Sunday, January 25, 2015

"Simple": a sermon

Epiphany 3, St. Thomas’ Episcopal
January 25, 2015

Taken from Jonah 3:1-5, 10 and Mark 1:14-20

In the name of the Creator, the Redeemer and the Sustainer, Amen.
Have you ever had this happen: there is a situation.  It is bad.  You want it to change.  You get a little upset about it.  In fact, as you think about it, you get a lot upset about it.  You might even get peeved.  And you start thinking, and as you think, you come up with some great lines of what you are going to say, some zingers even, to make your point, conveying your frustration and as well as arguing for the change you want to make.

And there they are, your victim, I mean, adversary, the one you want put in their place.  You have an open, yet forceful stance.  You catch their eye and you say what you have been planning to say.  “We need to talk…”  It goes on from there.  You say what the problem is, and you want it to go to a different place.  And as you catch your breath, they respond with, “Okay.”

Okay?  Okay?  What do you mean okay?  Now,  as to getting what you want, you do.  Maybe.  But you had it all planned out.  You had it all ready.  Your scenarios and arguments were all in place, and before you got to use them they say okay.  You got consensus, but it was too easy.  What about all your planning and preparation!  Your big dramatic arguments worthy of Inherit the Wind are for nothing!  Arrrgh!

Disgruntled prophets are an ornery bunch.  They aren’t happy, and they try to make everyone else feel the same way.  This is the situation we see with Jonah today.  Now we do not see his pity party, that comes in the next chapter of Jonah, chapter 4. In fact your can read all of Jonah in just a few minutes.  It is almost a cautionary tale of how not to follow God.  You see, Jonah gave the word of the Lord to repent, but he did not want Ninevah, the great city, to listen to God.  And when he called out their imminent destruction in a mere 40 days, what did they do?  They had the audacity to listen.

Who had more faith, the people of Ninevah, who heard the prophet’s warning and changed their ways, or the pouty prophet who wanted to watch the fireworks and destruction that was to rain down before God changed God’s mind?  Jonah wanted to share the word of the Lord, but he wanted to add something.  Maybe a bit of flair to the message.  But you see, the message is enough.

Thankfully, the Ninevites, from the King on down, heard the word of the Lord and changed their ways.  God wants us to change our ways.  God wants none of us to be on the path that leads to destruction.

While we were at Council the last few days, I met a representative priest from the Diocese of Liverpool.  John was his name.  He told me the story of a youth he had worked with who had been a rough kid, or a troubled young lad as he put it.  He remembers him as extremely troubled when he knew him in his late teens.

A few years later, a friend who was a nurse asked a favor of  John, to go and visit a 22-year-old man who was dying of cancer.  Going to his house, the young man’s mother showed him upstairs.  Upon entering the room, John saw that it was the troubled youth he had met a few years before.  When he walked through the door, John heard the young man drop a few expletives in surprise and disgust upon seeing the vicar walk into his room.  John smiled and sat down.  The nurse had told John that the young man had not slept well in weeks, and so John went right to it.  “I hear you have not been sleeping well.”

“I can’t,” the young man replied.  “Why not?” John asked.

“Every time the lights go out, I see hands reaching up for me.  They’re gonna drag me to hell.”

“You’ve seen the movie Ghost one too many times,” John replied.  Their conversation went on, getting more and more honest, and finally John asked, “What troubles you?  What could be so bad that God would want you dragged off to hell?”  John then pulled out a piece of paper and waited.

After a long pause, the young man started a litany: lying, cheating, stealing, bad things, horrible things.  For the next hour and a half John wrote it all down.  When it was all down, John asked, “Anything more?”  Looking at the pages and pages that had already been written, “Nothing I can think of,” was the reply.

“Well then, we do not have to worry about those any more,” John said.  “Whadaya mean?”  “See here,” said John, “you told me, I told God.  And God told me, you’re forgiven.”  John then proceeded to rip up the sheets and sheets of paper.  “Wait, what are you doing?” asked the young man.  “You’re forgiven,” said John, and then he walked across the room and threw them away.

“Is it that simple?” asked the young man.  “Yeah, it really is,” said John.  They talked a bit more and John headed out.

The next day John came back, and the young man’s mother was furious.  “What did you do to my son?”  She, like her boy, threw a couple of expletives in along the way.  “What do you mean?” John asked.

“Come and see,” said the mom.  He followed her to the young man’s room.  John looked in, and she said, “I went to check on him this morning, and he was sleeping.  He is still sleeping now!”  

“I did not do anything,” said John.  But John knew, someone else had.

After hearing the litany of all the young man had done, John could have shaken his head and said he deserved whatever he got.  But he didn’t.  He could have added a judgmental tone or look.  But he didn’t.  He shared grace to a sin-sick soul.

Lining the shelves of my office are hundreds of books.  Most of them are about Christianity.  They argue their point of view, subtly and with nuance most of the time.  But it all boils down to the simple message of Jesus.  We want to make it complicated because we think that something this important cannot be that simple.

When food companies first invented the box cake mix, they had trials done.  People were wary of them, and did not want to use them.  Why?  Anything that simple cannot be worth using.  So what did the food chemists do?  They added a step.  They made it more complicated.  The made their mix so that it required breaking an egg.  That was enough complexity to make it “real” in the eyes of the bakers.  And, thus, Betty Crocker was born.  I think of all the things we add, or want to add, to make the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus more real to us by making it more complex.  Jonah wanted a wrestling match, so he could show how good a prophet he was.  God wanted changed hearts and lives.  I am glad God won.

When we look at the beginning of Mark, from today’s reading, we get the Gospel message of Jesus in a single verse.  Look at it with me.

Mark 1
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."

Verse 15 is the message that Jesus preached.  “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Unhear if you can the Bible-ese.  We are not shocked and surprised by it any more.  This was radical when he said it, and as Bishop Gulick reminded us yesterday, all true Christian formation is, at its core, subversive.  

“The time is fulfilled,” might be heard, “No more waiting.”

“The kingdom of God has come near,” could be heard, “The power and the rule of God is close enough to grasp.”

“Repent,” a military command for “About face,” or better yet, “Turn around!  Change your ways!”

“Believe in the good news.”  Don’t need to change that one at all.  Put it all together, de-Bible-esed and what do we get?  What is Jesus’ mission statement?

“No more waiting!  The power and rule of God is close enough for you to grasp.  Change your course, and believe this good, no, GREAT news.”

It would have to be that simple and that wonderful for hard-headed folks like the disciples, and maybe us, to drop what they were doing and follow Jesus immediately.  We do not have to add an egg, or make it complicated in any way.  Is it really that simple?  I think my new friend John, and Jesus, would both say yes.

When the young man passed away a few weeks later, John was asked to do the funeral.  All the young man’s biker friends were  there, and they all commented that their friend died a different man.  The song the young man chose for his final goodbye proved he had changed his ways, and that he believed the good news.  Not a loud heavy metal song of biker anarchy.  Nor was it a Christian song, per se.  It was a Motown great that was used to close out Ghostbusters if you remember it.  The great Jackie Wilson’s 1967 classic, “Your Love Keeps Lifting Me (Higher and Higher).”

Your love keeps lifting me higher
Than I’ve ever been lifted before
So keep it up, quench my desire
And I’ll be at your side forever more.

That song, and that sentiment, echo in heaven.  My friend John was beaming with joy as he told this story.  I would say the young man embraced some Good News.

“No more waiting!  The power and rule of God is close enough for you to grasp.  Change your course, and believe this GREAT news.”  Amen.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Beloved: a sermon

Epiphany 1, January 11, 2015
St. Thomas Church, Richmond, VA

We come today to the Baptism of our Lord, the first Sunday of the Epiphany.  We remember the arrival of Jesus to the Jordan River to be baptized by his cousin John.  I have often heard the question asked, Why did Jesus need to be baptized?  I find this question to be like, Why did the chicken cross the road? or How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?  Both are unanswerable.  Even worse, both are moot.  The whys in most situations are not knowable, as some of you have heard me speak about before.  I like to look at what is.  Almost to say, Why did Jesus need to be baptized?  In response, Because he was baptized.  It does not answer the why, but Jesus need to do so was apparent because he was.  There is something intrinsic that is happening.  But what?

 And that begs the question, Why do any of us need to be baptized?  Why do we undergo this strange and bizarre ritual?  An easy answer, because Jesus told us to go and be baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  (Matthew 28:19)

But what is the role of ritual?  What is the role of doing what we do at this font?  At that altar?  How come?

I have used this quote often, usually at marriages.  A ritual is an enactment of a myth.  -Joseph Campbell  (Hear myth here as a group-shaping story, not a lie or fiction.)

We go through the motions of a story, to make that formative story not just a part of our story, but our actual story.  When we take on the story of baptism we become the stories of Scripture.  In baptism, we wash away the old like in Noahs Flood to bring about a new beginning.  In baptism, we are ritually cleansed like in the laws of the Tabernacle and of the Temple.  In baptism, we follow Christ into the Jordan.  In baptism, we are laid in the tomb of Christs sepulcher to be risen to new life.  All these stories become our story.  We are invited into this newness of life.

Looking at the Catechism in our Prayer Books (pp. 857-858):

Q.      What are the sacraments?
A.      The sacraments are outward and visible signs of inward
and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain
means by which we receive that grace.

Q.      What is grace?
A.      Grace is God's favor toward us, unearned and
undeserved; by grace God forgives our sins, enlightens
our minds, stirs our hearts, and strengthens our wills.

(and skipping down)

Q.      What is Holy Baptism?
A.      Holy Baptism is the sacrament by which God adopts us
as his children and makes us members of Christ's Body,
the Church, and inheritors of the kingdom of God.
Q.      What is the outward and visible sign in Baptism?
A.      The outward and visible sign in Baptism is water, in
which the person is baptized in the Name of the Father,
and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Q.      What is the inward and spiritual grace in Baptism?
A.      The inward and spiritual grace in Baptism is union with
Christ in his death and resurrection, birth into God's
family the Church, forgiveness of sins, and new life in
the Holy Spirit.

Looking at all these questions, we are baptized not to receive Gods Grace, but because we have received Gods Grace.  It is an outward sign of an inward Grace.  We are Baptized because God first loved us.  Do not put the cart before the horse!  Christ did not need to be baptized to receive Gods love and forgiveness.  Christ was baptized because he resided in Gods love and Grace.

When we have the rituals of the Church, we often want to equate it to cause and effect.  Except we reverse the reality.  Our effect is the cause, and our cause is the effect.  We get married because of the love and the union that already is, not that we get married to have love and a union.  The wedding is an outward sign of that already received inward reality and Grace.

I got ordained by the Bishop on these steps not to make me a priest, but because Gods call and the response on my life led me to kneel before Bishop Shannon where it was outwardly recognized that I was a priest in the Church.

Now we look at our Sacraments, Holy Baptism and Holy Eucharist.  Are they any different?  We are baptized to get into Gods Grace?  No.

In fact, lets look at Christs story and see what we can learn.  We need to just look at the last three verses.

Mark 1:9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.  10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  11 And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.

If we go with our usual, cause and effect approach, then Jesus getting baptized triggers him being Gods Son, Gods Beloved, with whom God is pleased.  Now, did Jesus become Gods Son at this moment?  No.  That reality already was.  Did Jesus become Gods Beloved at this point?  No.  God already loved him.  There are those that argued that Jesus became Gods Son at Baptism, or at the Transfiguration, or at the Ascension.  These ideas are called Adoptionism.  Adoptionism is a heresy.  It is why we say in the creeds, I believe in Jesus, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father.  Jesus was not adopted.  He was born the Son of God.

Think of it this way.  I love my daughters.  I love them when they are cute.  I love them when they are cranky.  I love them no matter what.  But that are times, when they make wonderful choices or do something that is so great that I am about to burst.  In moments like that I might burst out, Thats my girl!  I love you so much!  I am so proud of you!  Thats what rang from heaven.  Thats my boy!  I love him so much!  I am so proud of you!

In the Genesis reading today, before anything took shape, the Spirit of God was covering the face of the deep.  How could it not be that we are surrounded by that same breath, or wind, or Spirit covering us and preparing us for what is about to break forth?

For me, the word that encapsulates all of this is idea for me is Beloved.  Agapetos.  The object of Gods love.  Jesus is called the Agapetos by the Divine voice.  This object of Gods divine love is what comes to us.  In this season of Epiphany, may our eyes be opened to this reality like the Wise Ones who went home by another road.

Now, it is Sunday morning.  We are in church.  I can assume that most of you agree with the idea of Jesus being the Agapetos, the object of Gods divine love or you probably would not be here.  The thing I love about this word, though, is there is something else which the New Testament uses this word to describe.  In Pauls letter in speaking to the Churches in various cities, he writes to his beloved.  Now it is not human love we are talking about here.  It is that agape, that divine love, that we are talking about.

Jesus is not only the Beloved.  You are, too.  You are the Agapetos.  You are the object of Gods divine love.  In my wallet I carry a picture of my daughters.  They are smiling.  They are loving each other.  This picture makes me so happy every time I see it flop out.  How much more do you think God loves you?

In fact, think of how we would look at ourselves in the mirror if we started that way every morning.  Good morning, beloved of God!  Even more, what if we came up EVERY ONE that we meet and in our minds declare them the Beloved of God.  Think of how our church, our neighborhood, or city would change.

We come to the Baptismal sacramental waters not for God, but for us.  It is our way of saying to ourselves lest we forget and to everyone that knows us, I see, I see.  I am the Beloved of God.  He made me.  He claims me.  He loves me.  He is pleased with me.  I am baptized and there is nothing that can ever take that away.  It surrounds and binds and seals us as Gods own, and Christs own, forever.

Why are we baptized?  [Singing] Because he first loved me. 

Go out with this good news, and change the world.  Amen.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

One word is not enough

For our bulletin this Sunday, the Baptism of our Lord.

Wind.  Breath.  Spirit.  We have three words.  Hebrew and Greek (the languages used to write the Bible) have just one.  In Hebrew, ruach (ר֫וּחַ) suffices for all three.  In Greek, pneuma (πνεῦμα) does the job.  We have the three being juggled in today’s lectionary readings, and because we have de-personified nature we lose something of the richness of the image.

Genesis 1:2 “The earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.  The King James sounds far richer to me, “And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” 

With wind things move.  The branches rock back and forth.  The waves crash.  It sweeps out the old, and brings in something new.  Watch a movie, and when something big is about to happen a hidden wind machine gets turned on.  The winds of change blow, and we have no control and we have to go along for the ride.

Breath is about as close to the other as we can be.  When we are close enough to experience the breath of another, we are in close proximity.  A baby cuddled close.  A stranger invading our comfort zone.  The lingering before and maybe after a first kiss.  Breath is something we cannot undo.  When called upon, we can even breathe for another and give them the kiss of life.  There are few things more deeply involved in the human condition than the breath.

Spirit is ephemeral.  We use it to point to the unexplainable.  A Spirit moment is something I hear in ministerial circles when we acknowledge that things aligned too perfectly to be coincidence, too exact for us to take any credit for it.  When the Spirit is involved, get out of the way.  What is about to happen is far greater than our hopes or what we could imagine.

I love the action of wind.  I love the intimacy of breath.  I love the mystery of spirit.  One word would bring about the beauty of action, intimacy and mystery.  However, when Jesus leaves the waters of his Baptism, we hear/feel/see the pneuma/ruach of God come down like a dove.  Then a voice from heaven: Mark 1:11 "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."  I like to hear it that the wind blew, the breath exhaled, the Spirit moved these words.  Even then, it does not do it justice.  Even one word is not enough.

Friday, January 2, 2015

A Christmas Tourist

Had an odd conversation with myself the other day.  Mondays are my day off, and with my kids out of school, I decided to take them down to Busch Gardens in Williamsburg for Christmas Town.  It sounds hokey, but it can be fun, especially with a recently-turned-eight-year-old and a nine-year-old and their boundless enthusiasm over most anything.  We all love the lights and the singing.  The shows are fun, and there is heat in the theaters.  One thing I found fascinating while going through the park was a Muslim family enjoying the day.  How did I know they were Muslim?  I did notice the wife's hijab, which was kind of a give-away.

Now, being someone whose attire is also a give-away on most days, and people do take second glances when they see me go by, it is something that I pay attention to now in a more unique way.  My clothing sets me apart as a Christian, and professional Christian at that. One thing I found interesting was that for this family, it was a special day at an amusement park, a day out with the kids.  Their children oohed and awed just like mine.  The parents smiled and were delighted just like I was.  The lights and singing made it beautiful and fun.  Because it had the word Christmas in it, I would have thought at first think, that that would keep a Muslim family away.  But pondering it further, I am guessing that our culture is so saturated with "Christmas," and it is so pervasive in everything in the month of December, that can be appreciated without being believed.  Because it is my belief, I am guessing that it was I who was drawing a line of exclusion instead of this family who chose and paid to be included in the beauty and celebration.  I pondered that when they happened to be in the same area we were also visiting a few times that day.

It was most enlightening when we went to see the show Gloria! at the park.  It was all true Christmas carols (mentioning and celebrating the birth of Christ instead of Frosty or Rudolph).  There was a nativity, and Christmas favorites.  Sitting on our row was the Muslim family.  I wondered, do they know what this show is about?  Then I wondered, why do I even care?  I found the numbers beautiful and rousing, especially with Gospel choir versions of some classics as the show-stoppers.  Like me and my kids, the family applauded and enjoyed the show.  All this pondering made me think of how we do church.

What if we were as inviting and beautiful and welcoming and fun as Busch Gardens?

What if we were a safe place for folks to come and check us out, without needing to denounce who they are or what they believe to come in?

What if in they encounter they saw something they liked?  What if their encounter did nothing other than give them a fun time and positive feelings toward the Church?

What if we approached everyone with the same acceptance, and dare I say grace, as the smiles I received when I handed over my ticket to come in?

I am glad I got to see Christmas from another point of view.  I am glad that some Muslims showed me Christ this year.  Many Christmas blessings.  May we all live Christmas lives instead of Christmas seasons.