Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Gift of Reading

The St. Francis Book Sale begins tonight with the Preview Party for parishioners before opening to the public at 10am on Thursday. I'm guessing here, but if I had to guess which subject has had the most written about it, I would say it has to be religion and theology. For thousands of years, we have written about religious topics. I remember a seminary professor who used to be a lawyer comment that when she was moving, the movers said that the professors that are the hardest to move are professors, clergy, and lawyers, because of the amount of books that they have. To which she replied, "yes, yes, and yes."

Now to be sure, there is a lot that you'll find in the "Religion and Spirituality" section of bookstores that isn't worth the paper it's printed on, but such writings are but a small sea in the oceans of thoughtful religious writing. So many of us have been formed by what we have read over the years, and I thought it would be fitting to give thanks in our prayer lives today for these authors and their works, but for all authors, and especially those who risk their lives for their writing (thinking of journalists in war zones). Reply in the comments with some of those books that have truly formed you. A few of mine- Mere Christianity & The Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis; Christ of the Celts by J Philip Newell; Pastoral Theology by Thomas Oden; The Case for God by Karen Armstrong. Happy reading!

Sunday, April 22, 2012

April 22, 2012 - Easter 3B & Earth Day

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Let us pray- We give you thanks, most gracious God, for the beauty of earth and sky and sea; for the richness of mountains, plains, and rivers; for the songs of birds and the loveliness of flowers. We praise you for these good gifts, and pray that we may safeguard them for our posterity. Grant that we may continue to grow in our grateful enjoyment of your abundant creation, to the honor and glory of your Name, now and for ever. Amen.[1]
            This morning we are presented with wonderful readings that really plunge us into the joys and mysteries of the Easter season. I realize that for some of you, diving into these readings would be of great interest. In addition to being the Third Sunday after Easter, today is also Earth Day, and that will be the focus of today’s sermon. But for those of you who rightfully think that our gospel reading from Luke is worthy of its own reflection- here are a few brief thoughts.
            One of the major themes we see in this reading is that we cannot understand the Resurrection. How is it that Jesus is alive again and his own disciples don’t recognize him? How is it that Jesus is able to get through locked doors and appear as a ghost in one sentence, then sit down and eat fish in another? What we see in Jesus is that Resurrection is real and physical, but it is somehow more than resuscitation. It is not simply that Jesus woke up on the third day in the tomb and got up; but, rather that Jesus was somehow transformed into living in a new sort of reality. There is something earthy and real about the Resurrected Christ; he is deeply incarnational, still bearing his wounds and having an appetite. The Easter invitation is to live in that reality of the Resurrection here and now.
            There is also a very missional tone to Jesus’ message- repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations. There is a realization that Jesus’ Resurrection is not for the disciples alone, or even for Jews alone, but is for all of Creation.
            And finally, Jesus concludes by saying, “you are witnesses of these things.” Last Easter season, I preached an entire sermon on the idea of witness- but the gist is that a witness is both someone who sees something, but also someone who testifies to something. So we both must keep our eyes open to see signs of the Resurrection all around us, and we also share the Good News with others.
            So in my view, that’s a quick synopsis of this Lucan passage. Some of these themes lead me into the messages of Earth Day. In this Resurrection passage, we see that Jesus’ physical manifestation is important. The sense of the body being evil and the spirit being heavenly is dismantled in Jesus’ Resurrection- this is not a purely spiritual resurrection, nor is only a physical one- it is something new, but there is undeniably a physical element to it. And in the glorification of the physical, we are reminded that this world too is full of God’s glory. This is what incarnational theology is all about. Heaven is not the goal, but as Jesus says “the Kingdom of God is present among you.”[2] It is an affirmation of Creation, of Earth, of life itself, of all the physical stuff we see and experience- all the world is holy.
            Now I know that you all have heard the Earth Day message before. Reduce, reuse, recycle, yeah yeah. Global warming, rising oceans, organic produce, fuel efficient cars. Got it, now how about you get off the liberal agenda, Robert. I want to make it clear, this is not a sermon about chastising us for our poor stewardship of the earth, but if that shoe fits, then so be it. And this is not a sermon about politics; this is a sermon about humanity, Creation, and being stewards of God’s bounty.
            What is interesting about this passage from Luke is that the disciples don’t recognize Jesus at first, and are prepared to ignore him or run from him. And I wonder, how many times do we not recognize what is standing before us? For too long, issues of the environment have been ignored. In fact, just this week, I saw a news story that said only 69% of Americans believe in global warming. I’ve talked with folks from Europe, and they’re amazing that instead of fighting about what to do about climate change like the rest of the civilized world, we instead fight about whether or not it even exists. And why do we refuse to see it? Probably the same sort of reasons that the disciples refused to see the Resurrected Lord in their midst. They saw what they expected to see, and didn’t see what they did not expect to see. Jesus was dead, they had even heard reports that Jesus had been Resurrected; and yet they could not see what was in front of them.
            So many evils happen in our world because we refuse to see them, because it’s easier to pretend that they don’t exist, because we’d rather hope the problems solve themselves than have to make difficult lifestyle changes. But I think of future generations, of children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, and I sincerely hope that we can change the way we treat God’s Creation for their sake. And don’t take my word for it on the important of stewardship of Creation- consider these words: From Nehemiah- “You made the heavens, even the highest heavens, and all their starry host, the earth and all that is on it. You give life to everything, and the multitudes of the heavens worship you.”[3] The Psalmist says “How many are your works, O Lord! In wisdom you made them all.”[4] Colossians says that “Christ is the image of the invisible God…all things were created by him and for him.”[5] Psalm 145 reads “The Lord is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made.”[6] And of course, Genesis reminds us that “God saw everything he had made, and indeed, it was very good.”[7] God clearly cares for all of creation- lakes, streams, mountains, valleys, stars and moon, plants, animals, and humanity.
            But we have committed a great evil. We have forgotten that God is the ruler and owner of Creation. Despite the fact that we only live for 100 years at best, we think we have the right to claim land as our own, we burn through resources like they’re going out of style, we try to hoard up treasure that we can’t take with us. As the prophet Isaiah says “the earth lies polluted under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed laws, violated statues, broken the everlasting covenant.”[8] We have corrupted the natural order of things. Our reading from 1 John talks about the fact that we are children of God, and it’s true. But we’ve been acting like teenagers who have a party when their parents go out of town for the weekend, trashing the house in the process
Everyone knows and often cites Genesis 1:28, but few have understood it. The word “dominion” that is often used to claim humanity’s authority over Creation has been misread. The word in Hebrew, means to have dominion, but in the royal sense. We are to have dominion, in the same what that king has dominion. And any good king cares for the lowly, takes care of all people, and only exercises power to protect, not to enslave. We’ve twisted our roles and have tried to rule creation with an iron fist instead of an open hand.
We have fallen out of Communion with Creation. In preparing for this sermon, I read about a study that found that children can correctly identify over 1,000 corporate logos, but cannot name even 10 local species of plants and animals that live in their backyard. There is a story about a scientist that goes to chat with God one day and says “God, we don’t need you anymore, we can clone people, and you’re just not needed anymore.” God says “that’s fine if you feel that way. But let’s have a contest, if you can create a human being the way that I did it in the beginning, then I’ll leave you all alone.” So the scientist gladly agrees and begins to collect some dirt from which to genetically manufacture a human being. And God interrupts him “no, no, you have to use your own dirt.”  We have forgotten that God is the source of all- of the Big Bang, of every atom, of every imagination.
There is another wonderful story that illustrates this point. A priest walks into a church one day to find a young man sitting next to the altar, with his feet propped up on it. The priest screams at him to take his feet off the altar and says “don’t you know that is a holy place? Show some respect.” Then young man replies, “where then should I put my feet?” We have lost the sense that every clump of dirt, every wetland, every arctic tundra that has a storehouse of oil beneath it, every shale formation that has gas under it, every ocean, every valley, every animal used in laboratory testing, every village without clean drinking water, each and every corner of Creation is holy ground.
When I was in Israel, one of images burned into my memory came at the Baptismal site of Jesus. It’s a small strip of the Jordan river, right on the Israeli/Jordanian border. And all around the area, there is a fence that blocks off certain areas. The fence has large yellow signs on it that say “DANGER! MINES!” And while it’s a great metaphor to use in a baptism sermon, it was a profound reminder of the ways humanity has perverted the land and abused it. We have taken one of the holiest sites in our faith, and riddled it with landmines.
So the question for this Earth Day, for this Easter season in which we are called to proclaim the Resurrection to all of Creation remains- What are we are going to do about these problems? How do we get back into Communion with Creation? How do we return to our proper role as steward and caretaker instead of master and dominator?
Now I know that we all aren’t going to agree on what the exact problems are. And we aren’t going to agree on how to address the problems. The line between caring for the earth and using the fruits of Creation for our own survival is a thin one. There are a few things that I’d suggest. First, we need to seriously take up the task of reconciliation with the world. Our Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts-Schori, said this last week: “Reconciliation is God's mission. Reconciliation means restoring God's intention for the world. It's needed in the relationships between human beings and their creator, between and among human beings, and-in ways of which we are becoming increasingly aware-between human beings and the rest of creation.”
Our task is restoring relationships and getting to God’s intention, not our own. We all know most of the evils done to the environment are about money and ease. It’s easier to not recycle, it’s easier to not take public transportation or walk, it’s cheaper to not buy organic produce, it’s cheaper to buy furniture from China instead of something made locally, it’s tasty to eat out of season fruits and vegetables that have been shipped in from South America. And oil drilling and fracking are certainly lucrative businesses. Our Psalm today asks “how long will you chase dumb idols and run after false gods?” How long will we chase the idols of dollars and power?[9]
Sometimes we forget how industrious we as a people are. We forget our God given gifts of imagination and ingenuity. The American people are strong, we are resolute, we are industrious. I have no doubt that if we wanted to be a green nation, we could be. We have people smart enough to design electric cars that reduce pollution. We have people skilled enough to install solar panels on our homes and businesses. We have farmers who are caring enough to raise crops and animals ethically. But these things are not always in the best financial interest of big corporate farms, or the oil industries, or the politicians whose pockets are padded with donations from such tycoons.
For the sake of our world, for the sake our children, for the sake of our God- it is time to do something about the God given gift of Creation. It is time to make a change, it is time to make sacrifices, it is time to get political and tell our representatives that as Christians, we stand for the abused, the poor, and the oppressed- and right now, our planet is being exploited and abused. The Bible makes it very clear that Sabbath rest is needed for people, but it also says that the land needs Sabbath. It’s time that we demand a respite for our home, for the glorious Creation of our God.
I challenge us all to do something about this. I challenge us all to be stewards of Creation. The way to address this issue is to do something, because the path we are on is not sustainable. It will not be easy, but make a change. Whether it’s buying more groceries at the farmer’s market, changing your driving habits, or carrying around that empty bottle until you find a recycling can instead of a trash can, do it. Or better yet, don’t drink bottled water, but get a water purifier. If you are blessed enough to have the financial resources to do so- look into greening your home. Plant a garden or work in the St. Francis community garden. Write or call your representative. Use reusable products instead of one-time use products. Demand sustainable and non-toxic products. Support businesses that treat the environment and animals the way you’d treat your own pets and your own backyard. And I challenge this church to look at how we can be a leader in our community in caring for the Earth. We have taken some steps in this direction, but there is no reason why we can’t live as fully into the St. Francis namesake as possible with greener products, better energy usage, maybe even solar panels one day.
After all, it was our patron saint who wrote “most high, all good Lord! All praise is yours. Be praised through all your creatures. Be praised through Brother Sun and Sister Moon. Be praised through Brothers Wind and Air. Be praised through Sister Water. Be praised through Mother Earth, who feeds and rules us. Praise and bless the Lord, and give thanks, and serve God with great humility.”[10]
Let us be witnesses. Let us see and know the beauty of the Earth. Let us give thanks for all that God has so freely given. Let us be in touch with the glory of God’s creation. Let us be caretakers for the oppressed and the abused. Let us stand up and give testimony with our words and deeds on behalf of those without a voice- the trees and lakes, the animals and crops, our ancestors who communed with the land and our descendents yet unborn. Let us honor their presence by caring for our communal home. Let us remember that God is the source of all, and that we will all one day give an account for how we lived in this world. And may God strengthen and inspire us to serve boldly as stewards of God’s Creation. Amen.

[1] BCP, p. 840
[2] Luke 17:21; Matthew 12:28
[3] Nehemiah 9:6
[4] Psalm 104:24
[5] Colossians 1:15-16
[6] Psalm 145:9
[7] Genesis 1:31
[8] Isaiah 24:5
[9] Psalm 4:2
[10] Paraphrase of the Canticle of the Sun, by St. Francis of Assisi

Friday, April 6, 2012

April 6, 2012- Good Friday

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. 
            Despite the name, Good Friday doesn’t seem to be very good. Good Friday is unique in the Church year. It is the only day where it is not appropriate to celebrate the Eucharist; it is the only day that we vest in black, instead of our normal white which represents Resurrection; it is the only day on which we don’t consider the Resurrection when faced with death. Good Friday is a day with one very real and challenging theme- death.
Here at St. Francis, we have known death all too well over the past 5 weeks. Several parishioners have died, and several others have lost loved ones. Many of you know that yesterday was my grandmother’s funeral. As if we hadn’t all faced death recently, we are presented with the emotional and dramatic reading of the sentencing, killing, and death of Jesus. One person has said “Good Friday is a day for all Christians to approach with trembling, but none more than those called to preach.” And so it is.
I have no words to take away the sting of death, no shouts of victory for today- but come back on Sunday for those. So instead of trying to do the impossible- rationalizing Good Friday, explaining the cross of Christ, or trying to make us feel better about the reality of loss, instead let’s focus on how Jesus faced his own death, perhaps as a way for us to face our own and that of our loved ones.
The first thing to notice about Jesus in the Passion, especially as recorded in John, is that Jesus chose to die. His death was no accident, Jesus wasn’t surprised to find himself on the cross that Friday. When the soldiers come for Jesus, he doesn’t hide, but instead goes out to meet them. When they ask for Jesus, he clearly says “here I am.” When the high priest, Caiaphas, questions Jesus, he responds by reminding them that he has done his ministry out in the open, not trying to hide what he has been doing. He even challenges Caiaphas to point out where he was made a false testimony. Jesus is then taken across Jerusalem to the Roman governor, Pilate. And Jesus is in control of this conversation, not Pilate. Jesus dictates how the questioning goes, and even has Pilate confused about what truth is. Jesus speaks about his power and tells him that Pilate has no power except that which has been given to him.
In other gospel accounts, Jesus is helped by Simon of Cyrene in carrying the cross, and he stumbles three times. But here in John, Jesus alone carries his cross and he does it beautifully, with no stumbling whatsoever. Even from the cross, Jesus remains in charge, announcing “it is finished” when he dies.
Through the whole Passion, Jesus remains in charge; he is the director of this drama. Jesus is not some helpless victim, but instead he is someone willing to die for his mission. Jesus came to heal the sick, to challenge those in authority, to lift up the lowly, to preach the Kingdom of God over and against the kingdoms of the Temple and of Rome. And Jesus wasn’t going to change his message when that message got him into trouble. Jesus was able to remain true to who he was, even in the face of death. Death did not change him; it only made him more resolute. What Jesus’ death shows us is that, aside from whatever theological significance scholars attribute to Good Friday, Jesus was willing to die so that his message might continue even after his death. Had he recanted, or toned down his message, it would have been lost in history; but by proclaiming it to the end, he proclaimed it into eternity.
            On a day such as this, when we consider our own death, we consider how it is that we might choose to live our lives to the fullest, even in the face of death. We will all die, of that much we are certain. But how we will die is the unknown. For some of us, death will come as a thief in the middle of the night, for others, it will be what some will call a happy death at the end of a long and rich life. Few of us will have the control over the timing of our death as Jesus did. But in following in his footsteps, in mustering up our courage as he did, in remaining true to our values as he did, we can indeed be in control of the sort of life we lead up to the very end, whenever that time may be.
            The second point that I’d like to make about Jesus’ death is that it meant something. As I’ve mentioned, Jesus was willing to die, and was willing to face death for his Gospel. Jesus’ death meant something, just as his life did. The last word that Jesus speaks, recorded in the Greek of John, is tetelestai, which is a perfect passive verb, meaning that is completed, or accomplished, or ended. And so the question we are left with is “what is accomplished?” There are still Caiaphases in our world who unjustly condemn others over power, there are Pilates out there who are cowards and are complicit in evil. Death still happens, so does injustice. What did the death of Jesus complete?
            Much ink has been spilled over what the crucifixion was about, and I don’t really want to explore those theories this Good Friday. Whatever the cross means, Jesus proclaims that it has been accomplished; it did what it was supposed to do. Just about a week ago I stood on Golgotha- and it was an amazing experience. One of the features of the church now built on that site, is that under the Chapel of the Crucifixion is the Chapel of Adam. The symbolism is that Jesus was crucified on top of Adam, on top of all that has come before. It was a good reminder that Jesus precedes us in death. Good Friday helps to make all of our last days somewhat easier.
            Jesus knows our pain, he has experienced betrayal, he has lived through abandonment, and he has died. Not many of us will have the grace to live and die to the degree that Jesus did. And so for those of us who are wearied by the changes and chances of life, those who know death is a horizon, and a horizon is nothing but the limit of our sight, but still feel uneasy about death, Jesus is our rock in death.
            So on Good Friday, we thank Jesus for his steadfast example, for his willingness to die for the Gospel, for his dedication to his mission, for his inspiring ability to remain in control. We look to Jesus as a friend and counselor in our times of trouble, in the valley of the shadow of death, knowing that he has been there before us and will be our guide through the journey.
We can take solace in Nicodemus, who first came to Jesus at night because he was afraid of being seen with him, now coming to anoint the body of Jesus. Even if we are unsure of our own faith, uncertain of Jesus’ role as Messiah, perplexed by the events of Good Friday, we can still come as Nicodemus did- to give thanks, to weep at the tomb, to anoint a life that was selflessly given for the Good News of God’s Kingdom.
We have not yet come to the joys and alleluias of Easter morning; to be sure, they were first seen and heard some 2,000 years ago and will echo through Creation forever. But today, we struggle with the reality of death. “Amen” is a Hebrew word that means “truly,” “so be it,” or “we agree.” Today is a day for saying amen- for acknowledging death, for assenting to Jesus’ message, for asking for the grace of our Lord’s life and death to fill our own. Even if today we do not proclaim alleluia, let us add our “amen” to Jesus’ cry of agony, victory, and achievement. It is finished.