Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Big News?

So this could be big news:  Yesterday the Pope came out and said that evolution and the Big Bang were real events and that God wasn't a magician.

I doubt this will reduce the creationist rhetoric, but it's nice to know that this pope seems to recognize that the practice and acceptance of scientific methods and results does not diminish one's faith in God.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Good News

This came across my news feed this morning:

Anglicans & Eastern Orthodox agree on Christ's Incarnation

My first thought was, "Well, yeah."

Followed by thoughts of, "Duh . . .," and, "It's about time," and "Why was this a big deal?"

But, hey, in the end, it's better than most news I hear about on a daily basis.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Sermon; Proper 25A; Matthew 22:34-46

Why is this so hard?

Have you noticed that people like to make things complicated?  We spend a lot of time looking for loopholes that will either let us get away with something, or we spend a lot of time trying to close loopholes because we are worried that someone might be getting away with someting.

When I was a kid, if it was 5:15 and dinner was at 6, I would ask my mom, “Can I have a cookie before dinner?”  My mom would usually say, “One.”  So I would go and look for the biggest cookie in the jar (because homemade cookies aren't uniform size).  Or sometimes I would ask if I could have “a couple of cookies.”  If she said, “No,” and I was feeling brave, I would take one because that was not “a couple.”  I was looking for a loophole to get more cookies.

My mom, on the other hand, knew what I was up to, so she worked to close the loophole by announcing, “You may have ONE SMALL cookie before dinner.”

But this goes beyond cookies before dinner.  We don't want people sneaking through the system, so we spend time making things intentionally difficult.  One way we do this is through bureaucracy.  And yes, there are times when it's necessary, but making people prove how poor they are before offering assistance (as one example) should not be the norm.  Are we really that concerned if someone on assistance gets more food than we think they deserve?

And so we make rules to help us define what is and is not acceptable and who is or is not accepted.

The rabbis did the same.  They went through the Law, expanded some things, closed loopholes in others and eventually determined that there were 613 commandments within the Mosaic law.  Of those, 356 dealt with negative applications and 257 dealt with positive applications.

In this story, it is a lawyer who tests Jesus.  Just so we're clear, lawyer here doesn't mean lawyer like we are familiar.  This lawyer was an expert in the Law of Moses; so this is more like a theology professor.  One of the things lawyers did was to sit around discussing the Law and posing “what if” questions, each of them having their own opinion and interpretation as to the importance and ranking of each commandment.

This is like asking a group of officials which is the most important rule of their game.  Here's a piece of trivia for you:  while the Mosaic law has 613 commandments to it, there are something like 874 rules in my rules book (although I could have miscounted somewhere along the line).  And the most important rule in that book is 1-1-6.

While you may think I throw football references into my sermons for the fun of it, there is a point.  In this case, those 874 rules I work with during the season hold sway over the game, its players and coaches, and tell us exactly how the game is played between the lines.  In the Law, those 613 commandments were there to help people in their relationships with God and others.  What the lawyer was doing was attempting to reduce those relationships to a game.

But that game wasn't about scoring points.  It wasn't even a friendly debate between officials or rabbis looking to see if they can defend their position.  This game was about determining the orthodoxy of an antagonist in an effort to find a basis for excommunication.

That word testing used here is also interesting.  It has the same root as tempting.  The lawyer was trying to tempt Jesus into a game that produced no winners but only unorthodox, heretical losers.  He was doing what so many religious “experts” are doing today – luring others into a dogmatic game of Find the Heretic.  And when a participant doesn't answer in the perceived correct manner, they are pounced upon by the tribal gatekeepers and labeled unorthodox heretics outside the boundaries of what is acceptable and excommunicated.

But Jesus doesn't play the game.

When asked which commandment is the greatest, he gives two answers.  First, love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind.  And second, love your neighbor as yourself.  Then, instead of waiting for a response to see if he passed the test, he says, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

In other words, all 613 commandments can be boiled down to just two: love God, love your neighbor.  Everything in the Law is based on these two commandments.  Even the Ten Commandments are broken down this way; with four being about our relationship with God, and six being about our relationship with others.  And every prophet who ever opened his mouth spoke about how people needed to get right with both God and their neighbors.

This is so because in the beginning there was God.  And then God created humans to be in relationship with both God and other humans.

To be fair, Jesus wasn't the first person to conclude that loving God and loving your neighbor were the two greatest commandments.  But since he did say it, we need to pay special attention to it.

Humans are famous for fighting each other over a variety of things.  People in religions, all religions, are famous for fighting with each other over orthodox and heretical thoughts.  We develop doctrines to determine who is blessed and who is cursed.  We look for loopholes to open or close.  And, more often than not, I think we look for ways to exclude people.

What if, instead of creating a myriad of rules, instead of looking at this as a game of Find the Heretic, instead of saying, “Yes, but . . .” what if instead of all that we focused on two things:  loving God and loving our neighbor?

Why is that so hard?


Sunday, October 19, 2014

Sermon; Commemoration of the Feast of St. Luke

Today we celebrate St. Luke.  His official feast day was yesterday, but we are celebrating it today because, according to the BCP, “The feast of the Dedication of a Church, and the feast of its patron or title, may be observed on, or be transferred to, a Sunday, except in the seasons of Advent, Lent, and Easter.”  So there.

What do we know about St. Luke?  First and foremost, he wrote both the gospel that bears his name and The Acts of the Apostles.  We get most of our information about him from Acts, Colossians, 2 Timothy and Philemon.  He was thought to be a Gentile and possibly a member of the church in Antioch.  Tradition has it that he wrote his gospel while in Greece, never married and died at 84.  And in about 356, his relics were transferred from Thebes to the Church of the Apostles in Constantinople.  Eventually the body was moved to Padua where it remains today.

That's the body.  The head, however, is another matter.  In 1354, Emperor Charles IV removed the head and took it from Padua to Prague, where it rests today in the cathedral of St. Vitus (which I saw, but didn't take the tour to try and find St. Luke's head).  And, for a time, there were two heads of St. Luke, one in Rome and one in Prague.  The head in Prague was sent to Padua for study, and it was found to be a perfect match to the body.

However, this parish is not named for St. Luke because someone paid a visit to Prague, saw the head of St. Luke and said, “We need to name a church after this guy.”

How can we, as members of St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Grants Pass, best honor and represent the saint for whom we are named?  First, we can start by taking our cues from today's gospel reading.

Jesus went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom.  He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him.

All of the gospels record Jesus paying visits to synagogues, but it is only in Luke where we are told that it was his custom.  We might understand that Jesus attended synagogues, but I think most of us have this idea that he was wandering the highways and byways, teaching on land and sea, and generally leading the life of an itinerant.  But Luke tells us that it was Jesus' custom to attend synagogues.

Of course, there are people whose custom is to attend church on Christmas and Easter, but I get the feeling that Jesus attended synagogue more than just on Christmas and Easter (so to speak).  Reading through the gospels, and understanding Luke's claim that Jesus customarily attended worship, can give us insight as to how important worship was to Jesus.  Not only was attending worship important, but participating in worship was important.  In several places in the gospel Jesus teaches at synagogue.  And in Luke, Jesus is portrayed as a lector when he reads from the scroll.

I realize I’m preaching to those who don't need to hear this, but it's important to make attending worship on a regular basis your custom, if not your priority.  It's through our worship that we participate in these holy mysteries and it is in our worship that we join our voices with Angels, Archangels and all the company of heaven in joyful praise to God.

The primary focus of today's gospel is Jesus' reading from Isaiah:  He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.  Luke is the only gospel to record this particular incident.

As a parish of St. Luke, what would it look like if we lived into this prophecy?  First we need to ask ourselves who are the poor, captive, blind and oppressed?  The answers might be obvious, but they also might not be who you think they are.  And second, would we be willing to step out in faith, living like all this is possible?  If we did take that step, then we could confidently say, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

And second, as members of St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Grants Pass, we can honor and represent the saint for whom we are named by looking to Luke himself.

As I said earlier, first and foremost he was an evangelist, writing both the gospel and Acts.  A later church tradition holds that he was one of the 70 sent out by Jesus, as well as the unnamed disciple on the road to Emmaus.  As members of St. Luke's, we could, and should, be better evangelists.  How many times have you shared the Good News in the last week, month or year?  How many people have you invited to church?  When meeting a visitor/newcomer, have you made an effort to reach out to them.  We are named for St. Luke the Evangelist.  We need to get better at that Evangelist part.

Luke was a physician, and is therefore the patron saint of doctors.  Can we here at St. Luke's bring a spirit of healing to those in our midst?  If we work to proclaim the good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind and free the oppressed, then I believe we can.

Luke is also the patron saint of artists.  There is an ancient Christian tradition that Luke painted the first icon of the Virgin Mary, although that is not verifiable.  Even so, how could we, as members of St. Luke's, honor that aspect of our patron saint?  Grants Pass has a good-sized arts community.  We have several parishioners involved in a variety of choirs and theater.  I had a conversation recently with a parishioner about this very thing – how might we evangelize the good news of the gospel to the arts community in Grants Pass in a way that offers a spiritual home to people who need one as well as allowing the kingdom of God to grow?

Some of these are difficult questions.  Some of them are vague.  Some of them don't have immediate answers.  However, if we are to move forward, if we are to grow, if we are to help fulfill the mission of God, then it might not be a bad idea to have a role model.

Evangelist, healer, artist – how will St. Luke inspire you?


Monday, October 13, 2014

Sermon; Proper 23A; Matthew 22:1-14

No matter how you slice it, we are faced with a weird little parable from Jesus.  This is a kingdom parable, but it seems so disjointed and outrageous that it might as well come from Revelation.  And, as you read or hear it, it does seem to have some apocalyptic overtones – destruction, a new group of people and eternal judgment.

The story gets even more bizarre if you actually pay attention to it.  A king gives a wedding banquet for his son and send out slaves with the guest list.  This is where we run into the first problem – those invited refuse the invitation.  The second problem comes when more slaves are sent out and those on the invitation list kill them.  A third problem comes when the king invades the city, killing the residents and burning it to the ground.  This is not a good use of resources, by the way.  Finally, the king sends slaves into the city that was just destroyed to invite a new set of guests.

Here I need to mention that scholars think this isn't so much a parable as it is an allegory of Christian history up to that point.  The king is God, the son is Jesus, the marriage feast is the end of time, the slaves are the prophets, the original guests represent Israel, the burning of the city is the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 a.d., and the new guests are the Gentiles gathered in the church.  Having just come through other parables with that same format, we understand it just as Matthew's early audience did.

We can see ourselves in this allegorical parable.  We were not the first invited; but we were invited, as was everyone else, both good and bad.  We can see that within our own congregation, and we can certainly see it within Christianity as a whole.  We are not always good.  Some days we are bad.  And within Christian history there have been some very bad people – just think of how many women and children have been abused at the hands of Christian leaders.

So . . . both good and bad fill the wedding hall.  Both righteous and unrighteous.  Both sinners and saints.  Tax collectors, prostitutes, Mother Theresa and Frank Peterson.  All these people accepted the invitation to come to the banquet.  And they not only accepted the invitation, but they accepted the invitation as they were.

They did not respond, “Let me go tell my family goodbye,” or, “Let me first bury my father.”  They did not respond, “Let me fix everything bad about me so that I may be worthy to come.”  They simply answered the invitation as they were when they were called.  Part of this parable is convincing others that they don't need to be perfect to come to the banquet, they just need to come.

So now we get to the banquet itself.  All the guests, both good and bad, have arrived and entered the wedding hall.  The king arrives and begins mingling with his guests.  All of a sudden he sees a man without the appropriate attire.  Walking up to him he says, disapprovingly, “And just how did you get in here without a wedding robe?”

I originally imagined this person to be standing at the buffet, his plate overflowing with shrimp, crab legs and stuffed mushrooms.  He's trying to balance his plate on top of his wine glass, and he's got a mushroom stuffed in his mouth because he wanted just one more.

“How did you get in here without a wedding robe?”

And he was speechless.

Now we come to the most problematic part of the story.  After the king killed those originally invited and burned their city to the ground, he rounded up what can only be classified as refugees to fill the wedding hall.  We've all seen images of refugees and, whether it be Jews escaping Nazi Germany, Sudanese and Afghan families running from ethnic and religious fighting, or the children of Central America fleeing gang violence and sex trafficking, refugees have precious few possessions.

This refugee of the king's own making has no response.  So the king has him hogtied and thrown out into the outer darkness, far removed from God.

How can this be, we ask.  The king ordered the destruction of the city.  The king caused people to lose their homes.  The king created a group of refugees.  And now the king is throwing him out and abandoning him.  So much for inviting and welcoming everyone.

But, as you may have guessed, this parable really isn't about a parish dress code.  This parable is about change and changing.

There's an old tradition in the church that when a person is baptized they are given a white robe.  This is part of the symbolism that our old selves have died and we are raised to a new life in Christ.  And in this new life there is joy and plenteous redemption.  In this new life, there is grace.  In this new life there is awe, wonder and generosity.  In this new life, there is a changed way of being – that is why it's new.

This story reminds us that being a Christian puts an end to business as usual.  As Christians, we have received grace upon grace along with God's generous and abundant love.

This should change us.  In worship we should be filled with a sense of awe and wonder at the Holy Mysteries presented before us.  Outside of worship, we should respond to the gifts God has given us with a generosity of our own.  And, knowing that this is not an exclusive banquet but that all are invited, we should be following the king's example of reaching out and inviting all people to the wedding feast.

This parable is reminding us that if we accept the invitation without making the effort to make a change in our lives that reflects the abundance and generosity of God, or without making the effort to reflect kingdom values, then we will have the opportunity to reside where our selfish attitudes and behaviors are more to our liking.

In short, this parable is reminding us that we should be acting like we want to be here.  The kingdom music is playing; let's dance.  The kingdom banquet is ready; let's feast.  The kingdom is at hand, let us change into our wedding robe; let us change our way of being.


Thursday, October 09, 2014

Newspaper Article

The local paper is doing a piece on Clergy Hobbies which, I believe, will be running in tomorrow's paper.

They sent a photographer out to last week's game to get some pictures of me at work.  Before the game was sort of annoying as the photographer wanted to do all kinds of shots and posed things.  I felt like I needed a big fan to get that "flowing locks" look.

Anyway, the reporter sent me a few shots that aren't bad and of which they will use one for the story.  I don't want to put them all up here, but I thought I'd post up my favorite.  So here it is, Reverend Ref in action:

Prison Ministry?

A few weeks ago I received a letter from an inmate at the Eastern Oregon Correctional Facility.  In that letter he said that he was most likely to be released to our area in three years, was there an N/A group (he's a recovering addict) and could he tell me more about the church?

I replied back saying that there were groups that met here, but couldn't promise it would still be going in three years, and I enclosed a few TEC brochures.

I received another letter from him today.  He wants to know if I can fix him up with an N/A sponsor and would I be willing to be his spiritual mentor.

How do these people find me?