Monday, December 19, 2011

An "Angel" in our midst

I can't believe it's been 6 months since I blogged. No just has happened that way. I hope that this is the re-start of writing more often! But don't hold me to it -- life flies by when you're in the middle of your 6th decade...

Advent is almost over. Christmas is coming in less than a week, and we at St. Paul's have been blessed by an angel -- though I'm sure many of our parishioners have not recognized her as such, and I didn't either, until yesterday. 

During this Advent, St. David's, Austin (my "home" church) has been experiencing some controversy -- in the news: radio, television and the newspaper, due to their unusual steps in attracting the downtown community to Advent: graffiti on the walls outside the church -- not the work of "gangsta" artists, but the work of one of St. David's young members, commissioned by the church. Their "theme" is Light Interrupts-- calling attention to the downtown community that when Christ's light appears, it interrupts our daily life. They have a daily email to go along with the theme, pointing out that God does interrupt our lives in many ways. 

I've been so touched by many of the "Light Interrupts" posts, but today's really got me thinking about what has interrupted me, and turned on the light. A couple of weeks ago I got a phone call at the church from a woman who needed help. I had some money in my discretionary fund and told her to come to the church and I'd see what I could do. It was an interruption in my schedule, but at this time of year, with the economy the way it is, I wanted to help. 

It was obvious that this woman, who called herself "Angel", was not a "normal" person: there were signs of mental instability, if not mental illness. Yet she told me a story that tugged at my heart, so with church funds I paid her electric bill and bought a Walmart gift card to buy food and gas for her car. It's one of the best "perks" I have as being a priest -- being able to make a difference in strangers' lives. 

Most every church has one or more people living with mental disabilities. At St. Paul's, I guess we've been insular, or not blessed, because we haven't had anyone during my tenure that isn't simply your average, every day Christian (though we have been very blessed with having a few really saintly people). Now we have been blessed with Angel. She has been with us each time the doors have been open for worship.

Although she has caused a bit of apprehension with young parents of little ones because she loves babies and wants to touch them (as well as their parents), Angel is harmless and a loving soul. She's quite inappropriate at times, and as a result has interrupted my schedule frequently, but the most wonderful interruption was in Adult Ed yesterday. In our discussion, Angel suddenly raised her hand, asking permission to speak (though she didn't need to ask -- no one else does). She proceeded to explain the Hebrew meanings of our text, and explained the spirit behind what was written! After class, two of our members thanked her for her words. It is obvious that underneath her mental problems, she is quite bright, and has a lot of knowledge.

God interrups our lives in many strange and unexpected ways. Angel (though that is not her "real" name in the sense of the world) has become an angel to our congregation. May she continue to interrupt all our lives at St. Paul's, bringing our compassion to the fore, as she brings her life into our midst.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Who's "in" and who's "out"?

Proper 11 – Yr A
Genesis 28:10 – 19a
Psalm 139: 1-11, 22-23
Romans 8:12-25
Matthew 13:24-30,36-43

            I think I could have written three sermons on the scriptures today. Each one is so filled with important messages for us. In our Old Testament reading, we have Jacob fleeing into the wilderness. For those of you not familiar with this story: Jacob, the son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham, fought with his older twin brother Esau even in the womb. They were fraternal twins with nothing in common. Isaac loved Esau best because he was a hunter and brought meat into the household. Their mother, Rebecca, knew by prophecy that Jacob, though he was second-born, would inherit and rule over his brothers and receive his father’s blessing. Suffice it to say that in a moment of weakness Esau gave Jacob his birthright. At a later date, Jacob outright lied to their blind father to get Isaac’s blessing and therefore, Esau’s inheritance as firstborn. Esau promises to kill Jacob, and at this point in the scriptures, Jacob is fleeing for his life, out in the wilderness, trying to go to his mother’s brother for sanctuary. He feels as though he has lost everything, and may yet lose his life. Jacob lies down to sleep without even bothering to look for a soft or pleasant place – the sun had set, and he merely moves a stone to use as a pillow, and, exhausted, falls into deep slumber.
            This man is not an upright and moral man. A liar, a thief if you will, and from his family, no less! Yet it is to him that God comes. God isn’t calling to Jacob from heaven, She is standing beside Jacob; repeating the promises made to Abraham and Isaac of owning great amounts of land, having many children and possessions; how Jacob and his family will bless the nations. God says that Jacob will never be alone; God will always be with him.
            In the morning, Jacob realizes that this deserted place is the house of God. He takes the stone he used for a pillow, turns it into an altar, pours oil over it as a blessing, and names it Bethel, literally “house of God”. Throughout history, we have used oil for blessing, anointing and sanctifying, both people and places. Jacob is not worshipping the stone; he is making a sacrament, the physical and outward sign of an inward and spiritual event.
            And this event: the coming of God to Jacob, changed not only the place where it happened, it also changed Jacob. Though it’s not in our reading for today, the next verse shows the dramatic turnaround that occurred in Jacob’s life: he makes a vow, telling God that if he survives the coming ordeal and is eventually allowed back into his father’s lands in peace, he will be God’s devoted servant. This opportunist and liar has become a man of God. God’s message to Jacob about how he will be a blessing to all the peoples of the Earth is surely a blessing to us. It shows us that there is always hope – hope that, with God’s help, we can turn our lives around, from a path of destruction such as Jacob was on, to a path where we will be a blessing to others.
            Paul continues his letter to the Romans in our New Testament reading, and again I remind you that there is a great difference in the way Paul uses the word sarx or “flesh” and soma, which means “body”. Flesh has to do with an unhealthy attitude and focus on the body, whether it is an obsession with making your body perfect, or being obsessed in a sexual way. It has to do with power, over yourself or other people. The body (soma) has no negative connotation, it is neither good or bad, it is simply the body. In this passage, Paul is telling the people that because they have accepted Christ, they, and we, are God’s children, that we are heirs of God’s kingdom, brothers and sisters of Jesus.
            The Roman Christians were experiencing persecution; enduring great difficulties in their lives. Paul reminds them not to fall back into fear: that as servants of God, we have no reason to fear. This world is not as it should be – it wasn’t then, and it isn’t now. Suffering is part of all of life; we all experience great pain at some point – whether it is physical or emotional, it just is, because the world is not as God wants it to be. Paul’s point is not that anyone (including Christ) earns glory by suffering; rather, as he seeks to describe what it means to be a joint heir with Christ: he notes that the joint heir's life is characterized by the same pattern that shaped Christ's life. To be connected to Christ is to know humiliation, and exaltation. To be an heir with Christ is to share in Christ's suffering and resurrection. 

            Paul is not saying hope for heaven, in the sky, by and by. That freedom of which he writes is not freedom from the material world, but freedom within a restored creation. It is the freedom of an embodied life that reflects the image and glory of God. Paul points to that freedom and describes what it is like to hope for such a thing here and now. He uses the words for "son" and "child" to refer not to Jesus, but to his siblings, we who are led by the Spirit. As "flesh" referred to a power that enslaves us and keeps us from participating in God's glory, the Spirit is the power that frees and enlivens us for a new identity as children of God. 

            One cause of suffering for those who have received the Spirit of adoption, is that the Spirit has given us reason to hope for more than we can see. Paul’s meaning of suffering includes anything that threatens to separate us from God's love. For now, the suffering Paul speaks of is suffering that comes from knowing what the world could be, even as we live in the world as it is. Then he writes, “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.” Let us be patient, my friends: for the joy engendered in our relationship with our Creator through Christ Jesus is worth the wait.
            Our Gospel is a wonderful teaching for us, though to simply read the scripture without digging deeper might only bring us confusion, and lead us in the wrong direction. We have wheat and weeds, comingled together, and the servants are anxious to pull up the weeds, to root out the “evil” in the field so that a bountiful harvest would grow, undeterred by evil weeds within the wheat field. I doubt that there is anyone here who hasn’t questioned why God allows evil to exist. Haven’t we all at some time wanted to take matters into our own hands and get rid of the evil we see? The master stops the slaves from doing anything of the sort. For one thing, it is not so easy to tell the weeds from the wheat, and for another, their roots are intertwined below the ground. Rooting out the weeds would uproot the wheat as well; doing more damage to the crop than leaving the weeds to grow until harvest.
            It sounds as though Jesus is saying that there are two groups of people in the world -- children of the kingdom and children of the evil one, wheat and weeds -- and that their destinies are fixed from the beginning. Jesus says that at the end of the age, the angels will "collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin (skandala) and all evildoers, and will throw them into the furnace of fire”. Elsewhere Jesus warns those who put a stumbling block (skandalon) before any of the "little ones" that it would be better for them to have a millstone put around their neck and to be drowned in the sea. Similarly he warns that if your hand, foot, or eye causes you to sin (skandalizo), it is better to cut it off or pluck it out and enter life blind or maimed, than to be thrown into the "hell of fire" with body intact. All of these phrases are hyperbole of course, exaggerated speech meant to jar us into recognizing the seriousness of anything that leads us, or others into sin. It seems to suggest that skandalon may be something within a person rather than the whole person.
            We know that it is not really our hand, foot, or eye that causes us to sin. Sin comes from the human heart: kardia, which in Greek refers to the inner self, the mind and will. No human is able to pluck out the inner self. Perhaps when Jesus says that the angels will collect all skandala to burn in the fire, he means that everything within us that causes sin will be burned away.
            It doesn't quite fit the logic of the parable, which seems to be talking about two groups of people and speaks of throwing all evildoers into the furnace of fire. Yet it fits with other texts in Matthew about stumbling blocks. 
Remember where Jesus tells Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block (skandalon) to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." In spite of these strong words and Peter's repeated failings, Jesus does not give up on Peter; rather, he entrusts the future of his mission to him and the rest of his disciples, who more often than not don’t understand what he’s trying to teach them. 
So perhaps we shouldn’t take the parable too literally. In the world we know, weeds do not become wheat. Yet Matthew's story holds out hope even for those who stumble -- yes, even for the one whom Jesus calls a stumbling block!
            Perhaps there were some overzealous "weeders" in Matthew's congregation who wanted to purify the community by rooting out the bad seed. This seems to be a temptation for followers of Jesus in every age. Many Christians carry on a weeding frenzy, certain that they know the difference between weeds and wheat, and that they know how to deal with the weeds! Jesus' parable makes clear that any attempt to root out the weeds will only do more damage to the crop. This has happened far too many times in congregations and denominations, with some determined to root out anyone who does not agree with the "right" interpretation of Scripture, liturgical practice, or stand on a particular issue, or way of life. There are many who pronounce judgment on people outside the church: on people of other faiths, for instance: declaring them to be destined for eternal damnation. Whether judgment is focused within the church or without, it does serious damage to the church and its mission.
            Jesus makes clear that we are not the judge of who is "in" or who is "out." In fact, in scripture we are told that God's judgment about these matters will take many by surprise: that many will be “in” that we don’t expect, and many will be “out” that we never thought would be. The Bible tells us that God is love, and Jesus tells us to be a neighbor and friend to all. We can leave the weeding to the angels, and get on with the work Jesus has called us to do: loving all those we meet and caring for those in need. Amen.

Monday, July 11, 2011

My Memorial Sunday Away

I thought I put this up a month ago! Well, here it finally is -- I've got to get better about keeping this blog more current! It seems that life is getting in the way of writing...

My Memorial Sunday Away

In Memoriam
Capt. Joshua S. Meadows, USMC
1979 – 2009
KIA, Farah Province, Afghanistan

            We (about 50 of us) drove about 30 minutes from the wilderness campsite up rocky roads, parked and then hiked/climbed another 200 or so yards from the top of a West Texas mountain out onto a promontory that on three sides hung over a very deep canyon, hundreds of feet down. As we gathered around a mound of rocks that held an American flag at half-staff, four WWII trainer planes did a flyover, disappeared into the distance, then came back around and directly over us did the missing man formation. Thomas Meadows, a Murchison Middle School student and son of one of Josh’s cousins, played taps on his bass clarinet.
            I read scriptures about eternal life from The Committal (page 501, BCP) then spoke of how we were gathered to honor Josh, to place a plaque on “Pop’s Peak” in remembrance, and to release his remains, his ashes, back to the earth. I prayed the beautiful prayer also found on pg. 501 and then we all prayed the Lord’s Prayer.
            Josh’s uncle Henry told the family history of “Pop’s Peak”: how their father/grandfather/great-grandfather had loved that peak and how they had climbed it many times. Directly underneath the peak is a cave once used by Indians. Henry related how Josh, as a ten-year-old, had been down there with his grandfather and found potsherds, arrowheads and points. He then explained that after Henry, Sr. died, they’d placed a bronze plaque into the stone, and when Josh’s father, Robert died, they did the same for him. Now Josh has a plaque there, which would be unveiled at the end of the service. Then Henry turned on the music, playing tunes that were reflective of the Meadows family’s heritage: Celtic, American, Southern, and Marine.
            As the music faded, Angela (Josh’s wife) and his sister, Erin, joined together on the side of the cliff and speaking softly to one another; they took handfuls of his ashes and let the wind carry them away out over the valley. Jan, Josh’s mom, held his little daughter, Olivia Claire, who was born just weeks after her Daddy died.
            Then, Patrick (Josh’s cousin who arranged the ceremony) and Jan removed the Marine flag from Josh’s plaque so all could see. Angela took Olivia, and they knelt by the plaque. Little Olivia patted the plaque and said “Daddy,” and I couldn’t stop my tears from falling, along with many others around me. Then as Thomas played taps once again, we began the trek back to the parking area.
            Before we left the top of the mountain, about 25 or 30 people took their guns out of their trucks (including at least 4 automatic weapons) and proceeded to give Josh what was “billed” as a 2100 gun salute, shooting out over the canyon for quite some time. It was the perfect finish to Josh’s memorial. I was so very honored to be a participant. Josh is a hero, having saved the lives of all of the men with him when he covered their retreat. Josh was the only casualty of the fire team he commanded. He was an amazing young man. The world is lesser for his loss and heaven is blessed to have him.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Friday Five at RevGal!

Jan at the Rev Gal blog spot asked these questions this morning, and for the first time, I'm playing:

Whether we liked it or not, we all "sprang forward" with the change to daylight savings time in the USA this past Sunday. There is lightness and brightness slipping in as spring approaches, so let us consider what is springing forth in our lives right now.

Name 5 things that are springing forth, possibly including :
what you hope for
what you dread
what you observe
what is concrete
what is intangible

Okay, here goes:

What I hope for: That the small mission I pastor will come alive in the Spirit during this Lent. We have been growing, and the love is ever-present. I pray that those on the edges that don't have experience of a church "family" will catch fire and want to be active and present.

What I dread: I know this one is quite personal. With so many horrendous things going on in the world, it seems selfish and self-centered. What I dread is my continuing problems with the pain and degeneration of my spine. I am so afraid that the doctors will never find a solution, and I won't be able to stand behind the altar to celebrate communion, or stand to preach, or do any of the things I want so desperately to do. I pray for a solution without pain.

What do I observe: Like so many of you, I'm very aware of Spring breaking forth. The redbud trees and the salvia, the special greens of new growth. Sitting on the porch to write as I watch the new gazebo rising in my backyard. So many blessings!

What is concrete: That God is love, and loves all of Creation!

What is intangible: The joy that springs from my heart as I do my priestly things. It is so right, and what I've been called to do. Thank you, God, for putting me in this place, a place where love abounds!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Pluck out your eye! Cut off your hand!

I give thanks for the research and enlightenment of the Right Rev. Michael Rinehart of the ECLA Church. Much of his exegesis and some of his words are contained in this sermon. In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Hellfire and Damnation! You are going to burn – I Am Going to BURN!! If you’ve thought it in your mind or heart – you may as well have done it, because you are certainly going to get the punishment as though you had! Who hasn’t been angry with someone? Haven’t we all? Have you been divorced and are now remarried – or living with someone outside the vows of marriage?? It’s hellfire for you! It’s hellfire for me! Oh, NO!!!
How often have we heard these messages? From Dante’s “Inferno” through Milton’s “Paradise Lost” on up through our Puritan history to screaming televangelists today, what we hear leads us to look at these verses of Jesus and quake – shaking in our shoes that we really are in a world of hurt and there is no way to work our way out of the deep sin in which we find ourselves? Oh…My…God! What can I do? I find myself in a wonderful and decent marriage, but Jesus appears to call this one adulterous, because I’ve been married before! What shall I do?
Well, I think I can tell you what we all need to do, and that is: take a deep breath and calm down. Fundamentalist preachers have interpreted these words of Jesus for hundreds of years in a completely different way than most theologians read them, whether those theologians were from the ancient world like St. Augustine, and Luther, or modern theologians. People who read the Bible literally, without considering the circumstances in which they were said, can completely misunderstand Jesus’ meanings.
In this particular scenario, we are hearing a portion in the middle of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. We’ve been reading it in order for the last three weeks. But suddenly, after the words about Salt and Light we heard last week, come these hard words. So different and so harsh from what has gone before. I think it is very important that we understand what Jesus was doing here.
When people hear “hellfire,” they take it quite literally. Jesus may have meant it literally, but I suspect not. Translated from the Greek, this phrase reads: “into the Gehenna of fire,” which refers to the dump south of Jerusalem where garbage was burned. I don’t want to negate the image of judgment here. Jesus certainly means to say that there is a Judgment Day coming, in which things are going to be sorted out, good and bad. Bad stuff will be burned like trash. But, we have to hear this as literary hyperbole. Here’s why: In just a few verses, Jesus will instruct his listeners to tear out their eyes if they are a cause of sin. I presume he didn’t mean this literally, as there’s no evidence that Jesus’ disciples mutilated themselves. St. Augustine assumes that Jesus is speaking metaphorically. These shocking images work. They ring in people’s ears two thousand years later. He’s using a powerful homiletic tool, preaching tool, to make his point.
So what is the point? Relationships are important: more important than vengeance, more important than retaliation. We can do violence with our words. When we do, mending those relationships is more important than going to church, or making our offerings. Asking others for forgiveness is as important as seeking God’s.
About the statement on anger, Martin Luther explained it this way: We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray, slander, or hurt our neighbor’s reputation, but defend, speak well of our neighbor, and explain everything in the kindest way.
About Lust, I’ve got a quote that may shock you, but it made me stop and think: our beloved C. S. Lewis said the following: “He that but looketh on a plate of ham and eggs to lust after it hath already committed breakfast with it in his heart.” What Jesus is really saying is, he is very interested in the heart. What you think matters: your motives matter. Transformation of behavior alone won’t do. Actually, it won’t work. The only hope is transformation of the heart, from which all actions flow.
I suppose even if we are entirely chaste, our lusting will work its way out in other ways, resulting in: anger? Resentment? Unhealthy relationships? Fear of intimacy? Selfishness? I’ve always felt that lust and covetousness came from the same source. It’s the desire for more, more, more, no matter how much I have. It is, at the heart of things, self-centeredness. God will have to deal with this in us, if we are to become spiritually alive.
And now, to Divorce: Consider this. A man could “put away” a woman by simply writing down a note. “I divorce her.” The Bible was used to justify this practice. The woman had very few options. There was a huge power differential. Jesus is upholding the sanctity of marriage. The goal is faithfulness. And fairness.
The Hebrew Bible’s laws about divorce are draconian and patriarchal. They are about men’s rights to divorce women, not women’s rights to divorce men. By and large, they assume women as a possession of men, traded for shekels like cattle. Women have few rights in this system. Consider this passage from Deut. 22: If a man meets a virgin who is not engaged, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are caught in the act, the man who lay with her shall give fifty shekels of silver to the young woman’s father, and she shall become his wife. Because he violated her he shall not be permitted to divorce her as long as he lives. So, if a man rapes a woman, his punishment is paying the father 50 shekels and marrying the woman. She is forced to marry her rapist. She cannot seek a certificate of divorce, and neither can he. One can only wonder about the marital dynamics in such an arrangement.
It seems to me that Jesus, by criticizing divorce, is making it more egalitarian. The woman couldn’t divorce anyway. Jesus is leveling the playing field. And he creates a loophole: “except on the grounds of unchastity.” And it’s quite a loophole. What qualifies? I can imagine physical or emotional abuse as being unchaste. There’s wiggle room here, just not, “the man said so.” Jesus is not a fan of divorce, or broken relationships of any kind. It’s tragic really. But even he leaves a loophole. There is grace here.
The following three statements on oath taking – only saying “yes” or “no”; going the extra mile rather than retaliating, and loving our enemies, are also points of grace. Without discussing them in detail, what Jesus is doing is calling his followers to a higher standard than the law given by Moses. He is saying that our behavior in adhering to the law does not bring life. Those who are peacemakers, full of mercy and hungry for justice will see beyond the letter of the law to its deep inner yearning for purity of heart and a world of justice. They will exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees. Righteousness is not obedience to legislation, but perfect conformity to the will of God. The end product is that we are to be: children of our heavenly Father: righteous and merciful.
These words we’ve always heard as harsh and scary, are really words of love. Jesus calls all of us to respond in love to every situation, hurtful and hard as those situations might be. He is calling on us to be sacrificial with our thoughts, words, actions and feelings. He is telling us that we can change our hearts to hearts of non-judgmental love. Until our lives overflow with caring more and doing more for others than for ourselves, we’ve missed the boat on what it means to live the Christian life.
It is time to move into the next level. To move beyond our worship in this place, to moving out into the world, showing people we do not know and who don’t know us, what living in Christ’s love truly means to the world. It’s time to get our priorities in order: to go out and live the love we’ve been given. Amen.