Monday, December 21, 2009

Mary's God

The Rev. Linda Campbell
Advent IV, Year C, 2009

Have you noticed the children before church, after church, come into the side chapel and light a candle? Maybe you have lit a candle and offered up your concerns and loved ones to God. For those of you fortunate to have been raised with a theology of the Mother of God – perhaps you sneak in a prayer said through the intercessions of His Mother, Mary.

Mary’s God is a comforting God, one who is available to us as Parent and Savior, Mother to all the peoples and creatures of the world. Mary’s God’s embraces without measure and without condition. Mary’s God drips with milk that nurtures us and helps us to grow healthy and strong in faith. This God longs for us to suckle and cuddle and lay our heads down, in rest and utter contentment. And at some level, don’t we all long to do just that? To truly become a child of God.

I know that when I get knotted up with worries and fears and what if’s and if only’s and how come’s, the knots melt away when I light a candle, say a prayer, and crawl up into God’s wide, warm lap. And after awhile, I’m ready to be a grown up again – a grown up that doesn’t take myself or anyone else too seriously. A grown up that knows it is good to also be a child of Mary’s God.

The church I first served was a historic building, built from redwood in the late 1800’s, with a magnificent pipe organ, and a deep sanctuary for the choir and the altar. Among the artwork was a beautiful painting of Mary and Jesus – hidden away in one of the small alcoves. Those of us who served at the altar would talk about how beautiful it was, and we wondered where that lovely painting might go so that it would be more accessible to everyone. But in the end, we decided that the painting should stay where it is – because another truth of Mary’s gospel is that God is often hidden, and found in unexpected, small, out of the way places. Found in places where no one thinks to look and in places that are not available to everyone. Places in our lives perhaps of disappointment and sorrow. Places of tragedy and even curse. Places where we come face to face with what a mess we are, private places where we cannot bear a great deal of public scrutiny. Places of fragile new beginnings. Places of hopes and dreams that are not yet ready for the harsh sunlight of details and facts and figures and rational logic.

Mary’s God is wide and warm and completely available and also hidden and small and unexpectedly last and least. We meet this wide, warm God in Bethlehem, a small out of the way place of complete ordinariness.

The truth is that our advent journey towards the manger of Bethlehem;
towards the infant born under the cold night air;
towards the peasant woman giving birth to her first born child, far from home;
our journey towards the unspeakable mystery of Christmas,
is a journey towards those places where the
great, vast richness of the Creator,
enters into the cramped small places of our lives, of our world -
without reservation, without hesitation,
without hanging on to a scrap of dignity.

Our journey towards this revelation of Almighty God, under the improbable cover of a vulnerable naked refugee infant, is a journey to the places where the last and the least are born. Where they live and die. To the people and places who do not occupy any place in history or in the news. People and places that are insignificant. It is a journey towards those places in our own hearts where our carefully and tightly woven veils of plans and protective defenses fall from our faces and we must acknowledge that we, too, are insignificant and bloodied with the afterbirth of purpose gone astray.

But these are not places where we really like to go, is it.
The truth is, we long to meet God in places like Herod’s palace.
Places where we are secure in ourselves. Where we have got our
best foot forward. Where we can point to pretty pictures
and classic statues and carefully cultivated gardens. Where there is
beautiful background music and where we are confident that we would
hear God say to us, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.
You have been faithful with a little. Now, I shall put you in charge of much.”

Despite our acknowledgement and bewailing of our manifold sins and transgressions, we most want to meet God in the palaces of our making. And if we can’t do that, then it might be ok to hike over to the manger, greet God, and then high tail it back to our places of security and order and predictability.

But Mary stops us. Our Mother rather forcefully puts her hand out, grabs us, and tells us to wash our ears, and don’t forget the backs of our necks, and forget going home to our palaces that are due to fall any minute anyway.

“My soul magnifies the Lord”, she says as we squirm. “And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. He has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imaginations of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful, lifted up the lowly, filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

Jesus had a fiery mother. A mother who knew whom to say yes to, and whom to worship. She did not worship safety or popular acclaim or social status. If she did, she would never have found herself in the awkward and dangerous position of being pregnant and traveling by foot, alone, to take refuge with her older cousin, Elizabeth. If she worshipped her own future, she would never have said yes to God. But she did worship and love God above all else, above all other considerations. And so she, the first Christian, the Mother of the Church, calls us out of our worship of security and predictability and into worship of her God. The God that comes to lowly places, to places of humility and emptiness, to bus stops and soup kitchens and in the middle of the night. The God that asks us to lay down our whole lives “in a small, chilly manger warmed only by the hearts of the lowly and know with perfect joy that we are home.” (Sojourners)

From early childhood, we are mostly trained to go towards the spotlight – and to work hard for all the benefits the spotlight brings. But the good news according to Jesus’ Mother, Mary, is that the world’s spotlight is neither here nor there. If wealth and fame and power and visibility fall on you, so be it. Rejoice. Use your resources with humility and joy and confidence, for the sake of God’s good news. But if obscurity and emptiness and lowliness is yours, so be it. Rejoice. Say, along with Mary, an unknown girl; and along with Jesus, a stranger born among the last and the least, “See, God, I have come to do your will, O God.” (Hebrews 10:7) “Let it be with me, according to your Word.” (Luke 1: 38b)

And whether we serve our Lord in the spotlight or in obscurity, let us join our hearts and minds and hands in prayer:

“Come, little Word, there’s a weary world awaitin’
Come, little Word, with your eyes open wide.
Come, little Word, the welcome table is ready.
Now, little Word, would be a good time.
O come, Lord Jesus, come.” (Sojourners)


Quotations from: “Sojourners Advent Bulletin”, 2003

Friday, November 13, 2009

"All In"

You know, it takes awhile to feel as if you have moved in. It can take many years, actually.

But along the way, there are occasions that you know you’ve turned a corner – and that you are more at home.

Friday night’s Attitude of Gratitude Parish Dinner was another corner turned for me. What a fantastic night. Talk about an attitude of service – of servant ministry – our Stewardship Ministry Team is awesome, standing on the shoulders of the previous Stewardship Ministry Team. At some point during the evening, I looked around at the full room, tables filled with smiles and conversation and a thick joy filled me. Here we are. We’re in this together. There was a whole room full of people who have discovered the joy of living wholeheartedly – of leaping in with all they’ve got – whether it’s smiling in welcome, handing out plates, pouring coffee, cleaning up – it’s all offered. The two copper coins of self deposited into God’s treasury – available for whatever God decides to do with the gift. I sat at the table with Ida and Florence – neither of whom could hear much of anything – given the acoustics in the parish hall. But there they were, continuing to offer themselves to their fellow Christians, their fellow parishioners.

I want to talk about this sense of being “all in.” I don’t really play poker – I have tried, but I need to keep looking at the “cheat sheet.” And I would never be able to master a poker face – but I like that poker term, “all in.” As in, here’s all my chips, all I’ve got to play with, and I’m going to put it all down – win or lose.

The widow, of course, was all in. Her last two chips, all she had – pushed to the center of the table. All in.

The same with Jesus. He had steadily made his way towards Jerusalem, knowing what awaited him there. In the next few weeks after the incident we read about this morning, he was arrested and crucified. He spent these last few weeks the same way he spent all the rest of his weeks – teaching and healing. Now having come to Jerusalem, he taught in the temple. At the pinnacle place of interlocking state and religious power. And just because he was in mortal danger, he didn’t back away from his challenge to a structure that lived on the backs of the poor. No – Jesus was all in. No halfway measures. No wiffle waffling. No backing out. Steady – confident – and 100% - his whole life given completely for those people at that time in that place. He didn’t hold anything back so as to wait for a more opportune time to get his message across, or for a more teachable moment, or for a more insightful group who might understand what he was teaching – what the point of his sacrifice was. He wagered the whole of his life, on this bet that the goodness of God would have the final say, and that this God could be trusted absolutely.

The same with God. In the person of Jesus, God entered into creation – not only as Creator, but as Savior. As the Eucharistic Prayer puts it, "He became one with us, sharing our human nature, living and dying as one of us". Or as one of the most ancient hymns of the church, found in the letter to the Philippians puts it: “Have this mind in you which was also in Christ Jesus: who, being in the form of God, counted it not a prize to be on an equality with God; but emptied Himself, taking upon Him the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men: and being found in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself, becoming obedient unto death, yea, the death of the cross.”

Through Jesus, God did not depend upon the abundance of his power, his knowledge, his omnipotence and omniscience. God threw his lot in with creation, with humanity, with this bent and broken world – and through the Holy Spirit, He continues to throws his lot in with the poverty of our condition, with the worthless coins of our condition, and not only befriends us here, but works with us to salvages the mess we have made of things, and to redeem us.

The truly miraculous thing is – the widow, Jesus, God – put all their chips in – not into a perfect system, on behalf of perfect people – but into a broken system on behalf of broken people! To a system that was, and is, corrupt. Jesus pointed to the corrupt system of the powerful and privileged Temple/State system that sustained itself by taking advantage of the poor, by “devouring widow’s homes.” He pointed to the deadly combination of power and hypocrisy that displayed itself as false piety. And yet.... he taught there and he pointed to the faithfulness of the widow who gave all she had.

In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul pointed to the agape love that God showed towards us through Jesus – “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” This love and faithfulness is a priori – it is grace – and it does not depend upon our goodness, or worthiness, or responsiveness.

God does notice however when we respond – He notices the small quick motions of the faithful ones, the little ones, the ones who make their offerings in faithful trust and gratitude. Who jump in to this "With God" life – not knowing exactly where it will lead them, but sensing that it they are getting themselves in with some really great company!

So – here we are – right in the middle of Stewardship Season. Actually – here at Good Shepherd, we are clear that all seasons are stewardship seasons. I love that our wall decoration at the dinner were the signs that Linda Kodet made out of recyclable materials – Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. We are jumping in more and more into our identity as Stewards, believing more and more that it is the primary identity given to us human beings. That from Genesis on, we are to be stewards of creation - the animal kingdoms, the trees and water and air and earth. Good stewards of family relationships – of being all in with the ones to whom we’ve promised ourselves to. Good stewards of our time and our bodies and our resources.

At the heart of good stewardship of course is the knowing that none of it is “ours.” It is all Gift. Pure Gift. We are responsible and accountable for the short time that we are here on this earth. And the Good News is that there is One to whom all that we enjoy belongs – and He is here, with us, watching, helping, guiding. He is both the source of all that we have, and the end to whom all will return - and in between, he asks that we take good care of each other, of his world, and of his church.

In the fall season – we talk about the aspect of stewardship that has to do with money. It’s the season when we acknowledge the basic truth that the mission of the church depends upon each of us throwing out lot in with each other and with God– that when God gives us the desire to expand our ministries with teens and children, to have a gardener for three hours every other week, to expand our ministries of outreach, and to adequately maintain this sacred trust of property, and to use the land for the benefit of the community and to pay our clergy and our bookkeeper and our sexton and our secretary – it requires offering back through the church a portion of what God has given us.

What proportion? That is between you and God. The Episcopal Church standard is 10%. Some of us aren’t there yet, but by raising our offerings by an additional 1% each year, we’re on our way. Some of us know the joy of tithing and go beyond. The truth is that God takes whatever we offer and is able to ignite from our sparks of faith, a blaze that will ultimately consume our hearts and fill us with love and joy, peace and contentment.

Let us pray.

"O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts and blessed peace to cheer us,
And keep us in all grace, and guide us when perplexed,
And free us from all harm in this world and the next."

(2nd verse Now Thank We All Our God)

"I Sing a Song"

All Saints, 2009

As some of you know, I grew up in the Methodist church, traveled with Quakers during college and my young adult years, and finally, came home to the Episcopal Church. Before the Episcopal Church though, there were no saint stories. No Virgin Mary, apart from Christmas. No Feast Days or Fast Days. No liturgical calendar. All of this came with my conversion into the Episcopal Church – and I found it utterly delightful – but not quite sure what to do with it. I had suddenly inherited this whole family that seemed strange and unfamiliar and truth be told – in whom I was not really interested.

When I became the lay Associate for Youth and Family at the first Episcopal church I served – Church of the Incarnation, in Santa Rosa - my office was located in a room called “Venerable Bede.” All the other rooms and offices were called by saints names as well. The Nursery was St. Lucia, the choir room was St. Cecilia, the 4th/5th grade classroom was St. Agnes. You get the picture. I remember thinking, with my still overly Protestant brain, why not just name the rooms by what they are: Choir Room. Nursery. Classroom. Associate’s Office.

On All Saints Day, we sang “I sing a song of the saints of God” and the children paraded down the church aisle in costumes of various saints. October Sundays were spent constructing the costumes – presumably learning about whichever saint they were costuming as.

I found it odd, if not slightly heretical.

Still, I was attracted to what all these saints seemed to point to - a life that went on under the surface / a deeper sort of Christianity than I had been exposed to, and had only dreamed existed.

I began to read about the saints – and it was clear that most of them were somewhat odd people, misfits even in their time, but utterly converted, body, mind and soul, with a love of God so significant that they embodied the kind of hunger and thirst that Jesus talked about – but hunger and thirst for what? It differed. Some thirsted for justice. Some for divine union. Some for peace. Some for education and relief of suffering. Some for the conversion and salvation of souls. Whatever form it took for each of them, the underlying reality was the same – a passionate love for God that had united with God’s passionate love for them.

In other words, saints drink from the wellspring of Life and know that we are made from God and for God. We are created by God from our Genesis, and we return to God at our End. And here – in the middle – we adopt an attitude of gratitude, and surrender ourselves in as much trust as possible – to the Divine Spirit that enlivens each one of us.

Gratitude, surrender and trust. At it’s simplest – that’s what it means to be a saint. To give thanks for everything – and to surrender everything, trusting God. The Saints usually have no idea where this gratitude, surrender and trust is going to take them – all they know is that as they surrender their entire being – their possessions, their will, their understanding, their memory, their future, their time, their resources – as they do this, miracles unfold and Life in all it’s abundance begins to take root and grow and to bear fruit.

So, what form did this take for the Venerable Bede – whose office I occupied? It turns out that he was an English monk and scholar in the early 700’s. He lived in the monastery from the age of 7, and was quite clearly brilliant. His best-known work is his History of the English Church and People, a classic that has frequently been translated and is available in Penguin Paperbacks. It gives a history of Britain up to 729, speaking of the Celtic peoples who were converted to Christianity during the first three centuries of the Christian era, and the invasion of the Anglo-Saxon pagans in the fifth and sixth centuries, and their subsequent conversion by Celtic missionaries from the north and west, and Roman missionaries from the south and east. His work is our chief source for the history of the British Isles during this period. Long before Columbus sailed the ocean blue, he was aware that the earth is a sphere, and he wrote that the solar year is not exactly 365 and a quarter days long, so that the Julian calendar (one leap year every four years) requires some adjusting if the months are not to get out of step with the seasons. For Venerable Bede, gratitude, surrender and trust meant using the gift of his brilliance to spend copious quantities of time and thought and ink separating fact from fiction and hearsay as he wrote history and advanced the cause of what would later become known as science.

For Agnes, for whom the 4th and 5th grade classroom was named, it took the form of martyrdom. Agnes died at Rome around 304 in the persecution of Diocletian: the last and fiercest of the persecutions of Christianity by the Roman emperors. She is said to have been only twelve or thirteen years old – and her young age shocked many Romans into demanding that the persecutions stop. Her fearless attitude caused others to say that “If this religion can enable a twelve-year-old girl to meet death without fear, it is worth checking out.” I think making her the sponsor of a classroom of ten and eleven year olds has the potential to give children courage in standing up for what they believe and resist peer pressure to participate in bullying or sexual activity or drugs….which yes, do affect kids at a very young age. For Agnes, gratitude, surrender and trust, meant calm conviction in the reality of the resurrection – a calmness and conviction that is possible for even the young folk among us.

I want to tell you a third story about saints. This one is not from the 300’s or the 700’s. It’s from 1970’s to now. I heard this story first in 2002 when I met a Ugandan Bishop who wore a large pectoral cross and spoke English with a heavy African accent. The cross he wore was given to him by the Ugandan Archbishop Janani Luwum, before he was martyred by Idi Amin’s government in 1977. There had been many persecutions by Amin towards Christians, and Luwum had personally gone time and again to secure the release of prisoners. In the end, he secured the release of many Anglican bishops and took their place with his own person. Before he was put into the Land Rover which took him away, he handed the cross to the Bishop that I met. I’m sorry that I cannot remember his name – but I will never forget the cross he wore. Janani Luwum’s feast day is February 16th.

At Convention, I met a priest of this Diocese, Jerry Drino, who works with the Sudanese, and has been instrumental in the process of putting the Martyrs of Sudan onto the most recent Episcopal calendar of saints. Here is what the next publication of our Lesser Feasts and Fasts will say about the saints of Sudan.

"The Christian bishops, chiefs, commanders, clergy and people of Sudan declared, on May 16, 1983, that they would not abandon God as God had revealed himself to them under threat of Shariah Law imposed by the fundamentalist Islamic government in Khartoum. Until a peace treaty was signed on January 9, 2005, the Episcopal Church of the Province of the Sudan suffered from persecution and devastation through twenty-two years of civil war. Two and a half million people were killed, half of whom were members of this church. Many clergy and lay leaders were singled out because of their religious leadership in their communities. No buildings, including churches and schools, are left standing in an area the size of Alaska. Four million people are internally displaced, and a million are scattered around Africa and beyond in the Sudanese Diaspora. Twenty-two of the twenty-four dioceses exist in exile in Uganda or Kenya, and the majority of the clergy are unpaid. Only 5% of the population of Southern Sudan was Christian in 1983. Today over 85% of that region of six million is now mostly Episcopalian or Roman Catholic. A faith rooted deeply in the mercy of God has renewed their spirits through out the years of strife and sorrow."

I am stilled by this kind of witness. And I look around at my own life, and wonder how it is that I continue to have trouble surrendering and trusting God. Why it is that I continue under the illusion that my life and my possessions are actually my own - when it is obvious that everything I have, every breath I take, every dollar in my account, every child that sits around my table – is mine on loan and in reality, belongs to God. The truth is, we begin and end in God. And in the middle here? We are called to trust.

Let us join with all the company of heaven, the saints, martyrs and apostles, the witnesses in ages past in and in our age right now – in relaxing our grip, in opening our hands, in surrender and trust – so that the miracles that are always associated with Abundant Life can happen now in our own lives, in our own church, in our own hearts.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Next Day

Hebrews 4: 12 - 16; Mark 10: 17 - 31

Remember Groundhog Day? Bill Murray plays Phil, a self centered tv anchorman, who is sent to the small town of Punxsutawney, to film a news piece on Groundhog Day. While he is there, he falls into a time warp that traps him into repeating the same day over and over. The same waiter dropping the same tray of plates at exactly the same time. The same boy falling out of a tree. The same ladies getting a flat tire. The same insurance salesman. Every morning he wakes up to the same music on the radio.

Once he figures out that there are no consequences to anything he does, he tries increasing his self centeredness into meanness - trips the old lady that bugs him; walks in front of cars; barks at a man who annoys him. But after awhile, being mean ceases to amuse him, and he grows increasingly horrified at being doomed to repeat the same day - over and over.

So, he does the opposite. He discovers the happiness of being good. Of going out of his way to help other people and make other people feel good. The goodness of following the Golden Rule; the 10 commandments. Sure enough - he's happier. But

he's still trapped. Same day. Over and over.

Until..….. he begins to love - without regard to self - without regard to appropriating / taking / for his very own / anyone or anything. Phil, the self-centered anchorman, becomes Phil, the golden rule guy, becomes Phil, the one who loves - without regard to whether or not he will be rewarded, without regard to whether or not his own dream will come true.

And then - lo and behold - he's free. The next day begins. The clock flips over to February 3rd! Love that does not have self at it's center - is the key to Phil's freedom.

Something of the same thing is going on for the rich man who comes to Jesus. This man has already discovered the happiness of the commandments. He isn't one of the people who've been tormenting and trying to trap Jesus with trick questions. This is a man who lives what St. Teresa of Avila called a "well ordered life." He is a good Jew. He follows the commandments. He does what is expected of him. He's nice to elderly ladies and to children. He tithes. He honors his parents.

But something is missing. He longs for something he can't quite put his finger on … but something more. Something greater. for freedom maybe - for the adventure of the next day. Of the day after. He is looking for the doorway into whatever it is the comes next after you've got the "being good" part down pat.

Forgive me for overlaying modern themes on this old Gospel story - but I wonder if perhaps this wealthy man was either young or middle aged . Because those are the times in our lives when we are most familiar with our hungers for the next step - for something more. For young people just graduating from high school or college - this hunger often reveals itself as a quest - perhaps a pilgrimage to a far distant land, where all the familiar support systems are absent and the traveling young person needs to dig deep within themselves to find inner resources they didn't know they had. For some questers, they find a new relationship with God. The familiar God of parents and culture now becomes the God with whom they have their own relationship.

We are also familiar with this hunger for the next step - for the next day - that arises often in middle age. When the familiar no longer satisfies and there is a gnawing need to enter life from a very different angle.

Maybe this wealthy man was young or middle aged - but in any event, he runs to Jesus and falls on his knees and asks him a big question - what Fred Craddock calls - one of those ultimate questions. And Jesus honored him by giving a big answer. A small answer would have been insulting.

So Jesus gave him a simple answer that was big enough to go straight to the very heart of the matter, straight to the next step on this man's journey towards the Divine. This answer that Jesus gave - wasn't complex or nuanced or obscure - it didn't need academic theologians to decipher it. Though many have given it their best shot.

This particular gospel reading has been the subject of hundreds of commentaries - mostly designed to soften it or explain it away. I'm sure, through the years, you've heard all the methods for blunting the simple sharpness of this reading. The main two being:

1. Jesus said this to this particular man - because this man had an issue around wealth. No one, not Jesus and not Mark, meant it as applicable to the rest of us.
2. What it really means is not that wealth is the problem, but that trusting in wealth is the problem.

It's simplicity of course, did not make it easy to swallow or to follow - and it's not any easier today. In our weekly gospel readings, we are advancing into the truly rigorous part of Jesus' teaching - as Jesus walks towards certain crucifixion in Jerusalem, his words are aimed directly at reaching through the walls we put up around our hearts.

But before he said anything, "Jesus looked at him and loved him." Saw right into him. Knew him.

Maybe you're like me and this is what you want most - to be seen all the way through, known completely, loved without measure. This was the kind of love with which Jesus looked at this man. But this kind of love has consequences. The truth is, the loving gaze of Jesus penetrates to the heart. Because he is the Living Word that the letter to the Hebrews speaks of - the living and active Word of God whose gaze can pierce, like a scalpel, and dissect bone from marrow. He is the one whose winnowing fork separates wheat from chaff. His love sees clearly and speaks truthfully.

And the words follow. Twelve step language has become part of our vocabulary - and so using 12 step language, we could say that Jesus performed an intervention with this man, with the kind of love that steps with boldness between the addict and the addiction. It is the kind of love that speaks clearly and truthfully about the things that bind him, that keep him from true joy. First things first, as theologian Kathleen Grieb says. Change this one thing - and everything will change.

"You lack one thing," Jesus tells him. "Go, sell what you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." This is the story that converted Francis of Assisi. Remember the story from last week? Francis went from the church to the public square, and completely disrobed. He took these words exactly to heart, and followed Jesus into an entirely different life path.

We are clearly in another world here - what I am talking about is non-rational. Don't even try to make this make sense in a logical, linear sort of way. This is a camel through the eye of a needle kind of talk. And the only way to enter into it is through the heart. The imagination. The soul. The Spirit.

So what might it mean for you and for me?

I don't have an answer - but what I can say is this - discipleship begins when the one thing that enslaves us is released, and it's claims upon you are dissolved. On that day, you begin to walk differently in the world. That day may have already happened for you - and it may not have. It may have happened over and over again. But at some point, if you continue in the path of Jesus, you'll come to a crossroads -

and this gospel story is here to help you across.

What else helps you across?

The story - and the community. Jesus does not intend for us to be solitary and lonely. He promises fields and family and houses to those who follow - not in a prosperity gospel sort of way, but in the real way of those who've crossed the crossroad and entered into Jesus' inner circle. There are mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters there. And while it's not hunky dory all the time in God's household, there is the splendiferous light of Love shining underneath and around and through - all the time - whether you personally can see it or not.

What else helps you across? There's the story and the community and the Spirit. When Jesus invites the man to follow - his invitation itself confers the power to do so. Mission Impossible is God's daily agenda! We are not left to ourselves in this matter. Ultimately, as Deacon Cynthia so wisely said at the 8 AM service, "it is simply a matter of surrender." Surrendering to the beauty and power of God's Spirit. In this surrendered state, you really can let go over everything you "own" and find yourself blessed beyond belief with abundance and joy. It's true. And I cannot describe exactly why or how it is true. But I can verify that it is so.

We don't know what happened after the man turned away sadly. He very well might have thought about it and figured out that joy really did lie in the direction Jesus pointed him to. But whatever happened with him - the closer question is what will happen with you?

You may be, after all, in this wealthy man's position. Hungry for the next step in your pilgrimage into God. Maybe you've sat on various committees of the church, you've pledged significantly for years, you've assiduously followed ethical business practices, you live a well ordered life - and that's all good, and you don't intend to give it up - but you're ready for the next step in the pilgrimage to God. You long for whatever it is that comes next. And so - Jesus invites you too into the day after - the next day - the day of freedom.

Christian Century, A. Katherine Grieb, October 2009
Fred Craddock
Teresa de Avila, Interior Castles
Kai Harris, "Quests, Communities and Stewards", to be published in Broadcast, newsletter for Young Adults and College Students.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Feast of St. Francis with children and adults

Galatians 6:14-18; Matthew 11:25-30

Do any of you carry big heavy back packs? Sometimes back packs come with wheels on them so you don’t have to carry so much weight. I don’t like carrying really heavy things, do you? It hurts!

But sometimes we carry heavy burdens inside and we don’t really know it. We just know that we don’t feel so good. Sometimes we might think that life is really not very fair and that somebody else has a way easier time of it than we do. Or we might want something we don’t have. Or we might resent that somebody else got all the notice for work that we actually did. There’s all kinds of things that can weigh us down – we might be addicted to something like alcohol, or somebody, like a boyfriend or girlfriend. We might be burdened with too much guilt, or too much worry, or just too much of too much!

Carrying all that stuff around inside hurts, and it can make us sick or sad or lonely.

But Jesus said that his burden was light and his load was easy to carry. Just love God with everything you have. Everything you own, love God with it. And love your neighbor as yourself. Love with everything you have. Don’t keep anything back – just abandon yourself, warts and wiggles and all, to God. And don’t hold anything back from your neighbor. No act of love is too small.

And that’s it! You’ll be light as a feather, shiny as a star. No more heavy backpacks on the inside to lug around. So why isn’t it easier? Why is it so hard? That is a very good mystery.

Really, Jesus was talking about being who you are naturally – a God centered, God shaped being. We’re made for love and to love. So carrying Jesus’ easy burden really means becoming exactly who you are naturally meant to be. Animals certainly know how to be exactly who they are meant to be. Trees know how to do this. The sun is the sun’s truest self at all times. So are children. Tired? Wah! Hungry? Let’s get something to eat! Joyful? Let’s yell and dance around!

But something happens as we get older and wiser. Older and smarter. We start getting so smart that we can’t just hear Jesus and believe him and follow him. It takes the full on power of the Lord’s Spirit to get us to lay our burdens down and be healed. It takes Prayer – usually of a whole community - for us to become utterly convinced of God’s love and acceptance.

So Jesus was enamored with the little ones – with those who were not burdened by sureness in their own abilities. People who were foolishness enough to just take God completely at his word. People like Francis of Assisi.

When Francis heard God say – “Go and re-build my church” – he did, stone by stone, begging people for rocks to rebuild the little village church that had fallen into disrepair. When he went to church and heard the gospel reading for the morning that said – “go and sell all that you have and come and follow me” – he did. Fortunately for his father, Petro Bernardone, most of the family business was not in Francis’ keeping!

Jesus called God, “Father”, so Francis did too. So literally that he took off all of his clothes in the public square and said, ““From now on I can freely say ‘Our Father Who art in heaven,’ not father Peter Bernardone….”The Bishop tried to rescue the whole situation, by taking off his cope to wrap around Francis.

Because God was Francis’ Father, all creatures were his brother and sister. The lepers. The trees. The birds and the wolves. The Sun and the moon. The water. Cold and fire and death itself.

Francis’ life became a parable of the Divine. And the Divine Life abounds in paradoxes – the kind that our brilliant minds simply can’t make sense of. Who can “understand” God? Well, maybe children who love stories, or animals who live utterly true to their own nature, or those fortunate enough or foolish enough to be utterly abandoned to the fire of the Holy Spirit.

For those of us bumbling along the way, feeling our way rather blindly toward the Divine, living parables like Francis help light the way. Actually, if you meditate on the saints enough, they will de-stabilize you more and more until you too tip over the edge into the pure ocean of God.

So – one of these paradoxes Francis discovered was this: Poverty – by which Francis meant not appropriating anything or anyone for your very own – this Poverty was actually Freedom and Wealth.

This is as impossible to understand now as it was in Francis’ day as it was in Jesus’ day. There is no human learning that can make this make sense or make it a checked off item on your “getting spiritual to do” list. It’s not something you do or don’t do. It’s a holy work of the Holy Spirit. All you can do is fervently desire that the Holy Spirit comes to you, and fills you and brings you closer and closer to the feet of Christ.

And meanwhile, love in whatever small way that is open to you. Walk in however much light you’ve been given. Eat the body of Christ with as much faith as you have that this is indeed the bread – the very sustenance – of heaven itself. And the Lord will work his holy work in you – gradually and gently, or suddenly and stormily – either way you are being brought safely home.

Let us pray.
Relieve us of our own wisdom, Holy God, so that our only wisdom is Your eternal Word, Jesus. Help us set down those things which weigh us down, and fill us with your easy burden and the light load of your Love for others. Grant us the peace that passes all our understanding. And make of us a church that delights in paradoxes, in children, in animals, and in You.

Two Stories

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50

Courage for community. Fervent, embodied prayer that makes a difference. Difficult decisions made on behalf of the safety and wellbeing of the little ones. These are the urgent, life and death matters that run through the scriptures this morning.

I’ve told one story already this morning – from the only book of the Bible with a woman’s name attached to it. Esther had the courage for community – she “came out” as a Jew to the King, though it could have cost her her life – and the community prayed fervently on her behalf, to support her as she risked everything in order to try to save them.

I’m going to tell you two more stories. The first is a tragedy. It highlights the unspeakable consequences of life lived at a pace that is outside grace in which it is difficult for little ones to thrive. The second is a story of leading a wandering soul back to safety. They are both of them, stories of community in which God is active – though not directly spoken about – just as in the Book of Esther.

A doting father tears up whenever co-workers ask about his baby son. He and his wife are overjoyed about this baby. They are also distracted with the care of an infant and the demands of their professional lives. One morning, the father parked his car at the BART lot, and rode the train to work. He’d not had a lot of sleep and his routine had been disrupted. So much so that he drove straight to the BART rather than to day care to drop off his four month old son. He returned to his car, as usual, in the early evening. Too late. When this happened, I lived just a few blocks from the train station. The outpouring of support for this young mother and father was overwhelming – coming from all over the Bay Area – though none of it could ever take away the exquisite grief etched into their hearts.

Around the edges, questions began being asked - why is forty hours of work no longer considered sufficient? Why are we working ourselves and our children to death? And why did no one see the child? The car was in the middle of a very busy parking lot. God forbid, that someone saw the child and figured it was none of their business. The comments and conversations continued – and people began making pledges to look up away from their own routine, their own world, their own blinders, and out into the world around them. Who needs help? Who needs a hand? Who needs an ax, literal or metaphorical, to help release a little one from danger.

Jesus said that everyone of us is responsible to be a place of safety for little ones. To do that, we need to get out of our heads and into the common sense of the world around us.

Whenever the disciples got into a heady discussion –or so far into their own agenda, Jesus took a little child, set him in the middle of the disciples and said, “Look. This is the way. Right here. Standing in front of you.” Zen Buddhists call this “beginner’s mind.” Christians call this “the way to heaven.” Mothers and Fathers call this, “I need some rest. Could someone help me for awhile.” And the Christian community is pledged by our Lord to say yes. We can help you.

A second story. One of my dearest friends is in her mid eighties. She swims every day at her club in Marin. She is helping to raise her grandchildren and she is often beside herself with frustration with them. But a couple days ago, when she had just gotten out of the pool, she noticed a teenager she didn’t know off to the side of the pool, talking on her cell phone– right under the sign that said, “No cell phones!” The girl was crying, sobbing, really. “I don’t know why she did that to me. My name will be all over the school now. I can’t imagine going back there.” Now, Nancy has gotten way past the point of caring whether she’s in fashion or not, or whether she is politically correct or not. So she stopped and touched the girl’s shoulder. "Believe me," my friend said, "whatever she did to you, put it out of your mind. In the long run, it will harm her more than it will you. Look out,– there’s so much in the world for you to be part of. Forget these people who treat you badly. Move out into all the good the world has for you. There are good people – do things with them.” Of course - she was a teenager - she didn't respond! – but I don't doubt for a minute that this act of kindness connected the girl to a larger reality and saved some piece of her soul from the terrible ravaging that only teen age girls know how to inflict on each other.

It would have been very easy, and probably much more socially correct, for Nancy to have pretended that she didn’t hear the conversation, didn’t notice the girl’s tears. Touching her on the shoulder. Offering her an elder’s wisdom. All of this is slightly beyond the norm.

But when your hearts and minds are engaged with the people around you, and you have been fervently praying to be of service, you will find yourselves in situations where you are able to offer a word or a touch of healing and hope. And while God’s name may never be spoken, it is nevertheless true, that God is present and active. It’s also true that most of the time, you will never know the good you have done.

It is my hope that it can be said of Good Shepherd in the years to come, “This is a community whose prayers are effective, whose touch confers healing and harbor for anyone in need – and who knows how to celebrate salvation with exuberance and thanks.


Sunday, August 23, 2009

Keep Coming Back

Keep Coming Back.
1 Kings 8: 22 – 43; Psalm 84; Ephesians 6: 10 – 20; John 6: 56 – 69
August 23, 2009; Proper B16

The I-Help Pasta with Pastors dinner was last night at the Northminster Presbyterian Church on East Alvin St., in Salinas. I was one of about 15 or 20 pastors serving dinner, along with a kitchen cooking crew of homeless guys who participate in the I-Help program.

Hard to believe, but I was the only woman pastor. Before we started serving, we got our picture taken. There I was, front and center, surrounded by a band of brothers. I was asked many times what church I served. Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd got good press last night! Although I was a bit taken aback when someone said, “Oh, that’s that radical church!” I said, “really – wow! Tell me the history.” It turned out that he was talking about the Episcopal Church’s welcome and ordination of gays and lesbians. I laughed in that good natured way I've got - I guess it’s still obvious I come from the Bay Area, where radical has a much different connotation. We agreed to downgrade radical to progressive!

It was a great night – there were Mormons and Nondenominationals and Catholics and Methodists and of course, us radical Episcopalians! At one point, walking through the crowd, with a plate of meat spaghetti in one hand and a plate of vegetarian spaghetti in the other, I looked around and thought – “here is my family – here are my brothers and sisters – these are the people of God.” And my very next thought was – “hmmmm…. We look so incredibly ordinary. There is absolutely nothing romantic about this group. No hazy halos. No particularly spiritual glow.” Well….Gerry and Miryam were there. That was an exception! Gerry definitely has that glow about her! …. But in that moment, looking at all of us with spilled spaghetti on the tables and cake trays and coffee in Styrofoam cups, I kind of tried adjusting my gaze, trying to look with the eyes of Jesus…. But nothing happened. There we were. Eating dinner in a large parish hall, in unspectacular surroundings, unspectacular people. Ordinary.

Except….that we were there. From a lot of different variations of being church. All of us, in one way or another, get up every day and make a decision all over again to try to follow Jesus. To hold hands with the homeless. To go to work in the morning if we have a job, or to pray for work if we don’t. To try to be faithful in the very ordinary routines of life.

But if you were to scratch the surface of that crowd last night, or this group this morning, if you and I were to sit down and talk heart to heart, my guess is that we would find out that we are not the only ones who have wondered at one time or another if this whole faith journey thing is worth it.

I mean, which of us has not - at one time or another -wondered whether we have believed in vain? Maybe it was during the dark of night, when you were by the bedside of your very sick child wondering if he would recover. Or maybe it was in the early morning, waking up alone, wondering why your spouse left you and if he would ever return. Maybe sometime during the day when you’re looking at the help wanted ads, feeling helpless about ending up unemployed and worrying about ever finding a job again. Or, maybe at dusk, stirring the soup for dinner, thinking about the ill will between family members and wondering how things turned out so different than you had imagined or hoped.

If you're like me, you've got to admit that there are plenty of these kinds of times and that occasionally you are tempted to conclude that your faith is maybe misplaced. You might not walk away - but you might find that getting to church is harder, and when pledge time comes around, your pledge shrinks, and you wake up one day and realized that you haven't prayed in some time. And the result is pretty much the same as what happened with the disciples in today’s gospel reading – you’re out the door, gone, onto other things.

“These sayings of yours Jesus are just too hard. The cross cannot be God’s plan. We’re leaving.”

It's tempting to write off those who gave up on Jesus as people who were lazy or unfaithful - but these folks not simply "the crowds," - these are the "disciples." You and me. People who have believed in Jesus, who have followed him, who’ve given up a lot to follow him.

I’m convinced by my own life and the lives of many who have shared their struggles with me – I’m convinced that the picture of the disciples in today's gospel may be not pretty, but it's realistic. The spiritual walk is no cake walk – and at one time or another, my guess is that maybe you too could not quite remember what attracted you to Jesus in the first place.

But this isn’t just a story about leaving – it’s also a story about staying. “To whom would we go, Lord?” Peter responds. “You have the words of life.” Maybe Peter spoke out of courage and faith. Maybe hard headedness. Maybe he was hoping that he could still cash in on the biggest bet of his life. Whatever the reason, he and a few didn't leave.

So what made them different? It’s plain that these were not the smartest guys, or the bravest, or the best. They argued. They complained. They didn’t get it. In Jesus’ greatest hour of need, they got so scared they ran away. Still – as much as they could – they stayed.

So what was different about them? The Rev. Dr. David Lose says that pretty much the only difference was that they had somehow figured out to keep looking at Jesus. "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life." They knew to keep their eyes on the prize – to keep looking to Jesus.

That is the witness of Christians who make it through the centuries. They simply “keep coming back” – you know the AA term. They keep coming back to the gathered community – the church - to feed on the Living Word of God through the scriptures and the sacraments.

Is church the only place that God reveals God’s self or that God feeds us? Of course not. When Solomon prayed the dedication of the temple, he immediately acknowledged that the temple could not nearly contain God. This world pulses with the presence and activity of its creator: in nature, in government, in family, in work. In all these places, God is present and active, creating and sustaining the whole creation.

And yet each of us knows just how difficult at times it can be to see God. Nature turns violent – I was in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and saw first hand the terrifying destruction of winds and water. Governments can go corrupt. The family can be a place of discord and the workplace can be divisive.

When all the things we count on come up empty, there is still the Church – that thin place where we hear the gospel and we celebrate the eucharist, where we are washed in water and fed the food of hope and encouragement. Where we are assured over and over of forgiveness, and acceptance, and meaning and purpose for our lives.

The truth is that church – the gathered community who has been grafted onto the living vine of Christ – feeds us in a way that is simply not available in any other way. Hearing the Gospel proclaimed in the gathered community is not the same as reading it to oneself in the privacy of one’s home. Walking in nature – as wonderful as that is, and as revealing of the Creator as it is – is not the same as breathing in the fragrance of the prayers of our neighbors.

Given the challenges we face, I know that baptism and communion seem like small, even paltry things. And yet, God has determined to be most clearly known through the “weak” word of the gospel of Jesus and his very ordinary band of followers, the church. And this band of followers, the church – what is it, exactly? It is simply those who say “Amen” to this goal – to walk all the way into the Kingdom, holding hands with the homeless, holding hands with our very ordinary neighbors, holding hands with Jesus whether in sickness and in sorrow or in joy and in plenty.

So, I’m glad you got dressed this morning, and got into your car and drove yourself here. The Lord rejoices that you got up, once again, and said – “to whom else would we go Lord. You have the words of life.”

What’s the secret to finishing well? Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus and then just keep coming back.


Resource: The Rev. Dr. David Lose, Words of Eternal Life

Monday, August 03, 2009

Eating our way to God

“Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called” “and grow into the full stature of Christ.”

How do we do that? How do we grow and mature into Christ? We eat our way there! We eat the right food and we grow into Christ. And how do we choose the right food to eat? For that, we need to know what kind of hungry we are.

King David was confused. He thought he was hungry for power. His armies attacked and conquered other armies. He amassed victories and wealth and territories and women. But his hunger was not sated. And so, even with all of his wives and concubines, he commandeered Bathsheba. And then when he got her pregnant and he couldn’t keep his hungers secret, he tried to make the problem go away by killing Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah. One of his most loyal men.

The prophet Nathan told him a story to wake him up, to wake him up to his true hunger. And David got it. He was powerfully sorry for the mess he had made – but the unintended consequences were set in motion and it wasn’t only David that suffered. Bathsheba’s life was forever altered. Her husband was killed, and the child she carried would also die.

So David fasted. He refrained from eating. He needed to reconfigure his hunger and become hungry again for the truth. For forgiveness. For doing what was right, what was worthy of the calling to which he had been called.

The people around Jesus were hungry. Really hungry. Unlike David, they didn’t have power. Their bellies often rumbled because they didn’t have enough to eat. And now, here was Jesus. He made their twisted limbs straight with a touch of his hand. He spit in the dirt and with the mud made their blind eyes see. He fed them with barley loaves and fish. And he taught them. He fed their minds and their hearts with God’s words. Words that gave them hope. With his words and touch and food he let them know they weren’t forgotten. He calmed their fears. He connected them with their own self worth. And the people were powerfully hungry for all of that he did – and so they tried to take him by force and make him into another King David.

But Jesus wasn’t like David. He wasn’t like the crowds. He wasn’t hungry. The hunger for security that is created by fear; the hunger for confidence that is created by self doubt; the hunger for connection that is created by alienation – these hungers did not gnaw at Jesus. He wasn’t hungry in the same way they were.

But why? After all, he was completely and totally human. The difference? He was filled – full up – with God.

Remember in the desert when his belly was rumbling because of fasting 40 days and nights? The devil came to him - “If you are hungry, turn these stones into bread.” And Jesus said “No, man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the Lord God.”

And remember when his disciples went into town to buy food, and they came back and found him talking to the Samaritan woman. She had been drawing water at the well, and he asked her for a drink. When he’d drunk his fill of water, he told her that he knew where she could get water that would quench her thirst forever. When she asked where she could get that water, he said, “I am living water.”

And then the disciples came back with food and asked him if he was hungry he said that he had food that they did not know about. They thought maybe someone had come and given him a sandwich – but that wasn’t the kind of food he was talking about.

The truth is, he hungered like you and me. He needed to eat. But the driving hungers that cause us to act badly, the driving hungers of fear and self doubt and alienation did not drive him. He was filled up with the security and the confidence and the connection that come directly from the Source of all that is.

And so, he fed others without controlling them. He healed others without taking advantage of them. He taught others without ruling over them. He did not need power. He did not need the adulation of crowds. He was not hungry for security and self worth and connectedness because he knew in his DNA that he was God’s beloved. And it was this relationship, this living relationship of belovedness that David hungered for. This was the hunger that had the crowds running around the lake after Jesus. It the same hunger that you and I have.

OK – I’ll make it personal. It’s the hunger I have.

Are you familiar with the psychologist Maslow? He said all humans have a hierarchy of needs that starts out with the basics – food, clothing and shelter. It goes up from there. Well, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is covered in my case. I’ve got the basics. Ascending beyond the basics, I’ve got great relationships, good community, and wonderful work. And up towards the tip of the hierarchy, I’ve got purpose and meaning.

But there’s something more I hunger for and it makes me restless and anxious. And it turns out that that something more will not be – cannot be - filled by anything other than God.

St. Augustine said it best when he said “our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” There is a God sized hole in my heart and I believe it’s in your heart, and in the heart of every human being, and nothing else will satisfy.

Until we eat the living Word of the Beloved, we will keep chasing after Jesus to make him into something he will never be – like the king that will give us what ever we think we want. Or we will, like David, try to find satisfaction in ways that set into motion unintended consequences that hurt ourselves and others.

I’m going to continue to make this personal.

I’ve been a Christian for a long time. And I have heard about the words of this gospel many times – Come to me and you will never hunger - and frankly, I have continued to know hunger – and I’m not talking about physical – I’m talking about in my soul.

But what I am beginning to understand is that I inherited a faith tradition that long ago split off the spiritual from the material in a way that is false and un-biblical and the result is that even though I have devoted my life to this faith - I have still been hungry! And I think a good many other people are too. A lot of young adults I talk to have either given up on church or they try other religions that seem more exotic and promising.

But Jesus never made that split. He never isolated the holy and sacred in any one place or any one element. God was in every face he looked into, in every loaf of bread he shared, in the air he breathed and the ground he walked upon. He would not have recognized a tradition that had God present only as living bread in elements offered at a church altar. This meal of Christ's that we share gathered here is to powerfully nurture the Spirit within, grow us up into Christ, and remind us that the bread and wine that we offer here is a concentrated and focused sign of the presence of the same God who feeds us just as powerfully in our daily life, in our daily bread.

A couple years ago I had an experience that was specifically designed to help heal this split between the material and spiritual worlds. It was at a Clergy Wellness retreat put on by the Church Pension Fund. All clergy are invited to participate - I think the basic goal is to keep us clergy well enough to not need our pensions for awhile! There were medical doctors, financial advisers, spiritual directors there. This experiment that I'm sharing with you was led by one of the doctors.

He had us gather for dinner – but this time, we were asked to wait to eat until everyone had gone through the serving line. Then he asked us to simply look at our food. He said that each morsel of food was an ambassador from the cosmos. He told us to pick up a piece of a food, and look at it for half a second, then smell it, and then to put it into our mouth and taste it. Then chew it slowly. He said, "When you are looking at a piece of carrot, it is possible to see the sunshine in it, to see the earth in it, to see that it has come from the whole cosmos for your nourishment." You get the picture. We did this with each bite for awhile – long enough to really really slow down and take in the full nourishment of our food. After awhile, he allowed us to go ahead and eat the rest of the meal as we normally would – but the amazing thing is that most of us were completely full and we’d only eaten a portion of what we had put on our plates.

We talked after about how we eat, but don’t really eat what is right in front of us. Instead we are eating our sorrows, our fears, our angers, our past, our future.

It is easy to think of God as out there – and that if we are to eat the Living Bread of Heaven, it will be here, kneeling at the altar – and it is true – we do eat the Living Word of God here in this time and place. But it is true as well that God feeds us continuously through the sun on our skin and the smiles on our friend’s faces.

The truth is our truest hunger, our deepest hunger, the hunger behind all our other hungers is for God. And God is very, very near at hand. Let us bless the Living Bread and give thanks.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Communion stretches your heart

Communion Stretches Your Heart.
Ephesians 3: 14 - 21; John 6: 1 - 21

I grew up a Methodist. And in the Methodist church, we had communion about once every three months. We were reverent people and communion being special we didn’t want to wear out the occasion by too much repetition.

The choir rehearsed for weeks preparing for Communion Sunday. About two hours before the service, the ladies would arrive and head to the kitchen. There was plenty of time for gossip – the neighborly kind – while they poured grape juice out of the large store bought cans into the thimble sized communion cups - shot glasses, actually. When my girlfriends and I got old enough we were allowed into the kitchen and it was our job to arrange all the glasses into the round silver tray holders. The ushers took their job of passing those trays from pew to pew very seriously. And so did we – we passed the trays from person to person down each row, holding our tray carefully while our neighbor took out their own glass, placed it in the pew rack, and then took the tray out of our trembling hands and passed it on.

I sincerely do not remember anything that the minister said to us in preparation for these occasions. I do remember singing. And the stained glass windows, the light streaming around Jesus who had drops of blood on his brow as he prayed in the garden. His long brown hair was thick and wavy and it grew past his shoulders. With that hair and pleading eyes he definitely did not like any man I knew. But he did look holy and very kind. I remember the responsibility of holding that silver tray so that none of the juice spilled. And I remember the dilemma of whether to go ahead and eat the wafer and swallow the juice or wait until everyone was served.

I usually waited.

Even to my child’s heart, it seemed like this was something that should be done together – something that could only be done together. And even in a very non-mystical, non-sacramental church - it did. Phyllis and Ann and Toby and Mike and Carol became not just my school principal and my teachers and my classmates and the grocery store owner. They became co-conspirators in this kingdom of God. I didn’t especially like all of them – but in front of Jesus, eating his food, it just was not all that important whether or not I liked them. Even at 10 years old, I knew that when we prayed “Thy kingdom come” and we passed the communion tray to each other and we sang passionately if not in tune and then went and had punch and cookies together, that God meant for us to take care of each other and that God meant for each and every one of us to arrive home some day. That in some mysterious way we go to God together.

So, when I first encountered Episcopal worship, I knew in my bones that this was the way I needed to worship – and that the one chalice was perfect – it was exactly what I knew to be the truth of belonging to the Body of Christ.

We are going to get to reflect on the Eucharist for five weeks in a row! That’s what the lectionary has us doing – from this Sunday right through until August 23rd. That’s so much bread and life that I’m already feeling a bit bloated – but also looking forward to exploring this central mystery of our faith.

I teach a communion classes for children during Lent - and I usually hear from the parents how much they enjoyed the class! Things they'd never known, or had forgotten about, open up for them - and we talk about how communion is like the facets of a diamond, always shining light a bit differently. We have many names for communion - maybe as one way to acknowledge these different facets: Eucharist, the Lord's Supper, Holy Communion, Mass.

The facet I’ve just been exploring is what it means to be in Holy Communion with all the others who say Amen to the prayers and drink from the cup. I want to tell you more about this. Edythe was a widow in a church I served. One day, in an adult confirmation class, Edythe shared with me her favorite part of the worship service. It was the ending of the Eucharistic Preface which has the church on earth joining with the hosts of heaven with the unending hymn: "Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might." She knew in that moment that her beloved Myers was with her and that somehow this meal joined together "things in heaven and things on earth." Communion opened up a window into eternity for her, a tangible connection to the "cloud of witnesses."

Paul closes his beautiful prayer that we read in Ephesians this morning with a doxology of praise by referring directly to this holy communion that is opened out into eternity - “to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations for ever and ever. Amen.” In other words, it is within the company of believers, this cloud of witnesses, who are in union with Christ that God is glorified.

That’s possible because the church is Christ’s body – Christ and his church are deeply and intimately one. That doesn’t mean that the church is Christ’s presence on earth – like an extension of his incarnation. But it does mean that all who are incorporated into the church by faith and baptism are also in union with him who is their Lord. We are in holy communion – and the practice of the Table is a sign of that – it points to that reality – even more, it becomes that reality in these moments when we are gathered together and transcending the time/space continuum.

This was the theme of General ConventionUbuntu – an African word that means the community that is a given – the reality of the larger whole to which we individuals belong whether we are conscious of this or not. Dottie will give us a flavor of what that meant for her when she reports to us hopefully next week.

If you want a great visual of the way holy communion stretches boundaries, and creates this ubuntu / this deep unity – watch Places in the Heart – a 1984 movie starring Sally Field, Danny Glover, and Ed Harris. It takes place in the 1930’s when many Texas families have lost their farms. The sheriff’s farm has not yet gone under – but when he is accidentally killed by a drunken young man, his young wife and two children are left in dire circumstances. His death sets off a string of events that highlight racial, class and gender divisions as well as many grace filled moments of redemption and unity across sharp dividing lines. There are tormentors, betrayers, and all out sinners aplenty in this film – but the closing scene takes place in a church – much like the rural Methodist church I grew up in. Those communion trays with the shot glasses of juice are passed down the rows – but as the camera pans through the pews, you realize that you are seeing the cloud of witnesses gathered – those who have died are sitting beside those still living, those who have been betrayed pass the communion tray to their betrayers, those who have killed are next to those who have been killed – it is enough to raise goose bumps on your arms. In their songs, in their prayers, in their hearing of the word, in their acts of confession, absolution – but most of all, in the bread and blood of Christ – God is glorified and they are saved.

When Jesus sat those five thousand hungry people down in the grass, and fed them from the boy’s five barley loaves and two fish – it was a miracle. It’s the one story that is found in all four gospels – they all four of them remember it and tell the story but John’s gospel goes further. For him it is far more than miracle. It is Sign. It is a sign of Holy Communion – it points to the reality that eating with Jesus stretches your heart so wide that the very kingdom of God enters in, forgiveness is a given, and a community is born that stretches boundaries in all directions – breadth, length, height and depth – those people rise up from the Table knowing the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge and reason.

Let us "bow our hearts before the Father from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name and pray to him who by the power of God at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen." Ephesians 3:21

Resources: Working Preacher, The Rev. Rolf Svanoe

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Life is what happens....

Ever feel like your plans for the day keep getting interrupted? One of my mentors in the ministry told me that he didn’t even make plans for his day. He just prayed in the morning – “well Lord, here I am. How do you want to use me today? I’m game for whatever you have in mind!” When he recommended this to me, I found it difficult to imagine – offensive actually. I love my calendar, and planning, in my mind, is a Godly activity.

But the more time I have in the ministry, the more I have come to see the wisdom of this older clergy’s approach. I’m sure, he too, at one time, had loved his calendar. After all, before he was a priest, he was a military officer! But now I think he was experienced enough with our Lord to know this basic truth – when someone is suffering or in need, God rather casually sweeps our plans aside so that we can be instruments of hospitality and healing.

If Jesus is a clear window to God, given what we see Jesus doing throughout his lifetime, it is pretty clear that God is interested in relieving suffering far more than he is in our plans and time lines.

In last week’s gospel, Jesus crossed the sea – it was a stormy crossings – as crossings usually are when you are reaching out to others who are not within your own circle. On the other side of that storm, he healed a man who’d been so destructive and disorderly that his neighbors had chained him up a good long distance from town. When Jesus spoke to him and healed him, he was thrilled, but his neighbors were not. Upset would be a good word for how they took it. “Go away”. They said. “Go back to where you came from. This is too much for us.” So he did.

He crossed the sea again. And suffering met him as soon as he set foot on shore. In that way – the people on both sides of the sea were alike. In this way, all people are alike. In the need to be included, held and healed – it doesn’t matter whether you live in Salinas, California or in Kerala, India, or in Jalalabad, Iraq.

“Come help me. My daughter is dying.”

And if you or I are going to respond to that kind of plea, - whether it is from a neighbor, or a family member, or a community far away, it most likely means that we are going to interrupt some other plans that we might have had. It most likely means that we are going to change the way we spend our money and our time. It might mean that we are going to change the way that people see us.

Jairus’ interrupted his life and laid his reputation and status and future on the line on behalf of his daughter. For us, who will go to any lengths for our children, it is almost impossible for us to grasp how much he risked.

First of all, he was a member of the elite - the same elite who harassed and ridiculed Jesus at virtually every turn. His friends included him in their scorn when he arrived home with Jesus in tow.

Secondly, he acted against common sense. In his time, it was not unusual for a child to die. In many parts of the world, it is still the case that many children die before adulthood. And it is still the case in some parts of the world that a girl child is less valuable than a boy child.

Thirdly, being around an almost dead girl child, would have bordered on unclean and it certainly would have negated his credentials to lead the community.

But Jairus – whose name means Enlightened in Greek - was a father first and foremost.

He was a father who loved his little girl – beyond all measure of what was appropriate or wise or in his own best interest. And so, he interrupted his entire life and future to kneel in the dust at the feet of this itinerant rabbi to plead for her life.

And Jesus was a healer first and foremost. He lived and breathed hospitality and healing and wherever he went, he bent himself towards the relief of suffering. He allowed himself to be continually interrupted in order to respond to someone else’s need. In fact, this happened on his way to the little girl’s bedside.

An older woman, sick for the same length of time that little girl had been alive – 12 years, had been isolated and held at arm’s length for so long that she had forgotten what it was like to have someone protect her or touch her or love her. It required tremendous courage or total desperation or both to reach out and touch this man – even anonymously.

But once she reached out, she didn’t stay anonymous for long. Jesus called out. “Who touched me?” And in that moment her isolation and her illness were completely disrupted. Because when she came away from the crowd, and stood on her own, she had no way of knowing what would happen to her. She had violated all propriety and law. Stoning could easily have been the result.

But in response to her faith, Jesus’ immediately reached out in hospitality and healing to cover her with compassion and to include her in his family. He protected her and he acknowledged her. “Daughter,” he said. “Daughter. You are well.”
My mother and I were at the Salinas Farmer’s Market yesterday morning, and stopped by the Health Awareness booth. My mom was immediately put to work – she sat in a chair and helped prop up a sign for health care reform. I met Santos, who is a nurse at the hospital. He and his wife and his 20 year old daughter had interrupted their normal Saturday routine to talk with people about health care issues and offer blood pressure checks. A young couple came by, obviously pregnant. While the daughter and I chatted about her college, Santos sat with the couple to check in with how she was doing, and to check her blood pressure. Before they left, they had signed up to receive ongoing support.

Like Jesus, Santos and his family were willing to let their lives be interrupted in order to practice hospitality and healing.

And it is a practice.

Because hospitality and healing don’t come naturally. It doesn’t come naturally to practice the hospitality to stop what you’re doing and get down at eye level with your child and give him your full and wholehearted attention – especially when it means interrupting your other plans.

It doesn’t come naturally to make a priority of listening with the ears of your heart – it takes work and it takes practice.

It doesn’t come naturally to deep down understand and agree that your time and your resources and your relationships essentially belong to God – not to you.

But it is the truth. Our lives belong to God. And growing into that takes daily practice. It means living with your calendar held a bit more lightly and praying each and every morning, “Lord, what do you have in mind today? Because here I am, ready to go where you need me.” Amen.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Get in the Boat!

Good morning? Are you ready? Well, get in the boat! Cause we’re going to the other side!

It might be that you’re ready for a rest – it took a lot of work to make this transition – and you did it beautifully! The Transition Team deserves a round of applause. And I personally, want to open my arms wide, and say it loud – you are awesome! I have felt cared for since my first contact with you, and especially since you called me to come be your priest. The Transition team was never intrusive – but always thoughtful, sincerely wanting to know how they could help out. Thank you!

It might be that you’re ready for a rest – it took a lot of work to keep the parish active, up and running, vibrant and alive, without a full time priest. Or, I don’t know, maybe it made it easier! I know Wendy and Cynthia did magnificent work of keeping you spiritually fed throughout this time – I also know that a lot of you stepped mightily up to the plate – and learned to run the ship. And this will stand us all in good stead as we head out into new waters. At my interview, one of the reasons I knew I wanted to come here – was that on the Sunday following the interview, you were going to hold an eco-faith fair. A major undertaking and outreach, all under your own direction! I’m climbing on board with experienced sailors, and I love it!

You might be ready for a rest – the economy is still in the doldrums. Stocks are still bouncing around. Layoffs are happening at an alarming rate - while kids still need shoes and after school lessons, and there are bills and mortgages to pay.

The disciples must have been ready for a rest! Doing crowd control while Jesus taught and healed – they had been on their feet, literally on their feet, outside, day after day - they must have been ready for a rest.

But towards evening, Jesus said, “we’re going to the other side.” So into the boats they went, experienced sailors and tax collectors, who probably weren’t all that much help on the water – off they all went, just as the sun was setting. A flotilla of boats – crossing the sea at dusk.

Why? Why did Jesus get the disciples to cross the sea? Right! To get to the other side.

What was on the other side? Gentiles. People who had not yet heard the Word spoken by God in Jesus.

People who had not yet experienced the full and radical inclusiveness of God’s embrace.

People who had not yet felt the full force of the word of healing and new creation spoken by God through Jesus.

In other words, people that Jesus cared about.

Are you in the boat? Ready to push off and start our own crossing to the other side?

Because the truth is, the Word cannot be contained in a small and cozy space. The Word in us is nurtured here. The Word in us is fed here. The Word is heard here – heard in a way that grows us up, that transforms us, that changes us – and that Word that we hear pushes us to go beyond ourselves.

That Word commands us to expand the reach of our handshake of peace to those who have yet to know peace – and usually precisely at the moment when we think we’re ready for a rest! When we think, “ok the work is done, now we can sit back and rest a bit,” Jesus comes along and invites us to another adventure.

Ah – what adventures Jesus invites. At least some of those disciples no doubt could read the warning signs – storm on the way. But they were also sufficiently in awe of Jesus that if he said go, that’s what they did.

The truth is, the Gospel of Mark was written to a community that was in very troubled waters – storms of violence were raging between the Jewish people and the Romans. The enormous and beautiful Jerusalem temple – the center point of the Jewish religion and culture and state - had just been utterly destroyed because of the war. Relations between temple Jews and these fledgling Jewish Christians had grown rancorous and troubling. There were persecutions. Jesus had not returned, the way they had thought would happen. The tiny ship of the church was in danger of being swamped and overturned and the personal lives of this community to whom Mark writes were in trouble.

"Lord, don’t you care that we are perishing?" The question must have risen often in their minds. And if you’re anything like me, you know that you have uttered that question more than once as well – when the inevitable storms of life just about had you swamped - "Where are you? Don’t you care, Lord?" In our time, we face the potential environmental collapse of very frightening proportions. "Where are you God? We are perishing!"

Jesus slept peacefully on the pillow someone had thoughtfully provided – a first century Transition Team perhaps!??!

Sleep, of course, is another word for death. The dear crucified Lord, asleep in the nave of the ship. You sit in the nave of the church! That’s the architectural and liturgical term for the body of the church - where you are. That’s where Jesus is. In the nave. And this is a resurrection story. Because the crucified Jesus wakes up – rises up – and speaks his powerful word of calm. He rebukes the forces of destruction and death and chaos. He restores their confidence. .

But then the disciples are filled with an even greater fear than before! At least they understood the storm. It might kill them – but it is within their comprehension.

But the power of this man – whom even death cannot hold - This shakes them to their very core. Who is this asleep and then rising in our very midst. Who is this in the nave of our ship, the church? Who is this who rebukes all forces bent on destruction, and they obey. Who is this who can cast out the demons of fear and cowardice and restlessness and restore order and calm and peace and joy and patience and courage under hardship and tribulation and disaster? Who is this quietly asleep on his pillow, in their midst?

It is Jesus, of course. With us this very day.

Jesus heard his terrified friends, got up, reprimanded the wind and said to the waves, “Peace! Be still!” And the Bible tells us the wind died down and peace came. His friends cried to him and he listened, and he moved and spoke to the storm and said, “Be still.”

Can the same thing happen inside of you and me? Like the storm, can our hearts also hear and be calmed, and somehow rest in his peace? I’ve seen it happen. I’ve known men and women in the darkest moments of their lives, whose families were in peril, whose children were being sucked down some dark hole, or folks who experienced devastating financial loss, but who in the middle of the crisis were heard to say, “God is carrying me. I can’t explain it. I know it sounds crazy, but I have peace!”

A friend of mine is now in her second bout of breast cancer. In the midst of painful and debilitating treatments that may or may not stem the tide of this cancer, she radiates beauty and peace. Why? She says it is entirely due to the prayers of the church. She is not a normally non-anxious person, I can verify this! But she testifies that God is present in some new kind of way with her – so that she faces these treatments and her possible death with a kind of peace that she had not thought possible.

Jesus is able to calm the storms in your life. And whether the storms abate or not, he is able to give you peace and courage and confidence in scary times.

Jesus is able to take the helm of the boat of Good Shepherd, and steer it safely to the other side. He is able to inspire us with the words and the actions that relay the message of his peace and power to those who need that peace and power.

As we offer the handshake of peace to each other this morning, let us pray that we, in some small way, this week, can cross over whatever troubled waters someone else might be in – job loss, family troubles, sickness, general malaise - to offer them God’s peace and God’s power.

Let us pray.

Christ sleeps in the deepest selves of all of us, and whatever we do in whatever time we have left, wherever we go, may we in whatever way we can call on him as the fishermen did in their boat to come awake within us and to give us courage, to give us hope, to show us, each one, our way. May he be with us especially when the winds go mad and the waves run wild, as they will for all of us before we're done, so that even in their midst we may find peace...we may find Christ. Amen.

* Prayer from Frederick Buechner

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Story of Pentecost

The Story of Pentecost
Last Sunday at St. Alban's Episcopal Church
May 31, 2009

“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.”

It doesn’t matter whether they were a large group or a small one. As it happens they were small. Gathered, waiting, praying, just as Jesus had told them to do, directly before he left them to return to his Father in heaven. Many of them, like Peter, still shamed by the fact that they had deserted their dearest friend at the very moment that he most needed them. In their fear of also being tortured and killed, they had run away, and left him to face death alone. Still, Jesus had risen from the dead, had breathed his peace into them, and had told them to wait and to pray – which is exactly what they were doing

"When suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. (Jack plays flute)

The Hebrew word for Spirit is Ruah – breath. It was the Ruah of God that swept over the primal chaos, over the first waters – the Ruah of God that created life.

That same Ruah creates and sustains you now. Take a deep breath in, and out. Feel the Spirit breathing you. Breathe into this space. This time. This place. Whenever you are troubled or feel like things are falling apart, breathe. Let the Ruah of God, the breath of God fill you and still you, and help you know what to do next.

This Ruah that filled the entire house where they were sitting was like a violent wind – lifting their hearts, lifting their spirits, filling them with enthusiasm and expectation. What was happening? What was God about to do? Send fire!

“Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. (Jack plays drum) All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”

Fire. Tongues. Praise.

This is my last Sunday with you. So I can do anything, right? I want you all to stand up and praise God! Share something that you are really and truly thankful for. You can tell your neighbor. You can tell God. You can keep it to yourself if you want. But stand up. God is here and God is good and God is everlastingly faithful and remembers your every need, your every desire – and has your good continually in mind. If this is your first Sunday here, don’t worry. We do not normally do things like this.

So, what are you thankful for? What are you thankful for in the church? In the world? In creation? In your life? “A tongue rested on each of them and they began to speak …..”

“Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.”

Pentecost was a Jewish festival – celebrated fifty days after the first barley harvest. That’s why there were Jews from many different nations gathered in Jerusalem. To celebrate the harvest.

“When they heard the sound, a crowd gathered and they were bewildered because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? They were amazed and perplexed. Some of them wondered what it meant. 13But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.””

What do you do when something happens that you don’t understand? Something that you don’t immediately like? If you’re like me, there are several things you do.

One is, you simply ignore it as not relevant. We screen out all kinds of data that doesn’t fit with our world view. It may cause a blip on our screen – but after that it becomes background and quickly disappears.

OR, You create an explanation for it. You create a story about it, leap to a conclusion. My kids will tell you that I’m especially adept at this. I can see two people on the street in an argument – and I can create the background story and the outcome – all from one little snippet of information. And the truth is, I’m creating it out of whole cloth- it has no correspondence to actual reality.

OR, you can be curious and wonder – with an open and non-judging mind.

“Everyone was amazed and perplexed.” Some of them stayed in their curious mind, open and wondering – I wonder what this means? Others of them leaped immediately to their judging mind – Well, it means that they are drunk.

I don’t know about you – but I aim to stay more and more in my curious, wondering, Godly Play sort of mind - simply observe what’s going on around me and stay open to it, without leaping to conclusions.

I urge you to do this as well – especially during this time when the Search Committee and Vestry are working so hard to call a Rector. When you don’t understand – be curious – and ask wondering questions. When you don’t agree – say so, and enter into respectful conversation. But try to steer clear of sneering and making up stories.

“Peter raised his voice and spoke out loud to the whole wondering, sneering crowd. What happened to the man who ran away? He was transformed into a new man – a leader now. And he spoke on behalf of the whole group -

“You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know— 23this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. 24But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.”

There are a lot of sermons in the book of Acts – and their purpose was not to be intellectually brilliant. It was to have an effect. The apostles preached in order to transform. Their words were intended to be a vehicle for the Spirit of God to reach peoples’ hearts -

“37Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” 38Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.””

These people were not really looking for Jesus. These were people who God called to him. Peter wasn’t telling these people – save yourselves. He was saying – let yourselves be saved. Let God in. Let this new life happen to you. Salvation – or healing – as the root of the word is –is not about earnest striving, about human effort to learn each new meditation technique and yoga pose – good as those are.
This primal healing that Peter is talking about is God’s doing – it comes from outside. It is a gift. And you can ask for it. God wants to heal you. Wants your salvation. Wants you to experience being fully alive.

“What shall we do?”

Repent – leave your small mind and enter into the large mind of God.

And be baptized – learn a new way of living. A way of life that you enter into, that you learn day by day. Not a difficult way with lots of do’s and don’ts. A way of life that brings joy and connection to all creation.

And so they did. “42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.”

The church doesn’t try to resuscitate emotional highs week after week. It doesn’t drift from emotion to emotion. But it devotes itself to teaching what it’s all about. The church experiences fellowship – koinonia. This is far more than warm hearted brotherly and sisterly feeling – it’s a fellowship that produces signs and wonders. It’s a muscular kind of fellowship – things happen because these people have come together. The church breaks bread together. Deep friendships across race and class lines are formed. And the church prays.

The deep friendship of the sacraments, of breaking bread together.
And praying.

These are the essentials of being church together. Everything else is icing.
So, where are you in this Pentecost story? Wherever you find yourself – come to this Table this morning, with a glad and generous heart – praising God for his never failing goodness.