Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Moving In -- Moving On

Moving: it's whacked. There is no way around it: it's hard, it's not fun. One wonders where all this STUFF came from.
Our family is mid-move to Brockton.
We have Bishop Gayle Harris coming to St. Paul's tonight. We need to close a building we don't need anymore, a building we are selling to use the assets to fund our new growth activities. The building used to be the Sunday school, with a chapel and classrooms.
Last Sunday's lessons were about God breaking in -- God making some really big noise with Elijah, and then revealing the divine self in the silence -- the still, small voice.
This parish had a huge, nasty, noisy split some years ago, over what are now the all too public issues of sexuality and authority in the Anglican Communion. It was earthquake, wind and fire all over the place.
Yet that conflict was not the whole cause of the diminution of this congregation. It was social change -- the city of Brockton changed, drastically. From its heyday in the 1920s as one of the nation's largest shoe-manufacturing cities -- well, it's followed the course of other North American factory towns. It is still an immigrant city -- it is a growing and young city -- but now the immigrants come from Cape Verde and Brazil, from Jamaica, the West Indies, from Latin America. What will it look like, a new Episcopal Church in this wild, multi-cultural community? This community of immigrants and children and hopeful people?
We are now like Elijah at the edge of the cave, listening for the still, small voice, the voice of God after the whirlwind. Listen.

Proper 7-C June 24, 2007 St. Paul’s 1 Kings 19:1-15a
Galatians 3:23-29 Luke 8:26-39

I heard on the radio the other day that Dr. Phil, the tv psychologist, is very popular in Iraq. The journalist told the story of a Dr. Phil fan “forced to stay inside almost all the time. The daily bombings, murders and kidnappings make it too dangerous to leave the house. But being a prisoner inside her own home, like so many other Baghdadis these days, her days often comprise of crushing boredom punctuated with fear.” What advice could Dr. Phil offer these people? In the words of one Iraqi woman, “I remember one day when I was surprised to find Dr. Phil discussing the problems of a mother and her estranged daughter-in-law. The next morning, we discussed it at work and wondered, can you imagine we have the same problems in America?” When asked about what else troubled her, the woman said, “Frankly, we suffer from the fact that because of the security situation we’re locked inside our homes for a long time, not able to go out. The family has no solace, no time for relaxation. This has really affected our psychology.” And what was Dr. Phil’s advice? He named the demon: “…that kind of claustrophobia can cause people to lash out at each other even at those they love. … avoid the non-directional frustrations, so you don’t just lash out aimlessly and talk very much about what’s going on because when you’re given a voice, it’s not so luminous.”[i]

Dr. Phil is no Jesus but both recognize the same thing: when you live in a crazy time, it can drive you crazy. When the society around you is crumbling, you can feel yourself coming apart. When there are conflicting voices and threats and challenges and fears, outside of you, you can feel them inside yourself, possessing yourself, almost taking your real self away from you. The world might be mad, but that madness is manifested one person at a time. As our friend in Iraq says, it can really affect your psychology.

We have lessons today about naming the demons and confronting your fears. We have God taking a direct hand in the righting of some individuals. Elijah, caught up on a deadly conflict with King Ahab and his powerful wife, Jezebel, runs into the wilderness, prepared to die – willfully to die. But God intervenes, makes him eat and drink, sends him to a mountain cave. After all the noise of earthquake, wind and fire, it is in the sheer silence, the solitude, the absolute aloneness that Elijah hears the voice of God. God restores him to his right mind, to his mission, to his life. Now go back to Damascus, God says; right those wrongs.

In the story of the person filled with so many demons their name is “legion,” we hear great noise as well. The poor soul screams and hollers and breaks his bonds. When Jesus commands the demons to come out of him, they jump into a herd of squealing pigs and hurl themselves off a cliff. And here, too, as in the story of Elijah, all the drama is followed by silence and stillness: the man sitting clothed and in his right mind. He wants to follow Jesus, but Jesus sends him back to his home, to tell this story of God’s power.

That’s the thing about all these stories of healing in the bible. Yes, an individual is healed, but it is always an individual in a social context, in a setting, a person with a mission. The healing is to right a wrong, to get someone back on track, and then to get that person back into the community. There is not the sense that the person is at fault alone for his predicament. It’s the demons, it’s the persecution by the king – something from the outside is causing the trouble here. And when the person is healed, back he or she goes to work. The healing itself is proof that God is in charge of the world, not those demons who throw individuals out of whack, not power-hungry kings. There are no HIPA laws in the bible, no medical privacy acts. When God heals you, it is your job to get back out there, and tell the Good News.

There are a lot of stories of healing in the Gospel of Luke, so many that Luke gets nick-named “the physician.” These healings are signs, for this Luke who is telling this version of the story of Jesus, that the kingdom of God is breaking in all over. The reign of God is happening. God is in charge here, God is healing the world. God’s spirit and God’s goodness cannot be contained. They are specific incidents: Jesus healing that man in that place, and that man is living in a Jewish country occupied by a massive Roman military force – by the Roman military legions. The Gospels are pinpoint specific to that time and place.

And yet if we would but hear it, we can hear how these stories of healing apply to us, and to our time as well. God is breaking through in our lives, and in our time and place – God moves in to any situation where things have gotten out of whack, and if God has ever restored us to our rightful minds, then we should get out there and spread that Good News that the world is dying – literally dying – to hear.

Let’s remember this where we are, here in the heart of this city, that the treasure we have is the treasure of the Good News. Like the man healed, wouldn’t we love to get in to boat with Jesus and sail away, but Jesus speaks these words to us, too: "Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you." So let us then proclaim throughout this city how much Jesus has done for us.

[i] From “Dr. Phil finds an audience in Iraq,” heard on NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday, June 23, 2007

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Early Pentecost Update: two weeks, two sermons!

It has been a busy time -- it seems we are moving ahead with our new start plans in Brockton, which includes our family's move to a new home there. So, sitting amid moving boxes, two sermons for early Pentecost.
We have two stories this month of God's radical inclusion. Jesus used the plight of women on the outside edges of society to illustrate how clearly those "outsiders" heard the Good News and responded enthusiastically to the love of God.
These two weeks also saw two dramatic developments for us Episcopalians here in Massachusetts: the legislature reaffirmed the right of persons of the same sex to marry in this Commonwealth, and the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church answered the challenge of some bishops in the Anglican Communion. No, we're not going back on our constitution and canons, our democratic tradition. We're not going to abandon the bishops we've elected, nor the ones we will elect in the future (one more woman elected this weekend, too -- hooray!).
So two sermons, based on two episodes in the 7th chapter of Luke, two stories from fairly early in Jesus' ministry. Jesus is shocking, new, startling. Come, let us begin.

June 17, 2007, Proper 6-C, St. Paul’s

“For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”

We are free. This is Paul writing from his letter to the Galatians, his freedom-loving, wildly egalitarian exuberant self, early in his ministry, thrilled to the bone. He has finally gotten this extraordinary truth: that a slavish devotion to the law, to lists of do’s and don’ts, to a definition of “sin” that makes a person a “sinner” because of the category in which he or she lives – all this is behind him, for now Paul has found true love, true grace, true life. Christ did not die for more rules, more strictures, more definitions that make people sinners. Christ died for us to be free of all that, free to be like him. It is no longer we who live, but Christ lives in us.

And who is that Christ who lives in us? Today’s Gospel story is a good illustration. Let’s start with the setting: where is Jesus in this story? In the house of a Pharisee, someone very like Paul, the old Paul, when he was Saul and lived under the law. A good, righteous, law-abiding man who recognizes that Jesus is someone special. They are sitting down to eat, which in the first century meant a group of men kind of lying around a table, reclining on benches.

Then a woman comes in, and this is definitely surprising, and the text declares that she is a sinner. Now we do NOT know WHAT kind of sinner she is. Since she is from the city, maybe she is a prostitute. Maybe an adulterer. Maybe her sin is of that categorical kind – listen again to even the liberated Paul from Galatians: “We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners.” Whole groups of people were designated sinners according to the law. Even today, we consider all sorts of characteristics sinful. The outspoken woman is aggressive or pushy. The skater kid is a high school drop out. The graffiti artist is a hoodlum. The immigrant without papers is a criminal. Laws protect, but laws, and attitudes, also exclude. So suspend all judgment about this woman and her personal morality. Whatever her sin is, it’s between her and Jesus.

What did the other diners see when this woman came in? She knelt at Jesus’ feet, weeping, wiping his feet with her hair, anointing them with ointment. They probably would have seen two things: grieving women in those days did wear their hair down. They would have seen a woman weeping – that her sins have been forgiven by Jesus? That her sins weigh her down so much that she wants Jesus to forgive her? Were her sins something she did, or is she one of those “categorical” sinners, who has heard that Jesus accepts all kinds of people, that Jesus’ love and forgiveness extends to society as well as to individuals, that Jesus proclaims a gospel of love not only to those “inside the law” but to outsiders, to outlaws as well? Is she weeping because finally, finally someone saw her as she really was, and loved her despite of it? Loved her because of it?

The second thing those diners saw was an act of extraordinary hospitality and grace. To anoint the feet of a guest was a gesture of extravagant hospitality in those days – a welcoming above and beyond what custom, or law, would require. Here, too, she is an outlaw, an outlaw in love, guilty of the sin of extravagant kindness and devotion. This is the Gospel truth, and in Galatians, Paul demonstrates that he gets it: “I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Two events in the news this week were signs to me of the radical welcome of Jesus’ love. It is likely that every pulpit in Massachusetts this morning is going to come down on one side or another of the vote in the legislature that affirmed the right of two people of the same sex to marry in this Commonwealth. Now every individual is a sinner; as Paul wrote elsewhere, we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. But sin, as we know, is not the result of the category we inhabit; straight people are not categorically sinners. Gay people receive the full benefits of the grace of God – and in Massachusetts, the grace of marriage.

The second was this sentence in the response of the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church to the demand by other bishops in the Anglican Communion that we abandon our practice of ordaining bishops elected by the people of their diocese: “We strongly affirm this church’s desire to be in the fullest possible relationship with our Anglican sisters and brothers, but in truth the only thing we really have to offer in that relationship is who we are.” I would be the first to admit that the Episcopal Church is flawed, and that we even have (a few) bad bishops. But by the grace of God those flaws of ours are not categorical; Jesus loves us for who we are.

What else do we have than this outrageous realization that Jesus loves us for who we are? Isn’t that what that weeping woman saw in Jesus when she knelt at his feet? That he loved her for who she was? What good, good news is this, that God knows us as we are? And that the best model of response to that love of God is the overflowing, abundant, wildly extravagant actions of a woman called a sinner?

June 10, 2007, St. Paul’s (Proper 5-C)

There is a bad word in today’s Gospel. Right in the middle. Luke 7:13.

The word is translated into English as “compassion” but that is an inadequate translation. In Greek it is splanchna, and it means bowels, guts, innards. It was used to describe the anatomy of that part of the body, but it was also used symbolically to mean the “bowels of mercy,” to indicate deep, gut-wrenching feeling, more physical than mere sympathy.

In this story no other word would do to describe what Jesus felt on seeing the funeral procession for this woman’s son. Was it her grief, her alone-ness, her courage that moved him to such gut-wrenching compassion? That moved him to act so powerfully?

We know in ancient times that women alone were as good as dead. In the stories of women alone, we have often glimpsed the divine, have often seen God at work, bringing these women out of their isolation and into social balance. God’s gut often wrenches when God sees poor women, marginalized women, grieving women, women without status, without men or fortune to protect them, women without children and hence without hope of a future.

God stepped in, in the person of the prophet Elijah to save the life of the son of the poor widow. Now this woman was not a woman of the covenant; she was a pagan, a Ba’al-worshipper, like the other Ba’al worshippers Elijah had denounced. But this woman was compassionate. She gave the prophet a meal out of the little she had. Her son then becomes sick, and is near death, and Elijah performs this wonderful and strange miracle. The son is brought back to life. The larder is full. Life in all its abundance is given to this poor woman.

It was the grief of the widow of Nain that caused Jesus to act. It was her plight that wrenched his gut. It almost doesn’t matter if the son was really, truly dead or not. Maybe he was just in a deep coma, just seemed to be dead – who knows. This was not an emergency room, a “code blue,” a get-out-crash-cart-stat kind of setting. He was not in the tomb, three days dead and stinking as Lazarus would be when Jesus raised him. But there, on that road outside of Nain, he was dead and his mother the widow was as good as dead, and the deep pathos of the scene stopped Jesus in his tracks. In his gut-wrenching compassion, he brought them both back to life.

We are all called to compassion. It’s not an easy calling. The Greek word for how much it hurts your gut is aptly descriptive. That is the depth of compassion to which we are called, as disciples of Christ, as followers of the one who brought the widow and her son back to life. In a book called, The Search for Compassion, the author says*1*, “The practice of compassion is the practice of ministry. Compassion means ministry. … [It] means getting involved in another’s life for healing and wholeness.”

We all might wonder where we as a community are going, wonder what will become of this church. Exploring gut-wrenching compassion could be one way to describe that journey of discipleship, that process of discerning our mission in this place. You may have heard of the Dutch priest Henri Nouwen who wrote frequently about ministry and healing and who wrote this about compassion:

Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human. … compassion means going directly to those people and places where suffering is most acute and building a home there. *2*

Jesus’ gut-wrenching compassion took him to those people and places, to people like us and to places like this. This is the place where Jesus has built a home, where Jesus has pitched his tent, where God dwells among us. If it is good enough for Jesus, it is good enough for us. Let us begin.

Some notes:

*1* Andrew Purves, The Search for Compassion: Spirituality and Ministry (1989)
It was in this book that I found the quote from Nouwen, et al., on compassion

*2* Donald P. McNeill, Douglas A. Morrison and Henri J.M. Nouwen, Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life (New York: Doubleday, 1982)