Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Marketplace & The Human Heart

I bring you greetings from the Episcopal Church in Nevada.
I will share with you today what I believe the Holy Spirit
is saying to us through our Gospel lesson
about Jesus’ cleansing the Temple.

But first I ask you patience.
I want to tell you about my home
and what it means for me to be here.
Like Kenya, my home is beautiful but it knows suffering.
Nevada is a very large state with not many people in it.
It takes many hours to drive from one church to another.
Our land is a vast desert with hundreds and hundreds of mountains,
more mountain ranges than any other state in the USA.

In much of Nevada, it is too dry to grow crops or raise cattle.
In the countryside, our main way to make money is mining.
We mine all sorts of things, especially gold.
The only place in the world
that produces more gold than Nevada is South Africa.

We have one large city, Las Vegas, where there is a lot of entertainment.
Some of it is good, healthy entertainment. Some is bad for people.
You have heard that there is much drunkenness
and other bad behavior in Nevada.
It is true.
Much of this is caused by loneliness.
Very few of our people grew up there.
Most of us do not have families living near us.
I have no family in Nevada except my wife.
So it can be lonely.

There is more despair than faith in our land.
87% of our people have no connection to any religion.
So it is not surprising that our suicide rate is two times as high
as the average in the USA.
Many people are addicted to drugs or alcohol.
There is much violence in the families and much divorce.

Nevada is a beautiful barren place,
much like the Holy Land where Jesus lived.
Our people are brave, humorous, strong, and kind.
You have to be strong to live in the desert.
But there is loneliness and despair all around us.

So God has given our Church an important mission.
We are there to proclaim Jesus’ message of hope.
We are there to speak up for the poor and the suffering,
to reach out to the lonely and the hopeless.
It is a hard mission, but an important one in God’s eyes.

We need your prayers.
I pray for this Diocese of Machakos every day.
Please pray for us in Nevada.
Pray that God will pour out his Spirit on our Church
like a long steady rain that we may be Christ in our desert.

There are probably many things about the Church in Kenya
that I cannot understand because I am not Kenyan.
I hope to understand more after this visit.
There may be things about the Church in Nevada or the USA
you do not understand.

I can tell you this much.
Many people in my home land need Jesus
but have no idea who Jesus is.
They do not even know the most famous Bible stories.
We are trying our best to bring people to Jesus.
I learned this expression
from a old political movement 40 years ago.
“By any means necessary.”
It’s basically the same thing St. Paul said,
“I want to bring people to Jesus
by any means necessary.”
That is what we are trying with all our might
to do in Nevada which is a desert of land
and a desert of the spirit.

I am very happy to be here with you today.
I am happy for several reasons.
The first is that there are so many Anglicans here.
There are five times as many Anglicans in Kenya
as in the USA.
In Nevada, there are very, very few of us
even compared to the rest of the USA.

We are a small church in a large desert.
So it is a great joy to be here
where there are so many people
who worship and pray in the same way I do.

The second reason I am happy to be here
is that we cannot know who we are
unless we know our story,
and that includes the story of our ancestors.
So I am here to see and to touch the land of my ancestors.

Does it surprise you that a white man would say that?
African-Americans have always looked to Africa
to learn the ways of their ancestors.
But today, our best scientists believe that the whole human race
– black, white, brown, or yellow – all of humanity
began in East Africa, very possibly right here in Kenya.
And they believe that it all began with one human couple
just as the Bible says,
that this is Eden and Adam and Eve were East Africans,
possibly Kenyans.

You probably already know this.
Most Americans do not.
But the likely fact that this is where human life began
makes your home a sacred place
– a holy place like Jerusalem –
so I feel blessed and grateful to be here.

My wife Linda and I thank you for welcoming us
to your beautiful home,
a place of rich culture and tradition,
a place of ancient civilization,
the place where all our stories began.

Today’s Gospel lesson describes one of the most striking moments
in our Christian story.
It tells us that when Jesus went to the Temple
for Passover, he found people doing all sorts of business.
He found cattle, sheep, and doves being sold for sacrifice.
He found money changers doing a banking business.

This is the one time when Jesus was violent.
He drove them all out with a whip, turned over their tables.
scattered their money, and shouted at them,
“Stop making my Father’s house a market place.”//

Now Jesus did not have anything against market places.
He went to them and through them all the time.
He taught and healed people in the market place.
He used the business of the market place
to make spiritual points in his stories.
Jesus had nothing against doing business in the marketplace.
What made him angry was using the Temple for a marketplace,
because the Temple is holy.

Matthew tells us that when Jesus drove the merchants and bankers
out of the Temple, he said “My house . . . is a house of prayer.”
Business is ok in the business district,
but not in God’s house.
The Temple is for prayer and prayer alone.

There are two important things we can learn from this story
– one is important for our private lives
– the other is important for our mission as the Church.
Let’s start with our private lives.

What does Jesus cleansing them Temple have to do with us?
What does Jesus cleansing the Temple have to do
with your heart, your spirit?
St. Paul said to the Corinthians and he says to us,
“Do you not know that you are God’s Temple
and God’s Spirit dwells in you?”//
Your heart is the Temple of God.
Your heart was created to be a house of prayer.
But often we turn our heart into a marketplace.
The busy thoughts of the world take possession of us.
We plan, we plot, we think “if this happens then I may gain something.
It that happens I may lose something.”
And our heat beats faster with the hope of gain or the fear of loss.
Our hearts beat faster like the hearts of the gamblers in Las Vegas.

And we think “If I do such and such, I will have a better chance.
But what if such and such happens? Then what shall I do?”
And our heads do not rest easy in our beds.
We breathe a little too quickly and take in too little air
with each breath.
We have no peace. We have no serenity.
We are out of balance and we cannot pray.

Jesus said “My house . . . is a house of prayer.”
Your heart was shaped by God to be a house of prayer,
but most of our hearts are often busy and fretful like marketplaces.

Now it is a good thing to do business.
It good to grow food or make things to sell.
The marketplace is part of life.
The market place is human and God loves it.

The marketplace is where justice can happen.
It is where mercy and friendship happen.
The marketplace is good. We belong there.

But we also need a house of prayer.
We need a serene center in our selves, a place of peace.
We need hearts that hear the word of the Lord, saying
“Be still and know that I am God. . . .
Search your hearts while you are in bed and be silent.”

It is good to jump into the busy hustle and bustle of life,
to go to the marketplace to buy and to sell,
to talk, to tell stories and listen to stories.
But we also need to leave the marketplace a little while each day.
Jesus left the hustle and bustle of his ministry of teaching and healing
to be alone and to pray.
He withdrew into solitude, withdrew into the temple
of his own heart.
“Go to away by yourself and shut the door,” Jesus said,
“pray in secret to your father who is in secret.”

Brothers and sisters, save the very center of your soul
as a place to be alone with God.
Maybe you have a room in your house where you can pray.
Or maybe you go out walking alone.
Pray while you watch the sunset.
Or get up before dawn and pray while the sun is rising.
Pray as you take your bath.
Pray as you put away your tools at the end of the day.

Each of us must choose his own time and his own place.
Because it is a time and place that belongs to you and God alone.
The active life of business and family is a gift from God,
but it can be as stormy as a typhoon.
We are often caught up in the busy activity of life
and it blows us around in circles like a typhoon.
But even in the typhoon there is a still center.

We call it “the eye of the storm.”
I don’t know why we call it that.
Maybe it’s because it is when we step out of the whirling wind
into the still place, that’s where we can actually see
what’s happening.
Brothers and sisters, Jesus invites you to step out of the storm
into the still center of your own hearts each day.
God says, “Be still and know that I am God.”

Let Jesus drive the fears and ambitions, thoughts and plans
out of your hearts so that you can be alone with him
in prayer, give yourself to him in prayer.

And what shall you do in the solitude?
What shall you say to the Lord?
You can recite a prayer from the Prayer Book.
Or you can speak to Jesus of your deepest desires.
You can tell him what you truly want in life.
Or you can just imagine his face.
St. Francis used to sit in silence and pray for hours.
Someone said, “Francis, tell us how you pray.”
Francis answered, “I look at him and he looks at me.”
It can be as simple as that.

There is no one else who can love you so perfectly as Jesus,
no one else who accepts you so completely just as you are.
It is a sacred duty to spend time with Jesus in prayer.
But it is also the deepest joy, the quietest peace we can know.

St. Augustine, the greatest African saint,
Regretting how much of his life was wasted in busy ambition,
prayed these words,
“So late I came to love you, O Beauty so Ancient and so new.
So late I came to love you . . .
I ran after . . . the things you have made.
But you were inside me. And I was not with you. . .
You called, you cried, you shone through my blindness. . . .
You touched me, and (now) I ardently desire your peace.”

If we turn away from the things of the world a little while each day,
then our hearts will prepared to worship together
when come to church on Sunday.
Our prayer and our singing, our taste of the Holy Communion,
will be so much deeper than if we have spent the whole
week lost in the ways of the world.

If we have spent time with Jesus in the solitude and silence,
we will bring a larger soul to the Church on Sunday.
And we will bring a larger soul into our acts of kindness
for one another and our work for justice and peace.
We cannot bring peace to a war torn world
unless we first have peace inside ourselves.

Now we have arrived at the second point we can learn
from the story about Jesus’ cleansing the Temple.
This point is about the mission of the Church.
I do not know how this is in Kenya.
But we have a challenge in the America.

There are other Churches there
that preach a different message from ours.
Their religion is all about prosperity.
They say that if you believe in Jesus,
he will make you rich, healthy, and successful.
Their religion does not have the cross in it.
They would never observe the season of Lent.

Their religion is all about becoming rich and powerful
in this world.
They have nothing to say about justice, mercy, and compassion.
They have nothing to say about the duty and joy of helping each other.
It’s all about how to get God to serve us,
not how we serve God’s mission of peace and love.

Naturally, those churches are popular and they are growing.
It is a candy-coated gospel. It is a sweet poison.
But it is popular because it promises people
what they want in their pockets,
not what they need in their souls.

So our people in the Anglican churches
say “Look how they are growing.
Their message is popular.
Why don’t we do that in our Church?”

I have heard that other religions in Africa
and even some other Christian churches
are doing the same thing.
I have heard that other religions promise
all sorts of worldly rewards
for people who will join them.

This may not be an issue for you yet.
But if you have not already been tempted,
you may someday be tempted to become like them.
But I beg you in the name of Jesus, do not be led astray.
I beg you in the name of Jesus, do not turn the Church
into a marketplace.

Each human heart is a little Temple of God.
When we bring our hearts together in the Church,
when we unite our hearts in the Holy Communion,
this is God’s Temple.
God is here.
And Jesus said, “My house is a house of prayer.
Do not make it into a market place.”

Brothers and sisters we are not here to sell our religion.
We are not here to twist our sacred truths
to fit what the market demands,
we are not here to sell whatever people are most likely to buy.

We are here to proclaim Christ crucified.
Our Jesus did not turn the stones to bread,
did not accept political and military power over the whole world,
and did not perform his miracles in public to make himself a hero.
He was born in a stable,
wandered without a home to teach God’s truth,
and went to the cross to suffer and die
– all out of love for us.

Our faith in Christ crucified calls us to help one another,
not use God to help us get ahead of our neighbor.
Our faith calls us to share what we have in love.
Our faith calls us to befriend the outcast,
to stand up for justice against power,
to give ourselves to Jesus who gave his life or us.

It is a costly faith.
But it offers so much more in return
than worldly wealth and power.
It offers the peace of God which surpasses all understanding.

I know the Anglican Church of Kenya helps people
to have better, happier lives.
I know of your work in clinics, orphanages, and schools.
I know a little of your work in economic development.
These are acts of justice and mercy.
They are God’s mission.

But God’s mission must be done from the heart
which is God’s Temple.
All of our good works in the world depend on prayer.
“Unless the Lord builds the house,
its builders labor in vain.”

So I beg you, Brothers and sisters,
make each of your hearts a house of prayer
where you give yourselves to Jesus;
preserve this Cathedral as a house of prayer
where we give our common life to Jesus.
Then we can go out into the world to do the work
God has given us to do.
We can go in peace to love and serve the Lord.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Forget Yourself And Get A Life

Jesus says if anyone wants to be his disciple
that person must “deny himself, take up his cross, and follow . . . . “
Denying oneself doesn’t sound very healthy to
people who have cut their teeth on pop psychology.
Today we are all about being ourselves – not denying ourselves.
So is Jesus saying anything we might even consider?

First let’s get clear on what Jesus isn’t saying.
He doesn’t mean to pretend we aren’t who we really are.
It’s not about being phony.
It isn’t avoiding the things that make us happy.

One of our best New Testament scholars translates this verse,
“he must forget himself.”
Jesus is saying to stop fretting over our own self-interests.
Stop trying to make ourselves important.

St. Augustine said, “I have become a great problem to myself.”
I know what he means and I bet you do too.

Even when things are going better than par for me,
my mind spins out complications.
I still manage to tangle the lines of my relationships.
The harder I work at making myself happy,
the more frustrated and anxious I become.
I remain “a great problem to myself.”

It is a dreadful thing to be self-obsessed.
In my case, I’m not even that interesting.
It’s like being addicted to a bad sit-com.

Modern culture has set us free from many bonds
– bondage to political tyranny,
respect for hierarchical authorities,
obligations to extended families and tradition.
But once we are set free from those powers,
modern culture delivers us into the hands
of the harshest task-master of all,
the demands of our own self-interest.

We work so hard at making ourselves successful and secure
that we don’t see the sunrise, taste our food,
or feel the air on face.

We lose our lives.
As novelist Walker Percy put it,
we “miss our lives as a man might miss a bus.”
When Jesus invites us to follow him,
he is inviting us on a journey into life,
but to begin that journey, he says,
we first have to forget about ourselves.

Some years ago, I was leading a Bible Study.
One day, one person in the class told the story
of how she had been weighed down by an unspeakable grief.
It was the death of her young daughter.
But then someone else in the congregation became terminally ill.
So instead of sinking in her grief,
she forgot herself, rolled up her sleeves, and went to work
helping her dying friend.
The bereaved mother found her life by losing it in helping someone else.
In that same class, a man told the story of being trapped
in his sense of his own sin, shame, and unworthiness.
But his friend was dying of AIDS and wanted to see him.
So he had to forget himself, forget his unworthiness,
to visit the dying friend,
and that visit restored his own life.

One person had her identity wrapped up in grief.
The other had his identity wrapped up in guilt.
Neither was able to really live.
The paradox of Christianity is that we begin to really live
when we forget about ourselves.

90% of religion doesn’t get that.
90% of religion just replaces material self-centeredness
with spiritual self-centeredness.
All the religion driven by trying to stay out of hell
and go to heaven is just spiritual self-centeredness.
All the spirituality of trying to achieve a happy state of mind
is just spiritual self-centeredness.
It’s all just one more ego-project.
But how do we get out of that trap?
How can we possibly forget ourselves?
If I set out to forget myself for my own sake,
the contradiction ties me in knots.
I remain “a great problem to myself.”

The two people in my Bible Study
were drawn out of their self-obsession
by other people who needed them.
Is there someone you care about who needs you?
Might there be someone you don’t know yet
who needs you and is waiting to liberate you
from the prison of our self-obsession?

One more liberation story.
Another woman in that same Bible Study told
about a week she had spent trapped in depression and self-pity,
weighed down by it, miserable in it.
Her identity was wrapped up in loneliness.

Then at the grocery store checkout counter,
a stranger gave her a rose.
In that instant, she forgot herself.
The beauty of the rose
and the beauty of the act of giving her the rose
surprised her and filled her with delight.

You want to know what the heart of Christian spirituality is?
You want to know what grace means?
It’s a stranger handing you a rose on a bad day.

We’ve all had glimpses of it.
We encounter something beautiful or good.
We sense the presence of holiness.
And we forget ourselves,
like losing ourselves in music.

We see the value of a life other than our own.
We see its fragility.
We know someone needs us,
and we value them enough to do what’s needed.
We visit them in the hospital.
We bring them a meal.
We drop our agenda and just listen to someone
who needs to talk.

And so we put our ego-projects on the shelf for awhile
and give a little time, a little of ourselves to someone else.
Ironically, the more we give ourselves away,
the fuller of life we become.

But those are just little tastes of freedom.
In order to really forget ourselves,
to put our ego projects away for good,
our attention must be captured by something
powerfully, even ultimately, fascinating.
We need to see something beautiful enough,
captivating enough, delightful enough
to make us want to gaze on it forever.
That would be God.

We are all in church this morning.
But why is that? What are we doing here?
And why are the people who are absent not here?

Sometimes unchurched people tell me they skip church
because they weren’t “getting anything out of it.”
Younger folks are apt to say it isn’t “meaningful.”
Their assumption is that the goal is to prop up their egos,
that the church is supposed to fortify them
in their quest for personal well-being.

Some of the more entertaining churches
take that job on and do it well.
Joel Osteen has a huge following of people who want a religion
that will make them healthy, wealthy, and better looking.
The bookstores are stuffed with prescriptions
and the world is awash in snake oil remedies
to fortify the self, the polish the self, the fix the self.

But Jesus says, forget about yourself.
Lay yourself down and take up the cross.
Give yourself away for love -- love for a friend,
love for a neighbor, love for a stranger,
love for God in whatever strange guise God may present himself --
and you will find a rare beauty, joy, and wonder.

But you cannot possess it.
You can’t go around bragging “I’ve found it.”
You can’t mould it into a badge and pin it on your chest,
because the instant you try to do any of that
is disappears like the mist at sunrise.

You can’t lay claim to it.
You can only lose yourself in it,
and when you lose yourself,
you get God in return.
The simple point of the gospel is this:
God is better.