Saturday, June 30, 2012

Hymn of the Day: #407!

Note: 'Hymn of the Day' is a new feature of the blog that we'll run periodically. Feel free to submit your nominations!


Did you know: St Francis' canticle - circa 1224 - is among the first (if not the first) works of literature in the Italian language? Also, a Youtube search of the composer, Calvin Hampton, would not be time ill-spent. His work is beautiful and brilliant.



1 Most High, omnipotent, good Lord,
to thee be ceaseless praise outpoured,
and blessing without measure.
From thee alone all creatures came;
no one is worthy thee to name.

2 My Lord be praised by brother sun
who through the skies his course doth run,
and shines in brilliant splendor:
with brightness he doth fill the day,
and signifies thy boundless sway.

3 My Lord be praised by sister moon
and all the stars, that with her soon
will point the glittering heavens.
Let wind and air and cloud and calm
and weathers all, repeat the psalm.

4 By sister water be thou blessed,
most humble, useful, precious, chaste;
be praised by brother fire;
jocund is he, robust and bright,
and strong to lighten all the night.

5 By mother earth my Lord be praised;
governed by thee she hath upraised
what for our life is needful.
Sustained by thee, through every hour,
she bringeth forth fruit, herb, and flower.

6 My Lord be praised by those who prove
in free forgivingness their love,
nor shrink from tribulation.
Happy, who peaceably endure;
with thee, Lord, their reward is sure.

7 For death our sister, praised be,
from whom no one alive can free.
Woe to the unprepared!
But blest be they who do thy will
and follow thy commandments still.

8 Most High, omnipotent, good Lord,
to thee be ceaseless praise outpoured,
and blessing without measure.
Let creatures all give thanks to thee,
and serve in great humility.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Why Clergy Spouses are Holier than Their Spouses

"But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first." Matthew 19:30

A final reflection from my week at Camp Capers: lots of amazing pictures, and Rebekah is not in any of them. A couple of explanations for this:

1) Though Bek and the kids made the trip - and the four of us actually shared one bedroom (still shaking my head at this) - we actually didn't see much of each other owing largely to my crazy hours (7:30 a.m. - 1:30 a.m. was the norm) and the kids' alternating nap "schedules" that kept Bek pinned to the cabin for long stretches throughout the day.

2) When we did share time together, Bek did not especially feel like starring in the photo-shoots owing largely to the effects of her watching the kids for crazy hours (7:30 a.m. - 1:30 a.m.) and their aforementioned alternating nap "schedules", which left little time for her to rest and/or wear heels.

If given the choice, I would take teaching 117 junior high kids running wild over camp, with a couple dozen counselors besides, over being locked alone in a cabin with two small children, zero adult company, and a hundred details to plan for a forthcoming move any day. And I did.

Of course, I didn't abandon Rebekah altogether. Most mornings I would take Annie to breakfast and afterwards bring Rebekah a plate of fruit and yogurt back to the cabin, march off to chapel with Annie in tow and entrust her to the campers and counselors during our two morning sessions. Likewise, I would plan some brief chill time with the fam in the afternoons, and we shared our lunches and dinners. And then there were the couple of days that Rebekah loaded up the kids and trekked into Boerne to visit good friends. But these were welcomed exceptions to the rule that I outlined above.

In short, I am not sure that Rebekah's personality would thrive the way mine does when surrounded by 117 junior high youth and their friends while living in constant community, but she didn't have the chance to find out. She served the servant in nearly invisible ways. But Rebekah is not invisible to me, and I thank God each day for the blessing of our common life. She is amazing.

Rebekah is amazing, and not because she empowers my ministry; Rebekah is amazing because she teaches me what ministry is.

All of this is why I am utterly convinced that clergy spouses more closely resemble the holiness of our Lord than do the spouses of clergy spouses. Here I am thinking of words like "unconditional" and "sacrificial" and especially of the gospel lesson we read on Ash Wednesdays in which Christians are warned about practicing their piety before others - you know, like good clergy. Instead, we are told that "when you pray, go to your room and close the door." Here's to the saints behind closed doors.

Now, I would be grossly misleading you to imply that Rebekah's faith is lived exclusively behind the scenes. Over the last three years, Rebekah has written countless Sunday School curriculum for the children of St Christopher's, she has led small groups, hosted prayer groups, and organized/led Taize worship services to which the Rector simply showed up and sang with his friends. She has close friendships with play-date regulars in the larger community and is a heck of a speech therapist when she's ready to go back. She even chaired the first ever annual stewardship campaign at our church - and was wildly successful at it - eventually  - miraculously?? - forgiving her husband for his grievous lack of judgment in inviting her to the post.

Still the bulk of her service stirs in the shadows, her absence many times making my presence possible - at guild gatherings, service projects, Vestry meetings, youth and outreach ministries, worship, pastoral visits, community events, and camps. No spotlight. Simple self-giving. True love without condition and at considerable cost. I am in awe of her, and I daily pray to grow to be more like her. I pray that God's Church grows to be more like her. Because I am convinced that the Way of Christ is there in the love that does.

I love you, Bek.

Oh, and I did find some pictures:








Monday, June 25, 2012

Batman, Death, Sharks, & Self-Giving


Batman looks to Robin, then back and down to the pool beneath them, sharks circling wildly, the rope on which they’re both bound and suspended inching closer to the waves below them seemingly by the second. Cut to the frenzied sharks. A tight shot of Robin, who struggles, relents, and casts a long, desperate gaze at our hero. Pan now to Batman, who summons all his strength to no avail. The rope slides. A shark chomps. The suspense reaches a crescendo that can no longer be contained when a voice from somewhere unseen interjects: “Will our hero survive? Will he and Robin escape in time to save the others? Tune in tomorrow – same Bat-time, same Bat-channel.”

 

Adam West’s Batman perfected, perhaps, the cliffhanger ending. The unrelenting predictability of the show’s format both frustrated and riveted generations of adults and children alike. But Adam West’s Batman was only one of innumerable television shows through at least the early 1990s to master the power and gravity of those three tremendous words: “to be continued.” “To be continued…” because sometimes one episode can’t tell the whole story by itself.

This morning I have two goals. The first is to make the case that Adam West had nothing on the gospel of Mark. Once having established that Adam West had nothing on Mark’s gospel, the second goal is to ask how this fact would inform the way we read Mark and especially our lesson this morning in which Jesus calms the raging seas.

Will our preacher deliver on these two promised points? Can he do so before his thirteen minutes are over? Stay tuned…

First: why Adam West had nothing on Mark.

In Mark’s gospel, the word “immediately” appears a record forty-two times. It’s a record because Mark is only sixteen chapters long. Think about that – it’s nearly three times a chapter. Immediately Jesus did this. Immediately the people did that. Immediately Jesus… I get out of breath just reading Mark. It’s like watching a long volley on a tennis match. Endless action. You almost get the impression that Jesus sprinted through his ministry while James and John kept time.

And yet, nowhere in Mark’s gospel is speed or rapid motion held up as central to Jesus’s life and/or message. Indeed, sometimes “immediately” refers to non-actions, like retreats, as when, after the thousands have been fed with loaves and fishes, Jesus immediately sends his disciples away so that he can be by himself to pray. “Immediately” in this instance is kind of like “hurry up and wait” or the mothers who sends the kids off to the park with dad so she can get some peace. "Immediately" doesn't always equal urgency. Time isn’t exactly of the essence.

So this morning I want to suggest that, rather than strictly referring to what we might imagine as the break-neck pace of Jesus’s ministry, the word “immediately” in Mark’s gospel might be better read “to be continued” or "in our previous episode..." with Mark reminding us at every turn that each individual episode points forward to the next one and backwards to the one before it. Mark uses the word “immediately” so that we will understand that Jesus’s ministry is not simply a series of random, miraculous exchanges but the continuous unfolding of events that are connected and that live in relation to one another. Put another way, it is hard to read the word “immediately” without also asking, “After what?”

Mark is trying to tell us that by watching the whole season, as it were, the episodes better do what they were intended to do, which is show us what it means that Jesus is God’s Son.

Which brings us to the second point. How would watching the whole season – or at least the episodes on either side of our gospel this morning – inform our reading of Jesus’s calming the raging seas?
Let’s take a look.

From the gospel itself: It’s evening and Jesus tells his friends, “Let’s go to the other side of the lake.” The scene is crowded with boats. A wind storm hits and the particular boat with Jesus and his disciples on it is already being swamped. But Jesus himself is asleep. The disciples wake him up: “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing (literally ‘being destroyed’)? they ask. An understandable question, but a little over the top. Too dramatic, maybe. After all, these are fishermen, presumably with some experience. It’s curious at any rate. Anyway, Jesus wakes up, says, “Peace, be still,” and the wind ceases and there is, we are told, a dead calm. Jesus wonders about their fear and their faith. The disciples wonder about who he is. End scene.

But are there clues that this scene is to be continued? Or that perhaps it means to continue a previous story? Or both? And what difference does it make?

After the storm and Jesus’s calming it, we read on: “They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when Jesus had stepped out of the boat, immediately – there it is! – a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him.

In light of our reading’s sequel, two curious phrases now jump out as we reconsider our original episode.  First, the disciples’ hyperbole at the storm: “we are perishing; we’re being destroyed.” They thought they were dying. Now, as they reach the dry land, a man runs out at them from the tombs. The second curious phrase is “the wind ceased and there was a dead calm.” Ironic, because the disciples thought their own breath was ceasing and that they were as good as dead, bound for the grave. Like Batman on the ropes.

That the story immediately takes us to the tombs is significant. The disciples’ question to Jesus in the middle of the sea – “Teacher, don’t you care we are being destroyed?” – is evidently not a one time thing; but it takes on existential meaning - not unlike Job's wrestling with God in this respect. The storm becomes a reminder of the disciples’ own mortality, the death that was guaranteed them the moment they were born. Now they are in the tombs. The disciples’ question begins to sound like this psalmist; how long will God be silent as his people face the prospect of death? Lord, do you not care that we are perishing?

So the episode after the original allows the honesty of the disciples in a moment of crisis to reach beyond the storm. If this is the case, we would expect to find some overture of death in the prequel, as well as a convincing signal that the prequel and the original are intended to be read together.

As it happens, our passage begins with the words “on that day.” Remembering that “immediately” refers to connectedness more than speed, “on that day” is important. As we look back to determine just what day it is - the previous episode - we discover last week’s gospel: the parable of the mustard seed. “The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

Unlike the two episodes that follow it, this episode appears to be more about spring and life and growth than death - except for an eerie resemblance to this saying of Jesus from John’s gospel: 

Jesus, saying: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me...”

So the storms are raging, but not just on the lake. The disciples are likewise churning within themselves and with Jesus. Jesus is the Son of God but also the mustard seed that will die. Must die. So that the great tree might rise up with branches and shade for birds of all kinds. And as Jesus prepares his friends for his own unimaginable death, they rightly begin to wonder about their own and if Jesus cares. But Jesus hasn’t come to save their lives except by losing his. So for the time being Jesus and the disciples don’t understand one another.

And I am certain there are days that I feel like the disciples, wondering if Jesus cares at all about the sinking boats around me and the wave that one day will swallow me whole. But not every day. Death is not my only thought, much less my all-consuming one. And yet, I think my daily steps have much to learn from Jesus’s contention that my life must be lost to be found. Even not thinking of death, I am frequently asking myself questions that derive their power from death. Questions like, “What do I stand to get out of this?" "Will there be enough for me?" "How will that exchange be mutually beneficial?” I can be content to fear death so long as I am not asked to actively give my life. But if these three episodes connect in the ways they appear to, life-giving rests at the heart of them.

People like you and I sometimes talk about sacrifice in dishonest (or at the very least confused) ways, I think – I sacrificed dessert to lose some weight, for example – but these episodes ask us to consider the the unconditional sacrifices, the losses born of love, the greater love that has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for a friend; the love and forgiveness we find ourselves embarrassingly receiving in the loving-kindness and tender mercy of Jesus. 

And as this storm rages within me, within us, a voice from somewhere unseen interjects: “Will God's People daily walk in the way of the cross? Will they claim the promises of their baptism and step out in faith? Will they risk the self-offering love that only the love of Jesus can justify and sustain?” 

Stay tuned.

Amen.

[Sermon preached June 25, 2012, St Christopher's by-the-Sea]

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Shield the Joyous

This post originally appeared on my family blog in October, 2010. After posting my recent reflection on Annie's week at Camp Capers (The Week My Daughter Had Sisters), my heart returned to it. I share it now in this setting as the prayer to which God spoke during our family's week at camp.


Jesus said, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” John 15:11

Dear Annie,

You're too young to have noticed - I’m sure - the joy that you cause by your joy. Your smile is kindling for at least a hundred others every day - more than half of them are mine - and your delight in simple wonders causes me to wonder, too. I strain to see the joy you find so easily: through picture windows, seeking one more glad and happy glance of the neighbor’s errant dog; with mashed-up squash between your fingers, squeals and laughter on your lips, as dinner gives way to bath-time; in expectation of nightly blessings, hand on head, and glad for Momma’s hugs, as at the end of joyful days you find the rest of God.

Every night that we pray God to “tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous”, I wonder if those last three words aren’t yours - I mean, for you. A friend of mine had said as much: that he knew those words again when met against the backdrop of his son’s not-quite-eternal smile. I pray those words for you.

Even as I pray these words I wonder with some sadness why joy would - must - require this shielding - like the eroding edge of a receding shore. In so many ways, time grows us stronger, more mature, more developed - why not with joy? But joy is a gift that needs shielding - that is, left alone, joy despairs. And your smiles will one day learn mistrust and your laughter a self-conscious hesitation. O Lord, my God: shield the joyous.

I pray, dear Annie, as I pray these words for you, that you will learn the joy I've learned around the table, cup, and bread of God. The songs of saints in chorus singing: “Be known to us, Lord Jesus, in the breaking of the bread.” Receiving heavenly food. I pray with all my heart that you will find the pilgrim company of the Church with a forgiveness mightier than her thoughtlessness. That broken bones will find their healing, dancing, that mercy will make you merciful, and that when the “alleluia” breaks that dark, black Easter morning your own song, your heart, your life, will be a joy that needs no shielding.

And because I pray these things for you, I pray these things for me: that I may witness for you and with you the joy that comes to us as gift; the joy that keeps me grateful, hopeful, and expectant; the joy that sings the three-fold mystery of God:

Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ will come again.

With the love and joy of Jesus, 

Daddy



Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Week My Daughter Had Sisters

Junior High youth have always been my favorite; they live the mantra "real knows real" and their threshold for zaniness is considerable. I trace the roots of my own vocation as a priest back to the Junior High Sunday School class that took me as their teacher when I was a sophomore in college. We had far more fun than was reasonable. I never looked back.

I used to tell people that Junior High youth and I got along so well because our maturity levels were evenly matched. However, as my wife and I began to pack for this week at camp - loading up car seats and and play pens and diapers by the box load - I quickly realized the delusive nature of my affinity for Junior High youth: the two of us are no longer the even match I had imagined (if we ever were). No, I am undeniably a thirty-something husband with a family of four.

That's to say I didn't quite know what to expect this go-around at camp. And it is a strange thing to feel nervous about a setting that in years gone by has felt so much like home.

As near as I can tell, all of this is why I found myself so overcome by emotion as I carried my worn-out daughter over my shoulder as we made our way from the activity center to the river cottage last night. (Annie is two years old; shell'll be three in August. It is her very first time at Camp Capers.) I had just spent the better part of the day watching Annie flourish as an adopted, honorary member of every girl's cabin she encountered.

During the morning's teaching time, I approached one group of girls that had befriended my daughter; I asked why they appeared so quiet. "We're listening to Annie," came the answer. "She's telling us a story."


Later that day, I spotted Annie lying on her belly, propped up on her elbows, adding her illustration to a cabin's graffiti wall. At other times I found her sitting in her favorite counselor's lap and then dancing with new friends.

As we walked across the field - she and I - at the end of the day last night, I whispered in Annie's ear, "I love you, Annie. And I am so thankful to be your daddy."

In the early morning hours after Annie and (I hope) the campers were all in bed, I found myself reflecting: this week Patrick, Erin, and I have been teaching these youth that God has hopes for them. These hopes include walking with them and filling them with the good gifts of hope, joy, peace, and love - the work of the Holy Spirit in them and for others.

I think you and I do well to remember that this desire in God for them is not just a future hope but is also the present reality God is already working in and through them now, these amazing and zany Junior High friends. The fruit of hope, joy, peace, and love not distant or abstracted notions to them, but present realities by which they are already bearing witness to the love of Jesus for them and in them and through them.

I know you know this already: your children are amazing.

Just ask Annie. And her very grateful Daddy.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Birds and Trees and the Living Stream

Last week, I met with your Senior Warden and Vestry and sent letters to members of the parish to share the news that I have accepted a position as chaplain to the Episcopal student center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. My last official day at St Christopher’s will be August 14th, however the family and I will be taking some vacation time to move and rest, such that our last Sunday with our St Christopher’s family will be July 22.

I won’t preach about this news this morning - as Christians, it’s the Good News of Christ crucified and risen that we preach - but I do want to take a couple of moments at the outset to be present to a decision that obviously affects members of my St Christopher’s family whom I dearly love.

First, let me say a brief word about the ministry to which I believe God has called me. As I shared in my letter to you, I am very excited for the opportunity to work on a daily basis with university students at a uniquely formative time in their lives; I believe college ministry holds tremendous potential for the development of young, missional leaders committed to following the cross-shaped way of Jesus. My move to St Francis House comes in response to nudges of the Spirit toward campus ministry that Rebekah and I have been sensing in various ways for going on six years now. It’s an exciting, unknown step for us.

Second, I want to thank your Senior Warden and Vestry for their support of my decision, and I want to briefly let you know what you can expect in days ahead at St Christopher’s. At the next Vestry meeting, June 26, Bishop Lillibridge and Joann Saylors, our diocesan transitions officer, will meet with your Vestry to listen, speak, and partner with the Vestry to outline the transition process for St Christopher’s. Your bishops and the diocese are very committed to a smooth and productive transition for St Christopher’s. Following this initial meeting, your Vestry will share with you the next first steps as you seek the Spirit’s leading for St Christopher’s and as you begin discerning the call you will extend to the next Rector of St Christopher’s Church. As the process allows for congregational input and participation, I would encourage you to share your voice around the table. Your voice and your prayers are vitally important for the work of your Vestry and the life of your church.

Finally, I want to also speak briefly about St Christopher’s - our past three years together. As I reflected with Rebekah last week, she and I have lived with you and our Portland community together longer than any other community in our married life. You have very much been family and home to us, and it has been my joy and privilege to be among you as your priest. There have been challenges, of course, but also courage, resilience, patience, forgiveness, generosity, and love. In short, clear signs of Christ’ Spirit at work in our common life. I am grateful beyond words for the gift it has been to live these things with you. Thank you and bless you.

Now to the gospel...  It’s God’s sense of humor, I think, that the readings we are given this morning are full of trees. God’s sense of humor because the vision we shared when I first arrived was “Deeper in Christ. Wider for others.” And frequently this vision took the shape of a tree: deeper, roots down, wider in the reach of the branches. Roots down, walls down. A kind of meditation on Psalm 1 in which those who delight in the law of the Lord are called trees planted by streams of water; and, even 92, the psalm we read this morning, in which the righteous are said to flourish like the palm tree and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. Deeper and wider, we said, so that each one could go as deep in her faith as she had desire to grow and that the love of God encountered in this place would reach outside of this place with a breadth that could touch the lives of the larger community. Deeper and wider, with roots digging deep and branches reaching far.

In our reading today from Ezekiel, we learn that God will take a sprig from a cedar tree and plant it on top of a high and lofty mountain. And the sprig will itself become a noble cedar, and we learn enough about this cedar in the verses that follow to recognize the tree as Christ. And the tree of Ezekiel’s vision is quoted as it were in Mark’s gospel - the parable of the mustard seed - with the repeated language of a tree with branches broad and strong enough to bear birds of every kind.

Reading Ezekiel and Mark together, it is not hard to see that Christ is the tree in whom we have found branches on which to rest and make our home: Christ’s arms on the hardwood of the cross stretched wide enough to embrace the whole world; Christ on the cross becoming the second tree whose fruit is the return to paradise. And this is how he finds us, redeems us, and brings us like lost birds into the shelter and shade of the Father. “Behold, the wood of the cross: on which was hung the world’s salvation,” says the ancient hymn.

But wait, there is more to the story. As you know, you and I are reading this gospel lesson after the great feast of Pentecost, on which the Holy Spirit finds Jesus’ disciples and sets a holy fire to their souls. The Spirit comes among them and grafts them into the great vine of Christ. You and I are likewise grafted into the great vine of Jesus by virtue of the Spirit’s work at our baptisms. It’s not unlike the children’s game called ‘Octopus’ - or Red Rover - in that those whose who have been touched by the Kingdom now become an extension of the Kingdom’s reach. Having been washed in the water and having received Christ's Body on our hands and on our lips, we become the Body of Christ. You are the Body of Christ. You have not just found a safe home in the tree that is Jesus; you are a partner in the work of that tree.

So let’s look again at the mustard seed.

In 1906, Mabel Dearmer published a paraphrase of this morning’s gospel. Mabel was a clergy spouse and writer who wrote this particular paraphrase from the perspective of a teacher of small children one can imagine gathering around her as she unfolds the gospel story. Here’s how she tells it:

“The Kingdom of Heaven,” says our Lord, “is like a little grain of mustard that a man took and sowed in the ground. Now the mustard seed was so tiny that people had made a proverb of its tininess: they said, ‘small as a mustard seed.’ And yet tiny as this seed was, when grown it became the greatest of all the garden herbs, in fact, compared to the other herbs, it became a tree so that the birds could even sit in it.”

“The tiny seed of God’s truth planted in your heart, and in mine, may grow into such a mighty impulse that our whole character may be changed, it may go on growing until we become like a great living tree giving quiet shade in the heat and affording a resting-place to the birds of the air.”

The tiny seed of God’s truth - Christ himself - planted, received in your heart and mine, that it may grow into such a mighty impulse that our whole character may be changed. Make no mistake, Christ is the seed and so also the tree in which we find our salvation. But Mabel is also writing about the miracle of Christ alive in us - become a great living tree in and through us - the People of God - to give quiet and rest to the birds of the air. Mabel’s words bring the reminder that the tree is not simply a static, life-giving oasis to be discovered by a lucky wanderer but it is an active producer of shoots up and out and into the world, and you and I are the shoots that seek and grow into and  bear the image of Christ to and for others. The mighty impulse of Christ in us changes our character to be like his. The word Christian means a little Christ, and you embody the Body - God’s Church - in the world.

As I imagine the seed of Christ planted in my soul and yours - this mighty impulse - I think of St Paul, writing to the Ephesians concerning the purpose of the gifts that God gives his saints - every gift given so that the saints would be equipped for the building up of the body of Christ until all of us grow - and here I am imagining trees again, deeply  rooted and far reaching - into the measure of the full stature of Christ.

That glorious and mighty impulse: a character shaped after and at the hand of the one we worship and adore.

This is what the Spirit does, living in you, making you (making us) more and more to resemble God’s Son. Making us Christians - literally, little christs - or sibling trees, if you like, in the arbor of God. So planted, we drink of the Spirit, the living water of God, and remember the waters that first gave birth to this life at our baptisms.

Let me ask you: what does such a tree look like? What exactly do we grow to look like as the Spirit grows in us - by that mighty impulse - the character of God’s Son?

Surely, I think, a tree can be known by its fruit, and we remember the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Still. if this is what we hope to look like, how do we hope with God’s help to cultivate our lives to yield this fruit?

(There’s a hint in my question: “with God’s help”.) Of course we’re talking about baptism again - the waters which begin and sustain our life in Christ, our life in the Spirit. We’re talking just now about five questions we’ve talked about before - questions that have everything to do with the depth of our roots and the reach of our branches. Questions that embody our belief that in Jesus Christ, incarnate, crucified and risen, God has reconciled all things to himself.

And these are the five questions: Will you continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers? Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being?

May we forever be people - and one people together - who are planted by the stream of the Spirit and the waters of baptism. And may we grow to bear the character of Christ to the world - the world he saved through that marvelous, holy tree.

Amen.


Sermon preached at St Christopher's, June 17, 2012.




Sunday, June 10, 2012

Dinosaurs, Creation, and Justin Bieber
(and other confounding mysteries)


I wonder what questions you would like to ask God. Some of us keep a list of questions we say we will want to ask him once we’ve secured our entrance through the grand and pearly gates, should God allow. They are questions we say we’ll need answered before we can enjoy the party and/or find peace. Our lists start off easy: we’d like explanations for dinosaurs, creation, and Justin Bieber (at the early service: “what really happened to Elvis”). But our lists quickly become more complicated, less abstract, more heartfelt. On this part of our lists are questions about suffering and why it happens; questions about aging, death, and people we love; questions about injustice and why some people will live and die and never see the opportunities I daily take for granted; questions about seasons of spiritual longing in life when God seems distant or distracted or not there at all. Some of these questions on our lists, like dinosaurs and Justin Bieber (or Elvis), we might be willing to forget in the presence of eternal glory, but the others are questions we cannot imagine letting go of quite as easily. They are questions love, doubt, and pain have written on our hearts. I wonder what questions you would like to ask God.

Of course, we recognize that the answers God might give us in response to the questions on our lists might feel incomplete. For example, when we ask God why God allowed a particular suffering, say, among families or warring nations, we realize that God’s allowing it is at best a passive explanation for the actions that took place in the very bloody hands of people just like us. We may rightly wonder why God did not stop the violence, but few people would contend that God caused the violence. Indeed, we cannot go so far as to say that God wanted the violence without first reckoning with the vast biblical witness in which God’s heart breaks with tears at the rebellion of his people. So by our accusations against God we find ourselves in a roundabout way asking God to save us from ourselves.

Our opening prayer this morning names this plight, as it asks God to help us with both thinking the right thing and doing the right thing. Graciously naming that these two things are not always the same thing, the prayer recognizes our internal conflict: we want to be saved but we do not always see our part in the plight from which we need saving. We think one way and act another. We let go and hold on at the very same time. And we hide this conflict from ourselves.

Well. Not always. We don’t always hide this conflict from ourselves. Early on in his relationship with God, St Augustine famously prayed, “Lord, make me chaste, but Lord, not yet.” Occasionally we are blessed with the insight that the conflict is within us. But other times self-deception and rationalization keep us from seeing our part in the plight from which we need saving. We loathe ourselves blindly.

So Lesslie Newbigin writes that “Before we continue with our questions, we have to answer a question put to us from the heart of the mystery. We have to answer that anguished question, ‘Adam, where are you?’ We have to learn that we are lost and that we have to be rescued. We have to answer the call of the one who has come to rescue us and learn that it is only in him and through him that we shall be led into the truth in its fullness. There is still mystery, but it is not the mystery of an empty infinity of space and time. It is the mystery of the incarnation and the cross, of the holiness that can embrace the sinner, of a Lord who is servant, and of the deathless one who can die. There is still the vast ocean of what we do not know and do not understanding. But we know the way and the way is Jesus...To look for certainty elsewhere is to head for the wasteland.”

“Adam, where are you?” is the question at the center of the story we hear today in the book of Genesis. It is the question that names that whatever other questions Adam had, he had fundamentally missed the boat by the decision to seek his answers about God apart from God. He could eat of the tree and not need God at all, by his thinking. Certainty without salvation, and Adam was headed for the wasteland, naked and afraid. So he and Eve take cover among the trees of the garden. The psalmist’s question is also Adam’s question: Lord, where can I go to flee from Your presence? Only he doesn’t say it; he just starts running.

“They heard the sound of the Lord,” and made for the trees.

I wonder, if I was Adam, what trees - what things - would I run for?  Which trees - what things - do I imagine as capable of hiding me from God? If, as Scripture tells me, I am Adam, I wonder what trees - what things - I still believe can conceal me from the Creator of my soul.

I wonder if it is possible for me to love the shade of these trees, or if I secretly hate them, knowing that they shield me from the One who alone is my strength and my shield.

In any case, it is into this miserable mess of fear and shame and not wanting to be seen, that God speaks the question from the heart of the mystery, the question that shatters the others: “Adam, where are you?”

Wesley describes God’s asking this question as an unexpected grace, a gracious gift. Gracious because, had God not asked it, Adam might have kept running forever. Gracious because the question at the same time honors and transcends all the others Adam - and we - might have and indicates God’s desire to bring us with him back to the heart of things. There will be consequences for Adam and Eve, to be sure, but the mercy just now is in the movement of God back toward his creation.

“Adam, where are you?” God asked.

“Where are you?” because God is not out to get Adam, like Adam thinks God is, out of anger, but God is still out to get Adam; God will do whatever it takes to find Adam.

I wonder if you know somebody just now whose soul could stand to hear these words from God, who could stand to hear the gracious Good News that the question on God’s lips to Adam is not hardened, but gracious, that even as he asks it, the Lord of all things is preparing the rescue of his beloved jewel of creation, packing his bags for the mission, resolved to go to hell and back and die himself if that’s what it will take.

I wonder if your heart breaks for the loved one you imagine as desperate for thees words. Does your heart break like God’s heart broke for Adam: “Where are you?”

I wonder if it strengthens you, too, to be reminded that God will not have you lost as easily as feelings of your being lost can find you in lonely hours.

In three words, God expresses his refusal to give up on Adam; his desire to remain connected when Adam has indicated the very opposite desire. “Where are you?” is more than a question born of curiosity; it is the announcement of hope: that this moment begins the plan of redemption - the movement on God’s part necessary to restore God’s People to himself.

It’s hard to imagine a life that at some point or another wouldn’t put on its list of questions for God the question: “Where were you?” or Where are you?” This morning’s reading from Genesis reminds us that this question is not original or unique to us. Long before we thought to ask it, “Where are you?” is God’s question for Adam and God’s question for each of us. And the question exposes the truth about humanity - that we’ve run off from God. At the very same time this question expresses God’s firm resolve that our disconnect with our Creator will not be the last word for God’s plan and the creation that just a few chapters back he called “very good”. As it turns out, he still means it - the work of his hands - all of it - very good.

“Where are you, Adam?” because God is not out to get us, like we think, but he is out to get us, in Christ Jesus his Son bringing us and all creation back home, that we may find life of the abundant, best kind, in him.

Let us pray.

“Come, Lord, arouse us and call us back, kindle us and seize us, prove to us how sweet you are in your burning tenderness; let us love you and run to you.” (1)

Amen.

(1) A prayer from Augustine's Confessions, you know, to make up for the less-flattering prayer of his earlier.

Sermon preached June 10, 2012, St C's by-the-Sea

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

When the Scandal is Jesus

“Melton residence, may I ask who’s calling?” I was taught to ask as a child in Phone Etiquette 101 in the Melton household. The second thing my parents taught my brothers and me was not to indicate whether or not we were alone in the house.  Good common sense. But the third instruction came with such visceral intensity it was as if anyone would be a fool not to know it already: “...and for goodness’ sake,” they’d say, “don’t call anyone after 10 PM.” Any fool, they said, knows better than that.

In John’s gospel, Nicodemus comes at night.  He shows up post-10 PM, after which everyone knows not to bother one another. But Nicodemus does - walks up to the door and ventures a knock as lights are being extinguished, children have long since been settled, and lovers are grasping to take hold of one another as they drift off to sleep. For goodness’ sake, don’t call that late. Night belongs to shadows and fears and secrets and peace and the kind of privacy that makes a man’s home his castle. But this is when Nicodemus comes. Nicodemus comes at night.

Certainly, there’s a metaphor going on here: Nicodemus, when he starts talking, doesn’t come across as all that bright. He’s slow to understand. Dim-witted, even. “Jesus, I don’t get it,” he says. He’s left, as it were, in the dark. Literally understood, night seems to fit Nicodemus.

But Nicodemus’ being dense isn’t the only reason night seems to fit him. He’s coming to Jesus in secret. Nicodemus needs the cover of darkness because Nicodemus is leading two lives.

Now, you don’t have to like the night to be leading two lives, but it can help. Still, there are some obvious exceptions: you remember the woman at the well.  The woman at the well was hiding because she had gone through five husbands. Her tawdry lifestyle had tarnished her reputation, so she traveled to the well at midday - high noon - because nobody would have the poor sense to fetch water in the heat of the day, and so she would be left alone.  

Sometimes you can do this - you can hide in the spotlight; the light so bright that others divert their eyes. Sometimes the best place to hide is out in the middle of things - where everyone figures you’d have to be a fool to be.

But Nicodemus isn’t taking the risk that the woman at the well is willing to take. Darkness it is. You don’t have to like the night to be leading two lives, but it can help. And darkness is where we find him.

To be fair, it was a scandal for the woman at the well to be talking with Jesus, but no more of a scandal than was already established about her by virtue of her lifestyle. The scandal was really for Jesus, in his talking to her.  After all, he was the one in good standing. For Nicodemus, on the other hand, Jesus is the scandal. Nicodemus is an impeccably good man, a Pharisee, a religious leader. He stands to lose everything in anything resembling a sympathetic encounter with this man the religious leaders will, before too long, arrange to have crucified.

Thus the darkness: because Jesus is the scandal.

And we can relate to Nicodemus, I think, because this has become true in our own day as well. Once upon a time, it was a scandal not to know Jesus; a scandal to go shopping on Sunday. Indeed, to profess anything other than “Jesus is Lord” when it came to religion was a betrayal of grandma and all that was good. Incredibly, sometimes the profession of Jesus as Lord was forcibly coerced.  

But no longer. Ours is the time of Nicodemus, when good men and good women stand to stain their reputations by association with the scandal called Jesus. “I thought you were a learned man; you can’t really believe all that nonsense.” “Just how religious are you? You’re not one of those Jesus-people? Ugh. What a disappointment.”

So it’s after 10 PM, now as then. The cover of darkness. Because Jesus is a thing you keep to yourself. Nicodemus is knocking. Hiding himself from the high standards of his religious office and wondering about this Jesus. “We know,” he tells Jesus, “that you’re in touch with God’s presence. No one could do what you do otherwise.” Jesus intercepts this mix of honest confession and flattery, cutting straight to the chase, saying: “No one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above - without being born of the Spirit.” That is, Nicodemus, you can’t understand this Kingdom abstractly, from a perch, from a point, as it were, outside of the Kingdom. But if you’re looking for the Kingdom, if you want to see the Kingdom, the light to your darkness, you have to jump in, Nicodemus, you have to jump in, where the Spirit will remake you from the top.

Nicodemus, you can’t see the Kingdom with one life tied behind your back.

Jesus tells Nicodemus that the Kingdom requires not a double but a single life. “Born from above,” and the Greek for “from above” is the same word used later to describe Jesus’ garment, the one for which the soldiers cast lots at his trial. Seamless. Woven in one piece, from the top. His garment is a picture of the lives of all those who would follow him and come to see the Kingdom: woven in one piece.

Jesus tells Nicodemus that such a rebirth, from above, of one piece, is a birth by water and the Spirit. It is the Spirit who weaves the life of a child in the Kingdom. And the Spirit’s work of making one life out of two is what the Church has traditionally called “sanctification”: making holy, making whole. Two lives turned into one; a seamless garment; woven from the top; this is what the Spirit is about.

In my own spiritual journey, I have found the desire to be made into a seamless garment an amazing and compelling hope; to be made all of one piece.

Nicodemus wanted Jesus, but he wanted to want him when he wanted him, if you follow. After work. After hours. In many ways, Nicodemus prefigures the post-Enlightenment idea that faith is a private matter with no bearing on the “real world” out there; no truth of consequence beyond an hour kept each Sunday morning around an altar in a dimly lit sanctuary.

But what do we make, then, of the verse from Psalm 139: “the night shineth as the day: the darkness and the light are both alike to thee”?

A friend of mine had another way of naming the challenge of Nicodemus: he wore a colored bracelet with the numbers 2, 4, and 7 on it. As in, 24/7. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week: this is when we are to follow the call and direction and leading of the Holy Spirit who comes at Pentecost.

So we’re talking about the Spirit who wants to bring all of us, with Christ, into the full light of day. We are considering Christianity without the on/off switch or dimmer. We are perhaps especially feeling Nicodemus’ pinch: that living with Christ in the light of day might threaten our day jobs, literally. To be sure, Nicodemus’ job as a Pharisee would look very different as a public follower of Christ.

And this how the Holy Spirit means to set the world on fire, I think: by lighting you here and burning with you, within you, as you go back out there: wherever “there” is for you.

So Bishop Lesslie Newbigin, a missionary of the Church of Scotland - who himself spent 40 years as a missionary in India - writes about how vital, how imperative, it is that the Church become a place that “enables (her) members to think out the problems that face them in their secular work in the light of their Christian faith.”

Here Newbigin speaks of the need for “‘frontier-groups,’ groups of Christians working in the same sectors of public life, meeting to thrash out the controversial issues of their business or profession in the light of their faith.” I know a group of you - teachers - who find great strength in just such a group of mutual support, as you seek to live out your calling to teach within your understanding of what it means to do so as a Christian.

And Newbigin writes about the help your clergy (that’s me) will need in this process because your clergy by and large were trained for the “pastoral care of the existing congregation,” and less for “the missionary calling to claim the whole of public life for Christ and his Kingdom.”

The whole of public life - the whole of your public life - for Christ and his Kingdom. That’s the vision Jesus gives to Nicodemus and to us.

We aren’t told much else about Nicodemus in John’s gospel. After this encounter with Jesus, Nicodemus makes only two other appearances. The first is an ambiguous one-line cameo as the Pharisees wrestle over what to do about Jesus - “has he broken the law or not?” kind of talk. The second is after Jesus is put to death. He accompanies Joseph of Arimethea, when Joseph asks for and receives permission from Pilate to lay Jesus’ body in a new tomb in a garden. Joseph, who is described as “a disciple of Jesus, but a secret one, for fear of the Jews.” Like Nicodemus, who came by at night, when everyone knows better than to call. They were afraid of the scandal. But now they come out. Hardly courageous, but public nonetheless. And together they bear on their bodies, for all honest eyes to see, the body of the crucified Lord. And somewhere in the mystery of these three great, holy days, we learn to love the miracle that - by the Spirit of the living God - we may do the same.

Amen.



Sermon preached Trinity Sunday, June 3, 2012.

Remaining Thankful in the Midst of Falsehood

I finally finished Paul Weston's Lesslie Newbigin: Missionary Theologian: A Reader last night, a compelling and life-giving read. The end contained the following charge, which I found to be a remarkable synopsis and ending:

"To the end of history we are called upon to be witnesses to the truth in a world where it is contradicted, to engage in the kind of discourse in which through our struggle we learn more of the truth, and always to remain thankful to God whose providence creates a world in which falsehood can still exist without destroying us." (emphasis mine)

Somewhere between the semi-Pelagian desire to make a difference in this world and the Gnostic longing to simply escape this world, we are given power through the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus to remain thankful to God in the midst of falsehoods that cannot destroy us. Surely this and only this is how Christians can follow Jesus in loving their enemies.

As Hauerwas likes to put it, we do not become peaceful because we expect the world to follow suit (so that we will change the world), but as followers of the God we know in Jesus - whose love takes the shape of the cross - we can do no other as Christians but be peaceful. So our lives are lives that do not stand alone or make sense apart from the crucified Lord we proclaim as risen from the dead.

The comparison here to Hauerwas' work is apt for the point, but perhaps misleading, too: Newbigin articulates a relentless vision of political involvement that Hauerwas is often read as lacking. While I suspect this deficit in Hauerwas is often exaggerated owing to his controversial pacifism, we do find in Newbigin an ambitious vision for a generous Christian society, still with the cross-shaped Kingdom as the center.

And at the heart of this Kingdom, this remarkable claim: we can always remain thankful to God whose providence creates a world in which falsehood can still exist without destroying us.

Is there any aspect of my life, your life - family, political, church schism or threats thereof, corruption - to which the announcement that we have been empowered to remain thankful in the midst of falsehood is not at the same time the end of every excuse with respect to our living the Gospel and very, very Good News for our souls?

Monday, June 4, 2012

What Do Christians Do with Politics?

It's that time of year - and it will likely be that time of year all year. Election year. The stakes are high, with emotions to match. The place of the Church in the midst of the clamor can be an ambiguous question. Of course there is the right-wing affiliation with particular realms of evangelicalism, but this is by no means the definitive word for the Christian tradition. More than simply left versus right, politics for Christians raise questions of power and allegiance and the Lordship of Jesus: reminders that Christians are members of a kingdom whose king established his reign on a cross. How knowledge of this kingdom shapes my political engagement in the secular world is not always clear.

So I was very grateful when my friend Greg forwarded me a link to Wheaton's upcoming theology conference. The theme is Christian Political Witness. Hauerwas and Cavanaugh will be there, as will Leithart, among others. Enough for a lively, diverse, and relentlessly Christ-centered conversation. I am very much looking forward to it.

I was also very grateful when, toward the end of Paul Weston's reader on Lesslie Newbigin, Newbigin turns the conversation toward the public nature of the Gospel and the implications of that nature for Christians in politics. Newbigin rightly asserts that a Christian political order would necessarily provide for and reflect the freedom to dissent that God manifests and makes possible in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus; that a Christian society is better poised to protect minorities, especially in matters of belief, than the current secular model. In a much longer thought whose whole logic I won't rehearse here, Newbigin finally contends that "The only ultimate secure ground for religious freedom is in the fact that Almighty God, in the act of revealing his sovereign power and wisdom in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, has at the same time established for his world a space and a time during which faith is possible because unbelief is also possible."

I am still digesting much of Newbigin's contention. It is so foreign to my experience of the Church with respect to politics that I find myself a little bit dizzy - and also hopeful.