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.


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.