Sunday, February 18, 2018

Love is the Goal

Homily on Ash Wednesday at St. Thomas' Church, Bath.

           Lent begins with these words [from the Collect of the Day]:  “You hate nothing you have made.”

           Why not say, “You love everything you have made”?

           I think it is because love is something we must always grow into.  That God hates nothing he has made is a bottom-line belief.  It is a starting point.

           Love is the goal, and love is the journey toward the goal.  Lent is a time to renew ourselves in this journey.  Anything we do during this season—be it giving something up or taking something on—must serve this purpose:  to deepen our experience of the love of God for us.

           Today we begin this journey by reminding ourselves of the obstacles in the road.  It all sounds very negative, but we are simply acknowledging the realities of our journey.

           In the words of the Collect, we “acknowledge our wretchedness.”  That sounds harsh, perhaps unnecessarily so.  I like to think of it simply as our capacity to mess things up.

           And we are also asked to stare our own death in the face:  to dust we shall return.  This is not a pleasant thing to do, but we cannot deny it.  It is a reality of this journey of ours.

           The wonder of life with God is that although both of these things are true—our capacity to mess up and the inevitability of our death—it is the love of God that we can put our trust in, and seek to live ever more deeply into it.

           It is not easy. There is so much going on around us and within us to distract us from living in this love, and even from believing it could be possible.  If it were easy we would not need this season.

           Remember the song, “Searching for love in all the wrong places”?  This is our task from now to Easter, to search for love in all the right places, so that when Easter comes, we may celebrate the resurrection, grounded a little more deeply in the amazement—the wonder—that we are loved in spite of everything.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Being Beloved in a Beloved Community

Sermon preached on the Second Sunday after Epiphany, January 14, 2018 at St. Thomas' Church, Bath:  John 1:43-51

Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” (John 1:45-46)

           In invitations to come to church, these are the only essential words, “Come and see.”  But we need to know, those of us who are doing the inviting, Come and see what?

           First a slight recap from last week’s sermon, since this one follows directly on that.

           I mentioned last week that in Mark’s Gospel Jesus literally comes out of “nowhere,” and this is echoed her in John’s Gospel.  “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  Nathanael is not being critical, he’s just telling it how it is:  no one expected anything earth-chattering to come out of Nazareth.

           So I said Jesus came out of nowhere. Then, like many other people, he was attracted to John’s baptizing and was baptized himself.  All perfectly normal, except for the Holy Spirit coming down like a dove and a voice pronouncing him God’s Beloved.

           John says that Jesus will baptize us with a baptism of the Holy Spirit, and that is how we are baptized, into Jesus baptism, in which we are named God’s Beloved in a bond that is a promise for ever.

           The life of faith for each one of us is a living as if that state of Belovedness is the truest thing about us.

           As I said last week, that is a piece of astoundingly good news.

           Today we go one step further, and remind ourselves that a very big part of living into our Belovedness is learning to live with and encourage the Belovedness of those around us.  Living into our Belovedness includes living into a Community of Belovedness, or Beloved Community.

           And that is what we should be inviting people to “come and see.”  Not come and see our beautiful building.  Not come and hear our stunning music.  Not come and experience our wonderful liturgy.  Not come and hear outstanding sermons.  None of that.  Come and see our beloved community.

           It is a good and joyful thing for us to talk about beloved community today because tomorrow is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and beloved community was Martin’s vision.

           In 1956, at the First Annual Institute on Non-violence and Social Change held in Montgomery, Alabama, Dr. King said:

We have before us the glorious opportunity to inject a new dimension of love into the veins of our civilization. There is still a voice crying out in terms that echo across the generations, saying: Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you, that you may be children of your Father which is in Heaven. This love might well be the salvation of our civilization. This is why I am so impressed with our motto for the week, “Freedom and Justice through Love.” Not through violence; not through hate; no, not even through boycotts; but through love. It is true that as we struggle for freedom in America we will have to boycott at times. But we must remember as we boycott that a boycott is not an end within itself; … the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. It is this type of understanding good will that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.

           The miracle of Beloved Community.  The gift from God of Beloved Community, where opposers are transformed into friends, where the pledge to love one another is greater than any difference between us.

           Those words were spoken sixty-two years ago.  The road to beloved community has seen forward movement and backward movement.  In 2018, they are as fresh as they were before I was born.  They are certainly as urgent as they were then, and maybe even more so when the reality is the divisions among us are deep and wide, and there is no Dr. King to point a way forward, and even if there were we would now be filtering him or her through the membrane of any bubble we live in.

           It would be difficult to heart words like these because we have succumbed to “spin” as “news.”  We increasingly allow others to do our listening and thinking and interpreting for us. We simply soak up whatever we are told.  We have given incredible power to idealogues on all sides of the political and social spectrum, and the one thing idealogues can never lead us into is beloved community.

           Simply being beloved as an individual is hard. Living in beloved community is even harder, and the biggest reason it is harder is because beloved individuals don’t stop being beloved individuals.  Living in beloved community is not living as if race or creed or social outlook or sexual orientation or gender or anything else that makes us individuals does not matter.

           Beloved community is not all of our differences melted down so that we are all the same.  Beloved community is like participating in a choir, where every individual voice matters and the individual voices together make a unique sound.

           Beloved community is not a community where our differences are set aside, but where they are celebrated, as well as challenged, formed and re-formed.  Beloved community cannot exist where people are unwilling to listen and from time to time change.

           I hope you do not take what I have said as a scolding, but as a challenge and a vision, to be the People of God together that we are called to be, in the hard work of loving each other with that same “forever promise” as God loves each one of us.

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.