Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Abraham and Isaac

Over the past couple of months, I've been posting installments of my novel, "Hiding Isaac."  After awhile, I began thinking that so much novel dilutes everything else that I'm writing.  In fact, aside from sermons, I simply stopped writing anything else because it got drowned out by Isaac.

Well, I started thinking about that and realized something very simple.  I can just start another blog for the novel.  So, if you've been reading "Hiding Isaac," you can still find it -- just not here.  You'll find a link to it in my links section.

But don't look under "Hiding Isaac."  While I was in the mood to rethink, I rethought the title, too.  When you consider this novel, you realize it's not just about Hiding Isaac.  It's about Abraham -- his entire life -- and his troubled relationship with Isaac.  It goes way beyond just hiding him.

So, I gave it a new -- and simpler -- title.  "Abraham and Isaac."  Please look at it -- you can start reading from the very beginning, but I've kept them in bite-sized installments.  Read an installment a day, and you'll not have to spend much time on it.  But there's enough there to keep you reading.

Hope you enjoy!

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Whom Do You Trust? - A Sermon

Anybody see the debate Friday night?  I tell you, between all the “You don’t understands” and the “You’re wrongs” it was mind numbing.  Then all the pundits afterward all say different things.  Obama won.  No, McCain won.  Nobody won.


Then you get back to the on-again, off-again bailout crisis, and all we hear is accusations and counter-accusations, claims that if you do it their way, the world will come to an end.   So whether it’s the debates or the economic mess, you really don’t know which way to turn.  More importantly, you don’t know whom to trust.  

Again, I say Oy.

Which I can imagine the Israelites saying, too.   They’re still out in the wilderness and don’t know which way to turn or whom to trust because -- even though God has given them food -- they have no water.  Now, you can look at this two ways.  

One way is this:  Sure, God gave us food, but what good is it without water?  Why can’t he just give us what we need all at once?

But the other way is this:  We asked for food.  God provided.  Probably, if we ask for water, God will provide that, too.  

It’s just that somehow they couldn’t trust God -- despite all the mounting evidence.  All they could see was the crisis in front of their faces.  But I wouldn’t be too hard on them.

Placing your trust in someone is hard.  Sure, a child has to trust that their parent will feed, clothe and care for them.  But when you marry, you place your trust in your life-partner, and you become vulnerable.  When you’re a parent, you have to learn how to trust your kids, giving them increasing responsibility and privileges as they grow up  -- let me tel you, that’s scary.

And when someone loses your trust, it can take a long time for them to earn it back.

I think of the parable Jesus told of the two sons.  He asks whom to trust with this parable -- the person who says, “Yes” but does nothing, or the person who initially says “No” but then acts.  It’s the one who does what he’s asked who gains the father’s trust.  The other one -- he can’t really believe what he says.

Think of it as the person who says, “I’m a Christian,” but acts selfishly versus the person who says, “I am dubious,” but follows the path of Jesus.  Surely, you know people who claim the title Christian but who live selfish, vindictive, condescending lives.

I certainly did when I was a teenager -- probably about the age of the sons in today’s Gospel.  I remember sitting through classes with some pretty arrogant kids who were self-proclaimed Christians, especially my Sophomore year.  Now, that was probably my toughest year academically.  By Springtime I was failing one class and just getting by in two others.  I had just gotten my license and a job, but they weren’t really helping with my grades.  Nor were some of those Christian kids who were all too happy to let me know they were much smarter, and just better people, because they had the right faith.

Of course, I grew up in a church-going family, so I knew better than to think every Christian was a jerk, but the loudest ones weren’t helping my faith any.  And then one day Bob Causy -- a big guy, kind of loud and a little goofy (I thought back then) at church came up and said, “Hey, you want to go to this thing called TEC?”  

TEC stood for Teens Encounter Christ, which turned out to be a weekend retreat for high school boys (they had a separate weekend for girls), where they talk about God.  And it was Roman Catholic. Oh, and I’d ge with a bunch of boys I’d never met.  You can guess how enthusiastic I was.

But I’d know Bob all my life.  The Causy’s were close friends with my folks, so I went out on a limb and said I’d go.  Bob came with my folks to drop me off, but as they left, I felt so alone and thought, “I will never forgive you for this, Bob.”  It got worse when I learned that the people running this were a priest and a nun.  

Yet Fr. Ted had an easy smile and warm heart, and Sister Theresa gave each boy the idea that they were just plain special.  It really didn’t take very long for me to let go and trust these folks as well as the other adults and teenagers who ran the weekend.  In fact, before too long, all of us had formed a pretty close little family.

But the most important thing I learned from this TEC was that even when we lose each other’s trust -- they made clear that all people fail -- there was one whom we can always trust.  Jesus.  Because unlike the sons in that parable, Jesus said he would give himself for us and he did.  He said he would love us, and he does.  In spite of all else that goes on in the world, Jesus’ love for me is true and unshakable.

I learned as a Sophomore in High School that trusting any human being is a tenuous proposition.  You can’t lose heart when people fail you because they will.  Period.  But trusting God, whose son Jesus humbled himself for no other reason than out of love for us -- that is trust well placed.  (For what it’s worth, that weekend changed my life.  I became active in TEC, then later in the Episcopal version called Happening.  And it’s from that weekend on that I began to feel called by God to go deeper -- and finally, to find myself here with you more than thirty years later).

It would be great if all of us could be like Jesus -- speaking and acting consistently and faithfully.  We’re not.  There’s always the hope -- as Paul says, “for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”  We will it and we work for it, but irratically.

Jesus is consistent.  And when it seems like nothing else is -- economy, politics, the Mets -- it’s good to know where you can put your trust.  Amen.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Fleshpots! - A Sermon

I don’t know about your week, but I’ve had my eyes on the business section of the paper.  It didn’t help that we remembered our life insurance is with a company name AIG - ever hear of it?  We’ve watched stocks take a nauseating roller coaster ride, thousands lose jobs, and uncertainty everywhere.

So, anyone a little anxious about the future?  Even churches are anxous.  After all, depend on parishioners for financial survival.  And this year more than any other we’ve had more pledging parishioners come and say, “I just don’t have the money to pay my pledge.”

Our treasurer and I were at a stewardship conference yesterday, and one of the first things they said to us was that people were hurting, so we could expect a difficult pledge campaign this year and significant belt tightening.  The next thing they said was, we are still the church, and money does not define our mission.  In fact, in times likes, we can shine.  More on that later.

So, we're in anxious times and nobody -- NOBODY -- knows how this will end.

Which makes today’s Old Testament reading from Exodus perfect for us.  Because if ever a group of people were facing an uncertain future and looking back on the “good times” they once had, this is it.  

You probably know the story of the Israelites after they left Egypt.  First God leads them out of slavery, then God saves them from the wrath of the Egyptian army, and then?  Well, then they look ahead to a vast desert with little or nothing to feed them.  They look to the future and see only certain doom.

Then they turn on Moses.  “Is this it?” they ask in anger.  “We had it good back then.  All we could eat, -- FLESHPOTS for goodness sake!”  Fleshpots.  Excess.  Luxury.  

We, of course, remember that they had lousy lives in Egypt.  Increasingly harsh treatment from their captors even before Moses showed up, less food, more work.  But we are not in that desert with them facing possible death.  

Or at least, we weren’t a couple of weeks ago.  Granted, financial uncertainty isn’t the same as dying of starvation in 120 degree temperatures.  But I bet it doesn’t feel too good, either.

It’s only natural to feel anxious and upset -- to look back on those happy days when survival wasn’t the problem.  Abuse was, but hey….

So what is the lesson?  They were in the desert - we’re in the desert.  They were anxious - we’re anxious.  

The lesson is this:  Trust the Lord.  Longing for the “good old days” may be understandable, but it won’t feed the people of Israel, and it won’t save anyone today.  Killing Moses (which they were tempted to do), would not have helped either.  What helped the Israelites was trusting God -- or at least trusting Moses who trusted God.  

That’s what we can do, too.  Trust that God is always with us -- especially in the painful times.  Trust that there is manna in our wilderness, and that we will not be left alone, either by God or by this church.  

St. James’ may not be Moses, but this congregation trusts God’s love for us.  This group of people in the vast wilderness of modern life in America is here right now, holding our arms up to God and trusting that, yes, the Lord will provide.  Anyone in this congregation who gets hit by these hard times can trust that their brothers and sisters are here to help.  

How?  I’ve used my discretionary fund over the years to help many parishioners get over bumps in their lives.  That’s what it’s for.  How else?  Well, those parishioners who are able can jump in to help cover for those who run into difficulty and can’t meet their pledges.  It’s more common than you might think.  If you’re lucky enough never to have experienced this, that’s great!  Give thanks to God and consider increasing your giving.  

You might be interested to note God’s response to those frightened and anxious (not to mention angry) Israelites.  God feeds them.  True, he only feeds them enough for the day -- God wants them to trust that he will feed them EACH day -- but the point is he feeds them.  And God will care for you.  There are people here who will see to it because like the people of Israel, we are bound to each other through the Lord.  

But I want to bring in for a  moment another story about anxiety and anger.  It’s almost the polar opposite of the Old Testament.  In the Gospel, Jesus tells the story of a landowner who hires day laborers a little at a time.  Day laborers are, of course, people who stand on the corner and wait for someone to hire them for the day.  If they don’t get hired, they don’t eat that day.  

The longer you stand, the less likely you are to be hired, and the more anxious you are about going hungry.  You get the idea.

Today’s Gospel is about the lucky ones -- the folks who get hired early in the day.  Sure, they have to work, but they do so with the knowledge that they will eat.  They work anxiety free.  But they are the angry ones at the end of the story because the landowner had mercy.  

God of course is the landowner, and this parable tells us that God cares for all alike.  Those who have -- who are enjoying the fleshpots -- and those who are anxious times.  So, how is it that those who worked all day became angry?  They got what they wanted, and there’s no way they would have traded places with the idle workers.  

That’s our problem isn’t it?  When we are eating out of the fleshpots, we resent those who aren’t, especially if God helps them.  But again, the point isn’t that we’ve earned anything.  The point is that God cares for us.  Loves us.  Has mercy on us all.  

We are the people of Israel, sometimes in bondage, sometimes in the wilderness facing an uncertain future.  We are the day laborers, some of us working hard in the knowledge that we have already been granted entrance into heaven, others still standing idle and anxious about what the future brings.

For us who are followers of Christ, the message is simple.  Trust the Lord’s love -- and share it with those who need it every bit as much as you.  Amen.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Fear of Judging - A Sermon

You may be familiar with Fox TV’s Bill O’Reilly.  A couple of months ago, Bill O’Reilly called the parents of Jamie Lynn Spears -- a teenage singer -- pinheads when she became pregnant at age 16.  He said they failed to supervise her.  When it came out that Sarah Palin’s daughter became pregnant at 16, he told the audience it was a private matter that should not be discussed.  Someone pointed out the discrepancy in his judgement, and Bill O’Reilly argued that while the Spears clearly failed to supervise their daughter, there was no evidence that the Palins had not supervised theirs.

This is not a political statement, nor is it about the Spears or the Palins.  Their family issues -- well known as they are -- really are not for us to judge.  What it’s about is the original judgment of the Spears that was made on national TV.  It should never have happened.  Yet it does because it delights us -- it appeals to our self-righteousness.   We would never be such bad parents as those pinheads -- not until someone WE care about is put in the same situation.

Judging ranges from gossip to starting wars.  Every time we look at the actions of somebody else and declare how good or bad it is, we’re judging.  It is one of the easiest things we do.  But it’s also one of the deadliest -- not so much to the person we judge as to ourselves.

It’s bad enough for public folks like Bill O’Reilly condemn other public figures only to have their condemnation fly back in their faces.  That’s show business to a degree.  But when we do it in our lives -- it’s best to approach all such judgment with fear and trembling.

There are so many ways to judge:  The Gospel has a man who refuses to forgive a small debt -- even though he’s just been forgiven a much larger one.  

Isn’t this like us?  We see our own faults as relatively minor -- just a little thing.  But when others harm us -- even if it’s much less significant -- well, they’re practically guilty of murder!  

Jesus warns us that such judgment has a way of falling back on our own heads.  The standards we hold others to will be the same by which we will be judged.  Our own flaws are typically much bigger than we admit while those of others are smaller than we want.

Paul, in his letter to the Romans, shows us a different kind of judging -- that self-righteous kind that says, “We do it right while you are all wrong.”  In the Roman context, early church members were still sorting out what it meant to be a Christian.  Some new Christians, for example wanted to continue their special diets from their previous religions while others condemned them as not having enough faith because God makes all food acceptable.

In other cases, some argued that Sunday was the day to worship because that’s the day Christ was raised.  Others said the Sabbath had always been Saturday and should remain so.  Still others maintained that there was no special day -- that every day was worthy of worship, so making a special day was artificial and pointless.  They were splitting up over these things -- suggesting that those who disagreed were not really Christians at all.

Paul saw through this.  What he saw was self-righteousness.  If you don’t do it my way, then you are wrong.  No good.

Whether it’s judging a perceived wrong someone has done to you or judging their personality flaws, we love to do it.

But again, we do so at our own peril.  Because judging is God’s domain.  When we engage in it, what we’re really doing is trying to make ourselves look good.  We’re trying to bring others down so we are on top of the pile. 

It’s like a soccer game -- you’re playing against the number one team and its star foward who runs past defenders like they were standing still.  So what runs through your mind before it starts?  “I hope their star forward breaks his leg.”  If we make them worse, we feel better.

But Jesus tells us over and over that this just isn’t necessary.  It’s not the point of God’s love for us.  Being number one -- or one of the best -- is meaningless.  It doesn’t lead to the Kingdom of God.  It leads to our own judgment by our own standards -- just like that unforgiving servant.  

A word of caution: This doesn’t mean that using our judgment isn’t necessary.  We have to decide when people or situations are a danger to us, and we have to act accordingly.  If you’re in a job where the work environment is unhealthy, you might need to complain or even get out of that job.  If you’re in a relationship that’s abusive, you may well need therapy or even to leave that relationship.  But there is a difference between protecting ourselves (like in Exodus) or putting ourselves above others for our own small purposes.   That sort of judging we can leave to God (or the TV shows).  Amen.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Yesterday at the September 11 ceremony in our town, we honored not only all the victims of the terrorist attacks but in particular a local firefighter who died while trying to save others.  As the pastor of that firefighter, I was asked to say the prayer at the ceremony -- as I have for years now.  This is what I said.

The prayer I offer to today as we remember the terrorist attacks of 9/11 is a little different, but the  current atmosphere in our country begs for something different.  I offer it in hope and trust in God’s grace and love for us all.

This morning, in my bible reading, I read about Joseph and Pharoah in Egypt.  If you don’t know it, Joseph is sold into slavery by his jealous brothers but earns his freedom by interpreting Pharaoh’s troubling dreams.  He predicts seven years of plenty before seven years of famine and is put in charge of the kingdom to prepare for the hard times ahead.  When famine hits, Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt seeking help.

Joseph could have punished his wicked brothers.  He had the power.  Instead, he forgave them and fed them.  They were united once again.

I mention this because it has been seven years since we entered into our own season of famine.  Like those brothers, we are hungry, not for food but for a sense of peace in our lives.  We thirst for things to be normal again.  And we long for that same sense of reconciliation that Joseph knew.

Because after seven years -- and especially in this election season -- our country is not united.  Maybe it’s only me, but I watch the news and read the newspapers and see division.  Neighbors look at neighbors and see enemies.  Name calling and bitterness are at an all-time high.  It’s not just politicians who sling mud at each other.

So, my prayer is that we let these divisions cease.  That God grants us the grace to NOT question each other’s love for country -- or for God.   Let us remember that this kind of division damages our country far more effectively than anything terrorists can hope to do. 

Let us use this ceremony -- when we remember the innocent victims and those brave heroes like Paul Tegtmeier who offered their lives to save others -- as an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to healing the internal wounds within our land.

Today Senators McCain and Obama came together at Ground Zero to honor those victims and heroes -- not as Republicans or Democrats, not as opponents, not as enemies -- but as Americans.  As children of God. That is a start.  

Heavenly Father, I pray that it is not merely one day of unity but the beginning of a new way of looking at ourselves as a nation in all our wonderful diversity and complexity.  Grant us the grace to love our neighbors, Republican, Democrat, Independent and uninvolved all the same.  Because it is only then that we can truly appreciate the gift that those firefighters and police officers and EMTs and countless others gave their lives for -- a nation at peace with itself.  Amen. 

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Fear of Reconciliation - Sermon

Reconciliation means reaching out and saying “I’m sorry” or “I forgive you” or simply, “It’s not nearly as important for me to be right as it is for us to remain friends.”  I note this especially in this depressingly but predictably nasty campaign season.  

Family members are at each others throats.  I read venomous comments on the online newspapers, then find myself writing equally heated comments before deleting them because I am getting too heated up -- and in doing so add nothing to a constructive discussion where both sides can learn.  I’ve deleted a LOT of comments lately.

I even had to send an e-mail to a friend recently -- after what turned out to be a surprisingly heated exchange of e-mails about the presidential race -- I said that our long friendship is more important to me than our political differences, so we’d just have to agree to disagree.  It’s called reconciliation, and it’s not easy.

Jesus knew that.  He knew that people have a hard time moving from their defensiveness -- from that fight or flight reflex we all have.  People have a hard time admitting that they are wrong.  

That’s why he made this remarkable command.  Don’t just talk behind someone’s back.  Don’t just go to the authorities to rip into them.  Don’t just walk away from that brother or sister.  Go to them.  Alone.  Before doing anything else.  Lay out your issues and see what happens.

But Jesus doesn’t stop there.  He says, if they don’t listen, come back to them with one or two others -- try again.

And again.  If they won’t listen, take it to the church - have a mediator who will try to at least make that person listen.  Three escalating moves that show how important it is to keep trying for reconciliation.  It’s only after all that effort that a person might conclude it’s time to move on.

Yet, I’m betting Jesus wouldn’t be upset if you decided to try again -- and again.  In another place in the Gospel, he tells us to forgive our brothers and sisters not 7 times but 7X7 times.  

And God will forgive us far more than that.  Endlessly.

Reconciliation is at the heart of our faith.  It is what the cross signaled to us.  It is the invitation to live a new life with each other and with God.  It is our only hope.

Funny, then, that we’re so afraid of it.  But that fear of reconciliation lies burried deep in our fear that we are no good.  That if we forgive, we’ll just get walked all over.  And if we seek forgiveness, we’ll be belittled - or exposed.  And we’re afraid not to win -- to always be right.  One of the reasons our politics is so volatile is because we feel we have to WIN a race rather than guide a country.  So, we end up beating ourselves. Of course, it’s far more complicated than that, but you’d have to get a degree in human dynamics to begin to get a handle on why people do the things they do.

We all know that you can’t make someone else do what you want, whether it’s seek forgiveness (and really change their ways) or to forgive you or even to just drop the subject -- nope, we can’t make them.  There are deep scars some of these hurts leave, and for some it’s hard to even imagine forgiving or being forgiven.  But Jesus calls us out of our isolation and says “Let us come together over what is truly important.”  All we can do is reach out.

It’s important that we do because some of the worst wounds we suffer are relationship wounds.  And it’s those wounds that do more to get in the way of our individual and collective relationship with God.  Because if we can’t come together in love, we’re shutting out God.  As Jesus said, “whenever two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there among them.”  It’s not in Jesus’ name if it’s filled with anger and fear.

It doesn’t matter if the thing keeping you from reconciliation is personal or political (or whatever).  And believe me, I think it’s very important to hold your political beliefs passionately.  But today’s Gospel tells us how much more important it is to reconcile, as frightening as that is.

This morning I got an e-mail from that friend of the heated presidential exchange.  It said, “Amen.”

Monday, September 1, 2008

Why a Cross? - A Sermon

Listen.  If you’re careful you can hear the groans.  That’s millions of children slinging on their backpacks and tromping toward the bus as school begins this week.  If you listen more intensely, you might just be able to hear a sigh of relief from parents.

But even that is mixed with anxiety because parents now have to adhere to their kids’ schedules:  getting them fed and out the door by 7:00, running them around to practices and rehearsals.  There’s a definite sense of depression floating about this week.

You can even feel the negative turn in the scriptures today.  It starts out with Moses who is minding his own business when God tells him “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt” -- and you are going to leave your comfortable life to go fix it.  Moses is not happy.

Or what about Paul:  “Bless those who persecute you.”  That went over really well, I bet.

So, it’s a gloomy day in scripture as well as in many homes.  Well, Jesus doesn’t make it any better.  There he is with his adoring fans when he tells them:  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

If you think that didn’t put a dent in their moods, think again.  Already, he had been telling them HE was going to suffer and die.  Many of them thought he was talking metaphorically -- you know, “It’s going to be tough going….”  But Peter finally figured out Jesus was serious.  He meant he was going to really be killed.

But even then, he couldn’t really be serious about EVERYONE getting killed like that, could he?  

Actually, he was -- and is.  He is going to a place where most people then and now don’t want to even consider.  He is moving resolutely toward death itself and asking us to follow.

Now, back to the school theme for a moment, I want you to know I’ve been doing my homework.  Lately, I’ve been reading a book by Bruce Chilton all about sacrifice.  He tracks how people move from sacrificing animals to children, to themselves, then to their enemies.  He suggests that we now call soldiers who die in battle sacrifices (which never was the case before, say, the crusades) because at least they’re taking bad guys with them.

But notice how we slipped right by the part where Jesus was.  Sacrificing themselves -- without taking anybody else by force.  Jesus harms nobody -- even those who kill him.  The only people he takes toward death are those who willingly follow.  

Does this all sound a little crazy by now?  Well, let’s put it in perspective and try to see what Jesus was up to.  He absolutely knew he was going to die.  The cross was the most likely method for execution under Roman occupation, so he had every right to expect that.  And it was a gruesome, humiliating death.

Jesus also know that bad things were likely to happen to his disciples if they continued to associate themselves with him.  Many, he knew, would literally pick up their crosses and die as well.

But he was leading the rest of us as well -- maybe not to Gethsemane but to death -- and then THROUGH death -- to the other side.  He moved unwaveringly toward what we fear most in order to remove that fear that so imprisons us.   

For some of us, we fear humiliation the most.  Our reputations are the most importatant things to us, so Jesus takes us to the most humiliating place imaginable to his disciples -- a cross.  He leads them himself.

For many, suffering is the worst thing.  I’ve heard people say they don’t really mind dying as long as it doesn’t hurt.  The pain is what frightens them.  So Jesus leads us to a horribly painful death.  Again, a cross.

But to most of us, the unknown that comes after death is the most frightening.  What lies on the other side of that wall?  And again, Jesus leads the way right through death to that other side.  And there he stands saying, “I made it, and you will, too.”

Yet he walks with us as well.  You will notice that Jesus never says he will make humiliation or fear or death go away -- only that he’s been there and will be with us along that path.  And that it will be okay.

Sounds like a parent with a kid going back to school.  “I can’t make the tests and the homework and boring lectures go away, but I’ve been there, and they will help you live a better life.  They will help you really LIVE later on, not just exist, as many who don’t have an education do.”  But parents know they also sit next to their kids and make sure they get the homework done.  They help them build volcanoes that sort of erupt.  They know that they’ll learn the new math right along side their kids.  They know they won’t let them skip school but will watch them get on the bus (secretly, if the kid’s a teenager).  We let them know that on the other side of that long slog, it’s worth it.  It’s good. 

Just like Jesus with life and death.  Jesus helps us know that whatever befalls us, God is with us, walking side by side, and will be with us into the next world. 

And that is our faith.  We will live and live more fully after this life has passed.  No matter what happens here, Jesus has already led us to the other side, already showed us that we don’t have to be afraid.  We can live -- truly LIVE -- because he’s already done it.

The point is that God is with us in every difficult turn -- never taking away the hard parts but assuring us that in the end it will work out.  

Which sounds a lot like what I tell my kids as they ask why they have to go to school.  Some day, you’ll be glad you did this.  In the meantime, I’ll be there with you through the whole thing.