Sunday, December 20, 2009

We are all meant to be mothers of God

Advent 4-C Dec. 20, 2009
Micah 5:2-5a
Canticle 15: The Magnificat
Hebrews 10:5-10
Luke 1:39-55

People of faith are viewed by many people in this society as kind of kooky. People of faith are just not realistic. “Religious do-gooders” as one of our elected representatives said, dismissively, of us here at St. Paul’s and of our faith and hope that we can make this neighborhood a better place to live and work. People of faith are just not rational, some people would say. They just don’t have their feet on the ground.

Mary and Elizabeth must be seen as the ultimate kooky “people of faith.” What c
ould be less realistic than the words Mary sings when she meets up with her cousin, Elizabeth? Casting mighty from their seats of power? She, a pregnant, poor, unmarried girl? Filling the hungry with good things? Her cousin Elizabeth is elderly, and is now pregnant for the first time in her life. These are just ordinary people, not miracle workers; how much more delusional can they be?

These two women, and the two baby boys they carry in their wombs, come to us today in the line of prophets. Mary and Elizabeth came from people who read their Bibles carefully. They lived on the fringes of society, where they could see the things that were wrong, where they could see how poor and powerless people were treated. They knew their Bibles well enough to know that God promised that the world would be a better place. They stood in a long ling of prophets who listened carefully to God, and who looked carefully at the world around them, and said, Wait a minute here. There are things going on in this world that are not what God intends. When Mary and Elizabeth listened for God, they heard the great and powerful swooshing sounds of angels’ wings, the Holy Spirit coming upon them, overshadowing and empowering them to see the world as God sees it, and to speak and to act.

And all the world is grateful that these two kooky women, these people of faith, and hope, these attentive listeners to God, said yes.

Meister Eckhart, a popular and mystical teacher of the Middle Ages, said this about Mary: “We are all meant to be mothers of God.” To be mothers of God in the sense of being a kooky person of faith like she was. To be a person who listens closely for the swoosh of those mighty Holy Spirit wings, and who looks closely at the world around her. We are all meant to be mothers of God when we say yes to the promises God has in store for us, and for the world God has created. We are meant to be mothers of God when we open ourselves to be changed by what God has in store for us, when we do indeed go forward in faith, not exactly sure that what God would have us do is reasonable, or socially acceptable, but we do it nonetheless. To be a mother of God is to be willing to be a kooky person of faith.

There is something curious about this song that Mary sings, that we will soon say together. It is in the words of a young woman, talking about the promises God has made or the world, but it is spoken from the point of view of something that has already happened. God has already overthrown the mighty and given the hungry enough to eat. God has already pulled the downtrodden up and sent away the rich people, who were not willing to participate in this way that God would have the world work.

This kooky person of faith seems to think that all those things have already happened, and that the birth of the son she carries is part of this ongoing process of healing the world, of bringing it back to the world God created it to be.

What a kooky imagination this Mary has, to listen to the swooshing, swooping powerful wings of the Holy Spirit, and to begin to see the world as God sees it – to take it on faith, as it were, and to begin to live her life, now, in the real world here and now, believing it to be true.

“We are all meant to be mothers of God.” Kooky. Hopeful. Knowing that the world could be, and is, a better place, and saying yes to God, when God shows us how this could be so.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

What then should we do?

Advent 3-C Dec. 13, 2009
Zephaniah 3:14-20
Canticle 9: Isaiah 12:2-6
Philippians 4:1-13
Luke 3: 7-18

The news this week has been filled with horrific images of the effects of global warming: melting icebergs, flooded deltas, thousands of displaced people in places like Bangladesh which are only give us a hint of the millions who will be washed out of their homes as the planet warms and the water levels rise. The leaders of the nations now meeting in Copenhagen seem at a stalemate: the bottom line vs. the lives of millions? What then should we do?

Pick an issue, any issue. It seems like nearly everything we face in the world is overwhelming. Global warming. This neighborhood, how messy and blighted it is. This church, how many leaks it continually seems to spring. Household bills, how can we ever make ends meet. Poverty. Hunger. Homelessness. Drug addiction. Gang violence. Yow. Let’s just hunker down and forget it all, because, really, what can we do? What can we possibly do?

I think we need John the Baptist. How lucky then we get him this Advent for two weeks in a row.

John was a powerful preacher, whose bold words attracted many people around him. The message at first read seems harsh: Repent, you brood of vipers! That does not exactly sound like a sermon that would pack them in, yet …

The power of John’s message is that he described the world as it was: it is a world turned upside down. The world of 1st century Palestine was ruled by corrupt and brutal leaders at the top, and put-upon peasants at the bottom. John preached a message that began to allow the people to “unforget” the promises of God, to “unforget” that the world is God’s, and that God rules with justice and compassion and mercy, to “unforget” that even poor people and old people and disabled people have dignity. The people at the top definitely want the people to forget those kinds of messages, to forget that religious faith in God has something to do with life in the here and now and not only in the by and by, that the beneficiaries of the abundance of God’s creation are the people of God, not just the fatcats at the top.

The mists of history make it easy for us in 2009 to forget that the world of John the Baptist was so messy. It was so long ago that we forget that politics and war and economics and all those things that consume our 24-7 news cycle were the ever-present realities for the people who came to listen to what John had to say. The rose-colored glasses we often put on when we read the Bible make us think that words like “repent” have to do only with personal sins. The powers-that-be in our world certainly benefit if we, too, forget that the promises of God mean that there IS enough to go around, that the world CAN be a peaceful and beautiful place, that EVERYONE is entitled, by virtue of being a child of God, to a home to live in and food to eat and a life of dignity and meaning and worth.

Once you get to thinking about it, it is overwhelming. What then should we do?

When the people asked John that question, his response was direct, and simple. Share. Be honest. Be content with what you have. God promises us abundance and life and enough to go around: start living every day as though you believed it. It’s kind of like the old proverb that says if your house is messy, then this is where you start, here, at your feet, and clean this area that you can reach. If the world is overwhelming, and out of control, and we have no power to change those big things, then start where we are: if we have two coats, we share one. If we have enough food for our family, then share with a family who has none. John acknowledges that the people who come to hear his message live in the world: they are not just “do-gooders” but tax collectors, soldiers – people not known for being honest or generous, people caught on the bottom rungs of that upside down world of violence and greed. Be content, John says to those people. Be honest. Don’t cheat. Don’t steal from people who have less than you do. John’s big, grand, global message comes down to these simple instructions. The kingdom of heaven is coming – and this is how we should start to live, now.

What then should WE do? How would John the Baptist answer that question for you, today?

Sunday, December 6, 2009

a nothing son of a nobody

Advent 2-C
Dec. 6, 2009

Baruch 5:1-9
Luke 1: 1:68-79

Philippians 1:3-11

Luke 3:1-6

“The Word of God came to a nothing son of a nobody in a god-forsaken place.”

That is really what St. Luke means in this passage about John the Baptist. The first few sentences of our gospel passage for today are all about the rich and famous people of the day, the important and powerful people, the beautiful people, people with a lot to lose. It is important to Luke to place this story of John the Baptist, and what he says about the coming of Jesus, in the political and social context of the day. John the Baptist and Jesus lived in a particular time and place, with particular people in charge – a place of empire and military domination and of a powerful religious ruling class: John the Baptist and Jesus lived lives that were subject to these forces and these powerful actors. AND they were nobodies: “The Word of God came to a nothing son of a nobody in a god-forsaken place.”

The Word of God came to this nothing son of a nobody because the “somebodies” could not be trusted with this Good News. The “somebodies” like the Emperor Tiberias and Pontius Pilate and Herod and Philip and Lysanias and Annas and Caiaphas all had a lot to lose if this Word of God entrusted to this unknown wilderness-wanderer ever got out. In this world of “Haves”, the Word of God came to the “Have-Nots.”

The verses we read today in place of the psalm are the verses that John’s father sings when the boy is born. It is a song of hope: it comes from the past, and looks to the future. It comes from the past, because it is full of the imagery of the Jewish people. It is full of how they understand how God acts in the world, in human history, and what God has promised to the people. For the Jewish people, the world is turned upside down. Instead of a world ruled by God’s justice, we live in a world ruled by corrupt or at best flawed leaders. Instead of living the lives God wants us to live – lives of honesty, compassion, prayer, service – we live lives far from God, lives of fear, addiction, selfishness, anger. The world God created, and the world God wants, is turned upside down. As Zechariah’s little baby boy John would eventually say, “Repent! Turn around! Leave those stupid, wicked, death-dealing ways of life behind.”

Zechariah’s song is also a song of the future: “You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High.” That upside-down world is about to be righted. John, this little baby boy now in his father’s arms, will lead the way.

There is a Hebrew word that is very important here: Tikkun. It means “repair,” and it is often used in the phrase, Tikkun olam, to repair the world. Now this Tikkun is a religious concept, a theological word, but it not something that God alone does: it is something in which we participate with God. This upside-down world is in desperate need of repair, and John the Baptist calls out to us from the wilderness that our repentance is the first step to take in that repair. Our repentance – our turning away from things we do that hurt ourselves, or the people we love, or the neighbors we live near, or the city we live in, or the planet we live on – our repentance from all those things that are dark and painful and destructive is the first step toward preparing the Way of the Lord, preparing for the coming of God with us, Emmanuel. Now, I don’t want to imply that Jews are just “closet Christians,” but so much of what we Christians know to be true is right there, embedded in those Hebrew words: Emmanuel means “God with us.” Get ready, John the Baptist says. God is coming to be with us. The world as we know it will be turned upside down: valleys filled, mountains brought down, crooked, bumpy, pot-hole-strewn paths will be made straight and true, and nobodies like you and me will walk in peace on our King’s Highways.

Well now, some people might think. If God is so all-powerful, how come we still have to read about prophecy? How come the descendants of those power-brokers like the Emperor Tiberias, or Pontius Pilate, or Herod, are still making our lives miserable?

You might also ask, why then do we sin? We do we keep getting angry and doing stupid things, or fall off the various wagons of discipline we try to follow in our lives? Probably because sin and greed and fear are as much a part of what it means to be human as is love and generosity and courage. No matter how hard we try, we seem to spend a good chunk of our time in the wilderness.

I think that is what the wilderness symbolizes in the bible, the wilderness as the place that is rough, and hard to live in, the place of struggle and deprivation, the place of testing – and yet also the place where the people of Israel heard the Word of God, drank the water from the rock, ate the manna from heaven, followed the pillar of light in the darkness that led them to the promised land. From the wilderness came that nothing son of a nobody, bringing to us who dwell in darkness this precious Good News: God’s tender compassion will break on us like the dawn, and the world, indeed, will be turned upside down. Come. You will see.

* William Herzog, New Proclamation 2006, as quoted in Reflections by Kate Huey, for Advent 2-C 2009

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Advent Wind

Advent 1-C November 29, 2009
Jeremiah 33:14-16
Psalm 25:1-9
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Luke 21:25-36

Watch out! It’s Advent! Jesus is coming – and what will he find? Will we be ready?

During these weeks before Christmas, the church directs our reading of the Bible and our prayers to what it means to get ready for the birth of Jesus. It’s a time of anticipation – of being ready on the balls of our feet, the tips of our toes.

Poems about this time of the year, this Advent of watching and waiting, emphasize the changes in the world around us. “Darkness and snow descend,” one poet[i] writes. And another describes how raw the weather can be in December, and perhaps how well it describes the spiritual state we are in these days:

The Advent wind begins to stir
With sea-like sounds in our Scotch fir,
It's dark at breakfast, dark at tea,
And in between we only see
Clouds hurrying across the sky
And rain-wet roads the wind blows dry
And branches bending to the gale
Against great skies all silver pale[ii]

Our lessons, again, talk to us about the end of time. We read again of the apocalypse, about the coming of the day of the Lord. Our culture surely is full of fearful images of these end days. I mentioned a few weeks ago the movie “2012.” There is another one, “The Road,” about a father and son who wander a devastated earth and find not one shred of humanity or hope.

Perhaps such images are what we can expect from a culture as bloated as ours is – bloated with greed and consumerism and one-upsmanship. When we fear that we will lose everything when God comes, who would not be terrified?

But if we look at the prospect of the end times from the other side of history, we get a different set of feelings. The people who have lost their retirement savings in the stock market crash, or the families who have had to move out of their foreclosed homes, or the parents who mourn the loss of their children to gunfire or war or accidental death, surely anyone who has had to live for even a short time in a homeless shelter – these people might see the end of the world as we know it rather differently. I think such experiences can lead us to understand the “end time” not as destruction but as transformation. A world that is unjust is transformed into one that is abundant, with plenty of food and homes and health for all. A world of community and hope and fulfillment. “Surely the days are coming.” Jeremiah reminds us as he reminded the people of Israel many centuries ago, when there will be justice and righteousness in the land, and when the people will live in safety.

Advent is the time to repent. In a few weeks, we will read the words of John the Baptist saying just that. When the Bible says, “Repent,” it does not mean punishment or retribution; it means change. It means turn around. Turn around your head, your heart, your whole way of life. During this time of repentance, the old way of life – of greed, selfishness, false anger, violence – is what comes to an end, as we wait in hope for this new world that is breaking into life with the birth of Jesus.

Now, there are a lot of things wrong with this world, a lot of repentance that needs to happen, and most of that we as individuals cannot affect. We can’t change the war in Iraq, or stop gang violence, or build enough houses to get everyone off the streets. We can only turn around our own personal heads, hearts, bodies, Our Advent repentance has to start here. This is where we get ready for the birth of Jesus. Here. In our hearts, where we live.

But let me tell you something else: God is big. God can take on this world, and the season of Advent is about hope that God is doing just that – and about God’s dream not only for this transformed world, but for how you and I, each of us, right where we are, start working for this transformation right here and now – that we start living as though we really believed that God comes among us as one of us, to show us that there is a better way for us to live, here and now.

It is hard, living in a city as we do, to look up into the night sky and see the stars. Last night, in the early evening anyway, the brightness of the moon cut through the darkness, a moon so bright it could have been seen in Times Square. To even our jaded, urban eyes, focused as we are on our own problems, or on the heartbreaking state of the world we live in, to even our jaded eyes, looking up into the Advent sky, it’s a sign.

Come, thou long-expected Jesus,
born to set thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us,
let us find our rest in thee.

[i] W. H. Auden, For the Time Being
[ii] John Betjeman, “Advent 1955”

Kingship turned upside down

Proper 29-B Nov. 22, 2009
2 Samuel 23:1-7
Ps. 132:1-19
Rev 1:4b-8
John 18:33-37

We're not supposed to like kings and queens and royalty in this country, but there is something about the institution that appeals to us. Think about how the press and public treated Senator Edward Kennedy at his death – so much adulation, so many allusions to the Kennedys as our “royal family.” Like any royal, Kennedy certainly had flaws, but we would overlook them when he was able to do what a leader was supposed to do, especially when he set aside his personal self-interest to serve people who needed the care of the government, to help this nation live up to our ideals of liberty and justice for all. Like the Jews of ancient Israel, or of Jesus’ day, we yearn for an ideal ruler, a king like David, a sovereign under whose leadership our lives and our society would prosper and live in peace and security.

This Sunday, the Sunday before Advent, is called Christ the King, a celebration of the reign of Christ. During this last Sunday of the church year, and just before the beginning of the next, the lessons and collect look at the completion of the ministry of Our Lord and the inauguration of his universal kingdom, the new age when all "the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin [are] brought together under his most gracious rule."

Jews living during the time of Jesus needed a hope like this, a hope that life under God's rule would be better than life under Roman rule. Judaism was barely tolerated, a legally allowed diversion from the worship of the Emperor. The Jews could remember the time when they controlled their own country and so resented the Roman occupiers all the more.

The people hoped for a political and religious restoration which would turn things back to the way they used to be. Would God send a military leader? A divine explosion? A plague of locusts?

None of these hopes came to fruition. God intervened, but not in the way anyone expected. In our gospel today, Pilate asks Jesus if he is a king. Jesus answers that his kingship is not of this world; he said, "I have come to bear witness to the truth," and with this, the king went out to suffer and die. Jesus knew what people expected of a king, something out of Star Wars, like that great final battle between Luke Skywalker and the Dark Side, someone to lead them to victory in Armegeddon. Yet Jesus said, I am the man. Yes, I am the king. Now I go to die. Like the poor young woman visited by an angel, who said yes, I will bear this child, who, though born in an ordinary barn, will become king.

The kingship of Christ celebrates the last victory, but it celebrates a victory that turned the expectations of kingship upside down. Jesus went out as the servant to suffer and die, and the forces of evil thought they had won. Armegeddon was fought and good apparently lost because Jesus died on the cross. Lightning flashed, the veil of the Temple was torn in two, and quiet fell upon the earth.

Three days later, after the smoke had cleared from the battle, the light began to dawn quite literally on those first few who had met the Risen Christ and understood for the first time what he had been talking about. Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it again. Three days later those few followers understood what kingship this Jesus was talking about. Jesus in his suffering had proven his kingship. Jesus was the Son of Man, his favorite title for himself, coming with power to receive the kingdom from the Ancient of Days. A king with humble human origins, who brought about a whole new order of creation, victorious over the powers of death that would pull us down into misery.

Today, then, we come to the end of the story about Jesus, only to turn around next Sunday and begin again: we will hear from the beginning the story of Jesus’ life among us, what it means to follow him in the Way, to carry some of his kingly burden of compassion for the powerless and the least, to spread some of his Good News that the reign God intends for us is one of justice and peace. To follow him is also to do what Jesus commanded us to do in that last supper with his disciples: to gather with our friends and neighbors, to break bread and drink wine in remembrance of him. We do that, then, in remembrance, and in hope, that with all saints and angels, with friends and enemies and beloved ones, past, present and yet to come, we will gather for this feast around the banquet table in the household of God.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

This is NOT the end

Proper 28 B November 15, 2009
1 Samuel 1:4-20 and 1 Samuel 2:1-10
Hebrews 10:31-39; Mark 13:14-23

There is a big ad campaign going on now for the new movie, “2012,” about the end of the world. The apocalypse. The date has some connection to an ancient Mexican Mayan sun calendar, but the concept – well, apocalypse has been with us for a very long time. As a matter of fact, the gospel we read today, from the Gospel of Mark, is full of apocalypse. You could say that the whole Gospel of Mark is about apocalypse, about seeing the signs of the end times.

Mark wrote his gospel to people living in rough times. They were chafing under the rule of the Roman Empire. The combination of a heavy-handed military and local lackeys carrying out the occupiers' rule produced corruption and chaos. The Jewish people began a revolt in the year 66, which produced a four-year siege of the city of Jerusalem by the Romans. The city was defeated, destroyed, and what few people were left scattered to the four winds.

Bloodshed, anarchy, the near destruction of a whole culture -- these were the signs of the times to Mark, who wrote his gospel to help the small the community of Christians make sense of what was going on, to assure them that all this terror was really within the plan of God, and that they, the righteous few, would be vindicated in the fullness of time. This 13th chapter of Mark is called "the small apocalypse," but the whole gospel is apocalyptic, for Mark understood Jesus' coming as the end of time and the beginning of the reign of God.

Scary and final and the end: that’s what apocalyptic movies and stories are all about.

So why do we read the first lesson we read today, the story of Hannah – a barren woman who is finally going to have a baby – a story of new beginnings and hope? No woman would rejoice at the prospect of giving birth at the beginning of the apocalypse. What could it mean that these two stories, along with the song that Hannah sings about the birth of her son, are twinned in our readings today?

The clue can perhaps be found in Jesus’ last words of today’s gospel reading: “This is but the birthpangs.” Yes, what he has been describing, as signs of God’s coming, sounds pretty terrible, but he does not say, “This is the end.” This apocalypse is not like the beginning scene of that 1980s film, “Apocalypse Now,” with napalm exploding Vietnamese forests to the soundtrack of The Doors, “This is the end.” Jesus describes this apocalypse as birthpangs – as the beginning of something – as a time of something difficult, painful, risky, yes, but as the beginning of a new life. Jesus’ apocalypse brings hope.

So what is going on in this story of Hannah?

For a woman of her time and place, thousands of years ago, in a nomadic tribe, life was not good. She had a loving husband, a roof, or rather a tent, over her head, food to eat – but no children. Her husband took a second wife, who produced lots of children – and this made Hannah even more miserable. This lesson is poignant – Hannah is open in her grief at being childless. She feels doomed, and everyone around her seems to agree: God had closed her womb. This is not an apocalyptically terrible life, but it is powerfully symbolic of a wasted life, a useless life; Hannah, although loved by her husband, is a person of no worth.

Now Hannah was a good person, and Hannah prayed to God, and had an honest conversation with Eli, the priest at the Temple. But note that Hannah did nothing extraordinary next. She did not repent, or accomplish a heroic task, or do anything other than be Hannah – and God granted her request. God opened her womb. God allowed her to conceive a child with the husband she loved. God loved Hannah, and heard her request, and turned her barren wasteland of a life into the hoped-for new day. Hannah’s apocalyptic birthpangs ended her misery, and brought her new baby into the world.

The Gospel of Mark tells us that Jesus lived and worked and walked among people who were miserable. They were poor and homeless and lived hard lives. You could say that their lives were like Hannah’s: barren, bitter, hopeless. If bad things happened, what could be worse than the lives they were already living?

The hope that Jesus brought to them, and brings to us, is the message that it will not always be this way. Life might be hard now, but it is the birthpangs of something much better, something new and hopeful.

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus invites people to follow him “on the way.” Along this way, people who are sick are restored to wholeness, people who are broken are restored to their place in their communities and families. People who choose not to follow Jesus, turn away sorrowful. Jesus doesn’t require much from us, in the Gospel of Mark, but we must pay attention. We must take some initiative. We must at least take up our beds and walk.

To do even that simple thing might feel like the birthpangs of the apocalypse, might feel like the hardest thing we have ever done, but the promise, at the end, is life, in all its rich, abundant newness.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The thin place, between this world and the next

An astounding All Saints Day, really. Many people in the chapel for conversation and theological reflection, and a more for church. Many people wrote out the names of the saints of their lives, and I read them, embedded in the preface to the canon. So many of our parishioners live in the shelter, or on the streets, or in very modest single rooms. So many names of loved ones and heroes and martyrs and blessed ones, "small s" saints all. All of us around the altar. All of us.

Nov. 1, 2009;
Wisdom of Sol 3:1-9; Psalm 24; Revelation 21:1-6a; John 11:32-44

Our history is a mixture of the Christian and the pagan. All Saints' Day, for example, falls on November 1 because the ancient Irish feast of Samhain (what we now call Hallowe'en) happened at this time in the autumn. Samhain was the time when this world and the supernatural intersected – the boundaries between this world and the next were thin, permeable. Trick-or- treaters are remnants of the goblins people truly feared would snatch them or their children on that night: give them a treat or they would take you with them to the other world. The Church, hoping to win more converts by joining the crowd, "Christianized" the festivities by moving the commemoration of All Saints' to this magical time in late autumn. If you're going to get involved in the "other world," the church seemed to say, make it the Christian "other world": the communion of saints.

This world and the other world – when God becoming human is the prime example of how this world and the other world meet and mingle. We speak of the Body of Christ, and mean us, our flesh and blood bodies, in the here and now. The Body of Christ also includes all those Christians who have gone before – the Communion of Saints, which we remember vividly on today of all days, this day when we acknowledge just how close we are to the “other world” and to those who have gone before. Michael Ramsay, the late archbishop of Canterbury, put it this way:

"One consequence of the mystery of Christ is that Christian people don't stand -- so to say-- on the ground of the present moment, and view past generations, or their comrades in paradise, as people some distance away from them. No, we see the present moment more clearly and bravely because our stance is within the Communion of Saints. How closely, how lovingly, they are praying with us today."

I’ve heard another preacher call this day of All Saints a “family reunion:” the family of the body of Christ, the communion of saints, is brought together for feast and party. Our gospel today is the story of the ultimate family reunion, when Jesus brings Lazarus back to life, Lazarus, Jesus’ beloved friend, and the beloved brother of Mary and Martha. Putting the names of those we love but see no more on the altar helps us think of these “small s” saints along with the “Capital S” saints such as Peter, Paul, John, Mary, as part of our family – which includes noisy cousins and disagreeable aunts and bossy older sisters and tipsy grandfathers – as well as heroes, martyrs, teachers, prophets, leaders, soldiers, peacemakers and artists. Remember those you love, who are saints only to you, who have gone before.

Every day, every week, as we stand at the altar, they are around us. But on this All Saints Day, we remember particularly that the boundary between them and us is thin and permeable. On this day, they join their prayers with ours, and we know that the possibility of making this world to be the world God intended it to be – a world of justice, mercy and abundance – the world in service to which the saints gave their lives -- is a very real possibility indeed.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Blind bum given place of honor

Jeremi preached today, as usual thought-provoking and right on target.

The Gospel (Mark 10:46-52) was Jesus giving sight the the blind Bartimaeus, a poor beggar. Even the blind see Jesus, Mark jabs, if you remember a few chapters back that only the rich man refused to follow Jesus, for it would require giving up his possessions.

Mark gets it right there within the meaning of the words themselves: Bar-Timaeus. Son of Timaeus. Son of Honor. Son of the Highly Prized Man. (You can look up the Greek yourself.) Bartimaeus: a blind bum from an honorable family.

Story after story, healing after healing: these are the people whom Jesus loves, whom Jesus restores to wholeness and dignity. These people on the edges of society: Jesus brings them right into the middle. Cast off no more. Honorable once again.

I think often of the disparaging comments local elected leaders made to me, about the work we are doing at St. Paul's Church and with the PleasantGreen Project: just a bunch of religious do-gooders. They fairly spit the words out of their mouths, implying we are foolish, short-sighted, that our work pulls down the community, hurts them and any other self-respecting citizen of Brockton.

When Bartimaeus, the blind bum, dared to call out for mercy, and Jesus heard his cries, the disciples said to him, "Take courage. He calls you."

Jesus call us, too, and now we see. We all don't have to be blind bums in order to see, but if we stand in their shoes, see the world through their eyes -- mixed metaphors and all -- then yes. Our honor is restored, and yes, we can see. We can see hope in the struggles of people to live with dignity, to find a home, to stay off drugs, to live in peace. We can see healing in hot meal, in a hand shake, in the simple act of holding out hands and receiving a piece of bread.

Beauty is all around us. Our harvest-time altar reflects the beauty of the season. Come. Give thanks. Rejoice.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

On the path to downward mobility, service -- not servility

Proper 24 B; Oct. 18, 2009

Job 38:1-7, 34-41; Psalm 104:1-9, 25; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45

Everybody wants to get ahead.

I know times are tough in Brockton, and around the country, and certainly around the world. There was a lot of talk, some months ago, about how the economic downturn would make us all more friendly, more frugal, more compassionate. But I think that’s not quite the way it’s turned out. The old demon greed seems more active than ever, even in a time when there is less to go around. Maybe it’s the dark side of human nature, when we fight for crumbs, steal from our neighbors, who might be even poorer than we are. We begrudge the least advantage someone else gets; “sharing” and “generosity” seem concepts long ago forgotten. This dark side can be seen in all kinds of people, whether you live in the shelter or are receiving millions of dollars in bonuses from your job on Wall Street.

This dark side was even seen in the disciples, James and John. Who can blame them? They just want to get ahead. They just want a little job security into the future. They just want to know that they’ll get theirs. Sounds like the American dream. Sounds like what a couple of hot-shot traders would be commended for if they proposed this corporate reorganization strategy to their boss. Who can blame them for trying? Especially in today’s economic climate, where no one feels there is enough to go around, and that I will get nothing if I don’t hustle.

Astounding to think, isn’t it, that thousands of years ago, in a society made of up peasant farmers and fishermen, we’d see the same jockeying for position that we see in today’s corporate raiders – or in our own lives?

You’d think James and John would know better. After all, they have Jesus right there with them: God IS one of us, walking around right there with them. Have they not been listening? You can hear some of Jesus’ exasperation in his response to them. Have you not been paying attention, he seems to say? Following me is not a path to upward mobility and privilege. In the eyes of the world, it is downward mobility – it is a life of service, even a life of slavery.

But whom do we serve when we follow Jesus? Service is not servility. Jesus does not expect us to be doormats for the rich, or that our “downward mobility” helps somebody else get more.

When we follow Jesus, we serve God, and the ones whom God loves: we serve the ones whom no one else serves, or cares about, or loves. We serve the world God has made, to make it greener, safer, cleaner – we serve the world by working to restore it to the beauty God intended when God created it.

This sounds beautiful, but it is hard stuff. That old demon greed, and “get-ahead,” and “me first,” and “this is mine you can’t have it” and “I want more” – well, those are powerful forces. God can seem far, far away from the pressures of life, and our fears of not having enough loom large.

Our first reading is from the Book of Job, the story of the upstanding, wealthy man who lost it all. His friends, even his wife said, you are so miserable; curse God and die; be done with all this. Job refused to curse God, and for much of the book seems to suffer in despair: why is God doing this to me?

Then comes this famous passage where God answers Job. In short, what are all of your miserable complaints against the mighty creative power of God? We can read this and be kind of confused; what kind of an answer is this to Job’s questions about why his life became so miserable?

But wait. Don’t go down that path. To think that way is to miss the point that God is here. God answers Job, comes to Job, speaks to Job. Job is part of that creation that God so lovingly describes. God is in Job’s face.

How often, in our misery, do we not recognize when God is in OUR faces? James and John, miserable and worried and greedy, could not even see God in their beloved teacher, friend and constant companion, Jesus.

Job, James, John: there is more to life than your little problems. There is more to you than what money you have, or don’t have. You are part of the fabric of the universe, created, loved and sustained by God. You are loved by God. You will have enough. And the part you play, in this great adventure God has launched with the creation of the world, is the part of service to all those whom God loves.

Friday, October 16, 2009

How come it takes so long to get ahead? -- what I said in 2006 about our church & God's mission

Proper 24 B; Oct. 22, 2006
Job 38:1-7
; Psalm 104:1-9, 25
Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45

As our Savior Christ has taught us, we now pray…” or “As our Savior Christ has taught us, we are bold to say…”

Perhaps that is one instance where the older words of the Book of Common Prayer make more sense for us mortals. To pray is to do something very bold indeed, and if today’s lessons are any guide, prayer is not only a bold and audacious act, but we cannot under any circumstances be certain of the response we will get.

One of the things we have been praying for, here at St. Paul’s, is for this congregation: “that we may be guided by your grace and grow in strength to carry out your mission in this place.” There are three things in that prayer: we are asking God for guidance, to grow in strength, and to carry out God’s mission here. Since we’ve been praying that prayer, it feels like we’re shrinking, not growing. Some familiar faces are no longer with us. We’ve taken surveys, made plans, examined history, examined buildings, cleaned out files and thrown out trash; we’ve begged and maybe even screamed a little for the Diocese to step up to the plate and deliver on their promises for long-term leadership here. We’ve been faithful. We feed the poor. We gather in Jesus’ name to receive the sacrament. We’re still here, for God’s sake; will not God answer our prayers?? In the words of a favorite hymn, “The cry goes up, how long?!”

We have been bold to pray in the words our Savior Christ has taught us. What if, despite outward appearances, our prayers have been answered?

You know the story of the rabbi and flood …

It feels a little like that here sometimes, with the flood waters coming up higher than we would like. So what are we praying for? Are we praying for guidance? Are we praying for growth? Or are we praying for mission? Our mission? Or God’s mission?

James and John are really understandable characters in today’s reading. They are strong, competent, smart – they want their due! They have put in their time as Jesus’ loyal disciples, and they just want to know: right hand or left hand? We just want to know: who’s it going to be? We’ve all been there, haven’t we, in what ever organization we’ve put our time and effort and love and energy into? The rest of the disciples get angry with James and John for bringing this up – for exposing what every one of them secretly hopes: to sit at that right or left hand, for all this hard work and sacrifice to pay off with a little glory.

Jesus’ response is along the lines of, be careful what you pray for, because you might just get it. What James and John will get, Jesus assures them, as his disciples, is not a sure road to glory but a sure road to downward mobility. To be a servant. To be a slave. To give one’s life. To be the least.

Guidance? Growth? Mission? To be servants to the ones Jesus served, to the littlest, last, lost and least? We have to be careful what we pray for, because like that rowboat, rubber raft and helicopter, we just might be getting it.

Job has been our companion for a few weeks now, and today we read God’s answer to Job’s prayers. No one could have had it worse than Job – a lifetime of misery, loss, suffering, pain, failure. And here is God, fairly shouting him down: Who IS THIS who talks to me without knowing what he is saying? Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?

It’s scary what God says, but listen to this: now that God is speaking to know, Job knows he is not alone – that he has never been alone. Job could scream and holler at God, but he could never make God go away. Job might be thinking God is too distant. He might find the majesty incomprehensible, the power overwhelming, the glory blinding, but in it all, through it all, with it all, God is there all along.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

What if God was one of us?

Our musician, Alex, played that song on the piano during communion today. It was absolutely spot on, as I went from person to person with the wafer. The circle of hands: a banker, a retired professional, a dozen homeless people, others who live in neighborhood rooming houses. Two, a man and a woman who live at the shelter, came forward only for a blessing. Another couple of men stayed in the pew, but one of them was there because one of our parishioners met him while they were in jail together. He told him about the church, and the man came today because our parishioner had testified about what a good place it was.

God is one of us, or because God came among us, who
we are is part of God.

Proper 23-B; Oct. 11, 2009; Job 23:1-9, 16-17; Psalm 22:1-15; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31

Job, you remember, is the guy who had it all – and then had it all taken away from him. It is a curious book to have in the Bible, showing how celestial beings conspire to bring about the downfall of a righteous man.

Who among us doesn’t, at one time or another, feel like Job? It seems like everything and everyone – even God – is against us. We lose everything. We hit the wall. We’re miserable. We don’t see any way out.

It’s curious to pair the Book of Job – the story of the man who had everything and lost it all – with the Gospel of Mark, which is the story of Jesus told from the perspective of people who never had anything in the first place.

The Gospel of Mark tells the Jesus story from the point of view of the people on the bottom of everything: the poor and the persecuted; the last, the lost, the littlest and the least. Jesus walks the dusty roads of Galilee, just like he would the mean streets of Brockton. He sleeps by the side of the road, or on the spare couch of somebody’s house. Jesus is the hope of the world for poor people, who know he brings healing and restoration to dignity and reconciliation – Jesus brings peace instead of violence to their lives, abundance instead of starvation. Following Jesus, the poor people in the Gospel of Mark realize, restores balance to the world.

So the Book of Job and the Gospel of Mark are on a collision course. Job, the rich man, loses everything. The people in the Gospel of Mark have nothing to begin with, and even then, Jesus says, give up more.

So what is in the middle? Job up here, moving down – the Gospel down here, moving up from the bottom, demanding that those with even modest possessions give them up.

What is in the middle? You might think that Jesus is some kind of a Robin Hood character – steal from the rich and give to the poor – thereby making them considerably less poor. There certainly are plenty of people who will tell you that the Gospel is all about prosperity – that the blessings of God mean more money for you – that all you need is positive thinking or a good attitude and maybe throw in a few good works, and you’re all set. You get the big house and the new car and your children can go to private school. You get the condo in Florida, the summer house in Maine, skiing in Colorado, the occasional cruise. Sounds good, huh?

I think the man who came to Jesus, seeking the way to eternal life, thought Jesus would tell him how to do it, and to be able to keep all his possessions. Given how the disciples reacted to what Jesus said, I think they wanted some of those possessions as well. No, Jesus said, if you seek eternal life, if you follow me on the way to the heart of God, God demands more.

If God demanded only the redistribution of wealth, well that would be easy. I do think God demands SOME redistribution of wealth – the rich just have too darn much.

But where Job and the Gospel meet – that is the heart of God. Demanding, uncompromising, hard, loving, overflowingly abundant, open to all. The way that leads to eternal life demands that we leave behind everything that does not matter, along with some things that do, trusting that with the grace of God, because of it all, despite it all, all will be well.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The only person who refused to follow Jesus

We have discovered that there is vocal opposition to our project to build Brockton's green and pleasant land.

Here are the links to two articles in the Brockton Enterprise: from October 9 and from October 6. Read them for yourself; from our point of view, they do not treat the development plans fairly, and seem to go after quotes from politicians who oppose this development not having spoken to us or seen our plans. In all fairness, Michael Brady, Linda Balzotti and Robert Sullivan have come to us, to ask about what we are doing and why and how. We appreciate their commitment to improving this neighborhood in which St. Paul's Church sits and which suffers from blight and neglect.

Our project is to begin to transform our very blighted block at the corner of Warren and Pleasant. Working with a variety of partners -- developers of affordable housing, churches, soup kitchen volunteers, neighbors, the Episcopal City Mission -- we want to take a neighborhood of blight and neglect and turn it into a place of beauty and usefulness, where people want to live and where they feel safe to walk to work and to shop.

In the first years of my ordained ministry, in the 1980s, churches all over the country, like St. Paul's, opened soup kitchens. There was a crisis in homelessness; people were on the streets, hungry and with no where to go. Large mental institutions closed their doors, rooming houses and small apartments disappeared as waves of gentrification and urban renewal swept over cities. That was 30 years ago. Churches like St. Paul's cannot continue to provide emergency services for ever. We are in danger of institutionalizing a permanent and massive underclass of poor people, who have to eat in soup kitchens and live in shelters because they cannot afford to live anywhere else. The PleasantGreen project is part of an effort to end homelessness, an effort endorsed by Mayor Harrington.

What churches like St. Paul's can do is to contribute to making their communities safe for all kinds of people -- for the poor people who live here, and for the middle class people who might want to come to church here. For the working people who need a decent place to live, that they can afford working for minimum wages, and for people interested in a culturally vital and attractive downtown, who might want to attend a concert or a class or view an art show.

St. Paul's was built by people who no longer live in Brockton: shoe factory owners and workers. The shoe factories are no longer here, but the church is, and for its next 150 years, it can be the kind of place it has always been: a place where poor and rich sit side by side, who walk next to each other on the way to the altar. A place of beauty and peace, where music rises to the heavens, and hands are clasped in friendship. A place of safety and hospitality, where the hungry in body and spirit meet and are fed.

In preparing for my sermon for Sunday, October 11, I re-read my sermon from three years ago. The Old Testament reading is from Job. The Gospel reading is Mark's account of the man with many possessions: "Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" he asks Jesus. "Sell what you have and give to the poor," Jesus told him, and the Gospel tells us that the man turned away, sorrowful, for he had many possessions. This man with possessions to save and protect is the only person in the Gospel who refused Jesus' invitation to follow him.

Even the disciples seem to find Jesus answer to the man harsh. "What are you telling us, Jesus," they seem to shout in perplexity. "At the rate you are going, no one will be able to get into heaven."

St. Paul's is a church with nothing left: a painful conflict in recent memory, and an economic base that disappeared along with the shoe factories. Is Jesus asking St. Paul's to give all of that away, too? Is that what all this "public opposition" means? Is Jesus telling us, "Sell what you have and give to the poor," and might we not ask back, "How much more? What is there possibly left to give?"

Perhaps this is just where Jesus wants us to be.

Proper 23-B; Oct. 15, 2006; St. Paul’s

Job 23:1-9, 16-17;Psalm 90; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31

“No one is good but God alone”? God is good? Ask Job. The excerpt we are reading today finds Job in the middle of his God-induced misery, having been harassed by friends, as well as his wife, to curse God and die, or to find in his own behavior a cause for this terrible treatment. As one wise biblical teacher puts it, Job “is still laboring under the old delusion that God is reasonable.” “Oh, that I knew where I might find him … I would lay my case before him … I would learn what he would answer me.” Job is suffering. Job is the archetype of suffering, suffering without the relief or assurance of God’s love.

The rich man who kneels at the feet of Jesus is also suffering. He is worried that, although he lives a good life, as he defines it, it is not enough. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he plaintively asks the one he calls “good teacher.” Jesus gives him some answers, but they are no more welcome to his ears than God’s silence is to Job. In fact, Jesus’ words may as well be silence, for they are not what the rich man wants to hear.

Jesus takes “good behavior” a few steps beyond the “10 commandments.” To that list Jesus adds, “Do not defraud.” This word for “defraud” in Greek means cheating a worker you’ve hired out of the wages due to him, or it means refusing to return goods or money someone has entrusted to you for safekeeping. And then Jesus throws in the kicker: “Sell what you have, and give the money to the poor.” You can see Jesus using this man’s seemingly purely spiritual and religious question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” and turning it into an indictment of all wealthy people. They have obtained their money through fraudulent means; they have cheated those whose labor created their wealth, they have not returned that which was entrusted to them. Jesus demands restitution. “Get up,” he says – a phrase otherwise used by Jesus when he heals someone. “Get up and be healed of your sickness of accumulation, of using wealth as an end and not a means. “Sell that which you have. Give it to the poor. Follow me.” And this is the first and only time in the Gospels when Jesus says to someone, “Follow me,” and he does not do it. The rich man refuses to be a disciple.

The disciples are really shocked; this is too hard, they say. No one can do this, rightly recognizing that these harsh statements of Jesus do not apply only to the “lifestyles of the rich and famous” crowd. They apply all of us, for all of us can find something we would rather keep than follow Jesus. “How hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!”

The epistle reading, from Hebrews, reminds us that Jesus does not ask us to do anything he has not already done. Even more than that, though, the reading reminds us that when we do what Jesus asks us, he is right there with us every step of the way, “one who in every respect has been tested as we are.”

Here on Pleasant Street we might well ask Jesus, “Sell what you have and give to the poor? How much more? What is left here?” This is an extraordinarily generous and giving congregation, a witness to the power of the Gospel. But isn’t it always the case, when we think we have nothing left to give, when we feel we are played out, hit rock bottom, done all we can do, that Jesus comes to us again, and asks even us to sell all we have and follow him. Go deeper, Jesus says. Go farther. If you think you have reached a limit, then you are being all too human, Jesus says. For God, only with God, always with God, all things are possible.

Salt, food, hospitality

Proper 21 B; preached at St. John the Evangelist, Duxbury, on September 27, 2009

Esther 7:1-10, 9:20-22; Psalm 19; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50

I find myself drawn to certain kinds of cops and robbers shows on TV. I like those gritty police dramas where the lines between virtue and sin are kind of hazy. The flawed detective wrestles with his own demons, the drug dealer follows some kind of code of honor, the gang works to defend their community, the beat cops know they can get away with all kinds of violence in the name of fighting crime. These shows remind me that morality is not always revealed in sharp contrast; choosing one course of action – for the good – may cause us to compromise somewhere else, or may even cause harm in some unintended situation. It takes courage to come to such a crossroads and to act, for the right way ahead is not always clear.

Our lessons today are about courageous people. Esther and the unnamed man who cast out demons in Jesus’ name have been blessed by God, but they have to live with the cost of that grace, that knowledge of God and what God would have them do.

Esther, a Jewish woman, who has kept her background a secret from her husband, the king, risks her life to save the lives of her people, who are about to be killed by order of an unjust vassal of the king. Esther could lose all: her life, the lives of her people. She has to reveal that she is Jewish. She must now place all her confidence in God, the God who inspired this mission, because she doesn’t know how the king will react. The king, her husband, may very well be her enemy, but her courage lies in the risk she takes to embrace this enemy, to appeal to his justice and righteousness – or else this would become just one more tale of holocaust for the Jews. But Esther’s heroism wins the day. The king is persuaded, the wicked Haman is killed and the Jews are saved.

In the Gospel, a seeming interloper challenges the exclusive rights of the disciples (as they perceive them) to do good works in Jesus’ name. This unnamed exorcist has taken a risk, and the disciples have come down hard on him. But Jesus turns the tables on them, and delivers a lecture on just how much the grace of God may cost them. It could cost them a hand, an eye, a foot. It could cost them their lives. Whatever it costs, to follow Jesus is to take a great risk, and the ones who take that risk – who cast out demons, or fight the evil one, or care for those who do – are the salty heroes of the Jesus story.

“Salted with fire” – Jesus uses a complicated metaphor which would have been full of several meanings for his hearers. To sow a field with salt means to destroy its fertility. Likewise, remember Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt for disobeying God and looking back on the destruction of Sodom. To “salt with fire” is to really, really, really kill something – to kill it so much it never has any shred of hope of returning to life. That’s the destination for those who don’t take the risks Jesus demands for following him.

But then Jesus uses the metaphor of salt a different way. “Salt is good,” he says, but if it’s not salty enough, then what good is it?? If you don’t have an edge, if you don’t take a risk, if you don’t understand the cost of grace, then what good are you? Be a little salty, Jesus says, and be at peace.

Many people from this parish have taken the cue to follow Jesus in this salty way by volunteering at St. Paul’s Table. Serving lunch to poor and homeless people in Brockton is a little bit off the beaten track for most Episcopalians, but you, collectively have been doing that faithfully, every month, for many, many years. The guests at the Table know you well, look forward to the meals you provide, and many of you know many of them by name. And because you don’t get thanked enough for all you provide, well, let me say it again: thank you!

Serving lunch at St. Paul’s Table would seem, for all of us, to be an easy choice. Yes, of course, it is the right thing to do. There are some risks, of course; we can’t predict when someone’s anger management issues will erupt, or when someone else falls asleep drunk in their meatloaf, or of course when our hearts are absolutely wrenched when a family comes in with children. No matter where they come from, or what they have done, everyone there is hungry, and everyone is invited in, no questions asked. And yes, if we would only look, we would see the face of Jesus on the countenance of those in need.

But, faced as we are day in and day out – and you, from St. John’s, month in and month out -- with 100 or more hungry people to feed, we at St. Paul’s Community began to think: Can we not do better by these people? A hungry person needs a meal, yes, but for how many years do they have to stand in line, just for lunch? And, at St. Paul’s, how many years do they have to stand outside in all kinds of weather, just for lunch?

We began to ask questions of our guests. Only about a third of them were homeless; most live in rooming houses, in modest studio apartments, or renting a room or sharing a house with someone else. Some worked, but many were supported by government assistance that did not cover their living expenses. The ones staying at MainSpring had to get back in line over there at 3 pm in order to have a bed for the night. And what to do with one’s leisure time? If you live in a rooming house, you can’t have friends over to visit or to share a meal. There are no movie theaters in Brockton. The library is free, but you have to walk blocks or take the bus. It costs money to take the bus to the Y, and it costs even more money to join. It costs money to go to the municipal pool. If we see Jesus in the faces of the people we serve, we began to think, wouldn’t Jesus like a place to go during the day? Wouldn’t Jesus like a better place to live? We know Jesus likes the community he finds at St. Paul’s Table, the friends he eats with and the ones he meets from places like Duxbury, but wouldn’t Jesus like someday not to be a “recipient of services” but a citizen and a friend?

I’m stretching a point, obviously. The problems of the poor and homeless in Plymouth County and in Brockton are serious, complicated, and growing. There are no easy solutions, but it is clear that we have to begin to imagine what we can do beyond emergency services. There are over 1000 families in emergency shelter in Massachusetts, and 10 percent of them are living in motels in Brockton. We at St. Pauls’ Community are working with agencies and churches and community groups across Plymouth County to look at this crisis in homelessness systemically. How can the right people intervene sooner in the life of a family on the brink? How can someone who has been homeless for years find the support he needs to stay in his own home?

All of us at St. Paul’s Table know the first thing we have to do is get lunch on the table – and lunch costs money, in hot water, heat, electricity, supplies, and oh, yes, food. But we are also beginning to think about how we can improve our neighborhood, to keep the community and the lunch, but lose some of the stigma, some of the blight, some of the struggle, some of the hopelessness, by improving our buildings and opening them up. We hope to give people in the neighborhood a place to go, and maybe some worthwhile things to do.

God has thrown us in the middle of this complicated world, where the choices we make are never easy ones, and the solutions we offer sometimes reveal another layer of complexity. To live with the grace and blessing of God is also to live with the paradox of salt, with the awareness that at any time a choice may be demanded of us to take a risk, to act with power, to cast out demons of one kind or another. Be ready, Jesus says. Be salty. Be at peace.