Friday, August 30, 2013

Breakable Girls and Boys

Most people who know me know that I am a big Bruce Springsteen fan, and have been for something like three and a half decades. (He continues to wear well for me, and keeps "Growin' Up.")

But the truth is that I love all kinds of music and I am very grateful for my kids (aka "young men") who have kept me listening to new music. One person I've been listening to now for about four years is Ingrid Michaelson. LOVE HER! There is wisdom and depth in her music that wears well.

In fact, one Good Friday (April 2, 2010) I preached on "Everybody" at one of those ecumenical three-hour services. Well, I didn't really preach on the song, but I wanted to suggest that the song took us to the heart of the meaning of the day. I was preaching on Peter's denial and how that would not be the last word about Peter's life. And so I said this:
In this world it’s hard to get it right, Ingrid sings. Yes indeed. And the cock crows and I imagine that Peter feels that he has been exposed as a fraud and that his life is over. He failed; the rock turned out to be nothing but sand. The great paradox, though, is that he is still loved in that very moment as much as ever.
 Happy is the heart that feels pain. This holy season of Lent has reminded us once again that hearts of stone are no good to us or to God.  It’s easy to see how hearts can calcify; it can feel like a matter of self-preservation. Hearts of flesh can be broken; hearts of flesh can feel pain. But Michaelson sings that as a kind of beatitude: Happy is the heart that still feels pain. Which reminds me a lot of another beatitude, spoken on a mountaintop overlooking the Sea of Galilee: blessed are those who mourn. Why is that? Because broken, contrite hearts can be used by God for good.  
 To see and confront the pain of this world and of our own lives, to see our failings and disappointments and instead of despair, to feel love, love, love—well I think that goes to the very heart of what this day is all about. This isn’t Bad Friday after all, and while there will be even more good news to come on Sunday morning we don’t have to wait that long for good news. This Friday is, after all, still called good and I think the reason for that is that the healing, transformative, reconciling love of God in Jesus Christ is revealed on the cross, not just at the empty tomb.  
             Happy is the heart that still feels pain
            Darkness drains and light will come again
            Swing open your chest and let it in
            Just let the love, love, love begin…   
Well, I continue to listen to Ingrid and lately I've been meditating a lot on the song "Breakable" - which is found on that same album. In fact I think the two songs fit together nicely. She reminds us (as one bumper sticker puts it) to 'be kind: everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.'

One might think that congregations are laboratories for grace and forgiveness and sometimes they are and when it happens the living, resurrected Christ is surely made manifest. But congregations can also be places that are brutal, places where conflicts create factions and rifts, where "the truth" is spoken not in love but with callous authority. We do a number on each other sometimes, in congregations, which is why the Church Alumni Association continues to grow at such an alarming rate.

In situations of conflict I often find myself counseling vulnerability, which in such moments is almost exactly the opposite of what the person feels like doing. (More likely they are wanting to put on the whole armor of God!) But as soon as I say it, I ask for God's mercy and grace and even pre-forgiveness in case this is the worst advice ever and I am sending a lamb to the slaughter. We are, after all, "so fragile and our cracking bones make noise...we are just breakable, breakable breakable girls and boys..."

And yet I also know this: without vulnerability, reconciliation is not possible. A theologian whom I think Michaelson would enjoy (and vice versa) is Miroslav Volf. In his book Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation he speaks of the act of an embrace. An embrace begins with an act of vulnerability: open arms. In such a gesture, we offer a "sign that I have created space in myself for the other to come in," Volf writes. But then we wait. Because you cannot force an embrace; that's a bear hug or something else altogether and sometimes profoundly unwanted. A true embrace begins with open arms and then always must be followed by waiting. The other person is totally free to walk away, to literally "leave us hanging."

We are so breakable, and our cracking bones make noise. The ways that I sometimes hear clergy talk about their parishioners, and parishioners talk about their clergy, has that sound. Now don't get me wrong: not always and not even most of the time, thank God. But even so - enough to give one pause. Enough to know why it is that Jesus commanded us to love one another, and to pray that that love might be a little less arrogant, rude, and boastful - and a little more patient, kind, and gentle.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Fifty Years Later

Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart, and especially the hearts of the people of this land, that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP 823)
Reflecting this morning on Dr. King's words, delivered fifty years ago. While a first-rate sermon delivered to a packed congregation on the mall, they still ring true as a quiet morning meditation five decades later. And remind us of the work that is still left to do. Let freedom ring!

Sunday, August 25, 2013

A Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Today, Sunday August 25, I am at St. Michael's-on-the-Heights in the Burncoat area of Worcester. 

As with many of the congregations I have been spending time with this summer, St. Michael's is in the midst of a clergy transition. I look forward to being with them again for the first two weekends in September. 

Below is the manuscript for today's sermon.

As far as we know, Jesus didn’t write anything down. That work would fall to his disciples and then in particular that second generation of disciples that followed them—the ones we know as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Jesus was a teacher and the core of his teaching was about this thing he called the Kingdom of God, breaking in on earth as in heaven. He healed many people – outward and visible signs of that Kingdom breaking in to bring about new life and new possibilities. Some of those healing stories were remembered by the early church, and written down in one of the four gospels, like the story that we heard this morning from Luke’s Gospel – the only one in which it appears. (See Luke 13:10-17)

So one day, this woman comes to the synagogue where Jesus is teaching. She suffers from really bad osteoporosis in the days before calcium supplements. Try to imagine just one day in the life of this woman: what might it be like to go through an entire day, one twenty-four hour period, bent over and facing the ground - unable to stand upright. Now multiply that experience by 365 and imagine going through an entire year like that. And then multiply that by eighteen. Because that is how long Luke tells us that she suffered in this way. Six-thousand-five hundred and seventy days of being bent over.

My grandmother used to say that getting old was not for sissies. If we can no longer drive or if we are losing our hearing or if we are going blind or if we are suffering from Alzheimer’s or if we are bent-over from osteoporosis it is hard enough. But maybe even harder is that we lose our sense of belonging – that experience of being part of a community. And then we get isolated, we feel even more alone, and that may well lead to a crisis of faith. Eighteen years. That is how long this poor woman suffered in this way, increasingly isolated from her friends and family.  

And yet - as hard as that must be, what sometimes happens is that you get used to it. You adjust. To say it another way, think back to where you were in 1995. By way of reference, Bill Clinton was President, and Bill Weld was Governor of Massachusetts. And then imagine that since then you have suffered from this or some other ailment, for 6570 days. After 18 years, you don’t even remember what it was like to stand upright.  You have made the necessary adjustments so that it becomes routine. I’m not saying “easy” – but you sort of figure out that “new normal” and eventually you even find a way to adjust to it.
Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, "Woman, you are set free from your ailment." When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.   
Maybe there is a lesson here for us that goes deeper than drinking our milk. One place to begin with such a text is to ask ourselves what keeps us bent-over or isolated or weighed down? Perhaps we have come here today like that old lady, not expecting too much, just to come and say our prayers and then go home. But maybe we are “bent over” in some way – if not physically then perhaps emotionally or spiritually. Maybe the weight of the world is on our shoulders – or at least it feels that way. And that has taken a toll on us that we hardly even notice anymore because it’s been years and years and it’s been grinding us down and we see no end in sight. In fact maybe we’ve even gotten used to it. What would it take for us to hear those words spoken to us: woman you are set free from your ailment! Man, you are set free from your ailment! Stand up, and praise God – you are a child of Abraham.

Notice that unlike so many of the healing stories in the Bible, this woman does not even ask Jesus to do anything for her. I think of that blind man who came to Jesus and Jesus put the question back on him: what would you have me do for you? Or blind Bartimaeus on the side of the road, shouting out “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”  Or that guy with the friends who broke in through the roof where Jesus was teaching.

But notice that this story isn’t like that: Luke says “she appeared in the synagogue” and Jesus doesn’t even ask her if she wants to be healed. He initiates all the action, he calls her over, he sets her free, and then all of a sudden she is standing up straight and praising God. I think of that conclusion to the Prayers of the People that says, “those good things which we dare not, or in our blindness cannot ask, grant us for the sake of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.”  (BCP 394)

So she praises God, and that is obviously an appropriate response. We are not told how others there responded but we are told about how the senior warden responds – I mean the leader of the congregation. He is indignant. Outraged! People have come to pray, and now this crazy supply rabbi is messing up the liturgy and healing people, on the Sabbath.

This story is at least as much about Jesus’ conflict with the religious leaders as it is about this woman. It’s the Sabbath and healing is apparently considered to be work and everybody knows you aren’t supposed to work on the Sabbath. Those who guard the rules are offended—indignant, Luke says.  They wish Jesus would have waited a few hours to do this. After all, this woman waited eighteen years; what’s a few more hours? Instead, Jesus has profaned the Sabbath day and violated the Law of Moses.

Now we know how where this conflict will end—on a cross. Jesus upsets the powers-that-be to the point where they just won’t take it anymore. He rocks the boat because he is more interested in serving the living God than in maintaining institutions that claim to serve God. Holiness, according to Jesus, isn’t about following the rules; holiness is about new and abundant life. You keep the Sabbath holy by opening the door to that Easter life. So he calls this woman a “daughter of Abraham”—a pretty radical claim in his time and maybe even still today. Jesus sees this woman as a person worthy of God’s healing and redemptive love, and that claim is part and parcel of making and keeping the Sabbath holy.

Ten chapters earlier, back in Luke 3:8, John the Baptist told people that they can’t count on Father Abraham to save them—that God can raise up children of Abraham from even stones.  And later on in Luke’s Gospel, Zacchaeus will be called a “son of Abraham.” The point, I think, is that God is already doing this new thing: raising up sons and daughters of Abraham from the stones, including people that didn’t have a place before. This new thing that God is doing through Jesus is deeply rooted in that old Abrahamic tradition that goes back even further than Moses, back to a time before the Torah even. And yet it is somehow new, and energizing, and scary.  To some, maybe even a little offensive.

It is tempting for Christians to see this as a polarity between Jews and Christians. But I think the reason Luke keeps the story alive by writing it down is to remind us that no religious tradition is exempt from the temptation to lock God into the past. Those who zealously guard the tradition and the rules can be found in every religious tradition, and they seem to be on the rise in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam today. They claim to love the tradition, but in truth it is their narrow reading of the tradition that they love and have turned into an idol. They knew who they are by that tradition: as gatekeepers of who is in and who is out. My sense is that deep down they are in fact very much afraid of the living God Who is able to do new things and Who refuses to be domesticated. I have said “they” but the truth is I mean we, because I think there is a part of all of us that is at least a little bit like that congregational leader. Sometimes we even get indignant when we should be praising God.

We need tradition to keep us rooted. We need memory and the stories of those who have gone before us. We need that great cloud of witnesses. But more than all those things, we need God-with-us, here and now. The good news of Jesus Christ is Emmanuel—God with us through thick and thin, for better and for worse. The great temptation for religious people is that we can get locked into the past and when we do that we aren’t honoring the tradition anymore; we are worshiping it. The Bible calls that idolatry. So I think this text stands as a witness that the first-century Church wanted to guard against becoming the kind of people who are offended by the One we claim to follow. And it brings us to one of the great challenges of our time: what parts of the tradition remain life-giving and what parts keep us locked up in a different time and place, blind to what God is up to right now, right here, in this time and place?

I’m a guest preacher and a brand new Canon to the Ordinary, so I have a whole lot more questions than answers and I don’t know precisely how that plays out here at St. Michael’s. But I would suggest that we can’t just find our way into this story by identifying with that bent-over woman. We are also at some level like this leader of the synagogue and sometimes, even in our desire to be faithful, we just get it wrong – because in our own ways we can also get a little bit “bent over” institutionally – as congregations, as dioceses, as a wider Church.   

So we might also ask ourselves today: how does our “religion” sometimes truncate our spirituality and in so doing keep us from encountering the living God, especially when it plays to our fears rather than our deepest yearnings?  The keepers of the rules always sound very pious and very religious. But underneath their piety I think you always find fear, because if you can box God into your reading of the Bible, or your reading of the tradition, or your own experience—then you no longer need the living God. There are versions of this on both the left and the right, by the way; it’s not just a “fundamentalist” problem. You “know” God’s ways with absolute certainty. But real faith, the kind that leads to new and abundant life, is always risky and a little bit scary.

Faith of our fathers, and mothers, living still. We share with our children and our grandchildren the traditions of a rich heritage not so they can become slavishly obedient to the values of yesterday, but so that they are fully equipped and enriched to be the church today and tomorrow.  So that together, and above all else, we can all hear the living God call us by name and claim us as sons and daughters of Abraham—as beloved children of the living God and then stand up, all of us together, and praise God from whom all blessings flow. Every day of the week, and twice on Sunday. 

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Back to School

Two years ago, in the Fall 2011, I began working with a group of clergy and lay colleagues in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts to put together a diocesan profile as we began our search for a new bishop. Little did I know at the time that two years later I would be serving on the staff of the man we elected - as one of his two Canons to the Ordinary in our diocese.

We heard it from so many people at the time: there are a lot of college students in western Massachusetts. By one count I have heard, more than thirty colleges from American International College in Springfield to Williams in the northwest corner of the Commonwealth and Worcester Polytechnic Institute in the eastern part of the diocese. Sorry, I wanted to go from A to Z but there are apparently no colleges that begin with the letter Z anywhere in the Commonwealth! (By the way, I took the picture above for that profile, and now live less than a mile from that main entrance of WPI.)

Next week my wife and I will take our younger son back to college in Boston for his sophomore year. Even as we do that, people from all over the country and indeed all over the world will be driving into our Diocese to drop their children off at college Some of those people are even, already, Episcopalians. Some of them even grew up singing in church choirs and acolyting and attending youth groups. Some of them, like my own kids are "PKs" (priest's kids). Some of them may even find their way into our congregations for worship. We can love all of them and we do - they grow up in an unsteady and confusing world. We can try to reach out to the "unchurched" and the "malchurched." But my point here is the easy one: some of them are well-churched, and they are away from home. They are our "peeps." 

As a diocese, we identified this as one aspect of the mission field. Yet while the harvest is indeed plentiful, it often feels as if the laborers are few. We do not have an Episcopal chaplaincy at all those institutions of higher education. In fact, while we had a diocesan-funded ministry for many years at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst we don't have that ministry anymore. 

And yet this creates an opportunity as well as a challenge. How can congregations in Adams, South Hadley, Northampton, Amherst, Worcester, Pittsfield, Fitchburg and so on swing their doors open wide to welcome in college-aged students this fall. And not just the front doors because let's face it, even when you are feeling "homesick" for church, it can be hard to walk in the front door of a church you don't know for the first time. And how do you get there if it's not within walking distance? Several of our parishes are finding other ways: and opening other doors offering pancakes at midnight during exam week and pizza and conversation on Sunday nights. Usually  anything that involves food sounds great about six weeks into cafeteria food, no matter how good it is. 

Sometimes I think we should think big. We should dream big. But when it comes to this kind of ministry I think we have to learn to think small. Ministry is about the cumulative effect of small actions. If you are part of a congregation in our diocese (Episcopal or not) the chances are good that you have college students nearby. Whether you happen to be the ordained leader or not, how might you begin to find ways of opening doors to these young people. Maybe it begins with awareness and prayer. I love this prayer from The Book of Common Prayer, page 824. I invite you to pray it daily for the next couple of weeks, and maybe in your public worship as well. It goes like this:
O Eternal God, bless all schools, colleges, and universities (and especially _____), that they may be lively centers for sound learning, new discovery, and the pursuit of wisdom; and grant that those who teach and those who learn may find you to be the source of all truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Perhaps this prayer may lead some of us to ask questions like these and others:
  • What is happening right now in our parish to welcome in young people? 
  • Are there one or  two things that might happen in the future that could welcome and invite college students in? 
  • Are there barriers (gates or walls) that are keeping these things from happening?
As a former Campus Minister, I can tell you that there is a great misconception about college-aged students. While it may be true that most of them are not dying to get up on a Sunday morning during college to go to church, some of them will do just that. They need that anchor, that support, that "familiar" place that reminds them of home. But I believe that most young people are eager to talk about their dreams, their passions, the meaning of life. Many of them are deeply interested in cultivating spiritual practices and encountering the Holy. So how can we find new ways of creating spaces where that might happen? 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013


Today I preached at the funeral of a dear friend/former parishioner/priest of our diocese. He was 81 years old. The church was packed, in spite of the fact that it was a Tuesday morning in late August. That is somewhat unusual for a person who is in their eighties, but says a lot about who he was.

I noted that one of those in attendance was a former colleague of the deceased who drove from Williamstown to Holden (a 2 hour and 15 minute drive each way, according to Google Maps.)  The service was a little over an hour (long-winded preacher) so that means he took more than five and a half hours out of his day to be there. Kudos.

And on this very day, I saw this posted on a friend's Facebook page.

It struck a chord. It brought back a memory of my own father's funeral, more than thirty years ago, when I was a freshman in college and my dad died unexpectedly on April 30 of my freshman year of college. A bunch of guys I had only known since late August got in a GUTS van (that's Georgetown University Transportation Service van) and drove five hours in early May - days before the end of the semester and final exams - to be there. This was in 1982. I am sure it was not "convenient" for them to do that. They took the time - maybe it even cost them an "A" to do it - to be there. It was an act of kindness that is as fresh today as it was then, an act of kindness I shall never forget.

I hear it far too often: I don't go to funerals. They are too sad. Too depressing. But here is the thing: we need to go because it is what friends and neighbors do. And my memories, Deirdre Sullivan's memories -the memories of the family of my friend today who came into a packed church on a beach day in August - those are priceless.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

A Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

It was my great joy to spend this morning of the thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost with the good people of Holy Trinity Church in Southbridge. I love these words that first appeared in a diocesan history of our congregations, From The Blackstone to the Housatonic and that now appear on the parish's website:  "It has been said that very little that is meaningful and lasting comes without a struggle and that has certainly been the experience of the parish of Holy Trinity Church." 

Continued prayers for this parish as they prepare for a new chapter in their life together, and welcome a new priest into their midst. 

Here is the manuscript for today's sermon:

I wonder if it might be possible for us, on this lovely summer day, to go back in our minds eight months – back to the beginning of the bleak midwinter when there was snow on snow? I know that is a really cruel thing for me to ask, but can you go there with me for just a moment, or at least back with me to that familiar reading from the second chapter of Luke’s Gospel on Christmas Eve?

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.10But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah,* the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 
14 ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
   and on earth peace among those whom God favors!’

Now even if you have resisted leaving this August day for that holy night, it is ok. Because it is those last words that I want to highlight – that song of the angels and a multitude of the heavenly host, the same song we joined in singing just a few moments ago, with all the company of heaven:

Glory to God in the highest / and peace to God’s people on earth.

Until this past June, I had served for more than fifteen years as rector of the Episcopal parish Holden that takes its name from Francis of Assisi, who is known among other things for a prayer he probably didn’t write but that nevertheless goes to the heart of how he lived his life: Lord, make us instruments of thy peace. That prayer, and Francis’ witness, are about learning to sing with the angels who announce the dear Savior’s birth. You and I are called to sing that song until we believe it, and then (with God’s help) to try to live it: by being instruments of God’s peace until there is peace on earth and good will for all.

Is this the sort of congregation where I could get an Amen to all of that? But here is the thing – back now to August 18, 2013, this summer day: if all this is true (and I do believe it is) then what in heaven’s name is going on in today’s Gospel reading? Didn’t Jesus get the memo? Has he forgotten the song of the angels and his purpose on earth and our purpose as his followers to bring peace and good will to all? Yet Jesus says (at least according the same Luke who gave us that birth narrative) –

Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.

I will come back to this text, I promise. But before I do that I want to point out something very important, and I want to tell you that it doesn’t matter much whether you call yourself a so-called “conservative” or a so-called “liberal” when it comes to the Bible. Always we are interpreting the Bible, as we must—first and foremost by trying to hear it within its own larger context. In other words, we can’t listen to today’s gospel, but forget the song of the angels. The Bible is not given to us to offer easy answers; it’s deepest meaning is to generate better questions. We are meant to read the Bible like Jesus and St. Paul and the rabbis did and as Richard Hooker did: critically, and measured against our experience of God and rooted in the larger traditions of the community.

When Jesus says, “you have heard it said, an eye for an eye, but I say to you…” he is reflecting on the teachings of Moses—his Bible—yet pushing his hearers to a new place. When St. Paul says that he was under the law, but is now ruled by grace, he’s doing the very same thing. Context matters. To come to this House of God on this thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost and then leave this place today and say, “where there is peace I am going to go out and sow seeds of division and pick a fight with my mother-in-law because that’s what Jesus said to do” would be counter to the Gospel. So please do not go out and do that!

Perhaps you have seen the bumper sticker that says: “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” I commend to you a much better way to come to God’s Holy Word, and that is by praying over and over and over again one of my very favorite collects in The Book of Common Prayer, which can be found on page 236:

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, so that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ…

We read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the words of Holy Scripture, so that again and again they might bring us back to the Word-made-flesh, to our Savior Jesus Christ. We worship a person, not a book.

And yet this person –Jesus of Nazareth—said these words we heard today (or at least Luke says that he said them!) What might Jesus mean here? How might we read, mark, learn and inwardly digest these words in a way that allows us to hear good news today, in a way that draws us closer to the love of God and neighbor?

Jesus is on the move: he has set his face toward Jerusalem. It would have been much easier to stay in Galilee and get tenure and retire as a wise old rabbi. But at the center of our life together there is a cross. Jesus is clear about that and resolved and so where we are in Luke’s narrative is that we are getting closer and closer to the place of a skull, to a hill outside of the city walls of Jerusalem.

If you were in church two weeks ago then you heard the story of someone "along the way" saying to Jesus, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me." But he said to him, "Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?" And then he said to them, "Take care! Be on guard against all kinds of greed, for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions." 

And then last weekend we heard Jesus say to his disciples, "Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the Kingdom. Sell your possessions and give alms.Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."

Both of these texts deal with the idol of money – a topic we sometimes prefer to avoid in church. If we talk about money it seems to some as if we are not being “spiritual” enough. Yet Jesus talked about money more than anything else except for the Kingdom of God. And he talked about money way more than he ever talked about sex. I think the reason for that is that he knew that there are things that can keep us from God; that is, by definition, what an idol is. And when we give our allegiance to what is not God, we get into trouble.

So you all know that the Bible doesn’t say that “charity begins at home,” right? That tends to be how we want it to be: we want to take care of our own needs, and then we take care of our own flesh and blood, and then if there is a little left we might show a little bit of charity to the stranger. Of course along the way it’s easy to confuse our wants and our needs, but that’s another sermon, for another visit.

But here is the thing: when Jesus says seek first the Kingdom of God, he means that. Our friend Francis of Assisi understood that, by the way. And so he gave all of his stuff away because he knew it was keeping him from loving God. And do you remember what happened when he did that? It created a huge public rift with his father, who basically said “listen Frank, I worked hard for what I have and I did it for you and your brother—and this is how you treat me?” And maybe he had a point or maybe at least we can feel some of his heartbreak. But Francis, beloved Francis, told the old man he had just one father—his abba in heaven. From now on five in one household will be divided…father against son and son against father…

When we really do put God’s Kingdom first, it will sometimes bring conflict before it brings peace. Sometimes even in our own families. In such moments we draw strength in remembering that for the Baptized, water is thicker than blood: which is to say that while the ties of family are important, they are not ultimate.

There is a difference between being a peacemaker and someone who is always avoiding conflict by trying to “keep the peace.”  We must never be na├»ve about that and I think that is where we begin to hear the “good news” in today’s Gospel reading. To be truly a peacemaker will sometime mean you will find the fire hoses turned on you. The trick in such moments is to respond in love, even to violence and fear. If we are truly being peacemakers, there will always be some struggle and conflict and heartache along the way. And yes, even some division, sometimes within our own families, before we find our greater unity in Christ. The ultimate goal is always peace on earth and good will to all. There is no need to pick any fights with anyone—not in our families and not in a congregation. But when the fights find us, we do well to keep our eyes on Jesus. At such times we need the gifts of resolve and determination, and hope, in the midst of all that threatens to undo us.

Blessed are the peacemakers. 

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Poor Clare

On this day in 1253, Clare of Assisi died, making this her Feast Day. The gospel reading appointed to commemorate her extraordinary life and witness comes from the twelfth chapter of Luke’s Gospel. Jesus says to his disciples: 
Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Abba's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. 
I am reading a new biography of St. Francis - Augustine Thompson's Francis of Assisi: A New Biography. Thompson recounts the story of the days when Francis was still trying to discern his vocation and he went with two other penitents to see a priest in San Nicolo, asking the priest to show them "the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ." The customary medieval practice of sortes biblicae had the priest open the missal (not the Bible itself which would have been harder to find) to "random" texts - trusting that this tarot-card-like reading of Scripture would be guided by the Holy Spirit. The priest landed on Mark 10:17-21, Luke 9:1-6, and Matthew 16:24-28 - in particular these three verses from those appointed gospel readings:
  • Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me;
  • Take nothing for your journey, no staff or bag, nor bread, nor money, and do not have two tunics;
  • If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his Cross and follow me.
Like her friend, Francis, Clare took these texts literally and seriously. All are about the radical call of discipleship. While one might wonder how the history of the Church would have been different if the priest's finger landed somewhere else the truth is that these texts, like these words from Luke 12, take us to the heart of the radical call of Jesus in every generation. 

Like Francis, Clare grew up in an affluent family and before taking vows of poverty she lived a life of relative privilege. She discovered, however, that having money was not all it was cracked up to be. It could not shield her from life’s problems. If anything, she came to see it as a burden: as something that got in the way of her relationship with God.  And so she gave it all away to embrace poverty as a way of life. 

Talk of money in church makes some people nervous. I am always amazed, and a little troubled, when I hear from people that "all the church cares about is your money." We all have our own experiences, I realize. But I’ve pretty much been in church every week of my whole life for five decades now. I’ve worshiped with Baptists, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, United Methodists, Congregationalists, Episcopalians and I’m sure a few other flavors I’m forgetting about. I’ve heard some good preaching, a lot of mediocre preaching, and some that was just awful. I can be a tough critic of institutionalized religion generally and  of the church in particular. But I am honestly not sure what church is talking as much about money as Jesus did. With the sole exception of the televangelists (whom I consider to be more hucksters than preachers of the gospel) my experience is that we talk about money WAY less than we should. 

Jesus talked about money more than anything else except the Kingdom of God, (and very often when he talked about the Kingdom he used financial and economic metaphors.) I think the reason for that was not because he was trying to start a religion that “just wanted our money.” He talked about money (as we must) because it is a false god; an idol. Because, maybe more than any other false god our culture offers, it gets in the way of our love for God.  As Jesus said, you’re gonna have to serve somebody. (Alright, so that’s Bob Dylan paraphrasing Jesus!) But what Jesus did say is this: you cannot serve both God and mammon. (Luke 16:13) 

Moths will eventually consume our best silk ties and our finest Persian rugs. Rust will eventually get to our prized vehicles. This does not mean we cannot or should not enjoy our stuff; in fact just the opposite. We should enjoy it, even as we remember that it is just stuff. But the temptation to hoard it and to cling to it is great and sometimes insatiable. And sometimes that is where our hearts end up.As with all false gods, the problem with money is that there can never be enough. There will never be enough to guarantee our security. So if we worship mammon, like all false gods, it will disappoint, and we will live in fear. It is an addiction, and it cannot satisfy the hungry heart. 

Clare reminds us that we must be careful with our lives. It is the Church's work to help us to remember what really matters, and to help one another to become more faithful and generous stewards of all that God has entrusted to us. To do that work we must be willing to name that which keeps us from that work. We are a people called to live no longer in fear, but to embrace the life that really is life by entrusting our whole selves, more and more, to God’s steadfast love and abundant mercy. This is the church's work. 

God doesn’t want your money, but God does want your heart. The Church is called to be a community where disciples are made, a place where glad and generous hearts are being cultivated. Hearts like the one that Clare, Abbess at Assisi, had. What Clare discovered for herself is that her money got in the way. What we must all ask, each in our own way, is this: what is keeping us from giving our hearts to God?

Sunday, August 4, 2013


        Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. 

The choice of the word “vanity” by the translators in today’s "track two" option for the Old Testament reading is unfortunate; such are the challenges of a translator's work. The confusion goes all the way back to the late fourth century, when St. Jerome translated the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin, in what came to be called the Vulgate. Jerome chose the Latin word, vanitas, for the Hebrew word, hebel

But the writer of Ecclesiastes isn’t talking about vanity in the same way that we use the word to talk about someone staring at himself in a mirror or as Carly Simon intended when she sang “you’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you.”  So let's forget about vanitas for a moment and focus on the Hebrew: hebel. Literally it means vapor or mist or breath. (Think of a kid with the croup and running a vaporizer in her bedroom—that mist coming out is hebel.) 

The thing about vapor is that you can see it, but you can’t grasp it. Why? Because it’s not graspable. It’s more air than water. So we might more accurately try to hear that first verse of today’s reading like this: Vapor of vapors, says the Teacher, vapor of vapors. All is vapor.

The writer insists that life is like that sometimes, maybe even most of the time. We try to convince ourselves that it is otherwise - that the world we inhabit fits into a predictable, Newtonian model where there is a cause for every effect. We sometimes assume that if we can influence the right causes then we will get the effects we desire. If we do “a” and “b,” then “c” will surely follow. Sometimes we try to plan our careers like that: if we go to this college and major in this subject then the next thing is we'll find the right job that will lead us to the next right job. 

The problem is that the world isn’t always like that.  Sometimes you do everything you are supposed to do and yet the result comes out of the blue for good or ill. Maybe you train hard to be a horseshoe maker and you are the best one in town, but then someone comes along and invents an automobile. Or you get trained to work on the auto lines in Detroit, and then the company moves overseas and now you are 42 years old with a couple of kids and you are out of work because of larger macro-economic forces that you can barely understand, let alone control. All is vapor and a striving after wind. 

If you do “a” and “b,” then “c” is supposed to follow. So you eat more fiber and you reduce the saturated fats in your diet and you faithfully build in thirty minutes four times a week to get cardio-vascular exercise. You do everything your doctor tells you to do. It’s supposed to follow, then, that you will live to be ninety or a hundred, right? Except there you are, sitting in the doc’s office and before she opens her mouth to tell you the results of the tests you know what she is going to say. “How long do I have?” you ask with a trembling voice.

Life is not always fair.  And sometimes life is brutally unfair. That is not an excuse to avoid hard work in school or to stop taking care of our bodies. It just means that there are no guarantees. Sometimes the world is insanely unpredictable. It's like vapor, like mist. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity, says the Teacher.  

Usually in English translations the writer is called “the Teacher” or in some translations, “the Preacher.” But here, too, it helps to go back to the Hebrew, which is Qoheleth: literally, “the Gatherer.” The irony here is clearly intentional. The Gatherer was taught that wisdom was like a commodity—something you could gather and control and use and manipulate. He once believed that. But what he has discovered in his life is that Wisdom, too, is more like vapor; it is simply not gather-able.

Qoheleth seems to have been raised by parents and teachers who put a lot of stock in the Book of Proverbs, which is pretty good stuff about learning how to navigate your way in the world. It’s common sense, really. Mind your “p’s” and “q’s.” Look both ways before you cross the street. Honor your mother and father. Remember the meaning of the story of Pinocchio, and choose your friends wisely. Because one bad apple can spoil the whole bunch. All that good stuff. There is a reason we get cliches; over time, they seem to reveal truth, at least most of the time.

Now it is certainly true that if you study hard you are way more likely to succeed than if you don’t. And it is surely true that one should choose one’s friends wisely, because they influence the situations we find ourselves in and the choices we make. And it is also true that people who care for their bodies do live longer as a rule. And it's mostly true that what goes around comes around. So choose to follow the straight path and life will go well; break the rules and eventually you’ll get caught. That’s Proverbs, in a nutshell, and we shouldn’t minimize the importance of such conventional wisdom. Without it we lapse into nihilism.

And yet...

None of these proverbial truths represent quite the whole truth, and that is a danger—because when bad stuff happens we often spend all of our time trying to find the cause and maybe even blaming the victim. That’s where Qoheleth comes in. Proverbial wisdom is mostly true. But because life is more like vapor, it is not always that way. Sometimes shit happens. Sometimes you choose the best friends and life still unravels. Sometimes you end up in the wrong crowd and that’s where you learn the most important of life lessons.

I like to picture Qoheleth as a crotchety guy in his early sixties - which I once thought of as old but now think of as just wise. If I were making Ecclesiastes into a film I’d convince someone like Jack Nicholson or maybe Clint Eastwood to play the lead and the film would open with him sitting at a bar and sipping on a scotch as he delivers those first lines we heard today: Vanity of vanities, all is vanity… 

So what does that mean? I don't think he is saying that you shouldn’t teach your kids the wisdom of Proverbs. He’s just saying that if that’s all you choose to know about the world, then you are deluding yourself. He’s just reminding people that you can read all the right books and make all the right choices, but it will not guarantee the outcome you are looking for because life doesn’t come with guarantees.

Jesus, I think, is indebted to Qoheleth more than we have sometimes been taught and we get a glimpse of that in today’s Gospel reading from Luke 12:31-21.  The parable Jesus first told is surrounded by teachings about how we should deal with money, but the story itself would make Qoheleth proud: a parable about a responsible guy who is doing what you are supposed to do: planning for retirement by faithfully contributing to his 401-K plan. But Jesus says the guy is a fool because now at last he is ready to relax and eat and drink and be merry and guess what? He suffers a heart attack three days after his big retirement party and dies. Ouch.

Qoheleth says that we will all face good days and bad days, but here is the thing: we cannot control which will happen when. So he offers two words of advice that summarize well the entire book: consider and enjoy. If life is a mess, then stop and consider. Ask the question, what can I learn here? And when life is good, then be sure you aren’t too busy to miss it. Enjoy.

Because life is not controllable or graspable—because it is more like vapor—all you can do is consider and enjoy. As that most familiar of Qoheleth's sayings puts it, there is a time and a season for everything: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to pluck up what has been planted. One needs to learn how to tell time like that and go with the flow, so if it is a time to be born then focus on birth. And if it is a time to die, then try to die well. The problem is that we forget how to tell time and sometimes try to force our own agendas "out of time."  We spend all winter yearning for spring except that spring comes and it's raining all the time - those famous April showers. So we start dreaming about those long summer days, except that when summer comes it turns out to be too hot, so we can't wait until fall. As a cousin of Qoheleth once put it: the secret to life is enjoying the passage of time. We do that not by making every day sunny, but by learning how to pay attention: to consider and to enjoy.

Whenever I teach Ecclesiastes I always ask people if they hear this message as good news or as cynical and depressing. The answer, of course, reveals far more about the responder than it does about Qoheleth, which of course is the whole point. In the past Qoheleth has sometimes been read as akin to Sartre or Camus, a kind of proto-Existentialist who feels trapped in a world with no exit. Alternatively, when he says “eat, drink, and be merry” it's tempting to read him as an Epicurean. For my own part, I find Qoheleth to be a truthful realist. He is just telling it like it is. And if he is in fact right about how the world is, then there is “good news” to be discovered in facing that reality. If the world really is beyond our control, then someone needs to slap us upside the head (sooner rather than later) because we can be spared a lot of heartache when we learn to let go of our need to try to control the flow of life. On the good days, enjoy. On the tough days, consider. 

I am pretty sure that Qoheleth would not have been the kind of guy to write a self-help book or to go on Dr. Phil. But if you got him in just the right mood and you asked him, say, what advise would you give to parents raising children, I think he'd say to take the experts with a grain of salt. Assume your children will need to find a good therapist one day no matter how great a parent you are. Because kids do indeed grow up very fast in an unsteady and confusing world, don't try to control them: just learn to consider and enjoy. If you can’t wait until they can walk, you will miss the amazing mystery of crawling. If the day they start walking they drive you crazy because you find yourself wishing they were infants again, you are setting yourself up to be a pretty unhappy parent. Each and every day is a gift, the good ones and the hard ones. On the good days, enjoy it. On the challenging ones, consider.

For me, as a bit of a control freak by temperament and by training, there is tremendous freedom in recognizing the great vanity of thinking we are in control, and from that place, good news can be discovered. One of the discoveries that can come from that place is something perhaps like the Serenity Prayer attributed to Reinhold Niehbur, who perhaps in some small measure was indebted to Qoheleth—and certainly to Jesus: 

            God grant me the serenity
            to accept the things I cannot change;
            courage to change the things I can;
            and wisdom to know the difference.

            Living one day at a time; 
            Enjoying one moment at a time;
            Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
            Taking, as Christ did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it;
            Trusting that God will make all things right if I surrender to His Will;
            That I may be reasonably happy in this life
            and supremely happy with Him forever in the next.          


Thursday, August 1, 2013

Joseph of Arimathea

Merciful God, whose servant Joseph of Arimathaea with reverence and godly fear prepared the body of our Lord and Savior for burial, and laid it in his own tomb: Grant to us, your faithful people, grace and courage to love and serve Jesus with sincere devotion all the days of our life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Today we pause to remember Joseph of Arimathaea. While definitely a minor character in the story of our Lord's Passion, I have always felt that he was an important one. Like Nicodemus, the tradition reports that even though he was a member of the Sanhedrin, he was a "secret disciple" of Jesus. When Jesus' closest friends were hiding for fear of the political and religious authorities, it was Joseph who came forward boldly and courageously to do what was demanded by Jewish piety. Acting generously and humanely, he provided his own tomb so that this "criminal" could have a proper burial, saving his body from further desecration.

The collect for today (and reprinted above) captures well, I think, something of the Light that Joseph allowed to shine through him. By acting in this way, Joseph allows us to see in an iconic way how grace and courage can be held together. Grace and courage seem to be in short supply, but when they come together they are a powerful witness to the Gospel.

Grace without courage can leave us sitting on the sidelines and never acting or speaking up for what is right; without courage we confuse graciousness with "being nice." We would rather not rock the boat. As has been noted, the only thing necessary for evil to prevail is that good people do nothing. Grace without courage allows injustice to flourish.

On the other hand, courage without grace, can turn us into what William Sloan Coffin, Jr. used to call "good haters." It can make us bitter, certain, and angry. Instead of choosing our battles we see every day as a battleground and everywhere a ditch to die in. I read this week a lovely tribute to Will Campbell - clearly a prophet, yet one with incredible grace. The writer recounts writing to Campbell at a time when he was "taking on" his congregation for the right and just cause of social equality.  He expected Campbell to encourage him to keep "fighting the enemy." Instead, Campbell encouraged him to "love his enemies" as the path toward ultimately discovering that "they are my neighbors, my sisters and brothers whom Christ has reconciled."

When held together, grace and courage allow us to act out of our convictions without demonizing the other. We become more generous and more humble. Grace and courage allowed Joseph to do the right thing, the one thing he was in a unique position to do. Grace and courage open the path for us to love and serve Jesus with sincere devotion all the days of our life.

When The Passion is read aloud  each year on Palm Sunday and on Good Friday, it is a helpful reminder to church people that Peter and the others fall short of their own stated ideals - as we all do.Those closest to Jesus betray and deny him. Each of us must come to grips with that part of ourselves and with our own denials and betrayals of Christ. Still others in authority, like Pilate, try to wash our hands of responsibility, rather than exerting gracious and courageous leadership.

But we must never forget that there are models of discipleship who show us other ways to enter into our Lord's Passion: there are the women do not run away, and who then find the grace and courage to come to the tomb when the Sabbath has ended, in order to do the work that God had given them to do. There is that centurion who, even in the midst of the barbarity of crucifixion is able to recognize Jesus for who he is, the Son of God. And there is Joseph, quietly acting with grace and courage - loving and serving Christ with sincere devotion. May we find ways to go and do likewise.