Monday, December 24, 2012

A Stable Lamp is Lighted

 
"The people who walked in darkness
        have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness--
        on them light has shined. 

Those words from the prophet Isaiah haunt me this Christmas, because it seems like darkness is prevalent in our world right now. Whether the world is ending because of the Mayan Apocalypse or the Fiscal Cliff, or we are just plain grieving for news from Newtown to Syria to the shores of Staten Island and Breezy Point, there are a lot of people walking in deep darkness who need light. 

The prophecy points to the fact that the birth of Christ isn’t for people who are already joyful—the shepherds were probably not having a great time on a cold night trying to keep warm with their sheep trying to make ends meet in a system that put them on the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. I’m sure Mary and Joseph weren’t overjoyed when she went into labor while they were holed up in a barn. Christmas is for the people walking in darkness, who know they need and are ready for a Savior. Christmas is for the people of Israel—and by Israel, I don’t mean the Jewish people, but the literal meaning of the Hebrew word, “Israel,” the ones who are wrestling with God. The patriarch Jacob receives the name Israel after he spends an entire night wrestling with an angel and demands a blessing from it in the morning. The blessing takes the form of this new name, Israel, “the one who wrestles with God.”

So any one of us who this season is wrestling with God is Israel: if we are wrestling with God because of the darkness and violence of the world, the brokenness of our relationships, the reality of death, our skepticism about God’s very existence, in all those questions and frustrations where we want to grab God by the throat and pin God to the earth and say, “Why?”, we are Israel. And the birth of Immanuel, another Hebrew word that means God-with-us, is the birth of the realization that if we are wrestling with God, then God is very, very close to us. You can’t wrestle with something that is far away. So the Advent hymn with the refrain, “O Come, O Come Immanuel, and ransom captive Israel” becomes, “O come, O come, God-with us, and redeem those of us who are captive to our struggles with God.” Remind those of us who are struggling that blessing does come in the morning, and that our struggle is not endless, is not all that there is, but that struggle is a part of a faithful life. Rejoice that God is with us, in the darkness as well as in the light. 

There’s a little known Christmas hymn that testifies to this light in the midst of darkness with a text by the American poet and translator Richard Wilbur (if you read Moliere in high school or college, you probably read Wilbur’ translations) and a tune by David Hurd, who teaches Church Music here in the City at General Seminary. The text begins, 

A stable lamp is lighted whose glow shall wake the sky,
The stars shall bend their voices, and every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry, and straw like gold shall shine
A barn shall harbor heaven, a stall become a shrine.

Jesus is the lamp inside the stable whose arrival is at once cosmic—the stars and stones crying out in celebration—and so very ordinary. It is the incarnation—the taking of divine stuff and bringing it to us in human, ordinary form—that transforms straw into gold, a barn into heaven, a stall into a shrine, and us into fellow heirs with Christ. Sounds like Christmas. But the gift of this hymn is that it isn’t just a Christmas hymn. It’s a gospel hymn. A full gospel hymn. Because the birth of the Christ-child tonight is good news, but it isn’t just good news on it its own—it’s good news because of what that child is going to do as he grows up. There is no Christmas without Good Friday; and there is no Good Friday without Easter. So this Christmas Carol continues with a verse about Palm Sunday, and then this one about Good Friday:

Yet he shall be forsaken, and yielded up to die;
The sky shall groan and darken, and every stone shall cry,
And every stone shall cry, for stony hearts of men:
God’s blood upon the spearhead, God’s love refused again.

The mother who tonight celebrates the birth of her baby 33 years later will have her heart pierced with grief watching him die on a cross. The shepherds who tonight go to see the child in Bethlehem might be some of the very same people who cry out “Crucify him” among the crowd in Jerusalem. The stones that cried out in joy at Jesus’ birth weep at his death, at the hearts of stone the prophet Ezekiel promised would turn to hearts of flesh when bound by the covenant of God. Joy and tears, virtue and sin, blessing and curse, faithfulness and abandonment are mingled here, as in all things. As in all of us. 

But just as in the Christmas story Herod does not have the last word, in the Gospel story, death and darkness do not have the last word. Mary will watch Jesus die—but she will also see him raised. The crowd will demand the crucifixion, but many of those hearts will be turned back to flesh upon news of the resurrection, and the spread of the Gospel by the first generation of Christians. So Wilbur’s text concludes with an Easter/Christmas blend.  

But now, as at the ending, the low is lifted high;
The stars shall bend their voices, and every stone shall cry,
And every stone shall cry, in praises of the child.
By whose descent among us, the worlds are reconciled. 

Every stone shall cry. Jesus’ birth and life and death and resurrection mean so much that even the stones cry out in praises of this child. It is so good that we are here to add our voices to the stones and the stars and the choirs of angels, and to remember that Jesus came to reconcile us one to another, and all of us to God.

At the Easter Vigil we begin in darkness and candlelight and end in the glorious splendor of every light in this church. Tonight we begin in light and will end in darkness and candlelight. Hold on to that candle tonight. That fragile, flickering flame is like this baby in the manger. As we will sing at Easter, “The light of Christ!” “Thanks be to God!” May the light of Christ illumine your way home, and may it burn in your heart tonight, tomorrow, and all year. Merry Christmas. Amen.

"A Stable Lamp is lighted" in an odd video, but the only one I could find on Youtube... but you get the idea of the music, if not a picture of what the organist/singer looks like!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Gift of the Gospel Story

My sermon from our Christmas Pageant on December 23, 2012

Why do we do this? Why do we tell this story—why do we act it out, and get all dressed up, and wrangle the kids into line? It can’t just be because it’s cute (though it is!).  

We do this because we want every one of our children to know the Gospel as their fundamental story. And we adults probably need reminding, too. Every role in this story is a role we will play. We will be Mary—God will give us a word that we are called to birth into the world. We will be Joseph, and be faced with challenges and sacrifices in order to be true to our faith. We will be the shepherds, witnesses and evangelists to the wonder of God. We will be the Magi, people with gifts to offer to God, and who will bow down and worship our Lord. We will be sheep… creatures who flock together for safety, and who need a shepherd to guide us. We will be angels—messengers of God, who bring Good News to people who need it. We will be Herod—we will be threatened by God and battle between protecting our own interests and being open to God’s interests. And we will be Jesus, in a way. We bearers of the name of Christ are called to be healers, to be teachers, to be Christ’s hands and heart and feet in the world. 

The Gospel is not a story that is all sunshine and rainbows and glitter—we only get hints of it today, but evil is here. Mary and Joseph experience the exclusion of refugees who find that there is no room for them, balanced by the compassion and faith that God will make room, and that even a barn can be a holy place, even a manger can be a cradle and a throne. And perhaps most poignantly this season, Herod is in this story. The Magi return home by another road not because they want to see the sights but because they want to protect Jesus, the fragile and vulnerable child, from his murderous rage—a rage that will find its expression in the slaughter of the innocents a few verses later in the Gospel.  

But with all the darkness in the story—which of course, continues on to Calvary and the empty tomb—it is a story of light. A story that says that God’s love for us is greater than our own sin and that ultimately, at death life is changed, and not ended. We don’t do Easter pageants in this country. But the more I think about it, the more I think that maybe we should. We do Christmas Pageants, and we act out the passion gospel on Palm Sunday, but we never act out the Easter story—and we should. We need to hear the resurrection narratives as much as the other two. Because these stories together frame our faith in a way that we are putting in a box, tying up with a ribbon and giving to our children this year and every year as the greatest gift under the tree.  

And we need them to open that box and take this story out and live it because the world will tell them—and us—a different story. And as we learned again two Fridays ago in Newtown, our children need to have the gift of the Gospel story at such a young age, because the world’s story is reaching them younger and younger. The world will tell them to fear their neighbors rather than love them; the world will tell them to hold on to their own space rather than sharing their barn with a stranger; the world will tell them that listening to angels and following stars is for the foolish and not for the wise. The world will tell them that Herod is the most powerful person in the story; and we are here to say no to that. Herod is not the most powerful person in this story. Jesus is. And Jesus wields his power not through worldly domination, or wealth, or violence, or threat, but through love, vulnerability, compassion, and self-sacrifice.

And today 25 kids here learned that a little deeper. And we all remembered it after a few weeks of getting hammered by the world’s story. So it’s a good day. Good work. Now we n eed to put on our own angel wings, and go out into the world and proclaim the good news from the mountaintops. Jesus is born. God is with us. Hallelujah! Amen.





Saturday, December 15, 2012

Reflections on incarnation and vulnerability

I am so grateful right now as my husband, 3 year old son, and I put up our Christmas tree. I am grateful that all three of us are here to do this, and so conscious that there are 26 families in Connecticut for whom these days are full of unremitting grief instead of joy.  And beyond those 26 families, so many more who are grieving friends, neighbors and loved ones, and a nation and world who are holding their own children and teachers a little closer this season while we participate in the rituals of public mourning.  

We are so vulnerable, we human beings.  A disturbed man with a gun brings us to our knees.  Acts of heroism by educators bring us to tears. Whether at a school, or a mall, or a temple, or on a NYC street, our daily lives open us to the fears, illness, and anger of others.  To step outside our own homes is to commit an act of trust in our neighbors and our society. There is no perfect safety, no hermetically sealed gated community where we are immune from violence and mayhem--and for too many people, even our own homes are places of violence and mayhem. 

As my family puts up this Christmas tree, and I am reminded of the birth of Jesus, I am struck by the incredible gift of Jesus the baby into this world. God gives Jesus to us, to be vulnerable with us to love, grief, suffering, and death.  And Jesus experiences all of these.  The senseless violence that we have just witnessed in Connecticut has a parallel on a cross outside Jerusalem, where a son was murdered while his mother looked on, helpless. 

Do we add to the mayhem, or do we act to mediate it? May we be people who act with wisdom and compassion, cognizant of evil but not defined by it.  On the grand scale, may we make wise laws and have policies that address the many illnesses of our societies.  In the intimacies of our own lives, may we be gentle with our neighbors, kind to strangers, and helpful to those in distress. 

And may we keep stepping outside our doors and having faith in our neighbors.  As a Christian, I would say that we should do this in the footsteps of Jesus, who commanded us to love our neighbors, even the ones who are unloveable, and even when it leaves us open to being harm.  But regardless of your religious beliefs, I am sure that it is compelling to greet our neighbors with love to interrupt--wherever possible--the violence and mayhem that exists in our world.  


Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Godspell Sermon

“Prepare ye the way of the Lord! Prepare ye the way of the Lord!!!!”  

So begins the main part of Godspell, with John the Baptist singing the good news from Isaiah. In the recent production on Broadway, which I got to see with our Youth Group, he then extended his hand and water poured out from above into his hand as if from heaven and into a pool that was hidden onstage. The rest of the characters began to dance ecstatically in and through the water, singing and enjoying baptism in a way that we don’t even touch in the Episcopal Church. The characters understood that their sins were being washed away and they responded with all the passionate, almost hyper energy of the young people they were. 

Now that sounds like a different kind of preparation for the Lord than we’re used to thinking about in advent. Common Advent themes are quiet and introspection; repentance and focus on sin; patient waiting… not ecstatic dancing and joy. 

So what does it mean to “prepare the way of the Lord”? Are we supposed to be on our knees in silence? Or are we supposed to be partying and dancing? 

The Isaiah passage that Luke is quoting in reference to John the Baptist is itself a meditation based upon the ancient practice of preparing the road for a royal visit. Take the way NYC shuts down when the President visits, and multiply it into a massive works program that starts months in advance: the king or emperor is going to be travelling on this road, so we need engineers, and we need to fill in the ruts, smooth it out, and do a lot of hard labor to prepare it for the honor of receiving the royal feet. 

And who is to do that work? Us. This is not the Pelagian heresy of earning our own salvation through our works: it is only through God’s grace, and not our works, that we inherit salvation. Who else will prepare the way if not us? Is that not the mantle that John the Baptist took up—unworthy though he was—until he was faced with Jesus himself desiring baptism. When we commit fully to preparing the way for the Lord, sometimes the Lord shows up and then shows us the way. And that commitment includes both the penitence and introspection that we usually associate with Advent and the ecstatic optimism and joy that the kids in Godspell were expressing.  

And I want to consider one way into that today—prayer. If you think of all the kinds of prayer that there are, most of us are very very good at one of them: petition. Please God do this… Please God, give me this…. Please God, make such and such happen. And that’s fine—we should ask God for things. “Ask and it shall be granted unto you,” and all that. We aren’t pestering or bothering God with our requests. But do we only ask God to do things for us, or do we hear that God is asking us to do things for God? To turn a John F. Kennedy quote around a little bit: 

Ask not what your Lord can do for you. Ask what you can do for your Lord.  

Prayer is a dialogue both ways—it’s not just us talking to God, it’s about us listening to God. What is God asking you to do because Jesus is coming? What needs to be done? Think of all the preparations that go into getting your house ready when you’re having a baby. Jesus’ arrival—whether in Bethlehem or at his second coming is like that. And who else will do it if not you—if not us. God is longing for us to prepare the way of the Lord… which rut can you fill in? Which length of road can you survey and plan for and build? That’s what I hear in the Gospel today. Luke is challenging us to be like John the Baptist; to cry out and prepare space for Jesus in our world, in our city, in our lives, in our hearts, in our families.

On my way home from bringing communion to a parishioner on Thursday afternoon, my iPod played another song from Godspell. It’s one that Jesus sings—a ballad called “Beautiful City.” I’d already worked on most of this sermon, and hearing the song I realized that it encapsulated much of what I wanted to say: the optimism of “we can build a beautiful city” (or a way in the wilderness). “We might not reach the ending/but we can start/brick by brick/heart by heart.” Building is how we turn our lives around—when we are at the end of our rope, we pick up a brick and start to build, and things take shape and build ourselves up with it. Because the hope of the song is to build not a city of angels but a city of man. It’s also appallingly gendered—they thought they were so avant garde in the 1970s, and now we hear it and think how dated it is. But that’s part of what this waiting in Advent is about: Jesus is a man; God comes not in angelic form, but in human form. God participates in the building of the city of man though Jesus the man. And through us.

Here's a link to Hunter Parrish singing "Beautiful City" from Godspell.









Sunday, December 2, 2012

A heart lighter than a feather

My sermon for Advent I, 2012

Remember the ancient Egyptian myth that after death, the deceased’s heart was weighed against a feather? We probably all saw it in high school World Civilization textbooks. The god Anubis presided over the ceremony where the Egyptians believed that all the deeds a person did in their life were contained in their heart, and that every bad deed made the heart heavier, so when the person died and their soul went to Osiris, Anubis weighed the heart against the feather of Maat, the goddess of truth and justice. If your heart was heavier than the feather of truth and justice, the heart was destroyed. If your heart was lighter than the feather, your soul got to spend eternity in paradise with Osiris.  

Now hear today’s Gospel: “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap”  

What weighs down your heart? Now, we are not ancient Egyptians, and have a very different theology than they did. The gift of Christianity is that when your heart is weighed down by sin, Jesus offers forgiveness and grace—the lightening and release of the heart from the gravity of sin.  

But the writers of the Gospel most certainly knew this myth… Egyptian religions and Christianity intersected repeatedly—just look at pictures of ancient Egyptian statues of Isis and her son Horus and compare it to Mary and the infant Jesus—so perhaps it was in their minds today. The message here is, don’t let your hearts be so weighed down by the worries of this world that when the Kingdom of God comes near, you are unprepared or miss it. We are telling this story today because the church knows that this is a season and time when our hearts can be weighed down. When we are burdened by anxieties about work and family, money, relationships, the trials of the world—when injustice and untruth depress us and make us so much heavier than that feather. When we are so engaged by the things of this world that we forget to attend to the Kingdom of God. 

And into that heaviness, later today and every Sunday, I sing, “Lift up your hearts,” And you will all respond, “We lift them up to the Lord.” That’s probably not the part of the service that you usually find inspiring. It’s just the rote words we repeat in the service. But think about it—week after week, we affirm that we will life our hearts up to God. 

So how? How in a world of suffering and pain and injustice and anxiety can we find the strength to lift up our hearts week after week? 

Hear the prayer from 1 Thessalonians today: “may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” God strengthens our hearts—God helps us to lift them up—God makes us increase in love for one another and for all… for all… not just those in our community, but love all. Each loving relationship snips one of the strings of anxiety that weighs us down and allows us to edge ever upwards towards the divine. 

Look around you in this church. Look at those faces. Those are people who love you. Those are people who will help you when you ask for it; those are people who will pray for your when you need it; those are people who will rejoice with you when you have good news. Those are people who, when your heart feels like it will burst in sadness, will be there with a hug and a good word. And those are people for whom you must care, in that web of affection and accountability that stems from our shared faith in Jesus, and our common meal each week of bread and wine.  

We’re going to be praying for Elizabeth’s heart today in our baptismal liturgy. “Open her heart to your grace and truth,” her family will say as they lead us in prayer. And finally, in my favorite prayer from this service, after she is baptized, I will pray, “Give her an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.” An inquiring and discerning heart. A heart that is open to receiving God’s grace and truth and to offering it back out into the world. What better prayer could their be for a baby—or for any of us who have been baptized. If we have an inquiring and discerning heart, a heart that is open to grace and truth, it will definitely be lighter than a feather.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Widow's Mite

My sermon for November 11, 2012

Today’s gospel is really familiar—we’ve all heard the story of the widow’s mite. But I don’t think we often consider this story in the context of where it sits in the gospel—or about what the scene might have actually looked like. This is Mark chapter 12, which is pretty late in that short, 16-chapter Gospel. Jesus has already entered Jerusalem on a donkey to cries of Hosannah, and then spent a few days cleansing the temple and arguing with various powers-that-be about authority. As soon as this story ends, Jesus launches into the “apocalyptic discourse”—a prophecy about the destruction of the temple and the end times—which leads directly into his arrest and crucifixion.  

So the scene is very tense because life and death are at stake, and it takes place in a location that Jesus has already effectively said is corrupt and expiring—he compares the temple to a fig tree that he the curses and causes to wither; and then to a vineyard whose tenants kill the owner’s son. But he’s still there, in the section of the temple known as the Court of the Women, teaching his disciples and anyone who will listen—and you have to imagine there would be quite a curious crowd after all that has taken place in the last few days—will he turn the moneychangers’ tables over again? Will he finally get arrested? Will the scribes or Pharisees debate him again? What will happen? 

Into this heightened scene, Jesus offers the first teaching today condemning the scribes. it’s a teaching about how we do things. About using God as a way to make yourself important.  

And then he sits down and watches. Now, from what I’ve gathered from my studies this week—perhaps Dr. Shaner can give us a better vision of the temple treasury after church—Jesus is in the Court of the Women, which is where the treasury is. The treasury consisted of 13 chests that were shaped kind of like upside down trumpets, so the top was tall and pointy and narrow and the bottom was large and where the money was collected. Each one was marked with a different number, and was dedicated to a different purpose. Some were for obligatory offerings, others for incense or for the golden vessels of the sanctuary, some for sin offerings, and some for voluntary offerings. So it would have been clear to Jesus—and to those who watched—who was giving for what purpose.   

Now picture someone coming with a large offering—a bag of coins. No subtle paper money or checks here—a bag of gold. Maybe even several bags of coins. And the owner walks up to the designated chest and begins to pour them in—clankity, clankity, clankity—it sounds like a slot machine paying out. It attracts attention. Then the widow goes up to one of the chests… Plink goes one tiny coin. Plink goes the other. Only Jesus notices, and begins to teach again.  

We don’t know which chest the widow put her offering in—if it was an obligatory gift or voluntary. So we can imagine that the widow gave out of a sense of obligation to the law. Or we can imagine that she gave out of a sense of generosity. She might have given because it was expected of her—or because she felt guilty. Or she might have been so grateful for an answered prayer that she responded with the only kind of extravagance she could. We don’t know. But something is driving her to offer those two coins to God. 

Why do you give? When that offering plate comes around, what inspires you? Is it obligation? Gratitude? Guilt? Faith? 

Epiphany’s alms basins—the brass plates we use to collect the offering—have a collection of three Bible verses on them. They are intriguing glimpses into different theologies of giving—different ideas of “why” the people in the pews give to the church. 

Two of the plates have the following quote: “He that giveth to the poor lendeth to the Lord.” It’s from Proverbs. I always try to keep these two alms basins on the bottom of the pile so that they don’t get used but they always sift up despite my best efforts. It may be from the Bible, but that doesn’t mean it’s good theology—it’s backwards. Because if by giving to the poor we are lending to God, the implication is that what we have belongs to us, and not to God. All we have comes from God. “He that giveth to the poor, returneth to the Lord” might be a much better theological explanation. But—if this is your theology of giving, there’s a place for it at Epiphany. 

Two other plates say, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). It is certainly blessed to give—and if you give because you desire blessing, I believe you can often find blessing through giving. Giving feels good. I know many of you have been very generous in your giving after the hurricane and felt the blessing that came with that. I find in our cultural context, though, that it’s harder for people to receive than it is to give. We’d all rather be givers than receivers. And this goes not just for money—receiving gifts, love, help, even attention sometimes. It’s even hard—and maybe especially so—at the level of pastoral care. I hear so many people say “Well, I didn’t want to bother you, you’re so busy—there are people who need you more than I do.” I am never too busy to see you in the hospital; or pray with you over something that is on your heart; or listen to you when you are confused or scared or lost.  

The final quote on the alms basins is from the letter to the Hebrews: “To do good and to distribute forget not.” The rest of the verse continues—though not on the limited format of the offering plate—“for with such sacrifices God is well-pleased” (Hebrews 13:16) The key word here isn’t on the plate—the key word in that verse from Hebrews is “sacrifice”. The key problem that Jesus has with the wealthy givers is that they are not sacrificing. They are giving generously out of their abundance, but they are giving of what is left over after they take care of their temporal needs. They are not sacrificing some of their temporal needs for the benefit of God. The widow is sacrificing. And so is Jesus—he is about to sacrifice his life for us. Do good. Disribute. Sacrifice. Please God. It is perhaps particularly good to remember the concept of sacrifice this weekend as we remember our military Veterans, who embody the meaning of sacrifice. But we are all called to sacrifice—perhaps not at the level of the widow or Jesus, but we are all called to sacrifice. 

And we all have something to distribute. A few years ago I heard a story about a church in this diocese—I think it was in the Bronx—who had signed up to partner with the Carpenter’s Kids in Tanzania, the same way we did. They were collecting the $50 per child it took at that time to send them to a year of primary school and the guests at their homeless feeding program heard about it. Those guests—the homeless and hungry people who were there for a free meal—took up a collection of the change in their pockets, and by the time the hat got passed all the way around, they had the $50 to send one child to school. A widow’s mite if there ever was one. But also a sign that abundance is relative—a homeless person here is abundantly wealthy compared to an AIDS orphan in Tanzania, and that there is no one who cannot be both a giver and a receiver and find a blessing in both. Collectively we can do so much more than we can alone. A room full of homeless people in the Bronx can transform the life of a child in Africa. 

What can the people in this room do?





Sunday, October 21, 2012

Good news from Jesus the Radical: "Be healed!"

Sermon for Sunday, October 21, 2012

In the Gospel narrative today, Jesus has just returned from the desert where he was tempted by Satan, and this is his coming-out-party of sorts: he goes to the synagogue and reads a passage from Isaiah that is, for the Lukan Jesus, the absolute definition of his ministry: 

'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." 

This is good news—it says it right there in the text. But in the context of bringing this good news something interesting happens to the people who hear it. At first hearing, they love it. “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth,” says the very next verse of the Gospel. The people heard the good news and they loved it! They loved Jesus! Amazing! Remarkable! 

Seven verses later, those very same people are trying to throw him off a cliff. Because the news that they thought was good news turned out to be hard news. It’s not bad news for anyone… but it is harder news for some than it is for others. 

Warning. The Gospel is a radical document. Jesus is a radical—probably dangerous to say that on the Upper East Side, but it’s true. And nowhere is this so evident as in today’s gospel. We, as a congregation, might have a response similar to the congregation in Nazareth… at first things are great, then when the news sinks in, we want to throw the preacher off a cliff. Listen to what Jesus is really proclaiming via Isaiah.

Jesus says he has been anointed in order to bring good news to the poor. Well, what is good news to the poor? Good news to the poor is to not be poor any more. Good news for the poor is to have work, and money, and food and a roof over your head. And in Luke’s gospel, perhaps more so than any of the other gospels, Luke preaches the reality that if you’re going to bring some of the people on the bottom up, that means that some of the people on the top are going to come down. Listen to these verses from the Magnificat, the song Mary sings, “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” Luke’s Jesus preaches a great economic flattening of society—far more so than any politician in America will ever say out loud. In Luke’s Beatitudes, it’s not “Blessed are the poor in Spirit,” it is “Blessed are the poor.” And “Blessed are the poor” is followed up just a few verses later with “Woe to you who are rich.” The Gospel good news to the poor is going to be hard news to the rich. But it’s still good. Hard choices can lead to health and healing—just ask a physician. 

Ready to throw me off a cliff yet? 

Next Jesus says he has come to proclaim release to the captives. Now, if you think about the release of someone like Aung San Suu Kyi, we’d probably all say that was great news, and not very hard—at least for us. But throughout Luke and Acts, which Luke also wrote, you have stories of prisoners being released through their faith in God. Luke is the Gospel where the criminal who is crucified next to Jesus says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” and is assured of his place in paradise by Jesus as he dies. So what about people who are less nobly imprisoned? What about everyone in Riker’s? What about the 50 to 60 to even 70% of prisoners who are re-arrested because they have neither the skills nor the opportunities to find legal work when they’re set free? To be released from the cycles of poverty and lack of opportunity that put so many in captivity would require money and work and time on all of our parts. Is that good news? Yes! A thousand times, yes. But it’s hard news, too. It’s easier to keep people in prison and out of sight than it is to acknowledge our complicity in the system that has held them captive, and change that system. Proclaiming release to the captives today would mean starting before they’re captive—improving education and family lives and giving role models; it would mean rectifying a system where the accused are given poor legal counsel because they can’t afford anything better; it would mean reforming laws that punish minor offenses disproprotionately while letting white collar criminals walk free.  

Is that cliff getting closer?

Recovery of sight to the blind… hard to hear bad news in that in the literal sense. But what about metaphorically? To what are we deliberately blind? IF we could see everything, if we could see that system that keeps people captive, that keeps people poor, might we be so overwhelmed we couldn’t go on? Or might we be significantly changed? Might it be that the hard news that comes with vision brings us closer to the Kingdom? I believe so.

How can you argue with “let the oppressed go free”? Well, because to let the oppressed go free, someone has to stop being the oppressor… the oppressed don’t just magically “go free” without anything or anyone changing around them, and the hones recognition of oneself as an oppressor is a dangerous and unflattering piece of self-knowledge. Jesus constantly goes to people in the Gospels and calls them on their oppression—even people who would consider themselves to be the oppressed. Jews in the 1st Century were in a Roman-occupied state. But instead of encouraging them to throw off their own oppressors, Jesus goes to the Jewish leaders and the wealthy and the tax collectors and points out the poor, the lepers, the old, the lame, and say, “Gee, I know you feel like you’re the oppressed, but what are you doing about them?” There is not a person in this room that has not benefited from the oppression of someone else in this world, including the person in this pulpit right now. So how on earth do we stop oppressing people? First, we acknowledge that we do. We acknowledge that we might not want to, but that we do benefit from systems that keep us up and other people down. And then we pray. And we work to cross those lines, break those systems, and give up privileges that we have been given for no other reason than that we’re the right ethnicity or gender or sexuality or nationality or have the right diploma on our wall—even if it means that we feel like we’re jumping off a cliff… because we know that God will provide the parachute. That people who give grace receive grace. 

And finally we get to the year of the Lord’s favor. According to Leviticus, every seventh year was a Sabbath year, when the land would lie fallow, but every fiftieth year—so once in a lifetime, maybe—came the Jubilee year. And during the Jubilee year, the year of the Lord’s favor, there is liberty—slaves are freed, debts are forgiven, land that had been sold is returned to its owners… society is restarted. It’s like people are liberated from all the bad things that have happened over the past fifty years. And that year is what Jesus is here to fulfill. To restart our lives—to throw off our past, our debts, our servitude, and to give us freedom and hope for the future. Jesus says every year now, with him, is the Jubilee year. Renewal and new life are always possible now—not just once a lifetime.  

The purpose of all this radical good news is to heal us and to heal the world. I mentioned in the blurb at the beginning of the bulletin about my son Nathan and my husband Jonathan playing their little Pentecostal “Be healed” game, where Jonathan bonks Nathan on the forehead and Nathan collapses. “Be healed.” Healing isn’t that easy—I don’t think—but sometimes the proclamation makes it so. There is power in the Word. Sometimes you need to hear someone say “be healed” in order to believe that healing is actually possible. 

We need different types of healing. Some of us need the healing like the rich young man we heard about in the Gospel last week, who really wanted to follow Jesus, but loved his possessions more. It that’s you, be healed! Some of us need physical healing. Be healed! Some of us need to be healed by being freed from oppression…. Some of us need to be healed from being oppressors. Be healed! Some of us need to be healed from our blindness.. and some of us need to be healed from blinding others. Be healed! Some of us need to be healed from time in captivity and others of us need to be healed from our systemic need to put people in captivity. Be healed! And we all need the healing that comes from being in the year of the Lord’s favor—the year of the restart—of returning what has been given to us, and receiving what we have lost. A new life, a new start. Be healed, be healed, be healed! 

Hard news. But so good. So good for our world, for our city, for ourselves. So healthy. But let’s get there with the confidence of Paul, who writes to Timothy from his final imprisonment, “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness.” Let us fight the good fight. Let us continue the race. Let us keep the faith. Amen.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

St. Francis and the Sultan, Christians and Muslims together

My sermon for St. Francis Day, 2012

Blessed Francis. I grew up and was baptized, confirmed, and ordained at St. Francis Episcopal Church in Palos Verdes, California, and so I love this Saint. Like here, we blessed animals every year, like here we had a statue of St. Francis gazing lovingly at a bird on his arm. We even, as a junior choir when I was about 12, performed the musical, “Francis, Little Man of God” and I played Brother Leo, one of his companions. Francis was the icon for me—and is for many of us—of the perfect human way to love creation, to embrace all creatures of our God and King, and brother sun and sister moon. 

But there’s a lot more to Francis’ story that can speak to us today than just his love of creation—he spent a year as a prisoner of war, his life of deliberate poverty might really challenge us today in our love of things, his raising up of women in his movement under the leadership of his friend, Clare. But the aspect of Francis’ life that has been calling out to me most this week is his encounter with the Muslim world.  

In his vocation as a monk, St. Francis felt this passion to go and convert Muslims. He tried twice in his life to get to Arab areas and preach, but shipwreck and illness turned him back both times. Finally in 1219, ten years after he first tried to make such a journey, Francis made it to Egypt in the midst of a Crusade, during a standoff in battle between the Christians and Muslims. Somehow, Francis talked his way behind enemy lines into an audience with the Sultan of Egypt, Malik al Kamil.  

What actually happened between Francis and the Sultan is anybody’s guess. The stories range from a meeting where nothing happened and no one was affected, to Francis offering to walk through fire as proof of Jesus’ divinity. In some versions of the story, the Sultan changes how he treats his Christian prisoners—give them better treatment and more dignity because of his respect for Francis. Still others say that Francis and the Sultan had an intellectual dispute that lasted for days and became great friends, though they still did not share a faith. Still others have Francis as this sort of modern day peacemaker, trying through nonviolence to stop the crusades.  

Regardless of what actually transpired—and the stories get more and more dramatic and serving the idea of Francis as saintly and orthodox Christian the later they originate, Francis spent several days as the Sultan’s honored guest, and they were both affected by their encounter—if not as greatly as either of them might have wanted. The crusade didn’t stop. Francis didn’t convert to Islam. The Sultan didn’t convert to Christianity. But Francis’ order was allowed to go to Jerusalem without paying tributes, which led to their presence—even today—as the order in charge of the Roman Catholic section of the Church of the Holy Sepulchure; Francis emphasized the need for all Christians to pray at the sound of church bells, in a nod to Islamic prayer practice of responding to the call of the muezzin. And He greeted everyone by saying “Peace be upon this house”—a similar greeting to the Salaam Aleikum of Islam. 

We can define the opposing sides of our present day conflicts in a number of ways—but certainly religious differences are one of the several causes for the violence we see in the world today—most obviously in the recent violent protests in the Muslim world about the movie that was perceived to slander the Prophet, and in the subsequent bafflement in the West about why even a blasphemous movie could be perceived to be a valid cause for violence. 

Which leaves us with asking: how does Jesus want us to live in an inter-faith world? The world in which Jesus lived was certainly no different from our own as far as having people of differing religious beliefs living on top of one another. Jews were never a majority population; neither were Christians until the 4th Century. Jesus expected us—it would seem—to live, work, and interact with people of different beliefs all the time. So are we supposed to be like the story of Francis where his aim in engaging people of different faiths is their conversion? Or are we supposed to learn and be changed by the experience ourselves?  

What would Jesus do or say? In the Gospel today—the Gospel appointed to remember St. Francis, there is a strong emphasis upon the mystery of God’s self-revelation. God is revealed in Jesus, to those who are neither wise nor intelligent, but like infants, and God is STILL a mystery. We only know God insofar as we are like infants, insofar as we admit that we know nothing and can do nothing, and rely entirely upon God for our lives. Not until we are entirely humble, entirely giving up of ourselves, until we give up the burdens of the world and take on the burden of the yoke of following Christ can we begin to know God. Therefore, speaking about other people’s understanding of God is something we must do cautiously, particularly if it is a criticism. 

Paul, in writing the letter to the Galatians—a Church with whom he was very very angry, writes strongly tonight against our pride in ourselves: don’t boast about anything except the cross, he says. In other words, don’t boast about your religion or yourself, boast about what Jesus did, who Jesus is.  

If many forms and centuries of Islam, including the present, can be characterized by violence, so can many forms and centuries of Christianity, including the present. Jesus had a lot more to say about his own religion—Judaism—than he ever did about anyone else’s. For Jesus, religious criticism went inward, not outward. Self-reflection is the best antidote to violence—to ask ourselves why we are lashing out… and who the real object of our anger is… and if we are complicit in an upward spiral of conflict. Francis and the Sultan met during a crusade informed by religion and power and money and ethnic and tribal and historical conflict. How familiar that sounds. But they were able to talk during all that conflict. 

We need to be like Francis and the Sultan—clear about our own faith; open to learning about the other; and open to fellowship across our divisions. Because a real hope of interfaith dialogue is not—necessarily—change in the other. It’s change in ourselves. It’s that in learning more about my neighbor’s faith, my own faith may be clearer; my own compassion may be deepened; my own heart and mind and soul stretched. Not by leaving my own faith behind and taking on the other faith—that’s just religion shopping—but because through greater knowledge, we can grow closer to God. And it’s taking a very long view—because our dialogue may not end this crusade; but it may lay groundwork to prevent the next one.  

What happens when we read the famous Prayer of St. Francis with interfaith relations in mind? To remember that its author wrote it out of his experience that included those days with the Sultan. To me, it takes on different meanings, and becomes even more apropos for our situation today. Because in our world religions today there is hatred; there is injury; there is doubt, despair, darkness, and sadness. To seek to understand rather than be understood. 

Lord, make us instruments of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let us sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life. Amen.









Sunday, September 30, 2012

Didn't we already believe Jesus was human? (So what if he had a wife?)

"Jesus said to them, 'My wife...'"

It was clear at coffee hour last Sunday that the publication of the 4th Century Coptic papyrus with those words was a hot topic.

To me, the key question is not, "Was Jesus married?" That is a question we will never know the answer to definitively, because it is not answered by the four authoritative texts we have: the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. None of the Gospels say directly that Jesus was married, and none of them say he was not married.

A better question would be "When we say we believe Jesus was fully human, what do we mean by that?" Since the third Century, the church has affirmed Jesus' fundamental humanity, as well as his divinity. Human beings form relationships, some of them intimate, some of them not. If Jesus was truly human, with human desires, relationships, and societal expectations, it is certain that Jesus as a man of his era would have felt pressure to marry, and may or may not have chosen to do so. It's something I believe we must have room for in our image of Jesus.

Imagining a married Jesus can unleash our creativity in wondering what turns his life took aside from the fairly narrow window we get through the Gospels-was the reason he suddenly bursts onto the scene at age 30 because that was when he was widowed? If Jesus had a wife, to whom he owed support and allegiance, did he abandon her to enter into his ministry, and if so did he feel guilty about that? Did she feel betrayed? Did he know the joy-and frustration-of raising children?

And if Jesus choose not to get married, why not? Was it because he knew his identity and calling would not allow him to offer the consistent support and allegiance that a husband was required to give? Did he just never find the right partner? Or did Jesus actually believe in the type of sexual purity projected on him by future centuries, and find himself untouched by lust and desire and consequently have no use for marriage?

When I was single and met a man I didn't know in a bar, and he found out what I did for a living the first question out of his mouth was usually, "Can you get married?" Now, I am quite certain that a first glimpse of me didn't send 90% of men into a fantasy of walking down the aisle. The real question they were asking was "Can you have sex?" (To which the answer was, "Not with you, and not tonight." That answer ended most of those conversations.)

Similarly, it strikes me that most of the media coverage is fueled less by whether Jesus lived in a state of matrimony and more by the question of "Did Jesus have sex?" because we still associate sex-even within marriage-with impurity, lust, and sin. The institutional church has much to answer for that. We do not believe that sex between loving, consensual, blessed partners is sinful, nor do we believe that sexual desire is something to be squelched and denied, as it is one of God’s many gifts. 

The papyrus in question is probably more interesting in how it describes Jesus relating to women in terms of their ministry: the phrases, "Mary is worthy of it...", "She will be my disciple...", and "..as for me, I dwell with her in order to.." hint at an elevated presence for women beyond what traditional Christianity has accorded them.

Now, you can go to many of the extra-canonical texts to find heightened roles for women-the Gospel of Mary and the Acts of Paul and Thekla are available online. But I don't think you need to look that far. Within the canon of our own New Testament, when you really study it and try to unburden it from 1900 years of interpretation specifically to diminish the authority and role of women, there emerges a picture of Jesus (and even Paul!) that places both men at the center of a movement of empowering, admiring, and engaging women as equals:

The Hebrew word "messiah," which is translated as "Christ" in the Greek, means "anointed one." The person who anoints Jesus and literally makes him the Messiah/Christ, is a woman in all four gospels. In all four gospels, it is the women who are at the cross, and who first encounter the empty tomb, and carry the message of the resurrection to the male disciples. Many of Paul's authentic letters are addressed to women, who were clearly among the leaders of the churches he founded.

If you'd like to learn more, a webinar on the papyrus with the Rev. Dr. Katherine Shaner and Dr. Deirdre Good of the General Theological Seminary will soon be available for replay at www.gts.edu. Dr. Shaner will be teaching two Sundays later this fall on the book of Revelation, so you can also ask her questions directly then. For more information on non-canonical gospels and the communities who wrote them, Dr. Karen King's The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle is available on Amazon, as is Dr. Elaine Pagels' Beyond Belief: the Secret Gospel of Thomas.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

A capable Christian, who can find?

My sermon from September 23, 2012, on Proverbs 31:10-31 and Mark 9:30-37

“A capable wife, who can find?”

I remember a particular dinner, early in our marriage, when I was cooking a new receipe, and managed to serve fish to Jonathan that was simultaneously burned on the outside, raw on the inside, and that I had also dropped on the floor on its way out of the oven. Jonathan wants me to note that his response was one of support, not anger or disappointment.  

But a capable wife, who can find? 

This passage from Proverbs today is fascinating. It is the end of the whole book, the last word, so to speak, and the list of characteristics that the capable wife possesses fascinate me because they go so far beyond what we might imagine an Ancient Near Eastern worldview of what a woman’s role was to be—you might imagine it would be an inwardly focused role, looking after family and domestic issues. But if you pick out the characteristics in the Proverbs text, you come up with a list that’s very outwardly focused—nothing specifically about fertility or motherhood or beauty—something like: trusted, financially saavy, a shrewd businesswoman and real estate developer, physically strong, hard working, a competent administrator, humble, generous, well dressed, optimistic, wise, kind, and beloved by all. She’s superwoman—and clearly overworked. It resonates for me as a person who feels a similar pressure to be a capable wife, capable mother and capable priest.  

And you don’t have to be a wife (or a mother, or a priest) to find that kind of list of virtues intimidating. Especially because the implication at the end of the passage is that all these wonderful qualities the capable wife possesses are rooted in her fear of the Lord. So when we fall short of being the capable fill-in-the-blank, is it our relationship with God that isn’t strong enough? 

What do we do with the expectations and aspirations that surround us, both as people who fulfill various roles of spouse, parent, professional, child, friend, etc, and as people of faith. One of the things that most religious traditions do is to set an ideal for how to live, but most of us are not capable of living up to the ideal. So there’s always a gap between the very good and genuine ideal and the pretty good and honest reality, both as people and as Christians. The hope is that the ideal inspires us to strive, to come closer than we would if the bar were not set so high… and to remind us that divine grace is necessary for all of us and so allow us to be gentle with ourselves and with others when we fall short. But that isn’t often true in my experience. Many of us are brutal to ourselves and brutal to others when we fail in meeting our ideals. 

Keeping that in mind, look then at the Gospel. The disciples are arguing with one another about who is the greatest—about their own ambition to be the best disciples they can be, to love Jesus the most, to follow him most closely. Everything Jesus has done and taught up till then has given them a picture of what the ideal disciple should be, and they have taken the ideal and turned it into an idol. 

A capable Christian, who can find? Not among these twelve guys, not today. 

Jesus recognizes the problem and sits down, right where he is, gathers them around and gives the lesson about how whoever wants to be first, must be last of all and servant of all. The capable Christian doesn’t expect perfection. Anytime you feel yourself being recognized as first, you have to remember that in God’s eyes, that puts you last. The capable Christian does the hard work, not the glamorous work. 

And the best example of that might be also in the Gospel today, in the confusion about Jesus’ passion predictions. Peter last week and the disciples this week are baffled by what they perceive as his fundamental failure: being betrayed and killed is not a successful outcome to his ministry. Just as each of the disciples want to be the greatest, they want the Messiah they are following to be the greatest Messiah; they want the capable messiah—not like the other, false Messiahs who ended their lives on Roman crosses or otherwise in ignominy—and there were other 1st Century messianic figures the people following Jesus would have known about. Jesus understands that as assured as he is of his identity as God’s Son, he will be brought low—very low—before the dramatic intervention of the resurrection. He will be the least of these on Calvary before he becomes the first fruits of the resurrection. 

Now, Christianity has sometimes made outdoing one another in humility and suffering an ill-advised offshoot of Jesus’ instructions today. You have only to look at some of the early Christian texts to hear an eagerness in some voices to experience martyrdom; to be proved to be faithful. Or in the stories of saints whose virtues are expounded upon and their spiritual and physical fortitude brought beyond any human endurance. Occasionally those extremes are instructive—I am reminded of St. Lawrence’s great action, when demanded to produce the treasures of the church, brought in the poor rather than the chests of gold the Roman authorities wanted. But sometimes they are dangerous… this summer we watched a movie about Joan of Arc and it struck me how unsympathetic the viewers found her—a girl, seemingly mentally ill, who rode into battle and—depending on whether you were cheering for the English or the French—exacerbated a dispute into a war and burned for it. This is not a faith most of us want for our children, or for ourselves.   

The big religious news of the popular press this week was of course the discovery of the Coptic 4th century papyrus in which Jesus refers to “my wife.” (By the way, Karen King, the Harvard Professor who has published the discovery, is an Episcopalian!) This is not an earthshattering revelation to me; I don’t think it matters to our faith whether Jesus was married or not, and there have certainly been arguments on both sides for centuries. But I hear an unspoken assumption in both the “Ha! Told you so!” response of non-religious voices and in the utter denial of conservative Roman Catholic voices that if Jesus was married he would be less perfect than heretofore believed. Maybe, if he was married he was really a human being, with human relationships, desires, and complexity? But we already believe that. Fully human. And fully divine. If Jesus knew what it was to struggle with the conflict over trying to simultaneously be a capable husband and a capable messiah, his life might have even more resonance for me today. 

God wants us to be capable Christians, to aspire to the ideals of the Gospel and Jesus own life. But not to idolize that ideal, not to idolize our own capability. I admit that I like it that I’m perceived as being capable as a priest, a wife, and a mother. I think it’s important to do things as well as I can, and I’m conscious that particularly in the church, when human beings in the church fail, the fallout can be pastorally and spiritually horrible—because sometimes it’s not perceived as a human failure, it’s perceived as a divine failure. But I’m not perfect—and sometimes in ways that are far more harmful than serving my husband burned, raw, dropped-on-the-floor-fish. I depend upon grace—grace from you, grace from God, and—this is the hardest part—grace from myself. 

We are not called to be the best Christians, or the best Church, or the best people. We are called by God to fear the Lord and be as good as we can be at what we do… a perfect Christian who can find? No one. No one can find a perfect Christian. None of those 12 guys—or the women disciples who were certainly surrounding Jesus as well—were perfect followers. None of them was the greatest. But many were great and faithful. And they improved over time. May God grant us a similar tenacity to let Jesus sit us down, teach us, and walk back into the world with our eyes open.





Sunday, September 16, 2012

The three chapters of the Messiah

My sermon from September 16, 2012

Every time Jesus asks the disciples a question in scripture, my heart goes out to them in sympathy. Because they never answer it correctly. The disciples are our stand-ins, and one of the narrative devices in the Gospel that allows Jesus to get his message across is to contrast it with the testimony of us poor mortals. Today is, perhaps, the rare exception, when Jesus asks, “Who do people say that I am?” A safe question—just repeating hearsay. Other people say Jesus is Elijah, John the Baptist, or one of the prophets… you don’t have to take a stand to respond to “Who do people say that I am?” 

But then Jesus gets personal. “But who do you say that I am?” Now it’s personal. Now you aren’t just providing information, you’re laying yourself out there. Who do you say that Jesus is? What word, what title comes to mind for you? What would you say if you were in Caesarea Phillipi that day with Jesus? 

When I imagine this scene in my mind, I imagine there is a very long pause after Jesus asks that question. I imagine them all looking around at each other… because of course, they’ve talked about this among themselves, when Jesus wasn’t present. They’ve debated if he’s the Messiah, or the Son of Man, or the Son of God, or a reincarnation of Elijah or another prophet. But now he’s asking them to go on the record. They’re hoping they know who Jesus is… but what if they’re wrong?

And so it’s into that void—that awkward, tense, silent void, where everyone is looking at everyone else and hoping that someone else will pipe up, that Peter takes the risk and speaks. “You are the Messiah.” And that affirmation turns into a gateway—it allows Jesus to move forward with a more in-depth explanation of why and where he is leading them.  

And then Jesus begins the first of several predictions in the next chapters of Mark’s gospel about what it means to be the Messiah: his impending suffering, rejection, death, and resurrection. And Peter, poor Peter, high on the excitement of finally, for once, answering a question correctly, descends into the seduction of rebuking Jesus and trying to redirect him away from suffering, away from the cross. Peter wants things to be easier, Peter wants to avoid conflict, Peter wants to find another way to the Kingdom of God. A way that doesn’t involved rejection and shame and death. Peter wants the type of Messiah he’s been dreaming of, not the type of Messiah Jesus will actually prove to be. But of course, Jesus doesn’t only prophesy his sufferings today, he also prophesies his resurrection. 

I know how sometimes when I’m listening to someone and they say something provocative I stop listening to what they’re continuing to say and get kind of stuck on the first or second thing they said. And so I wonder if Peter even heard Jesus say “and after three days rise again.” Did Peter get so hung up on Jesus’ prediction of his suffering and death that he missed the resolution of the story? 

When Jesus comes to us and says “suffering and death are coming,” how do we respond? There will be suffering, there will be death in this mortal life. But Jesus is also, here, promising his resurrection, and if we get so hung up on the first things he says that we miss the end we are going to be like Peter and miss the point: resurrection follows death. Death does not have the last word, for Jesus, or for Peter, or for us. And so you can only understand the context of Jesus’ predictions of his suffering if you also understand that they don’t have the final word; perhaps the reason that Jesus cautions the disciples not to share his identity as the Messiah (and many other signs and healings throughout Mark’s gospel) is because there’s this arc to his story that doesn’t make sense if you only see one part of it. If you only know Jesus the healer and miracle worker, you can start thinking of him as almost a magician—he does the magic tricks with five loaves and two fish or healing the blind and the lame but it’s a very functionalist understanding of who Jesus is. And if you only see Jesus during his suffering and rejection and crucifixion, that is Good News for us when we are suffering and see ourselves in Christ’s passion and viceversa, but it doesn’t give us a complete picture of who Jesus is or who we are. And if you only encounter the Jesus of the resurrection, without the awareness of the cost he has borne to get to that point, and the teachings that guide the earthly life, then you’re only seeing a very simplified reduction of the Messiah. It’s like there are three chapters to Jesus’ identity, and Peter cannot comprehend the second and third chapters of Jesus as Messiah because he has only encountered the first chapter so far.  

Now as a parish this week we experienced a death. The death of a Peter, in fact—Peter Smith, to be exact, who lived a long and vivid and varied life before finding out just how hard it could be to have Jesus tell him to take up his cross. He was quite public about his story, sharing it with many of us at gatherings, including just last Saturday at our Stewardship Workshop. Peter encountered faith as a younger man in England through the Reverend John Stott, perhaps the greatest Anglican Evanglical of the late 20th Century, a big theologian, a committed evangelist for sharing the Gospel around the world, and the Anglican link to Billy Graham, whom he counted as a friend. Stott told Peter , in the midst of a young man’s life of privilege and debauchery, that he just needed to believe. So Peter tried to believe, and found a community that engaged and enlightened him. Years passed, and Peter came into our church’s life about a year ago after losing both his son and his wife in the past year. He had discovered what it was to suffer. A lot. He had taken up his cross—or had the cross thrust upon him, more accurately, and was looking for Jesus to follow.  

He spoke so openly and so eloquently about his desire to find his faith again. To really come back to believe that the very God who had let his wife and son die could be a loving God of resurrection. To believe in the whole Messiah, and not just the first chapter that he had encountered before. To find God in the suffering, not despite the suffering, and to really believe in that promise of resurrection and gaining your whole life. 

The central chapter in Jesus’ identity as the Messiah is the cross. We look back from the cross to the teachings, and ahead to the resurrection, but it’s the cross that joins them. And if we find Simon Peters in our lives who try to put blinders on us to cover up the suffering that is in front of us, or who try to convince us to walk the safe path rather than the Christian path, we have to, like Jesus, reject that advice. But as we encounter suffering and death on our path, we cling to Jesus’ witness that it is not the final word in our lives or in our world. And I think Peter Smith found that here—from the outpouring of love and affection for him that I’ve heard in response to his death, I know he felt loved and knew there was a home for him here, in our community, to share our joy and make it is own.  

Peter’s spiritual mentor, John Stott, put it like this: “The Christian community is a community of the cross, for it has been brought into being by the cross, and the focus of its worship is the Lamb once slain, now glorified. So the community of the cross is a community of celebration, a eucharistic community, ceaselessly offering to God through Christ the sacrifice of our praise and thanksgiving. The Christian life is an unending festival. And the festival we keep, now that our Passover Lamb has been sacrificed for us, is a joyful celebration of his sacrifice, together with a spiritual feasting upon it.”

Now Bishop Sisk, who firmly believes that only the words in the Prayer Book should be said at worship, and that if you deviate from them, you will be punished, always begins the Creed at our annual clergy renewal of vows with words that do not come from the prayer book, but they are so beautiful that I guess even Bishop Sisk knows they should be shared. John Stott told Peter to believe. Bishop Sisk tells us, “My brothers and sisters, it is only when we love one another that we can truly say… we believe…” and then goes into the Nicene Creed. It is only through love that we can believe. So I invite you today to stand up now. My brothers and sisters, it is only when we love one another that we can truly say, “We believe in one God….”





Sunday, September 9, 2012

Showing no partiality (aka, from Louboutin to Payless)

A sermon preached September 9, 2012

“My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, "Have a seat here, please," while to the one who is poor you say, "Stand there," or, "Sit at my feet," have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?”

I’ve had two really great and interesting experiences this week and they’ve both touched on the issue of money that is brought up in both the Epistle of James and Proverbs today: the first was the chance to moderate a Google Hangout, which is like a video conference, for a “Faith Based Response” to President Obama’s speech for ABC News between a Sikh, a Muslim, an Evangelical Christian, a Roman Catholic, a Jew, and a Hindu. And what emerged from that for me particularly regarding the Proverbs text was the shared heritage of all the religions in their care for the poor and their acknowledgment that the appropriate response to encountering the divine is generosity. Whether it’s one of the five the pillars of Islam to give to charity, or the Torah’s commandments to give the first fruits of your harvest to God, or the perhaps more pragmatic cultural responsibility of Hindus to care for their elderly family members, every religious tradition records our obligation to care for one another and to share what we have with others.  

And the second was a Stewardship Workshop all day yesterday here at Epiphany with most of our Vestry and some other members of this church led by a consultant who guided us through looking at Epiphany’s core values, our aspirations for the future, and teaching us some best practices for stewardship and fundraising in the Church today. Thank you so much to those who were present—you inspired me. 

It was clear from our discussion of core values that this precise passage from James is one of the core values of Epiphany: the people present identified that one reason they love Epiphany is because it is so welcoming to everyone; and specifically that they don’t feel judged by the way they dress or how much money they have, or what they do in the same way that some people had experienced at other churches. Put another way, I have seen Christian Louboutin shoes in this church; and I know some of us get our shoes at Payless. We have people here who have very high-powered professional careers; and we have people who are unemployed and having a really tough financial time right now. And both are welcome here—and everyone in between—not just in the pew, but in leadership, on the Vestry, in the Sunday School… our goal is to show no partiality, and to make sure that every personal and every financial commitment at Epiphany is equally honored, whether you are giving out of an abundance or whether you are giving something like the widow’s mite—a gift that is small in dollars but big in significance to you. And I know we’re not perfect in the execution of that, but it’s the value that infuses what we do. 

Our consultant had us share stories of “transformational giving” yesterday; and they were wonderful—I’m so grateful for each of the people who were willing to tell a story of a gift they witnessed or gave sometime during their lives. The story I thought about sharing—but didn’t, yesterday, was the story of my first pledge of support to a church. I was 22, and was earning $30,000 per year as a teacher. It seemed like so much money. But I had no idea how much I could pledge—I knew I was supposed to tithe and give 10%, but I realized that wasn’t realistic. We didn’t talk about giving money away in my house growing up. We talked about saving money, and we talked about spending money—especially how you shouldn’t spend money because you should be saving money—but I had no idea how much my parents gave to the church. I still don’t. I think I settled on giving $100 per month. I felt very grown up as I wrote a check each month to the church, and put it in an offering envelope like I remembered my father doing every week when I was growing up. And I remember the next annual meeting seeing breakdown of pledge totals, and realizing that while I thought my pledge was really small, where I fit in a fairly large and affluent parish in terms of giving was near the middle. I didn’t think I had a lot of money, but I was capable of making a difference in that parish. Giving has been one of my ministries since then—just like singing, or teaching, or being a priest. 

 In terms of our financial Stewardship, two things have to happen at Epiphany for us to be a sustainable church: the people who are already here need to give more. And there’s good news on that front. Our Vestry has pledged to raise their 2012 pledges by an average of 15%. They are putting skin in the game and showing us the way forward by their own transformational and sacrificial giving. A number of you gave your time yesterday to learn more about the different generational giving patterns and different ideas of how to communicate information about our budget and our needs so that we can do this. We need to find that way to talk transparently—and more frequently—about money but not in such a way that people feel harassed and like people are always asking for money. And I think we can do that. 

And the second thing we need is to have more people in these pews. We need to actively invite people here—face to face, through signs and flyers, through media online and in print, every way we can think of. And our message must be consistent—my reduction of it would be this: Come to Epiphany and find community, find purpose, find God. We imagined yesterday what this church could be like in 10 years—I see full pews, a thriving Sunday School, even more music, and a stable budget, and a parish that still holds to that core value of welcoming all—of not showing partiality. What do you imagine? 

I sometimes feel a mix of frustration and gratitude that it’s comparatively easy to raise money for our Homeless feeding program and Carpenter’s Kids. They’re great programs that directly help people in tangible ways, so it’s good that we highlight them. The challenge before us as a parish is that our whole budget is necessary for our mission. Your gift that keeps the lights on and the heating oil in the tank means we can house the Homeless Feeding Program. Your gift that pays part of my salary ensures that someone who is in the hospital or having a crisis has the pastoral care they deserve. Your gift that pays for our administrative staff ensures that our funds are accounted for and utilized appropriately, and that every person who calls or rings our doorbell is greeted lovingly and welcomed. There is nothing in our budget that is not directly related to our mission of serving God and our neighbor. 

Finally, we need to learn two things from the gospel today. The first is to do what the disciples do and completely ignore what Jesus says about not telling anyone about the good things he has done. If you put your light under a bushel basket, what good is it? There is light all over this church—in our children and youth ministries, on our Vestry, in our visits to the hospitals, in the loving friendships and communities here that have grown over years and decades. We aren’t always very good at how we communicate what we do. And part of yesterday was learning some ways to change that.

And the other thing we need to take away from the Gospel today is the word, Ephphtha. Be opened. Not just our ears. Jesus wants us to open our ears and our eyes and our doors and our minds and our hearts and our wallets and our arms. Ephphtha. Be opened. Be opened to the spirit, to faith, to belief, to music, to joy, to gratitude, to the love of your neighbor. Be opened to the love of your priest. Because I do love you. And I do thank you, for being a church that is so easy to love.

We began the stewardship workshop with this beautiful prayer written by our Warden, Helen Goodkin, and I want to close with it today as we kick off the program year at this wonderful parish. 

Holy God, who calls us to do your work in the world,
We thank you for this opportunity to gather and to be together,
 For the multitude of talents and remarkable wisdom which we each bring.

We give thanks for the entire congregation, the young, the old, the middle aged,
                        Women and men, girls and boys,
                        Old timers and new faces,
                        Married and single,
                        Singers and non-singers,
                        Those who feed the homeless and those who teach the children,
                        Those who care for the altar and those who visit the sick.
                        8:30 ites, 11:00 ites, and 6 pmers.

Be with us today as we reflect on your call,
Be with us today as we discern and define our mission,
Be with us today as we seek to grow in understanding.
Be in our hearts and minds
      For listening and for speaking.
      For learning and for teaching.
      For working and for laughing.
      For hearing and for seeing.
      For doing and for sitting still.

Give us openness, respectfulness, and insight.
Give us wisdom to find the path and courage to complete the task.
Give us faith, hope, and love, and

May we always have on our lips the words of your Son. Amen.





Thursday, September 6, 2012

http://youtu.be/MrvO4-JfFuU

Link tonight to the Google + hangout for ABC News on a faithbased response to Obama's speech. 

Cheers!

Jennifer

Sunday, September 2, 2012

A defense of religion

A sermon from September 2, 2012

When I say the word, “religion,” what’s your gut reaction? It’s often a bad word these days—people like to be “spiritual but not religious” and our inherent distrust of institutions is—sometimes rightfully—aimed at religious institutions. Even religious people--you--might be a little nervous about the word.  Culturally today, “religion” implies “thou shalt nots”, rigidity, shame. Religion is worldly, spirituality is heavenly. Religion oppresses; spirituality liberates. Religion is for those who want to pretend they’re unstained by the world, but who are really just as sordid and sinful as everybody else. 

The etymology of the word is surprisingly unclear—coming from the Latin, probably meaning “respect for God,” but maybe also referring to re-reading—to considering things carefully. The word is only used in the New Testament 3 times, two of them in the passage from James; Jesus didn’t talk about “religion,” and a lot of ancient languages didn’t have a word for religion.    

But we get a wonderful definition of religion today in the Epistle of James: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” I suspect that most of the “spiritual but not religious” people in the world today would be surprised by that definition—at least the first part of it. James breaks it down to its simplest elements: religion is to care for the needy, and then the way I would interpret the second part of the verse about keeping oneself unstained by the world would be not to give in to what the world says is normal—war, violence, sin, cruelty, selfishness. We hear “unstained” and we might equate it with sexual purity or something… but I’d look at the bigger picture.  

Now how do you feel about that kind of religion?

The verse before this definition of religion in James’ epistle is also insightful: “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.” And that brings us right into the Gospel, where Jesus is confronting people who do the outward signs of a religion, but don’t have that respect for God deep in their hearts; they’ll wash their hands to become “pure,” but have no purity of soul or intention or loving aspect towards their neighbor. Jesus doesn’t use the word “religion” but defines it in terms of following human traditions vs. the true commandments of God. The challenge is that religion encompasses both—our religion includes some human traditions (some good, some bad) and some commandments of God. The trick is to know which is which.  

I and many Christians would boil down the commandment of God most simply to the Great Commandment of Jesus to love God and our neighbor, but that is shaded by the knowledge and familiarity with the other commandments in scripture and the narrative itself: what do these people we read about having encounters with God teach us about a Godly life? If people have a negative reaction to the word “religion” today, they probably have an even stronger negative reaction to the word, “commandment,” but it’s an important word. The purpose of the Law in the Torah was not to oppress the people of Israel but to liberate them—to ensure that their common life was peaceful and prosperous. When laws or commandments oppress, they need to be changed and rethought. But I need a guide—I need a roadmap—I need God to shape how I see the world, or else it becomes all about me. 

When reading scriptural commandments—or the human traditions that come out of them, I find myself asking, “What is the purpose of this commandment?” Is it to be pure—to distinguish the clean from the unclean, the saved from the damned? Or is the purpose of this commandment to aid our love of God and of neighbor? If it is to aid our love of God and neighbor, how can I—and we—observe it so that it actually does this. And when a commandment is broken, how can we address it lovingly so that that, too, aids our love of God and neighbor, instead of forcing people further apart from God and their neighbor?

Religion and commandments place expectations upon us and aspirations before us, and there is always a danger of a gap between what is on our tongues and what’s in our hearts. Jesus nails it today when he calls a group of people hypocrites for blindly following human traditions that make them feel good about themselves rather than following the actual commandment of God that would inform how they live their whole lives.  

Hypocrisy is, perhaps, the unforgiveable sin of the 21st Century, at least among people my age, and that’s part of the reason the church is challenged so frequently today: people see it as hypocritical. The pastor who preaches vehemently against homosexuality turns out to be gay; the church that preaches justice and caring for the poor has beautiful buildings and large endowments. The people who wash their hands obsessively before eating so that they can be pure turn out to have cruel and impure actions and hearts. We have to always be on guard against being self-delusional and either preaching a message we don’t believe or falling short and sinning and not owning up to it. 

One way of addressing how we discern the commandment of God from human traditions in religions is in the collect today: the prayer to graft into our hearts the love of your name, and increase in us “true religion”; true religion to me would be the goal of distilling God’s commandments from human traditions. True religion to me would be that relationship with God and our ancestors in faith that allows us to see what of the law, the commandments, the instructions in the Bible are able to guide us into the Love of God’s name. True religion is the community that helps to discern God’s commandments for us, as well as the community that holds us to account for them.  

It cannot be just our personal conscience that discerns what is God’s commandment and what is human tradition, first because our personal conscience is what leads to that list of sins Jesus describes today. Our personal conscience is capable of justifying anything that “comes from within” even if it defiles us, to use Jesus’ words. We need to listen to our conscience, but that cannot be our only guide. And we also can’t just leave it up to our individual conscience because a lot of the laws are about group stuff—they’re about how we live together as families and churches and societies. We need a community conscience not just to live the commandments but also to—I don’t want to use the word “enforce”, but you need a place among people you love where you can safely admit to breaking commandments and make amends. And where collectively, we can see where the commandments themselves, as they’ve been handed down to us, are in error—where we mistook human tradition for God’s command, and need to reform. 

One reason that this way of understanding God’s commandments appeals to me as a Christian is that it incorporates a very dynamic life of the Spirit, and it means that God is still speaking in ways that we can hear. The love of God’s name is grafted into our hearts; but it’s not from our hearts. It’s from God, and it counters the interior tendencies we have towards sin and setting our human issues ahead of God’s issues. It’s also something we have to nurture through prayer and study and sacraments. The spirit lives on in our hearts, growing and blossoming and revealing God’s eternal law to us, when we listen and pray. It’s not as easy as saying “The Bible said it. I believe it” which is a statement that makes no sense since the Bible contradicts itself so often. It asks more of us than that. It asks us to stay in relationship with God every day, to see God in scripture and in our neighbor and through revelation in prayer. And that’s religion. The “fruit of good works” in the words of the collect; more specific in the Epistle of James, “those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act-they will be blessed in their doing.” Persevere in our faith and wrestling with the commandments, and we will be blessed. Amen.   

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Prayers for an Election

Almighty God, to whom we must account for all our powers and privileges: Guide the people of the United States in the election of officials and representatives; that, by faithful administration and wise laws, the rights of all may be protected and our nation be enabled to fulfill your purposes; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.  Book of Common Prayer, pg 822

As the political campaign season grows ever longer and strikes me as being more akin to something to be endured rather than something which illuminates and inspires, it helped me to read this collect and remind myself why, as a Christian, it matters that we go through this process.

Reading through our collect for a national election, it is interesting to unpack what it contains. The opening reminds us that God holds us to account for our powers and privileges. Consider what powers and privileges you have received from our government for a moment. We spend so much time arguing over particular issues that we sometimes lose our appreciation for the whole.

I have the power and privilege to vote-something my female ancestors a hundred years ago did not have. I have the privilege to walk down a street in my neighborhood and feel relatively safe, to have confidence that the police are there to help me and not to hurt me, to know that the hospital nearby would give me excellent care if I had an accident or a disease. I have the power to speak out freely through sermons and blogs and influence people in how they believe, think, and act. And I have the power to recognize that not all of my fellow-citizens have those privileges, and the ability to take actions to remedy that sad fact, so that when I am called to account for all my powers and privileges, I can stand before God with a clear heart.

We pray in the collect for guidance as a people in our voting. I like that we're praying for guidance for all of us, and that we're not asking God to guide us to a single best candidate but to guide us so that whoever is elected will protect the rights of all "through faithful administration and wise laws." Our governance must be faithful, not to God, but to the citizens, and faith is something that we
understand in the church: doing things in good faith means that you may make mistakes, or try out policies that are unsuccessful, but it is in faithfulness that we honestly look at our work, admit fault, and try harder the next time. A faithful government is one that is willing to change, willing to accept and model sacrifice, and to put the needs of its citizens ahead of its members' individual interests.

Wise laws endure and produce benefits for the citizens, protecting the rights of all, and not just the powerful or wealthy. It harkens in my ear to our baptismal covenant: "Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?" to which the response is, "I will, with God's help." Our rights, justice, peace, and dignity depend upon those whom we elect. I sometimes wonder what would happen if the members of congress and our political leaders could actually follow that portion of our baptismal covenant just among themselves-if they could strive for justice and peace among themselves, and just respect the dignity of their fellow office holders. Our political life would be far less divisive if they could model that for us. One of thehallmarks of being a Christian is that we believe that things can be different; we believe that people have the capacity to treat one another with dignity, and that divisiveness is not a foregone conclusion.

Finally, the collect closes with the notion that "our nation be enabled to fulfill [God's] purposes." For those of us who advocate for a separation of church and state, and those who acknowledge that the United States is not currently (if it ever was) a Christian nation, viewing our nation as an agent of God's purposes might be alarming at first. But this is a place where scripture is illuminating. In the Hebrew Bible, many nations are used for God's purposes, not just Israel. For instance, it is the Persian Empire that God uses to restore Israel and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem after the exile. What I would envision as God's purposes for our nation-to be an exemplar of justice, peace, equality, dignity, happiness, health and fruitful labor-are well in line with those outlined by our founders and even politicians today.

I invite you to join with me in praying for our nation as we approach this year's election; pray for the candidates and their families; pray for those who will be most affected by the outcome of the election; and pray for a spirit of humility, graciousness, thankfulness, and wisdom to inhabit our elected officials and our nation as a whole.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

You've got the whole world in your hands

Pentecost 13, John 6:56-69, August 26, 2012, Epiphany Manhattan, Jonathan Linman:

Jesus said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” We might be as baffled by all of this as were the religious people and the hearers of Jesus’ own day.

Then he up’s the ante by further saying, “The one who eats this bread will live forever.”

No wonder that many of his disciples complained and said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”

We in our own day might say the same thing about our teaching about the Eucharist, that the bread and wine somehow convey Jesus’ true body and blood. “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” Indeed.

The sixth chapter of John’s Gospel is John’s Eucharistic chapter, as there’s no Last Supper institution narrative in John, just the washing of the disciples’ feet.

Today we conclude several Sundays of focus on John 6. Sunday after Sunday, it’s been bread of life, bread from heaven, bread of life, bread from heaven, bread of life, bread from heaven. Now I know why Jennifer invited me to preach today: to give her a break from all of this bread of life stuff!

I guess the editors of the lectionary decided that it takes several weeks to make sense of all of this about Jesus as bread from heaven.

So let’s claim the opportunity to go deeper. Since we’re talking about bread, let’s look at bread.

[Holding up priest’s host]

Look at what I am now holding: is this bread? Barely: wheat flour and water. The design of a host is evocative, I suppose, of the manna from heaven described in the Old Testament, the flaky substance that mysteriously appeared on the ground after people complained that there was nothing to eat in the wilderness after the Exodus.

So here’s the million dollar question: how can this little thing that barely resembles bread as we know it become Christ’s body, the real presence of Christ in the flesh? And this for eternal life?  It’s hard enough to imagine this as bread, let alone something that carries the divine and can give us a share in living forever.

Let’s start our exploration with this essential proposition or observation: I’ve got the whole world in my hands. And when you hold bread, you do, too.

Think of the host as sign, as symbol. Imagine it and its meanings.

To help you do this, I want to hold up another item which also functions as sign and symbol, and in such a way help you understand, perhaps, how a host can also convey Jesus as bread from heaven.

Here’s my Nano iPod (holding it up). This little thing is about a size of a Eucharistic host, perhaps slightly bigger. But this little thing contains and conveys 432 songs currently, and that’s only 36% of its capacity.

I grew up listening to music first on lp’s and then on audio cassette tapes. Think of how much space it would take in an apartment to contain all of those albums.

But here are 432 songs. And not just that, but songs which are deeply meaningful to me and really are a remembrance of so much that is precious to me, holding so much of my identity.

By extension, then, this iPod is a sign, a symbol of my whole life in music.

E.g.: wedding dance song by Shania Twain AND “Day by Day Your Mercies Lord Attend Me,” sung at my ordination, from Swedish tradition, here offered by a congregation that included the daughter of the pastor who baptized me.

So, with the Nano iPod in mind, let’s return to the host. Look at it, think about it. What I am holding is a sign of the whole creation. It’s wheat flour that had been mixed with water, signs of God’s gracious love to us in creation. Grain and water, two primary symbols of creation that make life possible.

To further our understanding, here’s what a pre-eminent Lutheran liturgical theologian, Philip Pfatteicher, has to say about the Eucharistic gifts of bread and wine: “God’s gifts to us, grain and grapes, are returned to him as human labor has transformed them into bread and wine for use in the Holy Supper. God’s gifts of grain and grapes have been harvested, baked or pressed, packaged or bottled, delivered, stored, displayed, purchased, and presented in a world of economic inflation and depression, marketing analyses, price negotiations, collective bargaining, injustice and greed, sacrifice and concern. The elements are rich with suggestive meanings and connections with life in a complex modern world…. The bread, a necessity of life, suggests the wonderful aroma of the bakery and food of which some have too little and others, far too much. The wine, an enrichment of life, suggest the drink which makes glad human hearts and warms and cheers the spirit and also which is the cause of drunkenness, violence and degradation. Moderation and excess, nourishment and deprivation, enrichment and intoxication are all gathered in the bread and wine which are offered to God for blessing and redemption, justice and purification and renewal.” (Pfatteicher’s Commentary on LBW, p. 155).

Think of it. This little host contains so much signification as Pfatteicher suggests. I’ve got the whole world, in a sense, in my hands right now. And again you will, too, when you come to this table of grace.

As an interesting aside, have you ever wondered how these hosts are made and who makes them? There’s actually a great essay about this online. It’s called “Buying the Body of Christ,” by Rowan Moore Gerety. It’s subtitle, “How the communion wafer arrived in the capitalist marketplace.”

‘Turns out that host-making is, like so many things today, big business. Making hosts used to be the domain of nuns and monks in Catholic religious orders. But like so many mom and pop shops, the bigger firms have cornered the market, and driven a lot of the religious out of business.

The Cavanaugh Company of Greenville, Rhode Island now makes 80% of the altar breads consumed in the United States. Like so many food producers, compared to the kitchens in monasteries and convents, it’s a big factory that’s mostly automated. Every three weeks, 18 wheelers deliver wheat flour in 42,000 to 45,000 pound shipments. Their supplier is Archer Daniels Midland, one of the biggest corporations in agribusiness. “The same flour that ends up on altars across the country in the form of hosts could, according to ADM, end up in tortillas, refrigerated doughs, Asian noodles, bagels, and doughnuts at your local supermarket.”

Once again, to drive home the point, we’ve got the whole world in our hands, as this little host signifies all these complex economic relationships in and dynamics of our current world.

And thus far, we’ve only explored the profane meanings of the host as sign of creation, and human involvements therein.

Into this profane world of big agribusiness, God in Christ enters. Just as God in Christ entered the complex world of ancient Palestine.

Here’s the key to understanding how the profane becomes the sacred: Connect this little manna-like piece of bread with God’s Word (“This is my body given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me”), and the Holy Spirit makes this Christ’s body indeed. That’s what we confess and believe.

According to Martin Luther, without God’s Word, the bread, of course, remains bread. But with God’s Word, this thing is enlivened to convey the fullness of Christ’s presence in the flesh, in, with and under this bread, this manna, now from above.

Think of it. God’s word in connection with the bread unleashes all that God is in Christ.

Like the Nano iPod that contains so much of my personal identity in music, this host with God’s word in the power of the Spirit contains all of Christ, and in so far as Christ points to God, it contains all of God, in a fleshly, earthly, ordinary thing.

Once again, when we hold the bread, we’ve got the whole world, the whole cosmos, all of God’s creation in heaven and on earth, in our hands.

Once this little piece of bread is consecrated with the Word, this sign doesn’t just point to Christ, it is Christ, it carries Christ to you with all the blessings offered by Christ:
·         Forgiveness
·         Life
·         Salvation
·         Jesus’ death and resurrection
·         The Last Supper: the past becoming present.
·         A foretaste of the feast to come in heaven: the promised future coming to us now.
·         The presence of the saints in the communion of saints
·         Joy
·         Peace. God’s Shalom.
·         The justice of God’s promised reign
·         The unity of Christ’s church throughout history and throughout the world
·         And the joining in union heaven and earth, things human and things divine. All peoples, us with each other, all of us with God
·         And it’s somehow, some way, as Jesus’ suggests in John’s Gospel, this is Jesus’ flesh. Bread as flesh containing all the meanings and blessings I’ve listed.

It’s all here without limit to its capacity for memory and meaning unlike my little iPod.

Think of it. It’s an amazing thing.

This living bread from heaven will be yours, it’s for you. Given, broken for you. All that Christ is coming to you, for you, personally, intimately, and communally, all of us together.

And when you finally get this gift of life, this bread from heaven, into your tummies, then you’ll have the whole world, in heaven and on earth inside you.

Think of that, the wonder of that, the beauty, the sacredness.

This sermon and its meaning for you will conclude only when Christ is in you sacramentally, in, with and under bread and wine, making you one with Christ and all creation.

Let this be an amazing experience for you. Receive this Eucharist as if for the first time, full of wonder and awe, in the wisdom of child-like adoring faith.

Come to the table today with the words of Simon Peter on your mind, one who did not turn and leave the fold of disciples as some did because they thought Jesus’ teaching too difficult: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”