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.

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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.

Why?

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.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A Tale of Two Sins - A Sermon

Great story about Naboth and Ahab and Elijah, huh? (1 Kings 21:1-14) And that Jezebel? We love to hate her!

Classic story. I mean, there you have a rich king who wants something, and he takes it. And if some underling should die as a result, oh well. Then you have a prophet who comes and condemns the king’s reprehensible behavior.

But didn’t it sound familiar? Oh, I know – there was an alternate story the lectionary picked for today. It involved a different king, a different prophet and a different victim but was otherwise pretty similar. Anyone want to guess? That’s right! David and Bathsheba.

You remember David and Bathsheba. There David was on his balcony one evening when what does he see but beautiful Bathsheba, the wife of David’s general Uriah, bathing on her roof. He wants her. He takes her. Then, when she reports herself pregnant, he tries to cover up by bringing Uriah back from the battle so he can have a nice time with his wife. Uriah is too noble for that, however, and says he won’t enjoy himself until all of his men can come home to their families. So, David has him killed, then marries the unfortunate widow.

But there are differences in these stories, aren’t there? For example, while Ahab is led astray by that wicked Jezebel, David think up his own sin for himself.

More importantly, when the prophet Nathan condemns David, he tells a story and lets David figure out his sin by himself. Then he punishes him by killing Bathsheba’s and his baby.

Elijah, on the other hand, goes straight for the jugular with Ahab. He condemns him straight out and punishes him with a death sentence. I mean, the dogs will lick up his blood? That is worse than a death sentence because it means ultimate humiliation. Ahab and his family will be wiped out forever.

Why is that? It’s the same sin essentially. Why does one king get off “light” (just the death of one child) while another gets the worst treatment?

You could think up a lot of excuses. Because David was the first great king. Because kingdom grew so much under him. Because he was never defeated in battle.

Of course, David had family troubles. His wife hated him. His son raped his daughter. His other son killed that son then rebelled against David in a civil war. Israel was not all peace and joy under David.

But Ahab! That scoundrel had the audacity to be led by a woman AND to die in battle. Besides, apparently he just wasn’t that popular.

But what’s that got to do with the sin? Does this show our human tendency to cover over the sins of those we love and exaggerate the sins of those we don’t? Of course it does. And we do it all the time.

So what lesson to draw from that? We can start with: Be careful whom we condemn. And whom we call good.

But perhaps we can take another lesson from another set of two sins. The woman who came to Jesus and anointed his feet – she was a sinner (though in what way it does not say) – yet she was so grateful to Jesus for letting her know God loved her. The Pharisee was surely also a sinner, but he barely covered the basics of etiquette in welcoming Jesus.

Why? Because, as Jesus said, the woman was forgiven much while the Pharisee felt he didn’t have to be forgiven that much. The one who felt forgiven the most LOVED the most.

One lesson out of this tale of two sins might be not only that we must be careful whom we condemn, but that those we are most tempted to condemn are most in need of our forgiveness – and the impact on the world of our forgiveness will be multiplied.

Another lesson might be: It’s not the sin that’s the important thing to Jesus but the love that comes from it. After all, if sin is that which separates us from God, what’s the difference between a chasm this size and a chasm thiiiiiiiiiiis size? It’s still an un-breachable chasm. Jesus is not interested in the sin so much as the love that comes from the breaching of that chasm.

Let me repeat. He’s not looking at the sin. He’s looking – with love – at the thankful sinner who loves him back.

Of course this makes no sense in the world – but God’s thinking isn’t ours, God’s ways are not ours. In God’s world, the worst of the worst are allowed to stand shoulder to shoulder with the best – as co-equal children. So, careful whom we condemn, and instead of condemning, let’s try forgiving. Not as satisfying in the short term but in Loooooong term, it’s the only way for God.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Who gets raised? - A Sermon

There are two very similar stories in the Old Testament and the Gospel. In the Old Testament you have the story of Elijah and a widow in the town of Zarephath, and in the Gospel you have the story of Jesus and a widow in the town of Nain.

In each story, the widow has a son – her only son – who dies unexpectedly. And in each, the man of God raises the son from death.

Both of these are nice stories, and they certainly show God’s power, but they leave a gaping question that nags at the soul. Why them? Why do some get so lucky as to be raised from the dead – or healed, for that matter – while others don’t.

Let’s face it, Elijah did not raise all that many people, and he wasn’t known for healing people at all. Jesus raised more, but not that many. He healed a lot of people, but again, in the scope of things it really was not that big a number. There were probably more he left unhealed.

Why is that? What did those people do that found favor in God’s eyes while others died (or lived with the deaths of their loved ones)? You could argue that the widow in Zarephath was taking care of Elijah, so she deserved a little help, but the widow in Nain? She never said a word to Jesus.

These are questions a lot of people ask today, because a lot of people every day have to deal with those unanswerable questions: Why did my child die? Why did my spouse die? Why am I dying? Why do some people suffer and others don’t? Why me?

It doesn’t seem fair.

And in a way, it’s not. The way the world is balanced, it depends on all of us dying in our own turn. We will all die. Some of those deaths will be at a young age, others old. Some will be brutal and painful, others peaceful, quiet, even beautiful. It is a bit random.

Just like those healings. They were a bit random. In fact, part of what they might show us is that not only is death and suffering a bit random, so is healing and life.

Why did I ever get born? Why did I survive that crash? Why did that inoperable tumor disappear? Why am I alive now when someone else just like me is not?

Sometimes, people ask these questions as if life were a business transaction. You pay your money, and you get what you ask for. You work hard and you get rewarded. You pray hard, and God gives you what you want.

Which would mean that these healings are rewards. They are not rewards. They are signs.

A sign – like a sacrament – points to something much bigger happening inside. In the case of biblical healings, they are a sign of God’s compassion. They point to how much God loves us – not the kind of love that says God will never let us be hurt. Certainly not the kind of love that says we will never leave our earthly bodies – everyone does, including those who were raised.

Compassion comes from the Latin that means to suffer with. So, this compassion which these raisings point to is the kind that says, “I am with you in good and bad. I am with you when the unexpected, the unfair, the disastrous happens. There is nothing that will make all the painful go away, but you will not be alone through any of it.”

All sacraments point not to the physical, but to the spiritual growth and life inside. These miracles we see today point to the same thing – the body is healed for a while, but it is the soul that lives forever.

None of this is probably all that comforting in a time of crisis and pain – when you’re hurting, you’re hurting – but it is good to know that when we go through such times, it’s not a matter of deserving. After all, everyone is God’s child.

It’s a matter of finding God’s love inside, and knowing that the life which comes through this love is forever. Amen.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Memorial Day Prayer

Yesterday, Memorial Day, I offered the invocation and benediction at the annual ceremony at the FDR Presidential Library Rose Garden.

It is a difficult prayer for me for a couple of reasons. First, the audience is not parishioners - it is a diverse group who do not pray as we do, and since many are not Christian, to offer a prayer that speaks to all is difficult. Second, Memorial Day is not a church feast. It is a state holiday that runs the risk of asking for the trappings of religion without wanting the admonitions of that religion.
Third, and this is most difficult for me, the admonitions of our religion do not play well with what Memorial Day has become for many people: cheerleading for our military exploits, lionization of those who die (giving the "ultimate sacrifice").

Quite apart from the fact that Christians do not believe dying is the "ultimate sacrifice" since we live eternally with Christ [in fact, it seems a greater sacrifice to be, for example, to be gravely and permanently injured, living the rest of your life with missing body parts, brain damage, the inability to hold down a job and so on] -- quite apart from that, there is the issue of the church rarely approving of war.

There is the fact that many of our wars do not measure up to the rhetoric surrounding this holiday, as if every conflict we ever entered were noble or holy. Most, in fact, are not. Too many are exploits in search of greater power or resources that do not belong to us. The phrase "national interest," replaced "national defense" long ago.

I am not a complete pacifist, mind you, but it is my Christian belief that every war, even the most justifiable (World War II fits into that category), is a failure on all sides. Let us remember that even World War II had culpability on all sides. Remember those war reparations after World War I (the war we couldn't decide which side to take)? The reparations were so severe that Germans felt they had nothing left to lose and nobody to trust in the world but themselves. A mentality like that gives lots of room to convincing madmen like Hitler.

With that in mind, I take issue with those who want to celebrate the fallen. There is nothing to celebrate in the circumstances of their deaths, as some would contend. All we can do is remember and grieve that we have not figured out how to live as adults, that we have not learned - and maybe do not want - to live as Christ would have us.

And so, although I try never to yell - for yelling is never heard - I pray at these ceremonies in that uncomfortable space of honoring the dead but never the failure of humanity that led to their deaths. Here is my prayer from yesterday's ceremony:

Heavenly Father,

Today is Memorial Day.

Yet, we do not come to celebrate

We do not come to cheer.

We come to mourn.

We come to grieve

Unnumbered lives lost in unnumbered wars,

none of their making,

all of them tragic.

We do not presume to know

The motives of every fallen warrior:

Some fought for love of country,

Or Love of family,

Others for love of tradition

Or adventure.

Some fought simply that they might go home.

Their reasons for fighting are theirs alone to know,

Their loss is ours to remember together.

Holy God,

This is Memorial Day.

We do not come to celebrate,

We come to mourn,

We come to repent.

To repent of

Our impatience and – as the prayer book says –

Intemperate love of worldly things

That lead to such times where soldiers die.

We repent

And rededicate ourselves today

In the name of those who fell,

To work for a world of peace.

Loving God,

This is Memorial Day,

And so we pray,

Let us remember

That we may make such wars

A thing our children -

YOUR children -

will never know again. Amen.

Monday, May 31, 2010

White Again - A Sermon for Trinity Sunday

We have an odd situation today where we have an important Christian feast on the same weekend we have an important state holiday. Everyone knows that this is Memorial Day weekend -- that tomorrow is Memorial Day – and we all know what it’s for.

But I bet many of us here might not know what the Christian feast day is without looking at our bulletins. The strange thing in our church is that some of the most important days go undervalued or even forgotten because – just guessing here – they don’t make good Hallmark cards.

Now, I’m faced with a dilemma. If both of these two holidays are important, which do I address? Well, as a preacher, I really only have one choice. Memorial Day will have a lot of parades and speeches. I myself will offer prayers tomorrow at the Presidential Library. It is important to honor those who died in our nation’s wars, and we will tomorrow, but I have another obligation today.

Because today is the third in a series of extremely important Feast Days of the Church that make up who we are. For us, these three days are as important as any other series of days you can think of with the exception of Holy Week and Easter. Remember two weeks ago was Ascension where Jesus tells the disciples they can’t grow up until he leaves – which he does. We wore white which is a clue that something important is happening. It’s the color of life, of rebirth, of God.

Last week, we celebrated Pentecost when the church received the Holy Spirit and became the church. We wore red, the color of fire and apostles. Red is another clue for us that something big is here.

Today is different, and we’re wearing white again. It is Trinity Sunday, and what we commemorate is not so much an event or a person but an awakening. This is the day we recognize that God is three persons yet still one God. After decades of struggling with how to relate to God in the wake of Jesus Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension, after decades of trying to understand this power they were granted through the Holy Spirit, the Church slowly realized God is Trinity.

This was big. No, it was mind-bogglingly incomprehensible and yet unavoidable – God is not just one person. They had a hard enough time grasping the idea that Jesus was fully God yet fully human. Now they embraced the idea that if Jesus is fully God, and the Holy Spirit is fully God and the Father is fully God, then all three are God.

But this was no emerging polytheistic religion. This was different than anything else ever seen before. A new and revolutionary understanding of God. God is not A PERSON. God is an eternal, loving relationship. Without the Son and the Holy Spirit, the Father is not God. Without the Son and the Father, the Holy Spirit is not God. Without the Father and the Holy Spirit, the Son is not God. We don’t know what they would be if they were not together, but in the end the church recognized that it wouldn’t be God.

I say recognized because the clues were there all along. The earliest writings talk about the spirit of God. In Genesis, the word they use for God, Elohim, is plural. God says, “Let us make…” Throughout the Old Testament, writers say “God is Love,” which is impossible in solitude. Love is a verb that requires a subject – and an object. Old Testament writers don’t grasp the ramifications yet, but the foundation is there.

Then Jesus came, and as they understood how much more he was than a mere prophet, the church began to see. It took time – but then, the greatest insights into life do. Think how long it took you, as a kid, to wake up to the fact that your parents were real people who had once been kids, then teenagers then adults in love – we wake up to these vital things gradually.

Yet it is of vital importance that we do wake up to them. Because until we can grasp their relationship, it’s hard for us to grow in our own adult relationships.

It’s the same for us today. Until we grasp what it means for God to be in Trinity, we can’t really grow in our relationships with God and each other.

So what does it mean? Just as our parents are individuals apart and only become a couple together, so it is with God. The church recognized that apart – unconnected – the persons of God are not God.

With God – however the Father, Son and Holy Spirit came to be together – whether they spontaneously emerged from nothingness at the same time or were three “something elses” who came together, it is only when they were together in love that they were God.

Because God is love. You’ve heard me say it before. The basis for our religion is not worship of an individual but becoming part of that eternal loving relationship.

What this means for us is that we don’t make sacrifices to appease an angry God. We offer ourselves so that we might love with God’s love. We don’t reject others who don’t believe as we do but we look for the love that is within them – because that is where we see the light of Christ. This arises out of understanding God as Trinity.

Sadly, too often, we don’t. We either talk about Jesus, Jesus, Jesus or “The Big Guy” up there. That is not the Trinity.

The Trinity – that which makes us Christians rather than, say Unitarians – means that the primary purpose of our existence on earth is to become loving people – not right, not powerful, not rich, beautiful, or successful, not even or hopeful – just loving. There is no higher good.

Which means we have to ask ourselves in everything we do: Is it loving? Am I loving my neighbor as myself. Am I loving my enemy? This is hard, especially as we approach a day when we remember those killed by enemies in war. But it what our Lord has commanded.

And how to we accomplish the feat of loving even enemies? Well, just as Memorial Day has its proper day, so too does the question of HOW. We will address it in the season to come.

Until then, as we pass through this trinity of holy days and move on to the state holidays – let’s hold fast to that recognition of who God is – and what the resulting good is for us. Amen.

Friday, May 28, 2010

God, Life and Everything - Pen-accosted

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 Sunday was Pentecost. Did you wear red? Did you hear the reading from the Acts of the Apostles in different languages?

Did you know that it was a major Christian Holy Day?

Pentecost, for Christians, marks of course the day when the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles in a tremendous wind. In its aftermath, each apostle had what appeared to be flames resting upon them, and they were able to communicate with the vast throng of people from around the known world, each in their own language.

We call Pentecost the birthday of the church. It was from this moment that the apostles gained the strength, the direction, the power they needed to begin their mission without the physical presence of Jesus. They were now the church, and they knew what they had to do – proclaim the good news of God’s love through Jesus to all the world.

One of the tragedies of something like Pentecost, I believe, is that a lot of people misunderstood its significance. Like the Great Commission that Jesus gave in Matthew’s gospel, they hear the command to spread the gospel everywhere.

That’s all to the good.

But it has ever been a human tendency to believe that, if others don’t see things your way, there’s something wrong with them. There’s also a human tendency to try to make others see things your way – or else. Unfortunately for the gospel – the Good News – too many Christians set out to convert the world and somewhere along the route decided that if they couldn’t do it by argument, they would do it by force.

This is nothing unique to Christians, mind you. Many religions – as well as other ideologies – have attempted to force their way of life upon others. Some, more subtly, don’t use physical force but threats. Problem is, although these methods can indeed get people to get baptized and even say the right things, they do little for spreading the message of God’s love. Too often, those who convert do so out of duress or fear rather than any real love.

That was a long time ago, though, right? I don’t know. I think there are a lot of people who still try to threaten others into belief. Just the threat of eternal punishment is enough for many. But is that the method Jesus would like from us? Would Jesus really want fearful or even resentful followers or those who are attracted to his love?

I only bring this up as a way of suggesting that now and then it’s good for us who are Christian to examine exactly what message – what approach – we employ. Do we use threats, even subtle threats or do we simply love?

Pentecost is the birth of the church, but with this celebration, we are accosted by, confronted with the fact that we have not always used the power granted us wisely or lovingly. So this time around, maybe we Christians can use the season of Pentecost to consider whether the news we bring is good … or not.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Should the Church Exist? - A Sermon

I said yesterday at Debbie & Doug’s wedding that if every single person wore red, then I would skip today’s sermon.

I see someone forgot! Too bad!

But I will at least try to make it worth hearing.

First of all, this is the Feast of Pentecost, the day when the Holy Spirit came to the apostles, the birth of the church. Last week I read an article that suggested that the church – or at least the Episcopal Church – might consider folding its tent up and shutting down. I mentioned it in the E-News this week and asked you what you thought about it. Now I’ll tell you what I believe.

The primary argument in the article is that the church is shrinking – badly. Congregations are getting smaller and devoting increasing percentages of their budgets to survival rather than to spreading the Good News. In essence, they don’t think about the Gospel anymore because they are worried about buildings and grounds.

And why all the shrinkage? Well, there are three main reasons. One, we are shrinking from schism. Two, we’re not speaking the language of those we’re bringing good news to. Three, we don’t know what it is we’re supposed to say and /or don’t know the spirit.

Which shrinkage is scarier? Which one will keep us from growing? Ironically, no one of them is a church killer by itself. Let’s look at them one by one.

Schism: The church has suffered many, many schisms or splits over its history. Even at the very beginning, the church almost immediately went into conflict and division about whether or not to allow non-Jews into the church. Then came the controversy over whether or not they should kick out people who believed that God the Father existed before God the Son. Then there was the big Rome/Eastern Orthodox split in 1054 over who should be the leader of the church. And the Reformation.

In the Episcopal Church, we’ve had schisms over whether we should let blacks serve as clergy, over whether we should let women serve as clergy, over whether we should let gays serve as clergy – and of course, over the language in the prayer book.

You may note that many of our splits are over whom we should keep out or at least keep out of leadership.

Yes, there are splits in the church today. But there always have been and yet the church lives.

Speaking the language: A bigger problem for churches is that they don’t speak the language of the people with whom they’re supposed to be sharing the Good News. Remember that on Pentecost, the apostles were given the gift and sign of speaking in all languages. Their job was clear – speak to the world in a way the world can understand; don’t try to make the world speak your language. John Wesley started getting lay preachers in England in the 1700s because the official church leaders were ignoring the country folk. The lay preachers knew their people and spoke in words they understood. Later on, preachers saw an increasingly electronic world and began using first radio, then TV, then the internet to speak to the people entrusted to them – because that was the language they spoke. Those that refused to adapt their language, as it were, shrank.

It’s true that you don’t always have to be understood. The Roman Catholic church for centuries grew even though very few understood the Latin Mass. But then, that wasn’t their primary mission. They didn’t want people to understand – not even the bible.

For us Episcopalians, on the other hand, we often say our primary message is in our worship. If that’s the case, if our worship is to be our main source of reaching out to others, it better be accessible. And yet, one of our deepest schisms in 1979 was about using language in our worship that people would understand.

Spirit: What about losing the Spirit? Often, it occurs that we forget what we’re here for. Indeed, you would think that losing our way, losing sight of the Good News of God’s love might be damaging to growth.

Well, while it’s true that losing a sense of focus leads to shrinkage, the strange thing is that you don’t actually have to have the Good News of Christ in order to grow numerically. Church history shows that you can that through force or fear or by becoming “entertainment”. The church has used all of these methods to grow in both numbers and power. But such growth is an empty shell.

In the end, however, a church – any church – that has all three of these forms of shrinkage is doomed without a serious turnaround. Are we? As the Christian church at large, as a denomination – as a congregation? Should we exist?

I say yes and offer a couple of practical thoughts:

First, Yes, some small congregations should go out of business & consolidate. The Roman Catholics do it for many congregations under 500. Why? It eats up resources, spending them on B&G instead of K of G. We need to be a bit more brutal in our assessment of congregations so that others can consolidate and grow more easily. BUT, some small congregations are vibrant and vital – let them stand on their own.

Second, Yes, any church that forgets why it’s the church might do better going out of existence in favor of those that remember why they are here. BUT the solution to that is to return to the good news. Hear Jesus speak not only to ears but hearts.

Third, Yes, congregations that don’t know how to communicate to the people entrusted to them are in danger of death. BUT they can change. WE can change.

As to splits: they happen. Fear not. If we believe the Holy Spirit who came at Pentecost leads us into opening the Kingdom of Heaven or leadership in God’s church to an ever increasing number of people, those once unacceptable to people though never to God, then let those splits occur – if what we do is of God, all will be well, regardless of what happens to our particular institution.

For in the end, the Kingdom is more important than any congregation or any denomination – they are, after all, temporary institutions at best. They are empowered by the Holy Spirit to do their work, but they are not God. They will each and every one cease to exist some day. But the Kingdom of God, that to which they all point if they are faithful, reigns in eternity. Amen.

Friday, May 21, 2010

God, Life and Everything - Tension in The Holy Family

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.

A few months ago, someone called me to ask if I would make a presentation for Bard College’s Lifelong Learning Center, a sort of continuing education club. This was to be the last in a series of presentations about Families in the Bible. Christian and Jewish clergy from the area were asked to make one presentation each.

At first, I asked if I could do a class on Abraham and Isaac because I wrote about that during a sabbatical several years ago. Then I looked at the list of presenters.

One was doing the Sacrifice of Isaac. Another was doing Ishmael and Isaac. Another was doing Isaac’s sons. A fourth was doing Isaac’s grandsons.

The coordinator suggested something from the New Testament. So, I got: Tension in the Holy Family. Now, being the Holy Family, you might think that there could be NO TENSION. Everyone got along because they were, well, holy.

But come on. This is a family that nearly had a divorce before they even got married! They had to run for their lives just a few months later (well, in Matthew’s Gospel). Think that doesn’t produce tension?

And look at the story in Luke where 12-year-old Jesus disappears for three or four days in the big city. What’s Mom say when she finds him? Does she say, “Thank goodness you’re okay!” No, she says, “Child, why have you treated us like this?”

I’m not saying anything about how Jesus responded, because he is the Son of God, but if I had answered my mother the way he did to Mary, I would have been grounded for “the duration.”

More seriously, when Jesus is an adult, we see some serious tensions between him and his family. Look at the scene where Jesus is teaching to huge crowds, making some people nervous. In the Gospel of Mark’s version, it says:

When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.”… A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.”

“Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked. Then looking at those seated around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Kind of a long quote, but this scene pops up in three different gospels, so you know it’s on their minds. They are not hiding the fact that Jesus and his family had issues.

An even more stark split is in John’s gospel, when the family is about to go down to Jerusalem for a feast, and Jesus’ brothers taunt him:

So his brothers said to him, “Leave here and go to Judea so that your disciples also may see the works you are doing; for no one who wants to be widely known acts in secret. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.” (For not even his brothers believed in him.).

We could get into the long discussion of whether or not these are biological brothers, but for my purposes, the point is moot. They’re family. And in Jesus’ family, there was tension over his activities as messiah.

Now, is that any surprise, really? He’s rocking the religious world. Religious and civil authorities are expressing discomfort with him. He’s bringing huge crowds to his hometown and clearly making the neighbors uncomfortable. And there shouldn’t be tension?

What would have been unbelievable is that Jesus got all the way to Calvary without upsetting his family.

But tension isn’t bad. As much as we try to avoid it, tension is a sign of growth, of human interaction. When people are involved in a story worth telling, it’s the tension that makes the story good. Tension is necessary for change.

The real question is, how do we greet that tension? Because that will go a long way to determining whether the change is for the better or for the worse.

Was there tension in the Holy Family? You bet. And thank goodness.

 

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

That Sinking Feeling - A Sermon

Happy Ascension Sunday. Ascension was actually on Thursday, but how many of you remembered to celebrate it? That's what I thought. Ascension used to be a big Feast Day in the Church. Don’t tell your kids, but people used to get out of school in order to celebrate it. It was Christmas and Easter big.

No more.

Why? Well, Jesus ascending just doesn’t have the same punch that birth and resurrection have. Not even the same as Pentecost. With those three, someone’s arriving. Jesus is born. Jesus comes back from the dead. The Holy Spirit arrives. Yea!

But with the Ascension, Jesus goes away. What’s to celebrate?

This is probably truer than we might think. Because here we have the disciples who had thought they’d lost Jesus at his crucifixion, only to get him back and breathe a sigh of relief. Now they’ve had him for forty days, and it just might have started feeling like it did before all that unpleasantness in Jerusalem. The disciples might just be thinking, “Ah, we can get back to the way things were.”

Then he leaves. Again.

And with Luke’s dramatic images of the ascension – rising up in a cloud – it’d be hard for anyone to imagine he’s coming back.

So, the Ascension did not bring them up to the pinnacles of joy. Rather, it had to leave the disciples with a sinking feeling. As in, “Now, we’re really alone.”

Granted, Jesus left them with a promise. In the Gospel, it’s a little vague, but in Acts, he says clearly they will receive the power of the Holy Spirit. But do they understand what that means? Do we? They will just have to wait.

I hate waiting.

More than that, I hate feeling alone and confused, like I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. Like them, I would probably have preferred for Jesus to stay. And at the same time felt angry with him for not staying, for ruining that wonderful reunion they’d had, and the return to old times.

But Jesus knew better. He knew they needed him to leave so they could take wing, as it were. He knew they could not become the church until they found their own way.

Fortunately for them, Jesus left them with two things – or at least Luke left US with two things. One is the promise of the Holy Spirit’s power. They could not understand the significance of that, but they did trust Jesus enough to wait.

The other thing that Luke left us was a subtle hint at what the disciples could do while they were waiting. They could go back to the beginning, review Jesus’ ministry and see what they could learn. Jesus left them at the temple in Jerusalem. He also began his ministry in a temple – reading from the prophet Isaiah. The very beginning of his ministry began with these words:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

As they waited to see what sort of power Jesus would send them, they needed these ten days to ponder what that would look like. And if, as Luke suggests by bringing us full circle, they remember theirs is to proclaim good news and release and recovery and freedom, then the power of Pentecost would be good power indeed.

Sadly, the church has often abused its power.

You can think how: forced conversions, pogroms, religious wars, religious executions, oppression of minorities, ostracizing those who sin, abuse of the vulnerable. It goes on.

Perhaps that’s because we forgot what the disciples had time to remember – we are not here to create a powerful church but to employ the gift of God’s power to share God’s love. To bring good news to the poor, release to captives, recovery of sight to the blind and freedom to the oppressed. Perhaps, from time to time, we need to remind ourselves that THAT’S who we are to be. And only then will we be ready for the power of Pentecost.

Let us, then, sink with the disciples, just a bit – for maybe 10 days or so – in order to remember what it is that we are to rise toward. Amen.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

God, Life and Everything - National Day of Prayer

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 Thursday was the National Day of Prayer, and boy was it a doozey. Not that anything happened on the day itself outside of the usual. But the controversies swirling around it made this supposed day of unity into anything but.

In case you missed it, three big fights have been raging. First, there has been a rumor going on for a long time that President Obama cancelled the day of prayer. Second, the Rev. Franklin Graham was uninvited from speaking at the Pentagon’s prayer service because of disparaging remarks he made about Islam. Finally, a federal judge ruled that the National Day of Prayer violates the constitution’s separation of church and state.

So, should we have this National Day of Prayer? If so, what kind of prayer?

A little history might help. Before 1952, there was no National Day of Prayer. True, three times before, presidents had called on the nation’s people to dedicate a day to "humiliation, fasting and prayer," but each was during a time of war, and the president asked people to pray for peace. They established nothing.

It was only in 1952 that President Truman signed a bill proclaiming a National Day of Prayer should be declared each year. Perhaps not coincidentally, the “one nation under God,” was formally added to the Pledge of Allegiance just two years later.

In 1988, President Reagan established the first Thursday of May as the National Day of Prayer.

Originally, there was no particular ceremony or service attached to the National Day of Prayer. Each president was supposed to pick their own day for it (until 1988) and observe it in their own way, so long as they made the declaration. Most presidents have not participated in any prayer services on that day. Only Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush have held services. President Obama’s choice to keep his observance private is in keeping with tradition.

With that bit of history in hand, we return to the question: should we have the day of prayer – at least as a formal law?

I say “No.”

“But wait!” you say. “You’re a priest! How can you be against prayer!” The answer is, of course, I am not against prayer. Prayer is the very basis of my life. As the apostle Paul says, I seek to pray without ceasing. Which means that designating a day for it is unnecessary. It’s like establishing a National Day of Breathing.

More ominously, however, is that I always worry when politicians start throwing around religion. My experience is that this rarely has anything to do with faith and always has a lot to do with politics. Remember the “under God” part in the Pledge? When did it get added? During what is now known as the Red Scare. Same with the National Day of Prayer. Call me cynical, but those moves sound an awful lot like a government trying to convince people that “God is on our side.”

Such crassness is a perfect example of a violation of the third commandment, making wrongful use of the Lord’s name. Whether it’s unconstitutional or not is up to the courts, but when the government makes laws about prayer – whether telling us not to pray or to pray - there’s something wrong. (By the way, the government has never made a law telling us not to pray – only that the government can’t make us pray. I assure you, I know quite a few kids who pray in school).

That leaves us with just one other bit of controversy: Franklin Graham being uninvited by the Pentagon. Should they have withdrawn his invitation just because he says Islam is a religion of violence? Well, if the National Day of Prayer is supposed to include all people of faith, it would seem that inviting a religious leader who knowingly excludes other religions would be a bad idea. That looks way too much like saying, “Only our religion is approved by the government.”

So, in the end, I would say we don’t need this National Day of Prayer. What for? Interfaith organizations have similar things already. We people of faith pray or don’t pray already, depending on our own spiritual journeys. And if it was supposed to unite us, it has shown itself to be a monumental failure.

Perhaps the words of George Washington would be helpful to remember. In 1792 he wrote a letter to Edward Newenham in which he said: "Religious controversies are always productive of more acrimony and irreconcilable hatreds than those which spring from any other cause.  Of all the animosities which have existed among mankind, those which are caused by the difference of sentiments in religion appear to be the most inveterate and distressing, and ought most to be depreciated.  I was in hopes that the enlightened and liberal policy, which has marked the present age, would at least have reconciled Christians of every denomination so far that we should never again see the religious disputes carried to such a pitch as to endanger the peace of society."

Looks like his hope has yet to be realized.

Monday, May 10, 2010

What is a Priest? - A Sermon

Happy Mother’s Day! In a way, this sermon would be easier if I were a woman because female priests in our church are called “Mother.” I tried to get my cousin Kristin, who is also a priest, to come, but she’s out in California, so that didn’t work. So, for the moment, pretend you’re looking at my cousin Kristin. Because instead of preaching on the lessons, I want to talk about the kind of Mother that is a priest. Which is to say, I want to talk about what a priest is.

Why? Well, I went to the annual priests conference this week and I admit, we had a great time. We sang along with Pete Seeger, we rode horses, we had great discussions on what it means to live in harmony with creation. All great.

But there’s something else you do at a priests conference. You talk about what it means to be a priest.

At the Tuesday Eucharist, Canon Andy Dietsche preached and told us about a friend of his who wrote mystery novels. His friend – I can’t remember his name – told him that while each novel was different, they all had something in common. The detective.

The detective didn’t have to be a cop or even a private eye. He or she could be anybody as long as they fulfilled one major criterion. He had to live between the two stories. There was the surface story – the story everyone saw. And then there was the deep story – what was really going on – the real killer, the real plot, the real reason for the crime. The detective was the one person in the story that everyone trusted to live between those two worlds. They could relate to the surface but also see at the deeper level what the others could not. In the end, the detective’s job was to help those on the surface level see and understand what was going on at the deep level. They solved the mystery.

Then Canon Dietsche said, “That’s what priests are. You’re like the detectives in a mystery novel.”

What he meant was that a priest has the job of living between two worlds. We live in the world as we all know it where we have bills to pay and kids to chase after, where we’re little league coaches and where we vote at the town hall and go shopping. But then, there is that deep level, the level of the soul, the level where we see and engage with God.

Now, I should say here that we are all priests in the sense of our baptismal vows. Remember, when people are baptized, we say, “share with us in his eternal priesthood.” To a degree, then we all spend time between the surface and the soul.

But every community needs someone to live there. The priest is that person designated by the community to dig deeper, to live between those two worlds. The priest’s job, like the detective, is to slowly reveal the clues that will help others grasp what’s going on at the level of the soul. Little by little, they reveal God at work.

When we talk about living between two worlds, it means that we walk around, we visit, we do chores – we live in every way on the surface. But we also are the person designated by the community to dwell in the place of the soul – we’re trusted to focus our lives studying God, reading scripture, praying and worshiping – all so we can bring what we’ve learned back to the community and help that deep place of the soul become a little clearer.

Now we should note that the job of priest does NOT include being an administrator – Thank You, Jesus! And St. James’ is thankful that parish administration does not fall solely into my hands, though at the surface level, even I have paperwork to do.

If you’ve heard that phrase, “living between two worlds” before, it might be when we talk about deacons. Their job is to live between the church and the world – to bring the world’s concerns to the church and, through their outreach ministries, the church’s good news to the world.

Priesthood isn’t that different. Only, our job is to live in a more vertical “in-between.” The surface to the soul.

Alas, there is a difference between detectives in mystery novels and priests. In every mystery novel I have ever read, the detective finds that bad guy down at the deep level and reveals him – mystery solved.

In priesthood, we don’t often solve anything. We just keep living there, exploring and reporting back as best we can. But it’s not in vain. Little by little, for each of us, hints and glimmers of the Kingdom of God come to the surface. We never get the whole picture, but we get enough clues to give us hope.

The detective’s story wraps up nicely – until the next novel. For priests, our story never ends. And although I don’t want to speak for other priests, I will – we wouldn’t have it any other way. Amen.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

God, Life, and Everything - “The New Normal”

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.

You’ve heard it a lot lately. The New Normal.

We lower our voices and say it in the somber tones usually reserved for “death sentence,” or “cancer.” Of course, given that this phrase is almost always uttered in association with the economic crisis, the solemnity might be understandable. People will have less money from now on: it’s the New Normal. Joblessness is permanently high: it’s the New Normal. We’re doomed: it’s the New Normal.

Actually, the first time I remember hearing it was in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina when gas prices shot up over $3 a gallon. Some expert on the radio predicted that gas would never be cheap again: it’s the New Normal.

I heard it most recently at a meeting of church leaders who were discussing how the economy had changed how the national church will operate. Fewer funds, more needs to be met, congregations without clergy, grants drying up, that sort of thing. Someone sighed and said, “It’s the New Normal.”

Yes, I suppose so. The idea behind that phrase makes a certain amount of sense. Things as we have known them are no longer. We will have to find a new way. You can’t go back.

Taking the phrase in a healthy light, it could help us to move on with our lives in so many situations where the old life is no more. Think of new parents. No longer will they sleep the night through. No longer will going out be spontaneous. No longer will they ever rest easy when they can’t see their child.

Think of the new widow or widow. No longer will they hold hands with their love. No longer will they sleep together or look into each others’ eyes across the table. I remember when my grandfather died, and my grandmother told me about a meeting with a friend whose husband had also died. She said, “We had a good cry then decided we still had things we wanted to do.” The New Normal.

The New Normal has some real merit. But, new as the phrase is, the idea is as old as the hills. People have had to adjust to new situations for as long as there have been people. From ancient days, whole towns, even whole societies have destroyed and their inhabitants enslaved. From ancient times, fortunes have been made and lost in a stroke.

For Christians, The real New Normal took place with Jesus who changed everything at least in the way we relate with God. No sacrifices, no fear, no outsiders - just God loving us and commanding us to do the same. All it took was saying “Yes,” to God.

Of course, like all cases of this new normal, for Christians this new way of life means saying goodbye to the old way of life. Self interest has to go. Fear and self protection have to go. Pride has to go. So does indifference over the fate of the poor. The New Normal for a Christian is a life of joyful service to those who don’t deserve it and have no possible way of paying it back.

No wonder so many keep trying to go back to the old ways.

But like with the economy or death, the New Normal means you can’t go back. Even if you try, it’s not the same.

That’s the power of the New Normal – it burns bridges and forces you to look forward. The only thing we need to remember is, that’s not always a bad thing.

Tapestry - A Sermon by the Rev. Deacon David R. Bender

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, Amen. Please be seated.

During the Easter season, this year, the Gospel lessons are from John, and several of those readings including today's are about love. Two weeks ago, Father Kramer talked about Jesus asking Peter “do you love me?” and Peter three times replying “yes, I love you”. However, Jesus did not use the English word love which is includes so many interpretations, but scripture uses the Greek word agape the first two times, which is the deep abiding selfless caring, and for Peter's response scripture uses the Greek work philia, which means loyal friendship, which can be deep but is not near agape. The third time, Jesus uses the word philia, perhaps because He realizes that Peter can not see clearly what agape is. And there is a third Greek word for love and that is eros, or romantic love.

So the Greeks have at least three words for love. Agape, selfless caring, eros, romantic, and philia, brotherly. How are we to know which of these are being referenced and how are we to fully understand them. For the obligatory country western song reference, Tim McGraw recently had a ballad titled “Nothin' to Die For” about a man who drank every night on the way home from work and has everything to live for. The chorus is:

You'd give your last breath to your wife

Take a bullet for your kids

Lay your life down for your country for your Jesus, for your friends

except for the last chorus, and part of the song is that he goes thru a guardrail and sees the light and hears a sweet voice, singing the chorus except it changes to:

You'd give your last breath to your wife

Take a bullet for your kids

Lay your life down for your country for me and all your friends

Yes, the last chorus is Jesus talking to the man.

So the way that I look at it is: I agape my wife, my children and grandchild, I eros my wife, and I philia everyone one here at this church, my friends, and all the patients and staff that I see at the hospital.

And there is that word love again in today's Gospel. Jesus is talking with his disciples and says "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." And which love is it, agape, eros or philia? Well not having access to a bible in Greek, nor understanding the language at all, I don't know. What I hope for is that the word is agape, but that remains to be seen.

I would like to show you something, but to explain, Carol does crafts, knitting, needlepoint, embroidery, and counted cross stitch. We have many of her pictures framed and hanging up at home. There is a bell pull that is crewel embroidery of a small bird, a chipmunk and a couple of other woodland creatures. Then there are the two counted cross stitch pictures, one of lions and tigers and the other of a kitty cat. My two favorite ones, however, are a floss embroidery map of the United States with each state outlined, and around the outside of the map are the state flowers in color. And if you wonder about why Carol and I have spring allergies, we lived in Lexington Kentucky for twelve years and the state flower for Kentucky is goldenrod, ie. ragweed. However my most favorite one is the one she did first, and we used it as a rug for a while before framing it, so it is faded, and has some stains in it, but I hung it on the wall in my office area for years. back of eagle picture>. This is a needlepoint eagle, as used in the American seal. You can, barely, see that head is pointed towards the olive branches and not the arrows, meaning that it is peace time. Oh wait a moment, this is the back of the picture. I showed it this way for a reason. One of the patients that I saw in the hospital, was a lovely woman, about my age who had cancer surgery, and then some other ailments set in. She was wonderful. Didn't complain, liked to talk and we had several conversations about where she was in her life journey and where she hoped to be. During one of the visits, she shared this story with me as it was her way of looking at the world and all that was occurring in her life:

Life is a tapestry. As we look up at it, we see thread ends, bare spots and knots. When we die and look down on it we see its true beauty.

This is what the picture really looks like. Like I said, a bit old and faded, but I still like it the best, and so appropriate to what the patient told me and to today's Gospel passage.

It is just like today's new commandment: “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." Just like the eagle picture, we here on earth can only poorly see the complete tapestry of God's love. The loose ends, the knots and bare spots that we see are really not there, when we completely understand God's agape for us.

Oh, and I managed to finally find a Greek to English bible, and the Greek word for love in today's passage is agape.

Amen.


Sunday, April 25, 2010

Jesus’ Sheep Period - A Sermon

Great news from the land of goats – friends have been celebrating the births of several goats this weekend. Yippee!

I know, goats aren’t exactly sheep, but they’re close enough to remind us how much we see Jesus using sheep today. In fact, the entire chapter in which we find today’s Gospel is all about sheep. You can’t look at today’s passage without looking at the whole chapter where Jesus repeatedly says he is the Good Shepherd, and his sheep know his voice. You might call Chapter 10 Jesus’ Sheep Period (you know, like Picasso’s Blue Period).

You might call the lectionary for today a Sheep Period, too, since John is the author of Revelation as well as the gospel. John loves sheep.

So, what’s up with all the ovine language? Why does Jesus refer to everyone as sheep and himself as the shepherd? Why – in Revelation – is Jesus called a Lamb?

Well, maybe the Lamb is easy. After all, Lambs are innocent and are at times used as sacrifice. Jesus was innocent and was certainly sacrificed for us, right? We are all washed in the blood of the lamb. It reminds us of that Passover where the lamb’s blood was painted over the doors of the Israelites, and they were saved. Yes, we are still in Easter, celebrating our Passover.

The thing is, not only is Jesus the innocent victim, but he’s also the Shepherd.

Think of the Irony of being both Lamb and Shepherd – not just any shepherd but the Good Shepherd.

That’s like the Irony of being fully human and fully God.

We’ll never understand how the smart shepherd can share the same place as the not-so-bright sheep, or the sheep can become a leader (but look at Peter all the sudden). After Jesus ascends, Peter and the other apostles take on the roles of leadership – they become the shepherds even though they themselves felt lost.

How could they do that?

By listening. And recognizing the voice of their shepherd. The voice of the shepherd for sheep is a touchstone. It guides and comforts, gives structure and direction. Sheep aren’t that bright, but they know whom to trust.

And that’s what the apostles did. They listened. More, I suspect than merely with their ears, they listened with their hearts. They learned to say, “That doesn’t sound like Jesus” when evaluating a situation. Or they might say, “Now THAT sounds like our master,” when they decided upon an action.

You know how it is when someone is accused of something and you say, “That doesn’t sound like them.” Perhaps that’s how we might want to approach our lives of faith. After all, none of us is really all that smart.

But we can recognize our master’s voice, our shepherd’s voice. Assuming, of course, we know what his voice sounds like. Some days, I have a hard time knowing for sure. But I know what he doesn’t sound like. He doesn’t sound like greed or anger or hatred or fear. He doesn’t sound like someone who is self-serving or suspicious.

The Lamb who is our shepherd may even sound na├»ve in its insistence on answering injury with pardon, hatred with love. But that’s the voice we follow. It is only in following that voice that we will be brought home to the cool waters.

Like little lambs who are just learning their shepherds’ voices, sometimes we don’t quite hear Jesus in our daily lives. But like them, we keep listening, keep learning that voice. And in time, we will with certainty know which voice to follow.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Third Time's The Charm - A Sermon for 3 Easter, 2010

This is a loaded story full of great images and great lines. That whole fishing story with Jesus telling the professional fishermen how to fish – and then feeding them? Awesome.

And there are tons of things in this little story you want to take note of. The fact that fishing didn’t work for the disciples. The fact that this story looks an awful lot like the story of when Jesus called his disciples for the first time saying, “I will make you fish for people.” The fact that while they were hauling all that miraculous fish onto the shore, Jesus had already cooked them some fish (with bread), and that this meal of fish and bread might remind the reader of the miracle of the loaves and fishes.

But there’s one little line the evangelist slips in that I want to look at: “This was now the third time Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead. “

Why is that important?

To start off, three is always an important number in scripture. So something important is going on here. Come to think of it, if you ever notice in literature, food is always important, too. Important things always happen around food, so this scene is doubly important.

What that third appearance might say to us is that twice was not enough. The first two times Jesus appeared to them it was inside behind locked doors – about a week apart. In those first two visits, Jesus commissioned them, but it wasn’t enough. They still did not understand their mission, so they went back to what they knew – fishing.

It’s that third appearance that convinces them Jesus is really and truly back, and more importantly that his resurrection means something for their lives. Maybe after the first two appearances, they felt something like: “Well, it’s great Jesus rose, but now he’s gone again, and it didn’t really have any lasting impact on our lives now.” Anyone ever feel like that before?

So, this third visit lets them know they can’t go back to what they were before because they are no longer fishers of fish. They are fishers of people. Jesus can provide his own fish. He needs them to go out to the people. This third visit lets them know that they are to feed the people as Jesus fed them, not with bread alone but with the word of Christ’s love.

Something else happens in that third visit, however, that makes an even bigger impact on them, especially on Peter. Jesus asks him three times, “Do you love me?” and Peter answers three times, “Yes.” Many have said this is Jesus’ way of reminding Peter of his triple denial of Jesus on the night of his arrest, as well as a way of telling him all is forgiven.

But with the help of a tiny bit of Greek, you might see that there’s even more here. The first two times Jesus asks, he uses the Greek word “agape,” which means a deep abiding, selfless caring. But when Peter answers, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you,” he uses the word, “philia,” which means a loyal friendship, though it can be deep, too.

It’s only the third time of asking that Jesus changes his words: He asks, “Do you philia me?” and Peter, upset, says “Yes, I philia you.”

Why the different words? And why, on the third time, does Jesus change from agape to philia?

Perhaps, Peter just might not have agape within him at this point. Perhaps that deep, selfless love is just too much for him at this point in his journey. He’s been through a lot lately, remember, and he is just a young man, barely in his twenties – we tend to forget this. It is Jesus who changes his expectations this time. He says, in essence, “Philia is enough for now.”

And maybe the lesson for us is, even if you can’t love selflessly and deeply yet, Jesus will meet you where you are. Friendship is a good place to start.

I know a lot of people who don’t believe in God, or aren’t sure what they believe, but they like what they see in Jesus, and they even like some things that they see the church do.

Maybe it took those three appearances and those three questions to find out just where Peter stood, and for Jesus to know that while Peter was hardly on firm ground with his faith, it was enough for now. Peter and the other disciples would get other chances to live out their Agape for Jesus. They would spend their entire lives living it out. Without this third visit and those three questions, however, they might have sunk back into their old lives for good.

For them, the third time was the charm. Amen.