Wednesday, May 27, 2015

When the Whole Priest Thing Took

There are certain times when one can point to something and say "After this (fill in the blank) I was different."  Often it is a ceremony, or something dramatic.  Weddings, funerals, ordinations, swearing-ins, and that is the official beginning.  But there is an event after the official where the official becomes more real, it "takes," or it all finally clicks.

In my favorite novel, Les Miserables, there was a turning point for Jean Valjean.  Most point to the Bishop, when he stretches the truth to the police about "giving" the silver to Jean Valjean.  With his immortal words, he changed a life officially.
The Bishop drew near to him, and said in a low voice:--
"Do not forget, never forget, that you have promised to use this money in becoming an honest man." 
Jean Valjean, who had no recollection of ever having promised anything, remained speechless. The Bishop had emphasized the words when he uttered them. He resumed with solemnity:-- 
"Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God."
It may seem that this is where it is real.  In a way it was.  It was real for the Bishop, but it was not until the next day when it became real for Jean Valjean.  After having walked all night, in his exhaustion he sat down under a tree.  A little boy flipping a coin missed it, and the coin rolled up to Valjean.  He put his big foot down to cover it.  In an act of utter meanness, he kept it covered despite the boy's pleadings, cries, and shoves.  Impassive and cruel, he kept the coin and the boy left in tears.  It was then when the realization of his actions took hold.  He saw clearly what he had done, to the boy, and in fact, with his whole life.  And the haunting words of the Bishop came flooding back, and Valjean's hardened heart cracked.  This was the moment when it "took."  This is the moment when the Bishop's purchase of his soul became real.

I still remember how serious I took the day of my ordination.  I meant what I said, and I said what I meant, to quote Dr. Seuss.  But, I remember the day it became more real and crystal clear in my mind.  I was visiting with a parishioner and their spouse.  I had been many times, and a bad diagnosis had recently turned to a terminal diagnosis.  It was a hard conversation.  The parishioner, though, was matter-of-fact and straightforward with the details, holding nothing back.  And then we broke out my kit and celebrated the Eucharist, and that is when I saw things in a new light.  As we said the now familiar words my friend was not sad, but smiling.  My friend was not just smiling, but weeping.   Tears and joy, sorrow and love, all mingled together in the mystical communion of God and man, of death and life, of the now and the eternal.  And it clicked.  My role as a priest became startlingly clear.

At my first ordination in the Baptist tradition, one of my seminary professors, Dr. Sam Balentine, spoke to the Hebrew ordination of the priest in Leviticus 8.  It is the exact opposite of the re-introduction of the healed leper back into community.  Just as the leper is brought from those numbered amongst the dead back into the living, the priest is shoved into the doorway of the Tabernacle representing the movement from the community of the living to the doorway of the eternal.  Firmly standing with one foot in both realms, the priest takes his place.  That all came flooding back that day.

In this moment of clarity I saw my role as a priest and myself as a follower of Christ differently.  More fully did I see myself as an agent of Grace.  I stand between realms, and offer the love and grace that is more real than any worry or trouble or drama we create on this side of heaven.  I take those feelings and that understanding with me now when I am behind the altar and the pulpit.  I try to do the same when I say to people "God bless you!" at our Food Pantry.  I try to remember it when I am correcting my children, or disagreeing with my wife.  In all I do and in all I say, my prayer is that this new reality come forth, and I can point to that day in that living room when I saw things fresh and new.  And real, ultimately real.  Thanks be to God.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Year B Easter 7 2015 "For Real Now"

Easter 7 2015
St. Thomas’ Richmond May 17, 2015
“For Real Now”

On Monday, I saw pictures of Deacon Mary Beth Emerson’s backpack taken at Dulles International Airport outside of DC.  Along with the picture it said this: “For real now.  Camino bound.”  Mary Beth is a dear friend who serves at St. Thomas’ Arlington, and I knew her from Shrine Mont where I directed her son Chris at Explorers’ Camp (where Darren happens to be going this summer), and I had the good fortune to serve with her at Family Camp where she was one of the Chaplains the last two years.  As she heads out on this famous pilgrimage, I will be praying for her.  And her words are the words of a pilgrim.  “For real now.”  Our faith is never real until we turn it outward.

The Camino, the long pilgrimage from the French Pyrenees to to Santiago de Compostela follows an ancient Roman trade route to the Cathedral of St. James.  The Way of St. James is on my bucket list.  It is something to which I aspire.  It is something of which I dream.  I am joyous for Mary Beth, and bit jealous, too.  Being a pilgrim is an intentional act of living out our faith.  Being in new surroundings with new people, it is easy to pick up the new habits of faith.  So often, however, it is much more difficult to live the life of faith in the same old surroundings and friends.  Being able to respond with a different voice and different choices can be a challenge to the systems of which we are a part.  I pray for Mary Beth as she goes down the Way of St. James that she will be drawn closer to Christ and her fellow pilgrims.  More importantly, I pray that she will be able to bring the lessons she learns back into the systems in her life and be able to maintain the changes. Our faith is never real until we turn it outward.

Faith turned inward is a belief, or maybe a wish or hope.  Faith turned outward is an action, and eventually a practice.  This practice is step after step, whether on a road, or a metaphor of our Christian walk.

There was a gathering of preachers who asked an famous author and organizational consultant to come and speak to them. It was to be a short address then mostly Q & A. The consultant was already uncomfortable because he was not a believer or practitioner of any religion, and was a bit nervous about standing in a room of professional Christians. To get inspiration for his address on the way to the airport he went to the very limited Religion section at the airport bookstore. That is where he found what he would discuss with the pastors. The next day he stood up, discussed his discomfort and then went on to talk about the difference in the books on Buddhism at the airport and the books on Christianity. The books on Buddhism he noted were all about how to do Buddhism. The books on Christianity were all about belief. "Somewhere along the way," he said, "you let someone change the conversation about how to do Christianity to what to think about Christianity." And he is right. Our faith is never real until we turn it outward.

The spiritual life has often been expressed with the metaphor of journey.  This is an ancient idea.  When the story is recited of Father Abraham it maintains this idea.  He was called a “wandering Aramean.”  

As the faithful brought their first fruits from their harvest into the Hebrew Temple, they were instructed to recite this holy history:

Deuteronomy 26: 4When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, 5you shall make this response before the Lord your God: ‘A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.6When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labour on us, 7we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.8The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; 9and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.’

Aren’t you glad you do not have to recite a paragraph when you drop your offering into the plate?  But this constant reminder, the gifts of today are part of the history of journeying with God.  That act of faith back then of Abraham and Sarah is part of my act of faith today.  I am still following God: from my farm, in my business, in my family.  We journey with God still.  

And remember, our faith is never real until we turn it outward.  We give our first fruits because we trust the God who enabled us to have our First Fruits to be with us through to the last fruits.  “God who began a good work in you, is faithful to complete it,” Paul in Philippians reminds us. This trust is a part of the journey with God.

Whether Jules in Pulp Fiction or so many other accounts, our culture is steeped with examples of this metaphor.  Even our “churchy language” is dripping with it: our spiritual walk, those who have backslidden, and yes, even pilgrims speak to this spiritual metaphor of being on journey with God.

The Psalms use it, too.  In the Psalm for the day, Psalm 1, two paths are compared.  The path of sinners (a.k.a. the Way of the Wicked) as opposed to the Way of the Righteous.

Psalm 1:6 for the LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.

Jesus uses this idea as well.  The last two weeks, this week, and next at Pentecost we have our readings from Jesus last talk the night before he was crucified recorded in John.  It is a last chance for clarification, for instruction, for pep talk and encouragement.

His journey here is done.  Near the end of today’s readings he compares his journey with the ones the disciples are about to take.  Jesus is talking with God here, giving thanks for those he has been given.

17:18 Jesus prayed: “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”

We are sent out into places that are not our own, to be agents of Grace and Love.  It may make no sense to many we encounter, but God will open doors for us.  

We are sent out in faith so that we can live out our faith, and our faith is never real until we turn it outward.  

One of the often repeated stories from missionaries who have gone around the world is that they often thought they were taking God to new places, but what they found was that God was already at work in great and wonderful ways before they arrived.  People were sometimes even expecting them, and they had felt the nudge and prompting of the Holy Spirit like Cornelius from Acts in Susan’s sermon last week.  God prepared and laid the groundwork long before Peter’s vision.

Stepping out in faith is never easy.  Often we are stepping out not knowing where, or even if, our foot will fall.  Like Indiana Jones teetering over the supposedly cliff in The Last Crusade.  A story is told during the terrible days of the Blitz, a father, holding his small son by the hand, ran from a building that had been struck by a bomb. In the front yard was a shell hole. Seeking shelter as quickly as possible, the father jumped into the hole and held up his arms for his son to follow. Terrified, yet hearing his father's voice telling him to jump, the boy replied, "I can't see you!"
The father, looking up against the sky tinted red by the burning buildings, called to the silhouette of his son, "But I can see you. Jump!" The boy jumped, because he trusted his father. The Christian faith enables us to face life or meet death, not because we can see, but with the certainty that we are seen; not that we know all the answers, but that we are known.

Our faith is never real until we turn it outward.  The boy believed not in where he would land, but in the one who called for him to jump.

Will we take the leap of faith when we are called to step out into the unknown?  I trust I will.  Pray for me as I pray for you.  As I shared on the bulletin cover, one of my favorite saints is St. Brendan the Navigator.  He is the patron saint of boatmen, mariners, travelers, elderly adventurers, and whales, and also of portaging canoes.  Despite his advanced years, he felt the call of God, and stepped out into the unknown.  Who knows, he may have even discovered America.

A prayer attributed to Brendan speaks to all our journeys today.  It is on your bulletin if you would like to pray it with me.

Prayer of St. Brendan

“Help me to journey beyond the familiar and into the unknown.

Give me the faith to leave old ways and break fresh ground with You.

Christ of the mysteries, I trust You to be stronger than each storm within me.

I will trust in the darkness and know that my times, even now, are in Your hand.

Tune my spirit to the music of heaven and somehow, make my obedience count for You.”  AMEN

On our paths, like my friend Mary Beth, may we say: “For Real Now.”  Amen.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Easter 5 2014 "A Bunch of Fruits"

Easter 5 2015, May 3, 2015
St. Thomas’ Richmond, VA
“A Bunch of Fruits”

A lot of people ponder what it means to be Christian, I have books upon books asking this most simple of questions.  Is it proper belief?  Adherence to the Creeds?  Proper actions?  All of these could be right, or a part of being right.  All of these could also miss the boat.  We don’t want to be the guy at the airport waiting when his ship comes in.

So what does it mean to be a real Christian?  Like most things, it can be easier to look at what it does not mean to help us narrow it in on what it does mean.

Being a real Christian does not mean being serious and holier than anything and everybody we encounter.  Look at Jesus’ parables and we see a lively and poking-the-authorities-in-the-ribs sense of humor.  St. Teresa of Avila has a well-known prayer, which may be apocryphal but is very true to the spirit of her writing:
“From silly devotions and sour-faced saints, good Lord, deliver us.”  

So true.  Being a Real Christian means being a Real Person.  Jesus said he came that we might have life, and have it to the full.  We laugh when it is funny.  We cry when it is sad.  We get bored.  We get tired.  We are honest with ourselves and with others.

Out of the broadness and richness of our many Christian traditions we can take our devotions, those things which draw us closer to Christ.  If a Christian devotion works for you, do it.  God made us different and unique for a reason.  We are fearfully, wonderfully, and thankfully differently made.  Thanks be to God.  “From silly devotions and sour-faced saints, good Lord, deliver us.”

But if being a Christian is not about not doing something, or being people we are not, then what is it about?

We are given three beautiful images today.  I John, Acts, and the Gospel of John all drive us closer to what it means to be more fully Real in Christ.

In First John, the author pleads for Christians to be seen as those who love:
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God's love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

No one has seen God, but if we live in love, people see that love.  And when we see that love, they see God.  God in us, God with us, and maybe they can even envision God in them.

This is so close to what we see in the account from Acts.  Philip, at the prompting of the angel of the Lord, is instructed to go on the wilderness road that goes from Jerusalem to Gaza in the south.  Following the ambiguous instructions, Philip sees an Ethiopian eunuch in his chariot heading home to Ethiopia.  
Acts 8: Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah.

Now there are several parts of this story do not come readily to mind to our ears.  First, this man was very important, Queen Candace’s Treasurer.  He owned a chariot that he could sit down on.  This is like someone going on a trip by Tour Bus today.  He has fabulous wealth.  

Second, he can read Hebrew and has enough money to buy a copy of the Isaiah.  We do not know how much of the Hebrew Bible was on his scroll.  It could have been the Nevi’im, the Prophets, or maybe just a few of them.  But that he could buy a book and that he had the education to read it meant that this highly educated foreigner was a rare bird indeed.  This scroll was not purchased in a gift shop at the end of the tour.  It would have had to have been hand-copied on sheets of vellum, prepared lamb skin.  

Third, that he had taken the time, effort and hardship to worship in Jerusalem shows the level of his devotion and his hunger to know more of God.  He was already an outsider as being African, and a God-fearer instead of convert.  But despite his outsider status, he continued.  This is moving, because this same religion to which he was so drawn would have rejected immediately for his status as a eunuch.  Hebraic thinking understood that the purpose and function of marriage was procreation, and that if one emasculates themselves that can NEVER be a part of the congregation of Israel.  Deuteronomy (23:1) is very clear about this.  Even if this was done to the young man in his youth, probably as a slave.  Also, depending on how he was made a eunuch, it may have been impossible for him to be circumcised.  But despite this condition, he still saw hope and beauty in the faith of Israel.  Historically there had been ties since the time of Solomon.

So our rich, powerful, devout eunuch is struggling with the Scripture, Isaiah, where it is a prophecy of God’s suffering servant.  
"Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth."

Who is this, the eunuch wonders.  Philip then proceeds to calmly clarify his understanding that this sheep that was led to the slaughter was Jesus of Nazareth.  Philip continues, pointing out all that happened just months before they met.

Then the pivotal question is asked.  And this is the miracle of the story.  Now later Philip is snatched up and taken 30 or so miles away, maybe miraculously, but the real miracle here is when there is a choice between the Law, that Philip would have known SO WELL, and to love the person who there next to him wanting to join in Christ.  The question was:
"Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?"

Remember, he had just come from Jerusalem where his status as a foreigner and as a eunuch permanently barred and prevented from fully participating.  It is hard to circumcise a eunuch.

We have no information on what was going through Philip’s mind.  Was he wrestling with what he had always heard, how this man was an abomination?  Did he wonder if he was doing the right thing?  It may have helped that he felt led to be here, at this road at this time to talk with this chariot’s driver.  Whatever he thought or felt, most important was what he did.

[The eunuch] commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.

The Coptic branches of  the Church mark this as the beginning of their part of the body of Christ, when the eunuch came home and evangelized those who became the Church.  The miracle was this, when Love trumped Law.  And millions over time point to this moment as when they were welcomed into union with Christ.

Philip’s faith was defined by what he did, not by what he did not do.  In his union with Christ, he saw with Christ’s eyes this man desperate to be loved and accepted.  Philip looked on this man and loved.

In our relationship with Christ, may we do the same.  In today’s Gospel, Jesus talks about what that will mean for us.  (John 15)

"I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”

When I think on how we abide in Christ here at St. Thomas, I am deeply moved.  We have a beautiful church.  We are blessed with so much.  While our church here is well-used and often a little worse for wear, I would rather be in a house of God that opens its doors to almost anyone who asks than to be in a perfect place that was closed both physically and spiritually.

I am glad to say to whomever asks that I go to church with a bunch of fruits.  Not the crazy kind, but the bountiful kind.  Huge, laden fruits.  Great big bunches that can only come from one source, the Vine.

As Jesus pointed out in his beautiful metaphor of the Church, he is the Vine, and we are the Branches.  Apart from him, we can do nothing.  

May we always strive to be true to our calling, like Philip and the Eunuch.  May we be thought of as the most loving place we could possibly be.  

When we are asked, “What is to prevent me from joining in?” or “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” let us stop our chariots in our tracks and, like Philip, say, “Nothing, nothing at all.”  God loves all.  No conditions.  No qualifiers.

I have shared this prayer before, and today I share a portion because it fits so well what we have looked at today. In our desire to abide in Christ, may Thomas Merton’s prayer be ours as well.

“Lord, ...I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it…”  Amen.