Sunday, October 30, 2016

Year C Proper 26 2016 "Billboards of Faith"

“Billboards of Faith”
Year C Proper 26, 30 October 2016
St. David’s, Aylett, VA

I lived in Texas for the longest year of my life. A good part of that was Texas. They are a proud people, and they reminded me of Virginians in that aspect. They are proud of their state and their heritage. I guess I did not stay long enough. I totally understood why Virginians are, and I was still looking when I left Texas. But what made it hard was Stephanie, my wife, was back here in Virginia, and I was so far away. During that year, I was on a drama team from the seminary where I was going, and got to see a lot of the state and got to meet lots and lots of people. Whenever I told somebody I was from Virginia I repeatedly got the same thing. I was always a surprise, because to me it was something I took for granted and never once considered. But to Texans, it was a big deal because it was so different.

For the Texans who had been to Virginia, they repeatedly mentioned, “Oh, Virginia, ooh, the trees, I so loved all the trees, and the billboards, y’all put them far off the road, and people can enjoy the view.” After I heard that a few times, I did notice that so many of the billboards in Texas were right on the road, and you have no choice but to look at them. I guess here in Virginia, we put them off in the trees for the most part, and you can choose to look at them or not. Funny to get a compliment on our billboards.

But today, we have a few instances of billboards, yes, billboards in the Bible. They may not have called them that, but that is what they are, HUGE pronouncements that God is God, and God is good, and that all things will be made right. Thanks be to God.

Habakkuk is where the billboard idea came to me. Because what is a billboard designed to do, but to catch your attention when you are going by at a fast rate of speed? And those are the exact words that we have here with that. After the prophet decries the injustice that the good are in trouble and the unrighteous are advancing, God declares to the prophet:
Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it.
For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie.
If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.
Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.

Write it so that a runner may read it! Did you catch that? God said to make it on a billboard. HUGE letters so that even those running in fear, or busy-ness, or whatever, will not miss it. It will surely come.  Waiting for God is sometimes why they call it faith. I have not had opportunity to share with you what brings me with you several Sundays out of the last month. St. Thomas’ where I served in Richmond is a good church, and after a few years of transition it became a reality that they were no longer in a position to have two priests, just one. I had worked hard and well, and the rector had as well, but it was a hard reality and part of the nature of the changing church landscape. But that reality of being unemployed still does not change. I changed my Facebook status to Priest-at-Large in the Diocese of Virginia, as I still have a calling and vocational responsibilities even though I no longer have a full-time paycheck. So how do I deal with this season of being between? Some days I complain. Some days I joke. Every day I pray. I pray for myself. I pray for my family to be faithful. I pray for the parish that needs me, and that God is preparing for me and me for. And I pray to be pruned and fitted for the call of God when God’s timing is right. This in-between is a season of faith. The prophet Habakkuk proclaims to me and everyone. God is God, and God is good, and that all things will be made right. Think about it, almost every movie’s climax is in some way the aligning of EVERYTHING so that it comes out right. We even hear the hero’s voice, whispering, “Wait for it… wait for it… wait for it…” and then Kaboom!, or A Big Kiss finally, or The Roar of the Crowd. Whatever the ending, it is always the same, the journey must come to an end, the planets must all align, and everything must be made complete. These days of faithfulness remind us that God is not done with any of us yet. Thanks be to God!
The passage in Second Thessalonians is another billboard, calling out the same message. Where is God when times are hard? Where is God when the righteous suffer. The theological name for this is theodicy, theo-  from God, and -dicy from the Greek word for judgment or rightness or a court case. In other words we wrestle with the goodness of God in view of what seems to us an unjust situation. This is not an easy task, and different people come to different conclusions. Some people say that God is not all powerful. Rabbi Kushner argues this in When Bad Things Happen To Good People, which was a national bestseller back in the 80s. He said that God was just, just not all-powerful. Other people argue that God is not just. When I was in high school I remember reading J. B. by Archibald MacLeish. He won the Pulitzer Prize on this play retelling the book of Job set in midcentury America. One of the characters repeatedly said, “If God is God, he is not good. If God is good, he is not God.” When you hear those words, you can put the blame on us, that from our perspective then God is not just. But I think MacLeish was saying exactly what we hear with no nuance. “If God is God he is not good.” MacLeish is saying that God is not just or bad things would not happen. But for me, and I believe Paul and Habakkuk would affirm, God is just and God is good, and the Justice of God has not yet come to pass. “We ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring. To this end we always pray for you, asking that our God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.” The billboard from Second Thessalonians in words big enough to read once again say: God is God, and God is good, and that all things will be made right.  The justice of God is not always apparent to us as it comes. Our eyes may be blurred by tears, and the path may lead through dark stretches, but the path of faith leads to a place of wholeness and goodness for all God’s people. I believe this. I pray this. If I did not I could not stand before you today.

Luke’s billboard is from a story I have known my whole life. I have been singing about it since I was a wee one myself. I learned it in Sunday School, and Children’s Choir, and probably Vacation Bible School, too. Join in if you know it...
Zacchaeus was a wee little man
And a wee little man was he
He climbed up in a sycamore tree
For the Lord he wanted to see
And as the Savior came that way
He looked up in the tree, and said
“Zaccheus, you come down!
For I’m going to your house today!
I’m going to your house today.”
So much truth in so few words. As a child I remember thinking that Zacchaeus felt shy because he because he was short. Being taller than most my age being short was not a good thing to me, and so I thought this was about being nice to short people. But as I got older, I heard the nature of the tax collector, like in last Sunday’s parable. They were hated and despised. They cheated their friends, if they had them, and neighbors, and they aligned with the Roman occupiers of their beloved Israel. He was more than just a scumbag, he was a traitor to boot. The Scripture says ALL that saw Jesus choose Zacchaeus as his host judged Jesus because Zacchaeus was such a sinner. All the people grumbled, Luke says. These were the same people who would not let him through to see Jesus coming by.

Being 6 foot 5 I am forever letting people through to see. When I get a group photo made, I always move to the back row. I always have, I always will I am guessing. Zacchaeus was probably just the opposite. He would have elbowed his way to the front, or “excuse me” his way through. But he knew what people thought of him, and headed for a tree. This would have been his only hope to see Jesus passing through. He knew better than to ask for anything from his own townspeople.  But Jesus looked past those around him, sought Zacchaeus out, and brought grace to his house.

Zacchaeus’ response Christ’s Grace was Justice. “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Grace did not come from Zacchaeus paying a price. It came, and the response was righteousness. I assume he followed through, or why else would Luke have included this story?

Jesus proclaimed in another Billboard of Faith. “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” For you see, even though our Billboards of Faith so far have called for Justice for the faithful, Jesus here takes it one step further. God wants to spread his Grace to all. Even though his townspeople may have prayed against him, Zacchaeus as well may get in on this. Because remember, God is God, and God is good, and that all things will be made right. Even us, even the worst of us, can become the faithful, too.

You see, every sinner can have a future and every saint has a past. All are welcome. You. Me. Zacchaeus. The Righteous. The Unrighteous. Because Jesus came to seek and save the lost. Why? Because God is God, and God is good, and that all things will be made right. Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Two Little Words

Some lessons come to us over time, and sometimes we have epiphanies. And sometimes, it takes time to have epiphanies. That happened to me this week.

The last 16 months have been a time of intense learning and growth, some of it not comfortable, but all of it needed and wanted. I am a better person, husband, father and priest. I am glad. And I have been wrestling with a way to encapsulate all that work in a way to share. I am not sure that I have, but this week I had a word come to me. Two words, actually. Two little words.

They are the essence of what I needed to hear, and words I need to learn to use more and more. They are words to use with myself. They are words to use with people encroaching boundaries. They are words to address abuse. So simple, and yet so underutilized.

They are words of power, almost to the extent that the have great effect. They are whispered at moments, and when they are it it the bravest thing in the world. They are screamed in rage that injustices have gone on too long. They are used over and over in ways that make the world a better place, and ways that can make us better people.

The words?

"No more."

That's all, "No more."

They are words I have learned to say to myself at moments of weakness, when my self-control needed my inner parent. They are words of encouragement when people overstep and make expectations and demands which I am unwilling to entertain or entertain any longer. They make me accountable to me and who I need to be. Not your will, but mine. And in that, it enables me to say yes to the things I hold most dear: my relationship with God, with family, with those under my care, and yes, with myself. When you get on a plane the say that you need to put on your own air mask on first in case of an emergency, so you are able to help someone else. Self-care is just that. Taking care so I can take care. "No more" allows me to do that in regards to my those areas where I need to embrace healthy choices, or maintain healthy boundaries.

When "No more" is whispered, I think of those who only have their voice left. Everything else has been taken away. Victims of abuse, or violence, find a fortitude that draws a line. I cannot imagine the courage it takes to say those words, but when they are used, nothing could have better validation of them as persons worthy of dignity and respect. They maintain and uphold their personhood, claiming that what ever has started will not continue.

We hear "No more" screamed in rage and protest. It is uncomfortable, pent up frustration erupting and coming forth into crescendo of empowerment. When communities find that they are more powerful together than alone, and that they have a viable, needed, and deserved voice, and persons of privilege which have never had to ask the questions these need to ask, and never had to face the situations these have needed to face are confused and claim equality when things have been anything but equal, and need to cease at once. "No more." Words of power. Needed words. Words we will hear more and more as privilege is addressed, confronted, and changed. The privileged only have their loss of privilege to fear, which may be sizable and great in this culture, but far more just when it goes away. We need to hear "No more" and help to make it happen, or at minimum, allow it to move forward.

Two little words. Hear them. Use them. Whisper them or scream them. When used to lift self and others up they are tools for advancement. When they are used to hold down and oppress they can be weapons, too. As we avoid the continuance of the ills and wrongs of this world, we can find ways to draw and maintain those boundaries, and as we do, the world can change. All by saying, "No more."

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Mid-October Check-in

The last few days have been filled with several intentional and chance encounters with friends, and it has been a joy and filled a need we all too often forget we have. Going back to the parish where I just served to help with their festival which helps a vital ministry of the church, their extensive food pantry, was wonderful/weird/exhausting. Wonderful because for just a little bit I was not in the limbo I have been in since August 1. Weird because I have been in that limbo long enough that it is the new norm so the old norm was like a dream in which I knew I was dreaming. Exhausting because I do not normally stand at a fryer for four hours making hush puppies and fries. (I smelled wonderful Saturday night!) But the best part was seeing so many old and dear friends from so many parts of my life.

Sunday morning I was off to the Church where I am have been preaching,  supply fill-in only, since Labor Day for the most part, then I ran to Shrine Mont, our Diocesan retreat center where I facilitated a small group for Fresh Start, a new position training program our diocese does. This is where I do summer camp, so I know almost as many people as I do not. It is wonderful, as well.

The second, and I do mean second, that it was done, I ran to Richmond to my seminary's 25th celebration of its founding. I was in the second class. Wonderful does not even describe seeing my professors and classmates. Also, lots of friends from Baptist life along the way. The last three days has been a nostalgia overload.

Today, I leave for a week of reflection, planning and preparation as I continue on my journey as an Episcopal priest. The last few days have had repeated confirmations from that still small voice: will be okay... you are on the right path... the gifts of the past stay with you while you follow...

One of the workshops over the weekend was on grief and loss in transitions. I found it ironic that I probably needed it more than the attendees I was facilitating. But one point, the speaker talked about shame in losing a job. I have not felt shame. Loss, yes. Shame, no. It is awkward bringing it up, but it is not shameful. I hesitate because other people cock their head, and say, "How are you... really?" Yeah, I have had enough of that. I am doing as well as can be expected.

I finished a book (1st draft) that I have been working on this year, and I am hot and heavy in editing. I lost about 30 pounds since Easter, and working hard to stay on that train. I have had a place to preach and celebrate weekly since September began. I am back on the vegetarian train, and am feeling great. I have picked up (actually I have been given) several side gigs that have paid well for what I was asked to do. (Thank you friends looking out for me!) The only thing missing in my days is a full-time job, and God is preparing a place for me and me for a place. I believe that.

So, all in all, we are doing as well as we can in the circumstances. And MUCH BETTER than we expected. The next week finds me in Florida at CREDO, a training conference run by the Church Pension Group. I did part one last year, and it changed my life. I cannot wait for this year! And then at the end of the month I fly to Liverpool to coordinate the joint youth pilgrimage for next summer. So much to be thankful for, some much that could happen. I could not be more excited in an undesirable situation. The lemons may be sour, but that makes for the best lemonade. All in how one sees it. Blessings!

Sunday, October 16, 2016

My Own Private Peniel Year C Proper 24 16 Oct 2016

“My Own Private Peniel”
Year C Proper 24, 16 October 2016
St. David’s Episcopal, Aylett, VA

Almighty and everlasting God, in Christ you have revealed your glory among the nations: Preserve the works of your mercy, that your Church throughout the world may persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Old Testament
Genesis 32:22-31
The same night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, "Let me go, for the day is breaking." But Jacob said, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me." So he said to him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Jacob." Then the man said, "You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed." Then Jacob asked him, "Please tell me your name." But he said, "Why is it that you ask my name?" And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, "For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved." The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

The Gospel
Luke 18:1-8
Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, "In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, `Grant me justice against my opponent.' For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, `Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'" And the Lord said, "Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"

This was a hard week, again. Last week I mentioned not being sure where to go, not feeling led. But this week I can honestly say that I have preached on four of these readings, some of them more than once. Did you notice that I even quoted the Psalm for this week in last week’s sermon? Two of these readings I would list as some of my favorites in the Bible. So there is no dearth of things to say. When I am overwhelmed, though, I tend to remind myself of the K.I.S.S. principle, Keep It Simple, [Stupid]. Sweetheart is probably a better replacement for Stupid. So we will look at how we connect with God.

We all have our own private Peniel. We all wrestle with God. Some of us may see it as that. Some of us may call it all kinds of things, a dark night of the soul like John of the Cross, or a time of trial, or a bad spell. But I firmly believe that we all have a period or periods in our lives where we wrestle with God. Even in the Collect, there is a recognition that we [quote] “persevere with steadfast faith.” [endquote] There is a struggle to live a life of faith in this world. We all wrestle with God.

Why we wrestle, though, is what makes it private, just for us.

There are few scriptures that are so formative as when Jacob wrestled all night. I have had some bad nights of sleep, but I have never thrown out a hip. Kink in the back, maybe. Jacob felt forever changed from this night, and even changed his name. Israel means those who wrestle with God.

Jacob saw himself as Israel, and I would argue that we should, too. Now you might say that we should do what God says. Yep. You are right.

But we don’t. We finagle and rationalize. We obscure and ignore. We cherry-pick verses to follow, and then slap the ones not pertaining to us onto others. What a great band of hypocrites we are. I would argue that give me someone who is wrestling with God and I will see someone who is taking God seriously. We only pay attention to the things we care about.

There is an obscure little movie called Empire Records which featured several future stars as young adults. It is one day in the life of a record store. In the movie, one of the characters is a shoplifter at this small store who has been repeatedly caught, and in a moment of calm between all the crazy energy of the movie, the manager stops and asks the shoplifter who is in his office waiting for the police why he keeps coming back and causing him so much grief. And the silly shoplifter says, “Because I love this place. I would do anything to work here!” Flabbergasted, the manager says, “To have you behave all I have to do is give you a job?!?!?” We only give energy to the things we take seriously. The shoplifter with Empire Records, and us hopefully with God.

When our daughters were younger, we had a long talk with them about how they need to seek positive, not negative, attention. When we act out and misbehave, we are looking for negative attention. When we do what we are supposed to do, and try to excel, we are seeking positive attention. Maybe both are wrestling with God? The one acting out is usually out of anger, frustration, or if a little kid, low blood sugar.  Our friends in 12 Steps programs taught me a great acronym. When I am about to make an important choice that I am wondering if it is the right call, I should H.A.L.T. HALT, which stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired. If I am any of those things, hungry, angry, or together, hangry, lonely or tired, I need to remedy that before I move on with whatever it was I was about to decide or do. I stop because I want to seek God’s positive attention.

What does that look like? Jesus said, “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you.” A seminary professor of mine translated the Greek this way, “Put God’s priorities first and God’s okaying of you, and everything else will fall into place.” The righteousness of God, God’s okaying of us, is that positive attention I was talking about. This is wrestling with God, too, just the other end. We take God so seriously that we strive with God to please God. We seek out that Atta’Girl, and that Atta’Boy! We seek God’s input in our lives and ways. And that is what gets us into our Gospel for the day.

Jesus’ parable is one of those unique ones. Some parables are about how wonderful the Kingdom of God is. Some are about how we should act, and what we should do. Some are about the nature of God. This one, like a few others is the opposite of that. GOD IS NOT LIKE THIS, GOD IS MUCH BETTER. This parable falls into that category. God is not like this, like all of us, is the implication.

Thank God, that God is not like us, vindictive and petty, small and cynical. The judge is all these things. The woman has a case and she calls for justice. But this judge listens to WII-FM, What’s In It For Me. He has no fear (hear the word respect there) for God or man, and yet, just to stop the constant NOISE NOISE NOISE NOISE (like the Grinch) the judge does that right thing.

See, God is not like that. God respects Godself and humanity. God, actually, loves us. God knows the wrong shall fail, the right prevail, to quote the Christmas carol. And that is why we pray.

In our wrestling with God, for the most part, it is a verbal repartee. We spar with God as we lift up our prayers. The cliche, Prayer does not change things for us as much as it changes us for things, rings true. Or to put it in a more Episcopal slant, our Praying shapes our Believing.

I am an external processor. It took my wife a few years of marriage to finally figure this out. I would say something. An idea. A thought. I was “putting it out there.” It drove her crazy. She thought I was making a decision, or had made one and was announcing it. She processes internally, and when I finally get her to talk she has already made up her mind. She projected onto me the way she was. Because I am an external processor I often see my prayer life this way. You do not have to see it this way, but it helps me. In my prayers, in my innermost thoughts that I share only with God, I am “putting it out there,” or rather I am putting ME out there. I am exposing my inmost thoughts. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Might as well, God already knows my heart. And in those prayers, that exposing of my inmost self, I stand there with God and see what makes me up. And in that exposure, my desires, my wants, my hopes, my fears, I see who I am and who I am becoming in God. That is when we really wrestle, me and God.

It can be terrifying. So let’s keep it simple. If I ask for a shiny red bicycle, and I pray with all my heart for that shiny red bicycle, then I get to see that shiny red bicycle through God’s eyes. I might start to see that my blue bike is just fine. And I might see that there are those without bikes. And I might see that I use my bike about three times a year, and begin to question, do I really need a bike? Or I might see that I need to give up my car, and bike where I need to go for the earth and for my health and that shiny red bike would enable me to do that. Or whatever. There is nothing wrong with me telling God what I THINK my prayer is. And as I wrestle with God I might begin to see what God’s way for me is. At least I think so, I hope so. That is my prayer.

In my prayers, my incessant, non-stop prayers to the One that wants to hear them, we see that there is nothing that I take to God that God cannot handle. Heck, read the Psalms. God strike my enemy! God hate the evil-doer. God bless me! There is nothing hidden in the Psalms. The whole human condition is there. God is okay with all of us. We can bring it all there in prayer.

Will we? As Jesus asked, “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Today as we wrestle with God in our own private Peniel, and I hope you do, think of Jacob. He threw his whole self into that wrestling match, and he was forever changed. When we meet God face to face, in times of trial, and times of fear, and times of Grace, I trust we see God’s loving face looking back. God wants to hear from you, and there is nothing you can pray that God has not heard and that God cannot handle. The Good, the Bad, the Ugly.
The Lord shall watch over your going out and your coming in,

from this time forth for evermore. Amen. (Ps. 121:8)