Sunday, January 22, 2012

Called to be an Evangelical

A sermon for Epiphany 3 B preached on January 22, 2012 

 The Gospel of Mark does not dilly-dally or embellish the story of Jesus. Today’s gospel is only the 14th verse of the very first chapter, and John has already been baptizing and attesting to Jesus as the one who he is preparing the way for; Jesus has been baptized, acclaimed by God as his beloved Son; and Jesus has been tempted in the wilderness and survived. All in 13 verses. It’s like there’s adrenaline running through the Gospel of Mark, which we’re going to be hearing from often in this lectionary year B, so get used to it. You can hear that Gospel adrenaline rush in today’s Gospel reading with the repeated use of the word, “Immediately”—one of Mark’s favorite words—and in the message of Jesus: “The time is fulfilled.”

Consequently, people make decisions very quickly in Mark. In last week’s gospel, which was from the Gospel of John, there’s a time of preparation before Nathanael comes to follow Jesus. First Philip goes to Nathanael and tells him about Jesus; then Jesus sees Nathanael and tells him revealing information about himself; only then does Nathanael identify Jesus and choose to follow him. 

Contrast that to today’s story. It’s also a call story, but here Jesus just calls out to Simon and Andrew and James and John and they immediately drop everything and follow him.

Now in the church of today, we’re not about making snap decisions—if you look at our ordination process, or the process for calling a rector, or having your baby baptized or being confirmed, we require some sort of discernment and education. Pretty minimal in the case of the baby of parishioners being baptized as we are doing today; but some of these processes can stretch over years. Are you really called to this ministry or this sacrament? Is the church sure? Are you sure? Are you fully informed about what you—and God—are doing? It’s designed to produce clarity of calling. It can also—in some instances—make things more confusing by dragging the process out and denying the role of instinct. 

So the calls to Simon and Andrew and the sons of Zebedee are perplexing and refreshing to me. It’s like love at first sight; or acting on instinct, one of those moments when you just inexplicably know that something is the right decision or the right path. I’m sure we’ve all had something like that moment—where we just suddenly saw what we were doing and said, “Oh my God, how could I be so foolish. I need to be doing this other thing.” Here I am, fishing for fish, when I could be fishing for people. And that is the moment, for me, when instinct and the Holy Spirit collide. A high school friend used to call those moments “light from God” moments—or you could call them, simply, epiphanies. 

And epiphanies are different from just unadvisedly striking out on a path out of passion or self- interest. My call to the priesthood came over many years, but as it developed and I wasn’t sure it did all culminate finally in a moment when I knew… I was at Shakespeare and Company in the Berkshires, studying acting, and one teacher just suddenly made it all clear how I could have been pulled in two directions and that I would be fulfilling the best of both worlds by becoming a priest. I never looked back. That moment is probably what we’re all looking for pretty often—I know I haven’t felt like that too many other times in my life. But it’s like that indwelling presence of God in each one of us takes over at that moment, or connects more fully and brings us along in a Godward direction towards something good.

I believe that Holy Spirit instinct pulls us toward our mission as human beings, like it did with Simon, Andrew, James, and John. And our mission in this passage is to fish…. But are we fishing for people or are we fishing for fish? And by that I mean, are we casting our nets for things that are of ultimate importance or for things that are of transitory importance? Because fishing for fish is not unimportant—people need to eat. But if part of ourselves is not also occupied in fishing for people, we are incredibly limited in our mission. St. Paul managed to be a tentmaker and the greatest apostle of the first century—how many of us are capable of doing whatever our daily vocation is AND being a Christian. I’m blessed that my daily vocation is to be a Christian in some sense, but there’s a lot of parish priesthood that isn’t directly linked to fishing for people—getting the heat fixed in this building is not part of my vocation as a Christian—but it’s something that I have to do so that this can happen. Getting the heat fixed is fishing for fish; baptizing Merrill today is fishing for people. Gathering around the altar to share bread and wine is fishing for people. And even gathering for our annual meeting, to have the community stand together not in worship but in discernment, is fishing for people. It’s all part of the Gospel. 

Last week at the 6pm service, someone asked me, “What is an Evangelical?” Like all of us, she keeps hearing the word on the news in reference to a certain segment of voters and wanted to know more. It’s frustrating to me, because the group defining themselves as Evangelicals has really claimed the word in this country only for themselves, but “Evangelical” comes from the Greek word meaning “Gospel,” or “Good News”. Jesus uses it today as the cornerstone of his preaching: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news." Believe in the “evangelion,” the Gospel, the Good news. If we believe in the Good News, we are Evangelicals. If we fish for people, and not just fish, we are evangelicals. And more importantly, we are evangelists—people who share the Good News, and don’t just keep it to ourselves, especially in that Holy Spirit-instinct-filled moment when we hear God’s call and act on it. 

So allow me to expand upon Mark’s message today to flesh out its meaning a little for us today. The time is now fulfilled—the present moment matters. Trust your Holy Spirit instincts, because the Kingdom of God has come near—it is near this morning in bread and wine, it is near in water and the promise of eternal life, and it is near in this community of faithful loving relationships. Repent of your sins—and hear the promise in these baptismal vows that every sin for which we repent and intend amendment of life can be forgiven. There is always forgiveness with God when we ask. And believe in the Good news, the Evangelion. Jesus Christ has lived, died and rose for us, and promises us that we will live and die and rise with him. So please, be an Evangelical.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Lord, you have searched me out and known me.

A sermon for Epiphany 2 B
Psalm 139 is probably my favorite of the psalms. The idea that God knows me better than I know myself, and that certainly God knows me better than I know God permeates the psalm in such beautiful imagery. Some of which is included in today’s portion, and some of which is omitted. So I’d like you to get out your prayer books and take a look at all of Psalm 139. It’s on page 794. 

Today we heard the portion of Psalm 139 that deals with God’s knowledge and nurture of us, beginning in the womb, and our humility at recognizing how infinitely larger and wiser than us God is. What got left out was our frailty—in two ways. Look at verses 6-11. This is where the psalmist describes his or her attempt to escape God. “Where can I go then from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I climb up to heaven, you are there; if I make the grave my bed, you are there also. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, Even there your hand will lead me, and your right hand hold me fast.” Just because we know God is there, and love God, doesn’t mean we don’t try to escape from God. Does that sound familiar to anyone here? Have you ever tried to just leave God behind and move on with your life? And did you eventually find out that the very place you had tried to find where God was not turned out to be a place where God was waiting for you to arrive?

The second portion that’s left out is verses 18-23—a more understandable omission from the lectionary writers. It’s hard to imagine how the author of the psalm went so directly from the beautiful supportive poetry of God’s indwelling presence and into “Oh, that you would slay the wicked, O God,” and “I hate them with a perfect hatred.” But that’s part of the Psalm, too. God knows us so well that God knows our dishonorable desires as well as the goodness that is inside us. I am loved and wonderfully made by God; AND I am frail and human. It’s all part of the same package, and just when we discover the beauty that God has put inside us, we encounter the sin that co-exists with God inside us and we strike out at our perceived enemies. Which is why when people ask me if it’s OK to pray for something that they don’t feel like they should be praying for, the answer is always “Yes.” The Psalms are our model of Biblical prayer—and they reflect real people with the real prayers they bring before God—the good, the bad, and the ugly. God knows it all already, so when we offer it up in prayer, God can sort the wheat from the chaff and help guide us towards where God wants us to go. 

All this self-knowledge comes to the Gospel narrative in the interaction between Jesus and Nathanael. Jesus greets this potential new disciple by saying, “here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” Nathanael recognizes himself in that description, and asks, “Where did you get to know me?” And then Jesus lies (or as the 8:30 congregation chastened me, “He doesn’t lie, he just puts the truth in a way Nathanael can hear it). “I saw you sitting under the fig tree before Philip called you.” That’s not how Jesus got to know Nathanael. Jesus knows Nathanael the way God knows the author of Psalm 139—from the womb, not just from the fig tree. God knows us first, and then we—like Nathanael—“come and see” about God.  

If Jesus said out loud what was inside of me, the way he does with Nathanael, it would not be something nearly as flattering as, “Here is truly a woman in whom there is no deceit.” Nathanael must be a far, far better person than I. I have plenty of deceit. I felt pretty duplicitous at Diocesan Convention yesterday as I looked supportive on the outside while inside wishing that lightning would strike down the person who was going to the microphone for the fifth time to speak on a resolution. I can hide a lot of my flaws from you; I can hide fewer from Jonathan—the biggest challenge of our early marriage was the discovery of not how flawed the other person in our relationship was, but the horror that our own flaws were exposed. But the one person I need not hide my flaws from is God. Because God already knows.  

Now, there’s no good way to segue into any of the fornication passages in scripture. But as today in 1 Corinthians, whenever one of the fornication or adultery passages come up in the lectionary, it’s such a tough call whether to address it or just ignore it, and the last few years I’ve ducked, and I don’t want to do that today because it links with self-knowledge and God’s knowledge of us. Today’s passage is in the middle of several chapters of 1 Corinthians’ on sex. I don’t think Paul was as negative towards intimacy as he comes across as; but the reason he’s writing about it so much is that he was writing to real communities of people who wanted to know how to be a Christian in the real daily grind of life—what can or should I eat? Who can I marry—or should I marry? If I’m a slave, should I try to be free? If I’m a slave owner, should I free my slaves? If I can speak in tongues, should I? 

The precipitating event for Paul in this context seems to be the rumor that one of the Corinthian Christian men is having an affair with his mother-in-law; I think that’s still pretty good moral advice in the 21st Century. You should not have sex with your mother-in-law. But then Paul gets caught up in the topic and just goes on, and then turns to lawsuits—don’t sue other Christians, and then he can’t help himself and goes back to sex. The kernel of joy in this is that we are supposed to glorify Christ with our bodies—which for Paul, in the context of expecting Jesus to return imminently, ends up meaning (after much, much hemming and hawing) that ideally no one should have sex with anyone just to be on the safe side, because you won’t have to wait long, because once Jesus returns, there will be better things to think about.  

It’s 2000 years later, so much of Paul’s reasoning for his theology of sexual relationships is outdated not because of the morality of his time and place, but because the key reason to not have sex—Jesus’ imminent return—has been revised. And the basis for Paul’s theology is still quite relevant: we should glorify Christ with our bodies. And sometimes we do things with our bodies that do not glorify Christ—whether sexual hedonism, or harming ourselves with drugs or alcohol or food, or committing physical violence.  

It’s the weekend that we remember Dr. Martin Luther King, jr, and usually I quote one of his speeches to inspire us and honor him. But in light of the Psalm and the Corinthians passage I feel inclined to focus on a different part of his life this year. Dr. King was a great man and a great leader. And he was evidently an unfaithful philandering husband. And God knew that and still called him to great ministry.

Look at yourself. Look deeply—look at your frailties, look at the things you hide from everyone around you. Look at the things you’re prefer to hide even from God. God already knows whatever that is. And God loves you anyway. And God has called you anyway. Just like God called Martin Luther King, jr. Jesus did not say about him, “here is a man in whom there is no deceit,” and yet he was called to great things. So are we. God knows us better than we know ourselves, so the better we know ourselves, the closer we come to finding out how God sees us, and indeed, the better we know God. And it is in knowing God that we hear our call, despite our sin, our call in this world and the next.

Monday, January 9, 2012

From darkness, light.

A sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 2012, preached at Saint Ignatius of Antioch.

When I was taking my New Testament class on the gospels in seminary, we took a study break to watch Monty Python’s Life of Brian, their spoof on the story of Jesus told through the eyes of Brian, an ordinary man who is repeatedly mistaken for Jesus in odd and hilarious ways. In the Pythons’ depiction of the Epiphany, the magi arrive at Brian’s birthplace, which is dirty and nasty and dark, and his mother is played by Terry Jones in drag. The magi are reverent, but baffled by this awful scene in front of them. The stable is stinky and gross, and none of the characters seem particularly holy. They deposit their gifts and leave. Suddenly one of them points out a light down the street, they grab the gold, frankincense and myrrh back for themselves, and arrive at a much more classic looking, beatific scene, this time bathed in soft light and aglow with angels and choirs singing. 

The Epiphany is about the surprise of finding God where you don’t expect it—and so theologically, I think the Life of Brian gets at where the real messiah lies—it’s not in the beatific scene, it’s in the dirty messiness of a manure-strewn stable. It’s not in Herod’s palace, or the Temple, or even in Jerusalem; it’s in a house in Bethlehem. It is in the pain and messiness of life when we can discover that God is lying here in our midst. To appreciate daybreak and the shining of new manifest divine light, we have to know what darkness is first. And you hear that in all the Bible lessons this evening: in Isaiah the promise of a restored Jerusalem after the darkness of exile; in Ephesians a new hope for those Gentiles who had been excluded from salvation; and in the Gospel, the radiant promise that God is revealed not just to the chosen people but to wanderers and foreigners who fall down and worship. 

Today’s message is that Jesus is not just for the Jews or chosen people. Jesus is not just for us. Jesus is for everyone. It is the non-Jewish non-chosen Magi who are the first people in the Gospel of Matthew to recognize, adore, and worship Jesus. And from the perspective of the first century what that means is that God doesn’t belong to one ethnic group, or one nation, but to the whole world. It’s a different message for us today—sort of. The message that the Gentiles can become followers of Christ is of course still very important to most of us. But the warning that comes with that is to recognize that it is very easy to believe we have an exclusive claim on the Christ; that Christ belongs only to us, and not to those who stand outside our expectations of salvation. I struggle with this as a Christian; I like to believe that Jesus would believe as I believe about politics, about the church, about how to worship. But when I do that, I put Jesus in a box. Which is not to say that we should not speak up when people, in the name of Jesus, commit violence or oppression and say “That is not Christ-like.” But we must have an attitude of charity towards those who are outside our portion of the church. And that’s true beyond the church as well—it is a feature of the Epiphany that Christians should be able to hear the wisdom of those outside the church, such as when Mahatma Gandhi said, “I like your Christ, but I do not like your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ.”  

These Magi are guided by all the things that we should be guided by—they look to the heavens, to science of a sort; they look to prophecy and scripture and tradition; they ask other wise people for directions. So how can we be Magi? Not just how can we be wise, but how can we be people who are constantly looking and listening and searching for God? How can we be people who study and take the time to bring gifts appropriate for the occasion? It’s not just that gold, frankincense and myrrh are costly it’s that they honor Jesus as king, priest, and mortal. To be magi we would need to read widely—the Magi read the stars—so not just our Holy Scriptures but history and science and world events. 

The magi encounter evil, too, on their way to Jesus. How do we discern who is dangerous, and who is to be trusted? The magi use Herod and his power to help them find Jesus, but then they are savvy enough to listen to their dream that warns them away from returning to him. We don’t read the rest of the story, but when they don’t go back to Herod, he kills all the babies in Bethlehem. Jesus frightens evil, and evil reacts with deadly force. Jesus is revealed to Herod as well as to the magi; darkness recognizes the light, even as it hates it. But evil dies, too, and eventually Jesus, Mary and Joseph return from Egypt to live and teach and spread good news. 

 I admit to a certain heightened love of the story of the Epiphany since I have served my entire ordained life at Churches of the Epiphany—before being at the Church of the Epiphany in Manhattan I was at the Church of the Epiphany in Agoura Hills, CA. So I’ve had a lot of opportunity to ruminate on what the Epiphany can say to a church community when it is the model we live. 

A few years ago at Epiphany, a beloved family of the parish received terrible news. Their 18 month old daughter, Anna, had a brain tumor. It was one of those diagnoses than when you look it up on the internet, you just weep, because the prognosis was not good. But we prayed, visited, brought meals… Anna had surgery, radiation, and finally a few months after her diagnosis, they were ready to reintroduce the bone marrow they had taken from here before the radiation, the crucial last step that would give her an immune system again. Her parents asked for our prayers. So we put together a prayer schedule. 50 people in the parish signed up at different times of day, from Dawn Miller at 4am to Fran Wilson at 11:30pm and promised to pray for Anna at their designated time so that Anna’s parents could look at the schedule and when they were feeling despairing or alone, know that someone from Epiphany was praying for them right then, lifting them up out of the darkness.

A few weeks ago, a very healthy Anna was a sheep in our Christmas pageant. All the medical treatment worked, she’s about to turn five years old, and if you didn’t know her story, you’d just think she was an ordinary, cute kid. But when you do know her story, she’s a shining light. When Anna was diagnosed, I was desperately afraid that her illness would shatter the faith of her parents and our community. It was a dark time, full of hard questions about God’s presence. But now light has dawned. I’ve never had such a vibrant epiphany—such a powerful sense of God’s presence working through science, through love, and through prayer. 

So “arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.” 


Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Downton Abbey and the Church of the 21st Century

I have rarely looked forward to something on television as much as I’m looking forward to the premiere of the second season of Downton Abbey on PBS next Sunday, January 8. For those who are not familiar with it, it is a British drama set on the cusp of World War I with an Upstairs, Downstairs feel to it—the lives of the servants get about as much attention as the lives of the Granthams, the wealthy family who own the property. If you wanted to disparage it, you’d say it was just a fancy soap opera; if you wanted to honor it, you’d define it as a timeless drama about love, change, power, and war.

I think the real reason it interests me is that it depicts a world that is going through profound change at every level, and all the characters are wrestling with what that will mean for them. Everyone is asking, “What is my place in this world?” It opens with the injustice that the estate is entailed to a distant male relative rather than the Grantham daughters. Those three daughters (and their parents and grandmother) each grapple with finding how they will fit in the new world of the 20th Century—whether they want to rebel against what the older generations expect of them or embrace it. The new heir is a modern man with a profession, who doesn’t want to live what he views as the idle life of a gentleman in the country.

The staff of the house are also struggling with change; one housemaid leaves to take a secretary position—a step towards independence for her. A telephone is installed, to the horror of the butler; there are concerns that vapors from the new electric lights might be poisonous.

The church also is on the cusp of change, and many people are currently asking “What is our place in this world as a church?” Significant structural change is on the hearts and minds of many Episcopalians, because it seems that the model of the late 19th and 20th Centuries—priests trained at 3 year seminaries called as rectors of parishes with large buildings; General Conventions held every three years with eight delegates per diocese lasting two weeks—may not be sustainable in the 21st Century. Most Episcopal seminaries are facing significant financial crises, and will be changing how clergy are educated in the next decades. Many parishes cannot afford to pay a full time priest, nor to maintain their crumbling buildings. And many of those congregations are graying and have shrunk in such a way it is hard to attract younger members—especially since those younger members belong to a generation for which going to church is the exception rather than the rule. Taking a two week vacation from your job to go to General Convention is hardly an option for young professionals (clergy or lay!) so representatives tend to be retired, older, and affluent.

And yet, there are vital stories of growth and powerful mission around the church, and lots of good news, so I don’t despair. I know that the characters of Downton Abbey may as individuals be affected negatively by the winds of change, but ultimately, a society in which women are viewed as equals, class is not ultimately decisive about a person’s value, and greater liberties abound is will be a good thing for England. In the church, it is true that some parishes will sell their property; some clergy will be out of work; a three year seminary education may no longer be the norm. But the Gospel of Jesus is compelling, and the Episcopal Church has an important role to play in spreading that Good News. At Epiphany, we just had the largest Christmas attendance ever, and that came on the heels of a pageant populated by 47 human beings and one dog.

A friend’s blog recently pointed out that Google’s auto-fill-in top four choices for the sentence begininning, “Is the Episcopal Church…” are “...dying?”, “...Catholic?”, “...liberal?”, and “...right for me?” All the mainline Protestant churches get “...dying?” as the first option. Roman Catholics and Baptists get “…a cult” as their first option. But no other church gets the suggestion, “Is the Episcopal Church right for me?” There are people out there who are asking that question of Google. Our job as Christians is to make ourselves available and visible so that they can ask it of us, and give them the answer, “Maybe. Come with me and see.” There is nothing more powerful than a personal invitation to come and worship.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

"Abba, Father!"

A sermon for the Feast of the Holy Name, January 1, 2012

“If Jesus is God’s only Son, then how are we all children of God?”

That was what one of the youth group members asked at our first gathering 2 years ago, which turned into a theological Q and A feast. We use words like “only” and “all” in the church sometimes even when they sound like they are mutually exclusive.  

My answer at the time—Jesus is God’s son in a very particular and unique way, the rest of us are God’s children out of love—gets fleshed out this morning in the passage from Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.”

We are children of God because God has adopted us as brothers and sisters of God’s only Son.  

Which leads to a strange relationship between our earthly parents and our divine Parent; because they each stand in for one another in our minds and hearts sometimes. We see that in the Gospel this morning. Jesus, the son of God, goes with Mary and Joseph to be circumcised and named by them; even though he was really named by God via the angel Gabriel. The divine son is going through the very human ritual of circumcision, and his very human parents are the ones who bestow his God-given name upon him.  

Our earthly-parent-given names are one of the ways our parents shape us—for better or worse. And our God-given name—that of Christian—shapes us, too. I am both Jennifer, daughter of Roberta and Walter, and Jennifer the Christian, child of God.  

And Jeff Evans, our seminarian, reminded me this morning of other ways our names change—he was in Alabama two weeks ago meeting with the new rector of his sponsoring parish, who was a seminary classmate of mine. He and his family kept asking, “How’s Jenni Reddall?”—ten years ago I was Jenni Reddall, before my marriage, and before another seminary friend told me around the same time, “Jennifer, you are woman enough to own your whole name.” I found myself unable to disagree, and became known as Jennifer.

I have inherited traits from both my earthly and my divine parents, and they’re all kind of jumbled up together inside me. But both earthly and divine parents are still actively shaping me—as a woman, as a parent, as a priest. That continues as long as we live—Jonathan’s mother died over 30 years ago, but she still exerts a powerful influence on who he is today. I know both sets of parents love me, and desire good for me. That good which they desire isn’t always in agreement—what my parents want for me and what God desires for me are not always the same; and what my parents desire for me and what God desires for me are not always what I want for myself.

I had an Evangelical phase in high school. I went to a bunch of Happening weekends, which are like Cursillo for teenagers, for those who know the Cursillo movement. Basically, it was a spiritual retreat weekend run by teenagers for teenagers, with a lot of tears and hugs and guitar music. One of my favorite songs was “Abba, Father.”

Now I don’t play the guitar—I’ve deliberately not learned how to play the guitasr because priests who can play the guitar usually end up having to play the guitar… but I realized this week that “Abba, Father” only has two chords, so I spent the last 3 days practicing those chords on one of the Day School’s guitars so I can share it with you today. The new year is about trying new things, right? 

I think what spoke to me was both the “Abba” language for God and the idea of God as a potter who was shaping me—that I wasn’t fully formed, but that God was molding me, shaping me, and forming me into the person God wanted me to be. Please join in, especially on the chorus, and especially if you know it. 

Abba Abba Father. 
You Are the Potter
And we are the Clay. 
The Work of Your Hands.

Mold Us.   Mold Us and Fashion Us.
Into the Image. 
Of Jesus Your Son. 
Of Jesus Your Son. 

Father, may we be one in You,
May we be one in You,
As He is in You and You are in Him.  

Glory and Praise to You.
Glory and Praise To YOu. 
Forever Amen. 
Forever Amen.