Sunday, July 15, 2012

God in--and out--of the box

A sermon from July 15, 2012

There aren’t many Gospel lessons in the lectionary where Jesus doesn’t appear. But when Jesus isn’t in a Gospel story, it’s usually because John the Baptist is being a stand-in for him—a preview, if you will—as in the stories about John the Baptist’s ministry that we hear during Advent. John is the one who points the way to Jesus, and it is still true in today’s story. John’s interactions with Herod point the way to where Jesus’ interactions with the Hebrew and secular authorities will go. It’s not pretty.   

But my favorite verse of today’s gospel is this about Herod’s feelings towards John: “When [Herod] heard [John], he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.” I think that just about sums up our relationship with God for many of us. Herod has John in prison, but he brings him out periodically to listen to him—and he likes what he hears. He likes the feeling of being provoked and perplexed, the new insights and ideas that John brings to him. John tells Herod the truth—probably about many things, although the passage only focuses on Herod’s unlawful marriage with his sister-in-law—and how often would the people surrounding Herod have told him the truth? John’s voice of dissent must have been refreshing. But when the conversation is over, Herod always sends John back down to the prison. He doesn’t let him out. He doesn’t free him. He doesn’t let John change him.  

How many of us want to keep God in a box like Herod does with John? We like God, we like being in the presence of God, we like the insights God gives us because honestly, in our heart of hearts, we know they’re true… but we want it on our terms, on our own timeline. We don’t really want God to change us. So we’d like to be like Herod. We’d like to have a little God-box that we could carry around with us, and whenever we felt like we needed God or wanted to have a chat we’d take God out of the box, but when we wanted to do other things, or when God pushed us too far, we could put God back in the box, close it, and move on. 

And I am here today to remind you that we are right to be worried about what will happen to us if we let go of the illusion that we can confine God to only certain areas of our lives, at certain times, in certain relationships. Because if we do start to acknowledge what is already true—that God is all in all and dwells in every crevice of our being and lives—we will be changed. 
And if we are changed—if we live fully and completely in touch with the Gospel and God every moment of every day, what would be different? Wouldn’t we live our personal lives, our political lives, our professional lives differently if we really and truly followed the Gospel in every way? And I say this as someone who would have as much to change or more than anyone else here—I’m your priest, but I am not a perfect role model.

David steps outside the box of propriety today, too. If you ever want to start reading the Bible, start reading 1 and 2 Samuel, because they’re like a good telenovella. At this point, Saul has died, and David has become King, and they are bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem to reside in its new tent. David dances, wearing only a linen ephod. What’s an ephod, you may ask? Based upon the descriptions, throughout scripture, it sounds like an ephod was something like a cross between a tunic and an apron and a breastplate, made of linen. But it was not a garment worn by itself, and it’s not a garment that would necessarily have covered up, um, all the important parts of a man to cover up while he’s dancing. 

His wife Michal—who is also Saul’s daughter—is disgusted at such a display. It is undignified, an action unbecoming a king. You can almost hear her thinking, “My father would never have done that.” In today’s terms, it probably looked less like the royal wedding than the Pride parade. A few verses later, she confronts David, saying, “how the king of Israel honored himself today, uncovering himself today before the eyes of his servants’ maids, as any vulgar fellow might shamelessly uncover himself!” David retorts, “It was before the Lord, who chose me in place of your father and all his household, to appoint me as prince over Israel, the people of the Lord, that I have danced before the Lord. I will make myself yet more contemptible than this, and I will be abased in my own eyes; but by the maids of whom you have spoken, by them I shall be held in honor.”

 David is urgently pointing out to Michal that those maids… not even his servants, but the maids of his servants, they get their relationship with the Lord. It was the Lord who asked David to dance, and if he looked unconventional or at odds with her image of what a king should look like, then it was her image of kingship that needed to change, because he knew he was the anointed king who was listening to the Lord and following his instructions to the best of his ability. And if the maids of his servants know that better than his wife, so be it—he will continue to listen to the Lord, and not change the Lord’s instructions just to make her more comfortable. 

David is willing to face ridicule to follow the Lord. And isn’t that—at some level—the same thing that holds so many of us back from following the Gospel in all areas of our lives? Being told that what we’re doing is not smart, or wise, or realistic, or practical or appropriate? And that such disappointment and ridicule of us could come not from some outside source who we can just write off, but from those closest to us: family members, co-workers, friends. “You can’t come to brunch with us because you’re going to church?” “You can’t go on vacation with us (or buy X) because you’re giving how much money away to the poor?”, “You’re campaigning for who?” We will be changed, and the people around us will notice it. 

The General Convention of the Episcopal Church just ended—the huge behemoth of a legislative assembly that involves 400 lay deputies, 400 clergy deputies, and somewhere around 150 or 200 bishops from every diocese in the Episcopal Church which meets every three years to make decisions about our worship, our programs, and our relationships. Some of the decisions at that General Convention have met with ridicule in the news media—some described accurately and others containing gross factual inaccuracies, as the Wall Street Journal piece yesterday. But here’s some of what General Convention really did in trying to balance our desire to not put God in a box, but also to give ourselves the necessary structure to make the Gospel accessible to people:

We passed a resolution that will create a task force to look at restructuring our church and our decision making process; wondering if perhaps the methods used 220 years ago might be made more efficient by 21st Century technology and ease of travel.

We officially created provisional rites for blessing same-gender couples, which we’ve already been doing at this church and many others in the US for many years.

We added “transgendered” to the categories of people who cannot be discriminated against in our church.

We voted to encourage church assets to be invested in companies that contribute positively to bringing about development in the Palestinian territories; and specifically did not pass a resolution that would have encouraged church assets to be divested from companies that did extensive business with Israel.

We delayed the implementation of a denominational health plan and pension plan for all lay employees, but continued to require full participation within six years in the interests of justice and parity between clergy and lay employees.

We approved rites for the burial of animals as a pastoral response to decades of requests of people who felt that their grieving over animals could be made easier by recognizing their loss through prayer.

 We passed a balanced budget for the next triennium that was structured around the five marks of mission and that devotes much of its money to mission among the poor and dispossessed at home and around the world, including on Native American reservations, $2 million for starting new congregations, $1 million for making sure that every young Episcopal adult who wants to spend a year in a service program can do so, . 

The five marks of mission, the framework for that budget, are: 
• To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
• To teach, baptize and nurture new believers
• To respond to human need by loving service
• To seek to transform unjust structures of society
• To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth

Now some of those decisions are more out-of-the box than others; some were unanimous, and some were not; some will be permanent changes and some will not; but they were all made in good faith, democratically, by lay people, deacons, priests, and bishops. And really—when you’re up for ridicule, isn’t this what you’re going to be willing to be ridiculed for? Go ahead and ridicule us that we proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom! Go ahead and ridicule us that we teach and baptize and nurture new believes! Ridicule us because we respond to human need—and there is a LOT of need—by loving service, and not by passing the buck on the backs of the poor and the oppresed! Ridicule us when we seek to transform the unjust structures of society—and there ARE structure that are still unjust and it takes all of our voices, our votes and our money to change them. And finally, go ahead and ridicule us when strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth—the earth upon which we live and which we depend upon for our very lives. 

Because David was ridiculed and was the most faithful king Israel ever had. Because John was ridiculed and lost his head but pointed the way to Jesus and helped make his ministry possible. And because Herod was not willing to be ridiculed—he knew killing John was wrong but didn’t want to lose face with his family and his courtiers and he felt guilty about it for the rest of his life. And finally because Jesus was ridiculed and died on a cross. But that is never the end of our story—of THE story. So let go of God in the box, and hang on to God on the cross and outside the tomb, and let God carry us forward together in faith, wherever it is that God is calling us to go.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

R. A. Dickey and Kairos

This was my newsletter article for our July/August newsletter--a taste of summer!

I fell in with a group of baseball fans while in seminary—and we were in seminary 1999-2002, so the Yankees were in the World Series all three years we were at GTS, with the Yankees-Mets subway series being the clear highlight in 2000. 

My comically theological classmates taught me that baseball, unlike most other sports is played according to kairos, God’s time, rather than chronos, human time. The concepts of chronos and kairos are not necessarily biblical, but the idea is that chronos is the time according to the clock—it is dependable, orderly, and routine. Kairos is God’s time—the time in which “a thousand ages in thy sight are like an evening gone,” where a single moment can seem to last forever, and where years can pass in the blink of an eye. Football, basketball, and even my beloved soccer are all played according to the clock—when the last second ticks off and the whistle blows, the game ends. Baseball (and tennis, for those who are watching Wimbledon right now) take as long as they need—27 outs for each side, regardless of how much time goes by. The game is not limited by chronos, but proceeds according to kairos—however long it takes to finish the game, even if it means extra innings, is the length of the game.

I inherited a love of watching baseball from my classmates—and with my confidence that God always loves the underdog, and an affinity for National League teams and rules, I became a Mets fan.

Two years ago, I became intrigued by the story of a new pitcher for the Mets: R.A. Dickey. He was my age (ancient for baseball!) and had an intriguing story: he’d floated around mostly in the minor leagues for 12 years, and was finally getting his big break. And he was a knuckleball pitcher—the only one in baseball today.   Here was the ultimate underdog on the team of underdogs—how could I not cheer for him to finally make it? 

Last season he played well, and then I followed his blog as he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro over the summer to bring attention to the victims of human trafficking. The Mets refused to guarantee his contract if he was injured on the climb, but he went anyway—a risky move that warmed my heart: could there really be professional athletes who believed that caring for others was more important than fame and fortune?

Dickey’s successes this year are well documented in the newspapers—he has more wins than any other pitcher in the Major Leagues this year, pitched two consecutive one-hitters, and is confounding batters every time he pitches with his unpredictable knuckleball.

But I had no idea of the full depth of his story until I read his recently published memoir, Wherever I Wind Up: my Quest for Truth, Authenticity, and the Perfect Knuckleball. A childhood of poverty and abuse, being rescued through athletics, a scholarship to private school, and falling in love with his childhood sweetheart; getting drafted out of college with an $800,000 signing bonus only to have it all vanish when a medical exam discovered that he was missing a crucial ligament in his elbow.  His confidence shattered, it took 12 years of personal and professional struggles before he not only had the right pitching, but the right mindset and spiritual support to handle the pressure of the big leagues. 

And it all turned around in 2007 after a metaphorical baptism when he attempted to swim across the Missouri River in Council Bluffs, Iowa and failed utterly, nearly drowning. He writes, “When I was weeping underwater in the big brown currents of the longest river in North America, I was sure my time was over. God, it turned out, had other ideas, giving me a chance to see if a man who had spent a lifetime running away from the present could possibly find a way to embrace it.”

Living in God’s time, living in kairos, is not about running away from our present, it is about fully embracing it. This summer as we hopefully find time to get away, to recreate ourselves and slow down, I pray that we will remember that God’s promises to us are not all about the future, but also about living fully in each moment that we are given.

And if you are so inclined, make one of those moments be Epiphany’s night at the Brooklyn Cyclones on August  10!

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Children of the Heavenly Father

Sermon preached Sunday,  July 1, 2012

The author of the gospel of Mark uses this technique where he takes two apparently unrelated stories and sandwiches one in between the other and uses them to highlight aspects of each other. The best example is the cursing of the fig tree and the cleansing of the temple. Jesus, on his way to Jerusalem, curses a fig tree for not bearing any fruit, then cleanses the temple, and then passes by the same fig tree on his way back to Bethany and it has withered: the implication being that the temple, like the fig tree, is not bearing fruit and will be destroyed.  

Today we get two other stories: we begin with Jairus, who falls at Jesus’ feet and begs him to heal his daughter. Then we get the woman who has suffered from hemorrhages for 12 years, who touches Jesus’ garment and doesn’t even say anything—but knows through her faith that she can be healed, and she is, and then falls at Jesus’ feet to tell her story. Then we’re back to Jairus, word comes from his home that his daughter has died, and Jesus says “Do not fear, only believe” and goes to the house, and raises up the 12 year old daughter back to life. 

The connection isn’t as obvious in this case—they are both healing stories, and they are both about faith, but it’s a gentler dialogue. I hear it more about how Jesus does not turn us away when we come to him. In both cases, he is encountering people who are ritually impure—the woman would not have been able to be touched by other Jews for 12 years. What an incredible exclusion—and yet she touches Jesus and his response is not anger at the transferred impurity, but the healing of that infirmity and a desire for identification. Once Jairus’ daughter died, she would also have been unclean, and yet Jesus goes in to her and takes her hand. Jesus goes with us where we need him to—whether or not it is impure, or costly to him, or understood by the crowd.  

But the idea that I really get out of the interplay of these two stories is that Jesus is never too busy to hear us—he doesn’t get so focused on Jairus’ daughter that he doesn’t have time to heal the woman with the hemorrhages. And after healing her, when the girl has died, and the crowd thinks it’s too late and Jairus should just leave Jesus alone, Jesus continues along to Jairus’ house.  

A friend was out with Jonathan and I a month ago, and we got on the topic of multitasking somehow and my friend said something about how he thought maybe God was too busy to hear his prayers: imagine the number of prayers ascending to God at any given moment—how could God possibly hear, much less respond, to all of them. And then one of us made a joke about my friend’s prayers getting stuck in God’s spam filter. And I know what that feels like—God has not always answered my prayers in the timeline and with the answer I wanted. But hear how dedicated Jesus is to the people who call out for his help in these two stories today—when Jairus’ daughter dies, and the crowd basically gives up and says “don’t waste his time,” Jesus responds, “do not fear, only believe.” God does not have a spam filter for our prayers—they all get there. 

As many of you know, last week I went with Jonathan to the Augustana Heritage Association gathering at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Augustana was the Swedish Lutheran church before it joined with other ethnic Lutheran churches and formed the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. It included an event that had the potential for the headline, “Fatal stampede of octogenarian Swedes on their way to Garrison Keillor hymn sing.” Seriously, there was a lot of pushing for position when they opened the doors an hour before the event, and we were the youngest people there by several decades. 

But at that hymn sing, we sang one of the Swedish classics-- Tryg­gare Kan Ing­en Va­ra—Children of the Heavenly Father. The first verse goes like this: 

Children of the heav’nly Father
Safely in His bosom gather;
Nestling bird nor star in Heaven
Such a refuge e’er was given.


It’s one of those hymns that sends Jonathan weeping whenever it’s sung. Hymns have beauty in and of themselves, but they’re also beautiful for what they mean to certain people at certain times; Amazing Grace is appropriate for almost any context, but when you picture it as a testament to being convicted by the horrors of the slave trade, it really takes off. Gospel songs are beautiful in and of themselves, but their meaning in the context of slavery usually becomes deeper and more complex and emotional. Because we were in the midwest—and continued on to South Dakota—I had this real sense of how harsh life was for these American Swedish Lutherans— visions of farmers out on the prairies with all their struggles: crop failures, children dying, sickness, ”Plague, pestilence and famine”... and this is what they sang to give themselves the courage and faith to persevere. And the story of the hymn itself mirrors that. Carolina Berg wrote the hymn in part to process her grief upon witnessing her father drown when he fell off a boat.
Life is hard, whether you’re a woman with a medical condition in the 1st Century, a parent whose child is sick in any century, or a farmer on a windswept prairie, or a NYC resident in the 21st Century. It might be differently hard now than it was in earlier times—medical treatment, opportunities for women and people of non-Europrean ancestry, the privilege for many of us (though not all of us) of not worrying about where our next meal is coming from. But we suffer—we love, we lose those we love, we work, our work is unsuccessful or disappoints us, and we have to reconcile that with our faith in the loving God who today heals both people who come to him, and says “do not fear, only believe.”

Which brings me back to this hymn... platitudes about ”if you just believe, it will be alright” can be pretty cheap when they come from well-intentioned people who have not known loss or suffering. But coming from Carolina Berg, and the generations of Swedish Lutherans who held on to these words through countless disasters, they bring comfort and inspiration to me because they don’t diminish the reality of anguish or trivialize loss, but they do point to the mercy that can exist alongside suffering, and the confidence that God does not forsake us even in our darkest hours. Just imagine that I am 600 Swedish Lutherans singing this a capella in four part harmony, led by Garrison Keillor.

God His own doth tend and nourish;
In His holy courts they flourish;
From all evil things He spares them;
In His mighty arms He bears them.

Neither life nor death shall ever
From the Lord His children sever;
Unto them His grace He showeth,
And their sorrows all He knoweth.

Though He giveth or He taketh,
God His children ne’er forsaketh;
His the loving purpose solely
To preserve them pure and holy.


 Here is an audio version of the hymn so you can hear the tune: