Saturday, November 27, 2010

In Christ, all things hold together

Proper 29 C Nov, 21, 2010
Jeremiah 23:1-6
Canticle 16 (Luke 1:68-79)
Colossians 1:11-20
Luke 23:33-43

There’s going to be another Royal Wedding. Prince William, heir to the British throne, announced his engagement to Kate Middleton. Now we in America are not monarchists – we got rid of them long ago! – but we do love to watch a good Royal Wedding. Or Royal Funeral. Or Royal Anything, when the Queen trots out in that golden carriage and the streets of London are filled with cheering throngs.

This last Sunday of the church year is known as the Sunday of Christ the King, when we celebrate that this world really is under the reign of God – a rule of justice, mercy and abundance, a rule of the world as God created it to be.

But what do we see when we think of “Christ the King?” Is our image “one surrounded with the art and beauty of a tradition [like that of the English royal family] that is more antique than active? Do we see this figure of salvation as hopelessly outdated and practically mute in these postmodern times?”i Our first lesson today uses the image of the shepherd-king David as the model of the good king; that is even further away from our imagination, in this landscape of the urban mean streets which we inhabit.

I was stunned when I read in The Enterprise that heroin costs $5 “a dose.” What IS “a dose” of heroin? Is it a “take two aspirin and call me in the morning” kind of a dose? Could someone overdose with a “$5 dose?” Would that $5 dose cost someone his or her life? Is a life then worth only five dollars?

I know that legions of state and city police rounded up dozens of drug dealers this week, and many of them were caught here on the streets of Brockton. There is hope, among police and the families of drug victims, that this will make it better, at least until ever-resourceful criminals find new ways to deal. There is hope that
no one will die of heroin this week, on the streets of this city, that this week at least no life is worth as little as five dollars.

Our gospel lesson is another story of criminal intervention – only in this case it is Jesus who was executed along with the equivalent of drug lords and petty thieves of first century
Jerusalem. Yet in the peculiar, upside-down understanding of the world that we Christians have, Christ realizes his kingship in his death. At his death they mock him, “This is the king of the Jews.” Even then the dying Jesus turns this idea of kingship on his head, offering salvation not only to his own people, the Jews, but even to these criminals on either side of him.

Our longings for the rule of a just king are longings to bring the chaos of the world around us into order. We can celebrate the reign of God today, and tomorrow wake up in this same city, where heroin costs $5 a dose and, oh, yes, this church is still closing.

As the Episcopal Church leaves this neighborhood, we do so with the pang of knowing that God’s work here is unfinished. But isn’t that the human condition? God’s work with each of us is unfinished. God has much more left to do with us, just as the City of Brockton has a long way to go before it shines with the glory God intends for it. We live in the in-between time: we have heard the Good News, that God’s promises will be fulfilled, but we wait, still, for when that will be completed.

Our second lesson, from the letter to the Colossians, are powerful words for those of us who wait. It encourages us to be strong, to give thanks that darkness has been dispelled and assures us that we truly live under the reign of Christ – the image of the invisible God.

Remember this phrase, when things get disjointed or confused in your life, or when the city sidewalks are still covered with weeds and drug dealers lurk around your corner, or when the new church you choose doesn’t quite yet feel like home; remember this phrase: in Christ all things hold together. In Christ, all things hold together, and that includes you. Christ, holds all of us, all the fullness of God and all the broken, unfinished-ness of our own lives, together, all of heaven and all of earth, waiting in hope, for the dawn of the new day.

i Mary W. Anderson, “Royal Treatment,” Living by the Word, The Christian Century, Nov. 15, 2003, p. 18

Saturday, November 20, 2010

New heavens, new earth, new church

Proper 28 C
Nov. 14, 2010

Isaiah 65:17-25
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Luke 21:5-19

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

If the people of Haiti read that poem by Robert Frost, they might think, “Fire and ice are the only two signs of the end of the world that we have NOT seen.” Centuries of economic and environmental degradation, poverty, corruption, marauding gangsters, hurricanes, then the devastating earthquake, rains, mudslides and now an epidemic of cholera: the people of Haiti often describe their world like Jesus does in this passage from the Gospel of Luke. Survivors of the earthquake told of huddling with their families in doorways or other small, safe spaces, convinced that they were experiencing the end of the world. The people of Haiti faced, and still face, chaos and horrors nearly unimaginable to us. Yes, for God’s sake, END this world. The signs of the end are simultaneously signs of hope that God is about to do a new thing.

This fall, as we learned that St. Paul’s Church was closing, we read week after week from the prophet Jeremiah, the uncompromising prophet of Israel’s exile in Babylon. Torn from their homes in Jerusalem, from their beloved temple, the people found themselves in what they thought was God-forsaken Babylon – and yet to their surprise, God was there, already, ahead of them. Build and plant in this place, God told them. Seek the welfare of THIS city, this place, this strange land where you have been brought, for in the welfare of this place, this commonwealth, you will find your welfare.

So we thought about exile, we imagined what it would be like to leave home for a new and strange place, and we heard the testimony of people who had been there ahead of us, people in the past who had been exiles, sent away from home against their will: you can do it, they told us. And not only, “You can do it,” but God is there with you, every step of the way.

Today’s passage from Isaiah is about what God is saying to the people of Israel when they come back to Jerusalem – their beloved city which is now a WRECK. Imagine this prophecy in Haiti – or here in Brockton: God says, “I am about to create a new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered … be glad and rejoice!”

Yes, it is hard to get our heads around what this might mean, what it might look like. But wait: this is not a pie-in-the-sky-bye-and-bye kind of God we are talking about here. This God talks about not just that new heavens, up there, but a new earth, down here. God knows the earth is prone to disaster, that human beings make stupid decision, that oil wells spew destruction into clear waters, that builders take short cuts with houses that fall and crumble on to babies’ heads. God created perfection in paradise, then even the very first human beings made big mistakes and God threw them out. You could say it has been downhill ever since.

But in the words of Isaiah, God is now un-doing all those curses, all that anger, all that bleak exile and devastation. God is laying out a new plan for this battered earth and shattered communities, and God is stretching out a hand to us, to be re-builders with God – to work with God to make this holy place shining and blessed once again.

You have seen that work of re-construction begun here. You have fed the hungry with more than food: you have seen how God’s welcome and compassion make even the most discouraged faces shine. You have seen how cracks of hope have broken through lives of despair – how even the most pernicious weeds can be pried up from the broken pavement, and how beautiful flowers can grow. God has been showering blessings on this place, and we have been on the receiving end.

When you leave this place and go to a new church home, THAT is what you will take with you. You will know what people in “prosperous” places don’t know: that these prophecies of devastation and restoration are TRUE. That God does throw you into exile, into a strange place, where, nonetheless you find that God has already gotten there ahead of you – that God knows what it is like to live in a neighborhood like this, because God lives here – and that because God lives here, you know that leaving a place like this neighborhood in this condition is not what God has in mind.

When you join a new church home, you will bring with you blessings that your new congregation can only imagine. You will tell then, Listen: we have seen what God can do with absolutely nothing. We have seen a hint of that new heavens and that new earth; listen, and believe.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Heroism in God's cause is the mark of a saint

On this All Saints Sunday, I preached a two-part sermon. As St. Paul's Church prepares to close, we are thinking about the many gifts we have received in this place, and the treasures we will take with us wherever we go next. The part of the sermon where I talked about that comes at the end of this post.

So I also preached on the All Saints -- on the beatitudes from Luke, particularly powerful after a year of reading Luke and being challenged by the urgency of his Gospel -- and on the familiar readings from Ecclesiasticus and Revelation, the readings from the 1979 Prayer Book lectionary for the day.

"Heroism in God's cause is the mark of a saint" is a quote from Robertson Davies, from one of his Deptford Trilogy novels I read years ago, and still remember vividly. Heroism in God's cause could describe the people of St. Paul's Church, who year after year, and after adversity, decline, conflict and shrinking resources, kept open the doors of a church which
welcomed absolutely everybody, no matter how hungry or poor or dirty or unkempt or haphazard in their church attendance. The doctrinally pure, and the high-and-mighty prosperous may have fought pitched battles over it, and yes, many who stayed mourned the changes and yearned for a return of the glory days when this was the church of the ruling class. But are not all of our motives, human as we are, at best mixed? Nevertheless: in spite of it all, through it all, because of it all, St. Paul's Church embodied the radical hospitality of Jesus, giving its life to this place, this corner of Warren and not-so-Pleasant. Heroism in God's cause is the mark of this Saint Paul. Amen. Alleluia.

All Saints Sunday Nov. 7, 2010
Ecclesiasticus 44:1-10, 13-14
Ps. 149
Revelation 7:2-4, 9
Luke 6: 20-31

This whole past year, we have been reading the Gospel of Luke, where every story echoes the song we first heard from Mary, the mother of Jesus: God is here, to take down the mighty from the thrones and to raise up the lowly, to feed the poor and hungry and to let the rich go away empty, to bring the outcast and the sick and the imprisoned back from their exile into the heart of the community. We read it today, in Luke’s version of Jesus’ sermon, early in his ministry: blessed are you who are poor, you who are hungry, you who are weeping, you who are hated and reviled, and woe to the ones who think they have got it all.

God’s vision of the world is upside down from the one of conventional success. Let’s just say God is not interested in the stock market, or some banker’s balance sheet. God’s blessings go to those who need them the most.

Remember for the past couple of weeks I have been saying that Luke presents two ways of being righteous; one of those ways – the way of the conventional rule-follower and do-gooder – doesn’t work so well, Luke says. Like in our first reading: praise famous men? Praise the godly ones, who died unknown, blessed and righteous. How many of them, those godly ones, do we treasure in our hearts? Like in our second reading: who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from? Those who have seen more than their share of troubles in this world are given care and refreshment at the very throne of God.

Whose side is God on? This passage makes it clear: God is on the side of the ones who have been hungry and thirsty, the ones who have suffered from the heat of the day, the ones who have been lost, the ones who have been weeping.

The Gospel conveys a real urgency: Listen! It says, and then Do. Act. Take action on behalf of the people whom God loves. Think about the people you know or have heard of who have done that. They are all of them saints of God, and God means for each of us to be one, too.

A guided meditation, on what we treasure at St. Paul's:

Think about when you first walked in the door of this church.

For some of you, that was a long time ago. A great deal of your life has taken place within these walls: important events, family gatherings, times to rejoice, times of utter despair. Some of you, like me, have only been here a few years. Many of the important touchstones of our lives have taken place elsewhere. Think about those events. Think about the ones that were richest and most life-giving. Whether they took place here at St. Paul’s, or in some other place of worship, pick one – just one – such an event. Imagine that event in all its richness and beauty. Remember who was there with you, what you saw, what you smelled, what happened there and then.

What about that event made it so special? What still resonates with you today? What was the gemstone of that event, that you will treasure always?

Come back to the present, and look around this church. All of us walked through these doors for the first time, once upon a time. But we are here now, together, in this place. Think about it. What has kept you here? What about this place drew you to stay here? What is the wellspring of God’s mercy that you find here, that brings you back, week after week?

If you could give this thing a name, what would it be?

Imagine your life as a line, something you can see, visualize. Some people imagine their lives in a line moving from left to right; others like a movie reel, or things that appear in the foreground or recede back. Just imagine this scope of your life.

Now go back to your most treasured memory, that gemstone from the past, that holy moment that took place here or somewhere else, sometime in your own past. Where is that moment on your life line, your life journey? Give it a particular place. Think of it somewhere, in all of its richness and beauty. Anchor it in the map of your memory.

Now come to your more recent memory, the “why you keep coming back to St. Paul’s” memory. Where is that on your time line, your life journey? Imagine it, clear and strong and definite.

Now, what is the connection between these two things? What is the golden thread of meaning that they share? What do these two things have in common, this gemstone of a holy moment, and this thing that keeps you coming back here, week after week? You embody both of these things: what, other than you, do they share?

Thanks to Rachel R. for the batik chasuble from Cameroon. I love it! And I still wear it!!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Salvation has come to this house, and you are the children of Abraham

Proper 26-C Oct. 31, 2010
Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4; Ps. 116:137-144; 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12; Luke 19:1-10

The theme of “we’re in trouble” really makes it big in the news these days. The election commercials hammer that lesson home – times are tough, my opponent has the moral character of a horned toad, and so you’d better vote for me, or the country will go to rack and ruin. Or those hysteria-breeding news reports, about things that will go very, very wrong unless …. The headlines are full of it: are we sliding into a Japanese-style economic deflation from which there is no recovery? Has the average American become a non-voter who no longer cares who is in charge? Pick an issue – any issue: there is sure to be someone out there worked up over it.

Way back in the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, a group of people, with similar urgent concerns, came to John the Baptist. Things are really getting bad, they said – maybe they shouted – to him. What then shall we do? John was very straight-forward; you may remember some of what he told this collection of ordinary people:

‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’ (Lk 3:11-14)

Later on in Jesus’ ministry, even rich people began to be curious – they, too, wanted in on this good news, these promises of the good life now, and for all eternity. You may remember this story:

A certain ruler asked, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother.”’ He replied, ‘I have kept all these since my youth.’ When Jesus heard this, he said to him, ‘There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich. Jesus looked at him and said, ‘How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ Those who heard it said, ‘Then who can be saved?’ He replied, ‘What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.’ (Luke 18:18-27)

Don’t we find echoes of the struggles of our own day in these stories? Don’t’ we all want to do the right thing, to find our groove with God, as it were, to live the good life now, to be saved from our fears and worries and hang-ups? To find a connection with God that will last us into eternal life?

Last week we read the story of the very righteous religious man – the Pharisee – and the categorical sinner – the tax collector. We talked about how these two represented two schools of thought – two schools of prayer, as it were – about getting right with God. For the Pharisee, getting right with God meant following all the rules – like that rich ruler. But there is a problem with this: according to Jesus, these folks can no more get into heaven than a camel can fit through the eye of a needle. If following the rules of righteousness doesn’t work, then WHAT THEN SHALL WE DO? This question begins to take on real urgency: how are we ever going to figure this out?

Which brings us to the second school of prayer, that of John the Baptist, echoed in today’s gospel. Zacchaeus didn’t intend to figure out the answer to these urgent questions; he just wanted to see Jesus. But what he discovered was that Jesus just wanted to see him – the rich tax collector, the categorical sinner, the one who no righteous person would be caught dead with, much less talking and eating with. Jesus wanted to see him. Zacchaeus didn’t know he was looking for salvation, when salvation came looking for him.

And then what did Zacchaeus do? He did what John the Baptist advised, and what the rich ruler and the Pharisee could not. He took all his possessions used them in service to God, to the kingdom, to the poor and the ones he might have cheated. He took Jesus into his house – Jesus and his whole entourage of sinners and poor people and women and soldiers and outcasts. Zacchaeus used what some would call “ill-gotten gains” to hold a banquet of abundance and mercy and generosity, to open the doors of his house to everyone Jesus would welcome. Zacchaeus learned that day, when he climbed down from that tree, that by giving away what he had, there would always be enough to go around.

Many years ago, people here at St. Paul’s began holding a banquet for everyone Jesus would welcome. When times were tough, when rich people were worrying about not having enough to go around, you gave it all away. You opened all the doors and welcomed everyone. You learned what Zacchaeus learned, and what the rich ruler couldn’t. Salvation has come to this house, and you are the children of Abraham.