Tuesday, January 29, 2013

On Charity

Most of us who work in churches are faced with the challenge of folks who come to the door looking for financial assistance. We are a logical place for such folks to come, of course. We say over and over again that we are trying to live the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which includes helping those who are in need of help. Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, giving water to the thirsty...it's all there in Matthew 25. And we do try to do it.

Sometimes, though, it's hard work, because we have to make some judgment calls about the people whom we help.

Sunday was a prime example. There is a gentleman who comes periodically, looking for help. we've assisted him with a utility bill and with car insurance payments before. He rarely comes more frequently than every couple of months. I've tried to have a conversation about how he might manage his finances so he doesn't get into a bind, but they are not very fruitful conversations, and he often gets frustrated and angry/tearful. He is older and looks like a guy who has lived a hard life.

So on Sunday, he came to the church as the 10:30 service was wrapping up. He sat in the back and asked to speak to me. After attending to a few other things, I had him come to my office and we sat down and talked. He needed help with his car insurance again. He was switching insurers to get a better price - didn't we talk about how he should do this sort of thing? - but he didn't have the money for the down payment. I said, "What is the amount, and where is the bill? I might be able to help you, but you know I won't give you the money without a document that shows what it is for." (This is our practice - we never give cash directly to someone who asks for help like this - we write the check to the utility or insurance agency or such directly.) He wasn't happy with this - he didn't have a bill because they wouldn't write the policy without the down payment. I said, "Here's my card. Have the insurance agent give me a call and we will work something out."

On Monday the agent gave me a call. I told her to email me the billing statement and the Treasurer would cut a check and send it to them. She was appreciative, and so was the gentleman. I opened the email attachment, and the insurance was for a brand-new car. I was steamed.

I don't know why it aggravated me so much - perhaps it is because I drive a 13 year old car that I'm trying to nurse through another couple of years before I have to replace it, perhaps it is because most of my parishioners, whose donations form my discretionary fund, also drive older cars. I called him this morning to confirm that we were taking care of the insurance down payment (a relatively small amount, but still...) and said, " I was a little surprised to see that the insurance was for a brand-new car." He said , "Yes, my mother gave it to me." Frankly, I was surprised that he still had a living mother, since he looks several years older than me and I'm older than dirt, and it raised all sorts of questions about why the mother wasn't helping him out with his other financial needs.

I said, "Listen, there are folks here who are also in need and they don't have mothers to purchase new cars for them. They are struggling, and we try to help them, too. I think this is all we're going to be able to do for you. We need to attend to those whose needs are greater."

He said thanks and hung up. And now I'm struggling with whether I should have given him anything, whether he was scamming me all along, whether I am being ungenerous and judgmental. I'd rather err on the side of generosity, but I also want to be a good steward of the funds given to me to distribute.

So am I Scrooge or am I a sucker?

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Blog Redux

I've only been posting sermons on the blog recently, which might be incredibly boring for some of you who follow me. It has been a busy time.

I spent Thursday through Saturday of this week at out Diocesan Annual Council, a wonderful but somewhat overwhelming event, with everything from worship to gossip to merchants in  the outer courts of the temple to the business operations of one of the largest Episcopal dioceses in the country. I made the choice to stay with a friend (and her dear husband and her dear three rescue greyhounds) about a half-hour away, rather than remain in the overly energized setting of the conference hotel. It was wise, for this introvert, to be able to step away from it all. Still, it's Council: in addition to all the wonderful stuff going on there, I was appointed to head a diocesan committee, continue as dean of my region, and sit on another related committee. I'm glad to serve at the request of my bishop, whom I greatly admire and appreciate, but it's a lot. I will do my best, but it is still a lot. Sigh.

The second and third week of the month were spent at CTS, where I took a course entitled "The Pastoral Theology of Good and Evil" with the incomparable pastoral theologian Pamela Cooper-White. It was essentially a time in the hermit's cave, going to class with good classmates, eating a microwaved frozen meal in the student lounge, and reading. And reading. And reading. And writing. I'm in the midst of doing the final paper for the course (draft is up and posted) and am still chewing on much of what we discussed there.

When I went down to Georgia for the course, I was recovering from a nasty bout of the flu.Thanks to TamiFlu, Albuterol, Flonase and Advil, I am now mostly recovered, but still tire easily. I am praying this week is a relatively light one, so I can catch up on the things that I need to catch up on, like sleep.

That's the thing about this work - it's feast or famine in terms of workload, and for those of us who like a particular rhythm or pattern to our work, we are continually surprised and thrown a bit. I still work to find my own particular way of keeping my balance in the midst of the things that pop up.

Want some whine with that cheese, Mary? In the grand scheme of things, it is a small problem. But perhaps it is also an opportunity to listen for the voice of the Spirit in my discombobulation. When things are rolling along in their usual way, I am not attentive. So speak, Spirit. I'm suitably disoriented and ready for what you might surprise me with.

Sermon for Sunday, January 27, 2013 Luke 4:14-21 “The Nine Word Inaugural Speech”

I have inaugurations on the brain, given that we had the second inaugural of the president this past week. Inaugurations are marked by festivities, solemn words, and, of course, inaugural speeches. Some of the those speeches are flights of brilliance – Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, for example, which includes the phrase: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds.” Most are less memorable.

Some are short, as Lincoln’s was at less than 500 words. Some are not.

On March 4th, 1841 President William Henry Harrison delivered the longest inaugural speech on record – a whopping one hour and 45 minutes. It was a cold and miserable day, and Harrison wore no overcoat. He laid out grand plans in that stem-winder of a speech, an affirmation of the political philosophy of the Whig party, calling for changes that would greatly limit the power of government and the president. Only one piece of the broad agenda of that speech actually got fulfilled in Harrison’s presidency. His powers as president were greatly reduced, since he caught a cold that day, which later turned into pneumonia, claiming his life just a month into his presidency.

But before we say that he deserved it, making people have to stand in the cold listening to his words for so long, we should remember that death claims the concise as well as the verbose. We remember that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated one month into his second term, after delivering that exquisitely wrought brief address.

Things like inaugural speeches are good reminders to students of history that, as the poet Robert Burns wrote, “the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley.” It’s a fact…we make grand statements of what we are going to do, and then, in big ways and small, the plans don’t fully come to fruition.  

When I hear Jesus in today’s gospel, I think of those inaugural speeches, the promises contained within them, and how history often got in the way of the promises.

I say this, because this gospel passage was, in essence, Jesus’ inaugural speech. You know the story. Jesus came home to his hometown after an initial launch of his ministry in other places. It was a launch that was well-received, Luke tells us. It was the custom in those days that when itinerant rabbis came through town, they would be invited to read God’s Word in the synagogue and teach on the reading. So here came this hometown boy, Joseph and Mary’s son from down the road, who was all the buzz because of his teaching, back home again. Of course they would give him the courtesy of asking him to read the Scripture. Of course they would expect him to interpret it, to teach its meaning. Didn’t they all want to hear what Jesus would say, this man whom they had known for thirty years? So they handed him the scroll, and it was unfurled to a reading from the prophet Isaiah. It was a prediction of the Anointed One, the hoped-for Messiah who would redeem God’s oppressed people:

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

The crowd in that small synagogue held its collective breath. What brilliant words of explanation would Jesus offer? What wise interpretation? How much teaching would he do on this passage, since all the famous rabbis were famous precisely because they could talk endlessly on the smallest word in a text?

Jesus looked up from the scroll as he rolled it back up and handed it to the attendant. He looked around, feeling every eye on him, waiting. And then he said “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

Nine words. Nothing else. He was done. He sat down. I imagine after ninety seconds of shocked silence – they could not believe that this was all he had to say – it dawned on them what he had actually said in those nine words, the shortest inaugural speech ever. He said the Messiah was here…and the implication was that he was it.

It wouldn’t surprise me that the room exploded into an uproar in that moment – what was he saying? Was he saying what I think he was saying? Who does he think he is? Blasphemy! Is it really true? WoW!

And look at what he was promising: good news to the poor, who probably didn’t get much good news ever; release to the captives – potent words where the Romans took plenty of captives for all sorts of ridiculous reasons; sight to the blind – healing of all sorts, whether it was literal healing of illness and infirmity or the more subtle opening of the eyes and  hearts of those who couldn’t see what was going on around them; relief for the oppressed; and the year of the Lord’s favor – a jubilee, when debts would be forgiven, when all of society gave each other a fresh start.

Talk about setting yourself up in an inaugural speech for a later check-in by Politi-Fact to see how many of those promises would be delivered!

So let’s imagine that Politic-Fact is on the case. Let’s fast forward to three years later. Jesus is dead, crucified by the Romans. Are the poor still poor? Yup. Are the oppressed still oppressed? Yup. Are the blind – both the visually impaired and those whose souls are blind to the needs of others – still blind. Yup.

PolitiFact would not be impressed, because if you measure Jesus’ bold speech by the yardstick of the world, it just doesn’t measure up.

But let’s look at it another way. The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote: “Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love.”

Niebuhr wasn’t necessarily talking about Jesus’s promises on that morning in Galilee, but I think the thought applies here. Let’s take it as a given that no one ever accomplishes everything they set out to do. Not presidents, who document their goals in inaugural speeches. Not corporate executives, who attest to their companies’ goals in annual reports. Not mothers and fathers, who share their aspirations for their children. It never turns out exactly how you plan, because stuff happens that changes the situation.

And maybe that’s something that Jesus experiences. He reads that passage from Isaiah, knows what his mission on earth is – to do exactly what Isaiah promised – and says, okay. That’s my plan. What he doesn’t say is when it will get done.

If you’re sitting in that dusty Galilee synagogue listening to Jesus’ nine words, you’re going to jump to the conclusion that Jesus is not only saying he is the Messiah, you’re going to think, “He’s going to do all that stuff right now. He’s going to get us out from under the yoke of the Roman Empire. He’s going to bring us heaven on earth.”

But he doesn’t say that. He never says that he’s going to snap his fingers and make it all happen. He never says it’s happening by Friday afternoon. He simply says that it is going to happen, and he is going to be the change agent.

And here is why that quote from Niebuhr is so appropriate: It doesn’t all get done in Jesus’ human lifetime. It is merely started by his unbelievably generous gift of himself to redeem us from our sins. We are going to get to what Isaiah prophesied, but it will happen in God’s time, which is very different from political time, or parenting time, or fiscal years.   

Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love.”

Jesus, in his life and in his death, gives us hope. We cannot define hope only in our time and place – it is across the arc of history that it will occur, in ways that we cannot imagine. When Lincoln wrote that second inaugural in the wake of a horrific war , as the nation sought to heal and as he sought to enforce the end of human slavery in the United States, he might not have imagined Doctor Martin Luther King Jr’s efforts to make all people of color truly equal citizens. He might not have imagined a Thurgood Marshall as a Supreme Court Justice. He might not have pictured Condoleeza Rice as Secretary of State. Abraham Lincoln, that 16th president, might not have thought that it would ever happen that his successor, the 44th President would be an African-American.

God’s time is not our time, and work started in one place might need time, and all of us, to carry out God’s plans. But for that to work, we need to share hope that God’s plans are possible, and we need to share the faith that God is with us, behind us and before us in the task.

We have to recognize that we must bind ourselves together in shared love for God and for each other. Jesus knew this. He equipped his disciples to share the continuing work he began. He knew, despite what might seem like bravado in that nine word inaugural speech, that he would not deliver on all his promises in a few years. And for that to happen, the twelve, and all of us who followed them, needed, and continue to need to love.

Time is not the enemy of doing good. It gives us the space to get the work done together.  And the work is shared because the love is shared because the hope is shared.

Jesus started our journey to the fulfillment of those promises from Isaiah with nine words. He gave his life to ensure that those promises were even possible. What will you give to help make them happen?                              


Sunday, January 20, 2013

Sermon for Sunday, January 20, 2013 John 2:1-11 “Things we never say in a sermon”

Poor Jesus. His mother dragged him along to a family wedding, some cousin he barely knew, so he dragged along the disciples. If he had to suffer, so did they. And no sooner than they had arrived than his mother came up alongside of him and said, “Son, they have a problem. The wine has run out.” And he sighed and said, “This is not my problem.”

His mother, being a good Jewish mother, knew that he would do something. So instead of pestering him, she went to the servants and said, “Do whatever he tells you to do.” Sneaky! But it played out as she anticipated. He meandered over to the servants, and with a deep sigh, said, “You see those big water jugs over there? Fill them with water.” Then he said, “Take a little out and bring it to the head waiter.” And they did, and the guy was blown away by the quality of the wine. The wine that only a few seconds earlier had been water.

Jesus the pastor shared a lot of the same challenges that any pastor faces. People asking you to do things when it doesn’t feel like the right time to do them. Folks looking for hand-holding when they should be able to figure it out themselves. Relatives who have their own view of what being a pastor should look like. You get the picture.

A couple of weeks ago, a pastor published a blog post that listed “Secrets Your Pastor Can’t Share in a Sermon.” He listed things like “your offering is not a tip for services rendered,” and “I usually work 60 hours a week, but you assume I only work 1, because that is all the time we spend together,” and “Getting hung up on ‘the way we do things around here ‘ is getting in the way of being a growing community of faith,” and ”if you tell me something as I greet you leaving the Sunday service, I’ll probably forget it” and “I work for God, not  the Bishop, not the Vestry, not the Personnel Committee.” It sounds sort of mean-spirited, listed that way, but in fact this is a very loving list of the challenges and confusion around being a pastor. This guy clearly loves his parish, accepts that neither he nor they will be perfect, and works hard.

But the fact remains that pastoring is hard work. And Jesus shows that in this story of the wedding feast.

He is not ready to start his active ministry. He’s just gotten the disciples together, and is doing some preliminary teaching. He knows that performing a miracle will “out” him, and he wants to get things ready first. But his mother presses him. She presses him gently, but she still presses him, because to her this is a crisis for the family, a crisis of hospitality.

And like all pastors who receive a crisis phone call at 2 in the morning, Jesus responds. He takes care of the problem. Because that is what he is called to do.

It is just the beginning of his journey to fully serve his people.

He will come up against other challenges as he serves his people. When he heals on the Sabbath, someone will say that’s breaking the rules…just as pastors who have helped out people who were not of their denomination or who weren’t even Christians have been chastised as breakers of rules.

When he teaches a new, more loving and expansive understanding of the relationship between God and God’s people, he will earn the wrath of the religious leadership, just as pastors who have argued for full inclusion of gay and lesbian people or undocumented immigrants have drawn the wrath of those who choose to read the Bible (or, for that matter, the Constitution) extremely narrowly.

When he dines with the lowest sort of people, he will be accused of being unclean…just as pastors who have worked with those in prison, or who are homeless, or who are addicted, are accused of being naïve and of wasting the resources of the church on those who don’t deserve it.  

It reminds me of a great quote from the marvelous Anglican theologian William Temple, who said "The Church is the only society on earth that exists for the benefit of non-members."

Preach it, Bishop Temple! But back in Jesus’ day, and sometimes in today’s world, pastoring is hard work, precisely because we are a society that exists for the benefit of non-members. That’s countercultural both in the world and in the present day institution of the church!  A society that exists for the benefit of non-members: not in the sense of handing out largesse to the ignorant masses, but in the sense of welcoming them into the knowledge of the love of Christ and the love of this faith community.

So as I read that blog post about things that this particular pastor wouldn’t say in a sermon, I was saddened that he felt he couldn’t share those things with his people, because much of it was really, really good theology.

So in the interest of not being that guy, here’s my list. I’m sharing it with you, because I love you, and I am no good at keeping things secret.

1.            I work long hours. Some of you already know that. For others, it’s not so evident. That’s okay, because I’m going to tell you about it now. Sometimes those long hours are here at church. Sometimes they are at someone’s bedside, or at a nursing home, or in a meeting, or at home. I usually write my sermons sitting on my couch at home, because it’s the quietest place I know. And I need quiet to do a decent job of crafting words that will speak to you. So if I am not in the office, it doesn’t mean that I’m out playing in the park somewhere. You know how you can reach me – my cellphone number is printed all over the place. The cellphone with me 24-7. Call me if it is an emergency. If it can wait for the next morning, I’d appreciate it if you wait until 8 am, because sometimes the days and occasionally the nights are long.

2.            I’ll echo what my colleague in ministry said in his list: if you tell me something as you exit the service on Sunday, I will most likely forget it. Twelve other people have also told me stuff. I try to remember, but if you want to make really sure that I remember something, call me on Monday morning or email me when you get home. I do respond quickly.

3.            Let’s distinguish between opinions and theology. When I preach something or teach something, it is usually based on serious study. It is based on the Bible, and on the teachings of the Church Fathers, and on our tradition, and on the best of contemporary theology. We will not always agree on things – that’s just fine. But if you want to arm-wrestle about theology and what God expects of us, do not cite Rush Limbaugh, Rachel Maddow, Joel Osteen, or Bill Maher. Do not cite entertainers or quote politicians on either side of the aisle. That’s opinion, not theology.

4.            On my day off – this is a corollary to number 1 – I really do try to take a day off. It’s Friday. That said, if you have an emergency, PLEASE call me even if it’s Friday. If you have a question or a situation that is not an emergency, please do NOT call me on Friday. Even God took a day off after he finished with Creation, and I don’t have anywhere near God’s strength or skills. Even Jesus took a nap in the boat sometimes, but when the storm hit, he woke up and fixed it.

5.            About social events (and this includes ShrineMont). I love you all. I enjoy being a part of the social and fellowship events that are a part of our common life together. But when I am at these events, it is not a relaxed social function as it is for you, because often we have conversations that are deep and meaningful and pastoral in nature. I am “on” just like I am “on” on Sunday mornings. I am “on” as my colleagues The Rev. Laurie Brock and the Rev. Mary Koppel describe as “Beyoncé at a concert on.” Just because the collar isn’t on doesn’t mean that I am not working, so don’t be surprised if I’m tired after ShrineMont or if I don’t always have the energy to come to dinner with you. I love you, but sometimes I need to recharge my batteries.

Here is the heart of all this: I love you and I love my work. Like all pastors, I try to do it the best that I can. It is inevitable that sometimes you will feel that I have failed you, because, like all pastors, I am human and I make mistakes as much as I try not to. It is inevitable that sometimes we will disagree, and one of us will be unhappy with the end result of a disagreement. This does not make us unchristian. What can threaten our status as followers of Christ, though, is if we allow it to get in the way of loving each other. Your pastor tries to serve you as Jesus served you, even when the call comes at 3 a.m., even when the person who says the angry words isn’t a regular attender, even when the argument is not about the stated problem, but about some deeper grief. Remember Mary’s movement in this story. She asks, and then she steps back. And Jesus responds, as she knows that he will.

Pastors will do what those who love them ask of them, in the right time and in the right way, we pray…and do pray, for me and for all who serve God’s people. It’s wonderful work, but it’s difficult work, and it is best when we do it together.


Sunday, January 06, 2013

Sermon for Epiphany 2013, 8:15 Service Matthew 2:1-12 “The True Epiphany”

It’s time to put some old myths about this Epiphany feast to rest. We talk about the wise men as if they were kings, come to pay homage to a newborn king that they had foreseen in the stars, but the truth is actually a little bit different. They were, in fact, astronomers, and they didn’t travel alone. Any group of people of any status traveling a long distance would have had a retinue of workers, most likely slaves, who took care of the animals, preparation of meals, and such on a long journey. It is unlikely that they came on Christmas night – the fact that Herod issued his murderous order against all children 2 or younger meant that some time had passed until the magi arrived in Judea. They probably came from Babylon, the place where astronomy reached its highest expression.

Their notation of what was happening in the skies was a surprise to Herod, who didn’t notice anything special happening in the skies. His response was to assemble the Sanhedrin, and to ask them “have you heard of any ‘King of the Jews’ being born? For him, this was a political problem, since he was certainly not a well-liked king himself, as a pawn of the Romans, and he always worried about an uprising against him.

And then the magi left, with instructions from Herod to return and tell him what they found.

When they got to Bethlehem and the child, they were overcome with joy when they saw the star there – most likely because they hadn’t seen it when they were in Jerusalem. Seeing it again confirmed that their understanding of this astronomical occurrence was correct.

And so they found the child and gave their gifts. They were the standard gifts brought on important occasions – they are referred to in both Isaiah and Song of Songs.

So if we take away the romantic understanding of three kings coming to worship another king, arriving on that cold night (which probably was not in December, by the way) hard on the heels of the shepherds, bringing kingly gifts, what are we left with?

Something remarkable. Something that previews what the very end of Matthew’s gospel will announce: this is someone who came for Jews AND Gentiles, for all the nations, not just the home team.

It’s an eye-opener, isn’t it? And isn’t that precisely what we think of when we hear the word “epiphany?” Eye-opener! In Greek, epiphaneia means a manifestation or a revelation. We use the word the same way when we have a sudden “aha” moment, a new idea, the lightbulb going off! There’s a famous picture of Arthur Fry, the inventor of the Post-It note, with one of those ubiquitous yellow notes on his forehead with a lightbulb drawn on it.  

And there is certainly an ‘aha’ moment here.

We might want to ask the question “Why does Matthew think that this story is important?” It would make more sense appearing in Luke’s gospel, where the inclusion of non-Jews is taken as a given, but here it is in the midst of Matthew’s very Jewish gospel, which is all about showing how Jesus is the fulfillment of the ancient Hebrew prophecies.

But here it is in Matthew, because it is, in fact, the fulfillment of a Jewish prophecy. It not only fulfills Micah 5:2, which says “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days,”  it also fulfills Isaiah 66:18 : "And I, because of their actions and their imaginations, am about to come and gather all nations and tongues, and they will come and see my glory."

The magi are the first Gentiles to recognize who this child is. They see it before many of the Jews do. They have their “aha” moment and it teaches us something…
…because it raises the question “are WE open to the ‘aha’ moment? Are we ready to feel the power of this Christ in our lives?”
Sometimes we may feel that these are all stories from long ago, stories that don’t happen now. But what if that weren’t the case? Where might our epiphanies come from? An interaction at the Farmer’s market? A conversation with our child? A smile returned by a homeless man begging on the corner? An unexpected gift from someone we least expected to present it?
Those moments that happen in our lives – and they do happen, don’t they? – are our own epiphanies, our own lightbulbs on the forehead.
And they are something else as well, the most remarkable of gifts. They are the ongoing revelation of the Word made flesh. They are Christ made incarnate, 2013 years after he was born, still fresh, still new, still making us sit up and take notice. There may not be stars or scary kings on a dark cold night, but there is the best of it distilled into what we really need: Aha! He is here, present, moving among us and changing us.