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.