Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Teachable Moments

Yesterday I had a new official with me in the car.  Not always, but often, the conversation turns to religion in general and my job in particular.  That's especially the case when I have a newbie riding with me, or I'm the newbie and the guys want to learn about me.  Yesterday was the former.

"So will you be going to the same church or a different church when you move?"

"What do you mean?"

"Well, are you going to the same type of church, or are you going to something totally different?"

"I'll be going to the same type of church, yes."

"And what religion are you again?"

"I'm a Christian."

"Well, yeah .... but what kind?"

"I'm an Episcopalian.  So I'll be going to another Episcopal church."

Silence ....

"An Epicospahwhut?"

"Episcopalian ... E -- pih -- Scuh -- Pay -- lian ... just like it's spelled."

"And what is that?"

Here we go .... "In short, we're basically in between the Roman Catholics and the Protestants."

"Huh . . . well I knew there were Catholics and Christians, but I didn't know ..."

"Stop right there ... Catholics ARE Christians."

"Yeah, okay ... but weren't there the Christians first and then the Catholics broke off from that."

**Sigh**  I refrained from slamming my head against the steering wheel.

"Where do you attend church?"

"I go to Local Independent Conservative Bible Believing Church."

"Ah ...."

Here's hoping his grasp of football rules is better than his grasp of Religion 101.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Sermon; 14 Pentecost, Proper 16C; Jeremiah 1:4-10

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.  I appointed you a prophet.  Do not be afraid, for I am with you.”

I find these words from Jeremiah to be some of the most challenging and comforting words in Scripture.  Among other things, this passage is one of the optional first readings at diaconal ordinations.  This makes it a challenging reading.

It's challenging because, really, who am I to proclaim the Word of God?  Who am I to be a prophet?  Who am I, or how can I, live up to the expectations of God?  These are just a few thoughts running through the head of a person about to be ordained into the Sacred Order of Deacons.

But I also find it comforting.  As a deacon-to-be, I remember reading through this passage and reminding myself that this whole ordination thing wasn't my idea.  I wasn't doing it to stroke my ego.  I wasn't doing it because I had visions of grandeur.  I certainly wasn't doing it as a career move.  I was doing it because I became convinced, as were those around me, that this was something to which “before I was born God consecrated me.”  It may be a challenge, but it's comforting to know it was God's idea in the beginning.

It is also comforting to hear the words, “Do not be afraid, for I am with you.”  This is different than the angels who say, “Do not be afraid” in an attempt to calm people down.  This is letting us know that we are not alone.  It's letting us know that God has our back.  It's like when you had a bad dream and your parent says, “Don't be afraid, I'm with you.”

Besides the sentimentality of the above comforting words, it's important for us to remember that this is a call story.  God is calling Jeremiah into a prophetic ministry.  And if you remember from last week, being called by God and identifying as a follower of God doesn't guarantee we will live the life of a televangelist.  As Hebrews pointed out, it's more likely we will live in poverty, be flogged, sawn in two, or executed.  God is calling Jeremiah into a difficult and challenging task, a task fraught with opposition, persecution, and rejection.  God is preparing him for that experience by telling him, “I called you, I will give you words to speak, and I will be with you.”

I’ve said this before and I'm sure I’ll say it again, but the longer I use and pay attention to the lectionary, the more I am open to seeing God's handiwork in it.

As I said, this lesson from Jeremiah is a call story.  It is a story of God calling a person out to speak God's word to the people around him.  It is a story of that person wondering, “Who am I that God should call me?  Who am I to speak the Word of the Lord?”

And, like last week, we are asked the question: What does this passage have to say to us today?

I think a lot.

First, know that you are not in this place by accident.  Before you were formed, God knew you.  Before you were born, God consecrated you.  Just like Jeremiah was called to be a prophet, you have been called to this place.  You have a particular message to speak on behalf of God to the people of Grants Pass.

Second, just as Jeremiah was called into difficult places and difficult times, so are you called.  This is a difficult place to preach the gospel and these are difficult times.  You need to discover what it is that you love about St. Luke's and you need to find a way to relay that love to others in the community.  Maybe you can start by telling each other what that is.  Practice it at coffee hour.  Spend time learning about yourself and others.  Get comfortable with talking to people about your faith, and then go preach it.

Finally, do not be afraid, for God is with you to deliver you.  That's not to say things won't be difficult and probably stressful, but know that you have been called to this place.  You have been called to preach the good news of God in Christ.  Not only have you been called, but you are being sent out.  It may not be far, but you are being sent.

And in that calling and sending, God will be with you.  Do not be afraid.

Just as Jeremiah was called to pull down, destroy, and overthrow, you are called to pull down the walls of division, destroy the insidious nature of inaction, and overthrow the bonds of fear.  Just as Jeremiah was called to pluck up, build, and plant, you are called to pluck up your courage, build upon the bonds of affection this place offers, and plant the seeds of  love.

You and Jeremiah have a lot in common.  As Jeremiah was to speak the Word of the Lord to the people of Judah, so you are to speak the Word of the Lord to the people of Grants Pass.

Do not be afraid of that call or of that challenge, for God is with you.

Amen.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Sermon; 13 Pentecost/Proper 15C; Is. 5:1-7; Heb. 11:29 - 12:2; Luke 12:49-56

Well THAT was an interesting set of readings.  If you ever had the idea that being a follower of God somehow made everything okay and ensured your safety and security in this world, think again.

In our first lesson God is letting the children of Israel know the consequences of their bad behavior.  God has done all he can for Israel.  He planted a vineyard, Israel, on a fertile hill, the Promised Land.  He cleared it of stones, all the nations opposed to Israel.  He built a watchtower, the Law.  With all of this attention to the children of Israel, God had an expectation that they would produce grapes, an expectation that they would yield good fruit.  What it produced instead was wild grapes, bitter fruit.

What was the good fruit God expected?  There's a list, but at the top of that list is justice.  To quote from another prophet, “Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God.”

The expected good fruit, however, turned into the bitter fruit of bloodshed, a lack of mercy, trampling down the poor, widowed, and orphaned, and abuse of the stranger and foreigner.  It sounds a lot like today.

In Hebrews we heard a roll call of faithful servants – Rahab, Barak, Samson, and David.  And then we heard the litany of how people of faith were treated – with torture, floggings, stoned, sawn in two, and executed.  Being a Christian was a dangerous proposition during that time.

The author of Hebrews is reminding readers that Christianity can be a dangerous thing; taking up one's cross actually meant following the path of Jesus on the road to execution.  Even so, remember that you are not alone.  We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses and we are encouraged to persevere through all sorts of trials and tribulations.  No matter what we face on earth, know that you have not been forgotten by those who went before, nor have you been forgotten by God.  Part of our call as Christians entails persevering to the end.

Today's gospel reading is just as cheerful as our previous two.  “I came to bring fire to the earth.  I haven't come to bring peace, but division.  Households will be divided, three against two and two against three.  Father against son, son against father.  Mother against daughter and daughter against mother.”

There are a lot of interpretations around this passage, some better than others.  But the bottom line is that when you throw Jesus into the mix, strong opinions tend to surface, division are formed, battle lines drawn, and it does indeed seem that Jesus' mission is far from peaceful.

When I first looked at these readings, I immediately went to my Facebook page, copied a few lines from each, and asked, “Is anyone interested in a guest-preaching gig this Sunday?”

Obviously nobody took me up on that request.  So here I am trying to figure out what bitter grapes, people sawn in two, and a Messiah bent on division all have to do with us today.

In the gospel Jesus said that he was under great stress until a particular baptism was completed.  While not quite the same, you all received a notice this past Friday that has probably already generated a fair amount of stress here at St. Luke's.

The first thing to know about this is that both Cn. Neysa and Bp. Michael will be working with John Barnard, the Vestry, and all of you as you move forward.  I am also working with John and the Vestry to make things as smooth as possible.  But that doesn't mean there won't be bumps along the way.  And this is where our readings for today come in.

First from Isaiah:  know that you are God's beloved.  You are the vineyard of God and you are in a fertile place.  St. Luke's, as a whole, is that fertile place, and each of you are a choice vine.  God has given you everything you need to be fruitful, and God expects you to produce good fruit.

Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God.

From Hebrews: hold to your faith.  Uncountable people before you have faced greater trials and tribulations than you will face.  That's not to minimize or make light of our situation, but it is to point out that you are not alone.  You are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who have your spiritual backs.

Persevere in the race set before you, keeping your eyes on Christ, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.  Remain faithful.

And from the Gospel: pay attention to the signs of the times.  The world is changing around us.  We need to be able to look at what's happening and say, “How can God work in this situation?  What can we do to show the love of God in a new way?”

It just may be that when you choose to do something new, when you choose to show the love of God in new and different ways, your brothers and sisters in the household of God will be divided.  So when you look at the present time, look at it through the eyes of a loving God and then act accordingly.

Do justice.  Remain faithful.  Be imitators of a loving God.  If you do these three things, then I am convinced you will be okay.

Amen.

Friday, August 12, 2016

So this happened

St. John's Episcopal Church

How about that?

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Sermon; 12 Pentecost, Proper 14C; Luke 12:32-40

Chapter 12 of Luke, while no one I can find actually uses this term, is a little apocalyptic.  Jesus talks about exposing words that are said in darkness and behind closed doors, not to fear death, you will face persecution, maintaining a proper focus, actively waiting, and the end of days.  As Jesus makes his way to Jerusalem it seems that his mind is focused on the end times, and Chapter 12 is the result.

In today's reading from this apocalyptic chapter we hear about fear, priorities, and vocation/mission.

Today's passage opens up with Jesus telling his disciples to be not afraid.  This, of course, echoes almost every angelic encounter throughout Scripture – Fear not, be not afraid, and the like.  As disciples of Christ we are reminded to be not afraid.  I haven't actually looked, but it's said that there are 365 references to a version of “fear not” in the Bible, one for every day of the year.  Maybe there are that many because we need an every-day reminder to not live in fear.

This admonishing to be not afraid is followed shortly by his reminder to us that where our treasure is, there our hearts will be as well.  And it's this that I want to focus on – where your treasure is, there will your heart be.

Where is your treasure?  If you aren't sure, or wonder if what you say is your treasure is actually what you treasure, go through your checkbook or bank statement.  What do you spend the most money on, or what do you spend money on the most often?  We can say our treasure is A, but if our financial records indicate our treasure is really X, then we might want to re-examine our life.

This may not be solely financial, either.  Remember that stewardship involves time, talent, and treasure.  Where are we spending our time?

Instead of looking at our checkbook, maybe we need to look at our calendars.  Right around this time of year my attention is turned to football.  I study the rules book, I work to train new officials, I watch videos and take tests, I attend meetings, and I work to get in “football shape.”  And I will readily admit that I would be a better Christian if I spent as much time with Scripture as I do with the rules book.

Those things we treasure – activities and hobbies, football and Candy Crush (or maybe Pokemon Go), any number of things we spend our money on – it is those things we treasure where our heart truly is.  It reminds me of the song, “Cat's in the Cradle” by Harry Chapin.  The subject of the song probably loved his son, but he treasured his work above all and that was truly where his heart lay.

This is all easy stuff, and also correctable.  We can look through our checkbook and make a decision to spend less on restaurants and more on food and clothing for Ft. Vannoy.  We can examine our schedules and choose to spend less time watching TV and more time reading Scripture.  We can change where we place our treasure, and our heart will follow.

But as I pondered over this reading it seemed that there was something hiding just under the surface trying to get out.  And it struck me that what was trying to get out was fear; or rather, the place fear plays in our lives.

Too often, it seems, we are controlled by fear.  There was the person two weeks ago who called 911 because they were afraid of a man with a gun.  That gun turned out to be a toy truck.  That fearful caller was followed by a police officer who shot the unarmed therapist dealing with the distressed person with a truck because he was fearful of the situation.  And if you want fear exemplified, pay attention to any political campaign of any stripe.  One side is preying on the fear of a “lost America” while another side is preying on the fear that we are willingly surrendering our freedom.  And it was a Democratic presidential candidate who ran one of the most fear-based commercials of all time showing a little girl getting obliterated by a nuclear blast.

Like it or not, we are a people who live in fear; or maybe, “a people who live fearfully” would be a better way to put it.  We fear those not like us.  We fear those of other religions.  We fear those of no religion.  We fear people of different racial makeups.  We fear immigrants.  We fear success.  We fear failure.  We fear change.  We fear remaining the same.

It's almost like we don't know how to live if we aren't living in fear.  It's almost like the thing which we treasure most is fear.

Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

One of the Christian disciplines is self-examination – and no, that's not strictly reserved for Lent.  As we move forward in our lives, I challenge you to a period of self-examination in the area of fear.  What are you afraid of?  What causes you to live fearfully?  There are some things for which we have good reason to be afraid – spiders, for instance.  There are other things for which our fears are totally irrational – the zombie apocalypse might be one.  And in the middle are any number of things.

Are we so afraid that we need to build walls instead of relationships?  Are we so afraid that, like the rich fool of last week, we can't see that the best storehouses for extra food is in the bellies of the hungry?

If fear is our treasure, then our hearts will follow.  And it is a fearful heart that refuses to see the kingdom of God breaking into this world; it is a fearful heart that actively works to stop the kingdom of God from breaking into this world.

Do not be afraid.  Sell possessions and give to the poor.  Welcome the stranger.  Feed the hungry.  God is working too hard in and around our lives for us to allow fear to become our greatest treasure.

Amen.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Sermon; Pentecost 10/Proper 12C; Luke 11:1-13

According to Luis of Granada, an influential spiritual author and guide of the 1500's, “Prayer, properly speaking, is a petition to God for the things which pertain to our salvation; but is also any raising of the heart to God.”

It's clear from his point of view that prayer is not the coin which you drop into the heavenly vending machine and get your reward.  Prayer is how we develop a relationship with, and deepen our understanding of, God.  Prayer takes discipline.  Prayer takes reflection.  Prayer takes listening.

There are, of course, many ways to pray.  We have the Rite I way:  Grant, we beseech thee, Almighty God, that like as we do believe thy only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into the heavens, so we may also in heart and mind thither ascend, and with him continually dwell; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end.  Amen.

We have Anne Lamott's understanding that prayer is essentially three words . . . Help, Thanks, Wow.

And we have everything in-between.

So with all these forms available, and a variety of styles (is kneeling required, do we have to bow our heads, can we stand, are ecstatic utterances acceptable, does God actually listen to weejus prayers, and more), how are we to pray?

Every clergy person in every denomination in every faith tradition at one time or another has been asked, “How do I pray?”  This is akin to asking the dentist, “What type of floss should I use?”  Or asking a doctor, “What kind of exercise is best?”  The answer to both of those question is, “The kind that you will actually use or do.”  The answer to, “How do I pray?” is, “You pray.”  But, like I said two weeks ago, we have a habit of turning the simple into the complicated.  So people want to know exactly how to pray, as did Jesus' disciples.

“Teach us to pray like John taught his disciples,” they ask.  Jesus responds with what has become known as the Lord's Prayer.  You probably noticed some differences between the version heard today and the one you're familiar with.  And that's okay, because I’m not going to be talking about those differences today.  Instead, I’m simply going to reflect on the prayer as Luke gives it to us.  Hopefully you will find something useful and thoughtful.

Father, hallowed be your name.  Hallowed means to venerate and/or treat as sacred.  On the one hand it's easy for us to treat God's name as holy and sacred, and to venerate that name; we do it every Sunday.  But there's more to it than that.

The catechism says that God lovingly created the universe, sustains and directs it, and that it is good.  In fact, all of creation was deemed very good.  The name of God, the image of God, is in all things.  If we claim to venerate and treat as sacred the name of God, then we must also venerate and treat as sacred all that is around us.  We can start by not demonizing others, by learning to see the face of Christ in all people, and by respecting all of creation as bearing the image of God.

Your kingdom come.  What does this kingdom look like?  For starters, it is not based on our ideas of power and domination.  Psalm 33 has a good image of the kingdom of God and how it differs from our ideas of a kingdom:  “There is no king that can be saved by a mighty army . . . the horse is a vain hope for deliverance.”

In Christ on Trial, Rowan Williams puts forth the idea that the kingdom of God is something totally foreign to our way of thinking.  The kingdom of God looks at the world from the point of view of the helpless, the outcast, the powerless, the victim.  Viewing the world in this way, he says, frees us from the need to secure our own power.  The kingdom of God is present in the voiceless and powerless, in the outcasts and the leftovers.  The kingdom of God leaves no one out.  When we pray this prayer, is this the kingdom we are expecting and hoping for?

Give us each day our daily bread.  On its surface this could be taken as a petition to ensure we get our daily nourishment – both physical and spiritual.  And that is certainly a valid petition and a valid understanding of this line.  But for almost every person in this congregation that is not really a concern.

What if we were to look at this petition in light of the previous one – your kingdom come?  What if we looked at this petition as a fulfillment of the kingdom of God?  Looking at the petition in this way allows us to see a kingdom of no outcasts, a kingdom in which we have no need of securing our own power, a kingdom where we, by our understanding and actions, work to ensure that those whom society dubs as outcasts receive their daily bread.

And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.  There's too much here to unpack in one sermon, so let me make just one observation.  Notice that this line is not a mandate from God to us.  This isn't God saying, “Love others because I first loved you.”  This line has a “from us to God” movement.  We are praying that God forgive us – because we forgive others.  In short, if we do not forgive, then we cannot be forgiven.

And do not bring us to the time of trial.  Traditionally this has been interpreted as asking for us to be spared the final trial and judgment at the end of days.  But Sharon Ringe writes, “The petition may have been intended as a prayer that the community be spared the accusations and trials before various secular and religious authorities.”

Going back to Christ on Trial, Rowan Williams argues that Christ was tried and executed for, among other things, his refusal to play by the rules of worldly calculations, tactics, and power.  This refusal by Jesus to play the game, his insistence on silence and other-worldliness, results in his trial and execution.  What would happen if we also refused to play the game according to the world's rules?  What would happen if we focused on God's silence and other-worldliness?  Could not we face the same trials as Jesus?  Could this be the time of trial we are praying to be saved from?

Prayer is an exercise in discipline – just do it.  Prayer is a petition to God regarding the things of salvation.  Prayer takes many forms.  But prayer also involves a fair amount of listening.

So when you pray, pray like this.  But spend time listening to what you are really asking of God.  And spend time on listening to what God is asking of you.

Amen.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Sermon; 9 Pentecost, Proper 11C; Luke 10:38-42

Today we hear the story of Martha and Mary.  It's a short story in which Martha plays hostess to Jesus while her sister, Mary, does nothing but sit at Jesus' feet listening to him teach.  Within this short story are deep issues around theology, gender roles, and worldly distractions.

There are many interpretations that criticize and demean Martha for her many distractions.  They paint an image of her that reminds me of my grandmother.  We would often have Thanksgiving dinner at her house, and the place was packed with family and relatives.  But from the time people began showing up until they went home, she was never able to sit and enjoy the meal.  She was always up getting this or that, or moving things around in one way or another.  Like Martha, she was distracted by her many tasks and she had to be told several times to sit down and relax.

There are also many interpretations that overly praise Mary for her decision to sit at Jesus' feet, listening to and learning from what he has to say.  This often comes from the line that says she has chosen the better part, and is presented as reminding us to focus on heavenly things over earthly desires.

The way these women are typically presented is, “Mary good, Martha bad.”  But, as my favorite NT professor often said, “It's more complicated than that.”

One other way we can interpret this story is to demean both women.  Martha is too overcome with the details and distractions of her many tasks to take any notice of what Jesus is saying.  On top of that, she whines to him to intercede on her part and tell Mary to quit being lazy and get to work, rather than deal directly with her sister.  In family systems theory, we call that 'triangulation.'  Don't be a Martha, we are told.

Mary doesn't fare much better.  Yes, she is attentive to what Jesus is saying, but she is completely passive.  Unlike the male disciples, she never speaks, nor does she ask any questions.  She seems to be living out the directives to women as found in 1 Tim. 2:11-12 – “Let a woman learn in silence with full submission.  I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.”  Mary becomes yet another symbol and example of male dominance.

Another way to look at this, though, is to make some positive observations.  The first is that Mary and Martha are not binary examples, one good and one bad.  We need to understand that while the gospels provide us with a new way to live our lives, the gospels very rarely provide us with black and white answers.

A second observation is to note that the gospels are not to be used as a resource on how to demean people.  We aren't to use this particular passage as a way to tell busy people (distracted or otherwise) that Jesus doesn't like the way they handle their business, or their busy-ness.  Nor are we to use this passage to keep women submissive and silent as Mary.

The final and most important observation we can make is that this is a both/and passage.  It doesn't provide black and white answers, but it does show us how to live.  It doesn't berate Martha for her actions, but it does teach us about perspective.  The truth of the matter is that we need both.

We need both hearers and doers of the Word.  We need both the thinkers who plan the feast and the laborers who make it all come together.

In several places throughout Christian history Martha is praised for her work.  She is the one who was ready to serve Jesus before he even arrived.  She is the one who prepared, as Augustine said, a foreshadowing of the meal Christ would share with his disciples.  She also, in another gospel, is the one who had the discussion with Jesus about the resurrection.  Martha has many reasons for which to be praised.

Mary, on the other hand, is much more introspective and/or introverted.  We don't know if she helped with the pre-arrival preparations, but it's clear that once Jesus arrived she was totally focused on him.  In that other gospel story about her brother Lazarus, she was most likely sitting in prayer next to her brother while he died; and she was probably playing the part of a proper mourner when Jesus arrived.

Both of these women have qualities for which to be praised.  Both of these women love Jesus.  Each woman expresses that love in different ways, just as all of us here have our own unique way of expressing our love for Christ.  This doesn't make any one way better or worse than another, it just makes it different.  Within those differences, however, are things to which we may want to pay attention.

First, we need to understand that Martha's work is necessary.  It is necessary for us to be hospitable and serve others.  It is necessary for us to prepare this house for the arrival of Jesus.  It is necessary that we offer food and drink, both literal and spiritual, to those who need it.  These things are necessary, but they won't last.  All of this – the planning, the meals, the concern, the building – all of this is transitory.  Later in Luke (in a passage we wont' hear until Advent 2019) Jesus will say, “Heaven and earth will pass away.”  This is all temporary, and Martha, while doing important work, gets caught up in thinking it's permanent.

Mary, on the other hand, chooses the better part.  Again, in Advent 2019 we will hear Jesus say, “But my words will never pass away.”  As Augustine said so beautifully, “This tiresome journey brings us closer to home and rest where, all our busy activities over and done with, the only thing remaining will be, 'Alleluia'.”  Knowing and dwelling on what will last is choosing the better part.

We have things to do here.  We have people to feed and clothe.  We have sick to visit.  We have services and potlucks to organize.  But let us never forget why we do these things.  Let us never get distracted by that which we know to be transitory.  Let us always, in all our busy works, choose the better part.

Amen.