Wednesday, February 22, 2012

February 22 - Ash Wednesday

Almighty God, may you guide us to seek the truth- come whence it may, cost what it will, lead where it might. Amen.
            Why? Why do we come for Ash Wednesday? Why do we celebrate Lent? Don’t we already have enough guilt, enough to do? Isn’t there enough doom and gloom in the world? Politicians fighting in Washington, Israel and Iran in a Cold War that is getting hotter every day, rampant poverty and famine around the world, dictators in Syria, Cuba, Venezuela, and North Korea, a global debt crisis, not to mention all the stress and anxiety that we all carry around from our personal lives. It seems that instead of a season where we are more intentional, we need a vacation from it all. So again I ask, why Ash Wednesday?
            Why is the most important of all the questions, as it gets to the purpose and end of things. Why is the language of inspiration, of core values, of meaning. The other questions: how, what, where, when, and who are just the details. What was interesting about Rosa Parks wasn’t how she sat at the front of the bus, it was why she did it. The Wright brothers were the first in flight, even though others had better financing and better tools, the answer to why they were first is a story of ingenuity and inspiration. Where or when Jesus was crucified doesn’t change much about our lives, but the why certainly does. Why is also the hardest question to answer. We’re all busy, we have a lot to do. Turn the news on, and they’ll give you all the details in about 20 seconds, but they don’t speak to the why. Why is also a subversive question, as it challenges our motives and assumptions. Many of us I’m have been stumped by a child who asks that piercing question- why? And “because I said so” isn’t a good enough answer. Why did my dog die? Why do people fight? Why doesn’t that man on the corner have a house to live in? Why is a tough question.
            And why is the reason for Lent. Lent has always been a season of preparation. In the early Church, the process for Baptism took at least a year, and Baptism only happened on Easter. So the 40 days leading up to Easter were a time for focus, for preparation, for answering why. Why do you want to be baptized? Why do you want to be a Christian, knowing that the Roman empire could very well kill you for this?
            This season of Lent, we need to examine the why, because that is where meaning comes from, because that is the question our hearts yearn to have an answer for. So let’s walk through the traditional Lenten disciplines and consider both the modern problem and the why.
            We’ll begin with prayer. The problem with prayer is that most of us don’t do it. Surveys suggest that 58% of Americans pray daily while 83% identify as being religious. And the survey didn’t get into how people define prayer. Now I’m going to make some generalizations in this sermon, realizing that for some of us, these generalizations do not apply, but they speak to cultural truths. A lot of people don’t fully understand prayer. Prayers such as “please don’t let me get pulled over for speeding,” “please let me get this job,” “please be with my sick uncle” are certainly prayers, but that’s not the sort of prayer that Jesus is commending to us.
            Throughout the reading from Matthew, Jesus challenges our assumptions about acts of religious piety. People often prayed in public to be seen, so Jesus encourages them to pray in secret; that is, have a relationship not with others and your ego, but with God. This is the why of prayer. Prayer is about relationship building with God, and others through being mindful of them; and prayer is also about working with God. Why do we pray? To be in touch with the divine. This doesn’t really happen though when we do all the talking, when we do it in a few short sentences of petition. I’m not dismissing intercessory prayer, but rather highlighting the fact that it’s only one aspect of prayer. And in the same way, if your prayer life only consists of walks in nature or doing yoga, then you aren’t getting it all either. And let us not forget about the Bible in prayer. The Bible isn’t just that book that sits on the coffee table so that others know of its importance to you. The Bible is a good book to read. I can only imagine how the world might look if every Christian read from the Bible daily. At St. Francis this Lent, let’s not have to wonder. Let’s ground ourselves in prayer, in Scripture, in getting to the why- having a robust relationship with God. And hopefully we’ll be transformed, and people will ask us, “why?” and we’ll have a good answer.
            Fasting is another traditional Lenten discipline. The problem here, to put it bluntly, is that we are gluttons. America has many industries that are built on the assumption that we will consume that which is bad for us. For the most part, the diet, pornography, cosmetic, and self-help industries all assume that we will fill ourselves with empty calories which only satisfy us in the short term and leave us hungry in the long term. These are all multi-billion dollar industries, and there is something deeply wrong with the culture that leads to their thriving.
            So the answer to “why fast?” is rather simple- gluttony leads to death. Death of relationships, death of self-confidence, death of our bodies. In Lent, we are invited to fast, to give things up. In seminary, I spent a month in the Dominican Republic and I was struck by both the simplicity in people’s lives, but also the great joy. I went to a church service that lasted for several hours and was held in what our parish hall might look like if you dropped a few bombs on it. It was a three-walled concrete structure with a tin roof. And yet, that worship service was one of the most joyous and festive I’ve ever seen. No one thought about a capital campaign to add a fourth wall or some stained glass windows. Why? Because they had what was necessary and they lacked nothing which they truly needed. This is a lesson we could learn. I didn’t talk finances with the priest there, but I’m guessing they had a very small maintenance budget. Gluttony not only takes us away from what is healthy and important, but it also costs us a lot. This Lent, let’s focus on why we do what we do, and leave off the stuff that we can’t come up with a good answer to “why do we do this?”
            Lent is also a season where we highlight almsgiving, not because the church budget is tight, but because money says a lot about our priorities. The problem is rather easy to identify- we live in a world in which money is the tool to value time and goods. If churches and charities had greater financial resources, the ripples of their ministry would extend further and further.
            So why should we give? I would suggest to you that we give not for tax purposes, not even because it’s right thing to do, but rather we give because if we don’t, we become slaves to our own money. I’ve said it before and I’m going to say it again, if you want to know if you have control over your money, then try to give it away. If you can’t, then your money controls you. And I’m not talking about throwing $5 in the offering plate, that’s not a test. Try giving to the point where you have to rethink your budget. I’m not suggesting almsgiving to the point of losing your house or not feeding your children, but I am talking about significant giving. There is no magic percentage or dollar amount, you have to do the soul searching on your own on this one. Why give? For one, it changes the world, but perhaps more importantly, it changes you.
            And finally, I’d like to consider one other Lenten disciple- that of introspection. The problem is that most of us don’t take the time to stop and think; we don’t see spiritual directors or therapists to debrief. Far too many people have very little sense of self-awareness. That’s one reason why we put ashes on our foreheads today with the words “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We’re all going to die, each and every one of us, even Jesus did it. There is a book written in the 1970s called The Denial of Death, and it address the fact that most people live their entire lives in the fear of death, instead of embracing the reality of life.
            Consider what an apology sounds like today- “I’m sorry if you were offended by my comments,” which insinuates that we did nothing wrong, but that you’re the problem. No one ever says “I’m sorry for being offensive.” If we can’t understand ourselves, if we can’t objectively look at our faults alongside our gifts, then we are just zombies walking around, going through the motions of life. Socrates said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” A paraphrase might be “a life without the why isn’t a life at all.” Without introspection, without asking and contemplating the why, life passes us by without us understanding it. And if we can’t understand the why, then we can’t be responsible.
Look at what has been happening in the Roman Catholic Church with the sex-abuse scandal, or what happened at Penn State. No one took responsibility. There was no introspection. Everyone knew the details, what who did to whom and where. And they all knew what would happen if this got out, so they kept it quiet. No one answered the question “why are we covering this up,” “why are we protecting the abusers at the cost of the victims?” Answering the why can make us see the things we try so hard to forget but need to deal with. This season of Lent, let us be introspective by considering the whys in our daily lives.
So we’re back to the first why. Why now? Why Lent? Well, as Joel and Paul say, “blow your trumpet…the day of the Lord is near…now is the acceptable time.” There is no time like the present to wake up to the reality of the why. Why is about conversion. And we live in a place and time that needs some transformation. We are hungry for depth. We are hungry for love. Our world needs more followers of Jesus and less admirers of him. A lot of people like see Jesus as a great moral teacher, as a wonderful man, as someone to admire. But then there are those who follow Jesus, who follow him to the cross and the grave because they know the why of God’s love, of God’s transformative power.
This season of Lent, let us ask ourselves why. You don’t always have to come up with the answer alone. We can answer it together in community, God can help you to answer it. May we explore the why through prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and introspection.
Let us pray- Almighty God, as we embark on our Lenten journey, may you give us the honesty, strength, and courage to ask why. Guide us in our answers, that in all we do we might answer faithfully and to your glory. And through asking why, may we come into a deeper understanding of your Truth and Love. This we pray in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

February 12 - Epiphany 6B

In the name of God- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
            Today we are presented with readings that deal with issues of healing and compassion. So that we’re all on the same page, healing in both our reading from 2 Kings and Mark means “to make clean or pure.” Note that the language here is about ritual purity, not medical healing, nor is it the language of salvation. The other word which we run into is compassion. The word itself doesn’t actually show up in either reading, but it is implied throughout. Compassion is a compound word in Latin, with the com meaning “together” or “with;” and the passio means suffering- so “suffering with.”
            Here at St. Francis Episcopal Church in Greensboro, we have as our core values- simplicity, compassion, and hope. So today it is good for us to consider the value of compassion, reflecting on the way that we can take compassion from a slogan to being a way of life.
            The way I’ve structured this sermon is to take a look at the three people involved with these healings in 2 Kings and Mark. First we’ll consider the healed person, then the agent of the healing, and finally the healer.
            In both of our readings, the presenting issue is leprosy. The deeper issue really isn’t the actual medical diagnosis, perhaps they had Hansen’s Disease, perhaps it was some other skin condition. What mattered is that they were both unclean, they were contaminated. Society viewed them in the same way that we viewed the first HIV/AIDS patients in the 80s. These are people that were kept away from others, they were quarantined, lest they infect others.
We have the benefit of modern science and we now know that leprosy is not very contagious and is transmitted not through touch, but by breathing in the cough or sneeze of an infected person. Furthermore, about 95% of the population is naturally immune to this disease. What plagued Naaman and this man was not leprosy, but it was a cultural stigma. They were deemed to be unacceptable- not for who they were, nor for what they said or did, but they were cast out because of fear. The fear of compassion. People were afraid that if they spent time with these people, that they would literally be suffering with them. And as I mentioned, this fear was misplaced. Had people taken the time to minister to these lepers, they would have seen that they themselves would not have been infected.
And the same is true of those people whom we avoid like the plague. If you minister to the homeless, you don’t lose your house. If you have same-sex marriages in your church, you don’t erode the sanctity of marriage or family values. If you visit someone in prison, you don’t become a felon. If you pray with a Muslim, you don’t become a terrorist. If you’re a Republican, by talking to a Democrat you don’t become a socialist. If you’re a Democrat and you converse with a Republican, you don’t become a ruthless capitalist. If you drive your car through a Hispanic or African-American neighborhood, you don’t have your windows shot out. Maybe we don’t run into lepers on a daily basis, but we sure do treat a lot of people like they have leprosy.
The reason why I’m making this point so that we don’t do what many people do when they read the Bible. They say “I’m so glad that we now understand leprosy and don’t treat people like that” or “this story is 2,000 years old and has nothing to do with me.” Modern day leprosies exist because of prejudice, our own actions of pre-judging people, our insistence that we know what the other side will respond with before we even say anything.
We do treat people like lepers, but sometimes we need to be healed too, and these readings have something important to say to us, who needing healing, as well. The first thing to notice is that healing takes a while. Naaman has to bathe seven times in the river. He even had to go through a process. A modern translation of the story would read a bit differently. Naaman would have started by seeing his primary care physician, and then he went to the local specialists, but they didn’t have an answer. So he had to call his insurance company and go back and forth with them for a while about being allowed to see an out of network specialist at a large university hospital the next state over. But the dean of medicine there decides that he doesn’t have a clue what’s wrong and doesn’t want to deal with it. And eventually he gets healed by some faith healer on the outskirts of town. I know many of you are facing health struggles, and if you aren’t, I’m sure you know someone who is, a parent, a sibling, a friend, a neighbor. As a priest, I’ve gotten to know my way around Greensboro nursing homes, Cone and Long hospitals, even Baptist in Winston; there is a lot of hurt in our lives Don’t we all wish it was as simple as a quick healing? But as we see in Naaman’s case, sometimes it takes a while.
And for the man in Mark, it wasn’t any easier. He had likely had leprosy for years, he had likely give up hope. But he heard of a new drug trial, he heard that this man was going throughout the region healing people. Now Jesus wasn’t the first messiah figure to be running around Israel, he had probably heard of other such “faith healers” and had been disappointed by their robust promises. But this man had a lot of trust in God. He didn’t come up to Jesus and greet him the way that most sick people in the Bible did. He didn’t say “have mercy on me, Son of David,” he didn’t even call him Lord. He just said, if you choose, you can make me clean. What faith!
What if Jesus though didn’t cure him? A lot of people have hope and faith that rivals this mans, and yet they die of cancer or other diseases. Mark wasn’t exactly a doctor, he really didn’t know if this man had leprosy or not. Maybe he did, maybe he had some other, more serious skin disease. Again, remember that in the text of these readings, Jesus didn’t technically heal anyone, he just made them clean. And in being made clean, these people were allowed to rejoin society. Maybe this man died 2 weeks later of a more serious ailment. But what Jesus did for him allowed him to live those two weeks fully. Jesus took away the stigma, Jesus made it so that he could rejoin society, so that he could again see his family and friends. And the same is true for us in our dealings with disease and death. Sometimes people recover, sometimes they don’t. But what God offers us is the opportunity to have a good life, and a good death.
We don’t have to be alone in our diseases, we don’t have to face our fears alone. And now I’m talking about more than medical diseases, I’m back to modern day leprosies. If we follow Jesus in showing compassion, in standing up for justice, in seeing the dignity in every human being, then we too can help to make sure that everyone has a good life that ends with a good death.
And one final point on those who are healed. They took part in their healings. The man in Mark answered Jesus by saying “I do choose to be made clean.” Naaman sought the help of others and went through the ritual washing, which seemed ridiculous to him. Isn’t that how healing is? Sometimes we do have to go to strange places and take part in strange rituals. But what is important is that we take the step in doing so. Healing would not have come to either of these people if they had not been resilient.
Next, I’d like to turn to the agent of the healing. Sometimes translators of the Bible get things wrong, and they completely struck out in this Mark reading. Our translation this morning says that Jesus was moved with pity, which really is a nice sentiment and makes for a nice story. But the problem is that scholars agree that the more accurate and historical translation is that Jesus was angered or annoyed. Sure does change the story, doesn’t it?
Why would Jesus be angry with someone asking for help? Have you ever had someone come up to you and ask “I hope I’m not bothering you, but I just need…”  Or about the letters that you get from various charities asking for money? Or how about the church, do you get angry when you hear a stewardship sermon or get that pledge card in the mail?
If you’ll think back to our reading from last Sunday- Jesus did a healing, then went to pray and said “let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” So here’s Jesus, all excited about his mission, energized to go out and preach about the Kingdom of God, and he can’t even take a step towards the next down without being held back. Does that ever happen to you? You get set to do something, and then life happens? If I had a dollar for every daily schedule that I’ve had to readjust because of funerals and hospital visits, well, I couldn’t quite retire, but I’d have a nice stack of cash. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t want to minister to people, it’s just sometimes I have, in my mind, things that I need to do. It’s when you have dinner reservations to a nice restaurant and a friend calls to say that they really need you to come help with a bout of depression, a lost dog, a sick child. Getting sidetracked isn’t something that most of us enjoy.
This is really where the etymology of compassion really comes into play. Showing compassion is hard because it means to suffer with. When you are interrupted to do the work of compassion, it does drain you. Being compassionate with your time makes you busier and might add to your stress level. Being compassionate with your money means you have less of it. I know it’s basic math, but if you give 5% of your income to charity, then that’s 5% less to go on vacation with or put towards debt. Everyone thinks homeless shelters are good things, but who wants one built next door to their house? Jesus told this man not to tell anyone about the healing. Why? Perhaps because Jesus knew that compassion would cost him some freedom. As his reputation grew and grew, more and more people would sidetrack him. Or maybe he was worried that word would get out that he had touched a leper, and he himself would now been seen as unclean and he’d be unable to do his ministry of preaching. Compassion does cost us- it will cost us time, money, freedom, emotions, and energy.
So why do we bother with showing compassion? Why should be concerned with healing others? After all, shouldn’t we take care of ourselves? Frederick Buechner once said “compassion is the fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else’s shoes. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.” Compassion is one of those God given gifts that we have. You know that queasy feeling you get in your gut with you refuse to look at the homeless person on the street, when you refuse to fill out your pledge card, when you don’t make the time to call a friend in need? Some of it stems from guilt, but it’s a part of feeling compassion. It’s you suffering along with them. As long as there is suffering in our world, you too will suffer. It is our task to build the Kingdom of God so that there won’t be any more suffering to suffer with.
And finally, let’s take a look at the healer, that is the source of the healing. I hope that we can all recognize this as God. One of the things we see in these readings is that God’s focus and care isn’t too global to care about our local problems. A lot of people think things such as “God doesn’t care about my problem, my illness, my fear because there are genocides, famines, wars, earthquakes, and dictators in the world. Those are real problems, and God should focus on them.” And that’s half right. God is working in the hearts and minds of people around the world on the “big” issues like war and hunger. But God too cares about your being out of work or your nagging pain in your back. After all, Naaman was a rich and powerful leader, his disease wasn’t a huge hardship for him, Naaman wasn’t even a believer in God until after he was healed. But yet, God has compassion for him, just as God has compassion for all of us.
God is the source of our healing, the strength that allows us to embrace our brokenness and hope for rebirth. But it’s important to remember that healing doesn’t always mean a cure. Good things happen and bad things happen. That’s simply the nature of the world that God created. We have free will, so does nature, so does cancer. It is not that God chooses to heal some people and ignore others, but rather that God loves us and trusts us enough to give us that free will. But when that free will leads to suffering, when it leads to death, when it leads to evil, God is a God of compassion, a God who will suffer with us. As I’ve said before, what God gives us is maximum support, with minimum protection. The glory of the Resurrection only comes after the suffering of the Crucifixion.
We’ve covered a lot today in examining healing and compassion. Healing is a process that requires us to take a part. Healing isn’t always about the cure, sometimes is about being given the grace to live. Those who act as agents of God’s healing find it to be a challenging task, as they are called to suffer with people in showing compassion, but we do this work to make our world whole. We do all of this knowing that true healing comes from our compassionate God, who deeply loves and cares for each and every one of us.
It has been said that if we don’t make a difference by trying, we’ll make a difference by not trying, and the same is true in showing compassion. The way to healing our own hurts, the way to healing our world, is in showing compassion; in taking the time to be with others, to hear about their suffering, and to suffer with them. Remember, our task is not to be healer, that is God’s role in this process. But let us constantly seek ways to bring the grace and compassion of God to those in need of healing.
Let our prayer today be in the words of our Psalm today, verses 11-12, if you’ll allow me this paraphrase- “be with me, O Lord, and show me your compassion. O Lord, be my healer. You can turn my crying into dancing; you can relieve my suffering and clothe me with the joy of redemption.” Amen.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Christianity, A Four-Letter Word?

So last week a Facebook friend was lamenting the fact that everyone seems to be obsessed with the Mayans and asked why this was the case? I responded in agreement and said that it's odd that no one really consults the Mayans on other daily decisions. No one ever asks themselves "what would the Mayans do." And I suggested that I had some ideas for the obsession with the Mayan apocalypse, but said those would be better suited for a sermon instead of a Facebook post.

Another person, unknown to me, then also replied in a rather flippant and hostile manner to my comment. It wasn't really about the substance of my message, but rather, this person was reacting to the religious tones in my comment. And I wondered, why so much hostility for simply alluding to church and religion?

And it's not just on Facebook. Open a newspaper, or check out the best sellers list and you'll find articles and books about the "new atheism." As many of you know, I like to get out of the office, even if it's just to do "desk work;" so I spend at least a morning a week at Delicious Bakery down the street from the church. I don't eavesdrop, but I do hear things. Often when I sit down, people will talk about religion. If I had a dollar for every conversation I've heard where people start explaining to their friend why they don't like church, well, I couldn't retire, but I would have enough money to buy a bunch of coffee. People see the collar and they react. Why so much resentment towards religion?

You can see it in the news too. Christians, it seems, are hell-bent on being right and fighting. Roman Catholics fight about contraception and healthcare; evangelicals fight over abortion and marriage rights; Anglicans fight over authority and church governance. Why so much fighting?

The title of this post is supposed to be provocative. Is Christianity a four-letter word? I'll let you all come up with which four-letter word you'd like to use, but the ones I'm thinking of aren't quite appropriate for a G-rated blog. How have we gotten this bad reputation? Why is there so much animosity around religion? Why does the mere mention of religion turn people off?  Why are we written off as irrational zombies that just follow some old-fashioned mythology? Why do so many people choose to identify as spiritual but not religious (more on that question in a future blog post/sermon)? What is Christianity a four-letter word to so many?

I don't have one answer for that. We do fight too much. We do take ourselves too seriously. We do act with a sense of entitlement. We do talk more than we do. We are hypocritical. We are out of touch with culture.

But this doesn't have to be the case. What if Christianity got back to its roots? What if we focused on being about some other four-letter words. What if we reclaimed "Lord?" What if we focused on the God who created, redeemed, and sustains every living thing on this planet (and I do mean everything and everyone)? What if we recognized that it isn't about us, but is about the Lord?

Or how about that other four-letter word? Love. What if instead of fighting, judging, or playing the game of one-upmanship, we focused on loving others? And by love, I really mean love. What if we visited those in prison, clothed the naked, fed the hungry, consoled the sad, brought peace to the warring, shared the Good News, stood up for the downtrodden, gave abundantly, prayed often? Well, I think our world would look a whole lot more like the Kingdom of God.

Christianity is about love, always has been. Love of God, love of self, love of neighbor. Let's reclaim that love- in our minds, in our hands, in our words, in our hearts, in our deeds, in our dreams. Maybe then Christianity would be another four-letter word: love.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Feb 2- Pick Your Feast

So February 2 gives us two things to celebrate, either Groundhog Day or The Presentation of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple (readings). Groundhog Day of course is a day where we look forward to the coming of warmer weather and remember the actions of Bill Murray in the movie of the same title. The Feast of the Presentation is the time when Jesus was presented in the Temple according to Jewish purification laws. The prophets Anna and  Simeon both offer their proclamations about the child. I've always loved the Book of Common Prayer's translation of Simeon's words:

Lord, you now have set your servant free *
   to go in peace as you have promised;

For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior, *
   whom you have prepared for all the world to see:

A Light to enlighten the nations, *
   and the glory of your people Israel.

So what will you be looking for? A prognosticating groundhog or signs of the Savior, who is a light to enlighten the nations and the glory of Israel, all around us?

It has been said that "what you count is important and it is important what you count" in church circles. Often folks are referring to attendance figures; do you measure church vitality in the number of people who attend your services, or in the number of people who live transformed lives as as result of their church attendance? Not many churches keep figures on the latter.

In the same way, what we focus on is important. Without getting too political/partisan, what have Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney decided to focus on? Negativity, attacking each other and President Obama? How do people of self-claimed faith focus on so much negativity? And what do we listen to? They wouldn't be doing it if they weren't finding results. Does negativity speak louder to us than positive messages? Would we rather know why Candidate X is a terrible person more than we want to know why Candidate Y would be a good leader? What do we focus on?

In our interactions with family members, cashiers, students, teachers, colleagues, do we focus on their mistakes and shortcomings (of which we all have many) and ignore all the good in them? Are there people you interact with for whom you focus on finding the flaws so you can discredit them?

Or how about in yourself? Where do you focus- the joys, the sorrows, the limits, the pain, the triumphs, the hope? It's more complex than asking yourself if the glass is half-full or half-empty. In focusing on something, we affect it. In quantum physics, this is called the Observer Effect. So your attitude and thoughts really do matter. This isn't to say that having "bad" thoughts is a bad thing, but rather it is an invitation to focus on the things that matter the most to us. Leave work at work, leave the driver who cut you off on the road, but focus on what truly matters- love, joy, God.

What day is today? Is it Groundhog Day? Is it the Presentation of our Lord Jesus Christ in which we are reminded of the Savior who has been prepared for all the world to see? Depends what you want to focus on.