Sunday, June 30, 2013

Sermon for Sunday, June, 30, 2013 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14/ Luke 9:51-62 “The Price of the Bequest”

It’s hard work, being a follower of Christ. Jesus makes that perfectly clear in his words in today’s Gospel. You want to follow me? Be prepared to have no home. You want to follow me? Be prepared to leave your family behind. You want to follow me? Be prepared to hear people misuse my words as you feel helpless to respond.

You would think that my calling, to be a priest in God’s church, would mean I’d have to sign on for all those things that Jesus talked about, all those warnings about how hard it would be. Frankly, it’s been easier than that, and it raises some questions for me as to whether I’m doing enough, or being enough.

I have a roof over my head and a place to rest my head at night. I have a husband by my side and adult children who support my work. I have a parish full of people who generally agree with a good amount of what I say when I preach, and I am part of a denomination that does things in ways that I find live-giving. Yes, there are people out there who – in my opinion – misuse God’s word, but I have the option to ignore them or to respond to them.

So am I failing in following Jesus? I’d like to say no, but I do wonder about this. Am I living into my ministry as fully as God desires, or am I taking an easier way?

It’s an interesting question: what do we commit to when we commit to being followers of Christ?

Elijah, whose story has been told over the past few Sundays in our readings from the books of Kings, has done one difficult thing after another. He has called out King Ahab, he has called out the people of Israel, he has called out everyone who has not been faithful to the covenant between the One True God and his people. He’s been on the run, trying to avoid getting killed. He’s nearly starved, but for some miraculous meals along the way. He’s survived, with a trainee prophet, Elisha, most recently by his side. And now it is time for him to leave this earthly plane. He will be lifted up by a fiery chariot, and in preparation, he is about to place his mantle on Elisha’s shoulders as the one who will carry on his work for God. Elisha says “please give me a double portion of your spirit.”

Elisha has asked for a bequest from his spiritual father, Elijah. He hasn’t asked to be a prophet. In fact, he hasn’t acted as a prophet the whole time he has been accompanying Elijah. He’s been like – here’s the word – a disciple. And now his spiritual father is leaving – sounds a little like Jesus talking to the disciples about the work in our Gospel passage – and Elijah says what we may have been thinking when we heard Elisha’s request “It’s complicated. You’re asking for a hard thing that is God’s to give you, not mine.” We may think that the emphasis is on the “it’s God’s to give” part, but in fact it is on “you’re asking for a hard thing.”

Disciples, whether they are apostles of Jesus, or spiritual disciples of the prophet Elijah, have to face the fact that signing on to be a disciple means entering into a complicated and demanding relationship. It’s not easy. It’s not glorious. It’s not powerful. It’s just plain old hard, and there are no guarantees of applause from the onlookers. In fact, the only guarantee is that it will be hard.

So why would anyone offer themselves to be a disciple, if that’s the deal?

It’s easier to come up with a top ten reasons list for NOT becoming a disciple than one for becoming one. Just think of what the “not” reasons might be:

10. you might get killed.
9. no one will understand what you’re saying.
8. if you say it’s a message from God, they might lock you  up in a psych ward.
7. you might get killed…
…and it goes on from there.

Now try to construct a positive list:
10. I love God, and God wants me to do it.
9….I love God, and God wants me to do it…
….mmm, hard time coming up with the next eight reasons, except that first one, which is a lollapalooza.

I love God. God calls me to be and do something that is hard, but I love God so much, that I want to at least try to do it. I feel his love and his encouragement, and even though I’m afraid, even though I don’t know if what I am doing is exactly what God is looking for, I am going to attempt it.

All of my fears and confusion and doubts are trumped by that still small voice in my ear, whispering as it did to Elijah “Go.” Go and do something. Do something small, do something big – it doesn’t matter. Mother Teresa wisely said “we can do no great things, only small things with great love,” so don’t stop trying because you fear what you are doing as a disciple isn’t big enough or important enough. Am I doing enough? I’m never sure, but if I simply dither and wonder about whether or not it’s enough, I won’t do anything. So what I do today will have to be my starting place.

Elijah threw his mantle – his cloak – over Elisha’s shoulders as a final bequest. Jesus gave his disciples the power and authority to help and to heal and to teach as a final bequest. But there was a codicil to the will that was that bequest: you’ve got to do something with it. Elisha grew into his prophetic role from his disciple role over time, taking that bequest of the spirit and the mantle of responsibility that went with it. The disciples of Jesus grew into the leaders of the church over time, taking the bequest of their gifts of teaching and leading and healing and putting them to good use for God’s people.

Go. Do something. Be a disciple. See how it will transform you. See how it will transform the world.          


Sunday, June 23, 2013

Sermon for Sunday, June 18, 2013 1 Kings 19:1-15, Galatians 3:23-29, Luke 8:26-39 “Sort and Wash”

Who here does laundry in their house? Does your spouse or partner do it, or do you?

Every couple has a story of their partner doing the wash, and mistakenly putting the red shirt in with the whites, with the inevitable result that all white items, including socks and men’s undershirts and briefs, become a lovely shade of Pepto-Bismol pink. 
This is the reason why, on the back of every bottle of laundry detergent, or in the instruction manual for each washing machine, these instructions appear: “sort before washing.” Sort out the colored clothes, which will be washed in cold or tepid water, and the white clothes, which are often washed in hot water, with bleach. Why? Because the dye which creates the colors in garments sometimes runs, and will stain the white clothes. Sort and wash.

You can actually buy laundry sorting carts to aid you in this chore at Bed, Bath and Beyond, or even, for prices ranging from a mere $20 to the astounding price of $229.95, which buys you a “Mobile Complete Laundry Center including a Fold-Away Ironing Board.” Who knew we needed such a thing?

Some of us are a little more basic in our approach, but the underlying theory is the same. We always do that sorting thing first, because we’ve learned the lesson of the pink BVDs. Sort and wash. Separate out into categories – darks, whites, delicates – first.

Sorting is nothing new. We know this because we have two stories of sorting in our readings from Scripture today, and there’s a little bit of washing up, too.

First the easy one: in the Gospel passage, we hear of Jesus’ healing of a crazy guy. The fancy Biblical scholar name for him is “the Gerasene demoniac,” but for our purposes, it’s enough to know that he was a crazy guy. In ancient times, crazy people, people who were considered possessed by demons, were usually cared for by their families. We’ve read of other situations where people brought their demon-possessed relative to Jesus for healing. But this story is different. This fellow was so uncontrollable that the family abandoned him, and he lived on the edge of town, in the caves that were used for tombs. He didn’t have any clothes, and any time anyone went near those caves, his place of refuge, he would come out and scream at them, because of the demons that possessed him. When he was at the height of his madness, even shackles and chains would not hold him, and everyone feared him and his demons.

Jesus came upon him, and commanded the demons to leave the man. In essence, he was sorting before washing - sorting out the man’s true nature from the crazy stuff, the demons. Then he could cast out those demons – the washing part. But the demons were quite comfortable living in this poor man, and said, “Jesus, leave us alone.” Remarkable thing that the demons recognized who Jesus was, when so many of the supposedly righteous and spiritually healthy did not, but that’s a sermon for another day. But Jesus was sorting him out, so he responded to the demons and said “what is your name?” The response came back “Legion.” Legion, the word that means many – there were many demons in him. The people who originally heard Luke’s story would have also gotten the wry pun – a legion is a unit of 6000 soldiers. This man was possessed by a huge number of demons, just as the Jewish people were occupied – possessed, in a way, by legions of Roman soldiers.  They were soldiers who didn’t belong in Israel, just as the demons did not belong in this poor man. And Jesus was all about the sorting and the washing out of that which didn’t belong.

So after the demons identified themselves as “Legion” Jesus did an odd thing – he asked them what they would like him to do. He was going to do the sorting, have no doubt, but he was offering them a choice in where they would go before they were washed out of the man.

They said, “put us into that herd of pigs over there.” This is another odd thing. We’re in Israel, a Jewish country. Pigs are unclean animals, unfit for consumption. Maybe they are there because the predominant population in the immediate area is Gentile rather than Jewish, but maybe they are there because the Roman soldiers like their bacon – who knows? – but the pigs are available, and they are considered expendable, just dumb animals, and unclean ones at that, so Jesus washes out the demons from the man and puts them into the pigs, just as they’ve requested. The pigs aren’t too happy about this – Luke reports that they run down the steep hill into the sea where they drown. Pretty dramatic kind of washing out of the demons from the man. Not many washing machines could do as effective a job!

And then the man is sitting there, no longer the crazy guy who used to break chains and shackles, just an average man wondering where he can find some clothes to cover himself, and by the time the swineherds have told people in the village what has happened, and they all come up to see for themselves, the man is dressed, coherent, smiling, washed clean of his demons and his madness. 

You’d think that the villagers would be ecstatic about this. No more worrying if they will be accosted by a crazy guy every time somebody is laid to rest in the tombs! But this sorting and washing is frightening to them. If they have been the sort of folks who have withstood the Roman occupation by keeping their heads low and doing nothing to get the attention of the authorities, you can understand their fear. Mightn’t Roman soldiers think “if this Jewish magic man can sort the demons out of a crazy man, wash them out of him and send them into pigs, perhaps he is thinking about washing us out of this place…maybe even turning us into some sort of animal and killing us?”

So the villagers tell Jesus, “yes, this is all well and good, this sorting and washing business, and we are grateful that you helped this man, but you are drawing too much attention to us, so please leave.” No more sorting and washing here, they say. We just want to lay low, like pigs wallowing in the mud, as invisible as we can make ourselves. But the man who had been possessed knows what happened, and keeps telling the story to anyone who will listen.

We have another story of sorting and washing in our Old Testament tale. We are continuing in our story about the prophet Elijah. You may recall that last week, Elijah challenged Jezebel’s husband, King Ahab, calling him to task for murdering Naboth to get his vineyard. He’s done some sorting by telling Ahab of his sin, and that he must repent. Ahab’s wife Jezebel, who had planned the plot, intends to see Elijah killed. So this week, Elijah is on the run, and he stops to catch his breath under a tree. He’s feeling pretty sorry for himself, having realized that the person who does the sorting is not always appreciated (just as Jesus found when the villagers said, “no more sorting here, please) and he says to God “I’ve had enough. Let me die.” But he sleeps and dreams, and is told to watch out for God, who is coming to bring him the next sorting and washing instructions.

He waits in a cave, and watches for the Lord. First, there’s a mighty wind, like a tornado. Pretty scary stuff. Elijah thinks, “God sure likes a dramatic entrance,” so he peeks out of the cave. No God. Hmmm.

It’s quiet for a while. Then everything starts shaking. It’s an earthquake! Even more scary than the tornado. “Elijah thinks, “okay, you’ve got my attention. Sorry for whining before – I was just tired.” When the ground stops shaking, he looks out the entrance to the cave. Nothing. Nada. No Lord.

Now Elijah’s nervous. What will God do for His third act? Before he knows it, a wildfire sweeps through. Elijah’s glad he is in a cave made of rock, and not under that little tree, or else he would have been a little pile of ash. He peers out through the smoke. “Surely God is here now,” he thinks, “because all of these disasters are God’s handiwork.” But still nothing. Just utter stillness. A desolate silence, but for the crackle of an ember.

Elijah goes out and God whispers to him a question, the same question God has asked him before. “What have you been up to, Elijah?” He responds, “I’ve been doing what you told me to do. I’ve told the people of Israel how they have turned from you. I’ve told Ahab he was doing bad things. And now all of the other prophets are dead. All the others were sorted and tossed away. I’m the last one standing, and I expect they’re coming for me soon.”

The one prophet left after the sorting, afraid, broken by fear, but somehow still able to stand and face his Lord. And the Lord said “Go.” As if Elijah had not only been sorted out from the other prophets, but had been washed by the trials he had faced, and was now ready to be sent somewhere different, somewhere new. “Go. To Damascus. Continue in the work I have given you to sort and to wash clean again my people.”

Sometimes the sorting and washing is energizing – Jesus certainly doesn’t seem to slow down after the healing of the Gerasene demoniac and the pathetic response of the villagers. Sometimes it is a long hard slog. Elijah is exhausted, but that still small voice of God, clear as wind chimes, says “Go. There is more work to be done.”

Not a surprise to those of us who do laundry. Sometimes, when all the laundry is washed and dried and folded, the colors in one pile, the whites in another, the delicates in yet another, it feels good. What good work we have done! Other times, we feel drained, because we know that in a day or so the laundry will once again pile up, will once again need the sorting and the washing. And if we feel that way, can we imagine God as the great laundry superintendent in the heavens, who always has another load of souls to be sorted, washed clean, and neatly tucked away? And how it feels to know that the odds are that they won’t stay neat and clean, they’ll more likely get soiled again and the whole cycle will repeat itself?

Sorting and washing. It’s a part of our life. It seems like it’s a part of God’s life as well. Good thing God doesn’t seem to tire of the task. 


Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Bad Blogger. Bad Bank.

Yes, I've been absent (except for sermons). No real excuses except the busy-ness of life, the finishing up of a large paper for my doctoral work, and the arrival of our delightful summer seminarian for several weeks of internship here.

But I've also been hip-deep in doing some stuff that came out of my week at CREDO, a week-long clergy wellness program that focuses on all aspects of wellness. One of the things we decided to do was to refinance our home, to pay off some student loans and get a good rate. I went back to the bank that employed me for over a decade - I tend to be loyal that way - and it started off smoothly.

Then suddenly we were in the land of "one more piece of paper." Every day I got a call from the woman who gathers the papers. She is not the one who has asked for the papers - that would be the underwriter - but she is the customer contact point, so she must bear the news. "They don't understand such-and-such (usually something related to the intricacies of clergy financial life, especially when both partners in a  couple are clergy). Could you please send us a letter explaining such-and-such?" Each time the customer contact person calls, I say "Is this the last thing they need?" and she says, "It appears that way." It's like relying on the Magic Eight Ball...

I understand the abundance of caution that banks now exercise, given the fact that they all got in trouble for lending to anyone with a pulse in the boom years. But here's the deal: I was a good employee of this institution. In fact, I was a Senior Vice President there, no small potatoes, for 11 years, surviving three mergers. Our credit score is excellent. The loan-to-value ratio of this deal is less than 50%, so they have virtually no exposure should we default. Our combined incomes mean that the mortgage payment will be less than 25% of our take-home pay. I am a priest, which means that unless I embezzle the parish's funds (well nigh impossible to do with current business practices in our diocese) or become intimate with a parishioner or simply go bonkers, none of which are immediately in the offing, I have GREAT job security.

What's the net result of this? Although I will complete this transaction with them, since it is so far down the road to completion that it isn't worth it to go elsewhere now, I will never again use any of their products. I may, in fact, close my accounts with them, since the experience has left me with no residual loyalty to the bank.

Doesn't seem smart to aggravate the very customers you want to keep on board, but I might be missing something in all this...

In other news, I love my work, I haven't had to preside at a memorial service since December after one a month for 2.5 years, I have several baptisms and weddings queued up, and I got an A on that paper. So no more rant, just a prayer of thanksgiving for the fact that we have a roof over our heads, full employment in meaningful work, and the health is holding up. Thanks for putting up with the venting of spleen.

How's it going by you?

PS - ..and I just received another phone call asking for another two pieces of paper...grrr.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Sermon for Sunday, June 9, 2013 (Acolyte Graduation) Gal 1: 11-24 “Glorified Because of Me”

It’s an odd thing, this day, because we celebrate and we grieve at the same time. We celebrate the accomplishments of our young people, the seniors who have served as acolytes for several years, as they graduate from high school. Each of them is beloved by their family and by us. We can tell stories about Sara’s sweetness, Melissa’s quiet intelligence, Megan’s incredible focus as a horsewoman, Stark’s fearlessness (and juggling), and Garrett’s musical talents and scouting accomplishments. Each of them has unique gifts and abilities, and we have been blessed by their presence among us.
We are a little bit sad, too, because one of the inevitable parts of their growing up means that our relationships with them are changing. They are going off to college now. Some are attending schools near to us, some further away, but they are all moving to a different place in their life journeys, and we will not see them as often as we have in the past. That’s the hard part, even as we wish them well.
But as they go from us, they carry something of their time with us with them and they leave something with us, and that something is encapsulated in the last phrase in today’s reading from the Letter of Paul to the Galatians: “They glorified God because of me.”
Now, before I explain how this applies to our five senior acolytes, let’s think a little bit about this letter, and who the Galatians were, and what Paul was doing in this letter.
Galatia was an interesting place. It was a Roman province in Central Asia, and had been settled by a group of Celts from Gaul (modern day France) in 270 BC. This group of foreigners, even in Paul’s day, still retained some cultural and linguistic practices of those Gaulish roots. So they were strangers in a strange land, even almost three hundred years after they had emigrated from what we now might know as the region of Brittany in western France.
Paul had visited Galatia and started a church there. He converted a number of these Galatians from their pagan religions. This was a common practice for Paul – he was an itinerant evangelist, going from place to place as the Spirit led him, to convert people (especially non-Jews, what we call Gentiles) from their old religions to the way of Christ. Then, once the church was started up and running, he left.
That was the norm for Paul. It was also the norm that his churches would send him letters every now and again. Sometimes they had questions, sometimes they had disputes that needed settling, sometimes they were simply reported on what was happening, but there was a pattern of letters.
We have none of the letters sent to Paul, but we do have copies of the letters Paul sent in response. We have none of the original letters, but we do have copies. In the case of the letter to the Galatians, the earliest known copy is from around 200 CE, about 150 years after the original was believed to have been written.
What was going on in this letter? It appears that there were some new teachers who came to Galatia after Paul founded the church there. These new teachers were teaching a different approach to the way of Christ – they said that converts had to conform to all the rules of Jewish law. In other words, they had to become Jews first, and then they could become Christians. And those whom Paul had taught wrote to him and told him about this, and this letter to the Galatians was intended to set them straight. The new teachers were wrong. Paul had received Jesus’ words in a revelation when he was converted, and there was nothing in that revelation about having to become a good Jew before you could become a Christian. So Paul was writing to set the record straight.
And he set the record straight in a very unusual way: he started out by talking about his credentials as a “good Jew.” Paul was a Pharisee and a persecutor of Christians prior to that revelation when he was knocked off his horse. His argument was that if he, even this very observant Jew, believed that it was not necessary to adhere to Jewish law, to become an observant Jew, before one became a Christian, and that if he followed this belief because of Jesus’ own revelation to him, then these new teachers’ arguments were wrong. And if, as most Biblical scholars believe, this letter was written after Paul had argued with Peter about this very same question at the Council of Jerusalem and had gotten Peter’s concurrence that Gentiles did not need to become Jews before becoming Christians, Paul was arguing from a position of great strength and these new folks were very wrong.
And after Paul establishes his credentials, he notes that the Jewish Christians who heard about him rejoiced – “this is somebody who came from Judaism to Christ and is converting many people to the way of Christ” – and they said that God was glorified because of what Paul was doing.
So what does that have to do with these graduating acolytes?
Well, the fact is that they are an integral part of our worship each Sunday. Their focus and precision, their ability to contribute beauty and grace to each thing we do during worship, are well known. Folks who are new to the parish are fascinated by their intensity. All of that is to say that they glorify God in their work as acolytes, and we glorify God because of the mood that they set in our worship. We pray together immediately before the service, that we can shine a light on God by our work at the altar, and it is clear that the prayer works: these young people are a light to the nations when they serve as acolytes.
But it is not just as acolytes that they and we glorify God. Some of them have participated in our mission trips, and I’ve seen them work incredibly hard at helping others, and I’ve also seen them treating the folks whom we help with respect and dignity. They see the grace and humanity of Christ in those whom we help, and those whom we help see the love and care of Christ in those teens. I’ve seen them work to help with younger children, who see them as the cool older kids. They always are kind and generous to the little ones, and when they teach the acolyte procedures to newer participants, they do it with care and good humor. God is with them, and God is glorified by their work.
Although I haven’t seen them in school, I would imagine that they live their faith in their kindness to other classmates, in their willingness to lend a helping hand, in their use of their God-given intelligence in their class work. God is glorified by their work.
In a few months, they will be starting in a new school, a college or a university. They may have part-time jobs as well. They will be among different people, doing different things, engaging in different tasks. But one thing remains the same: we pray that in all they do, they can say “God was glorified because of me.” They already know how to make that happen – they merely need to continue being the wonderful young adults they already are. They merely need to center their lives and their work in what God has made them for. We pray that this time next year, or five years from now, or a decade from now, or a lifetime from now, they will be able to say what they can truly say today: “God was glorified because of me!”