Monday, January 14, 2019

A Promise Forever

Sermon preached on the First Sunday after Epiphany (The Baptism of Jesus) with the baptism of Alexandria Grace VanHusen at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, NY:  Isaiah 43:1-7 and Luke 3:15-17, 21-22.  I don't yet have the text for this sermon, but below is the link to the audio.

Monday, January 07, 2019

Blessed Strangeness

Sermon preached on The Epiphany, Sunday, January 6, 2019 at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, NY.

          This is a strange story about strange people.

          First of all the magi.  That’s the word I use for them because that is the Greek word used in the story.  Who were these people and where did they come from?

          Despite the song we just sang, they were not kings.  That makes no sense at all, or, rather, it makes too much sense of these strangers.  To call them kings means that the notable and powerful were seeking the notable and powerful and that is not what this story is about.

          We’ve tried so hard to make sense of this story.  We decided there were three of them because there were three gifts.  But the story doesn’t say how many there were, only that they were plural, more than one.  In the 7th century we even given them names, Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar.

          But the story is that these strangers came from the east and they were perhaps religious figures of some sort, but Matthew the Gospel writer doesn’t give us any details because the only thing he wants to make clear is that these were foreigners, strangers, aliens.

          And they knew something, saw something in the night sky that drew them to the land of the Jews.  They went to Jerusalem, the capitol, and to Herod, the king, which is really the only sensible thing that happens in the story.  Where else to go to look for a new king of the Jews?

          But in Jerusalem the strangers found the even more strange.  Herod, a strange and evil tyrant who lived in the trappings of power but really had none at all.  He was a puppet of the Roman occupiers.  His court was all pretense.  The Romans let him build great monuments to himself, and they looked the other way when he chose one of his four sons to be his successor and just to make sure his choice was honored murdered the other three.

          Herod was a man who believed his own press releases, and the strangers from the east, whoever they were, were certainly smart enough to figure that out, but, at least, his religious flunkies could give them a clue as to where they should take their search.

          So, no doubt with a great deal of relief, they left the strange king behind and headed for Bethlehem.

          But what they found there was nothing like they were looking for.  The strangers again found the strange.  Not a king, but a child, found in a common house, with two unimportant parents.  But the child more than the child, the star in their eyes could see his strangeness, the strangeness of God, as a vulnerable baby, a human being, destined to live, but also destined to die, just like them and all the rest of us.

          But in this meeting of the strangers from the east with the stranger who gathered heaven and earth into himself, a spiritual super nova.

          Conventional religion explodes.  Conventional religion, which seeks to divide the world between the godly and the ungodly, the sinner and the righteous, the accepted and the unacceptable, the welcomed and the stranger—is obliterated in this child.

          In the centuries that follow we have tried to make this religion conventional and we have, unfortunately, succeeded, mostly, but no one can ever quite get rid of this uncomfortable and amazing truth—that the strange is the blessed, the strangers are welcomed, the unacceptable made acceptable, sinners declared righteous, and all men and women drawn into the divine.

          Whoever these wise guys were, they knew that what they had encountered was the ultimate stranger declaring himself to be more than a king—a friend, a friend to all who seek him.

          And they were smart enough not to do the conventional thing, and return to the seat of power, check in with the religious officials and the king, but to find a different way home.

          And they left us with this one question that we should carry like a star in our eyes all of our days:  Is there a different way home than we thought? Is there a different way to see? Is there a different way to be with one another, and, most importantly, with the stranger?  Are we willing to live our days as blessed stranger to blessed stranger?

          To seek to answer these questions is to find a new way home.

Ask for Wonder

Sermon preached on Christmas Eve at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, NY (early service).

          I wonder what part of this story draws you in the most?  I wonder what Mary wondered, pondered in her heart that Christmas morning?

          I wonder if we need to exercise our capacity for wonder?  By this I mean: learn how to use it and make it a part of our life?

          I wonder what a life of wonder might look like?

          What is wonder?  I like the proposal of Rabbi Abraham Heschel, probably the greatest Jewish writer, and one of the greatest religious writers of the 20th century.

          [In case you think it rather odd I am quoting a Jewish rabbi on Christmas, let me remind you that what we are witnessing is a Jewish family coming into being, relying on their tradition to grasp, to wonder at what is going on in their lives.]
          Any way, Rabbi Heschel’s understanding of wonder:  Wonder is

An intuition for the dignity of all things, a realization that things are not only what they are but also stand, however, remotely, for something supreme. [Wonder is] a reference everywhere to mystery beyond all things . . . to sense the ultimate in the common and simple . . . What we cannot comprehend by analysis, we become aware of in [wonder].

          To increase our capacity for wonder is to train ourselves in a way of seeing, of seeing more in the world, and in one another, than meets the eye.  Wonder is not opposed to science and the knowledge of provable things, but wonder is always looking for more, wonder recognizes that there is nothing or no one we can understand completely, that mystery is a fundamental part of life.

          Why this talk about wonder on Christmas Eve?  It is because the mystery of Christmas, that God and humanity are not opposed to each other, but are meant to be partners in living, in creating.

          The one thing we need to increase our capacity for wonder is found in a favorite line from a Christmas carol, “It came upon a midnight clear,” the third verse.

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
the world has suffered long;
Beneath the heavenly hymn have rolled
two thousand years of wrong;
And warring humankind hears not
the tidings which they bring;
O hush the noise and cease your strife
and hear the angels sing.

          We need to be quiet. We need to shut up.  And we need to set aside our differences, which is especially important in the polarized climate we live in.

O hush the noise and cease your strife and hear the angels sing.

          And what are the angels singing?  “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and goodwill to men and women.”

          Just before the end of his life, Rabbi Heschel was asked if he had a message for young people. He said,

Let them remember that there is meaning beyond absurdity.  Let them be sure that every deed counts, that every word has power, and that we all can do our share to redeem the world is spite of all the absurdities and all frustrations and all disappointments.  And, above all, [let them] remember . . . to build a life as if it were a work of art.

          And I would add that if you, like me, are no longer a young person, we can always begin to do these things, to begin again to live a life of wonder.

          If you haven’t yet asked God for a Christmas present this year—and even if you have—ask for the gift of wonder.  It was Rabbi Heschel’s primary prayer. He prayed

Never once in my life did I ask God for success or wisdom or power or fame. I asked for wonder, and he gave it to me.

The quotes from Rabbi Heschel in this homily can be found in the anthology, I Asked for Wonder.

Monday, December 03, 2018

What To Do When the World Turns Upside Down

Sermon preached at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, NY on the 1st Sunday of Advent:  Luke 21:25-36

          “The Doctor is IN,” says the sign over Lucy’s booth in the comic strip Peanuts.  Ever forlorn and confused Charlie Brown confesses to her, “Sometimes I think I don’t know anything about life.”  He pleads with her, “Tell me a great truth!”

          Lucy asks a question first, “Do you ever wake up at night and want a drink of water?”  “Sure,” comes the reply from Charlie.  Her voice dripping with “wisdom,” Lucy pronounces, “When you’re getting a drink of water in the dark, always rinse out the glass because there might be a bug in it!”

          Charlie reflects, “Great truths are even more simple than I thought they were.”[1]

          Perhaps it would be best if we came at this apocalyptic text from Luke with Lucy’s simplicity. 

          This First Sunday of Advent is one of the most difficult Sundays for Christians in our tradition.  We are not comfortable with these texts about the second coming and the day of judgment.  They remind us too much of hellfire preaching and street corner signs of doom.

          Sort of like Lucy’s curbside psychiatrist’s office, we don’t expect much good news.  Charlie comes to her despondent, as he so often is.  He does not understand life.  The pieces don’t come together for him.  Lucy’s message to him is mocking; that’s part of her role in the cartoon.  But she’s on to something, and so is Charlie.  “Maybe Great Truths are more simple than I imagined.”

          So is there some simple great truth for us in this end-times rhetoric?

          Jesus says some scary stuff:

There will be signs in the sun, and the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused at the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding at what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.

          If you listen closely to those words, you can almost hear a description of the coming ecological crisis, but I think Jesus is talking more broadly than that.  He is saying

You will experience the world being turned upside down and inside out, so you do not know which end is up.  What is perfectly normal will not seem normal to you.  You will be anxious and afraid.  Your faith will be shaken to its core.

          Does that sound more familiar?  We live on the edge of being out of control.  We live in moments when the pieces of our lives lay at our feet and there does not seem to be any way to put them back together.  Sometimes this happens to us as individuals, sometimes as families, sometimes as communities, even nations.  These are times that are truly confusing or frightening.

          So what is Jesus' advice when these upside down times are upon us?

Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.

          Stand up and lift up your heads.  A simple, great truth.  To understand it more clearly it is important to see what he does not say. He does not say:

·       Fall on your knees and hang your head in shame.
·       Run for the hills in order to save your life.
·       Be afraid, be very afraid.

          No, he says, "Stand up and raise your heads."  Why? "Because your redemption is drawing near." Again, it is important what he does not say. He does not say:

·       Your judgment is drawing near.
·       The wrath of God is coming upon you.
·       You are going to get what you deserve.

          No. He says, "Your redemption is drawing near."  Redemption.  What does he mean by that?  "Redemption" is one of the words used in the Bible to describe what God fundamentally wants for us and what Jesus' life, death, and resurrection does for us.  There are many words you could insert there:  salvation, rescue, healing, liberation, etc.  The point is that the time of confusion and fear is also the time of redemption, of healing, of liberation.

          Christian people learn that when trial or crisis comes, we should look not for signs of ending, but rather for signs of new life because they will surely come.  That does not mean that anger at what has happened, or grief, or any other human emotion is not appropriate for Christians. It is too say that those feelings are never the last word.

          I know what it is like to be in the middle of a mess I am sure I cannot get myself out of.  Some kind of defeat or betrayal or wrong choices that seem to spell the end of my life as I know it.  There are days when I cannot follow Jesus’ direction to stand up and raise my head.

          But Jesus does not put it all on me when I am so deeply troubled, nor does he put it all on any one of you.  He says, “Stand up and raise your heads.”  The “your” in Greek is plural.  During these times when it feels like the world is coming unglued and there’s no way out—this is the time when we need each other.  When I cannot stand up and raise my head, I need you to do it for me.

          So what is Charlie Brown’s simple, great truth here?

          When the world is falling apart and you feel like you are falling apart with it, you need not fear the judgment of God, rather, you need to embrace the mercy of God, and we never have to do this alone.  Because the greatest simple Truth is that we are always, always in this together.

          All of this is summed up in a subsequent strip of Peanuts.  Charlie Brown discovers this in a subsequent strip.  The first frame is entirely black with just the outline of Lucy, stumbling in the dark.  Perhaps she has stubbed her toe on the bed.  “Curse it all!” she cries.  Next frame, still black, “Blast the blackness . . . Oh, curse, curse, curse.”  Finally in the last frame stands Charlie Brown.  In the midst of the dark, he stands in the glow of a candle.[2]  When all Lucy could do was curse the darkness—and haven’t we all been there?—Charlie Brown knows to light a candle, the kind of thing we are called to do for one another so that we can all get through life when it turns upside down.

[1] Quoted in Sam Portaro, Daysprings: Meditations for the Weekdays of Advent, Lent, and Easter (Boston: Cowley, 2001), p. 3.
[2] Ibid., p. 5.

Friday, November 09, 2018

Baptism & the Communion of Saints: Nothing Can Separate Us

Sermon preached on All Saints' Sunday, November 4, 2018 at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, NY.  We baptized five children.

Listen to the sermon here.

           I was baptized when I was just shy of my fifth birthday, in 1966, in the little Methodist Church that used to be in Wallace, up the road from Avoca.  Of course, I don’t remember it, and no one ever talked about while I was growing up, and my family didn’t go to church.

           Then something happened to me when I was eleven years old.  My grandmother died, someone I absolutely adored.  She died young at the age of 49 at the end of a terrible two years of battling cancer.

           I was a confused and angry young man.  I was told that she was now in heaven with God, which was a better place for her to be.  But I had no frame of reference to process those statements, and they only made me more confused and more angry.  Whoever God was, he seemed completely selfish, and how could it be possible that there was any better place for my grandmother except by my side.

           And she was no longer by my side.  She was gone.

           For many years I carried this hurt and anger in me.  When I was sixteen, my great Aunt Ann asked me to come to church with her—here to St. Thomas’.

           I did not have an immediate revelation that made everything all better again.  But over time I began to discover a different possibility in relation to that great loss in my life.

           That discovery was the possibility that the living and the dead are still in relationship with one another.  That death is not the last word on life.  That even though in this life I might always mourn the death of my grandmother—and I still do—I can also celebrate the mystery that we are still together.

           That mystery is what we mean by “the communion of saints.”

           We have to call it a mystery because it is not intellectually provable.  But we are not dismissive or afraid of mystery.  In the realm of mystery lies the faith and hope and love through which we see the world and try to live in it.  In the realm of mystery lies our capacity to choose not to live in fear or resentment or anger, all of which are agents of the power of death.

           We choose life, and it is this choice, this life, a life driven by faith, hope and love, into which we are baptizing these children this morning.

           We say some radical things this morning in this realm of mystery and life.  We say that the bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble, that these children are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.

           We do this not knowing what life is going to be like for these children.  Of course we hope and pray for the best, but we know they will know tragedy.  We know they will know trial.  We know they will fall short of everything God wants them to be.

           We know these things.  But we believe, as Paul says in Romans, that nothing can separate us from the love of God.  There is no asterisk at the end of the sentence that they are Christ’s own for ever.  There is no asterisk that leads us to some fine print that says, “unless they screw up.”

           You see, the saints are not people who always do what is right.  The saints are the people whom God loves, because God chooses to love them, in spite of anything.

           The hard part is that we are called to love just like God does.  We are called to love our neighbors as ourselves, to expect to find God in them, and to always treat them with dignity because the God of love is also the God of peace and justice.

           The good news we proclaim today in our celebration of the communion of saints and in these baptisms is that faith is stronger than fear, hope is stronger than despair, and love is stronger than death.

            And life always has the last word.

Monday, October 15, 2018

I (Still) Remember Matthew

A button worn at the 2000 General Convention of The Episcopal Church

 News Report, Washington, D.C., October 12, 2018:  Matthew Shephard to be interred at the National Cathedral 20 years after his brutal murder

“God hates fags!  God hates fags!  Matthew is in Hell!” 
              It was a cold October morning in Wyoming with flakes of snow in the air when I heard these words.  It was the day of Matthew Shepard’s funeral, and I was there representing Integrity, the LGBT caucus in The Episcopal Church.  As newly elected president of the organization, it was my first official act.
            The chants came from members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas.  They were notorious for showing up all over the country with dreadful signs and loud voices declaring that “God hates fags!”  More than that, they were clear that the United States was headed for a day of reckoning for the presence of homosexuals in the land.  They protested at the funerals of people who died of AIDS, they protested at gatherings of churches or even individual churches they felt supported gay folk, they even protested at military funerals, proclaiming that God hated America.  It was my first direct encounter with them, however.
            Shivering in a line waiting for admittance into the church for the funeral, listening to the screams, I wondered how this world would end.  Yes, the moment felt apocalyptic.  We were on the verge of something, and it was either going to be led by what was about to happen in St. Mark’s Episcopal Church or by what was happening in the park across the street.
            Twenty years later those thoughts seem almost silly.  Of course, the proclamation of hate was not going to win out.  It couldn’t have, and it didn’t.
            Yet when I saw that Matthew was to have a resting place in the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., the “great church for national purposes” which is also the Cathedral of St. Peter & St. Paul of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, I was filled with relief and joy, and then those haunting screams overtook my memories, and I have felt a deep pit of fear ever since.  It is still not safe to be lgbtq in America.  Perhaps I should not globalize.  Perhaps it is just I who do not feel safe in America.
But I know that’s wrong.  The National Coalition of Anti-violence programs reported 52 lgbtq deaths in 2017, and a general rise in anti-lgbtq violence.  A man in our own city was beaten nearly to death while anti-gay slurs were hurled at him.  It got little to no attention.
            When I wrote about Matthew’s funeral a year or so ago, there was a hopeful ending.
I recalled how, while standing in that line outside the church across from the park, I saw in the distance, walking down the street, a line of people all dressed in white.  At first, I assumed they were more protestors, but as they came closer I realized they were something quite different.  A couple dozen people, dressed in white, wearing enormous angel wings, formed themselves in a line between the protestors and the church, their wings blocking the sight of the haters and somewhat muffling their ugly shouting.
            But that never happened.  There were no angels that day, I have since discovered.  They were protecting nothing but my faulty memory.  I found this truth when I researched them, trying to learn of their origin.  Their origin was in that day, but they were not there that day.  Their first appearance was at the trial of the young men who killed Matthew, an event at which I was not present.
            I needed those angels to protect me from those screams, to be a living wall of hope that could not be crossed, a symbol that indeed the sentiment inside the church that day would win out in the end.
            Today, reading about Matthew’s final resting place, I should be joyful, but the rawness of that day twenty years ago is all I feel.  The fact that my husband and I still get taunted walking down the street in our little city from time to time; the fact that we would never, ever, do so at night.  The fact that I still flinch whenever he kisses me in public.
            We’re married now.  Twenty years ago, I certainly did not think that would be possible.  But I am still not sure it cannot be taken away.  We did, after all, just seat a man on the court who is by all signs opposed to our marriage rights, and that thought is now in the majority.  “Settled law” is a meaningless term.  The Supreme Court undoes “settled law” all the time.
            Twenty years ago, Matthew’s death and his funeral seemed apocalyptic, and in sme sense they were.  A vicious act of violence made people reconsider what they had always assumed was the way things were.  And a bloodied young man tied to a barbed-wire fence, looking like Jesus hanging from his tree, was a challenge to the church, especially to Matthew’s church and mine, The Episcopal Church.
            Twenty years later it looks for all the world like we won, even in our church.  The rawness I feel today can be chalked up to a situational ptsd.  But it feels bigger than that, deeper than that.  Hate is making a resurgence; the president has crowds chanting “lock her up” about a woman (Senator Diane Feinstein) with whom they disagree and who made a decision they do not like, not someone who has committed any crime.
            A friend says, “Don’t worry so much. Don’t spend any energy on it. They’re just blowing off steam. They’ll never be the majority.”
            But I still remember Matthew. I still remember the vicious screams across the street.  I still remember that feeling of apocalypse.  I still remember being afraid.
            I am grateful Matthew is finding his resting place and the peace I know that will bring to his family.  But I have thrown of the memory-trick of the angels protecting me.  Whether I should be or shouldn’t be, I am afraid.  I still remember that day. I still remember Matthew.

Sunday, September 09, 2018

The Hard Work of Erasing Boundaries

Sermon preached on the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, September 9, 2018, at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, NY:  Mark 7:24-37 (Proper 18B)

There’s a huge discomfort that arises in me when I hear Jesus call the unnamed Gentile woman a “dog.”  So let’s go through the story closely and see what we have to learn from this strange passage.

In chapter 7 up to this point, Jesus has been haggling with a group of Pharisees about what constitutes “clean” and “unclean.”  To our ears those categories don’t mean much—we tend to hear “washed” or “unwashed,” and ask, “What does that have to do with the life of faith?”  But in the Judaism of Jesus’ day, those categories had the connotation of “sinless” (clean) or “sinful” (unclean).  They were ways of understanding what the boundaries were in Jewish life.

Jesus resists these categories—these boundaries—and attempts to re-define them.  We heard him say last week, “It is not what goes into a person that makes her unclean, it is what comes out of the human heart.”

Now in this morning’s reading, the Gospel writer Mark will show us in two healing stories just what this erasure of boundaries means.

Jesus is wearied by his argument with the Pharisees and seeks to get out of town and get some rest.  He goes so far as to go into territory that is almost exclusively non-Jewish.  Tyre and Sidon were coastal towns northwest of Galilee in what we now call Lebanon, and there is evidence that there was open hostility to Jews in this region.  Jesus clearly wants to get away!

He has tried to get away before and it hasn’t worked, and it doesn’t work here either.  If he thought he was an unknown quantity in this foreign territory, he was wrong.

A woman seeks him out.  And not just any woman.  All kinds of boundaries get crossed here.  She is a woman seeking to talk to a man, someone unknown to him approaching him after barging into his residence.  The Greek word used implies she has some status.  She is a “lady,” probably well above Jesus’ peasant status.  Boundary two crossed.  She is a Gentile.  Boundary three crossed.  By any definition of Jewish law at the time, she is “unclean.”

She asks for healing for her daughter.  Jesus replies, “It is not right to take food from the children and throw it to dogs.”

Full stop.  Did he just say that?  Did he just compare that woman and her sick daughter to dogs?  For those of us who think of Jesus as perfect or as sinless, this is more than a little jarring.

The woman may have remained as a beggar at Jesus’ feet, but she rises up into her full self and resists.  “Yes, but even the dogs get the crumbs that fall to the floor.”  And Jesus changes his mind, “Go, you will find your daughter well.”

What’s going on here?  My mentor Verna Dozier used to say that if you are unsure what a passage means, you should ask yourself, “Why did the early Christian community want to pass on this story?”  It’s an important question because each Gospel writer obviously picks and chooses which story to tell and how to tell them.  For instance, Matthew also tells this story (15:21-28) but tries to add some clarity.  Jesus is not alone with the woman in Matthew’s telling. His disciples are present. He also changes Jesus’ declaration at the end, from a very neutral and almost begrudging, “For saying that you may go—the demon has left your daughter” to a wildly positive, “Woman great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”

The Gospel writer Luke decides not to even touch the story.  He doesn’t include it.

So why is this story here, especially if it seems to put Jesus in a bad light?  I think it is this.  The communities for which Mark and Matthew are writing are struggling with these boundary issues. Both are probably majority Jewish still and the inclusion of Gentiles is a divisive issue.  The old habit of dividing up the world into “clean” and “unclean” is hard to get over.  It was deeply ingrained in the Jewish soul.

Mark and Matthew want to show that even Jesus struggled with this.  It is a hard business this erasing boundaries.

And so it is, even for us who think we’ve got this inclusiveness thing down pretty well.  And compared to the church of the past we have come a mighty long way.

But our instincts—well, we can find them in a very different place.  It is easy to slip into the old saying that many people assume is in the Bible but it is not:  “Charity begins at home.”  Or, “Family comes first.”

But Jesus had to learn himself and we have to continue to learn that for his followers there are no hierarchies of need.  Of course, I must love and care for my family.  But also, of course, I must care for the stranger, or even the just plain strange.  And that is why this is so hard because in the Jesus movement there is only one family, which means the next stranger I meet is as much my sister or brother as is my sister or brother.  We should not pretend that does not cut across the grain, that it is in anyway easy.  Because it does cut across the grain and it is not easy.

But it is our high calling, our exquisite purpose, the great and joyous gift we have to give to the world.  There are no outsiders.  There is no one who because of who they are or what they do forfeits their dignity, which is God-given not human-given.  And this is the best news there can be, even if at times it seems impossible.  And if you don’t think we need, and the world around us needs, this good news then you are not paying attention.

The church shows so many signs of becoming irrelevant and slowly dying.  But we need to reach deep down for some Holy Spirit, gospel strength because if we do not live the message that God has wiped out every boundary, every division marker, that disagreements do not make us enemies, and if it does we are in need of some good old-fashioned conversion to the ways of God.

So that story is there to challenge us—as Jesus himself was challenged—to drop all the boundaries and follow Jesus in learning to love our neighbors—every son or daughter of God—as ourselves.