Monday, November 15, 2010

Writing The St. Stephen's Story

Speaking on this occasion is beyond me.
Thankfully, this is just one of three sermons for your closing
– Fr. Joe last week; me today; Fr. Rick next week.
Out of our three perspectives, you may glean some material
to use in crafting your own perspective
– which, after all, is the only one that matters.

Most of you probably remember Joni Mitchell’s song, “The Circle Game.”
It’s about an innocent child catching dragon flies.
He becomes a pre-teen when “promises of someday make his dreams,”
then a teenager, then a young adult
– and that’s as far a Joni was able to tell the story
because she was only 25 at the time she wrote it.

There’s a poignant sadness in those lyrics
as the passing of each stage is a loss.
The chorus insists four times,
“We can’t return. We can only look behind
From where we came.”//

There’s regret in that.
I want to return, to go back.
Surely you must want to go back too.
We miss our past, our youth, the good times
– even when they were not entirely good
– but good or bad, they were our times.
The children of Israel even wanted to go back to Egypt.
Knowing “we can’t return; we can only look behind
from where we came” – that’s a grief.

There’s also hope in the lyrics.
After acknowledging that the boy’s
“dreams have lost some grandeur coming true,”
she adds this promise,
“there’ll be new dreams, maybe better dreams and plenty.”

That is also true.
As Christians we live by that hope.
We have heard God’s promise in the words of Jeremiah,
“I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord,
plans for your good and not evil.”
We know that God brings life out of death,
and hope out of despair.
We know that.
But we also want to go back.
We love the place we have been.
It does no good to deny it.
We are losing something precious.

I have known St. Stephen’s for only three years.
But I mourn this passing.
People all over this diocese from Ely to Tahoe
and down in Las Vegas are saddened.
I can only imagine what it must be like for you
who have lived in this family, who have loved this family,
and who have devoted so much of yourselves
to sustaining it all these years.

So I acknowledge your grief.
It is not only right; it is inevitable, that you should grieve.
I cannot and would not try to deny your grief or to foreshorten it.
Grief has its own integrity which must be honored.

Brothers and sisters, I won’t tell you how to feel.
Don’t let anyone tell you how to feel.
You must feel what you feel.
This is your church and your life.

But there must be more than feeling.
Great change calls for reflection.
It calls for finding the meaning in things.
In this case, it is necessary to find two thing kinds of meaning:
First, you must discern the value of St. Stephen’s life.
Second, you must discern the St. Stephen’s legacy.

First let’s reflect upon St. Stephen’s life.
What has transpired here matters. It counts.
You must tell this story in a way that has a point.

I have sometimes heard your story told
in a way that focused on your traumas.
Every life has traumas and they are part of your story.
How you dealt with them then and deal with them now
is part of the meaning.

I have sometimes heard your story told
with a focus on mistakes that were made.
Every life has mistakes.
What we learn from our mistakes
is part of the meaning.

But, wiht my own eyes, I have seen you rejoice.
I have seen you worship.
I have seen you pray.
I have seen you serve the outcast in Jesus’ name.
You have borne the Christ light for each other
and for people outside these walls.
God has been here.
I feel in your presence, I feel at this altar,
that God has been here
in your light and in your darkness.

This story is yours to write – not mine.
But I implore you not to write too readily
the story of a victim
or the story of a mistake.
When the gospel has been proclaimed
and the sacraments of life shared,
that is a story deserving of respect.

I implore you to be faithful to who you have been.
I implore you, as a gospel people,
to write your story as gospel,
as a chapter in God’s epic of good news.

A voice in your heart may whisper,
“If it was so great, then why isn’t it continuing?
We must have done something wrong.”

We like to think that way.
We like to think there is some magic formula
that will make things last forever.
It’s our way of denying mortality.
But the 2nd Noble Truth of the Buddha
and the entire Gospel of Luke insist that it isn’t so.

We arise out of the universe without cause
other than God’s mysterious will.
Then we dissolve and reconfigure in new forms,
all in the mystical providence of God.

St. Stephen’s has lived for a purpose, God’s purpose.
If St. Stephen’s passes away,
does that mean you have failed in your purpose?
Has God failed?
Or has the mission perhaps been accomplished
to the extent that it can be accomplished in this form
– and is it now time to regroup
in order to continue God’s mission in a new way?

These are questions for you to answer – not me.
But I have not noticed that the good live longer than the evil.
Billy Joel tells us “only the good die young.”
I don’t know about that, but the good do die, sometimes young.
The difference is that the good are also resurrected.

I hope when you write the St. Stephen’s story in your memories,
it will be a story to cherish, to hold fondly,
and to tell to others with love -- and not regret.

The second way to find meaning in the midst of this pain
takes both reflection on the past
and imagination about the future.
This part is determining the St. Stephen’s legacy.
Did your prayers, your study of wisdom, your works of mercy
have any lasting value?
Is it all up in smoke? Was it all for nothing?

Or did you create something that will endure
– perhaps something not of bricks and mortar
– but of the spirit?
Is something being buried here?
Or is something being set loose?
Has something been longing to transcend
its old structure to become beautiful in a new way?

As Joni Mitchell said in Both Sides Now,
“something’s lost and something’s gained
in living every day.”
We know what is being lost.
It takes spiritual imagination to see
what is being gained.
I urge you to engage your spiritual imagination.
You may not be ready yet. That’s ok.
But when you are ready, engage your spiritual imagination,
and follow as best you can the adage of Gordon Lightfoot,
“If you’re going to face tomorrow, do it soon.”

It isn’t a betrayal of the past to embrace a future
to which the past has given birth.
The future is the child of the past,
and it gives the past its lasting value.
Look within your hearts and ask
“How am I better today because I was part of St. Stephen’s?
What will I do tomorrow to honor what I learned at St. Stephen’s?”

There is a close tie between these two reflections.
The meaning you find in St. Stephen’s life
is the key to the legacy you will make for St. Stephen’s.
If you tell a story of traumas and mistakes,
that’s the kind of legacy you will carry forward.
But if you find joy and grace in St. Stephen’s life,
that’s the kind of legacy you will share with the Church
and the world.

Brothers and sisters, I thank you and I honor you
for all you have done here so faithfully and for so long.
I have more than confidence,
I have a “sure and certain hope in the resurrection”
of St. Stephen’s spirit in many places and many ways,
for generations yet to come.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Sanctity And Underwear Reform In The Middle Ages

Today we celebrate all the saints.
But who and what are saints?
St. Jerome, a 5th Century theologian,
translated the Bible from Greek into Latin.
He was a bad theologian and a questionable translator.
He surrounded himself with women whom he constantly maligned,
both personally and theologically.
But it is said he once removed a thorn form the paw of lion,
to the lion and he became good friends.
That probably gives him a better claim
to being the patron saint of animals
than St. Francis who merely preached to birds.

Sts. Sergius and Bacchus were officers in the Roman army.
They were favorites of Emperor Maximian,
until they admitted they were Christians.
Then Maximian forced them to parade through the streets in drag,
and eventually had them executed.
Speaking of being in drag, there’s the 4th Century St. Pelagia.
Before her conversion, Pelagia was an exotic dancer
with the stage name of Pearl.
After her conversion, she changed her name to its male form, Pelagius,
dressed as a man, and lived in Jerusalem as a monk.

3rd Century St. Calistus began life as a slave,
then after his emancipation became a professional thief.
Later he became the Pope, and ordered that penitent sinners,
Including murderers, were welcome in the Church.

St. Odo of Cluny was a 10th Century monk.
He suffered from severe headaches,
but was nonetheless able to institute
many important church reforms – not the least of which was
requiring monks to wash their underwear every Saturday.

So what makes a saint?
Some were notably kind, good, and generous.
Others, not so much.
Some were smart – like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.
Others not so smart.
Some, like Joan of Arc, did great things that shaped history.
Othrs, like St. Jean-Baptiste Vianney lived simple lives
far removed from the world’s great affairs.

Saints are not necessarily moral heroes who got it right.
Many of them were deeply flawed.
Some were downright nuts.
So why do we canonize them, celebrate them,
devote special days to their commemoration?

The saints are a communion of sanctified humanity.
Let’s look at each of those three terms
– communion, sanctified, and humanity
– starting with humanity.
Being human gives us the ability to imagine and create,
to love and appreciate beauty,
to remember and to dream.
But those good gifts come along with vulnerability
to all sorts of flaws and foibles.
Humanity is, to use Bishop Tutu’s word, “untidy.”
It’s complicated. It’s fraught with ambiguities and contradictions.
People are not consistent. Frankly, we are pretty squirrely.

Most people are sometimes happy.
All people sometimes suffer.
We know all about loneliness and anxiety.
We all have death looking over our shoulder.
We all want to be special,
and most of us are afraid we are not.
This is the stuff of being human.

Now what might make this humanity sanctified
and still be human?
Something is sanctified if it’s dedicated to God.
A cup is just a cup, until we set it aside to use
as the chalice for Holy Communion.
No matter how ordinary it is – be it chipped, bent, or misshapen –
once dedicated to this sacred purpose, it is a sanctified chalice.
Another cup may be exquisitely crafted silver,
but if it’s used for any old purpose, it isn’t sanctified.

The saints are just people as holy chalices are just cups,
but saints are dedicated to God.
The saints of history just lived the best they could, as we all do.
When they did well, it was for God.
When they did poorly, that was for God too.

The old saying goes, “God carves the rotten wood.
He rides the lame horse.”
We do our best – then God uses our faults as well as our virtues
as channels of grace.
The quirkiness and even sinfulness of the saints
is proof of God’s readiness to work
with whatever we have to offer.

Finally, what makes all these sanctified sinners into a communion?
Being a communion means belonging to God’s family.
It means acknowledging that we already belong to the human family,
and are willing to associate with an especially mixed up batch
of humanity called the church.

St. Jerome, the woman hating celibate scholar,
and St. Pelagia, the exotic dancer,
were, no doubt, surprised to find themselves
in the same family.

The Church isn’t a club of nice people who all think alike.
It isn’t a bunch of people who agree about everything.
It’s a family.
Sometimes we are proud of our family.
Sometimes people in our family embarrass us.
Being family doesn’t mean approving of people.
It means belonging to them.

We join this family through baptism.
We renew our commitment to it every Sunday
by gathering at the family table
to eat from one loaf and drink from one cup.

The communion of saints is a picture
of God’s quirky family.
We are human – together – with all the loneliness, vulnerability,
crankiness, and squirreliness that goes with being human.
We are sanctified together because we are all dedicated
to “one Lord, one Faith, one baptism, one God and Father over all.”
God has provided no way for anyone to be sanctified alone.
When we dedicate our lives to the one God,
those lives are joined at the deepest level
- the level of their reason to live.

Our purpose is to be a communion.
Our sanctification, our dedication to God,
consists precisely in our struggle to live together,
to share each other’s joys and sorrows,
to accept and even appreciate each other’s humanity.
As St. John of the Cross said,
“God has so ordained that we are sanctified
only through the frail instrumentality of each other.”

Lazarus & Mimetic Desire: Or Why Claude Raines And Humphrey Bogart Should Be Cast In This Gospel

Rene Girard is one of the most influential philosophers of our time;
but he started out as a teacher of literature.
He wrote about what was going on in Don Quixote.
Then he noticed the same thing going on in Tolstoy.
The he saw the same pattern in Shakespeare.
Girard eventually realized the reason the same thing
kept happening in all these novels and plays
is that it is what happens in real life.

It works like this: People don’t trust their own hearts
so we don’t know what we truly want.
Instead of feeling our own feelings, we copy the feelings of others.
We don’t know what we genuinely want
-- so we assume that what other people want is valuable
and try to get it.

We all act as if we want the same thing,
and that puts us in fierce competition with each other.
We hurt each other trying to get whatever it is that we think is valuable,
but then when we get it, it doesn’t make us happy.

Rene Girard started out as an atheist,
after he came to understand the cause of human unhappiness,
he saw that Christianity was the best answer.
Let’s see how Girard’s ideas play out in today’s Gospel lesson.

Zacchaeus was a tax collector – the chief tax collector.
In those days, tax collectors got paid on a commission basis,
so they were pretty oppressive.
As the chief tax collector, Zacchaeus was the most oppressive of all;
so the Bible says, “he was rich.”

Now what motivated Zacchaeus to become the chief tax collector?
Is it really obvious?
Did his commissions make him happy?
His wealth had not made him popular.
Tax collectors were universally hated
and it’s clear that the Jericho crowd despised our boy Zacchaeus.
So what did this quest for wealth do for him?

As the story unfolds, we begin to see how his mind worked.
Zacchaeus was desperate to see Jesus,
just to catch a glimpse of Jesus.
But why was that?
Does Zacchaeus strike you as a theologically curious guy?
Do you think he is a spiritual seeker?
Not very likely. The man is an avaricious tax collector.
He’s been doing it long enough to work his way to the top.
That’s not the sort of fellow who just goes spiritually curious.
What was his interest in Jesus?

Blind Bartimaeus sitting beside the road – him we understand.
He wanted his vision back.
The 10 lepers we read about a few weeks ago
calling out to Jesus – them we understand.
But why was Zacchaeus so desperate to see Jesus?

Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus
because the crowd wanted to see Jesus.
If a crowd has gathered, there must be something to see.
If they want to see it, then we want to see it, right?
But this crowd could see Jesus and Zacchaeus couldn’t.
That’s what made him crazy.

This was a competition.
He wanted it because they had it and he didn’t.
That’s what his whole life felt like
– always competing with the crowd
whether it was for money
or a glimpse of the celebrity.
That’s what made him run ahead of the others
and climb the sycamore tree.
It was his way to outsmart them, to win.

Jesus saw all this.
He knew what was going on.
Somehow he knew Zacchaeus’ name,
and apparently his heart.
Jesus knew Zacchaeus was a desperate man
who didn’t know what he wanted.
He was just competing with the crowd.

Most of us rarely recognize that we are such copycats.
But isn’t it true?
Don’t the movies and the magazines tell us
what constitutes a good looking person?
Don’t we want to drive what the cool people on tv
look so happy driving?

Don’t the advertising people tell us what to want
by persuading us that other people want it.
The other day I bought a tie.
I don’t wear ties much but I got one for the odd occasion.
The salesman was not a good salesman.
After I chose it, he said, “A lot of people wouldn’t go for that tie,”
and immediately I felt that I had made a mistake.
Whether I liked it didn’t matter.
It was the judgment of the crowd I cared about.

So there was Zacchaeus scrambling about like a fool
to see a celebrity he didn’t know
just because the crowd was cheering.
When Jesus saw the poor guy up a tree,
he did one of those absolutely Jesus things.
He did the odd thing that somehow flipped the situation around.

He said, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down,
for I must stay at your house today.”
And look what happened.
The crowd had thought Jesus was totally cool
until he befriended Zacchaeus.
After that, they weren’t so impressed with him anymore.
Jesus wanted the wrong thing
– friendship with someone who was unpopular,
even despised.

But Jesus didn’t care what they thought.
Jesus wouldn’t have cared whether a lot of people liked his tie or not.
He saw Zacchaeus and he valued him, called him a son of Abraham,
appreciated him for who he was.
Even though Zacchaeus didn’t know himself, Jesus knew him,
and claimed him as a friend.

Then look what happened.
Zacchaeus immediately gave away half his wealth
plus promised to repay everyone he had cheated 4-fold.
It looks like the money hadn’t made him all that happy
if he was so ready to part with it.
He didn’t need it anymore.

Jesus had given him something worth more
than all the money in Jericho.
By seeing him, by acknowledging him, by calling him by name,
Jesus gave Zacchaeus a sense of himself.
Jesus held up a mirror to Zacchaeus
and said, “Look, you exist. You matter. You are a son of Abraham.”
Now Zacchaeus wanted to be Jesus’ friend
Even though Jesus was no longer the hero of the crowd.
They went off to lunch alone because neither one of them was popular anymore.

The crowd called Zacchaeus a sinner.
Jesus just said Zacchaeus was lost and he was.
He had lost himself in trying to get what other people wanted.

This is the gift Jesus has for each of us.
He sees us as we are and values us for what we are.
We get lost in the copy cat wanting culture.
But Jesus finds us and gives us back our own hearts,
gives us back out own lives.