Sunday, October 30, 2011

October 30, 2011 - Proper 26A

In the name of God- Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
          As we go through autumn, we see the leaves falling and the colors changing. The yards have been aerated and seeded, the spring bulbs are in the ground, and we are reminded that in order to experience the new birth of the spring, things now must fall and return to the earth to bear new life. It’s a good setup for Jesus’ words this morning- “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Which is a direct insult to those who see themselves as the exalted ones. Right after our reading today ends, Jesus really plunges the dagger with a series of woes. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites,” “woe to you blind guides,” and “woe to you…you snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell?” Jesus is pulling no punches.
          And let us remind ourselves of what we learned in our Bible studies, that all of these things are happening in the Temple after the Palm Sunday procession. Jesus is in Jerusalem during what we call Holy Week, and he’s doing the best he can to challenge the status quo and upset the authorities of the day. And he attacks them with the thing that we all know hurts the most- he calls them hypocrites. Hypocrite is a Greek word that was used for actors in plays. They want you to think that they are something which, in truth, they are not. They claim to have power, to be spiritual, to be worthy of respect- and Jesus says that they are not.
None of us like to think of ourselves as hypocrites, but aren’t we all a bit? The easy thing to do here is to side with Jesus and say “yeah Jesus, you tell ‘em!” We don’t want to see ourselves as the Scribes and Pharisees, do we? I don’t want to speak for you all, but I know that I’m a hypocrite. I don’t write every letter to our representatives in Congress that should be written, I don’t do prison ministry or work at a soup kitchen as often as I think I should, sometimes I struggle to see the love of God in others whom I’m mad at. If we’re honest with ourselves, we will soon realize that none of us are perfect, none of us are sinless, none of us are innocent of hypocrisy from time to time. Hypocrisy is so attractive because, as Edmund Burke said, “hypocrisy can afford to be magnificent in its promises, for never intending to go beyond promise, it costs nothing.”
And unfortunately, hypocrisy is something known in the church all too well. In our reading from Micah we see the evils and results of hypocrisy run rampant. We Episcopalians don’t really celebrate it, but today is Reformation Sunday. It was wonderful to sing that opening hymn A Mighty Fortress, which is written by Martin Luther and often referred to as the “Battle Hymn of the Reformation.” You all know the story- Martin Luther, was a priest who saw the hypocrisy in Rome. On October 31, 1517 he wrote a letter to Archbishop Albrecht speaking out against the sale of indulgences. Earlier, the Pope needed money, well, not that he needed it, but he didn’t want to use his own wealth, so he wanted to get more money to do renovations to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The plan was to sell indulgences, or get-out-jail for you sins cards. And it worked. Albrecht was deep in debt, so he figured that selling indulgences in Germany would be a good idea as well. As the slogan went “as soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory into heaven springs.”
Luther saw the hypocrisy in buying forgiveness, the hypocrisy in taxing the poor to pay for things that the rich could, so he wrote a letter that has come to be known as the “95 Theses” and he posted them on the church door. Luther never intended to leave the church, he just hoped to reform the hypocrisy. But the church wasn’t interested in change, and what came next is what historians call the Protestant Reformation. Luther’s motto was ecclesia semper reformands, semper reformanda or “the church is always reformed, always reforming.”
And it brings us to an interesting question about reformations in our own lives. Hypocrisy is all about contradictions. You say this, but you do that. There is another contradiction, a holy (h-o-l-y) contradiction in Jesus’ words- “all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Humble is a word that literally means to make low, to submit to, to be oppressed. In Isaiah, when the prophet talks about the mountains and hills being made low, this is the word he uses. And the word “exalt” literally means to raise- in the Bible it is used to say that Christ was lifted up on the cross, it means glorify, to raise children or in the Flood story, it is the world for the ark that rises on the waters. It is a holy contradiction.
How is it that the path to be lifted up goes through going down? This isn’t how things work in our culture. No one climbs the corporate ladder by taking steps down; football teams don’t get to the top of the rankings by losing games; presidential candidates don’t win the nomination by doing poorly in the polls. This doesn’t make much sense. But yet, Jesus says it and as Christians we acknowledge that Jesus speaks to the divine truths in our lives. It didn’t make sense for Luther either- speaking out against the church, having the Pope excommunicate him and the Emperor put out a bounty for his head, once you’re outside the institution it’s a lot harder to reform it. What allows us to be humbled? What allowed Christ to humble himself to the point of death on a cross? What allowed Luther to be cast out of the church? What allows us to embrace these contradictions?
In a word- trust. When we trust in God we are then able to live for God’s kingdom instead of the kingdoms of this world; we are able to be oppressed and rejected. Trust is really what the Reformation was all about. Martin Luther had this trust- it is what allowed him to write “a mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing.” He trusted that God was active in the world. And the question for us this morning is do you trust in God?
There is that wonderful passage in Isaiah where God says “behold, I am doing a new thing; do you perceive it?” For Luther, God was doing a new thing and he had to testify to it. In the Creed we all say “we believe in the Holy Spirit.” We acknowledge that God is somehow active in the world. But do we trust it? Do we live our lives as if it is true?
The questions is- do you believe in continuing revelation? Is there a word from the Lord? Did God finish Creation the book of Genesis and then leave us to run our course? Does God continue to speak to us, to push us, to call us, or not? I can tell you what I think, but that doesn’t matter. You have to answer that question for yourself.
If you say that that there is no continuing revelation, then the Bible contains all truths that we need to know. Everything about God is known as we simply have to follow the instructions. And if the Bible contains the full picture of everything, then we don’t need faith because we have all the data that we need. I think we would all acknowledge that in God, like other people, there are thoughts and dreams that are simply unknowable to the outside world.
The way that we get glimpses into those parts of God are through revelation- revelation in nature, revelation in prayer, revelation in the wisdom and discernment of the Church. Continuing revelation is something that we’ve always struggled with as a church. Do we ordain women, or not? Do we marry same-sex couples, or not? For centuries, the church answered “no” to both of those questions. But now, most of us, realize that God is continuing to give us revelation; revelations that have pushed to reconsider our answers to those questions.
Continuing revelation is a good thing. It means that God is with us, that God’s Spirit is still at work, that God is not done with us, that we can work with God to bring about the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. It means there will be contradictions between what we thought was right and where God is calling us to go anew. And I think it makes sense- time is linear for a reason. If God wanted us to live in the past, then we’d live one endless moment in time where nothing new happens, where nothing changes, where nothing gets better. But time does move forward, and as it does we are called to live in each and every present moment listening, watching, feeling for the presence of God to continue to guide us in revelation. I invite you to consider- do you believe in continuing revelation? And if you do, what are you going to do about it?
Martin Luther certainly felt that continuing revelation was in God’s nature. And what we do with that trust in continuing revelation is important. Something has to change if we trust in God’s action in the world. If you have an encounter with God, if you think that God calling you to something and you don’t change, then I would suggest to you that it was not truly an experience of the divine. You cannot perceive a new thing that God is doing and walk away from it. A great preacher once took a line from Socrates- “the unexamined life is not worth living,” and adapted it to the language of faith and said “the uncommitted life is not worth living.” If you trust that God is active in your life, that God seeks to reform this world, then what will you do about it?
The trust that we have in God’s continuing presence with us makes us stewards of this trust, but also stewards of God’s world. St. Teresa of Avila wrote “Christ has no body but yours; no hands, no feet on earth but yours.” We are the vehicles of God’s grace, of God’s love, of God’s continuing revelation in our world. Another famous saint, this time Augustine, said “without God, we cannot; without us, God will not.” Luther got this, in his hymn he wrote “did we in our strength confide, our striving would be losing.” We can’t do it by ourselves, and God won’t do it without us. God continues to work in and amongst us.
In light of God’s continuing grace, continuing promise to be with us, continuing love, we must respond. Martin Luther, in the reformation movement had five things that he proclaimed as central to the reforming effort, one of which was soli Deo gloria, which means “glory to God alone”. Glory is our response to God’s continuing revelation, glory is our response in trust to God, glory is our response of being stewards of God’s bounty.
God is at the center of everything, in whom we live and move and have our being. Being a creature of God makes us part of God’s glory, and all that we do should reflect that glory, or as Jesus put it, that exaltation. Part of the problem we have in Washington is that people forget this. People are used to being called public officials, instead of the older and more accurate term, public servants. They forget that they are working for God’s glory and not their own. If we live in God’s glory we can awake each morning and say “this is the day that the Lord has made, I will rejoice and be glad in it.” It is in God’s glory that we can live for God. It is in God’s glory that we can continually seek God’s reformation for our world, for our lives, and for our souls. In God’s glory we can come to peace with the contradictions between our faith and our world. And it is in God’s glory that we can show forth our thanks.
But coming back to stewardship, and right now I’m focusing on financial stewardship, but there are other kinds. Living in God’s glory, trusting in God’s action in our lives, we have the opportunity to use our financial gifts for God’s glory- and that is the reason why we give. We don’t give for a tax write off, we don’t give to support the church’s budget, we don’t give to feel good about ourselves, we don’t give because our neighbors do; instead, we give to glorify God and what God is continuing to do in our world.
If you trust that God is active, then support God’s work through the church; participate in what God is doing. And I’ve said this before about money, but it is worth repeating. Money is a very powerful tool; but it is not good or bad, just a tool. And with this tool, there are two options- either you have power over your money or it has power over you. And if you want to find out which is true, try to give it away. If you cannot give your money away, then you have lost control of your money and it controls you. And I would encourage you all to give- don’t worry about the percentages, but give in a significant way. A good way to do it is to give 5% to the church and 5% to other charitable causes that you think are worthy. And if you don’t believe in the mission of St. Francis church, then don’t give here- but for God’s sake, and your own, give your money away. And here’s another holy contradiction- when you give to the glory of God, you too will be glorified, because in your giving you express the highest trust in God’s radical love. When you perceive that God is doing a new thing and participate in it, you participate in God’s glory. A good way to put all of this is- if you were put on trial for being a Christian, for trusting in God’s continuing revelation, for participating in God’s glory, would there be enough evidence to convict you?
Well, it’s a day of contradictions. The low being lifted up, giving and in turn receiving, and the eternal Creator working with us in new ways each and every day. This Reformation Sunday, let us give thanks for the witness of Martin Luther, let us thank God for God’s continuing revelation in our lives, and let us express our trust in God by giving to and participating in God’s ongoing glory. As Martin Luther concludes his great hymn- “the Spirit and the gifts are ours / through him who with us sideth // God's truth abideth still / his kingdom is forever.”

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Week of October 24

Readings (Micah is Old Testament reading for the day)

Lots of ways a sermon could go this week-

  • The negatives of the establishment could be discussed in Micah
  • Relationships in the church could be explored using 1 Thessalonians
  • Word vs deed could be considered via Matthew
  • Public vs. private prayer in Matthew is a topic
  • Being students/disciples of Jesus (our only rabbi) in Matthew
  • Humbling and exalting in Matthew, what do these mean?
Which way will the sermon go? Use the Wordle (above) to take a guess.

Which of these readings/ideas speak to you?

Sunday, October 23, 2011

October 23, 2011- Proper 25A

As a Christian, you might ask “what’s love got to do with it?” And today’s readings respond with a resounding “everything!” In both Leviticus and Matthew, we heard about the importance of loving relationships. As Jesus says “on these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” In essence, love is at the core of Christendom. So today, we’ll explore what this is love is.
          But before I get going, let me put a rumor to rest. It is often said, such as in our gospel hymn today and by St. John, that “God is love.” That is simply not true. God is not love because God is God. To say that God is love is to over simplify God, it is to subvert other attributes of God. If God truly is love, then we might as well worship unicorns and rainbows, or some other overly simple and sentimental god. Now, we know through scripture and revelation that God is loving and is the source of love. But let us not confuse the object with the giver. And I realize that saying “God is love” is just often just shorthand for saying that God is the fountain of love, that God deeply loves all of Creation, but there is a danger when we become lax with this phrase and unintentionally water down our theology and God’s substance. So in our discussion of love, let us remember, we do not worship love, but instead, we worship God; a God from whom love emanates as light and warmth shine forth from the Sun.
          So let’s answer three questions about love- what is love, how do we love, and why do we love?
          What is love? Shakespeare had a lot to say about that, so did the Greek philosophers, as well as poets such as Pablo Neruda. I’m sure you all have your favorite authors who have wrote about love. But today I’m in the pulpit, so I get to pick my favorite author. CS Lewis wrote a book called The Four Loves. In it, he talks about storge, philia, eros, and agape love. So let’s briefly walk through those.
          Storge is the Greek word for affection. Lewis says that this is often a sort of automatic love, the love we experience in families. I think it’s safe to say that some of the reasons why we love family members don’t really make sense. People we see only once a year, if that; people who might annoy us; people who we’d never spend time with if they weren’t family. Now this isn’t to talk down on family or familial love. This sort of affection is an important kind of love. It is a love of respect. It broadens our minds, as we come into contact with people whom we normally wouldn’t.
          Next is philia, or friendship. It is a love of association, a love that we choose to enter into, but it’s a fairly weak love. It isn’t terribly binding, and it can change rapidly. An interesting question for us today is what does friendship mean? In the age of Facebook, who are my friends?  According to Facebook, I have 440 friends. But do I love them? For the vast majority, the answer is no. Our culture is a transient one, people no longer die in the same towns that they were born in; people don’t retire from the company that hired them in their twenties. Loyalties are not what they once were. But that does not mean that the love of friendship is dead. Friendship is a place to start in our love for each other. Friendship, you might say, is the mustard seed that will grow into the greatest of all the bushes of love.
So we come to eros. Now normally, you would expect a preacher to bashfully say a few vague things and quickly move on; but let’s spend a little time here. Erotic or intimate or physical love, whatever you want to call it, is very important in our lives and our culture. I was at clergy conference recently and we were discussing young adults in the church. We watched a video where young adults spoke about their experience of the church, and a comment that was made more than once was that the church seemed irrelevant to their lives because the church didn’t talk about the things that really matter- sex, politics or money. And isn’t that the truth? We avoid those topics like the plague in church.
And this confuses me. Don’t we say that our faith is the most important thing in our lives, that it is our moral compass? And I don’t think I have to tell you how much attention we give to erotic love- just watch a television show, flip through a magazine or think about your dreams, and I think you’ll soon realize that this sort of love is important to many of us. And shouldn’t our faith guide our thoughts and actions on something so important? Shouldn’t the Church have something substantive to say about this?
What needs to be said is that intimacy is a neutral thing. By that I mean, it is neither good or bad, but it can be used for evil or for good. Erotic love is a wonderful way to express emotional love, it is a way to deepen your connection with someone whom you love and are committed to. But you and I both know that it is very easy for this love to be a negative force. Too many people are exploited, abused, sold into slavery, manipulated, and objectified by erotic love.
Another way that eros is used negatively has been in the Church. For centuries, the Church’s position, whether stated or assumed, as been that pre-marital relations are wrong and sinful. People will note that in the Bible, this is simply how things were. But what people forget is that for most of history, people have gotten married much younger than they do today. Now this isn’t a case of faith bending to culture, but if our faith cannot speak to our culture, then what good is it? And is isn’t to mention the fact that marriage is not something to which all people are called. Marriage is not the goal of life, and some people will never marry. So should they live a life without experiencing the good of this love?
Now I’m not going to tell you all what to think about this; I don’t want to prescribe to the Church how to handle this. But we need to start having this conversation. In our relationships of erotic love, how can we be just and true? How can we honor the divine love in our practice of erotic love? How can we honor and love each other in our intimate relationships?
And finally we come to the highest of the loves- agape. Theologians often say that this is the love of Christ for the world on the cross. Sometimes this love is called charity. St. Paul says that it is the greatest thing, even higher than faith or hope. It is the goal for all of our loves- for our loves of affection, friendship and eros, we seek to transform them into agape love. This sort of love is constant, true, and pure. It is thoughtful, not something that we fall into or take lightly. It is a sacrificial, forgiving, and unconditional love. Very few of us will ever be able to love like this, or experience love like this. This is the love of the Kingdom of God. As we work to make God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven, we seek to love the way that God loves in heaven. The journey of getting to agape is as important as the destination.
And what we see in this epitome of love is that love begins not with us, but with God. We love because God has first loved us. We also see that this sort of love is not passive- it works, it accomplishes things, it is active. Love, in its truest sense, is not an emotion, but is action. Love is not something you feel, it is something you do. Love is an affair not of the heart or the mind, but of the will.
But our culture has monopolized love for capitalism. One theologian said “we are to use things and love people, but in our world we love things and use people.” We love our cars, we love our new phones, we love a good movie. It’s disgusting to use the same word to express our fondness of a book or website as we do for our relationship with our spouses, children or parents. Love has become just a catch phrase. And maybe that’s why so many marriages end in divorce, why so many families are estranged, why we have so many fights in Washington. We don’t know what love is anymore. We’ve been trained that you can love lots of things, and that when the new version comes out, you’ll love that one even more. Love is easy in our culture. And it’s no surprise people struggle with relationships; where agape love is required, too many folks are ill prepared, because they’ve never been exposed to this sort of love.
This is a good segue into how to love. The short and sweet answer is, to borrow from Nike, “just do it.” Put a bit more eloquently by CS Lewis- “do not waste time bothering whether you love your neighbor; act as if you did. And as soon as you do, you’ll discover the secret. When you are behaving as if you love someone, you will presently come to love them.”
The place to start is to realize and know that God loves everyone. One translation of Peter’s sermon in the book of Acts reads “God has no favorites.” And this is because we are all God’s favorites. If you are a Republican and you ask God, hey, how about that socialist president we have, God would say “he’s one of my favorites.” Obama supports might ask, “hey God, how about that crazy Bachmann, and God would say, she’s one of my favorites.” How about Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, “he’s one of my favorites.” How about my neighbors whose dog always uses my yard for a toilet, “they’re among my favorites.” And how about me God, what about me. Well, God would respond- “you’re one of my favorites too.”
If we can realize that God loves us all as if there is no one else to love and loves us as if we were all but one, then we can start to love others. There is a great story about Jesus that you won’t find the Bible, it’s an apocryphal story about Jesus found in some of the writings that didn’t make it into the Bible. One day Jesus is walking through a town with his disciples, and as he walks down the main road, people come out of their homes to spit on him, curse him, throw rocks and insults at him. And to each person that curses him, he turns and blesses them. When they get out of the town, one of the disciples immediately asks Jesus- “Lord, why is it that you blessed each of those people who cursed and spit upon you?” And Jesus responded “I can only pay out what I have in my purse.” If we know that God loves us, if we bask in this love daily, if we carry this love in our hearts, then it is that much easier to pay that love out to others.
You can pay this love out in a lot of ways- it might be in praying for others, it might be in filling you’re your pledge card in a honest and sincere way, it might be in calling a friend or family member who is going through a tough time, it might be in leading Children’s Chapel, it might be visiting someone in the hospital, it might be donating your time or money to a charity, it might be in adopting an animal from the shelter, it might be in standing up for justice. But whatever you do, don’t sit around and think about how you love someone, go out and love them.
And finally we come to why do we love? If we turn to our reading from Leviticus, which is echoed in Jesus’ words in Matthew, we come to a reason. If you were to sit down and read the 19th chapter of Leviticus, one phrase would pop out at you- “I am the Lord.” That one phrase shows up 16 times in the chapter. This chapter is a series of comments: if this situation happens to you, then you should do this, because “I am the Lord.” An example is “you shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord.” Because God is God, we love others as ourselves. And don’t miss that point, you have to love yourself so that you can love others. So if you need to work on loving yourself, on seeing yourself as a wonderful person, then I encourage you, work on that. Visit with Michael or me, see a therapist, talk to family. Be sure to love yourself.
Early in our reading, God says to Moses “you shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” Holy is a word which means “set apart or sacred.” Why do we love? Because God is Lord. Why do we love? Because God is holy. Why do we love? Because we are sacred. We are holy to God, we are set apart. Each of us is a unit of God’s grace, unrepeatable, unprecedented and irreplaceable. Why do we love? Because that is simply what we do as children of the loving Creator of all heaven and earth.
Now you might say, but Robert, look at the world, obviously, love does not triumph; clearly not everyone loves other people. I am reminded of the words of St. Augustine, “our hearts are restless, O Lord, until they rest in thee.” A lot of people have found other places for their hearts to rest; other places that might fulfill them. But as we all know, glory fades, wealth diminishes, property breaks or gets stolen, reputations tarnish, but love endures. Things can fill us, but only love can satisfy our deepest desires. We were created in love by God, and it is for love that we live: love of what God loves, which is everyone; love of God’s kingdom; love of God as Lord; love of self; and love of neighbor.
          Much more could be said about love, but I’d never cover it all. Instead, let’s experience all the joys, all the blessings, all the graces of true agape love. Let us seek that highest form of love- a love which is true, just and seeks to love the way that God loves us. Let’s transform our loves of affection, friendship and erotic love into vehicles of God’s love in this world which desperately needs more love. Let us know that each and every person, including ourselves, in the beloved of God. Let us practice this love daily. And let us know that we are holy, and it is our sacred task to welcome this love, and to share it with all of Creation. My brothers and sisters- I love you. I know that you love me. Let us share this love and transform our world.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Let's Keep It Going...

So in an effort to keep the conversation going, I'm going to post new material each week. If I'm not preaching, perhaps it will be reflections on the readings for the upcoming Sunday, or maybe some thoughts from the homily at the 12:00 noon Healing Eucharist on Wednesdays. My vision is for this to be a place to dialogue, ask questions, and debate. Please feel free to post comments and share with others.

I was at clergy conference a few weeks ago, and one of the discussions that we were asked to have at our tables was about "preparing to preach." I hope that you all can tell from my sermons, but I immensely enjoy preaching. I enjoy opening myself to God's Spirit; I enjoy meditating on God's word for several days; I enjoy reading lots of resources and articles on the passages; I enjoy the outlining phase of the sermon writing when all the possible avenues the sermon might take begin to form into one road; I enjoy the writing process where I can play with the wonderful nuance of words and grammar; I enjoy creating the Wordle to see what a computer program says my main parts are; I enjoy practicing the sermon, finding my voice in it; I enjoy preaching it; and most of all- I enjoy the dialogue that comes from the sermon.

Whether it's on this blog, you thinking about the sermon, you discussing it with others, you sharing it with a friend, or you talking to me about it- the conversation is what matters most to me in sermon writing. Throughout the process, I try to have a conversation with myself and with God, I hope that the delivered sermon is a glimpse into that conversation and a place for you to have a conversation with me, with others and with God.

So at clergy conference I heard a lot about sermon writing. And I was disappointed to hear all of the complaining by my fellow clergy. Many said that they didn't enjoy the process, many said that they did it on Saturday and a few even admitted to acting like college students who crammed to finish their sermon by 3 am the Sunday they were supposed to preach. I remember what a seminary professor once said- "if you are in the habit of writing your sermons on the way to church on Sunday mornings, it would be better if a truck hit you and you died. You'd be okay, because you'd be with the Lord Jesus, and it would be better for your congregation so that they aren't subjected to your lack of preparation and abuse of the pulpit." And though those words are harsh, I think it he was right. Preaching and exploring the word of God is a solemn, joyful and important task. May we all take the time to be in conversation with Scripture, and enjoy a deeper sense of knowing God and God's love for all of Creation through our efforts.