Sunday, January 24, 2016

Loving the Questions

My great privilege, on this Third Sunday after the Epiphany, is to be the preacher and celebrant at a gathering at The Barbara C. Harris Center in New Hampshire of a group of people seeking to deepen their faith through a program of our Commission on Ministry called "Loving the Questions." The readings for the day can be found here. 
It’s an honor to be here, among all of you, this morning. Many of you are preachers in your own right, and so I feel like I’m “preaching to the choir.” That opening collect seals the deal:
Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works…
This is why you are all here, right? To “readily answer the call” by loving the questions? And then living them!
When I was a parish priest, I served as chair of the Commission on Ministry for five years before Nancy Strong. The hardest part was to feel like the system was rigged in a certain way because people declared at the front end: “the call I think I hear is to the priesthood, or to the diaconate. I hope you hear it too!” In fact, it was tempting for candidates to be more focused on selling themselves than doing honest discernment – because they sometimes felt they’d already done that work. So the work before them was to convince us they had rightly heard that call…
Sometimes we said yes. And sometimes we said no. But I’ve come to believe that we were focused on the wrong question. We are all called to ministry by virtue of our Baptism. And we all need grace (and courage) to readily answer that call. This new process will not get it all right – because nothing is ever “all right” on this side of paradise. But the desire of those who helped shape this program is to hold this truth as self-evident:  that we are members of one body, that we all have gifts. And the world needs us to use those gifts so that the work is done: proclaiming the good news to all people so that we and the whole world might perceive that God hasn’t retired to a condo in Florida, but is still working out the plan of salvation…
How, then, do we clarify how those gifts can be used so that the whole world may perceive the glory of God’s marvelous works? I invite you to love that question as you seek to live it. I think it’s the question St. Paul was honed in on in his first letter to that early Christian community in Corinth. Like all of us, St. Paul had his good days and his bad days. But he was surely in the zone when he got to the twelfth and thirteenth chapters, wasn’t he? The Body of Christ is like our own bodies – many members. But still one. Ever stub your toe or scratch your cornea? When even the smallest members hurt, the whole hurts. But when they are all working together, it’s a miracle to behold.
In today’s gospel reading we see Jesus himself – post-Baptism and post-Jordanian wilderness ready to “embrace the call” – the call unique to him, but shared by all who love him and seek to follow him. We see him preaching on an old text, and bringing it to new life. No one told Jesus that the Old Testament was about a God of vengeance. In his Bible, the scrolls of Torah and the prophets, he discovered a God of hesed, a God of steadfast love and mercy – his Abba who was still creating out of chaos toward the dawn of a new day – what Isaiah called “the year of the Lord’s favor.” Jubilee, which among other things was about redistributing the wealth. Jesus saw, in the scroll of Isaiah, good news even in the midst of a decaying Roman empire.
I wonder what it looks like for us to do the same, in our own time and place: to stand with so many for whom this world is a nightmare, and to move together toward the dream of God?
Sometime after the Babylonian exile, after the dream of Second Isaiah, after the comfort and the highway in the desert, the people do come home again. Only they soon discovered that you can never really go home. Home had changed while they were in Babylon. And they had changed too. (Yes, I just used the word “change” twice in a homily at an Episcopal camp, among a group of faithful Episcopalians!) Sorry but that is life. You cannot step in the same river twice. So we best make change our friend…
Imagine all the people of Israel gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. God’s people gathered. Because that is what God’s people do. In the days of Ezra and Nehemiah they gathered with work to be done. They were survivors. They had survived the destruction of the Temple and much of Jerusalem, and they had survived all that weeping and laying up of harps in a foreign land, what we’d call Iraq today. Even though they had not thought it possible, they had learned to sing some new songs in a foreign land. It turns out God’s people can do that too. It is not easy, but with God we can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.
In our end is our beginning, to paraphrase T. S. Eliot. All my life’s a circle, to quote Harry Chapin. There is a time and a season for everything under the sun, to quote the teacher/preacher in Ecclesiastes. Always there is work to be done for God’s people; the key is in discerning what that work looks like and sometimes the hardest part is in figuring out where we are.
So what time is it, for the Church? Are we in exile – in a strange and foreign land? Or is it time to gather the people into the square, before the Water Gate? That is a hard question because the Bible isn’t like a cookbook.  Even in this story itself, notice how Ezra opens the book in the sight of all the people and they all stood up – sounds like an Episcopal gospel procession, doesn’t it? But everyone is saying “amen, amen” and lifting up their hands so maybe it’s more like an old-fashioned Baptist tent revival? It’s a big tent!
However we come to this old text, we can recognize some preaching going on. The Bible isn’t just read – it needs to be marked and learned and inwardly digested for a new time and a new place. And so they read from the Book, from the Torah, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.
I have a theory that there cannot be good preaching, let alone great preaching, without faithful hearers in the assembly. You can go to seminary but here’s a secret: there are no answers in the back of the book that you get by doing that. Whatever you may or may not learn in a Greek class or an Intro to the Prophets class or in four years of EFM still needs to be read and marked and learned and inwardly digested and then brought back to places like South Hadley and Holden and Springfield and Worcester and Holyoke, where the people gather and dare to listen for a Word of the Lord. When that happens, by God’s grace, it comes alive and the living God is with us. Even here, in Greenfield, New Hampshire. Even now, on this third Sunday of Epiphany on this January day in 2016.
And then, of course, the work begins: to be not just to be hearers of this word, but doers of it. If we are asking ourselves how to do that  in our congregations and in our homes and in our workplaces– if this is the question we are learning to love and to live, with God’s help, then all will be well. For us, for the Church, for the world.
Lord, make us instruments of thy peace.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Baptism of Our Lord

The conventional meaning of the word epiphany is about having that kind of experience where you suddenly realize the essential meaning of something. It’s that sense of illumination that comes when you grasp a problem or a situation at a new or deeper level. 

There is a picture of Arthur Fry on Wikipedia - he invented the post-it-note - pointing to his head, looking over his half-rimmed glasses. He has a post-it note stuck to his forehead that has a light bulb on it. Got it? An epiphany! An “aha moment.”

Literally, the Greek word επιφανεια (“epiphanea”) means “to show forth” or to “make manifest.” These weeks that fall between the arrival of the magi in Bethlehem and our destination on the Mount of the Transfiguration give us a space in time to reflect on the ways that Christ is being shown forth in our lives and made manifest in this world. These weeks of the Epiphany Season give us windows along the way to consider how the light continues to shine in the darkness and how God is being made know to us in the midst of our everyday lives. As one of the Eucharistic Prayers in The Book of Common Prayer ("C") puts it: “open our eyes to see your hand at work in the world about us.” (BCP 372)

Today we gather at the Jordan River for The Baptism of Our Lord. The voice comes down from heaven and claims Jesus as God’s own beloved. We are meant, I think, to hear that voice of the Spirit addressing and claiming us by name as well. We, too, are God’s own beloved. And then we’re called to live like we believe that by "keep[ing] the covenant [we] have made and to boldly confess [Jesus] as Lord and Savior.”

This “epiphany” about the God who loves us is deeply rooted in the Old Testament narrative, as we hear in today’s reading from the forty-third chapter of the prophet Isaiah. Actually the scholars call this prophet “Second Isaiah” to distinguish him from the writer of the first 39 chapters of Isaiah. The context in which this prophet writes is at the end of the Babylonian exile. The good news that is being announced to a weary people is that they do have a future; that God is not finished with them yet. They have grown a little too used to life in Babylon, however. So Second Isaiah’s job is to convince them to risk the journey back home. To not remember the former things, but to journey toward the new thing that God is doing.

Even if you don’t know anything at all about the history of Israel, however, you can feel the hope and energy in this text. This is a writer who knows that God is reliable and trustworthy and because God is reliable and trustworthy we have nothing to fear.

Thus says the Lord,
 who created you, O Jacob,
 who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.

Richard Rohr has noted that there are 365 verses in the Bible in both testaments that say, “fear not.” He suggests that there is one time there for every day of the year. Every time an angel shows up that is where they always begin. Do not be afraid, Joseph. Do not be afraid, Mary. Do not be afraid…state your name! Do not fear for I have redeemed you and I called you by name and you are mine.

It seems like the people in the Bible are a lot like us: they spend way too much time being afraid. Afraid about tomorrow or next week or next year; all of which are beyond our control. Afraid about conflict, afraid to speak the truth, afraid of failing. We can spend our lives being afraid, and if we are not careful then we’ll never actually live. Fear immobilizes us. So time and again the angels show up and say to God’s people: fear not! When we hear those words, when our ears are open and we listen for the voice of God, what God says is that we belong to God. And that we have been called by name. And then these words:  

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.

These words remind me of the twenty-third psalm, that great poem about putting our trust in God alone. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil. This poet, too, knows that no matter what—whatever the world can throw at is—that if God is with us, all will be well.

Because you are precious in my sight,
and honored, and I love you.

Wow! Those are extraordinary words. So many people speak so much crap about God, even in God’s own name. I have to tell you this: the commandment about not taking the Lord’s name in vain is NOT about swearing. Some people just have potty mouths. It may not be polite, but it has nothing to do with the Ten Commandments! I confess I like to make full use of the whole vocabulary and sometimes the right word for the occasion is one that probably ought not to be used from the pulpit.

But the prohibition about not invoking God’s name with malice is about the temptation to, as Walter Brueggemann has put it, "make God our pet." To use God’s name to justify our own fear and hatred and bigotry and claim that God hates the same people we hate. Or that God makes natural disasters to punish people that the speaker doesn’t like.  You’ve got to be taught, as Rodgers and Hammerstein put it: You’ve got to be carefully taught to hate and fear. Some places, in the name of God, spend a lot of time teaching hate and fear. 

But since God loves all the little children of the world and all means all, then claiming God as our own possession is a violation of this commandment not to take the Lord's name in vain. God so loved the world that the Word became flesh. That is the great mystery, the mystery of the Incarnation, that we ponder anew in these weeks of Epiphany. That Jesus came into the world not to condemn it, but to save it. The great theologian Karl Barth, who both read and wrote volumes and volumes and volumes of theology said everything he ever read or wrote he had learned in Sunday School and that it could be summarized like this: Jesus loves me, this I know; for the Bible tells me so.

Do you believe that? Do you believe that with all your heart? Not just that God loves other people, but that God loves you. That you are precious in God’s sight and honored?

I was very blessed to have been raised in a Christian community that always taught me this. I’m not saying it was a perfect place, the Hawley United Methodist Church. But it was a good-enough place that did not leave me with deep spiritual scars or wounds. It did not teach me to hate myself or others. I learned (sometimes with words) what it was like to be in a community that knew and trusted that God loves us and calls us each by name. 

In my work now as I travel from congregation to congregation, this is the heart of my prayer for every parish in our diocese. Urban churches, suburban churches, rural churches. Big congregations and medium-sized ones and small ones. Those growing and those dying. Are they places where our children and our children's children are being raised up into the full stature of Christ and being taught, (sometimes even with words but always by our actions) that regardless of their sexual orientation or the color of their skin or their gender, they are loved by God? And that regardless of whether they are an A student or someone who struggles to read; a star athlete or a klutz, tall or short, God is crazy about them. And so are we. 

My sisters and brothers this is really very good news. And sadly it is not always the message that our young people get from the world around them. So we need to keep saying it again and again and again. At least 365 days a year. Fear not. Jesus loves you. We love you!

The liturgy, the creeds, the Bible, the message at font and table is the same: God loves us. Everything else follows from this truth. And then this: God wants us to love God back and then for us to show that love by loving one another. By loving our neighbor. This, in a nutshell, is the whole of the Christian life. Maybe we should walk around with little post-it notes on our foreheads to remind us of this.  

Yesterday in Worcester, the Islamic Center in Worcester invited their neighbors in to learn a little more about them. See the invitation here. I had a work commitment in Holyoke so was not able to attend but I'm glad to my wife was and also that Episcopalians were in full force -both ordained and lay. The Facebook posts of these Episcopalians gathered in our local mosque warmed my heart. This is what love in action looks like. This is how the light continues to shine in the darkness. 

A lot of Episcopalians really groove on Lent. But Lent can be distorted if we are not careful. Lent can be about focusing on our sin and feeding on shame and guilt. But what Lent is really for is an opportunity to get clear on the those things that keep us from embracing the truth of the gospel: the love of God that has been made known in Jesus Christ. If we do Epiphany well, then the forty days of Lent give us a chance to strip everything away, especially the false idols and our various addictions and all those things that separate us from the love of God.  What the wilderness can teach us, with God’s help, is that we don’t need more money or status or better clothes or a bigger house or a faster car to be loved. Because we are already God’s own beloved, precious in God’s sight.

From that holy place comes love for God, and ultimately love of neighbor. From that holy place we discover again and again and again our core mission as God’s people: to serve the world in Christ’s name. A mission to keep on loving, as we have been loved.