – and tell them that it was all a terrible mistake, that the steward’s generosity was an act of crookedness (or unrighteousness, depending on your perspective) and won’t hold water legally. The cheering will turn to boos … and I wouldn’t want to be the landowner then.

Alternatively, the landowner can go outside and take in the cheering of the crowd. He can take credit for the steward's actions, in which case he’ll continue to take in the acclaim of the farmers  – but remember that the steward was the bearer of that good news. If the landowner wants to keep the crowd’s favor, he’ll have to take the steward back. Mistreat the steward, who brought such good news of the lord’s generous forgiveness, and the crowd might turn on him.

That’s quite a bind the steward has put the landowner in. I don’t doubt what a sane person in the landowner's situation would do in such circumstances, but either way, the steward goes from scab and scumbag to hero. When the steward retires, the farmers who formerly resented him will gladly take him in, if the landowner won’t.

So we know why the steward does what he did, and we know why the landowner did what he did. Here’s the big problem, for most commentators:

Why is Jesus telling this story? Commentators can argue about who exactly is commending the steward in verse 8, when Luke says, “And his master commended the dishonest manager because he acted shrewdly.” The Greek is ambiguous. It says <i>ho kurios</i>, “the lord” or “the master,” commended him, and that could mean either Jesus or the landowner. But even if you say it was the landowner in the story who commended the steward, you still have to wonder why Jesus told this story, unless Jesus meant to suggest that the dishonest steward in some way had something to teach us.

And make no mistake: What the steward does is clearly dishonest. From a capitalist perspective, he’s guilty of all charges, of taking the landlord’s property and squandering it. It was the reason he was fired in the first place, and it’s what he does after he’s fired and therefore is no longer authorized to do anything, let alone alter bills, in the landowner’s name.

Most commentators who are looking for the point of the parable come up with something like this:

“The steward is confronted with a crisis, and he acts decisively. Jesus is saying that the inbreaking of the kingdom of God calls upon us all to act decisively.”

No offense to commentators, but that rings hollow for me. What’s the crisis or decision? And what about the direction of the decisive decision is commendable? After all, if the story had gone something like, “There was a rich man who had a steward and fired him, so the steward decisively concluded that he should form a boy band and inaugurate a tour of Galilee and Judea,” we probably wouldn’t get quite the same point.

So here’s the big question that I haven’t seen commentators in print ask:

Q: What, precisely, is it that the steward does, albeit without authorization and with deception?

A: The steward forgives debts.

The steward forgives. He forgives things that he had no right to forgive. He forgives for all the wrong reasons, for personal gain and to compensate for past misconduct. But that’s the decisive action that he undertakes to redeem himself from a difficult position, one in which it seem he couldn’t be reconciled,either&nbsp; to the landowner or to the farmers.

So what’s the moral of this story, one of the stories unique to Luke?

It’s a moral of great emphasis for Luke: FORGIVE. Forgive it all. Forgive it now. Forgive it for any reason you want, or for no reason at all.

Remember, Luke’s version of the “Lord's Prayer” includes the helpful category confusion, “forgive us our sins as we forgive the monetary debts (it’s clear in the Greek) our debtors” (Luke 11:4). I could point to at least a dozen moments off the cuff at which Luke raises this point: the arrival of the kingdom of God is no occasion for score-keeping of any kind, whether monetary or moral.

Why forgive? For a specific example, why forgive the debts of debtor nations? In America, we could get involved in the efforts of groups like Episcopalians for Global Reconciliation to forgive the debts of developing countries and invest in their welfare for the reason that Bono, U2’s lead singer, cited in his recent appearance on the <i>O'Reilly Factor</i>: to raise or maintain the value of the American brand, letting the rest of the world associate “USA” with health and freedom. Or we could do it because of what Jesus said about forgiving debts. Or we could do it because we think leprechauns will then lead us to the land of eternal youth. To paraphrase Nike’s best-known ad campaign, we could just do it.

Or for another example, why forgive someone who’s sinned against us, or against our sense of what is obviously right? We don’t have to do it out of love for the other person, if we’re not there yet. We could forgive the other person because of that whole business of what we pray in Jesus’ name every Sunday morning, namely, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us,” and because we know we’d like forgiveness ourselves.

Or we could forgive because we’ve experienced what we’re like as unforgiving people, and so we know that refusing to forgive because we don’t want the other person to benefit is, as the saying goes, like eating rat poison hoping it will hurt the rat. We could forgive because we are, or we want to be, deeply in touch with a sense of Jesus’ power to forgive and free sinners like us. Or we could forgive because we think it will improve our odds of winning the lottery.

It boils down to the same thing: deluded or sane, selfish or unselfish, there is no bad reason to forgive. Extending the kind of grace God shows us in every possible arena – financial and moral – can only put us more deeply in touch with God’s grace.

Pretty much every Sunday morning at St. Martin’s, either Tricia or John puts on a stole and stands in front of us doing something rather like what the “unjust steward” in today’s gospel does: declare our debts, whether debts owed to God or to another human being – forgiven. Only they don’t just declare the debt reduced … they declare it erased. Gone. In most cases, they’re not declaring forgiveness of things specifically owed to them. What gives them the right?

Today’s gospel says that Jesus gives them the right. Jesus gives US the right. And furthermore, Jesus’ example gives us the obligation – or, if you prefer, the freedom. Jesus gives a good reason to remain in fellowship (or “in communion,” if you want a more technical term). Jesus gives us a good reason to be gracious. Jesus gives us a good reason to give up any and all scorekeeping.

For what reason? For the good of our soul, because of our of our own sense of being forgiven, for any reason at all. Pick any reason! It doesn’t matter. If a guy who was a scab and a scalywag can forgive to save his job or give himself a safety net after he’s been fired, we who have experienced real grace – grace from Jesus, grace in this community – have much better reason to forgive. We’ve got more important things than scorekeeping to think about and act on. We’ve got a mission, and a mission given to us from God. We’ve got the work God has given us to do, to love and serve Him, with gladness and singleness of heart, through Christ our Lord. The time has come to just do it.

Amen, and thanks be to God!

September 19, 2004 in Amos, Forgiveness, Justice, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Ordinary Time, Parables, Year C | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

August 29, 2004

"Kenosis for Beginners" - August 29, 2004

Kenosis for Beginners
Sarah Dylan Breuer, Director of Christian Formation
St. Martin’s-in-the-Field Episcopal Church, Severna Park, MD

Proper 17, Year C; August 29, 2004
Ecclesiasticus 10:7-18; Psalm 112; Luke 14:1, 7-14

Benjamin Franklin describes in his autobiography a program he designed for self-improvement. He created a table of the various virtues he thought he should cultivate, and tells the story of how he worked on each one in turn. But he tells us that he made one fatal mistake in his plan to become perfect in every virtue. He left humility for last, and by the time he got to it, he was already so near perfection in every other area that humility was impossible.

Franklin told this story with his tongue firmly planted in cheek, but he makes a serious point in the process about spiritual pride. Spiritual pride just might be the deadliest of the Seven Deadly Sins, because it can corrupt even striving to be good and generous and turn it into an occasion for further pride. Fight it successfully for a moment, and you might just find yourself saying inwardly, “Wow ... I’m being really humble. And I’m MUCH more humble than Jean, or for that matter George. Maybe I should teach a class on humility.”

Pride is rife among those of us striving to be good. We don’t have a corner on it, though. Have you ever caught yourself saying, at a time when you felt a deep (and unhealthy!) burden of guilt, “I can’t tell anyone, and I can’t pray – I’m so bad that God can’t forgive me.” That line of thinking sets you and whatever crime you think you’ve committed as being more powerful than God, and “I think I’m more powerful than God” is a statement of supreme hubris – at least as prideful as the person who imagines that her moral superiority places her outside the company of lesser folk.

People at both ends of this pride spectrum, though, have something in common: they’re deeply concerned with boundaries, with what’s right and wrong, with what’s appropriate, with who deserves what, and they have a very hard time seeing anyone – themselves or their neighbors – getting something that’s given outside of those boundaries.

Our gospel for this morning tackles the issue of spiritual pride head-on, and it’s even clearer read in context. Those of you with pew bibles in front of you, feel free to turn to Luke chapter 14 and take a look.

The lectionary has us starting in verse 1 – “On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.” – and then skipping directly to verse 7, with Jesus starting to tell a parable. In doing so, the lectionary leaves out what Luke presents as the occasion for Jesus’ parable: Jesus heals a man with dropsy at the meal, and on the Sabbath. There was no good reason, by respectable people’s reckoning, for Jesus to rush to action. Dropsy is not a condition that’s life-threatening. If Jesus had only been willing to wait twenty-four hours, he could have healed the man without offending anyone. Furthermore, it’s not even clear from the text that the man Jesus healed was an invited guest at the dinner. Luke just says in verse 2 (if I can translate it in a wooden way), “And behold, there was a man with dropsy in front of him.” There’s another good reason to ask the man to come back tomorrow. Why reward his rudeness in disturbing the invited guests during the meal? Furthermore, Leviticus 13 suggests that someone with dropsy was impure, and his presence in the midst of the meal could make the whole meal impure and inedible. So, by rushing to heal the man there and then, Jesus was ‘dissing’ his hosts and the other invited guests, ignoring Leviticus, and violating the holiness of the Sabbath. What could possibly be so urgent that Jesus had to act immediately?

But that’s not how Jesus thinks. When presented with human need, Jesus doesn't ask, “Is there any compelling reason to act now?” In fact, he doesn’t ask any questions at all until after he’s acted, and even then, he doesn’t make much of an effort to soothe the wounded pride of those offended. Instead, he tells a parable that would offend the proud even more. He talks about guests who see themselves as deserving the most recognition being sent in disgrace to the lowest seat, while the lowliest are given the place of honor. He commands his followers to ignore friends and family members who deserve to be invited to the feast so that their invitations can be given to the poor and outcast.

But Jesus doesn’t only provide healing for the man with dropsy; he also points the way to a cure – perhaps the only cure – for spiritual pride. Try to fight pride internally, by trying to feel differently by sheer willpower, and we’ll just end up taking more pride in our efforts to be humble. So what’s the way out? Jesus tells the proud (and who among us couldn’t be counted in that number?) to focus not on ourselves and what we do or don’t deserve in comparison to others, but rather to look actively for opportunities to yield honor and advantage to others, deserving or not. Such opportunities are at least as plentiful as are opportunities to indulge pride, but it takes a lot of psychological and spiritual ‘rewiring’ for most of us to take them, meaning that most of us (including me) need a lot of practice. So here are a few concrete ways we could try to be intentional in that practice of yielding advantage to someone else without consideration for pride of place:

When driving, especially in rush hour or in particularly nasty traffic, take that instinct (finely honed in most experienced commuters!) to look for the fastest-moving lane and cut into it by any means necessary, and use those instincts to look for opportunities to make the drive easier, faster, and less stressful for someone else. The person who just really enraged you by driving by you on the shoulder and then trying to cut back into the lane would be a particularly good person to practice with: the point is not to try to reward another nice driver, but to give up the position of judging who deserves to be let in ahead of you. Pick one day a month or one day a week to try it until you get to a point where you actually prefer driving this way.

Maybe you don't drive. Here's something that we all (including, or maybe even especially young people in school) have opportunities to do: practice looking around you for the person you think has, for whatever reason, the most cause to be ashamed, and then look for opportunities to say or do something that makes this person feel genuinely honored and appreciated.

And here’s a third area in which many of us have an opportunity to yield our advantage to another. Those of us who have the right to vote have a particular responsibility to use our power the way Jesus used his – to others’ advantage, and especially to the advantage of the poor, the sick, and the marginalized. Christians can and do disagree in good conscience about what specific candidates and laws will most benefit the poor. But as Christians, we can’t ignore the poor. And here’s something else we can’t ignore – there are a lot more of them then there used to be. The Census Bureau reported this week that just last year, 1.3 million MORE people slipped below the poverty line in the U.S., and child poverty is now the highest it’s been in ten years. At the same time, the nationwide average of household incomes adjusted for inflation remained fairly constant. That means that the rich are getting richer while the poor get poorer. Ignore that, and we build the kingdom described in this morning’s reading from Ecclesiasticus: “Sovereignty passes from nation to nation / on account of injustice, and insolence, and wealth.” But Ecclesiasticus also says “human beings were not made for pride.” We have a choice, and we have the power – if we vote prayerfully and after much study – to build the kingdom Jesus describes, God’s kingdom, in which those who suffered poverty and disease are given first place at the feast, not whatever leftovers there are from our daily feasting.

Every opportunity we take to focus on how we can seek others’ advantage will undermine something that I think does a great deal to build and exacerbate pride: the twinned convictions that there are only so many good things – only so much honor, love, and justice – to go around, and that it’s very important to see that only the deserving get them. As a dear friend from my college days would have said, “that’s a lie from the pit of hell.” God made a world in which there’s more than enough of every good thing to go around, if we share it freely. And God did not make us for pride, or for the anxiety that accompanies it. We are made in the image of a God who lived in flesh among us as

a baby born out of wedlock,
a homeless wanderer,
a friend to prostitutes,
a convicted criminal.

He died with no honor on earth – and he was raised to all honor heaven could bestow. But his story does not end in heaven. He taught us to pray that his kingdom come and his will be done ON EARTH as it is in heaven. That prayer is not a tease or a bait-and-switch – God is faithful to answer prayer. His kingdom is coming – ON EARTH, as it is in heaven. God challenges and invites us to confess and pray that not just with our lips, but with our lives, not just in our churches and our homes, but in and for the whole world. In the sum of thousands of thousands of small actions and inactions, we invite the outcast to their feast or follow the proud to our shame. Either way, God’s invitation to us stands – to follow the outcast into God’s kingdom, where anxiety and sorrow fall away with pride and envy, where love and faithfulness meet, and justice and peace kiss (Psalm 85:10).

Thanks be to God!

August 29, 2004 in Luke, Ordinary Time | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 08, 2004

"Buying Freedom" - August 8, 2004

August 8, 2004; Proper 14, Year C
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; Luke 12:32-40

"Follow your heart." In pop culture -- especially in romantic comedies -- it's presented as the ultimate wisdom, the ultimate goal. And then the words "my heart's just not in it" are the ultimate conversation-ender, the big 'STOP' sign for any course of action. There's a certain kind of wisdom to that line of thinking, too. As Paul writes in Galatians 5, the fruit of the Spirit includes love, joy, and peace, as well as patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, and if those things aren't present over time in a course of action that we've chosen, that's a pretty good indication that the Spirit may be calling us in a different direction. That's why Frederick Buechner defines vocation -- the direction God calls us -- as the place where our deep joys and the world's deep needs meet.

But sometimes when we say things like "my heart's not in it," what we're saying is something like "my heart's torn" between multiple and conflicting desires. I want to be a good provider for my family, so I work hard and long at my job -- but I also want my family to have quality time together. I want to invest more time and energy in deepening my relationship with God, but at the end of a long day, I just want to turn on the television and order out for pizza. I want to feel closer to other people, but I want not to risk being hurt. So I have a hard time deciding to pass up on that assignment that would help me dazzle my boss. I have a hard time deciding to cut back on other activities and look for some support around church to take up some in-depth Bible study, or to deepen my prayer life. I have a hard time disrupting a routine that feels safe to try something new, like signing up for <i>Connect?</i>. I have a hard time deciding to do those things because with these conflicting desires, I can't do them wholeheartedly.

So that's pretty much it, right? If my heart's not in it to begin with, I'll probably just be miserable if I try to do it. Better just to do what I'm comfortable with now. After all, there's nothing I can do about it if that's how I feel … right?

Today's gospel tells us that there IS something we can do about that, and in the process it points to one of the best and least-discussed reasons for us to exercise stewardship of our money, our time, and our energy the way Jesus does -- with generosity that goes far beyond the bounds of what American culture would tend to see as sensible.

Jesus answers the question, "what can I do if my heart's just not in it?" with his saying, "where your treasure is, there your heart will be." That saying is often misquoted as or misinterpreted to mean the same thing as, "where your heart is, there your treasure will be," but that's not what Jesus says. Let me put it this way: Jesus says that our hearts follow after our treasure like a dog runs after a stick. How we spend our money determines where our heart will be -- what kind of a person we'll be.

In other words, our stewardship is a means of our formation. We have (and should have) a strong self-interest in treating possessions as Jesus teaches us here -- holding them loosely, selling them to take care of the needs of the poor, being generous toward others as God is generous -- because doing so is the best way, if not the only way, to experience that it is God's good pleasure to give the kingdom.

That kind of generosity isn't what most people would call "wise financial planning," it's true. Conventional wisdom holds that a wise person with resources builds up "nest eggs" and "rainy day funds" and works to save as much as possible as a bulwark against the unexpected. Build up those resources, the story goes, and we can prevent most problems from arising, and take care of the few that do come up. Build up those resources, the story goes, and we'll have the freedom to choose a path for ourselves and our families away from crime, disease, disaster, and physical and psychological pain. As Jesus reveals
repeatedly through Luke's gospel, though, that strategy isn't wise, at least according to God's wisdom.

It's not wise, and those of us who are most anxious to get that one more thing -- the "slush fund," the bigger house in the better neighborhood, the promotion, the right number of zeroes in the retirement account -- so we can finally be secure and at peace are the ones who have the most to gain from giving our "nest eggs" and our "rainy day funds" to the poor. One reason is we already know in our heart of hearts, and some here know from experience: there is no slush fund large enough to send away or compensate for some things that can and do happen in this world. As long as we rely on our own diligence and what we've accumulated for security, we will never be free from fear; we know too well in our heart of hearts that there are
innumerable things in the world that we can't control, no matter how much money we've got. If we wait to be generous until we feel we can afford it, we might wait forever in fear.

The flip side of that, though, is that when we can let go of these things that we've worked so hard for because we thought they could give us security, we'll discover what really IS secure in this life, what is rock solid through all the changes and chances life has to offer: that it is the pleasure of the King of the Universe to give his kingdom away -- and specifically to give it to you. You are God's beloved child, co-heir with Christ, and while there's nothing in this life that can take that away, there are all kinds of things we can grab for to insulate us from really experiencing it. It is God's good pleasure to give us the kingdom, the fruit of the Spirit in abundance. Everything in this life we grab for as a way to try to do what God already has done and is doing for us is going to put us that much further from experiencing that fundamental truth, the one thing that matters. Let go, and we'll finally be able to receive Jesus' word at the opening of this passage: "Do not be afraid."

Don't be afraid??? Easy to say, but hard to do when your heart's not in it, when it's torn between trusting God -- trusting that these crazy things Jesus says really will yield the fruit of the Spirit -- and trusting what our culture says about who is really secure and how they get that way. The solution Jesus advocates is stepping forward in faith, giving our treasure to the poor and knowing our heart will follow.

This is not a "prosperity gospel" that says if you invest your treasure where God's heart is -- in extending God's justice and mercy among the poor -- you'll get that promotion you wanted, and have more money than before. This is an identity gospel -- we choose to behave as children of our Father, whose role model is Jesus, because of who we are, and our hearts follow. We take that step that the world says is foolishness, and we experience, as a result of that trust, not only deeper intimacy with God, but also real love in community. When we're all living into God's generosity, we find that when we do have needs, we're part of a family of sisters and brothers in Christ who KNOW who they are, and will express their ties with you as children of one Father by taking care of one another as family do. Trust begets trust; generosity births generosity.

That's why the gospel for this morning is read alongside the story of Abraham and the words of the Letter to the Hebrews on Abraham's faith. "Faith," or pistis in Greek, doesn't mean intellectual assent to a proposition; it means something more like "trust" or "allegiance." It's not about what we usually call "belief" so much as it's about relationship. Having faith is not about trying to convince yourself that you are convinced of something. You don't know you have enough faith when the needle stays steady on a lie-detector test as you say, "My journey will birth a people, and we will have a home." You know
you've got faith when, however your heart pounds as you do it and whatever fears you have, you take the next step forward into the desert. Your heart will follow your feet, and you will become more fully the person God sees as your true identity.

Today's gospel challenges us to let our heart follow our feet -- transforming us into people wholeheartedly following ALL of Jesus' message and experiencing ALL of the freedom that is ours in Christ -- in every way that God has given us something of value. Do your check register and your credit card records tell the truth of who you are in Christ and what's most important to you as a Christian? Today's gospel invites us to sit down as a family or with a trusted friend to see where our spending over the last month shows we're telling our heart to go. And how about something that's even more and valuable than money for many of us -- how about our time?&nbsp; What does our appointment book from the last month show about where we're telling our heart to go? Today's gospel invites us to sit down as a family or with a trusted friend to take a hard look at that too.

And I mean a HARD look. If someone had complete access to your financial records, what would they say about who you are, or about who Jesus is? If someone had complete access to records of how you spend your time, what would those records say about who you are, and who your Lord is?

All of those messages we grew up with and are bombarded with every day create such a din that it takes a lot of intentional seeking to hear beyond them. Breathe, and listen to what your heart of hearts -- the part of you longing wholeheartedly for peace, and love, and joy, the fruit of the Spirit -- says. Our televisions say that our children want toys and snack foods. Social pressure says they must go to the right college, get the right degree and the right job. What do our lives, our checkbooks and our appointment books, say that children of God want and need? Our children are listening. Our hearts are listening -- and will run in whatever direction we put our treasure.

It's Jesus' word to the spiritually wise.

Thanks be to God!

August 8, 2004 in Luke, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Ordinary Time | Permalink | Comments (0)

June 13, 2004

"The Truth IS Reconciliation" - June 13, 2004

Proper 6, Year C; June 13, 2004
Galatians 2:11-21; Psalm 32:1-8; Luke 7:36-50

When I lived in Scotland, I had a job that gave me the most vivid image I have of what the kingdom of God looks like.

It was the Cornerstone Café. The Cornerstone was a business started by Brother Basil, a Franciscan monk, who wanted to see what would happen in a business that really took seriously Jesus' more radical demands. Among other things, this meant that the Cornerstone had a policy that was very unusual in a profitable restaurant -- and the Cornerstone WAS profitable. When I worked there, I used to explain the policy this way to new employees:

"We have two kinds of customers: paying customers and non-paying customers. Give customers whatever they order, whether or not you think they plan to pay for it. Treat all customers alike."

The policy attracted quite a few homeless people as regular customers. Another policy attracted a different set of customers: there was always an excellent, hearty, complete, and healthy meal on the menu that could be bought for two British pounds or less -- the equivalent of about $3.50 or so at the time. That policy attracted all kinds of backpackers from all over the world who were trying to see the city on the cheap, and it also brought in a lot of low-wage clerks and cleaners from the many shops and offices nearby.

The Cornerstone's location brought in a third set of customers. The café was in what used to be the crypt of St. John's Episcopal Church, which is right in the middle of the prestigious city center -- right across the street from the Royal Bank of Scotland, and a block or so from the Scottish government headquarters in Charlotte Square. As a result, the Cornerstone was the best place for bank executives and government officials to get a delicious lunch on a tight schedule.

The free meals, the good prices, the location -- these are the rational explanations for how we all came together there, but I think there was something more too -- the spirit of a place built with Jesus at the center -- that did it. So all of these kinds of people, from the richest to the poorest, and from New York to New Guinea, were regulars for lunch at the Cornerstone. And all seating in the café was at very long tables and benches, like you'd find in a monastery dining hall, so it was impossible to isolate yourself at a table. A busy weekday would find every table packed, with all kinds of people sitting next to one another. You could look down a bench and see how they were seated -- banker, homeless, bureaucrat, student, ambassador, homeless, janitor, banker, backpacker … all gathered because the feast was there.

The sight of all of these people gathered at a table that honored all equally -- rich and poor, powerful and marginalized, and folks from all kinds of cultures and languages -- that's something I recall when I try to imagine what the kingdom is God is like, when I try to imagine the vast crowd from every nation gathered at the climax of history to cry "Holy! Holy! Holy!"

I know a lot of us have similar images from times we stepped out of our comfort zones, and into a place where we experienced the Body of Christ more fully because of the diversity of those gathered with us. We've seen it at the Winter Shelter, breaking bread with the homeless. We've seen it with the people of La Resurrection. It's not impossible -- it's what we were created for. But it's a rare thing for most of us to see that kind of community, isn't it?

It's rare because we have a natural human need to feel understood, to be with people who speak our language, get our jokes, understand our priorities. We like to be with people for whom some things "go without saying" -- there are some things everyone just understands. So when we have a choice, we get together with "people like us."

It's only natural. In a lot of ways, it's how we order our world. It's not just about whom we invite over for dinner, or for a day on the water -- though it's definitely about that. But this is a culture in which we value the freedom to choose -- perhaps above all else. We use our money and our power -- and in this community, we have a great deal of both -- to increase our spectrum of choices in more and more areas of life.

So now we don't just choose our friends. When we can, we choose our employers. But we don't necessarily want to live where we work, so to the extent we can afford it -- and for a lot of us, that's a very great extent -- we choose our neighbors.

As a result, segregation isn't a thing of the past. Many of us have the money and power to choose with whom we're in community, who is our neighbor, and we choose to live with people like us. We want to fit in with our neighbors, and we want them to fit in with us. It's only natural. Our kids go to school with the kids of people like us. They want to fit in too. And that's only natural. In party politics and church politics too, we look for opportunities to get together with people like us, and that can bring increasing polarization. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and the extremes of just about any spectrum seem headed further and further away from each other. Is that what the world is like -- like centrifugal force, with everything spinning around in a way that pushes us further and further away from the center?

It looks that way sometimes -- but appearances can be deceptive. We see the truth of what the world is like -- the truth of who made the world and what for, and where it's headed -- in places like the Cornerstone Café, and the Winter Shelter, and La Resurrection -- in places where we're brought together by something that runs deeper than our differences, by our shared hunger for something more. It happens in places like St. Martin's.

It happens especially in places like St. Martin's, specifically because of the friction we experience, challenging though it can be sometimes. I thought of that friction when I read the epistle for today, from Galatians 2. We're tempted to think of the early church as a place where everybody agreed on everything, where everyone spoke the same language. But they didn't. They were from different cultures, and they had some very different ideas about how God wanted them to live in community. Sometimes, the conflicts in churches that Paul founded got so serious, and so seriously nasty, that Paul had to say, as he does in 1 Corinthians 11, "if you're going to behave this way at the Eucharist, you may as well stay home and eat there." And I'm not talking about conflicts between heretics and true believers; I'm talking about conflicts between good people who sincerely think they're doing right, and sincerely think the other person is very wrong. I'm talking about conflicts like the one between St. Peter (called "Cephas," "the rock," in the reading) and St. Paul. We get Paul's side of the story in Galatians 2, but I'd be willing to bet Peter would tell a different version. Hearing only one side of the story -- and generally being a bit of a Paul fanatic anyway -- I'm inclined to say that Paul sounds like he's making all the right points.

But who sounds right when you have only one side of the story is beside the point. If their views were contradictory, whom would you want to kick out of the church -- Peter or Paul? Who wants to host the "apostolic smackdown," the reality show that eliminates disciples one by one as they make mistakes? These quirky, cranky, deeply flawed guys are rightly called heroes of the faith -- and I call them that not because they were always right, but because they lived in their relationship with one another what we as Christians believe the world God made, the world God loves and sent his Son to redeem, is really like.

God's world is not a galaxy of bodies spinning further and further away from a dying star, because God -- the living Creator, the Redeemer who rose from the dead, and the Spirit who breathes life through Creation -- is alive, and is at the center of it all.

If I may use a more mundane image, the world is more like a washing machine. It's always in motion, which can be dizzying at times, but the truth is that at the very center is God the Agitator -- living and moving and active, drawing what's at the margins in toward the center and what's in the center out to the margins. There's a lot of friction in that process. That's how laundry is transformed.

We need one another in that process. We need every Peter and Paul -- and the Marys as well. Wherever you are on your journey of faith, we need the truth of your testimony. As the old song goes, "if you cannot preach like Peter, if you cannot pray like Paul, you can tell the love of Jesus, who died to save us ALL." Because we were not set in community to agree with one another, but to love and forgive one another, that we might serve as agents of reconciliation for the world. The more different kinds of members gather as the Body of Christ, the more fully we are equipped as a community to show the world who Christ is.

We have a chance to do that -- to participate actively as agents of God's reconciliation -- every time we exchange the Peace, and every time we gather around the Eucharistic table. When we do that, we experience God's reconciling love.

We have a chance to do that in places like the BRIDGE meeting this Thursday evening, where hundreds people of faith from all over Anne Arundel County will talk about a policy that, like the policies Brother Basil established to put Jesus at the center of the Cornerstone Café, can make this county a place where all of those who offer their gifts to the community -- teachers and police officers and others who make our community work -- can afford to live here themselves. We can choose to make our set of neighbors look more like the set of those whom God loves. When we do that, we have a chance to glimpse God's justice, which is "the corporate face of God's love."1 When we glimpse God's justice and God's love, we experience those moments of transcendent wonder, the kind that makes us want to shout "Holy! Holy! Holy!"

Our community is not a dinner party, where someone coming in to the feast who doesn't fit our idea of "people like us" is seen an unwelcome interruption. We worship a God who welcomes the stranger. We know we're due for a fresh demonstration of the kind of extravagant love we see when we view no one as beyond the boundaries of God's love, no one as unwelcome within the boundaries of our communities, and no one as uninvited to the Eucharistic feast.

Thanks be to God!

June 13, 2004 in Luke, Ordinary Time | Permalink | Comments (0)

September 14, 2003

"Wrestling with God in Grief" - September 14, 2003

Proper 19, Year C
Isaiah 50:4-9; Psalm 116:1-8; Mark 8:27-38

When I was a child, I loved the book Horton Hears a Who. I knew every word on every page, from the dedication to the very end of the story, and I think that’s why I loved it so much. Every now and then, my mother (who I think could recite the book from memory to this day) would try to shorten the story, or she might have changed something to see whether I was still awake, and whenever she deviated from the story I knew and loved, she got a sternest reprimand a child could muster.

Peter grew up with stories too, and chief among them was the epic story of Israel’s relationship with God. Peter knew stories about high priests, anointed to offer pure sacrifices, to restore and keep a Temple according to God’s word, which had been received by Moses and passed down the generations to the present. He knew stories about kings anointed by God to rule justly and lead Israel to victory in battle over her enemies.

And Peter knew that where Israel was in his own lifetime was not where it was supposed to be – but this too was part of the story. Israel, and particularly kings and priests, do go astray. And then God sends prophets. That’s what happens in the middle of the story. But that doesn’t go on forever – there’s an end to the story, and here’s how it goes. God is going to anoint the kind of high priest we’ve always wanted – one who will establish a line of priests that won’t go astray – not ever. And God is going to anoint the kind of king we’ve always wanted – a king like David, only without that regrettable weakness for adultery and murder. A king anointed by God to take the Holy Land of Israel for the people of Israel. And the story ends with that anointed king and his sons ruling from Jerusalem forever, while that anointed high priest offers sacrifices the way they’re supposed to be offered.

That’s the story Peter knew. And while he had heard it ever since he was a child, it wasn’t just a children’s story. People had fought and died for this story. Peter himself had left his family, his village, and everything he had because he was convinced that Jesus was more than a prophet to try to move the story along – that Jesus was a messiah – that’s the Hebrew word – or a Christ – that’s the Greek word for the same thing – both mean “anointed.” Peter thought that Jesus was anointed to wrap this story up, to bring in that long-anticipated ending – the end that the prophets told, the end where God’s justice is the law of the land, where everyone who lost their livelihood, their friends, their family, or their lives would be paid back in full, in joy.

Or let me put it in Lord of the Rings terms: Peter might have been wondering whether Jesus was anointed as the wise priest, like Gandalf, or the true king, like Aragorn, but Peter thought that this was the last volume in the trilogy, Return of the King – the final chapter of Israel’s saga, the final defeat of evil, the final vindication of the long-suffering good guys, the happy forever after. That’s what Peter is saying when he tells Jesus that he is Christ, the anointed.

And then Jesus burns the script. Our translation says he “sternly ordered” his followers not to proclaim him as anointed. The English loses some of the force of the Greek, which in effect has Jesus saying, “SHUT UP – that’s enough of that kind of talk.” Jesus is not willing to cast himself in the role that others have for him.

Now the story we’re most familiar with here is the one from the Gospel of Mark, not the story of the conquering messiah with which Peter grew up, so it’s not always easy for us to sympathize with Peter. But I want to take a moment today to connect with where Peter is in today’s reading.

We’ve read the end of the book. We know Jesus is right. But right here, right now, Peter doesn’t know that. I’m not sure he’d feel much better if he did know that. He’s disappointed. More than that – he’s got to be hurt, and confused, and angry. He gave up everything he had to follow this man, and right now, he’s got to be feeling that Jesus was leading him on. I can hear him thinking: It’s not supposed to be this way!  You know, you do everything right – OK, not everything, but what more could I do? You said you were ushering in the KINGDOM OF GOD, and now you’re saying that we’re headed for suffering, death, and disgrace. And yes, I said ‘we’ – what do you think will happen to us if that’s where you’re headed?

Peter was angry – at least as angry as Jesus was – with the kind of anger that comes from losing something that matters. And I know that feeling. I’ve felt that way about my brother’s death in 1996. He was two years older than me, and that year he was 28. He was handsome and charming – a bit of an underachiever, floundering a bit like a lot of us do in our twenties – but he had the rest of his life to get it together, to get married, have kids … he was going to be a writer, but I always thought he would end up in politics. That’s how it was supposed to be, anyway. Not all of the details of his story were solid in my mind, but I can tell you that leukemia was not in the plan. And there was no time to make an alternative plan – nobody, including him, had any idea that he was ill until after he’d died. How much sense does that make? Where is God in that?

And here we are, two years after September 11th – the September 11th – and still, when I think about it, and when I’m deeply in touch with how I feel about it, I’m still angry. I’m still grieving. I went to a memorial webpage this week, where I saw row upon row of faces, and I read stories and notes from people who loved those who died, and people who were still asking why. I’m still grieving for them. And I’m grieving for something else – for the loss of that story I knew, the story I told myself was my life, in which violence felt predictable, something I could avoid if I exercised good sense.

I think it feels even worse in a situation like Peter’s, when you feel that you’re in this painful place specifically because you’re following Jesus. I know that there are people in the church who feel that way about the General Convention vote to confirm the election of an openly gay bishop. There’s a real sense of loss, real grief, and real anger coming out of grief. Having experienced that kind of grief and anger myself, I can say that sometimes it just doesn’t help to hear a rational or theological explanation, any more than I found it comforting when someone would say that my brother died because God needed him as an angel, or that God’s plans are always good. It wasn’t comforting. It didn’t diminish grief in the least.

If we are blessed to live long enough, and to love deeply enough, we will at some point experience grief. And if we love and trust God, at some point we’re going to be disappointed and angry with God, as Peter was with Jesus. For me, it hasn’t helped when I’ve been grieving to hear about how God is really right, this is for the best, and I should just get over it. What has helped has been looking at passages like this, or the psalms, or Job, and letting myself do what those grieving people did.

They rebuked God. Maybe they weren’t right, but that’s where they were. They were angry, and they let themselves be angry. And God took it. That’s part of who God is.

And God understands who we are and how we struggle. The name “Israel” comes from when Jacob wrestled with an angel in the book of Genesis. Jacob wrestled with that angel until the sun rose, and he left that encounter with a dislocated hip and a new name – “Israel,” meaning “the one who struggles with God.” And he left with something else – a blessing. “Struggles with God” is the name God gives to God’s people, and God blesses us even as we contend with God. God can take our anger, scary as it might be to let loose with it.

It can be scary to be in touch with being angry with God. It was frightening for us as children to be angry with our parents, for at least two reasons. Children can be so overwhelmed with their experience of anger that they fear it could erupt in a literal way, like a volcano, and annihilate the ones they love. When we experience intense anger even as an adult, it brings up some of those old fears, and we’re tempted to deny or rationalize our anger or to project it someplace else. On top of that, we grew up with parents who were very human – as human as we are – and sometimes they had just as hard a time with anger as we did. Children can see how adults in their lives sometimes pull away when confronted with anger, and they get scared that those adults upon whom they depend to care for them will abandon them if they express anger. Sometimes, we harbor remnants of those fears in our dealings with God. We’re frightened of being angry with God because we know that we need God and God’s love. But God’s love is never at risk. We can rail at God and God won’t run from us, won’t love us any less. When we take the risk of being open with God about our anger, we may find God being open with us about ways we need to grow, but we will also discover that God can and does receive us as we are. Jesus responded to Peter’s rebuke with some hard words of his own, but he stayed in relationship with Peter, demonstrating a constant love and infinite patience Peter could not have found anywhere else – the kind of love and perseverance that would sustain Peter when he was ready to take in what Jesus was saying and take up his own cross. God gives us the love we need in the midst of anger to begin to heal, not ignoring the pain, but staying connected through it.

Healing is what we need, and willingness to acknowledge both the pain we experience with loss and our need to stay connected through it is how the healing starts. If we grasp too quickly for an explanation or a course of action that will resolve everything in painful times, we’re rushing for that final chapter in a way that risks losing our place in the story. And while the details of the story may not all be mapped out, it’s a good story. God is author of our salvation, the story one of redemption, of a love so powerful that it can and will eventually transform the world and everything in it. It’s the story of a loving God who shares our righteous anger, and who receives our childish anger with as much grace as the childlike love we offer. That’s the story we live whenever we can live in the moment we’re in, when our own heights and depths serve to reveal the height and depth of God’s love.

Thanks be to God!

September 14, 2003 in Mark, Ordinary Time, Pastoral Concerns | Permalink | Comments (1)

July 06, 2003

“Listening for the Unlikely Prophet” - July 6, 2003

Proper 9, Year B
Ezekiel 2:1-7; Psalm 123; Mark 6:1-6

I often wish God made discernment a little easier. Let’s face it – sometimes it’s hard to hear God’s voice, and to distinguish it from all of the other voices out there – from ego or culture, internalized parents or personal insecurities. Lauren Winner, in her book Girl Meets God, writes of a friend who liked to say, “I wish God would send a burning bush, but I’d settle for a smoldering houseplant!” Where are those spectacular signs we read about in scripture? And where are the prophets to tell us what God needs for us to hear?

You know the prophets – people like Moses or Jeremiah or John the Baptist. They wear flowing robes or hairshirts, and the really cool ones carry something like a huge staff that will turn into a snake when they throw to the ground. They’ve got huge booming voices, and they say things like, “WOE! WOE TO JERUSALEM!” and “REPENT!” It’s easy to tell them from ordinary people. For example: Charlton Heston at his peak – definite prophet material. Woody Allen – I don’t think so. Or in the Harry Potter universe, there’s magisterial, powerful Albus Dumbledore – clearly a prophet – and clumsy Neville Longbottom – clearly not.

It’s kind of a fun game, “spot the prophet.” I used to play it, albeit not consciously, in my own life, with pretty clear rules. It was very easy to do around the parish I went to a few years ago. The rector, Ed – definite prophet. He’s a big man with a big voice and a big library. Obviously important – people part like the Red Sea in front of him when he strides (prophets stride, don’t you think?) into a room. And then on the other end of the spectrum there was Merv.

Merv never missed one of the bible classes I taught at church. Merv was a sweet, sweet man, to be sure. But the class was usually pretty intense and intellectual, and when he made a comment, he invariably broke up the flow of things with something like, “what this verse says to me is that we really should just love each other – that would take care of everything.” He’d say that even when the verse in question was from one of those passages about some wicked person getting slain in a nasty way and turned into dog food. Merv showed up eagerly every Sunday, though, and was always overflowing with things to say to me that were very kind, albeit a little “Precious Moments.” Merv was retired and liked woodworking – he was missing half a finger, and I assumed that he lost it in some kind of accident with a table saw – and one time I remember he gave me a little wooden rabbit he’d made, on which he’d written, “You’re no-bunny ‘til some-bunny loves you.”

Merv was sweet to the point of being saccharine, and I looked down my nose at him with every ounce of youthful hubris and intellectual pride I could muster – which was a lot. He was just so naïve! It was all well and good for him to talk endlessly about sappy drippy love and how it could overcome everything, but clearly this was a guy who had never gotten out in the world to see real pain, real difficulties that can’t just be wished away with Hallmark platitudes. Here was a guy who had absolutely nothing to teach me. Here was the anti-prophet.

That’s what I thought, anyway. So I wasn’t all that thrilled when Merv joined a small group fellowship I was in – the one thing I was doing where I wasn’t leading and had a chance just to learn from others. I was kind of annoyed. Merv talked a lot sometimes, and I wanted to be hearing from prophets, people who knew stuff I didn’t and could teach me.

And then one night in small group, Merv came in angry. Someone in his senior citizens’ community center was saying that the Holocaust never happened, or was greatly exaggerated. And Merv told us why that made him so angry. He lost his finger fighting in World War II. He took part in the first wave of American land invasions across Europe. And one day, he and his buddies came across an airplane hangar in the countryside, and they went inside to see what was there. Nothing they’d heard about, nothing anyone was talking about at home and nothing in the briefings they got, had prepared them for what they saw. The entire hangar, Merv said, was filled with bodies, stacked nearly to the ceiling in places, all the way across the huge structure. Merv had seen the Holocaust in all its unspeakable and incomprehensible horror before it had a name.

That night, for the first time, I was really LISTENING to Merv, and I was deeply and appropriately ashamed. I had been telling myself that I knew Merv, that I knew enough about him to know that I had nothing to gain from listening to him. I thought I knew that if only he had my intellect, my travels, and my experience, he’d know better than to talk about things the way he did. In my pride, I almost missed one of the most powerful testimonies I’ve ever heard, and probably ever will hear. Far from being naïve, Merv had seen the worst humankind has to offer, and somehow he had come through it with the deepest faith I’ve ever seen in God’s love and in the power that love has to transform our world when we embrace it. He was a spiritual giant, and I sinned grievously against him. Ezekiel’s harsh words to the impudent and stubborn who refuse to hear spoke against me that day.

Merv taught me a great deal on that night and on succeeding weeks, and I thank God for humbling me through him. But perhaps you can understand why it was easy for me to dismiss him before then. Jesus was wise to warn us that prophets aren’t respected in their hometown. It can be hard to LISTEN, to “listen with the ear of your heart,” as the Rule of St. Benedict says, to those we think we know, or to those we think we know enough about to dismiss. It’s tempting in our home town to pick out the people we don’t need to listen to – the ones who are too mousey, too stuck-up, too liberal, too conservative, too gay, too closed-minded, too superficial, too abrasive. It’s hard to think of your child as a prophet, or your parent, or your neighbor. It’s tempting to divide the world into discrete categories: people we can learn from on one hand, and people who need our help, on the other. But we take a terrible risk if we don’t listen, and listen deeply, whenever we can.

There’s a legend about a rabbinic school whose leader was told by an angel that the Messiah would visit them. This rabbi was overjoyed and much encouraged – for years, the school had been withering, with fewer and fewer students, while the ones who were remained became more and more unhappy. But they were going to be honored with a visit from the Messiah! The angel said that the Messiah would be disguised and might already be among them, so the community would need to listen carefully to find out who the blessed visitor was. The rabbi thought long and hard about who it might be, and called others in to ask their opinion of whether it was one of those among them, and if so, who. Students were asked for their thoughts, their stories – everyone was eager to see whether one of them might be the one they were waiting for. Once everyone was listening, it seemed that each one had some gift, some goodness, that would make that person a candidate. Each also had moments of pettiness that raised doubts and kept the community’s eyes peeled for other possible candidates. Someone suggested that it might even be the woman who did the washing for them community, or the cook, or the beggar who asked for help. And the search went on. They never identified who it was, the story goes, but the school grew as it never had before – not only in size, but in joyfulness and prayerfulness and sincere love for each other and for God. The reason was that in the community’s wondering who was the Messiah among them, they became a listening community, a family of brothers and sisters who took time and care to hear each other’s stories, thoughts, and dreams, who treated every person they saw, no matter how humble, as they would treat the wisest teacher, the most honored guest, the Messiah.

St. Martin’s could be this kind of listening community – a community that knows and treasures one another’s stories and eagerly invites others to tell theirs, a community that never assumes we know the whole story, but journeys with one another as the story develops. A community of deep listening is one in which no one need be anxious about being heard, and all of the energy we put into seeking recognition and getting our way is freed up for seeking out and receiving graciously and gratefully all those whose gifts would help us become more fully the Body of Christ, whose stories would help us learn more of the story of God’s redemption of the world.

It takes a substantial investment of time and energy to become a community of deep listening. I’d seen Merv weekly for months without hearing his story. It was only after being in relationship in a small group with him, a group that had covenanted to listen to one another and developed hard-won intimacy, that I got to hear the story I’ll never forget. That’s one reason I hope that many of you will participate in the small groups ministry we’re planning to launch this Fall, that you’ll invest the time and energy it takes to build that kind of community and to share it with others we don’t yet know. We become most fully ourselves, most fully the person God made us to be, in relationship with others. For that reason, we’re not just being generous when we take the time to build relationships in which those powerful and precious stories can be told and heard. When we listen deeply, we can hear Christ’s voice in the stories shared, we can see Christ’s face in the face of our sister or brother. When we listen deeply, we can recognize the hometown prophet in those we are tempted to dismiss because they are too familiar or too strange, because they make us uncomfortable or because we are too comfortable in the relationship as it’s defined to want to go deeper. When we listen deeply to God’s children, we hear the voice of God the Father.

Whether we hear or refuse to hear, as Ezekiel tells us, there is a prophet among us. There’s someone whose story you need to hear for Jesus’ power to be shown in your life, for Jesus to heal you more deeply and free you more fully. I’m not willing to place any bets on who it is; after all, as the church we are living into the vision of the prophet Joel, in which God says,

I will pour out my spirit on ALL flesh;
  your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
  your old men shall dream dreams,
  and your young men shall see visions.
  Even on the male and female slaves,
  in those days, I will pour out my Spirit.

The best advice I can give is to start listening to the person you would least expect to teach you something. Discover your hunger for their story. And it doesn’t hurt to pray, either. There’s a prayer I find particularly helpful, and I’d like for us to pray it together. Please open the red Book of Common Prayer in front of you to page 833, and stand with me to pray the prayer attributed to St. Francis:

Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is
  hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where
  there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where
  there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where
  there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to
  be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand;
  to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is
  in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we
  are born to eternal life. Amen.

Thanks be to God!

July 6, 2003 in Mark, Ordinary Time, Year B | Permalink | Comments (0)