Friday, October 30, 2020

Hear It Again for the First Time

 Grace Episcopal Church, Monroe, La., Oct. 25, 2020

So…what you are about to hear is a “desperation sermon.” By that I mean, I wrote it Saturday afternoon beginning about 2:30 p.m. when desperation drove me to my computer and made me start typing.

And as is typically the case, starting out with the truth seemed the best bet.

 See, my usual way to write a sermon is to read the lessons the previous Sunday afternoon—several times—and again on Monday, and Tuesday. By Wednesday the sermon is taking shape in my mind and… usually no later than Friday, I’m ready to sit down and write out what is already pretty well formed in my head.

Not so this week. Indeed, when I sat down at the computer Saturday afternoon, I still didn’t know what I was going to write. I just knew, in desperation, I had to write something. Hence this odd beginning!

So.. what’s the problem? Truly difficult scripture to deal with? Jesus’ most challenging teachings? Like that bit about everybody getting paid the same no matter how little or how long they had worked?

Nope. Quite the contrary. “Love God and your neighbor as yourself.” We’ve heard it hundreds of times. We say it. Often! What teaching of Jesus could be more familiar, more accepted…. more definitive of who we say we are.. than “Love God and your neighbor as yourself.”

Indeed, I’ll bet if you did a search of my sermons, you’d learn that I go there in some fashion in most of them. So you would think that the opportunity to preach an entire sermon on this core and pillar of our faith would be met with a flood of ideas and words!

In fact, that’s what I thought last Sunday afternoon when I read the lessons for the first time. “Oh, good,” I said to myself, “I get to preach on ‘Love God and your neighbor as yourself.’ That’s a no-brainer.”

Except it’s not. Except my second thought was, “Wait a minute. Everybody knows that. Everybody believes that. Everybody knows that ‘neighbor’ means everyone: your rich neighbor, your poor neighbor, your Christian neighbor, your Muslim neighbor, your light skinned neighbor, your dark skinned neighbor… And on and on. A million sermons have been preached!”

And of course, therein lies the problem. What’s left to be said? How does one say something fresh and new about that which everyone already knows and believes?

 


Back in March when we were all asked to “shelter in place” in our own homes, I set out to “entertain” myself by tackling some, what I will generously call “messes” in my home. One of them was a storeroom. Sort of. Because it had long been impossible to actually store anything there because the room was piled high with…. stuff. Just stuff. Stuff waiting to be recycled. Stuff I didn’t want anymore but couldn’t bring myself to through into the trash. Stuff waiting to go to Christian Community Ministries. Stuff.

And so I cleaned it out. And there under all that stuff I found two boxes I had completely forgotten. One was a box of old books I’d picked up for a pittance at an auction. I had intended to sort through them, pick what I wanted, sell anything worth selling and give the remainder to the Symphony book sale.

The other was a box of brass objects from my brass collecting period: candlesticks, bowls, platters, etc. etc. All waiting to be polished and used or.. displayed, or.. what? I’m not sure.

So I dragged these two boxes into the kitchen and slid them partly under the little dining table where I would be sure to see them every time I sat down to eat a meal.

You know what I was thinking, right? I’ll put them right here where they will be a constant visual reminder to go through them, sort, use or dispose of, whatever.

But you also know where this story is going, don’t you? They’re still sitting there, untouched. They have become part of the furniture of that space. I vacuum around them. I don’t even see them anymore.

And that’s the problem with Love God and your neighbor as yourself. It has become the furniture of our faith.

And that’s the challenge of this sermon: How do I—or any preacher—help us all to rediscover, to trip over, to claim in a new way, this central tenet of our faith, this thing that everybody already knows and believes? Even as we often fail to do it!

How can we hear it again for the first time?

That’s it. That’s the tweet. Hear it again for the first time: Love God and your neighbor as yourself.

Now, all I can offer to help you hear it again for the first time are two quick points.

First, I think it behooves Christians to remember that love God and your neighbor as yourself doesn’t belong solely to us. I casually referred to it a few paragraphs back as a teaching of Jesus. And it is. But Jesus didn’t make it up. He was quoting his own Hebrew scripture. There it is in Leviticus. It belongs also to our Jewish brothers and sisters.

It is also claimed by Islam. Loving God is a thread that runs throughout the Qu’ran, and in the Sunnahs, which are Muslim writings held in esteem next to the Qu’ran, loving neighbors as oneself is presented as a natural outcome and extension of loving God.

Some scholars believe Islam borrowed from Christianity in developing that theology. I make this point because I believe, in this contentious age, looking for commonalities within difference—and while appreciating difference—is one of the most loving things we can do.

 
My second quick point is this: I have no idea how to teach us to “love God.” I know of no method, no process, no technique for learning to “love God.”

What I do know is that love is an unmerited gift from God. As God’s beloved, we love God back by loving what God loves—namely our neighbors as ourselves. ALL of our neighbors, and I would include our fellow non-human creatures.

Most human love is transactional. We love in order to get love—or something of value—in return. When our love is not reciprocated, we cut our losses and move on.

But we can’t love God to make God love us! Because God is the source of all love. God loves us first. We can take it or leave it, but we can’t earn it by loving God or by living a moral life or by all the piety in the world.

We can take it and love God and our neighbor as ourselves, or we can leave it… and be the unhappiest of humans, the most discontent, the angriest, the most hateful toward others. I truly believe that most human misery, prejudice, judgemental-ness, selfishness, fear, anger, hate... are consequences of people not knowing, or not accepting, or forgetting.. that they are God’s beloved.

We will never get it right all the time. All we can do, or, at least all I can do, is remind myself constantly as I am faced daily with neighbors I don’t understand, neighbors with whom I disagree vehemently, neighbors who frighten me with their anger and hostility… all I can do is remind myself again and again: I am God’s beloved and so is he or she. And that is enough. Loving is an end in itself. Love

The Sufi poets often give me words to express the ineffable. Here are the words of the Sufi saint Rabia al-Basra. She writes:

O my Lord,
if I worship you
from fear of hell, burn me in hell.

If I worship you
from hope of Paradise, bar me from its gates.

But if I worship you
for yourself alone, grant me then the beauty of your Face.

 

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

 

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Encountering the Holy

23 Feb. 2020, Grace Episcopal, Monroe, La. 

Who could not love Peter in this Gospel story? He is so very human, even child-like, in his offer to build dwellings on the mountain in order to hold on to a glorious moment.

We have all been there. We have all had a moment or two in our lives, moments so perfect and beautiful, that we have yearned to stop time in its tracks.

We call them “mountain-top moments” for good reason. They are typically moments bathed in holy love and holy light, like the one described by Mathew, and like Peter, we want to stay in that moment forever. 

Detail from The Transfiguration icon.
Artists throughout the ages have represented the transfiguration scene in a variety of ways, but my favorites show the disciples tumbling down the mountain in disarray, sandals flying off their feet. Moses would approve. They are all on holy ground.

Today is the last Sunday after the Epiphany, and we end this holy season of “showing forth” the way we began it…, with a theophany—a human encounter with God. We—and the world in the persons of the Magi—saw the star, followed it to the infant Jesus, and knelt in wonder before God Incarnate.

That was six weeks ago. Today we are with the disciples on the mountain top witnessing the glory of God Incarnate once again.

Soon, the vision will end—as all mountain-top experiences must. We must put our shoes back on, head down the mountain, and with Jesus, turn our faces toward Jerusalem. I don’t think the disciples had much of a clue about what was coming, but Jesus did. He has tried to tell them and will try again, but… we see little evidence in their words or actions that they understood.

Who can blame them? We understand—to the extent that we do—only with the help of the biblical record and two thousand years of hindsight.

“To the extent that we do.” I put that phrase in that sentence very purposefully.

We regular church goers are very familiar with the progression of the church year. We prepare for Christmas with advent, we celebrate the holy birth with gusto, and we give at least a nod to the showing forth on Epiphany. We mark the transition between Epiphany and Lent by gorging on pancakes and King Cake, and then get down to the serious business of ashes and fasting, perhaps a bit of extra alms giving…

So, yes, we get it. And we have organized our church life around these events in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. But I’m directing our attention to something deeper.

Jesus knew what was ahead in Jerusalem. I like to think that he gained strength and courage and resolve for the agony to come from his glorification and moment of complete unity with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit on the mountain top.

But as Jesus descends from the mountain, his face turned toward Jerusalem, something important and telling happens. Our lectionary reading for today stops just four verses short of this event, but I think it an important part of the story.

So.. Jesus and his disciples are descending from the mountain having a brief theological discussion about what has transpired. And then they encounter the crowd they had left behind to go up the mountain to pray.

Immediately, a man steps out of the crowd and presents himself to Jesus—and not just “a man,” but a distraught and desperate father. Lord, have mercy on my son, he says, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly; he often falls into the fire and often into the water. 

Now Jesus, in my mind, has every right to stay focused on the larger mission. He has bigger fish to fry. He must go to Jerusalem to fulfill all things, to become through his passion, the salvation of the world. Big, big orders, just confirmed again in his glorification on the mount.

But Jesus does what we have come to expect Jesus to do. He responds to the human need and pain in front of him. Go get your son, he says to the father, and the father does and Jesus heals him.

How do we encounter God in our own lives? What do we do with those encounters? Are they turning points in our relationships—with God, yes, but with the hurting world of which we are a part?

I’m going to tell you a story about something that happened in my own life just a few days ago—Thursday, to be specific. But I do so with trepidation, for two reasons. One, it seems a little self-serving, so please understand, I am not presenting myself as one who always “gets it” and responds accordingly. And, two, it involves the very controversial topic of immigration and asylum-seeking and how we respond to the thousands seeking to come to this country. 

Where immigrant assylum-seekers are detained in Louisiana.
I do not have answers to all of the questions immigration and asylum-seeking raise, but I have gotten a bit involved with a group of citizens seeking to make sure that immigrants detained in prisons and jails throughout Louisiana receive humane treatment. The humanitarian supports this group provides include primarily social visits to detainees, putting a few dollars into their commissary accounts so they can buy creature comforts that our for-profit prison system does not provide, sending cards and letters to alleviate their isolation and loneliness, and taking them reading material in their native language.

But the main way I have gotten involved is in helping those who are released. When a detainee is granted asylum or is bonded out by their families, the responsibility of ICE and the detention facility ends at the front door. And, actually, the challenge in helping begins earlier. It seems to be virtually impossible for the support network to get clear, definitive information about when someone is to be released.

So, last Thursday: Another volunteer and I took turns going to Richwood Detention Center to pick up a Cuban who was being released. The network had gotten word early in the morning that he was definitely to be released, probably mid-morning. Then the word was “noon,” then early afternoon, and so forth.

 I had to teach a class at Grace School, so the other volunteer was on call. By the time I emerged from class at 3:10 p.m., the Cuban had just been released and was sitting with the other volunteer in her car in a parking lot near the prison.

His family has been in the U.S. for some time. They live in Florida but a bus ticket to take him there would have cost $250. This network carries on with no official funding. But we had a plan. One of the key people in the network, a friend of mine, lives in Natchez, Mississippi, and she had been in touch with his family. If we could get him to Natchez, his brother and cousin would drive all night from Florida to meet him there.

The other volunteer could not take him to Natchez, but I could. It’s important to know that when an asylum-seeker is released from detention, whatever they brought to this country with them, they no longer have it. This man was wearing every item of clothing he owned, namely a torn pair of jeans that did not reach his ankles, loafers with no socks, and two thin shirts.

Do you remember the weather Thursday afternoon? Cold, wind, rain. I offered him a heavy corduroy shirt left behind by my late husband, but he declined. I offered him a meal at Taco Bell; he said he wasn’t hungry, although he was certainly thin and looked hungry. When they get out of detention—where they have typically been for 8 or 9 months or more—they have one thing on their minds: Contact with their family.

So we got into my car, I stopped to fill up with gas, and as we headed east on Winnsboro Road toward Hwy 15 south toward Natchez, I plugged in my phone and handed it to him. None of his family was among my contacts, so he used the instant messaging app to request connection. A few minutes later, his mother responded—cautiously, because she of course did not recognize my phone #. 

Hola, quien es? she typed. Who is it? My passenger grabbed the phone, hit the “face time” button, and all heaven broke loose in my car. I have never before witnessed a family reunion anything like it. 

Te amo! Te amo! Te amo! My conversational Spanish is not good. I can read the language very well, I can speak it pretty well, but when native speakers are conversing, I understand very little. But “Te amo!” is easy. “Te amo!” means “I love you.” And that is what the first few minutes of that conversation consisted of. Te amo! I love you.

About 5 minutes in, my passenger tapped my arm and turned the phone toward me. His mother wanted to see me. Thank you, thank you, she said in heavily accented English, thank you for helping my son. 

The reunion continued unabated for a full hour as we drove south. The father came into the call, and other family members. There was much laughter. At one point, my passenger sang a song to his mother. I gathered from the occasional word I understood that he was singing her the song he had used to sustain himself emotionally through long months of detention. She cried.

Then she asked to speak with me again. Did I mind if her younger son, my passenger’s brother, played and sang over my phone. Of course not. And so we were serenaded by a clearly talented younger brother. And on it went…

Immigration, by Spencer
It is past time for me to sit down and be quiet. So let me try to put into words what I hope you will take away from this… admittedly “stream of consciousness” kind of homily.

Jesus was there Thursday. It did not feel like a mountain-top experience at the time. But Jesus was there.

Jesus was in my car driving through the rain and in that family reunion. Jesus was in my friend in Natchez orchestrating the whole thing—although she would be the last person to say that! She then drove to Sicily Island to meet us so I didn’t have to drive all the way to Natchez. Jesus was in two volunteers bouncing between our ongoing lives and making sure the stranger among us didn’t walk out of that detention center and find no one there to greet and help him. Jesus was in the whole thing.

And I still don’t know what I’m supposed to do with it. How it is supposed to transform my life. I just know, poised at this moment between Epiphany and Lent, Jesus walks among us. Our own encounter with God is waiting.

Are we open to it? Are we willing to find God, not only in our Lenten pieties, not only inside this beautiful worship space, but even more compellingly disguised in the very brokenness of our world? Are we willing to be transformed by our encounter with the Holy in the most unlikely places?

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

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Calls... and Consequences

Grace Episcopal Church, Monroe, La., 26 January 2020


About a week and a half ago, I offered to preach today so Fr. Don could focus on the annual meeting. A couple days later I gave the lessons a “first reading,” and discovered, happily, that I get to preach about one of my very favorite topics…, that being “calls,” as in “calls to ministry.”

Jesus Calls Simon and Andrew

 So… here’s a story from one of my own calls to ministry, specifically my call to ordination into the sacred order of deacons. I entered the process with great trepidation.

You see, I had been a bit of a church traveler for much of my life. I had been through multiple denominations. And it seemed like most of those denominational relationships had ended when I came up against some kind of litmus test of belief that I could not, in good faith, conform to.

The broad umbrella of the Episcopal Church had come to seem like the right place for me, but…. Ordination? Marry a church? Have I lost my mind?

So I entered into the discernment process slowly, cautiously, and with this guiding thought: If at any point, any group or person involved in this process says, “No, we really don’t think you are called to ordained ministry,” I will say, “Fine. Thank you!” And I would go home and continue doing what I had always done: participating in church and doing lay ministry.

About a year after formally entering the process, I had my first interviews with the Commission on Ministry. The format of those interviews back then was that the Commission broke up into two-person teams and each team interviewed the aspirant on a single topic. Aspirants went from room to room to meet with each team.

So I enter a room, and there sits Fr. Greg Riley—former rector of this church—and another priest whose name I can’t remember. We chat. All is well. And then Fr. Riley asks me a question that knocks the breath right out of my body.

“Bette,” he says, “how many people have you brought to Jesus Christ?”

I clapped my hands to my chest in instantaneous reaction and blurted, “Oh, Fr. Riley, what a thought!”

And then I kind of regained my composure and said something along the lines of ‘I don’t know. I just try to live my life in a way that people might see something that might help them change their own life.’

On the way home later, I’m reflecting on the day—mostly on that one question and my reaction to it. And chief among my thoughts was this: “There was your litmus test, girl, and you failed. You were supposed to come into this process with a notched belt and actual stories of people you have “reeled in” for Jesus.”

And that thought was quickly followed, with some relief: Now I indeed get to go home and go back to doing what I was doing before.

Well, no, that’s not how it turned out, obviously. But I was reminded of the story and I tell it to you today because this story—the one Fr. Don just proclaimed—is probably my least favorite call story in the entire Bible.

I mean, I know fishing. I’ve done it since I was a child. You bait a hook, with a luscious-looking minnow, or a fat juicy grub, or a shiny spinnerbait, and you cast it out there and when you feel a fish you throw your weight into setting that hook right through that fish’s jaw and you reel it in… against its will and for the explicit purpose, usually, of killing it and eating it.

Does that sound like Christian ministry to you? I always want to ask, “Geez, Jesus, couldn’t you come up with a kinder and gentler analogy?” I suppose fishing with nets, which the disciples were surely doing, is a bit kinder and gentler–but… the outcome is the same: dead fish.

We all know some religious traditions seem to take this analogy quite literally and use tactics to, quote, “evangelize” that make us shrink back in horror. We aren’t going to be the ones standing on street corners with a bullhorn or going door to door telling people they must be “saved” by saying a magical prayer. I’m sure my experience with some of these tactics was part of my shocked response to Fr. Riley’s question. (BTW, no criticism of Fr. Riley intended; he was following the protocol.)

So enough with the “fishers for people” imagery. Thankfully, we have ample evidence throughout the Bible and in the words and actions of Jesus.. that baiting and frightening and reeling people into the church is not what God has in mind in calling us to ministry in the world.

And we.. are.. all.. called. I started out with a story about a call to ordination, and the danger of that is you might think that’s what “call” means. Wrong. So very wrong. We.. are.. all.. called.

It is no accident that today’s Gospel story comes on the heels of Jesus’ baptism. That was two weeks ago, and last Sunday was kind of a continuation. John the Baptist is standing there with his disciples, Jesus wanders by, John states who he is, and off go John’s disciples to follow Jesus… all the way home!

Now, today, Jesus is out explicitly calling people to follow him. And they drop everything and go. We are all called. And our baptismal covenant states what we are called to.  

Yes, the church has organized itself into orders, and I like to list the orders in which I understand them to have been founded: lay people first because Jesus had followers before anything else, then bishops because the 12 apostles, then deacons because the original apostles made the first deacons, and finally presbyters when the church got too big for the apostles to do all the Holy Eucharists.

But all of the orders are grounded in the same call. That’s the bottom line. The baptismal covenant is where the rubber meets the road for followers of Jesus.

In a short time, we are going into the parish hall to conduct our annual meeting. We’re going to approve minutes of last year’s meeting, look at budgets, hear highlights of reports, elect people to represent us, etc, etc. All practical and necessary matters.

But we need to address those matters with our baptismal covenant in mind. Because if they can’t be connected to our baptismal covenant in any way, why are we doing them? If the only thing that would change if Grace Episcopal Church were to fold up its tent and leave was that all these Episcopalians would have to find another place to go for an hour on Sunday… well, we probably should do exactly that!

But I don’t think that’s the case. I think Grace Episcopal Church & School are poised, ready for God to do something new here. And I am totally on board with it.



We’re not going to recite the baptismal covenant right now. We do that on certain occasions and often enough that you know what it says. Besides, I need to stop talking and sit down because we have an annual meeting to do!

Rather, I’m going to remind you with a little shorthand: The first three things we promise to do are all about being good church people: Come to church and share in the fellowship of word and table, repent of our sins and do better, tell others. And I have an inkling that Fr. Don is going to exhort you about those things in his address to the annual meeting. That IS his focus as priest—to help you become better church people.

Mine as deacon is to exhort about what we—individually and corporately—do out there in the world. How do we love our neighbors as ourselves? How do we make that real and concrete? How do we strive for—not merely hope for or pray for, but strive for—justice and peace for all people?

Calls have consequences. Those are not hollow words to be repeated to make us feel holy and righteous. They are promises we make. Things we commit to doing. The baptismal covenant is not a creed, it’s a call to action.

God is already at work in the world and in our community. We are God’s people..., and we are called to join in.

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

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

In the Moment

Grace Episcopal Church, 6 October 2019 

We have all seen or heard or read the story: Someone—typically a completely ordinary person—does something heroic and then is surprised when treated like a hero. Here’s one I remember, minus some details I don’t remember, like the kid’s name and where it happened.

There was a flood. A woman is in a car that is sinking as it is being swept away by a river where no river was supposed to be. Some people see it and race after the sinking car in a boat.

A young man jumps out of the boat, grabs onto the car and pulls the struggling woman out through the driver-side window. But instead of praising God and thanking him, she begins screaming, “MY DOG! MY DOG!”

The young man looks back at the car and sees the face of the dog in the last bubble of air trapped behind the rear window of the convertible, which is now rapidly sinking. With the superhuman strength that often comes in a moment like that, the young man hangs onto the sinking car with one hand, beats a hole with the other, presumably by ripping a seam between the window and the ragtop, scoops out the dog and gets back to the surface gasping for air.

Later on, when he is rightly honored as a hero and profusely thanked by the woman and his community, he says, ‘I’m not a hero. I just did what I had to do in the moment,’ or words to that effect.

And so say the “worthless servants” in today’s Gospel parable: No need to thank us, we have done only what we ought to have done. 

That, my friends, is faith in action: Being in the moment, doing what needs to be done.

In the Moment, by Bette J. Kauffman
Perhaps if Jesus had known convertibles and floods and precious pets like we do, he might have used beating a hole in a sinking car to save one… as his example in this teaching! I say, transplanting a mulberry tree into the sea pales in comparison.

We are so often like the disciples in this story. We think of faith as a kind of elixir, a miracle cure, or maybe a steroid, and we long for someone—well, Jesus, of course—to inject us with a bunch of it. Or open up our skull and dump some in, because we really think it is a mental thing, a thing of belief—of believing all the right things and never questioning or doubting.

Once a number of years ago, I was struggling with questions of belief and sort of bouncing between moments of great faith, at least as I understood faith then, and moments of great doubt.

And so I said to a priest friend one day, I can’t decide whether Christianity makes no sense whatsoever, or if it’s the only thing that makes any sense at all. Actually, I said to him, I really think both are true.

I’m sure I expected to be admonished, or at least instructed in how Christianity is “the answer” to all questions. Instead he just chuckled and said, “Yup, that about sums it up.”

Believing “the right stuff” is not faith. Believing all the “right things” and never questioning or doubting is more like magical thinking. And the more certain we are in our “right beliefs,” the more magical our thinking.

In the small Iowa town where we grew up, a couple of my siblings got involved in a small, charismatic, non-denominational church. They became very devout and very “certain” in their faith.

Then the beloved pastor of that church was diagnosed with cancer. The congregation took this passage we are talking about today (and a few others) to mean that if they just had enough faith and asked God to heal their pastor, their pastor would be physically cured of the cancer.

And so they prayed mightily, and often and loudly proclaimed their “faith” that the pastor was being healed, it was just a matter of time. Sadly, the pastor died of the cancer.

Not too surprisingly, the congregation was thrown into a crisis of faith. Had they not had “enough faith”? Was there one among them who doubted? How could this be? It was “faith” as magical thinking and it almost destroyed that little church.

Jesus does not equate faith with what we think or believe. In this teaching as in others, he likens it to a seed, the tiniest of seeds. Oh, the lessons that can be drawn from a seed!

Live Oak on Highway 65 South, by Bette J. Kauffman.
Here’s one: I stand on my deck and gaze in wonder and consternation at the live oak tee in the middle of my back yard. Wonder, because I know it grew from an acorn smaller than the tip of my thumb. Consternation, because the limbs are down to the ground again! I have just retained a tree man to come and trim it, again, at no small fee.

Likewise, heroic achievements hide in small acts of faith, in moments of being present, aware, vulnerable… to people, to creation, to the world around you. Pay attention! And respond. You are the home of the Spirit. God is within you. And that is all you need. Respond out of that indwelling Love with a capital L and you will do what needs to be done in the moment.

And never underestimate the ripple effect—the intensity, the reach, the consequences—of small acts of faithfulness. Consider Anne Frank, faithfully writing in her diary, having no idea her words would be read by and inspire millions. 

Greta Thunberg
One more thing about seeds: They die in order to be resurrected as a live oak tree, as a head of grain, as a gorgeous orchid that grows from a microscopic seed.

Thankfully we don’t have to physically die—at least not most of the time—in order to respond out of faith and do what needs to be done. But we must hold our own wants and needs, our egos and occasionally our very lives somewhat loosely in order to be vulnerable and available to the needs of the moment, the people and the situation in front of us.

If we are caught up in doing a cost-benefit analysis, or assessing potential legal liability, or risk, or protecting our own ego from possible rejection or embarrassment or failure or whatever, if we are fearful and anxious, we cannot be fully present to others and respond out of faith and love.

In short, we must get out of our heads to do what needs to be done in the moment.

In her book Practicing Resurrection, Nora Gallagher observes that we “spend so much time in church ‘believing’…or ‘not believing’ (six impossible things before breakfast) that we…lose the point.” Regarding the resurrection appearances of Jesus, what matters, she says, is what we do with them. Do we turn them into exotic beliefs? Or use them as stepping stones to new life and new growth in our relationships with God and others.

And finally, Sarah Dylan Breuer wrote this for her online blog:

The word 'faith'…is often spoken about as if it meant trying to talk ourselves into intellectual assent to something, with "increasing our faith" meaning that we are successfully persuading ourselves that we have adopted an idea we think is ridiculous. That's not faith; it's self-deception, and usually a pretty unsuccessful kind of self-deception that results in our feeling a little guilty and hypocritical, as we know that we don't actually believe what we say.

But faith is not about intellectual projection and assessment... Faith is relationship -- a relationship of trust, of allegiance. When Jesus talks about "faith," he's not talking about what you do in your head; he's talking about what you do with your hands and your feet, your wallet and your privilege, your power and your time. Faith in Jesus is not shown by saying or thinking things about him, but by following him.

In the name of God, father, son and Holy Spirit, AMEN.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

“Perverse Sword of the Kingdom”

Christ Episcopal Church, Bastrop, 18 August 2019


So last week I preached about “stuff and treasure,” a fun sermon to write because I knew many would identify with the problems of having too much stuff and how to sort out the treasure from the dust collectors. Moreover, that sermon enabled me to talk about a couple of my treasures, specifically “Rock with a Heart” and the glass ibis given to me by my sister.
 
"I Don't Sell Jesus," by Bette J. Kauffman


I made the point that true treasure is our relationship with God, manifested through our relationships with each other, that the artifacts in our homes and hands and pockets represent. And I mentioned, kind of in passing, that although family relationships come pretty naturally to us, we are called to more than that, even to the possibility of leaving our family behind.

In fact, here’s a direct quote from that sermon: But Jesus told us, you have to be willing to leave your family behind. Jesus modeled for us a different way, a way contrary to our instincts…

Please know that when I said that last Sunday, I had NOT YET read the lessons for today! Imagine what went through my mind when I sat down last Sunday afternoon to read the lessons for today and begin thinking about today’s sermon! If I didn’t know better, I’d think it was God’s revenge on the preacher for having mentioned something so important “in passing”!

So… what are we to make of this? Surely this is one of Jesus’ most difficult teachings. He sounds downright un-Jesusy. He sounds harsh, strident. He sounds like he wants to burn the place down: I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!

The next sentence is a clue to at least part of what is going on here. Jesus says, I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! So Jesus is kind of strung out because he knows what’s coming.

But there’s more to it than that. Jesus is warning his followers that his way, the way of love of God and neighbor is going to get them in trouble. He is saying that the revolutionary message of unconditional love that puts God and neighbor even above self and nation, the selfless Love that he, Jesus, not only teaches, but lives and breathes and IS in his very being…

That Love is counter to every norm of civil society. It upsets the apple cart. It turns things inside out. It shows the superficiality of everything else, including the cherished “family values” on which our political system loves to base appeals for our support and vote.

So often that term, “family values,” becomes code for generating warm, fuzzy feelings of identifying with families that look and act like ours, but also for excluding those who do family differently or whose families don’t look like and act like ours.

Every time I hear that appeal, whether a politician or a salesperson or an acquaintance on social media, I immediately want to ask: What do you mean by that? What are “family values” to you? That’s a hollow term until you tell me what you mean by it.

So many aspects of our political and economic and social and cultural systems–all of which I mean when I say “civil society”–so much of that is designed precisely to create “in groups” and “out groups,” to divide the human family into categories based on wealth, status, political opinions, cultural practices, religion, and more.

And then to pit those groups against each other to determine who wins and who loses, who merits help and who doesn’t, whose labor is worth a living wage and whose isn’t, who gets to “rule the roost’ for what period of time.



Love that contradicts and flies in the face of all of that is subversive. And civil society will strike back, as it did against Jesus.

Jesus told us more than once using a variety of parables and teachings that signing on to the subversive Love he lived and breathed and WAS in his very being would cause problems, indeed even in families.

I am reminded of the story of the prodigal son. Author Timothy Keller says we really should call it “The Prodigal God,” and he’s written a book with that title. It is the generosity, the over-the-top prodigious love of the father in forgiving and welcoming home the younger son that drives a wedge into that family. Because the older son, the moral, upstanding older son who had followed all the social norms and honored the family values of the day, cannot accept the unconditional, selfless Love, the forgiving, gracious and merciful Love of the father.

Another author, Suzanne Guthrie, calls this subversive Love that overturns societal norms “the perverse sword of the kingdom.” In her reflection on this Gospel lesson, she features the story of Edith Stein, a story I did not know before last week, but find compelling, powerful and worthy of our attention.

Edith Stein was gassed by the Nazis at Auschwitz, most likely on August 9 of 1932. She had a Ph.D. in Philosophy, but was also known as Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, a Carmelite nun, writer and theologian.

Stein’s intellectual curiosity lead her at an early age from Judaism to atheism to psychology and philosophy. Many of her friends were Christians, but it was the autobiography of Teresa of Avila, a Carmelite nun, that captured her heart. She later recalled that upon finishing the book, she said to herself, “This is the truth.” Shortly thereafter she was baptized into the Roman Catholic church.
 
Sr. Benedicta of the Cross
But Edith Stein was also the youngest daughter of a devout Jewish mother. The two loved each other deeply, and Edith’s Christianity tore her mother’s heart.

For a time, Edith continued to go to synagogue with her mother when visiting. On one occasion at the synagogue together while saying the Sh’ma, the Judaic statement of faith, Edith’s mother turned to her and said, Do you hear that? The Lord our God, He is ONE!

On another occasion, Edith’s mother said to her, He (Jesus) was a good man – I’m not saying anything against him. But why did he have to go and make himself God?

Indeed, Edith understood that dilemma. She knew it from her own intellectual travel from Judaism through atheism to philosophy. Yet her heart had been captured by the story of a Carmelite nun, and she felt the call to become one.

Here’s where Suzanne Guthrie asks: What kind of perverse sword of the kingdom sets a devout mother against daughter and daughter against mother?

I can’t answer that question, but I’ll come back to it in a moment. Edith Stein became Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. When she moved to Carmel and made her final vows there, her mother died at that very hour. At least she did not live to see her daughter gassed by the Nazis!

Suzanne Guthrie concludes her reflection with these words: When I pray with Edith Stein, I include her mother. For what kind of “peace” can there be, one without the other?

Now back to Guthrie’s question: What kind of perverse sword of the kingdom sets a devout mother against daughter and daughter against mother?I not only can’t answer that question, but I have more like it. What kind of perverse sword of the kingdom leads people of good faith, devout people, people of prayer, Bible-reading people… to exactly opposite conclusions on so many “hot button” issues of our lives today?

From economic concerns like taxes and minimum wage to questions about access to healthcare and all the way to big moral issues like gun violence, abortion and human sexuality. You would think that God who is Love would lead us all to the same conclusion, right? So we could just love each other and not have to contend with each other over these divisive questions!

But, of course, like I said last week, it’s not that hard to love people who are like us in appearance, beliefs, opinions, all of that. But Jesus calls us to more. Jesus calls us to love even our enemies. Jesus calls us to the Way of Love. Period. Full stop.

In the name of God, father, son and Holy Spirit, AMEN.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Stuff & Treasure


On the window sill over the sink in my kitchen is a treasure. It’s a little brown rock, about the size of a meatball—the kind you see in chafing dishes at receptions. It’s a pretty ordinary looking rock, except…  It has a heart! 

I don’t know how it came to be, but this plain brown rock has one kind of flat side and there on the flat side, if you tilt it at just the right angle, is a perfectly heart-shaped opening. A friend who knows that I collect treasures gave me “Rock with a Heart.” She found it lying on the ground, “in plain sight,” she said.

But… on the window sill, right next to Rock with a Heart, is… well, a bunch of stuff: A pill bottle with one or two expired pills in it. One of those joke half-mugs that cleverly declares, “You asked for half a cup of coffee.” That was a treasure—briefly. Now it’s a dust collector.

On a shelf above the TV is a couple of inches of armadillo tail, picked clean of tissue such that its intricate bony architecture is clearly revealed. Why so homely a critter requires such an extraordinary tail structure I don’t know. To me it’s an exuberant, over-the-top expression of its Creator—here just for the glory of it. A treasure.

But right next to it? More dust collectors: Things you thought you couldn’t live without.. for some brief moment in the distant past. Today? Meh.

We could continue. My house is strewn with treasures. Among the rocks, bones and shells, you will also find human-made treasures, like the glass ibis figurine my sister gave me when I admired it in her home.

But for every treasure... an equal or larger portion of stuff. How did I come to have… All. This. Stuff? Lately, my house full of stuff has come to feel burdensome, stifling, a huge distraction from the things that really matter. And so I am in the process of down-sizing! I got rid of stuff this summer, but, alas, I have far to go….

One of the things that struck me about the many people from New Orleans I spoke with post-Katrina is how losing everything made them leery of collecting stuff. One woman I interviewed told me that before the storm she had every kitchen device you could imagine. She loved to cook, and she had all the equipment and gadgets the world had to offer.

But she lived in the Upper 9th Ward, and it allll ended up in a huge, smelly pile at the curb. Now, she said, I have one saucepan and one skillet and I don’t want any more. Now, she takes pleasure in figuring out how to cook whatever she wants with one skillet and one saucepan.

Many people take today’s Gospel lesson to be about long-term planning. There’s that reference to “laying up treasures in heaven,” and so we want to make this teaching an evacuation plan for that next place we’ll go to someday after we die. ‘Be good now—moral, pious—and go to heaven later.’

I beg to disagree. Jesus tells us over and over throughout his ministry on earth: The kingdom is at hand. The kingdom is within and among you.

And today’s lesson: Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. 
The glass ibis.

 That’s all present tense! I’m reminded of how my sister gave me that glass ibis. I was visiting her and noticed it sitting on her windowsill. And I told her the story of waking up one morning to a flock of ibises in my back yard feasting on crawfish brought up by a heavy rain.

And my sister insisted on giving me the figurine. Right then. On the spot. She didn’t put it in her will, she picked it up and put it in my hands. And when I protested she said much the same thing Jesus says on this occasion: It is my pleasure to give it to you.

But here’s the tricky part. Yes, the glass ibis is a sort of treasure. But it’s not.. the real.. treasure. The glass ibis could get knocked off my windowsill to shatter on the floor today, and I’d still have the real treasure—my relationship with my sister and an act of solidarity between us that carried that relationship forward.

We humans easily confuse things, mementos, STUFF… with the real treasure—namely our relationships with each other, and with Creation, and thereby.. with God.

That’s what I think today’s lesson is all about: Recognizing and cultivating the real treasure, our relationship with God manifested in the here and now in our relationships with people and God’s Creation.

How, indeed, would we treat people if, at every moment, we were awake to the presence of God in them and viewed them as the Master coming to fasten his belt and have [us] sit down to eat? And, indeed, to serve us?

How’s that for a reversal! Let me say it again in a slightly different way. Our relationships with people are the real treasures. Our relationships are the Kingdom here and now. Relationships with each other are the purses that will last. They are the result and the medium of our relationship with God!

Now that is somewhat easy to see when it comes to family, as the story about the glass ibis and my sister illustrates. We don’t need to be admonished to be ready and awake to accept the gift of family relationships. That kind of comes naturally.

Other folks, not so much. Other folks often appear to us as one more burdensome issue or problem we must deal with. And the more different from us they are, in terms of skin color, religion, social class, work ethic, values, ways of being in the world… the less likely we are to be ready and open to the fact that a relationship with them just might be a feast served by the Master himself.

But Jesus told us, you have to be willing to leave your family behind. Jesus modeled for us a different way, a way contrary to our instincts, a reversal of our “natural attitude,” by inviting relationships with everyone he encountered.

My friends, we all have a God-shaped hole in the side of our heart. And that is the true treasure, the true treasure that makes all of the other treasures—the treasure of relationship with God, self and neighbor—possible.

But the God-shaped hole in the side of our heart often gets… well, full of dirt. Stuff falls in! Sometimes we literally cover it over with whatever we can! We wall over the God-shaped hole in our heart, and we do it for a variety of reasons.

One really big, important reason we do it is fear. We fear those who are different from us. And sometimes our fears are fanned by hateful language on social media and from people in power who ought to know and act better.  

Who remembers Pogo? I love cartoons. They so often express things we find hard to say straight up. And perhaps my favorite of all time is Pogo saying, We have met the enemy, and he is us!

But we are and can be bigger than our fears. Or our hurt. Or our anger, which often goes hand in hand with both fear and hurt. These are the things that build walls around human hearts.

But the treasure is inside us. It is a God-shaped, Love-shaped hole in the side of our hearts. And how we tend to that hole in our heart matters.

One of my favorite poets is Emily Dickinson, and she has addressed precisely this thing. Here’s her poem, “To Fill a Gap.”

To fill a Gap
Insert the Thing that caused it—
Block it up
With Other—and ’twill yawn the more—
You cannot solder an Abyss
With Air.

Brothers and Sisters, we must fill the hole in our hearts with God, which is to say with Love. Because if it’s not about Love, it’s not about God.

God wants to give us the Kingdom. Here. Now. Are we ready?