Monday, January 15, 2018

Being Beloved: A Promise Forever

Sermon preached at St. Thomas', Bath, NY on the First Sunday after Epiphany:  Mark 1:4-11

           The Gospel writer Mark tells us that John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, talking not about himself but about one who was “more powerful than I who is coming after me.”  “I have baptized you with water,” he says, “but [the one who is to come] will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

           And sure enough, Mark tells us, “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.”

           Which is to say that Jesus came out of nowhere.  Nazareth was the kind of town that most people of Jesus’ day would have never heard of.  It wasn’t on anybody’s list of top ten places in the Middle East that you would like to see before you die.  There’s no mention of it in the Old Testament, so there wasn’t any expectation that a future messiah would come from there, or anywhere else in the district called Galilee.

           The Gospel writers Matthew and Luke at least have the good sense to tell birth stories about Jesus, about how he was born in Bethlehem, a place in the right part of the region, that everybody would have heard of, and about which there were plenty of expectations about a future ruler coming from there just like King David had come from Bethlehem centuries before.

           But not Mark.  It almost seems important to Mark that Jesus comes out of nowhere.

           So the story is that this guy comes out of nowhere.  Like many others, he gets attracted to John’s exotic preaching and baptizing at the river Jordan, and he himself, again, like many others, presents himself to John for baptism.  But when he is baptized he has this amazing experience. As Mark describes it:

As he was coming out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.

           Then, by the way, Mark tells us that he was immediately driven into the wilderness to face temptation.

           Now isn’t that sort of backwards?  Doesn’t it make more sense for Jesus to have gotten this great affirmation from God after he passed the test of the temptations?  But that isn’t how the story goes.

           The story is that this guy came out of nowhere, decides to get baptized by an obscure prophet, and God called him his beloved.

Now you may want to conjecture that he must have grown up being pretty much perfect for God to say he was well pleased with him.  But that doesn’t seem to be important one way or the other for Mark.  He doesn’t tell any stories about Jesus’ perfection, or anything else he has done to deserve God’s favor.

           He just says that this guy came out of nowhere and God called him “beloved.”

           Now that’s important for you and me.  Why?  Because John the Baptist tells us that Jesus will baptize people with the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit that pronounces Jesus beloved to God.  Jesus’ baptism is a baptism into God’s belovedness by the Holy Spirit.

We are baptized into Jesus’ baptism.  That means that we receive the same Spirit as Jesus did.  And this is true whether we come from somewhere or from nowhere.  And it is true whether we have successfully met our temptations or not.  The Spirit of God is the Spirit of belovedness.

           We don’t have a baptism this morning, but let’s think about our own baptisms.  Most of us were baptized as babies or very young children.  I am always struck by the things we say about a child who has been baptized.  In the introductory words about baptism in The Book of Common Prayer we are told that we believe the bond established by God in baptism is indissoluble, cannot be broken.  And there is no asterisk at the end of that sentence that gives the “fine print:”  Cannot be broken unless you do one of the following awful things.

           And immediately after we baptize someone we anoint them with oil of chrism and say what I think are the most amazing liturgical words we ever say:  “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.”

           When we baptize a baby it is easy to believe these words because the child before us is all innocence.  But if we are honest with ourselves, we know this will not always be the case.  Babies become “terrible two’s” and eventually they grow up to be teenagers, and then they become adults like us.

           It seems easy to say when a baby is baptized that she is a fit receptacle for God’s own Spirit, and as a recipient of God’s Spirit she is being pronounced “beloved.”  She’s so cute, who wouldn’t want to call her beloved?

           But we are not just saying it for this moment.  What is happening, we say, is forever.  And they are not words of wishful thinking; we say them because we believe them to be true.

           You are God’s beloved forever, we say, knowing full well that, like the rest of us, he is going to do things in the future that will make it dubious that he is deserving of that title.

           And it doesn’t matter, we are saying.  Because it is not about deserving or not deserving anything.  It is not about whether we’ve been good enough to deserve God liking us or not.

           It is about being beloved.

           It is not true, at least with God, that you get what you deserve.  Quite, in fact, the opposite.  It is news so good that it is just about unbelievable, and I would be the first to admit that the church doesn’t always talk that way.  We’re afraid that we might go out of business if we didn’t have to keep telling people to behave themselves so that they can go to heaven.

           But we should not be primarily in the business of teaching people to be good.  We should be, we are, in the business of telling people that they are beloved, and encouraging one another to act in the world as if that were true.

           The church is not in the business of helping make people good enough that God will love them.  We are in the business of announcing that people are already beloved by God, and helping to make and keep them so confident in that reality, that they seek to do good.

           I hope you can hear how amazing that news is, and how counter it is to most of our natural inclinations to think about life, much less church.  And I’m here to tell you today that it gets better than that.  Because even after those moments when I do not seek to do good, when sometimes I do precisely the opposite, when I betray my belovedness, I always get another chance.  All I have to do is make the slightest turn towards God and say, “I’m not doing so well, but I want to do better.”  That is the simple meaning of repentance.  And God says, OK.  You’ll never stop being my beloved; that is my promise to you for ever.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Let Us Ask for Wonder

Homily preached on Christmas Eve at the early service at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, NY.

And Mary pondered all these things in her heart…

Mary was full of wonder.  She had been, ever since Gabriel’s visit to her, when she has asked, “How can these things be?”

She had said, “Yes.”  But that doesn’t mean she had everything all figured out.  What she signed up for was a mystery, about which only wondering was possible.

In Godly Play, the curriculum we use in our Sunday School here, “wonder” is  our most important word.  We tell the stories of the Bible, and we ask the children to wonder about them.  We do not teach them what they mean.  The stories do that as we tell them time and again, and as we wonder about them a little more deeply every time.

           Just what is wonder?  It often helps me to understand a word like this by thinking about its absence.

What is the opposite of wonder?  It may be certainty.  This might be a clue to why the church is less and less attractive to people.  People think we deal in certainties , certainties that they cannot be certain about.  The truth is we only deal with mystery and wonder.

I think the ultimate opposite to wonder is judgment.  Again, people think that judgment is the church’s primary business, because it is God’s ultimate business.  We have not done a lot to prove otherwise, but it is the greatest of ironies, because we follow one who taught, “Do not judge, or you will be judged.” (Luke 6:37) and “You judge by human standards; I judge no one.” (John 8:15)

Judgment is an infection.  It is as easy to catch as the common cold.  It is the need to be certain and to apply that certainty to others in order to determine whether they are right or wrong, true or false, patriotic or not patriotic.  As a people we are soaked in judgment, and more than that, we are drowning in it.  The common cold of judgment has turned into full-blown pneumonia.

What would it look like to trade judgment for wonder? Just one thig really, one simple but difficult, sometimes painfully difficult thing to do. We would need to approach one another with questions rather than statements of fact.

Perhaps, I need to say that, first of all, we would need to approach one another, because what keeps us divided is the bubbles that we allow ourselves to live in. We tend to associate only with those who agree with us, are like us, who don’t upset our view of the world.

I came across a helpful quote the other day,

Fundamentalists live their life with an exclamation point.
I prefer to livre my life with a question mark.

Living life with a question mark, living life in wonder, does not mean that we do not believe in something, or hold certain values, or hold some very precious things that are true for us.

But it is to live an open life, ready to listen, ready to learn, ready to ask why someone else believes the way they do, and ready to change our minds about something at least occasionally.  It is to live in this basic attitude:  I am more like you than I am different from you.

For this Christmas, among the other things for which we ask, let each one of us ask for the gift of wonder, and allow mystery we celebrate this night to re-enter our lives.  We don’t need to have everything figured out.  The truth is that we cannot have everything figured out.

The us embrace the gift of mystery. Let us ask for the gift of wonder.

Monday, December 11, 2017

We Interrupt Your Regularly Scheduled Attitude for Advent

In seminary, I was a member of the Advent police, who tried, somewhat in vain, to keep the campus from beginning to celebrate Christmas too early.  We took this very seriously, but then we took everything very seriously in seminary.  Looking back, I call all that seriousness tedious, but at the time it seemed as if we were saving the church from degradation.

Advent for us was about discipline, the discipline of waiting, a defiance of the rampant consumerism that was the lead-up to the world’s Christmas.  There’s certainly nothing wrong with the defiance of consumerism.  There’s every biblical warrant for that stance to be a significant part of Christian living, although I know very few Christians (including myself) who are very good at it.

Instead of discipline, though, I have come upon another word to use for Advent.  That word is disruption.  I’ll confess that I learned the word from Hebrew Scripture scholar Walter Brueggemann.  One of his many books is Disruptive Grace.

Our lives being disrupted has much more to do with Christmas than discipline.  What was and is and will be the coming of Jesus into the world and into our lives but disruptive.  What we celebrate at Christmas is an intervention, the intervention of God in our lives and snaps us awake like those foolish virgins in the parable from Matthew’s Gospel.  “Help!” we cry, “We are out of oil.”  In our case, the oil of which we are found wanting is our attentiveness to the things that truly matter in this world, “Glory for God and peace for humankind,” as the angels sing.  Not just peace for the world, but peace in our own living rooms, and the way we interact with others in our communities.

There is much resentment and meanness in our current way of being with one another.  Everybody knows it, but no one seems to be able to do anything about it.  We just go on exacerbating it with the kind of judgment that Jesus taught us was simply none of our business.  We might pray for a renewed intervention, but that will mean a significant disruption in our lives—the disruption of love, of mercy, of gentleness.

For all the moral dilemmas in our world that need solving, what we actually need most is the disruption of our attitude by the baby of Bethlehem.  I am reminded of a line from a Christmas Carol, which I will quote even though we are only midway through Advent:  “O hush your noise and cease your strive, and hear the angels sing.”

Thursday, November 23, 2017

I give you thanks...

For my home, for the love of my husband, John, and for Lucy and Tica, the animal companions who share our lives.

              For my family, my parents, siblings, nieces and nephews, who brighten my life.

              For my life and my health, and the opportunity to have the time to tend closely to it.

For our church, for my ministry with the children, and the children themselves, for what we teach each other.

For my writing and the graduate program of which I am a part, for its affirmations and its challenges.

For the Finger Lakes SPCA, for my work as treasurer, for our new building, and for our Minis, Sparrow and Sweetie.

For the beautiful place where we live, for the hills and valleys that bring me peace.

For enough income to tend our needs and allow us to be generous.

For the power of resistance in an anger-fueled world.

For the mercy and grace of God, on which I depend.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Angels & Archangels

St. Michael the Archangel
(c) Minhhang K. Huynh
When my parents chose my name, I don’t think they thought they were giving me the name of an archangel, the prince of angels in the Bible, a Jewish name, meaning “Who is like God.”  I’m certain they just liked the name, as did countless others in 1961. In my high school class of 42, there were three Michaels.

On my Name Day, September 29th, I wonder about my archangelic heritage, and about the “angels and archangels and all the company of heaven” with whom we say we join in singing, “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord” at every Eucharist.  I don’t have any trouble believing in angels, in non-human spiritual beings that exist beyond our sight, although “believing” might not be the right word (it probably is not a coincidence that belief in angels is not required by the Nicene Creed).  Angels seem more in the realm of imagining and wondering, so that they, like God, never leave the realm of holy mystery.

I have some trouble in the notion of “guardian angels.” I mean, I can imagine them, and would even like to do so, but if they exist it is clear to me that some of them are not good at their job at all.  I much prefer the notion of Rabbi Joshua ben Levi (3rd c. c.e.):  "A procession of angels passes before each person, and the heralds go before them, saying, 'Make way for the image of God!'" (Deut. Rab., 4:4)  I strain to hear them and wonder what the world would be like if everyone so strained and acknowledged the givenness of this divine favor.

It puzzles me that so many people talk as though a human being, when he or she dies, becomes an angel.  I hear this a lot, especially when it is a child who has died.  “God needed another angel.”  Besides the fact that I imagine God already has all the angels that God needs, this takes away the profound truth at the heart of the Jewish and Christian traditions (at least) that our humanity is saved, and our humanity exists in the next life.  Jesus did not become an angel when he ascended into heaven. He took his body, and ours, there.  He prays for us there in his body.  The body is not evil, to be cast off. It is part of our being made in the image of God.

In the end, I refuse to let go of a belief in angels because I refuse to let go of wonder, of the belief—no, expectation—that there is a larger life, that there is more to reality than can be seen with the eye or comprehended with the mind, a realm of being I get a glimpse at in prayer, in song, and in worship.

One of my favorite hymns takes us to this place of wonder:

Ye holy angels bright, who wait at God’s right hand,
Or through the realms of light fly at your Lord’s command,

Assist our song, for else the theme too high doth seem for mortal tongue.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Sermon: Who Do We Say We Are?

Sermon preached at St. Mark's Church, Penn Yan, NY on the 13 Sunday after Pentecost, September 3, 2017.  Proper 17A:  Matthew

           This morning’s Gospel does not make much sense separated from last Sunday’s Gospel, so I am going to begin by reminding you of how this story begins.

           Jesus and the disciples have been wandering in Galilee and they come to its northernmost point, the slopes of Mt. Hermon. Specifically, they are on the road to Caesarea Philippi.

           The site of Caesarea Phillipi was an ancient site for the worship of Baal and later the Greek God Pan. Augustus Caesar gave the city to King Herod, who built there a temple to Augustus. Herod, in turn, gave it to his son Phillip. At that time the city was called Panion. Phillip rebuilt the city and re-named it for his two favorite people:  Caesar and himself. It became the seat of Phillip’s governance of that region, left to him on the death of his father.

           Jesus and the disciples are walking into this politically-loaded Gentile city, a place where the rule of Rome and its puppet kings was on display for all to see and experience.

           With this setting in mind, Jesus asks his disciples what people are saying about him. Who do people say that I am? They give him a variety of answers, but then you can almost sense him stop walking, turning to them, and asking. “Who do you say that I am?

           Again, you can almost see the disciples shuffling their feet, looking furtively at one another. Who’s going to say something? It is Simon, who has the nickname “Peter,” from the Greek word for “rock.” Rocky steps forward and says, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”

           Jesus bestows a blessing on Peter and tells everyone that on this “rock” (pun intended) his followers will organize themselves, and he gives Peter, if you will, “the keys of the kingdom.”

           Strangely enough, Jesus also instructs them not to tell people about this Messiah thing. Why is that?

           For the children of Israel, “Messiah” meant “anointed one” (in Greek, the same word is “Christ”). It was a prophetic and a royal title. Only prophets and kings were anointed in ancient Israel. In addition, “Son of God” was Caesar Augustus’ favorite name for himself. They were headed into a city where there was a temple to that son of god.

           The question, “Who do you say that I am?” was a loaded one. The answer put Jesus on a collision course with the power of the state. His disciples, and Christians for all time, were going to have to be clear about just who was the primary authority in their life.

           Jesus then starts the process of re-working the Messiah image for the disciples. As Messiah, Jesus was not going to be the conquering hero, restoring Israel to its former, independent, glory. Quite the opposite, he was going to be the Messiah who suffered and died.

           Peter is beside himself. “No,” he says, “God forbid it. That is not going to happen to you.” And in an instant Peter goes from rock star to an instrument of Satan. Jesus’ declaration should remind us of the temptation story, where Satan tempts Jesus with, among other things, political power, the kind that was many people’s expectation of what the Messiah would do. Jesus had said an emphatic no then, and he says and emphatic no now.

           Furthermore, he says that this way of changing the world—that appears positively insane to his followers—will be how his followers live and face the world around them. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

           What we usually do with this story is individualize it. It is up to each one of us, as followers of Jesus, to be able to answer Jesus’ question, “Who do say that I am?”

           That’s all well and good. But what if the question is also a communal one. What if it is a question that the church must answer, and not just about Jesus, but about ourselves? Who do we say that we are?

           St. Paul taught us to answer the question, “We are the body of Christ.” Jesus taught about the “kingdom of God,” suggesting that was our true citizenship.

           Who do we say that we are?

           There are many ways to go in tackling that question, but let me suggest just one by reading the Collect for Labor Day,

Almighty God, you have so linked our lives one with another that all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives; So guide us in the work we do, that we do it not for self alone, but for the common good; and, as we seek a proper return for our own labor, make us mindful of the rightful aspirations of other workers, and arouse our concern for those who are out of work; through Jesus Christ our Lord… (BCP. P. 261)

           Who do we say that we are?

           We are people always committed to the common good, cognizant that our lives are linked to all other lives.  This is as old as the tales of Genesis, which taught us that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. We cannot subscribe to any movement that puts some people “first” above anybody. To do so denies our very identity.

           Just an example. I encourage you to wrestle not only with the question of who Jesus is for you, but what the church is for you, and how we are the church in the world.

Friday, August 18, 2017

The Rocky Road to Radical Relationships

The primary question we are to bring to any relationship with any other person, no matter any matter of their identity is not, “Will you agree with us and become one of us?” (or, in evangelical parlance, “Are you saved?”).  It is, “How can we serve you?”

I wrote those words two days ago, and received an excellent request from a friend:  “I need some practical advice on enacting these words from your writing when we are dealing with Trump supporters or other non-believers.”

The first thing to say is that, like most things Christian and/or spiritual, we are talking about process.  This is true, for instance, with forgiveness.  Forgiveness and reconciliation are processes. They may (and usually do) have their moments of revelation, for example, when you can say to another, “I forgive you.”  Yet even that definitive statement does not signal the end of anything. It is rare when there is not more processing to do, both internally and externally.  There is also the great truth that forgiveness is a two-way street, with responsibility and accountability on both sides.

So, what about my friend’s question?  How do we enact the words, “We are here to serve you,” with people who seem so vastly different from ourselves and do not particularly want relationship with us?  I think there are several things to say about this, summed up in the title of this essay.  The road to radical relationship is a rocky one.  My apologies for resorting to a list here.  I do not intend for it to be taken as “steps.”

1.      I have introduced the word “radical” as a descriptive of the kind of relationship we are after, the kind of relationship I think Jesus wants us to pursue with others.  The word “radical” comes from the Latin word for “root” (think of “radish,” a root vegetable).  Radical relationships are those that get to the root of the matter. This must be true in at least three ways.  First, the root of any relationship we build as Christians is love, defined by Jesus as the kind of love that would involve the willingness to give up one’s life for the other (John 13:15).  Second, I must bring to this love the root of myself, inasmuch as I am aware of it, and I must address the root of the other, inasmuch as he or she is aware of it, and together we must be willing to go deeper.

2.      I do not myself have a great deal of success engaging people who are from the other end of the political spectrum, with whom I do not appear to share any values.  But that’s not just me.  We live in a time when the divide is deep and it is filled with all kinds of evil things like mistrust and fear (the cause of most hate) that keep us reactive and unwilling to be with each other.  The white supremacist’s desire to live in a country where the races are segregated is just the extreme manifestation of that fear.  This is the “rocky” part. We have not only become deeply divided, but the divide itself has taken on a life of its own.

3.      St. Benedict teaches us the beginning of radical relationships:  “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ” (RB 53:1).  If you want a “first step” this is it, and as first steps go, it’s a big one.  The Baptismal Covenant in The Book of Common Prayer says the same thing with the promise that we will “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves” (p. 305).  Step One is an open, non-defensive stance.  It’s the “non-defensive” part that is so difficult these days.  We tend to be ready to be defensive even before we meet someone.

4.      The further part of this welcome is that we must be ready to listen and not to talk.  We have to assume (and this, too, can be extraordinarily difficult) that the other person means well, has a story to tell, and wants to be listened to.  Again, we must be ready to do non-defensive listening.

5.      When it is our turn to talk, it is better that we tell our stories about how we have come to believe what we do.  After years of arguing propositions in the church and lgbtq issues, I firmly believe that we did our best and most decisive work when we told our stories.

6.      The last thing I will say is that we must be ready for rejection.  Fear is a powerful thing and the anger that results from it is even more powerful.  Our attempt at relationship may be completely rebuffed.  This reality may be the norm, given the present climate.  But we have no mandate from Jesus other than to keep trying.  The bottom line, I think is this:  “How can I serve you?” is first and foremost is an invitation to tell me who you are.