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.