Friday, November 28, 2014

Reflections on the First Sunday of Advent

This Sunday's readings can be found here. As Christians we begin again on the first Sunday of the liturgical year, lighting that first candle of our Advent wreaths to get ready to celebrate the Feast of the Incarnation. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. 

I am not preaching anywhere this weekend, but I have been praying with the readings anyway, and located the sermon below that I preached six years ago in Holden. I've edited it to reflect a different time and place, including the references to Ferguson. But the basic point I tried to make then and now is the same: Come, O Come, Emmanuel!

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The first words of this Advent season and a new liturgical year come from the prophet Isaiah, a desperate cry for help addressed to God: O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…

Have you ever prayed such a prayer or stood with someone who has? Perhaps it was at the grave of a loved one who died before her time. Or maybe you have gone through a rough divorce or lost your job right before the holidays. I think about the people in Ferguson, Missouri who might be praying this very prayer as Advent begins - and of Michael Brown's family as they carve the turkey without him at their table. 

It’s hard enough when your life has come unglued. But you can pretty much get through anything if you feel that God is with you, if you feel that God is your rock or the good shepherd who walks with you through the valley of the shadow of death. Even if we know it will be another six months or a year that we have to face chemotherapy or until we find new employment or love again, we can "fake it 'til we make it" if we have hope. And we can make it if we feel that God is working through it all to bring about something good.

Our deepest fear is that maybe God is not with us. And if you keep reading from that Isaiah text, this is part of what he is also wrestling with - the idea that God is the source of his pain, that God has reneged on God's promises. 

For Isaiah, it isn’t personal suffering like we see in the Book of Job but a national tragedy that gives us these first words of Advent. He speaks on behalf of an entire nation, out of the pain of the Babylonian Exile and the feeling of having been betrayed by God. Isaiah poses a profound theological question, perhaps the most serious theological question any of us will ever ask: given God’s past marvelous deeds, where is God now? If God could do all those wonderful things “back in the day” (like bring the slaves out of Egypt and defeat Pharaoh's army at the Sea of Reeds) then why isn’t God doing something about the Babylonians and King Nebuchadnezzar now

This question is along the lines of asking why God didn’t intervene to stop six million Jews from being killed in the middle part of the twentieth century or stop those planes from crashing into the towers in lower Manhattan, or why there seems to be a war on so many young black men in our cities.  

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…

It may seem like an odd way to begin Advent—like a strange way to begin our preparations for Christmas. We bring ourselves to church after all, in a month when it is all too easy to feel off-kilter, so that we can regain some sense of balance - so that we might feel more grounded and centered than when we came in. One of my former parishioners used to remind me from time to time that the world can be pretty tough, and he came to church to hear good news preached, to have his wounds bound up. I sympathize completely and for what it’s worth, sometimes my week is no picnic either. Clergy are not exactly insulated from "the world." 

But my experience as a pastor and preacher (and above all as a fellow traveler) is that sometimes the good news isn’t immediate. It's not a quick fix. And if you are in a place where you can identify with where Isaiah or Job are and you find yourself yelling at the heavens, then a pastor who says, “there, there” is not much of a pastor. The theologians call it “cheap grace.” So I tend to get drawn into texts like this one from Isaiah because they keep us from shallow trivialities and invite a deeper transformation that takes work, and time. 

This prayer of Isaiah's, as I hear it, expresses extraordinary grief and loss and a sense of betrayal that grow out of his first-hand experience. He needs to take that to God, whom he feels has been M.I.A. He needs to be heard and acknowledged before he can get to hope. I read one commentator on this text who said that “God hides in order to deconstruct a distorted faith.” Now that sounds like the kind of thing a theologian would say! But it also happens to be true, I think, and it does evoke good theology: God hides in order to deconstruct a distorted faith.

God is beyond all of our language, beyond all of our images. I don’t mean only our false idols. Of course God is not a golden calf or a little statue or a 401-K. But I also mean that God is beyond even the most helpful of icons: beyond “father” and “rock” and “light.” At the burning bush when Moses wants to know God’s name, God insists, “I am who I am.” At best all of our words and all of our images for God—even our very favorite ones—can only point us toward the Inscrutable One who is beyond our understanding and comprehension—the One Tillich called “the God beyond God.” We need human words. But we must always be careful about confusing our words for god with God. They are not the same. God is always bigger. And God is not our pet. 

So when someone tells me that they don’t believe in God I never feel like it is my job to convince this "atheist" why they are wrong. I just ask them to tell me about this god they don't believe in. And usually, if they are willing to humor me and talk about it, what I discover is that they are actually beginning to deconstruct a distorted faith. Or to say it another way, I don’t believe in the god they don’t believe in either! 

All of us need to let go of the old images that keep us from encountering the more mysterious but living and real God. The crisis of faith is real, for sure. But that crisis also represents not only danger but an opportunity. And I think that is why these words of Isaiah may be a very good place to start our Advent journey.

Let me be specific. We talk of “father God” so much we may actually begin to think that God is an old man with a gray beard sitting up in space. We go along, often unquestioning, because as long as life is good it’s just fine for God to be “the big guy up there”—not all that different from Santa Claus or a kindly old grandfather. Until one day chaos breaks in and we find ourselves really hurting. Sometimes it takes an exile, or a crisis in faith, or a recession, or the death of an unarmed teenager to bring us to our knees. Suddenly we find ourselves vulnerable and frightened and we cry out for God to make it all better: to put a band-aid on our boo-boo or to fix the ozone layer or clean up the oceans or zap away weapons of mass destruction and bring about peace on earth: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…”

And when nothing happens, we start to convince ourselves that we must therefore be atheists; since God clearly hasn’t done what we asked. We stand with Isaiah at a crossroads in such moments, however, And what in fact needs to go is not our faith, but those old images we’ve been carrying around that are now keeping us from a renewed faith and an encounter with the true and living God. Make no mistake about it; this is very hard work. And most of us don’t like that place of unknowing, that place of painful uncertainty and anxiety. We just want God to fix it all.But if we are willing to work though all of that, we may discover that we are being transformed and even born anew. 

If it is about nothing else, this season of Advent is about birth—certainly the child whose birth we are preparing to celebrate, but also the new birth that each of us must go through to discover authentic faith. Yet here is the thing: the process of new birth is always painful. And paradoxically it is always also about death and loss. Before there can be the new life that this long-awaited birth brings, there must first be the death of our old worlds, our old certitudes, our expectations. Sun and moon and sky need to darken before we can let go of our false faith, and prepare ourselves for a king of kings and a lord of lords. And then what we get is a tiny little baby who needs his diaper changed. We find ourselves kneeling before a manger and a child who needs to be fed and cared for and loved. Come, let us adore him!

What if, as my scholarly friend says, such moments of crisis in our faith represent an opportunity rather than an obstacle to faith—a chance to deconstruct a distorted faith in order to become free to reconstruct a more incarnational faith, so that God can meet us right where we are?  

What if Christmas is an invitation to stop looking up to the heavens for a magical God who fixes things to come down and make it all better,and instead is an invitation to open our eyes to see God-with-us, making all things new. A God who says, “I’m right here, now …wherever and whenever two or three gather together.” A God whose most important name is Emmanuel. 

The truth is that this prayer has been answered: the heavens have been torn asunder and God has come down to dwell among us, very God of very God, begotten not made. The Word that was with God and was God has become flesh to dwell among us and we have beheld his glory, full of grace and truth.

But not as we expected.  The God we get comes to us as a little child who grows up and dies on a cross. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus lead to new and more profound questions before offering us easy answers. Questions like the ones Brian Wren raises when he asks:  "Can this newborn mystery, an infant learning to feed, defeat the grim and chilling powers of domination, death and sin?"

Can he? Is this little baby the best God can do? This One with the tiny little hands and fingers—He is going to defeat the powers of domination, death, and sin? 

Wren’s poem is (as the Church has come to expect of him) very good theology. But let me give away the ending: the answer is Yes. The mystery of this newborn child, this infant learning to feed, is Yes: He is the Way and the Truth and the Life, and He is victorious over the chilling powers of domination, death, and sin. No matter how bad this week was for any of us, that is good news. 

Christ before us, Christ behind us, Christ beside us, Christ beneath us, Christ above us. Christ here and now, among us. Don’t look for the skies to be opened up—just open your eyes and look around you. And light a candle. Come, O come, Emmanuel! 

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Remembering C.S. Lewis

On this day, fifty-one years ago, within a few hours of each other, President John F. Kennedy, Aldous Huxley, and C.S. Lewis all died. In the calendar for Holy Women, Holy Men, we give thanks for the the life and witness of Clive Staples Lewis on this day. A brief biography and the readings appointed for the day can be found here.

This weekend the Standing Committee and Diocesan Council of my diocese went on a working retreat at the Barbara Harris Center in Greenfield, New Hampshire. At this morning's Eucharist, it was my privilege to preach the sermon commemorating Lewis, which follows here. 

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O God of searing truth and surpassing beauty, we give you thanks for Clive Staples Lewis, whose sanctified imagination lights fires of faith in young and old alike. Surprise us also with your joy and draw us into that new and abundant life which is ours in Christ Jesus, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
I was once in a book discussion group among the faculty and staff at Assumption College—a Roman Catholic college in Worcester. We were reading The Weight of Glory and all those Roman Catholics kept speaking of him with such great affection that I just had to say one day, “you all do know he was an Anglican, right? Just checking…”

But the truth is that Lewis doesn’t really belong to us either. He was an ecumenist before that was cool; keep in mind he died in 1963, just as Vatican II was opening the door to new possibilities. He continues, I think, to call us to go beyond (or beneath) our ideologies and denominational biases to point us to Jesus, because his interest was in what he called "mere Christianity." 

So let me begin with and end today with Lewis’ own words, from Mere Christianity:

Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of - throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself. 

That is a pretty good metaphor for the scandal of the Incarnation: the God who has come to pitch tent among us means to live in us, and through us. (Our congregations too.) God desires to pitch tent among us. This God of searing truth and surpassing beauty deigns to be our guest – today, here, as we break bread together but also as we leave to go back to our homes and workplaces and congregations.

Lewis lived what he wrote about. He changed his mind (in the academy no less, where such things are very hard to do) as he journeyed from (as the little bio in Holy Women, Holy Men puts it) “…atheism to agnosticism to theism and finally to faith in Jesus Christ.” You get tenure by making your point and sticking with it, but Lewis went on that hard journey and for my money, this is where his light shines most brightly. He was surprised by joy, and in that joy he invites us to share his joy. And then after all that, he was nearly broken by grief, and yet in “A Grief Observed” he shares that pain with us as well.  

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus says he that he goes in order to send another. That other - the Holy Spirit - is sent to guide us into all Truth, because God wasn’t finished with the Church or the disciples yet. And God isn’t finished with us either. More than any other truth, I think Lewis bore witness to this reality and lived his life committed to it. Some of us yearn for an idealized version of the past. Others of us crave for things to be settled – to reach the destination, to become what we are meant to become. But that tendency blocks the work of the Holy Spirit – always meaning to take us by the hand and lead us into deeper truths, one step at a time. We cannot bear much more than that...

As the great Nelle Morton once put it, the journey is home. We are invited to trust that Spirit to keep leading us on an adventure as exciting as the journey through the wardrobe into the world of Narnia – this is the journey of faith.

To make such a journey requires hope.  There is so much in that one little verse we heard from Proverbs today:

Surely there is a future, and your hope will not be cut off. 

Because we entrust the future to God, because we dare to hope, we are freed to be courageous and to do this work that God has given us to do. We have nothing to fear – not even death. We don’t have to hold on for dear life to what is, because we trust God with what will be. Do you remember how it ends in The Last Battle – the seventh and last book of The Narnia Chronicles? Lewis writes:
…for us, it is the end of all the stories and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.
We might add, "where every tear is wiped away –and crying, and pain, are no more." 

I think that what the church needs most in our day is not innovation, but imagination – or to be more precise, as we prayed earlier, for the “sanctified imagination [that] lights fires of faith in young and old alike.” We don’t need new technical fixes or programs, but real, adaptive change that is leading us into all Truth, and bringing us to a place where we have eyes that see and ears that hear what God is up to in the world.

Underneath all the talk about healthy congregations and ASAs and buildings melting icebergs and all the rest – important stuff to be sure,--we do well to remember that there is a larger mission of a Bishop and Diocese that we share with one holy, catholic and apostolic Church. In the midst of all of our plans and our agendas we must never forget that. Jesus didn’t come into the world to pitch tent among us so that Christians could be fussy about the liturgy or argue about which instruments the hymns should be played on, but so that our lives might be changed for good and so that we could then be sent out into the world to do the work God has given us to do. The challenge is to live like we believe that.

So I promised you I’d begin and end with Mere Christianity and hopefully if you don’t know it you’ll take this occasion as a recommendation to read it, perhaps this Advent, or to read it again. The last word to Lewis:

It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.

We must be hatched or go bad. That about sums it up. Stasis is not an option. Transformation is the invitation. And then Lewis goes on to add this – which is where I will stop:
This is the whole of Christianity. There is nothing else. It is so easy to get muddled about that. It is easy to think that the Church has a lot of different objects - education, building, missions, holding services… [but] the Church exists for nothing else but to draw people into Christ, to make them little Christs. If [we] are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time. 

Monday, November 17, 2014

Poem for the Day

I am at an ecumenical gathering for denominational leaders - most of whom (like me) have made a transition in the past few years from congregational leadership to diocesan/conference/synod work. We are meeting at a beautiful spot - The Aqueduct Conference Center in Chapel Hill, NC. The program is through the Leadership Education Program at Duke Divinity School, and supported by a Lily Foundation Grant.

I may post something more about my learning but even if there is nothing more than the poem I heard today, it would be enough. Dayenu. 

I'm providing a link directly to it so as to avoid inadvertently breaking any copyright laws. I am grateful to have come across it:  The Book of Hours by Joyce Sutphen

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Rev. Dr. Darrell K. Huddleston, RIP

With the Rev. Darrell K. Huddleston
The Feast of St. Francis, 2004 (Blessing of the Animals)
It was my great honor to be asked to preach at the Memorial Service for my friend and colleague, the Rev. Dr. Darrell Huddleston, today at St. Paul's Church in Concord, NH. Below is the manuscript from that sermon.
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Darrell planned this liturgy very carefully. Far be it from me to mess with that but I want to add just one more reading that I think really fits this occasion - a poem by Wendell Berry called: Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front. (You can read it here.) 

Darrell Huddleston was my very favorite mad farmer. In his living and in his dying, he practiced resurrection.

Six weeks ago, I drove up here to the Concord Hospital where I had one last chance to visit with Darrell and Bunny. I gave Bunny a hug in the hall while the nurse was finishing up with Darrell and then walked in. He got right down to business:  “Rich, a long time ago I asked you to do something for me, do you remember?” I told him I did. But he continued anyway. “I want you to preach at my funeral – are you still willing to do that?” I told him I was. He seemed relieved, and then came the instructions: “I want someone who can maybe say a couple of nice things about me, but who I can also count on to preach the gospel…”

To his family and friends gathered here today, I want to tell you what I told Darrell. Those are not really two separate tasks. Because Darrell practiced resurrection – inside of the church and outside of it—and because his life pointed to the One he sought to follow as Lord so consistently, my work here today is relatively easy. There are lots of nice things I could say about Darrell, and he was a great person. But more than that, he was a light in this generation - one of the saints. Not perfect, but faithful. His living and his dying bore witness to the One he faithfully served.

Darrell practiced resurrection. We first met when I was a brand new rector in Holden, Massachusetts in February 1998. Just four months later he was ordained to the diaconate at Christ Church Cathedral in Springfield and six months after that it was my honor to preach at his ordination to the priesthood at St. Francis. There Bishop Scruton reminded this long-time United Methodist pastor to “proclaim by word and deed the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to fashion [his] life in accordance with its precepts…to love and serve the people among whom you work, caring alike for young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor…” And then these words:

In all you do, you are to nourish Christ’s people from the riches of his grace, and strengthen them to glorify God in this life and in the life to come. 
You have to say these words at an ordination – we are Episcopalians after all, and they’re in the book. But it seemed to me at the time (and even more so now) that the words were almost redundant in Darrell’s case. It’s like that line attributed to St. Francis about preaching the gospel always, and when necessary use words. Darrell embodied those words long before Bishop Scruton spoke them or laid hands on him. The words simply called our attention to what was true – and I think that something like that is the case here today, as well.

Like me, Darrell found his way to the Episcopal Church by way of the Wesley brothers. Neither of us ever felt like we were renouncing our Methodist roots when we became Episcopalians – only that we were going deeper into the true spirit of those Anglican priests, John and Charles. When he was called to serve as priest-in-charge at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Clinton, we began meeting together with some others as part of a regular, weekly lectionary group – and after he retired from Good Shepherd he came to work half-time at St. Francis as our associate. He was a mentor and friend during the most challenging days of my ministry in Holden, for which I will always be grateful.

I could tell you lots of Darrell stories but I’m only going to share one and I do so, admittedly, with a little fear and trembling because it’s an odd one. The thing is, and you all know this, Darrell knew the Bible and he had all the right credentials including a doctorate in ministry from Boston University. But he didn’t talk like an east-coast intellectual “Reverend Doctor.”  He talked like a Kansas farmer. Around the table on Tuesdays at lunch some of us in my lectionary group would start to talk about eschatology and hermeneutics and how this post-modern, post-Christendom context felt a lot like the Babylonian exile and so we needed to exegete that experience for our congregations. And Darrell would be right there with it all. But then he’d talk about a heifer giving birth to a calf and the beauty and messiness of birth.

And so this one day he told us about a rabid jackrabbit attacking him; running straight at him. I didn’t know how the story would end, but I assumed it would end with Darrell being like the jackrabbit whisperer or something – a modern-day St. Francis with the wolf of Gubbio. Tragedy would be averted, because my favorite mad farmer would save the day somehow. But that was not how the story ended. The story ended with death, because as Darrell said at the time, that’s the only way it can end with a rabid jackrabbit. What did you do, I stupidly asked? I took out my shotgun and filled him full of buckshot. There was nothing else to do, Rich…he was running right at me.

OK. I have to tell you I was stunned, in part because I’ve never seen a jackrabbit (rabid or otherwise) but I was picturing Peter Cottontail, and apparently jackrabbits are like two feet tall and when they are rabid they can be very mean.

As I said, I realize this may be a very odd story to choose about man who was gentle and kind and loved all creatures great and small. And I’m pretty certain it’s not exactly the kind of thing Darrell was thinking I’d share when he gave me those final instructions to try to say something nice about him, and preach the gospel. But I also think if I’d thought of it then and run it by him he would have said, “that’ll do…”

Because here’s the thing. I will never forget him telling that story. It got seared into my brain. And when I called the Canon to the Ordinary in Long Island to tell him of Darrell’s death, the first thing he said to me was, “do you remember that story about the jackrabbit?”  

Darrell knew about birth and death – for real, the ways that a farmer does. That not only made him a pastor who didn’t waste much time with fancy words, but a follower of Jesus who was not afraid of death. He embodied the connection between the teachings of Jesus and lessons from agricultural studies; they were in a real sense of one piece. The lessons that life itself teaches come not from a book, but from learning to pay attention to the rising and setting of the sun, and to the good earth that brings forth its fruit in due season and yes, to the rhythms of birth and death. Including the birth of a calf or the death of a jack rabbit. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. 

And then in the midst of it all, practice resurrection. Darrell practiced resurrection and trusted that if death has been defeated then it really has been defeated – and nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. Life is changed, not ended, when our mortal bodies lie in death and there is prepared for us a dwelling place eternal in the heavens. Darrell said those words not only with his lips but in his living – and in his dying. He never let the fear of death keep him from being fully alive, pointing us, again and again, to Jesus. Sometimes even with words.

This liturgy, from beginning to end—all these words—are about the resurrection of Jesus. This is an Easter liturgy. And if Christ really is raised from the dead, then our lives are not lived in vain. If Christ is raised from the dead, then we live no longer for ourselves alone but for him who died for us and rose again. Darrell knew that and he trusted that to the very end. He bore witness to that Truth.

And so he lived in hope, rather than fear. And in a nutshell that is the gospel as I understand it and that is the good news I stand before you to proclaim on this day – even now, in the midst of our shared grief and sorrow at the loss of our friend. Whether our faith is strong or weak this day, our hope is not in some creed but a commitment to a person – Jesus Christ – and to a way of life that goes by way of the cross, to an empty tomb. So:

Love the Lord. Love the worldPlant sequoias. Invest in the millennium.
Practice resurrection.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Jesus and Money - A Sermon at St. Stephen's, Westborough

This Sunday I've been invited to serve at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Westborough and given a specific charge: to talk about financial stewardship, a topic near and dear to my heart. Because St. Stephen's is using resources for Creation Season, the texts for the day are a departure from the Revised Common Lectionary. The gospel for the day is Matthew 28:1-10.

For fifteen years, I served as the rector of St. Francis Church in Holden. For the last five or six years of that time, I also taught on a very part time basis at Assumption College in Worcester – a required undergraduate course called Introduction to the Bible. Most of my students came into class knowing very little about the Bible, even those who had grown up in the church. What they thought they already knew about the Bible didn’t make it all that appealing, and conversely it was sometimes the most enthusiastic students who quickly became disillusioned. The Bible, I would tell them all, is a library of books – and it doesn’t have a simple storyline. Even the four gospels aren’t easily harmonized – as they disagree on some pretty important things. My goal was always the same – to invite them along on an adventure and to come to love the Bible as I do. But what this required of them was that they first let go of some long-held assumptions.  

So almost to a person, they were almost always surprised when we sat down to actually read the Bible and they discovered, for example, Ecclesiastes or the Song of Songs or the story of David and Bathsheba. When we got to the New Testament, they were surprised to see how much Jesus talks about what in translation we refer to as “the Kingdom of God” – which is at the heart of his message and is not a synonym for “heaven.”  In the very first chapter of the earliest of the four gospels, Mark, we read about how after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news’”

What does that Kingdom look like? Well, it’s small – so you need to know where to look. It’s like a mustard seed, Jesus says. But if you nurture it and water it, it will grow. Perhaps some of you have served a meal at the Mustard Seed Soup Kitchen in Worcester – there you can see even today, as the hungry are fed, signs of God’s Kingdom breaking in.  Jesus teaches that the Kingdom of God is unexpected and beyond our control. It’s is in our midst even now. Perhaps you have heard our bishop talk about the Kingdom as a mission of mercy, compassion, and hope. It’s in the prayer our Lord himself taught us: thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.

So Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God more than anything else. But do you know what he talked about the second most? Money.

It starts even before his birth, when we get some hints that he grew up poor. As you may have heard, his family was homeless at the time of his birth, “…and so they laid him in a manger, because there was no room at the inn.” And then when his family goes to the Temple in Jerusalem to make a sacrifice. Luke tells us that they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” But if you actually go back and read from Leviticus what is stated in the Torah, it says that a lamb should be sacrificed. And then there is a kind of asterisk – an exception if the family cannot afford a lamb, a provision to sacrifice a pair of turtledoves or pigeons. So Luke is actually telling us something about the socio-economic status of Jesus’ family very early on.

And then his public ministry begins with these words: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. From there, he hangs out with tax collectors. He tells his disciples to make loans expecting nothing in return. When he teaches about forgiveness, he often turns to illustrations like “…a certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more,” he asks?

In another parable about seeds he talks about what can go wrong and keep those seeds from growing. Among other things, he says, those seeds can fall among the thorns, these are the ones who hear but as they go on their way, they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life. And so they fail to bear fruit. He tells his followers to take care and to be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.  So he encourages them tosell 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 you heart will be also.”  He says, quite bluntly (and two thousand years before Bob Dylan sang it) that you are gonna have to serve somebody, and that you cannot serve both God and mammon.

I’ve often wondered what might be the connection between Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God and all that talk about money. Are they just two separate things? Bullet point one, and two, of his teaching? I don’t think so. I think they are very much connected, and perhaps it is that familiar text from the eleventh chapter of Luke’s Gospel that helps us to make that connection. Do you remember?

He said to his disciples, Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.

As you continue to move through Creation Season here at St. Stephen’s, today is River Sunday. But I was invited to be here to specifically talk about Stewardship. This includes our care of the earth and its rivers, of course – as well as how we spend our time and how we use the talents God has given us. That is a part of year-round stewardship education, which is always about more than money but never less.

But I think that Jesse invited me here to be more specific than that, since it is November and here (as across the diocese) it is pledge season. Like Jesus we must dare to speak not only about God’s mission of mercy, compassion, and hope but also about money—our money—and what we do with it for the sake of God’s Kingdom. I think the reason Jesus talks about money so much is that he knows it can get in the way. It can keep us from God, because we are always in danger of not merely owning our stuff but of allowing our stuff to own us. I can’t tell you how that is for you – only for myself that it’s a real challenge to get clear on the difference between my needs and my wants. But when my wants keep me from generosity, then other people remain in need. The biggest obstacle to unleashing that missional energy is fear, which can paralyze us.

Today’s Gospel reading is of course one we usually hear on Easter morning: about how after the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. Not once, but twice, they are given this message, first by an angel of the Lord and then by the Lord himself: Do not be afraid…  Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me. This is the good news that allows us to become God’s Easter people: do not be afraid, go and tell, you will see…

And that, in a nutshell, is my stewardship sermon. When Jesse returns and asks what I talked about, that’s it – not advice from me to you so much as an insight into what it means to be living the good news in our own day, rooted in the good news of that first Easter morning. Do not be afraid. Go and tell. You will see.

Sometimes I hear people complain (usually outside of the church) that the church talks about money too much. I don’t know where those places are, but it’s not been my experience – not as a parish priest, not as someone who occasionally sits in the pews, and not as Canon to the Ordinary. In fact, my experience is that we tend to be very afraid to talk about money, and almost as afraid to talk about time and talent. But when we do that we end up with passive Christian consumers – rather than disciples who are trying to follow Jesus, with God’s help.

Our biggest fear is that there is not enough. And so I think the Kingdom of God is connected to money because we learn, really learn when we choose to be generous, that it truly is more blessed to give than to receive. And that where our treasure is, there our heart will be also. And that if our treasure is all tied up on Wall Street in our pension funds, then that is where our hearts will be. Alternatively, though, if it’s tied up with feeding the hungry and clothing the naked and proclaiming good news to the poor, then that’s where our hearts will be.

My mission today (as I understand it) is not to make the case for why you should increase your pledge to St. Stephen’s Church. That is the work of your rector and let’s be honest, since clergy are a big chunk of any church budget, it is more the work of the wardens and vestry and stewardship committee. I do pray that those who are responsible for this work will be frank and transparent and courageous about what it costs to run this parish and they will make that case. All I want to say about that is that I pray for them as they do that work – because it’s not easy. I don’t know what any of you give and I don’t know who is able to do more. It is not my job to judge anyone.

My job today is not to ask you to increase your pledge, but rather, as an itinerant preacher, to share the good news of Jesus Christ with you today. And that good news relative to the Kingdom of God and relative to our money is that we don’t have to let our possessions possess us. We can choose to see abundance rather  than scarcity and from that place, we can choose generosity, not miserliness. 

We can put our trust in God, who knows our needs before we ask. We can seek first the Kingdom of God and God’s righteousness. And all these things will be given unto us. 

Alleluia, alleluia.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

For All The Saints

I am again with the good people of Trinity Church in Shrewsbury on this Feast of All Saints. The readings for the day can be found here. This sermon is focused on the first reading, from Revelation 7:9-17.

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1) If you sit down to read the Bible and start at the very beginning (“a very good place to start!”) then those are the very first words you will read.

What follows is really a prayer—a litany that makes the theological claim that in spite of the chaos we experience in the world and in our own lives, God is the Source of all life and is at work bringing order out of that chaos – bringing light in the darkness and land where there was previously just water. God speaks and new worlds emerge: sun and moon and stars and oceans and deserts and mountains and wildflowers and trees and sparrows and turtles and whales and every living thing. And God saw that it was good.  

Male and female God created humankind, in God’s own image God created them – and it was very good. And there is evening and there is morning, six days - until the seventh day when God says, enough work for one week. Time for a rest.

At the other end of the Bible—in the final chapters of the last book of the Bible, we hear in the Revelation of St. John about a new creation: “a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away.”

John lived in the midst of a decaying Roman empire. The world around him was literally coming apart at the seams. He experienced chaos. But contrary to the ways that this book is sometimes read and interpreted, John isn’t looking for the rapture. He isn’t looking for a divine rescue attempt that will beam him and other believers up to heaven. John of Patmos is a mystic who believes the prayer Jesus taught his disciples: “thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” At the end of days, as John imagines those days, it is not human beings who will join God in heaven but God who will join human beings on earth:

I saw the holy city, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God…and I heard a loud voice…saying: ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples and God himself will be with them….

Today is the Feast of All Saints, and as part of this wonderful celebration we read from the seventh chapter of that oft-misunderstood vision. John offers us a glimpse of his vision for community—a vision of heaven that is meant to challenge us here on earth.

After this I, John, looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, "Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!"

Like John of Patmos, we also live in between that first good creation and that second new creation. We live in a world that sometimes feels like it is coming unglued and where chaos threatens to overwhelm whatever order and pattern we have tried to bring to our daily lives. The mystical vision shared with us in the last book of the Bible is not meant to predict the future like some reader of Tarot cards or palms might do. Nor is it meant to instill fear in our hearts; or worse still to assure us that we are right and our neighbors who disagree with us will be tossed into some fiery lake or “left behind.”  Rather, this vision is given to the Church and shared by the saints from generation to generation to encourage us and to keep us on track in the midst of violence in Syria and injustice in Ferguson and Ebola in Africa and closer to home. It is given to instill hope in our hearts by encouraging us to keep moving toward that New Jerusalem and that new Worcester County. We are meant to imagine that great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us down through the ages cheering us on: Peter and Paul and Thomas and Mary Magdalene and Martha and Mary; Justin and Clement and Agnes and Irenaeus and Jerome and Augustine; Benedict and Dominic and Francis and Clare and Julian and Catherine and Cranmer and Luther and Calvin and Ignatius—right down to this present day.

So we gather here today, the living and the dead. There is nothing creepy about that; it’s simply a gift from the living God and a tenet of our faith that when we die life is changed, not ended. So those saints who shaped this congregation are also here with us today, and those who have shaped our faith. Each of you have your own saints that you bring with you today…

…for they lived not only in ages past, there are hundreds of thousands still. The world is filled with the saints of God and you can meet them at work or at school or at play and even over tea (or a cup of coffee or a single malt scotch, neat)

This Feast Day is a wonderful celebration of what the Celtic mystics sometimes call a “thin place”—that place where the gap between the living and the dead feels smaller. The ghosts and goblins of our recent All Hallows Eve celebrations remind us that across cultural lines and through the centuries there has been a recognition that these days are an opportunity to ponder the great mysteries of life and death by remembering the ancestors who have gone before us and giving thanks for their lives and their witness.

We feebly struggle while they in glory shine; yet all are one in thee, for all are thine. Alleluia! Alleluia!

That is true every week, but today we are more conscious of it as we gather for Holy Eucharist and come to the Table where the good news of the resurrection is celebrated and the risen Christ is our host. If we close our eyes we too can almost see those saints who have gone marching in, those white robed martyrs encouraging us in our journeys. They are present with us and that instills hope because we know how the story ends.

The Book of Revelation isn’t some secret code that needs to be broken so we can be sure to be ready for Christ’s return on January 4, 2015 or October 16, 2020. It is a vision given so that we don’t lose heart, a vision more like Martin’s dream of a day when black and white children are judged by the content of their character. It’s given so that we can become more faithful and courageous disciples in this time and place, by bearing witness to the new creation that God is bringing about – and then working toward it. Above all else we are meant to remember that nothing can separate us from the love of God made known to us in Jesus Christ—not even death. Nothing.

The Book of Revelation and this Feast of All Saints are given to us so that we will not be so afraid of death – which then allows us to be not so afraid of life. This vision is given so that we know that good really will triumph over evil. Those white-robed martyrs know the costs to discipleship—and some of them paid with their lives for making the claim that Jesus is Lord. But now they sing because what else do you do in the presence of God but feel true joy? If you listen closely you can hear them singing with the angels and archangels, a heavenly chorus:

Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever!

It doesn’t really matter much if you can carry a tune or not. You are invited to join in the singing. The saints and the real singers will carry it for us in the same way it happens at a rock concert where everyone is singing along and everyone knows every word and you just can’t help yourself: you just have to sing at the top of your longs and it’s ok because it is the song that matters, and being part of that song—part of that great multicultural cloud of witnesses.
That is the Church and that is what the Church is for: not a collection of individuals, each of whom stands alone, but a Body with many members stretching through time and around this planet earth, our island home. We need each other to sing those rich, complex harmonies that God so adores. We need each other to do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with God. We need each other because sometimes when life is scary you need to hold on tight to someone’s hand to make it through.  

A friend of mine says that the journey of faith is about moving from guest to host. I like that. Here at Trinity you are working to create a community that has the marks of that larger holy, catholic, and apostolic faith that has been passed down through the ages. On any given week there are people who come here for the first time, or maybe the sixth time but they still feel new, still feel unsure. It is your job as a congregation to extend a welcome and to offer hospitality: to help someone trying to balance that blue book and that red book to find their place; or to invite someone to stay for coffee. But the goal as a great Eucharistic hymn puts it is for strangers to become friends. We invite our guests to take the risk of becoming hosts—because that is what the Church is for. We are on a journey together, as followers of Jesus, toward that vision John has of a great multitude that no one can count from every language and tribe and people and nation. And our work here is to get used to the fact that everyone in the Kingdom of God doesn’t look like us or speak the same language or sing the same songs or agree with our politics. Our job, as the Church, begins with the practice of hospitality and openness and love until we start to get it right, so that when we find ourselves among that cloud of witnesses we won’t be too surprised by the richness of it all.

As we renew our baptismal vows this weekend, and as you offer your pledges for the work of ministry in this place in 2015 – the work that lies ahead is not to go back to the past but to trust that the saints who have gone before us, who now in glory shine, are cheering you on as you do the work that God has given you to do – the work that lies ahead. The work is to be as bold and courageous today as they were in ages past. It is our job to become “saints” for our children and our children’s children.

We need the Church—not to be an institution that perpetuates itself, but to be a living Body with many members that is moving toward God’s new creation. We live between the Garden of Eden and the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven: in the midst of extraordinary challenges globally, nationally, and locally. But we face those challenges with courage - knowing how the story ends, and therefore with faith, hope, and love.