Sunday, January 8, 2017

Redeeming The Time Being after Christmas

January 8, 2017

This always feels like a strange time of year, this season after Christmas.
It’s only been two weeks, but it feels like forever since we gathered in here on Christmas Eve, candles lighting up our faces as we sang Silent Night.  You could almost feel the angel chorus joining us.
But now the world around us feels grayer.  All the planning and wrapping and cooking and gifting is done.  The pageant costumes are folded carefully in their plastic tubs.  Christmas trees line the streets in lumps.  The decorations have mostly returned to basements and attics.  If you’re like me, your New Years resolutions have already been broken more times than kept.  We’re back to work and commuting and homework and school-lunch making.  It’s a different kind of busy-ness.
We’re back to regular time.  The time when it’s harder to feel God with us.  It’s harder to believe that the mystery of back then is still a part of now.  After Christmas is said and done, it always feels strange and anti-climactic to me.  But this part of the story, though perhaps not as miraculous and angel-strewn, is an important time too.  Because, truth be told, this in-between regular time is where we mostly make our home.
W.H. Auden describes this post-Christmas season perfectly in his poem For the Time Being:
“To those who have seen The Christ Child, however dimly, however incredulously, The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all. …Remembering the stable where for once in our lives everything became a You and nothing was an It. … But in the meantime, there are bills to be paid, machines to keep in repair, Irregular verbs to learn, the Time Being to redeem from insignificance.”
How do we redeem our Time Being from insignficance?  How do we find sacredness in the mundane?  How do we find God-with-us, Emmanuel, still with us even in the midst of the ordinary?  
It’s a quest worthy of our best efforts.  And we aren’t alone on this journey.  
Today our particular forebears are the magi.  They usually get lumped into the pageant so you may feel like you’ve already seen them come and go.  They provide, after all, a chance for glittery costumes, the beautiful cinematic star, and a few more speaking lines.  And so we cobble today’s story from Matthew’s Gospel together with the rest of Jesus’ birth story from Luke’s Gospel.  But in reality, like us, the magi likely arrived late to the party.  Like us, they probably missed the angels’ singing, the shepherds’ gathering.  For all we know they came when Jesus was crawling around, the manger scene and the joyful celestial tidings a distant memory.
And so we can learn from these sojourners from the East.  We can learn a lot.  Especially during this Time Being.
Like, how to pay attention.  The magi noticed that star.  They didn’t get something magnificent and startling like a chorus of angels, or even something bold and directed like a prophecy.  They got a star, one in a million.  These magi were out doing what they did - star gazing.  Gleaning information from the night sky - weather patterns, the right time to travel or plant crops.  And in that natural and ordinary undertaking, something signaled to them.  A sign, seemingly unnoticed by anyone else.  And they paid attention.  
How do we pay attention, how do we open our eyes to the potential of God’s presence around us, even in the midst of our ordinary doing and being?
But the magi didn’t stop with noticing.  If they had, we wouldn’t include them in the story.  They acted.  Even though they had no real idea what the star meant, if anything, or where it would lead, if anywhere, they were willing to set out on a journey, to go exploring.  They felt a stirring, a calling, and so they started off.  They didn’t have it all perfectly planned out first.  In fact, it must have felt wildly inconvenient.  To everyone around them, it must have looked completely nonsensical.  And yet, the magi head out, traveling the path that they think is before them with no assurance of results.  They act.  
Where might we be called to act in some way, to journey out beyond our comfort zone, to try something new, or to try a new way of being in whatever old place we find ourselves?
But the magi’s goal isn’t immediately obtained with that first action. They continue discerning along the way, always open to new possibilities.  When the magi hit snags - and they do hit snags: their run in with the tyrannical King Herod; a clear sense that the palace, the city of Jerusalem, is not where they should be - they continue journeying in a new direction.  Even when it leads them to a small, fairly irrelevant little town, and to a dirty, fairly smelly little manger.  Even when it leads them to a baby of no earthly consequence.  They remain open.  
How can we keep our hearts and minds open to the possibility of a new path when we have grown comfortable or attached or complacent right where we are?
And the magi give gifts.  They don’t just arrive on the scene, take it all in, and leave without giving something of themselves.  They rejoice and they kneel and they worship and they give gold, frankincense and myrrh.  
How might we lend our joy, our reverence, our gifts to the world around us?
And then the magi return home.  It’s a different path home; it almost always is.  We can rarely return exactly the same way.  But they arrive again in the familiar, in the Time Being, with people that think they know them, and situations that push their buttons, and work that feels mundane.  But they bring back with them all that they have seen and felt and experienced.  Maybe these will become new gifts they can offer.  Because even though they return to their Time Being, that doesn’t make it any less full of possibilities and surprises.  Who will the magi be now, knowing what they know?  How will they live now, having seen what they’ve seen?  What will matter to them now, having come so close to the presence of God?

For us too, after the glitter and adventure of Christmas we return back to where we were.  So what will we do now?  Will we stow God-with-us in our tubs of Christmas decorations to open as a pleasant, but not particularly life-changing, surprise next December?  Or will we pay attention, act, remain open, and share our gifts as we live into our Time Being?

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Yoga mats, Improv, and the Miracle of Christmas

December 25, 2016
John 1:1-14

This year I’ve been doing a preaching fellowship at the seminary.  We have monthly small peer group meetings and a couple residencies scattered throughout the year where we all gather together.  Our main leader/teacher/mentor is the preaching professor at Virginia Theological Seminary, Ruthanna Hooke.  Her background is in theatre, so one of her main pushes is always to have us find ways to expand our preaching so it isn’t just about theology and research and careful wording but also about our whole selves, including our bodies.  And so all kinds of interesting and surprising things are part of our time together.  Yoga, improv, good snacks.  And lots of body and voice techniques.  
She has us take deep breaths and sigh out noisily, sometimes while letting our heads fall forward.  Or she'll have us stretch out as far as we can and then relax different sections of our bodies.  Or we'll hum from deep inside, feeling the vibrations in our heads and cheeks.  She taught us how to stand squarely and planted, not leaning forward or backward or to one side.
Another emphasis of hers is really being present as we preach - not within our selves, or just acting to the outside world.  She encourages us to take off our shoes when we’re in the pulpit so we can really feel the ground beneath us. 
But my favorite, the one I’ve been most conscious about trying to do, she taught us near the end of our time together.  We were gathered in a big circle around the room - shoes off, yoga mats scattered everywhere.  We all took turns looking into the faces of each person gathered with us in the circle and saying, “I am here, in this place, with all of you.”  
Ruthann encouraged us to at do that (at least in our heads) every time we stand up to preach - to step into the pulpit and look with love and empathy and imagination at the people around us.
I am here, in this place, with all of you.
I think that is exactly what Christmas is all about.  That is what we are celebrating God doing today.  On that first Christmas, God took a deep breath, made God’s self present with all of humanity, looked each one of us in the eyes, and announced, “I am here, in this place, with all of you.”  I am not a distant, removed God.  I am a God that feels what you feel.  I am a God that suffers and hurts when you suffer and hurt.  I am a God that knows how hard and how beautiful all of this can be.  I am here, right here, in this place, with all of you, and I love you.
John’s Gospel that we read this morning places Jesus, the Word, in the beginning with God with his hand in every iota of creation.  Even then, Jesus, the Word, was light and life, shining in the darkness.  And then the Word became flesh and lived among us.  Or you might be more familiar with the old fashioned King James version, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”  But they are both a little more high-brow than what might be a more literal translation.  The Word became flesh and “pitched a tent among us.”  At the incarnation God set up camp, right here, in this place, with all of us.  Our God goes where we go, is who we are, and is completely committed to us in all of our messiness and imperfection.  We matter to God. 
This is the miracle of Christmas - not the virgin birth or angel appearances or guiding stars.  It’s God becoming flesh - letting there be no mistake that God chooses to be part and parcel of our human story, in this place, with all of us.
But Christmas doesn’t stop there.  Christmas won't be over when the trees is gone or the decorations are stored away or the toys are all broken.  Christmas is a promise from God to be present in the specific moments of our lives, our communities, our world.  Every moment is a chance to encounter God with us, Emmanuel.  Every moment is a chance to be on the lookout for heaven and earth being joined, the Word being made flesh, God pitching God’s tent in our midst.
And, every moment is a chance to participate in the miracle of incarnation.  To pitch our own tents.  To take a deep breath, look at the faces of the people around us (or to imagine the very real faces of strangers far from us), and announce in whatever ways we can, “I am here, in this place, with all of you.”  And suddenly earth and heaven unite — there is God made flesh, there is the light shining through the darkness.   And the darkness will not overcome it.  Amen.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Brooding over the chaos

November 13, 2016
Isaiah 65:17-25

If you feel like you’re teetering on the edge of an abyss right now, if you’re having trouble seeing anything but darkness — Take heart.  We’ve been here before. 
In the beginning, in the very beginning, before God created the heavens and the earth, there was chaos.  One of my favorite renderings of the creation story puts it this way, “Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness.”  And over the chaos of this watery abyss, God’s Spirit brooded.
In the beginning, everything was tumult and messiness and darkness, and God sat right there over it for a while, just brooding.  But then God breathed.  And God began to imagine.  And God began to bring life out of the chaos.  And even before creation was finished, even while the life and light were just beginning to show through, God was able to see and pronounce the goodness that was there: “It is good,” God promised.  Even knowing creation was going to do a whole lot of turning away from God, in ways both small and incredibly dramatic, God was able to point to the goodness.  God saw through the messiness, knew it was part of the process of bringing life and light out of chaos.
God’s beautiful creation started so well.  The Garden of Eden with humanity and God in perfect relationship, with all things needed for our satisfaction and delight.  But hardly a minute passes before we start to see that the inky blackness of chaos was still swirling.
There’s that tempting fruit and the villainous snake and Adam and Eve banished from the garden.  Another minute before Cain kills Abel. Then the tower of Babel with the people wanting to prove themselves better than God.  Slavery and wars and golden calves and disappointing heroes and exile.  And so it goes.  We’ve been here before.
Our beautiful Old Testament reading today takes place in a time of great chaos as well.  The Israelites who had been scattered and living in exile after a bunch of wars had finally returned to Jerusalem.  But they were finding that their return wasn’t the miraculous quick fix they’d been expecting.  The city was sacked and the temple ruined.  Economic and social conditions were desperate and they’d lost hope for their future.  Rather than the glorious kingdom they’d dreamed of, there was nothing but upheaval and uncertainty and fear. 
And into that chaos came God’s promise: “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.” “No more shall the sound of weeping be heard, or the cry of distress.”  “Like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be.”  “Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear.”  “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together.”  “They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.”
And so the people of Isaiah’s time brooded over their chaos for a while.  And then they breathed and began to re-imagine that new earth along with God.  And they began slogging through the messiness, working with God to slowly bring life and light out of what felt like a watery abyss.
Today we find ourselves again in chaos.  
For many of us, it feels like everything has gone to pieces.  We are mourning over policies that matter to us that seem to be slipping away — things like environmental stewardship and gun violence prevention and immigration reform.
And many of us are fearful.  As a woman I feel more physically insecure and less valued than I felt last week.  I’ve heard from a Muslim friend who has been avoiding public places, and a Jewish friend who can’t stop looking over her shoulder.  A gay friend is worried that his marriage and parenting rights are in danger.  A Latina friend says that her body tenses up when she drops off her son at school and she doesn’t feel like she can really breathe until she picks him up again.  
For many of us, the result of the election feels like a validation of what Trump has said and done.  Like his ugly words and threats have been legitimized and might unleash the unthinkable.  And that makes many of us feel less safe.  I know, we all know, that most people voted for Trump despite these things and not because of them.  But it is still going to take real work to heal those divides and to assuage those fears.
On the other hand, it has become increasingly clear that there is a whole segment of the population that has been feeling far more distressed and frustrated and unheard than most of us ever imagined.  It is going to take real work to make sure that they get included when we think about the vulnerable among us.
The truth is that wherever we stand on any particular issue, we’ve all contributed to this chaos.  This election revealed a shadow side to our democracy.  A shadow side, even, to all of us.  We surround ourselves with people who agree with us and “de-friend” them when they don’t.  We assume bad motives for people that differ from us.  We don’t empathize with people we don’t understand.  We lose our civility in conflict.  Our understanding of who is worthy of our care and support is too small.
And here we are, less than two weeks from Thanksgiving when many of us are going to find ourselves across the dining room table from people with whom we feel so bitterly divided!  If the wolf and the lamb from Isaiah’s vision sit down to feed with us now, it’s a sure thing one of them will end up the main course.  So how can we bridge the incredible chasm between where we are and God’s promised new earth?  It’s hard not to feel hopeless and worried and fearful of the road ahead.
But, remember, we’ve been here before.
One of my friends who is a few decades older than me wrote a Facebook post urging perspective for her younger friends in their post-election funks.  She recounted how she was a teenager when President Kennedy and then MLK Jr and Robert Kennedy were assassinated.  The world seemed to be shattered again and again.  It was a long season of grief and fear.  “Our hearts were broken,” she wrote, “but our nation survived.”  During that period she also saw terrible violence as old power resisted the civil rights movement.  “We -- black people and white people -- were afraid and at many times hopeless,” she wrote, “but our nation survived.”  And then she was in college when her peers were drafted to fight for a war many didn’t believe in.  Anti-war protests and returning veterans alike were met with violence.  Many people were afraid.  But our nation survived.  She watched the Watergate scandal reveal deep corruption in the highest places and test our integrity as a people.  A President resigned, but our nation survived.  “You can fill in the rest from your history books or your own experience, but you get my point,” she concluded.  “We are stronger than our disappointment over the current election. We are braver than our worst fears.  We will work, and we will love.  And our nation will survive.”
We’ve been here before.
Creation is messy and it’s painful.  It has far more chaos than we’d like.  And yet those beautiful glimpses of goodness still shine through even while the work is unfinished.  God continues to mold life out of the muck.  As Martin Luther King put it, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
So hear again God’s promise in the midst of our chaos: “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.” “No more shall the sound of weeping be heard, or the cry of distress.”  “Like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be.”  “Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear.” “They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.”
That’s better than any of us could hope for in any political platform: Peace, security, harmony, reconciliation, long lives for our children, plenty for all, perfect intimacy with God.  
We’ve been here before.  We know what we need to do.
First, we brood for a while over the chaos.  This in-between time, when it’s hard to see beyond the abyss and the muck, is an uncomfortable and painful time.  And so we sit right here for a while and we brood and we wrestle, because until we do that we won’t see the creative potential of the chaos around us.  
And then we breathe.  Oceans rise, empires fall.  But Isaiah promises that no matter what happens to the world around us, through it all, the promise of God’s holy mountain stands tall.  All of creation is being recreated from the muck into something new and unfathomably wonderful.  All of it.  Nothing is beyond God’s touch, God’s capacity to change — not death, not sin, not regret, not oppression, not grief, not fear. 
And then, after we brood and breathe and remember God’s promise, we imagine.  We expand our vision about what the world could be.  Now it’s our turn to begin to work with God to bring life out of this chaos.  Today and every day, God’s promised Kingdom is a choice that lies before us.  It isn’t a distant and unattainable promise, but a vision that can shape how we live in the world right now.   We are invited to be co-creators of this vision.  God’s creative powers are in each one of us too.

We don’t need to accept things as they are.  We are called to challenge the unacceptable and stand with the vulnerable.  And participate with God in the creation of the new earth.  With God we can do this.  We’ve been here before.  Amen.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Finding Jesus in the Basket of Deplorables

October 23, 2016
Luke 18:9-14
 I‘m guessing we can probably all agree that this election seems to have brought our country to a time of crisis, though we might disagree about what makes it that way.  For me, it is almost unimaginable that a candidate for president of the United States excuses boasting about sexual assault with “locker room talk.”  But that’s really just the straw that broke the camel’s back.  We have become so polarized, and not just on the usual political issues, but on gender and race and religion and ethnicity.  It has been hard to watch us fall apart.   

Given all that’s brewing in the world, at our monthly local Episcopal clergy lunch, someone asked how we were talking about this election in our congregations.  Several clergy spoke about how carefully they were balancing their words to speak about civility and love so as to reach but not offend Trump supporters in their congregations.  I was surprised.  Because, as I told this group at lunch, while I know (and love) plenty of Republicans, and while I know (and love) plenty of people who dislike Hillary, I don’t actually think I know any gung-ho Trump supporters. 
One colleague responded, “Maybe you need to get to know more people.”

My initial reaction was that I really don’t want to know any of the people that openly support Trump.  Why would I want to spend time with those people?  
 But as I sat with that response, it occurred to me that the way I’ve been thinking about Trump supporters isn’t exactly loving my neighbor as myself.  It isn’t exactly seeking to serve Christ in all persons.  It isn’t exactly respecting the dignity of every human being.  Maybe rather than living up to my baptismal promises, I’ve been insulating myself from people that disagree with me.  Why is it that I don’t know anyone that feels so hurt by the system, so angry, so scared about possible cultural changes that they would support someone like Trump?

And so I need Jesus to tap me on my back, or maybe wave his arms frantically in front of my face to get my attention focused back on him as he begins this story from Luke’s Gospel.  At the start we are told that Jesus tells “this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”  In other words, Jesus tells this story to me, and (I’m sorry to say) probably you, along with the twelve disciples sitting next to him that day.  The ones who, like me, are feeling pretty confident about how well we understand Jesus, and pretty certain we can speak for him.  We’ve got the inside scoop.  We are part of the good guys.  We are on God’s side.  And they (whoever They are for us) clearly are not.

Like I said, if we are being honest, Jesus is looking straight at us when he tells this story.
“Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a Tax Collector….”

Now, imagine you don’t already know how this story comes out and try to see those two characters as they would have looked during Jesus’ day.
In the old days, when they first joined Jesus, the disciples and others who listened to Jesus would have been fooled by this story.  Back then, they’d have expected that the Tax Collector was being set up as the Bad Guy in this story.  The Tax Collector who collaborated with the hated Roman Empire, paying a set amount for the privilege of squeezing money from his neighbors through threats and schemes and bribes.  The Tax Collector was despised.  This person should be shunned from the holy places.  How dare he defile the temple by entering?  That is what they would have thought before.  

And the Pharisee.  The respected, prayerful, Jewish religious leader.  The spiritual guide for those who sought to follow God’s law faithfully.  The one that they can count on to show the way.  To remind them of the law and keep them from straying into uncertain territory.  This is someone to follow.  The disciples wouldn’t have been surprised when the Pharisee entered the temple and thanked God that he was not like that despised and feared tax collector.  This is the Good Guy in the story.  That is what they would have thought before.  

And if we didn’t already know the rest of the story, we’d have thought that same thing.  Most of us probably align fairly well with this Pharisee.  We are generally decent people, trying to do the right thing, wanting to be in right relationship with God.   Like the Pharisee, we are thankful that we are not like the people in the world that use and abuse and manipulate and hurt.  We are thankful not to be among the basket of deplorables.  

Oops.  I definitely needed to hear this story, because that can’t be the right choice, can it?

Luckily, like the disciples, we’ve hung out with Jesus long enough to know that when there’s a tax collector and a Pharisee, a cautionary moral tale is coming.  We used to be fooled by these stories, but not anymore.  We know how this story is going to play out.  We’ve known Jesus long enough to know that Matthew, one of Jesus’ most trusted friends, was a tax collector.  
And we all saw wee little tax collector Zaccheus come down from that sycamore tree and bring Jesus home for dinner.  
And so we already know that the Tax Collector is going to be the “surprise” character.  The underdog.  The one we expect to hate but who is going to turn it all around.  He’s rough-around-the-edges but ultimately repentant and humble. We know the Tax Collector will end up the hero of this story.

And the Pharisee!  The Pharisee is going to be cast as disapproving, stuck in his holy box, thinking he’s got it all right and understood when really he is just touching the surface.  We’re going to see that the Pharisee is the one that sets himself up to be respected and get the rest of us working so hard to be holy that we miss the loving presence of God that Jesus has introduced us to.  

And sure enough, the Pharisee’s prayer is almost a caricature: “Thank you God, that I am not like other men.”  Not exactly a propitious way to start, obviously.  Meanwhile, the Tax Collector prays: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”  This is where the Jesus Prayer comes from - the orthodox prayer without ceasing from The Way of a Pilgrim: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  It’s hard to imagine words more humble.

Now don’t get me wrong.  There’s a lot to learn from this story even if we’ve heard it before and already know the outcome.  The one who looks righteous is depending too much on himself, and the one who admits his need for God will be scooped up with love and forgiveness.  Clearly, there’s a right and a wrong approach here.  And so, we (humbly, of course) will choose to align ourselves with the Tax Collector, acknowledging our brokenness and imperfection and thankful not to be among the hypocrites.  

Oops - it just happened again!  Picking that side doesn’t seem to work either.  There’s no way to win, is there?  No matter which side we align ourselves with, we somehow end up on the wrong side.  

So I wonder what happens to this story if the main characters aren’t the Tax Collector and the Pharisee.  What if, in telling this story, Jesus was really looking past them to his disciples, us included.  The ones who think we’ve got it all figured out.  The ones who think we understand how God works and so feel free to stand back and judge other people.  The ones who are so busy picking sides and assigning blame for the crisis that we forget to get to know and care for the people mired in the crisis.

We humans tend to put people into boxes to make them easier to understand and to keep ourselves feeling safe.  We do this even more during election seasons.  We have boxes based on Gender and Race and Sexual preference and Education Level.  Decided or Undecided.  This year we’ve even reached a new low of Redeemable or Unredeemable.  And I think we try to put God into a box too, so that we can more easily imagine ourselves to be on God’s side.  So that we can safely separate our relationship with God from our relationship with the people around us.

So maybe the point of this story isn’t to pick a winner and a loser in the Pharisee versus Tax Collector contest.  In fact, maybe this parable shows us that anytime we draw a line between winners and losers, anytime we start drawing those boxes, we’ll probably find God on the other side.  Maybe this parable is about learning to see as God sees.  To see that all of us have foibles and shortcomings.  All of us are in some way in the basket of deplorables, and all of us are in some ways hypocrites.  All of us are Tax Collectors and all of us are Pharisees in our own ways.  But none of us are stuck in whatever roles we occupy because wherever God is, reversal of expectations is sure to be right around the corner.  God’s dream is to erase those lines that separate us.

In less than three weeks, we’ll be heading out to vote.  (And I hope all of you who are eligible will be going out to vote!  It’s ok to pick winners and losers there.)  But I fear that, even after the election, we are coming swiftly to a place where, if we can’t figure out how to move beyond our boxes, what we think is a crisis now will look small in comparison to what comes next.  A place where pointing and blaming and ugliness and mistrust will be all that we see and hear.  

 But in some ways, it also seems like there is an opportunity here.  An opportunity to talk about issues like race and sexual assault and ethnicity that we are so often too afraid to bring up.  An opportunity to care for people that are scared and hurt and angry.

And maybe the Church can have an important role to play in that. 

Maybe the Church can be a place where we model what it might look like to see all people as within the breadth of God’s love and mercy, Pharisee and Tax Collector alike.  Maybe the Church can be a place where we can safely share what our hopes and dreams are, and why those leads us to our beliefs, political or otherwise, without putting other people down.  Maybe we as the Church can be people that show how closely related the love of God and the love of neighbor really are (and not just the neighbor I choose and like, but all my neighbors).  When we get God, we get each other.  And when we get each other, we get God.

So, grab a prayer book and turn to page 305, about midway through our baptismal service - we’ll start with the second question from the top:

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
I will, with God's help.

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? 
I will, with God's help.

May God help us all.  Amen.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Crazy Christianity

Today we’re celebrating the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi.  
Usually our annual celebration of Francis takes place during a short, outdoor pet blessing in the afternoon, 
but I’d been longing to try having the pets included in the Church service instead, like the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City where they bring in animals from the Central Park Zoo to bless every year.  
No camels or kangaroos here, but still pretty exciting.  Luckily for these pets, we’re used to a little wildness and restlessness with our small human animals at this service, so they stand a good chance of fitting in.
It’s a crazy idea, bringing animals into the church.  Much less bringing them in for a regular service.  There’s no telling what will happen.  The dogs might start barking at each other, or terrorizing the cats.  One of them might try to escape.  The poor kids like mine with no pets of their own might freak out.  Someone with allergies might start some wild unstoppable sneezing.  Really and truly, this morning it feels like we are on the outskirts of chaos.  But maybe that’s a great reminder.  Because, truth be told, this whole enterprise of Christianity is absolute craziness.  
Which is a very fitting thing to remember today.  I’m guessing most of us think of Francis of Assisi in terms of those concrete statues we see in gardens and front lawns.  Francis stands calmly, a cross held reverently over his heart, trusting animals at his side.  
Francis has become for us sort of the 12th century version of Dr. Doolittle, admirable and kind.  But even though Francis of Assisi is most famously known as being the patron saint of animals and nature, he’s really the patron saint of crazy.
People thought Francis was crazy when he preached to the birds and said they lived out the Gospel better than people did; when he sought out a wolf who was attacking villagers and convinced it to live in peace; when he called the animal creatures “brothers and sisters.”
They thought he was outrageous when he created the first live nativity scene, bringing in real animals so the Christmas worshipers could imagine Jesus’ birth, and using a straw-filled manger as an altar for the Eucharist.
They thought he was out of his mind when he stripped naked in the town square and laid everything he had at his rich and disapproving father’s feet.
They thought he was mad when he walked away from the established and comfortable religious orders and founded his own monastery in which the brothers owned nothing and lived only off what they received from begging.
They thought he was a lunatic when during prayer one day he experienced the figure of Jesus on a crucifix coming to life and telling him to rebuild the church.
They thought he was insane when he kissed the lepers that everyone else regarded with fear and disgust and bathed their sores with his bare hands.
They thought he was off his rocker when he developed a relationship with the leader of the Muslim world during the crusades, acknowledging his faithfulness and trying to make peace.
They thought he was a fanatic when he brazenly confronted both Church and State, railing against the corruption and excess of his day and refusing to participate in a system that allowed the rich to get richer while the poor got poorer. 
Francis was crazy.  Like the prophets of old, and John the Baptist, and Jesus himself (though we often try to forget that).  And, as with the rest of them, if we really listen to Francis and follow his lead, we could find our lives altered.
Francis said: “If God can work through me, God can work through anyone.”  What if we really lived as though God is in some way working through every single person that we meet?
Francis said: “All the darkness of the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle.”  What if we really lived as if the love and light of God were stronger than the fears and darkness of the world?
Francis said: “Remember that when you leave this earth, you can take with you nothing that have received--only what you have given.”  What if we really lived as though the things of this world that we grasp so tightly — money, success, control — were nothing and only love and relationship mattered?
Francis said: “Do not forget your purpose and destiny as God's creature.”  What if we really believed and lived into the promise that we are each unique and beloved children of God, with purpose and calling?
Francis said: “Blessed is the servant who loves his brother as much when he is sick and useless as when he is well and can be of service. And blessed is he who loves his brother as well when he is far off as when he is by his side, and who would say nothing behind his back he might not, in love, say before his face.”  What if we really lived as if the value of other people was innate and not a product of what they produced or owned or offered?
Francis said (or he may have said — this one is a little iffy): “Preach the Gospel, using words when necessary.”  What if our faith was so evident in the way we lived that people really knew that we were Christians by our love?
And finally Francis said: “Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”  I wonder where each one of us might be called to live into Francis’ kind of crazy Christianity today?

Sunday, September 18, 2016


September 18, 2016
Jeremiah 8:18-9:1

There was a choice of psalms today.  One was Psalm 113 - a very pretty psalm, full of joy and promise and thanks and praise for God.  And then there was Psalm 79, the one we read a little bit ago.  You might have noticed that it was not so pretty and joyful.  It was full of anger and pain and violence and questioning.  Our tradition at St. Aidan’s is that the preacher gets to pick if there is a choice of readings.  No question!  I told Eileen “definitely Psalm 113 - the other one is dreadful!”
And then I started delving into our reading from Jeremiah.  Jeremiah is known as the “weeping prophet.”  He was teaching and preaching during a time when the Israelites were in exile.  Their enemies were destroying them.  They were far from the security of Jerusalem and the majesty of the temple and they were constantly tempted to give up on God and each other.
And so our reading is heavy.  Painfully oozing with the suffering of the people of God.  The suffering of the prophet Jeremiah.  And the suffering of God.  This reading is a lament, through and through.  
Hear pieces from a modern translation:  “I drown in grief….  I’m heartsick….  I weep, seized by grief….  Why can’t something be done…? I wish my head were a well of water and my eyes fountains of tears so I could weep day and night….”
This week I gathered with some friends that hadn’t been together for a while.  As we caught up, there was a lot of joy to share — summer vacations, kid stories, exciting things happening at work, good spiritual growth, but what struck me more was the hardship, the sadness.  Someone in the process of adoption and waiting heartsick to be approved to gather their matched child.  Someone dealing with a particularly ugly divorce and the ensuing child tug-of-war.  Someone dealing with job loss and the existential questions of vocation and worth.  Someone coping with a child’s anxiety over too many transitions.  Someone feeling roles reversed as they are faced with care of a suddenly ailing parent, and another coping with the huge hole left by the loss of a parent.  All of us looked so put together, and yet right there, simmering at a low boil just under the surface, was so much heartache.
And that doesn’t even begin to touch all the reasons for grief and suffering in the larger world.  Endless wars and refugee crises.  Horrifying acts of extremist terrorism and gun violence.  Natural disasters and global warming.  Racial and political divisiveness.  Poverty and over-incarceration, addiction and mental illness.  Every day the world groans and the people cry.  It is all so big and so impossible.
And so, as hard as they are to read, as hard as they are to hear, sometimes the lament readings like Jeremiah and the angry, questioning psalms like Psalm 79 are exactly where we are and the only thing that makes sense.  We need to know that we can shout out at God with our anger and disappointment and questions.  We need to know that God hears our cries and our despair.  And maybe most important of all we need to recognize that God’s despair and anger joins our own.  
I don’t think lament is usually our first instinct, though.  
This summer my daughter Sophia was reading one of those popular dystopian series.  One of the ones where the whole world as we know it has fallen apart and we see some small group (usually of young people) trying to reach for a better world.  I’d been hearing a lot about this series, called Divergent, and so I read the books too.  The construct is that society has so destroyed itself that it has decided that the only way to safely go forward is to group everyone into five factions that they live, eat, and work with and pledge their allegiance to.  But I think these 5 factions might also represent ways that we deal with the pain and grief in our lives and in our world. 
There is Erudite, the group that believes that knowledge is everything.  Anytime there is a problem, they work to understand it using facts and figures and brainpower.  If faced with pain we hear in our reading from Jeremiah, Erudite would investigate the causes, debate the theology, and not rest until they found a satisfactory answer. 
Then there is Amity, the group that believes in happiness and peace above all.  Anytime there is a problem, they sing songs and smile.  Amity would have avoided Jeremiah and picked the happy psalm to read this morning.
There is Candor, who believe in truth above all.  Whenever something goes wrong, are sure to loudly assign blame to all responsible parties.  Candor wouldn’t hesitate to let Jeremiah, God and the people know exactly where they all went wrong.
And there is Abnegation, the passive group that selflessly denies themselves to serve others.  They wouldn’t want to “burden” someone else with their sorrow and pain.  Abnegation would suggest the people of God make themselves so busy that they had no time to feel.  
And finally there is Dauntless, always brave in the face of any danger.  If the people of God were Dauntless, they would either assert themselves too strong to suffer, or would walk headlong into their suffering to get as quickly as possible to the other side.
I’m sure we’ve found ourselves inside all of those factions at some time or another.  And there is a time and place for all of those approaches.  But in the hardest of times, sometimes we just need to lament.  Sometimes we just need to cry or scream or pound things.  Sometimes we just need to grieve.  And Jeremiah is a model of how to do that. 
In Jeremiah, the people despair their impending doom and question God’s presence.  Jeremiah sees the wounded people and feels powerless.  God grieves the unfaithfulness of the people, and that it has all come to this.  Everyone laments, everyone cries, everyone is heartbroken.  
They are full of questions, just as we are in the midst of suffering.  Why did this happen?  How could You, God, let this happen?  What kind of future can we possibly have now?  Their questions are raw and honest.  This is what we humans do when we struggle with loss and heartache.  And there seem to be no answers, no easy fixes.  All that can be done is to weep over the wrongness of the world.  But as Elie Wiesel explained in Night, his book about the Holocaust, “every question possesses a power that is lost in the answer.”  Our anguished questions show that we care enough to take what feels unfair and unjust to God.  That we long for a time when the wrongs are righted, every tear wiped away.  Our lament - our unsilenced grief - our wrestling with God - our demand for answers even when we know there aren’t answers to be had - those are acts of faith in this broken, in-between, world.  We don’t need to edit our anguish before God.  Lament is a spiritual practice just as surely as contemplative prayer or labyrinth walking .
Jeremiah is hard to read because there is so much angst and no closure, no neat happy ending.  But it is also promising, not just in it’s welcome of our honest grief before God, but in the inclusion of God’s voice in the chorus of grief.
It’s very hard to tell in this reading which heartbroken questions and cries of anguish come from the people and which come from the prophet Jeremiah and which come from God.  God identifies so closely with the people, loves them so much, that their wounds, their brokenness, are God’s wounds, God’s brokenness.  The longing of the prophet and the people for healing and peace are also the longing of God.  God is present in their suffering, even as they feel themselves God-forsaken.  

When you find yourself, as we all will in this imperfect world, heartsick, drowning in grief, wishing your head were a well of water and my eyes fountains of tears so you could weep day and night, try joining your voice with those of Jeremiah and the Israelites and bring your lament to God.  Not only can God take it, but you might hear God’s own lament echoing through the universe.  Amen.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Diving through waves, and other perspective-changing endeavors

August 21, 2016
Luke 13:10-17

We came home yesterday from a week at the beach in Delaware and the theme of the week for me was perspective.

It began the very first night, when I took the kids down to play at the beach.  Holden had to drive separately, so it was just me.  3 kids, 1 adult, lifeguard off duty, and a whole lot of waves.  That was when I realized two things about waves.  Number 1 - Apparently waves look much bigger and scarier to parents than they do to kids.  I remember when I was a kid and the bigger the wave, the better.  I'd ride them to shore, sometimes getting swooped but just getting back up again and running back into the waves.  Now, as a parent, the waves just keep rolling in and all I can think is that every single wave is a potential drowner of my children.  Parents and children have a different perspective on waves.  And Number 2 - when you look out into the vastness of the ocean, It is very hard to tell the actual size of a wave.  I would see these gargantuan waves in the distance and yell “Watch out! It’s a big one!” gesturing madly at the wave about to crash behind them.  And pretty much every time a few seconds later the wave proved itself to be not much more than a ripple.  And then when I thought everything looked calm and safe, suddenly there would be a wave twice my tallest child's height menacing behind them.  
It’s hard to get perspective at the ocean.  

  The theme of perspective continued the next day.  The kids are good swimmers, but Maya hadn’t yet learned how to dive through the waves in order to make it safely through a sudden big one.  And so I began to teach her, starting with the little ones until just a little while later she was diving through the bigger ones like a champ.  She learned that even though it feels counterintuitive at the time, if you dive into what feels like an overwhelming wave, you can flow through that roaring energy rather than being toppled and crushed by it.  Learning to dive through waves changes your perspective of the ocean - it helps you to look at the ocean with respect rather than fear. 

I guess since the idea was already on my mind, the importance of perspective was what stood out most strongly with our Gospel reading from Luke too.  And so I want us to experience the perspective of this woman in our story together just for a moment.  

We’re going to take a little walk around the church.  But a few instructions first.  We’re going to try walking like the woman in our story for today.  So as you walk, I want you to hunch your back over and put your head down as much as possible and keep your eyes down.  As you walk quietly, pay attention to what you see and how you feel.
 After circling, we talked about what we noticed.  Dust and imperfections on the concrete floor.  Only feet all around us.  We felt isolated.  We couldn’t tell who other people were.  We felt vulnerable, not sure what might be just out of our small circle of sight.  We felt discomfort and pain.

Now circle around again, but this time with your back straight and your head up, feel free to look around and look at the people around you.  Again, as you walk quietly, pay attention to what you see and how you feel.
After this walk, what we noticed was very different.  We felt more positive, we saw the leaves blowing in the breeze and the sunlight shining through the windows.  We felt like part of a community.  We were laughing and having fun.
Now you can sit down.

We were bent over for just a minute.  Just imagine what it must have been like for this woman, bent over and unable to see beyond the floor in front of her for 18 years.  For 18 years, straining and twisting to avoid possible dangers in her path.  Probably in incredible pain.  Seeing only the dust and dirt beneath her feet.  Unable to look up at the stars or watch the leaves rustle in the trees.  Unable to look into the faces of the people around her.  Unable to play with the children in her life.  Unable to help as much as she’d like with things that needed doing.  Everyone either staring at her in horror or pity or fear, or else just completely avoiding her.  Marginalized and devalued.  Invisible.

And then Jesus saw her.  He didn’t just notice her in the corner of his eye, or look at her with sympathy.  Jesus saw her whole being, not just her outward disfigurement.  Jesus saw her with love and compassion and invited her over.  Invited her … whom no one wanted to see or touch.  Her … whom everyone avoided like a leper.  Jesus affirmed her as a daughter of Abraham, part of God’s very own beloved creation, and put his hands on her.  Something that maybe no one had done in love for more than a decade.

And her perspective changed completely.  After 18 years of pain and loneliness, she had stopped imagining healing was possible.  Had stopped even hoping for a kind word or a loving touch.  She was resigned to her miserable plight.  But suddenly she straightens up, her eyes meet Jesus and she knows that she has seen God.  She feels known and valued.  She sees the beauty of the world again, feels a part of the community again.  And she is overcome with joy and thankfulness.

And she wasn’t the only one with a new perspective.  When Jesus disrupted her status quo, it surprised everyone.  The community that had ignored and belittled her for 18 years, now was able to see her as well.  And they rejoiced right along with her.  Together, they’d had a taste of how things can be in the Kingdom of God.  No one broken or unseen or excluded.  The world repaired.  They’d all gotten a new perspective, a God’s eye view.

I wonder how our perspective could stand to change?  Maybe we have been standing hunched over in some way, isolating ourselves from God and the people around us and we need to lift our head just a bit.  Or maybe there are people in our lives that we are devaluing or walking past and we need to learn to see them differently.  Or maybe we need to look out into the waves in our lives and began to see them as they really are.  Or maybe there really is a huge, scary wave in front of us and we need to learn how to dive into it and see how we come out on the other side rather than running from it in fear and anxiety. Maybe a change of perspective could transform everything.