Friday, March 24, 2017

Last Check-in: Walking Down Grace Street

Since my last check-in, a lot has changed. I am employed. Big step. And it just happened that the lease on my car was up after three years. So, we went with only one care for a couple of weeks. The street my new parish, St. Paul's, is on Grace Street, and my wife's office is on Franklin, one street apart and about 11 blocks down. So I would park our minivan at my wife's office so I did not have to deal with a van in a tight parking garage, and walked down Grace Street.

Grace street is funny. Near my wife's office, it is one-way, heading west. Near my church it is two-way, for about 5 blocks. This is a recent change in the last few years, recent for Richmond, anyway. And walking this stretch, it got me to thinking and pondering, especially about the last seven months.

You see, Grace, at times is a one-way street, and at other times, it is a two-way street. When we first start in our faith, we are giving this wonderful serendipity of Grace. Nothing we have done "deserves" it, and that is what Grace is. A gift, a free gift, with no strings attached, as Martin Bell so adequately put it. And for many, there faith stays there. Fat, happy babies, who enjoy the wonderful gift of faith. But repeatedly we are called in Scripture to mature and grow, and share the gift we have been given. This is no Zero Sum Game. The more Grace we share, the more there is.

I have been a minister for a long time. This fall will be 30 years that I have been a paid minister.30 years, wow. Hard to fathom. And in much of that time, I have experienced Grace as a two-way street. I receive. I give. Two ways. I extend from the bounty of that with which I have been blessed.

I think for me, that is what has been the hardest part of the last seven months. For this season, Grace has become (mostly) a one-way street again. I have had to trust and rely on the gracious gifts of friends and colleagues. I am American enough that this has been difficult. I want to pull myself up by my bootstraps and fix the problem. But the problem is not mine, nor was it mine to fix. I simply had to wait, and trust. Time is what it is, and patience is a virtue. And patience is brought about by learning to live in the "in-between." For me, looking back, I had to learn how to live more fully into God's Grace. I had to let Grace become one-way again.

We all go through cycles and seasons. We all go through times when we feed, and times when we must be fed. Learning to trust and be cared for is something that I had to allow to happen, and hopefully as I maneuver back into Grace being a two-way street again, I will be a better minister, a better man, and heck, a better human for it all.

For all of you who extended Grace in this in-between time, Thank you! For St. Thomas' and Susan who were so generous in my departure, thank you. For St. David's who kept me in the saddle for 6 months of Sundays, you saved me. For St. Paul's who extended a job for the foreseeable future, these are exciting days I appreciate. For the God of Grace who began this good work and has always been faithful to complete, all honor and glory and praise. Thank you for always keeping Grace Street open. Amen.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Year A Lent 2 2017 "Questions by Night"

Year A Lent 2, 12 Mar 2017
“Questions by Night”
St. Paul’s Episcopal, Richmond, VA

Text: John 3:1-17

True worship is open to God, adoring God, waiting for God, trusting God even in the dark. N. T. Wright

What always strikes me about the recorded dialogue is that Nicodemus came by night. Night is usually a time set apart, a time for rest and relaxation or personal reflection. Maybe that is what drove Nicodemus, he could find no rest or relaxation because he was deep in personal reflection, haunting personal reflection, perhaps. And his questions drove him to Jesus.

When I am at my best, my questions drive me to Jesus, too.

Nicodemus had his proof that Jesus could answer him, because as the text says, “no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

The back and forth that follows reminds me of the title of a book from two of my favorite authors [Brian McLaren and Tony Campolo], Adventure in Missing the Point. Jesus and Nicodemus, while definitely on the same planet, yet were coming from very different worlds. Nicodemus was trapped in the literal, and Jesus was speaking of the Spirit. That rub between the reality of the physical and the higher plain of the Kingdom of God caught even our wizened teacher off guard. They go back and forth on being “born” and being “born again.” Literal as opposed to spiritual birth. Nicodemus proclaims, “How can these things be?” And, Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?”

For me, the wonderful thing about this exchange, is not so much that it happened, but that Jesus lovingly and patiently walked Nicodemus, his sage elder through the Basics of Faith 101. Despite Nicodemus’ blindness to what is being presented, Jesus guides him through the steps to a foundational explanation of what we have come to call the Good News, the Christian Gospel.

People hold the reference up at football games, and I have seen it painted on quarterback’s cheeks.

The reference is ubiquitous, and if you were raised in the Christ-haunted landscape of the South, you can probably quote it with me, in the King James Version, of course.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him, shall not perish, but have everlasting life. JOHN 3:16 (One must always cite the reference, right?)

I remember in 1976 being told I could receive some bicentennial commemorative coin if I memorized the verse, and oh, how my first grade self wanted that coin. And the mixing of patriotism and faith, always a potentially dangerous mixture, began early. I got my coin, and John 3:16 will be etched in my mind, along with the Lord’s Prayer long after I cannot even remember my own name. I could not forget it if I wanted to do so.

Those questions we have at night, those things that creep into our minds and keep us up, or worse for me, the ones that wake me up, are the worries, the fears, the what-ifs of trying to live this life. I hear Jesus reassuring Nicodemus at night, lovingly confronting his literalism, and inviting him to see a bigger God, not a God of Thous-shalt-nots, but a God Untamed, a God of Spirit that blows wherever God wills, a God of Grace beyond the scope and bounds of any legalism, beyond the scope and bounds of any nation (then or now).

That night Nicodemus was called to see an expanse of God’s Sphere of Influence. I almost prefer that term to Kingdom, as that terminology has been released from our modern American understanding as either a current thing or even a good thing. The whole of a king or queen’s domain is where they wield power. So God’s Kingdom and God’s Sphere of Influence are synonymous. And Nicodemus is wrestling with what he has known and taught, and what this new teacher Jesus is presenting. Jesus is presenting with authority and power. He is working miraculous signs. Nicodemus, after a lifetime of study and teaching knows that he has not and could not do these signs, and this has him questioning his own authority. It has him up late; it has him coming to Jesus by night. Nicodemus is wrestling with the nature of this relationship. Could there be something more? “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” Jesus declares, and in so doing invites Nicodemus to a deeper level, not just of understanding, but a deeper level of life itself. Nicodemus was called to enter into God’s Kingdom much like Abram was in our Genesis passage.

This morning we read the passage of the call of God in Genesis 12. That original pilgrim of faith, who was called from the known to wherever the Spirit leads, Abram set forth from Ur to follow God. Three chapters later he had this call affirmed in Genesis 15, with God establishing a covenant. Now Abram’s concerns could not be more physical and earthly, a progeny, a son to remember his name and continue his lineage. Yet God took that very physical concern and transformed it. That physical questioning, pondering, hoping, God took it and transformed it into an invitation to faith. Abram was wrestling with God by night as well, because the LORD invited Abram outside to view the stars, and even count them if he wanted to do so, and the promise wrapped in physicality became a faith-filled, hope-filled promise. And here is the shift, the reason we still tell this tale. Genesis 15: 6 “And [Abram] believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” You see, like we hear repeatedly through the Gospels, his faith has set him free.

And that is the rub isn’t it? The call of God comes to us all, each particular to who we are and where we are. We are called to see and uphold things we cannot see and things we cannot hold. And that is the nature of Faith, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

And I will assume that you are people of faith, or people exploring faith or you probably would not be hearing me now. Something got you up on a cold March morning, and I am smart enough to know that it probably was not me. A call of God may have come through an alarm clock that went off an hour earlier than the day before [with Daylight Savings Time last night], and the response of faith was getting out from under warm blankets. Today, anyway. Sometimes believing what the clock says is an act of faith, on the first day of Daylight Saving, especially.

In this season of Lent, I do take the time to ponder, to question, to explore my doubt. In the season of the Church Year, Lent is the Night. The time for haunting personal reflection in between the sunset of Epiphany, and the dawning of Easter. We are reminded that we are the Walking Dead. We are dust and to dust we shall return. And yet, in our walking stardust selves, Godself has breathed in us the breath of life. We can look at the stars and see that we are more than the cold, empty space, more than barren dust. We are fearfully and wonderfully made, and yet, we realize that this brief sojourn on this our fragile island home adrift in space makes us wonder, and sometimes makes us worry, and sometimes makes us question in the still of the Night. Like Nicodemus, we come at Night and bring the things that keep our souls from rest, our hearts from peace. And we lovingly trust the one of whom we ask.

Like Nicodemus, I believe that Jesus will handle my questions, and even my frustrating ignorance as the ponderings of a growing child, curious, hopeful and trusting. And why do I have such faith? Because of what Jesus said in John 3:16. God loves us. God loves you , and God loves me. God loves us so much that he sent Jesus, Spirit in Physical Form, God’s very Self incarnated, so that I who have a kernel of faith maybe as small as a mustard seed may not die from lack of hope, but have a budding, growing, blooming faith that starts now and continues on into eternity. This little light of faith glowing against the darkness of the Night will one day be invited into its true home, the very heart of God.

What a promise, what beauty.

But because it is night, and because a curious child questions, I wonder about those who do not believe, or have not heard. What of them? This verse that has so much hope for me, who sees and identifies with this Son, this Jesus, and because I have faith in him I have hope, but I know of so many from incidents of life or accident of birth that will not or cannot believe. What of them?

That is where the verse numbers get in the way. My first grade self was taught to learn and embrace John 3:16, and it is good. But my current self, cannot think of that verse without the one that comes next. Jesus did not stop where we do. He did not put an ending there. He went on and he goes on still.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life. For Christ came not into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.

This one who could judge and condemn my silliness, my ignorance, my questioning does not and would not, for he came to save me from myself, to save us from ourselves, and not just us, the whole of the Cosmos. That is the word there, all of the Cosmos, not world. Jesus Christ came to redeem and save all that is. Us at our worst, and us at our best. The messes we have made, and even the greatest glories of humanity. All of it is rescued, and all of it is redeemed in this one we call the Christ.

These are statements of faith, these are ponderings in this dark night of Lent. As I remember the dawn I am comforted when my soul rests in these dark times. This little light of faith holds back the night, because it is not alone. Even there, even in the darkest of nights, Christ is with us, ALWAYS. Brothers and Sisters, in this blessed Lent, do not wrestle with your questions alone.

You see, we are at our best when we bring our questions to Jesus. He is faithful to receive us, and faithful to save, for Christ came not into the Cosmos to condemn the Cosmos, but that the Cosmos through him might be saved. Amen.