Sunday, January 3, 2016

Raising Standards & Kaizen: a sermon Epiphany 2016

“Raising Standards & Kaizen
Epiphany (observed) Year C, January 3, 2016
St. Thomas’ Episcopal, Richmond, VA

(Sermon based on Luke 2:1-12)

Happy New Year! According to the Roman Calendar.

But we keep a different calendar. Our Church Year began on the last day of November, which we called Advent One.  And with it, we began Year C of our lectionary readings. We are a funny people, and we follow funny ways. But we are called out, called out to be special, called out to be a holy nation, called out to be a royal priesthood to God on High. The word we use as Church in the New Testament, ekklesia, literally means the “called out ones.” It is where we get the word ecclesiastical.

So when we look at our new year, whether a month into it, or 3 days, we are looking at a beginning. And often I, like a lot of people, use the turning of a fresh page in the calendar to take a chance to evaluate and take an assessment of where I am and where I want to go, even who I want to be. I saw a great quote this week about change.

“Any time you sincerely want to make a change, the first thing you must do is to raise your standards.” -Tony Robbins

There is a lot of truth in that. If you keep doing the same thing and expect a different outcome, I have heard, is the definition of insanity. To make real change, we have to look at what is, and decide that things need to be better. I think that is almost the definition of our faith. Jesus did not come into this world to endorse the status quo, Jesus came to redeem the world, to transform it utterly and tasked us with finishing his mission. Appeasement of our guilt was not his intent, but taking the dark, dark coal of our souls and creating diamonds worthy of the King of the Universe.  God will not settle for us to get just enough. He wants us to be light in the deepest recesses of a dark, dark world. But we settle for less, far too easily. I am reminded of that in a poem by Wilbur Rees:

I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.
Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep,
but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk
or a snooze in the sunshine.
I don’t want enough of God to make me love a black man
or pick beets with a migrant.
I want ecstasy, not transformation.
I want warmth of the womb, not a new birth.
I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack.
I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.
— Wilbur Rees

Today we celebrate the Epiphany, well, we observe it anyway. Epiphany, the eye-opening of the Wise Men, and through them the rest of the World, that this babe in the manger was the promised light to all nations, the Messiah, Christ the Lord.

This enlightening of minds is exactly what we are going for in resolutions and promises to self at New Year’s. We say we want change, and we try to make steps to start right. Gym memberships soar, and attendance increases for a few weeks, until the glow of the best of intentions wears off.

The thing about this Jesus, we have to go away different from the way we came. We can make all the promises we want, we can have the best of intentions, but if we start out back the way we came, we have not truly changed. Every week  I see it here at St. Thomas’. I also see how caring and loving you all are. We know we are unique, and maybe a bit weird. That’s St. Thomas’, and I would not have it any other way. You wait patiently for Susan and me to take care of those at the altar  and then after the ushers give you the go ahead, you come up to the altar. As you come to the altar rail for the Eucharist each side naturally forms a line. But here is where someone new gets very confused, especially if they are sitting near the front. When done, someone new does not know how we do it, stepping not back the way you came, but down into the Petrick room and back out into the hallway and then down the side aisle back into the church. Most every week, someone tries to go back down the center, which is now filled with two lines of people, very gracious and helpful people, but it can be confusing. When we go to meet Christ, wherever he is, we must return differently.

This is an apt metaphor for our Christian walk. Those Wise Men, “warned in a dream, went home by another road.” And we must do the same. If we do not go home differently from the way we came, why did we bother going in the first place? When we come forward to receive Christ in his Real Presence at his altar, we needs must be transformed. And I am sure in this room we have almost as many opinions on what that Real Presence is and what it means, and I thank God for that. It is one of the reasons I chose to become Anglican. I agree with the poet John Donne:
"He was the Word that spake it;
He took the bread and brake it;
And what that Word did make it;
I do believe and take it."

However we see it, we are called to radical, wholesale change. No ifs, ands or buts.

We, like the Wise Men, are called to go home another way.
But what does that mean? Really. Deep down what does that mean? When I come to the altar, and meet Christ how can I make a real and substantive change three times today? This morning, this afternoon at Floyd’s service, and tonight at Bluegrass Mass? I do not think I can, or anyone could. But I do think when I come to meet Christ here at the altar, or in my prayers, or in my service to him, that I can have an attitude of asking Christ in His Real Presence to show me where I am off his path and how to get back on it. I can be open to his correction, and work to enact it in my life. I can have an attitude of being one who is always learning instead of one of being an authority all the time.

When I first became a priest after so many years of being a pastor in another denomination, I was surprised and shocked about some things. I had an epiphany if you will. When I was a pastor, people often asked my advice but I was only one voice amongst many that they were listening to in their situation. But as a priest, I had several people say something to the effect, “Just tell me, and I will do whatever you say!” That is a lot of responsibility, and one I still am not used to to be honest. Most often my response to that is, “Don’t say that to anyone!” And then we proceed to have a conversation and pray about things. Instead of a director or a conductor or a coach, I feel like I am more of a player/coach. I am at bat and in the field, just like all of you. I must be doing it alongside you. At times you take the lead, and at times I do, but we are all doing the best we can while we can doing what we can. That analogy far better fits how I see how we are doing church together.

Instead of looking at all the things we are doing wrong, the THOU-SHALT-NOTs, I think our approach can be more like the quote from St. Augustine of Hippo, “Love God and do what you will.” If we are truly loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and our neighbor as much as ourself, then our attitude is always about being the best we can as an offering to the one we love most.

As St. Paul said in Romans: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”Romans 12:1-2

And that is our epiphany! That this babe, this humble, simple babe came into our context to help us change our experience so that we might be called Children of God. Wow! Think of how that changes everything!

When I was in graduate school, there was a Japanese word that was used as a buzzword in consulting situations. Kaizen. Constant improvement. While it became trite and cliché in the business world, it was always something that stuck with me because it resonated with my understanding of discipleship. I was instructed in the way of Christ, so that I could walk the way of Christ, and in doing so invite others to join in Christ’s way, and that together we could continue in the transforming of our minds so that more and more we could be like Christ in what we say and how we say it, in what we do and how we do it. Kaizen. Constant devotion and discipleship leading to further and further Christlikeness.

It was no accident that the early Church members in Antioch were made fun of and called Christians, which means little Christs. When was the last time I was accused of being a little Messiah? Probably too long. God help me. God help us all.

So today we come, and maybe you expected to meet Christ here, or maybe you did not. Whichever, Christ is here, waiting, wanting to meet you, and in doing so, enable you to go home different from the way you came.

To quote a favorite song of James Taylor, “Maybe me and you can be Wise Guys too and go home another way.” Amen.

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Blessings, Rock