Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Seeing Jesus - Even on a Vestry

[A short homily at our beginning-the-year Vestry Eucharist, Mark 1:29-39]

Mark’s gospel continues to tell the story of people who hang out with Jesus but don’t really know Jesus.  Only the demons seem to know who Jesus really is.  And they’re scared he’ll destroy them.  And 2,000 years later it's still true: You can hang out with Jesus without knowing Jesus.  That’s true for folks on Sunday, it’s true for Vestry members, and (God knows) it can be true for priests.

One of my prayers for each Vestry I serve is that someone would be able to say at the end of the 3 years on Vestry: that experience, that service, helped me see Jesus.

It’s easy not to see Jesus.  You don’t need a Vestry for that.  And God knows that having a Vestry doesn’t bring any guarantees.  But it does bring the opportunity.  It’s the opportunity for a committed community of leaders to come apart from time to time, to bring themselves, their souls and bodies, and ask the question that takes time and honesty: Jesus, where are you in all of this?

Mark’s gospel is meant to remind us: our inability to see Jesus does not indicate his absence.

Jesus is alive and present to the world, to St Christopher’s by-the-Sea, and even to vestries.  It’s easy not to see Jesus.  Anyone can do it.  But what would it take for you to say of your time on the Vestry, “It helped me see Jesus?”  (Don't laugh.  I think it can happen, and it's my prayer for this Vestry - and for you.)

What I’m asking about is the kind of commitment that you believe can shape us as a community of leaders to grow closer to Christ.

What are you personally willing to commit to this group of leaders, so that we can see Jesus?

I want to share with you 3 beginning commitments that I believe will help this Vestry see Jesus up-close:

The first commitment is represented by the number 53.  The average Episcopalian comes to church 48% of the time.  Come 53%.  Most months, it’s the difference between coming to church two Sundays a month instead of one.  (If you come more, don’t do less - be exceptional!)  But it’s simply the honest to goodness truth that you cannot see Jesus through the Vestry without participating in the life of the worshiping community that the Vestry was made to serve.  53.

The second commitment is represent by the number 7.  This is the number of days each week that I hope each of us will remember this parish and one another in prayer.  Even if it’s just for two minutes a day.  This will help you see Jesus because your prayers will open me and your vestry members to the work of the Spirit.  Your prayers will make the rest of us stronger to serve.  This commitment is the greatest gift you can give your fellow leaders.  7.

The third commitment is represented by the number 1.  If you will find one small group of believers within this faith community to commit yourself to, you will see Jesus in the way they care for you.  Maybe this is a Cursillo small group or the wisdom group, the Wednesday night prayer group, the praise band, or maybe you just need to grab a couple of friends and set a time.  But do it.  1. 

53.  7.  And 1.  These three things will help you see Jesus through your time on the Vestry.  (They will "prime" you to see Jesus.  Get it?)  And just as powerfully, these three things will help the congregation see Jesus in us.

Homework for next time:  What other commitments do you hope we as Vestry members make to this church and one another that will help this experience be what we pray it will be?

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Love Builds Up
[a sermon for the 4th Sunday after Epiphany]

Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Psalm 111
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Mark 1:21-28 
 
+     +     +

Raise your hand if Paul is your favorite saint.  The rest of you look around - the folks with their hands in the air can't be trusted.  That's how a lot of us think about Paul, isn't it?  We may not have read much of Paul, but we remember someone telling us once on good authority that Paul was a sexist who twisted the unbridled love of Jesus's Gospel into the prison of dogmatic, institutional Christianity, and it's taken the church some 2,000 years to clean up the mess.  I'm not endorsing this view, mind you, just naming it as one of the views that’s floating around out there.  When we do muster up the patience to read Paul in his own words, the fact that he's so long-winded doesn't help him - or us - any because long-winded in our culture is code for "politician."  And politicians can’t be trusted.  Paul, as the Politician of the Gospel, Paul as Mr. Know-it-all, representing (to some) the worst of patriarchy.  Father knows best.  Condescension. 

So it's easy to miss it altogether in the reading today when Paul says the words that, at least to some of you, are the very opposite of your picture of Paul.  These are the startling words:

"Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up."

Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.  Paul, speaking to the smart folks, the ones with degrees, who know that it's okay to eat food offered to idols because they know - they have the knowledge - that idols don't exist.  That there's nothing to worry about.  Paul, warning the people with knowledge not to be so fixated on their freedom to fill their bellies with food offered to idols that they destroy the faith of those who think that it might not be okay.

Paul, acknowledging that as Christians we look to one other as examples of what is right and holy and good.  Paul, saying, "Hey, don't run by your weaker sister, weaker brother.  Don't use your knowledge as a battering ram in the family of faith.  Look around at who is looking at you.  Be patient with them.  Love builds up." 

Lest the knowledge that there are no idols becomes itself an idol, Paul leaves them these words: “Love builds up.”

How delightfully surprising.

So (maybe) Paul scores unexpected points with some of you this morning.  Maybe not.  What's beautiful this morning, though, is that our gospel reading proceeds to offer a living picture of what Paul is trying to say about the relationship between knowledge and love.

Check out Mark’s gospel: we enter the picture and there are lots of people gathered around Jesus, but none of them knows who Jesus is.  They lack knowledge.  The only one with the fullness of knowledge - the only one who knows who Jesus is - is a demon.  A demon who worries that Jesus has come to destroy him. 

This is the riddle of Mark's entire gospel - that the news announced is the first verse, that this Jesus is the Son of God, gets discovered only at the end, by a centurion on Calvary.  The rest of the characters go bumbling around without knowledge of Jesus’s identity.  No one else seems to know what we, the readers, know from the beginning.  Only the occasional demon has the correct answer.  But that the correct knowledge comes from the lips of a demon should be our first clue that knowledge is not always all that it’s cracked up to be.

Remember our brother Paul: knowledge puffs up; love builds up.

But this strikes as strange, if not wrong.  Episcopalians of all folks know that knowledge is a good thing, that you need not check your brain at the door in the adventure called faith.  Remember, though, that the warning in Paul’s letter - and as seen in Mark’s gospel - is not that knowledge is bad; only that it cannot stand alone, apart from love.

But in what way is knowledge harmful apart from love?  In what way do you and I abuse knowledge apart from love?

I want to suggest that we abuse knowledge most often (that is, separate it apart from love) in our relationships with one another and that we can see this dynamic most clearly in the relationship that model’s Christ’s love to the Church: marriage.

It’s starts off innocently enough.  The premise is that knowledge - full knowledge - in life might give us direction, will point us to the action that will best serve our best interests.  (This is the reasoning behind insider trading.)  Knowledge means information that makes our decisions more precise, more efficient, less vulnerable to harm, especially the harm that can occur in the intimacy of love.  And so evolves that wonderfully surreal and somewhat neurotic acquisition of knowledge that we call "dating" - or, if you go back a litter longer than that, "courting.”

One of the objectives (the primary objective) of dating (or courting) is to find out who it is you're with.  Who is this person, really?  So you ask questions about background and financial standing, job prospects and values.  Does the person have children?  Does the person want children?  And if you don't ask these questions, a good friend or parent might for you.  Someone has to know.  Because what if she "didn't know what she had got herself into?"  Isn't that how we talk about it?  Love can be dangerous, and knowledge - it is thought - can protect us from the danger inherent to love.

There's only one problem with this course.  As Stanley Hauerwas puts it (bluntly):

“We never know whom we marry; we just think we do. Or even if we first marry the right person, just give it a while and he or she will change. For marriage, being [the enormous thing it is] means we are not the same person after we have entered it. The primary challenge of marriage is learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.”

It turns out that knowledge cannot save you from the great risk of love, but love can grow your knowledge of others, evening turning strangers into friends.

The first instinct of knowledge apart from love is to be defensive.  I want to know about you so that I can protect myself from you.  That’s the picture of the demon, too, remember?  Jesus, Son of God, you haven’t come here to destroy us, have you?  It’s also, if you remember, the first instinct of Adam and Eve after they ate of the tree of what?  That’s right, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  And there first instinct is to hide.  To protect themselves.  To run away.  Knowledge as insulating one’s self from the vulnerability of love.

But what is knowledge protecting you from?  There’s an old and funny saying that just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.  But believe it or not, most people are too self-centered to be out to get you.  I know it’s a blow to all that you’d like to believe about yourself, but most of the time, they’re not thinking about you.  Maintaining defensive knowledge like this kind can be pretty exhausting.

Knowledge isn’t bad; it’s just not made for defense.  Knowledge is made for love.  It’s not by accident that the other time in Mark’s gospel that someone makes a scene about Jesus the Son of God is the centurion at the cross.  This is knowledge made for love, knowledge revealed by the love of God on the cross.  Knowledge that knows it has nothing to fear.  The centurion gets this knowledge because Jesus poured out his love without fear.

What would a proactive knowledge, married to a fearless love, look like?  What if, for example, knowledge could bring you closer to your enemy, instead of only protecting you from her weapons?  What if knowledge knit to love led you not to fear the loss of what you had, but rather grew your imagination for ways to offer all you had for others?

Bernard of Clairvaux lived as a monk and mystic some nine hundred years ago.  He said this about knowledge and the different ways that we use it:

 “There are those who seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge; that is Curiosity.

There are those who seek knowledge to be known by others; that is Vanity.

There are those who seek knowledge in order to serve; that is Love.”

Love comes first.  Love comes first because God shows us his love on the cross.  Do you remember some of the last words of Jesus?  “Father for give them - they don’t know...”  They don’t know.  And that’s okay.  Knowledge is power, but not the greatest power.  The greatest power is the love we find and know in Jesus.

It’s okay not to know.  Not to know who you married.  Not to know what comes next.  Not knowing is not nearly as scary as knowing without love.  Love comes first.  And love builds up. 

Amen.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Wall Has Come Down

A haiku response to Sunday's readings, inspired by Ellen Charry's 7 word gospel.

The Wall Has Come Down

Knowledge is power,
So we all loathe the Gossip.
Except when it's us.

Does power give life
Or destroy, and by whose word?
Illusion masks truth.

Devils with answers
Paintings of ourselves some days,
Fearing those same selves.

The tree he carries
Plants him extinguished and deep
"Forgive, they know not."

What hope for him, us -
Considering all that is?
There, here, love opens.


J+

"Wawa Give Me This"
A Lesson from Annie


Annie and I went on an ice cream date today.  Day in and day out, I am very mindful to not *just* say how beautiful I think she is.  But I do try to say it, and especially on these dates.  Today when I said so, she looked at her clothes and item by item proceeded to tell me the name of the person who gave it to her.  This is standard for Annie, that each article of clothing has only a few, essential descriptors worth knowing: color, print or pattern, the name of the animal on it (if applicable), and the one who gave it to her.  "Grampy give this to me" (sic).

I am always humbled by the priority of this information to Annie.  There are few toys, clothes, or other miscellaneous items that she cannot account for.  From Mommy to Abuela to Grammy to Uncle Ben and Aunt Beth, dozens of names that she keeps in a Rolodex of ongoing gratitude.

I pray this doesn't give her a complex.  Like, she'll be thirty-seven and hanging on to the shoes that Uncle Michael picked out for her when she was two and a half.  But I do hope she keeps the gift of this ever-present gratitude, and that it rubs off more fully on me.

The other day two door-to-door sales kids came by selling cleaner.  The cleaner is, eh, but what the kids were really selling was their work ethic.  This was their second chance, and they were working hard.  "We want to be like you," one explained.  "We know you worked for this home and that car and all that you have, that nobody gave anything to you.  That's why we're out here."  I admired the work ethic and God knows we've worked hard, too, but the truth is always less sexy: the car was a gift of Rebekah's father to her when she was in college.  In truth, we've owned five cars between the two of us, and every one has been a gift.  The house is a lease.

All truth be told, we have never purchased furniture, except for a few wooden chairs (thus our 'eclectic' style), and we've been giving Annie's clothes away as fast as we've been given them because you can only store so much in closets.  We been given a lot - have been rich and poor at the very same time.  Truthfully, this fact makes it easier to give a lot.  I don't look at the living room and see a collection of that which is "mine."  I see the faces of friends whom I love: the ones who have given to us, and the ones, though maybe strangers now, to whom we will give.

The Church has always taught that the gifts to one are God's gifts to the body.  Would that my life be changed by making this my standard practice, like Annie's: to count among the essential descriptors of each thing/occasion/experience/memory/joy/etc. that I have the name of the one who has most recently shared it and the face of the One who gives all things to (all of) us - to share.


Why Failure is to be Expected in Church
(and why it's not to be feared)


Many churches self-describe the desire to feel connected like family.  This yearning alternately confuses me on some days and cracks me up on others.  Conservative guesses at the Christian divorce rate put the number near 38%.  We won't even get into what Christmas was like at your extended family gathering this past year. (1)  Remarkably, many extremely faithful members of the Body of Christ worship Sunday after Sunday while members of their home stay, well, home.  Like family?  Really??

My confusion is not that the Church should want to be above the brokenness of family life (I don't think that all), only that by the time a church announces the desire to be like family, it feels like everyone involved has forgotten what this would mean. (2)

I experienced something of the same confusion when I listened to the address of the Presiding Bishop's Pre-General Convention address (3) this morning.  I have the utmost respect for our Presiding Bishop, but I was perplexed by her endorsement of a more entrepreneurial church. (4)  As with churches who want to be more family-like (and then complain when it is), I wonder about a church that wants to be more entrepreneurial: do any of us have the slightest idea of what this would mean?

For example (5):

- The US Small Business Administration reports that in 2002, more small businesses were closed than were open (among small businesses that hire employees).
- Among businesses with less than 20 paid employees, there there is a 67% chance that the business will not exist in 4 years; and 91% chance that the business will be gone in 10 years.
- Among restaurants, only 20% survive the first two years of operation.

It may still be true that the Church is called to a small business model (6), with accompanying canonical freedom, but it must be a true calling, because small business success is not a forgone conclusion, much less a way to stave off institutional death.  In fact, theologically one could make the case that if we are called as the Church to operate like small businesses, it is because we have a great need as Christians to become a community willing and able to fail (and to die).  After all, this is presumably where the forgiveness and love of the cross come in.

My final observation is that I find it deeply ironic that the two values most (I would argue) uncritically bandied about as the future of the living church in both traditional and progressive circles are family connectedness and mission-minded entrepreneurial-ism.  Put them together and what to you have?  That's right!  A family small business.  A literal mom and pop operation.

This new future feels a lot like the old one.
 
But if the crux is the cross (and it is, that's a rhetorical flourish), this future might be just the one God has made possible for us - and this future (failures and all) might well still surprise us.

(Thanks be to God!)

___________________________________

(1) I don't for a minute want to dismiss the pain of the holidays without family.  But precisely as evidenced by the regret many of us experience when we lose a family member, we often do not realize what we have until we lose it.  The situation is not unlike the old Woody Allen joke: "Waiter, the food here is terrible.  And such small portions!"

(2)  Mark Driscoll gives one of the best (and funniest) practical accounts that I've heard about what this might mean and/or look like and how it issues from the Gospel of Jesus.


(3)

(4) A common move, even (perhaps most frequently) among evangelicals, and often linked, as here, with a commitment to mission.

(5) Report here.

(6) I should be very clear that I am pro-mission always.  There are simply multiple ways to skin a cat and our selection of a particular method must be at least as theological as we think it will be practical.

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Eleventh Hour

     
    As I give a go at making this blog more regular - with daily writings - I'm keeping Friday as a day to share hymns or other short offerings from the Church's tradition.  Today being the feast of St John Chrysostom, the first of these Friday offerings comes from the "Golden-Tongued One" himself: John's famous Easter sermon.
    Originally posted here.   

    _______________________
    A re there any who are devout lovers of God?
    Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival!
    Are there any who are grateful servants?
    Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord!
    Are there any weary from fasting?
    Let them now receive their due!
    If any have toiled from the first hour,
    let them receive their reward.
    If any have come after the third hour,
    let them with gratitude join in the feast!
    Those who arrived after the sixth hour,
    let them not doubt; for they shall not be short-changed.
    Those who have tarried until the ninth hour,
    let them not hesitate; but let them come too.
    And those who arrived only at the eleventh hour,
    let them not be afraid by reason of their delay.
    For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first.
    The Lord gives rest to those who come at the eleventh hour,
    even as to those who toiled from the beginning.
    To one and all the Lord gives generously.
    The Lord accepts the offering of every work.
    The Lord honours every deed and commends their intention.
    Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord!
    First and last alike, receive your reward.
    Rich and poor, rejoice together!
    Conscientious and lazy, celebrate the day!
    You who have kept the fast, and you who have not,
    rejoice, this day, for the table is bountifully spread!
    Feast royally, for the calf is fatted.
    Let no one go away hungry.
    Partake, all, of the banquet of faith.
    Enjoy the bounty of the Lord's goodness!
    Let no one grieve being poor,
    for the universal reign has been revealed.
    Let no one lament persistent failings,
    for forgiveness has risen from the grave.
    Let no one fear death,
    for the death of our Saviour has set us free.
    The Lord has destroyed death by enduring it.
    The Lord vanquished hell when he descended into it.
    The Lord put hell in turmoil even as it tasted of his flesh.
    Isaiah foretold this when he said,
    "You, O Hell, were placed in turmoil when he encountering you below."
    Hell was in turmoil having been eclipsed.
    Hell was in turmoil having been mocked.
    Hell was in turmoil having been destroyed.
    Hell was in turmoil having been abolished.
    Hell was in turmoil having been made captive.
    Hell grasped a corpse, and met God.
    Hell seized earth, and encountered heaven.
    Hell took what it saw, and was overcome by what it could not see.
    O death, where is your sting?
    O hell, where is your victory?
    Christ is risen, and you are cast down!
    Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!
    Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!
    Christ is risen, and life is set free!
    Christ is risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead.
    For Christ, having risen from the dead,
    is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
    To Christ be glory and power forever and ever. Amen!


Thursday, January 26, 2012

Winners Want the Ball


It started yesterday over lunch with a priest friend of mine.  We were talking about the blessings and stresses of ministry when the question came up: how does one thrive, not merely survive, in the crunch-time, the hard time, of ministry?  You know, when pressure and anxiety are running highest and hope is on the run.  My friend smiled and made what seemed like a gesture toward the television behind me, on which was playing a repeat of yesterday's basketball game.  He told me about a scene in The Replacements (a movie I haven't seen about B-league football guys getting their shot during a labor dispute) in which Keanu Reeves' character (the quarterback) hands off at a pivotal moment of the game.  The coach tells him afterwards: "Winners always want the ball... when the game is on the line."

Winners always want the ball when the game is on the line.

My friend finds uncommon focus and energy when his team's back is against the wall.

Then today over coffee another friend was telling me about his son's recent spelling bee victory.  My friend would like to say that Eli studied for weeks before his triumph, but that wasn't the case at all - he decided the night before he would like to win the contest, and he did.  While my friend talked openly about the need for a developed study ethic (something time will no doubt teach), he admired what he recognizes as "the killer instinct" in his son.  Whether on the baseball diamond or in the auditorium, he wants the ball at the end.  Winners always want the ball when the game is on the line.

This repeating theme has got me thinking:

What does winning look like for a Christian?  What does it mean to want the ball among the community of believers?  And when is the game on the line for the people called Church?

Two thoughts have ordered my reflections on these questions.

The first thought comes from my mentor, Father Timothy, which he shared during my time as a seminarian at Church of the Holy Family.  He shared with me once that the Commission on Ministry had asked him during his own time of discernment why a person of his intelligence and gifting was considering a life spent ("wasted" was the insinuated meaning) as a priest?  Timothy answered that his understanding was that no matter how rural or tiny the placement, the promise of the Gospel was that where two or more were gathered, Christ would be fully present in the Eucharistic moment, the blessed bread and wine.  "That's right," they said.  "Then for what else would I want?"

This thought reminds me what crunch-time really is.  Crunch-time, by definition, is the time that matters most.  "Alleluia!  Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us."

As often as I celebrate the Eucharist, I remind myself of (and pray for) this: that I have no earthly longing beyond this moment.  That the game is played for this.

The second thought that orders my reflection to the question of wanting the ball (and winning) with the game on the line as a Christian is slightly more intuitive.  Shuffled in among the many ordinary exchanges that constitute a day, there are a handful each day that rise up and seem to demand: "Here!  Here, the truth must be spoken."  These are moments when my soul realizes that holy listening will not be enough this time, that this moment is crucial and crying not just for some version of politeness or social order but for the Gospel itself.  Moments when forgiveness must win over tolerance; justice must win over cowardice; grace must overcome guilt and self-hate.

In these moments, I often don't know what the truthful words are in advance, but the sense of the need for Gospel truth is palpable.  These are moments when the Spirit stays true to the promise: the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.  [Luke 12:12]

These two moments - the reception of Christ's Body and, together as the Church, the becoming of Christ's Body - are moments I live for, when the game's on the line.  What are yours?

J+


Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Confessions of an Impatient Priest
(Slowly, Slowly Catch the Monkey)


At a dear friend's wedding, the father of the bride shared a South African saying with a group of friends gathered around him: "Slowly, slowly catch the monkey, one step at a time."

Slowly, slowly catch the monkey.

At the time, I took away only the most obvious meaning of the words: "one step at a time."  I heard the proverb as a call to patience and perseverance.  You know, the tortoise and the hare.  Duly noted and I moved on.

Then yesterday, the proverb strangely seemed to fit a handful of highly varied situations related to my priestly calling: finishing the parochial report (slowly, slowly...), playing phone tag with parishioners and diocesan leaders (slowly, slowly...), sitting on "hold" as I spoke on the phone while reserving the space for our Vestry Spring Retreat and again in order to make an insurance adjustment (slowly, slowly), rescheduling (postponing) meetings that are probably overdue (slowly, slowly...), and finally praying at the hospital bedside of a friend and parishioner for the second time in three days, with his children gathered around him.  "I anoint you (again) in the Name of Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit..."  Slowly, slowly... painfully, slowly...

And in that final moment, it hit me: DUH!  Slowly means perseverance, yes, but also that if you simply chased the monkey, of course he'd run off and up the tree.  Slowly, slowly.

Suddenly, a few verses hit me hard:

“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves." [Matthew 10:16]  (Because monkey-catching requires stealth and wisdom.)

And he looked up and said, “I see men, but they look like trees, walking.”  Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he opened his eyes, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.  [Mark 8:24-25] (Because Jesus was not unfamiliar with healings that take time.)

And finally,

For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.  [Romans 8:22]  (The very essence of healing taking time, with the process an inextricable part of the ending.)

All of them, in their own ways, reminders that something in the time itself it takes to heal that is called to be part of the healing: "and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation." [2 Peter 3:15]

Peter, reminding me that, exactly when things are slowest, take the longest, the patience of God is revealed because the Lord does not want any to perish.  Therefore, says St Peter, "regard the patience of our Lord as salvation."

Slowly, slowly... catch the monkey.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

...the Tiger Shall Lie Down with the Moose??


Over lunch, Rebekah and I are swapping insights and questions related to the book of Job (1) across the kitchen table when Annie - heretofore oblivious to us and playing on the floor - rises up, grabs her stuffed moose, and sends him to the refrigerator for "Bible study."  We pause.  Moments later, Mogs (the moose) is sent across the kitchen to enroll in "another Bible study" with Annie's over-sized stuffed Tiger.  We pause again, keenly aware that there's a fine line between imitation and mockery and that children exploit the ambiguity of that line like no other.  We wait.  Harmless, good-faith imitation this time (or so it appears).  

Now I get that, as a priest, this is in one sense stuff to expect - it "comes with the territory."  Even so, neither Rebekah or me had mentioned the Bible - only our confusion at Job's friends and all the fuss they get.  To be sure, a while back, Rebekah did host what amounted to a Bible study at our house, but I don't remember using those words to describe it, mostly because Bek was looking for some freedom from the old-school connotations 'Bible study' suggests.  But who did she (or we) think we were fooling?  Not Annie.  The roving moose with the Bible, sitting alongside the tiger, was proof.

I marvel at the ability of children to determine what is important to their parents.  Not what the parents want to be important to their children (or what the parents want to be important for themselves!) but what is actually, factually, already important to the parents.  Children are savants in this respect.  Augustine, among others, liked to remind Christians that we do not necessarily know ourselves best of all.  And this seems strange but hard to deny: that the One who knows me best of all is not me.  Or as Merton put it: "Nor do I really know myself..."  In this tradition, the role of holy friends can be to help us gain a distance by which we know ourselves more truly. (2)

Who would have thought that children are these kinds of holy friends?  Little, godly mirrors by which we learn what is actually, factually, already important to us.  And of course this can be encouraging, but undoubtedly humbling, too.  I once heard a preacher say that if you want to know your priorities, look at your checkbook.  But what if the truth was even more readily at hand?

Most to the point: what do I think is actually, factually important to me?  And would my children agree?

Peace always,

J+

________________________________________

(1) In the context of a read-the-Bible-in-one-year reading program we're both doing.

(2) As a friend told me once: "If I knew what they were, they wouldn't be blind spots, would they?"

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Out of the Fish's Mouth:
An Interview with Jonah

[Preached January 22, 2012]

I’m a little flustered just now.  I feel like I owe you an apology.  I had hoped to have a guest speaker here this morning.  I thought I had arranged it - I HAD arranged it - to have an authority on our Old Testament reading speak to you.  We were supposed to meet up prior to the service, but we mis-communicated (my fault), he arrived late last night, by the time I got here, he was saying something about his being nervous so close to the water.  Had to go, he said.  Before he left, I did ask him if he'd be willing to sit down and answer a few questions for us, by way of an interview, which it turns out he was happy to do.  With his permission and yours, I'd like to share with you some highlights from that interview with him this morning.  My earlier conversation with Jonah:

JM:  Grateful to have this time with you, Jonah -- thanks for coming in this morning.

Jonah:  You bet, glad to be here.

JM:  Jonah, in our opening collect this morning, we will ask God to help us "answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ..."  Your call is perhaps one of the best-known in Scripture.  I'm wondering if you could talk for a moment about your own general sense and understanding of calling.

Jonah:  Hehe.  Sure.  As you know, Jonathan, I got off to a rough start; I've grown a little bit in my understanding of God's call through the years.  Most people who know my own call will remember the big fish and the ship and later the scrub brush and the worm.  I'm not proud of it, but hey, it's my story.  But what my story taught me about God's calling is this: calling is about God's heart.  And God's heart is so much bigger than your heart and my heart.  And hearts like your heart and my heart grow more like God's heart when we're faithful to God's calling.

JM:  Say more about calling as something that reveals God's heart.

Jonah:  The thing that stinks about calling is that you don't have to believe in the thing that you're called to.  God can make it work, even when you're going through the motions.  Because calling is mostly about the one who calls (God).  Here's what I mean: I didn't believe that the people in Nineveh were worth saving.  You're talking about scum bags.  Irreverent, apathetic, pathetic.  You're talking about people who killed members of my family.  And look, it's easy to laugh some thousands of years later at the fool who thumbed his nose at God and spent a weekend in a fish, but I contend that we all have our Ninevehs.  Hate is a strong word, perhaps; but I thought my world would be better off without them.  That's what I mean when I say we all have our Ninevehs. 

JM:  So you had given up on them?

Jonah:  Sure.  Good riddance. 

JM:  And God's desire to save the people in Nineveh showed that God was a loving God?

Jonah:  Not really.  You could make the case that it would have been really loving to let folks reap what they sow.  To protect the ones who try to do good.  No, I wouldn't say God's compassion for the Ninevites proved God was loving; but it DID prove what God means by love.

JM:  Which is what? 

Jonah:  Sacrificial forgiveness.  Forgiveness that costs you.  And not just you, but costs God, too.  That's what the cross is about, I think.

JM:  And this is what you mean by learning that God has a heart bigger than our own?

Jonah:  Yeah.  I think now I would put it this way - I got this from one of your books, by the way - "The wrong idea has taken root in the world: And the (wrong) idea is this: there just might be lives out there that matter less than other lives."  So God's heart is bigger because it has room for more of us than maybe my heart does.

JM:  I see what you’re saying.  What you're saying reminds me of the famous quote from the writer Anne Lamott: “You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”  Would you say that that's about right?

Jonah:  (laughing) Yeah, that's about right.  I like that.  I would just want to make sure that the focus doesn't stay on the smallness of my heart, but eventually lands on the greatness of God's heart.

JM:  I like THAT.  When we started, you mentioned the fish (of course), the ship, the bush and worm.  Tell us more about your own particular call.  Maybe something that you feel tends to get left out by the casual reader.

Jonah:  Mmm.  I noticed your reading today that starts off: "The Word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time."  Then I go, say something to Nineveh, everybody's sorry, God spares 'em all.  Great story.  I look really good if that's the whole story, but of course I get to live with those words "a second time."  A second time, because I pretty well flubbed the first one up.  Going to Tarshish.  Some people don't realize that Tarshish is not just not-Nineveh - it’s the exact opposite direction of Nineveh.  I wasn't going to Tarshish so much as going away from God’s call.  I guess if there's something that sometimes gets lost in the story it's this: Tarshish ain't a bad place to go to.  Nothing wrong with being a tourist in Tarshish.  Nothing at all UNLESS the Word of the Lord has come to your face and spoken in your ears and told you to go in the opposite direction.  That's trouble.  It's a trouble on the inside. 

JM:  I think I follow, but say more about that.

Jonah:  No one else could tell me I was doing wrong (until the storm came) because the only thing that made Tarshish a bad thing for me was the voice that said, "GO TO NINEVEH!"  And if you don't remember that God calls and talks to folks - that God calls and talks to people - you might walk away from the story thinking that some places are bad places and others are good; you might tell other people where they should go; or wonder what makes a good place good or bad place bad and not ask the people, "what are you hearing?  What is God saying?"

JM:  You're talking about prayer now.

Jonah:  You betcha.  But I'm talking especially about living prayer.  Prayer that leads to action.  Prayer that says, "Lord, I see you working; what can I do?  How can I be a part of what you're doing?"

JM:  Changing directions slightly.  Jesus is calling disciples in this morning's gospel: his famous words about making the disciples into "fishers of people."  Does that line ever strike you as, well, ironic?  A little close to home?

Jonah:  Do you mean do I think he's rubbing it in my face all these years later?  One big fish story?  Do I think he might be "baiting" me.  (laughing)  Yeah, I do.  It ain't lost on me.  And it's okay by me.  I mean, we all have our stories.  And this one is mine. 

JM:  If you had been there when he called them, what would you have wanted to say to the disciples?

Jonah:  Put on your swim trunks!  (laughing)  No, I mean, they did all right, the disciples did.  Y'all turned out all right, too.  And they'd be proud of that.  I guess I would tell them that God calls you to fish for others because God loves the others.  BUT God calls you to fish for others because God loves you, too.  When God calls you - when God gives you a calling - it's not because you're just a tool in the tool box of God, that he's got a job to do and no one else will do it and you just happen to not have other plans.  God gives you a call because there is something about that call that uniquely stands to bless you - something he wants to show YOU.  He KNOWS anyone could do it - God knows the disciples aren't the cream of the crop - (laughing) but he wants them, because there's something about himself that he wants to give them, show them, uniquely.  So much so that sometimes he’ll give the ones he calls another chance, you know, when they miss the boat - so to speak.

JM:  Like yourself?

Jonah:  Like me.  To answer you question about what I’d say to the disciples, I'd remind them that his calling them isn't different from his loving them.  Hey Pete, hey John - he loves you!!  (laughing)

JM:  So true.  I'm thinking of Peter and Cornelius in the Book of Acts and the mutual conversion that happens there.

Jonah:  Sure, but don't forget Moses - his intimate moments on the mountain with God, the slow conversions, what he learns in the wilderness, and Abraham, a stranger in a strange land made daily more faithful, closer to God, Paul is a no-brainer.  I mean, it's just how God works.  It drives me crazy when people talk about God's call like it’s a list of responsibilities - duties to divvy up.  Are you crazy?  This is the moment he wants to say "I love you" uniquely to you through his calling. 

JM:  This, it would be fair to say, is a decidedly post-Nineveh reflection for you.  (laughing)

Jonah:  Yeah, that's a fair point.  You don't have to see it at the time to live it.  And maybe it's only after we live it that we realize the gift God wanted to give us along the way.

JM:  Give us a practical implication of what you're talking about.

Jonah:  I'll give you two.  When it comes to calling, just do it.  Pray in a way that says, "Lord, I see you working; what can I do?  How can I be a part of what you're doing?"

Two: don't make it more complicated than it is.  If God calls you to Nineveh and you'd rather go to Tarshish - if God calls you to Ghana, and you'd rather go to Gregory, or if God calls you to Gregory and you'd rather go to Ghana - don't make up some generalized nonsense about which one is the right place.  (You know, like: we'll get to helping over there when we get our house in order here.)  The only question that really matters is: "Has God called you or not?"  Lord, I see you working.  What can I do?  How can I be a part of what you're doing?  When he answers these questions, don't over-think it.  Listen (that's your prayer); obey (that's your action); trust God to surprise you and show you his love.  He calls you to serve them because he loves them - but also because he loves you.  Move with the Spirit, and he'll guide you.

JM:  Jonah, no offense, but you're a much better preacher now than you were at Nineveh.

Jonah: (smiling) What can I say?  My hearts a little bigger now.  Praise God, my hearts a little bigger.

JM:  Jonah, thank you so much for the time.

Jonah:  My pleasure.  Happy fishing.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Under the Fig Tree
St C's Annual Parish Address

 January 15, 2012

The Annual Meeting takes place at noon this afternoon, in the parish hall.  I hope you'll stay or come back for it.  My father-in-law likes to say that they call it pot luck because there's a lot of luck involved.  No such fear today; your Vestry has prepared the dinner.  As has been our custom, my words to you during this time take the shape of a reflection on the year behind us and the one before us. 

When you talk to people inside and outside of St Christopher's, you are equally likely to hear either of two pictures of our common life. 

One side will describe to you a place of faithful risk-taking and quiet surprises for the Kingdom of God.  These people will point to the sixteen intentional outreach efforts of our parish this past year.  These people will tell you about the African Children's Choir concert, which raised more than $2,000 for orphans in Uganda and across Africa at the beginning of the year.  They will tell you about the youth-led evangelism effort on the Saturday before Easter and the way a boy with a tuba unexpectedly showed up and dazzled the crowd of thirty or so of our neighbors.  They will tell you about the Taize service undertaken this summer, the praise band that came together that same summer, the  series of outdoor movies hosted this summer for our neighbors.  They'll talk about the renewal of the Cursillo movement within our parish family, the hosting of two ALPHA courses, and maybe most of all, they will tell you about the dramatic transformation of our food pantry, as it has shifted from a closet with a key to a host of leaders and relationships both with the Corpus Christi Food Bank and the poor within and without our community.

People who describe this place this way will talk about the importance of sharing God's love with our neighbors.  They will talk about being good neighbors, and striving to see our neighbors through God's eyes.  The people who describe this past year at St Christopher's as a place of faithful risk-taking and quiet surprises for the Kingdom of God will tell you about ending the year with more friends among our neighbors than when they began.  Whether among the Presbyterians, or the Sea City folks, or in groups like the Portland Garden Club and Hannah's House, new groups which spent time in our building this past year.  And of course, they'll talk about new friends down the street.

This is one picture you are likely to hear if you ask individuals inside and outside St Christopher's about the past year.

The other picture you are likely to hear if you ask individuals inside and outside St Christopher's about this past year is one of drift and decline.  These voices will tell you about the cumulative stress that financial pressure and the loss of key families and other members have placed on the parish family.  They will talk about a pervading sense of being adrift, lacking a focus, and the need for repair and direction.

People who describe the church this way will talk about deeply felt losses.  Some will suggest particular remedies; others will express exasperation and a grief for the way things once were.  In remembering the way things once were, they will talk about the Scripture's call to an intimate Christian community among the faithful and the Gospel's imperative to reach out beyond ourselves in God's Name.  Some will remember times when we did these things better; others will remember that what they see as struggles now are struggles our church has had before and, indeed, has struggled to escape.

This is the second picture you are likely to hear if you ask individuals inside and outside St Christopher's about the past year.

So this, I guess, is the question:  which picture is true?  Which picture tells the truth about us?  Which picture accurately describes the past year in our parish family?

I want to suggest - even insist - that the answer is "both." 

Both.  And this sounds unhelpful, maybe, until we remember that great line from our gospel this morning: Nathanael asking Philip why Philip is excited about Jesus, he asks, "Can anything good come from Nazareth?"  The answer of course, is yes, something VERY GOOD has come from Nazareth, but it is equally obvious from Nathanael's sarcasm that the story of Nazareth is at least a story with two pictures, good and bad.  It's not a place he's experienced as a place of life or much excitement.

Philip, on the other hand, has just been asked to become a disciple by the Savior of the world.  He has found great life, much hope, and the way to God made open in the person of Jesus.  Given all this, I wonder if Philip wasn't tempted to be angry with Nathanael.  Tempted to say something snarky like, "Yeah, well, takes one to know one."  But he doesn't.  He's too excited.  Maybe he recognizes the truth behind Nathanael's sarcasm - the deep disappoint Nazareth has been.  He laughs it off.  He answers Nathanael: Come and see.

Back to St Christopher's.  Two co-existing pictures.  One of faithful risk-taking and quiet surprises for the Kingdom of God.  One of drift and decline.  And they're both true, depending on who you talk to.  Philip or Nathanael.

Of course, that there are two stories to tell and that they're both being told reveals the common ground that unites the hope of the one story and the disappointment of the other story: everyone involved wants the best for St Christopher’s; everyone involves wants St Christopher's to be a strong, vibrant, living witness to Jesus.  Nobody wants anything less than the full flourishing of God's Kingdom and this church.

This may seem like an obvious point, but I pray that it becomes a crucial point of charity with one another in the coming year.  The alternative to this charity is blame, and blame might feel good for a moment, but it will not help us flourish.  I assume you are here because you want to be a part of God's flourishing God's Kingdom through the people of St Christopher's.  We all want St Christopher's to be a strong, vibrant, living witness to Jesus.

So there are two stories, but one, shared heart.  How then to move forward toward the future we all want? 

In 2012, Larry and I are recommending to your Vestry and the congregation a process that our bishops have just this past week recommended to us: the plan is to begin 2012 with a series of home visits - a kind of every member canvas, but without talking about money.  The plan is for at least two Vestry members and myself to attend each of these small gatherings.  The goal of these gatherings is to listen to you: your disappointments, your hopes, and an important question the bishop commended: what are you personally willing to contribute to the spiritual health of our parish family?  You will hear more concrete details about these gatherings in weeks ahead.

As in all of life, we are learning as we go, and your Vestry and I will need your patience along the way.  We believe that this listening process will help us identify with you the gifts that God has given us to share God's love in and through this community in this time, and this place, and this season.

God has given us unique gifts to share his love with one another and others.  In the newsletter you received this past week, I quoted the theologian who said: "You are... because God wanted on like you."  I believe that the same thing is true of St Christopher's: "St Christopher's is... because God wanted one like us."

The vision is already clear: to reach out to one another and our neighbors with the love and gifts of God - all things for sharing.  The crucial moment before us as we begin 2012 is a taking stock, a taking inventory, of the gifts we believe God has given us, each of us, and committing with one another to a common plan, that we will develop together, by which we reconnect to the joy that we knew when the Lord first called us here, by which we reconnect to one another as a family of two stories but one heart - we all want St Christopher's to be a strong and vibrant witness of Jesus's love, and by which we reconnect to our community - because we don't know exactly who Jesus meant when he said to love our neighbors, but we're pretty sure he at least meant our actual neighbors.  

There will be some good news in the parish finances this year.  Not perfect news, but clear progress.  The questions, therefore, of our discernment are not about money, but about mission and, most of all, identity.  Larry likes to ask: If we receive a million dollars tomorrow, how would it change who we are?

The questions before us that I am committed with your Senior Warden to exploring and living with you are "How can we take together the next step: to move from surviving to always thriving?  What will this look like?  What do we enjoy and how can we share it?"  And, finally, "what are you personally willing to commit to this future?"

Two stories, one heart.  Like Philip and Nathanael.  I hope our story's next chapter is like that of Philip and Nathanael. Philip was excited because he had been made God's disciple.  Nathanael was doubtful because he knew too much about the past.  They committed to walk the road together.  But neither of them had dreams big enough for the goodness God had planned for them:

Jesus said: Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree?  You will see greater things than these.  Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.

This is my prayer for St Christopher's: that we be a place where heaven is opened, that all people may see and know the person and presence of the risen Jesus.

God bless you, and may God be gracious, surprising, and unfailingly generous to all of us in his family at St Christopher's.

Amen.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Greatest Wedding Sermon: Tribute

 January 14, 2012

Samantha and Ryan, take a peek behind you just now; and a peek in front of you.  The company of all who love and support you and the company of God around you.  You are beautiful.  And you are richly blessed.

A confession for the rest of you: I have already shared what I consider to be the very best marriage sermon I have ever heard with Samantha and Ryan in our weeks of counsel together.  This isn't that sermon.  It's only a Tribute.

Samantha and Ryan, you chose the readings we just heard to call to mind images of love, your love and God’s love; images to take with you on your journey together.  In this moment before your moment, I want to pay attention for just a second to one other preparation you’ve made for one another: I want to pay attention to the the vows you have written.  Don't worry, I won't spoil what y'all have prepared for each other.  I want to pay attention for just a second to the words that the church gives you to begin your vows with: "In the name of God, I, Samantha; in the name of God, I, Ryan.  In the name of God, I. 

This may be the simplest, truest way to talk about your marriage.  In days after this day, it may be the simplest, truest way to remember what your marriage is all about: In the name of God, I.  Everything else that you promise to do after these words lines up behind and takes its lead from these words.  Today you are asking God to help you love another person in the Name of the God, with the same love God has for this person, just as God loves this person.  Today you promise to relate to the beautiful (or handsome) person you are taking just now the way God relates to that person: with patience.  With generosity.  With loving-kindness.  With gentleness.  With joy.  The way God sees and loves this person. 

And this will be easier to promise on days when your clothes are dazzling and your smiles are wide and everyone you love is gathered behind you.  And this will be harder on days the clothes aren’t quite as dazzling, are crumpled up, un-ironed, along the floorboard, and the rent is due or passed due and the day's been hard and it doesn't feel like anyone's behind you at all.  Whether the tears be joyful or filled with pain, your commitment remains: with patience, with generosity, with love-kindness, with gentleness, with joy.  The way God sees and loves this person.  Indeed, you promise to love this person with the same love God has for all persons and the whole of creation.  Your love is a practice in learning God’s love.

Of course you won't do this perfectly, you'll mess up, you'll need forgiveness, but after you fall, when you get up again, you'll know exactly what your next task is: to see and love this person the way God sees and loves this person.  In the Name of God, I.

That's the gist of the promise you make you each other today.  But wait!  There's more.  A surprise.  The surprise is that God is making a promise to the both of you, too.  The promise God makes to you today is that as you begin to look at each other the way God looks at you, you will find more than the ability to graciously overlook the times he leaves his socks on the kitchen counter; you’ll find more than grace to forbear one another’s faults: God’s promise to you is that you will discover Christ himself in your spouse.  You will discover Jesus, the fullest expression of God's love, look back at you, calling back to you, in joy and in pain, because in the one you are seeking to love as God loves you will find the one who is seeking to see you, the way God sees you.  And Jesus is the way God sees you.  In him, you are both remarkable, deeply loved children of God.

Samantha and Ryan, this is the challenge of marriage if you choose to accept it.  And this is the promise of marriage if you choose to accept it.

Samantha and Ryan have shared with me their desire to bless others through their marriage.  To the two of you: please don't ever forget or underestimate how you will bless the rest of us by practicing God's love on each other.  By showing the world what it looks like, how it is, when we look at each other through the eyes of God’s love; when we receive a beloved creature of God with all of the delight of the Creator.  You are God's delight.

Of course you'll need help - that's what we're here for, and we're pulling for you.  That's what God's here for, and he's living in you.  But just in case you've forgotten it - and so the folks behind you don't feel left out - let me close with the best marriage sermon I ever heard - by reminding you again of the ten fool-proof steps to a faithful and fruitful marriage - a faithful and fruitful life together.  Are you ready?

1. Forgive.
2. Forgive
3. (say it with me if you think you know it:) Forgive.
4. Forgive.
5. Forgive.
6. Forgive.
7. Forgive.
8. Forgive.
9. Forgive.
10. Forgive.  

This is more than good advice.  This is how you learn the love God has for you.

Samantha and Ryan, love each other as God loves you (remember 1 Corinthians), seek and find Christ in each other (remember the Song of Solomon), and bless us by your delight in one another.

Amen.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Best Marriage Sermon Ever

Great article here on marriage that I wanted to share.  It happens to share Stanley Hauerwas's great line about marriage ("you always marry the wrong person") that I first received from my priest in the context of premarital counseling.  I would add to the article that the kind of love that marriage requires (and the Gospel makes possible) is beautifully captured in what is hands-down the single best sermon on marriage that I have ever heard.  That sermon, given by an eighty year-old Catholic priest, began by informing us in the congregation that there are exactly ten steps required for a faithful and fruitful marriage.  In no particular order, here are the steps that he went on to share:

1.  Forgive.

2. Forgive.

3. Forgive.

4.  Forgive.

5.  Forgive.

6.  Forgive.

7.  Forgive.

8.  Forgive.

9.  Forgive.

10.  Forgive.

I'll forever be grateful for this sermon.

Sharing Simple Gifts
(in the face of overwhelming need)

Marge came into my office to visit today.  I always enjoy talking to Marge (or to most of you for that matter).  That’s why the office door is always open.  Anyway, before Marge and I talked about what she came into the office to talk about, we gave each other unexpected gifts: I showed her how to turn off her Kindle Fire (you have to hold the button down, else it just goes to sleep), and Marge taught me how check out electronic books from the library (the book simply ‘disappears’ on the due date - no more late fees!).  More on this story in a moment.  Just now, it’s enough to have shared it.

Much is made about the many needs that need meeting in the world today.  Poverty, illiteracy, the heater that went out on my parents, the unexpected hospital bill, the car that won’t start, and on and on.  We are never truly without because - at least it seems this way - we always at least have our needs. 

On top of that, into a world convinced of its neediness, the church is often pressured to justify its existence by meeting the unmeetable need.  I remember a youth of our parish asking me, as we handed out food to the homeless in downtown Corpus Christi: “What is the point?”  The meals get dropped into the unmeetable need like a dewdrop in the fire.  Her feeling of despair in that moment was palpable.

I want to suggest that, for Christians, the needs of others are important, but they aren’t of first importance.  Hang with me a second.  On a purely practice measure, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the guilt and despair of the needs-first approach (identify the surrounding needs and meeting them already!) can’t be the best approach because it so quickly eats up its proponents with feelings of helplessness and loss of self-worth.  By a deeper measure, any approach that ushers its proponents to the edge of despair is surely not in keeping with the Gospel of Jesus, which is a gospel of hope.

But if I don’t start with the needs around me, where do I start?

Do you remember what it was that Jesus told the disciples when they realized that the crowd was hungry and that it was well past supper time?  (Sure you do.)  “You give them something to eat.”

“You give something to eat.”  The immediate concern isn’t the need, which Jesus counts as obvious - the first concern is the disciples.  Jesus is saying, in effect, “Give what you have.”  And indeed, we can only give what we have.

Give what you have, and trust Jesus to see how far it will go.

So at least one approach to need-meeting is not to start with the need, but to take inventory of what you have to give.  Two questions that I particularly like for this sort of  inventory are: “What do I like to do?  How can I share it with others?”

What do I like to do?   How can I share it with others?

These questions do not lead to despair or the loss of self-worth.  Rather, they help me identify the goods gifts God has planted in me.  These questions make me thankful.  These questions make me able to see the unique gifting God has given me - the one-of-a-kind fingerprints that God has placed on me that make me uniquely able to sing God’s praise like no other person in the world.

One theologian puts it this way: “You are...because God wanted one like you.”

So...what do you like to do?  How can you share it with others?

No doubt, this approach will lead you to give to those in need, but not from a sense of the greatness of the need.  Instead, you will give out an abiding sense of the greatness of the God who has given you gifts to give others.

Which brings me back to Marge’s story.  It was a simple moment, but one in which we shared with one another out of what we had.  Truthfully, I hadn’t ever thought to ask about the possibility of electronic books until she shared the information with me.  She shared it with me because she had herself experienced the thing she was sharing as a gift that brought her joy.  In being aware of the needs of others, begin with the gifts that bring you joy.

I pray that you experience Jesus as a gift that brings you joy.  And that your giving to the needs of others finds an eternal spring, a sure foundation, in the abundance of that gift.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Joe Buck, the Beloved, and the Miracle of Baptism

 Sermon preached January 8, 2012, on the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord.

“We’ll see you tomorrow night.”  That was Joe Buck’s now-famous play-call in game six of this past year’s World Series; the Texas Rangers, despite a valiant effort, falling to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven electrifying games.

This particular moment was high baseball drama: David Freese had just hit a game-ending, walk-off home run in the bottom of the 11th inning to seal the victory for St. Louis.  We’ll see you tomorrow night, Buck said.  It was in that moment an apt, if not spectacular, description of what had just happened.  Had the Rangers won that night, the series would have been over.  No game tomorrow night.  But now, with the better part of two states watching on the edges of their seats, all parties would reconvene for game seven the next day. 

Now, for those unfamiliar with baseball - or at least baseball of TV - this much must be said: Joe Buck has never been accused of raucous enthusiasm.  No, his style is short, simple, to the point, still seeking to capture something of the moment’s essence: We’ll see you tomorrow night.

But on this night, something else was going on behind Joe Buck’s characteristically understated call.  Maybe you heard about it.  While he was speaking truth about the moment, Buck was also borrowing words his late father had used some twenty years before: Jack Buck, longtime the voice of the St. Louis Cardinals, and himself an outstanding postseason broadcaster, made that same call in 1991 when Kirby Puckett’s game-ending blast in the 10th inning of that game propelled the Minnesota Twins to victory over the Braves of Atlanta.

We’ll see you tomorrow night.

So when Freese won the game for St. Louis, Joe Buck’s words fit the moment to a ‘t’, but for those with extra ears to hear, Buck’s call transcended the announcer’s purely descriptive task and opened up a point of connection across time and space, back through twenty years and, indeed, into the the palpably emotional bond between a son and his late father.  We’ll see you tomorrow night, he said.  But he also said, “I love you, Dad.  And I miss you.”

And sometimes words do this, surprise us, stand up before us as symbols that tell us that more than what we see is going on in the present moment; they signal to us that the moment is deeper, is richer, than maybe we thought in the first place.  True moments that somehow become truer by the connections they reveal.

Our gospel this morning is just such a moment.  As with the baseball game between the Rangers and Cardinals, the story of Jesus’s baptism has much to commend it standing wholly on its own: we watch the drama unfold as Jesus comes up out of the water and sees the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending on him like a dove.  Then a voice comes down from heaven, saying, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

You’ll remember that when John the Baptist first showed up, there had been some question as to whether he would be the center of the story.  John said he wouldn’t be, that another was coming, and so a measure of uncertainty hung over the initial verses of the gospel.  But then, suddenly, the heavens are torn open, the dove descends, and the voice cries out.  This story answers the question the Old Testament had asked of John: it marks Jesus as the one around whom we’ll all reconvene the next day. 

Plenty of drama, but also something else going on here.  Not Jack Buck or Kirby Puckett, but this time our Old Testament lesson is the clue:

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light.

It’s the familiar story you know: the story of creation, and it hinges on God’s voice over the face of the waters.  Chaos and uncertainty until the three words that changed everything: “then God said...”

Then God said.  The voice of God speaks over the formless void and creation springs into being. 

So back to our ballgame: the baptism of Jesus.  For those with extra ears to hear in Mark’s gospel this morning, the voice over the water that calls Jesus God’s Son does more than point out who Jesus is; the voice over the water tells us what it means for Jesus to be God’s Son.  The voice over the water tells us that God’s Son signals God’s re-creation, that this is creation happening again, new creation; that from this moment on, the destiny of the whole created order will be found, fashioned, redeemed, and remade in the person of this one in the water over whom the voice of God is speaking again.  This is what the church means when she calls Jesus “the firstborn of all creation.”

For those with ears to hear, Mark’s gospel transcends the evangelist’s purely descriptive task and opens up a point of connection across time and space, takes us all the way back to creation and, indeed, into the the palpably emotional bond of a Son and his Father.  It’s a true moment made truer by the connection it reveals.

Mark’s play by play of the gospel asks us to think of Jesus as God’s re-creating and redeeming God’s good creation.  So Mark’s telling of Jesus’s baptism also asks us to go back and compare the first creation to the second.  What do you remember from the first creation story?

You remember the main gist of the the first creation in Genesis: the water, the voice over the face of the water, light and dark, days and nights, plants and animals, lastly man and woman.  The garden.  The serpent and the tree.  The tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  And it ends with Adam and Eve eating from the tree and being ashamed of their nakedness, hiding from God.  In a strange act of mercy, God puts them out of the garden, because to eat of the tree of life at that point would have been to cement the estrangement of God and the people he called good.  They leave the garden in shame.  That’s the story of the first creation.

With these images in mind, we come back to Jesus’s baptism, and we learn that if Adam’s story ended with his hiding from God in shame, here is Jesus, naked in a river, receiving for humanity the words God has for so long wanted to give back to humanity: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  This is Jesus receiving his goodness as God’s gift; this is Jesus as second Adam.  The old, broken, creation made new and restored.  The shame of Adam undone in the face of the pleasure of God.

I wonder: how often do you wonder about the pleasure God has in you?

Let’s pause just a moment to consider this notion of shame that God’s pleasure undoes.  Gregory Boyle is a Jesuit priest who has worked with communities of gang members in inner-city Los Angeles for the past twenty-five years.  He writes this about shame:

The absence of self-love is shame.  Guilt, of course, is feeling bad about one’s action, but shame is feeling bad about one’s self. 

The inability to receive one’s self as a good gift of God, Boyle observes, creates all manner of misbehaviors, addictions, voluntary and involuntary enslavements - like gang banging itself - all rooted in the conviction of one’s unlovability.
 
This is what Adam discovered after the first creation when he learned to hide the self God had given him from God.  But this is also the shame that the voice of the new creation undoes when the voice speaks over the water: “This is my Son, my beloved, with you I am well pleased.”  This is how Jesus begins God’s new creation.

Of course, we’re not all the way home yet.  When we say that Jesus’s baptism begins God’s new creation, it’s a bit like when the blockbuster movie gives you just enough of a tease at the end to anticipate the sequel, the next move, in the story.  What’s the next move?

If the voice first spoke over the water at creation and the voice spoke a second time over the water at Jesus’s baptism - a new creation - we anticipate a third voice over the water, and that is your baptism: the moment in which you were baptized, made one with, the death and resurrection of Jesus.  If Jesus’ baptism erases the shame of the first creation with the words “this is my Son, my beloved, with you I am well pleased,” the third voice over the water makes these words true for you.  The third voice is Christ’s clothing you with the pleasure that God has had in him from the beginning.  So hear them for you: “This is my daughter, my son, my beloved.  With you I am well pleased.”  This is what it means to be sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.

Admittedly, this miracle strikes all of us differently, I think.  God only knows the shame that God’s pleasure undoes in your life.  Only God knows the deepest extent to which you have been made to believe that love was not or could not be meant for you.  But the God who made you, re-made you, calls you GOOD.  VERY GOOD.  You are a child in whom the fullness of God is pleased to dwell.  You are beloved by God.

So, in just a very few minutes, when we baptize Lily Heffley, pay attention.  Put on your hearing ears.  The story that you’ll see will have plenty of drama - a tub full of water, candles and fire, splashing and oil, but notably these will not be the first time the words have been used, spoken over the water.  Moreover, the re-use of these words, spoken over the water, is not for lack of creativity, but will join Lily Heffley to the new creation of life and love made possible by our Savior, the healing of Jesus’s baptism made her own.  If you listen carefully, you’ll hear the undoing of any shame that says Lily is not God’s wholly good creation, and Lily will be joined to the one in whom God’s first and last response is pleasure - delight.  The Spirit of God moving once more over water.  The voice over the water, speaking God’s true Word for her.

And sometimes words do this, surprise us, stand up before us as symbols that tell us that more than what we see is going on in the present moment; they signal to us that the moment is deeper, is richer, than maybe we thought in the first place.  A true moment made truer for the connection it reveals, opening up points of connection across time and space, taking us back to creation and, indeed, into the the palpably emotional bond between the Father and the Son.  Our share in the love that they share is the miracle of baptism.

Amen.