Sunday, March 26, 2017

Sermon; Lent 4A; John 9:1-41

What is the mission of the Church?
The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.

The mission of the Church is restoration. The focus of Lent is reconciliation. This theme was introduced last week with Jesus and the woman at the well. It continues today and next week in the story of the man blind from birth, and the raising of Lazarus. While this is the theme of these three weeks, today's gospel also points to the difficulty of this mission of the Church.

The Gospel of John is filled with meaning – literal and metaphorical, straight-forward and ambiguous. This gospel has a sublime quality to it that allows for this breadth of meaning. A prime example of John working on two different levels was two weeks ago in the dialogue between Nicodemus and Jesus and that misunderstanding between being born from above and being born again. Because of these variety of meanings I'm going to play with today's passage a bit.

As Jesus walked along he saw a man born blind from birth. After Jesus met him, the man's eyes were opened and he was able to see. What kind of eye-opening was this? Was it literal? Maybe. Or was it something deeper? It's probably a both/and.

Our world is full of blind-to-sight images. REO Speedwagon sings of recognizing that a friend is more than a friend. John Newton wrote of once being blind, but now being able to see. Saul was blind to the presence of Christ until he also had a first-hand experience where he gained his sight, seeing the face of Christ in others. And there are countless other images and stories of people gaining their sight, most of which have nothing to do with physical ability.

As I said last week, restoration and reconciliation have to do with being willing to cross boundaries and reach out to the other, as well as being willing to open our eyes to the possibility we may have been wrong and/or being willing to see how we have sinned against another.

Restoration and reconciliation have to do with opening our eyes.

Through an encounter with Christ, the blind man was able to see the light of the world. Through his willingness to see things in a new way he was restored to fullness in Christ. Jesus said that he was born blind not due to sin, but so God's works might be revealed in him. That revelation wasn't necessarily the one-time-event of gaining sight, but may have been how he lived out the rest of his life – revealing God's works to those around him.

The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.

Through an encounter with Jesus, this blind man was restored to unity with God through Christ. This blind man was told to wash in the pool of Siloam, which means “sent.” This is the gospel of John, so I don't think that's a coincidence. After he gained his sight he is sent to proclaim the healing nature of Jesus. He proclaims the healing nature of Jesus to the crowds. He proclaims the healing nature of Jesus to the Pharisees, as well as proclaiming that Jesus is from God to those same people. He who once was blind is now able to see. And what he sees is restoration and unity through Christ.

The problem, though, is that those to whom he was sent are having none of it. They are more focused on maintaining their divisions and barriers than they are in pursuing restoration. They would rather keep their eyes closed, living in the darkness of their own blindness, than risk opening their eyes to the light and being part of a fully restored people living in unity. I'm reminded of the final book in The Chronicles of Narnia in which the dwarves refuse to open their eyes to the wonderfulness around them – that wonderfulness found in the unity that comes through reconciliation and restoration.

Again, this is hard work.

It's hard work for those who initiate the process because it asks us to put aside our animosity and pride and risk being rejected. It's hard for us to get past the possibility that those with whom we wish to reconcile may not want that, preferring an adversarial relationship, or no relationship at all. And it's even harder for us to get past the possibility that those with whom we wish to reconcile may accept our offer, putting us in a position to actually live out what we preach.

It's also hard for those on the other side. Mistrust is always there – is there an ulterior motive being played out? Or a belief that we are being asked to change to satisfy the desires of those asking us for reconciliation?

And in both cases it seems easier to remain blinded by our own ways than to open our eyes to a new life.

This is played out in today's gospel story. A blind man has an encounter with Jesus and his eyes are opened to a new way of living. He is sent to proclaim reconciliation and restoration through Jesus. His message is rejected. And those to whom he was sent double down on their refusal to see, thereby remaining blind.

None of this is about converting people to Christianity. Neither is it about using this passage to condemn the Jews for refusing to accept Christ.

What this is about is understanding that, as the Church, we are to look for ways of reconciliation, thereby restoring all people to unity with God and each other, through the methods Christ himself used.

We may be ridiculed. We may be rejected. We may be thrown out by those with whom we are trying to reconcile. But we are all sent in an effort to show others that there's a better way than walking in the darkness of our own blindness.

And if, through our efforts, people open their eyes to a new way of seeing, then we are one step closer to fulfilling the mission of the Church – restoring all people to unity with God and each other.


Amen.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Sermon; Lent 3A; John 4:5-42

What is the mission of the Church?
The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.

How does the Church pursue its mission?
The Church pursues its mission as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace, and love.

Over the next three weeks we are going to hear long passages from the Gospel of John. Today it was the woman at well. Next week it will be the story of the man blind from birth. And on Lent 5 it will be the raising of Lazarus.

The season of Lent is, among other things, a season focused on reconciliation. Ash Wednesday reminds us of this when we are told of people separated from the body through notorious sins being reconciled and restored through their penitence. We are reminded of the Gospel's message of pardon and absolution. And the Exhortation, which we heard on Lent 1, reminds us to examine our lives and conduct, acknowledge our sins, make restitution, forgive others, and come to the heavenly banquet after being reconciled.

It is this theme of restoration that the Catechism and Gospels touch on. And it begins today with the story of the woman at the well.

The differences between Jews and Samaritans were real and they were divisive. We get a glimpse of this when John makes a point to say, “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.” The reasons for this are many and ancient, but they involve the following: foreign colonists from Assyria after the fall of the Northern Kingdom in 722 bc who intermingled with those not deported; the Samaritans' refusal to worship at Jerusalem; a Samaritan blockade at the time of the restoration of Jerusalem after the return of the exiles from Babylon; Samaria assisting Syria in wars against Judah; and the Jewish high priest burning the Samaritan temple to the ground. There was a lot of distrust and animosity between the two peoples, as you can imagine, and it was into this division which Jesus steps.

Jesus takes the bold step of first entering “enemy” territory. He is the one to make the initial offer of reconciliation. He doesn't require THEM to come to him, he goes to them. In his reaching out to the woman he doesn't judge her for having five husbands, nor does he condemn her for her current relationship status. What he does is accept her as she is and offers her another path. It is this acceptance, I think, that causes her to go and tell others about the man she has just met.

Now it is their turn to sit with Jesus' words, ponder their meaning, and decide for themselves if they want to be part of the movement. What they discover is that unity in Christ is a greater force than basing unity on who you aren't. And this is the key to the whole endeavor,.

The Jews and Samaritans had their differences – theologically, politically, and socially. But they are no different than anyone else in the world. Whether it is between Catholics and Protestants, rich and poor, Americans and Mexicans, men and women, black and white, Republicans and Democrats, we all look for ways to cast Those People as Others. Sometimes we do it to such an extent that we actually demonize those we consider outsiders.

And the longer we see outsiders as Other, as Not Us, and Demons, the easier it is to believe mythological stereotypes, rumors, and baseless tweets. This becomes how we live – isolated and afraid. And this ultimately encourages us to keep Those Others out.

But this way of thinking and living is antithetical to both the stated mission of the Church and the message of the Gospel. Our mission, according to the Catechism, is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ. Our mission, according to the gospels, is to make disciples of all nations. This is hard to do when we allow our fears and prejudices to rule our hearts and minds and actions.

The first step we must make to living into our mission is to recognize others not as Other, but as equal to ourselves in every way, fully created in the image of God.

The next step is to follow in the steps of Christ, cross those boundaries and barriers that divide, and meet people face to face. Meet them as people who want the best for their children. Meet them as people who have dreams for a better world. Meet them as people who long to be treated equally and with respect and dignity. Meet them as people who are children of God.

This is hard work. It is often unpopular work. But it is what we are called to do as Christians first. And we need to remember to present Christ not as conqueror, but as reconciler.

For it will only be when people see Christ not as conqueror but as a unifier that we will begin to make strides. Only when we begin to tear down the walls that separate us will we begin to see unity. Only when we, like Jesus, make the first move towards reconciliation will we begin to see the healing of the world.

The mission of the Church is restoration.
The focus of Lent is reconciliation.
This process began with Jesus and the woman at the well.


How are you working towards these goals of Christ and Church?

Amen.

7 from Venus

Just a quick between services post:

During the 8 a.m. service I noticed a new person in the congregation.  She had that "just in off the streets" look about her.

After service I introduced myself to her.  She informed me that her name was 7, and she was from the planet Venus who came here, with the rest of her people, before Venus falls into the black hole, like Mercury before it.  When that happens, then she will go to the planet Jerusalem where she will be the first to enter the heavenly gates of the new city.

Then she offered me her hand and, in a regal manner, instructed me to kiss her ring as a show of divine respect.

That was followed by a dissertation on how someone was playing subliminal messages that where destroying her body, beginning at her wrist and would I please pray for an end to this.

Just another day.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Sermon; Lent 2A; John 3:1-17

We are going to play a little game today. First, I need a volunteer to come up front. Full disclosure, you will need a little drawing talent . . . just a little.

I'm going to ask a variety of people to give a short definition of a word, and I want the volunteer to draw that word as defined. So if I say, “Light,” a person might say, “Something that eliminates darkness;” and our artist might draw a light bulb. Got it? Okay, here we go:

Bark ...  Bat ...  Crane ...  Horn ...  Glass ...  Second ...  Spring

Bark is the noise a dog makes; it's also what covers a tree. Bat is a flying animal, as well as what is used in baseball games. Crane is a type of bird, and a very large piece of construction equipment. Horn is what may male animals have on their heads, but also what people use to tell the driver in front of them that the light is green. Glass is what you drink from, in addition to being used to cover holes in walls for visibility. Second is a period of time, but it is also not first. And spring is a season as well as a piece of curved metal that bounces.

The point of all this is that, as Led Zeppelin once sang, “sometimes words have two meanings.” If you aren't careful, you just might not quite grasp what someone else is saying. That's why context is so important. It's why sometimes we misunderstand what someone else is saying, because the two of us are not connecting on a meaningful level.

And this is exactly what is going on in today's gospel episode between Jesus and Nicodemus.

This starts off in the very beginning, and it sets the tone for the entire conversation. Jesus says that in order to see the kingdom of God a person needs to be born from above. The Greek word for “from above” is like those seven words we looked at a few minutes ago. That is, it has multiple meanings. Besides “from above,” it can also mean, “anew” or “again.”

John's gospel is full of metaphor and imagination. John is concerned with the overall Truth of the gospel, not necessarily a literal account based on nothing but the facts, ma'am. You can see this in the cleansing of the Temple, which John places in Chapter 2, while the synoptics have it occurring closer to Jesus' death in Holy Week. And you can see it here with Nicodemus.

Nicodemus hears this word and automatically goes to a literal meaning, questioning the method of a person's rebirth. Jesus, however, is talking about a new birth from above, a birth generated by the Creator of all things, God. If Nicodemus, and us, were able to make this jump to a metaphorical understanding of what Jesus is getting at, then we would all be better off.

But Nicodemus, and others, are hung up on the literal meaning of being born again.

Nicodemus focuses on the physical event. Some of our brothers and sisters in Christ tend to focus on a one-time holy, ecstatic experience in which they are born again as children of God. I would guess that all of us have encountered some form of the Born Again movement. When that is our focus, however, we miss the depth and beauty of what Jesus is trying to get across. We miss the light that shines in the darkness.

We need to change our focus from a one-time event, being born anew or born again, to a deeper understanding of what it means to be born from above. To be born from above means to be overshadowed by the Spirit, to become attuned to the vision of God, and to allow that same Spirit to lead you on a God-directed journey.

The wind blows where it wills, and we know not from where it comes or where it goes. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.

Like the wind, the Spirit is invisible, quiet, roaring, comforting, and terrifying all at the same time. Through our baptism by water and the Spirit, we are given the gift of being born from above. We are given the gift of seeing creation through the eyes of God, if we only take the time to do so.

As I said, being born again is often a label given and used to recall a one-time event. Being born from above, however, allows us to be born anew every time the wind blows or every time the Spirit moves, if we open our eyes.

Being born from above invites us to see God in every day places and events, and to challenge those places where God isn't. The kingdom of God is present when we help care for, feed, and respect the dignity of the people who make use of the Reach Cold Weather Shelter, or our own Community Cafe. But we shouldn't be afraid to challenge a social system that not only makes those things necessary, but sees those things as proof that certain people have no value.

I opened this sermon by pointing out the different meanings of a few words in order to demonstrate how Jesus and Nicodemus were talking past each other. What Nicodemus was trying to do was to demand an exact, factual, accounting of the signs Jesus did in terms he understood. What Jesus was trying to do was to open Nicodemus' eyes to the light and infinite possibilities of God moving beyond facts and into Truth, moving beyond a one-time event and into an ever-changing way of being.

To be born anew is an attempt to put into words what is beyond words. To be born anew is to let the Spirit overshadow you each and every day. To be born anew is to let God mold you in such a way that not only is your life changed, but to have your eyes, heart, and mind opened to the reshaping of everyday events in ways that reflect the kingdom of God in the here and now.

To be born anew is akin to hearing any of those seven words again in the future and automatically think of alternative meanings. To be born anew is to see a situation and automatically think of alternative ways of being.


Amen.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Sermon; Lent 1A; Matthew 4:1-11

As with the story of the Transfiguration that we hear every year on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, on the First Sunday in Lent we always hear the story of Christ's temptation in the wilderness. And as with the former story providing us with much on which to ponder, so it is with today's gospel.

There is the symbolic time frame of 40 days in the wilderness. There are the three temptations. And there is the reference to angels coming and waiting on Jesus, among other topics that could be teased out from the reading. Out of all of that, however, I want to focus on the third temptation that Christ faced.

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”

It's easy for us to imagine being in Jesus' place and telling the devil to shove it. It's easy for us to imagine being confronted by a demon with horns and a pointy tail and saying, “Away with you.” But it's a rare thing to come face to face with such a blatant set up. The truth is that the temptations, and those tempting us, are much less clear in their appearance.

This third temptation isn't really about worshiping the devil, because we know enough to only worship God. This temptation isn't really about the devil's power to give Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, because all things belong to God and the devil's rule is only temporary. What this temptation is really about is taking the easy way out.

The path of Jesus is that of sacrificial giving. The path of Jesus includes hard choices that involves touching untouchables, welcoming and including outsiders, treating the poor and destitute in the same way we treat the rich and endowed. This path of Jesus is hard and messy. This path of Jesus is a struggle that will involve people who don't get it, people who think they get it, and people who want it stopped. Ultimately this path of Jesus leads to betrayal, rejection, torture, crucifixion and death.

This third temptation of Christ – You can have it all if you just do this one thing – is all about eliminating the process, it's all about cutting out the middleman, it's all about taking a shortcut to get to the prize. This is why lotteries are so popular, because they promise vast amounts of wealth without having to work for it.

This temptation to take the easy way out, to get right to the good stuff, appears in all facets of life. It shows up on the streets when people begging for money turn down the offer of food or resource contacts because that's not the easy fix they are looking for. It's happening now when Publisher's Clearing House is offering $7000 a week for life, all you have to do is enter, no purchase necessary. And you see it in churches that pursue a one-size-fits-all program guaranteed to attract families and children.

But the truth of the matter is that there are no quick fix solutions. Regardless of who or where we are, we need to follow in the steps of Christ, refuse the temptation of a quick fix, and labor through sacrificial love, costly grace, and difficult discipleship. This is Lent.

Lent is our reminder that there is no quick fix. We are reminded that we need to spend time struggling in the wilderness. We need to remember that self-examination and sacrifice are necessary parts to discipleship. We need to remember that we have to go through Good Friday before we can arrive at Easter. And Lent reminds us that we must acknowledge our sins and be willing to say, “I'm sorry.”

As I said, we must go through Good Friday before we can arrive at Easter. I heard an example of this last week at a dinner for organists and clergy. One pastor relayed the time a (now former) organist chose to play, “He's Alive” on Maundy Thursday. That's a humorous story of what I'm getting at.

Discipleship is hard work with no easy answers. We can't simply plug in a ready-made program and magically attract families and younger people. We need to get to know them and invite them and welcome them and include them. Discipleship involves the hard work of stewardship, the long-term, long-range care of this facility. It involves participating in events and committees. And it involves being willing to interact with people who don't look like you, talk like you, live like you, or even smell like you.

As we travel through Lent, let us not be in such a hurry to get to Easter. One way we might accomplish this is to focus on each day of our discipline. Rather than think, “O Lord, I have six more weeks of not eating, not doing, not not not, to go;” focus on today. Today I will not snack, watch game shows, play Candy Crush, worry, swear, treat others badly, or whatever.

I'm reminded of a story an old NFL official told about a first year referee. They were in the locker room before the game and the new guy was anxious and nervous as all get out. He said, “I don't know if I can go out there in front of all those people and work this game.”

The old veteran said, “You've been an official for 20-some years. Is there anybody in those stands better qualified than you to work this game?”

“No.”

“Do you think you can officiate one play, just one play, correctly?”

“Of course,”

“Let me tell you a secret . . . that's the only way they will ever play this game – one play at a time.”

That's Lent – one day at a time.
That's discipleship – one day, one person, one event at a time.

It may be difficult and messy. It may involve things and people you don't like. But it's where our journey takes us, one event at a time.

The devil is tempting us to take the easy way out and head right to Easter. Don't fall for it.


Amen.

Thursday, March 02, 2017

Sermon; Ash Wednesday 2017

The burial service reminds us that we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth we shall return. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Today is the first day of Lent. Today is the annual remembrance of our mortality. Today we participate in the act of giving and receiving the imposition of ashes. Today we remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return.

A few years ago I read an article about Lent in which the author, a priest, was talking about the Lenten tradition of giving something up. He said he didn't much care for the somewhat newer practice of taking something on. Let me rephrase that – he didn't much care for the somewhat newer practice of taking something on as a replacement to giving something up.

His overall point was that, in order to be a follower of Jesus, we need to deny ourselves. We need to relearn that we are not the center of our various universes. By denying ourselves, by our acts of sacrifices, by fasting from our desires and our ability to engage in instant gratification, we learn. We learn self-control. We learn that having unfulfilled desires really won't kill us. And, if we are paying attention, we can learn what it might be like for those who must go without on a regular basis.

I'm also reminded of a conversation I had around the idea of a living theology. Theology is often seen as a mental exercise; after all, theology means the study of God. People write theological books and attend schools of theology. But theology is much more than studying God and writing papers. Theology must be lived.

The first part of a living theology, I think, is our Prayer Book. This book takes the study of God to a deeper level. It takes words that were written in the study of God and places them in the cycle of our lives – morning to evening, catechumenate to communicant, birth to death. Episcopalians aren't kidding when we say, “If you want to know what we believe, come worship with us.” This book is the first step in moving theology from our head to our heart.

And one author I read wrote that he has begun to see faith not as belief in holy acts – the imposition of ashes, anointing with oil, baptism, Communion and the like – but that faith is the practice of participating in those acts. It is through our faithful practice and participation in these things that hallow them and make us holy. This is a living faith and a living theology.

Today marks the beginning of our Lenten journey. In the beginning, God formed humankind from the dust of the ground. Our Lenten journey will end on Holy Saturday with Jesus in the tomb. For so did God ordain, we are dust and to dust we shall return.

This ancient ritual of imposing ashes can help us see our own mortality in the face of those around us, and it has the power to create a sacred bond. The ancient ritual of Communion can help us see those around us as people hungry, as we are, for life-giving sustenance. Thoughts on God and human life led to the creation of these rituals, and these rituals led to a living theology. Lent is a living theological experience that moves us through life, sacrifice, and death.

This Lent, give something up. Give it up to learn patience and restraint. Give it up in solidarity with those who have none. Give it up to deny yourself and follow Christ. Give it up and look.

Look for how the words and actions of our worship shape your daily life. Look to see how your active participation makes these acts holy. And look to see how you are transformed.

If we pay attention, we just might notice that we have quit thinking about God and have begun living with God.

Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. How do you live out your theology?


Amen.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Sermon; Last Epiphany A; Matthew 17:1-9

Today is NOT the Feast of the Transfiguration. But we do commemorate the Transfiguration event every year on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany. The short answer as to why we do that is because the Season of Epiphany is all about making Jesus known to the world. On the Feast of the Epiphany we celebrated the arrival of the wise men and the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles. His baptism was about being made known as the Son of God. The following Sundays were all about making him known to the world through our actions. And today we get a glimpse of the totality of Jesus through the Transfiguration event.

As with most scripture passages, there are a lot of options we could focus on. What is the significance of six days? What is the significance of the mountain? Moses and Elijah are there representing the Law and the Prophets. The desire to remain in that place. The raising of the disciples. All of this and more are embedded in this story. But I want to look at the transfiguration event itself.

What exactly does it mean to be transfigured? At its most basic, to be transfigured is to be changed or transformed. On a personal level, when you get married you are changed and transformed into a husband or wife. When you have your first child, you are transformed into a parent. But that's only a partial explanation because it doesn't get to the depths of what is going on. And if you follow this line of thought too far, you might come to the heretical conclusion that Jesus was transformed, or changed, into God at this event.

The transfiguration story is an apocalyptic story. Thanks to books like “The Late Great Planet Earth,” and the horribly awful “Left Behind” series, many people today have a mistaken idea that “the Apocalypse” is an all-out end-of-the-world destructive event. The actual definition of apocalypse, however, is simply a revealing. An apocalypse, or an apocalyptic event, is simply a pulling back of the curtain, or a lifting of the veil, so that we can see the true nature of something. Toto pulling back the curtain was an apocalyptic event, as it revealed the true nature of the wizard.

One of my commentaries has a great example of the transfiguration. The author recalls a scene overlooking a lake on a bright sunny day. The reflection of sunlight off the water was almost blinding in its brightness. But then a random cloud floated by, overshadowing the people, and removing the glare off the water. In that moment, he says, you could look deep into the water and see the rock formations at the bottom of the lake.

That, I think, is the best explanation of the transfiguration event: a revealing of the true nature and depth of who this person Jesus really is.

All of us here at St. John's have experienced, or are experiencing, our own transfiguration event. We are all being transformed and changed. My family has settled in and are being transformed into easterners. In last week's Wednesday Word I compared the Celebration of New Ministry to a wedding; that wedding is transforming all of us into a new relationship of priest and people. But those changes, those transformations, don't get at the heart of what is going on.

I have mentioned this before, and it is self-evident to anyone who enters here – this place is extremely beautiful. Like the sun shining on the lake, it can sometimes blind us to the point where we can't take it all in. And that's too bad, because sometimes that blinding beauty hides the depth of this parish's true nature.

If you attended the installation, you will recall the moment in the service when I presented a variety of gifts to people who serve in the many ministries that take place here. And you will recall all of those people gathered up here around the altar. That is just a partial glimpse of the depth of this parish. That is a pulling back of the curtain, a revealing of who we really are. That was an apocalyptic moment. That was a transfiguring moment. In that moment, the Holy Spirit overshadowed us and allowed us to see how wonderfully deep we are.

Thursday, and continuing through today, was and is our transfiguration moment. One response to this event is to imitate Peter and say, “It is good for us to be here; let's dwell in this place for ever.” That response, however, is based on the overwhelming beauty of the place and not on its reality.

The reality of Jesus is that he is much more than a beautiful, dazzling bright figure. He is God incarnate. The reality of this place is that we are much more than a dazzlingly beautiful sanctuary. We are living members of the body of Christ.

At the end of today's gospel Jesus and the three disciples come down the mountain. Jesus orders them to tell no one about the event until after the resurrection. And a little later in Matthew, the group is confronted by a man asking that his son be healed from a terrible, self-destructive disease.

Like the disciples, we have come down off the mountain. Like Jesus and the disciples, we are confronted by people needing the healing power of Jesus. Unlike the disciples, we are free to tell the story.

This Epiphany season is all about making Jesus known to the world. Like Jesus, we have been transfigured and both the beauty of this place and its depth have been revealed. And now, like the disciples, we need to come down off the mountain. The question for us all as we move forward is this: How will you proclaim both the beauty and the depth of who we are to the world around us?


Amen.