Friday, October 23, 2009

God, Life and Everything - Scooterized

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.

With the first flakes of snow this Fall -- yes, I saw flakes of snow! -- it’s time for me to put the scooter up for the season.

Now, when I say scooter I mean a motorscooter, like a motorcycle with a misplaced engine, undersized wheels and a shield up front to keep the feet clean.

I used to ride a motorcycle, ’78 Honda Hawk, but after a few years of not being able to get it started and letting it rot in the shed, I sold it to a guy who had it working in a week. That’s okay, somehow a priest riding a motorcycle always seemed like a strange image.

Still, I enjoy riding.

Then one day the idea hit me: get a scooter. Not for riding the highways, mind you, not for cruising but for inexpensive, efficient, practical transportation. I did not want someone pointing at me saying, “Well, that guy’s going through a midlife crisis.”

So I did my research, fully expecting to be putting around on a classic Vespa, little realizing the vast array of scooter companies out there. Soon the scope of my search widened to include Piagio, Eton, Genuine Scooter, Aprilia, Lambretta, Kymco, and of course Honda and Yamaha. Who knew?

I settled on Kymco 150 cc Super 8. It’s a cute red bike that looks like it really wants to be a motorcycle. Not just a motorcycle but hotshot bikes. Until you look at it sideways. Then you know it’s a pretender. But I love it. Powerful enough to take me on my local pastoral visits, it never tempts me to see what it can do. Just getting down from the church to the library takes a full open throttle.

One of the surprises I encountered with my scooter is the motorcycle wave. You might not know it, but motorcyclists wave to each other when they pass. Not an up-in-the-air “how ya doing?” kind of wave, but a finger pointed to the ground, very cool wave that let’s the other know they are part of a fellowship.

The surprise is that they wave at me and my scooter. You would never think of someone on a Harley or a Triumph or BMW deigning to acknowledge a scooter. Perhaps it’s merely because from the front, my Kymco does look a lot like a real motorcycle. I imagine some guy on a bit Suzuki waving to me, then giving himself a dope slap as passed and realized that, “Doh, I just waved to a scooter!”

But perhaps it’s because the two-wheeled fellowship has room for all shapes and sizes, and the fact that we’re out there is enough. It feels good to be waved at, to be acknowledged, to be accorded the respect of someone with a much bigger, much more impressive machine.

And maybe that’s the point of my scooter. It’s little, weak and insignificant -- like so many of us -- yet it does its job and brings a little joy to life, again like so many of us.

Isn’t it good to know that we who are small and of no real account matter enough to get acknowledged, too? By our families (we hope), by loved ones and friends, and most of all by God. We may not be splashy or famous or even all that well-known locally. But to receive a kind nod, or smile, or handshake -- it all matters.

It matters that we acknowledge each other in a cold and hard world. So give a wave, let someone know they’re part of an exclusive fellowship called humanity. And do so even if they are small, insignificant and just possibly a pretender. It’ll do us all some good.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Vain Expectations - A Sermon

I may have made a mistake naming this sermon. When I phoned the title into our secretary, she asked me, “Is that Vane Expectations, Vein Expectations or Vain Expectations?” All sorts of images popped into my head. For V-A-N-E, I envisioned a weatherman staring at a barn’s weather vane saying, “Move! Move! I gotta report something!” For V-E-I-N, I saw a vampire in his coffin dreaming dreams of fat, luscious arteries. Unfortunately, for V-A-I-N -- a word that means to have an excessively high opinion of oneself but als means and to have little meaning or likelihood of fulfillment, the picture in my mind was my ordination.

I was ordained with, I think, 10 other priests down at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, there was a moment during the rite when, according to my parents, all of us ordinands just disappeared. My mom and dad looked at each other and said, “Where did they go?”

Where we went was down on the floor lying on our stomachs, spread eagle. This was supposed to be a sign of our humility as well as our obedience.

As a class, we had had the option of kneeling instead of prostrating ourselves, and I had voted for kneeling. I figured it was so showy that this supposed act of humility was in fact designed to draw attention to us and our holiness. I lost the vote, so there I was looking at the cathedral’s floor from a new perspective thinking, “First they don’t let us get ordained individually in our own churches, as is tradition, and now we have to embarrass ourselves in front of all these people. This is not what I expected for my ordination!”

Then I remembered something Dear Abby had written to a young bride upset about her mom messing up what was supposed to be the happiest day of her life. Abby said, “My dear, I hope it’s NOT the happiest day of your life because then, what would the future hold for your marriage? Remember, the marriage is important, not the ceremony.” And I remembered that the ministry was important, not the ceremony.

Keep that in mind. We have all sorts of expectations, like James and John who want to sit at Jesus’ right and left. They feel they deserve this honor because they are the sons of thunder, loud brash, undoubtedly brave. They’re the enforcers of the disciples, and if Jesus has something tough to do, as he’s been hinting, they’re his guys. They expect Jesus to look at them and say, “Well, of course, you’re the best. Come on up!”

Of course, it looks like what they really want isn’t the work of ministry at all but an impressive position. They want people to admire them. They like the idea of being up on the podium with Jesus looking impressive -- but they haven’t grasped that it’s the ministry that’s important to Jesus, not the ceremony. That to be with Jesus means to suffer -- to empty oneself.

The writer of Hebrews gets it. Even speaking to a Jewish audience, even using the example of a Jewish High Priest, the writer understands that the job of the priest is to be gentle and humble, to know his own faults and lift them up to God for mercy as well as those of the people. The irony of this touching picture is that a lot of high priests saw their office as a gravy train. Great income, flashy clothes, respect from the little people -- and little responsibility or care for anyone else.

James and John apparently have that ironic image in their minds when they approach Jesus. Jesus reminds them of the truer high priestly ministry.

I don’t want to be too hard on James and John, however. They’re a lot like us. We look to God or the church or life in general and we have our expectations, too. How do I know? Because I hear people all the time saying “That’s not how it’s supposed to be.” Or “I did all the right things and look where it got me.” Or “If God really loved us, he wouldn’t let all these bad things happen.” And so on.

Because we think like James and John -- and Job. Job thinks that if you do only good things like him -- even praying for his children in case their prayers aren’t up to snuff -- then things will go right because God will make them right. And right, he just knows, means that you’re wealthy and healthy.

When God fails to meet his expectations, Job takes God to court. That’s what we see in our passage today. God is now answering Job’s charges. Job has essentially said, “You aren’t keeping your part of the bargain. I behaved, and you didn’t deliver.”

God’s response? “Did you make the world? Do you understand everything? Are you God? Who said you got what you wanted because you did good? Who said that was even the point?” Not the response Job is looking for -- he’s so sure of his case because it’s what everyone believed back then. Good things happen to good people. God said “NO.”

So, if James and John are wrong to expect a strong response from Jesus based on their own strong personalities, and Job is wrong to expect sympathy from God based on his exemplary behavior, what CAN we expect from God?

Not justice in this world. Not fairness. Not proper liturgy or a position based on what we deserve. Not even a meal. Not even life itself. No, what we can fairly expect from God is only one thing.

God loves us.

All else is vanity.

But that love is enough. It is enough to make sense of this strange life. It is enough to give us hope for life eternal with God. It is enough to infect our small lives so that it flows through us. It is enough to drive you and me and all of St. James’ and the whole church to seek out Christ in others. Serving, rejoicing with, caring for, breaking down barriers.

God’s love, ever flowing, never ceasing is the only thing we can expect, but that expectation is not vanity. It is everything we can ever hope for. Amen.

God, Life and Everything - Walkway Illuminated

I write a biweekly 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.

Woo hoo! The Walkway Over The Hudson opened this weekend!

I had been waiting for this moment for a long time, one of those nutty folks who thought the idea of an elevated pedestrian park was brilliant and could not wait to get out onto it.

My chance came Friday night when my family got to be lantern carriers in what they called the “Illumination.” This required a certain amount of planning for us because lantern carriers were supposed to gather at 5:30 pm, but I had a 4:00 pm wedding. Thankfully, with the aid of a wonderfully understanding and cooperative bridal couple, we got to the meeting area with seconds to spare.

There we took a bus to another gathering area -- the walkway’s new parking lot -- and received our Japanese lanterns to assemble. They said there were a thousand people gathering on our side of the bridge, and I believe it. People everywhere, young, old, physically able and in wheelchairs, all smiling and chatting. The picture taking was incredible -- we all took pictures for each other so we could show our loved ones that we were there.

Then we walk out onto the bridge. It seemed as if almost everybody stopped at the actual entrance and had another picture taken. This was a big moment.

And then we were there, first looking down at houses and cars, not all that far below. As we walked, they got smaller and the mood became more festive. The giddiness was palpable, and it grew with laughter and giggles and more camera flashes. At first, the lanterns we held were merely pretty; as it became dark, as we stepped out over the water, they became magical.

They also blew around a lot because on an October evening with projections of rain, it was windy! But who cared? Parents pushing strollers bundled more blankets around the kids, and the rest of us put hats on and kept walking. Someone shouted, “There’s the Clearwater!” and hundreds of cameras clicked again.

My favorite part of the evening came when the “lantern masters” did their work. All across the bridge, teams set up giant paper balloons -- three or four feet tall -- and ignited a little furnace dangling at the bottom. When they got hot enough, the heat lifted the balloons off the bridge and into the air where the strong wind swept them away. Hundreds of these lanterns flew of the bridge, some diving nearly into the river before beginning a slow climb, others rocketing into the dark sky like reverse shooting stars.

My camera clicked over and over trying to capture those yellow stars as they swept into the night. I doubt anyone looking at the pictures will be able to grasp the feeling.

For much of our two-and-a-half hours on the Walkway Over The Hudson, we simply looked out over the river, first in the evening light, then into the darkness that is never dark. Lights around us outlined streets, houses, even another bridge to the south with and endless stream of cars illuminating each lane.

There were fireworks to end the evening, and they were wonderful. Wonderfully loud, wonderfully bright and wonderfully close. Maybe it was the wind, but if you weren’t careful, you could even feel some of the residue hit your face. My family smelled like sulpher at the end. We’ve been to countless fireworks displays before, so as beautiful as it was, for me it did not quite match the quiet magic of the balloons. Which did not stop us from taking innumerable photographs of them.

You may ask why anyone should get so worked up about an old bridge being turned into a park -- a park, by the way, that many people are afraid to go on because it’s so high up. Well, I’ve asked myself that question, too.

First, I love the idea of something old and forgotten being given new life. The old being made new, the cast down being raised up again -- for a pastor, this all resonates with my sense of what life is all about.

Second, get out there on the walkway and look over the river. There’s such beauty. It was what I thought it would be, and it inspires. We were just at the Grand Canyon taking in its grandure this summer. I am thrilled to have our own wonder right here.

Third, though I don’t have a fear of heights, at least one person I know who does still went out there Friday evening. He said it did not bother him in the least. No promises, but that’s the testimony.

Sadly, I had to miss Saturday’s festivities because I had to be out of town for a meeting, but Friday night will live on in my memory. It was, well, illuminating.

You can learn more about the Walkway Over The Hudson at

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do - A Sermon

I would like you to take a pen, take out your bulletin, and draw a line through the sermon title. But remember it - that’s next week’s sermon. We do clergy bible study a week in advance, on Thursday, which is usually when I give Dyan the sermon title. Well, I came out of bible study thinking about next week’s sermon - and gave her that title. If you want to have a title for this week’s sermon, let’s call it: “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do”

In Mosaic law, the woman had little power. All you had to do was write a certificate of divorce. In some mideastern cultures, the man still only has to say, “I divorce you” three times to the woman and send her away. (There is the story going around about the man who tried to divorce his wife by sending her an e-mail with the message, “I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you.” She contested it, and the judge upheld her complaint, insisting that one must tell the woman face to face. I believe the man gave up on the divorce because he was afraid to face her.

Well, to be honest, I can understand that. If you’ve ever been divorced -- and most of you know that I was divorced in my 20s -- you know it is painful and messy and affects you for the rest of your life. Many peole prefer to simply run away - or have affairs - than deal with the firestorm of ending a relationship.

Of course, if you were a woman in Jesus’ or Moses’ day, it was easier -- you were property and could not send a man away. Property has no rights -- and property has no relationships.

Here is the spirit of what Jesus was getting at. The divorce law perverted the idea of relationship. God created us male and female -- God created us to be in relationship -- and when we turn that relationship into a commodity, we destroy its purpose. We also make it disoposable.

Rather than invest ourselves fully into the relationship -- which makes getting out very hard -- we keep it on the surface level. “She’s property to get rid of when she becomes inconvenient or irritable. I can get a replacement.” That’s hardness of heart.

But if you invest yourself into a relationship -- put your whole self into it -- you know that it’s ending is painful, hard, too much to bear alone. That is as it should be in marriage and in life.

You can skim along with superficial relationships, saying hello and goodbye with relative ease -- with the simplicity in fact of writing a certificate of dismissal. But they will remain forever superficial, disposable acquaintances who cannot help you grow in your heart. You remain cold and sterile.

When you commit to another person, something new appears. Jesus calls it two becoming one. Whatever you want to call it, the bond is strong and does not break easily because to break the bond is to break a part of yourself.

This is how our relationship with God, can be too. Remember old Job? God lets Satan torment him, kill his children, destroy his business and ravage his body with sores. Lot’s wife says, “Why don’t you just curse God and die?” Not that she really wanted to get rid of him -- I think -- but she figured he was done for. She believed God had abandoned Job, so Job should do the same.

Only Job could not. He did not understand the abuse God was putting him through, but he knew that they had been together a very long time. He knew that his relationship with God had been real and committed. He could not and would not let go so easily. Not until he heard directly from God that it was over. For him, the greatest tragedy would have been to be without God even in the midst of the pain and suffering.

Now, I should point out that the message of Job’s story is not that God likes to play with us like a cat with a mouse. The main point of the story was meant to be that bad things happen to ALL people, not just those who deserve them, which was a prevailing thought at the time. You know, “if you’re sick or poor or blind, you deserve it, so we don’t have to help you.” The story was told to remind us that your circumstances are not a reflection of your goodness, so don’t judge the poor.

But it is the depth of relationship that comes through. It is more important to Job than riches or health or even posterity. And that is what we seek in our relationship with God -- and if we’re smart -- with each other.

Remember the words from the marriage ceremony? For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, till we are parted by death. This is not only good for marriage, but for all of us. For it is in Christ that we are not many but one, and what God has joined, let no one separate. Amen.