Thursday, May 05, 2016

It's not just the Americans

On one hand, this makes me feel good in that it's not just the Americans doing/saying stupid things.

On the other hand . . . The Stupid . . . it burns.

A British MP had this to say about the Church of England's Commission on Climate Change:

A British parliamentarian has challenged the Church Commissioners’ stance on climate change and urged them to “read the Bible."  David Davies, the Conservative MP for Monmouth, told MPs that the parable of the oil lamps and 10 virgins in Matthew 25 supported the “cheap and ready supply of this much-maligned fossil fuel."

Just . . . Duh-AMMM

Click here for the full story.

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Sermon; Easter 6C; John 14:23-29

Today's gospel passage comes from what is known as the Farewell Discourse that runs from the last quarter of Chapter 13 (after Jesus washes the feet of his disciples and Judas leaves to betray him) through the end of Chapter 17.  This section of John is referred to as the Farewell Discourse because of its similarity to other final speeches, such as Moses' farewell speech of Deuteronomy, in which the leader is about to be separated from his followers.  Among other things, he reminds them of who they are as God's chosen apostles and that he will send the Holy Spirit to comfort them in their loss.  It is, in effect, Jesus' “Win one for the Gipper” speech.

The section we heard in today's gospel takes place early in that speech and it is particularly apt for today, mainly because this coming Thursday is the Feast of the Ascension.  This Thursday is, in the tradition of the Acts of the Apostles, 40 days after Easter and the day when Jesus ascended to the Father.  It's the day when we have been left behind to run the store.  And so we get this part of the Farewell Discourse today to prepare us for Jesus' departure and our greater role in his mission.

What is Jesus telling us as we prepare for that departure?  The first thing we are told is that, although Jesus is leaving us, he is not abandoning us.  The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, will be sent in his name.  Additionally, the Holy Spirit will teach us and remind us of all that Jesus said.  That's the good news.

The bad news, if you can call it that, is with Jesus gone we can no longer talk with him.  Oh, I know, people say they talk with Jesus all the time, and we even have songs about it – “Aaaannnd he walks with me and he talks with me . . .”  But the reality is that for us, and for the post-Ascension apostles, Jesus isn't here.

What is here is the Holy Spirit, his own first gift for those who believe.  This gift ensures that we have not been abandoned, nor are we alone.  This gift will teach us everything and remind us of all that Jesus said to us.  But there's a catch:  since we can't actually talk with the Holy Spirit, we need to spend our time listening.  We need to listen for guidance.  We need to listen for love.  We need to listen to where God might be calling us.

Another really important thing Jesus tells us is do not let your hearts be afraid.  That is a hard thing to do when we find ourselves alone for the first time.  At the crucifixion, death, and burial of Christ, the disciples were alone.  But that was sudden and, for them, somewhat unexpected.  They have now had forty days with Jesus getting used to the idea of his permanent departure.  And on Thursday they will once again be on their own.

In Old Testament terms, it's time for them to gird up their loins.  In current terms, it's time for them to put on their big boy pants.  Be not afraid.

But I think there is something else beyond Jesus leaving us behind that causes us to be afraid.  Beyond the fear of being left behind is the fear, I think, that this mission of Christ now rests on our shoulders.  It is now up to us to proclaim the gospel to the people with whom we come into contact.  It is now up to us to pray, study, and teach people about our faith.

The pray and study part may not cause us to be afraid.  We all pray at various times and in various manners.  But I would be willing to bet that most, if not all, of us could stand to make prayer a more intentional part of our lives.  The same can probably be said about studying.  While not afraid of studying, we could all benefit from more intentionally reading and studying scripture, as well as attending the Sunday morning study between services.

This leaves us, then, with teach.  You might think that teaching requires a degree or certificate or a classroom.  While that's the traditional understanding of teach, there can be a lot more to it.  Teach is also synonymous with inform and share.  And those can be synonymous with – and here's where it gets scary – evangelism.

This Thursday is the Day of Ascension.  On that day the disciples witnessed Jesus disappearing into heaven on a cloud.  On that day they stood gazing up into heaven wondering what they might do next.  And on that day a couple of angels asked them, “Why are you standing here looking up to heaven?”  From that moment on the apostles spent their time praying and teaching.  Well, to be fair, the teaching part didn't come until Pentecost; but from that day forward they stopped looking to heaven and got busy.

We are pretty much in the same place.  The Feast of the Ascension is this Thursday, and Pentecost is two weeks away (don't forget to wear red).  We can spend our time looking up to heaven wondering what to do next, or we can follow the apostles and get to work.  If we choose to get to work, then we begin by spending our time in prayer, study, and evangelism – teaching or sharing if you prefer.

The more we pray, the more we learn to listen to the whisperings and callings of the Holy Spirit.  The more we study, the more we become familiar with God's curriculum.  The more we study together, the more comfortable we become in openly discussing our thoughts about God.  The more comfortable we become in discussing our thoughts, then the more comfortable we become in telling and teaching others about our faith.

The Feast of the Ascension is coming up, and Pentecost is two weeks away.  As we move from Easter to Pentecost we would do well to remember three things:

1. We have been gifted with the Holy Spirit.
2. We have no reason to be fearful.
3. It's time to quit gawking and get moving.

Amen.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Things that make you go, "Hmmm"

"I will have a deportation force to kick out people who reside in this country illegally." -- Donald Trump

"When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien.  The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you." -- God

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Sermon; Easter 5C; Acts 11:1-18

In last week's reading from Revelation we heard John's account of seeing an uncountable multitude gathered around the throne of God.  It was a multitude that included people from every nation, tribe, and language.  This was, I said, an all-inclusive vision in which all of God's people gather at the throne.  It is a much better vision than one focusing on those who should be cast out of God's presence.  Far too many people are concerned with determining who should be cast into the lake of fire.

But before John wrote of his holy vision, Peter had a holy vision of his own that was just as inclusive, possibly laying the groundwork for John.  And we hear of that vision in today's reading.

This vision of Peter's first appears in Chapter 10 of Acts.  Peter is on a rooftop praying, and he gets hungry.  He goes into a trance and sees a sheet come down with all kinds of animals on it, and he hears God telling him to kill and eat.  But Peter refuses because he's never eaten anything unclean.  Eventually Peter interprets this vision to mean that God is throwing open the doors of the kingdom and inviting all kinds of people whom we would normally consider unclean, or unworthy, to enter.  “I truly understand,” declares Peter, “that God shows no partiality.”

Today Peter gets a chance to put that vision into practice by explaining his vision to some “very important people.”

He goes up to Jerusalem to meet with the apostles and believers where he is criticized for eating with the uncircumcised.  He is criticized for mingling with Gentiles and outsiders.  He is criticized for breaking boundaries.  He is criticized for not maintaining the purity of the faith.

In other words, the self-appointed gatekeepers of the faith condemn Peter for his willingness to include those who are normally excluded.  This should sound familiar.  It wasn't that long ago, and is still the case in some places, that good religious people condemn others for extending membership to those who have been divorced.  People were and are criticized and condemned for speaking out against slavery and speaking up for integration.  They were and are criticized and condemned for allowing interracial marriages.  And that criticism and condemnation extends into today for people who advocate for gender equality, women's ordination, and for allowing equal and full access to LGBT people.

Like Peter, people in the church are being condemned by others for taking an inclusive stand on the sole premise that “we've never done that before.”  And like Peter, those being condemned are making the claim that God is doing a new thing.

In today's reading we hear Peter tell the council about his vision.  He tells of his experience while praying to God.  He tells of God declaring all things clean.  He tells of the Holy Spirit falling upon those Gentile outsiders just as it had come upon the apostles.  He tells of his understanding that anyone who loves God and seeks to do his will is acceptable.  And he puts this question to those assembled:  If God gives them the same Spirit he gave us, who are we to stop that?

The Church in general, and the Anglican Communion in particular, spends a whole lot of time defining who is not welcome.  Which is odd for an organization that claims to welcome everyone.  Whether the issue was or is slavery, women, racial equality, gender equality, or homosexuality, the church tears itself apart because some new stance on inclusiveness has not only never been done, but it is a perceived threat to the existing power structure.

Unfortunately, we have reached a point where Peter's closing statement is ignored.  Instead of hearing this story of inclusion and exclaiming, “Alleluia!  God is doing a new thing and bringing everyone into the kingdom!” people tend to recoil and say, “But the Bible clearly says . . .”

It's funny, in a sad sort of way, that people spend more time searching the Bible for ways to condemn and exclude people than they do searching for ways to love and include people.  We forget what is at the core of our faith.  And we focus more on what separates us rather than on what binds us.  We need, I think, to remember that it's not how we're wrapped, it's what's contained inside.  And if what's contained inside is based in love, then God will be accepting of any oddly wrapped package.

Peter gets remembered for a lot of things, most of them goofy and/or unflattering.  People like him because he is impetuous and fallible.  They see him as the most “human” of all the disciples.  He is remembered for walking on water and then sinking, for drawing the ire of Christ (“Get behind me, Satan”), for denying Christ three times, for falling asleep, and for putting on his clothes and jumping into the water.  But we would do well to remember Peter for this vision because it just may be his single most important contribution to the Church.  It was that vision that allowed the Church to expand and begin to bring to fulfillment the promise made to Abraham that all families would be blessed.

The Church has had a long, sad history of criticizing, condemning, and excluding people because they were different, or because they didn't meet with the approval of the self-appointed gatekeepers of the faith.  But despite our best efforts to maintain proper boundaries and attempts at keeping the place pure, outsiders and miscreants of all kinds keep managing to find their way in.

Maybe it's time for us to finally admit that we can't keep the Church as neat, tidy, and pure as we want it to be.  Maybe it's finally time to stand with Peter, throw open the doors, and loudly and publicly proclaim, “We welcome everyone, for we truly understand that God shows no partiality.”

Because, really, if the Holy Spirit is being poured out on THOSE People, who are we to stop it?

Amen.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Sermon; Easter 4C; Revelation 7:9-17

Chapter 7 of Revelation, from where our reading today is drawn, is what is known as an interlude between chapters 6 and 8.  This chapter gives us some much needed breathing space between the opening of seals six and seven.

Chapter 6 gives us the image of the four horsemen of the apocalypse.  It tells of martyrs slaughtered for the testimony they have given.  It tells of earthquakes, a blackened sun, the blood moon, falling stars, and of people hiding in mountain caves.

Chapter 8 gives us the image of hail and fire mixed with blood, one-third of all living creatures being killed off, black days, and an eagle crying, “Woe, woe, woe to the inhabitants of the earth!”

These are the chapters of John Hagee, Hal Lindsey, Tim LaHaye, and other end-times false prophets who prey on the fears of many, getting rich from the lies they spread.  These are the chapters of death, destruction, and limited salvation that people like to focus on and glorify.  These are chapters with blood and gore and punishment that has become the focus of so many.

It's no wonder that John put this interlude here – we need a break.  After all, there's only so much death and destruction a person can take.  In contrast, the whole of this chapter discusses those sealed as servants of God, the famed and much misunderstood 144,000, and the great multitude from today's reading.  As such, we need to look at the whole chapter.

Chapter 7 begins with a respite from the calamities being poured out upon the earth while angels are tasked with marking the servants of God with a seal on their foreheads.  There are many meanings and interpretations of this, and I won't go into them all, but this may be the most important meaning: at our baptism we are claimed and set apart as belonging to God, and we are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.  We have been marked as servants of God and given an indelible seal on our forehead.

Those sealed as belonging to God are counted by John as being 144,000.  Actually, he doesn't count them, he “hears the number of those sealed, 144,000.”  That number has become some kind of magic number among apocalypse enthusiasts and “biblical literalists.”

Again, I won't go into details here, but it's important to note that, as with a lot of Revelation, the 144,000 is symbolic.  If you take the twelve tribes of Israel, combined with the symbolism of the twelve disciples cum apostles, and an understanding that one thousand was used the same way we use a million or a gazillion, you end up with a symbol of a whole lot of people represented in God's perfect square.  This is a symbolic number for John that represents both the perfection (12 x 12) of God, and a whole lot of God's people.

Which brings us to the actual reading for today.  “After this,” John writes, “I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, peoples, and languages, standing before the throne, robed in white.”

The “after this” is not part of our reading today, but it is how this passage begins in the actual chapter.  Some people misinterpret this phrase as John referencing a different group.  But what John has done is to tie the same group together with two different perspectives.

He hears the number 144,000, so he can imagine a whole lot of people assembled in God's perfection, and he sees an uncountable multitude.  What he sees reinforces what he hears.  That is, he is being shown through multiple senses an uncountable multitude gathered around the throne of God.  From every family, language, people, and nation he is shown a multitude of people, the perfect square of God's people, gathered around the throne in joyful song.

The vision John sees is a vision of past, present, and future.  The multitude he sees are those who have gone through the trials, the martyrs of ages past.  It is also a vision of the future.  The multitude he sees is the vision of what will be – a vision of victory for those in present struggles.  That seal I mentioned at the beginning doesn't prevent us from experiencing difficulties, but when things are coming undone, or unsealed, it keeps us sealed.

And this vision is a heavenly vision of I AM.  This is the vision of NOW.  It's a vision of victorious martyrs of ages past, the hope of a glorious future for God's people of today, and the present reality of now.  When we participate in the Eucharist, in the mystery of all of … this … we join with prophets, apostles, martyrs, and those in every generation, in the time of I AM, when we sing, “Holy, holy, holy Lord.”

Chapter 7 is a much needed interlude, a space for us to breathe, and it's placed there for a reason.  Revelation is not a checklist of the end times.  It is not a blueprint or chronological timeline for how things will happen.  Rather it is a book of hope and it is a book of now.

In every age there is chaos, war, famine, death, destruction, blood, and violence.  The four horsemen of the apocalypse are not a vision of the future, but a vision of the now.  They are the four horsemen of today bringing the conquest, war, famine, and death that ravages the world around us.

Rather than focusing on these things, predicting doom and gloom and trying to scare the hell out of people, what if we focused on the interlude?  We have been sealed and marked as Christ’s own forever.  We participate with the hosts of heaven in the holy mystery of the heavenly liturgy.  We have been, are now, and will again face trials, but an uncountable multitude of people from every family, language, and nation join together and sing, “Holy, holy, holy.”

This is the vision I want to focus on.  This is the vision I want to tell people about.  I don't want to claim a limited, literal number of saved.  I don't want to focus on death and destruction.  Instead, I want to know that we are present with God in the interlude.  And if we can get more people focused on Chapter 7, maybe chapters 6, 8, 9, and 10 will be more manageable.  Maybe if we focus more on Chapter 7, there will be no more hunger, we will all drink from the springs of eternal life, God will wipe away every tear, and an uncountable multitude will sing.

That's a vision of Revelation I can get behind.

Amen.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Sermon; Easter 3C; John 21:1-19

“So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn.”

The first part of this chapter, vv. 1-11, is the final fishing story of the gospels.  Jesus has died.  The disciples aren't sure about the resurrection.  They decide to get on with their lives and do what they do best – fish.

So these seven men get into a fishing boat and spend all night out on the water, but they catch nothing until the following morning when Jesus tells them to cast their net on the right side of the boat.  They do as he says and they end up catching so many fish that they can't bring the nets into the boat.  They realize it is Jesus standing on the shore, and Peter promptly puts his clothes on and jumps into the water to swim ashore, while the rest follow in the boat, dragging the net behind.  Peter hauls the net ashore where we are told there were 153 fish.

I don't know about you, but I have always found this particular story to be a little ridiculous.  Jesus telling the disciples to cast their nets on the right side of the boat and suddenly making a great catch.  Peter putting on his clothes and jumping into the water.  And the specific number of fish, 153 to be exact.  At first glance, the playfulness of it all doesn't seem to fit John's normal style.  Which is exactly why we need to pay attention to this part of the gospel; because there are some hidden gems in here that do fit John's normal style.

One of the things you need to know about the Gospel of John is its interplay between light and dark.  There are thirteen places where John uses the dark/night motif in his gospel, and this is one of them.  Notice that the disciples spend all night fishing without catching anything; but it's when Jesus appears just after daybreak, in the light, that they catch a boatload of fish (pun intended).  Once again we see that the darkness does not overcome the light.

Another thing you need to know about the Gospel of John is that it is highly symbolic and metaphorical.  So when we hear this story of the disciples fishing on the right side of the boat, and that they caught 153 fish, we need to be aware that John is not telling us a fish story.  And understanding this about this gospel story can lead us to see this whole fishing episode as a metaphor for the church.

The disciples represent the leaders of the church.  By their casting of the net they are dictating the direction the church is going.  The net, therefore, is the church itself.  It is the church, under the direction of its leadership, that looks to draw people to Christ.  You are the disciples.  You are fishers of people.  And this church is your net.  But if we don't follow the guidance of Jesus, if we are not listening to where he is calling us to cast our net, then we will be just as successful as the disciples were while fishing from the wrong side of the boat.

Now I don't know a lot about fishing, but there are a few things that I can probably make a pretty good educated guess at:
1. You can catch more fish with a net than with a line.
2. A net will catch any fish too big to swim through the netting.
3. A net doesn't distinguish between carp, salmon, trout, pike, or catfish.

We need to pay attention to this.  As a church, we can choose to fish with a line or we can choose to fish with a net.  If we choose to fish with a line, then we will spend our time trying to catch just the right kind of fish.  But if we follow the example of today's gospel and fish with a net, then we just may catch all different kinds and types of fish; that is, as long as we are listening to the voice of Jesus.

This, of course, sounds wonderful.  Use a net.  Listen to Jesus.  Be ready to gather in 153 new parishioners.  But if we were to suddenly increase our Sunday attendance by 153, there would be a high level of stress placed on our system.  For starters, where would they all sit?  On a deeper level, it's guaranteed that those 153 people would not be exactly like us.  If we had that sudden influx, would we know what to do with them?  I think we would.  We would offer them a spiritual home where they could learn, grow, and experience the love of God.  And it would be very representative of the Episcopal Church:  one fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish, we welcome them all.

But probably the most important thing to take away from this story, more important than listening to the voice of Jesus, more important than casting a wide net, more important than welcoming 153 new people into the church, is that the net was not torn.  If we listen to Jesus and fish where he tells us, we may end up with such a large catch that it might be difficult for us to handle.  We may find ourselves with such a rich variety of people that this place will look very different.  And like the disciples struggled with their net, those 153 new people will also cause us to struggle.  But if we have listened to Jesus, if we trust in his guidance, if we understand that this is a place for all people, then our net will not be torn.  This church will not be torn.

Like the disciples, we have entered our post-resurrection lives.  Like the disciples are finding out, that resurrection calls us to live new and different lives.  We have come through Holy Week and the Triduum, but have we been changed?  Are we sill living our lives like we have always lived our lives, fishing in the dark from the wrong side of the boat?

This might be the time for us to really begin listening to Jesus.  This might be the time for us to change how we go about our fishing.  This might be the time we catch 153 new fish.  And if we do, know that there will be struggles, but also know that this net will not be torn.

Amen.

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Conflicted

Monday morning our sexton (that's janitor in church-language) told me that there was a "pretty good camp site going" behind the bushes alongside the building.

Oh goody.

I sat with that information all week, pondering what, if anything, to do.

On the one hand, homelessness in this town is a huge problem.  The Gospel Rescue Mission is always full.  It's also problematic in that they tend to make life difficult for people looking for shelter.  It has other issues as well, but I'll leave it at that.  The only other short-term shelter option is a warming center that is only open one night a week; and with the weather getting warmer, I don't know how long they plan on staying open.  People unwilling, unable, or not allowed, to sleep at the shelter find other places . . . various parks, city lawns, or nooks and crannies around town.  The camp that was set up on our property is well-hidden, so the people are protected from thievery and other attacks.  It provides soft ground, so they aren't sleeping on concrete.  And, because of the size of the bushes, it probably provides a decent, if not perfect, shelter from wind and rain.  In that respect, I'm glad there's a place for them.

On the other hand, there are at least a few issues I need to consider:
First, they never did ask for permission to set up camp on our grounds.
Second, safety.  We have parishioners who care for our grounds.  What might happen if they stumble upon the campers?  Are my parishioners safe?
Third, health.  I don't sleep through the night.  Where are the campers taking care of business, and are they reliably cleaning up the area?

I called the public safety department this morning and asked them to come take care of the site.  The officer who showed up told me that, because of how it's set up, it's classified as a "camp site" and he needs to post a 24-hour eviction notice.  I can live with that.  When the campers come back tonight, they will at least have the opportunity to remain in possession of their sleeping bags and food items.

"When did we see you homeless and not offer shelter?"

The place between the gospel and the real world can be a bitch sometimes.