Sunday, November 25, 2012

Sermon for Sunday, November 25, 2012 John 18: 33-37 “The Cost of Kingship”

 Last week, Doug and I went to see the new movie "Lincoln." Daniel Day-Lewis was superb as the president who guided the nation through the bloody Civil War and forced through - by hook or by crook - the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, forever banning the institution of slavery in these United States.  Some of his closest aides and cabinet members told him that this task of passing the amendment was foolhardy - he had emancipated the slaves as part of his war powers. Why risk the political capital it would cost to make this a part of the constitution? Lincoln had just won re-election, and had sufficient coattails in the election to cause the defeat of a number of members of congress who were of the opposition party, but his own party had varying views on the subject of slavery, and it was unclear whether he would have the votes to pass it.

And there Lincoln sat, wearied by the four years of war, in a room filled with the latest invention - gas lamps lighting the room! - and lavish furniture and fabrics, and men dressed in fine suits with silk cravats aroudn their necks. In a nearby room, his wife Mary, still grieving the loss of their child Willie, sat, in satins and lace and bows and jet beads, a portrait of luxury in the midst of pain.

His advisors told him the political task ahead was too difficult. And this tired, aching man, always one to lighten the mood and turn a heart by a funny story or a gentle quip, suddenly was enraged, and cried out that it must be done, slammming his fist on the table. The end of the war was at hand, and if the amendment was not passed prior to that event, it would never be passed, and the deaths of so many young men and boys would be in vain. If what he had made the rule by war powers - the emancipation of the slaves - was not made the rule for peacetime, people of color would once again be sucked into the mire of servitude.

And those around him, shocked by that sudden change in demeanor in the president who never seemed to be out of control of his emotions, shifted gears and found ways to make it so. They were not always noble ways - the promise of patronage jobs to lame-duck congressmen who had nothing politically to lose, gentle persuasion, a wee bit of coercion - but the end result was what Lincoln had insisted upon, and what those who were victims of slavery had prayed for: a 13th amendment that said slavery was abolished.

In the midst of this political battle in Washington, Lincoln visited other battlegrounds. Terrible places, with the dead still sprawled without dignity on the grass and muck. The lines in Lincoln's face deepened, and the sadness was evident, as he sat with General Ulysses Grant and said "We have allowed each other to do horrific things, have we not?" And then Lincoln returned to Washington on a finer horse than he would have ridden as a country lawyer in Springfield Illinois, to a finer house that he might have imagined as a country boy growing up in a log cabin, to the difficult work of making a recalcitrant group of politicians give him what he insisted upon.

It's not easy to be president. If you look at before and after photos of the past several presidents, you see the toll it takes. They get wrinkles and gray hair. Eisenhower had no hair to turn gray, but he had a heart attack. President Obama's hair is rapidly turning from black to gray. Ulysses Grant told Lincoln that he had aged ten years in the final year of his life.  It is miserably hard, unrelenting work. Whatever party you are, whether your party controls the Congress or not, whether it is peacetime or wartime, it is hard work. You may get to live in an extraordinarily gorgeous house. You may have all sorts of wonderful people working for you. You may be someone who is viewed as important and powerful, but no one will know all that is required of you as a leader, as the leader of the free world. No one can know, because so much is necessarily kept secret.

When we think of presidents or kings, we think of the privileges that go with the position. A phrase from a Mel Brooks movie came into the lexicon three decades ago, and we still believe it: "It's good to be king!" Those words were spoken in the movie by Louis XVI, who presided over a ridiculously extravagant court. For him it was good to be king, until, of course, he was beheaded.

Over the past several months, we have been listening to the Gospel of Mark, and one of the key themes in Mark is that being a disciple of Jesus Christ is hard work - there is a cost to discipleship. Jesus continually warns the twelve that this is a path full of hard work and danger.

The disciples keep focusing on how Jesus is to be King, and that certainly is on the mind of Pilate in today's gospel passage, as he questions Jesus about his kingship. Jesus' words - "my kingdom is not of this world" - allays the suspicions of Pilate and the fears of the Roman empire that this man is a political rabble-rouser. It does little, though, to calm the religious leadership, who recognize that Jesus is something else entirely. Not a political king, but theological King. Not one looking to overturn the Roman Empire, but one who wants to overturn the traditional understandings of who is in charge when it comes to relationship with the One God. Jesus tells Pilate that he is the King of Truth. Pilate might have looked at this Jesus, standing beaten and ragged before the might of the Roman Empire, and said dismissively, "This is a king? No, not really." But the religious leaders see exactly what is going on, and want to make Jesus pay the price for threatening their ordered world.  The cost has been great, and will be greater, in the days to come in Jesus' story.

Suddenly we are not looking at the cost of discipleship. We are looking at the cost of kingship. It isn't about the glory. It is about the responsibility and the pain and the challenge of doing what must be done for the people, no matter what. The disciples may think that it is good to be King, and that Jesus should be King, but they don't really understand what being a King is.

And that is why, even though it seems an odd thing for us to do, on the brink of Advent, of the season of waiting for the infant Christ, we are talking about Christ the King.

It is like the story of Lincoln in the movie. We know how it ends. We know that the 13th amendment passed. We know that it was a great moral and political victory. We also know that Lincoln was assassinated. But the arc of history, as Dr. Martin Luther King, said, is long. To know about Lincoln, the story only makes sense because we know how it ends. But to understand the larger story, why a Lincoln was so important to the nation, we need to know what happened to him in the whole arc of his life, indeed in the whole arc of the life of this nation.

It is the same with this King who leads at great personal cost. To understand the beginning of the story, which we will recall in the next few weeks, we must remember the end of the story, at least the end of Jesus’ human existence on earth. Then we can look at the whole arc of the story of Jesus’ life and death and have it be a complete picture.

Perhaps it is the best possible preparation for the beginning of the story, to see the end first. We wait in hope for the newborn King, the one who will change everything. We watch for the star, the marker of a new day. But from that very moment, from the moment when Gabriel told Mary what was to come, the end of the story, the cost of that life, of that Kingship, is both the shadow and the light. To be born into the promise of Kingship is not all about power and strength – it is about the pain that is an inevitable and necessary part of the story. We can't appreciate the bitter irony beneath the sweetness of Advent and Christmas – and we MUST acknowledge it -  unless we know where it is all going to end up, in a tapestry of joy and pain and power and death and resurrection.  

Disciples? If we are his disciples, there will be a cost. But it is worth it, because the cost of Kingship was so very high, but so gracefully accepted, by Christ our King.


Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Sermon for Interfaith Thanksgiving Service, Tuesday November 20, 2012, Overbrook Presbyterian Church

A number of friends of mine are spending the month of November - the month of Thanksgiving - posting something they are thankful for on FaceBook each day of the month. It’s a good spiritual discipline to reflect on all that is good in our lives. Some people even keep gratitude journals to write in each day.
In fact, it is a common practice for many of us as we sit around the Thanksgiving table, usually overstuffed as the roast turkey, to share what we are most thankful for. The list is predictable: family and other loved ones, children and grandchildren, the delicious meal, a new job, a roof over our heads and food on the table, recovery from an illness...all wonderful things. And it is good to name the blessings that we have. I look around this church and I see many familiar faces - I expect that each and every one of you has faced a challenge, or many challenges, in your lives, but here you are, being thankful to God for what you have.

Sometimes our thankfulness is framed by what we do not have to suffer. After all, we watch the television news and we see those who are in great distress- people whose homes have been destroyed by SuperStorm Sandy, or  whose family has been killed by a bomb in a war-torn region, or whose child has been abducted and cannot be found. We do not face those awful situations, and we are grateful that we have been spared such pain.

But I fear that sometimes our prayers of thanks do not include the difficult things in our lives, the situations or events that try and test us.

In the Episcopal Church, we have a prayer of General Thanksgiving that includes the line: We thank you also for those disappointments and failures that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on you alone.

Hmmm. Thank you for disappointments and failures? Why would we do that?

That’s the interesting thing: when good things happen, we say thank you to God for those good things. When bad things happen to other people, we may not say it out loud, but perhaps we think “thank God that didn’t happen to me.”

But when bad things happen to us, do we ever imagine thanking God for those difficult things? And yet we are transformed by the difficult things in very fundamental ways, ways that may bring us closer to an understanding of who God is, ways that may give us an insight into Christ's suffering on the cross. Do I believe that God gives us troubles to help us grow? No, I don’t think God works that way, but I do think he walks beside us through our troubles, and grieves as we grieve. And I think God sees how our pain sometimes compels us to act in ways we wouldn’t have considered before.

I think of someone I know who lost his son to a terrible disease. He assumed that he was fine, and then suddenly, he was gone. He still struggles with his grief, but he has also taken that pain and turned it into energy by starting a charity to fund research into the disease that took his son’s life. I think of another person whose husband was hit by a car and left for dead at the side of the road. Remarkably, he recovered from the trauma to his body and especially to his brain. In the aftermath of that long road back to health, she wrote a book about the experience that now is used as a teaching tool in medical schools about the impact of traumatic brain injury on families. I think about a woman at the end of her life, who talked with me about the things she did and the things she didn’t do, and said “they all were important in their own way, even the bad things. They led me down a path to God, to an honest conversation with him. And at the times when I was most low, I learned more about him than at the times when I was riding high.”

We do learn lessons from the hard times, don’t we? Maybe about how resilient we really are, or how creative we can be when we’ve run out of options, or maybe just how tenacious, just gol-darned stubborn, we can be when we have to be. And we would have never known those things if we hadn’t faced pain and loss and grief.

Now, I’m not saying we should volunteer to be miserable just for the learning experience…that seems a little ridiculous somehow.

But what I am saying is that there is a gift of grace in the midst of pain. You know that old joke: The joke concerns twin boys of five or six. Worried that the boys had developed extreme personalities, one was a total pessimist, the other a total optimist, their parents took them to a psychiatrist.

First the psychiatrist treated the pessimist. Trying to brighten his outlook, the psychiatrist took him to a room piled to the
ceiling with brand-new toys. But instead of yelping with delight, the little boy burst into tears. “What’s the matter?” the psychiatrist asked, baffled. “Don’t you want to play with any of the toys?” “Yes,” the little boy bawled, “but if I did I’d only break them.”

Next the psychiatrist treated the optimist. Trying to dampen his out look, the psychiatrist took him to a room piled to the ceiling with horse manure. But instead of wrinkling his nose in disgust, the optimist emitted just the yelp of delight the psychiatrist had been hoping to hear from his brother, the pessimist. Then he clambered to the top of the pile, dropped to his knees, and began gleefully digging out scoop after scoop with his bare hands.

“What do you think you’re doing?” the psychiatrist asked, just as baffled by the optimist as he had been by the pessimist.

“With all this manure,” the little boy replied, beaming, “there must be a pony in here somewhere!”

Sometimes we have to go through the shoveling to get to the pony.

So on this day when we say thank you to our Creator for the many gifts he has bestowed upon us, when we gather with joy and memories and a whole lot of food, let’s not forget to say thank you to God for the less obvious gifts: patience learned while recovering from a serious illness, the sweet memory of a loved one who now dines at the heavenly banquet, the simplicity of a meal with less food because we cannot afford the bounty of years past. Find the less-noticed gift, and offer your thanks.


Sunday, November 11, 2012

Sermon for Sunday, November 11, 2012 “Choices”

One of the reasons why I am happy to be an Episcopalian is that our theology is based upon the expectation that we are able to use our brains as we explore our relationship with God. We don’t just get a laundry list of what we are expected to believe and how we are expected to act. This is not a recipe book version of Christianity. We are supposed to learn and grow and think and wrestle as we try and figure out how we live our Christian faith.

It’s a harder way, of course. It means we have to work at it, think about it, question it. We have to discern, and then make a choice of some sort.

The scripture passages we just heard share something in common: in each case, someone thinks about their situation and about what God wants, and makes a choice.

In the Old Testament, Naomi was with Ruth, the young woman who had married her son. That son was now dead, but the young woman chose to remain with her. But how would they survive? Widowed women struggled in that society. They needed to be connected to a man, either a relative or a new husband. Naomi and Ruth had returned to Israel, and Naomi had a plan: get Ruth remarried, to a distant cousin, Boaz. Boaz was wealthy and unmarried, and could take care of them both. So Naomi came up with a plan to introduce Ruth to Boaz. Ruth had a choice of whether to agree to this strategy, of course, regardless of the dire straits they were in. But she agreed with her mother-in-law’s plan. She made a choice, and said, “All that you tell me, I will do.”

She discerned what was the right path, and followed it. She made a choice.

In the Gospel, Jesus told a story of  other choices: the Pharisees and the scribes chose not to listen to Jesus’ message. Why? Most likely because it would require them to relinquish their old ways, ways that had given them power and authority. They craved the feeling that the power gave them – they were important, someone to be paid due respect. And so when they taught in the temple, they behaved in a way that reinforced their superiority and helped make them rich. But in Jesus’ story, He posed another kind of choice. He pointed out a poor woman, a widow, who came into the temple. She wasn’t anyone who would be noticed, much less acknowledged, by everyone else in the room. She quietly moved to the place where donations were accepted, and put a few small coins into the basket. Certainly, it wasn’t the sort of donation that anyone there really thought was impressive, because it was so small, just the equivalent of a penny. She didn’t put it there because she was worried about what people thought of her – if anything, she may have thought, “Well, this will confirm their belief that I am less than nothing because I cannot give much money.” But she made the choice to do something, even if it was a small thing, because she felt it was the right thing for her to do.

Perhaps that choice meant that for that particular week, she wouldn’t be able to buy enough flour to make the bread. It was, as Jesus said, something that she gave that cost her something. It wasn’t like a big donation from someone who was wealthy, for whom the donation didn’t require much thought or personal loss. It was doing something because it was what the Lord required of her, not something that she could do and not really think twice about.

That is one of the really interesting things about being in relationship with God: each and every day we make choices that can bring us closer to God. Some choices are easier ones: we choose to wear a cross around our necks to remind us of Him. We choose to be members of this parish, which feeds our hearts and souls and minds. Some choices are not so easy: we choose to cook a meal for the homeless, even though they seem a little scary sometimes. We choose to get up on a Sunday morning to come to church when it would be easier to stay home in our pajamas, reading the newspaper and drinking coffee. We choose to challenge a friend when he says something that belittles someone else. Those choices have a cost, be it risking interaction with people who make us uncomfortable, losing sleep on the one day of the week when we can sleep in, or taking a chance that our friend will be angry with us for challenging his views.

It is not easy, this business of choosing. If we do it right, as Jesus asks us to do, it will inevitably cost us something, and not just in dollars and cents.

It starts with the choice to believe in Jesus, in His death and resurrection, in His love for us and presence in our lives. Some people won’t understand that, but once we choose to believe, it is virtually impossible to not believe. Doubts? Yes, we can have doubt. But total lack of belief, it is no longer possible.

Then it moves to choices that shape our lives, our way of living in the world. That may entail ethical choices, living simply, giving to those who need a hand. And such choices may seem ridiculous to others. Why give money away, when it is so hard to earn? Why do the right thing, when doing the wrong thing seems to be acceptable in so many places? Why live simply if you can afford to have some luxuries? But the choices we make have the power to turn us further away from Jesus and bring us closer to him. Why would we choose to do what turns us from the greatest love we can possibly now?

In our lives as members of this parish we also continually face choices: how to discern the ministries in which we participate, how to allocate resources effectively to support those ministries, who will lead and who will support the many things we do. We try to make wise choices, ones congruent with our deepest Christian values. Sometimes we are on target, sometimes we make mistakes.

But we know that whatever our choices, they are guided by the wisest teacher we could imagine.  And that is a good thing, because we never stop making choices, as individuals and as a parish family. We ask His guidance today, in our daily lives and as we prepare for our annual congregational meeting, for the information we share and the decisions we make. May God’s blessing be upon us as we do the work of bringing the reign of God to this little corner of Creation.


Sunday, November 04, 2012

Sermon for All Saints Sunday, November 4, 2012

Saints! I don’t know about you, but I sometimes find them a little intimidating. They’re just so, I don’t know, SAINTLY!  We might like the idea of saints, but they seem otherworldly, and they do things that sometimes make little sense to us.

Think about some of the famous saints. Imagine living with St Francis, who wouldn’t let you use an ant trap in case it would hurt the poor little beasties. What would it have been like to live with St. Benedict, who wanted everybody to pray several times a day, including a few hours before dawn?  Can you think how hard it would be to put up with someone who was pretty much sure that he knew it all, and would get quite testy when confronted with a different opinion, like the Apostle Paul?

They do sound like they are very different than us. And I also think that sometimes we get into a mindset that saints are warm, wonderful people who do good works. In point of fact, many of them were pretty difficult people, which gives me hope that I may someday be considered a saint, or at least that my occasional crankiness may be viewed as a fit of piety.

What is it that makes someone a saint? If you look it up in the dictionary, you read that a saint is someone who has an exceptional degree of sanctity, holiness and virtue. If you were raised in the Roman Catholic tradition, you know that in that church, one has to have been proven responsible for miracles before they are named saints of the church. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, any Christian who has died and is in heaven is considered a saint. In our tradition, the title of Saint refers to a person who has been elevated by popular opinion as a pious and holy person. The saints are seen as models of holiness to be imitated, and as a 'cloud of witnesses' that strengthen and encourage the believer during his or her spiritual journey (Hebrews 12:1).

Saints! Some of us even ask them to help us, praying for them to intercede for us with God. There is, of course, the story of the itinerant preacher a good many years ago who went from town to town to share the good news, riding on his faithful horse. One Sunday he was galloping down the road, rushing to get to church on time. Suddenly his horse stumbled and pitched him to the ground.  In the dirt with a broken leg, the pastor called out, “All you saints in Heaven, help me get up on my horse!”

Then, with superhuman effort, he leaped onto the horse’s back and fell off the other side.
Once again on the ground, he called to Heaven, “All right, just half of you this time!”

The lesson? Be careful what you pray for!

But we hear these descriptions of saints, and these stories of saints, and we wonder what it is that makes saints different from everyone else.

As I was preparing this sermon this week, a friend asked me if there were any saints from popular culture. My initial reaction was no – so much of pop culture seems soulless to me – but the more I thought about it, the more names came to me. And one, in particular, stuck with me.

About fifteen years ago, I was in a book and record store and heard some music playing. It was a singer whose voice was amazing. She was singing jazz standards, the blues, songs from musicals, gospel…her range was remarkable. I went to the front of the store, and asked whose CD that was. “Oh, that’s Eva Cassidy. A local artist,” he said.  I bought the two available CDs immediately and took them home – Doug was as enchanted as I was by her voice and her artistry. You may have heard her – her cover of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” got a lot of airplay several years ago.

How had I not heard of this singer? She was so gifted! I started to research her and discovered, to my dismay, that she had died a few years before, of melanoma, at the age of 33. These recordings were posthumous.

But as I read more, one story really surprised me. Her last live performance was at a fundraiser to help her with her medical expenses. She was quite ill, and told the audience that she had taken a lot of morphine so she could come and sing, so she couldn’t promise anything, but then she stood there and sang. The song? “What a Wonderful World.” You know it: “I see trees of green, red roses, too. I see them bloom for me and you, and I think to myself, what a wonderful world!” It was just a few weeks before her death, and she had suffered terribly through her illness. She might have sung the blues, telling of her pain and struggle, but instead she sang a song of the beauty of the world, and how blessed she felt being present to it. That, to me, is saintliness.

That’s the thing about saints. They see the world differently, and I think that is the quality that makes them saints. For them, God is present in all of it, and they see God in unlikely places. St Francis sees the exquisite Godly purpose of even an ant, and cherishes it as a gift. St Benedict sees the gift of prayer as a special way of being close to God, and the gift of work as equally important in being close to God, and lifts it up as a way of life of continual connection to the divine. St Paul sees the redemption of the whole world in Jesus’ life, and especially in his own life, previously devoted to attacking the Lord’s followers, and urges others to see how Jesus invites them into a better way.

All these saints see things differently. When they look at the world, the glass is not half empty. It isn’t even half-full. It is brimming over with God’s goodness, whatever the rest of us may see, and they cannot help but respond to it. They bathe the bodies of dying lepers and see the perfection of God in each wound. They stand up to the powerful and protect the powerless, because God is in each powerless person and because Jesus said, “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.” They sing “What a Wonderful World” while their bodies are failing, because their own pain does not outweigh the beauty of Creation.

Saints see things differently than we do.

But that doesn’t mean we cannot cultivate the same kind of vision.

We, too, can see with our hearts and our souls as well as our eyes. We, too, can recognize Christ in unlikely people and places. We, too, can feel the divine in the smell of freshly baked bread and summertime roses, as well as in the rich earthy smell of compost and the tang of the ocean.

We sing of this in that great hymn “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God.” Some of the words feel silly – shepherdesses, fierce wild beasts, teatime, and all that – but he heart of the song is true: any one of us has the potential to be a saint. All we have to do is look for God, and we will find the path to a new way of seeing the world. And what a wonderful world it is.