Monday, November 2, 2009

Hostages, Holiness, and a Navy Seal

All Saints Day.-09 All Saints Church
When Thomas Merton was a young man,
he lived an undisciplined, aimless life
in New York City.
That life left him lonely and empty.
So he started reading about Christianity.
It fascinated him, attracted him, puzzled him.
It was like something from another place and time.
But he knew it was going to change his life.

One day he was talking with his best friend.
Merton described his sense of being called to something different
– not just to do something new, but be someone new.
His friend said, “Tom why don’t you just say it?
You want to be a saint.”

Merton immediately disagreed and tried to dismiss the idea.
But it wouldn’t go away.
Years later he admitted his friend was right.
Once we accept the gospel of Jesus,
we are called to become saints.
Did Merton become a saint?
He became a monk.
But he was a grouchy monk with irritable bowel syndrome.
He wrote books that changed countless lives.
But he struggled with pride in his writing.
He was a bold voice for peace and justice.
But he struggled with rigidity and moralism.

Thomas Merton wasn’t perfect.
But he was entranced by the perfection of God,
and he longed to be made whole.
He wanted to become who God intended him to be.
I believe he was a saint.

None of the saints have been perfect.
Paul was overbearing and tempestuous.
Peter was a unstable.
The list of saints includes masochists, misogynists, and misanthropes.
St. Bernard was a war monger obsessed
with destroying the career of Peter Abelard,
the greatest theologian of his time.
So what makes a saint?
Thomas Mann wrote a novel based
on an epic poem from the 12th Century.
It’s called The Holy Sinner.
The title tells the story.

It’s about Gregory, a young man born
of an incestuous relationship and given away
to hide his parents’ shame.
When he learned his origins,
he set out to overcome his birth
by doing good in the world.
He tried to do good out of his own good will.

He not only failed.
He repeated his parents’ mistake
by engaging in incest himself.
That’s when he gave himself over to God,
and wound up as a great Pope.

The author’s point is that Gregory was holy
not because he was without sin,
but because of how God turned his sin
into humility, wisdom, and gratitude.

There are two lessons for us here.
First, holiness is not for a few super heroes of the faith.
It’s for all of us.
We are all called to holiness of life.
The name of this Holy Day and this Church
reminds us that we are all called to be saints.

The second point is that holiness isn’t something we do.
It’s what God does in us if we just allow it.
God finds us in our broken state
and makes us new people.
As one of our prayers says, “God works in us that which
is well pleasing in his sight.”
God does it. We just do our best to stay out of the way.

God makes us into better people than we could have been
if we had not been morally and spiritually broken.
When we consecrate the bread, when we make it holy,
we break it.
The breaking is a part of the act of making holy.
Our brokenness is part of how God makes us holy.
God does that by joining us in it.

In his book, Blue Like Jazz, Don Miller repeats a story
he heard from a folk singer.
Miller doesn’t know if the story is true.
It really doesn’t matter.
What matters is the point.

It’s about a hostage rescue.
A commando team of Navy Seals were sent to rescue
hostages who had been held captive
by terrorists for a long time.
The Seals broke into the dark, filthy basement
where the hostages were cowering in a corner,
huddled together, shaking.
The sounds of gunfire had not given them hope.
They were sure they were about to die.

The Seals broke open the door.
They had to hurry to evacuate the hostages.
So they stood there in commando gear
carrying semi-automatic rifles
and shouted orders to the hostages
“We’re here to rescue you.
Come with us. Now!”

But the hostages did not move.
The Seals shouted louder. “Come with us now. Hurry.”
The hostages did not move.
They thought the commandos were just more terrorists.

So one of the Navy Seals took off his helmet.
He put down his rife.
He went over to the hostages and sat down with them.
He huddled together with them in the darkness and the dirt.

No terrorist had ever done that.
No terrorist would ever do that.
After awhile he said, “It’s ok. We can go now.”
Then they followed him to safety and to freedom.

Brothers and sisters, we are not heroes.
Saints are not heroes.
Saints start out as hostages to sin, addiction, fear,
and all the pain that makes being human so hard.
Is there anyone here who is not such a hostage?
I know I am.

But then Jesus comes into our prison.
Jesus joins us in the darkness and the dirt.
Then after a little while, he says,
“It’s ok. We can go now.”

So we get up and follow him.
He doesn’t bark the order “Follow me.”
He says it gently, as an invitation.
He says it kindly as you might say it to a child, “Follow me.”
Saints are just hostages who have followed Jesus.
The prison he leads us out of is not just a situation.
He leads us out of the smallest, darkest prison of all.
He leads us out of the prison of our own darkened selves.
He lifts us up from our guilt and our shame.
He makes us new.
Who would not want that?

We are our own worst enemies, you know.
Mohandas Ghandi once said.
“I have three enemies.
First, is the British Empire.
But I can handle them easily.
Second, is the Indian people.
They are considerably more difficult.
Third, is a man named Mohandas Ghandi.
With him I can do nothing at all.”

Self-improvement does not work.
It’s a dead end.

For 40 years, the bookstore shelves have been filled
with self-improvement books.
We keep buying them because the last dozen we read
didn’t change anything.
We can’t do it. The self cannot fix the self
anymore than a broken car can fix itself.

But Jesus can change us.
God gave us his solemn promise in Ezekiel.
“I shall sprinkle clean water upon you
and you shall be clean . . . .
A new heart I will give you
and a new spirit I will put within you.
I will remove from your body the heart of stone
and give you a heart of flesh.
I will put my spirit in you . . . .”

God puts the Holy Spirit in us if we let him.
That’s what a saint is – an ordinary person
with the Spirit of God inside,
a hostage who has followed Jesus
out of the prison.
He says it to us gently, mercifully, every day,
“Follow me.”

Every Breath I Take

Convention Sermon.09
The deep truth of things is like the Amargosa River.
It flows along mostly unseen, underground.
But once in awhile it bubbles us as a spring or a stream.

We can’t conjure up the deep truth at will.
It emerges into our consciousness whenever it chooses.
Our part is to keep an eye out for it;
then remember and be faithful.

Some truth has been especially clear to me
these past few weeks.
It has been clear and on my heart in a good way.
The truth is that every breath I take is a gift of God.
I have no claim on this life of mine.
I have not earned it. I have no right to it.
If anything, I have failed to use my life
to God’s glory so often,
that it is only by God’s compassion and mercy,
that I have been given this new day.

I have no right to this life.
I have no guarantee of a future.
But, God’s generous heart keeps giving me
sunrise after sunrise, sunset after sunset,
and people to share it all with.
I have not a clue why God does this.
All I know is that God is like that.
God does this sort of thing.
God does it for me. God does it for you.

“I am the vine and you are the branches,” Jesus said.
Our life comes from him.
Without our connection to Jesus,
we wither inside.
We may keep putting one foot in front of another,
but it isn’t real life.
The loving energy, the creative spark, isn’t there.

But when we put our trust -- not in our own power --
but in his generosity and mercy,
then we are strong.
Then we can work wonders in the name of Jesus
by the power of the Holy Spirit.
“I am the vine. You are the branches,” he says,
Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.”

To abide in Jesus means to trust in his love,
not our own cleverness, charm, and hard work,
to sustain us in life.
Do we own real estate and mutual funds?
Their value goes up and down.
We can own it but we can’t count on it because it isn’t grace.
But the steadfast love of the Lord abides forever.
“Though the mountains fall and the hills turn to dust” Isaiah says,
“the love of the Lord endures.”

“Surely it is God who saves me.
I will trust in him and not be afraid.
for that Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense
and he will be my Savior.”
There is nothing subtle about this.
Without God’s grace, we can do nothing.
With God’s grace,
there is no limit to what we can do.
“Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.”

Bearing fruit means living a life that counts,
a life that means something.
Different people bear different fruit.
For one person it is making art that doesn’t just decorate a room,
it touches someone’s soul.
For someone else, it is saving lives by sending
mosquito nets to Kenya.
For someone else, it may be teaching a child to read,
or keeping a neighborhood safe from crime
or helping a person in recovery stay sober.

God is the life force behind anything we do that is worth doing.
Sometimes we know that. Sometimes we forget it.
Sometimes we are blessed as I have been recently
by a heartfelt awareness that we are floating in grace.
But we lose that sense of grace. It slips out of our minds.
The first mission of the church is to help us remember.
The church is the tangible place we abide in Jesus’ love.
We hold out our hands for his body and blood.
We kneel and pray for his blessing.

The church holds each of us in the awareness of grace
so that we can bear much fruit
in our daily life and work,
so that we can live lives that count
each in our own unique way.

But the church can only hold each of us in the awareness of grace,
if the church itself lives by grace,
if the church itself trusts God to empower us for mission.
That’s why Bishop Wes and Bishop Katharine
insisted that we are about mission, not maintenance.
We do not exist to keep church doors open,
but to “bear fruit,” as Mother Theresa put it,
to “do something beautiful for God.”

If we do that, God will keep the doors open.
If we don’t bear fruit, if we don’t live boldly for the gospel,
keeping the doors open isn’t worth our effort.

Paul says in our Epistle lesson,
“Since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry,
we do not lose heart . . . .”
We do not lose heart. Our wills are not weak. We are not timid.
We do not fret over keeping doors open.
We dare to save souls from addiction and despair.
If we trust in God’s mercy, we take risks.
We move from maintenance to mission.
We do something beautiful for God.

His grace abounds, Brothers and Sisters.
Otherwise we would not be here.
Grace abounds. Look at our Old Testament lesson:
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return until they have watered the ground
making it bring forth and sprout
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater;

so shall my word be that goes out of my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in that for which I sent it.”

Who do we think planted the church in Nevada?
It was God.
And God put us here for a purpose.
It isn’t just keeping doors open.

In a place where despair is a deadly epidemic,
by God’s grace, we offer hope.
Where addiction holds our people captive,
by God’s grace, we offer freedom.
Where the school dropout rate is one of the nation’s worst,
by God’s grace, we give children a future.
We are the word sent forth from God’s mouth.
We will accomplish the purpose for which God sent us.

It will not be by our own power or our own merit,
but by the grace of God
remembered and received in the sacraments.
It will not be with our own resources
but with God’s gifts received and yet to come.

All we have to do is abide in the love of Jesus.
Sometimes we cringe in fear of the future.
Sometimes we dwell in old hurts and grievances.
Neither fear of the future nor replaying old wars
will glorify God, save a child,
or make a meaningful life.

Abiding in the love of Jesus will do all that and more.
Brothers and sisters, I tell you this from my heart.
Do not take your next breath for granted.
It is a divine gift. It is a miracle and a wonder.
It is a sign of God’s love.

Live a life worthy of the grace you have received.
Just so, this diocese and each congregation in it
is a gift, a miracle, and wonder.
If we remember that every day,
we will live a life that counts.
We will bear fruit.
We will do something beautiful for God.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Wash Your Hands And Study

Proper 19.Grace in the Desert
I don’t want to take sides on any political issues
because I don’t want to offend either Fr. Dale or Fr. Sherm.
But sometimes public events are good jumping off places
for religious points.

This week the President gave his welcomed
the nation’s youth and children back to school.
He made two basic points:
Students should wash their hands frequently
and study hard.

His remarks were controversial.
Some commentators were surprised that anyone
such a speech could be divisive.
But, as one who has worked in the church for two decades,
I was not surprised at all.

Just last Spring, during the first wave of swine flu anxiety,
I sent a letter to our priests urging them
to wash their hands.
It immediately sparked a controversy.
Some felt I had gone too far.
Others thought I had not gone nearly far enough.

So I am not going to talk about hand washing today.
For one thing, our Scripture lessons are not about it.
For another, from what we can find about hand washing
in the Bible, it looks like Jesus was against it.

So we will not talk about hand washing.
That leaves us with studying.
Our Old Testament lesson is about study.
There are actually things we need to know
in order to live the Christian life.

When one of our priests, Fr. Vince O’Neil,
was in the second grade, his teacher was a nun.
She would make little Vince stand at his desk
and grill him on his catechism.
“Vince,” she would say, “Why did God make you?”
And Vince would answer “To know, love, and serve him.”
She would say, “That is correct. Now notice what comes first.
Knowledge. Knowledge is the basis.
So study, Vince, study.

Sometimes in the Eucharist we recite the summary of the law.
It comes from an exchange between Jesus and a lawyer.
But the same summary of the law is in the teachings
of Jesus’ contemporary, Rabbi Hillel.
Someone challenged Hillel to summarize
the entire law while standing on one foot.

The great Rabbi said, “Love the Lord your God with all your mind,
all your soul, and all your strength.
And love your neighbor as yourself.
The rest is commentary. Go study.”

Rabbi Hillel said the central point is simple.
But how we live it in a complex world is complicated.
So Jews don’t just have the summary of the law.
The rest of the 613 commandments are commentary.
So are the applications in the Mishna
and the interpretations in the Talmud.
So to be a good Jew, you have to study.

It is the same for Christians.
There is a lot to know.
And it all adds up to Wisdom.

The lectionary actually gives us a choice
of three Old Testament lessons for today.
One is from Isaiah, “the Lord has given me the tongue
of a teacher.”
Jesus was a teacher too. The apostles were teachers.
The Lord sends us teachers
because he expects us to be students.

The other lessons are from the Wisdom literature
of the Old Testament.
In Proverbs, “Wisdom cries out in the street;
In the squares she raises her voice.
At the busiest corner she cries out . . .
‘How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? . . .
I will pour out my thoughts to you.
I will make my words known to you.”

And in the Wisdom of Solomon we read,
“for wisdom is a reflection of eternal light,
a spotless mirror of the working of God . . . .”

The Jewish idea of Wisdom, hachma, in the Hebrew,
evolved into a philosophy of God.
At first hachma meant knowing how to do your craft well.
There was a wisdom of the farmer, a wisdom of the basket weaver,
a wisdom of the camel trader.
We might say there is a wisdom of the gambler,
that is “to know when to hold ‘em,
know when to fold ‘em,
know when to walk away,
know when to run.”

The writers of Scripture eventually realized
what Wisdom teacher Kenny Rogers makes so clear.
The ways of a craft can be expanded into a way of life.

Just a basket can be woven well or badly,
just so, life can be lived well or badly.
Just as you must know certain things
to be a good farmer, camel trader, or gambler,
you must know certain things in order
to be a good human being.

By the time today’s lessons were written,
Wisdom had come to mean a very part of God.
Wisdom is the order of things, the pattern of the cosmos.
Wisdom is the mind of God expressed in the world.
We learn Wisdom by keeping alert to the world.
But we also learn Wisdom from the past.

Scriptures and Tradition
– the lives of the saints are
– the teachings of theologians
– the insights of mystics
all these together are a rich storehouse of Wisdom
We can’t learn all that in Vacation Bible School
as children.
It’s a lifelong project.

That’s why the Episcopal Church has adopted
the Charter for Lifelong Christian Formation
calling on each diocese to keep educating our people
all their lives long.
That’s why Nevada has created
the Frensdorff School for Christian Formation
to teach the teachers.

And that’s one of the reasons I am so glad
that the good people of Grace in the Desert
have built your new Parish Hall.
A church is a worshiping community,
a praying community,
and a caring community.
But it is also a learning community.
This is a wonderful diocese.
We do lots of good ministry here.
But the adult education programs
of all but a few of our congregations
are woefully behind.

We have to change that,
and we need a few strong parishes to lead the way.
Grace has the critical mass of people
for a first rate adult formation program.
Grace has people with the gift and the passion to teach.
Grace has lacked only one thing:
the place to house the program.
In only a few weeks, you will have then place.
But one thing yet is lacking – the students.
That brings us to the point.

“Wisdom cries out in the street;
In the squares she raises her voice.
At the busiest corner she cries out . . . “
God invites us to learn Wisdom’s ways
so that we can live better, fuller lives.

In our Baptismal vows we promise
“to continue in the Apostle’s teaching.”
There are two ways we can do that.
We can teach or we can study.

We need to know the Bible.
We need to know that fundamentalism
is not the old way of reading the Bible.
It was invented between 1910 and 1915.
The earliest theologians taught that each text
must be read on four different level – not literally.

Did you know that the idea that whatever happens
is part of God’s plan is a highly debated point
in Christianity?
Do you know why we bring the bread and wine
from the back of the Church to the altar?
It means something – something profoundly important.
Most of the divisions in the Church today
come from the failure to study and to think.

So, study, brothers and sisters.
It is fascinating stuff we have to teach.
It will touch your hearts as well as your minds.
It will change your life.
Wisdom’s ways are the Way of Christ.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

A Unique, Irreplaceable Word Of God

Proper 16b

In today’s lesson from Ephesians
Paul urges us to gird ourselves for spiritual battle.
He says strap on your gun belt
but you need a different kind of gun
because this is different kind of enemy.

We are not fighting against flesh and blood.//
That means we are not fighting against each other.
We are not fighting the people in our family.
We are not fighting our neighbors
or the members of the other political party.
We are not fighting Iraqis or Afghans.

We are fighting against “the cosmic powers of this present darkness.”
We are fighting against “the spiritual forces of evil.”
That sounds pretty dramatic.
It sounds like Lord of the Rings stuff.

When Paul talks about spiritual warfare,
it can include big cosmic struggles.
But spiritual warfare also happens
in subtle every day ways.
Anyone who has read C. S. Lewis’s classic,
The Screwtape Letters,
knows that evil flourishes in the mundane
habits of everyday life.
A little malice here, an ounce of slot there,
and before you know it,
you’ve got a soul on the path to perdition.

So let’s look at spiritual warfare in ordinary daily life.
As usual, Jesus is our best example.
I stand in awe of his words and actions in today’s lesson.
He has just taught them about the Eucharist.
He has said, “Whoever eats me will live. . . . “

Well the crowd did not understand.
It sounded like cannibalism to them,
and they were repulsed.
Up to now, the Jesus movement had been gaining momentum,
but this was a crisis.
Jesus had offended the crowd.
He was on the verge of losing them.

I have been in that position more than once.
You know what I have usually done.
I have started back pedaling – or explaining.
“No. No,” I would have said,
“I didn’t mean that. It’s just a metaphor.
If that doesn’t work for you,
forget it about it.
Let’s talk about something nice,
like the shepherd knowing all his little sheep by name.”

In the face of conflict,
I would have rushed lickety split
to smooth things out.
But Jesus didn’t do that.
He said, “Does that offend you.
Well wait until you hear this.
And he told them even more astounding things
about himself.
He added “if you don’t believe it,
you just haven’t been blessed by God
with the ability to get these things.”

That’s when most of Jesus’ followers said,
“It’s been real. We’re out of here.”
When Jesus saw that he still had 12 followers left,
He said “What are you guys doing here?
Don’t you want to leave too?”

But Peter said,
“Where would we go?
You have the words of eternal life.
You are the Holy One of God.”

The most striking thing about this story
isn’t Jesus’ shocking teaching.
It’s how solid Jesus was in himself,
how ready he was to tell the truth,
the pure unvarnished truth
without regard to how it would play in the press.

Jesus was the human dwelling place of God
because he was pure 100% unadulterated Jesus.
In the presence of the Pharisees, he was Jesus.
In the presence of the Sadducees, he was Jesus.
In the presence of Galilean fishermen, King Herod,
Pontius Pilate or his own best friends, he was always Jesus.
He didn’t need anyone’s approval or permission to be Jesus.

So what’s that got to do with Christianity in general
and spiritual warfare in particular?
Just this. God made us to be ourselves.
Theologian Karl Rahner said,
“Each of us is a unique irreplaceable word of God.”
That means we speak God,
we reveal God precisely by being ourselves.
If we are not ourselves, then who will be us?

If we are not ourselves, a unique irreplaceable word of God
will never be spoken. Never.
St. Ignatius Loyola said,
“All things glorify God by being themselves.”
To the extent we fail to be ourselves,
God is not glorified.

St. Ireneaus of Lyons said,
“The glory of God is a human being fully alive.”
To the extent, we are not fully alive,
God is not glorified.

Do you see how this leads to spiritual warfare?
We rarely kill, steal, or worship idols.
But the struggle to be oneself – that’s a challenge.

Why is it so hard to be our unique selves?
Paul says, we have enemies standing in our way.
He calls them “the cosmic powers of this present darkness . . . .
the spiritual forces of evil.”

How do comic power and spiritual forces
work to keep us from being ourselves?
Let’s start with all the cultural messages that tell us
what men and women are supposed to be.
Let’s start with all the social definitions of success.
I spent the first 40 year of my life
mad at God for making me who I am
instead of a movie star hero.
I let Hollywood and Madison Avenue
tell me what I was supposed to be
instead of seeing myself through God’s eyes.

Hollywood and Madison Avenue were the cosmic powers
and spiritual forces – or at least their agents.
They made me ashamed and afraid to be myself.

Then there is all the negative feedback
we get from family and even friends,
telling us lies about who we are.
We see ourselves through their eyes,
not God’s eyes.
That keeps us from even knowing ourselves accurately.

So how do we fight against the spiritual powers
that want more than anything to prevent us
from being who we are?
Where do we get the grace to be ourselves,
to live out of our true selves,
to glorify God by being fully alive?

Paul says we must “take the shield of faith
which will quench the arrows of the evil one.”//
Faith means trusting that God has made us
precisely the way God wants us to be.
Faith comes from discovering that God loves us,
not in a pitying tolerating way,
but God enjoys us just the way we are.

The courage to be ourselves
comes from knowing that the world
has no jurisdiction over us.
The judgments of the world don’t count.
God’s judgment counts,
and God has judged us good.
God has declared us worthy.

God is greater than Hollywood, Madison Avenue,
our families, and social definitions of success.
“If God is for us,
who can be against us?” Paul asked.
The answer is: Nobody.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

A Life Worthy Of Your Calling

Proper 12b.09/ St. Peter’s
The gospel message is too big for any one generation.
That’s why each generation of Christians discovers
more good news, more grace in the New Testament.
Sometimes a forgotten part of the tradition
is suddenly remembered or rediscovered,
and takes on new life with a renewed meanng
for a new day.
That’s what has happened with MOAB,
the Ministry of All the Baptized.

In the 1940’s, there were major discoveries in archaeology
– the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Nag Hammadi library,
for example.
We learned a lot about how the first Christians
went about being the Church.
We discovered that the first Christians were all ministers,
not spiritual consumers sitting at the feet of an elite clergy.
They were all ministers and their ministry is what made them whole.

Mutual ministry gave meaning to their lives.
Shared service taught them wisdom.
It exercised their characters so that they grew in virtue.
They become stronger, healthier, saner, holier people.

In the 1960’s, the movement to bring back that kind of vitality
in the life of the laity took off.
Ministry of All Baptized was especially strong in the West,
thanks to the Western School of Ministry
founded by Bill Spofford of Idaho,
Dean of St. Michael’s Cathedral in Boise,
and by the Dean of St. Mark’s Cathedral in Salt Lake,
a guy named Wes Frensdorff.

But the Ministry of All Baptized wasn’t just a local fad.
It was the driving force in Vatican II.
It dramatically changed our ecumenical theology of Baptism
in a major agreement in Lima, Peru in 1968.

After the Lima Statement,
Baptism ceased to be a private rite, a family bonding moment.
Instead Baptism became the central event in the life of the congregation,
and an initiation into the largest and most important
order of ministry.

And so, today when we consecrate this building,
to house St. Patrick’s Church,
we read our lessons in a new light.
These are the perfect lessons to mark this day
in your parish life
because St. Patrick’s is shifting its spiritual gears.
St. Patrick’s is making a spiritual shift directly parallel
to the spiritual shift today’s lessons
invite us to make in our personal lives.
The dedication and generosity of so many of you
have set this Church free from struggling
to maintain itself for itself.
You have set this Church free
to grow up spiritually,
and so become a center of transformation
where each of the members can grow up.
That’s s what today’s lessons are about.
Last week, we heard how hungry people flocked to Jesus,
and he miraculously fed them.
Today, we see them back again, hoping for more food.
Jesus is manifestly frustrated.

They hadn’t gotten the point.
He didn’t intend to transform bread just to up their calorie intake.
He was showing them what transformation looks like,
so they could be transformed themselves,
so they could manifest the power of God in their lives.
But they just kept trying to manipulate him
into meeting their needs.

We shouldn’t be too hard on them.
Most of us begin the spiritual life as consumers.
It may not be literal food we are after.
It’s more likely to be peace of mind, serenity,
a sense of being unconditionally accepted.
Most of us begin the spiritual life
trying to get our needs met.

At first, we get what we want.
Christ meets us where we are,
gives us graces and consolations,
heals our wounds and feeds our hunger.

But it isn’t quite enough.
Our spiritual needs come back.
We find ourselves once again restless.
And that’s a good thing.
This is the point for a crucial transition in the spiritual life.
Many people never make it.
They stay stuck at the consumer level of faith,
even though it isn’t really working for them anymore.
To move on, it takes a paradoxical shift.

The paradox is that our spiritual needs
get met far more deeply when we forget about them,
and go to work doing something for someone else.
The wounds in our souls heal while we aren’t looking.
Our weakened spirits grow strong
while we aren’t working on our spirituality.

A simple example:
If we want to learn a little something about a subject,
we can learn a little by attending a class on it.
If we want to really learn a subject all the way,
we volunteer to teach the class.
That’s how the Ministry of All Baptized
makes us all stronger, wiser, healthier, and holier.

This is what St. Paul pleads for in our Epistle lesson.
Invoking the language of baptism,
“one Lord, one Faith, one baptism”, he says,
“I . . . beg you to live a life worthy of your calling . . . . “
(W)e must grow up in every way.”

How do we grow up? He answers that each of us
is called by God to a special form of ministry.
Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel were called to be prophets.
Paul, himself, was called to be the apostle to the gentiles.
Just so, every Christian, at baptism, is called to a ministry.

Paul says,
The gifts (God) gave were that some would be apostles,
some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers,
to equip the saints for the work of ministry.
That list covers some of the most common ministries in the Church.
But there are others.
In 1st Corinthians, he gives a different list.
Different places need different ministries.

What do you suppose would be on Paul’s list
if he were writing to St. Patrick’s, Incline Village?
In the mysterious Providence of God,
the ministries that are needed here
are aligned with the gifts and talents
of this community of faith.

I don’t know what they are.
Do you need spiritual directors, pastoral care givers,
health care ministers, ministers of healing prayer?

Is there anyone who gets the notices from
Episcopal Public Policy Network
and organizes this congregation to advocate
on behalf of the social justice issues
where our Church has made a stand?
Do you need a minister to visit the elderly?

Do you need a visual arts ministry to make grace
visible as beauty?
Van Gogh and Caravaggio have told me more about God
than any sermon.
Or do you need mentors to companion new members?

The General Convention has just created
the new licensed ministry of lay evangelist?
So I know that every one of our parishes needs that lay minister,
and none of us have one yet.

I don’t know what ministries are needed here.
I certainly don’t know what particular ministry
is your calling.

But I do know this,
if you are baptized, you are called
– called to serve God by serving God’s people
in your own special way.
And I know your calling, your form of services,
is unique.

Theologian, Karl Rahner, said,
“Each of us is a unique irreplaceable word of God.”
Brothers and sisters, each of you
is “a unique irreplaceable word of God.”
If you do not live into your calling,
that word of God will never be spoken.
Only you can speak it.

So I implore you to discern and then to act.
“I . . . beg you to live a life worthy of your calling . . . .”

We dedicate this building to be a holy place.
But it will take more than rituals to make it holy
It will take personal transformation – it will take spiritual growth
from just being recipients of grace
to being agents of grace.
This Church becomes holy by becoming
what Fr. Jim calls a “Church for others.”

This will not be a sacrifice of our own spiritual life,
but a fulfillment of it.
Rabbi Hillel said,
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
But if I am only for myself, who am I?
If not now, when?”

So when will we plunge out into the life for others?
“Now” is the best possible time.
It is in fact, the only time.

Transforming the Mundane

Proper 12b.09/ St. Peter’s
Today’s Gospel lesson tells of Jesus taking
a small amount of food, blessing it,
and turning it into a feast for thousands.
It’s a central story in the New Testament, the only miracle
recounted in all four Gospels.
It’s obviously super important but what does it mean?

When Jesus did something miraculous
it wasn’t to hear the crowd gasp and then applaud
like at a magic show.
He was trying to show us something.

The next time Jesus saw this crowd
he challenged them for just eating the bread
but not seeing the sign.
They had missed the point.

Mark’s account of this story is close to John’s.
Jesus multiplies the loaves and fishes.
That night he walks on water to help the disciples
when they are having trouble on the sea.
When he gets in the boat, Mark says,
“They were dumbfounded because they had
not seen what the miracle of the loaves meant.”

So what does this miracle mean?
It’s a story of transformation, change,
miraculous change that happens by God’s grace.
The point is not to get stuck at the material literal level.
It isn’t about changing a little bread into a lot of bread.
It’s about changing hearts trapped in scarcity
into hearts of abundance.

It’s like the Eucharist.
One liturgical scholar reminds us
“The Eucharist isn’t about changing bread;
it’s about changing lives.”
Just so, Jesus’ miracle of the loaves
is an outward and visible sign
of inward and spiritual grace.

Let’s stay with the food situation and bring it up to date.
963 million people live with daily hunger.
Each year, 3 million children die of malnutrition before the age of five.
A child dies of hunger-related causes every five seconds.

But there is already enough food to feed everyone.
The cost of eradicating world hunger is less
than the United States and Europe spend on pet food.
The problem isn’t our capacity to produce food.
The problem is with our hearts.
Hunger is a spiritual issue.

Senator Mark Hatfield said,
“We stand by as children starve by the millions
because we lack the political will to eliminate hunger.
Yet we have found the will to develop missiles
capable of flying over the polar ice cap and landing
within a few hundred feed of their target.
This is not innovation.
This is a profound distortion
of humanity’s purpose on earth.”

We don’t need more food, more houses,
more of any material thing.
We need more love, more grace, more generosity.

St. Paul’s prayer in our Epistle lesson
describes the kind of change of heart
the miracle of the loaves represents.
It’s the same change of heart the Eucharist represents.
He prays that God “out of the riches of his glory” will bless us
in these ways:
That we might be strengthened in our inner being
with the power of the Holy Spirit;
That Christ might dwell in our hearts;
That we might be rooted and grounded in love;
That we might comprehend the depth and breadth
and height of God’s grace;
That we might know the love of Christ
which is beyond the reach of human understanding;
That we might be filled with God.

Brothers and sisters salvation does not just consist
in what happens to us in the afterlife.
Salvation is becoming radically changed
right down to the core of our being
– not someday – now, today.

Is that possible?
The resounding answer of Scripture and our faith is Yes!
Paul’s lesson concludes by reminding us
that this isn’t something we do.
It’s something God does.
And, in Paul’s words, “God’s) power working in us
can do infinitely more
than all we can ask or imagine.”

There is no limit to what God can do.
Remember what Mary said to the Angel Gabriel
at the Annunciation? She said,
“ How is this possible?’
And the angel said, “All things are possible for God.”

God acting though an illiterate peasant girl in Galilee
brought forth the savior of the world.
Do you think God can do anything less in you?
Do you think God cannot touch your heart
and change your life?

What are our lives about, Friends?
What do we spend ourselves on?
“Getting and spending we lay waste our powers,”
Wordsworth said.
And it’s true. We slog along through lives
that are beneath the dignity of human nature.

But God can change that.
God wants to change that.
God wants to transform us
– to transform each individual heart in this room
– and to transform us together into agents of change
in this darkened world.

God did not want 120 children to die of starvation
during the time of this sermon.
God wants to change that – but he’s not going to do it
with a magic trick.
He wants to eradicate hunger though changing us,
through opening our hearts to compassion and mercy.

Christ wants to live in us.
The Holy Spirit wants to empower us for abundant life
and bold action.
Are we willing?

God can do anything,
but some things God will not do.
God will forgive us whether we like it or not.
God will love us whether we like it or not.
But God will not change us without our consent.

When we receive the Body and Blood of Christ today,
will we receive it as sustenance only
– or will we be transformed?

Are we willing to live a larger life,
a life that will not tolerate the cruelty and injustice
of this world?
Are we willing to undertake a mission
that is beyond our human power
so that we have to rely on God’s power?
Are we willing to be transformed into the likeness
of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ?

How long will we live in his exile?
How long will we tolerate the desolation
of a routine, respectable, mundane life?
When will we become the people our Maker
intends us to be?

That is what salvation is.
Salvation is becoming whole.
Salvation is coming into our own,
being transformed into our true selves.
When will we be saved?

Paul answered that question for the Corinthians.
He wrote: “(God) says, ‘. . . In the day of salvation I helped you.’
I tell you,” Paul says, “Now is the time of God’s favor,
Now is the day of salvation.”

God speaks to us in the now.
Now is the time to become a new being,
a child of God, worthy of our parentage.
Now is the time to be strengthened in our inner being
and invite Christ to dwell in our hearts.
Now is the time to be rooted and grounded in love;
so that we comprehend the depth and breadth
and height of God’s grace.
This is the day to know the inestimable love of Christ
and be filled with God.
And before the sun sets, “God’s) power working in us
will do infinitely more
than all we can ask or imagine.”

Monday, August 3, 2009

Priest Sermon 4

Ordination: James the Apostle/ St. Peter’s
Carl Jung said, “There are no coincidences.”
When two events come together,
it means something.
So what does it mean that Kim and Mike are here
to be ordained on the Feast of St. James the Apostle?

James bar Zebedee was one of the brothers Jesus called
“the Sons of Thunder” suggesting they were rather
forthright with their views.
We could use a little more thunder
in the Episcopal Church.
I don’t mean more bombastic tirading.
That doesn’t do a bit of good.

I mean some volume for the gospel.
I mean proclaiming the all inclusive, radically welcoming
love of God in Christ Jesus.

The tone of public discourse today
is mostly loud and mean-spirited.
I was at Java Detour this week watching a so-called news program.
The sound was off but just by looking at the faces
of the men talking, you could see
it was the usual small minded viciousness.

Usually, that small minded viciousness is so loud.
The voices of reason and mercy are so soft, so timid.
William Butler Yeats said,
“The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”

It’s time for the best to get some conviction.
It’s time to turn up the volume of truth.
We could use a little thunder right now.
We could use a little boldness of word and deed.
We could use some clergy leadership
to claim the name of Jesus for social justice.
We could use some clergy to claim the whole Bible
for what it is, a complex story about simple mercy.
We ordain Kim and Mike tonight to turn up their volume,
to hear them speak the truth
for God’s reign in our time.

There is more to learn from James about tonight.
James did just not take a notion he wanted to be an apostle.
He heard a call.
It started out so simply.

James and John were mending their fishing nets
when Jesus came by and said, “Follow me
and I will teach you to fish for people.”
James got right up and left his nets to follow Jesus.

Kim and Mike didn’t get here by applying for a job.
They got here by following Jesus.
This is where it has led them so far.
God only knows where it will lead them in the future.

We call that trust. We call that faith.
We follow Jesus without knowing where we are going.
We just know we are going with him.
It’s a different way of being in the world.
We don’t have a feasibility study for the Christian life.
We don’t have a strategic plan for salvation.

We follow Jesus.
When our clergy do that,
they model the courage of Christian life.
They invite all of us to go on an adventure of faith
– faith that the transformation the Holy Spirit
works in our individual hearts and in our community
is for good, and not ill.

As James followed Jesus,
their friendship grew closer each day.
Along with Peter and John, James was one
of Our Lord’s closest friends.
Many times, Jesus drew apart to be with just them.

They were there when he went to pray on Mt. Tabor,
so they alone saw him transfigured into glory.
They were there when he went to pray in Gethsemane,
and were the ones closest to him in his anxiety
and despair.

To others, Jesus was the wonder worker.
But to them, he was a vulnerable, all too human friend.
Brothers and sisters, most people don’t know Jesus at all,
and many of those who do, know only the wonder worker
– the Jesus who meets our needs.
But it is friendship with the Jesus who is just as human today
as he was then, it is friendship with him
that enlivens our souls and humanizes our hearts.

I didn’t know him very well when I was ordained.
Kim and Mike, I hope you know him better than I did.
But this kind of friendship takes time.
And time enough, there will be.

You have answered the call to follow Jesus.
If you simply do that, follow Jesus
– not the latest manual on church leadership,
not the hot new book from Alban Institute –
just follow Jesus and you will know him better each day.
You will find a friend who will change you to your core
as no ideology or spiritual technique ever could.

The Lord called James to friendship -- and to mission.
The mission was to fish for people.
Before we start fishing for somebody,
we better make sure they are in the water.

If someone is faithfully following another religious tradition,
and it is blessing them with inquiring and discerning hearts,
they are encountering the awesome beauty of the divine,
and they are growing in compassion and delight for the world,
then they are not in the water.
They are just on another boat.
Leave them alone.

But if someone is struggling to make sense of life,
or if they are in anxiety or despair,
or if their hearts and hands are not engaged
in tikkum olam, the healing of this broken world,
or if they follow a religion or philosophy that stifles the mind
and intimidates the spirit,
then they need some help
and it is our duty to offer it.

The Lord called James to fish for people.
Legend has it, he went to Spain to spread the gospel.
He sowed faith in the land that was to give us Sts. Lawrence of Rome,
Theresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Ignatius Loyola,
and Francis Xavier who took the gospel to Asia.

Just so, Kim and Mike, you are to tell your story
and the story of Jesus,
which will become more and more intertwined.
Some who hear will believe
and who knows what God may do through them?

But first, you must tell them your story.
Faith comes through hearing.
That means you are called to speak.

James got it wrong sometimes though.
He and his brother had their mother ask Jesus
to give them the prestige seats of power
in his kingdom.
It was probably back door maneuver to out rank Peter.
They thought Jesus’ kingdom was about rank.
They thought it was about power and prestige
like an earthly system.

Over the years I have watched people
scheme, stew, manipulate, work tirelessly,
lie, cheat, steal, and betray
all to become kings of some absurdly small hills.
Some of them have been church hills.

But if the church is a hill, it already has a king and it’s none of us.
We don’t do ministry to fortify our egos.
We do it because God is profligate with grace.

We come to God as an empty vessel,
about a gallon worth of empty vessel,
longing to be filled.
But God gives grace only in 10 gallon units.
God pours 10 gallons of grace into our one-gallon emptiness.
God’s grace overflows and we have to share it
with someone else.

For example, Kim and Mike, you will receive grace tonight.
You will, by grace, receive authority and power.
But authority and power to do what?
Not much in yourselves.
You get to dress funny in church and get to say the straight man lines
while the congregation says the main part.

But the authority you get that matters
is the authority to authorize others to do ministry.
The power you get is to empower others to do ministry.
You are called to call others into ordained, licensed,
and commissioned ministries, to be the Body of Christ,
a robust body,
a team in which all players are on the field
and in the game.

You are called to call others.
So turn up the volume of your gospel truth,
follow Jesus, become his friend,
and invite as many people as you can
into this life.

It’s isn’t an easy life but it’s a human life.
It will break your heart – break it open to the world.
That’s when the joy and wonder begin.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Deacon Sermon 1

Ordination.Diaconate.09 St. Paul’s, Elko
Ordination means ordering.
Ordination places a person in a particular order of ministry.
Order is shape.
The orders of ministry are the shape of the Church.

Today’s ordination is, hands down, the most important thing
that has happened since I have been in Nevada
to get the church in shape.
The Church is meant to be shaped like God.
It is meant to be shaped like a holy life.
It is meant to be shaped for our mission.
Getting the Church in shape is deeply important.

So what is the holy shape of the Church?
I have come here directly from Camp Galilee.
For generations, campers have ended each day
with Point Prayer.
They gather in a circle around a rough cross
set into a mound of stones near the shore.
They hold hands, give thanks for the day’s blessings,
say the Our Father, and sing,
“The day thou gavest Lord now is ended.”

As they pray and sing, they cross their arms across their chests
to hold hands so that they can end the prayer
in a special way.
While still holding hands, they each turn 180 degrees,
so instead of facing inward with arms crossed,
the circle faces out with their arms open Christ-like
to the world.
When the church is truly being the church,
that’s what it looks like
– circling in toward each other for prayer and mutual support
-- then circling out to share God’s love with a hurting world.

The church is the shape of Christian spirituality.
Spirit is breath. We breathe in. We breathe out.
Breathing in. Inspiration.
We come into the church to be inspired, rejuvenated.
We inhale grace.

Then we breathe out.
We extend God’s life giving, healing, energizing Spirit
outside these walls into the world.
We exhale grace.
Our mission to the world is as essential
to our own spiritual health
as breathing out the air we breathe in.

Grace has to flow.
We let it enter us; then we have to pass it on
to make room in our hearts for the next grace
God wants to give.

In First John, Christ says, “if we love one another,
God’s love is perfected in us.”
“Perfected” means completed. The circuit is closed.
God’s love is like electricity.
It only flows if you complete the circuit:
God to the Church to the world and back to God.
If we don’t actively spread grace in the world,
the grace we have received gets stale.
We get stale and spiritually atrophy.
Christianity is just this: Breathing in. Breathing out.
To preserve and balance this spirituality,
we have leaders for both movements.
The priest leads us in. The deacon leads us out.
The priest calls us to prayer. The deacon calls us to action.

Prayer and action must both be there to make the church work.
They must be there and they must be balanced.
So what does it say if most of our churches have priests
but do not have deacons?
What does it say if I have ordained 7 priests in my short time
in Nevada – but today is my first time to ordain a real deacon
and if I have 3 more priests lined up to ordain this summer,
but there won’t be another real deacon until April?

It says the church is misshapen.
We are trying to breath 10 full inbreaths
to one good outbreath.
We clearly cannot be healthy doing that for long.
We are too focused on getting our own spiritual needs met
to engage in service to the world.
The tragic irony is that self flocus keeps us
from getting our spiritual needs.
We have to pour out some grace
to make room, to create a capacity within ourselves,
to receive grace.

The church has been out of shape for way too long.
The balance of prayer and action, inreach and outreach,
is there in the Bible.
That balance was preserved and practiced in the Early Church
for hundreds of years.
But in the Middle Ages, the church changed.
The clergy hierarchical,
manipulative salvation sellers.
The laity became passive dependent spiritual consumers.

We are struggling mightily
to get the church back in shape
and we are not there yet.
We will not be there until a parish without a deacon
feels as incomplete as a parish without a priest.
We will not be there until parishes are as concerned
about feeding the hungry on weekdays
as they are concerned about being fed on Sundays.

Today’s ordination is the most important thing
that has happened since I have been in Nevada
to get the church in shape.
We are ordaining a deacon to lead St. Paul’s
in service to God’s world.
Jews call it tzedeq, meaning righteous action;
or tikkum olam, healing the broken world.

Whose job is this ministry?It is first and foremost the ministry of the laity.
Kens’ job is not to do the ministry.
It is to inspire, encourage, and if necessary nag
you to do the ministry.

If Ken does something for a hurting person,
he has served that person.
But if he gets you to do it,
he has served you both, because you will be the better for it.
You will have passed on the grace you have received,
thereby opening your heart to receive new and stronger grace.

This ministry can take many forms.
Broadly speaking, it takes acts of mercy and words of advocacy.
It should be both local and global.
It should be an investment
of both your time and your money.
But the specific mission projects are up to you to discern.

Ken has already begun making connections between St. Paul’s
and the local Communities in Schools program.
He is doing this because it is simply not acceptable that only 44%
of our children graduate from high school.

We can argue about whether or to what extent
any particular adult is responsible
for their own poverty
– but there is no room for argument when it comes
to children without shoes in September or coats in November,
children who go hungry on the weekends,
children who have no one to read them stories
or help them learn to read.
A deacon can lead St. Paul’s into being Elkos’ premier church
that cares about the children.
Ken has connected St. Paul’s with Bread for the World
-- that’s a voice of advocacy to alleviate hunger
and disease around the world in the name of Jesus.
Human nature is to take care of our own.
But Christian nature is care for all God’s children,
including the ones dying of malaria
whose lives could be saved by a $12 mosquito net.

Ken’s job is to find the needs of the world
because those are the places open to grace.
He is to find world’s wounds and bring them
to you for healing.

The holy shape of the church,
the mission of the church
depends on a team.
The best quarterback in the NFL can’t win
if the line doesn’t block and the receivers
don’t receive.

Mission in the world depends on a complete team
with players in each position.
The mission will fail without
Christian education programs, fellowship,
stewardship, evangelism, hospitality, preaching,
and pastoral care.
People cannot give what they have not received.
Your ministries to each other are the foundation
for your mission in the world.

You already have a lot of that going at St. Paul’s.
You have a lay pastoral care team.
You have good inquirer’s classes – and more.
That’s a great start but it is only a start.

We move forward by equipping
more and more people
to lead more and more ministries.
When we are not moving forward,
time will drag us backward.

Today is the beginning of new stage of the journey into mission.
It will be an exciting journey.
You have had a long history of good ministry here,
but all of that was just the forerunner
to the best ministry.
It isn’t here yet, but it is coming.
And today is a milestone on the way.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Priest Sermon 3

Ordination.Priesthood.09.St. Peter’s
Ordination is one of our sacraments.
Sacrament means God happening inside matter.
God happens in the bread and wine of Communion.
God happens in the water of Baptism.

It isn’t magic.
It isn’t that God is suddenly in a place where God wasn’t
until we conjure God up with the right words.
It’s that God manifests, becomes more palpable.
In the sacrament we notice God happening.
We pay attention.

In each sacrament, we see God happening in a different way.
So what are we looking for in ordination?
We are looking for something in Victoria
that is already there, has always been there,
but now it is going to manifest.

It is going to become more apparent
and we are going to pay attention
because it’s something we need to see.
But what is it?
Is she going to become more prayerful, more pious,
more serene, more wise?

It is important to know what we are looking for in a priest.
The people who look for too much,
are eventually disappointed,
and wind up expecting too little.
Some of us look for too little; so we miss a revelation.
For some odd reason I do not understand,
the people who start out looking for too little,
wind up expecting too much.

Some of us have gotten mixed up about Total Ministry.
It doesn’t mean expecting less of a priest.
It means expecting more of the laity and the deacons.

So what shall we expect of Victoria?
I have every confidence that she will continue
to grow in all the Christian virtues
– but she will not be suddenly perfected in them
when she changes her stole;
nor will she grow in the Christian virtues
any faster than the rest of the congregation;
nor is there any reason to believe she will be
more spiritual, more moral, or less squierrely
than the rest of us.

In all of these things,
she remains a Christian among Christians
muddling along as we all do.

The special grace we seen in the priest is her dedication
to a specific way of serving God and God’s people.
The best way I know to describe this ministry
is a certain metaphor.
I have been cautioned it’s a risky metaphor to use
in ordaining a woman,
but given Victoria’s successful career
in a field that used to be an old boy’s club,
I think I can risk it.

A priest, any priest, man or woman, is a homemaker.
In fact, most of the principles for priestly leadership
can be found in Better Homes and Gardens.
God is our true home.
God happens in the priest as one who makes a home for others.

Homer’s Odyssey still speaks to our hearts thousands of years
after he first sang it because it is the story of a man
whose single minded purpose is to go home.
Home is where we belong.
It may not be the town in which we grew up.
I never belonged in the town where I grew up.
I don’t know that I have ever been home.
I remember that line from Rocky Mountain High
about a man
“coming home to a place he’d never been before.”
I’m still hoping for that.

Our hearts need a place we know we will be accepted.
Remember Robert Frost said,
“Home is the place that when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.”
There’s such security and such strength
in knowing you have somewhere to go.

Do you remember in the movie An Officer And A Gentleman,
when the drill sergeant finally breaks through
Officer Candidate Zach Mayo’s tough exterior.
He is pushing Zach to drop out when Zach admits his desperation,
“I’ve got no place to go.”
He had to make it in the Navy because he needed it to be his home.
We need a place where we know they’ll take us in.

And we need a place to rest.
All the motion and commotion of our daily activity
drain our energy, our joy, our taste for life.
We need to find our still point, like a rolling stone
finding its angle of repose.

St. Augustine prayed,
“O Lord . . . our hearts are restless until we rest in thee.”
Our spiritual home is resting in God.
The church is our sacrament of homecoming.
The church is where we meet God as home.

The special ministry of the priest is to lead, guide,
encourage the people who are the church
to be a home for each other,
and to be a home to all the spiritually homeless folks
outside our walls.

Some of you may know the song by Chantal Kreviazuk,
Feels Like Home To Me.
You may have heard it performed by Bonnie Rait
or Linda Ronstadt.
It’s a love song using this image of home.
My favorite part goes:
A window breaks down the street
And a siren wails over my head.
But I’m alright cause you are here with me
And I can almost see through the dark there’s a light.

If you knew how lonely life has been
If you knew how I’ve wanted someone . . . .
To change my life the way you’ve done.
Feels like home to me . . . .
Feels like I’m on my way back to where I come from.

The church is a spiritual home, and it is an entry way
to our ultimate home in God.
We invite people here because they need
to be here.
They need someone with them
when the window breaks and the siren wails.
We all need that.

Where I grew up, the word “hospitality” connoted trivial,
superficial manners toward guests.
But in the Ancient World of the Bible,
hospitality was the highest moral obligation.

Benedictine monks made the practice of hospitality
the centerpiece of their spiritual discipline.
Just so, the priest has the special ministry of hospitality,
of shaping the church into a home for the spiritually homeless.
This is a hard ministry.

It goes against the grain,
against the way of our inhospitable world;
Churches are not automatically hospitable.
To practice radical hospitality takes courage, patience,
faith, compassion – a whole complex of virtues.

Everything in the church – it’s architecture, its music,
the classes it does or does not teach,
and who it allows to teach them –
the way we include children on worship – or not
-- everything the church does is an opportunity
to let someone in or keep someone out.

Churches are not automatically safe places to be yourself.
The cruelest acts of exclusion I have ever seen have been in churches.
But the most unexpected, wonderful and downright miraculous
acts of inclusion I have ever seen have been in churches.
Sometimes we get it right.

The priest’s ministry is to make this place a home –
a home for those who have been here all their lives,
and a home for the stranger at the door.

There is homesickness in our nation, especially in our state.
People are dying of it – dying spiritually and even physically.
They need someone to keep the porch light on
and the hearth warm.

Let this church be a home to wayfarers and strangers
for we are all wayfarers and in our inmost hearts,
we are forever strangers in the world.
Let this church be a home.
And it will be richly blessed.
For in welcoming each other,
we will build ourselves a home in God.

Faith and Fear in Ambiguous Situations

Proper 8a.09.Holy Trinity/St. Alban’s
The first Christian theologians taught
that each passage from Scripture
has several levels of meaning.
You can read the lesson
first, as a literal historical account;
second, as a story with a moral point
telling us something about how to be human;
third, as a story with a spiritual point
telling us something about God;
and finally, as a story with an ecclesiastical point,
telling us how to be the Church.

I believe the key is to start with the story,
then get on to the other meanings.
It’s not good to put the cart before the horse.
Here’s what I mean.
Sometimes, we think we are reading the literal historical story,
but we aren’t.
We start with a theological assumption,
and twist the story in our minds to make it fit.

If we start with the theology and make the facts fit,
we may miss the actual facts and get the theology wrong.

Take today’s lesson.
It seems to be the story of resuscitating a dead child.
But is it really?
When Jesus raised the dead son of the Widow of Nain,
the young man was decidedly dead.
It says so right there on the face of the story. Luke 7: 12.
“A dead man was being carried out ….”
V. 15 “and the dead man sat up . . . .”
That’s resuscitation.

When Jesus raised Lazarus, Lazarus was definitely dead.
John chapter 11 verse 14, “Jesus put it plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead.’”

But in this story, Mark never says Jairus’ daughter is dead.
Jesus explicitly states, “She is not dead, but sleeping.”
We hear from some messengers,
“Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher further?”

But Jesus said to Jairus, “Do not fear. Only believe.”
And he went to where the little girl was.
When he got there, he found a big commotion of grief.
But Jesus told them to cut it out.
“The girl is not dead, just sleeping,” he said.
But they wouldn’t hear it.
They had death stuck in their hearts.
So they went on wailing.

Jesus shook his head – “What can you do with such people?”
– went inside and woke the kid up.
Had she been dead, in a coma, or suffering from narcolepsy?
The folks outside the house said she was dead.
Jesus said she was not dead, but sleeping.
Who are we to believe?

When there’s a difference of opinion in Scripture,
and Jesus has taken a side,
I usually like to go with Jesus.
So let’s assume this child was not dead,
but she was pretty bad off and she was unconscious.
That’s enough to put any parent in a panic.
Sometimes we assume the worst, or just fear the worst.
That’s how it was for Jairus and his family.
They were in an ambiguous situation and they were afraid.
But Jesus said, “Do not fear. Only believe.”

That is a fair summary of Jesus’ teaching
about the proper attitude to take in life.
The commandment he gave most often was just this,
“Do not fear.”

In today’s lesson, he adds, “Only believe.”
Ok, but believe what.
We have gotten the word believe tied up with opinions.
I believe that the world is round, that 2 + 2 = 4;
and that parallel lines do not intersect.
But Jesus is using the word differently.
It’s not “I believe that.” It’s “I believe in.”
He means trust.
“Do not fear. Trust.”

We have come to the moral point of our story.
How shall we live? How do we dare to live a human life?
Answer: Do not fear. Only believe. Just trust.
There are a lot of ambiguous situations in life
– like this one where we don’t know if the girl is dead or alive.
There are a lot situations where we don’t know
how it’s going to turn out.
The future is unknown. We can’t see over the hill.

Every time we drive over a hill we can’t see past,
we have to trust there is a road on the other side.
I suppose we could stop, get out, and walk slowly up to the top
of each rise in the road and take a look.
But that would be a pretty tedious drive.

Some folks get through life just that fearfully
and their lives are just that tedious.
But that isn’t the Christian life.
We live more boldly.
We live boldly because we trust God.
That’s the moral point.

But the moral point of our story depends on the spiritual point.
How can we trust God if we can’t see God?
Answer: We have seen Jesus.
Jesus shows us God and he shows us a God
we can believe in, a God we can trust

That doesn’t mean nothing bad will ever happen.
It doesn’t mean we won’t ever get hurt.
It’s during the bad times we need those words of Jesus,
“Do not fear. Only believe.”

What do we believe?
We believe in Jesus. We trust in Jesus.
We trust him because he has been to the cross too.
Whenever our life comes to a suffering like the cross,
he goes there with us.

And he doesn’t just go there so we will have company.
He goes into the tomb with us so he can raise us up.
He raises us up from the tomb of despair day after day.
And he will raise us up from our last tomb on the last day.

That’s the spiritual point of our lesson.
This lesson shows us who God is.
It shows us a God who doesn’t panic, or fall into despair
or lose himself in grief.
He walks into the room of our grief,
calmly and kindly, to say, “Rise up.”

And this brings us to the ecclesiastical point.
We know who God is because we have seen Jesus.
But, in times of stress, we tend to forget.
We tend to panic.
That’s when we need the Church to remember for us.

It’s very hard to walk calmly to the exit
when you are in a crowd that is stampeding.
We need a faith community, a community that walks calmly.
We need that kind of community
because our individual faith is apt to falter.
But the Church remembers.
The Church’s remembrance is called anamnesis.
That’s part of the Eucharistic Prayer.

Each and every time we celebrate the Eucharist,
we tell the old, old story.
We remember who God is
and what he has done for us.

“Do this in remembrance of me,” Jesus said.
He didn’t say that because he had an ego need
to leave a legacy or be a legend.
He wanted us to remember him so that we would not fear,
but only believe.

So remember Jesus, brothers and sisters.
When life is hard, and death is at our door,
when despair is at our side and hope seems lost,
remember Jesus, do not fear, only believe.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Exile Is Over

Proper 3a.08.Epiphany
Our first lesson is about the Exile.
Two prophets, Hananiah and Jeremiah,
agree the exile is about over.
Later, they get into a spat about
just how soon it will be over.

Actually they were both wrong about the dates
– but they were both right about the main point:
the Exile was coming to an end,
and it was time for the home folks in Jerusalem
to turn on the porch light and put out the welcome mat.

The context: In 598 BCE,
Babylon conquered Judah and took
the entire leadership class of Judah,
away from their homeland into captivity.

The prophet Ezekiel gave that historical fact
a spiritual interpretation.
He had a vision in which he saw the Spirit of God
rise up from the Jerusalem Temple like a mist,
float away from Judah, and come to rest over Babylon.

It was not just the people of Judah who were gone.
God’s Spirit was gone too. It left with the exiles.
And we can see evidence of that.
During the Babylonian exile,
Judaism grew up.
It went from a tribal religion sacrificing goats
to win the favor of a war God,
to a world religion of deep spirituality
and profound social ethics.

Those things were already part of Judaism,
but during the Exile,
they took root like Sequoia seedlings
after a forest fire.

The Jews grew in exile.
They learned from another culture,
learned from another religion.
But that kind of growth can only go so far.
Eventually, it was time to go home.

Through Jeremiah, God said,
“I will fulfill my promise . . . and bring you back
to this place . . . .
I will bring you back from the place
from which I sent you into exile.”
And that’s what happened.
After 48 years, God and God’s people came home.

The Exile story may be like some of our lives.
We may have left home spiritually,
wandered in some Babylon or another,
then come back with new wisdom and insight.

In fact, the Exile really is the story
of Christianity in the past half century.
Just as Judaism had become complacent and lackadaisical
before the Exile,
Christianity in the 1950’s degenerated into
an all too respectable Churchiainity
- Beaver Cleaver’s family at prayer.

Some Christians had authentic faith back then,
but there was also a lot of cultural religion
that didn’t go very deep.
So people with a genuine spiritual hunger, in the coming decades,
often looked outside the Church
to find the Spirit.

Sociologist Robert Wuthnow says, in that time,
the basic metaphor changed from the “church home”
to the “spiritual journey.”
In 1948, Thomas Merton’s autobiography smugly described
how he had found all the spiritual answers
in a cloistered Catholic monastery.
But in 1968, Merton was tramping around
India, Thailand, and Burma studying Buddhism.

Countless honest sincere God-seekers
left the Church to look for God.
Theologians from Dietrich Bonheoffer to Harvey Cox
said religion had lost its flavor.

Just like in Ezekiel’s vision,
the Spirit had left the Temple,
and some of our best people went with it.
They have been wandering in Exile
from one Babylon to another for a long time now.
But I am here to say, the Exile is coming to an end.

My family is an example.
My daughters both had their Wiccan phases.
As teenagers they told me that they were now Wiccans,
so I went to Barnes & Noble and bought $250 worth
of books on witchcraft, and said,
“If you are going to be witches,
be good ones.”

I do not know what cut short their neo-pagan paths.
It may have been my reading list was too long,
or it may have been their encounters with poison ivy
in the woods where the wiccans did whatever it is they do.
All I know is:
they and their families are back in the Episcopal Church
- one at an edgy, drum-beating creative parish;
- the other at a historic traditionalist parish.

Is that a predictable change for their stage of life? Maybe.
But other odd things are happening.
Ann Rice, queen of the vampire novelists,
is now writing the life of Jesus.
Her books are, by the way, excellent.

Stranger still, pierced, tattooed, urban 20 year olds,
who would have been Goths or perhaps Grunge in the 90’s,
are now showing up for Rite One Morning Prayer.
People who left the Church to become Tibetan Buddhists
are hearing His Holiness the Dalai Lama say
“Go home. You need Jesus”
- and they are doing it.

Others who left the Church to practice Zen
are hearing Tich Nhat Hahn say,
“Go home. You need Jesus”
- and they are doing it.

The returning exiles have learned much on their journeys.
They aren’t rejecting what they have learned.
They call themselves “Christian pluralists.”
They still chant mantras, do yoga asanas,
and work with transpersonal psychologists
and Jungian analysts.
But the Christian tradition offers something unique
their souls need if they going to
to become balanced and whole.

We have the mystical soul shaping rituals
of our ancient archetypal liturgy.
“Praying shapes believing,” we say.
And it is true.
This worship we do doesn’t always churn our passions,
but it forms our will at a deep level.

We have private spiritual practices
honed and refined over the centuries:
centering prayer, lectio divina, the rosary,
contemplation of icons, the Ignatian exercises,
and the Jesus prayer -- just to name a few.

Our blend of corporate prayer and sacraments
with individual spiritual practices
balances our need for deep community
with our need to meet God in our own unique way.

And we have our own form of karma yoga.
We call it the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.
We serve the suffering and advocate for justice
not as a politically correct position
but as a spiritual practice.

Through the corporal and spiritual acts of mercy,
we are transformed ourselves,
and the world around us shares in our transformation.

That is why the Exiles are coming home.
But the question is: will there be a home waiting for them?
It cannot be the old “church home” of the 1950s.
It would not have a clue what to do with these folks.

It must be a 21st Century Temple
open to the new pluralism,
a house of prayer for all people,
a place that delights in the diversity
of human beings and their sometimes odd ideas,
a place where thoughts are free
and hearts can sing new songs.

It must be a place eager to welcome all manner of new people
to join the family, living and growing here with us,
and equally willing to be an oasis, a way station,
for pilgrims, seekers, and sojourners
who are just passing through,
but need a place to rest and drink from Jacob’s well.

So the question today, Sisters and Brothers, is to you.
Will you, the good people of Epiphany,
be that place of spiritual transformation
for the Exiles in Henderson?

Will you really proclaim out loud
by word and example
the good news of God in Christ?
Not will you go through the motions --
but will you celebrate the sacraments
in a way that gives hope to those
who so desperately need it?
Will you serve the suffering and stand up
for the despised and the outcasts?

I believe you will.
And the Diocese of Nevada believes you will.
This Diocese believes in you.
Even more, we believe in what God
is doing here among you.

We believe you will be a house of prayer for all people,
that you will embrace the exiles
not with cheap grace
but a strenuous life of soul shaping
Christian spiritual practice.

That is why the Standing Committee has promised
to underwrite the cost of doubling your worship space
in the very near future.

Do you know what this means?
We are committing thousands of dollars
to your ministry here at Epiphany
because the Exile is over.

The Exile is over. Thanks be to God.
Let us roll up our sleeves for the mission
which will be our joy and God’s glory.
Alleluia. Amen.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

A Small Rant Against Pop Spirituality

Proper 6b.Trinity.Reno
Virtually everything Jesus said or did
was meant to show that the Kingdom is as near to us as our next breath, and that’s good news.
But he never said exactly what the Kingdom is.
He couldn’t say what it is because it’s a mystery
– something beyond the reach of our mind.
So Jesus would say the Kingdom is like this in one way,
and it is like that in another way.

When we piece together all of Jesus’ teachings,
we can tell a few things about the Kingdom.
First, it isn’t where we go when we die.
I’m not saying we don’t go to heaven.
I’m just saying life after death isn’t what Jesus means
by the Kingdom.
It’s not about the afterlife.

The Kingdom is a radically different social, economic, and political order.
But it is also a different orientation of the heart.
And the two go together.
For Jesus, social justice and spirituality go hand in hand.
You can’t do one without the other.

Today I want to focus on the spirituality side of it.
The Kingdom is a spiritual state in which we don’t obey God
out of fear of punishment or hope for reward.
We don’t obey God because we want to keep our conscience clean,
feel good about ourselves, and get a good night’s sleep.

Being in the Kingdom means we do the will of God spontaneously.
Our wills are aligned with the will of God.
Our heart beat is synchronized with the heart of God.
And we find ourselves in harmony with the universe.

But how do we get there?
There are so many products for sale in the spiritual supermarket,
all promising to put us in the groove.
40 days of purpose; 7 habits of highly effective people;
this meditation; that prayer retreat; primal scream,
baptism in the Spirit, born again experience.
There are more spiritual concoctions on the market
than pharmaceuticals on the shelves.

Spirituality is big business.
Not many people are religious anymore,
but everyone is spiritual.
It was all foretold by the 1960’s rock and roll prophet Joe South.
Some of you may remember his lyrics,
“People walkin’ up to ya
Shoutin’ glory hallelujah
While they try to sock it to ya
In the name of the Lord.

They’ll teach your how to meditate
Read your horoscope and cheat your fate . . .” and so on.

All these spiritual techniques have their good points.
A lot of them can be helpful.
But there’s also something about them a little off kilter.
It’s a certain self-centeredness.
Do you know any of those really spiritual people
who are always so serene
and they smile at you in that patronizing way,
you just want to hit them?

There is something pretentious about a lot of spirituality.
Whether it’s ancient Eastern spirituality or New Age spirituality
or Christian spirituality, it doesn’t quite ring true
when we are too focused on it,
when it gets to be about our experience
or how enlightened or integrated or whatever it is
we have become.
So look what Jesus says in today’s lesson.
“The Kingdom of God is as if someone scattered seed on the ground
and would sleep and rise night and day,
and the seed would sprout and grow.
He does not know how.”

I love that last line, “He does not know how.”
The Kingdom of God is as if someone scattered seed on the ground.
He didn’t even plant it. He didn’t plow first. He didn’t fertilize.

He just scattered some seed -- then forgot it
and went about his business.
One day, he looked back and darned if it hadn’t
sprouted up into a crop. Go figure.
He did not know how.

When I was young I used to want a spiritual technology.
Eat this. Don’t eat that. Recite this prayer.
Stand on your head. Breathe in one nostril and out the other.
Do it for three months and you’ll be in some sort of state.
And you can do that, but it isn’t the Kingdom.
It’s your own personal accomplishment.
You can brag about it to your friends.
That’s how you know it isn’t the Kingdom.

Now I’m not against spiritual practices and disciplines.
Some of them are quite helpful. I still do a few myself.
They lower the blood pressure
and make me more patient with priests.

But Jesus is talking about something God does in our lives.
We can’t manufacture it.
We can’t conjure it up with the right techniques.

All we can do is scatter the seed.
Now I don’t honestly know what that means.
It could mean read a little Bible, say a few prayers,
do an act of kindness once in awhile.
From what I’ve seen watching spiritual lives for a few decades,
that looks to me like the kind of thing
that can pop up into a crop.
But you can’t do those things to make something happen.
You just do them, then get on with your business.

Live an ordinary life.
Get your children ready for school. Go to work.
Clean out the gutters on your roof.

And while you are not looking,
the Kingdom of God will sprout up in your life.
How does that work? We don’t know.
We don’t know because we don’t do it.
God does it. It’s a gift.

Let me borrow a story from Zen teacher. He said:
A man was in his living room, sitting in lotus position,
meditating on his breath.
He heard his wife in the kitchen doing dishes,
and he thought, “She is not practicing Zen.”
But, the teacher said, it was the wife, not the husband,
who was practicing Zen.

Just so in Christianity,
we can do our spiritual practices and disciplines.
They have their place.
But the Kingdom of God is not something we can build.
It sneaks up on us when we are not looking for it.
The point is to stop trying to be spiritual superstars.
“What does the Lord require of thee?”
Only this: “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”
Then just be in this world and let God do what he will in your life.
God is pretty good at what he does. So let him do it.
Meister Eckhart said,
“All God asks is that you get out of the way
and let God be God in you.”

The top of the line spiritual experience
in Catholic Christianity is a vision of the Virgin Mary.
St. Theresa of Avila was abbess of convent.
One night a nun came to see her in great joy
saying, “Reverend Mother I have seen a vision
of the Blessed Virgin.”
St. Theresa responded, “Just keep praying. It will go away.”

I sometimes go on retreat at a Carmelite hermitage
that has a sign at the entrance.
It says, “No fuss.”
“No fuss.” Just live and let God live in you.

God really is quite good at life.
We don’t have to do anything special.

We can live the most ordinary life you can imagine
but if God is in it, that life will be sacred – truly sacred
in the deepest, most genuine way.
No fuss, just holy.