Monday, August 29, 2011

a few jarred frogs (sermon for Pentecost 11)

It’s good to be home. Really good to be home.

I know, I know...I started last week’s sermon that way, too. But then it occurred to me that some of you weren’t here last week, and maybe you’re thinking I’m just back from vacation and that I look especially good this week, especially rested from my two weeks ago two weeks vacation, and far be it from me to turn down a well-intentioned compliment. And besides, it’s still true:

It is good to be home. You’re looking good, too. Not quite so dry as last week. And that’s a good thing.

I want to tell you about a harrowing social experiment: a two-year old’s birthday party. This past Friday morning, Rebekah and Annie and I celebrated Annie’s birthday with an invitation-only front yard, Walmart-special, blue plastic pool, swim and picnic party. It was fantastic. We like to party, to celebrate one other, but Rebekah and I are old-school in this respect: the rule is one invitation per year being celebrated. So two friends this year: Lilly and Mateo.

To some parents (but mostly to people who haven’t yet become parents) this rule sounds severe: only two friends?? Isn’t that a lame party? But we didn’t make the rule up, we only decided that the books we read and the parents we talked to were on to something: namely, that the one-invitation-per-year-being-celebrated guideline has an uncanny ability to track with children’s natural social development.

After all, Annie and Lilly and Mateo sat in the same pool, but they didn’t really play with each other, so much as they played alongside one another. They aren’t there yet. Parallel play, because concepts that we take for granted like sharing and turn-taking and kindness, much less higher forms of social etiquette, well, they’re still working on those.

It’s not that the children can’t - to borrow Paul’s phrase from Romans - live peaceably with one another. It’s just that they’re on some of the more modest, beginning steps of what that peace is, what it looks like, and where it might one day lead them. One day, I can imagine Annie and Lilly and Mateo serving their communities as agents for peace, champions of love, leaders who remind people that the world has been reconciled by Christ and that the victory is God’s; that is, one day, I hope the party gets bigger. But it’s important to remember, I think, that the small steps are more connected to those latter steps than sometimes we give them credit for. Sometimes you can’t get there if you don’t start here. Sometimes it’s enough just to get in the pool with two friends.

I share this because I think that sometimes the Scriptures we read here on Sunday can be so lofty in their vision and so demanding of their hearers that instead of imagining the more modest, beginning steps, we become either easily discouraged or entirely dismissive of the call that has been placed before us.

That would be a mistake.

So, for example, Peter tells Jesus that he doesn’t want him to die, because Peter understands that if Jesus is called to die, Peter might also be called to die, and Peter’s not ready for that. We hear that, and it’s not just that we are like Peter and don’t want to die for our faith; no, more than that, we can’t imagine what that would possibly mean. The message, on the surface, simply doesn’t have any practical overlap with the lives that we live as lower to upper middle class Americans. Now maybe we shouldn’t give up on our being able to imagine what it would mean to give our lives for our faith, but the fact that we can’t imagine it now is a bit of a barrier to even putting our toe in the water.

You see the problem: the higher the calling, the less it seems to apply to us. But we need a high calling. What’s more, in Christ Jesus, we have received a high calling.

But where would I start?

So, just for fun, let’s pull out the reading from Romans, because it’s a very high calling we find there. Lots of short, imperative sentences. Do this and do that. The good news is that, as Paul goes, the sentences are easy to understand. The bad news is that, the sentences are easy to understand, and they’re straight to the point with difficult things. Most of us will have trouble figuring out how to start.

Some examples: “Let love be genuine; hold fast to the good; love one another; be ardent in spirit; serve the Lord.”

“Rejoice in hope; be patient in suffering; keep praying.”

“Give what you have to the saints and welcome the strangers.” (That’s stewardship right there; he’s talking money.)

“Bless those who persecute you; rejoice with the rejoicing and weep with the weeping; hang out with the poor folks” (paraphrase)

“Don’t have a big head.” “Feed your enemies.” “Don’t repay evil with evil, but take thought of what is noble in the sight of all.” And then the kicker, “so far as it depends on you, live peaceable with all.”

Oy.

Now, a part of us loves these words. They ring true to our souls. But it’s such a very, very high calling. Maybe for someone else.

So here’s what I did. Do you remember how in science class the teacher would announce that the coming Friday would not be a lecture, but a lab instead? Your chance to dissect a frog or fight with your lab partner over the chance to jab at a rat with a dull and very used knife? Well, rather than try to explain Paul’s sentences that really don’t seem to need much explaining, I found some jarred frogs in some of the writings of the Christian tradition to share with you this morning. They don’t talk about Romans 12; they embody it. They won’t quote Paul, but they will ask you to remember him. They are examples of beginning steps - what the pursuit of Christian holiness might look like from a blue plastic pool at a front yard party.

Call them attempts at application.

The first frog comes from the book called “Common Prayer for Ordinary Radicals,” and it’s called Offering a Sacrifice of Praise:

'There is an old saying many Christian use: “Offer the Lord a sacrifice of praise,” referring to Hebrews 13:15. In many circles this notion of a “sacrifice of praise” almost becomes a cliche. (Perhaps because worship does not often come at much cost, especially compared with the sacrifices of saints who’ve gone before us.) But when we worship with folks from various traditions, there are times when we may hear a prayer that uses language we might not naturally use or sing a song that isn’t really our style. That is part of what it means to be a member of a community as diverse as the church is. And perhaps that also helps shed some light on why it might require some sacrifice for us to give up ourselves.

'When a song isn’t working for you, consider praising God, because that probably means it is working for someone else who is very different from you. Offer your worship as a sacrifice rather than requiring others to sacrifice for your pleasure or contentment. There is something to the notion of becoming one as God is one; it doesn’t mean that we are the same; it just means that we united by one Spirit. After all, we can become one only if there are many of us to begin with. Liturgy puts a brake on narcissism. Certainly, there is something beautiful about contemporary worship, where we can take old things and add a little spice to them, like singing hymns to rock tunes or reciting creeds as spoken word rhymes. But liturgy protects us from simply making worship into a self-pleasing act. So if a song or prayer doesn’t quite work for you, be thankful that it is probably really resonating with someone who is different from you, and offer a sacrifice of praise.'

What do you think? It kind of smells of chloroform. Maybe we should put it back in the jar. An application of love that we already practice, by virtue of Sunday worship. With room for you and me to embrace it more deeply. Not that it’s too hard, only that it’s so close. So simple. So true.

One toe in the water.

Are you game for another jarred frog?

From the same book, a few smelly embodiments of the life we pray God has given us; that is, some things we might try:

1. Join a Bible study led by someone with less formal education than yourself.
2. Visit a worship service in which you will be a minority. Invite someone to
a meal after the service.
3. Attempt to repair something that is broken. Appreciate the people who
repair things for you on a regular basis.
4. Go to a city council meeting. Pray. Speak as the Spirit leads.
5. Keep the Sabbath holy. Rest one day a week this year - don’t answer the
phone or the door, and don’t use the internet. Do something that brings you
life that day.

Nothing fancy. The calling is high, but it’s not fancy. It’s ordinary days – your ordinary days - touched by an extraordinary Savior.

Some church traditions imagine the sanctuary, this space, and this moment, the Eucharist, as the doorway, the gateway to heaven. The place where heaven kisses earth. The calling is high, but it’s not out of reach because God in Christ Jesus has reached down to us.

For you and for me, the high calling starts here in this encounter with Jesus, and the love of the high calling kind continues out from this place with the next, earthy, dirty, God-loved person you see, the next one you come across. And continues with the one after that. And the one after that. And the one after that. And the one after that. Let love be genuine.

A high calling, for sure, but not out of reach. Difficult, but not complicated. Never more complicated than how love finds us: Christ alive to us in the simplicity of water, oil, and bread and wine.

Love one another, and when it feels hard, don’t be discouraged. When it feels lofty, don’t be dismissive; don’t blow this off. Seek Christ in your day to day encounters. The very, very small things. It’s important to remember that the small steps are more connected to those latter steps than sometimes we give them credit for. Because sometimes you can’t there if you don’t start here. And sometimes it’s enough just to get in the pool with two friends.

Let love be genuine. Seek Christ, and find him. Let the Great Pool, even the waters of your baptism, relieve your trepidation, awaken and encourage your soul; may they always sustain you, and from time to time re-start you in this very great adventure called the Kingdom of God.

Amen.

Friday, August 26, 2011

a quick thought from a young priest

Some folks razz me and my colleagues for being such young clerics. The eerie thing? With nearly 4 years in the priesthood, I have 27 more to go before I reach the age of the average Episcopalian. Help me get (relatively) older! Share your faith with a child.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Why I pray that personal does not mean individual in your relationship with God.

A sermon preached at St Christopher's on August 21, Pentecost 10.

Let us pray.

Grant, O merciful God, that your Church, being gathered together in unity by your Holy Spirit, may show forth your power among all peoples, to the glory of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

It’s good to be home. Really good to be home.

The last four days or so, I have mostly resisted the temptation to say that it’s good to be back, because, well, if the two weeks’ vacation were what I hoped they’d be and if the two weeks away were what you prayed they’d be for me and my family - that is, if those days have given me a renewed sense of calling and energy, purpose and presence - then going back wouldn’t make much sense. But saying that it’s good to be forward doesn’t make much sense, either. You just get strange looks. And I don’t even know what Smokey did to you; he said something about scorch marks. I hope you’re forward, too. Two weeks forward, farther along the pilgrim road we walk together. It is good to be home.

I was in a weekly Bible study once as a kid. It was good, it wasn’t heady, but there was background reading assigned each week, one or two chapters, five or six pages, which none of us ever did. We’d show up and hope that our leader was feeling especially talkative that day. Don’t ask us questions, we’d think. But we had our bibles open to the passage and so he did ask us questions. It was Old Testament stuff about which king this and which king that, and none of us had a clue, really. But he didn’t let us off the hook. After he asked a question, he was especially good at providing those long, uncomfortable silences that if they had words might say something like, “I’m sorry, I know what you’re hoping for, but it’s not going to happen. I’m not answering this question for you. I’m not giving up on you.”

Long, awkward silences and holes stared through the table.
(Some of you getting ready for school tomorrow know exactly what I’m talking about.)

A few years later, I was confirmed, declared spiritually mature at all of twelve years of age. And the priest, my dad, warned our class. When the bishop comes, he said, the bishop has the right to ask you questions. To quiz you, see what you know. Well, I was a really good student and had absolutely nothing to fear, but if you’ve ever been a really good student, you know that not having anything to fear doesn’t always keep the fears at bay. My being a really good student only primed my imagination to fear the worst: imagine, for example, the depths of the humiliation I’d feel being denied the sacrament of Confirmation in front of the Assembly when I fumbled the final phrase of the Athanasian Creed. (The fact that you’re not laughing only proves the point.) Thankfully, (most) bishops aren’t nearly as cruel as a child’s imagination.

Some people like it, being put on the spot, having the congregation’s attention, all eyes are on you. Some of us don’t. Which is why effective group leaders often have us answer easier questions at the beginning. Get us comfortable. Build up our confidence. Questions of observation. This is something of what Jesus is doing when he asks his disciples: “What are they saying out there about me?”

Just a kind of repetition, really. Repeat what you’ve heard. Tell me what they’re saying. No right or wrong answer, but the beginning of wondering about who Jesus is. As it turns out, the answers out there aren’t right about Jesus – Jesus is not Elijah, or Jeremiah, or John the Baptist – but they’re still true answers. They’re true because his question was a reporter’s question. Just tell me what you see. Tell me what you’re hearing.

His next question comes in much closer. “Who do you say that I am?”

A good question. A true question.

And I wonder how long they took to answer this question. Did they stare holes in the table and think they’d out wait him? Did he give them one of those long, uncomfortable silences that says something like, “I’m sorry, I know what you’re hoping for, but it’s not going to happen. I won’t answer it for you. I’m not giving up on you.”

Peter finally answers. It would be Peter. He’s not the one you want to trust a silence to. He finally talks. But that question, and its silence, was meant for every one of them. And eventually it finds every one of us also.

“Who do you say that I am?”

This question and Peter’s answer is very close to what the evangelical tradition has rightly cherished as the believer’s profession of faith. The beginning of a personal relationship with Jesus. These are the words necessary to live the life of grace.

So in some churches, the sermon’s next step would be obvious to everyone: tell a few stories, and make an altar call. That is, if you haven’t had a chance to own these words, to answer this question for yourself, now is a good time, they’d say. And they’d be right, it is a good time. “Who do you say that I am?” What words does your own heart use to paraphrase Peter: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

This answer is important because it’s true.
In these words, in your answer, a statement of fact becomes a commitment of heart. Moreover, this answer, your answer, it is the beating heart of the whole Church, the whole Christian faith. For this is the moment you unlock your whole self - body, soul, mind, and strength - and make room for the Lord who loves you, directs you, redeems and sustains you. Peter’s answer and yours is the heart of the story. But, and I say this carefully, it’s not the whole story. That is, I think we miss out on what a personal relationship with Jesus really means if we don’t read this story through to the end.

So what happens next?

Jesus calls Peter blessed – even though he didn’t come up with it on his own, indeed, especially because he didn’t – Peter is blessed. Jesus says that God has given him eyes to see and ears to hear and that his words about Jesus are true. And then Jesus gives Peter three things that are really one thing: 1) he gives Peter his name, calls him the rock of the church, 2) he gives Peter the keys of the kingdom, which is why doctors and lawyers having been meeting St Pete at the pearly gates in really bad jokes ever sense, and 3) he gives Peter, the Church, the power to bind and loose, or more straightforwardly, the power to forgive.

And these three things are really one thing because the forgiveness of Christ is what simultaneously makes the Church possible, unlocks the kingdom, and allows someone like Peter to be called the rock of the Church.

And the most important thing for us to see about these three gifts that are one gift this morning is that Jesus gives them to Peter in response to Peter’s response, or “personal profession of faith.”

Peter says “YES” to Jesus, and Jesus gives him the ministry of reconciliation and forgiveness with others, too.

But I wonder if Peter wanted the ministry of reconciliation and forgiveness with others.

And not just Peter. A man took me to breakfast once to introduce himself and give us a chance to get to know one another better, and at the end he looked me in the eye and said, “Father, I don’t know if this jives with what the church says, but for me, at the end of the day, it’s me and my God. No more, no less. I don’t need the others to live the life of faith.” I wonder if you’ve ever heard something like that.

You’ll notice my friend’s not-really-a-question question: “I don’t know if this jives with what the church says, but...” Sneaky when people don’t ask questions like that.

Lest there be any doubt, today’s gospel makes clear – NO! – that’s not at all what the Church says. Couldn’t be farther from the mystery of God. The holy mystery of the Trinity that says that divine love doesn’t happen a vacuum, in the company of one; but love shares, love binds, love heals, love stoops down, love reaches out across the divide.

You want Jesus? Jesus asks Peter. You got me, and with me the call to join me in the reconciliation of the world to God.

Because your faith is not for you alone. But the Kingdom hangs together. And your faith is a gift in God’s Kingdom.

I hope you have a personal relationship with Jesus. I also pray that personal does not mean individual for you. But that personal can apply to the urine-soaked homeless man as much as it can to God. Put your arm around him. Because God is personally present to you both. Because, there, Christ is present. I pray that personal can apply to the person you’ve learned to despise - he’s the wrong color, she’s too old or too young, maybe he’s even genuinely wronged you. Because Christ is present there, too. I pray that personal does not mean individual in your relationship with God. I pray that when God unlocks the life of grace in you, for you, you remember that you are not unlocked to God alone, but that you are now an agent of unlocking in a world locked shut and in need of love, the opening forgiveness of God.

One last story. There’s a picture of the heavenly feast that the early church liked to use. They used this picture whenever people asked what happened to the saints who had died. Where did they go? What were they doing now? And the picture that they used was a familiar one: the heavenly banquet feast. “Only, they’re not feasting yet,” the Christians would say. “Why not?” came the obvious question. After all, these were people whose professions of faith, like Peter’s, could only be admired as the highest and God-given response to the Christ, the Son of the Living God. “Why aren’t they eating?” “They are, but only appetizers.” Smart alecks. “Why on earth aren’t they feasting?” they asked. “Because, they’re waiting for you.”

They’re waiting for us. Having attained the prize, they haven’t forsaken the love God gave them, the way that it’s shaped them. Love waits for us.

Can we also love, forgive, reach out to the people who don’t yet know the answer - as an embodiment of the faith we profess? Can your life unlock the witness that the gospel is not information for your head but a way of life and action for your heart? Can we commit our lives in such a way? Will you?

And somewhere, softly, we hear him whisper, “I’m sorry, I know what you’re hoping for, but it’s not going to happen. I won’t answer it for you. I’m not giving up on you.”
Amen.