Sunday, November 11, 2012

November 11, 2012 - Proper 27B

*Please note that the first reading was taken  from the previous Sunday (Ruth 1:1-18, Proper 26B) in which we used the All Saints' Day readings in place of the lessons assigned for that Sunday.

Almighty God, may you guide us to seek the Truth: come whence it may, cost what it will, lead where it might. Amen.
            The freedom to choose is a blessing, but over the past several months, choice has seemed more like a burden than anything. We’ve had billions of dollars spent trying to influence our choice, we heard the debates, and we made our choices- both as individuals and a nation. The one refrains I heard lead up to this past Tuesday was “I can’t wait for it to be over.” We’re exhausted from making choices. So I suspect that “just tell us the Good News preacher” might be your desire for this sermon. The issue is that there is still one more choice to make. There is one issue that was left off the ballot that is worthy of our consideration this morning.
            When we make choices, we often think that we’re exercising freedom. If you’re not free, then you can’t make a choice- or so goes the standard logic. But this morning we’ll wrestle with that assumption. Can you have your hands tied and yet remain free? I’d like to take a very rare opportunity to lift up two women as examples. It isn’t rare that women are deserving of being great examples of faith, but just rare that that we get stories told about them in a male-orientated Bible. Ruth and the widow in Mark will be our lens for exploring choice this morning.
            And I want to make it clear, I’m not lifting these women up on a pedestal, but rather am pointing to them as examples. There is a problem with calling people heroes or saints because it makes their actions and sacrifices seem unattainable. We often think of people such as Mother Teresa, inner-city teachers, or today on Veterans’ Day, wounded veterans as heroes to be honored. And while we should honor them and thank them for their service, there is a great danger in lifting them up too highly. Saints and soldiers accomplish courageous and amazing feats, but that does not mean we can’t follow in their footsteps.
The widow in Mark and Ruth, in the same way, should not be seen as being on a level that we’ll never get to. We do heroes a disservice when we name streets after them and enshrine them in stained glass as a way of domesticating them and protecting ourselves from being asked to make a similar choice. But their choice is our choice. Just because they accomplished something great does not mean that we are excused from greatness. Rather, they are examples of regular people who step out in faith. The best way to honor these heroes isn’t with words and statues, but it is to make their sacrifices worth something by continuing the work that they began. So with that in mind, the widow and Ruth are great examples of making a choice, but not in the way we might expect.
We’ll begin with Ruth. The book of Ruth is relatively short and would make for great Sunday afternoon reading if you’re interesting in reading a good story. Elimelech and Naomi have two sons and lived in Moab, and their two sons married two Moabite girls. This passage is often read at weddings because of the wonderful words that Ruth speaks to Naomi later in the passage. But it’s rather ironic that the story begins with the death of the three husbands; not sure that this reading bodes well for the husbands at weddings.
Anyway, the men all die. Naomi was a Jew and had heard that God had provided food in Israel, so she begins the long journey back to her native land. But she tells her daughters-in-law to return to their families in Moab. And Ruth and Orpah refuse to leave this woman who had become family to them. But Naomi insists that they leave her. Naomi knows it is a long journey, and she knows that as a widow, she will be dirt poor and unable to find much food when she returns home. We see this reality in our reading from Mark. That widow only had two coins to rub together. Naomi also knows that two foreign women will not fare very well in her hometown. She says “what, do you think I’m going to bear new sons for you to marry?”
And Ruth responds with the wonderful song, saying “where you go, I will go…your people shall be my people, your God my God. Where you die, I will die.” It seems that she has made a choice to stay with her mother-in-law. But how much of a choice was it? If she stayed in Moab, where there was a great famine, what chance did she have of surviving? She herself was a widow, so her prospects for remarriage or escaping poverty were slim to none. It doesn’t really work this way here, but in many cultures when you marry someone, you don’t just marry the individual, but the entire family. Ruth captures this sentiment when she says “your people will be my people.” The fact that her husband died didn’t change her relationship to Naomi; they were still kin.
So I’ll ask, what choice did Ruth really have? Could she have done anything other than remain dedicated to Naomi? My response is no; she had no choice. But you might say, “Robert, that’s ridiculous. She very much had a choice. Even if the choices were bad, she still had freedom. Look at Orpah, she clearly made a choice to not stay with Naomi and Ruth could have done the same.” And I would still respond that Ruth had no choice.
So why is Ruth worthy of being an example to us if she didn’t really make a choice but was forced into a decision? Ruth is an example to us not because she made a choice, but because she exercised a choice. Even if you don’t have a choice, as I am suggesting that Ruth did not, how you handle living that choice makes all the difference. What Ruth did to make her worthy of our emulation wasn’t her making a bold choice, but rather was her embracing the Hebrew word hesed. Hesed is a wonderful word in Hebrew that, unfortunately, can’t easily be translated into English. It is defined in many ways such as “goodness,” “loving kindness,” “fidelity,” or “steadfast love.” Some scholars say that hesed is the most important word in the entire language of the Bible. In most instances, hesed is the primary word to describe God in the relationship to Israel. God loves Israel unconditionally and shows goodness towards the people.
One of the few places that we find the word hesed applied to a human in the book of Ruth when Naomi extols Ruth for showing hesed to her. Ruth is an example of faith, not for making a choice to live hesed, but rather in her exercising of that hesed. We are all called to love like God does. In our Baptismal Covenant, we are all called to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves” and to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” Embodying God’s unwavering and total love of hesed is something we all strive towards. It isn’t a choice anymore than choosing to be born is a choice. It is simply what we are created to be.
So even though Ruth didn’t make the choice to show hesed, since it was the only fitting thing to do, she still is a great example to us because she thrived in that hesed. Even though she had no choice, no real faithful option, other than loving and supporting her aging mother-in-law, she still exercised her choice, or lack thereof, beautifully.
So let’s now turn to the widow in Mark. We should not ignore the first half of this reading from Mark, as it sets the tone. Jesus begins by condemning the Temple structure that devours widows. The Temple has become a self-serving den of robbers where justice is not done. They do not practice what they preach. They have gotten too comfortable in their faith. So along comes this widow to put her offering into the Temple treasury. She comes and puts in her last two coins, making a choice to give it all. But was it really a choice?
You might say “okay Robert, I can get on board with the idea that Ruth only had one faithful option and it wasn’t really much of a choice. But this widow clearly had a choice. There was no gun to her head. In fact, the Temple was supposed to support widows, not the other way around; she didn’t have to give anything. And even if she did, giving half of what she had would have been more than enough. She obviously made a choice to give more. She had freedom, and she had a choice.” And again, I would contest that she had no choice, but like Ruth, she exercised her choice in a way deserving of our attention.
So this widow comes and gives, not out of her abundance, but out of her poverty. If you had two pennies, what good does it do you to keep one? What could this widow have realistically done with one, or even two, coins? It wouldn’t have bought her a house, wouldn’t have gotten her a meal. St. Chrysostom said about this widow that you can’t buy the Kingdom with money; and if you could, this widow wouldn’t get very much. But she clearly seems to be inheriting the Kingdom in her actions.
This widow was absolutely dirt poor, and in that culture, as a poor widow, and real no prospects for changing her life situation. There was no pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, no Medicare system to pay for her stay in a long-term nursing facility. She was totally dependent on the grace of God and the goodness of others. She depended on hesed. And hesed was the only choice she had in living her life.
I was talking recently with someone who works with the poor and homeless and he said the difference between the rich and the poor isn’t money, but choice. I could go out and give all of my possessions away today, but I have the intellectual and professional resources to get it all back within a few years through hard work. The poor don’t have that choice. The oppression systems that put them in poverty are designed to keep them there. The poor can’t choose to go out and get a job, to have people put away their racist and discriminatory points of view, or have the bank give a loan to someone with no credit history or stable income. They have no choice but to remain poor. And the widow had no choice.
But despite her lack of choice about being poor, she exercised hesed. Like Ruth, there really wasn’t an option other than hesed, but she still wore the garment of steadfast love with all the grace and beauty of a queen adorned with jewels and fancy clothes. Her life was made possible by the hesed of God, and the only fitting response, the only viable option, was for her to return this hesed. So she put the two coins in the treasury, not because she made a choice to do so, but because it was the only choice that she could live with.
In both of these examples of the widow and Ruth, their hesed defies explanation. There is no reasonable motivation for their actions other than being out of options. It is interesting that in these passages, the lowest of the low, the widow and the sojourner, those without the choice, are actually the ones with the greatest freedom. They are able to practice hesed like no one else. There are no boundaries or conditions for hesed. It isn’t just an attitude, but hesed is action. Their actions force us to consider our own motivations for action. What do our actions say about us? The text of Mark literally says that the widow gave her entire life. Where do you put your life?
Marriage is a good metaphor for this lack of choice. On your wedding day, regardless of how prepared you think you are and how well you know your future spouse, you have no idea what you’re getting into. I have a feeling that having a child will be a similar experience, and I’ll confirm that with you in a few weeks. But when we enter a relationship such as marriage, we commit to giving up choice. There are inevitabilities in marriage that we cannot be prepared for. Life circumstances change. People change and grow. But we stick it out. We don’t wake up each morning and decide to renew our wedding vows or put our rings on again. We live in hesed to each other, being reminded of God’s fidelity to us. Now, of course, in some sense I do have a choice in my marriage. I could do things that would be destructive to the marriage, but they don’t make sense to do so. They aren’t real options, I don’t have a choice. And in that lack of choice, there is a freedom beyond comparison.
We are free to not have to make millions of decisions each day. We don’t need to listen to debates or compare platforms. We don’t really have a choice in this. As Christians, we live in hesed. We are loved extravagantly by God, for no particular reason other than the fact that God loves us. And in turn, the only real choice is for us to abound in this love. The only fitting response is to love the Lord our God with all our soul, with all our heart, with all our might and to love our neighbors as ourselves. This lack of choice doesn’t take away our freedom, but rather gives us the freedom to actually take the road that set before us, following Jesus on the way.
So today, we give thanks for the examples of Ruth and the widow. They aren’t heroes to be enshrined in stained glass windows, but are faithful witnesses to be followed. Neither of them had much of a choice to act with steadfast love, with hesed. There was only one way forward for them, but yet they exercised this inevitable choice with grace that inspires us to do the same.
The Good News comes when you look up the name “Ruth” in the index of your Bible. There is one place, outside of the book of Ruth, where her name shows up, and it is in the beginning of Matthew in the genealogy of Jesus. Ruth, by her hesed, became the great-grandmother of King David, who was one of the ancestors of Jesus. We never know what sort of impact our hesed might have. Again, Ruth chose hesed not because she necessarily wanted to, but because it was the only right option. And in her hesed she participated in bringing the Kingdom to reality, in enabling the way of salvation to come to all people. When we give up the idol of choice and instead accept the way of God as the only way forward, we too can participate in the miracle of God’s salvation. And to be clear, the way of God is the way of extreme love, of hesed. I started this sermon by saying that we have one more choice to make. But maybe I was wrong; maybe taking the path of radical and transformative love is our only choice.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

November 4, 2012 - All Saints' Day B

Almighty God, who hast knit together thine elect in one communion and fellowship, in the mystical body of thy Son Christ our Lord: Grant, we beseech thee, to thy whole Church in paradise and on earth, thy light and thy peace. Amen.
            Today, we celebrate the Feast of All Saints’ Day. As you know, All Saints’ Day falls on November 1, but we move its celebration to the following Sunday so that we can fully commemorate this day. All Saints’ Day is one of the major feasts of the Church year, but it is often forgotten. Right there with Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost, All Saints’ is one of the four holiest of holy days. It brings to mind questions about sainthood and what that means for our lives. November 2 is another feast day in the Church, and is All Souls’ Day. It is a day to remember and give thanks for the cloud of faithful witness who have preceded us in life and faith. With this feast, we consider the topic of death. So on this morning, let us consider the topics that these feasts days bring up: sainthood, fellowship, and death.
            We’ll start with sainthood. Each week, in the Creed, we affirm that “we believe in the communion of saints.” What does it mean to be a saint? There are several different ways to answer that question. In the Roman Catholic tradition, to be a saint means you are part of the small handful of saints to ever walk this earth. To be canonized you must have three confirmed miracles in your life. That’s a bit out of my reach. We might then understand sainthood as being one of the heroes of the faith- perhaps CS Lewis or Martin Luther King. But again, though most of us aspire to be remembered for our great acts of faith and courage, our legacies will probably be more humble than theirs.
            Perhaps sainthood is about virtuous living, such as keeping the commandments. But virtues are not things to accomplish. None of us are perfect, and if sainthood is about perfection, then I’m afraid not many of us will be remembered as saints. Instead, the view that I’d like to lift up this morning is the traditional Anglican view of sainthood. And in that understanding, we are all saints of the Church. You are a saint. The prayer book defines the communion of saints as “the whole family of God, the living and the dead, those whom we love and those whom we hurt, bound together in Christ by sacrament, prayer and praise.”
There is a book we use called Lesser Feasts and Fasts that outlines many of these saints who have days on which we remember their life and ministry. These are people like the martyr Perpetua, William Tyndale, and Charles Wesley. They also include a lot of people that live fairly ordinary lives that are made extraordinary by living for the Gospel. As one of our hymns today proclaims, “Saints lived not only in ages past; there are hundreds of thousands still. The world is bright with the joyous saints who love to do Jesus' will. Why shouldn’t we be one too?”
So if sainthood is understood as something that we all can take part in, who exactly is a saint? I think it’s important to realize that saints are people, not attributes. Unwavering faith and martyrdom are not saints, but rather people are saints. People are not perfect. The Church has lifted up as all kinds of people as saints- saints who were disciples of Jesus, saints who were single, saints who were divorced, saints who were poor, saints who were rich, and saints who did evil and then changed their life. Being a saint is about living a life that is open to the Holy Spirit. In Scripture, the word used for saint simply means set apart or holy. In our baptisms, we all have been set apart. When you were baptized, you were given a halo. When I look out at you all, I can see halos above your heads, because you are the saints of the Church.
This is a very important message- that sainthood is not just for a few; but rather sainthood is for the many. Some people wonder if we should baptize infants or practice “believers baptism.” Baptizing babies is a great reminder that we don’t earn our halos, they are given to us. We don’t have to earn our sainthood, we are saints. The question isn’t “do I deserve to be called a saint?” but rather “do I believe that I’m a saint?” Don’t strive for sainthood, you already have it, but how will you live your life as a saint? It isn’t a question of whether or not you have a halo, but how you wear it. When you look in the mirror, do you see a saint of the Church wearing a halo? Can you see the halos above the heads of your friends and neighbors, and even your enemies? We can treat people poorly and diminish their sainthood, or we can strive to build it up. We’re all in this together, that’s why we pray for the communion of saints.
So we now focus on the “communion” part of the communion of saints. We are reminded that sainthood is not something we do alone, but is part of a fellowship. There is a theological term known as “realized eschatology” that we would do well to consider here. Eschatology is a word that means “the end of the things,” so if it is realized, then it has already happened in some sense. This differs from those who practice a sort of anticipated eschatology, where they look forward to some apocalyptic event. Realized eschatology reads our passage from Revelation today not as talking about the end of the world, but rather as a reflection of what Jesus has accomplished and how we follow him.
In our reading from Revelation, the one sitting on the throne says “It is finished!” in the perfect tense, meaning that the action has already been accomplished; it has been realized. This vision of the new Jerusalem is not some promise for the future, but it is already a present reality. We enact it when we pray “thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”
Wearing a halo means that we work together in this reality of the realized eschatology. The metaphor of this passage reinforces this idea of fellowship. The passage says that “And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” The metaphor used for the new Jerusalem is marriage, a relationship. The new Jerusalem, the hope towards which we strive as saints, isn’t some place, but it is a fellowship. The text says “God will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.” It is about fellowship.
We don’t strive to escape this world, but we work to transform it. It is worth pointing out that the text clearly says that the new Jerusalem comes down from Heaven, not that the world is destroyed and raptured up to Heaven. God comes to us, making all things new. The saints are those who do this work of transformation in the face of the persecution and death. The saints are those who are “convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
One of the questions of theology that I am asked most often is “why do we pray for the dead, aren’t they all set in Heaven with Jesus?” It’s a good question. With this fuller and deeper understanding of the fellowship of all the saints, we realize that our journeys in faith don’t end once we die. We do not go to Heaven to sit around as a mindless drone that simply worships God around the throne. We go instead to participate more fully in the love and grace of God. We continue to do our works as the saints of the Church, building up the Kingdom. And so we pray for all the saints, the living and the dead. We pray for them because we love them, regardless which side of the grave they are on.
We also pray for them because their work is not finished. Think about Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Consider Peter and Paul. These are saints of the Church, but their work, which is the completion of the prayer “thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in Heaven” is not completed. They depend on us to finish their work. Without us, they are incomplete. Without future generations, we are incomplete. We need each other.
The best way I know how to describe this comes from an experience I had earlier this year in Israel. We were at a museum which had a very detailed model of ancient Jerusalem; it was about the size of our nave. Our instructor was showing us various building that Jesus would have known. At one point he used his laser pointer and pointed to some walls and a section of Jerusalem and said “ignore that wall and those buildings, those weren’t there during Jesus’ time.” It hit me, as we were looking at this model of Jerusalem, that this might be a way to understand the communion of saints.

We all live in the city of Jerusalem. We only know sections of it, and it changes throughout time. The people that lived in those sections that we were supposed to ignore were still citizens of the city. We all dwell in this mystical city of God, there are some walls that our current vision can’t see past, but all the saints dwell together. There is a wonderful quote about death that says “death is a horizon, and a horizon is nothing save the limits of our sight.” So we pray for the dead, and all of the saints, because we trust that we are citizens of the realized new Jerusalem, even if we aren’t able to peer through the walls and see them.
And this brings us to the final consideration this All Saints’ Day- death. Our culture has a very unhealthy and uncomfortable view of death. We fear death as some unknown force, we fear fading into oblivion, we see death as being unnatural. But as I’ve just mentioned, death is simply moving from one part of the new Jerusalem to another. Jesus’ interaction with Lazarus is helpful.
It reminds us of the proper place of grief when we encounter death. Jesus wept and “was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” Jesus experienced a tough loss, and he was grieved. Even if he knew that Lazarus simply had moved to a new zip code in the new Jerusalem, it meant that the nature of their relationship had changed. But he didn’t wallow in his grief. He didn’t let the death of his beloved friend define him.
Today is a day for us to remember those listed in our bulletins, our friends, family, and parishioners who have died in the last year. Today we remember those who have their names inscribed in our hearts. We grieve the loss of our physical relationship with them. We acknowledge the pain of loss, but we are invited to know that Jesus unbinds us and resurrects us, just as he did for Lazaurs.
One theologian suggests that, using the metaphor of childbirth, that faith is not an epidural, though people too often to try to use it as one. Phrases such as “this was part of God’s plan,” or “it’s wrong to be sad at death because it is joyous that they are with God,” or “the pain will go away with time” are not only wrong, but they are unhelpful. Faith is not an epidural, nor should it be. Faith instead is more similar to a midwife, who helps with the birthing of new life. There should be pain, and there should be Resurrection in our faith. Faith helps us to see that rich feast that is mentioned in our Isaiah passage.
As I’ve said before, what God gives us is maximum support with minimum protection. We will not be spared from death and grief in our lives, but we will be upheld by God and the fellowship of all the saints. We will be strengthened to have death bring about new life to us, as it happened to Lazarus. Jesus comes to Lazarus and says “Lazarus, come out!” God will come to us upon our deaths and call us by name, and will say to us, “come out!” Come out of the chains of death and grief, come dwell with me in the new Jerusalem that has been prepared for you. Come live with all the saints, past, present, and future.
Death is a tough subject, because it hurts to have loss. But we trust that though death hurts, it can be redeemed. Our funeral office begins “I am Resurrection and I am Life, says the Lord. Whoever has faith in me shall have life, even though he die.” So today as we remember our loved ones who have died, we grieve their loss, while still knowing that death will not have the final say; trusting that they dwell with God, just as we do.
May God bless us this All Saints’ Day, helping us to faithfully wear our halos and see the sainthood of all those whom we encounter. May God strengthen the bonds of our fellowship, that we might continue in the work of those saints who have come before us and leave a solid foundation for those who will seek to further build God’s Kingdom after us. And may God be the midwife in our deaths, helping us to bear the pain of grief and death so that new life might emerge in us. You are the saints of the Church. May God bless us as we live the words “For the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.” Amen.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

October 28, 2012 - Proper 25B

In the name of God- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
            “Taste and see that the Lord is good. Happy are they who trust in him.” That verse from today’s Psalm is well known and is fitting for our final Sunday of our financial stewardship campaign. This month has been a great one in terms of community involvement in the mission and ministries of St. Francis. We have heard stories of ways that pledging enables ministry and we have read inspiring testimonies in the bulletins. I want to thank you all for participating in being a blessing through your financial stewardship. And of course, I want to thank the Stewardship Committee for its wonderful leadership in putting such a strong program together. They’ve really worked to frame stewardship not as a fundraising campaign, but rather as a way of responding to God’s blessings bestowed up on us. And in this sermon, I’d like to build upon that idea, suggesting that filling out your pledge card, while being important in following Jesus, is just one step in that journey.
            This morning I’d like to consider the first verse of our Psalm in detail- “I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall ever be in my mouth.” Notice what the Psalmist doesn’t say. They did not say “I will bless the Lord when I feel good, or when I am happy, or when I remember to, or when I can make time in my busy schedule.”  It seems rather easy, rather cliché. The WWJD?, or what would Jesus do?, movement became popular in the 1990s. Followers of Jesus could wear a bracelet. For centuries, people have worn cross necklaces are reminders of their discipleship. Even the latest polling data suggests that many Americans self-identify as Christians. It seems that we have a lot of people who would check off the box next to “do you bless the Lord at all times?”
            But you and I know that isn’t the truth. For a country full of people who say that we are One Body in Christ, we seem to have a division that runs right down the middle. According to estimates, there are nearly 2,000 homeless children in Greensboro. Racism, though it is supposedly illegal, still runs through our civil discourse. Our government spends more on war and defense than it does on healthcare and education. That doesn’t sound like a group of people who follow the Prince of Peace to me.
            The point is this: it’s really easy to say that you’re a follower of Jesus, but it’s another thing to be a racial disciple who does it. The problem is the emergence of cultural Christianity, which in itself is an oxymoron since everything about Jesus was counter-cultural. In the same way that when you meet someone who is Jewish, it is acceptable to wonder if they are practicing or simply ethnically Jewish, Christianity has moved into that realm. And this isn’t about judging people or condemning them by saying that they’re not really a Christian, but it is about Christian accountability, or as St. Paul puts it “speaking the truth in love.”
            We have perverted the meaning of discipleship, we’ve lost sight of Jesus on the road, and we have confused the meaning of the word “believe.” Today, if I ask if you believe in God, you probably think that I’m asking you where you stand on the intellectual proposition of there being a creative force in the universe. Ask a Christian if they believe in Jesus and they’ll say yes, while holding social views which are simply unchristian. How does this happen?
            The word “believe” historically has always connoted dedication, love, and trust. Belief has very little to do with the brain, and much to do with the heart and hands. But in our reversal of these meanings, we’ve lost a sense of following Jesus and instead are too comfortable with just thinking about him. And this is really what stewardship is about, this is why pledging is such a sign of faith. It isn’t just saying that you go to St. Francis and support our ministry, it is, rather literally, putting your money where your mouth is.
            At clergy conference earlier this month we had a speaker who has a powerful story. Her name is the Rev. Sarah Jobe, a Baptism minister. She told the story of being at Duke Divinity School with a passion for Jesus. But she, like many of us, lived a busy life. Her schedule was full, but her passion for the Gospel drove her to do some church work. And she made it clear that this wasn’t just a few hours a week, she was at church several days a week, serving those in need. And one day she realized how tiring it was to be a Christian.
And I think we can all sympathize with this. Between work, the gym, cooking dinner, getting kids ready at night, maybe a few church meetings, and swim meets, there really isn’t much time left for doing anything else. Even if we think feeding the hungry is important, when do we find the time to do it? I’m sure we’d all like to read Scripture daily, but not if it’s stressful just to make the time for it.
Then one day, she had an epiphany. She realized that she didn’t have time to be a Christian in her spare time anymore; there simply weren’t enough hours in the day. So she decided to be a Christian all the time. She asked herself, what difference does it make that I’m a Christian in my life? What difference does it make to my family? To my community? To my church? To my bank account? She couldn’t find time to do 20 hours a week of church volunteering, but there was plenty of time to be a Christian 24x7. And in being a Christian first and foremost instead of in her spare time, she found it easier to reorient her life. Daily practices of prayer and Scripture reading weren’t hard to fit in because she had a Christian life, not a life and then put other stuff in as able. She commented that she doesn’t do ministry, but she lives a life. It just so happens that she does a lot of ministry in her life.
Let’s turn to Bartimaeus and today’s gospel reading, as he gets it. So he’s a blind beggar, and somehow he’s heard the legend of Jesus, that he restores sight to the blind. So when Jesus passes by, he screams out. People tell him to be quiet, so he screams louder. You might say that praise was ever in his mouth. Jesus calls him over, and he immediately gets up and throws off his cloak, which as a bold move. He knew that something special was about to happen because if he still expected to be a blind beggar after encountering Jesus, he would have needed his only cloak to keep warm. But he casts it aside, confident that Jesus will help him. And it plays out the way he hoped for, he can see again. But then the important part of the story, “and then he followed Jesus on the way.”
“The way” was a termed used to describe those who followed Jesus in the years after his crucifixion. To be a member of The Way was to be a disciple. And think back to the past few Sundays in Mark. Jesus has been talking for several weeks about the last being first and taking up our crosses and his impending execution. Everyone knows where Jesus is going and where his way will lead, but Bartimaeus believes in Jesus, he loves him, trusts him, is dedicated to him. So he follows him to Jerusalem, the place where Jesus will die. The Bible doesn’t ever again mention Bartimaeus, but I’d bet my bottom dollar that he was active in the early church.
            His actions recall the tone of that great spiritual hymn: “I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back.” It’s about following Jesus all the way, about going all-in, about blessing the Lord at all times. I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite books. In The Screwtape Letters, CS Lewis tells the story of a demon who is coaching another demon on how to tempt humans and lead them to hell. The teacher says, “If you can get him to the point of thinking ‘religion is all very well up to a point,’ you can feel quite happy about his soul. A moderated religion is as good for us as no religion at all- and more amusing.”
            It’s a trap that we all fall into, thinking that “Christianity is all good up to a point.” We rationalize tough texts telling ourselves, “surely Jesus didn’t really tell that man to sell all of his possession. Jesus doesn’t really want me to take up my cross, I’m too important doing his work. If I go crazy for Jesus, people will discredit me, and then I won’t be an effective witness in the world, so I better stay in the middle.” But Bartimaeus didn’t seem to say these things, neither did Jesus, nor the Psalmist.
            The solution to cultural Christianity, the way to fill that void in our hearts, the means to bring about the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven is in the simple to understand but challenging to live words of our psalm- “I will bless the Lord at all times.” Yes, this is radical, it might seem uncomfortable and even crazy, yet we follow a Messiah who was executed for being too far off the deep end. The way for the vine to grow the strongest is to have its roots grow deep within us. It is the call of our Baptisms, and it is our hope for the world. Reconciliation, redemption, and salvation come when we fling the doors of our hearts and lives open to God.
            As I sat there, being inspired by Sarah’s testimony of following Jesus, I felt a really strong desire to deepen my own discipleship. But I honestly had no clue where to start. Part of me really toyed with the idea of selling it all, or at least most of it. So I talked to one of the other presenters who had a similar story. And he reminded me of that wonderful psalm that says “your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” The thing about this metaphor is that a lamp only illuminates a few steps in front of you. If we are to be like Bartimaeus, following Jesus, we don’t necessarily need to know where we end up, but we simply need to believe, or trust, that that Jesus will be with us along the journey. We don’t need a map, just faith.
            There is a comic strip that runs online called “Coffee with Jesus,” and about a week ago there was a good one where a man says to Jesus “I like being a believer in you, Jesus. You’re a good friend.” Jesus says “And I like that you’re a believer, but I’d prefer you be a disciple.” The man replies “What’s the difference?” And Jesus says “discipline.” The way to following Jesus, the means to praise God at all times isn’t in having some grand plan, it isn’t in being as virtuous as St. Francis, but it is in the thousands of decisions we make every day and how we practice discipline.
            How will I react to that slow waitress? Do I flip off that driver that cut me off? Do I tell the clerk that they gave me a $10 bill instead of $5? After as stressful day at work, do I take it out on my spouse by having a short temper? Do I practice stewardship by giving some of God’s blessings to those in need? Do I lend a helping hand to my coworker in need? Do I comfort those who mourn, or do I ignore them? Do I stand up for those without of voice, or do I remain polite and not talk about religion or politics? Do I tell the bullies to leave that other kid alone, or do I laugh at him? How do I handle adversity, with hope or with despair? Do I have the discipline of living into my Baptismal vow to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers? Do I love God? Do I trust God? Do I dedicate all of my life and being to God’s Kingdom?
It takes discipline to make all of these small decisions, but they add up to a life of discipleship. It has become too common to equate Christianity with belief in facts about God instead of living a life fully dedicated to God. Focusing on the blessing of discipleship has been our focus for this stewardship campaign, but it won’t end today. Stewardship is a lifestyle. Like Bartimaeus, may we be confident in Jesus and follow him on the way of life, one step at a time. Let us take the words of Psalm 34 with us, that we might bless the Lord at all times, with God’s praise ever being in our mouths. Let our prayer today be in the wonderful words of the classic hymn, God of grace and God of glory: Save us from weak resignation, to the evils we deplore. Let the search for thy salvation, be our glory evermore. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, serving thee whom we adore. Amen.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

October 14, 2012 - Proper 23B

In the name of God- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
            Well, there are pledge cards in the pews in front of you, and Jesus encounters a man asking for advice on discipleship and he tells him “sell what you own and give the money to the poor.” So this, unsurprisingly, is a financial stewardship sermon. Now before you tune me out for the next 15 minutes, before you start feeling anticipatory guilt, before you cover your wallet let’s give Jesus a chance to speak. This isn’t my message, its Jesus’. I know that this is a tough passage. It challenges me every time I read it. And let us remember, this story is found in the Gospel according to Mark- so at its heart, this story testifies to the Good News.
            In preparing for this sermon I ran across a commentary that noted that people misread this passage in one of two ways. Either they say that this passage is just an allegory and it isn’t really about money, or they say that this passage is only speaking about money. Both of these misunderstandings limit the impact of Jesus’ teaching. So I’ll use that as the structure for this sermon- addressing those that say this isn’t about money first, and then those that say it’s only about money.
            So we start by addressing those that say this passage isn’t about money. No sense in sugar coating it, they’re wrong. This passage is about money. The historical context for the story is important. Whether it’s the 99% ganging up on the 1%, the cry for higher taxes on the wealthy, or the distrust of Wall Street, there are strong feelings against those who are rich. People who earn a healthy living are often distrusted because it is assumed that they cheated or exploited others to get that money. This isn’t at all though what Jesus would have thought about the rich man whom he encounters.
            To be rich in Jesus’ time was to be blessed. If you had wealth, it was because God was happy with you and gave you these good things. Being rich was a sign of honor. We though live in a different context, and we understand that being rich doesn’t mean that God loves you any more than anyone else. But the context of this passage reminds us that God doesn’t love the rich any less either. We do God, and the rich, an injustice when we condemn them for being rich.
            What Jesus does speak against though is consumerism. This man comes to Jesus with a first-world sort of problem. We know that he’s well off because he comes not asking for healing, because he can afford medical care; not for food, because he isn’t hungry; but instead he comes asking how to inherit, a financial term, eternal life. He’s enjoying this life so much; he wants to make sure that it continues forever.
            He has become used to earning things through his wealth or prestige. Money has a way of making us feel entitled to things. I was listening to a story last weekend on the radio about poverty in America. They were speaking with a family of 6 that lives on $500 a month. I don’t think of myself as the rich man in this story, but in hearing their story I realized that I might as well be. And with that, I’ve bought into consumerism. There are things that I feel entitled to because I have a steady paycheck. If I want to go out for a nice dinner every once in a while, I do it. I tell myself that I work hard and that I deserve it. And in a similar way, this man came to Jesus thinking “I’m blessed because God is happy with me, I deserve the chance to get eternal life.”
            Consumerism places our emphasis on the economy of the world instead of the economy of God. In the world’s economy, there are fiscal cliffs, uncontrollable debt, and scarcity. But in God’s economy there is always enough for everyone. One scholar defines consumerism as “the glorification of individual choice.” But the message that Jesus continually goes back to is “it’s about the Kingdom of God.” Consumerism puts our interests on profits and our own comfort rather than making sure that every person can live with dignity. The Kingdom of God isn’t for sale, nor is eternal life. The man learns this lesson when Jesus tells him to sell all of his things and give the money to the poor. The man came to Jesus, perhaps hoping that Jesus would tell him to give his money to the poor, not to become poor.
            He couldn’t imagine doing this. And neither can I. Sell everything? I trust God, but I’m not sure that I could do this. Even many monks struggle with this. They take a vow of poverty, yet they all own things, often even owning property. But yet, Jesus calls us to give it all away. CS Lewis said that “nothing you have not given away will ever really be yours.” If we hang onto it so tightly that we can’t give it away, then it owns us. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. If you can’t give your money away, it controls you instead of you controlling it.
            But giving money away still isn’t easy. What does that mean to do with less? Anne Frank said “no one has ever become poor by giving.” And she’s right, but she also had a bit more courage than most of us. There is a William Faulkner play in which one of the poor characters is talking to a rich many about money and he says “I ain’t rich, I don’t need no money. We fool ourselves into thinking that if we just had a little bit more money the financial stress would go away. But we all know that somehow, expenses always rise to meet income. If getting money, even if it’s for retirement or savings, is our goal, we’ll never have enough. If everything seems to come simply by signing checks, we might soon forget that we are, at every moment, dependent on God.
            And though we may never have enough, there are too many people that aren’t even close to having enough. Too many people die of starvation and preventable disease. Too many animals are abused and too few children are given education. As I said in my last sermon, “God only wins when we lose.” When we lose money by helping those in need, God’s justice and love wins. So maybe giving money away means not getting a big vacation every year, but if that means those in need are less needy, then I think we’re all okay with that.
            Jesus didn’t mince his words on this; there’s no getting around it. He said sell all that you have and give it away. As we’re in our financial stewardship season, this is a tough message. We’d be ecstatic if everyone gave 10%, but Jesus seems to be calling us to give 100%.  But how do we do this responsibly? If I sold my house, clothes, and car, how would I eat? Even Jesus knew that money was necessary because one of the disciples was the treasurer. Now, yes, this was Judas; but still, he carried the money because sometimes you need to buy things.
            If this reading is about money, how do we respond? Do we sell it all and start living in a commune? This is where we need to move into the second half the sermon, addressing those that say this passage is only about money, because, they too, are wrong. This passage is about a lot more than money.
            About a year ago I was talking with Bishop Curry about preaching during stewardship season. And he commented that the readings that we often get during October aren’t as much about money as they are about the Kingdom of God. Jesus isn’t a financial planner; he is the Messiah. He didn’t come to preach about finances, he came to preach about the Kingdom. And he tells us that the “Kingdom of God is among you.” And if the Kingdom is a present reality, we need to live in that Kingdom, working to build it instead of work against it. And how we use our money will determine whether we are working for or against the Kingdom. So this passage is indeed about something much larger than money.
            The way that Jesus responds to this man is easy to miss. Before he tells him to sell his possessions, he looks at him and loves him. Jesus didn’t chastise him for being rich, he didn’t condemn him for being selfish, he didn’t challenge him for attempting to buy eternal life. Instead, he simply loved him. Jesus genuinely wants this man to have eternal life. Jesus sees that he is ripe for true conversion. He yearns to do the will of God, and he’s been trying by keeping the commandments. He just quite hasn’t gotten over the hump of living in the Kingdom of God instead of the kingdoms of this world. This wonderful addition reminds us that in our life of discipleship, we are loved and supported. It reminds us of those great words from our reading from Hebrews today: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
            We can have boldness to act as disciples. Jesus has walked this plight of suffering for the sake of the cross. Our Lord knows what it means to live without, and he knows what it means to rise from the deaths that plague us. We can be bold enough to live in total commitment to Jesus and the Kingdom of God.
            The man in this passage is often called the “rich man.” He has been defined by his wealth, and Jesus confronts him to give up his wealth, because that is what prevents him from entering the Kingdom of God. What defines you? What prevents you from going “all in” for the Kingdom of God? Maybe it’s an addiction, pride, an old grudge, a sense of entitlement? If you encountered Jesus, what name would you get? Would you be the man with a short temper? The woman with control issues? Are we overly devoted to our jobs, or even to our families? Do we exercise more than we serve others? What could Jesus tell you to give up that would shock you and send you away grieving? The message this morning is clear: whatever defines you, Jesus calls us to give it up for the sake of following him in living for the present Kingdom of God.
            There has been a lot of talk recently about politics and whether or not “you built that” or whether the government helped you to build it. That’s a fine debate to have in a presidential debate, but it’s not even a question for the Christian. Whether you built it or not, give it to God. Your family, your business, your wealth, your reputation, your life- they aren’t yours to clutch onto. Instead, they’re God’s blessings bestowed upon you. Whether or not you built it really doesn’t matter, so long as what we’re seeking first is to build is the Kingdom of God. This passage would actually be a lot easier to deal with if it was just about money, but it isn’t that simple.
            But let us not lose sight of the fact that this is Good News. It is Good News that the last will be first. It is Good News that God is with us when we choose to be the last. It is Good News that for God, all things are possible. It might be impossible for us to put a camel through the eye of a needle, and in a similar way, it might be impossible to come up with the courage to live fully for God, to give up what is most dear to us for God’s Kingdom. But it is Good News that through God these things are indeed possible.
            It might be Good News, but perhaps it isn’t welcome news. Our passage from Job today shows us of the great power of lament and complaining to God. At the end of Job, the text literally says that God restored all the fortunes to Job because he talked to God. If this is a hard message, talk to God about it. Tell God that you don’t like giving until it hurts. Tell God that you’ve worked hard to get where you are and you don’t think it’s fair to give it up. Tell God that you want to trust God enough to do this, but you need help taking that first step. Take the prayer of St. Augustine before God- “give me the grace to do as you command, and the command to do what you will.”
            This isn’t supposed to be easy. A lot of people assume that this rich man went away and didn’t sell his possessions. But maybe he did. Perhaps as soon as Jesus told him to do so, he realized that he must. So he walked home, thinking of all that he’d have to sell, and he mourned the loss. Jesus didn’t say “sell all that you have and be happy about it.” This is tough stuff. Faith isn’t always easy. But God is with us. God’s Kingdom is present. We can do this together.
            It’s a tough passage to get in the midst of a financial stewardship campaign. We are reminded that this passage is about money, challenging us to consider how we use it. And this is a passage about much more than money. We are invited to consider how we define ourselves and then give up those attachment that bind us to the kingdoms of this world instead of the Kingdom of God. Though it is difficult news, this is Good News. It is Good News when Jesus says “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or family or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age…and in the age to come eternal life.” So we pray and struggle to give it away, knowing that we will be blessed to be a blessing in sharing God’s blessings.
I know, the children, the mortgage, aging parents, bills, the uncertain economy, the future. I know. I struggle with this too. There are days when threading a needle with a camel seems easier than following Jesus. So what hope do we have? And who is brave enough to do all this? The question hasn’t changed much over years, and neither has the answer. For us, it is impossible, but for not for God. For God, all things are possible. Thanks be to God.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

October 7, 2012 - St. Francis Day

Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to you, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated unto you; and then use us, we pray, as you will, and always to your glory and the welfare of your people; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
            Today we celebrate the Feast of St. Francis, our patron saint. We all know the stories of Francis. He lived from 1181-1226, spending most of his time in Assisi. He is remembered for his great care of the earth and animals. Francis was born into a wealthy family, but rejected his birthright in favor of living more freely for God. We also remember him for developing the usage of crèches or nativity sets. He also founded the order of the Franciscans and received the stigmata during prayer. And we remember him in our community for his ideals of simplicity, compassion, and hope. Today, I want to focus on reading these lessons through the lens of Franciscan spirituality.
            Our readings today center on what some scholars call the Great Invitation, referring to Jesus inviting his audience to “come to me, all of you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens.” Often it is used to give comfort to those in a tough situation, but it’s a rather ironic passage.
            Jesus says that those who are weary should take his yoke upon them, because it is easy and light. The way this saying is often applied, you’d think Jesus was talking about some sort of relaxing massage technique for your shoulders. But yokes are used for work animals, for hard labor, or to detain prisoners. It is ironic that Jesus uses an instrument of hard work as a metaphor for getting rest. Yokes are about submission and labor, no one hearing Jesus would have thought a yoke was restful. But yet Jesus suggests that his yoke is about liberation, freedom, and rest.
Francis understood this irony. He said that true joy comes not from success, but from rejection and suffering, which causes us to think of Jesus’ suffering. He wasn’t saying that suffering is good, but rather is that it is natural and God is present in all situations, the good and the bad. And it is often in those tough situations that we come closest to God. And for that, Francis embraced suffering. Francis lived this irony of finding rest in the yoke of service.
We’ll start with the yoke as a burden before turning to its rest. It is interesting that Jesus speaks about his yoke being easy just a few weeks before his crucifixion. Many of the disciples will also be crucified for following Jesus. That doesn’t seem very light to me. This yoke isn’t a free pass. Francis certainly understood this when he chose to leave his wealthy family for the poverty of serving others.
The work of Francis was about simplicity- working with a single-minded focus on loving and serving those in need. He focused on what was important. He didn’t concern himself with wealth, or prestige, or power because he understood that those are distractions. As we are in the midst of a financial stewardship campaign, this is a good reminder for us to focus on simplicity. Deciding what matters most in life, and aligning our budgets to match accordingly.
Francis also lived compassionately. A quick word study will remind us that compassion is a compound word which literally means to suffer with. Francis certainly bore this yoke of suffering with people and animals. There are stories of him reaching out to lepers and other outcasts. And by serving them, he too became an outcast. Francis often reflected on the suffering of Christ on the cross and strove to compassionately suffer with all those in need for the sake of building the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.
And Francis had hope. We often think of hope as a nice, uplifting feeling. And that’s not a completely inaccurate view of hope. But hope is hard work. In the prayer of St. Francis, we see that he really had to work to find light, joy, faith, and pardon where there was darkness, sadness, doubt, and injury. As a bishop once remarked “we Christians are called to be a people of miraculous expectation; our ministry is the miracle of our hope.” Hope is what allows us to take on the burden of Jesus’ yoke, even though we know that the cross is on the horizon.
            These virtues of simplicity, compassion, and hope seem wonderful, and they are, but they are also full of hard work. Francis put a lot of emphasis on Creation, because he saw it as the labor of God. I’ve always been partial to the theology of continuing creation- the idea that God didn’t just create everything and then took a leave of absence, but rather that Creation is ongoing. And this makes sense. If the story of Genesis is based on the idea of a week, it only makes sense that the next week starts after the first. Creation is continually being recreated by God. It is not that God was the Creator, but that God is the Creator. God’s work continues today.
Even in the wording of Creation, “let there be…” there is a sense of growing into being. In the Hebrew, the verb for “let there be” is in the imperfect tense, giving a nuance of an uncompleted or ongoing action. God created the light, but he didn’t flip the light switch. Think of it more as a dimmer switch; the light is continually growing brighter. Francis saw his work in Creation as working to continue the Creation to more fully reflect the love and majesty of God.
As we’ve seen in the life of Francis, there is a lot of work to do in taking Jesus’ yoke upon us.  So how is it that all of this work of being yoked to Jesus leads to rest, a rest which we so desperately need? When Jesus says “take my yoke upon you and learn from me” he was likely referring to a double-yoke. This was a common technique where two animals would have been linked together to do harder labor, but to split it evenly to make it possible. There are some tasks that we simply can’t do alone- the task of discipleship is a two-person job. But, ironically, in working with Jesus, we are given a sense of rest, despite our labors.
            This rest comes from the idea of Sabbath found in Genesis. To understand this passage, we must take a critical look at it. I hope this doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone, but this story from Genesis is not a literal one, but it is very theological. This Creation story was very likely written in the 6th century BC, during the time of the Exile in Babylon. The Hebrew people were facing an identity crisis; their world no longer made sense. And so this story began to circulate: that the God of Israel was the Creator of the world. This was an important story for them to tell, because their Babylonian captors claimed that it was Marduk, a Babylonia god, who created the world. But this story insists that it was Yahweh that did the creating, and continues to do so.
            The story was a reminder that God can be trusted, even against the contemporary data of being in Exile. And the same is true for us. Though we might live in the exiles of disease, poverty, doubt, abandonment, unemployment, or war, this Creation story proclaims that God is present and in charge of all that is.
Genesis was never intended to explain how the world was created, but rather the method of its creation, and this was through the words and will of God. The Hebrews would have been comforted by this story of God creating out of chaos, because they lived in chaos. At its core, this is a story of hope.
            It is with this background that we can understand the idea of Sabbath rest. The Sabbath rest was a radical act of faith against the Babylonians. Jews would have been identifiable by their not-working on the Sabbath, by their Sabbath prayers. To be Jewish was to practice the Sabbath. And this is something that we’ve really lost sight of. As a people of faith, we need to reclaim the Sabbath. And I say this not only because we need some downtime, because we do; but I say this because part of being faithful disciples is in our ability to partake in God’s work and God’s rest.
            The reason why the Sabbath was so radical is because God rested. The God of Israel had the ability to rest from creating, not because it was so tiring and God needed a break, but because God was satisfied with Creation, calling it very good. God was confident enough to rest. Unlike the gods of Babylonia, our God spent an entire day in serenity and peace.
            In practicing Sabbath, we, like God, realize that life doesn’t depend on our feverish activity of trying to do it all, but knowing that there can be a pause where life is simply a gift. To practice to Sabbath is to practice confidence and hope. There is no such thing as a life without stress or tasks. We can work our fingers to the bone and still have more work to do. We’re fooling ourselves if we think that not observing Sabbath will actually get us any closer to our goals.
To practice Sabbath is to say “I trust God enough to get out of the rat race and take a few moments to enjoy life.” Sabbath reminds us that the world is in God’s hands, not ours. If we take a day off, believe it or not, the world will keep on going. After we die, Creation will continue. We can stop and take a break because the world isn’t dependent on us. Instead, the world is dependent on God. So Sabbath rest is a bold declaration of this faith. And in being freed from being over burdened, we are free to be yoked with Jesus.
            I’m not necessarily saying that this means that we need to stay away from the grocery store and soccer fields on Sundays, though that would be a good place to start. If you’re stressed on the Sabbath, then you’re not keeping the Sabbath. If our Sunday activities preclude us from worshipping God in community, then we’ve lost sight of the very reason for the Sabbath. For the Hebrews, taking a day off made them stick out like a thumb in Babylonian culture, and that was just the point. Let’s make the Sabbath radical in our lives. Let’s make sure we take a day to enjoy Creation, to rest from the labors of the week, to abound in God’s providence.
            And it is with this understanding of Sabbath rest that we can begin to understand what Jesus meant by the irony of saying that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. There is a certain freedom that we are granted in practicing Sabbath, in trusting God as our yoke-mate. In being able to rest, we are able take up Jesus’ yoke. The saying is that the hardest burden to carry is having no burden to carry, and Jesus gives us a yoke to carry which blesses us with purpose and meaning.
            Jesus’ yoke is built upon our confidence of God’s providence and continuing care for all of Creation. It is easy to take Jesus’ yoke upon us because it is easier to love than to hate, because forgiveness is a lighter load than carrying around vengeance, compassion is lighter to carry than anger. The word that Jesus uses for “easy” might be better translated as “having a good fit.” Walking the way of Jesus and practicing the radical act of Sabbath is not easy in the sense that we can do it with little effort, but that it will give us harmony by being a good fit for living the life of faith.
            Though it is ironic, the work of being yoked with Jesus leads to our Sabbath rest. St. Francis lived this reality by submitting himself to the work of God, and in doing so, was given rest and the freedom to live simply, compassionately, and hopefully. He lived in the spirit of the wisdom of this creation story from Genesis, knowing that the Sabbath is a radical act of faith that testifies to our confidence in God. We, too, can be confident that God is delighted in Creation, and we are invited to take some time each week to rest in this delight. By spending time in Sabbath rest, we are free to carry the burden of Jesus’ yoke.
            I’d like to close with the fourfold blessing of Francis, which speaks of this ironic relationship between rest and work:
May God bless you with a restless discomfort about easy answers, half truths and superficial relationships, so that you may seek truth boldly and love deep within your heart.
May God bless you with holy anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may tirelessly work for justice, freedom, and peace among all people.
May God bless you with the gift of tears to shed with those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, or the loss of all that they cherish, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and transform their pain into joy.
May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you really can make a difference in this world, so that you are able, with God's grace, to do what others claim cannot be done.

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Gospel in Seven Words

Christian Century's cover article a few issues ago was entitled "The Gospel in Seven Words." It's a great idea- state the message of the faith in seven words. Doing so forces us to not worry about doctrinal fights, frees us from having to write a thesis, and encourages us to deeply consider our faith and what the Good News is to us. I am reminded of the words of St. Peter "Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you" (1 Peter 3:15). I'll share a few of the responses from the article, add a few of my own, but I'd really like to hear from you, dear reader.

"In Christ, God's yes defeats our no." -Beverly Roberts Gaventa
"Love your neighbor as yourself." -Bill McKibben
"God gets the last word." -Martin Copenhaver
"God was born. We can be reborn." -Carol Howard Merritt

And a few of mine:

"The Kingdom of God is among you." -This is a quote of Luke 17:21 and really unpins my whole theology. The Kingdom isn't about the afterlife, God's graces aren't reserved for the death, but this life we live is the place to thrive and flourish in God's love and opportunity. It is also a reminder that we have work to do, namely building up that Kingdom so that it might come on Earth as it is in Heaven.

"The LORD is Risen! Alleluia!" -This is a familiar victory of Easter morning. YHWH (Yahweh, or God's personal name given to Moses in Exodus 3 is often translated as LORD, which is YHWH in Hebrew) was incarnate in the person of Jesus of Nazareth and overcame the oppression systems of the day, including death. The shout "alleluia" reminds us to "praise God" for this and all the blessings of life.

"God loves- so love God, neighbor, self." -The foundation of all is God's love, and we respond to that love by loving God through prayer, adoration, and service. That love extends to our neighbors, including all of Creation, and stems from our knowledge that we are the beloved of God.

"God is loving, creating, forgiving, building, present." -This is a sort of combination of the previous statements. God loves. God created, and continually creates new opportunities for grace. God forgives us in our shortcomings. God is building us and the Kingdom. And God is Emmanuel (God with us);ever present.

How would you put the Gospel into seven words? 

Sunday, September 23, 2012

September 23, 2012 - Proper 20B

In the name of God- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
            God only wins if we lose. That’s the take home message for this sermon- God only wins if we lose. Now I don’t mean that there is a contest between you and God, but rather that in the life of discipleship, God’s victory is more important than our own. And paradoxically, if we lose ourselves so that God wins, we too will share in the victory. The rest of the sermon will expand upon that phrase- God only wins if we lose.
            Along the way, we’ll explore the themes of servant leadership and true wisdom. There is a wonderful word that is often used in the gospels to talk about Jesus’ walking from place to place- peripateu. In means to walk about in a literal sense, but metaphorically means to conduct your life or take advantage of the opportunities that you have in front of you. So this morning, I’d like to peripateu through this reading from the Gospel according to St. Mark.
            Remember last week, Jesus and the disciples were at Caesarea Phillipi, and Jesus tells them that the Messiah must die and be raised up in three days. Peter then tells Jesus that isn’t how it’s supposed to work, and Jesus responds “get behind me Satan.” Then Jesus talks about taking up the cross. The lectionary then skips the first part of chapter 9, which includes the Transfiguration, and then Jesus healing a boy whom the disciples were unable to heal of the demons that plagued him. Our passage today begins with the second of three predictions of the Passion.
            The text then says that the disciples were ignorant of what Jesus was saying to them, and they were afraid to ask him about it. Why do you think the disciples were afraid to ask him what he meant?
            Perhaps they didn’t want to consider death. Peter had already tried to ask Jesus about this new understanding of the Messiah and he got put in his place. No one wanted to be chastised by the teacher for not getting it. And the disciples loved Jesus. In the same way that sometimes family members go into denial when their loved ones get a terminal diagnosis, maybe the disciples didn’t want to think about the death of Jesus, so they didn’t ask about it.
            Or maybe they agreed with Peter, that Jesus was wrong about the Messiah. They rather liked the idea of a strong Messiah who would lead them against Rome. They weren’t very interested in this servant leadership stuff that Jesus seemed to be talking about. They were unwilling to see the world in a new way; they didn’t want the discomfort of changing their worldview. If this was God winning, they didn’t want it.
            And this is something that we all struggle with today. Once our minds are made up, we don’t really like to have to change our minds, or consider the fact that we might be wrong in our assumptions. I have a feeling that we’re going to see this played out from both sides in the upcoming presidential debates. Ronald Heifetz is the co-founder of the Center for Public Leadership at the JFK School of Government at Harvard. He is widely considered to be an expert on leadership, and in one of his books he writes that people and institutions fail because they refuse to change.
            This can be said of churches, of political parties, of nations, of universities, of businesses, or of you and me. St. James addresses this very point in the portion of the epistle we read today. He begins “Who is wise and learned among you?” I’m sure a lot of us think that we’re smart, that we’re well informed, so we’re tempted to raise our hands and respond “I’m fairly smart.” But he pushes us further and says “for where jealousy and selfishness are, there will be disorder and all bad things. But the wisdom from above is first pure.” Essentially, if we think we have a monopoly on wisdom or truth, then evil is sure to follow. We put our emphasis on winning, instead of making sure God wins.
            So we’ve considered why the disciples were afraid to ask. And in not asking, they missed a great opportunity. We need the questions in our lives of faith. Many a teacher has said that the questions are more than the answers. By not asking the question “Jesus, can you explain this?” the disciples stayed with their assumptions. By not asking the question, they avoided what could have been a very rich dialogue about what the Messiah is, about what it means to be betrayed, to be a servant leader, to be raised after death. But these questions went unasked. There is a great value in communities, whether it’s the twelve disciples or this church, when they work together to ask the questions and wrestle with responding to them.
            A great preacher I know often remarked that the reason why it’s so important to come to church is that in worshiping with others, we challenge our assumptions about God. But when we stay home or otherwise avoid conversation, all we’re doing is reaffirming our own suspicions about God. And it is exactly this wisdom that we need to reclaim as people. St. Francis, our nation, our community all need us to challenge our assumptions. In this divisive and toxic election climate, we need more listening, more candidates saying “you know, I learned something today and I’m going to have to rethink my stance on the issue of the day” instead of people digging their heels in and holding irrational and indefensible positions, simply because that’s where they started. They refuse to lose, and so they’ll do and say anything to win, even if that means preventing God’s winning.  But God only wins if we lose.
            One of the things that I love about the Episcopal Church is our diversity. A lot of churches tend to be rather homogenous in their views and makeup, but the Episcopal Church maintains that all are welcome and we struggle to remain a big tent. Doing so means we have some disagreements, but it’s worth the price. Martin Luther King once remarked that Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America; that is a tragedy, because without people who are different than us being here, we lose something- we lose the ability to challenge our suspicions about God. I love the fact that many of you are not going to vote for the same candidate that I will. Because, to be honest, if I knew that you all agreed with me 100%, I’d probably feel free to make some comments about things from the campaign trail this week. And you’d all agree with me, we’d all feel good about ourselves, and we’d be smug. And as James notes, we’d be damned for it. I hope that I challenge your assumptions, because you all challenge mine. And I thank you for that.
            I was recently talking to a friend’s parents about his return to church. They commented that they were so glad that he was finally going back to church, even though he left the church he grew up in for a much more evangelical church that lined up with his similarly conservative social views. I agreed that the renewed interest in spirituality is a wonderful thing, but I wasn’t so sure that going to church that simply reinforces what he already thought about God and world was such a good thing. Worship is good, but unchallenged faith isn’t. It’s not good for violent people to worship where they hear radical sermons. It’s not helpful when bigoted people attend churches that preach hate.
When I have Sundays off, I really enjoy going to other churches; churches that I’d never join in a million years. But every time I go, I learn something new about my assumptions. I have to think through my own beliefs and challenge my assumptions.
This is also why interfaith dialogue is so important. In college, I did a lot of coursework in world religions, talking to people that had very different understandings of God. And I didn’t always agree with them in conversation, but was always enriched by them.
One of the most interesting parts of my trip to Israel earlier this year was being in the minority. Christianity is the assumption in America, and especially in south. But in Israel, Christians make up about 2% of the population. Hearing the Islamic call to prayer throughout the day was a new experience, but I learned something about my prayer life in that experience.
There was a professor in seminary that, on the first day of theology classes, said “my job is not to teach the right theology, because only God knows that.” We all fall into the trap of reaffirming our own suspicions instead of challenging them. Let these readings be  an invitation to changes sides of the fence, knowing that losing for God is victory. Because if we’ve never changed our minds about anything, then we probably haven’t done much thinking.
So as our story continues, the disciples and Jesus arrive at a house and Jesus begins to interrogate them. He says “as we were walking, what were you debating?” And there was a dead silence, because they had been debating about who was the greatest. Jesus probably knew this, because he speaks right to it, but he gave them the chance to come clean first. I can’t help but wonder what that debate sounded like. Did it go “okay, listen, if Jesus is going to die, this is why I should replace him as leader”? Perhaps because they didn’t understand Jesus’ comments, because they didn’t ask questions, they were arguing about what he meant. They probably all were fighting over their own assumptions, trying to win, instead of listening to what Jesus had told them. Either way, they fought.
And this is exactly what James expects. “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts.” We covet winning- whether it’s a game, an election, an argument, a lane change in traffic, we don’t like to lose. So we do whatever it takes to win; because we’re right, our assumptions are more correct than theirs. We’ll fight, we’ll sue, we’ll scratch and bite, we’ll lie, we’ll cheat, steal, murder. When we do these things to try to win, God loses, and our victory will seem rather shallow. God only wins if we lose.
Jesus then begins the object lesson with the disciples. He takes a child and places it among them and says “If anyone wishes to be first, they will be last of all and a servant of all. The one who receives or welcomes such a child in my name, I receive and welcome.” Or in other words, God only wins if we lose. And when we lose, God wins, and when God wins, we win. It’s simple logic, but not the sort of logic that governs our dog-eat-dog world.
In Jesus’ world, children were viewed differently than they are today. Children today are cute, sweet, and innocent, but 2,000 years ago they were seen as somewhat pitiful. Children were powerless, defenseless, and completely dependent on others. If someone was keeping score, children would lose. And it is exactly this sort of “loser” that Jesus calls us to welcome, or in Matthew’s version of this passage, to strive to be. Jesus realizes that these things are all illusion anyway. As much as we’d like to think we have power, we don’t. We can’t control the weather, we don’t control accidents, we don’t control stock market crashes. Power and security are illusions that become idols which prevent us from trusting in God. So Jesus says, receive the child- rejoice in not having to worry about everything.
Today, of course, children are viewed differently. We praise children for their questioning nature, for their lack of inhibitions in being themselves, for their innate sense of fairness, for their ability to play, for their sense of wonder. One of my favorite parts of my job is handing the Communion bread to children. I absolutely love the sheer joy and mystery on their faces. I am jealous of the way they grab for the bread like it’s their lifeline. I am inspired by the way they shout “I got God!” They don’t care much about winning, but they focus on living.
Jesus confronts the disciples with a very challenging lesson about betrayal and death. And the example that he gives on how to respond to death is to welcome and be like the child in their midst. In the face of death, be helpless, because that’s really all we can be. In the face of betrayal, be the servant.
Servant leadership is the way of discipleship. Instead of arguing about who the betrayer is and how to subdue them, instead of fighting with each other, instead of trying to win first place, Jesus says go to the back of the line and serve. CS Lewis, in a letter to a friend, wrote “we are not kings, we are not senators. Let us beware lest, while we torture ourselves in vain about the fate of Europe (and today you might change this to America or the economy), we neglect either Verona or Oxford (their hometowns and neighborhoods). In the poor man who knocks at my door, in my ailing mother, in the young man who seeks advice, the Lord himself is present: therefore let us wash his feet.” That is servant leadership, serving those in need instead of fighting over the answers about how to fix them.
We, of course, know the line from Isaiah, that in the Kingdom of God “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” The child will lead them not because they speak eloquently, or because they have been properly trained. The child will lead because they are lost in the mystery of God, because they aren’t concerning with winning.
As we go forth from this place today out into the world, let it be with the mind and heart of a servant. Let us remember the lessons from Jesus and the disciples: that community is important because it challenges our assumptions. May God give us the strength and grace to confront our assumptions. Let us welcome and receive the child and the child-like: the poor, the oppressed, the powerless, the abused. Society might call them the “losers,” but in their losing, they are blessed to be free from the game of trying to win at the cost of our soul and sanity. Before we seek to claim truth, or power, or prestige, may we heed this call towards servant leadership, remembering that we are entrusted to build the Kingdom of God, not our own kingdoms. Our world needs more losers, people who are willing to get lost in the wonder and grace of God. God only wins if we lose.