Sunday, September 27, 2009

God, Life and Everything - “Virtual Church of the Blind Chihuahua”

I write a biweekly column called "God, Life, and Everything" for theHudson 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.

How can you go wrong with a name like “The Virtual Church of the Blind Chihuahua?” When I first read about this website, I rolled my eyes. You could tell from the start that it was supposed to be a cutting edge, ironic and sassy site for the ultra-hip. Something like “The Onion” or “Ship of Fools.”

I could also tell it was put together by people significantly younger than I am because who else would come up with something so random as a blind chihuahua for a church figure?

But, because I found it on the stuffy Church of England’s website, I thought I would at least take a peek. There it was at, a chihuahua with dark shades panting at the viewer. Trendy, but was there anything to this Taco Bell wannabe?

First, the name of this decidedly religious website: It is called virtual because it is an entirely online community. The blind chihuahua (I’m trying to see how many times I can write that word - it’s a fun word to type) part came from a real chihuahua that had cataracts and tended to bark at people sideways because it couldn’t quite tell where its target stood.

The nameless (as far as I could tell) moderator concluded: “We humans relate to God in the same way, making a more or less joyful noise in God's general direction, and expecting a reward for doing so.”

So from the beginning, this website is dedicated to those who are not so sure they have got God right. It is intended to be for people of all or no faiths, for those who may be firm in their beliefs but also want a respectful and probing conversation with others who do not necessarily believe the same things.

That’s why I bookmarked it.

As a minister of the Gospel, I have a fairly firm grasp of what I believe and who God is. But only fairly firm. As a Baptist minister once pointed out, all that can be known is so much more vast than any one human can ever know, that none of us should be fool enough to claim we understand it all, let alone that we understand God.

I liked the tone of this website even if the chihuahua initially put me off. It’s of discovery and sharing. It’s of respect and acceptance of others for who they are. It’s a tone that says, “even if we do not see God the same, I will not try to convince you that you’re wrong but will see God at work in you in the way you love.”

One of the interesting prayers on this site takes portions (or the entirety) of prayers from the three Abrahamic traditions and melds them into one prayer. The Jewish lines sound very much like the Christian lines which sound very much like the Muslim lines. The point, of course, is that at our heart, we all seek to love God. At our cores, we are all God’s children.

It’s a serious religious community. In fact, I’d almost say too serious. It’s still a good website to visit, but I think they need to lighten up a bit. On the other hand, maybe the site’s moderators believe that, if you’re going to have a chihuahua for your mascot, you’d better have more bite than your bark might hint.

Turf Wars - A Sermon

I have to tell you something rather distressing. I spent an unfruitful hour recently searching for Altar Guild Humor. The internet, with all its vast resources, found nothing humorous about the Altar Guild. Instead, I found this:

I’m afraid she looks like she’s saying, “Touch my vestments, and you will pay! And don’t even think of moving that chalice!” You and I know that this is unfair to OUR altar guild - people who are humble and kind and who DO share a sense of humor. But perhaps it speaks to the subtile temptation and danger of all positions of authority in church. TURF.

We take on a postion, and pretty soon, WE are in charge, and you had better not get in my way. In fact, now that I’m in charge, it’s my way or the high way. We start to guard our turf at church so much that sometimes we make a mess. I remember the senior warden of St. Peter’s, Peekskill - Ron Ashton. A great guy who loved being involved in everything. But two weeks before my boss was to go on a 6-month sabbatical in South Africa, Ron died. Well, we had a junior warden, so my boss went. On Sunday morning a month later, in January’s subzero temperatures, the boiler blew.

As it turned out, Ron had been taking care of the boiler, bleeding it with a method he did not even let the new sexton know about. He had guarded his turf so jealously that he took his knowledge to the grave, and it cost the church dearly.

Guarding our turf seems to be a time-honored tradition in the church. Even before it was the church, we people seemed to think that “Once I get a position, it is MINE. And woe betide anyone who sets foot in my domain.”

In today’s old Testament reading in Numbers, Eldad and Medad did what was not their turf. They had not been set aside as one of the 70, yet they prophesied. Joshua was outraged. But Moses knew they had the spirit and did the work God wanted. Which doesn’t necessarily mean that they had authority - only that Moses saw what others couldn’t. He saw that there is something more than just authorized leadership. Perhaps that ALL can take their share of leadership - and that all have a role in the community.

We see the same thing in today’s Gospel. The disciples were outraged that a guy was casting demons out in Jesus’ name -- even though he was not part of the official entourage. He was stepping all over their turf! But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.”

Now, I don’t want anyone to get the idea that we shouldn’t have some order in the church. It’s good to know who to go to when we need to set up for a baptism or when we need to have a potluck or teach a class. But perhaps it means that more of us can take a leadership role than we dare think possible.

Did you note that part in the Gospel about causing anyone to stumble, about parts of your body causing you to sin? Too often, perhaps, the church has done that -- causing people to stumble, by making the Body of Christ impotent - by teaching that only the special folks can preach, teach, evangelize. That is not “official” teaching - officially, as we talked about last week at baptism - we are all ministers. The priesthood of all believers. Perhaps we don’t stress that because we like our special status - our turf.

Of course, there is danger is marking out your turf. Aside from practicalities, like passing on knowledge when it’s time to move on or in case of emergency, (Ron and the boiler), there is the spiritual danger of arrogance.

When I was in seminary, one of our professors beat into our heads that it is a sin not to take a day off or not to take a vacation. First, because we need it, but just as importantly, he said, because priests tend to think the church will fall apart without them. The church needs ME. The world needs me.

No, the world needs God, but God has placed all of us here. Both clergy and the church need reminders of that. We need to remember that it's time for all of us to pick up our mantles and prophesy or heal or evangelize.

Yes, there are specialized ministries - but they are subsets of the main ministry, and they are not unique. There are lots of priests and deacons, lots of organists, lots of people capable of being altar guild and Sunday school and acolytes and lay readers and lectors. None of us owns the position. The church will not cease without us.

And yet, the church IS us. And it does need all of us in order to fulfill its mission. We are -- ALL OF US -- here to work together to make the Kingdom of God reality. We are here -- all of us -- to make Christ known. As a community, we can do this by serving on the Altar Guild (and I bet our leaders would LOVE to have you join), the choir, the Vestry, the Youth Group -- you name it. And we can do it by sharing God’s love at all times everywhere.

The point is, if you are part of the church, YOU are one of the ministers. Don’t let anyone make you think you don’t have a piece of the ministry of Christ. The world is your turf - let’s get out there and share it. Amen.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Welcome to Your Smallness - A Sermon

Are you ready for some football? Woo hoo! It’s time for the Bears! All right, uh huh, they’re number one!

What? You’re not Bears fans? How can that be? The Bears are like the greatest football team ever! They won eight NFL championships, plus Superbowl XX in 1985! The Bears are Number 1! If only I had a foam finger…

Okay, so maybe the Bears aren’t the greatest. Maybe this looks a little silly. When you think about it, all that screaming and shouting about number one IS silly. And it’s not very helpful to us, either.

One reason is because that whole “We’re number 1” way of thinking carries over into regular life. You know, “Our school is best.” “Our company is preeminent in blah blah,” Or, “Our country is the greatest country on earth.” Baloney! None of these things is “the greatest” -- and we really don’t want them to be either.

Because, no matter what you’re talking about, being the greatest really means making yourself small. True greatness means giving up all the outward trappings of power and pride and making yourself weak and vulnerable -- precisely because you know there’s something stronger inside you, and because you know there’s something bigger than you that needs to be done. Like Jesus.

Jesus had to deal with this in his disciples. Here he is, telling them what he must do -- make himself small, be betrayed and killed. He tells them that only then can he perform the greatest work for all humanity by rising again.

They, in their innate smallness, do not understand and, again as evidence of their small thinking, argue about who’s the best -- like kids yelling “We’re number 1.”

Now, Jesus had an opportunity to put these guys in their place. He had a chance -- and you know he would have had every right to do it -- to puff himself up and start screaming, “You fools. Who do you thing I am? I’m the greatest! You want to do what I’m about to do? Go ahead!”

To give you a little perspective, you should know that this even takes place just a little bit after the transfiguration -- you know when Jesus is shown all bright and shiny standing there with Moses and Elijah, and God speaks from heaven about him -- so you’d think they would have a clue about Jesus’ greatness. And it’s immediately after they had been unable to heal somebody and had to run to Jesus for help, so you’d think they’d have a clue about their own “greatness.”

But Jesus doesn’t do that. He knows his place. He knows who he is and has no need to flaunt it. He can be gentle with them.

So, instead, he brings a child and says “Whoever welcomes the little guy -- even a kid -- welcomes me.”

Now, you know what position a kid had back then, don’t you? Not very big. They were things to avoid stepping on. Maybe not even seen -- especially little ones. It was the woman’s job to keep them out of the men’s way.

So Jesus is saying to them, “Welcome the lowest just as you would me. Because here is where you will find me.”

Welcome to your smallness.

If you want to follow Jesus, make yourself small because the job of following Jesus is not to be Number 1. All you need for that is a foam finger. The job of following Jesus is to see Jesus in others -- and because you see Jesus in others, to love them.

Maybe he brings a child before them because children are thought of as worthless but maybe also because they are ready to love without asking, “What have you done for me lately.” They love because that’s what we’re made to do -- only we forget because we’re told we’re supposed to be the greatest (and we believe it).

This is all very good timing because today you are going to have a child -- two children in fact -- join our community of believers. Today, Breaden and Riley are going to become members of the church in baptism. And although they may not understand all the ins and outs of what Jesus means, they understand love.

In baptism, we remind ourselves -- at least those of us who are baptized -- that we have died to that life of chasing greatness. It just doesn’t matter. And in dying to that old life, we have been born anew into a life where something bigger, more powerful, more important reside inside us.

God’s love -- which is a constant urge inside us, always struggling to come to the surface even when we don’t like it -- to seek the best for everyone around us near and far. It’s not easy, it’s not something we can do on our own even when we think we’re tough enough. God constantly reminds us, we can’t do it by ourselves -- we’re not number 1, and we don’t need to be.

All we need is to that light that is Christ, and we’ll be led right. It will lead us to needing others, to kneeling and seeking forgiveness, to reaching up to God and saying, “In you I have found my meaning.” Being baptized means never having to say, “I’m the greatest.”

It might not even mean saying anything at all because you don’t need words to share God’s love. As St. Francis said, “Preach the Gospel at all times, use words if necessary.”

So, Breaden and Riley, Welcome to YOUR smallness. Amen.

What Does it Mean to Know Christ? - A Sermon Outline

Sorry, I didn't write this one out. You can read the outline and get the gist of the sermon, I think. Hope it's helpful.

1. We say our goal is to know and to make Christ known

2. Peter recognized Jesus as Messiah/Christ but did not understand what it meant

3. Proverbs complains even before this of us not knowing - and hating knowing. Are we like that?

4. Maybe because James says- it’s dangerous to go around proclaiming when we often spread falsehood. Or evil in the name of Christ.

5. So who is Christ and what does it mean to know him?

6. Note that Peter, who got it so wrong, knew Jesus personally. Sat, ate with him. Listened to his words. Now, how do we know him? Scripture? Partly because it gives us an idea but also not perfect.

7. We’re left with two dilemas. One, how do we know him when he’s not here like he was with Peter? Two, what does it mean for our lives to know him?

8. How: Through Scripture, Prayer, each other. Simple but powerful. That’s why the church gives canon (law) that says it’s each Christian’s responsibility to be here - unless there’s good and extreme cause. We need each other to know Christ.

9. What does it mean is much more treacherous. Because as James says, if we go off half-cocked, we make things worse. As Peter demonstrated, Christ is not here to make us more comfortable or safe. Seeking safety is NOT knowing Christ. Messiah came to give himself even to death.

10. Perhaps the only way to really know Christ is to follow, and for that we have his example, as extreme as it may be. To immitate him, to as WWJD and then do it. But without prayer and study followed by action, we can’t hope to know him, let alone know what it means to know him.

11. Question is, do we really want to know him in the first place? If it means to give up what we own, to give up ourselves, our lives, our comfort? I don’t know. But until each of us gets about the task of finding out, we’ll know the answer is NO.

Is Healing Necessary? - A Sermon

One of the most annoying things about Jesus is that he’s always healing people. One touch, and poof, the illness is gone. One touch, and poof, a dear man can hear.

Doesn’t even require a touch for some. Like the woman in today’s gospel - Jesus just says, “Go home, your daughter is healed.”

What’s annoying about this is that, of course, things don’t happen like that for most of us. It gets worse when you read Matthew’s version of this story. After the woman replies that even dogs get to eat what’s under the table, Jesus says, "O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.”

You see, there it’s all about her faith. Like the mustard seed. You know, when the disciples came back from their mission trip and some hadn’t been able to cure a boy of a deamon, so Jesus had to do it. The disciples asked, “Why could we not cast it out?” 20He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”

So, is it faith that heals our bodies? Is the point of the gospel stories simply that if only we had enough faith we could heal better and be healed?

No. Physical healing is never the point. As I’ve said many times before, Jesus did not heal everyone who had faith - and everyone he did heal eventually died. If healing was the sum total of Jesus’ ministry, we would not bother being here.

Healing is just a teaching device. He used it as well as feeding and story telling to help us understand a bit about God. Usually no more than we could digest.

And what is that lesson? Well, look at today’s gospel. First thing to notice is that Jesus is in Tyre. If you look at a map, you’ll see that he’s not really in Israel at all. He’s way up north on the Mediterranean Coast -- pretty much in what would be modern Lebanon. The next thing to notice is that the woman he encounters is Syrophoenician, that is of that region and NOT Jewish.

And yet, Jesus’ reputation for healing precedes him even in these foreign parts. The woman, who is not Jewish, comes to him for help. Contrast that with the Pharisees from just a bit earlier in the chapter who had no interest in the healing Jesus did but were most interested in whether or not he and his disciples washed their hands.

The lesson is not that Jesus heals but that it is a foreigner he heals. When she comes begging for help, he produces those rude words: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” He’s expressing the exact sentiment of most Jews -- most certainly the sentiment of his disciples. Take care of home first. Charity begins at home. Or better yet, don’t bother with outsiders at all. They’re not one of us.

So it is with great intention that Mark includes this story and that famous reply: “Yes, but even the dogs eat the crumbs under the table.” There is no such thing as someone being left out of God’s grace and mercy.

Let’s be clear on this: the woman was of the wrong faith. She did not become Jewish. She remained a foreigner. Yet she looked to Jesus perhaps as Son of God, perhaps only as divinely connected healer -- and she knew he would help her because she saw mercy as well as power. She saw love and could trust it.

Our lesson then is that healing may or may not come to those who pray. In the end, it doesn’t matter because we will all go the same way. As much as I would love for each of us to be able to heal the sick just by having more faith, in the end, no amount of faith will stop us from returning to the earth.

What our faith can do is increase our appreciation for the breadth of God’s love and mercy. It can help us broaden OUR capacity for love and mercy as well.

By the way, James reminds us that this broader capacity for love is not just to “those out there.” He warns about ignoring those closer to home -- not with charity but with how we treat those who are poor. Because sometimes we treat them as beneath us, and James says that is every bit as sinful as treating the foreigner or the person of a different faith badly.

The end message? Healing is not most importantly of the body. Rather it is if our own prejudice against those different from us. It is healing of our notion that God somehow loves US more. As if God could love one of his children more.

Inside Out - A Sermon

First of all, it’s good to be home. Three weeks is a long time. But while we were away, we had virtually no internet access and watched almost no TV. Okay, we watched George Lopez and iCarly at the hotel, but that’s it. And the Weather Channel, but that’s it, really.

The point is, speaking for myself, I felt separated from all the cares and concerns that I normally get caught up in on a day to day basis. It felt good. Of course, then we got back and checked in with the newspapers and -- voila -- the Health Care debate. Oh yeah, I’d forgotten about that.

If you listen to people in this debate, it’s clear that it’s a big deal. I do not want to minimize its importance because health care certainly is a vital issue. But thinking about our physical health brought me to another reflection. Despite the quality of health care we eventually end up with, we’re all still going to die.

It’s just like that food the Pharisees were all upset about (and my grandma might have been a Pharisee because she was constantly yelling at us to wash our hands before we ate). They talked about cleanliness and ritual purity. Today we talk about health. But just as surely as you can be clean on the outside yet dirty on the inside, so you can be physically healthy while still being spiritually dying.

That may have been Jesus’ point. We can follow all those traditions, but in the end, it’s not about which rules we followed to the letter. All of the religious rituals upheld by the Pharisees and scribes may have a place or a purpose, but they are not what matters in the end. All the medicine that keeps us going longer has its place, but it too only affects our outsides, our physical self. Rather, it’s about what comes out of us that matters.

Notice what Jesus lists as those things coming out of us. Theft, murder, adultery, avarice, envy, slander, pride, and deceit to name a few. In short, they are all issues of how we treat each other. THAT is what matters -- to the Law, to Jesus, to God. It’s when we treat others as less than ourselves that we become dirty, that we start to die inside.

And the way to healing is to treat others near and far with love. As James says, we are “to care for orphans and widows in their distress,” for starters. That’s nothing new for us, is it?

But it’s important to remind ourselves from time to time that there are more important things for us Episcopalians than getting the liturgy right. More important things than whether we’re using Rite I or Rite II, whether the music is upbeat or modern enough (or “traditional” enough -- and don’t get Jesus started on that word “tradition).

What’s important is what’s coming from our hearts.

I would venture to say that sometimes, when we just do good deeds out of a sense of duty or “tradition,” they might be empty gestures as well. Jesus really indicates here that our actions need to come from within - they reflect our spiritual health as it were. And while it’s not always easy to feel great even when you’re serving others, we can always ask ourselves why we’re doing it.

By this I’m thinking of those who do good deeds so they can look good. I suspect this might fall in the category of self-serving. It’s not enough merely to be a philanthropist but to do so from a position of love for others. On the other hand, St. James believed that by doing good -- not merely giving money but actually engaging with those in need -- our hearts could be transformed.

So, in a sense, while what comes out of us can defile, it can also nurture love and joy in others and consequently in ourselves. In other words, what comes out of us can heal us and purify us.

Which, I have to believe, is what would please God most. After all, look at that passage from the Song of Solomon. It’s about unbridled love, passion, joy. That, I believe, is how God wants us to approach him, and the best way to get there is to approach each other that way, too.