Monday, April 24, 2017

Practicing Resurrection

 Easter Vigil, Grace Episcopal Church, Monroe


When it comes to resurrection scenarios, St. Matthew seems to have taken a page out of the book of Cecile B. DeMille--maker of epic movies with religious themes of my youth.


By contrast, in St. Mark’s resurrection scenario, the stone is already out of the way when the women arrive. A young man in white seated quietly inside the tomb tells them Jesus is not there. The scene ends in dumbstruck silence with the women running away, afraid to tell anyone what they had seen.

But Matthew is all high drama. An angel in blazing white descends from heaven before their very eyes, single-handedly rolls a mighty stone out of the way… and triumphantly sits on it. The men on guard duty—not the women—the men…  swoon at the sight.

Then the angel makes his magnificent proclamation, the women turn to go—according to Matthew, in fear and great joy… and suddenly… Jesus himself stands before them. The women fall at his feet and worship him.

But I left out a very important detail. Matthew puts his high drama in motion with nothing less than… an earthquake.

Can it escape our notice that just yesterday, at high noon, an earthquake punctuated the last breath of Jesus the Christ… on a cross… in a place of death called Golgotha?

Can we forget that in 2015, almost 9,000 people died in an earthquake in Nepal?

That in early March 2011, an earthquake in the Pacific sent a giant tsunami wave of destruction crashing into Japanese shores, killing almost 16,000 people, injuring more than 6,000 and leaving utter devastation in its wake?

Or that one year earlier, an earthquake leveled the capital city of Haiti, killing thousands and leaving millions homeless?

We are all too familiar with earthquakes, and the human tragedy they cause. So what in heaven’s name is one doing, here, right in the middle of our resurrection story?

Nora Gallagher is a novelist who has also written several books about her own spiritual journey. One of them is called Practicing Resurrection. It is an account of how the loss of a beloved brother throws her life into a tailspin, and of her return from walking straight down a wrong vocational path, dragging a failing marriage.

Gallagher’s struggle back requires her to re-examine everything: her call, her work, her marriage. It leads her finally to an exploration of nothing less than life after death. She finds that “experiences of resurrection are not believing six impossible things before breakfast.” Rather, she proposes, “Maybe resurrection, like everything else, needs to be practiced.”

We have all been there, in one way or another. Human existence is a series of earthquakes, large and small. Some are beyond our control. I have never experienced an earthquake of the natural kind, but I understand that little can be more terrifying than to feel the very earth move under our feet. It is the ultimate loss of control.

Other earthquakes are of our very own making. We march resolutely into dead ends and struggle to find a way back out again.



And as Matthew illustrates by putting an earthquake smack dab in the middle of the resurrection story, joyful events can also create upheaval in our lives. A baby is born, and mom and dad must create a new marriage out of the ashes of the honeymoon, a marriage in which gazing into each others’ eyes is replaced by advanced skill in “keeping an eye on” 16 things at once, from the shrinking pile of clean diapers to the toddler about to stick its finger in the puppy’s eye.

We don’t have to be “control freaks” to long for some control, some ability to maintain our balance as we face big challenges and small ones of daily life. But we have so very little. Fr. Richard Rohr defines human suffering precisely in these terms. “When are humans suffering?” he asks. “When they have no control.”

It often seems to me that it is precisely when we think we finally have it together, that we are finally on top of our game, that life hands us the most deadly, life-destroying blows. And we suffer.

Someone we love dies. A spouse or lover leaves us. A friend betrays us. We are downsized by our employer. Our company fails. An economic downturn takes much of our nest egg. Our politics turn nasty. Our children and grandchildren are sent half way around the world to fight a war that we are just not sure is worth the sacrifice of young, beautiful lives.

We aren’t in control, and much of the time it looks like God isn’t either.

But God chose to become human, to suffer and die on a cross in order to rise again in power over death. How do we understand that? As a one-time event? An economic transaction in which Jesus “paid a price” to God.. or was it to the devil? ..so that we can live happily ever after.. some day in some glorious future?

That kind of thinking certainly creeps into our religion, but it is wrong-headed. It diminishes the meaning of resurrection by making it a mechanical transaction trapped in history, and our lives something to be “gotten through” for some period of time while we await the coming of Glory.

As Fr. Rohr observes, it makes our religion a mere “evacuation plan for the next world.”

The fundamental story of our faith is that something always must die before something new, better, more beautiful can be born. And the thing that must die is typically our own beloved ego.

Earthquakes are destructive, but the human ego even more so. It is the human ego that leads us to destroy others in myriad ways, physically and emotionally, individually and as nations, with our need to be right, to save face, to feel secure, to divide the world into black and white, good and evil, us vs. them… to take sides and to believe that God is on ours.

About two weeks ago, the ULM Canterbury group I serve spent some time together examining our baptismal covenant—the one we are all about to witness and renew. We had no trouble with the first three promises. You know: Go to church. Confess your sins. Be a good example.

The last two promises we make—the ones about seeing Christ in all persons, seeking justice and respecting the dignity of every human being led us straight into a discussion of refugees from war-torn countries and our response to them.

I listened in awe as those young people spoke of their struggle to find balance between the heartbreak they feel for the people and their fear of consequences of people of different beliefs and values living among us. They want to be like Jesus, but the scary political rhetoric of the day plays on their very human fears. And so they struggle.

In Matthew’s resurrection story, the women fall down and worship Jesus. But in fact Jesus never once asked us to worship him. What he asks is that we follow him. And to follow Jesus the Christ, we must practice dying so that we can practice resurrection.



To let go of our need to be right, our need to be in control, to be safe and secure… not only feels like dying, but is a form of dying. And if we can do that, if we can follow Christ through the suffering and through the ashes of our hurts and losses and failures, if we can accept the healing that the infinite love of the cross offers us, the earthquakes of our lives become the very path to living our faith and sharing God’s love with a hurting world, which is to say, the very path to practicing resurrection.

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, AMEN.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Named

St. Alban's Episcopal Church, Monroe, La. 

This past week—a week of preparation for my last semester of full-time teaching—was deranged. Completely deranged. I spent the week dealing with one crisis after another.

Some of the crises belonged to others—like students, who didn’t manage to get advised and enrolled in classes in the fall, and now were desperate to get into already full classes in order to stay on track to graduate.

One would like to say, “Well, your failure to get advised and into classes is not my problem.” But the truth is, one can’t really do that. And so I went to work and did what I had to do to get them into some classes.

But the hardest part about the week was that the biggest and most difficult of the crises—the hurricane of a crisis that kicked off the week—was a crisis of—guess what!—my very own making.

You see, I too didn’t get something important done before the end of the fall semester. I failed to request renewals of funding for several graduate students for whom I am responsible as Communication Program graduate coordinator.

And much to my chagrin, when I ran to the Dean’s office with renewal forms Monday of last week, I was told we were out of money.

Thus ensued a couple days of scrambling, recalculating, negotiating, begging and identifying students who either weren’t returning or had decided not to come to ULM, thereby freeing up some money. By mid-week I thought we had things covered and I breathed a huge sigh of relief.

Within hours of that sigh of relief, I received an email from a new international student I had not heard from in over a month and had decided was not coming. Her money had been used to fill a gap for another student left by my failure to do renewals.

 “I’m here in the U.S.,” her email said, “ready to accept my graduate assistantship.”

I just about came unglued. I felt like the most incompetent boob to walk the planet.

I share that this morning in order to say this: The stories we tell about ourselves... are not the stories God tells about us.

Let me say it again: The stories we tell about ourselves are not the same, indeed, bear little resemblance to, the stories God tells about us.

Listen to Isaiah: The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me. 

Brothers and sisters,, do you hear that? You, me, all of us. We were named by God.. before we were born!

Now, I’m not assuming that means God chose “Bette Jo,” spelled “b-e-t-t-e j-o,” then put a bug in my daddy’s ear. But do notice that in today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus does something like that. He gives Simon a new name—Peter—the name we know him by to this day.

So, clearly, this naming business is important. Our name, and who named us, is part of our human story. Anyone here not know who named you? Or who you might be named after?



Naming is an act of love. Whatever else God might have in mind for each of us, our first name, the name God gives us in the womb, is Beloved. Beloved, as in, the one I, God, have chosen. 

The tricky part about that, of course, is that God gives that name to all humans. Indeed, all of creation, but that’s another sermon.

The moment we start thinking that we are more beloved than the next person, that immigrant over there, that person using food stamps in front of us in line at the grocery, that redneck with the beer gut, that dang Democrat, Republican or whatever… that’s when we’ve already forgotten who—and whose—we are.

And I say that as a person who forgets it.. all the time.

In May of this year, as one of my last acts of service to the University of Louisiana Monroe, I will again call the names of the students as they cross the stage to the applause of their families and friends to receive their diplomas. I spend a good bit of time getting ready to do that, finding out the proper pronunciation of the names—including the challenging foreign ones—and practicing, so as to get it right. It is one of my favorite tasks. It is a calling, and I will miss doing it.

And it is appropriate that this task I love so much is, indeed, an act of service. Note that Isaiah goes on to tell us more about who we are to God. 

And he said to me, Isaiah says, “You are my servant…in whom I will be glorified.” 

So we are not only God’s beloved. We are God’s beloved servants. We have work to do. We were not put here just to bask in the light of God’s love! How could we? How could we possibly respond to such love by doing nothing?

Some people say, indeed, some preachers in some religious traditions say, that if you tell people they are God’s beloved, that God loved and named them in the womb, and that God does and will love them regardless of what they do, you are thereby giving people carte blanche to behave any way they choose, any immoral, evil, ugly way they choose, without fear of consequences.

To which I say, Nonsense! That is not how it works.

To the contrary, when you see someone behaving in an immoral, evil, or just mean spirited way… pray for that person. Instantly. On the spot. In your heart might be better than out loud! But pray for them because that person has forgotten who and whose they are. That person has forgotten, or perhaps never knew, that he or she was named and chosen by God before being born.

You see, in those moments when we truly get and accept who we are—God’s beloved servants—when that resonates in our heart, mind and soul; when we claim that name—we will respond to the world and everyone in it with love, kindness and generosity. In light of such a gift, such unearned and complete grace, we cannot do otherwise.

Now..., I began this sermon with a story and I don’t want to leave you hanging. Yes, with the help of other people of good will, my grad student funding crisis was happily resolved. I am back to feeling modestly on top of my game.

Indeed, I ended the week helping a young man who flunked out of school a few years ago figure out how to get past his failure, get back in school and move on toward his goals. I’m excited! were his parting words to me.

But the larger value of these stories from academia is this: We live within merit systems. I have spent my adult life writing test questions, designing assignments, correcting, critiquing, sending things back to be redone, and ultimately awarding grades. More than once I have had to explain to unhappy students how they, indeed, earned the grade they received.

The version of the merit system that dominates your life is probably different in detail. Those of you who work in medical fields have the special stress and burden of knowing that your failure could have dire, even fatal, consequences.

But ALL of our merit systems have the ability to hurt, to wound, to frustrate, to beat down… the human spirit. It depends on how we use them. Merit systems dominate human endeavor, and that’s not going to change anytime soon.

The challenge for God’s people is twofold. First, we must remember that God, thankfully, does not operate by the merit system. And we are beneficiaries of that.

Second, we must remember that however practical and useful the human merit systems within which we function might be, they are ours, not God’s, and the people to whom we apply our merit systems—from the wayward student to the welfare recipient to the violent terrorist—are every bit as much God’s named and beloved as we are.

 

In the name of God, Father, son and Holy Spirit, AMEN

Friday, April 15, 2016

Called

Grace Episcopal Church, Monroe, February 24, 2016

When I was a child, perhaps 8 years old, the pastor of the Mennonite church my family attended retired. I do not remember the details of how a pool of candidates to replace him was chosen. But I will never forget the culmination of the process. 

Five men stand at the front of the church. Prayers invoking the Holy Spirit are prayed—several looong prayers. An elder of the church holds up to each man a row of matchsticks, all appearing to be identical—from the outside. Concealed by his hand is the fact that one of the matchsticks is way shorter than the others.

Each of the five men takes a matchstick, and the man who chooses the short one is thereby “called” to be our next pastor.
Choosing Mathias

Casting lots to determine God’s call was standard practice in Mennonite churches at that time. It was based on scripture—specifically, the story just read of the choosing of St. Mathias to replace Judas. We Mennonites believed it to be the way to get ourselves out of the way and let the Holy Spirit decide.

The Bible offers many stories of God’s call to various people. Some are dramatic. Every time I hear the story of Isaiah being touched on the mouth with a live ember, I shiver in awe and apprehension. What must that have been like!

On the other hand, God’s call to the boy Samuel was so subtle that Samuel thought it was the old man in the next room. Perhaps it is only grown-ups who require supernatural phenomena to get their attention!

Or, more accurately, perhaps when God is actually able to penetrate our defenses and be heard above the din of our busy, busy lives, we experience it as supernatural. It shouldn’t be. It should be as natural as the air we breathe.

It is also clear from call stories in the Bible that feelings of unworthiness in the face of God’s call have a long and honorable history: Moses, Isaiah, Amos, John the Baptizer and more.

Nevertheless, such feelings do not constitute justification for avoiding the call. God’s grace is sufficient, and working through imperfect, unworthy vehicles like us is precisely the plan. Clutching our sins and gazing at God in disbelief is never a substitute for answering the call.

That does not mean you are called to ordained ministry, although you might be. It does not mean you are called to change jobs or careers or move to a new place or reinvent your entire life, although you might want to do that.

It does mean that whatever you are doing with this one glorious and precious gift we call life, God is at work loving and reconciling this world, and you, me, all of us… are called to be a part of that.

We are all called. If we have been baptized into Christ’s one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, then we are called to be ministers of that church in the world. The thing that unites all followers of Jesus is that we are all called.

The only questions are, what is each of us called to do? And how do we know?

Please do not hear in any of this the tired notion that “God has a plan and if you just pray hard enough and are good enough, God will send signs—like drawing the short matchstick—to tell you whether to take this job or that one, move here or there, sell the farm or not, start that business or not, be ordained or not, etc., etc.”

Consider the possibility that God really does not care much about those specifics!

Caroline Fairless is an Episcopal priest who has wrestled with this question of “call.” She came to the priesthood by way of a lover committing suicide, and she struggled mightily to experience herself and her call as authentic.

In her autobiography, she describes a particularly challenging life transition in which she found herself quite indecisive and praying madly for direction. Dear God, shall I go here or go there, or perhaps not to a parish at all but into some other kind of work for the church?

Then one day she is out walking the dog, who insists upon snuffling through every bush along the sidewalk. As she stands with her face in a bush that seems to be growing right before her very eyes, she remembers a conversation reported to her by a friend about his own conversation with God about his call.

It went like this:

Friend: Well, God, is this what you want me to do?

Silence.

Friend: Do you want me to be a minister?

Silence.

Friend: So, yes? Or no?

God: You already are a minister.

Friend: Okay. Word games. How about a priest? Do you want me to be a priest?

Silence.

Friend: So, yes? Or no?

God: You already are a priest.

Friend: But ordained? Seminary trained? Do you want me to be an ordained minister?

God: I don’t care. It doesn’t make any difference.

Friend: You don’t care?

God: I really do not care.

Fairless and the dog continue down the path, she struggling with the decision she must make about which of her options constitutes the “right call.” Suddenly, she says, I hear a smile, somewhere in the universe, ‘It really doesn’t matter, Caroline. It just doesn’t matter.’

By the end of her autobiography, Fairless is able to see and claim that the Spirit is in her and working through her, regardless of what, exactly, and where, exactly, she is doing whatever she is doing at any given moment in time.

Here’s what I think, she concludes. I think it’s not so much the particulars of God’s call—almost anything will do—(blasphemy, you say!). The call is to the person. The field hardly matters. Priest or plumber, carpenter, bus driver, poet, teacher, the call is to me. I am to be the richest, fullest, most loving, generous, kind, bold, fearless, funny, creative partner to God… and to you… that I can be. The context is secondary.
 
I do not mean to make light of the question of what, exactly, we are called to do. Countless times throughout history, human beings have inflicted great cruelty and suffering upon each other in the name of God’s call.

We do it because we are no less human for having been called. And so our own human motives, our rich imaginations and wishful thinking, our arrogance, our hope that our own answers to the mysteries of God are the only answers—these things and more get all tangled up in our sense of God’s call.

Tonight’s Gospel lesson is huge help in sorting out this business of being called. Jesus offers us the concept of “abiding,” and specifically of abiding in his love.

That means a lot more than “poke your head in the door once or twice a day.” It means more than “give thanks before every meal.” It even means more than “consult me about every decision you have to make.” I really can’t conceive that God wants to micro-manage our lives!
    

For our Lenten study, I and the Canterbury group at ULM are using this workbook and a series of short videos produced by the Brothers of St. John the Evangelist (available free online) to consider “growing” a rule of life. Rules of life give us focus and direction and support—like a trellis does a climbing rose—to grow and abide in Jesus’ love.

And when we abide in Jesus’ love, we will know what God calls us to do. It’s stated right here: This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. And he goes on to say, ‘I have chosen you and appointed you to go out and bear fruit that lasts.’

What more do we need to know? Does it really matter whether we do that in a law office or a classroom? In a hospital or a TV studio? As a construction worker or a banker? As a garbage collector or a brain surgeon? As a lay person, a bishop, a deacon or a priest?

My friends we are all called, and at the most basic and foundational level, we are all called to the same thing: We are called to participate in God’s reconciling love already at work in the world. Everything else is window dressing.

In the name of God, Father, Son & Holy Spirit.AMEN
    

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Going Out of Our Minds

 Lenten Lunch Series, Grace Episcopal Church, Monroe, 2/23/16

What in the world has gotten into Mary? Mary, the blessed mother of Jesus, that is.

Mary, who upon learning of her most extraordinary pregnancy, a pregnancy she had every reason to be mortified by… but who instead sings a song—a song of joyful acceptance so magnificent that we have made it part of our daily devotion to God. That Mary. 

Mary, who pondered everything in her heart on the extraordinary night of her son’s birth, and who heard Simeon’s prophesy when she took her child to the temple for the naming ceremony. That Mary.

Today, that Mary stands with her other sons on the outside edge of the crowd surrounding her son Jesus (Mark 3:19-35, NRSV).

Jesus' Mother & Brothers
Her openness and acceptance of her son’s extraordinary nature seems to have evaporated. She and her “normal” sons are there to take Jesus away and lock him up because he has gone out of his mind.

Notice that she does not even go to his side herself. Is she afraid of her crazy son?

Is she embarrassed by his teaching of ideas so foreign to the family religion? Mortified by his rejection of the traditions of his own people?

Whatever has gotten into Mary, she sends messengers to fetch Jesus so she can take him away. And Jesus rebukes her and his brothers.

He does it gently. Teachers everywhere will recognize the strategy! When an answer is hard, preface it with a question! When you need to lead people to a challenging conclusion, help them participate in getting there by posing a question.

Jesus was master at this. He did it all the time when engaging with the religious leadership of the day. He rarely responded to the scribes and Pharisees with a direct answer, but almost always with a question.

And so he asks, “Who are my mother and my brothers?”

Then, turning not to his mother and brothers, but to those who had been absorbed in his sermon on forgiveness, he embraced them and whoever does the will of God as his immediate family.

When I came to Louisiana almost 20 years ago, I was struck by the tightness of family life here.

I first noticed it among my students, who seemed to have no ambition whatever to go out into the big, broad world, who wanted careers that would keep them right here in northeastern Louisiana.

I asked the department secretary about it, and she said, in her southern drawl that I cannot imitate, “Oh, yes, Dr. Kauffman. We would pitch a tent in our Momma and Daddy’s front yard and live there forever if we could!”

My late husband and I also noticed that no one was around most Sundays. We’d go to church then to coffee hour, kind of hoping to encounter some friendly souls we could hook up with for lunch or afternoon activities… but those who came to coffee, sipped quickly and were off. “Sunday family dinner,” we were told when we asked about it.

Invoking communal traditions and talk of family values are pretty sure-fire way to generate warm, fuzzy feelings in people. So much so that our politicians bandy those terms about in search of votes for themselves and their pet laws and policies.

Sadly, the content of the terms is rarely offered or asked for. A bit of Socratic method would serve us well here. What “heritage” do you mean? we might ask, the heritage of crawfish and jazz? Or the heritage of segregation and Jim Crow?

How do you define “family” and what “values” are you invoking?

You see, “heritage,” “tradition,” “family” and “family values” can become defense mechanisms.

They can shut down our minds and make us resistant to change. They can make us feel okay about excluding people—indeed, families—who do not fit our norms and standards and view of the world.

In a word, they can become idolatries.

And that, I believe, is what Jesus is teaching us in this story. He is asking us to question our most cherished values.

He is asking us to step right out of our comfort zone and open ourselves to all of humankind in a radical new way.



He is asking us to let go of fear and embrace the vast human family. 

Indeed, Jesus is asking us.. to follow him.. in going out of our minds. 

Many of you know I have long been involved in Northern & Central Louisiana Interfaith. The first lead organizer of Interfaith was a white man by the name of Perry Perkins. One of his first contacts was Rev. James Johnson, a black man and pastor of New Light Missionary Baptist Church.

Upon Mr. Perkins explaining his vision of Interfaith as black folks and white folks, Jews and Christians and Muslims, from northside and southside and across the river, well-off and poor, all working together for the good of the entire community, Rev. Johnson famously said, “You are the craziest white man I have ever met.”

A few years ago on the occasion of his retirement, I had the opportunity to turn that statement around and tell Rev. Johnson that he was the craziest black man I had ever met for signing on, which he did! And the crazy vision that is Interfaith persists today. 

How have YOU left behind your own most cherished traditions, beliefs, even family values.. and followed Jesus in going out of your mind? 

In the name of Father, Son and Holy Ghost, AMEN
     

Sunday, January 31, 2016

My book!


Two of the sermons in this book reference one of the many "treasures” strewn about my house, specifically a little brown rock about the size of a meatball. It’s kind of lumpy and hard and drab. It’s chipped and cracked. But it has a heart-shaped hole in the side.

I have come to see this little treasure as a symbol of the human-God relationship. We too are small, lumpy, often hard-headed, stiff-necked, and wounded by the inevitable challenges and suffering of human life. In comparison to God, more like a little brown rock.

But we do have a God-shaped hole in the side of our tiny, frightened, wounded and often hard human hearts. Nothing can fill that hole except God. God put it there with great love and tenderness to help us know whose we are. 

And that's Incarnation and that’s what makes it possible for us to love God and our neighbor as ourselves, to care for others—even those we don’t like or who frighten us, to reach for God and to find God, right here on earth, in each other and in creation and in the very ordinariness of our lives.

I think you’ll find that theme running in the background of many of these sermons.



Thursday, December 10, 2015

In the End Is Our Beginning

A sermon for Advent 1, preached at St. Thomas' Episcopal, Monroe, La., 29 Nov. 2015.



In a cartoon circulating on the Internet, a man and a woman walk along a city street. The woman is speaking. “My desire to be well-informed,” she says, “is currently at odds with my desire to remain sane.”

If you cannot identify with that sentiment this morning, I would seriously have to wonder where you have been and how you have been spending your time.. such that you could be so out of touch with what is happening in the world today.

Another item making the rounds online last week was a short bit of poetry, author unknown. It went like this: 

The Physician’s hands gently touch the earth: Where does it hurt?

Everywhere
Everywhere
Everywhere 

That one puts a lump in my throat every time I see it. Indeed, our world hurts. Everywhere.

Today we stand poised once again in the doorway between an end and a beginning. Last Sunday, we ended the church year celebrating Christ the King. 

Jesus shall reign where’er the sun doth its successive journeys run;
his kingdom stretch from shore to shore, til moons shall wax and wane no more.  
(Watts; BCP, p. 544) 

And now here we are, just 7 short days later, standing on the brink of apocalypse. 



Jesus tells us through St. Luke (21:25-36, NRSV), that, indeed, not only the moon, but the sun and the stars will seem to have gone haywire. And it will be a terrifying sight. We will faint from fear.

I don’t know what the sun, moon and stars going haywire might look like. Perhaps that is Jesus’ way of saying, “the universe will feel topsy-turvy.”

But we do know what “distress among nations” looks like. It is our everyday reality—at least if we are paying any attention at all!

And it does feel as if the entire universe has lost it’s bearing. We have so little power in the face of humankind run amok. We cannot control the behavior of others, neither individuals nor nations.

Fear is a natural response to lack of control over forces that threaten our world and our worldview. Fear might cause us to faint. But fear also causes us to become indistinguishable from the forces that threaten us in the first place.

Thursday morning I drove to Baton Rouge to spend Thanksgiving with my son and his bride. And what a wonderful time it was! What could be more fun—and more holy—than being the honored guest as newlyweds initiate their first family holiday tradition!

 We prayed together, feasted together and played together. And the world seemed at peace. And it was easy to have faith in a bright future. I hope and pray your Thanksgiving was equally restorative.

But late in the evening, I went to my computer as usual to catch up with online friends and the news of the day. And there among the Thanksgiving greetings from friends all around the world, many of whom do not celebrate this very U.S. American holiday but know that I do…

There among the blessings was a news story that chilled my soul. In Irving, Texas, Muslim worshipers emerged from afternoon prayers to be greeted by protesters carrying rifles and shotguns.

This is what happens when humans assume they know the mind of God and seek to take the vengeance of the Lord into their own hands!

Today’s lessons offer us alternative responses to our fear and perceived threats to our existence. They ask us to take a longer view, and to give ourselves over to a power greater than ourselves.

They draw our attention to the fact that at this moment, even as we prepare to celebrate the coming of Jesus the Christ as a babe in a manger, we must look forward to his coming again in glory and power. And that in this in-between time, we are his light and his love in the world.

We interpret the prophet Jeremiah’s reference to a righteous Branch [springing] up for David (33:14-16, NRSV) to be about the very coming of God into the world in the form of the baby Jesus. But even as we read it that way, we also know that peace has not yet come to Jerusalem. That justice and righteousness do not yet rule the land.

Again through the words of Luke, Jesus the Righteous Branch instructs us in how to conduct ourselves in this time of waiting. Stand up and raise your head, he says. …Be alert at all times. 

What a far cry that is from ‘hunker down and cover your head.’ Know what is happening in the world around you, even if it threatens your sanity! But that does not mean be so distracted by it that we forget who we are—and whose we are—and react in kind.

In Fredericksburg, Virginia, three-quarters of the way across the country from Irving, Texas, an Islamic Center applied for a permit to build a new, larger mosque nearby. This faith community has occupied the same spot without incident for 15 years. Like its Christian neighbors, it supports the local homeless center, has potluck meals and conducts events for the neighborhood, like “farm fun day” featuring horse rides and a petting zoo.

But the public hearing to present their proposal turned ugly. Citizens with legitimate concerns about traffic were drowned out by raw, anti-Muslim rhetoric. The senior pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church attended the meeting intending to “speak toward peace,” but gave up. “It’s really wrong to paint with such a broad brush,” he said. But the crowd wasn’t ready to hear his message of peace.

The Way Is through Light and Shadow, by Bette J. Kauffman

How often the fear that leads to faintness of heart goes hand in hand with acts designed to induce terror in the hearts of those we perceive as the threat. How sad when fear turns us against our very neighbor, such that the sheriff must shut down a civic meeting to prevent violence. 

To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul; my God, I put my trust in you, prays the psalmist (25:1, NRSV), who then reminds us that God is our salvation. Not national power, not the guns we carry, not legal protection of our hate-filled behavior—but God alone is our salvation and worthy of our trust.

The psalmist also asks for teaching and guidance in the way of the Lord, then in verse 9 tells us what that means: All the paths of the LORD are love and faithfulness. 

In his first letter to the Thessalonians (3:9-13, NRSV), Paul gives thanks for that new community of faith and prays for them. Today, I make Paul’s prayer our prayer: That we may increase and abound in love for one another and for all as we look forward to the coming of Christ—both as babe in the manager, a beginning, and at the end of all time with all the saints.

AMEN.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Let My Ego Go

St. Luke's Episcopal Chapel, Grambling, La., 27 Sept. 2015

One day in heaven, St. Peter is standing at the pearly gates doing his usual thorough job of checking IDs and deciding who gets in and who doesn't. 




Along comes Jesus, who watches for a minute then says, “Hey, Peter, how’s it goin’, man?”
“Well,” says St. Peter, “I have a complaint. You know, Lord, I’m scrupulous about my job here.  I interview each soul arriving at the Gate of Heaven, and I check to see if his or her name is written in the Book of Life.  I turn away the people not worthy to enter heaven, but a little while later I turn around and I see those very people wandering around on the inside!  I don’t get it! What’s going on?”

Jesus chuckles and say, “Yeah, well, that’s my mother for you! Those people you turn away? She’s letting them in through the back door.” 

In today’s Gospel lesson (Mark 9:38-50, NRSV), Jesus’ disciples are ego-tripping. This is actually not an unusual occurrence. We get to see the Chosen Twelve ego-tripping with some regularity, like when they argue about who is the greatest while Jesus is trying to teach them about being servant of all.

Today’s ego-tripping has to do with insiders vs. outside. They—the Twelve—are, after all, the ultimate insiders. They travel with Jesus. They hang on his every word—even when they totally don’t get it—which is also with great regularity.

And so they are upset when they see someone else acting like an insider. They see someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name, and they try to stop him. He was not following us, St. John says, and you can hear the petulance in his voice.

And Jesus says, in no uncertain terms, ‘Get over it guys. Back off! The cause of Christ is what matters, and whoever does it, whoever gives a cup of water in my name, is on my side.’

Indeed, Jesus is sufficiently disturbed by their ego-tripping that he sets a tone of danger in what he says next. Do not be a stumbling block, he says.

Do not let your pride get in the way of anyone else’s soul journey, he says, or you really will wish you were dead. Sounds a lot like Proverbs 16:18, which we popularize as “Pride goeth before a fall.” Jesus cited the Hebrew Scriptures a lot!

This form of ego-tripping is epidemic in our hyper-partisan national politics today. It is exactly what leads to stalemate in government. It leads people in power and those who support them.. to reject ideas and refuse to negotiate on the basis of which party is behind those ideas at a given moment in time.

We are all too quick to turn political leanings, like “liberal” or “conservative” into missiles we fire at one another, without pausing to hear what each other has to say on real issues that concern everyone. We really don’t want to consider the possibility that both—or all—points of view are essential to finding the best path through thorny problems, like how to create an economic system that works for everyone.

Wherever matters of identity and points of view divide people from each other and become stumbling blocks to working together for the common good, ego-tripping is involved—even when it involves religious people like ourselves.

A couple of years ago, Bishop Jake appointed me to head the Diocese’s Dismantling Racism Commission. About a year ago, as part of that work, I began traveling to St. Joseph, Louisiana, about once a month to do some community organizing, using the methodology of the Industrial Areas Foundation, which I learned via my long-time involvement with Northern & Central Louisiana Interfaith.

St. Joseph, Louisiana, is a deeply divided community along several lines. Probably the greatest of these is race, but in that area, race is deeply intertwined with socio-economic status and geography. To put it quite simply, the town is made up primarily of poor and working class black folks, whereas nearby Lake Bruin is surrounded by middle to upper class white folks.

Ironically, one thing that motivates these very different groups of people to consider trying to come together is that the lovely, middle class white churches are all located in the poor, black town of St. Joseph. So… Sunday morning is the most integrated time in St. Joseph.

Of course, the black folks and the white folks aren’t INSIDE the same churches. But they are all in town… all sharing the same pot-holed streets, run-down and boarded up buildings, and derelict water system.

Let me assure you, this is exhilarating but exhausting and frustrating work! At this point, we have formed an organization we call Tensas Faith Community, and we have two white churches and two black churches involved.

At times, we are in perfect harmony. At others, we struggle with fear, distrust, and, yes, ego-tripping. People are always free to come and go, stay or leave as they choose, but…. it becomes really tempting to draw lines in the sand.

“What do we stand for?” someone wants to know. “We need to put it into writing, so I can decide if I’m in or out!” Or, “if we get involved with that, I’m outta here,” someone says, before we’ve even discussed and heard each others’ points of view about what getting involved with that means.

I believe that human ego is the biggest of the stumbling blocks to our own faith journey, and the biggest stumbling block we throw in the way of others’ faith journey. I believe Jesus is telling us in the story, “Let your ego go.”

I don’t know what divides the community of Grambling, Louisiana, but I’ll bet something does. And I’ll bet human ego is part and parcel of it. And whatever it is, Jesus wants us—St. Luke’s in Grambling—to be in the business of dismantling it.

Black and white South Africans hold hands at a rally celebrating Nelson Mandela's release in 1990.
We Episcopalians inherent a long tradition of being the establishment church. From the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. to St. Thomas’ in Philadelphia—the first ever black Episcopal Church in the U.S.—Episcopal Churches have been the spiritual home of the Middle Class and on up. We have produced presidents and politicians at every level, academics galore, and religious leaders who have left their mark on all of Christendom.

But we have not always been the best at what Pope Francis is demonstrating as we speak--namely standing in solidarity with "the little ones" and "the least of these."

We're good at charity. We are generous with our dollars. But I'm talking about something else. I'm talking about seeking to see the world from another's point of view, and suspending ego and judgment long enough to give relationship a change. I'm talking about being in relationship across the lines that divide. 

AMEN