Sunday, July 11, 2010

Nutshell - A Sermon

I am sorry I’m not here today, but Deacon David has agreed to read my sermon so you won’t feel too deprived. To make up for my absence, I have doubled the length of the sermon. Just kidding.

But the context of this sermon IS important. Because what the lessons today talk about is nothing less than the gospel in a nutshell.

One of the things I make the Confirmation Class memorize each year is the summary of the law, which is taken from today’s Gospel lesson. Why would I do that? Because it is the key to life.

In this passage, a man comes to Jesus and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus throws the question back at the man who replies: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart with all your soul with all your strength and with all your mind; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

That’s it. The entire Good News: Love God and love your neighbor as you love yourself. Do that, and you’ll live.

But what does it mean? What the heck is Jesus talking about when he says “LOVE?” I tend to be a little more sympathetic to the young man who asks this question of Jesus because I’m constantly confused as to what it means to love -- and as to who my neighbor is. I bet I’m not alone.

Of course, Jesus answers this question with the parable of the Good Samaritan -- which tells us that everyone is our neighbor, and that therefore we are to come to the aid of all who are in need.

HOW do we love: the illegal immigrant, the church that wants to throw us out, the employer who acts unfairly to us, the exec of BP? Or can we limit it to those who need our help?

I don’t know. I have a hard enough time reaching out to those strangers who present themselves to St. James’ looking for financial help. Even when I know their need is sincere and great. Sometimes it’s hard to reach out beyond ourselves -- to really love those who are not close to us.

I do know that this attitude is not new. The prophet Amos proclaimed in a most unpleasant manner God’s condemnation of Israel for not loving their neighbors -- and he did this even while the people of Israel thought they were in God’s good graces.

You see, things were going well in Israel at the time. King Jeroboam is enjoying a period of relative peace, and his priest Amaziah has given him the spiritual thumbs up. Because in that culture, wealth and health were a sign of God’s blessing.

Then comes along Amos from the south, and he says, “This is not what God wants!” He says, “It’s okay to enjoy health and well-being, but never at the cost of ignoring the poor.”

Now, you don’t really get this from this week’s reading -- just that Amos is not doing his prophecy for the money, but rather to obey God. But wait till next week’s reading!

And yet, Amos’s form of love is that he -- initially at least -- is obeying God even when there’s nothing in it for him. He knows he’s going to get grief. He goes because he knows God wants to give the Israelites a wake-up call -- a chance to turn around from their selfish and destructive ways. He calls them to learn mercy and kindness.

Bringing this hard news to people is also loving God and your neighbor. Which is the gospel in a nutshell.

Just one more note. These lessons seem to indicate that love is seen in actions. But remember that the actions are empty if they do not come from within - from a desire to serve rather than to gain. That’s not easy. But since when was love -- that is to say the Gospel -- ever easy? Amen.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

God, Life and Everything - Walking

I write a column called "God, Life, and Everything" for the Hudson Valley News. The title reflects the broad scope I want to take. Everything in life falls under the eye of God, and if we watch carefully, we can catch a glimpse of God in it all.

I must apologize. For some reason, I neglected to post my columns from the past month. The next four posts are those columns.

As you read this, the World Cup is wrapping up. This final is almost here, and I’ll be watching.

But then it’ll be over. After all that sitting in front of a TV, after all that adrenaline, after all those delusional thoughts of, “If I were a bit younger, I could play better than that clown,” what’s left? How do we overcome the inevitable sports hangover?

Take a walk.

The fifth century theologian and bishop Augustine of Hippo once said, “Solviture ambulando” (It is solved by walking). And while he was talking spiritually, walking does indeed solve or at least help in so many areas of our lives.

In the physical realm alone, walking may be one of the best things you can do for yourself. Better than going to the gym or playing on a team, regular walking keeps you fit, costs very little to do, is easy on the joints and muscles, can be done year round and is open to most of us. You don’t even have to learn how to play because you already know!

Of course, you can overdo it. Stretching, proper shoes, and proper posture are important, especially if you start walking long distances on an ongoing basis – but it doesn’t take that much to get going. And if you’re just starting out, start with short walks.

There’s something else wonderful about walking. Unlike so many of our sports (which I love, mind you), most walking is noncompetitive. Okay, there are competitive walkers, but that’s not most of us.

Most people walk to stay in shape. They walk to enjoy the great outdoors. They walk for the sheer joy of it. Just by walking, you win.

Or better yet, you get out of the mode of winning/losing. Those terms are meaningless in walking. You don’t beat anybody because there’s nobody to beat – it just is.

I know we live in a competitive society where we talk about winners and losers in every aspect of life. But walking reminds us that this is not how life really is. Life is not won or lost – it is lived. And it is those who constantly feel they must win at everything who are the poorer in the end.

Because in the end, we will all die, leaving this earth with no more and no less than we came into it with – ourselves. You can’t win extra life or extra youth. As Christians, we don’t even believe you can win life after death. It simply is; a gift we have no way to earn. Those we call losers have it just as much as those we call winners.

Walking out in the woods or a rail trail or on the Walkway over the Hudson (despite the $5.00 parking fee! Here’s an idea: park on the street and walk to the Walkway!), helps us appreciate the bodies God has given us. It helps us feel physically connected to the world – which we often don’t after endless hours of television or web surfing.

By the way, if we start walking more, not only will we be healthier but the planet will, too. The more we walk, the less we need our cars. Who knows, maybe if we walk around our neighborhoods more, we’ll meet more neighbors (okay, I live next to a graveyard – bad example – but you...).

St. Augustine encouraged walking as a way to be alone and be with God. He used it as a form of prayer. In a world that sees physical activity as something largely left to the professional athletes, in a world that sees most human interaction in terms of wins or losses, that is a prayer we can all take part in.



God, Life and Everything - World Cup

I write a column called "God, Life, and Everything" for the Hudson Valley News. The title reflects the broad scope I want to take. Everything in life falls under the eye of God, and if we watch carefully, we can catch a glimpse of God in it all.

I’m sorry for not writing last week. I got so busy doing the work of the L-- Oh, who am I kidding? I was watching the World Cup.

I’m not one of the absolutely insane soccer aficionados, mind you, but I did coach kids soccer for seven years and learned to enjoy watching it.

Actually, what I used to coach resembled something that might best be called “Blob Ball.” All the little kids run together in a blob so they can kick the ball. The only child who maintains his or her position is the one who really doesn’t want to be there and runs away every time the ball nears him or her.

But when it’s played well, there is hardly a sport that is more fun to watch. And so, whenever I can, I sit down for part of a game. The other day I was at a home visit bringing communion to a parishioner. I confess, instead of talking about the Lord, we watched Germany play Ghana. I suppose you could count it as work because I was with a parishioner – and we did have communion ... at half time.

Since we don’t have television at our home, I have to catch a peek of whatever game I can whenever the opportunity presents itself. I’ve made too many trips to the pizza parlor this week so I could pick up the US games. I may never be able to look at pizza again after this month.

Now, you may ask, why all this fanaticism about a game? Fair question. Not sure I have an answer other than it is a spectacular show, and you never know what is going to happen. Just look at last week. Italy and France, the numbers 1 and 2 of the last World Cup are out. The US finished Group play at the top of its group. Japan advanced for the first time not on Asian soil.

I love the unpredictability of the game. It is so very much like life. Life, after all, has the big guys who always win (like Brazil, Italy, Argentina, Germany), but there’s just enough unpredictability to make you think anything is possible (Switzerland beat Spain!).

It helps you know that nothing is certain in this life, that you can’t expect anything, and that things are not always fair. Yes, hard work is important, but just as in life, playing by the rules and working hard does not guarantee anything (just ask the US team about its stolen goal against Slovenia).

Those inequities do not mean that life is ugly or only for a few elite. It means that there is beauty in all aspects of life, and that even when it is not fair or does not end up the way we want, life has its own inherent value.

Now, it’s always dangerous to compare life to a game. After all, this is not a game. You can’t practice for it. And life is not all about being a winner. It is an extended opportunity to love your neighbor as yourself.

Which may be another reason I love soccer so much. They have tie games.

Hope you enjoy watching – not for the winners and losers but for the beauty of the game itself.


God, Life and Everything - A Fire Remembered

I write a column called "God, Life, and Everything" for the Hudson Valley News. The title reflects the broad scope I want to take. Everything in life falls under the eye of God, and if we watch carefully, we can catch a glimpse of God in it all.

Last week I wrote about an anniversary I had. This week, there’s another anniversary, though not so nice.

Twenty-six years ago today (June 16), St. James’ Church burned in a fire that remains mysterious to this day. I remember when I came to St. James’, one of the first things anyone did was hand me a video tape of the fire and say, “Here, watch it.”

The video show flames shooting out of the bell tower like a flame thrower. It showed windows shattering and flashing lights from the fire trucks.

The bell tower was destroy first, its large bell falling to the ground in molten drops. The organ, also located in the tower, was burned to ash. It spread from the tower eastward toward the altar, taking ever pew with it. Though I remember hearing that the fire did not reach the altar itself the damage was so severe that the entire sanctuary had to be torn apart.

Every stained glass window except for a tiny one up by the altar was shattered either by the flames themselves or by firefighters who needed to get through them in order to save the structure.

Then the video cut to the next day when several people hauled out surviving pieces of furniture or altar equipment, laying it all on the ground even as the ruins smoldered. Next to the church volunteers were setting out chairs for the stunned Sunday service that would take place outside.

Though it’s been a long time since I saw that video, I believe the service had volunteer musicians to make up for the lost organ. The sermon was about rising from the ashes. There was probably a resurrection theme.

This all happened long before I came to St. James’, but there was a reason that parishioner demanded that I watch the unfolding disaster and its aftermath.

I needed to understand.

I needed to understand what kind of scars the fire left on the congregation. I needed to understand the lasting trauma of things lost so dramatically and suddenly. That the loss of the building and so many beloved treasures of the past still affected many. Also, I needed to understand the satisfaction – dare I say pride – shared by so many in the congregation over their recovery and rebuilding.

It’s no small feat to rebuild an historic church, but they did it. Not that it really matters in the grand scheme of things, but they wanted to rebuild just as it had been. The congregation came close.

We don’t hold celebrations to commemorate this devastating fire, but I keep it in the back of my mind. Its effect was long lasting.

As people, we all remember significant anniversaries, both good and painful. First love / loss of a loved one / moving away from home / getting that first job.

Perhaps more importantly, we remember the significant events surrounding the lives of our loved ones – events that shape who they are. Death of a parent, divorce, birth of children. If we are smart, we know key events of those we care about.

Why? Because those events are part of the makeup of people. They color how we think, how we act – certainly how we react to others. In short, if you want to truly know someone, you need to pay attention to their past.

For that matter, if you want to truly know yourself, you need to pay attention to your past.

We don’t like to do that, I admit. It’s easier to pretend nothing ever happened, that we are not affected by those big events. That’s why we have anniversaries – they force us to at least acknowledge the event, even if we don’t dig too deeply into how it shapes us.

So, today, I’m remembering that fire of June 16, 1984. Even twenty-six years later, it has left its mark.

God, Life and Everything - Twenty Years

I write a column called "God, Life, and Everything" for the Hudson Valley News. The title reflects the broad scope I want to take. Everything in life falls under the eye of God, and if we watch carefully, we can catch a glimpse of God in it all.

Twenty years ago today (June 9) in Manhattan in the gigantic Cathedral of St. John the Divine, I knelt next to ten other recent seminary graduates. We were robed in white albs, surrounded by more than a thousand parishioners, family members and, because this is St. John the Divine, tourists.

Already, it had been an eventful day. We were one of the few classes who had the cool-factor of a movie star, Matthew Broderick, reading the Old Testament lesson. We had already heard the sermon of a deacon who spoke about prisons, her motorcycle and the unusual situations ordained ministry will bring to you.

Then had come the bishop’s examination of each of us. He asked the formulaic questions, and we replied with the same rehearsed precision:

Do you believe that you are truly called by God and his Church to the life and work of a deacon?

I believe I am so called.

Do you now in the presence of the Church commit yourself to this trust and responsibility?

I do.

On and on went the questions until finally, there we were, kneeling, the bishop who laid his hands on each of us in turn: “Therefore, Father, through Jesus Christ your Son, give your Holy Spirit to (Name); fill him with grace and power, and make him a deacon in your church.”

All that was left was receiving our stoles – mine needled-pointed by my mother – and we were deacons.

In our church, there are two types of deacon. There are deacons and then there are transitional deacons. I was a transitional deacon. That meant that I would be ordained at a later date as a priest. The priesting is what I really looked forward to, but that was many months away. What mattered at the end of that day was that my ordained ministry had begun.

Now, twenty years isn’t really all that big a deal in ordained ministry. It’s just another number, as they say, and I know many priests celebrating forty and more years of ministry. But every milestone, no matter how small, gives us a chance to pause and review what we’ve been doing.

That preacher was right. I’ve been in prisons and jails, hospitals and nursing homes. I’ve worked in schools and on sports teams, with youth groups and seniors. Sometimes when it looks like I’m doing nothing, my most challenging work is going on because I’m holding up in prayer those who come my way.

Now, as I look back, I realize I’ve spent more than half my ordained life here in Hyde Park. It is lively, exhilarating, frustrating, fun and moving. Just as surely as I knew on that day that ordained ministry was where I belonged so do I know that at this point in my life, Hyde Park is where I belong.

It doesn’t grow old because things always change – there is never a lack of work or need. Just this weekend, I walked in the Rural and Migrant Ministries Walk-a-Thon. This was an event to raise funds for their summer camp for children of migrant farm workers. Who would have guessed that just walking could be so important a part of ministry?

Next year, our congregation will celebrate its 200th Anniversary, certainly a lot bigger deal than a mere twenty. But it affords us the same opportunity – to look back a bit in order to be able to look forward.

And who knows where the future will bring us together? There are so many new ways to serve God in our community, I seriously doubt we will ever have to scratch our heads and feel at a loss for something to do. Whether it’s twenty years or two hundred, it’s just the beginning.


Monday, June 28, 2010

Looking Back -- A Sermon

Now that school is out, it’s safe to tell you about St. James’ Nursery School. You did know that we have a nursery school, didn’t you? And each week, I come into each class to read the children a bible story.

Only problem is, each year the kids think up some way to greet me and see me off again. This year, they decided to whisper my name over and over as a signal that it was time for me to read. The teachers prefer this one to last year’s shouting my name repeatedly.

Anyway, early this year, as I was about to leave them, one of the kids called out, “Walk backwards!” Foolishly, I did. From that day on, the cry “Walk backwards!” rang from the three through five-year-old crowd.

I actually didn’t mind. I could wave goodbye to them as I left – and it was a very short path to the doorway. But one day, a kid said, “Walk all the way to your office backwards!” That’s a much longer, winding path. I smiled and – the second I got out the door – turned around to face forward. If I tried to navigate it backwards, I would have hit something for sure.

What’s the point of this story? Maybe that looking back is not sustainable. It might work for a moment, but it’s not way to move forward.

Which just might be the point of our scripture readings, too.

Remember, there are two stories today in which prospective followers ask to take time and “look back”, to say goodbye to their families. One is the prophet Elisha after Elijah calls him.

Elisha says, “Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you.” And when Elijah gives him permission (at least we think that’s what Elijah’s words mean), Elisha goes home, kills the oxen he used to plow with, used the yoke for firewood and apparently threw himself a going away party.

The second story in the Gospel has Jesus calling a number of potential disciples. One says, “First let me go and bury my father,” to which Jesus says, “Let the dead bury the dead.” Another says, “Let me say farewell to those at home,” to which Jesus says, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

How could Jesus be so cold hearted? Why can’t he let them look back? What’s the difference between what Elisha did and what those would-be followers of Jesus did?

Well, the best we can do is speculate – or maybe ruminate. But it seems there is a qualitative difference between them.

With Elisha, he takes the tools of his trade – his oxen and yoke – and destroys them. He makes known to his people that he is leaving for good, possibly thanking them for what they have meant to him so far. He cuts himself off from his life up to this point.

It’s different with the two that Jesus called. He is on his way to Jerusalem and death, so already what they are being called to is different than the long-term prophetic ministry Elisha was called to.

And yet, their words echo Elisha’s.

So, one possibility is that these two wanted everyone to know they were being called by a prophet (Jesus). They compared themselves to Elisha and therefore echoed his words, and expected Jesus to answer as Elijah did. Perhaps they were looking back to see how many of their friends and family would admire their new position in life.

Perhaps – there might have been an element of that. Or, more likely, they could not let go of their homes. The one apparently had an ageing father he could not bear to leave. Several scholars noted that he probably was not dead, just old – and that it could take years to “bury” him.

Jesus did not have that time. His mission was urgent, and if the man wanted to follow Jesus, he would not be able to stay home. He would have to follow Jesus and not look back.

The other wanted to say goodbye to his friends and family. Again, Jesus gives a harsh answer. Once you begin to follow, if you look back, you are not fit for the kingdom of God.

Perhaps what he senses is that these people cannot let go of what binds them. Perhaps they cannot put following Christ – to whatever end – in front of all else. Perhaps he knows that they will keep looking back, thinking about how much easier their lives were at the family farm. They are not like Elisha who visibly cuts all ties with his past. They are not even like James and John who – when Jesus calls them – simply walk away from their nets and their father in order to follow.

Whether these would-be followers are thinking of themselves delusions of grandeur or simply can’t let go of their past in order to keep their eyes only on Jesus, the point is, they cannot follow.

If we keep looking back, we lose sight of Christ - we can’t walk straight. If we can’t let go of that which is not God, we cannot fully embrace God.

This is forever the most difficult lesson of our faith – letting go, not looking back. When we are baptized, we say we die to our old lives so that we are born into a life with Christ as our focus and guide.

Are we? Is Christ our focus?

Or do we – you and I – keep looking back?

I wish it were a simple answer, but I suspect it is a question we must ask every day of our lives. What do you choose today? To look back or to look to Christ? Amen.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Hearing the Voice - A Sermon

Happy Father’s Day. To celebrate, I thought I’d tell you a story.

One Father’s Day a friend came to dinner at the home of a couple who had kids. The kids, of course, told the friend everything they had done for their dad on Father’s Day. After the kids had gone to bed, the adults were chatting, and the friend said, “So, it sounds like you had a good Father’s Day. What was the best thing about today? Was it when the kids brought you breakfast in bed at 7:00 AM and yelled “Happy Father’s Day!”

“No,” said the dad. “The burnt toast and soggy cereal was great, but that wasn’t it.”

“How about when you all went to Dairy Queen after church for ice cream?”

“No. Loved the Blizzard eating contest, especially after an Alka Seltzer, but that wasn’t it, either.”

“Then it must have been when they all decided they could wrestle you at the same time and jumped on top of you. You were all laughing pretty loud then.”

“That was really fun,” said the Dad. “And after some aspirin, the pain’s mostly gone. But it wasn’t the best thing.”

“Well, what was?” asked the friend.

The dad said, “Follow me.”

They went upstairs, and the dad peaked into the kids’ room. They looked at the kids sound asleep, not making a noise except for their breathing. After a few moments, the dad shut the door and said. “THAT’S my favorite part of today. It’s my favorite part of every day.”

NOW, They did all sorts of fun things that day – breakfast in bed, Dairy Queen, wrestling in the living room. So, why do you think the best part of the day was when the kids were asleep?

- so we can hear ourselves think

- know everyone is safe & sound

- quiet time with spouse

Lot of reasons. But sometimes it’s so you can look back at the day and think how lucky you are to be a parent. Sometimes you need that quiet time to put everything that’s happened all together in your head and see what it all mean and see what was important and what you could forget about. So ask your parents if they ever sneak into your room and just watch. Sometimes, it’s that quiet time when they’re looking at you that makes all the rest seem so good.

Funny thing is, that’s true with God, too. Remember that story with Elijah? People were trying to kill him so he ran away. And finally he ended up in a cave where God’s angel said, “God stand on the mountain, because the Lord is going to pass by.” You can bet he wanted to see the Lord because not many people are given that opportunity – especially after you just had to run for your life.

So there’s Elijah on the mountain when a giant wind comes along. Not just any wind. We’re talking Nor’easter. We’re talking hurricane. We’re talking F5 tornado. And in all that noise and power, Elijah knew – the Lord was not in it.

Then there was a massive fire – but the Lord was not in it.

Then there was an earthquake – now THAT’S power. But the Lord was not in it either.

Then – silence. And it was in that silence where Elijah heard the voice of God talk to him. That silence – sometimes it doesn’t seem like much. Sometimes it seems boring or unproductive, like nothing’s happening in it. But without it , there’s no hearing God.


Because this world is a busy place. Lots of noise and distractions. We get caught up in cars, music, sports, games. Sometimes we get caught up in power and think it’s like that wind and earthquake, so we look for meaning in power, like in weapons or money. There are so many things going on, and they all seem impressive.

But we won’t find God in it. It’s only when we sit still, let all that distraction go by us – when we realize God is not in it – that we can hear. It’s not easy. Elijah had been a prophet dedicated to God for years. I have a friend who’s a monk, and he said sometimes when he sits and prays by himself in the quiet – he falls asleep. Know what he says then? He figures God’s word to him was that he needed more sleep.

The point is, God doesn’t shout at you. And, as good as all the activities we do are, it takes time away from them to see how God blesses what we do. I would like to invite each of you this day to find some time by yourself. Not texting, not playing, not reading – just sitting there alone – and be with God. You probably won’t hear voices – but you will hear the silence. And that’s a pretty good start. Amen.