Sunday, June 22, 2014


I cannot think of a more poignant story than Ishmael’s.
Abraham cast Hagar and her baby out into the desert
            with nothing but a loaf of bread and a skin of water.
When the water ran out, Hagar laid the child
            under a bush and left him there alone
because she could not bear to watch him die.
But God heard the baby’s cry,
            sent Hagar back to her son, gave them water,
and made Ishmael’s descendants a great nation.

I stand in awe of that moment when baby Ishmael has lost everything
-- father, mother, food, water, shelter – all gone.
He has nothing – absolutely nothing – but the grace of God.
Then my mind leaps from Ishmael to his opposite
      Willy Loman in The Death Of A Salesman.
In Thomas Dumm’s recent book, Loneliness As A Way Of Life,
            he describes Willy Loman as lonely, alienated
-- cut off even from himself.
-- trapped in the ceaseless struggle to acquire,
            to succeed by amassing possessions, to have, have, have –
because the alternative to having is to be had.
We trust owning things to insure our well-being and our freedom.
We want to be people “of independent means.”

But Dumm says that the life of having is empty.
As Wordsworth put it,
            “Getting and spending we lay waste our powers.
             Little we see in nature that is ours.”
It’s like Citizen Kane dying with the word “Rosebud,”
            the name of his boyhood sled, on his lips
He had built an empire but died longing
for the simple innocent humanity he had lost.
Psychoanalyst Eric Fromm wrote in his book, To Have Or To Be.
that Western culture had gone off track,
            promising happiness through material possessions,
            but that life of getting, spending, having, and clutching
had failed to make us happy.
It had drawn us away from authentic experience.
It had cut us off from our real selves, cut us off like Citizen Kane
            and Willy Loman from our humanity,
            reduced us to  jumping through economic hoops.

But Fromm says there is another way.
It is possible to live deeply and happily
            through participation in the whole dance of humanity.
He calls that experience “being” and says we develop the capacity for being
            -- the capacity for life -- through letting go of possessions
            in order to connect with each other.

Fromm’s compelling  diagnosis of our psychological malaise
            seems to grow out of an older book by French philosopher
            Gabriel Marcel, Being And Having.
But Marcel says the problem isn’t just material possessions.
It’s how we relate to everything.
It’s treating the world, even our own bodies and ideas,
            as something we can watch, dominate , possess, manipulate.

That’s what Gabriel Marcel means by “having.”
We can have our families as well as having our homes.
The problem, according to Marcel, is that we stand back
one step removed from everything,
using it instead of celebrating it.

So the vegan yoga-practicing purist in patched jeans
            can be just as caught up in having his spirituality
            as the investor is in having his mutual fund.
“Having” is about control and credentials.
The opposite of “having” is what Fromm and Marcel call “being.”
It’s the real life that comes from participation, from joining the dance.
It happens when we give ourselves away.
Being is as vulnerable as baby Ishmael under the bush.
Authentic life is vulnerable precisely because
it is engaged with others, participating rather than controlling,
                        giving our money, our time, our attention, and our hearts
                        to a life that often doesn’t go our way.
It’s surfing. We don’t control the frothy waves. We ride them.

In between Ishmael, homeless and alone in the desert
but surviving by the grace of God,
and Willy Loman, dying in a car wreck
on the very day his house was paid off,
there was another character – Jesus.
Jesus’ disciples had left everything follow him.
They left their jobs, their homes, their families, their communities.
After awhile they asked Jesus,
“Now what will we get? What’s our reward?”
Jesus told them they still had more to give.
They’d have to take up their cross.
Then he said, “Whoever finds his life will lose it;
            but anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it.”
The word we have translated as life is actually psyche.
It means the very core of a person, their identity,
            what makes them get up in the morning.

It’s in the ballpark of what Buddhists mean
            when they talk about surrendering the ego.
I used to be a Buddhist talking about surrendering my ego ad nauseum.
I was pretty proud of how much ego I had surrendered.
Then I ran across God who wanted me to surrender real stuff
            like money, time, emotional energy
-- and I discovered I  still had some attachments break loose.

Jesus invites us to let go of what we cling to most tightly,
            because those things are our chains.
The more we give away, the less we have,
            but the more fully alive we become.
If we give our money, our time, our attention, our labor
            for Jesus’ sake, it opens up a place in our souls
                        where we can breathe.
We can lighten up.
We can get light enough to join the dance, to surf the waves.

Everything we do in the Church is about getting free
from the prison of having
            so we can plunge into being
-- that spontaneous flowing state of appreciation and gratitude.

We place our offering of money, bread, and wine
unconditionally on God’s altar.
These tokens represent all we have and all we are.
We give it all to God.
Then our gifts are blessed, broken, and shared with one another.

Holy Communion is the ritual of giving up what we have
            in order to participate in life.
It is the exchange of having for being.
In Holy Communion we recall Abraham leaving his land and people
            to follow God; then Moses; then Jesus; and the followers of Jesus.
Like them, we do not come to Church to “get something out of it.”
We come to Church to give ourselves to God
            and open our hearts to life.

Meister Eckhart, one of the greatest spiritual masters of the Middle Ages,
said, “The person who is full of things is empty of God;       
            but the person who is empty of things is full of God.”
He also said,
            “No one ever gave so much of himself away
            that he did not have more to give.”

So think today on what you have given away for the love of God.
Remember how that felt.
Then ask what you have left that you might yet give.
Maybe it’s money, maybe it’s time, maybe it’s attention.
What might you give that would set you just a little freer,
            that would give you a bit more peace,
            that would open your heart a little wider to life and joy?
Giving ourselves away, giving away even a little of what we have,
            is a risk, a leap.
It is also godly action.
The word for God, theos, comes from a root that means “to leap.”
God leaps into our lives when we make a space for him.

John 3:16 recounts that godly leap of love,
            “For God so loved the world that he gave . . . . – he gave.”
We love the world and we love God when we give back.
That’s what eucharist means -- a thankful giving back in love.

It is the love puts a heart in our life.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014


I just ran across this old sermon which I shared with a congregation a few years ago. As you might imagine, it was a congregation in conflict. The sermon didn't solve it. Things got considerably worse before they got better. But today they are as good as it gets when it comes to fulfilling the hopes I put forth here. 

A story about human nature and the mission of Christ.
In my last parish,
             we set up a yahoo group to help us form community.
A yahoo group is an on-line discussion fellowship.
Anyone can post what is on their mind.

A few weeks after we started the group,
            someone posted that they had been browsing the web
            and came upon the web site for Trinity Church, New York City.
He saw they had celebrated a clown Eucharist and said
            “Isn’t that interesting? I wonder what that is.”
To which someone replied that when St. Francis does a clown Eucharist
            they would leave.
About a dozen folks piled on with the same opinion.
Before long, it went beyond the question of liturgy
            to a general discussion of the character of clowns.

It started with someone saying clowns reminded them
            of mass murderers.
Another said clowns reminded her of child molesters.
Eventually, someone said that clowns actually are
            mass murderers and child molesters.

A young adult posted:
            “You folks seem to have some issues about clowns.”
Feeling attacked, the anti-clown voices grew more strident.
At last this provoked a pro-clown response.
After a couple of pro-clown posts,
            one veteran church member outed himself,
            confessing, “I have been a clown with the Shriners
                        for 30 years and I have never molested a child
                                    or murdered a mass.”
Then the anti-clown voices charged back in.

 Now remember, no one had even hinted
            that the church should do a clown Eucharist.
Wes Frensdorff by the way was a great lover of clowns
            and would have been all for it.
But it was not an option on the table at that church.
Did we lose Church members over this?
I don’t know -- but within 3 months,
            several of the clown combatants were gone.

Now the moral of the story may be: don’t form a yahoo group.
Or it may be to avoid talking about religion, politics, or clowns.
But changing the subject doesn’t change the tone of the conversation.
I have seen folks leave a church over a dispute
            concerning where to plant a rose bush.

One Sunday, I was once sitting on a church porch
            before the Eucharist with some folks
            who were squabbling over the placement
                        of a new altar rail.
A newcomer walked up and no one spoke to him
            because they were too focused on their dispute.
After a few minutes the newcomer shook his head,
            walked away, and never returned.

Now this may all just be human nature.
But how we deal with it in the Church
            is a matter of profound spiritual importance.
What is the mission of the Church?
Catechism answer: “to restore all people to unity with God
            and each other in Christ.”//
That’s what salvation means.
That’s why we can’t be saved alone.
It’s a group project.

There’s a Mormon billboard with a perplexed woman asking,      
            “Does God have a purpose for my life?”
Well, if we are the Church, the answer is,
             “Yes. God has a purpose for our lives.
            It is to restore all people to unity with God
                        and each other in Christ.”

So: how are we doing with that?
The Church in Corinth wasn’t doing so well with it
            when Paul wrote 1st Corinthians.
They had found a dozen things to get cross ways about.
In 1st Corinthians, Paul tried to solve all their issues
            -- their version of clowns, rose bushes, and altar rails.
By 2nd Corinthians, it had just gotten worse,
            so Paul got down to the real issue
                        – how they were treating each other.

They all accepted the grace of God,
            but they were not gracious to each other.
Paul had some strong words about that. He said,
            “As we work together with Christ”
            -- big reminder there that we are not doing church
                        the way we do a service club or school board
            – we are “working together with Christ”
            – that ought to make a difference .

“As we work together with Christ,” Paul wrote,
            “we urge you not to accept the grace of God in vain.”
That’s strong.
He says we can accept grace, but it doesn’t matter,
            it doesn’t save us, unless we live out of it – graciously.
 St. John said the  same thing in his First Epistle.
“Anyone who claims to love God but hates his neighbor
            is a liar,” John says.

We can love Jesus all day long
            but God’s not as interested in that
                        as how we actually treat each other. 

Paul says to the Corinthians,
            “we are putting no obstacles in anyone’s way,
            so that no fault may be found in our ministry.”
Brothers and sisters, we are here to do ministry
            – ministry to each other
                        and ministry to the world.
The first rule of ministry, like medicine, is: do no harm.
Put an obstacle in no one’s way.

I have done a post-mortem on all the dead churches in Nevada.
And I have found someone’s fingerprints on each and every corpse.
Not one died of natural causes like a mine closing.
They all died of people more concerned about getting their own way
            than they were about each other’s souls.
 That’s what Paul was warning the Corinthians about.
We are saved through our participation in the Body of Christ,
            and the Body of Christ happens when we put each other first.

We have yet another General Convention on the horizon.
And already I see signs of liberals and conservatives
            maneuvering to get their way.
That is exactly what Paul called a work of the flesh – the opposite
            of the works of the Spirit.

I would like just once to see the conservatives worrying
            about not putting an obstacle in the way of the liberals.
I would like to see the liberals worrying about not
            putting an obstacle in the way of the conservatives.
If we all just switched sides, the issues would be the same
            – but the spirit of the conversation would be different
                        as night and day. 
It would be the difference between the way of the world
            and the way of Jesus.
After 2,000 years somebody ought to try the way of Jesus,
            and it might as well be the Church.

Our shared mission is to restore all persons
            – that would be all persons – left and right, straight and gay,
                        old and young, charming and not so charming
             – all persons – to union with God and each other in Christ.
The purpose of life for each and every individual Christian
            is precisely the same thing.
So: how are we doing at that?

Most of us do not come naturally equipped for that mission.
Most of us come wired to try to get our own way,
            to gather with people who make us feel at ease
                        and keep our distance from people
                        who make us uncomfortable.

That’s our human nature.
But we also have a Christ Nature.
We got it at our Baptism.
We just need some practice living into it.

The way to living out of our God Given Christ Nature
            is just that practice, practice, practice.
We can also pray.
We pray for each other,
            especially people who we are not at ease with.

One church in this diocese that has more veterans than any other,
            and observes veterans day with more flare than any other,
            also prays for terrorists by name every Sunday.
We practice and we pray.
As today’s Collect says, God will help and govern us,
            if we bow our will to him.

It is by God’s grace we can care for each other
            beyond the constraints of human nature.
It is by God’s grace, with our active cooperation,
            we can carry out the Church’s mission
            and keep faith with the purpose of our lives.