Monday, December 5, 2011

Building A Civil Society: Reflections On The Moral Legacy Of The First Lady Of Las Vegas, Helen Stewart

Helen Stewart is the kind of hero we need to keep in mind today.
She is a hero for women – pioneering the place of women as leaders
in the public square.
She is a classic Western hero – making a go of ranching for decades
in this hard land.

To me, she is most of all a hero as a builder of civil society,
a former of community.
The first great work of literature is the Epic of Gilgamesh from Ancient Sumer.
In it, young Gilgamesh is something of a super hero run amok.
Although he is the king, he does not care for his people.
He lives for himself.

His reckless youth comes to an end when he discovers that people are mortal.
So he sets out on a quest for the way to overcome mortality
or to live with enough gusto that his life can be worthwhile
even if it will end.
After many adventures, he realizes his quest is futile;
so he returns home to Uruk, the capital of his kingdom.

On his arrival, Gilgamesh looks up and sees the walls of Uruk.
At that moment, he finally realizes that authentic human life
is lived in a community, a civil society, a neighborhood of people
who are intentionally neighbors to each other.
He realizes his quest for his own individual well-being is futile
because our individual well-being cannot be split away
from the common good.
So he dedicates himself to the service of his people.

The myth about the Westerner is that we came here to escape civil society.
The truth is that Westerners began constructing civil society
from the time they got here.
The myth of ranchers is that they lived in their own fiefdoms
Ignoring -- or even riding roughshod over -- townspeople and others.
Helen Stewart is proof that is far from the case.

As a widowed rancher and mother, she had her hands full.
But she was determined to build a civil society in this Valley.

Aside for providing the land for the railroad,
she was a founder of Christ Church – a church which has never
been a haven of spiritual escapism but has always been
committed to the welfare of all of Las Vegas
– a church from which many charitable and civic organizations
have been born.
She was a founder of the Mesquite Club,
Nevada’s oldest women’s charitable organization.
As Postmaster, she worked to help us to exchange messages
essential to social and business life.
As a founder of the Society of Nevada Pioneers,
she worked to preserve our history
because a culture has to know its own story.
On the school board, she worked for the education of our children.
While she sold the land that became Las Vegas,
she donated the land that became the Paiute Colony.

The list of her accomplishments goes on.
But the point is simple:
she was dedicated to our common good.

We do well to honor her with this excellent statue.
But this statue should do more than remind us of a time
when people cared enough about each other
to do their civic duty.

Helen Stewart would want us to remember
that the task of building and sustaining a civil society in Las Vegas
is as challenging today as it was then.
The challenges are different, but just as great.
Our sense of community is wounded today.
The institutions Helen Stewart helped to build -- from the Postal Service
to the education system – are in trouble.
We see a reversal of her efforts
in the neglect of our schools and public institutions,
and in the neglect of needy people which the First Lady of Las Vegas
would never have countenanced.

But there are people today working on several fronts to continue
the good work Helen Stewart began in her day.
Communities in Schools works to restore our education system
so our children have hope for a better future.
Las Vegas Valley Interfaith unites our people across lines
of race and religion to work for the good of families.
3-Square combats hunger on our streets.
Not For Sale combats the sexual exploitation of children.
We might ask: if Helen Stewart were here today,
in which of these organizations would she be a leader?
The answer is clearly most of them, and maybe others.
She would be a leader in different groups so she could network them
together for the benefit of everyone.
I believe that is what she would hope we will do.

As we dedicate this statue to the memory and honor of Helen Stewart,
we rededicate ourselves to building a community of decent folks
who care for each other – neighbor to neighbor –
to make this city a home where all our people can prosper and thrive.

New Job Opening: Herald Of Good Tidings.

Our lives are made of time so how we relate to time
determines the flavor and the tenor of our lives.
The present moment is absolutely important;
but each moment contains both memory and anticipation.
Each moment arises in the context of a past and a future.
What happened yesterday shapes today’s experience;
and what we expect tomorrow determines
whether we live today in hope, anxiety, or despair.

As for the past, it can be a blessing or a curse.
It depends on whether we draw wisdom from our past
or get stuck in it.
It is so easy to get stuck in memories.
Good memories can capture us in nostalgia,
longing for a past that can never be recovered
precisely because it is the past.
We refuse to move on into the future because we know
it could never be as good as the good old days.

Bad memories can capture us in despair.
We can identify with our old wounds.
I am the one who suffered this or suffered that.
There is a sticky tragic quality to old wounds and grievances
that traps us like flypaper.

The power of the past over the present depends
entirely on what we think of the future.
We live each moment with some kind of expectation.
The natural human condition is to be alert, to be expectant,
to scan the horizon to see what might be coming up over it.
We are all always watching for something.
But we are rarely watching neutrally.
We watch the world with preformed expectations.
We live in dread or hope, faith or fear.

Nothing is more fundamental to our way of being in the world
than our attitude toward the future.
Prophesy is God’s word spoken to us to infuse hope.
Prophesy breaks up the stony soil of pessimism
with the plow of God’s promise.
Judah had been having a long, hard time.
For 40 years they had been in exile,
writing songs of lament.
“By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
as we remembered Zion.”
Before they were utterly vanquished by Babylon,
they were occupied by Assyria.
Before that they had been a vassal state of Egypt.
Before that they had been besieged by Aram.
No living Jew could remember peace and prosperity.

Their plight raises a question for us:
is it possible to hope for something we cannot remember?
Is it possible to anticipate something we have not experienced yet?

When churches are in transition situations,
I always ask them,
“what do you hope for in this time of change?”
We I ask about hope for the future, invariably, they answer
with a memory from the past.
Is it possible to hope for something we cannot remember?

For humans, probably not.
But with God all things are possible.
Judah could not even remember happiness,
but God spoke to his prophet, 2nd Isaiah, saying,
“Comfort, O comfort my people . . . .
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her
that she has served her term
that her penalty is paid.”

Can you hear God saying that to you?
Can you take the old habitual sorrows of your life
as a time of exile, and hear God say
“You have served your term; it’s over”?

The Exiles had lost a lot – the temple, homes, families.
We all lose what is dear to us.
Then we live in the loss; abide in the sorrow.
Isaiah acknowledges the loss, but then reminds us
there is something we have not lost and can never lose.
He writes,

“All people are grass . . . .
The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand forever.”

And what is the word of our God that stands forever.
It is good news. It is gospel.
“Get up to a high mountain O Zion,
herald of good tidings.
Lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem,
herald of good tidings.”

“Herald of good tidings.”
Can you imagine not only hearing God’s promise;
that you will be peaceful and at ease,
that you will be happy
– can you imagine that you not only hear that
as God’s promise to you;
but that you are, this day, appointed as God’s messenger
to tell that good news to other people.
Whatever your identity has been up to now,
you have a new one – “herald of good tidings.”

What are those good tidings?
Because they are beyond the reach
of anything we have experienced,
they are beyond the capacity of human language
to express directly.
So Isaiah uses metaphors:
“Say to the cities of Judah, here is your God . . . .
He will feed his flock like a shepherd.
He will carry the lambs in his arms
and carry them in his bosom
and gently lead the mother sheep.”

Can you imagine living in expectation
of a serene joy that you have never felt before?
If you can, then you will experience right now
a hope you have never felt before.
Even in the midst of the trials and hardships of today,
you will carry in your heart a warm ember of consolation
already glowing.
The quality of this present moment will be transformed by hope.

I invite you each to hear this promise for you personally.
Jeremiah delivered this message from God:
“I know the plans I have for you;
plans to prosper you and not harm you,
plans to give you a hope and a future.”

I invite you to hear the promise that God will do a new thing in you,
that Christ will become more real to you,
and play a larger part in each of your days than ever before.
I invite you to hear that promise also for this congregation.
In Christian spirituality, the transformation of the individual
and the transformation of the community are intimately connected.
You cannot change without changing those around you
and if this congregation changes it will change you.
So I invite you to imagine,
that Grace in the Desert will matter to you in a larger way;
and that this congregation will do in Las Vegas
what no congregation has done before
–that this congregation will become a center of spiritual renewal
in the midst of a city awash in despair;
that you will be a “herald of good tidings”
for the lost children on our streets,
the faltering schools of our community,
a herald of good tidings for social transformation,
for art, culture, and justice in the public square.

If you live in that hope, you will invest in it.
You will prepare the way for your own transformation
though a discipline of prayer, study, and service.
You will, at the same time, prepare for the transformation of this congregation.
You will support it now with your labor, your money, and your prayers.
You church prays for you. Do you pray for your church?

In the coming year, Grace in the Desert will have the opportunity
to take a bold leap forward.
You have made great strides in recent years.
For that I am most deeply grateful.
But you are on the brink of becoming something new
– not just a gathering place for mutual support in hard times
but a “herald of good tidings” for those around us.

With this promise, comes a challenge
– to invest the labor, the money, and the prayer
to make room for miracle.

This is what the Lord said to those who were to receive his promise.
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.
Make straight in the desert – this desert
--a highway for our God.

Every valley – even the Las Vegas Valley
-- shall be lifted up . . .
Then the glory of the Lord shall appear
and all the people shall see it together
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Divine Duty Of Leaders In A No Blame No Shame Zone

Our lesson from Ezekiel has quite a history.
It has been so controversial that for the past 200 years,
we have glossed over it or ignored it.

But, for two thousand years before that, this lesson was the basis
for the divine right of kings.
Ezekiel wrote at the time of the Exile.
Babylon had sacked Jerusalem, imprisoned and blinded King Zedekiah,
and taken the nation’s leaders into Exile.
The governor Babylon appointed for Judah
was then assassinated by the king’s family.

In the ensuing anarchy, many Judeans fled the opposite direction
into Egypt as refugees.
The Lord called his people scattered sheep;
and there was no one to bring them home.
The King was powerless; the governor was dead.

So the Lord spoke to Ezekiel saying,
“I myself will search for my sheep
and seek them out.
I will rescue them from all the places
where they have been scattered.
I myself will be the shepherd to my sheep.”

The Lord himself would do what Judah’s leaders failed to do.
He would bring the dispersed exiles back together.
He would care for their common life.

Ezekiel did not say how God would do that.
His methods become clear a generation later in 2nd Isaiah.
I happened alright and the Psalmist sang,
“When God restored the common life, our hope, our liberty
At first it seemed a passing dream, a waking fantasy.
A shock of joy swept over us for we had wept so long
The seeds we watered once with tears sprang up into a song.”

Ezekiel didn’t know how God would do it,
but he expected an extraordinary act of God
directly intervening in history.
That was not God’s usual M.O.
It was not how he had led Israel before or how he would do so
in the future.
God ruled through kings and he would do so again.

Our lesson continues:
“I will set up over them one shepherd,
my servant David.”
The historical David had been dead 200 years.
He means an heir of David, someone like David,
a brave, wise king, like David.

“ I will set up over them one shepherd,
my servant David
and he shall feed them and be their shepherd.”

The Bible contains different political viewpoints.
But on the whole it’s a monarchist book.
God chose kings, anointed kings, and stood by kings
as long as they ruled righteously.

But the monarchist verses in the Bible
did not wear well over time.
They were cited to defend the power of kings
who lounged on thrones while workers plowed the fields.
Why? Because God said so.
Kings who lorded it over their people
and lived in luxury gave monarchy a bad name.

Eventually the English had enough of it
and lopped off the head of King Charles I,
setting a bloody example for the French
who decapitated King Louis XVI,
and the Russians who gunned down Queen Victoria’s nephew,
Tsar Nicholas II.

Since we got into the habit of regicide,
we have not known what to do with Ezekiel.
We don’t know how to take God promising the people a king,
and thinking that’s supposed to be good news.

But look what kind of king God wanted Judah to have.
“He shall feed them.
He shall feed them and be their shepherd.”
God by his own example showed what a king is supposed to do.
“I will . . . rescue them from all the places they have been scattered
and bring them to their own land.
I will feed them with good pastures.
I will make them lie down.
I will seek the lost and bring back the strayed.
I will save my flock and they shall no more be ravaged.”

The godly king is a servant, a protector, a healer.
The godly king lives to nurture his people, not exploit them.

All the bad kings have made it hard for us to imagine
the good King God was promising.
We have learned to hate kings.
In our era, we have become hostile to any kind of leaders at all.
We hate incumbents whether they are liberals or conservatives.
The electorate careens from left to right
to cast out whoever the leader may be at the time.
It is as if we elect people not to lead but to blame.

We do the same thing in the church.
We blame and we blame shift.
We blame our leaders until they say “ok, I’ve had enough.”

Eventually, we have no leaders
or the leaders have no followers,
And we become, as Ezekiel said,
“scattered as on a day of clouds and thick darkness.”

If we are to find our way home, as nation or as church,
If we are to rediscover that belonging to God
means belonging to each other,
if we are to recommit to the common good
as our ancestors did in Liberty Hall,
at Gettysburg, through the depression and World War II,
we will need to rethink and refeel
our attitudes toward leadership and followership.

We have to reframe today’s lesson.
It is no longer about the divine right of kings.
It’s about the divine duty of leaders.

We all must be brave enough to lead
because in a free society and in the church,
everyone takes turns leading.
We must be brave enough to lead
and humble enough to lead for the sake of others,
not to puff up our own pride.

Jesus said “the greatest among you is the one who serves.”
We lead in ways that build up the followers.
We equip them to take our place so we can step aside.

We must be brave enough to lead and brave enough to follow.
It takes courage to trust that someone else might actually wish us well.
It takes patience to follow until it is our turn to lead.

Ezekiel tells us what leadership is about
– caring for, protecting, nurturing, and building up the followers
until they become leaders themselves.
Ezekiel tells us what followership is about
– supporting the leaders and learning from them
–participating in the process, growing into more responsible roles,
taking turns.

It’s a no blame no shame system.
It draws us together in relationships of mutual concern,
mutual respect, and mutual appreciation
while we work together for the common good.

When we rejected the divine right of kings,
we replaced it with nothing but random individuals
slavishly bound to their own wills.
We replaced the divine order with chaotic selfishness.

What if we replaced the divine right of kings
with the divine duty of leaders
– the duty to live together as faithful servants
of a shared mission, God’s mission
Suppose we tried that in the Church?
What if we decided all of us belong here,
so we’d better find ways to live together?
What if, just in our little corner of the world,
we established a no blame no shame zone
so we could get on with sharing God’s love
in a desperately lonely city?

Here’s what I wonder:
Is it possible people outside the Church might notice and learn something?
Might our government and business leaders learn to lead differently?
Might the electorate, workers, and consumers learn to follow differently
– sharing the load of problem solving instead of pointing fingers?

Ezekiel is a 2,900 year old book, a message in a very old bottle.
We have just read it.
What shall we do with it?
What might be possible if we took God’s word seriously?
What if we took God’s word out into God’s world?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Performance Principle Is Excrement, To Put It Nicely

Have you ever noticed that the harder you work
the behinder you get.
It’s true.
If we do more, people expect more.
Our boss sees we can produce, so he pushes harder.
Our customers demand more.
We can never catch up.

It is standard practice in most industries.
If a salesman exceeds his quota, management will increase his quota.
We never get ahead.
We never even catch up.

The German-American philosopher Herbert Marcuse
said that most of us feel frustrated and futile
in our work because of something he called
“the performance principle.”

The Performance Principle means that our human worth
is measured by how well we carry out some task.
And that is a lousy way to live.
First of all, we can never do the task well enough.
Second, the task is often not worth the amount of energy and worry
we invest in it.
But third and most importantly, it turns us into tools.
We cease to be human beings valuable, even sacred,
in our own right.
Instead, we are means to the end of some project.

St. Paul knew all about the Performance Principle.
He was an ambitious young man, performing at being
a rising rabbi and stellar scholar of Jewish law.
Years later, he listed for the Philippinas,
all hard won accomplishments.
He was a Jew among Jews, a devout, learned, and pious
man of the faith.

But then he said none of that was worth anything.
Paul actually used a graphic Greek word
to say what all that amounted to.
The delicate people who translate the Bible for us
render that word as “refuse.”
But that doesn’t get it.
If I said the word in church you would be offended.
So I’ll just say excrement comes closer,
and although it only has 4 letters,
Texans pronounce it with 3 syllables for emphasis.

Now when Paul speaks so disparagingly of his accomplishments,
remember those were accomplishments in the realm
of religion and spirituality.
He calls being a top flight spiritual leader excrement.

Now what does that say about all the things we work so hard at?
What does that say about our goals and objectives, our quotas,
our strategic plans, and our profit margins?
What does it say about our standing in the community?
Paul might say we are valuing them a mite more highly
than they deserve.

But Paul isn’t saying that any of our work is bad.
He doesn’t mean it’s really worthless.
He doesn’t mean all our good deeds don’t count.

He has just found something so wonderful that,
by comparison, nothing else matters.
Paul met Jesus on the road to Damascus,
and he had spent the rest of his life
getting to know Jesus better.
Jesus showed Paul what God’s love is like.
And by comparison, nothing else mattered.

1200 years later, St. Thomas Aquinas had a similar experience.
Thomas was the greatest theologian of the Middle Ages,
quite likely the greatest theologian who ever lived.
He wrote massive tomes of brilliant theology and philosophy.
He wrote the Summa Theologica, the Bible of systematic theology
even now 900 years later.

Then one day, while he was celebrating the Mass,
he glimpsed something of the glory of God.
After Mass, he said, “All I have written is as straw.”
He walked off to his room, and never wrote again.

What Paul discovered was the unconditional love of God.
He called it grace.
Paul is the one who introduced the word grace
into our faith.
Jesus showed it to him,
so Paul taught it to all the churches.

Once we dare to trust in God’s grace
to make us happy and secure,
it causes a fundamental shift
in how we experience life.
We still work at our jobs.
We still do our best.
But the pressure is off.
Our basic well-being doesn’t depend our being successful.

That leads to a whole different kind of life,
a life that can be savored and enjoyed,
a life that consists in gratitude and sharing
more than striving and achieving.

It makes for a life that is lovely in its security.
Paul went on to say, “I have learned the secret
of having much and of having little,
of being hungry and being well-fed. . . .”

Paul said, “I can do all things
through Christ who strengthens me.”
When things go wrong according to our preconceived notions
of how they are supposed to be,
we know “We can do that.”
We can do hunger. We can do loneliness.
We can do family conflict. We can do failure.
We can do whatever life throws at us,
because it is not happening the context
of the Performance Principle.
It is happening in the context of a life
that floats in God’s unconditional yes to who we are.

We don’t have to perform our lives just so.
We don’t have to succeed at life.
We just have to live it in the sea of grace.
That grace will hold us up.
It will sustain us.
It will get us through.

It got Paul through worse times than most of us
will ever come close to having to endure.
And it will set us free to really live our lives,
to live them boldly and joyfully,
not on a treadmill of production and success,
but in a dance of delight and joy.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Necessity Of Starlight In A Land Where Desire Careens Into The Canyon

150 years ago, people came West for a lot of reasons.
Some were running away from troubles back East.
Some were hoping to get rich.
Some were trying to get free.

I don’t know why Ozzie Whittaker came in 1863.
I sometimes joke that he might have been trying to miss
the Battle of Gettysburg.
For whatever reason, he spent two years in Gold Hill,
then went back to Connecticut, married well,
and got a cushy position in a rich, stable church.
But after just two years of the clergy version of the good life,
he struck out for Virginia City.
In a few minutes, I’ll tell you why.

But serving this rowdy Comstock church was not enough.
So he mounted his horse and rode over to Pioche,
where there was no church,
and celebrated the Eucharist in a saloon
using the bar for an altar.
Before long, they made Ozzie the Bishop of Nevada and Arizona.
He spent over a decade here at St. Paul’s
and riding horseback all over the Great Basin.
I just drive from Vegas to Welles in an air-conditioned Ford
with Sirius FM radio.
But Ozzie was the real deal.
It’s a long way from the Comstock
to Tucson, Tombstone, and Nogales.
He didn’t get rich. He wasn’t that free.
And he wasn’t running away from anything back East.
He had another thing in mind.

Some other folks had the same thing in mind.
There was Bishop Daniel Tuttle who began the Episcopal Church
in Utah the same year Ozzie arrived Virginia City.
In Helena, Montana, the Rev. Leigh Brewer founded the church
while his wife Henrietta built the hospital.

Ozzie got to know the West those first two years in Gold Hill.
He knew this to be a lovely but a lonely land
– a place where every desire of the human heart
was set loose but apt to careen into despair.
By the time Ozzie got here, Henry Comstock was busted,
gone to Montana, & would take his own life in under two years.

The missionaries came here because we needed them.
We needed a spiritual compass, a glimpse of the moral order.
We needed the Gospel of Jesus Christ
-- for without it we were like sailors on a starless night
back when they navigated by starlight.

Such was the West in the 1860s.
Such is the world again today.
Last week on the Today Show,
Matt Lauer interviewed the widow of one of the Navy Seals
who recently died in Afghanistan.
He asked her how her husband would want to be remembered,
and what she would tell their children about him.

The first words out of her mouth were “his faith in Jesus Christ.”
But when NBC ran clips from the interview later in the day,
and when they posted it on their website,
they edited out the part about Jesus.

Bethany Hamilton, a young surfer, lost her arm a shark attack.
Her book, Soul Surfer, tells how her Christian faith gave her the courage
to get back in the water and become a champion professional.
It’s now a major motion picture.
But the screenwriter said the problem was this:
The script needed to be spiritual enough to draw
“the faith based market”
but not so Christian as to offend anyone.
So the movie shows she had faith
but tries to feather brush out what she had faith in.

The tattooed pierced young cashier at a bagel shop says to me,
“I really like your cross. They won’t let me wear mine here.”
A woman tells the sales clerk at a jewelry store
that she wants to buy a cross.
The clerk says “Do you want a plain cross or one with the little man on it?”
Brothers and sisters, the stars are not out tonight.
We cannot see lights by which to steer.
So we grasp onto strange things.

Jonathan Kay, in his book Among The Truthers,
examines the growth of increasingly bizarre conspiracy theories
in the United States.
Irrational paranoia is rampant.
Asked to explain why conspiracy theory is on the rise, Kay answers
our society has lost its moral and spiritual compass.
In Christianity, we go away from the devil and toward God.
Kay says, conspiracy theories don’t give people a God,
but they at least provide a devil.

For some, that devil is the government;
for some it is 16-foot tall inter-galactic lizards
who are secretly in charge here.
Those who do not have Christ
are desperate to find a devil
– and most any old devil will do.

Without a moral compass, we cannot know what matters.
The ad for the evening news on one Nevada tv channel says:
“The most important news story is the one that affects you.”
Really? A story about road construction on I-15
is more important than the drought in Kenya.

People who are protected from hearing the name of Christ
spoken by a Navy widow,
protected from the sight of a cross worn by a young cashier,
hear that the story that matters most is the one that affects us.
We have no basis other than our own greed and self-interest
to say that something matters.

Well, maybe that’s right.
It is right if we know that the story that affects us most
is the story of salvation,
the story of God who created the world out of love,
sustains us every breath we take out of love,
and redeems us from our brokenness and spiritual failure
– all out of love.

Then the most important story is the one that affects all of us
– the story of Jesus going to the cross
because that’s where he could forgive us all
and that’s how he could show the depth of divine love.

The 1st Century A.D. was a lot like today.
The old order was coming apart
and the new order had not yet come into view.
In the 1st Century A.D.,
the world had lost its moral and spiritual compass
-- especially in the old seats of power.

So somebody back then did the same thing
in Turkey, Greece, and Rome
that Ozzie Whittaker, Daniel Sylvester Tuttle, and Leigh Brewer
did out here in the 1860’s.
I hope you know who that was.
It was your patron saint, Paul of Tarsus.

Paul travelled the known world to tell the most important story,
the one that affects everybody.
Ozzie Whitaker left his cushy life in Connecticut
to tell the most important story to Virginia City.

Who is going to tell that story today?
Who is going to speak the name of Christ
in spite of the censors who find it offensive?
Who is going to reveal the love of God
as a living rebuttal to the so-called Christians
who proclaim a God of violence and hate?
I can think of no one better for the job
than the spiritual off-spring and heirs of Ozzie Whittaker.

Do you know why you are here?
You are not here to enjoy the ambience of a historic building.
You are not here to enjoy the congenial company
of other nice people.
You are not here to listen to pious words
that helps you get through the week.

You are here to learn the most important story
so you can tell it to a world that is dying to hear it.
You are here to polish your spirits until they shine,
so you can be “the light of the world” that Jesus said you are,
so you can provide some star shine to all the people lost at sea.

That is why it is so important that you study, pray, and serve.
Study, pray, and serve every day.
Study, pray, and serve in the church and in the world.

Be the change. Light the light. Keep the faith.
Do it for the broken, bleeding world.
Do it for Paul and Ozzie.
Do it for Jesus.
Do it now. Do it tomorrow. Do it for the rest of your life.

Monday, August 29, 2011

What The Young Priest Said That Got Him Slapped

Paul was on his way to meet the Romans,
but he had not yet laid eyes on them
when he wrote his famous letter.
Paul had heard that they were having some troubles.
The church dispute was so bad that Emperor Claudius
threw half the congregation out of Rome for awhile.

The hymn “They’ll know we are Christians by our love”
had not been written yet
– but it’s a pretty good capsule version of everything Paul
had to say in the New Testament.
But if visible love is how you recognize a Christian community,
the Church in Rome was not likely to be busted.

I imagine that Paul was worried about all the turmoil
for two reasons:
First, a community that divided could not
work together for God’s mission of spreading the good news.
Second, they didn’t seem to have understood the Gospel themselves.

As Paul understood it and taught it,
the good news is all about grace.
The good news is that everything depends on God’s free gift.
Our life is a gift. Our salvation is a gift. Heaven is a gift.
That utterly and completely reversed the old time religion
of having to bribe God with sacrifices, do the right rituals,
follow all the right rules to win God’s favor.
Paul said, “You’ve already got God’s favor.
You don’t earn it. You don’t buy it.
God’s love is a gift.”

The Gospel message is just that truth
and an invitation to live in it.
The Romans hadn’t gotten the truth part straight,
and they were a long way from living in it.
So Paul writes several chapters on the truth:
everything worth having is a gift from God.
Then in today’s lesson he explains how to live in that truth.
It is really a matter of being like God.
The word God means our highest ideal.
God is who we honor most, admire most, want most to be like.
So if we think God is a harsh judge,
we go about judging each other harshly.
If we think God is an angry tyrant,
we go about barking angry orders.
If we think God is an assembly line supervisor with a clip board,
examining our lives for errors and indiscretions,
we’ll keep a close watch on each other
to see what fault we can find.
Over the course of a lifetime,
everyone becomes more and more like the God he believes in.

The good news is that God isn’t like that.
God created the universe out of love
and God created each of us out of love.
God loves us – as we are.
It’s a gift because God is the unconditional Giver.

Paul invites us to believe that and rejoice.
But believing isn’t as easy as just saying
“Oh ok, that works for me.”
Spiritual truth only sinks in; it only goes to the heart,
when we don’t just say it – we have to live it.

The Romans weren’t getting the gospel
because they weren’t living the gospel.
So Paul gives them some instruction.
It isn’t that we have to do any of this to earn God’s love.
But we can’t experience God’s love,
we can’t know the freedom of being loved like that,
until we live our way into it.

So here’s what Paul says.
“Love one another with mutual affection . . . .
Outdo one another in showing honor . . . .
Bless those who persecute you;
bless and do not curse them.
Rejoice with those who rejoice.
Weep with those who weep.
Live in harmony with one another.
Do not be haughty but associate with the lowly.
Do not claim to be wiser than you are. . . .”
Paul teaches us to be godly so that we can know God.

It’s the same thing John says in his first Epistle,
“Since God loved us, we ought to love one another . . . .
No one has seen God,
But if we love one another, God lives in us
and his love is perfectly expressed in us.”

Do you see how this makes Christianity a team sport?
We can’t do it on our own.
We can only experience the truth of God’s love
by showing it to others – not telling them about it,
but showing it to them.
We love people with God’s own love so they can see it,
and that’s how we come to experience it.

John Stone Jenkins was a wise old priest in Louisiana.
But when he was a young priest,
he was once attending a birth.
As it was done in those days, the young father to be
was in the waiting room and the priest was with him.

Then a nurse came out from the delivery room
and said the mother
was having a hard time in transition.
So she wanted the father to come in.
John Stone Jenkins patted the young man on the shoulder
and said “Go on in. I’ll be out here praying.”But the nurse looked at John Stone Jenkins and said,
“No Father, she means you.”

With a gulp and prayer, he went into the delivery room.
Seeing the mother in the worst pains of labor,
he had no idea what to do,
so he leaned over her and said, “Jesus loves you.”She swore, and slapped him.
The she said, “I know that. How do you feel about me?”

It doesn’t do much good to talk about God’s love
unless we live it, unless we show people what it looks like.
How do we show people God’s love?
“Rejoice with those who rejoice.
Weep with those who weep.
Live in harmony with one another.”

In all my years in the church, 21 of them as a clergyman,
I’ve heard church folks fretting about all sorts of things.
There’s not enough money.
The building needs fixing.
There aren’t enough young people
or the young people are taking over.
We don’t have any children or the children make too much noise.
The hymns are too slow or too fast.
The ritual is too Catholic or not Catholic enough.

98% of the things people fret over in the Church
cannot be found in the Bible
because they don’t really matter.
What matters is the relationships.
Where the relationships are full of love,
the money is enough, the building is enough,
the right people are there and anyone new
is right too.
It’s about the relationships because that’s where the gospel is.
That’s where we live the gospel so that we can know the gospel.

It’s a beautiful and joyful truth Jesus showed us
and Paul taught us.
All we have to do is live it -- together.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Which Dream Will You Choose?

Just a few basic insights can crack the Bible open
and make it into a fascinating book.
Biblical scholar Walter Bruegemann’s
two-dream thesis may be
the most valuable of them all.
He sees the whole Bible as a struggle between
Pharaoh’s dream of scarcity and Moses’ dream of freedom.

Pharaoh, you will recall, had a dream of famine.
A later Pharaoh had fantasies of a different kind
of scarcity or weakness.
He was afraid of being invaded by Assyria, now known as Iraq.
It wasn’t very likely. They were a long way off and not that powerful.

But he was afraid.
It is a bit reminiscent of when our government
thought that Iraq was going to come after us
with their non-existent Weapons of Mass Destruction.
Well, Pharaoh couldn’t do much about the Assyrians.
They were too far off --
so he shifted his anxiety to the Jews
living inside his borders.

He was afraid that when the Assyrians invaded Egypt,
the Jews might rise up to support the Assyrians.
Not that there was any reason for that paranoid delusion,
but, as I said, he was afraid.
So Pharaoh did the ancient equivalent
of detaining the Jews at Guantanamo Bay.
He rounded them up in Goshen, pressed them into forced labor,
and eventually he took the next step.
He instituted a program of genocide
by killing the male babies.

All of this would be hard to believe if it didn’t keep happening.
Egypt was the most powerful empire on earth,
the most powerful empire the world had ever known.
Pharaoh was not a mere king.
He was a god. He held life and death in his hand.
His power was supreme and unlimited.
No one had ever been this powerful.

But all the power the world has to offer
cannot deliver us from fear.

Fear drives us to garner power for our own security,
but the more power we acquire,
the more afraid we become.
It may even make us bigger targets.

So the almighty Pharaohs always dreamed of famine,
lived in dead of invasion by weaker,
distant weaker neighbors.
Today’s lesson tells how, during a level orange terror alert,
they enslaved the ethnic minority of their own nation,
and finally resorted to genocide.

Such is the world into which Moses was born.
I trust you know the story of how he escaped death
through the stealth of his mother
and the subterfuge of midwives,
how he grew up as a Prince of Egypt,
discovered his roots, killed an Egyptian slave driver,
then fled to Midian where he became a shepherd.

There, while tending his father-in-law’s flock,
Moses had his dream – a vision of a burning bush --
from which the voice of God spoke to him,
saying “I have heard the cry of my people . . . .
Go therefore to Pharaoh and tell him to let my people go.”//

Moses’ vision is so simple, a vision of freedom,
as direct and straightforward
as Pharaoh’s fearful dream of scarcity.
That simple vision of freedom will grow into a richer vision
of equality, justice, and inclusion.
It will become the Law as we find it in Exodus and Deuteronomy.
This vision will command the Jews to shelter the homeless sojourners,
remembering that they were once sojourners in Egypt.
It will require those who have wealth
to share it with those who do not.
It will forbid the charging of interest on loans
and will protect debtors from foreclosure.

The law of Moses is designed– not like so many legal codes
which protect the wealth of the wealthy
and impose the power of the powerful
– but rather a law to share wealth and defend the powerless.
Such was the dream which gave birth to Israel.
Perhaps it sounds familiar.
I doubt that the deist Thomas Jefferson
would admit it, but his dream for America
was lifted right out of Moses’ vision
which became the Law of Israel.

Regrettably Israel was not exempt from the fear
that corrupted Egypt.
Having been oppressed once,
even having fought for freedom once,
is no guarantee of perpetual virtue.
A freedom fighter can turn into a tyrant,
and a nation like Zimbabwe can find
it has rid itself of Ian Smith
only to suffer at the hands of Robert Mugabe.

Moses himself was never corrupted.
He remained a defender of freedom and justice all his life.
But Israel began to remember how great Egypt had been.
They began to fear the Philistines.
And they thought, “Why can’t we be like the Egyptians?”
More wealth, power, land, and a standing army would protect us.

So hierarchy and a caste system arose.
New laws were added, to protect ethnic purity, social structures,
the privileges of a priestly caste, an aristocracy, and a royalty.
In Bruegemann’s book, Solomon, he demonstrates how
David’s son became the Jewish personification of Pharaoh,
complete with forced labor and wars of conquest.

Throughout the Bible, we hear two voices arguing.
One voice is that of Pharaoh, a voice of fearful, rigid rules.
It comes out of the mouths of priests as the book of Leviticus
and of the royal spin masters as the books of Chronicles.
Against that voice cries the voice of Moses,
out of the mouths of prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Amos.

If we did not have the voice of Pharaoh in our Scripture,
we would have no idea what Moses was talking about.
But when people quote Scripture,
we must always listen very closely
to see whose voice is speaking
– Pharaoh or Moses,
Ahab or Elijah,
Caiaphas or Jesus.

Ah yes, Jesus. It all leads to him.
You see this is what the fight
in the New Testament is about.
People wanted a messiah alright,
a messiah in the tradition
of Solomon, of David, and of Pharaoh.
But Jesus spoke with the voice of Moses,
the voice of freedom, justice, equality, and inclusion.
After Jesus, the Church carried on the conversation.
Peter spoke too often with the voice of Pharaoh.
He will speak with that voice in next week’s Gospel lesson.
Paul replied with the voice of Moses.
“For freedom Christ has set us free,” he said.

And the struggle continues in the world today.
Bruegemann calls the voice of Pharaoh “the Empire.”
It may manifest as one nation or another.
But it is always the Empire,
and against it stands the Gospel.

We read our religion and we read the world,
we read the Bible and we read the newspaper,
though the same set of bifocals.
We look reality either through the dream of Pharaoh
or the dream of Moses.
Moses’ way lives by a certain trust in life. We call it faith.
Pharaoh’s way lives by fear of death. We call is despair.
“I set before you life and death,” Moses said. “Choose life.”

Jesus Repents: The Gospel Trajectory Finds Its Course

When we read a novel or a play for a literature class,
the professor will usually ask
“who is the main character?”
There is a rule of thumb for figuring out
who a story is primarily about.
Does anyone know how to tell the main character?
It is the one who changes most.
The main character is not a stable prop in someone else’s drama.
The main character learns things, grows.

King Lear is called “King Lear” because the foolish old king
eventually sees his own injustice and he repents.
Shakespeare didn’t name his play after faithful Cordelia
who is good and virtuous throughout.
He named it “King Lear” after the character who moves,
changes, makes spiritual progress.
Same thing with Oedipus Rex, David Copperfield,
or the Cather in the Rye.
So, who is the Gospel of Matthew primarily about?
It might be about Jesus.
If that is the case, instead of taking everything Jesus
ever said as the final word for all time,
we might look to see if Jesus ever changes his mind.
Instead of taking snapshots of his spirituality
at one point, we might look at the course of his life
to see if we can plot a trajectory.

Let’s start with his first teaching, the Sermon on the Mount.
Not much grace in that sermon.
Here’s what Jesus says about the law.
“”Not one letter or stroke shall pass away from the law . . .
Whoever breaks . . . the least of these commandments . . .
will be called the least in the kingdom of heaven.”
Jesus doesn’t say the Pharisees are too strict.
He thinks they are soft on sin.
He wants to make the law more rigorous.
Jesus starts out as Super Puritan.
But there’s something good in it.
His point is that doing the right thing isn’t enough.
You have to get your heart right.
He’s insisting on an authentic spiritual core to morality.

Now fast forward to today’s lesson to see where that leads.
The disciples have just violated a ritual purity regulation
about hand washing.
The Pharisees cry “Shame. Not one stroke or letter . . .” they say.
“Whoever breaks one of the least
of these commandments . . .” they say.

But Jesus says “It’s no big deal.” His position has shifted.
He explains, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles,
but what comes out it.”
The heart is what matters. Not ritual purity.

First Jesus turned his attention from the right actions alone
to having your heart right.
Then he began to wonder what ritual purity
has to do with the heart.
Maybe if your heart was right,
it didn’t matter if you kept the law perfectly,
so long of course as you were Jewish
and kept the law pretty well.
That teaching drew fire from the Pharisees.
So Jesus took a little vacation from his mission
in the non-Jewish country of Tyre and Sidon.

He had strictly ordered his disciples
not to even tell non-Jews about the gospel.
They were the wrong race, wrong set of ritual purity customs,
“not our sort dear.”
At this point in the story, Jesus hadn’t changed his mind on that.
So he was in Tyre and Sidon on a vacation, not a mission.

But along came this non-Jewish woman begging him
to heal her daughter.
Jesus ignored here. She persisted.
The disciples said, “One of the goyim is bothering us.
Send her away.”
So Jesus told her he ministered to Jews only.
In desperation, she threw herself down in front of him.
He called her a dog and ordered her out of the way.
But she said, “Even dogs eat the crumbs from their master’s table.”

That rocked him.
She had called him her master.
That was at once beautiful and a violation of the taboo
separating Jew and Gentile.
It was so wrong under the law, so right in the heart.
Jesus repented.

In last week’s lesson, Jesus had just said to his disciples
– who were the right race, right gender, right religion --
“O ye of little faith.”
Now he says to this foreigner
– wrong race, wrong gender, wrong religion –
“Woman, great is your faith.//
Let it be done for you as you wish.”
And her daughter was healed.

Do you see Jesus stumbling toward a new way
of seeing the world, a new kind of religion?
We might pause to consider the importance
of this nameless woman who converted Jesus.

Matthew’s book still has a long way to go.
But can you guess how it ends?
I hope you won’t skip reading it just because
I’m giving away the thrilling conclusion.

It ends like this:
Jesus says to his disciples,
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations . . . .”
“Nations” means the non-Jews.

Let’s retrace what has happened here:
One third of the way in the story,
Jesus sent his disciples out to spread the gospel,
but then he said,
“Go nowhere among the Gentiles
and enter no town of Samaria,
but rather go to the lost sheep of . . . Israel.”

But after meeting the gentile woman of great faith,
he began to change his tune.
In the end, he sent his disciples to baptize all nations.

So what can we learn from this story?
The first thing we see is Jesus modeling an open mind
and an open heart.
His faith was a living, growing thing.
It changed. It moved. It morphed.

It wasn’t so soft and flexible that it had no shape.
Jesus didn’t go around saying “maybe this or maybe that.”
“This is true for me but it might not be true for you.”
Jesus took stands in the name of God.

But he wasn’t so stuck in what he said yesterday
he couldn’t move on to a new truth tomorrow.
He wasn’t so spiritually lazy as to let his faith lounge
in the same things he was taught as a child.
Jesus moved. So how about us?

It’s good to check our faith from time to time
to see if it has any buds on it, any green shoots.
If not, we might want to fertilize it a bit
with a new prayer practice, a new book,
a retreat or some acts of mercy.

Maybe we need to meet someone outside our comfort zone
-- some modern equivalent of a Canaanite woman
with a sick child
– someone to shake up our stultifying certainties.

The second thing we notice in this story
is its ethical trajectory.
Right from the beginning,
the distinctive thing about Jesus
was his gospel of inclusion.

Right from the beginning,
he sat down at table with sinners and social outcasts.
But at first he was calling them into an even smaller circle
of strict rules than the Pharisees had drawn.
Then he extended the circle by disregarding
ritual purity rules that kept people outside
even if their hearts were faithful.
Then he took in lawless gentiles who approached him in faith,
and finally sent his disciples out to gentiles
who had never even heard of him.

It is an expanding ethic of inclusion, an ethic of embrace.
St. Paul kept extending further that trajectory of inclusion.
“In Christ there is neither slave nor free, neither male nor female,
neither Jew nor gentile,” he wrote.

We have our trajectory set in the life of Jesus.
Who might be outside our circle of caring or acceptance?
Who might be the Canaanite woman for us?
If we keep an eye out for the people we are tempted
to avoid, they may show us the growing edge of our faith.

May our ability to accept each other grow day by day.
May our appreciation extend to those we now scorn.
May our capacity for love grow beyond anything we have yet imagined.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Rock Walls of Petrified Moments of Grace

Transfiguration – transformation – renewal – becoming new again.
One of our prayers for the Transfiguration says,
O God who. . . . revealed (Christ’s) glory upon the holy mountain:
Grant that we . . . may be . . . changed into his likeness
from glory to glory.”
The Christian life – perpetual transformation – becoming new again and again –
“Grant that we may be changed . . . . from glory to glory.”

I had a life crisis a few years back.
I was at the end of my spiritual and emotional rope
with no power to help myself -- but God saved me.
It was in Idaho in the early 80’s.
My philosophy of life that was already pretty dark.
Then my legal practice brought me up against depths of evil
I had never before encountered.
The possibility of any redeeming light to make the world still good
seemed to have gone out.

But God saved me.
He did it through good old traditional Episcopal worship and prayer
at St. Michael’s Cathedral
on the corner of 8th and Washington, Boise, Idaho.

Objectively speaking, they didn’t do such a great job of everything.
But they were the safe harbor on my stormy night.
So to me, St. Michael’s, Boise became the model for what Church
is supposed to be
– and nowhere will ever measure up the standard of St. Michael’s 1982
– not even St. Michael’s 2011 even though it is in every objective way bigger, better, brighter, more inspiring now than it was then
– to me it’s not the same.

Peter, James, and John had a mountain top experience.
They saw Jesus transfigured and that was pretty cool.
But then they saw Moses and Elijah
– the personal faces of the Law and the Prophets.
That was just over the top.
So Peter wanted to freeze the moment.
“Let us stay in this place,” he said. “It is good for us to be here.
Let us make three dwellings
– one for Moses, one for Elijah, and one for you.”
Let us live forever in this holy place, this holy moment, just like this.”

But God came over them as a cloud and said,
strange things about Jesus.
After that Moses and Elijah were gone.
Peter’s moment was over.
You know the rest of the story.
They do not live happily ever after on Mt. Tabor.
They go back downhill and get on with the mission.

Instead of the Transfiguration being something to stay stuck in,
it was the jumping off place for a life
of being perpetually “changed from glory to glory.”

Almost every church person has had their life saved
or has had a mountain top experience
at some point or another.
Maybe it was a church that came to their spiritual rescue.
Maybe they got saved at a revival or renewed at a Cursillo.
Maybe they saw the light at a Marriage Encounter
or while doing Prison Ministry.

We are all blessed at some point with a moment of grace
as Peter, James, and John were on the Mountain.
Thank God for those moments of grace.
The problem is what we do with them.
Peter tried to freeze his moment, set it in stone,
keep it mummified in a shrine
like me wanting to turn the whole church in all times and all places
into the image of St. Michael’s, Boise 1982.

Peter and I are not alone in this.
A lot of us have petrified our moments of grace
and used the stones to build rock walls around our spirits
lest liberating grace should touch and change us again.

The Church changed dramatically in the 70s in the aftermath of Vatican II
and in the heat of liturgical renewal.
That change was a great grief to people who had their moments of grace
with the 28 Prayer Book in King James English like Jesus spoke it
and the altar back against the wall where God put it.

But Pope John XIII said to open the window and let a fresh breeze in.
So we did – and we sang folk songs written by monks.
Now 40 years later, if you see a sign for a “contemporary service”
it means there will be folk songs written by monks in the 1970s.
Do you see the problem?
We opened the window for a fresh breeze in the 70s; it blew in;
and we slammed the window shut lest it get back out.

One of our city churches recently added a contemporary service,
yes 70’s folk songs, in order to attract the young people.
I asked the priest: who said this would attract young people?
It was, as I suspected, one of our church growth experts from the 70s
who is himself in his own 70s.
But in big cities today, the pierced, tattooed, orange haired young people
are not so taken with their parents’ folk songs.
They are demanding Rite I Morning Prayer with incense,
because they think it’s mystical.
We, however, are calling the hot new liturgies of 1975 “contemporary”
and planning young adult evangelism to attract people in their 60s.

My friend Grey Temple is one of the leading lights
of the charismatic renewal movement.
He has had religious experiences that would curl you hair.
His church in the 90s was full of folks
who had seen the light in the 70s and gotten stuck in it.

Grey wrote a book about spiritual experience and its aftermath.
He called it The Molten Soul, because in a moment of grace,
our stony hearts and souls melt and flow hot and bright like lava.
But the next thing we know, they have ossified, returned to stone
in the dead shape of what was once a living experience.

Grey had some psychological and theological explanations for that.
His book is a good read.
But my point this morning is just to say that our graced moments
were just that -- moments.
We can cherish their memories in our hearts.
But we cannot live in them.

Life moves. The Christian life moves.
It is a path of perpetual transformation.
St. Paul said to the Corinthians,
“We who . . . all reflect the Lord’s glory are being changed
into the same image, from glory to glory.”

Not we have been saved and now we’ve got it.
Not we have been transformed so we are now as God wants us.
But “we are being transformed . . . . “

If you may be a little uncomfortable with your new parish hall
because it does not look and feel like your old parish hall,
I agree with you in part.
I am uncomfortable with it because it does not look and feel
like the Parish Hall of St. Michael’s, Boise as it was in 1982.

Those places live in our hearts.
But we can’t live the Christian life inside a wall of petrified memories.
Life flows.

To live afresh, to be renewed, to become new again and again,
takes more than courage.
It takes faith.
It takes faith to follow Jesus forward into life.
You have demonstrated both courage and faith
living into your mission with a new parish hall.
I commend you.

But I have a feeling that God has plans
for much bigger changes in our lives
– both in our individual spiritual lives
and in our life together as the Body of Christ on earth.

If we follow Jesus, he leads us to Mt. Tabor for a vision
then down from the mountain for a mission.
We follow him in faith being changed again and again
from glory to glory.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Right Field Prayer

Sometimes you can strike two Scripture texts
against each other like flint and steel, and it makes a spark.
That’s what our lectionary does.
It strikes lessons against each other so we see things we might miss
if we just looked at one of them.

In our Old Testament lesson,
David has just died after being King for 40 years.
After some palace intrigue,
the crown is now going to young Solomon.
On the eve of his coronation the boy is praying
as we pray only when we are scared.

Back when I was a boy,
your first summer in Little League,
you started out in right field.
That’s the position least likely to see action.

But when there is action out there,
it demands skills no Little Leaguer has his first year.
Catching a long fly ball and rifle-shotting
it to third base is not something a 9-year-old can do.
So every Little League right fielder knows this primal prayer:
“O God don’t let them hit it to me.”

According to Friederich Schleiermacher,
the father of modern theology,
who sounds as if he played a little right field himself,
that prayer is the basis of religious experience.
My spirituality hasn’t advanced very far beyond it.
Solomon was praying quite earnestly that night
like any 9 year old right fielder.

“My God you have made your servant king . . .
and I am only a little child.
I do not know how to go out or come in. . . .
Give your servant therefore an understanding mind
to govern your people,
able to discern good from evil . . . .”

Solomon prayed for the wisdom he needed to serve his people.
God liked that -- so he granted the boy’s request. He said:
“Because you have asked this,
and have not asked for yourself a long life or riches
or the life of your enemies,
but have asked for yourself wisdom to discern what is right . . . .
Indeed I give you a discerning mind . . . .”

People have lots of desires, which are mostly good in themselves,
but our desires unguided by wisdom can run amok
and get us into all sorts of trouble.
Not just individuals but whole societies
can go over the cliff with greed, fear,
the compulsion for revenge – you name it.

Each of us has inside a maelstrom of swirling feelings
– and that’s good.
It’s part of what makes us human and keeps life interesting.
But to live well, to flourish, we need a still center.

We need a core of wisdom and serenity out of which
we can discern truth and justice.
We need a balanced place from which to make decisions.
For 500 years before Jesus, Jewish Wisdom teachers
extolled the importance of that balanced place.
“Wisdom is more precious than rubies.
Nothing you desire can compare to her.” Proverbs 3 verse 15.

The lectionary sets our Old Testament lesson about Wisdom
alongside our Gospel lesson of parables from Matthew.
That sets these parables in a new light.
In Matthew, Jesus is first and foremost a teacher of wisdom.
He says, “the kingdom of heaven is like a treasure
hidden in a field . . . .”
When someone finds the treasure in the field,
he sells all he has to buy that field.”

When Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven,
he doesn’t mean a place we go when we die.
Kingdom doesn’t mean a place –it means being in charge.
He’s talking about who’s in charge of our lives.
When Jesus says “kingdom of heaven” he means
a spiritual state where we are not governed
by passing whims or ingrained habits.
It is the state of being governed by Wisdom.
Jesus means the balanced place from which
we can see clearly and act skillfully.

Do you see how Jesus is echoing Proverbs?
“On finding one pearl of great value,
he sold all he had and bought it.”
Wisdom is the gift we must have first
before we can possess anything else.
Without wisdom, any other gift is apt to possess us.
That’s why Solomon was right not to ask for any other gift
but the gift of discernment.
Without discernment, how could he know what to ask for?

One verse of today’s lesson has been twisted
and needs a bit of special attention. It says:
The kingdom of heaven is like a net that catches all kinds of fish,
both good and bad.
Then the good are kept and the bad thrown out.
A later writer has added a line turning this verse
into an allegory about the last judgment.
But Jews didn’t use allegory.
Jesus would not have said that part.

Take the verse back to Jesus’ original message,
and it means Wisdom entertains all kinds of ideas,
all kinds of possibilities, then sorts them out,
tossing the foolish options, keeping the good ones.

Finally, Jesus describes the wise person.
He calls the wise person “the scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven.”
Jesus says, this scribe is the master of his household.
That means he is in charge.
He has his feelings but his feelings don’t have him.
He is in charge of his own life.

Then Jesus says, the wise person
can bring out of his treasure, that is call forth from his wisdom,
things that are old and things that are new.

The wise person does not forget the wisdom of ancient tradition,
but he is alert to new insight,
fresh creative approaches to life.
He is not rootless – but he is not mired in the past.

Wisdom starts small inside us,
like a tiny seed that grows into a tree or
a pinch of yeast the leavens the entire loaf.
It is that small stillness between our in breath and our out breath.

Now specifically how do we cultivate Wisdom
so we can live well and be fully human?
Step one: we study the wisdom of others.
We study Scripture, the lives of the saints, the teachings
of the sages.
The first step is paying attention to wise people.
The best way is to go deep into one tradition
and study a little in several other traditions
to get a broader perspective.

Second, we make a discipline of visiting that balanced place
inside ourselves.
We make contact with our souls when we pray or meditate.
Some people do that best on their knees in church;
others, on a meditation pillow;
others, while walking, swimming, biking, or dancing.
My spiritual director used to say
“Pray the way that you can and not the way that you can’t.”
It doesn’t matter so much how we pray or meditate,
but that we pray or meditate every day.

Third, we make a discipline of looking before we leap,
of watching our feelings, measuring our feelings,
knowing our feelings before we act on them.
Our natural practice is: ready, fire, aim.
Wisdom is a simple adjustment in that sequence.

Step four is the hard part.
Remember why Solomon wanted wisdom.
It was so he could serve his people.

There is no such thing as selfish Wisdom
because selfishness is foolish.
Selfishness is self-defeating.
Wisdom can only be cultivated while serving others.

Fr. Jim has led St. Patrick’s in a commitment
to become a Church for others.
A church for others sets an example for each of us
in the wise practice of self-giving.
Generosity is simply opening our hands and our hearts.
That turns out not to be just good but also wise.
Generosity is wise because
only open hands and open hearts can let life in.
So study, pray, and look before you leap,
then give yourself to Life that Life may give itself to you.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Labor Pains: Practical Religion For The Real World

William James was the father of American psychology.
In the early 1900’s, he was a leader
of a movement called pragmatism.
James was interested in what works in the real world.

When it came to religion, he wanted to know what works.
He asked what kind of religion actually sustains us in real life.
James said the two most effective religions in the world
were Buddhism and Christianity.
They were effective because they faced up to how hard life can be
and worked with that situation in a creative, helpful way.

For a religion to be effective, James said,
it has to be true to our experience
but it also has to offer us hope that goes beyond our experience.
He contrasted Christianity with another approach
to life he called “the religion of healthy mindedness.”
That’s the idea that if we just get our minds right
everything will be just fine.

Since the William James days, a lot of happy minded religion
has found its way into Christian churches,
and even more into Christian television and radio.
Just believe right and it will make you healthy, wealthy, and wise.
Get your religion right and your marriage will be smooth,
your kids will behave, and your stocks will go up.
It’s called “the prosperity gospel.”

If that kind of religion works for someone,
I wouldn’t want to take it away from them.
But what does the prosperity gospel say
when your marriage has issues, your kids don’t behave,
or your stocks go down?
It says: you aren’t right with God.

Whatever happens to you is your fault,
and by the way you’re probably going to hell.
The religion of happy mindedness works fine as long as things are alright,
but when the going gets tough,
the religion of healthy mindedness gets harsh.

Orthodox Christianity doesn’t tell us that everything is alright
or that it will be alright if we just think the right thoughts.
Christianity does not say that hardships are illusions
or that they are punishments for not having enough faith.

Christianity is clear and emphatic that this world is not yet
the way God wants it.
Libraries full of books have been written to explain
why the world is the way it is.
You can find several different ways of looking at it in the Bible.
But they all agree that things are not right.

There are religions that sing nothing but happy praise songs
all the day long.
There are churches that never sing a hymn in a minor key.
But orthodox Christianity knows how to sing the blues.
We have songs like Wayfaring Stranger and Balm in Gilead.
We have Lent and Holy Week.
We have saints and martyrs who were far from happy minded.
We have preachers like Charles Spurgeon who said,
“No cross; no crown.”
Folk singer Nancy Griffith sang,
“It’s a hard life. It’s a hard life.
It’s a very hard life.
It’s a hard life wherever you go.”
Of course, it isn’t always a hard life.
Sometimes it’s a lot of fun.
But when life is hard,
what is a Christian supposed to think about that?

Let’s look at what St. Paul says in today’s lesson.
“I consider that the sufferings of this present time
are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.”

Paul doesn’t say it’s alright now, but that there’s something coming.
Paul is dreaming of an uncloudy day.
He says that the world will be changed and that we ourselves will be changed.
Listen to this:
“For the creation waits with eager longing
for the revealing of the children of God;
. . . .the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay
and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. “
Right now life can be an ordeal,
but Paul calls all our ordeals “labor pains.”
He says this:
The whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now;
and not only the creation, but we ourselves,
. . . groan inwardly while we wait for adoption,
the redemption of our bodies.”

One of the best philosophers alive today is an Anglican priest
named Marilyn McCord Adams.
In one of her books, she looks at some of the explanations
for why things go wrong.
She talks about free will and that sort of thing.
When it comes to ordinary hardships,
those explanations work more or less.
But then she asks about the really awful things that happen.
She calls those things “horrendous evils.”

I won’t cast a pall on your morning with examples.
But you know what she means – the real horrors of war, crime, terrorism,
and natural disasters like the earthquake in Haiti.

In the face of those things,
the nice little philosophical musings all ring hollow.
Besides, Adams says, we don’t want those things explained.
We want them redeemed.
And so, she says, they shall be.
God is infinitely beyond anything we have experienced, she says.
God is infinitely greater than even the most horrendous evils
that have ever happened on this earth.

What does God have waiting for us?
God has God’s own self to give us.
God promises that all our hardships, all our griefs,
will be swallowed up
in the transcendent glory of his love.

That’s what Paul means when he says,
“I consider that the sufferings of this present time
are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed . . . .”
We don’t live in passive acceptance of things as they are.
We live in hope that things will not just be better,
they will be glorious.
The difference between Christian suffering and ordinary suffering
lies in a single word: hope.
And that single word makes all the difference.

St. Paul said,
“For in hope we were saved.
Now hope that is seen is not hope.
For who hopes for what is seen?
But if we hope for what we do not see,
we wait for it with patience.”

We have a faith that can sing the blues
but we sing the blues with hope.
Ordinary suffering is laced with despair
because it doesn’t believe in tomorrow.
We live with today because we have supreme confidence
in tomorrow – a tomorrow in the presence of God.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Three Kinds Of Saving

The Trinity is like a poem that says a little about God,
gives us a few hints about God,
but leaves us still looking for more.
The Trinity tells us just three of the 798,000 things
we might say about God,
but they are three very important things.
They are three of the main ways God saves us
when life is hard and we need saving.

When we call God “Father”, we are saying God is parental toward us.
So what kind of a Father is God?
The Father’s main quality is wisdom
-- vast impenetrable wisdom.
It comes of his unique perspective as the one who was in the beginning,
is now, and ever will be
– the Father who knows everything – past, present, and future.

From that perspective, the Father sees how things that rock our world
in the worst way will someday be redeemed in ways we cannot imagine.
The Father is the Old Wise One, the Ancient of Days,
to whom we run when we are in panic to hear him say,
“Hush, child. It will be alright.”

The Father cares, but he cares calmly, confidently.
He has feelings without being overcome by feelings.
The Father’s feelings are in perfect balance,
supremely centered because the Father takes the long view of eternity.
In that long view, God’s has unshakable confidence that “all will be well,”

Such a Father cares for us but is not anxious about us.
While caring, God remains “infinitely at peace.”
There is in God a Serene Center,
unmoved, unshaken, eternal, sitting Buddha-like in perfect balance.
The Father God is, in T. S. Eliot’s words, “The still point of the turning world.”

The Father’s eternity and serenity are necessary to our hope.
But, the Father’s response, standing alone, is infuriatingly aloof.
If God remains immune to life’s ups and downs,
he cannot understand in a personal way what we go though.

That’s why we need another part of God – the Son.
The Son is the part of God that chooses to join us in our pain.
In his Treatise On The Love Of God, the Spanish philosopher
Miguel de Unamuno describes spiritual love this way:
“The lovers do not come to love one another this way . . .
unless they have suffered together,
When the powerful hammer of sorrow
has pummeled their hearts,
. . . . when they have suffered together,
. . . plowed the rocky ground
bound to the same yoke of a common sorrow.”

We see this part of God in Jesus on the Cross.
Jesus shows us a God who values us enough to join us in our suffering
instead of sitting blissfully serene in Paradise.

But it didn’t just happen once.
This is how God the Son is every moment of every day.
The Son is God’s infinite compassion and the word “compassion”
means literally “to suffer with.”
When we sing “there is no place where earth’s sorrows
are more felt than up in heaven,”
we are singing about the Son.

The Son is so present with the hungry that his stomach cramps;
so present with the lonely that his throat constricts
and cannot call out for comfort;
so present with the grief-stricken that he cannot move.
This is not God almighty, but God all vulnerable with us.

It is a good thing to have a God
who is serene when we are in a panic.
The Father’s wise serenity can be our eye in the hurricane.
It is good to have a God who loves us enough to suffer with us.
The Son’s compassion gives profound meaning to suffering
that might otherwise be for nothing
Those two parts of God are both essential to our salvation.
But they are not enough.
We need something more.

The Spirit is the divine force that both gives and restores life.
Our Creed calls the Spirit, “the Giver of Life.”
God gave Adam life by breathing into Adam’s nostrils
God’s own breath, God’s own spirit.
When Jesus lay dead in the tomb,
the Spirit breathed life back into him.
the Spirit breathes life back into us.

Just so, the Spirit is the force that raises us from death.
In an old spiritual, we sing,
“Sometimes I feel discouraged and like my life’s in vain.
But then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again”,

Life is often more than we can bear.
And yet, to our utter amazement,
people do rise from their ashes and walk on,
sometimes heroically, wisely, compassionately
– occasionally, even joyfully.
When this happens, we know we are witnessing a miracle and a mystery.
Human beings are not this resilient. No one could be.
And yet, it happens.

When the Spirit raises us from despair,
it does not just restore us to our old life.
We do not just carry on as before.
Life in the Spirit is new life with a new agenda.
When the Spirit of God fell upon prophets or kings,
it was not just to cheer them up, but to empower them
for a mission of service to others.
Jesus said:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor . . .
to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind
to set at liberty those who are oppressed
and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.

Several years ago, a 20 year old college student in my parish
died in the crash of TWA 800.
Her devastated mother asked me “why?”
And I had no answer to give her.
I had no comfort to offer. But God did.

A few months later another woman in our parish
fell into renal failure.
She was blind, disabled, and at times psychotic.
She had no family to care for her.

So the bereaved mother got up from the bed of her grief
to do what had to be done.
Later she said, God had sent her that mission of mercy
to save her own life.

The Spirit calls and empowers us to help the afflicted.
God serves the suffering through the hands
of flesh-and-blood human servants.
The Spirit transforms us into those servants.

When we are hurting, it is natural to become focused on our own pain.
It is natural for our attention to turn toward ourselves.
Natural as these responses are, they are the very responses
that cripple us, that hold us back from moving on, experiencing new life.
The Spirit sets us free from obsessive thinking,
from old patterns of feeling and acting that keep we trapped
in lives less than God wants for us.
The Spirit liberates us by converting our self-focus to service.
The Spirit transforms our own pain can into compassion for others.
The Prayer Of St. Francis says, “
It is in giving that we receive; it is in forgiving that we are forgiven . . . “
Just so, it is in healing others that we ourselves are healed.

Life in this world is hard and it’s complicated.
You’ve know that.
So we need a big God and a complicated God.
We need a God who is perfectly serene,
we need a God who vulnerable and compassionate;
we need a God who powerful enough to create the universe
and when our world falls apart to put it together again
and raise us up from the graves of our despair.

We need all that and more.
But we got lucky.
God is all of that and more – “infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.”

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Mind Is Its Own Place

Last week we celebrated the Feast of the Ascension
– the day when Jesus passed the torch of his mission to us
and promised that we would receive his power to continue
his mission.
Today we celebrate the birthday of the Church,
the day we received the spiritual power to change the world.

But as we celebrate the fact that we are here,
I find myself considerably confused as to what it is we are doing.
This is what confuses me.
Only 10% of Americans attend church.
But 92% of Americans believe in God.
By my count, that means 82% of Americans,
believe in God but don’t see the connection with Church.

These numbers make me wonder about several things.
What do they think religion is for?
What do they think Church is for?
What do we think Church is for?

One of our greatest living theologians, John Hick, looks at these facts
-- most people believe in God
but only a tiny minority attends Church –
and he has this observation:

“(T)he small minority of church attenders are generally happy
with the message they receive from the liturgies, hymns, and prayers,
and enjoy meeting with their friends there Sunday by Sunday .
They see the Church as destined to always be a small minority . . .
and believe this is an OK situation.
It means we are where we should be within our comfort zone.
But is this the right way to think?
Personally,” John Hick says, “I don’t think so.”

So what is wrong with this picture?
A few hundred years ago Christianity got lost
and drifted into a carrot and stick religion
all about going to Heaven and staying out of Hell.
Going to Church was our admission ticket at the pearly gates.
If we put in enough hours listening to boring sermons,
God rewards us with a get out of hell free card.
That's a far cry from the Bible and the teachings of the Early Church
which have surprisinglylittle to say on that whole subject
which became the end all and be all of Christianity in the Middle Ages.

But eventually some theologian decided
all we really have to do is believe that God exists.
In the words of the country singer, Don Williams,
“I don’t believe that Heaven waits
For only those who congregate.”
So church just doesn’t seem necessary.

That’s right as far as it goes.
God does not require us to log x hours of church time
as our price of admission to Heaven.
But without the inner transformation that comes
from a lifetime of spiritual practice,
Heaven may feel pretty uncomfortable.

As John Milton said,
“The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”//
Getting God to let us into Heaven is not the point.
Transforming our minds so that we are capable
of experiencing Heaven is more like it.
St. Paul said, “Be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”

What we do here is not to buy our way into Heaven.
We are here to be changed right down to the core of our being.
Yes, this is to prepare us for Eternity,
but Eternity doesn’t begin when we die.
Eternity is now.

What we do here is to change us now and for eternity
into the likeness of Christ.
Christian practice -- which includes study, prayer, worship, and service –
changes us now.
We receive the Holy Spirit – not when we die – now!

And what difference does that make?
It changes our hearts and our minds so we become
new people with new capacities – new powers.
Paul said, “If anyone is in Christ,
that person has become a new creation.
The old has gone. The new is here.”

That’s what it means to receive the Holy Spirit.
We become capable of new things.
In Galatians, Paul gives us a list of 9 of the new things
we can do and experience by the power of the Spirit.

The first is love. Everybody wants to be loved.
But the problem is we are not very good at loving
– needing maybe – but not so good at loving,
at caring for someone, at appreciating them.
We are here to learn how to do that.

Second is joy. How much joy do you have in your life right now?
How much deep down shout hallelujah joy?
Is it that the universe is not wonderful enough?
Or is it that our hearts are not sufficiently open to it?
We are here to learn and practice the art of joy.

Third is peace.
How many of us have mastered true serenity
– the capacity to be the eye of the hurricane?
Deep inner peace comes from training our hearts to pray
without ceasing until we float in grace
no matter what is happening in our outer circumstances.

The fourth is forbearance.
That means the capacity to keep our mouth shut
when words will do more harm than good,
the capacity to be still and wait.

Then there’s kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness.
The last is self-control.
Have you noticed that most of the world is out of control?
Have you noticed how often we are not in control of ourselves?
Someone says x so we automatically feel y and then do z.
Other people push our buttons and we bark to their tune.
What would it be like to pull back
and be ourselves instead of reacting to the button pushers?

So about the 90% of Americans who are at home this Pentecost
-- will God let them into heaven? Sure.
But how much joy do you see in their faces?
When they enter a room, do they fill it with peace?
Have they mastered self-control?
If we want to do those folks any good,
we need to get clear on what we are here for
and what we have to offer.
It’s not admission tickets. This is not the celestial box office.
We are here in the business of spiritual transformation.

In Ezekiel, the Lord said,
“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you.
I will remove from you your heart of stone
and give you a heart of flesh.”
That’s what we are here for new spirits, new hearts
– hearts fit for this life and fit for the life to come.

We are about changing hearts, changing minds, changing lives.
That is what we ritualize in worship.
It’s what we pray for and accomplish through meditation.
It’s what we study in our ancient wisdom teachings.
It’s what we practice in our relationships and in our service.

When we change our hearts, when we change inwardly,
the change doesn’t stop inside our skin.
We become change agents in the culture.
We Anglicans are not defined by a detailed set of theological opinions
but by our spiritual practices and our mission.
We have 5 marks or points of our mission:
To proclaim the good news of God
To teach, baptize, and nurture new believers
To respond to human need with loving service
To transform unjust social structures; and
To safeguard and sustain the life of the earth.

This is about transforming the whole tone of our personal lives, yes.
But it’s more than that.
It’s about changing the world in which we live.
It’s about filling -- not only our own homes and friendships
but the whole world --
with love, peace, forbearance, kindness,
gentleness and self control.

That’s what people do when they have new spirits and new hearts.
That’s what we do when we stop just believing in God
and become disciples of Christ.
That’s what the Holy Spirit is doing through us.
Glory to God whose power working in us can do infinitely more
than we can ask or imagine.

Monday, June 6, 2011

3 Practices & 2 Songs For Spiritual Power

Jesus’ last words to the apostles were:
“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you
and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea,
in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

This is Jesus’ last will and testament, his legacy to us.
His parting words threaten to change our lives.
Jesus hands over his mission to us.
To carry out his mission, we need his power.
That makes us distinctly uncomfortable.
No one admits to wanting power.
So what are we doing in a religion that promises power?

Talking about power conjures up images of tyrants, dictators,
political wheeler dealers, and financial robber barons.
Put it together with religion and you get one those double chinned bishops
who’s always eating turkey drumsticks in Renaissance movies.
Nice people don’t talk about power, especially in church.
What has power to do with Christianity?
As Christians we are supposed to be simpering, pusillanimous, dispensers
of charity and pious platitudes, are we not?

But is that kind of Christianity honest?
Does it have any place in the real world?
Sociologist of religion, James Davison Hunter says,
“Human relations are inherently power relations.
Power saturates all of social reality . . . .
How people engage the world is at least implicitly
a question of how they relate to power.”

To truly have nothing to do with power
is to disengage from the world.
To pretend we have nothing to do with power is
to deal with the world, and with our selves, deceitfully.
So we might start by talking about power honestly.

Jesus said, “You will receive power.”
2nd Timothy says, “God did not give us a spirit of fear,
but of power . . . .”
Ephesians says, “Glory to God whose power working in us
can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.”
Paul said, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.”

Jesus wants to give us power for his mission.
If we don’t claim that power, we remain spiritual parasites,
not partners with Christ in mission.
So what is this spiritual power Christ offers?
Is it something we might dare claim for ourselves
and put to use in his mission?

First, forget what you know about worldly power.
This is another thing altogether.
Spiritual power is not dominating power.
Jesus always resisted dominating power.

Spiritual power is relational.
It is the ability to influence others
out of something deep and authentic.
If you are a stranger to me, then you cannot influence me.
If you are a fool, you cannot influence me
unless I’m a bigger fool than you are.

But suppose we get to know each other.
Suppose I come to trust that you mean me well.
And suppose I believe you know something worth knowing.
Suppose I experience you as sane, wise, honest, and decent.
Then I will believe in you and what you say.
Then you can influence me for good.

Worldly power, dominating power is one person
diminishing the power of another person
– trying to make himself more by making someone else less.

Spiritual power is energy.
It flows between people to make them both stronger.
Relational power, spiritual power, can heal, encourage, inspire.

Look at any interpersonal transaction, be it in Scripture, current events,
or your personal life, and check the power dynamics.
Does one person exert power to diminish someone else?
Or does one person share power, empower the other person?
That’s how we distinguish the world’s power from the Jesus power.

We cannot empower others
unless we claim and cultivate our own spiritual power first.
There are three ways to receive the spiritual power Christ offers.

First, it takes prayer.
After Jesus told the apostles they were to receive power for the mission,
the Bible says, they constantly devoted themselves to prayer.
Prayer connects the circuit for Christ’s power to flow through us.

Second it takes study.
Remember that you gain the power to influence me
only if two thing come together.
One, I can tell you mean me well.
Two, I can tell you know something.
2nd Peter says, “His divine power has given us
everything we need for life and godliness.
This power was given to us through knowledge. . . .”
Proverbs 24 verse 5:
“A person of knowledge increases power.”
We do not grow in spiritual power unless we value our faith
seriously enough to study it.

Finally, spiritual power is relational.
Its roots are in Christ-centered relationships with each other.
Spiritual power grows through the intentional discipline
of paying attention to each other, caring for each other,
and finding things to appreciate in each other.

We grow in spiritual power when we do three things:
Pray, study, and befriend each other in Christ.
When we do that, we cease to be spiritual parasites
and become partners -- powerful agents for the kingdom.

But do we dare to claim the power Christ wants to give us?
I see several signs that make me wonder if we are that bold.
Some are a bit delicate.
The least sensitive examples are in our music.

The basic hymn for ordinations in the Episcopal Church
is the old Celtic song, St. Patrick’s Breastplate.
It’s so normative for ordinations and common for confirmations
that most bishops have heard enough of it for a lifetime.
It’s the basic strap on your gun belt song from every Western movie.
The words are an incantation St. Patrick prayed on the plain of Tara
before doing battle with the army of wizards of King Laoghaire.
It goes:

“I bind unto myself today
The strong name of the Trinity . . . .
I bind unto myself the power
Of the great love of cherubim . . . .
The power of God to hold and lead,
His eye to watch, his might to stay . . . .”

It’s what we sing at confirmations before the bishop prays,
“Strengthen O Lord your servant. . . .”
My question is: why have I never once in our diocese,
in any church large or small, high or low, traditional or hip,
not once anywhere in our diocese ever heard that song?

Example 2:
Three of Nevada’s last 4 bishops all attended the same seminary.
That seminary has a theme song, a bit of a fight song actually.
It’s called Chelsea Square named for the seminary’s location
in New York City.
It’s a vigorous song, a marching into mission song.
The opening lines are:
“Put forth O God thy Spirit’s might
And bid thy church increase. . . .”
You can guess my question.
Why have I never heard it in Nevada?

I am not really worried about holes in our musical repertoire per se.
I am wondering what this might say about our gumption
– our willingness to be strong in faith, powerful in mission.

Eucharistic Prayer C says,
“Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this table
for solace only and not for strength.”
Is strength part of what we mean by the word Christian?
Are we willing as Christians to claim and exercise spiritual power?
If not, why am I about to pray for the confirmands
“empower them for your service”?

The Body of Christ needs a backbone.
The Body of Christ needs some fire in its belly.
The Body of Christ needs a steady eye, a firm hand,
and strong right arm.

We need Christians who pray until they radiate spirit,
who study their way into holy wisdom,
who have the relational power to hold fast to a friend
in the strongest storms of life.

When we have that kind of religion, brothers and sisters,
we’ll have the faith of the apostles.
When we have that kind of religion,
our faith will not be an aid to ordinary life
lived in an ordinary environment.

It will be the driving force of extraordinary life
that transforms our environment with justice and mercy.
We will be change agents for the kingdom of God.
When we have that kind of religion,
we will have been baptized with fire as the Bible promises
and the world will feel our transforming energy.