Thursday, December 11, 2008

Comfort. Hope. Peace.

Advent 2B

This week, I was visiting our senior warden, Louise, and her daughter Olivia who is going with other high school students to our President-elect’s inauguration! – we were sitting in the living room talking about what dress Olivia might wear to the inauguration events - and Louise suddenly said – it’s hard being Episcopalian these days! And brought out the New York Times. There we are, headlined on the front page – above the fold! “Episcopal split as conservatives form new group. And in smaller letters “Threat to Frail Union”.

The San Francisco Chronicle headline was a bit more tame: “Conservatives form rival group to Episcopal Church:” “Theological conservatives upset by liberal views of U.S. Episcopalians and Canadian Anglicans have formed a rival North American province

"The Lord is displacing the Episcopal Church," Duncan said in a news conference in Wheaton, Ill., where the proposed constitution for the new province was drafted.
Our dear Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, responded in her unflappable calm and comforting voice that "there is room within The Episcopal Church for people with different views and we regret that some have felt the need to depart from the diversity of our common life in Christ." Isn’t she great!

But despite it’s headlining status, this news of trouble in the Episcopal church is not really the main news of the week. On the same front page, above the fold, were articles on the rapid warming of the planet, the trouble that the automakers are in, and this headline – “When a Job Disappears, So Does the Health Care.” “As jobless numbers reach levels not seen in 25 years, another crisis is unfolding for millions of people who lost their health insurance along with their jobs, joining the ranks of the uninsured.” Starla, 27, 8 months pregnant with her second child, rushes to the hospital to have early labor induced and then is delivered by Caesarean section. She did this before her plant closed, leaving her with no health insurance. These are the stories of our neighbors – and I know actually, of some of you. Cuts - leaving you without insurance, and with little explanation of where to go next.

And then, of course, there are the non-headlines, the everyday aches and bruises of life – surgeries that don’t fix the pain, chemo that destroys the appetite, spouses that leave, children that grow up, stress that gets in the way of sleep, debt that piles up.

Second Isaiah was called by God to speak words of comfort – to be a voice of comfort in a time when the Israelites were in exile – their homes destroyed, their way of life gone, and them carried off to a foreign place. “Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people.” Handel’s Messiah begins with this magnificent chapter of Isaiah. Calvin and Luther, those old time theologians, insisted that this chapter pre-figured and even contained – the whole of the gospel of the good news of Jesus Christ. You might think of the God of the Old Testament as a God who wreaks vengeance and destruction on people, and the God of the New Testament as Loving – but that’s not so. Here, God comes to his people, in the words of his prophet, with the tenderness of a mother whose child is in pain, with the tenderness of a shepherd, whose lambs have been scattered and who are in need of direction and protection.

“Speak tenderly … cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received double for all her sins.” I have been in Ecuador and in the Holy Land this year – and in both of those places I have been with people who are at the bottom of the heap, the children of indigenous people in Ecuador, and the children of Bedouins in the Holy Land – I have seen hunger, and the distressing way that hunger stunts growth and dims the light in a child’s face. My friend Khalil Zhakaria, a Gaza resident, asks for prayers for his mother, who has cancer, and who is utterly reliant on the prayers of other Christians, because Gaza has been sealed off from any form of outside medical or food aid for weeks now. Of course, we are all paying the penalty of the sins of greed and lust for quick profit and power and revenge – but there are those who pay double and triple for those sins – they are the ones whom Christ called the “meek” – the ones who will enter the kingdom first. These children of hunger and war are the lambs whom God carries closest to his bosom.

So, Isaiah is called and anointed to preach comfort and hope – in a comfortless and hopeless time. But Isaiah asks – as you and I might very well ask – “what shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy, their fidelity – is like the flower of the field. It fades so quickly.”

Have you, especially you long time believers – ever felt like – what’s the point? In all these years – have we really made any dent in the world’s bent towards self-destruction? Has the sweet and compelling voice of Jesus, spoken through the church, stopped any wars, thwarted any famines, reconciled any families, healed any emotional distress? The short answer actually is yes – it usually doesn’t make headlines, but I KNOW healing happens, because people appear almost every week in my office telling me about healing of one kind or another – and I myself have experienced God’s healing. So – even though our constancy and fidelity to God can’t be counted on – God’s faithfulness can be. So God tells Isaiah: “Lace up your sneakers, climb the highest mountain, and shout it out – Here is your God. He comes with might and power. He feeds his flock, he gathers his lambs, he gently leads the people home.”

The truth is, our hope is NOT in our own faithfulness and reliability – our hope is not in any President-Elect, no matter who it is – our hope is not in labor unions and bail outs – our hope is in God - whose word is powerful. Whose word is constant. Whose word is reliable.

But where is God? The people that Peter wrote to were wondering – and I don’t know about you – but I wonder that too. Where is God? Just this week – someone exploring the Christian faith asked me – why doesn’t God intervene in times of trouble? Why does God allow such pain and suffering? Peter’s response is one of the many responses that the church gives to this delay in God’s putting things to right –God does not want any to be lost and therefore God is patient. God’s time is not our time – but even so - before the “end of time and the healing of all creation” – God does come into our world and our lives, with signs and wonders, with power and with tenderness.

Sometimes, God comes in big ways with miracles of healing. My Gazan friend, Khalil, is convinced that his mother, through the power of prayer, is being healed of her cancer – and I do not doubt his word.

Sometimes, God comes in big ways with miracles of peace. One of the people I met in Nazareth, was the Catholic Christian Mairead Maguire, the Nobel Peace winner from Northern Ireland. When her friend’s daughter was killed in the fighting between the IRA and Britain, Mrs. Maguire went from house wife to activist and was instrumental in bringing peace to Ireland.

Sometimes God comes in big ways with miracles of liberation. In Jerusalem, I met Bernard Lafayette, who worked closely with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the American civil rights movement, not just forty years ago – and now we have an African American President – elect.

And sometimes, God comes in small ways, in ways virtually unnoticed and unremarkable – as in a baby born of a peasant woman in a barn in Bethlehem, almost 2000 years ago. But that baby was the beginning of the good news of God’s miracles of healing and peace and liberation for all people, not just a few, not just the chosen, not just the elite and well born – but for all.

The beginning – but not the end.

The Gospel of Markleaves off with the women running from the tomb, so astounded that they do not say anything! It is an odd ending – until you go back to the start of this gospel – The Beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God – and realize that this Good News is still unfolding … we are a part of it. We are now the ones to continue the unfolding and the telling of that Gospel – We are the Isaiah’s - the ones baptized and called to lace up our sneakers, climb the mountains, contribute our pledges, and lift our voices with strength to cry out the good news of Comfort. The good news of Hope. The good news of Peace. The good news of Jesus.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


Proper 23A
Who do you trust?

I like going to baseball games. I like being in the stands next to dads with their kids and grandmothers making raunchy jokes and girlfriends trying to look interested in the game when it’s clear that they would much prefer a romantic dinner. I like cheering and I like when the teams run out onto the field at the beginning of the game, and everyone stands up and the guys take off their hats, and we all say the pledge of allegiance. There was a period when I refused to stand up and I wanted nothing to do with that pledge – because I was so mad at the distance between the promise of the country and the reality of the country. But I long ago got over that. I figured out that the pledge is there to remind us of the promise – to be a yardstick – to remind us, whether we’re in a classroom or at a baseball game – of what we stand for. What the premise of the American enterprise is – Our yardstick, as Americans, is “liberty and justice for all.” and it’s really really important to be reminded of it. It’s the creed of the United States of America, and I, for one, would not want to see that creed disappear or be forgotten. So – I stand up at baseball games, put my hand over my heart – and pledge my allegiance to this ideal of liberty and justice for each and every person. And then I sit down next to the kid with the cracker jacks and the guy with the six pack beer belly and I say “Thanks be to God.”

I carry another creed even closer to my heart – a creed that my parents chose for me, and one that I have since affirmed over and over – a creed I will spend my entire lifetime living into. That of course is the Apostle’s Creed – the creed of our baptism as Christians. Now I was not baptized into the Episcopal church. I was baptized as a Methodist – and my parents were freethinkers. I don’t think they ever identified with any one particular church. I’m the renegade of the family. Choosing a hierarchically structured church, with allegiance to a bishop. A Maverick! (Sorry.) But whether you’re a Methodist or a Roman Catholic or a Baptist or an Episcopalian - the baptismal creed transcends all these differences.

As you align yourself with the God of Jesus Christ – this is your creed. You can find it on page 304 of the Book of Common Prayer. The earliest written version of the Apostle’s Creed is probably from about 215. In it’s earliest form it was given just like you find it in the prayer book - in this question and answer format for baptismal candidates. These candidates, by the way, had spent three years in spiritual formation, learning the Jesus way. So that, by the time, they said yes to these questions, they were thoroughly acquainted with what it might mean for them personally, to not just believe this stuff with their heads – but to place their trust in this God – to give their hearts in trust to this Creator God, and to pledge themselves to walk, as much as they could, in the way of Jesus and to be in fellowship with other people who were trying to walk that way too.
And that’s where I want to take us this morning. Into this question of trust.
When I’m at the baseball game, and I say those beautiful words, with liberty and justice for all – and then I go home and file my IRA return, I am saying, with my check, I trust that this country will keep working to come closer to that yardstick – to those words. Though I have to admit my trust is a bit shaky – I trust the people sitting beside me on the cold benches up in the stands above the A’s dugout to keep working at those words we say together – liberty and justice for all. It’s not the only reason I send in my check. I know if I don’t, the IRA will come pounding at my door sooner or later. So it’s partly fear – but it’s also hope and trust and the willingness to continue to be a part of this whole American enterprise. So I grumble – a lot – and then I put the stamp on the envelope and send it off.
You know, another thing I do, trustingly, is use credit cards. Credit… a word we’re hearing a whole lot about these days. It’s actually related to the word creed – interesting, huh! They are both based in this word – trust – credere – belief. When I use my credit card, I trust that I’m going to have the ability to pay later for what I’m purchasing now. And the credit card company has a different kind of trust – they trust I will extend myself just a bit further than my ability to pay every month – and that’s how they make their money – by charging me interest. Now, I’m one of those people who assiduously pays off my credit card every month – but I know many people who are not able to do that, for one reason or another. Maybe they bought too many things. Maybe they got sick and couldn’t work. Maybe there was a family emergency or several family emergencies. Or maybe they were sold something they couldn’t ever really pay for. Whatever happened, credit – trust – a huge amount of it, amounts beyond our imagining, were extended based on faulty premises, and it’s what has the world crashing down around our ears right now. And as always, it is the poorest of the poor that will eventually pay with real hunger and cold for this credit crunch – for this creed that’s gone bad.
What’s the result? Fear. Panic. Anxiety. The American Psychological Association released the findings of a survey they conducted of 7,000 American households. The study noted that eighty percent of Americans were stressed about the economy and their personal finances. Half were worried about their ability to provide for their family’s basic needs. 56% were concerned about their own job stability. 60% of respondents reported feeling angry and irritable, and 52% reported laying awake at night worried about this. The report concluded that, “The declining state of the nation’s economy is taking a physical and emotional toll on people nationwide.”
And I can’t pretend to you that I am not worried as well. This church, all churches, stay afloat through giving. Through weekly offerings in the plate and through the extension of pledges – promises to share a proportion of the resources God gives you for God’s work in the church. The brunch on November 2nd is designed for conversation about how God is blessing you at St. Alban’s and how you hope to share more in those blessings. We heard last week from Elizabeth about how she comes closer to God through Jesus and how St. Alban’s helps her to do that. Today, we are going to hear from Blondelle about the power of resurrection in her life. These weekly witnesses are offered to help stir your own responses to the same questions – how do you experience resurrection, how do you come closer to God, and what role does St. Alban’s play in that.
What does that have to do with creeds – with where you put your trust? Do you say the pledge of allegiance – put your trust in the goodness of this country’s highest ideals? Do you pay taxes and trust that your money will be used for the benefit of schools and roads and public health systems? Do you participate in the common marketplace of credit and loans and payments made over time? Yes. You do.
But the truth is, the credit crisis, this worldwide economic meltdown, points to the inadequacy of any ultimate credo whose object is anything but God. God is our refuge and strength. And God’s sustaining power is not tied to the Dow.
When he wrote his letter to Timothy, Paul didn’t know anything about the Dow Jones, but he could have easily been speaking to any American today: “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God” (I Timothy 6:17).
The word of hope, the reminder of where safety lies – is found throughout the Bible. There are the words of the prophets spoken to the Israelites living in exile after losing everything. To the exiles God spoke profound words of promise: “Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my right hand.” (Isaiah 41:10) During times of great adversity, the psalmist wrote, “God is our refuge and strength, an ever present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea.” (Psalm 46:1-2)
So, fundamentally, every Sunday, when we stand and say together the historic words of our faith – found in the Nicene Creed, the Creed said by our parents and great grandparents and great great grandparents, stretching all the way back to 325 AD and accepted by Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Assyrian Church of the East, Roman Catholic, Lutheran Church, the Anglican Communion, and almost all branches of Protestantism. – we are doing more than just reciting a bunch of dead words from a bygone era – we are making a claim about where we put our trust, beyond family, beyond country and flag, beyond the marketplace and bank accounts – we place our trust in this God who is maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible, this God of Jesus Christ, to whom and in whom, all things, in heaven and earth, properly and rightly, belong.