Monday, May 24, 2010

God is on the side of the people who do not even know there are sides

Easter 7-C May 16, 2010
Acts 16:16-34
Psalm 97
Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21
John 17:20-26

On this Sunday
after the Ascension of Jesus into heaven, we proclaim that God is truly Lord over the earth. This great Lion of justice reigns. Evil – this dragon – is defeated, wrapped in chains, trampled underfoot.

Let us not be naïve; there are many things that trouble us in this world. If Jesus is born, risen from the dead, ascended into heaven, why do things still go wrong? Evils unpunished, feelings still hurt, injustice still perpetrated?

Paul and Silas, fresh from their dazzling conversion of the wealthy Lydia and her household, encounter this slave girl who is very much out of whack. She is a diviner for hire – kind of a spiritual prostitute, working for some men who exploit her gifts.
She is very annoying to Paul and Silas, with her proclaiming boldly that they come from “the Most High God.” She is very loud. That is one of the names of the Emperor. Paul and Silas know that such unwanted publicity could get them in a lot of trouble – and she is confusing their message. Why can’t all converts be like Lydia? Rich, thoughtful, quiet, obedient, generous? Who is this annoying girl who speaks the truth in a most inconvenient way, even though it will cost her her meager livelihood?

The world is a troubled place, even here in the Acts of the Apostles, the early years after Christ’s Ascension. In this passage alone we read of slavery, sexual exploitation, imprisonment on trumped up charges, cruel punishment like beatings and
shackles and underground cells. The money men, and the power men, and the military men – they are all still in charge. The Acts of the Apostles tells a disturbing story of a world like ours – a world into which, nonetheless, the powerful spirit of God breaks through disturbing, destabilizing, and freeing.

Spirits are a powerful force in human nature. We may give them different names at different times of our lives or in different cultures. They inhabit our childhood
dreams. Even as adults we may fear what lurks around the corner. Are not cruel and evil people caught up in spirits that take them away from their true nature? How else could anyone even imagine torture or murder, unless they were no longer in their right mind?

We may learn from the wisdom of some African cultures who give names to these spirits, and by so doing bring them out of the darkness where we fear them and into the light where we can see these powerful forces in perspective. In the Central African Republic, I recently read, witchcraft is outlawed. There are lawyers in that country who wan
t to get rid of that law as outdated, as unjust – there is no proof for witchcraft. There can be no due process without proof; the accused often confess to this crime which they did not commit, just to get a lighter sentence. But there is some logic to this seemingly unjust law: the belief in witchcraft is so powerful that if there were not the possibility of criminal prosecution, people could just grab any one they considered to be witches, “bring them to a pit and bury them alive.1

We have much to learn also from the wisdom of our new friend Moses, who brings to us his experience working with women who are disempowered, neglected, abused. They turn to witchcraft, he says, because they feel they have no power against a husband who beats them, against a system that exploits their down-at-the-bottom status. Would not the key to their liberation be to break the cycle of abuse by their oppressors? To convince these men that they too are imprisoned by this system of domination and exploitation?

It was almost an afterthought for Paul to exorcise the spirit that imprisoned the
slave girl. But later, after his own experience of powerful and evil spirits, shackled in an underground jail cell, he frees his own jailer of his imprisonment. The earthquake caused the jailer to fear for his life – not because the quake was an act of God, but because the prisoners might go free, and then he, who had had the power to beat and imprison, was in danger of receiving the same treatment if his charges escaped. When Paul and Silas acted generously toward their jailer – stayed put when they could have run free – it was the jailer they freed, freed him from the domination system in which he was only one cog in the wheel, one more lackey to be punished if the powerful spirits at the top did not get their way.

We, too, live in troubled times. But God-with-us is also with us in the troubled times. God is on the side of the people who do not even know there are sides, people who only know what it means to be pushed around and told what to do and taken advantage of. The power of God can break through it all, and bind us together instead with love and friendship and compassion and hope.

1 “Hex Appeal” by Graeme Wood, The Atlantic, June 2010, p. 20.

Monday, May 17, 2010

We are tricked into believing we cannot take up our mats and walk

Easter 6-C May 9, 2010
Acts 16:9-15
Psalm 67
Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5
John 5:1-9

We here at St. Paul’s, Brockton, are the beneficiaries of the imperial reach of the Church of England. This was an English colony, yes, long ago, but also were Jamaica and Trinidad and Nigeria and Kenya and Ghana. The Church of England marched over the globe with the British Empire, and a lot of those global Anglicans have ended up right here! Along with the wonderful parts of the faith – the robust, universal things that people from cultures all over the globe took into their hearts and languages and made their own – the music, the customs, the traditions from many different places that now define “Anglicanism” – the Church of England also exported some peculiar and quaint customs – customs that may have made sense in England’s “green and pleasant land,” where the seasons change and the crops are planted and harvested on the calendar of the northern hemisphere. Today is one of those quaint customs: Rogation Sunday, when in “merry olde England” prayers were asked at the time of the spring planting of the crops. In the Anglican churches of the southern hemisphere, or in countries around the equator, is this the time to plant crops? Probably not. But here, today, we in this same northern hemisphere, are in the season of planting, and so we pray to God for a good yield. We sing hymns that assure us that God has made the earth, and the earth brings us health and wealth and beauty and joy.

The lessons are not “Rogation” lessons but they are full of the abundance of God’s creation. Healing and abundance often go together in the Gospel. “Being sick” is often a social disease – a social condition. The sick person is out of whack with his or her surroundings, cast out of the family, the normal social dealings of town or city. It’s like they say in AA: some are sicker than others. The sick person is truly the pariah, the untouchable, the one no one can help because he cannot help himself.

The man in the gospel story today has no idea who Jesus is. He does not ask to be healed. He declares no faith in this Jesus, no recognition that this one is the Son of God – nothing. All we know about the man is that he is trapped in his infirmity. He cannot get to the pool in time to take advantage of the healing waters. The “less sick” people crowd out this “truly sick” person, and shockingly, there is just not enough healing to go around.

Is that not the case in the world we live in? The truly sick have no access – isn’t that the mantra? No access to health care, to jobs, to decent housing. They have no way to get to see their families or to go home or to take care of their own affairs. We know people like that. We have all been people like that, at one time or another in our lives.

It’s no lie: in a society like ours we are tricked into believing there is not enough to go around. We are tricked into believing that if we don’t hustle our butts over to that pool at one of the rare times the waters are ready to heal us, then we will get nothing. We are tricked into believing that we are defined by our addiction, or our disability, or by the people who do not like us, or do not understand us, or who somehow conspire to keep us down. We are tricked into believing we have no dignity, cannot stand up for ourselves, can never, in any countless number of ways, take up our own mats and walk.

God has other ideas for us. In this city of God where we live, this new Jerusalem, this new heaven and new earth, the light of God shines from the center, life-giving water flows from crystal fountains, providing all people and all nations with healing and with abundant fruit of every kind: a true Rogation-tide of blessing and fertility.

When Jesus asks the man, “Do you want to be made well?” he rips asunder all those lies and deceptions and traps and tricks that make us think there is not enough to go around. Jesus heals the man without the pool, without the lines, without a green card or a social security number. Jesus does not require that the man have a sponsor or an appointment or a college degree. “Take up your bed and walk,” Jesus says. It is the Sabbath. God’s work breaks all the rules, even God’s own rules that people have been following faithfully. Jesus heals on the Sabbath, on God’s sacred time. In this new Jerusalem, there is always enough to go around: enough healing, enough time, enough life.

In this holy Rogationtide, come and be fed. Feel the clean air on your face and dig deeply into the fertile earth. Do not believe any of those tricks that there is not enough of anything to go around, for all of these gifts are God’s to give, and God’s alone. Take up your mat and walk. This is the new Sabbath.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The home of God is among mortals ... the home of the Episcopal Church is among the poor

Easter 5-C May 2, 2010
Acts 11:1-18 Psalm 148
Revelation 21:1-6
John 13:31-35

These are lessons from dreams: strange, powerful, hallucinatory, disturbing dreams. The Spirit is alive and active in a peculiar and subversive way in today’s lessons: what can these dreams possibly mean? And how can they hang together?

What could be a better dream than this part of the Revelation of St. John the Divine? This is God’s dream for us, this new heaven and new earth, this holy city, this new Jerusalem, and we are all in it, bedecked in our finest clothes, bejeweled and adorned. And in our dream a loud voice finally tells us just what is going on. “The home of God is among mortals,” the voice says. “God will be with them and wipe every tear from their eyes.”

It’s the same dream we have been having since before Christmas, when we were dreaming of Emmanuel, God with us, and woke up to find a little baby, born to a poor mother who had no where to sleep but barn. From the moment we woke up on that Christmas morning, we found a God here with us, among us who are poor and downtrodden and longing for a better life in a better place. A God who was just as poor and downtrodden and hope-filled as we were. “See,” says the voice of this same God, this God who lived and walked among us, this God who started out his human life as a poor baby. “See, I am making all things new. Write this. This is trustworthy and true.”

What can this dream mean to us, we who live in this poor neighborhood where people live when they have no where else to go?

Listen again to Peter’s dream, from the first lesson. Jews in those days, remember, were not supposed to eat certain kinds of food, and certainly not supposed to eat that food with certain kinds of people – people who were not Jews. Jews, after much persecution and violence, wanted to keep to themselves, to live the lives God wanted them to live, which included rules about what food to eat, and with whom one could eat it.

But in this dream, God seems to be telling Peter to cast those rules aside – to eat food that had been forbidden, food that Peter says has long been considered unclean, unfit to eat. And, perhaps more importantly, to eat this food with people Peter would not have been caught dead with. It’s like Peter came to the Table one day, Peter who had been so high and mighty and self-righteous, and so proud that he had never had to eat in a soup kitchen, that he had never been so hungry that he had had to wait in line in all kinds of weather just to get lunch. It’s like God said to Peter, go down there to Brockton, wait in line and have some lunch – maybe even some pork sausage – with people you didn’t think you would ever be caught dead with. “What God has made clean,” the voice told him, “you must not call profane.”

This may be a shabby place, this St. Paul’s, Brockton, but maybe this is the beginning of the new heavens and the new earth. God certainly makes God’s home among these mortals, and eats lunch downstairs. Open the doors, God tells us. Put on the coffee. Turn on the heat when it’s cold, and the fans when it’s hot. “To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life,” the voice of God tells us. “Love one another.”

You would think the Episcopal Church would be the last church in the world to stay in a neighborhood like this. The Episcopal Church, “the church of wealth and culture” – surely Episcopalians dream of castles in Spain, cruises on the Riviera, financial deals on Wall Street, or copper mines in Chile. And I will say that many of the people who have had oversight of this parish have lived in a world quite out of touch with our daily reality.

But I was reminded last week that the same God who sent St. Peter downstairs to the Table for lunch speaks to Episcopalians, too. Two years ago our Presiding Bishop announced a commitment to be in places like this neighborhood, and for the church to do what it can to end the poverty that plagues so many of our friends and neighbors. I’ve had her announcement on my blog ever since.

Do you remember these challenges? I posted them in the chapel when we worshiped there two winters ago. We left them up all of Lent, and now we will leave them up in church for the rest of the Easter season, and all through the season of Pentecost. “See,” these challenges say to us, “the home of God is among mortals.” These challenges to the church are also promises to us. The Episcopal Church says it believes these things; will Episcopalians make good on them? Will they stand with us in this God-filled place? Will they carry out the dream of God to make even this new?

Mary, don't you weep

Yes, I am a BIT late in posting these Easter sermons. I preached Easter Day and Easter 3. I was blessed by colleagues preaching Easter 2 and Easter 4 at St. Paul's instead of me.

Easter April 4, 2010 St. Paul’s Isaiah 65:17-25
Ps. 118 Acts 10:34-43
John 20: 1-18

As remarkable as this weekend weather is, it IS natural. The rains and the floods, the wet basements, the washed-out roads – as awful as all that was, that WAS natural, too.

We woke up this morning to a new heavens and a new earth – washed clean, sun shining, flowers blooming. Those former things - -the floods, shall we say, of our lives – are not to be remembered today. A spring morning like this one seems miraculous, astounding, amazing – but it IS natural. We knew the earth would turn and the spring would come back again. We are delighted – we may not understand how it all happens, but we knew, somehow, it would.

Death is natural, but resurrection is not.

If we had been there with the disciples, and put Jesus into the tomb on Friday, we would have expected that he would still be there. That is natural.

If we were Mary, weeping and grieving, going to tend to our dear friend’s burial place, we would have expected it to be the way we left it.

But what Mary found was decidedly not natural. It was a scene of confusion, beyond recognition. Had these men taken the body? Mary was so expecting the natural that she did not even recognize anything out of the ordinary about them – about these angels in white. Mary turned and challenged the one she assumed – quite naturally – to be the gardener. In fear and haste she assumed – quite naturally – that this one had taken away the body of her beloved friend. And when she finally recognized him, she realized he was so different. “Don’t cling to me,” he said, so unlike her beloved teacher whose feet she had washed with her own tears just a few days before. No longer only that man of the natural order, that human being like the rest of us, he was now “on his way to God, and he was taking the whole world with him.[i]” NOT a natural thing to do, but maybe that is something of what Isaiah had in mind when he spoke of God creating a new heavens and a new earth. Into this new heaven Jesus is going, and taking all of us, all of what it means to be human, to suffer, to love and to die, into that new heaven along with him.

There are many ways to die a natural death: Jesus met a violent, bloody end, executed like a common criminal. Other people drink themselves to death, or jump off bridges, or are so sad they cannot bear to live another day. Some people die long before their time, and others embrace death as a friend in their old age. All lives come, one way or another, to their natural end.

But today, with this story of the stone rolled away from the tomb, we have hope for something else. Into this new heavens and new earth something entirely new and different has come to pass – or is this something God has had in mind all along? Did not God say, though Isaiah, that no longer will infants die only a few days old? Did not God promise, in this new earth, for a person to live a healthy life for 100 years? Did not God promise that each family would live in their own home, not threatened by foreclosure or loss? Did not God promise that this new earth would produce food in abundance, watered by the gentle rains of the new heavens? Children would not be born just to die in war, and old enemies, like wolves and lambs, lions and oxen, would lie down in peace. If that is the case, then this holy mountain, foreseen by Isaiah, is not a natural place at all.

Into this un-natural place, this new heavens and new earth we have all been baptized. Today we welcome Joseph into this fellowship of crazy, unnatural hope. And as we renew those baptismal promises today, as we feel the water of new life splash on our heads, we know this myth of the resurrection to be true. We know it in our bones. We know it in our souls. We know it right down at the bottom of our natural hearts.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

[i] The unnatural truth - Jeremiah 31:1-6; Acts 10:34-43; John 20:1-18 - Living by the Word Christian Century, March 20, 1996 by Barbara Brown Taylor

Easter 3-C Apr. 18, 2010 St. Paul’s Acts 9:1-20
Psalm 30 Rev 5:11-14
John 21:1-19

Conversion stories are a dime a dozen. Who hasn’t heard somebody say, NOW I see the light. NOW my life is going to be different. NOW I’m going to turn around …

To do what? What are those conversion stories about? Usually just that one person, who usually is someone who has gotten into a real pickle, whose life is in trouble and who NEEDS to turn around. The college kid who wakes up from a bender and says, I’m never going to drink that much ever again! The man who has gone on a shopping spree when he saw the sale sign at Best Buy – just how many TVs do I need, anyhow? We all know stories about people who ate too much or loved too much or hit their head against any number of walls one too many times. Conversion stories are stock in trade for interviewers like Oprah Winfrey or Barbara Walters.

These stories go right along with our culture that celebrates the individual, the great “I.” Me First. Me Alone. I’ve got to get my act together before … I need to take care of Number One …

You know these refrains. It would seem that this great conversion story of Saul, being blinded by the light, falling off his horse, turning away from his life of persecuting the followers of Jesus, is Version No. 1 of all those narratives. Was blind but now I see. How many times have we heard that?

And yes, Saul-before and Paul-after ARE two different people. He DID turn his life around. That WAS the big moment from which he could never turn back. But what makes the Saul/Paul narrative different from what we hear on Oprah or a Barbara Walters special, is that this new Paul isn’t converted just for his own personal growth and development, or as one step among twelve, or to get in touch with his inner self. Paul is converted for the world. Paul is converted so he can take the story of Jesus into the world, and by so doing change it. Paul is recruited for the New World.

Paul’s conversion happens in a couple of stages. First, there is the incident with the light and the horse. Then he stumbles around and is led to recover in someone’s house. Then Jesus sends a messenger, Ananias, to this Saul-not-yet-Paul-still-in-limbo, to give him his preaching instructions. Paul is to bring the story of Jesus to the gentiles, to kings, and to the people of Israel. In short, Paul is to take this story of Jesus – the one whose disciples he has been persecuting – out to the whole known world. He is not to keep all this good news to himself, this light-filled, healing, new life stuff. Paul is recruited for the New World.

The story of breakfast on the beach is also a story of this New World. The last thing the disciples are expecting from that morning of fishing is anything new. It is soon after Jesus’ death, and amazingly, they have seen him since – with Thomas, examining the marks of his death in his hands and feet. They know something new has happened but they are not quite sure what. But in this story of the miraculous catch of fish, they begin to get hints of what this New World will be like. Do you remember those Gentiles, Kings and People of Israel Paul will preach to? They are like the fish – an abundance of fish, a plethora of fish, so many fish that they fear the nets will break. This is what the New World will be, Jesus promises. So many people following the Way, so many people converted and seeing the light and falling off their horses that you will have your hands full as you try to reach them.

So the New World is a place of abundance, of lots of bread and fish and always enough to go around. The New World is also a place of love: these inhabitants of the New World need love, and the disciples are the ones who take the love of God to them. That’s why the conversion story about Saul is not just about Saul; it’s about what Saul DOES once he becomes Paul. This story of breakfast on the beach is not just a story of a good time the disciples have with their old friend. They get their marching orders here. Feed my lambs, Jesus says. Tend my sheep. Get out of yourselves and into the world, into the New World of compassion and abundance.

“Follow me,” Jesus says. But there is a cost to that following. He uses this peculiar metaphor of old age and infirmity – is the kingdom of heaven like living in a nursing home? Where the nurses tie belts around your waist, so you won’t fall down, and lead you where you don’t want to go? Breakfast on the beach makes following Jesus look as easy as – dare I say it? – falling off a horse! But I think here that Jesus is reminding us just how high the cost of discipleship is. Jesus is reminding his beloved friends of his own death, of the cost of his being the herald of this New World of compassion and abundance. To be a follower of Jesus is to risk angering some very powerful people who would rather the world stayed old, with people going hungry, and staying wounded and alienated, and living in darkness and fear. That old world is a much easier place to govern. It’s so much more predictable, if the poor stay poor, so the rich can stay rich, if people just stay in their places and follow orders.

Don’t follow orders, Jesus said. Follow me. See the light. Come have breakfast. Now, who are you going to invite to this party? And what are you going to tell them about how your world has changed?