Sunday, December 16, 2007

Presents = Love

Advent III A
December 16, 2007
The Rev. Linda Campbell
Presents = Love

A father called the church this week, distraught because he had no money to buy his pregnant wife a birthday present and no money to buy his four year old and eight year old any Christmas presents. There was no food in the house, and he had just written a bad check in order to secure his wife’s driving license.

Poking into cupboards around the church, I was able to gather up some new presents for his children, a great new mystery novel for his wife, and some cans of food for his cupboard, along with a check from the discretionary fund. Then, I sat down with him and listened to him download a tale of misery and family discord and general falling apart kinds of things. Besides the small practical things I had to offer – things that would help for a day or two at the most – the main thing I had to offer was hope and perspective and some wondering.

We talked about ways that he might take care of himself – kind of like putting the oxygen mask on yourself first, before you put it onto the ones who are depending on you – so you’re actually able to help them. We talked about ways that he might better understand his wife – or at least not take the great hormonal swings of a beginning pregnancy quite so personally. We talked about the possibilities of finding a supportive community, like a church – who might offer a place at least once a week that was peaceful and relatively orderly. And we talked about being a good parent in December – when you are targeted right and left with messages about how to be a good parent – most of which are unattainable if you have no money.

In Peter Sawtell's Christian Environmentalist newsletter, he tells about a four page advertisement from a major computer manufacturer that saddened his friend so much that she wanted to show someone who would recognize the depth of the problem our families face. “This particular ad campaign was for a "back to school" special last August. It was surprising, in part, because it sounds more like the marketing used around Christmas. The flier, of course, had lots of pictures of computers, and lots of text about features and low prices. The striking thing, though, was the message printed in a large, distinctive font that ran on each page:
Page 1: "Your child wants it. And you want to buy it for them."
Pages 2 and 3: "The urge to buy is good ... Give in to the urge."
Page 4: "Don't think of it as technology. Think of it as a symbol of your love." "

You know this kind of ad – we’ve all seen a hundred of them – usually they aren’t quite this blatant – but the message is the same. Presents = Love. That’s the double edged nature of Christmas – for us Christians as much as everyone else.

While we sing songs of hope filled waiting for the Prince of Peace on Sunday mornings, if you’re like me, when you leave here, you’ve got some shopping to do, and some presents to wrap! So this is not a diatribe against materialism. The truth is, gifts have a different meaning than greetings. When a friend and I went to the movies this week and she handed me a carefully wrapped box, I felt treasured and cared for.

We all know that a well-chosen present conveys love in a different way than words and gestures. Remember getting that one of a kind item back in May because it was just right for a dear friend? Giving that gift means “I know you. I respect you. I treasure you.” And what a great thing to say - and what a blessing that is to hear! The thing being given is an essential part of that message.

So I do not fault this good father for his despair over his inability to purchase gifts for his children. That’s why we had the Giving Tree! So parents at the homeless shelter could offer their children a present – could offer them a symbol of their love. Because that’s the real present isn’t it – the real present, under the cover of the Christmas wrapping and thing itself - is the message –I love you.

The truth is – there is goodness in this computer ad. This ad affirms the deep desire we have to let those whom we love – know that we love them. Your child wants it ….. think of it as a symbol of your love.

I invite you to take the energy and truthfulness of that ad, further. Your child wants it … but what exactly does your child really want? Really? What do you want? Really?

If you talk with young people, or your friends and neighbors, you will find that many of then really want peace and are truly concerned about war. You will find that many of them really want a healthy planet and a truly concerned about global warming. You may find that they really really want everyone to have enough to live on and are truly concerned about people who are hungry and about species dying at a very rapid rate. If you talk with young people you will find many of them have a real heart for helping others, and for making a difference on behalf of others.

I was sorting through computer files yesterday and I came across this “mission statement” written by my daughter when she was in her teens –

“I am dedicated to using my passion for exploring the unknown and my compassion for others to grow more hope in the world. My art, my social consciousness, and the time I take to help others are the primary ways in which I fulfill this mission”.

Whoa! This is an incredibly articulate personal mission statement – but my guess is that many of our young people would echo her sentiment – exploring the unknown, compassion for others, growing hope in the world.

When you take the time to truly listen – to your own heart, to your friends and neighbors, to your children and grandchildren – it could be that you will hear that “a livable world is more important than a faster computer – and that a local greenbelt with abundant wildlife is more fulfilling than a video game.” A gift that grows hope is harder to buy and to give – but not impossible. One father I know whose son is worried about global warming gave his son the gift of working together over the course of several days to change out all the light bulbs in their home to compact fluorescents. Years ago, a friend in my daughter’s first grade class gave her daughter the gift of a year of once a month picnics by the river that ran through our town to watch the deer and the squirrels and look at the bugs and the leaves and the changing seasons.

It’s not easy coming up with these imaginative gifts and big flat screen monitors are great – and I’m not warning you against them. But spending time with this distraught father this week made me wonder what his children might really want from him – how peace between him and his wife and a day spent coloring pictures together with their children might be worth so much more than the presents he was longing to buy them at Best Buy.

Enlarge your imagination and you might find yourself a lot happier and with a lot more great gifts to give others. God got quite imaginative when he sent us Jesus. John’s disciples thought that what they really wanted was a Kingly Coming One who would get John out of prison and overthrow the occupiers and issue decrees to spread the wealth equitably. Instead, Jesus simply pointed to what was happening – which, really, in the whole scheme of things, wasn’t grandiose. Yes, the blind receive their sight – but only the ones who happened to be at the right place at the right time. Yes, the lame walk, but not all the lame were able to abandon their begging posts. Yes, the poor have good news brought to them, but they were still up to their ears in debt. The Jesus that John’s disciples found paraphrased Isaiah and “pointed out small things, not big things, happening among little people, not powerful people, with local effect, not cosmic effect.

The truth is that while we, along with John and his disciples, might think that great armies on thundering horses is a much more adequate display of power and would be a great gift on behalf of the poor and suffering – it isn’t the gift that God gives. God’s gift – God’s redeeming and hugely imaginative gift – “sent a human child into the world instead of a mighty king, sends servants instead of troops – and people like you and me and the distraught dad, instead of real disciples” – so that we all might continue giving gifts of our imaginations, gifts of really listening to each other, gifts that grow hope and healing for even a few others – maybe our children, maybe our grandchildren, maybe our friends or neighbors, maybe even for our very own selves.

Resources: Barbara Brown Taylor, 2004, Third Sunday of Advent, Year A

Peter Sawtell, Eco-Justice Notes, December 14, 2007 A Symbol of Your Love

Staying Awake - A Bad Commercial or a Calling?

Advent 1, Year A
December 2, 2007
Staying Awake – A Bad Commercial or a Calling?

This past Wednesday, at the Anglican devotional poetry gathering, a participant made an intriguing comment about Christian enlightenment. Whereas in many other faiths, the believer spends their lifetime in substantial efforts to gain enlightenment – through meditation, body postures, deep and rigorous education of the mind, leading towards a spiritual breakthrough at some distant point – Christianity is virtually the opposite. You are baptized, holy hands are laid on you, your forehead is anointed with the cross, you are fed bread and wine, and wa la! You are a Christian. You’ve made it. You’re in.

So then what? If you were older when you became a Christian, instead of just having been raised up in the faith, you may have experienced euphoria – joy and in love ness with the world and Christ and the Creator of all that is. Or you may have experienced deep joy at a time when your faith just opened up for you and you found a renewed vision of what it means for you that God shows himself in creation, that God shows himself in your life.

For most of us, those first blooms of conversion and renewed faith wear off. We do good deeds, we pray, we come to church, we join the choir and the committees, and eventually we wonder where the joy is? Where is the peace that passes all understanding? Where did it go? Staying awake and alert to what God is up to becomes increasingly difficult.

I’ve got George Herbert’s poetry at my fingertips right now – compliments of John Coolidge and Richard Cushman! And so I can’t help but notice that Herbert experienced this same arc of difficulty – from being at first joyful, to finding it increasingly difficult to stay awake and alert and ready for whatever God might be doing - Herbert writes about the beginning of his enlightenment:

“When first Thou didst entice to Thee my heart,
I thought the service brave:
So many joys I writ down for my part,
Besides what I might have
Out of my stock of naturall delights,
Augmented with Thy gracious benefits.

And so, full of bravery and with fantasies about the joys God is going to send him, Herbert enters into God’s service …. he serves with fidelity and patience this God who enticed him, who lured his heart into bondage … but instead of going from joy to joy, he gets really sick and writes “I was blown through with every storm and wind… and

Yet, lest perchance I should too happy be
In my unhappiness,
Turning my purge to food, Thou throwest me
Into more sicknesses.
Thus doth Thy power cross-bias me, not making
Thine own gift good, yet me from my ways taking.

Eventually, this good Christian man wishes he were a tree instead!

Now I am here, what thou wilt do with me
None of my books will show:
I read, and sigh, and wish I were a tree –
For sure, then, I should grow
To Fruit or shade; at least, some bird would trust
Her household to me, and I should be just.

The poem by the way is titled “Affliction I”. Apparently, there is more than one poem that Herbert wrote, titled Affliction! So, even our great Anglican poets found waking up to the Divine and staying awake and attentive and ready to respond, difficult to do.

When he was an old man, T.S. Elliot wrote about his conversion and what followed:

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

After a long time leaning in the same direction, running the race set before us, as St. Paul says, it becomes difficult to “stay awake, especially when we too, like Elliot, live in the old dispensation – with an alien people clutching their gods …. Actually, we live in a time and place in which there are many forces conspiring to help us clutch at false gods and stay asleep. Retail therapy is one among many common avenues that can lull us into sleep. That’s a particular form of sleepiness pushed at us from every angle during this Advent season – ironic really, as this season has been devoted, from the 6th century on, to waking up.

But more than that, the pace of our lives and the tiredness that dogs us, makes good sound sleep sounds like heaven. The notion of staying awake and alert at all times sound like a really bad commercial. The truth is that for many of us, the good things that fill our lives – the everyday activities of eating and drinking and marrying and being married, and all the other activities such as picking up the pants at the cleaners, baking the birthday cupcakes, finding candles for the Advent wreath, getting the clothes out of the dryer before they are all wrinkled, making the costumes for the school play … just doing what we need to do to genuinely care for the immediate concerns that confront us seems like enough, like more than enough. Meanwhile there are large scale systems and structures pressing ahead, above and beyond us …. Things which affect economies and ecologies; relationships that are developing and breaking down between communities and nations. How attentive are we, really, to the big picture and the longer perspective? How much can we take in? How awake do we need to be? How awake can we be and still function in our day to day lives? How do we live within the old dispensation that is based in envy and greed and revenge with the new dispensation of equality and freedom, justice and peace that we have been baptized into in Christ? No wonder Herbert just wished he were a tree!

Thank goodness for the Eucharist. "Because in the Eucharist, God comes to us from the future as well as from the past. This Jesus – shaped God is able to lift our gaze beyond the immediate and place it into the perspective of the eternal, where there is bread and wine and rest enough for everyone." We are fed by this eternal perspective, so we can return to the world as awakened, wise and faithful servants. Awake and clearly convicted that all we have now is only entrusted to us as stewards. The truth is we come together primarily to be nurtured and sustained in thinking, speaking and acting continuously from that conviction.

Difficult? Yes. But there is plenty of daily help. Almost every day, I say the prayer by Reinhold Neibuhr, the same prayer that so many others have also found helpful to staying awake and

Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.

The Rev. Linda Campbell


Process and Faith, commentary by Paul Nancarrow, Advent 1, Year A

George Herbert, Affliction 1

T.S. Elliott, The Journey of the Magi

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Talking About God and Money

Proper 20C

Jeremiah 8: 18 – 9:1, Psalm 79: 1 – 9, 1 Timothy 2: 1 - 7, Luke 16: 1 - 13

The Rev. Linda Campbell

Talking about Money and God

So offensive is this parable that St. Augustine is quoted as having said he didn’t believe this could have ever come from the lips of our Lord.

Gil Bailie, a favorite commentator on Luke’s gospel, mostly walks right around Luke 16.

The truth is Luke has Jesus talk about money more than anything else. Far more than sex. While the church may be caught up in the politics of sex, Luke’s Jesus is talking about the far more dangerous subject of money – or mammon – as the old translations say. Jesus says a whole lot, in this Gospel, about our relationship to money and our relationship to God. And what he says appears contradictory. Give it all away.

Don’t let your right hand know what your left hand is doing when you give it away. On the other hand, use it to gain friends and a softer landing when you get the pink slip. Hmmmm…….

Balance perhaps. Maybe it turns out that Jesus didn’t think or teach in terms of black and white. Maybe Jesus was tuned in to the realities of the complexities of life, of the realities of survival in a world that doesn’t look after the welfare of those on the edges. Maybe Jesus wasn’t pure idealist, but was also imminently practical.

So practical in fact, that he taught his friends to look towards the very long view. The verrrry looooong view. Not just the twenty years of retirement – and socking away as much as possible to make those retirement years livable – but the eternal years of eternity with God. Should we invest and save for retirement? For those twenty or thirty years when we are not working? Yes. But Jesus is even more practical than that. He’s got the very long view in mind – and from that perspective, he is adamant about investing in the future, now. While we can. *

How do we invest in the future, in our future, in the future God wants for us? The scriptures don’t tell us exactly what to do. It is impossible really to answer with any certainty that modern day question – what would Jesus do? However, because the Universe has a certain bent, a certain grain, a certain arc, the scriptures do help us learn how to make decisions that help us align ourselves with the same bent, the same arc. We can learn to go with the grain of the Universe rather than go against the grain. Jesus lived in that bent, flowed with the grain of the Universe. God’s life that flowed in and through Jesus followed a certain arc. The scriptures don’t tell us exactly what to do. But walking close to Jesus is one of the very best ways to learn how to look at the various options before us and choose the ways that most closely align us with this arc and bent of the Universe, and

So how do we invest in a future that is going with the grain of the Universe rather than against the grain? In other words, how do we put ourselves in the same stream of goodness and abundance and creativity that is characteristic of Creation?

Let me ask you something. If I asked Miriam and Rebecca and Noah and Liliana and Fred and John and Dorothy and Olivia up here and had them jump up and down and say “I’m hungry. I’m hungry. I’m hungry,” at the top of their lungs, what would your response be? I think it would probably be pretty immediate. Elizabeth and Leslie would run down to Safeway. Elise and Jeff would be up in the kitchen. Diane and Bobbi would put their arms around them and make sure they knew they would be taken care of. And before you know it, we would have fed the children and the others who were hungry. Of course, these are our friends and fellow parishioners. It would be easy to feed them if they came to church that hungry. And they are of a limited number. It would also be fairly practical and within our financial reach to feed them breakfast.

God says look around. ALL the people around you are my children. ALL the people around the world are my children. And a whole lot of them are very hungry. And you are full.

Addressing hunger in some practical way is to go with the grain of the universe. Likewise, addressing lack of shelter is to go with the grain of the universe. Or lack of clean water. Or lack of medical care. Or lack of friendship. Understanding the laws of abundance – that money is meant to flow, that debt is meant to be forgiven, that sins and trespasses are not to be held tightly to one’s heart where they fester and turn into a hotbed of bitterness. Sins and trespasses are meant to be forgiven, to be let go and turned over to God. Resources, any kind of resource, are meant to be circulated, not hoarded.

It was wonderful yesterday to see how resources circulated in the rummage sale. Many of us left with what others of us brought! Many people throughout the community came through these doors and went home thoroughly pleased with their $8 microwave and their $2 Wedgwood china cup to drink tea in. Circulating resources rather than hoarding them means that everyone benefits. St. Alban’s benefited by over $4,000.

The question is – what for? So you can have a safe, comfy place to worship? Or so you can truly invest in God’s future, the future that God has in mind for this community? My conviction is that the future God has in mind for this community is far more audacious, far larger and more out on the edge than quietly admiring the beautiful stained glass windows and the wonders of Rite 1 and Rite 2, and how the candles are lit or not lit on the altar.

In the New York Times this morning, there is an article on a church in Georgia that was dying. Finally, they began to look around and understand the signs of the times – the signals God was sending their way. Their community had changed. It was now home to many immigrants from all over Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. This is a Southern Baptism congregation in the deep south. At a church meeting, one elder stood up and said that if they thought these people were going to be welcomed into this church, they had another thing coming. Well, I would say that this man wasn’t very well invested in his loooong term future. The future with God. Looking at the scriptures, at how Jesus lived, gave this congregation the direction they needed for investing their dwindling resources. Newly named the International church, they opened their doors and welcomed in their neighbors. They compromised in many ways. The music changed. The preaching changed. The food changed – although apparently this was the easiest and most welcome change – since everybody liked everybody else’s food! In the last few years, they have easily tripled in size – but even more, they reflect what heaven actually looks like – as Anglos and Nigerians and Sudanese and Ecuadorians and many others of all ages, worship God together, while also making room for various ethnicities to have their own worship services in their own languages.

In terms of the future, I don’t know what God has in mind for St. Alban’s. What I do know is that St. Alban’s has a gift for food, for welcome, for friendship. What I do know is that there are a lot of people hungry. Hungry for food. Hungry for welcome. Hungry for friendship. Hungry for God.


Diane Bergant, “Money, Money, Money,” America, The National Catholic Weekly, September 13, 2004

Dr. William Long, “A Different Kind of Friendship”

*The Rev. Edward F. Markquart, “Money and Wise Investments for the Future,” Grace Lutheran Church, Seattle, Washington.

The New York Times, Sunday, September 23, 2007

Caring for the Body of God, all Creation

Carbon Conscious Consumer

Just having returned from the Diocese of California clergy conference with Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori, many wonderful colleagues, and Bishop Marc, I am encouraged that so many Christians are so deeply committed to the earth and all creation as the Body of Christ, committed to being stewards and caretakers of this beautiful garden home, this fragile island home we call earth. The workshop with Sally Bingham and the Regeneration Project, on specifics that congregations can do to become "cool congregations," places where people learn the skills of caring for creation and sustainable living practices, was most helpful.

What do I do personally? I walk as much as possible. I buy most of my food from local sources. I unplug the few appliances I own when they are not being used. I wear silk and wool to keep warm, waiting for as long as possible before turning on the heat. I get enormous pleasure from listening to the early morning birds, to soaking in the sun as I'm walking to work / church / friends / theater, to laughing deeply and often. I find these pleasures more nourishing and sustaining than the mall.

So, I'm going to post this now, and see if the Carbon Conscious Consumer logo turns up! If it doesn't, you can google Carbon Conscious Consumer and also Eco-Justice Ministries, as well as Interfaith Power and Light - for specifically Christian and faith based take on environmental justice.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Until the lost is found

Proper 19C
The Rev. Linda Campbell
Jeremiah 4: 11 – 12, 22-28; Psalm 14; 1 Timothy 1: 12- 17; Luke 15: 1 - 10
“Until the lost is found..”

A childhood friend of mine had a picture hanging in her room that is imprinted in my memory. It was a picture of Jesus walking through rugged countryside, off any pathway, with a lamb around his shoulders. The lamb looked so content and safe. My friend and I never talked about this picture – so I don’t know what she thought of it. But I thought that this lamb was one of the luckiest lambs in the world. Not really knowing this parable I didn’t realize that there were 99 other lambs probably wondering where Jesus went to!

When one child heard this morning’s gospel story and was "Would you go after the one lost sheep or stay with the ninety-nine?" the boy quickly responded, "I'd go after the one lost sheep, but I'd take the other ninety-nine with me."

I viscerally understand what this boy was feeling. Am I one of the 99? Am I the lost sheep? Which ever one I am, I want Jesus looking after me. And I don’t know about you, but for me, I really don’t think, 40 years later, that I’ve ever grown out of this feeling.

The little word “until” is enormous. The shepherd continues looking for the lost sheep until the sheep is located and rescued. The woman turns her house inside out until she locates the coin. The non-stop rescue effort, the non-stop searching is all out of proportion to any economic interest in the one sheep or the one coin. Until says that something else is operating here that has nothing to do with cost, or effort. What that something else is – is the absolute value that the shepherd places on that sheep; that the woman places on that coin; that God places on you and me and every other creature on this earth.

You and I are of infinite worth. You and I are worthy of non stop effort to locate us, each one of us, and find us, and carry us home. That is the heart and soul of the Gospel right there. Christ did not stay safe in heaven in infinite glory and beauty and loveliness, but in eternal creativity and generative liveliness, stepped out of heaven, into human form, and came to seek the lost, the lonely, the out of place. There is no falling through the cracks with God.

Of course it is not just you and I that God does this for. It is everyone else as well. Everyone else.

This was highly offensive in Jesus’ day, and it still is in ours. Jesus often concluded his teaching with let those who have ears to hear, hear. Now we find out who had the ears to hear. Not the regular folk, but the people who knew they were on the outside and who knew they had done wrong. Tax collectors were often greedy traitors to their own people, working for the Romans and skimming profit from their impoverished neighbors. “Sinners” cover a wide range of people – from the handicapped and ill and poor, to prostitutes and addicts. The good Pharisees grumbled not because Jesus was present at a dinner with these people. Feeding the hungry was not unknown in Jesus’ day. Giving a dinner for the fringe crowd was an act of mercy. No, the Pharisees grumbled because this holy man didn’t just bless the food and them as charitable folk. He sat down and ate and drank and laughed and talked with the entertainers, the serving women who were there to serve more than food, the hunched over people who drooled…. The people who were supposed to be the objects of charity were instead his friends and companions, and they listened to him eagerly, stretching their meager resources even thinner so that they could take the time off to be wherever he was.

The biblical scholars who pore over the gospels attempting to figure out what Jesus’ actual words were and what was added on later are one hundred percent positive that this open fellowship, this eating and drinking and partying and companionship that went across all social boundaries, was utterly characteristic of Jesus. And that whether or not Jesus told these stories in precisely this way or not, they are entirely accurate about how Jesus lived and what he was about.

The early church might have begun with this kind of ethic, but it didn’t take long for the ways of the world to creep in and begin to alter the characteristics of church life. And I would say, just looking around this morning, that while you and I might have quite a few hidden sins in our background, we are, for the most part, fairly upstanding citizens. Maybe not! Nevertheless, Jesus’ openness and love of all kinds of people is still a challenge. I don’t know about you, but there are some people for whom I have a hard time wondering why Jesus would plow through canyons and brambles and into the cold dark of night to find. But not just that – that all of heaven would party when they were found!

A Jewish story tells of the good fortune of a hardworking farmer. The Lord appeared to this farmer and granted him three wishes, but with the condition that whatever the Lord did for the farmer would be given double to his neighbor. The farmer, scarcely believing his good fortune, wished for a hundred cattle. Immediately he received a hundred cattle, and he was overjoyed until he saw that his neighbor had two hundred. So he wished for a hundred acres of land, and again he was filled with joy until he saw that his neighbor had two hundred acres of land. Rather than celebrating God's goodness, the farmer could not escape feeling jealous and slighted because his neighbor had received more than he. Finally, he stated his third wish: that God would strike him blind in one eye. And God wept.

The truth is that only those who can celebrate God's grace to others can experience that mercy themselves.

But before moving on to others, I want to talk about you and me. Do you really know that all of heaven parties for you? If not, I invite you to let yourself try that on. For some of us that is very hard. All the messages we received were that happiness was not for us. That there was, in fact, something suspect about joy. That hard work and sad repentance were the appropriate things to feel and do in God’s presence. And while Luke does gloss this story with words about repentance, the truth is the lamb knew nothing about repentance. The lost sheep really had nothing to do with being found. Well, maybe some bleating and calling out. Maybe getting so turned around that he eventually got tired and laid down. But the work of repentance is really just about stopping long enough that the shepherd can reach down and pick you up. Can find you and bring you back home. So try on the heaven parties for you idea.

Then I invite you to think of three other people whom you deeply desire to know God’s love and mercy and grace. Picture now, in your mind’s eye and in the warmth of your heart, several people for whom you would love to blow up the balloons and bake the cakes and break out the best champagne and sparkling waters. Pray for them without ceasing. Without giving up. Without ever giving up.

And now I invite you to think of someone for whom you would not want to bake a cake for, or blow up balloons, or in any active way celebrate the fact that God is utterly in love with them too. Ask God’s help to accept that eternal, heavenly and earthly fact of mercy and grace and love for everyone. That you both are feted by the angels. That infinite worth extends to every single human being.

And finally, I invite you to picture yourself, equipped with a strong flashlight and a sturdy broom. Because that’s what entry into the kingdom of heaven gets you! A party. A flashlight for finding the lost in the dark and the gloom. And a broom for sweeping out the cobwebs and the dirt and recovering God’s treasured souls.

You and I aren’t called to be the lost sheep found over and over again. Jesus’ challenge, in Barbara Brown Taylor’s words, *"is to join him in rounding up God’s herd and recovering God’s treasure. Our calling is to discover the joy of finding. We are called to the exquisite care of searching out and the infinite joy of finding. After we have been the lost and the found, we ourselves are to discover the joy of being good shepherds and diligent sweepers."

*Barbara Brown Taylor

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Parish Photo Albums

Proper 17, Year C
Jeremiah 2: 4 – 13; Psalm 81: 1, 10 – 16; Hebrews 13: 1 – 8, 15-16; Luke 14: 1, 7 – 14
The Rev. Linda Campbell

Have any of you moved recently? Isn’t it a trial?! When my family moved out of the family home in Sonoma County, it was amazing what we found! Try undoing your home. You’ll find out that NOTHING disappears! The earring that you thought you’d lost long ago, is still there, behind the bed, just where it fell after you got home from that wild Christmas party five years ago.

Going through a home is like looking through a photo album. Albums of memories and connections and meanings, sometimes rather loosely organized. Parishes are like that, too. As we got ready for the construction of the wheelchair lift to go in, things got moved around, and amazing things were found! Stories of the windows. Stories of the kneeler cushions. Just as the parish was about to make a major new investment in becoming even more hospitable, reminders of past major investments were re-discovered, and their stories came to light once more. Just like these beautiful stained glass windows, and these needlepoint kneeler cushions, all of our belongings have stories that surround them.

The stories fit together – sometimes quite loosely, and sometimes we’re only able to recognize the thread that binds them all together after a long time has passed. But the thread is there – and almost always the thread that binds families and parishes together, as well as individual lives, has to do with love and loyalty, faithfulness and forgiveness.

Today’s epistle is like looking through a congregational photo album. The letter to the Hebrews gives what appear to be random snapshots – of hospitality, prison, marriage, adultery, finance, but they are bound together under the banner of love. “Let mutual love continue,” the writer begins, echoing Jesus’ commandment to “Love one another.”

But how did that congregation turn a broad injunction to love others into actual behavior that led to a measurably, demonstrably different kind of life? What difference did it make to “let mutual love continue”? What difference does it make for us? Where do we begin?

The letter writer began with hospitality, particularly with strangers. At St. Alban's, the injunction to practice hospitality as been taken very literally, as the wheelchair lift has been constructed, the handicapped restrooms have been put in. Just this morning, Jill, with her broken ankle, and Merlyn, with his fourteen pound tank of oxygen, were able to be at the parish breakfast because of this commitment to practical hospitality. When you find yourself wondering about the cost of these projects, know that this isn't just something "nice" that St. Alban's has done, but it has been a carrying out of an injunction from scripture to practice hospitality - especially to those who are impaired, lame or crippled, and frail. The gospel is always costly in one way or another!

This morning’s gospel gives us a clear and discomforting picture of hospitality to strangers, especially to the desperately poor and those on the margins of society. Jesus didn’t talk about handouts. He talked about the more costly path of relationship, of conversation, of kindness that is vulnerable to the realities of being human together.

That’s not easy because poverty isn’t pretty. I worked for many years in a church where lunches were served every day to homeless women and children, and weekly lunches to people who were HIV positive. It was much more comfortable to dish out the food then to get out from behind the counter and sit down to eat with the woman who smelled and the child with the bad manners and the runny nose. But whenever I did, I can testify that something mysteriously new always broke out into my world, and that I wouldn’t want to be without those encounters.

Here’s another snapshot – “Remember those who are in prison as though you were in prison with them, those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.” We have certainly heard a great deal about torture in the headlines recently. As your priest, I tell you that Christians may never, under any circumstance, be involved in torturing another human being or any creature. In our own parish, Ruthie Marsh has undertaken a ministry of inviting us to write letters for prisoners whom Amnesty International has identified as being tortured because of conscience. Signing a letter at Ruthie’s table during the monthly parish breakfasts is one way that you can “remember those who are in prison as though you were in prison with them.” You might want to take it one step further, and after signing the letter, remember this person in your daily prayers.

Another photo – this one of marriage. This morning, at the 8:00 service, Merlyn and Barbara Counsel celebrated their 58th wedding anniversary. And for those of you who know them, their love and faithfulness to each other continue unabated. They are a living witness to the joy of permanence. The truth is that while there is argument over who can and can not be married, the institution continues to be highly valued. While our commercial culture treats relationships as disposable commodities, marriage is a covenant of mutual love and blessing between persons that points to the everlasting covenant God has made with creation. And fornication? It is such an antique word, isn’t it? In the era of Sex and the City – which I have watched and enjoyed – it is virtually meaningless. But regardless of cultural entertainment standards, the church continues to hold out for the risky, come-what-may vows of permanence. The church also recognizes that as humans, such permanence is not always desirable or feasible. We can be confident however the God never abandons the covenant to be with us forever.

And final double sided snapshots – “keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have.” I love how the scriptures zing right to the heart in such a few words – like all worthwhile pictures do.

Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have. Contentment with what you have and who you are is counter cultural. We hear so many messages that are just the opposite, that attempt to generate need on our part for something more, something different, and something else, to make us happy. And the ever growing array of choices to answer the needs that have been created keeps us very preoccupied! Jeans, internet providers, coffees, cereals, and on and on .... so many daily choices inundate our lives, that some authors say the choices themselves actually create depression! The solution offered to that of course, are choices of an array of medications and there's always another shopping trip!

The good news is that Jesus stepped in to save us from this death trap of preoccupation with self. To help us become content with exactly who we are, at rest, in God. To set us free from having to buy the next best self-help book that promises freedom and happiness.

But what a way Jesus opened to us! Sit in the place with the least honor. Don’t spend your life trying to be invited to the best parties and the “in” gatherings. Open your life and your heart to those who don’t matter; to those who don’t count; to those who are overlooked. Jesus pointed us towards Life by pushing us to the edge of our very human, fundamental fears about not mattering, about being nobody, ultimately really about death.

That is why Christianity is dangerous. Because the cross stands in the center of every avenue by which we try to approach God. This is the pulsating generative truth at the heart of the gospel – you must lose your life in order to save it. Or as the modern theologian, Marcus Borg puts it; “your heart must be hatched open.”

The snapshots contained in the letter to the Hebrew’ show us what a hatched open heart looks like. It is an awakened heart filled with gratitude and contentment and the mystery of joining hands with the prisoners and the poor. It is a lively heart that imitates Christ who did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking on the form of a servant.

This is our family album, bound together by love and faithfulness. It is a series of snapshots of each one of us, out in the world, practicing our religion, letting the Holy Spirit work through the sacraments and the scriptures and our daily encounters with others to break our hearts open so that we do, in truth, let mutual love continue.


The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg

The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz

Peace, Walter Brueggemann

Christian Century, 8/24/04, Living by the Word, Bruce Wollenberg

Sunday, August 19, 2007

God's Shattering Brings Good News

Proper 15, Year C
Isaiah 5: 1 – 7; Psalm 80:1-2, 8-18; Hebrews 11: 29 – 12:2; Luke 12: 49 – 56
“God’s Shattering Brings Good News”
The Rev. Linda Campbell

When I moved in to my home, I inherited a dwarf peach tree that looked very healthy. No leaf curl. Brilliant green leaves. Beautiful strong healthy trunk. My family looked forward to the summer peaches with great expectation! When they ripened they were perfectly formed, perfectly golden pink. Organically grown, they had no worms. Birds had not pecked tiny bites in these peaches. But when we bit into them, they were mealy and tasteless. We didn’t give up with the first peach. We kept checking each peach on that tree for the perfect moment of ripeness. When it was perfect, we tried eating it. Not a one of those peaches was good. Still we were not ready to give up. We consulted farm advisers. We followed all their expert advice. The next harvest season, we had great expectations. And as you might guess, the same thing happened. Not one peach worth eating. OK. We do not give up easily. A third year, we devoted attention to these three beautiful dwarf peach trees. After that year, we finally gave up, took out the trees and bricked that area in to use for something else.

Isaiah took this experience that most gardeners have had, at one time or another, and carved a brilliant parable from it – Instead of peach trees or grape vines, God plants a people. He frees them from slavery, nurtures their unfolding sense of themselves as people of God, shares his hopes and dreams with them of hospitality to the stranger, of care for the widowed and orphaned, of land that is distributed fairly and an economics that does not hold people hostage to debt. Everything good and gracious and fine is offered on behalf of this people – a way through the wilderness, manna from heaven to eat and sweet water in the desert to drink and laws to govern themselves by, and prophets to remind them of the ways that lead to life – and yet instead of yielding a rich harvest of justice and mercy, the people are vengeful and bloodthirsty. Instead of honor and integrity and truthfulness, the people harm others and create misery for the poor and destitute.

I almost asked the reader to read this first reading with sobs – which I didn’t do because it would have taken you so by surprise – but I invite you to read Isaiah to yourself sometime this week. Hear God’s passion and love, God's forlornness and disappointment. Share God’s heartbreak.

“What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes? These people are my pleasant planting – I expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry! What more was there to do that I have not done?” *from Isaiah 5

My father and I talk on the phone every Saturday. I am incredibly grateful that we can share what is in our hearts. Yesterday, I asked his prayers for my daughter, his granddaughter Ella, who is serving with the Peace Corps in Ecuador, right next door to Peru. We agreed to deepen our prayers for the people in Peru, particularly those who have been affected so horrifically from the earthquake that shook southern Peru a few days ago. My dad said that we in this country cannot really fathom the depths of suffering that wracks so much of the rest of the world – from earthquake to famine to war to grinding poverty. Now, he is of a different branch of the Christian family – Adventists expect that the end of the world is coming sooner rather than later. On this as on many other theological points, we agree to disagree and to simply hold to the core of the gospel, which is the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ. But yesterday on the phone, he said, “Honey, I don’t believe this world is long to last.” And he said it with such poignancy, such love for this world, such heartbreak over people’s inhumanity to each other; - I could hear the same tenor in his voice, as we read in this portion of Isaiah. Behind that heartbreak, I could also hear the same kind of judgment that would follow as a natural consequence of humanity’s unwillingness to consistently practice kindness and humility and justice – the judgment of destruction, of trampling down, of drought and the infertility of the land.

This morning's passages are difficult to listen to. “And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste.” I don’t know about you, but I don’t especially like it when Jesus says, “I came to bring fire to the earth and how I wish it were already kindled! Do you think I came to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! They will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother.” It gets really personal. This isn’t just about nations. This is right within the heart of families.

I met with someone from another parish this past week whose marriage was in trouble. Divisions within her own psyche caused by childhood trauma had surfaced and she has spent a lot of time working on healing. As she heals, her prayer life has deepened and become profoundly meaningful. She glows with health. She is emotionally and spiritually changed as the sourness of trauma has turned into the sweetness of health. Change is difficult though – and her partner is threatened by this newfound joy – and uncomfortably challenged by her renewed Christian faith. There is every hope that their marriage will recover and in fact become better – but the truth is that as wounds and conflicts surface – whether they are within us, within our families, or within our church communities – the immediate experience can be one of fire and not of peace, of greater division rather than of greater unity. The ultimate truth however is that this very experience of uncovering what has remained hidden and bringing into the light what has been in darkness, brings tremendous opportunity for real health and vitality – with a hefty price tag of real labor, of persevering hope, and of commitment to love beyond reason.

St. Alban’s is in an Interim time – a times of transition in which much that has been assumed and under cover is being questioned and brought to light – and that is a real source of new life and new opportunities but there is also real labor involved in taking the hopes and dreams of what turns out to be a very diverse community, in which there are some hopes and dreams that clash – that are not easily unified - and finding the place of deeper unity and purpose that will guide the parish and the new rector into the future.

A part of this future involves celebrating what has been brought to light – again, brought to light with a real price tag of labor, and hope and love. This coming Saturday, the Gulf Coast Mission Project will prepare an excellent New Orlean’s style supper, and show a professionally produced video (by our own Jeff Peterson) of what we saw and did in New Orleans. I can testify from seeing New Orleans with my own eyes that truth is shattering. It was gut wrenching to see the devastation that continues in the Lower 9th Ward where we ran a children’s camp. But while Katrina wrecked havoc, that destruction also uncovered the ugliness of entrenched racism and injustice. And bringing those wounds to the light is the first step towards healing them, particularly when Christians and people of faith become involved in moving systems towards health rather than towards apathy and cynicism.

The prophet Isaiah and our Savior Jesus charge you and me to taste the fruits of our lives, to see what sets our teeth on edge, and what brings satisfaction. By the power of the Holy Spirit, know that it is good news that shatters systems that do not bring life and flourishing – It is good news that Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith does not allow us to remain in the sour grapes mode – but calls us, cajoles us, points us, directs us, leads us, and our families, our churches, our nation, towards health, and fruitfulness, and abundance of life.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Faith With Skin

Proper 14, Year C

Isaiah 1: 1, 10 – 2; Psalm 33: 12 – 22; Hebrews 11: 1- 3, 8 – 16; Luke 12¨32 – 40

“Faith with Skin”

The Rev. Linda Campbell

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

She is also a young member of St. Alban’s and one of our acolytes this morning! Her mom, Susan, says that she gave Faith this name because her very presence, her birth itself, is such a gift. When a cousin asked Susan if there was a time when she ever gave up hope of being a mother – and Susan said, no. I knew. I knew I would be a mom. Sounds to me like the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen! It’s a blessing for all of us to have Faith here as a living, breathing reminder of God’s gracious gifts. So now I’m done embarrassing you, dear – but since your name and the theme of this morning’s readings are identical, you’ll hear Faith called out quite a bit!

Faith is the Assurance of things hoped for. What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the word “Assurance?” I think of confidence and certainty. Susan was confident that what she hoped for would be, or already was, in some sense, her reality. In her mind, she was certain of her motherhood.

The letter to the Hebrews was written to second generation church members. They had undergone persecution, and were deeply disappointed that Jesus hadn’t returned, as the early Christians had expected. Some of them were giving up and leaving the Jesus way. Others remained, absolutely confident that the heavenly homeland they desired was certain to be, or already was, in some sense, their reality. They followed in the footsteps of other giants of faith – Abraham, who set out for a place that he didn’t know, not knowing where he was going, but obeying his yearning to follow God. The letter to the Hebrews encourages them to be like previous giants of faith who “died without having received the promises, but from a distance still saw and greeted them.”

When I think of giants of faith, many names come to mind such as our own American giant of faith, Martin Luther King, Jr. who saw the promised land of justice and peace among people of all races and economic classes – but who died before that had become an evident reality. It’s a promised land we have yet to reach, and yet it is homeland for which many of us continue to yearn.

What do you hope for? What do you desire so deeply that it is in your bones and blood, that you would stake your life on it? One of the marks of a Christian is the hope for and the confidence in the reality of God’s kingdom – the ultimate reality of reconciliation between all peoples, and indeed, among all beings.

We can’t create that confidence all on our own. But we can cooperate with God’s creation of confidence within us. How? By acting in faith. By acting as citizens of the kingdom. Jesus simply spoke truth when he said “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” If you want your heart to be in the kingdom, don’t wait until you have a warm fuzzy feeling of being in the kingdom. Put a check in the basket. Sponsor a child. Buy groceries for someone else. Forgive your spouse. Give thanks in all places and at all times and under all circumstances. All of these things are costly – AND they build confidence. They strengthen the spiritual muscles and bones of faith. If you want to be a long distance runner, you have to put on your running shoes every morning, and run. If you and I want to be a people of faith, we have to practice making day to day decisions with confidence in the unseen reality of God’s kingdom.

Jesus was the ultimate in confidence! He was certain of his Father’s good will and confident in their relationship. He didn’t get his authority from university degrees or from being ordained by the chief High Priest. His authority and confidence in himself came directly from his intimate relationship with God. He was confident in God because he knew God. And he inspired confidence in others. When Jesus told Zaccheus, “your sins are forgiven” Zaccheus rested absolutely assured that Jesus was trustworthy, that what he said was truth, and that if he said, you are healed. You are forgiven, that he was, in truth, healed and forgiven. Zaccheus was so happy in this assurance that he made thorough amends for his sins, returning all the gold he had taken from others unjustly.

It isn’t quite so easy for Jesus to inspire confidence in us – because we are citizens of the 21st century – and we haven’t physically seen or touched or heard Jesus. Without the reassurance of his actual voice, we are kind of like the little girl who awoke one night frightened, convinced that in the darkness around her there were all kinds of spooks and monsters. Alone, she ran to her parents' bedroom. Her mother calmed her down and, taking her by the hand, led her back to her own room, where she put on a light and reassured her daughter: 'You needn't be afraid, you are not alone here. God is in the room with you.' The little girl replied: 'I know that God is here, but I need someone in this room who has some skin!' "

Someone with skin is good. And that’s, I think, one of the reasons Jesus insisted that his followers form communities of faith. We’re the people who can be God’s skin for each other. The author of the letter to the Hebrews, definitely intended to assure that community that God’s communication of good will and favor towards them through his Son, Jesus, was absolutely trustworthy. In our own tradition, when I lift my hand in absolution of your sins after the confession – it isn’t that I myself am forgiving you. God and God alone does that. But I’m someone with skin, who has been set aside by the authority of the church, to enact God’s voice of assurance that in truth, your sins are forgiven. You are free. You are healed. You are not enslaved to the past. You can rest assured in God’s grace and good purposes for your future. As Jesus said, and as I, your pastor, now repeat, “it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” You’re in. You’re free. You’re a child of God. Amen!

The final way that I think of assurance is as a pledge or a warranty. Remember the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval? That warranty meant a product was well made, that it would hold up under use, and that it would do what it was advertised to do. Genesis tells us that you and I and every other human being carry a warranty! We’re made in God’s Image and stamped with God’s seal of original blessing. Each and every one of us, boy, girl, gay, straight, deaf, hearing, blind, seeing, black, brown, and white – carry the warranty of God’s image. As an assurance, a pledge of his faithfulness, God sent his only son Jesus, to become one of us, to enjoy the pleasures of friendship and beauty, to suffer violence and vengeance, and to die as one burdened by sin and despair. How is that a pledge of God’s faithfulness? Because through Jesus’ deep and utterly faithful obedience, even when he could not see through the darkness of the cross, God was able to set once and for all time in human terms, the pledge of abundant and everlasting life that would outsmart, outlast, and outshine all darkness. Give a shout people! The goodness of God wins! Resurrection is the pledge of that.

Alexander Solzenitzen tells a resurrection story from his time as a prisoner in the Siberian camp to which he was sentenced. The prisoners were fed a starvation diet and forced into hard labor twelve to fourteen hours a day. One day, Alexander simply gave up. All his strength was gone. Physically weakened and sick, morally despairing and spiritually dead, he ceased to care about the beating he knew would come any minute that would end his life. But a fellow Christian saw him falter and give up. This fellow risked his own life to step out of the line long enough to draw a cross in the sand with his cane, and then quickly erase it again. But that was enough. Solzenitzen was embraced by that cross, and began to draw out of thin air the sustenance he needed to survive. He writes that he never again gave up hope.

Faith is the assurance of things hope for, the conviction of things not seen. Meanwhile, it’s good to be around some Godly people with skin!

Monday, July 23, 2007

Christmas Every Wednesday

I am a small farmer's daughter - and have gardened most of my life. I live in Albany now and don't have a yard or land of my own. But I've discovered Community Supported Agriculture! I can support other local small farmers and stay connected to growing food when I can't do it myself. Signing up with Full Belly Farms was one of the best things I've done in awhile! It's really the very next best thing to growing my own family's food. Every Wednesday, I go to a Presbyterian church courtyard to pick up my box of just picked fruits and vegetables. This week, the Full Belly farmers delivered melons, heirloom tomatoes, red onions, cucumbers, long beans, garlic, corn and peaches! It's like Christmas every Wednesday!

Eating local is not only the best thing we can do for the environment, but it really is the best thing to do for our palates and pleasure! Try it!

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Do This and You Shall Live

Proper 10, Year C.
Good Samaritan Sunday
The Rev. Linda Campbell

Wisdom from the ancient rabbinic tradition tells us that the world stands on three things:
Torah, Worship and Acts of Kindness.

"The world stands on three things." I take it to mean that these are the three most basic aspects of being human that serve the whole community of creation. These three things are at the root of what we humans have to offer in the way of safeguarding creation and ongoing life on this earth.

Jesus summed up the Torah this way: Love God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your heart, and your neighbor as yourself. If you do not know how to love God, that is ok, because all you have to do is turn to your neighbor and take at least as much interest in them as you take in yourself. What does this do for the world? It breaks open the prison of our own egos, of the illusions of our own separateness. It opens the way towards less judgment of others and greater ability to see clearly what is right in front of you. To truly love our neighbor as much as we do ourselves is humanly impossible, really – without intervention by the Holy Spirit. But making the attempt to love in this way – to love as Jesus did – grounds us in humility, in the reality of our own selfishness, and breaks our heart open for God’s love and compassion to come pouring in. We find out that to truly love others necessitates our complete dependence and acceptance of God’s love for us. Our vision shifts – we are no longer so utterly taken up with our own survival that we are able to let God’s love flow like water into us and on through to our neighbor. The world stands on those who love in this way, and upon those who make the attempt to love in this way. Torah – love God. Love neighbor. Love self.

The second pillar is worship. Jesus summed up Worship this way: “This is my body which is broken for you – whenever you eat, remember me.” What do you remember about Jesus? I remember his own hunger. His hunger to include all kinds of people – people at the center of power, and people who had been completely discarded and left out and abandoned as useless. His hunger to make life better for those who came to him for help. His hunger for the playfulness and kindness and openness and trust of children. His hunger for those who could pray with him and trust that God was good and would act on their behalf – just as fortunate children trust their dads and moms. What does worship that remembers Jesus do for the world? When you and I take all that our lives are – the good, the bad and the ugly, offer it all to God and ask God’s blessing on all of it serves to unburden us from the past and free us from the future. When we are brought into the present with all that we are and have been and might be, and when we offer all that to God, God uses you and me for new purposes – for purposes of good and not bad, for purposes of life and not death, for purposes of reconciliation and not further tearing apart of the fabric of life. You and I can be renewed and made new – this morning – in this worship – in this bread – in these prayers – in this silence. God can and will send you out with direction and purpose and meaning for goodness and health.

The third pillar is Acts of Kindness. Jesus summed up Acts of Kindness this way: “I was hungry and you gave me food. I was naked and you clothed me. I was sick and you visited me”. Mark says that “Jesus went about doing good.” “We know that Jesus cared deeply and constantly for the most vulnerable and he demanded that his followers do the same. He reached out to and healed the sick, comforted the mourning, had compassion on the crowds who were like sheep without a shepherd, forgave the shameful sinner, loved the unlovable, and brought the lowest person out of their isolation into the center, to the head of the table. Jesus turned to his disciples and said, “Go and do likewise.” He linked worship of God with practical acts of charity, saying that if we didn’t feed the hungry, visit the sick and clothe the naked, we were refusing to serve him, since he dwells in these people.” But most of all, he urged us to have compassion, to open our hearts and feel for those who are hurting and lost, and then be moved to do something for them.

But he also knew that he and his disciples couldn’t make everything all better. He didn’t heal everyone in every village. After he left, people still got sick and hungry. He reminded his disciples that “you will always have the poor with you.” So that could have perspective on their good works. And in the midst of doing good, Jesus didn’t neglect himself – he withdrew to recharge. He loved parties. He enjoyed life. He lived in such a way as to demand of us that we respond with great compassion and practical comfort AND that we learn to do what we can and let go of the rest, entrusting the rest to God’s care and other good-hearted people.

Acts of kindness. Practical compassion. Doing what we can with what we have. This is the third pillar upon which the world rests. It is a precarious pillar isn’t it – because we can only do so much – and there is always more to do. There is and always will be far more suffering than any one of us can possibly attend to. So this pillar relies on the whole people of God doing what they can and then unburdening themselves, “knowing that ultimately this is God’s beautiful and broken world and God will continue to care for it, using the hearts and hands of others long after we are gone.”

You’ve already heard some of the stories those of us who were in New Orleans brought back from our work in the 9th Ward, and you’ll hear many more! This morning, I want to tell you about Lilli. One morning, a family that was traveling across the country on vacation came to the Children’s Camp. It was the middle of the morning. The children were already hot and wound up. This family – Episcopalians by the way! - had brought presents for the children from the 9th Ward. A little background: This family lived in Phoenix – and one day as the mom was driving her kids, the oldest girl, who was severn years old, saw a homeless man, and immediately wanted to do something for him. Her mom explained that there was nothing they could do. But Bethie was determined. It’s hot and dry in Phoenix, Arizona, and Bethie persuaded her mom to buy a case of water bottles to keep in the car. Whenever they saw a homeless person after that, Bethie had water ready to offer. But she didn’t stop there. She began to use her birthday money, and eventually persuaded many people to send her donations. With that money, she purchases small things – like children’s books, little toys, candy, crayons – and puts them in paper lunch bags, draws a heart on the bag, and personally gives them to children in homeless shelters – along with her smile. When she found out that her family would be traveling through New Orleans on their vacation, she went shopping for supplies for 30 bags – each one labeled for older boys, younger boys, older girls, younger girls. So, there we were, at the children’s camp on St. Claude and Tupelo, hot and wound up, and Bethie and her family showed up. Bethie and Ellen, her younger sister, were amazingly shy that morning and clung by their mom’s side. Lilli, our shy little Lilli, walked up to Bethie and Ellen, and said, “Hi, my name is Lilli, would you like to come and sit with me.” Lilli held out her hand and led the two sisters to a table in which our children from California, and the children from New Orleans had already made friends. They all scooted over and made room for the new girls from Phoenix, who brought the bags – but who, even more, along with Lilli and the other children, brought the deep wisdom of vulnerability and friendship.

Torah: Love God and your neighbor. Worship: Take bread, bless it, break it, and offer it. Acts of Kindness: Share what you have with those who do not have. These are the three pillars of Christian wisdom – rooted in the more ancient Rabbinic tradition.

“Do this,” Jesus said, “and you shall live”. And Moses said, “What I am telling you is not up in the heavens, nor deep in the oceans, nor far across the sea – it is as near to you as your own mouth, as your own heart.”

* Brian Taylor, Becoming Human, Core Teachings of Jesus

Friday, May 11, 2007

Love in Action

4th Sunday of Easter, 2007
Acts 9:36-43; Revelation 7:9 – 17; John 10: 22-33, Psalm 23

The 23rd Psalm is not long. But it is entirely memorable and beloved because it goes so directly and beautifully to the heart of our most intimate longings. It gives voice to our deep desire to be protected and cared for by someone who truly knows us, and who is entirely trustworthy. It speaks to our desire to have a Guide who knows our worries and our fears. The 23rd Psalm speaks the truth about our lives – that there are dark and frightening valleys in which it is easy to get lost. As much as we don’t like to talk about it, death and disease are always lurking about. They cannot be outwitted or outrun or, in the end, guarded against. They, like our shadows, are wed to us. They give meaning to the word mortal.

These past weeks have been awash in mortality. As we enter into the 5th year of war in Iraq, the numbers of dead and wounded are staggering. The shootings at Virginia Tech open up again the nightmares of Columbine, and random murder by troubled people in a nation in which it is devastatingly easy to purchase handguns and ammunition. I was one of probably thousands of parents of college students who have been relieved that their children are graduating in a couple of weeks – and the truth is, that in my heart of hearts, I have prayed for her safety – just let her make it through. This isn’t rational – but murder in safe settings isn’t rational. And that is, in fact, the essence of any kind of terror. It strikes at the heart of our desire and need for order and predictability. Incidents of these kinds have the potential to open the floodgates of our compassion for those mothers and fathers in war torn countries for whom it is dangerous simply to have their young adults leave the house at all.

Suffering has the capacity to link us to one another in ways that nothing else does. I don’t mean that suffering is good. It isn’t – and we are charged by our Lord to work towards relieving suffering and it’s causes. But suffering is real – and it’s one redemptive quality is it’s potential to increase com-passion – our feeling for some one other than ourselves or our own families and neighbors. When we are compassionate – when we feel with and for someone else – especially someone else to whom we are not related - we incarnate God’s love.

hat is what Dorcas did. When she died, the whole community grieved, and sent immediately for Peter to come and do whatever he could to make things better. Dorcas wasn’t an apostle. She wasn’t a preacher or theologian. She didn’t make her mark on the church by being a major donor or financing mission projects. There were no brave deeds recorded to her name. So how did she merit this entire story in the New Testament – at a time when already, women were being shoved to the background of recorded church life? Dorcas won converts and touched lives and probably influenced more people in Joppa than any one else. How?

"She took care of people. She made tunics and knitted afghans, baked cookies, held hands and visited people. She listened to the heartbreaks and joys of the people in the church in Joppa." *

If she’d been in the church near Virginia Tech, she wouldn’t have gone to campus with eloquent words and a large presence. She would have simply found out who needed what and made sure they got it. She would have done so quietly and simply, but effectively.

She certainly did this in Joppa, not only by herself, but by organizing her friends to help out too. Kind of like Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker, or Mother Teresa and the nuns. Dorcas put a human face to the love and compassion of Jesus. She was a good shepherd, seeking out the lost, the widowed, the lonely, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick - and the people, the poor especially, were devastated when she died. They stood by her deathbed, telling stories about her by passing around all the things she had made for them, telling all the good deeds she had done to make their lives easier.

Do you know anyone like that? I certainly do. And I’m not going to name names, because I don’t want to embarrass anyone with praise they weren’t expecting – but this church has the Dorcas spirit living within it. And praise God! Because, as Jon Walton, a pastor in New York City, puts it – “a church without men and women who are willing to follow the example of Dorcas is an impoverished church. The creeds may be recited perfectly, the arias perfectly performed on Easter morning, the prayers eloquently prayed week after week, the sermons well preached – but these are not enough unless the church also has a few gazelles taking care of others as Dorcas did: driving elderly members to church, sending cards to shut-ins on their birthdays, baking communion bread for Sunday morning and knitting blankets for orphaned infants in Iraq.” *

How did Dorcas become the hands and feet of Christ – the embodiment of a resurrected life and the symbol of self-giving love for the early church? My guess is that she knew for herself the grief of loneliness and loss and being marginalized. Remember that in her time, widows were at the bottom of the pile – the ones with no one to look after them, and very very little in the way of support. Dorcas found new life at the entrance to the tomb.

The truth is that the beginning of the intensely spiritual life is often at the entrance to the tomb. It is at those dead places in our lives, those places out of which we thought nothing good could come, that hope is found. You know those places. We all have them. The loss of a marriage. The loss of a child. The loss of a job. A severe illness. Intense loneliness. Places where our faith was inadequate, and our resources too few. Places where there was a lot of dark and not much light. Places we prefer not to visit or acknowledge. But these are the very places where we encounter the Risen Christ.

Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is familiar with the darkest valleys of life because he’s been there, and he does not leave any place we invite him into untouched or unhealed. Perhaps you are like me, and have found that when you do finally let go of insisting on having your own way, of trying to be good so you will be loved, of trying to create yourself in your own image, you find Jesus with hands outstretched to welcome you. Or more accurately, Jesus, the Good Shepherd, finds you. And then over time, with great care and patience and skill, He gives you your own life back, resurrected, transformed and full of meaning and joy.

Ultimately, this resurrected life is the kind of life where love is enacted – not only in words, but also in action. According to the writer of 1 John, it is love in action that pleases God. Love in action follows the example of the Good Shepherd. Love in action lays down our own lives, our own prejudices and preferences, for the good of the community, and for the good of each other. Love in action wants what is good for the whole more than what might make us personally most comfortable. This is the kind of life that has meaning and joy. This is sacramental life. It is the kind of life that springs from the baptismal font. Love in action is life that has entered into the tomb and been resurrected.

“No wonder death could no more lay claim on her than it could on Jesus!*”

* Jon Walton, Lutheran pastor, New York City