Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Broken God

Last Sunday during our Coffee & Conversation time at St. Thomas' I was in the hot seat.  We are doing a 4 week series for Lent asking leaders in our church to talk about their faith journeys.  Even though I was on the committee planning, being a Newbie I was asked to undergo the grilling.

I expected some pretty traditional Sunday School questions, and being a recovering Baptist, I was more than comfortable sharing my "testimony" and especially from school as a chaplain, I am always ready to answer theological questions no matter how off-the-wall or a non-sequitur.  Some of the questions were expected, "How did you get the nickname Rock?"  I felt like Bill Clinton with the "Boxers or Briefs?" question, but was a little surprised being asked in Sunday School.

The most surprising question, though, was "What is your favorite part of the worship service?"  That one actually caught me as a surprise.  What is my favorite part of the mass?  I had never thought about that before.  When I get in situations like this, I decided not to think, but just open my mouth.  On the Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory, this is when my wife says I am showing my P-ness (Perceptive as opposed to Judgmental, the 4th category.  Please forgive the bad pun.)  My response, "The Fraction."

The Fraction is when the priest holds up the bread, and breaks it.  It is representative of the broken Christ, Jesus who chose to be broken to take away the sins of the world.  My answer has stayed with me since then, whereas most of the rest of the Q&A time is a blur.  I have been asking myself why I answered that way.  The more I have thought about it, the more I think that truly is for me the high point of the service.  The liturgy drives to that climactic moment, which visually is very dramatic and central, and leads to the sharing of the one bread and the one cup.  Every time I see it, every time I have done it, I pause with bated breath and await the moment, the very Now, the very Once, the very Always of the Sacrifice.  I think of the Broken God and what that means.  Broken, not as in defective, but in being humbled.  The self-lowering and debasing that Jesus did to allow us to witness, connect, and understand the price he was willing to pay and did pay has changed me, and it has changed the world.  In the Fraction, he is reduced.  And that is why I lift it up.  I need to remember this, and as I preach and teach and lift his humbled self up, my prayer is that Christ is exalted.

My prayer is that this feeling, this importance of this Once-and-Always moment may ever be so in all my days as a priest.  Please help me, my dear, beloved, Broken God.

Monday, March 24, 2014

St. Arbuck's and the Priest

Last week I had to run to the store for something before getting to school to teach, and because I had 5 minutes, ran into Starbuck's for a drink.  I have not done a lot of running around in my collar.  Mostly when I have it on, I run to school on chapel days, or to church, by way of school where the kids are used to me wearing it.

Starbuck's was different, though.  In the usual fashion, I was greeted warmly and with caffeinated enthusiasm.  I ordered my drink, and then I got, "So, I guess you work in a church, huh?"

Trying to be witty, I asked, "How could you tell?"

I got a polite chuckle.  But then the cashier said, "I thought the, uh, collar, that's called a collar, right? The collar was a church thing, or maybe you were making a fashion statement."

Not sure what type of fashion would make this statement, but I smiled.  Then she asked me if I was there for a meeting because, "there were some church people meeting in here earlier."

"No," I responded, "I tried to give up meetings for Lent, but they wouldn't let me.  Just to go, today.  Needed a pick me up."

Her phrase church people took me back to my college days, and the Church Lady on SNL.  Not a good image, and I was fascinated in wonder by what made somebody stand out as a church person.  My collar was my giveaway, but for other people, language?  Conversation?  Big cross necklaces?  I should have asked.

I am always fascinated by groups that identify themselves by the outward: nun's habits, priest's collars, Mennonite headwear, Amish beards and suspenders.  But what should be the identifiers, the markers to our faith.  That refrain haunts and encourages me: "yes they'll know we are Christians by our love, yes our love, yes they'll know we are Christians by our love."  Please Lord, make it so.  Everything else is, as the cashier put it, a fashion statement.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

"Is the LORD among us?"

“Is the LORD among us?”
Year A, Lent 3
St Thomas Episcopal Church, Richmond VA

When God breaks through, we rarely expect it.  It catches us unaware.  It catches us unprepared.  We find ourselves unworthy.  Yet, we find ourselves loved.  We find ourselves, to our great surprise, already loved and already acceptable of being loved by the Beloved.

The Samaritan woman of today’s tale, had been looking for love in all the wrong places.  Yet, in her own unique way, found it in her attempt to avoid the scorn.  As she slunk from the scorn to the well, she found acceptance.  She found she was already loved and already lovable.  

Sigmund Freud said that the greatest need in the human psyche is to be loved and capable of loving.  And in a fast dialogue bouncing from sexism to racism, from sinfulness to prophecy, we see Jesus and the woman here jumping from the ordinary to the extraordinary in a relatively short time.

She is so impressed and enamored with this potential Messiah, that she forgets the jar which initiated her midday walk and darts back to town to share the potential goodness-gracious-me news that this could be the One.  It truly could be the One.  Come and see, she says.

We climb up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need quickly.  The disciples had gone for food; Jesus had asked the woman for water.  Both were basic needs and in short order, by the fulfilling of a higher order need, Jesus is filled.

John 4:32 But Jesus said to them, "I have food to eat that you do not know about."

John 4:34 ..."My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.”

When our higher calling is met, everything else is a trifle.  Or, as Jesus put it, roughly, “Seek first the Kingdom of God and God’s okaying-of-you and everything else will fall into place.”  Rough translation admitted.

God breaks through in amazing and remarkable ways, and most often when we least expect it.  Moses was worried about sheep when he saw a burning bush.  Saul, about to become St. Paul, was thinking of religious assassination when he was blinded by the light.  Isaiah was praying in the Temple.  Hannah was weeping for lack of a child in a shrine, when God promised her Samuel.  Abram was being hospitable, entertaining guests, and Sarai was laughing, when God broke through.  Jacob was dreaming when he saw the stairway to heaven.  A woman, a Samaritan woman, met God in a thirsty stranger.  We meet God when we meet God.  And we are blessed.

So what can we take away from today’s readings?  I find them cohesive, and encouraging.  Here goes:

Romans 5:5b-8 God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.  For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.  Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person--though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die.  But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.

God loves us.  There is nothing that we can do that would make us more lovable to God, and there is nothing that we have done, could do, or will do that could make us unlovable to God.  Nothing.  Absolutely nothing can separate us from the love of God.

I love you just the way you are, God cries.  Do we hear?

Psalm 95:7 For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. O that today you would listen to his voice!

So often we feel, too often we feel, that God is so very far from us.  We do not feel it, so we think it is not true.  Gravity is the same way.  It acts upon us so heavily that it feels non-existent.  We are steeped in it.  A fish might deny the theory of water.  A human might deny the theory of a loving God.  We do not have a perspective to see that we are bathed in it.  It is never far, and yet we so easily forget.

In the Exodus passage, in the trial of the desert, the people of God were crying out in thirst.  They so easily forgot the miraculous deliverance that had just led to their freedom.

3 But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, "Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?"
4 So Moses cried out to the LORD, "What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me."
5 The LORD said to Moses, "Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go.  6 I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink." Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel.  7 He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the LORD, saying, "Is the LORD among us or not?"

And that is the question I have to ask of myself today?  “Is the LORD among us or not?”  

If God is not here, I do not even want to think about it.  I have been an utter fool.  For years of work and study, I have been on a fool’s errand.  I have spoken lies and and taught and preached for naught.  Many of you could say the same thing.  Enough people out in the world would already agree.  But that is only if God is not here.

But what if God is here?  What if God is among us right here, right now?

If God is among us, what do we have to fear?

If God is among us, what sin can we let go of and finally be free?

If God is among us, what desperately dark situation in our community can be transformed?

If God is among us, who might we become?

If God is among us, why should St. Thomas doubt?  I will let you decide whether I mean this church or the saint.

If God is among us, how can we encourage our St. Thomas friends during this season of transition, that God is not done with us yet?  How can we encourage and strengthen them to be in on what God is preparing to be our next steps on this journey of faith?

If God is truly among us, can we help Richmond start to become a little more like heaven right now?

We can leave what we are doing like the jar at the well, and let our friends, our neighbors, even those that hate us know, that it doesn’t have to be the way it is any more.  We can be made new.  We can all be made new.

How can we be made new?  Through love.  We can meet people where they are, and not where we want them to be.  Jesus was sitting at Jacob’s Well when he asked a stranger for water, and he ended up quenching her deeper thirst.

How can we be made new?  Through letting go of judgement.  Jesus did not mince words, and honestly let the woman know what had happened with her and to her.  She knew it.  He let her know he knew it.  We cannot know inflection, but in my reading of this I hear honesty, not judgement.  I hear an assessment of the situation, not a critical analysis of her.

How can we be made new?  By being ready for the God who is already at work before we arrive.  Do you think Jesus staged this?  Having his disciples be away so that he could have this conversation with this woman who happened to be coming at that hour?  Or, was he open to be about God’s work whenever and wherever he happened to be?  I think the latter.  We can do the same.  God will open doors we cannot possibly imagine.  Will we be ready to humbly serve and boldly go?

One of my favorite professors in seminary had a wonderful definition of God.  God is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.  The heart of God, his center is wherever we find ourselves to be.  And the limit of God’s love?  It is nowhere to be found.  God is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.

So, is the LORD among us or not?  Don’t tell me your answer to that.  Show me.  And when you do, it will be a glorious sight to behold.  It will be like water gushing from a rock in a dry and barren land.  It will be a filling meal with out taking a single bite.  Is the LORD among us or not?

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

What Will Make A Difference

"What will make a difference to the future is awakening to a faith that fully communicates God's love--a love that transforms how we believe, what we do, and who we are in the world."  Diana Butler Bass in Christianity After Religion p. 37

One of the most intriguing comments I received at my ordination was from one who attended, and said "You sure did make a lot of promises up there.  I couldn't have done that."  Now before you make assumptions about who made those comments, it was not a twenty-something who struggled with commitment.  It was not a de-churched seeker afraid of institutionalized religion.  It was actually someone near retirement who draws their livelihood from a church.  It got me thinking.  I made my ordination vows not looking back at the past (though it was profoundly in my mind).  Nor was I looking at the Now, though things are pretty good for me and my family currently.  What I was looking at most definitely was my future and what I feel to be the calling and direction of God in my life.

This quote from the book we are reading for our Lenten study, Diana Butler Bass's Christianity After Religion.  The Chapter we are presenting tonight, "The End of the Beginning," ends with these words in bold above.  I was profoundly struck by how this was why I was able to commit to the vows I took.  I vow to the future, and attempt to live it out in the Now.  I want to fully communicate God's love in all I am doing and what I am about in my own becoming.  I want a faith that is authentic to the God I am only just beginning to know, and the authentic to the call of this ever-loving, always gracious God.

That is why I was able to vow:
Bishop      My brother, do you believe that you are truly called by God
              and his Church to this priesthood?

AnswerI believe I am so called.
BishopDo you now in the presence of the Church commit
yourself to this trust and responsibility?
AnswerI do.

BishopWill you respect and be guided by the pastoral
direction and leadership of your bishop?
AnswerI will.
BishopWill you be diligent in the reading and study of the
Holy Scriptures, and in seeking the knowledge of
such things as may make you a stronger and more
able minister of Christ?
AnswerI will.
BishopWill you endeavor so to minister the Word of God
and the sacraments of the New Covenant, that the
reconciling love of Christ may be known and
AnswerI will.
BishopWill you undertake to be a faithful pastor to all
whom you are called to serve, laboring together
with them and with your fellow ministers to build
up the family of God?
AnswerI will.
BishopWill you do you best to pattern your life [and that
of your family, or household, or community] in
accordance with the teachings of Christ, so that you
may be a wholesome example to your people?
AnswerI will.
BishopWill you persevere in prayer, both in public and in
private, asking God's grace, both for yourself and for
others, offering all your labors to God, through the
mediation of Jesus Christ, and in the sanctification
of the Holy Spirit?
AnswerI will.
BishopMay the Lord who has given you the will to do these
things give you the grace and power to perform them.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

"Forward Thinking" Lent 1 Sermon

Year A Lent 1 “Forward Thinking”
St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Genesis 2:15-12; 3:1-7; Psalm 32, Romans 5: 12-19; Matthew 4:1-11

Matthew 4:1-11
1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.

3 The tempter came and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread." 4 But he answered, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'"

5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, 'He will command his angels concerning you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'"  7 Jesus said to him, "Again it is written, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'"

8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor;  9 and he said to him, "All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me." 10 Jesus said to him, "Away with you, Satan! for it is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'"

11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

With Great Power comes Great Responsibility, a pretty obvious cliche, espoused by many, most recently Spiderman in the recent movies.  But with Great Power, also, comes Great Temptation.  The old adage, “Power corrupts, and Absolute Power corrupts ABSOLUTELY.” attests to this.  It is not in his weakness that our Lord and Savior was tempted, but in his strength.

This passage is interesting, as it lines up Jesus as a second Moses, much like the Romans reading set him up as a second Adam as well.  40 days alone with God, for remember it was the Spirit that led him out, not Satan.  Satan just crashed the party.

Jesus was led to go out alone into the Wilderness, like the Israelites were in the Wilderness 40 years, and Moses was atop Mt. Sinai 40 days.  Then we are given a glimpse into what he treasured.  Ash Wednesday we were reminded of Jesus’ own words, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”  We see the nature of Jesus’ treasures, where he draws his strengths, by what was used to tempt him.

Now before we launch into his desires, we have to ask the question, “Could Jesus even be truly tempted?”  You could put a plate of the best Haggis in the world down in front of me and it would not be a temptation.  No matter its reputation.  For me, it is not a desire, so it is not a temptation.  For some of you it might be Brussel Sprouts, or Coconut Shrimp.  No matter how good, it is not a desire so cannot be a temptaion.  Could Jesus even be tempted?  I have to say, yes.  Scripture says he ways.  

Those who say that Jesus could not have been truly tempted are trying to uphold his divinity.  But temptation is not a weakness.  It is in our desires, what we treasure, that we are tempted.  C. S. Lewis said, “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”  Jesus was tempted because he had loves, and because he had loves, he had hopes and wishes.  What was it Jesus loved?

He had a body.  He was flesh and blood.  He had needs.  When they were not cared for, he had pains.  He had fasted in a most inhospitable place, and he was not just hungry.  He was famished, it says.  He loved to eat, and after having abstained for a month and a third, he wanted to eat.  I am reading the Life of Pi in one of my classes right now, and as Pi is listing off all of the food fantasies during his depravation on the lifeboat, I was reminded of how Jesus would have seen nothing but stones in the area between Jerusalem and Jericho.  There is still nothing there.  Nothing can be there.  Life is almost impossible.  This is the same region where he set his parable of the Good Samaritan.  Snakes, robbers, and rocks.  Not much else besides the baking sun and an occasional view of the Dead Sea.  When Jesus saw the stones, they would have looked like leavened rolls.  

3 The tempter came and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread." 4 But he answered, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'"

Jesus loved life, and all that is needed to sustain it.  It is not accidental that he taught us to pray for it.  “Give us this day, our daily bread.”  Fasting helps us see the need, and be thankful for receiving it all the more.  But Jesus loved something more than bread, the other manna from heaven, the very word of God.  People live by every word that comes from the mouth of God.  It gives us strength.  From strength we receive responsibility, from strength we also receive temptations.

What else did Jesus love?  He loved life, and the fulfillment of the needs of life.  He also loved the Power and Authority of God.  He had just quoted about the words that come from the mouth of God, so Satan chases that rabbit.  We can almost see the gears working, “You love God so much.  Let him show how much he loves you!

5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, 'He will command his angels concerning you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'"  7 Jesus said to him, "Again it is written, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'"

Fascinating!  Satan is quoting Scripture here.  Psalm 91, by the way.  Once again, picture Satan’s thinking: “Surely this is the word of God, Jesus?  Prove you are God’s Son as was just declared 40 days ago at your Baptism!  It would prove it to everybody, and you in your fainting delirium of this extended fast.  You need to make sure before you start this fool’s crusade.”  And Jesus fires back, that he, and Satan as well, should not put God to the test.

So Jesus loves life, and Jesus loves God.  What else does Jesus love?  Jesus loves the world.  And despite the trailer for the new Son of God movie, Jesus never says in Scripture, “We are going to change the World!”  He was the Messiah, not a motivational speaker, no matter how motivating his sermons were.  But Jesus’ mission and message were key, and if he took a short cut, or another way, his message and his mission would be destroyed.

8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor;  9 and he said to him, "All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me." 10 Jesus said to him, "Away with you, Satan! for it is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'"

It is just like the Satan, to make promises that he cannot fulfill.  From atop a high mountain he says as far as the eye can see, and Jesus sees a world, desperate, but a world that he loves.  Full bellies, and miraculous powers, and worldly authority would have gotten a lot of shallow followers.  And these followers would have flocked to him, but his message of love and grace and sacrifice would not have made since from a royal throne, now would they?  Jesus’ defense again, was quoting Deuteronomy back at Satan.  (All three of his responses were quotations from Deuteronomy.  Remember how I said he is being cast as a second Moses?)  

And it is said that Satan departed and he was ministered to by angels.

As important and pivotal as this is in Matthew, and the other synoptics, what has this got to do with us?

A few things, actually.  This is the first Sunday of Lent, and like Jesus, we have entered a season of 40 days.  Our Lenten practices stem from these passages, times of testing, trials and fasting, as we await with hope the Resurrection celebration of Easter.  But what else?

It speaks to us of temptations.  We all have them.  In our strengths and abilities to choose, we are given the choice of what to do daily.  Think about it.  If you have no choice, you have no temptations.  If you have no power, you cannot choose.

In our strengths, we have some important decisions to make, decisions which shape our actions.

We need to listen to our bodies.  Jesus knew that he was famished.  He wanted food.  He had the choice to stop this fast at any moment.  In graduate school, I did an intensive study of Alcoholics Anonymous, and I took a lot from their thinking.  An acronym I learned I have used 100 times in teaching and training.  It is H.A.L.T.  HALT.  When we are Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired, we make bad decisions.  We need to take care of those basic needs, or get to a place where we can clearly see that we are being affected by being hungry, angry, lonely, or tired.  When we are, we simply need to HALT, H.A.L.T.  Jesus halted his musing on bread by quoting Deuteronomy.  Jesus, in his ability to see his choices, chose the better path.  And we can, too.

We also need to keep our eyes on the prize.  What is the bigger thing I hold more dear than the temporary pleasure of this moment?  What is this current temptation trying to feed in my soul at this moment, and what greater goal do I need to keep in sight?  Jesus kept his eye on God and his message to avoid flashy gimmicks and absolute rule.  If Jesus had taken the shock value of jumping off the Temple, or accepted absolute rule by bowing down, he would have effectively taken away peoples ability to choose.  They would have not been able to choose to “drop their nets and follow him.”  Grace wins by being chosen.

Our ability to look ahead is where we gain power to let go of the good of the now, and claim the best of the goal.  Fascinating research has been done with children, looking at the kids who could have one cookie now, or two cookies later.  The kids who could hold out for two cookies proved after years of being followed to be more successful in every aspect of life, occupations, relationships, attitudes.  More recently, Virginia Tech Professor and Director of the Advanced Recovery Research Center Warren Bickel studied how drug addicts think. When study participants are asked about their sense of the future, control participants referred to a future of 4.7 years ahead while heroin addicts refer to a future of nine days.  Why would anyone not turn down a high right now if their idea of “the future” was only nine days away?  A bigger picture, a longer future, a higher goal enables us to reach beyond the temptation of the now to leap beyond the now to a better tomorrow.

Grace wins by being chosen.  Shortcuts, no matter how tempting, destroy what we truly want.  As Saint Paul reminds us...

I Corinthians 10:13  13No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.

May the same Spirit that led Jesus into the Wilderness, guide our steps on our way to Easter.  May the loves that we have set aside for a season, help us to draw closer to the One we hold most dear.  And, Lord, lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the Evil One.  For Yours is the Kingdom, and the Power, and Glory Forever, most especially in Lent.  Amen.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

How Ash Wednesday Saved Me

The question I get asked so frequently, is why would a Baptist pastor become an Episcopal, even more so, an Episcopal priest.  The list is long and varied, but last night as I was celebrating the Ash Wednesday service, I was taken back to my first foray into liturgical worship.

My sophomore roommate at the University of Richmond was a Catholic raised on Long Island.  Rich was as devout in his faith as I was in mine.  He made a point of attending mass weekly, either on or off campus.  That always impressed me.  I was curious about Lent and Ash Wednesday.  He invited me to join him, and I took him up on the offer.

We went to the Chapel at UR, always a favorite building of mine.  I was ordained (the first time) there, proposed to my wife there, and was married there.  It will always be a special place for me.  Last night, I saw how the feelings that were stirred in me probably pointed directly to that first Ash Wednesday, that gave me an alternative when I was ready to write Church off, and leave the only calling I have ever known.

That night I was moved by how many came, and how they were engaged and in unison.  They said the liturgy, and when the time came, they received the imposition of ashes.  I joined in the line, and received from the female campus minister ashes reminding me that, "You are dust, and to dust you shall return."  Immediately I was struck.  We only get one ride on this Merry-Go-Round, so we really should try to get as much out of our trip doing the best we can the first time through.  Walking back to my seat, I pondered the millions around the world that were doing the same thing on this same day.  For the first time, I felt a part of the Great Cloud of Witnesses, both past and present.  I felt a part of something bigger than myself.  I felt God in this.

I did not change my denomination then, nor did I even think about it.  But, tucked away from that moment, I saw my denomination in a new light.  It became one of many.  It became an option.  An option I wholeheartedly embraced, but an equal amongst others.

Jumping ahead from 1989 to 2009, when the circles I was running felt insular and territorial, I remember looking back and seeing a bigger version of Church, a grander vision of connecting, a hope for what I always felt Church could be, should be, and my wife and I made the decision for what it would be for our children.  I see now that that night with Rich my roommate saved the future me when I had no hopeful vision, and I was able to look to a broader Church that included all, bound by the common liturgy and faith.  I could not be more thankful, to Rich, and to God.