Monday, April 7, 2014

APRIL IS THE CRUELEST MONTH

A LECTIONARY SERMON FOR LENT 5 2014
April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain….
 
 
So begins "The Waste Land," the signature work of that most Anglican of poets, T.S. Eliot.  How it suits my mood and our readings today, including the one you didn't hear – Paul's letter to the Romans.  He begins that letter by warning that "to set the mind on the flesh is death."  In doing so, he is, I think a tad too hard on all of us, trapped as we are in the flesh of our bodies.  Oh, I try always to follow his advice and set my mind instead on "the Spirit [that] is life and peace," but every April death crowds my thoughts.
April is, indeed, the cruelest month and, for me, this is the cruelest week…so full of memory and desire, spring rains, dull and aching roots, lilacs I would coax from the dead land.  In a garden so full of life, the bright flowers, the well-fed birds, even the warm sun seem to mock a recurring sense of loss.
Sitting in that garden, my thoughts go back to 1968, a year that began so full of hope and promise – a war ending…or so we thought, rights being realized, positive change at every turn.  Then, on April 4, that awful evening bulletin – Martin had been shot and killed in Memphis.  In an instant, the best of times became the worst of times.  A bullet had killed the dream…had killed the hope…or so they thought.
Then, of a February just three years ago, in a squalid refugee camp in Jenin, Palestine, I met another hero – Juliano Mer-Khamis, the son of an Israeli Jewish mother and a Palestinian Christian father.   In his well-named Freedom Theatre, he was, we could see, bringing joy and hope-filled dreams to the traumatized children of the camp.  Their sense of joy was palpable, when, by mistake, I stumbled into a dark room where the kids were rehearsing "Alice in Wonderland."  It was a joy that stayed with me upon my return home…and all through March.  April 4 dawned again and, with it this time, an e-mail.  Juliano had been shot dead beside his little red car that I had last seen parked in front of the theater.  Another bullet had killed the joy…or so they thought.
But April 8 has for fourteen years now been the hardest day of all to bear.  It was a warm, sunny Saturday…about two in the afternoon…when Mimi, the love of my life for thirty-five years, breathed her last.  I held her hand, as her breath "returned to God who gave it."  And outside, on the street, I could hear the music of the ice cream truck and the sound of happy children.  I'll never forget the song on the jingling bells – "Do Your Ears Hang Low" – nor the cruelty of the faceless disease that had killed our love…or so I thought.
And this afternoon, this April 6 of the San Francisco Night Ministry's 50th anniversary, there will be a funeral in The City for its founder, the Rev. Don Stuart…a funeral I must miss to serve the living he had served.  I think he would understand and approve.  For his ministry lives and thrives in them. 
So too, despite death's best efforts, does the work of Martin and Juliano.  This April 4, for example, the Freedom Theatre's school graduated its first four actors.  One of them, Motaz, said the following:"The Freedom Theatre is not just a theatre, it's a stage that can create revolution. Theatre is my whole life now. It gives me hope, and dreams."  In those dreams, Juliano lives.  And, in my nightly dreams, Mimi also lives…proof for me that love does not die.  Paul was right about that as he was about the spirit.  The spirit of love is indeed "life and peace."
But there's another date to keep in mind as Lent winds down and, next Sunday, we begin Holy Week.  Ever wonder about the day that Jesus was killed?  When it was precisely?  A quick look at the Hebrew calendar tells us it was the first day of Passover in the year 3760.  That would be April 7 on our calendar… about three in the afternoon.  There's another song that haunts my thoughts every year about this time of year, every Good Friday round about three: "Were You There When They Crucified Our Lord?"  They had killed – or so they thought – our God.
And, today, we're reminded of the events that led up to that day, the events that presaged and precipitated that first Good Friday.
We've been through this before…together.  We know that, when we hear this story about Lazarus, Good Friday is near.  Consider where Jesus was and why.  Consider why, although he loved Martha and Mary and Lazarus, 6 "he stayed two days longer in the place where he was."  Fact is Jesus was on the lam again…for the last time it turns out.  Recall John's words in the verses immediately preceding our Gospel for this morning:
So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, 'How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly….
The Jews took up stones again to stone him….32 39Then they tried to arrest him again, but he escaped from their hands.
40 He went away again across the Jordan to the place where John had been baptizing earlier, and he remained there.
 
And today he crosses the Jordan and begins that final trek back up the Jericho road to Bethany and the cross.  The time has come.  "I won't keep you in suspense any longer," Jesus seems to say.  "I am the Messiah.  You want proof?  Come to Bethany and watch what I'm about to do!"
Jesus meets Martha on the road and a powerful scene unfolds in which Jesus, the Messiah, claims his divinity while demonstrating his humanity, grieving with, weeping with Martha and Mary, probably holding them in his arms….the very essence of human and divine compassion.  41
I thought of these things Sunday before last, when, in the New York Times style section, I read an article entitled "A Generation Redefines Mourning" about millennials trying to work out their grief on the internet.  The twenty-something asking the funeral home to e-mail him a picture of his dead mother, so he wouldn't have to go in and identify her body.  The "Ask a Mortician" channel on YouTube.  The Twitter hashtag "RIP."  The Facebook posting of a death followed by 136 "likes."  The "selfie" at a funeral.  Wading through this litany of what the author called the "still evolving social norms" of "modern loss " and "death awareness," I found it morphing into some black comedy reminiscent of Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One.  And, recalling Jessica Mitford's more serious American Way of Death, I found myself reflecting on how we've accustomed ourselves to avoiding facing death honestly; to masking it with perfumes, cosmetics, and euphemisms; to stifling our very human grief…forgetting perhaps that grief is but the continuation of love that refuses to die 
How unreal.  How unsatisfying.  How unlike the nitty-gritty, in-your-face,   quality of the Lazarus story.   The harsh reality of the decomposing body…"Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days."  The hysterical hurled accusation:  "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died."  The honesty of the grief: "When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved… 3435Jesus began to weep."
Jesus began to weep!  "It's okay," he seems to say.  "I understand.  Yes, Paul's right, keep your mind on the Spirit.  But it's alright to lament death, to grieve the earthly loss of a loved one, to share the grief of others."  "Don't worry," he adds, "there will be resurrection.  Roll back that stone.  I'll demonstrate."
Comparing ourselves to our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers, we Episcopalians sometimes like to say "We're not a grief-stricken, guilt-ridden 'Good Friday Church.'  We're a joyful 'Resurrection Church.'"  Yes, we are.  And that is good.  But it is not good – it is not really possible – to fully be the latter without some experience of the former.  It is not possible to fully experience the joy of the Resurrection without knowing the anguish of that Thursday night in Gethsemane and the grief, the guilt, the pain of Good Friday.
As we are told in Ecclesiastes and will experience in the microcosm of Holy Week:
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
 
And, among them,
 
A time to weep, and time to laugh;
 
A time to mourn, and a time to dance
 
 
So, next Sunday, as we dance in here, waving our palms and singing our hosannas, prepare to experience the totality of Holy Week – the good, the bad, and the ugly…and the sublimely, supremely joyful - yes, "every matter under heaven."  Don't just listen to the words of John's Passion Gospel.  Absorb them.  Live into them.  Savor them each day of Holy Week.  In the totality of that experience you will find the richness of faith, the fullness of life, and the completeness of Christ's promise of salvation.
 
AMDG
 

BLOWIN’ IN THE WIND

A LECTIONARY SERMON FOR 2 LENT 2014
The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.
 
Again, it's good to be back.  Back from awe-inspiring places at the edges of the earth from the fin del mundo.  Back from physically crashing last week in the face of a too much, too soon, too busy schedule.
Thanks to a far lighter schedule these past few days, I've had a better than usual chance to reflect – on life, the world, the people and creatures that fill it, and the good God who made and moves it all.  Even activists need to go to the well every now and then.  And, thanks to my enforced leisure, I've also had a better than expected chance to get acquainted with the new creature in my life – a little dog named Prince…a little dog who's obviously never been near a fish pond.  He's fallen in three times.  After his third swim – dogs really do know how to dog paddle – I recalled how Jesus had promised Peter that he would be a fisher of people.  I know Jesus has promised me a lot, but it never occurred to me that "fisher of dogs" would be part of it.
Busy as it was, my trip also afforded me a special opportunity to reflect…beneath a blanket of stars that, for the first time, included the Southern Cross…to the morning call of roosters on a tiny speck of an island called Rapa Nui…and at the foot of the dagger-like mountains in Patagonia called Torres del Paine.  I brought with me and tried to focus those reflections on our reading for today – those very familiar words we just heard from John. 
What would I say when I got back?  What could I say that hasn't already been said about this passage so packed with powerful images known to every Christian?  Who hasn't wrestled – like Nicodemus – with the concept of being born again?  What baseball fan hasn't seen that guy with the rainbow-colored afro, holding up that handmade sign behind home plate: John 3:16?  You know:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
 
He's right you know – the guy behind home plate.  John 3:16 really does sum it all up.  In its one sentence it does encapsulate the entire meaning of the New Testament, of Jesus, and of what I believe about Jesus as God.
And what might that be?  What I believe about God?  I'm an Episcopalian.  Like you I didn't park my mind at the door when I came in this morning.  If I ever did, I no longer believe in a God who is an old man with a long white beard.  No, I believe in a far more awesome God – the Creator God behind the Big Bang in Neil deGrasse Tyson's marvelous new "Cosmos" series on Fox.  But such a God is unknowable, hard to get our arms around, hard to give our hearts too…easy to fear, but hard to love.
But, unlike Tyson, I also believe in revelation, the kind with a small "r."  And that's where John comes in.  That unknowable God, John tells us, loved us…so much so, that it came to us as Jesus, so that we might know and love the God who is love.  As Jesus promised and as John reminds us this morning, that God remains with us in the Spirit – the Spirit that breathed physical life into us at birth and calls us to spiritual rebirth.
Which brings me to my travelling reflections on the pampas of Patagonia at the foot those awesome mountains of Torres del Paine…mountains so inviting in the soft light of dawn, so intimidating beneath the brooding clouds of night.  I was there four nights in a canvas covered geodesic dome in a so-called eco-camp…all very comfortable, but, oh, so tiny and vulnerable.  How comfortable?  A king-sized bed, a hot shower, and an even-hotter wood stove…and, on a night table, a "Welcome" book that contained instructions for two potential emergencies. Given the wood stove in the canvas dome, I could understand the potential for a fire emergency.  But a "wind emergency?"  What in the world might that be?  More tired than curious, I stopped reading and fell quickly to sleep.
Emerging next morning for a first hike, I got the idea…why some people call this southern tip of the world, not Tierra del Fuego, but Tierra del Venta.  Patagonia, I learned, is lashed by a steady gale force wind and, the book told me, wind bursts of 200 mph had, on occasion, swept through our camp. 
Still, I was not prepared for that second night. Our reading from John still fresh in my mind, I began to doze off.  Then, at the top of the mountain, there was an explosive sound – a cross between a whoosh, a thud, and a thunderclap.  Then, almost like a tangibly physical, finite ball, it raced down the side of the mountain with the roar of an onrushing freight train.  It seemed to explode again, as it raced through the shuddering canvas dome.  And, almost as suddenly… it was gone …replaced by complete stillness, profound silence.
No longer would I have to read about it from a book.  No longer would I need words to describe it.  I knew what I had to talk about today:
The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.
In talking about this wind, Jesus does so in the same breath as he does in talking about the Spirit, adding "So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."  And they are all one – the wind, the breath, the Spirit.  You've heard it before.  You don't have to be a seminarian to know it.  In the languages it was written, the ambiguity is clear and intentional.  The Hebrew word ruach and the Greek word pneuma both mean breath, Spirit, and wind.  They are metaphorical words – one for the other – that give rise to countless analogies in the Bible, the first, not surprisingly, being in Genesis. 
 
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.
 
And that life-giving, life-changing wind – God's Spirit - has continued to work God's will in the world and fill it – unbidden, unexpected – with countless graces. 
The pages of the Bible are full of examples.  Remember Noah and how the flood ended?  "God caused a wind to blow over the earth and the waters receded."  Remember Moses at the Red Sea?  "Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the Lord drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land.."  Remember God's challenge to Job?  "Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: 2 'Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?  3 Remember the mighty day of Pentecost?  "When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting."
These, of course, are all analogies for the workings of God's Spirit in the world and, again, it's more than just coincidental that the authors of these stories used the same Hebrew word – ruach – or, in Luke's case, the Greek word pneuma - to describe both wind and Spirit.  Every Jewish scholar of Jesus' time knew this and it is for forgetting it that Jesus chides Nicodemus.
Let me turn then to the third, very related, and most important meaning of those words – breath.  Most important because our breath is the very stuff of our being …the Spirit of God that animates the dust of our physical being, the soul that will return to God. 
As Genesis tells us, "The Lord God formed the man from the soil of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being."  Analogy perhaps.  But it also a reality any mother can attest to, hearing her baby's cry after its first breath – a cry that says "I'm alive!  I'm a human being!"
And, in the end – the end of our earthly life - the spirit will leave the body.  As, Ecclesiastes tells us, "the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it."  So it was when Jesus died.  His last words on the cross were "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit." "Having said this," Luke reminds us, "he breathed his last."
But at the resurrection, at the end of time, that breath will return, as body and spirit are reunited.  Probably the most dramatic earnest of this is contained in Ezekiel's metaphorical vision of being commanded to prophesize to a valley full of dry bones…metaphorical for the reestablishment of the exiled Israelites in their homeland.  He was, God said, to tell the bones "I will put breath in you and you will live. Then you will know that I am the Lord." 
He said to me, "Prophesy to the breath, – prophesy, son of man – and say to the breath: 'This is what the sovereign Lord says: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these corpses so that they may live.'"  So I prophesied as I was commanded, and the breath came into them; they lived and stood on their feet, an extremely great army.
It was against the background of these understandings that Jesus spoke to Nicodemus and to us.  It is in this sense that we are to understand being born again, being born from above, being born of the Spirit.  It is in this sense, that Jesus would have us appreciate the wind – the wind as spirit – that cannot be seen but whose effects are so readily apparent – the wind-tossed waves across a primordial sea, stirring the chemicals of life; the wind-shaped landscape of Patagonia where all the trees are bent toward a rising sun; the fluttering wings of a butterfly, sending tiny waves around the world; the chill wind of winter; the warm breeze of summer.  If we are to be born of the Spirit, we must be open to such stirrings, such intimations of God's Spirit. 
Richard Averbeck, an Old Testament scholar, using old gender stereotypes, puts it this way:
We need to take this biblical analogy seriously in both understanding the nature of God's Spirit and in welcoming and engaging with his work. Wind is a mysterious and powerful force. We cannot always predict what it is going to do, and it is not under our control. The same is true of God. We cannot always predict what he is going to do, and he is not under our control even if he has told us what he is going to do. He is God. We are not. All this is true also of the Spirit of God. However, although we cannot completely understand and control the Holy Spirit, we can draw upon his power. Using the analogy of a ship driven by the wind, we can "put up the sails" in our lives and thereby take advantage of the blowing of the Spirit in and through our lives. We are empowered by the Holy Spirit as long as we have our sails up.
 
It's Lent.  Put up your sails.  Keep them raised and open to the winds of inspiration that the Spirit sends our way.  Take time to reflect on these unexpected graces in our lives.  And give thanks – thanks for having been created, for being sustained, for being alive.
Might we begin by closing our eyes and concentrating mindfully, thankfully, on our breathing – on the animating Spirit of God – without which we would be unmoving, soulless lumps of clay…our breathing that some take for granted, but that others with COPD, emphysema, or, like myself, asthma, are acutely mindful.
Let's try it a few times.  Close your eyes.  Take in a deep breath.  Hold it a couple of seconds.  Exhale.  As you do, say a silent prayer: "Thank you!"
Once again.  Inhale.  Hold it.  Exhale.
One more time.
Amen.
 
AMDG
      

YOU ARE MY HANDS

A LECTIONARY SERMON FOR EPIPHANY FIVE
 
 
I've been thinking a lot lately about time…and about analogies of the sort we just heard from Jesus in today's Gospel.  You know, salt, candles, and cities on a hill.          
The time part is easy.  It's that time of year.  The time between football and baseball, between the end and the return of daylight savings time – the "dark ages" of winter - is fast drawing to a close.  This week, pitchers and catchers return to spring training camp and this Yankee fan will have to start learning Japanese.  The sun has begun its northern migration and the days are growing longer.
And, for me, they seem to be going by a little more quickly.  With a trip to the summer heat of Buenos Aires tomorrow, my 74th winter is about to end.  Upon returning, I can begin my 75th spring, my search for a new dog, and dreams of future adventures. 
But age and the passing seasons also bring thoughts of mortality and that most precious of commodities - time.  They were thoughts driven home Sunday before last by an article in the New York Times by Paul Kalanithi, a Stanford brain surgeon just diagnosed with stage four lung cancer.  He asked his oncologist "How long have I got left?"  She replied "I can't tell you a time.  You've got to find out what matters most to you."  More on that later.
 But what about those analogies.  We were offered a slew of them today by Jesus – some better than others, all doubled-edged.
Take salt.  We all knows what it means to be "the salt of the earth"…to add flavor to the community, zing to what we do together, zest to life.  And we hardly need Jesus' warning about the down side.  I think we know what it feels like to lose our saltiness, our taste, our value as flavoring.  But there is an even deeper danger involved in being "thrown out and trampled under foot."  For grinding salt into the soil is the kiss of death for the earth.  Want to see what that looks like?  Visit Bad Water in Death Valley or the southern shores of the aptly named Dead Sea.
Then there's the candle – the light we're called to shine into a dark world, the light we mustn't hide under a basket.  And, while Jesus doesn't mention it, there's an added downside to placing a basket over a candle.  Not only is the world outside deprived of its light, but the candle itself is extinguished, deprived of life-giving oxygen.  Isn't that what we're doing to the world around us every day now, polluting the atmosphere with our   oxygen-absorbing carbon emissions?  Isn't that what happens to communities – to churches and nations – that build walls, exclude others, and hide in fear and darkness.  They flicker and fade.  And the light goes out.
And how about that city on a hill?  True enough, "A city built on a hill cannot be hid."  But the question remains: For better or for worse?  Jesus'     meaning is clear.  The light is better seen from a hilltop, an icon, a beacon of hope to all around.  And I'm sure that's how Ronald Reagan meant it, when he spoke of the United States as a "gleaming city on a hill," the torch of its ideals held high beside a golden door, open to all those "huddled masses yearning to breathe free."  But such a city – by its very visibility – can become a torment when its inhabitants succumb to hubris and lord it over those in the valleys below.  Witness the gleaming white settlements atop every hilltop in the West Bank, their inhabitants depriving the villagers below of their land and water, their livelihoods, their very dignity.  Witness an America, grown both fearful and triumphalist, valuing not so much its ideals as its military might, overthrowing the governments of others and killing from a distance with its drones.  Are not the dangers manifest?
But let's talk about other analogies that speak not about death, but about life and about how we are to live.
Writing for Sojourners, Joe Kay uses the analogy of a chick in an egg:
The chick has spent its entire life in its protective shell. But now, the nourishment of the yolk is all used up. The chick no longer fits comfortably inside the oval confine. It has no clue what lies outside the shell, but it knows instinctively that it has to break out or it will die.
Is that a good analogy for what we experience in our lives? Do we often find ourselves breaking out of shells?
Take religion, for example.
Many of us are born into some sort of religion. Maybe our particular religion is big enough that it gives us encouragement and space to grow. Hooray! Or maybe our particular religion turns out to be very confining — limited to only those who see things a certain way — and it becomes like a hardened shell, something that leaves us living in a small, dark space. Eventually we realize that God isn't confined to our shell, but lives outside of it. And we start to peck away….
When a chick finally spills out of its shell, it's haggard and exhausted. It rests for a while, trying to recover and take it all in. Soon, it gets up and starts learning to walk. It joins the other birds. Some day, it will fly.
One time, I asked the 4-H egg monitor whether she was tempted to help the chick escape from its shell — maybe crack it open a little bit. She said no, that the struggle is an important part of the breaking-out process. It makes the chick strong enough to deal with what comes next.
Without the struggle, the chick wouldn't survive outside the shell. The struggle makes the chick strong, keeps it alive, and gets it ready to fly one day. It's part of what some refer to as the amazing and mysterious process of life.
Something that others might also call grace.
Consider also the ungainly caterpillar in a cocoon, breaking free as a beautiful, liberated butterfly, giving physical witness to a grateful world of the grace and glory of God. 
Consider yet another analogy…suggested by this morning's reading from Isaiah, who speaks quite explicitly about what God requires of us:
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 7Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
8Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly….
There's a common theme running through this.  These are all actions - physical actions - that require us to use our hands…to loose the bonds, to break the yoke, to share our bread, to bring in the homeless, to cover the naked. 
And that brings me to the analogy…conjured up by a statue of Jesus… actually several of them.  There's one in Mainz, Germany and another in Canterbury, damaged by bombs.  There's one in Soweto toppled in a police raid.  There's yet another in San Diego damaged by vandals…perhaps a deacon in need of a good story.  Again, there's common theme here.  All these statues, you see, are missing their hands.  They've been left that way and decorated with signs that allude to the obvious analogy…signs that read: "You are my hands."
As we will affirm in a moment in the Creed, Christ will come again – physically - at the end of time.  Until then, however, Christ - God - is with us and in us, in the Holy Spirit and acts through us in the world.  We must, therefore, be not only the hands, but the feet and heart and mind of Christ.  We must use our hearts and minds to discern what Christ and the Spirit would have us do in today's world with our hands and feet and, yes, our mouths, to loose the bonds of injustice, to break the yoke of oppression, to feed the hungry, house the homeless, and clothe the naked.
We must also discern how the Spirit would have us translate these words of Isaiah - and of Jesus in the Beatitudes and Matthew 25 - into physical action in the twenty-first century world in which we find ourselves.
As you know, I have become a big fan of Pope Francis – the first pope to grace the cover of Rolling Stone.  In his words – not in Rolling Stone, but in his pre-Christmas exhortation The Joy of the Gospel – I hear the strong, clear voice of the Spirit.  It is a voice that shouts "NO!' to spirit of the time – "No" to an economy of exclusion; "No" to the new idolatry of money; "No" to a financial system that rules rather than serves; "No" to the inequality that spawns violence!  It is a voice, like Christ's this morning, that calls us to observe and teach the commandments and apply them to the culture of the time.  It is a voice that, in the clarity of its indictments, demands our attention.
"How can it be," Francis asks, "that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?"  How, he asks, "can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving?"  How can we accept a financial system pervaded by the "rejection of ethics and a rejection of God….a system which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits?"  "The worship of the ancient golden calf," he warns, "has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose."
It is an idolatry that has infected his own church…and, sad to say, even ours.  I would, for example, prefer to quote at length similarly clear statements by Episcopal or Anglican bishops…if I could put my hands on one.  They are, however few and far between.  Why?  Because the pushback is strong and the default position of "establishment church" all too alluring.
Talk about pushback? Francis' American bishops and the professional "apologists" on Catholic radio are in full denial mode, explaining away and "putting in context" what the pope "really" meant to say.  His archbishop in New York, whose main occupation these days seems to be soliciting funds for the renovation of his cathedral, throws his arms around Home Depot's Ken Langone and Fox News' Roger Ailes, his main contributors, deflecting the pope's words and declaring that God loves rich people too. 
Perhaps anticipating such pushback, Francis writes in Joy of the Gospel, that he indeed "loves everyone, rich and poor alike," but is "obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect, and promote the poor."  He cites, in this regard, the words of St. John Chrysostom: "Not to share one's wealth with the poor is to steal from them and take away their livelihood.  It is not our own goods which we hold, but theirs."  And, to those "haves" who would cry "Class warfare!" - while very successfully waging class warfare on the "have-nots" - he says:
Today in many places we hear a call for greater security.  But until exclusion and inequality in society and between peoples are reversed, it will be impossible to eliminate violence.  The poor and the poorer peoples are accused of violence, yet without equal opportunities the different forms of aggression and conflict will find a fertile terrain for growth and eventually explode.  When a society – whether local, national, or global – is willing     to leave a part of itself on the fringes, no political programs or resources spent on law enforcement or surveillance systems can indefinitely guarantee tranquility.
 
Is there anything inevitable about the exclusion, inequality, and violence that        confronts us?  Must we continue to live in such insecurity?  Must we accept such a dystopian future?
Of course not!  Not if we heed the words of Jesus and shine the light of love on a hurting world.  Not if we heed the words of Isaiah and loose the bonds of injustice thus revealed.  Not if we respond to the challenge of Dr. Kalanithi's oncologist: "You've got to find out what matters most to you." 
All of which brings me back to the question of time.  Mother Susan's reflection in last week's E-news is very apropos.  "How," she asked, is "God calling me to use my time?"  And what, she asked, does it "mean to follow Jesus and live as one of his disciples?"  Asking us – as I do now - to reflect on those questions, she offered us the thoughts of Grace Duddy, the Lutheran Church Stewardship Officer.  Ms. Duddy asked, in turn, "how [is] God is calling me to use my time to share God's grace and love with the world?"  And she resolved "to listen closely to the ways that God is teaching me how to be a better steward of all my time and helps me living into my Christian calling at all hours of the week, not just Sundays."
As I said at the outset, I find that those hours seem to be moving more swiftly these days and there remain for me probably fewer than for most of you.  I've done my reflecting and made my choice – to be a troublemaker, to follow a Jesus who raged at injustice, kicked over the tables of the moneychangers, challenged the powers-that-be, and got himself arrested.  As I said in a little book, "At my age, what is there to fear?"
But, I had to confess, "Age brings also a sense of that 'fierce urgency of now.'  My time to effect change is increasingly limited and I feel a pressing need to recruit new troublemakers."
So, in closing, let me ask you – let me beg you with all the urgency of age: Be the hands of Christ in the world, not just on Sunday, but every day.  Use those hands to loose the bonds of injustice, to break the yoke of oppression, to feed the hungry, house the homeless, and clothe the naked.  And, yes, to pray.
 
AMDG

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

EPIPHANIES, BAPTISMS, AND BEING GOD’S PEOPLE

 
A LECTIONARY SERMON FOR EPIPHANY ONE
 
 "Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.
 
 
Happy New Year!  Christmas is over…all twelve days.  We left our trees by the curb last week and they've probably been mulched by now.  The ornaments and the crèche have been packed away for another year.  The light is returning to the world, the days are again growing longer, and the Niners are again in the playoffs.  Kickoff's in ten minutes.  I'll keep this to nine.
We're embarked again on that season of new beginnings when all things are possible…even another game in Candlestick; of epiphanies when old truths are made clear; of a new year with new tasks – and some old ones – to be tackled.
New beginnings?  New tasks?  That's what today's readings are all about – the beginning of Christ's ministry and the renewal – in a few minutes – of ours.
Epiphanies?  They're rare but powerful moments of insight…the "sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something" the dictionary tells us… the sort of sudden insight that often accompanies a scientific breakthrough.  Witness old Archimedes, pondering the relation between mass and volume, and suddenly shouting "Eureka!" ("I've found it!").  They can be as simple as getting up from the breakfast table and realizing "Wow!  I could have had a V-8!"  Or they can be as profound as the recognition that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the predicted Son of Man, Isaiah's Servant upon whom the Spirit rests.         
That is the Epiphany – with a capital 'E' – that we in the Western Church celebrate on January 6 when God was made manifest to the gentiles, the Magi from the East.  In the Eastern Church, this Epiphany with a capital 'E' is marked on January 19 with the Baptism of Jesus, the event we celebrate today.  Surely, we can understand why – why this too is an Epiphany - as we contemplate Matthew's Gospel of today – a story told in all its power in all four Gospels. 
Talk about a breakthrough moment – the voice of our Creator God thundering through an opening in the clouds "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased," "the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on" Jesus.  Talk about new beginnings, new tasks!  When was the last time that a dove played a such key role in the Bible….?  In Genesis, of course…that rainbow moment when the dove, an olive branch in its beak, returned to Noah on the Ark…when all was made new and fresh, when everything again seemed possible, when all was filled with promise.
But let me focus on the tasks – old and new – that Jesus and we are called to by the Baptism of the Spirit.
First, a word on Baptism – what it is and what it is not.   Baptism is not the be-all and end-all – the end point - of our spiritual journey.  It is not some born-again moment that allows us to check the "righteousness" box and punch our ticket to personal salvation with a one-time, solitary act of faith.  That would be "cheap Grace" indeed. No, it is an undertaking, the acceptance of a commission, an entre into a community, the beginning of our spiritual journey.  And, in community, we will find the strength, the tools, and the support to perform the work the Spirit is calling us to and, in doing that,  "fulfill all righteousness" and find salvation…for ourselves and those around us.  As I've said many times, salvation is not a momentary, nor a solitary endeavor.  It is achieved over time and in community.  As Joy Moore, associate dean for African-American church studies at Fuller warns, it is time for churches to stop counting "the number of [ individual] baptisms – rather than the transformation of the community – as the sign of success."
But that begs two questions: How do we define "community" and how do we gauge its transformation?  The first is a question that Susan touched on last week in discussing our mission statement.  We are, in our many families, nuclear communities.  Coming together here we form a larger community, a parish we call Christ the Lord that belongs to a still larger community – the diocese – and, beyond that, the Church writ large.  And, as Susan said, we are, as Episcopalians and Christians, citizens also of the community we call Pinole, of California, the United States, and, yes, the world.  And, on our little blue planet spinning through the darkness of space, we are all God's people.  Which brings us to the tasks we embark upon in Baptism.
In his exhortation "The Joy of the Gospel," Pope Francis put it this way:
"Sometimes we are tempted to be that kind of Christian who keeps the Lord's wounds at arm's length.  Yet Jesus wants us to touch human misery, to touch the suffering flesh of others.  He hopes that we will stop looking for those personal or communal niches which shelter us from the maelstrom of human misfortune and instead enter into the reality of other people's lives and know the power of tenderness.  Whenever we do so, our lives become wonderfully complicated and we experience intensely what it is to be a people, to be part of a people."
 
So how are we doing on that score…on transformation?  Have we, as Joy Moore asked, "join[ed] the fellowship of a local congregation or the work of the Holy Spirit" – the work we're called to do after Baptism, the work Jesus was called to after his Baptism?  Do we see Christ the Lord as a "niche" to "shelter us from the maelstrom of human misfortune" or rather the springboard, the vehicle, for "enter[ing] into other people's lives" and "experienc[ing] intensely what it is to be a people, to be part of a people?"  Are we but a placid pool, insulated, isolated in our quiet corner of Contra Costa…or are we stirring the waters, sending out ever expanding, concentric waves to a wider sea of humanity…sharing the love of Christ with the world.
I arrived here five years ago.  Many of you were here then.  Many of you were not.  Looking at the congregation from where I'm standing, it's clear that a physical transformation has taken place.  It's clear, too, that a spiritual transformation has begun.  We've begun to engage with the wider world, entering into the lives of others, and beginning to know the power of tenderness.  Touching the "suffering flesh of others" in a Home Depot parking lot, in the Pinole Senior Village, at the West County Detention Center, or in the Tenderloin or just showing a willingness to know the "reality of other people's lives" further afield in places like Guatemala, Kenya, and Palestine, we've indeed begun the work of the Holy Spirit.
So, what remains before us?  Like Jesus emerging from the Jordan and ourselves as we finish renewing our baptismal vows this morning – Everything!  There is much to be done and we are in this together – Jesus and we, his people.  Isaiah's lovely Servant Song is instructive in this regard.  It speaks, in the first verses, of the Servant – the Messiah - who "will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth."  It anticipates Jesus who demands John's Baptism as affirmation of him as that Servant and of the establishment of justice as his ministry.  And, Isaiah tells us, "the coastlands wait for his teaching."
That, dear friends, is our part.  Jesus did his part…unto death.  It's now up to us…to spread the word and walk the talk.  We have, in the last verses of Isaiah this morning, been commissioned as a community as "a light to the nations, 7to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness."
My nine minutes are up.  Deacons, I fear, don't get overtime or timeouts.
I hope, however, you'll take time out after the game to reflect on the rest of the season called life, on what it means to be a light in the darkness, and on the degree to which we really mean it when we promise to share Christ's love with the world as we charge out those doors.    
 
AMDG