Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Thanksgiving Alphabet a la The Rev. David Ruhe*

A Thanksgiving of ABC's
(Idea for the sermon from David Ruhe, Feasting on the Word)

The appointed Psalm for today is a portion of the 119th Psalm – the longest psalm in the Bible. It is composed of 22 sets of 8 verses, one set for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Within each set of verses, each verse begins with the same letter. “The structure can be like a mind-numbing march – but that may, in fact, be the point – more like a labyrinth or a mantra, than a theological treatise – it seems designed to draw you beyond into a state of being bathed in blessedness.” There is a tradition that King David used this psalm to teach his young son Solomon the alphabet – but not just the alphabet for writing letters: the alphabet of the spiritual life. It figures prominently in Orthodox worship – in monasteries it is chanted daily at the midnight service. Among the Germans, it was known as the Christian’s Golden Alphabet, the ABC’s of the praise, love, power and use of the Word of God. The clergyman, Rev. Venn, echoed the experience of many when he wrote, “This is the psalm I have often had recourse to, when I could find no spirit of prayer in my own heart, and at length the fire was kindled and I could pray.”

So I commend Psalm 119 to you – but I also commend to you the practice of creating your own psalms, your own miniature ABC’s of wonder, love and praise – I’ve done that for this morning – and I offer it with the caveat that it does not in any way compare with the Golden Alphabet of Psalm 119 in literary style or in spiritual wisdom.

A is for again and again –The poet Hafiz expressed it best: “In the morning, When I began to wake, It happened again – That feeling that You, Beloved, Had stood over me all night, Keeping watch, That feeling That as soon as I began to stir, You put Your lips on my forehead And lit a Holy Lamp Inside my heart.” “

*B is for balderdash - a word I think our Deacon would love! Synonyms are fiddle-faddle, and piffle – try them – they’re all fun for the mouth! Wading through the morass of political ads - it’s tempting to say “Balderdash!”

C has to be chocolate, the darker the better – a gift from the Aztecs, who considered it a gift from their god. And even richer and deeper and darker and sweeter is the C for the Christ, in whom we live - our way, our truth, our life, our wisdom, our bright morning star.

D is for David’s Psalms, the first songbook of faith. It’s also for daring to dream that God has a mission for you and for me and for the Good Shepherd community.

E is for Energy – that elixir of life of which we always want more – advice? sleep soundly, eat well, exercise faithfully, surround yourself with grateful people who see blessings all around.

F is for my Friends – my true estate, as Emily Dickenson so aptly wrote.

G is for Gratitude - the taproot of joy. Listen to Brother David Steindl-Rast: “If you have all the good luck in the world but take it for granted, it will not make you joyful. Yet even bad luck will give joy to those who manage to be grateful for it. We hold the key to lasting happiness in our own hands. For it is not joy that makes us grateful; it is gratitude that makes us joyful.”

H is for heaven – the heaven on earth that comes from knowing I belong, from knowing that everyone belongs, and from acting in accord with that knowledge.

I is for increasing – from the morning’s epistle: “ because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of everyone of you for one another is increasing.” (2 Thessalonians 1:4)

J is for judgment and justice – words that I fear until I remember that Jesus died to show for ever and ever that love, gift and grace are the ultimate reality. “Strange,” wrote St. Catherine of Sienna, “that so much suffering is caused because of the misunderstanding of God’s true nature. God’s heart is more gentle than the Virgin’s first kiss upon the Christ. And God’s forgiveness to all, to any thought or act, is more certain than our own being.”

K is for kindness. Need I say more?

L is for love and laughter. “Here is a relationship booster that is guaranteed to work,” the Persian Poet Rumi wrote: “Every time your spouse or lover says something stupid make your eyes light up as if you just heard something brilliant!.”

M is for meandering – what life often feels like – and yet, it is a most meaningful meandering because my hand is held by God, and God forbid He should ever let it go– “because then I would weep so loudly and petition with all my might and cause so much trouble – that God would have to come to his senses, and never do that again!” (paraphrase of Meister Eckart)

N is for nice. It’s good to be nice – but too much nice is not so!

O is for the delicious O antiphons of Advent that lead us to the Christ child:
O wisdom, coming forth from the Most High, filling all creation and reigning to the ends of the earth; come and teach us the way of truth.
O root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the nations; kings will keep silence before you for whom the nations long; come and save us and delay no longer.
O morning star, splendour of the light eternal and bright sun of righteousness: come and bring light to those who dwell in darkness and walk in the shadow of death.
O king of the nations, you alone can fulfil their desires: cornerstone, binding all together: come and save the creature you fashioned from the dust of the earth.
O Emmanuel, hope of the nations and their saviour: come and save us, O Lord our God

P is for play and we all know that play does not need purpose – dancing round and round – how fun it is! Pachelbel’s Canon is not needed for life to go on – but isn’t it one of the most magnificent superfluities of life - providing meaning and rest. And of course, P is for pledging – making the life and the work and the play of the church possible.

Q is for all of my queer friends and all that they add to my life and to the life of the world. Q is for all the vast varieties of humankind and the delightful variations of creation.

R is for rest. St. Augustine said it best – "our hearts are restless Lord, until they rest in thee."

S is saints, the whole beloved community of believers, Jane and Gerrie and Stan and Joe and Tim and Susie and Uncle Bill and Grandad and me and you – and the rarified heroes and heroines of our faith – St. Paul and St. Mary and St. Margaret and St. Nick.

T is for trust. I, for instance, trust you to receive this unorthodox homily with forbearance, if not with enlightenment.

U is for unknowing – that cloud which obscures our senses from the Mystery we call God - God, who can only be known by the heart’s desperate yearning and the ripening of love.

V is for victory – which I hope for the Giants!

W is wonder – When people do things that put me into a judgmental frame of mind – I’m often saved by the simple phrase, “I wonder….” “I wonder what it feels like to think about things that way?” “I wonder what led to that course of action?” It helps me too, to go easier on myself – because believe me, I give myself much cause for wondering.

X marks the spot that is somewhere between nowhere and now here – or as t.s. eliot wrote: “The point of intersection of the timeless with time.... the still point of the turning world." We fall into that still point by grace, and we receive it with gratitude.

Y is for Yes – letting myself be carried away like a kite on the wind – flinging everything away in one gigantic unconditional Yes.

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun's birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any--lifted from the no
of all nothing--human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened) e.e.cummings

Z is for Zami and Zacchaeus– my dog, who is a true and faithful companion – and Zacchaeus, featured in our morning’s gospel, (Luke 19: 1 - 10) who found salvation when the Lord said, “Make haste to come down from your perch –for today I am abiding with you in your home.” Our name is not Zacchaeus, nevertheless the Lord says the same to you and to me – “come down - put your feet on the ground – because today I am here to dwell with you – to abide with you – to remain with you.”

Maranatha, come Lord Jesus, and be our guest.

*David Ruhe, Senior Minister, Plymouth, United Church of Christ

Monday, October 11, 2010

Lift up your hearts

Have any of you worshipped at what are known as praise churches? You know – words on the screen – hands in the air – joyous, contagious singing – Praise music! Musicians are normally driven crazy by it! It’s not complicated music, and it’s not usually of the genre that will become classic – it’s a more in the moment style, a lift up your heads and your hands and your hearts and say thank you! Praise you! Bless you!

It’s not the kind of music we Episcopalian normally sing! Or the kind of worship we usually go in for. But I have seen it’s effect for the good.

On mission trips into Mexico during Easter week, the teams that I led spent Holy Saturday at an Episcopal church in Fullerton. We slept on the floor of their parish hall, and worshipped at the early Easter service the next morning – before driving the rest of the way across the border into Tijuana.

Fullerton was a praise church – a praise Episcopal church – and the teens had usually never experienced anything like it. Some were deeply deeply moved – and on those mornings, dedicated their lives to Christ – some out of the emotional moment – but others in ways that opened up their lives in surprising ways. Two went into the Peace Corps to countries that I’d never heard of before - and even now, years later, are working in Africa in public health and community development. One is the senior warden of his Vestry and offers technical support to several nonprofits, several went into the military to serve their country.

I’m not suggesting that our choir suddenly break into clapping – and that we wave our hands in the air – but it has been my experience that giving free reign to our joy, to externalizing our joy at our salvation in Christ, gives spaciousness and extra room for God to create something new in our lives and in the life of our community. The truth is - there is something about out loud praise and joy that moves us – that saves us – that makes us whole and healthy inside and outside.

Our Eucharistic prayer begins with praise: Lift up your hearts. We lift them up to the Lord. Let us give thanks to the Lord our God. It is right to give him thanks and praise. It is right and a good and joyful thing always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.

The core of our lifestyle as Christians is enshrined in the prayer that is the high point of our worship. Thanksgiving is at the heart of a life of faith and love. And it’s not just for the highpoint of worship, or for that lofty feeling we sometimes get on Sunday morning –it is for every part of our mundane, ordinary, trivial, everyday lives.

So how do you lift up your heart? How do you give God thanks and praise not only as your duty – it is right – but as a joyful thing – always and everywhere?

I don’t know about you - but there are many days when I wake up, and the first thing I’m aware of is not a lifted up heart, but a cast down heart. One that is already burdened before the day has even begun! That’s partly the personality I’ve been blessed with ☺, and partly because I am very aware of the needs of the world and this community and my own needs. We live in a time of rather extreme dislocation – a stubbornly high unemployment rate, veterans arriving home from Iraq and Afghanistan in very bad shape - traumatized emotionally as well as physically. I’m aware that every time I get in my car to drive here – I’m contributing carbon to the atmosphere. I’m aware that my retirement investments are most likely earning money from corporations that profit from sales of weapons around the world or in other ways that do not coincide with the gospel of Christ. And the list can go on. I’m aware that we’re sitting on top of a lawsuit that could go any number of ways. You see – there are plenty of reasons to be cast down. I’m guessing that if we all pooled our troubles – the list would be long and discouraging.

But the scriptures over and over remind us to lift up our hearts. They do not say – when things are going well, lift up your heart. Or when things have all worked themselves out, lift up your heart. They just say – Lift up your heart – now. Wherever you find yourself and in whatever circumstance.

Paul wrote some of his most comforting and challenging letters to the churches while he was in chains in prison. Jesus lifted his heart in the Garden of Gethsamene as he was about to be arrested. The first Deacon, Stephen, lifted up his heart as he was being stoned for his faith. Our first reading from Jeremiah was from a letter he wrote as he and a few others were left behind in Jerusalem, and all of the scholars, and artists, and builders and stonemasons and carpenters and anyone of means had been carted off in chains to Babylon by the Persian emperor. Exiled. And what did he say – in essence, lift up your hearts, and live fully – even in your very reduced and circumscribed change of fortune.

In the slums of Tijuana, we were invited into circles of worship - outside without any altar or piano or vestments or candles – only pure voices lifted up in praise and thanksgiving by Christians living in circumstances that I cannot adequately convey - no clean water, no kind of sanitation other than terrible outhouses, no comfortable places to sit or sleep, substandard shacks for shelter.

I KNOW that joy and praise and thanksgiving are entirely a matter of an orientation to God like the sunflower to the sun and not dependent upon the world going your way. And when it’s not the way you wake up, or the way that you feel throughout the day - you can still, through intention, turn towards hope in God and find something for which to thank Him.

King David knew this as well. Psalm 43 verse 5: Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted within me? hope in God: for I shall yet praise him, [who is] the health of my countenance, and my God.

This is precisely what the lepers are doing. They cry out to Jesus – they don’t give up in shame and embarrassment at their condition, they don’t give in to despondency or apathy. They cry out – they lift up their hearts to the one whom they’ve heard can help them. And their hope is not in vain.

And for the one who pauses long enough to not only recognize that his leprosy is healed – but to really see what has happened and by whose word it has happened? He received an even deeper healing – a salvation kind of healing when he stopped long enough to reflect and turn around and lift up his heart, this time – not in a cry for help, but in worship. There was salvation healing for the one who gave thanks to God – not just in the prescribed, ritualistic way that the others had gone off to the temple to do – but right there, in the open air, he lifted up his heart in praise and thanksgiving –seeing both himself and Jesus in a new light. In the new light of spiritual sight that does not take anything for granted.

The truth is – all ten lepers were healed. As they lifted up their hearts and cried out in their need, Jesus saw them and had compassion upon them. Their healing is not dependent upon their worship of God through the word of Jesus. His word is faithful and it cannot be chained – and it is powerful.

This is the foundation of our praise and thanksgiving – that whether we see God at work or not - God sees us – sees us in our lightest places and in our darkest places – sees us thriving in community and sees us hunkering down in isolation, in secret self abuse and lack of caring – God sees us and is infinitely compassionate towards us –He accompanies us, rescues us, saves us – this is the ground we stand on – not our faithfulness towards God, but God’s never failing faithfulness towards us – this it the ground we stand on as we lift up our hearts, cry out our need and offer our joyful thanksgiving – always and everywhere.