Sunday, October 23, 2016

Removing Shame and Restoring Blessing

Today I am at St. Paul's Church in Gardner. The readings for this twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost can be found here.

The prophet Joel is one of the twelve minor prophets. I’ve always thought that title a bit unfair; I mean if you are going to be a Biblical prophet wouldn’t it be much cooler to be in the starting lineup? To be a major prophet like Isaiah or Jeremiah or Ezekiel? How many minor prophets can you even name?

Well, for the record, they are: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi.

Joel’s prophetic challenge is short and sweet; only three chapters long and therefore pretty easy to miss, practically hiding in the Old Testament between Hosea and Amos. Virtually nothing is known of him except that his father’s name was Pethuel. We know that because he tells us that right up front. (Joel 1:1)

From a scholarly perspective there isn’t much to say either, because Joel is difficult to date. (I’m not talking about romance – I’m talking about trying to figure out when he lived and wrote!) Most scholars see Joel as a post-exilic text, meaning that it’s written sometime after the decades-long captivity in Babylon. But there are some who argue it could be dated much earlier than that. So there you have it; we just don’t know.

Having said all of that, however, the truth is that both the lectionary and the New Testament writers notice Joel a lot. For a minor prophet he has a lot of heart. He’s the Dustin Pedroia of prophets, we might say. It is Joel, as you may recall, who literally gets to speak the first words of Lent to us each year on Ash Wednesday:

                   Blow the trumpet in Zion;
          sound the alarm on my holy mountain!
Blow the trumpet in Zion;
                             sanctify a fast;
                   call a solemn assembly;
                             gather the people.
                   Sanctify the congregation;
                             assemble the aged;
                   gather the children,
                             even infants at the breast. 
Let the bridegroom leave his room,
and the bride her canopy.  

That’s Joel. Good stuff! Today’s reading comes just a few verses beyond those familiar Ash Wednesday words. We heard about how God will remove shame and restore blessing. St. Paul quotes Joel 3:32 in the middle of his most important epistle, his Letter to the Romans. He is making the case there that no one will be put to shame who believes in Jesus. And then he says that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, just one generous Lord of all, for “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” (Romans 10:13)

I want to linger with you on that promise for a bit, and suggest it is gospel work whenever and wherever this happens, this removal of shame and the restoration of blessing.

We all live with greater and lesser degrees of shame. Lewis Smedes has defined shame as “…a feeling that we will never measure up…that we are broken.”  Candidates for shame, he says, are guilt spreaders, overly responsible people, obsessive moralizers, compulsive comparers, approval addicts, people who never feel deserving enough, people who are stuck in the shadow of a parent and those condemned by bad memories or their dreams.

Did I miss anybody?

Shame can, and does, affect us all! Smedes goes on to say that the three most common sources of shame are our unforgiving culture, graceless religion, and unaccepting parents. (Well you knew that was coming, right: in the end it is surely the fault of our parents, especially our mothers!) More shame…

Here is the thing though: no matter how counter cultural we are, no matter how healthy our congregation is, no matter how extraordinary our parents may be, it seems that it is still to some extent simply part of the human condition that shame enters in. It is not just nurture, but nature. All the way back to the beginning in that Garden of Eden. Remember what Adam and Eve felt when they finally notice that they are naked? They are no longer innocent; they feel ashamed.

Shame is corrosive for the life of the Spirit and yet oddly (and sadly) the Church in no small measure seems to contribute to the shame that so many experience. I suspect that beyond his arrogance and hubris that is what is going on for that Pharisee in today’s gospel reading. Religion—the very thing that is meant to help us move out of shame and into new and abundant life—very often heaps on more shame.

So Joel insists that it is part of the creative, redemptive, healing power of God to cast off shame so that God’s people can live more fully, empowered by the Holy Spirit: and my people shall never again be put to shame.

And then, just to be sure we heard that (because sometimes people are not listening the first time) – he says it again one verse later for good measure: And my people shall never again be put to shame.

When we let go of shame, or more accurately when we allow God’s amazing grace to wash over us and claim us as a holy people and allow ourselves to be embraced as God’s beloved, then the Holy Spirit’s energy is unleashed. Blessing is restored. New and abundant life is possible.

Is it any surprise, then, that when it comes to describing that great outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost that it is once again to this minor prophet Joel that Luke turns—in fact to the very words we heard this morning?  I know it’s been twenty-three weeks now, but do you remember that amazing day in Jerusalem, as the Holy Spirit comes blowing through the crowd like a rushing wind and it makes Luke think about Joel, and the removal of shame and the restoration of blessing:  

                    I will pour out my spirit on all flesh
                              your sons and your daughters shall prophesy.
                    Your old men shall dream dreams,
                              and your young men shall see visions.
                    Even on the male and female slaves,
                             in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

That vision, I submit to you, is ever held before us. It defines who we are and who we are called to be as one holy catholic and apostolic Church and as the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement. The truth is that while we may not have a lot of history about Joel and the scholars call him a minor prophet, he has a lot to say. He has a lot of good news that the Church in our day and the world around us really needs to hear. The challenge of these words is not really in understanding them, I don’t think. It’s in living them. It is not in talking the talk, but in walking the talk.

Sadly this is what that pious pray-er in today’s Gospel reading fails to see: his neighbor. He cannot see that they are bound up together; that the work of the Spirit is always breaking down walls. If men are raised up while women are put down, you will always find shame, not blessing. If the young are disparaged at the expense of the old (or vice-versa) you can be sure it is not yet the work of the Spirit. As long as there are separate sections on the bus for white and black, or separate parts of town, or an unfair “justice” system, then life is not yet what God intends for it to be. All lives won’t matter until black lives really matter, too.

The work of ministry is about tending to this new creation. It is about learning to let go of shame and shaming, to embrace the new life that is ours in Jesus Christ.

Maybe Joel’s greatest gift to us is an unintentional one: a reminder that ministry isn’t just about the big guys. Wherever ministry happens—in large ways and in small ways—wherever women and men, young and old, slave and free, gay and straight are being woven into this fabric of God’s new creation, there is cause for celebration. This is what we dream of, and pray for, and work towards. 

None of us can do it all, or alone—not a little prophet like Joel or a little church like this one or a little diocese like ours or a little denomination like our beloved Episcopal Church. But with God’s Holy Spirit working in us, we can do infinitely more than we could previously ask or imagine.

You shall know that God is in the midst of Israel (and Gardner too)
and that the Lord is God and there is no other.
“And God’s people shall never again be put to shame.”
Then afterward God will pour out God’s spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
the old shall dream dreams, 
and the young shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, God’s spirit will be poured. 

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Pray Always, And Do Not Lose Heart

Today, on this twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost I made my first visit to the good people of  St. John's, Ashfield. The gospel for the day can be found here.

As you may know, there are three years in the lectionary cycle: A, B, and C. (If you don’t know this, then sometime when the sermon is going long you can check out pages 888-920 in The Book of Common Prayer. But not today...)

Year C has us focused on Luke’s Gospel. In November, on the first Sunday of Advent, we’ll turn to Matthew’s year and then we’ll rotate to Mark thirteen months later. Your patron, St. John, doesn’t get his own year because we mix John in along the way, especially in Year B since Mark is the shortest of the four gospels. All of this is inside baseball – trivia so that if you ever end up in Final Jeopardy and the answer is “The year that liturgical Christians read Luke’s Gospel” you can write down, “what is Year C?”

The larger point is that we have spent the past eleven months or so with Luke, and especially since the Feast of Pentecost (which was twenty-two weeks ago) we have been moving slowly and methodically through Luke’s telling of the good news of Jesus Christ. Even for those who have been in church every single Sunday since May, however, you may find it difficult (as I do) to maintain the flow of the narrative. So a quick review is in order. Over the past five months we have been “on the move” with Jesus and his followers making that long journey from Galilee to Jerusalem toward the Cross, a distance of about 120 miles or so at a walking pace. Recently, the conversation has turned to prayer.

Now I’ll get to that, but let me just take a short detour and say a word about this “people of the Way.” I think the Church in our day is beginning to rediscover the power of this metaphor, of our roots, of what it means to be a people who not only sit in beautiful church buildings like this one to worship Jesus, but who take up our cross to follow him into the world beyond these walls and into our homes, our schools, our workplaces, and our streets. Our new Presiding Bishop talks about this being the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement – that notion of being a part of a movement is what it means to be people of the way, a people on the move. And our own bishop – the “ordinary” for whom I work – likes to be out there walking the diocese. This Saturday we’ll be walking with the Bishop of the eastern diocese from Northboro to Southboro, about an eight-mile journey.  

Context matters and one size will not fit all. But part of what I am learning in this work as Canon to the Ordinary that takes me all over this diocese is that there is way more that binds us together than keeps us in our silos. We face similar challenges in a secularized consumer driven postmodern world, which means we need to be a people who are on the Way together.  Whatever else our challenges and our differences may be, we are called to share this work in the name of the risen, living Christ. And to keep on moving…
So back to this conversation that Jesus is having with his disciples about prayer. If you were in church last Sunday (or even if you were visiting with Roman Catholic or United Methodist or Lutheran friends someplace else) we all heard the story about the healing of ten lepers in the region between Samaria and Galilee. Only one of those ten returned to say, “thank you.” And he was a Samaritan, Luke tells us with some incredulity! This encounter reminds us that gratitude takes us to the very heart of what Christian prayer is all about.  As Meister Eckhardt once put it: “if the only prayer you ever say is thank you it will be enough.”

So if last week Jesus was focused on gratitude, today he is speaking about persistence in prayer. He sets before us this parable of a persistent widow who wears out a corrupt judge in her pursuit of justice. This is a parable, not an allegory. Sometimes people get confused.

In an allegory, the characters are meant to stand in for something else. So if this was an allegory, then the unjust judge would be like God. If God is like the unjust judge, then God just answers our prayers to get rid of us, because we have been so annoying. But that gets confusing and unhelpful and as I said this is not an allegory, it’s a parable. The God who hears our prayers created us in love and has claimed us in love. God wants to spend time with us in prayer.

A parable is meant to help us think in new ways by breaking through our defenses and challenging our theological certitudes. Very often parables are meant to leave us scratching our heads and wondering what just happened. Or laughing out loud.

As for this widow, I suspect that most of us, when we hear about widows, tend to think of little old ladies. I have known my fair share of them, but none more influential on my own faith journey than my maternal grandmother, a woman who outlived her husband by decades. In fact I never knew my grandfather, who died when my mother was still a child. So my grandmother cut it very close financially, literally living from social security check to social security check. Yet never did I hear her complain about money. She was a strong and wise woman who counted her blessings every day. So maybe we picture someone like her.

But I wonder if it helps us to hear that parable in new ways by picturing “the widow” as someone more like, say, Erin Brockovich—who takes on a corrupt legal system because she’s is out of options. Or perhaps Sally Field’s character in Places of the Heart, a young widow desperate to save her farm and get the crop in against all odds. Or even my own grandmother decades before I knew her, when my mother was still a little girl and she was raising her on her own. All of them embody determination and tenacity, perseverance and courage, and hope. 

Or maybe we need to picture the mother of Trayvon Martin or Philando Castile or Eric Gardner or Michael Brown or Alton Sterling – mothers who insist that black lives matter and have to matter, too, if this nation is ever going to live into our vocation to make all lives matter. Mothers who also, time and again, stand before the cameras asking for protests to be non-violent. Mothers who cry out again and again for justice and embody determination, tenacity, perseverance, courage, and hope.

The widow in our parable keeps coming to the judge to plead her case to plead for justice, day after day after day, because she has no other recourse. That woman will do whatever it takes, like a young widow raising her children alone or trying to hold onto the family farm or fighting against a corporation that is polluting this good earth or fighting for young black men’s lives. Until finally she does just plain wear that old judge out, who decides the case in her favor simply because she was such a pain in the neck.

Jesus asks: what would happen if people prayed with that same kind of determination and intensity and persistence? What if we prayed as if our lives depended on it? 

It seems to me that much of what passes for prayer in the church is just plain anemic. Sometimes we pray as functional atheists, praying because we know that is what Christians are supposed to do. But deep down we aren’t really sure we expect much to happen, either in the heart of God or in our own hearts. But Jesus invites us to take note of this persistent widow and then says: pray like her. Pray always, and do not lose heart. 

That doesn’t mean we will always get exactly what we asked for. I sometimes joke when I am asked to pray for good weather or a Red Sox victory that I’m in sales, not management. But underneath the joke lies a more serious point. We are all in sales; not management. Ultimately God gets to be God. We can and should offer prayers of intercession and petition with persistence. But there is always a shadow side to such prayers, because if we aren’t careful we can start to be like we are telling God how to do God’s job!  

So we can and should keep praying for that friend who has inoperable cancer. But the answer to that prayer may not be a miraculous cure. It might be that our friend finds the courage and trust to die well and with fewer regrets after reconciling with an estranged family member. We may be praying that God would send an angel to guard over our friend in her time of need. But the answer to that prayer may be that God means for us to go knock on her door and hold her hand so that she will know the love of God through us. Even if we don’t have our wings yet.

Such answers to prayer are not always the ones we want, but they may well be the ones we need. They are not evidence that God wasn’t listening but rather raise the question: are we? The catechism of the Book of Common Prayer says that prayer is “responding to God, by thought and by deeds, with or without words.” (BCP 856) That’s a pretty expansive definition of prayer. Many of us carry around an unexamined view of prayer that is passive: like being seated on the lap of a Santa-Claus God with our wish lists. So I think Jesus invites us to rethink this by putting this persistent widow before us today. Pray like her. Pray always, and do not lose heart. Even in an election year.

Next weekend we will continue to be “on the way” with Jesus – part of this Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement. I’ll be with the good people at St. Paul’s in Gardner. I’ll leave that text for your rector, but here is a preview of that coming attraction: there will be these two men praying in the temple, one a Pharisee and one a tax collector. The Pharisee prays in a way that isolates him from his neighbor. (He even has the audacity to say out loud, “thanks that I’m not like that guy!”)  In contrast, the tax collector offers a humble prayer that neatly summarizes the first three steps of twelve-step programs:  Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.

As this week unfolds, I invite you to reflect on your own prayer life. There is not one right way to pray. But we can all improve our prayer lives if we link these three gospel readings together like beads on a prayer chain. Taken together, last week, this week, and next week we are invited to do three things toward that end.

First, cultivate gratitude. On the worst of days, waking up in the morning is better than not. There is so much to be thankful for, so make a list, and count your blessings. Second, be persistent in prayer. Even when it feels like nothing is happening, keep at it. Be like that widow. Third, be humble. Remember that you are dust – and more importantly that God remembers that as well. All of us fall short of the glory of God, and yet God’s grace is bigger than our failings.

Pray without ceasing, by thought and by deed, with or without words. But keep praying—and do not lose heart.