Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Dreams

Had a dream early this morning (in the neighborhood of 4:30 or 5:00) that had me out of sorts for a bit until I realized it was a dream.

I invited a friend to preach here at my new gig.  Just before service the head of my altar guild came to me and said, "He changed everything."

So two minutes before service started, we had to move everything -- chalice, paten, pall, corporal, cruets, lavabo towel & bowl, bread .... everything -- back to where it belonged in preparation for Eucharist.

As we were moving everything back into place, my friend and guest preacher was walking down the center aisle wearing my cope.

The real kicker though was that it was the members of my former altar guild who were working extremely fast, diligently, and accurately to get everything back in order.

Thankfully dreams are very rarely manifested in real life.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Sermon; Advent 2A; Matthew 3:1-12

Advent is about preparation.
Advent is about staying awake and alert.
Advent is about the in-breaking of God into this realm.
Advent is about change.

All of these themes are evident in today's gospel reading.

After the genealogy, the annunciation to Joseph, the Holy Family's flight to Egypt and their safe return to Nazareth, chapter 3 of Matthew opens with John the Baptist out in the wilderness being . . . well . . . John the Baptist. Christians believe he is whom Isaiah spoke of as the one who would prepare the way of the Lord. John is telling those around him, and us today, that the kingdom of heaven has come near and we must prepare for its imminent arrival. Advent is about preparation.

Part of our preparation is to stay awake and alert. When we prepare for anything, we do it with an alertness beyond the normalcy of everyday life. When we prepare for a trip, we make sure the proper bags are packed, weather reports checked, reservations made, etc. Before the first football game of every season, I examine my bag much more thoroughly and alertly than later games. The kingdom of heaven is at hand and John is asking us to be awake and alert because this is something out of the ordinary for us. Advent is about staying awake and alert.

When we live like the kingdom of heaven is near, and when we prepare for that reality, then we are more likely to see the advent of Jesus as the in-breaking of God into this realm. Jesus becomes not just another spiritual guide with a lot of good ideas, but the incarnation of God himself in human form. The kingdom of heaven becomes not some far off pie in the sky bye and bye place we ascend to upon our death, but it becomes present in the here and now as a fulfillment of the goodness of creation. And the miraculous events recorded in the bible and in the life of Christ are not supernatural suspensions of physical laws, but the natural completion of God's laws which originally made all this good. Advent is about the in-breaking of God into our realm.

Advent is also about change. Advent is more than chocolate-filled calendars counting down to Christmas. Advent is more than knowing how many shopping days are left. Advent is a call for us to change, sometimes deeply, how we live our lives in preparation for the in-breaking of God into this realm. And nowhere is that call to change more explicit than in today's gospel.

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” In other words, change.

This is about staying awake and alert and seeing what's coming. This is about preparing for the coming of the Lord. This is about seeing the in-breaking of God into the here and now. This is about change.

When we hear these words of John and what follows – the ax is lying at the root of the tree, his winnowing fork is in his hand, the wheat will be gathered in and the chaff burned with unquenchable fire – we might become afraid. This isn't the preparation for the beautiful creche set and the cute baby Jesus I had in mind.

One way to read this passage is through a very simplistic lens – get right with God or be forever burned. That is not a very appealing image to present to people; nor is it a very effective form of evangelism. As someone once said, “We are not in the business of scaring the hell out of people.”

To be honest, I used to worry about this passage with all kinds of self-doubt and fear that I might be the chaff that was forever burned. But then I made an interesting discovery: wheat and chaff are not two different things, but two parts of a whole.

That which God calls us to be, that which God created us to be, our true selves that bear the image of God and the marks of Christ, is the wheat. It will be this which God gathers into his granary.

Chaff, on the other hand, is the outer husk that protects the wheat, and it is what we have created. The chaff is the barrier we have put up to protect our inner selves. The chaff is what we use to keep God from getting too close. The chaff is what we show to the world to protect us from getting hurt, from loving too much, for caring more than we think we should. The chaff is how we want the world to see us.

But God doesn't want the shell of ourselves that we have created. God wants the goodness of his creation. God wants to break through our barriers. God wants us to be open, honest, and exposed. God doesn't want a blustery caricature used to shield us, God wants our true selves given over to him. This is the chaff, our self-made outer coat, which God will burn with unquenchable fire.

For some of us that will be traumatic and maybe a bit painful. I think it depends on how thick our chaff has become and how hard we want to hold onto it. But this passage shouldn't be seen as a condemnation as much as a promise that God will ultimately change us into that for which we have been created in the first place.

On this second Sunday of Advent, may you spend time preparing for the coming of the Lord.
May you stay awake and alert.
May you see God breaking into our realm in new and unexpected ways.
May you be open to change, removing more of your chaff to expose more of the wheat God has created in you.


Amen.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Budget Processes

In a word ... well, two words ... They suck.

In more priestly news, had a good, holy conversation with a parishioner who has brain cancer around the issue of death, dying, and fear.

Other than the budget thing, it was a good day.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Sermon; Advent 1A; Matthew 24:36-44

Happy New Year!

Today we begin a new church year. Today we move from Year C to Year A. Our primary gospel source changes from Luke to Matthew this year, and for the next three years our first lesson will be tied to the gospel in some manner. All things are new and begin afresh.

Advent can be an odd time of year. We can begin thinking about the holidays (trees and decorations begin to go up), but we are also asked to think about the end of days. We are to spend time making preparations, but we are also asked to wait. We begin hearing Christmas music everywhere but in church. We try to hold onto the sacredness of this season while battling against the onslaught of Christmas advertising.

Advent pulls us in two directions – the action and stillness of the already and not yet.

This two-pronged focus should be familiar to all of us here at St. John's. In May, 2015, Rev. Ann left this parish and your interim, Rev. Kim, arrived in August. Those events set you on a course of study, self-examination, and discernment as you began the search for your next rector.

Earlier that same year I began my own discernment process. Part of me wanted to get out of Dodge. Part of me wanted to stay and fight. Part of me was angry at my perceived failure. Part of me was hopeful for the future.

For both of us, doing nothing was not an option. You needed to prepare and develop a plan of action. You needed to develop a profile, form a search team, read portfolios, interview candidates, and spend money to make this work.

I needed to update my portfolio, evaluate and reevaluate why it was time to move on, and then pore through the many parishes advertising on match dot com . . . um . . . I mean the Office of Transition Ministry database. This process involved my wife, sometimes my daughter, what the officiating prospects looked like, what the Sweet Adeline prospects looked like, and a variety of other criteria. Most times I was told, “Thanks, but no thanks.” Sometimes that was my line.

We both needed to prepare and take certain actions. But that was only half of it. We also both needed to be still, pray, and listen. I sat and prayed over every profile I read multiple times. I began every Skype interview with a prayer, whether the search team planned for that or not. For your part, you had a prayer for a new rector that was said every Sunday.

And after what seemed like forever, God led us to each other.

In other words, we all just spent well over a year living in Advent. During that time life continued to flow around us. That can, at times, be awfully depressing. It can also be calming as we are able to fall back on familiar routines. But Advent reminds us that we need to pay attention to both.

Advent reminds us that we can't be so focused on the here and now that we miss what's coming. Had either of us done that, I'm fairly certain you still wouldn't have a rector and I'd still be on the west coast.

Advent also reminds us that we can't be so focused on what's coming that we miss the here and now. Had I done that, the parish I left would be in shambles as I would've neglected my duties to those good people.

And now I'm going to be a little blunt. It's possible that some people here at St. John's have been overly focused on what's coming, while neglecting the here and now. Some people in the interim period may have decreased their attendance, or volunteerism, or pledge because they would rather wait to see what the future holds than commit to what's going on now. That happens, I get it.

But now is the time to realize that what's coming is here. Now is the time to realize that the not yet has become the already. We all need to understand that the already is upon us and be active ministers in the kingdom of God while continuing to prepare for the not yet.

Advent is the time of the already and not yet. In one respect, Jesus has already arrived. In liturgical respects he has not yet arrived. And in both respects, we are waiting for that arrival, but we know not when. The Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. So was baby Jesus. It is our job, therefore, to prepare for that coming with both action and stillness by recognizing God in the already and in the not yet.

We can prepare for the here and now, the already, by recognizing that we are all called to be ministers of God's kingdom through our time, talent, and treasure. We need to actively support the here and now, or the here and now may, like Jesus said, disappear like a thief in the night. And we can prepare for the not yet by recognizing that stewardship of our time, talent, and treasure will ensure that not only this parish, but the wider one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church will continue to be here.

But we also need to take time in quiet stillness, to pray, to listen, and to discern. Because if we don't do that, we will become what Paul described as a loud, clanging cymbal. And when we pray, we pray for both the already and the not yet.

We have all come through our own Advent. What was to come has arrived and become the already. The not yet is still to come. The question we need to answer is this: Which not yet will arrive? The not yet of God's kingdom fulfilled where the church lives into the mission of God, or the not yet of a people focused on themselves to the point where, like the people in Noah's day, they are swept away?

Advent gives us a lot to think about. Advent gives us a lot to pray about. In this new year, we are asked to stay awake and be alert, for you never know when the not yet will become the already.


Happy new year.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Sermon; Christ the King; Luke 23:33-43

Today we come to the end of that long green season creatively named, “the Season after Pentecost,” or, “Ordinary Time.” I have a habit of reminding my parishioners that we refer to this season as Ordinary Time not because it is ordinary and dull, but because the Sundays following Pentecost (and, technically, Epiphany) are counted in sequence using ordinal (ordinary) numbers – 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc. – all the way through today, the 27th Sunday after Pentecost. And, if you're like me, you're ready for the change; green just gets so . . . well . . . ordinary.

During Ordinary Time our focus is on the life of Christ and discipleship, unlike liturgical time when things are color-coded and we focus on specific events in the life of Christ. It is during this long season where we work hardest, or are supposed to work hardest, at putting Christ in the center of our daily lives. As we moved through the season, we heard parables and witnessed miracles. We saw Jesus reach out to the marginalized, the oppressed, and the despised, inviting them into the kingdom to be a part of the new heaven and new earth of which we are co-creators with God. The goal is to walk the path Jesus set before us, to become disciples on a daily basis, and at the end of the journey, reach a place where we proclaim him King.

So here we are on the Last Sunday after Pentecost, Christ the King Sunday, proclaiming Jesus as King of kings and Lord of lords, and singing songs extolling his power, triumph, and glory. Today we look upon Jesus as King.

Look, then, upon your king – betrayed, abandoned, beaten, and bloodied. Look upon your king, tortured and torn. Look upon your king – whipped, stripped, nailed through hands and feet, and hung on a cross to die. Look upon your king.

On Christ the King Sunday we don't get images of Jesus coming in power and glory. We don't see Jesus robed in splendor sitting on a throne. What we get is Jesus beaten down, stripped of his clothes, dying on a cross. What kind of king is this?

This is the kind of king who refuses to act against violence and hatred with an equal amount of violence. This is the kind of king who understands his power is not defined by our standards. This is the kind of king who identifies with the oppressed, victimized, and marginalized to the point where he takes their suffering upon him. This is the kind of king who asks us to reevaluate where we center our lives. This is a king who cannot be defended by violence of any kind.

Because this king refuses to define his reign on our terms, because he refuses to play by our rules, because he actively cares for and includes those whom we call Other, and because his power doesn't rely on violence, the world executed him. WE executed him. Because the world sees Jesus as just another option that competes for space, the world will try to remove him from its space.

So the world had him crucified. WE had him crucified.

As we look at this crucifixion story we can see things moving from the general to the specific. What's moving is the call for Jesus to act as the world expects. The people stood by and the distant leaders challenge him to use his power and save himself. The soldiers who carried out the execution circle closer mocking him and taunting him to save himself. And one criminal, hanging next to Jesus, also encourages him to come down from the cross. The world wants Jesus to behave in a certain way. The way of the world is backed up by an influential contingent. And insiders within that contingent try to exercise power over Christ.

But this king will not make use of the world's power plays. This king does not ask for space in the world. This king contains all space and nothing the world dishes out will change that.

Within this firestorm of taunts and violence there appears one man who recognizes that Jesus does not, will not, and cannot, play by the rules of the world. This man recognizes that the way of God, and therefore the way of Jesus, is not to return violence for violence. This man understands that to claim Christ as our king requires us to move our center of being from us to him; and if that means we are to be crucified, so be it.

The man who comes to this realization is hanging on a cross next to Jesus. “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Jesus replies, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

There's been a lot written about this deathbed confession, absolution, and promise of heaven, but I like what Pope Leo the Great said about it: This promise did not come from the wood of a cross but from the throne of power.

This is your king – beaten, bloodied, tortured, and crucified.
This is your king – who turns the shame of the cross into the grace of salvation.
This is your king – can you, like the thief next to him, place a crucified Christ at the center of your life?

And if you can do that, then life will be anything but ordinary.

Amen.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Double Woo Hoo

My first Sunday at St. John's was November 6, All Saints' Sunday.

It was a fantastic celebration and I upped the liturgical ante by including Sanctus bells at the service.  We had already planned on using incense, but you can't have smells without bells.

Imagine my surprise, though, when I discovered that SJP didn't have a set of bells.  Not only did I find that surprising, but totally unacceptable.  My organist came through, though, and borrowed a set of bells from our neighboring Catholic church.  This is a loaner set that needs to be returned after this coming Sunday.

So I did some looking around and discovered I could buy a set of bells relatively inexpensively.  I mentioned that I would be purchasing and donating a set for SJP at last night's vestry meeting.  The comments around the church have been positive about using them, so it seemed a good idea to just get a set.

The treasurer told me, "You know we have an account for that kind of stuff, so you don't have to buy them.  Just order what you want and have it billed to the church."

Woo Hoo.

I called the supplier today, set up an account with them, and order the bells.

Woo Hoo.

Color me happy.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Sermon; Proper 28C; Isaiah 65:17-25, Canticle 9, Luke 21:5-19

Take a good look at this place.  Notice the fountain that many of you passed by, and the sense of serenity it provides.  Notice the gorgeous mosaic tile work as you come to the high altar to receive Communion.  Take a good look at the beautiful artwork and craftsmanship of that same high altar and reredos.

When I was going through the St. John's profile back in February, I was most attracted to your approach to liturgy, the many outreach ministries, and the level of participation within the parish.  And when I saw the pictures of the church that were attached to the profile, well, that was just icing on the cake.

You may have heard that last week was my first Sunday in this place.  And as I stood at the back of the church after all three services looking at the high altar, I couldn't help but think, “I get to work HERE . . . every Sunday!  This is my office building; how cool is that?!?”

I mean, really – take a good look at this place.  Take a good look at the craftsmanship and the beauty of it all, and take special note that all of this has been dedicated to God.

Take a good look at all this and hear the words of Christ: “As for these things you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another.”  Following that statement Jesus goes on a min-apocalyptic rant about false messiahs, wars, insurrections, earthquakes, famines, plagues, and dreadful portents.  And all of that will be preceded by a time of persecution.

One way we can respond to this is to stop right there.  We can live in fear that the world is coming to an end.  If you have been paying attention in recent years, there has been no shortage of people loudly proclaiming that the end is near, or that they are being persecuted for their faith.  Apparently the nearness of the end of the world, or how awful Christian persecution has become, is directly related to Starbucks not putting Jesus on their cups, Walmart employees not saying, “Merry Christmas,” and government employees being forced to issue marriage licenses to gay couples.  In other words, it's easy to live in fear.  It's easy to get people riled up about some perceived threat to their way of life.  It's easy to view equality for all as a lessening of rights for me.  And if we read today's gospel and only focus on what Jesus says about the end of days, then we will end up living in perpetual fear.

This is why context is so important.  This is why Episcopalians are notoriously bad at the whole chapter and verse thing, because our faith is more complicated, involved, and deeper than forming an entire theology based on only a few lines out of the entire Bible.  And today is a perfect example of this.

In today's lectionary, Isaiah is also talking about the end days.  What he has to say about that time is much more hopeful than what Jesus gives us.

God will create a new heaven and new earth.  Former things will not be remembered and there will be rejoicing.  Before they call, God will answer.  In short, we will be united with God, and not just us, but all of creation will be restored to the goodness for which it was created.  This is, of course, good news; which is just what we need when things around us are chaotic and seemingly falling apart.

When it seems to us as if the apocalypse is upon us, when it seems as if the end is near, when it seems as if you are being persecuted, Isaiah gives us another image, a song, really, to hold onto.  When things seem to be falling apart, we can choose to live in fear and blame others (Starbucks, Walmart, anti this or pro that) for the chaos, or we can sing this canticle:

Surely it is God who saves me, I will trust in him and not be afraid.
For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense, and he will be my savior.

We do a lot of living in fear and blaming others for our problems.  The majority is always looking for a minority scapegoat to take out their frustrations and anger.  From those who persecuted the Jews, to the KKK, to those of wealth who blame the poor, fear is used to get power, and fear is used to hold power.

The image Jesus paints is also one that causes fear.  But if we stop there, if we only focus on the fears, we are missing the context of what Jesus is getting at.  Rather than being fearful and blaming others for the world's ills, we need to look at this as an opportunity to proclaim the Good News.

Buildings will crumble to the ground.  Nation will rise against nation.  Earthquakes, famines, plagues, and deadly portents will happen.  If we stop there, we lose.

But if we read on, there is a message we can cling to.  This will give you an opportunity to testify.  This will give you reasons to seek Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself.  This will give you reasons to respect the dignity of every human being, regardless of what the world is doing.  By God's grace and love, by our following in Christ's footsteps and loving the unloved, through our endurance, we will gain our souls.

So no matter how bad things appear or get, no matter if glorious things crumble to the ground, no matter if there are wars, no matter if we are persecuted for offering a place of inclusion and respect, we must always remember this:  Surely it is God who saves me; I will trust in him and not be afraid.

And it will be through our enduring love of Christ, Church, and Others that we will gain our souls.

Amen.