Sunday, February 24, 2013

Sermon for Sunday, February 24, 2013 Gen. 15:1-112, 17-18 Luke 13:31-35 “Work to Do”

Once a year, it is traditional for the Torah scrolls in a synagogue to be inspected, and if necessary, repaired. These sacred documents, like an old copy of the Christian Bible, get torn or stained with continual use, and it is considered a mitzvah, or commandment, to restore them so that they may continue to be used in worship and study. Such restoration is not easy: it is as much art as science as theology, and there are experts who are gifted in this task. Ancient materials and tools are used, no Scotch tape or Wite-Out! It is work, but it is holy work, because preserving the understanding of God, and repairing the documents that help the faithful to continue to worship and to learn, is necessary if one is to stay in right relationship with our Creator.

Throughout the history of that relationship, from the earliest times to the present, there have been stories of the work of restoration and of preservation, and today, as we continue in this season of Lent, we have two more.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is headed in one direction, and one direction only: to Jerusalem. It is in Jerusalem that he will die. It is in Jerusalem that the prophecies of ancient days will be fulfilled. It is in Jerusalem that he will rise in glory. And on each step of his active ministry, his eyes are set on that city as both destiny and execution chamber.

In today’s Gospel passage, Jerusalem is at the center of the story.  Jesus is warned by some Pharisees, those people whom he often criticizes and who will play a crucial role in his eventual trial and death, that Herod is after him and he had better make himself scarce. They know – everyone knows – that he is headed for Jerusalem. They may not know why, but they know that is his eventual destination. And the Pharisees say, “Not a good idea, rabbi. Lay low. Herod is out to get you.”

Why would Pharisees do this? The evangelist Luke has always identified the Pharisees as enemies of Jesus. Do they really care for him, or is there a darker meaning to their words? Are they actually working for Herod, and do they hope that their words will either shut Jesus up or divert him from Jerusalem, where Jesus’ message might reach even more people? Is it another test of Jesus’ strength of will? If he follows their suggestion, he is a false prophet. If he goes to Jerusalem, he forces their hand as his opposition: they must confront his claims directly and reject them, which would cause those who follow him to cry out, or so they fear.

His response is unambiguous: “Go tell that fox Herod that I’ve got work to do here (healings, casting out demons and such) and when I am done with that I am headed to Jerusalem.”

He knows that directly challenging Herod will put him in danger. He knows that going to Jerusalem means death. But Jesus knows and accepts that it is God’s will and his destiny that he should go to Jerusalem and die there. As the passage ends, Jesus mourns this beautiful city. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

Jerusalem, the place where the great temple of Solomon had been built and eventually destroyed. Jerusalem, the place where another great temple was built after the Babylonian exile, the one that Herod the Great expanded, not out of love of God, but to show his own might. This Herod the Great, the same Jewish client-king of the Roman Empire who slaughtered the innocents,  was the father of Herod Antipas referred to in this passage. Herod Antipas, ruling in Jerusalem, the place where Jesus saw as his final destination.

This brief passage lays out how the powers and principalities of the world fear Jesus. They fear that his message will make them irrelevant. They fear that he will rile up the people against them. They fear that they will lose their power and wealth and the good graces of the Romans Empire as bestowed on Herod.

And they are right to fear all of that.

What they don’t count on, however, is that Jesus does not work in the same way that they do. He doesn’t expect to go to Jerusalem as a triumphant conqueror. He expects to be conquered there, at least in the eyes of the world, until a greater truth is revealed. And so he weeps, not because he is afraid, but because of the deep tragedy of it all. Jerusalem is a place of blood and death, when once it was intended to be a place of God’s glory, and no one sees this but him.

Jesus decries the fate of the city, naming it as a place not of great religious fervor – what you would expect from the city which housed the temple – but a place which has a track record of death for those who speak out, who seek to restore right relationship between God and God’s people. And he prophesies what will happen when he goes there, citing Psalm 117: “See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, 'Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.'"

The house  - that temple that was supposed to be a place of worship to the one true God but has become something else entirely – is left to those who do not understand Jesus’ message. It will be destroyed a final time, in another revolt around 66 CE. It is worthless to stand as anything but a symbol of corrupted power. It has no power to save people’s souls. But the one who goes to Jerusalem, the one who will die there, will return and will save people’s souls.

It is a powerful picture of jesus’ strength in the face of what awaits him in that city, and it gains even more poignancy when we contrast it with the beginning of the story that takes us eventually to the cross: God’s promise to his people through the patriarch Abraham. We hear that in the Old Testament reading this morning, when God and Abram are in conversation. Abram grieves, because he sees no future for his line. His only heirs are a distant cousin and an illegitimate slave child. God promises him that his offspring will be as plentiful as the stars in the sky. And Abraham, then still called Abram, does the preparatory work that God commands, bringing offerings of animals and birds, sacrificing them in the ancient ways. And the covenant is made between God and Abram, and the story of God’s chosen people begins, with the work that Abram did with the heifer, the goat, the ram, the pigeon, the turtledove. Sacrificed, so that God’s relationship with his people can be sealed.

Would that it were that simple, that the relationship begun that night in the desert would be the whole story, and that the relationship would remain unchanged to this day.

But we know that the story has not been that simple. Time and again, we tore the fabric of the covenant. Time and again, God needed to send someone to remind us of what was promised, those prophets who often were killed for their harsh words of truth. And it kept happening, until God finally recognized that a stronger way of teaching and changing the hearts of his wayward people was necessary. To keep God’s side of the covenant, God had to send Jesus to remind us of our part of the covenant. Love God and no other. Love each other and care for each other. The journey to Jerusalem began not in the Galilee, but under that night sky near the oaks of Mamre as Abram and God exchanged their promises. And just as Abram was given some very specific work to do to seal the covenant – get those animals and sacrifice them -  so also Jesus was given some specific work to do to reclaim the covenant, a new covenant between God and God’s people. Go to Jerusalem – that city that kills prophets. Go and prophesy. Go and die. Go and fulfill the promise of the covenant by redeeming the people.

So what does this mean to us, the very people of the covenant? In this season of Lent in particular, we have work to do. We must work to reclaim the covenant once again. This is not the work of repairing a Torah scroll or rebuilding a temple. It is the work of repairing and restoring our souls, seeing where the edge was torn, noting where a word or two has faded, recognizing that love of God and neighbor is no longer central to our understanding of ourselves and our world. It is work that is not mechanical in nature – you can’t simply sit somewhere and recite prayers by rote without thinking about what is behind them. It means we need to be silent and take a look deep into our hearts. What do we see there? Envy? Anger? Jealousy? Are we more consumed with how we compare to others than how we help others? Have we forgotten that we are beloved and have a purpose, no matter what stage of life we are in? It takes more than some Scotch tape or Wite-Out to repair and restore the soul, and the first step is assessing what condition we are in. Only then can we do the necessary work of patching and rewriting and refolding the scroll of our personal covenant with the One who loves us most.


Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Hard Work

I've buried 27 parishioners since I got to Epiphany. Most were elderly and had lived full lives. Even those who died too young had been on this earth for 4 or 5 decades. In each case, there was sadness, but also a life to be celebrated.

Today I went to the bedside of a family whose child was diagnosed in utero with a difficult genetic disorder and whose heart had stopped beating at 29weeks. He was delivered today, and I went to comfort the family and do a liturgy of blessing, naming and commendation. In our tradition, we do not baptize babies who are stillborn.

I was prepared for the fact that the baby would look different. What I wasn't so prepared for was the depth of sadness for a life that never even had a chance.

I got through the visit and the liturgy and the conversation about interment and such. There have been so many of these conversations in this ministry. But I am left with the weight of the tragedy for this family, and that precious little face - so tiny! a baby only 1 pound! - never to smile, never to talk, never to give back his mother's kiss.

This work is always holy ground, but sometimes it is very, very hard work.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Sermon for Sunday, February 16, 2013 Lent I Luke 4:1-13 “No Ifs, Ands, or Buts”

Many decades ago, a company wanting to impress us with its customer service launched an ad campaign centered on an interesting expression to reinforce the fact that they would do just about anything to make their customer happy. “No Ifs, Ands, or Buts!” they asserted. Ifs, ands, or buts. Three words that are known as conditional modifiers.

If you’re something of an English grammar nerd, as I am, you know that these words known as conditionals are powerful little things. They can turn a statement from an absolute – “you are a fool” – into something more tame – “you are a fool, but I still love you.” They can reframe something as a possibility rather than a fact: “if you are a fool, I don’t want to hire you” is quite different from “You are a fool. I don’t want to hire you.”

In today’s Gospel, Luke uses one of these conditional modifiers to powerful and subtle effect. In the passage we just read, the shortest word – one of those conditional modifiers - is the most powerful one.


If you are the Son of God.

If you are the Son of God, make these stones into bread.

If you are the Son of God,  throw yourself off this building.

If you are really who you say you are, prove it to me.

I wonder if there is a hidden challenge here…not just prove it to the devil, but prove it to yourself. If you are really who you say you are, test it out so you can be really sure. After all, it might just be your imagination that you think you are God…it might just be a delusion.

That devil, that tempter. Always looking to make trouble.

Jesus doesn’t rise to the bait, of course. He is clear about who he is, and what he is supposed to do, even after 40 days of near starvation out in the desert. He has nothing to prove, to this devil or to the Pharisees or to his disciples. He simply has to be utterly himself, and the rest of his work will speak for itself.

No ifs, ands, or buts.

But the devil, limited in his tools of persuasion, thinks differently. He thinks that Jesus is, in fact, subject to the same human failings as the rest of us, pride and self-doubt being foremost among them.

And so he couches his temptations with that “if,” hoping to get Jesus, in his weakened state, into a place of questioning who he really is and why he is embarking on this task that will only end in misery and pain. He wants Jesus to give up on the task of saving us. The devil, of course, would like nothing better than to cut off the possibility of improvement of the relationship between humankind and God, and what quicker and more efficient way than to disarm the one who was sent to repair that relationship?

“If you are who you say you are, prove it.” A schoolyard taunt, designed to get Jesus to respond “I am too!” But Jesus is not to be drawn into a debate with a lesser adversary. Even this prince of devils cannot get him to make a misstep.

But  - here comes another conditional – but when the devil is unsuccessful in tempting Jesus, what does he do? Does he slink off, defeated, never to be seen or heard from again? No…Luke tells us “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.”

It is the devil’s job, of course, to tempt humanity into sin, so just because it didn’t work then didn’t mean it might not work in the future, or it might not work on human beings. To put together a few of our conditional modifiers, you might say “if Jesus was God and man, he had the power to resist such temptations. But mere humans did not have such power, it seems.”

And there is the heart of what Lent is about. We are not so good at resisting temptations, especially some of those that the devil tried to use on Jesus with that little word “if”: pride and self-doubt.

Pride and self-doubt are two sides of the same coin. If we are prideful, we think we are more important than we really are, so we boast or are arrogant. If you think this doesn’t apply to you, remember the last time you laughed at those silly rednecks when you watched “Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo” or smirked at the feckless Guidos and Guidettes of “The Jersey Shore.” We are so much better than them, of course…we don’t take our little children to kiddie beauty pageants or worry about our tans. Right. We have other things, more important things to worry about, like whether our child is doing better in his school than our friend’s child, or whether we can beat out our co-worker for a promotion.

And what about self-doubt? It’s that old feeling of “am I good enough?” Good enough for what? A good enough employee? A good enough parent? Compared to what? Honey Boo-boo’s mom and dad?

Here’s the standard that we forget when we are lost in a morass of pridefulness or self-doubt. We are beloved children of God, made by our Creator to love God and love each other. We are beautiful in God’s eyes.

Sort of takes you out of the realm of Snooki and Honey Boo-Boo, doesn’t it? Makes all of our wonderings if we are good enough, and all our judgments about others not being as good as us, seem a little misguided.

And this is where the gift of Lent can be so powerful. When we get all caught up in the idea that the ifs, ands, or buts matter, this season of Lent says, “Stop. Wait a minute. Think about what you’re doing here. Do you measure yourself by the standards of the world, or by how well you live into the person God created you to be? Do you think of yourself as better than everyone around you, or not good enough? Do you remember that God wants nothing more than for you to be who you are, beloved and loving?”

In this season of Lent, we take our own measure, not to compare ourselves with others, but to see how we have lived into God’s vision for us. That is the only measure that truly counts. No ifs, ands, or buts.


Sunday, February 10, 2013

Sermon for Sunday, February 10, 2013 Exodus 34:29-35 Luke 9:28-36, “Changed”

If we listen to what happened in readings from scripture today, we would think that seeing God is a pretty scary or dangerous thing.

Moses goes up to the mountain, and is in the presence of God. He sees God, and God gives him the Ten Commandments. When he comes down from the mountain he is glowing like the South Anna nuclear reactor. It’s a scary thing, how much he is glowing, and the people are so frightened that Moses realizes he has to cover his face. The glow is too frightening to them. So he covers himself with the veil whenever he talks to the Israelites, and only takes the veil off when he goes to talk to God.

That seems to be the thing about being in the presence of God. It changes you.

Something similar happens in the Gospel. Jesus goes up to the top of the mountain to pray, bringing Peter and John and James, and suddenly Moses and Elijah appear. Peter and James and John know their scripture, and remember that Moses and Elijah have been dead for quite a long while, and now all three of them – Jesus, Moses and Elijah – are glowing like a super-strong LED headlight. God’s voice is heard, affirming Jesus as His son. They’re scared – that sure does seem to be the general reaction to glowing people – so they fall to the ground.

The presence of God changes people. There is an energy in that presence like the heat and light of the sun. So it’s no surprise that they glow. And it’s also no surprise that the glow is a little intimidating.

And yet we cannot turn away from the glow, can we? It is so beautiful, so soul-warming, that we are drawn to it, even as we are frightened by it.

Perhaps we are beginning to understand that there is a certain amount of work involved in getting ourselves to a place where we can see God. In the case of Moses and of Jesus and the three disciples, they have to climb a mountain to get there.

And the people of Israel, faced with this glowing Moses who brings God’s word to them, have to see beyond the veil with which Moses covers his face – they have to get beyond the glow to hear the words.

It seems that getting to know God requires some effort on our part.

Sometimes the work is climbing mountains. Other times, perhaps it is simply surviving the challenges of life.

I’m thinking of the trip that Doug and I took to Ireland last summer, and the monster seven-hour hike we took over the extremely challenging limestone terrain of the Burren region. Some parts were so difficult, that all of our concentration was centered on the next step. Some parts were just plain old steep and hard. But there was a view from the top – the farms and fields running down into Galway Bay -  that was transcendent, and I doubt that it would have affected us anywhere near as much if we had had an easy time of it. About five hours into the hike, we took a break and I lay on my back, soaked with sweat despite the 50 degree temperature, trying to catch my breath. The leader was reading a poem about reconnecting with one’s ancestors – a potent image for me, going to the land of my forebears and thinking of my father and his people in particular. And in the midst of it, the breeze sweeping across the top of the hill  was like God’s caress. Not my father’s, but my heavenly father’s. In that moment, I felt God’s presence and God’s energy flowing into me, giving me what I needed to continue the last leg of the hike, down to a house where the meal that would feed our bodies and souls awaited.

Would I have felt God on that cool afternoon had I not gone on the hike? Maybe, maybe not. But I can attest  the intensity of that feeling  was due in part to the intensity of the work that preceded it.

So what is the work that we need to do to know God, to see him before us? Do we need to climb mountains, or wander in the desert for forty years, to understand who God is?

Perhaps the answer is found in the wise words of Franciscan theologian Richard Rohr. He offers a very different kind of prescription: prayer. He writes that  “Prayer lives in pure open moments of right here, right now. This is enough, this is fullness. If it is not right here right now, it doesn't exist. If we don't know God now, why would we know God later? If we don't see God now, would the eyes be prepared to see God later?"

No strenuous hike, no appearance of those saints long gone, no booming voice from the clouds. Just prayer. For Rohr, prayer is the way to be present to God and to open ourselves to what God has to say to us. Now, the likelihood that our faces will be glowing so brightly that we have to cover ourselves so we don’t scare the kids or the dog is pretty slim. And yet, don’t we feel different when we find that place of stillness so we can be aware of God’s presence?
In a few days, we will begin Lent, that season when we are to examine our hearts. We are supposed to see how we can be closer to God and to what God has in mind for us…to know God more deeply. That is what Lent is about, using whatever means necessary to get there. And Rohr reminds us that if we want to get a taste of that glow, an insight into the God who is right beside us, the starting point is prayer. Just prayer. Let this holy season of Lent be the time that you feel the spark of a deeper relationship with God, with prayer.


Friday, February 08, 2013

Be Sweet

I live in the south, the Capital of the Confederacy, to be exact, and as a Northerner I am still adjusting to the different ways that Southerners choose to live their lives. To be sure, there's a certain amount of Faulkner-esque sadness and drama, but there is a thread that is equally strong if not stronger: politeness. No, it's something more than politeness. It's more than being civil. It is a code of living taught by Southern mothers, who said to their children as they left for school "Be sweet." Roy Blount, Jr., a marvelous chronicler of a bygone Southern life, wrote a book with that title, celebrating the notion that we live better when we choose to be sweet to each other rather than by being mean or worrying about who is winning. Be sweet.

I thought about this today as I read a FaceBook post by a clergywoman who lives in the North, who was charmed when a TSA agent said "Ma'am, would you feel comfortable removing your sweater before you pass through our little metal detector here?" A little moment of "be sweet" that is quintessentially Southern. I cannot imagine a TSA agent at JFK or O'Hare asking in quite the same way. The corollary, of course, is that when someone requests something in "be sweet"-speak, we are often happy to comply. When we are barked at, it feels like a grudging effort.

It's one of the things I preach at marriages: be sweet. Not a pushover or doormat. Not ignoring problems. No, you can be strong and clear and self-actualized, but the key thing is this: you don't need to be rude or mean to reach those states of being. You can be sweet. Generations of Southern women have made it into an art form.

So on this Friday as Valentine's Day (that celebration of all things cloyingly sweet) approaches, what are the "be sweet" moments that snuck up on you recently? 

For me, it was a FaceBook post by my son. I had given him a pewter keyring of a snowboarder for Christmas, and he posted a picture of it hanging from his car's ignition, with "I love you, Mom" as a status. Not what one expects from a 26 year old guy, which si what makes it doubly sweet...

Share your story, and Be Sweet.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Sermon for Sunday, February 3, 2013 Luke 4:21-30, I Cor 13:1-13 “The Judging Business”

It was in the supermarket on a Friday morning. I was idly picking over the produce, figuring out what I would bring home for dinner, when I heard a wail behind me. I turned, and there was a mother with a toddler in the shopping cart. The little one was trying to escape and the mom was desperately trying to get her to stay put. “No, sweetie. You don’t want to fall out. Mommy needs you to stay in the cart.” “Want OUT!!! Want OUT!!!!” the little one howled. I felt bad for the mom – I had been there myself a few times when my children were little, and there is nothing quite as embarrassing and frustrating as when you cannot get your child under control and he or she is screaming bloody murder.

To my left, an older woman was sighing melodramatically. “If she can’t keep that child quiet, she shouldn’t bring her into the store. It’s aggravating!”

She turned to the mother and said “You don’t belong in here if you can’t shut her up.” The mother wheeled the cart away from the produce aisles, her face as red as a tomato, as she tried to escape the judgment of the other woman.

Judging…it’s a behavior we turn to more often than we should. We could make the point that none of us should ever judge anyone else, that only God has the right to judge, but from a practical standpoint, we do occasionally judge, whether we are on a jury or are inspecting our teenager’s supposedly cleaned room. Still, judgment is dangerous business, because we often do it without all the data to make a wise verdict.

That may be some of what is going on in today’s Gospel. Jesus, as we remember from last week, is in his hometown, and he has just stunned the people in the synagogue by proclaiming that he is the embodiment of the prophecy about the Messiah. And how do the listeners respond? At first, they seem to be amazed by his words, and are especially amazed because this is someone whom they have known all their lives, a local boy. But something in the air must have shifted, because Jesus seems to react badly. He challenges them: “I’ll bet you don’t believe me. I’ll bet you want to see miracles that will prove to you that I am who I say I am. You are judging me, even though you are not saying the words aloud, and I rebuke you…you, who should know me best, do not know me at all. It will only be the outsiders who will recognize who I am.”

Pretty insulting response, isn’t it? And not surprisingly, they react with rage. How dare this whippersnapper judge us? And yet, he is right – he who is the only one who has the right to judge – and he sees what will happen. They will not accept him – they will judge him and find him not what they expected or wanted as a Messiah. They respond with anger and drive him out to the edge of town. They want to shove him over a cliff, but he slips away before they can exact their sentence upon him, these judges in the little synagogue.

Judging is dangerous business, and these people who judged Jesus did not have all the information they needed to make a wise judgment – in fact they didn’t even want all the information. They simply wanted to execute someone who made them intensely uncomfortable.

But what if they had gone a different way in that Sabbath conversation? What if they had followed the guidance that Paul offered the early Christians?

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.”

What if, instead of judgment, they had offered love? Might they have understood the truth that Jesus was offering them?

Paul understood that we human beings know only a part of the story, a part of the truth: “For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.” Paul knew that judging prematurely, for our own self-aggrandizement, was pronouncing a verdict without all of the facts. We know only in part.

So in the meantime, if we are so flawed in the judging business, what is left to us? Love. Only love.

Are we meant to be in the judging business or the love business? I’d say it’s definitely love.

Now it’s important that I insert a disclaimer in here. This particular reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is usually used at weddings and at funerals. It is usually framed as a model of what marriages are supposed to be like, all warm and cozy and full of mutual respect, or as a paean to the superb life of the departed, who was the model of love. But Paul wrote this for a different purpose: the Corinthians were in trouble. They were arguing among themselves, most likely because they were busy judging each other as to who was the best follower of Christ. Some of them were doing some very unchristian things, and others were making a stink about it. And Paul needed to sort them out and say “Stop judging! Start behaving like good followers of Christ and start thinking about how we need to stick together!”

It’s hard to stick together if you’re busy telling your friend that he is off-base about something, or telling your children that if they don’t straighten up and fly right they’re going to hell.

Paul wasn’t talking about romance, or doing a eulogy. He was saying that it is hard to live in this world. We have all sorts of stuff coming at us every day, and we don’t have all the information we need about it – we see through the glass darkly – and yet we have to survive and work together. We have to find a way to love each other even when we have differing opinions, even when we are confused, even when we feel isolated. We will not have all the information we wanted in this life. We might be surrounded by people who disagree with us. We may see others reap glory by being boastful or by doing things that gain admiration from the crowds. The only thing that we can do in the face of such confusion, such anxiety, is to love.

It seems a little crazy, doesn’t it? Shouldn’t we be arguing our case? Shouldn’t we be telling others who are incorrect how wrong they are?

In the immortal words of Dr. Phil, how’s that been working for you?

Not very well, I would imagine. It rarely does. But what if the path we take is not about winning or judging or correcting…what if the path is simply to look at another and say “you are a child of Christ. I love you.”

Can you imagine what that conversation might be like, if we got out of the judging business and got into the loving business?