Monday, November 18, 2013


“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be afraid.”
Our gospel lesson is about a time Christians call “the tribulation.”
Jesus was thinking of the coming destruction of Judah
         by the Roman Empire – the one that happened in 66 A. D.

But his words have lived on for two thousand years,
         and have been applied to millions of tribulations.
Individually, I’ve had my tribulations,
         and I expect you’ve had yours.
As a society, we have some tribulation going on most years,
         and sometimes things are scarier than others.
The basic thing to know about tribulation is that it happens.
Count on them.
That’s what it says: “these things must happen first.”

The line in the Lord’s Prayer
we usually translate as “Lead us not into temptation.”
actually means “save us from the time of tribulation.”
It means: God help us. Get us through this. Deliver us from evil.

Jesus’ core message in today’s lesson is two simple points:
1.   Tribulations happen.
2.   When they happen, do not be afraid.
In fact the commandment Jesus gave his disciples
         more often than any other was this: do not be afraid.

This year in Jerusalem I bought a book by Martha Nussbaum,
         a fine Jewish philosopher and literary critic.
Ironically, I bought it in a Palestinian bookstore.
It’s called The New Religious Intolerance.
Nussbaum begins by noting that we are more afraid
than usual these days.
A lot of things are shaking us up.
Globalization is part of it.
Rapid technological and social change is another.
We are afraid of economic instability and war.
Migration is scaring everyone.
Sociological studies show that fear of immigrants
         is one of our biggest anxieties
--  not just in the United States, but all over the world.
Strangers make us nervous.
And, of course, there are terrorist whose modus operandi
         is to ratchet up fear.

Then Nussbaum says something profound
-- something that unlocks the code,
         that explains why Jesus’ most frequent commandment,
                  by far, was: do not be afraid.
She says: “Fear is the most narcissistic emotion.”
It sucks the consciousness right out of our frontal lobes
down into our reptilian brain stems
                  where all we can think about is saving ourselves
                  and a few folks nearest and dearest to us.

When we are in the grip of fear, Nussbaum says,
         we lose one of the mental abilities that make us human.
She calls it “participatory imagination.”
It’s related to empathy.
Participatory imagination is the ability to see the world
         through someone else’s eyes,
         to imaginatively walk a mile in their shoes.
In fear mode, we can make up reductionist stories about people,
         stories that portray them as two-dimensional caricatures.
But we can’t put ourselves in their place
         and imagine how the world looks to them.

Participatory imagination is a uniquely human capacity.
Without it, we have no capacity for relationship
         except with people who are just like us.
The narcissism of fear explains what Bill Bishop
         describes in his book The Big Sort.
Americans are fleeing from our historically diverse communities
         into smaller and smaller gated enclaves
         of people who look, think, and feel just like themselves.

The uniquely human capacity to see the world as other sees it,
         even to see ourselves as others see us,
         gives us a rich, complex view of things,
         and a wealth of vicarious life experiences
         from which we can glean wisdom.
But when fear strips us of that capacity for empathy,
         our world constricts.

When our arteries constrict, it shuts down life.
It’s the same with our souls.
Fear makes the soul small and cramped.
It chokes the life out of us.
And as we choke we get more and more afraid.

Today, we live in a time of heightened fear.
The airport P A systems remind us of that
         every time we catch a plane.
We live in an anxious time.
So did Jesus.
The terrorists and insurrectionists of his day
         were about to bring the wrath of Rome
down on the heads of the people.
So they were afraid.

That’s why Jesus’ favorite book of Scripture was Isaiah.
Isaiah is full of passages like today’s lesson.
I took up praying these lines every day
 during a personal tribulation a few years ago
and I’ve never stopped:
         “Surely it is God who saves me.
          I will trust in him and not be afraid.   
         For he is my stronghold and my sure defense
         and he will be my Savior.”

It was in Isaiah that the Lord said,
         “Fear not for I have redeemed you.
          I have called you by name.
         When you pass through the waters
                  I will be with you;
         (and) the rivers . . . will not overwhelm you;

When you pass through the fire,
                  it will not consume you.”

Or try this one:
         “Thus says the Lord, the Holy One of Israel,
         ‘In quietness and trust will be your strength,
         In returning and rest, you shall be saved.’”

Isaiah is all about the quiet, confident strength of faith.
Jesus learned that kind of faith from his mamma’s knee.
But don’t think he was naïve.
He didn’t say that nothing bad or scary would happen.
He said bad stuff would definitely happen.
For the nation, he said  that there will be wars,
insurrections, earth quakes
famines, and plagues.
For himself he foresaw the cross.

For his followers, he predicted,
“They will put some of you to death.”
Faith isn’t naïve denial.
There will be typhoons in the Philippines,
genocides in Rwanda and the Central African Republic,
and school shootings in Connecticut and Nevada.
Each of us will have our own private tribulations.
All the frailties of human life are ours.

Faith doesn’t pretend disasters don’t happen.
Faith is how we face them when they do.
Faith is trusting that God alone is eternal
         and that God loves us infinitely.
When the forces of evil, chaos, and destruction
have done their worst, God’s love is still there.
Even when we go to our grave,
         we go like Jesus trusting God to raise us up.
Have you experienced the difference that kind of faith
makes in your life?
Or can you imagine it?
It doesn’t mean we don’t feel fear.
But it does mean we don’t surrender to it.
We don’t surrender our capacity to see the world
         through someone else’s eyes – even through the eyes
                  of someone who scares us.
 It is that capacity – precisely that capacity –
         that can make us instruments of peace in a darkened world,
         channels of blessing in a forlorn place,
         agents of healing in a broken land.

Brothers and sisters I wish you faith,
         because faith will not only give you the strength
it takes to live this life,
it will enlarge your soul.

It will let life flow in your spiritual veins again.
But your faith isn’t just for your benefit.
Faith will make you a lover of this poor world
         that is dying for love.
It will set you free to shine God’s grace
         like sunlight in a darkened land.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013


It is very good to be back with you at St. Matthew’s.
I continue to be grateful for your faithful ministry.
Your deacons have been the ones most involved
         in our efforts to organize Nevadans for the Common Good.
You have taken up the work of Communities in Schools
         as well as any of our congregations, better than most.
You do good ministry here and I am grateful.

Something bothers me about today’s Gospel lesson.
It’s the way the folks who do the lectionary
         have separated this piece of the Gospel
                  from what came right before.
Taking it out of context has stripped the lesson
         of its point.
I think the Church may actually be hiding the point.
I intend to set that straight
But first, I want to tell you the story of my new friend,
         Pastor Theodis.
I met him this week at a training for community organizers.
Theodis grew up in a small rural community in Arkansas,
an innocent place to be a child.

But when he was a teenager, Theodis spent a summer
in Los Angeles.
There he got into all sorts of mischief
         that was just unavailable back home.
Today, we’d call it gang activity.
But his parents got him home and he straightened out.
He went to college on a football scholarship,
         and married a lovely upright woman
                  from a poor neighborhood in a Western city.

Today, Theodis is the pastor
of an evangelical African-American congregation
         in that poor neighborhood
                  where his wife grew up.
When they moved to her hometown,
they found the neighborhood
          torn apart by gang violence.

So Theodis set out to befriend the gangs.
Before long, he was having meetings of the gang leaders
         at the Church.
When the gang leaders got to know each other,
         they lost interest in killing each other.
Friendships formed.
After one year of this ministry,
         drive-by shootings went down by well over 40%.

You might think the police would have been happy.
But they weren’t.

They didn’t trust having a formidable African American man
         gathering gang leaders and teaching them to get along.
So instead of getting a medal, Pastor Theodis
has been in the cross hairs of law enforcement.
But he hasn’t stopped.
He believes this is what God called him to do.
He believes God put his church in the neighborhood they are
         for a reason – to serve that neighborhood.

Pastor Theodis said something I took to heart.
He said, “A church exists to support the community,
not to get the community to support the Church.”//

Now let’s talk about our Gospel lesson.
Right before the verses we read today
         is the passage where Jesus sees the widow
                  putting her last two cents into the collection.

Jesus is in the Temple.
He has just said:
         “Beware of the scribes . . . .
They devour widow’s houses  . . . 
and say long prayers.”
The next thing we hear is the story of the widow
         giving the Temple all she had to live on.
She gave all she had – for what purpose? –
         the upkeep of the Temple.

We usually like to preach on that for stewardship.
“Wasn’t that widow generous!
We should all do the same thing!!”

But what did Jesus think of the Temple
soaking a poor widow out of her livelihood?
He got up, walked out of the Temple,
         and pronounced God’s judgment on it.
“Not one stone shall be left upon another.”
God will not have a Temple built by bilking widows.
Jesus isn’t praising the widow’s generosity.
He’s saying she got ripped off by the religious establishment.
So God took the religious establishment down.

Let me be clear.
I love the Church.
I don’t love some abstract universal idea of the Church.
I love the real Church with its water bills to pay,
         it’s potluck’s to plan, and it’s budgets to meet.
I love the institutional church, organized religion,
         with services on Sunday and all that goes with it.

But we had better take warning from this lesson.
And we’d better listen close to Pastor Theodis.
“A church exists to support the community,
         not to get the community to support the Church.”

The Church is a good thing.
It’s a network of committed human relationships.
We take vows to be there for each other.
That’s a good thing.
But the Church, like most institutions,
         is prone to forget its purpose.
The Church is apt to forget its mission
         and get obsessed with its own survival.

Too often, the Church uses people.
We need someone to serve on the vestry,
         be the treasurer, head up building and grounds.
We need more pledges to meet the budget.
If we have children we need someone to teach Sunday School.
If we don’t have children, we need children to reassure us
         the Church will live on.

So we use people for our institutional agenda
         Instead of supporting them in their lives in Christ.
But what did Theodis say?
         “A church exists to support the community,
         not to get the community to support the Church.”

The Church is like the Sabbath.
Remember Jesus said “The Sabbath was made for people,
         not people for the Sabbath.”
Well the Church was made for people,
         not people for the Church.

Instead of looking at the ways we always do things
         and pressuring people into doing them,
         the Church’s job is to find out what people need
         and help them do those things for each other.
See the difference?
It isn’t about saving the Church, building the Church
 or growing the Church.
It’s about helping each other live
         fuller, happier, holier lives.

But we don’t just exist for the sake of those
         inside these walls.
 Archbishop William Temple said
         “The Church is the only organization that exists
                  for the benefit of its non-members.”
We are here for each other.
But we are also here for the world outside these walls.
We are here for our neighbors.

At first that sounds like a contradiction.
We think we have to decide whether we are here
         to be a mutual support group
                  or a servant to outsiders.

But the truth is those are two sides of the same coin.
When we engage our members in helping our non-members,
         it is good for both of them.
It is good for us to serve others, good for us to care
         about the whole community where we live.
It makes us more whole. It makes us more human.

Today’s Gospel challenges us to make sure
         that everything we do at Church,
         we do for people.
We don’t use people for our institutional agenda.

Monday, November 4, 2013


Today we reflect on and conclude a 3-day Autumnal festival
            about mortality, those who have gone before, and each other.
That kind of 3-day festival happens around the world in different cultures
            and different religions, but pretty much the same three days.
In Christianity, the first day is about evil and mortality.
We laugh at the scary stuff and play with it.
Halloween is a great victory of the frontal lobes
            where humor resides over the reptilian brain,
            which is the seat of fear.
That’s why fear based religions don’t like Halloween.

The next day, All Saints, we commemorate the Communion of All Saints.
The Saints are heroes of the faith, but they their heroism is rooted
in the Communion.
It is the network that valorizes them, not individual strengths.
Thomas Merton said, “The saints are saints not so much by virtue
            of their own sanctity as their capacity to appreciate the sanctity
                        of each other.
All Saints Day reminds us that in spite of our personal limitations,
         by virtue of being part of that communion,
          we are all capable of that kind of heroism.

The third day, we recognize that the Communion of All Saints
            is rooted in something larger and deeper,
                        the Communion of All Souls.
That is the connection based, not on heroic achievements,          
            but on our common humanity, characterized by
            mortality, frailty, brokenness, squierreliness,
                        and occasional obnoxiousness.

That brings us to the story of Thomas Merton.
When he was a young man,
            Merton 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 taking with his best friend, Sachs.
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
and authority issues.
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, tempestuous, and used dubious grammar.
Peter was unstable.
The list of saints includes masochists, misogynists, and misanthropes.
St. Bernard was a warmonger obsessed
            with destroying the career of Peter Abelard,
                        the greatest theologian of his time.

So what makes a saint?
One of the greatest novels of the 20th Century
            was The Holy Sinner by Thomas Mann.
It’s based on an epic poem from the 12th Century.
Mann tells the story of 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 Pope Gregory the Great.

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 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 was 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.

But look who we are following.
We are not following a Savior who leads us out of our human muddle.
We follow Jesus who joins the human muddle.
He “shared our human nature, lived and died as one of us.”
His way is not out of the human predicament but deeper in,
            because that’s where the love is.

It is our human limitation that makes compassion possible.
I want to share with you a few lines from Czeslaw Milosz’s poem,
            “In A Parish.”
It’s about the flawed people buried in a parish cemetery.
He writes,
            “Had I not been frail and half broken inside
                 I would not think of them, who are like myself half broken inside. . . . .
                 Crazy Sophies.
                  Michaels who lost every battle,    
                  Self-destructive Agathas
                   Lie under crosses with their dates of birth and death, And who
                   Is going to express them? 
                   Their mumblings, weepings, hopes, tears of humiliation ? . . .

The answer, of course, is: we will.
We can, not because of our strength but because of our weakness.
We share the crazy mixed up vulnerable state of being human.

And we share the vulnerable state of being mortal,
            which leads to a few verses of Ted Kooser’s poem, “The Mourners.”
Describing the conversation after a burial, he writes,

            “After the funeral, the mourners gather
            under the rustling churchyard maples
            and talk softly, like clusters of leaves . . .
            They came this afternoon to say goodbye,
            but now they keep saying hello and hello,
            peering into each other’s faces,
            slow to let go of each other’s hands.”

So today, this Holy Day, I invite  you to the Communion of All Saints
            and the Communion of All Souls,
            a communion based not on spiritual heroism
            but on our shared human vulnerability and mortality.
Let us peer into each other’s faces
            and be slow to let go of each other’s hands.