Monday, June 15, 2015

The Rabbi's Gift as the Smallest Seed


The story concerns a monastery that had fallen upon hard times. Once a great order, as a result of waves of anti-monastic persecution in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the rise of secularism in the nineteenth, all its branch houses were lost and it had become decimated to the extent that there were only five monks left in the decaying mother house: the abbot and four others, all over seventy in age. Clearly it was a dying order.

In the deep woods surrounding the monastery there was a little hut that a rabbi from a nearby town occasionally used for a hermitage. Through their many years of prayer and contemplation the old monks had become a bit psychic, so they could always sense when the rabbi was in his hermitage. "The rabbi is in the woods, the rabbi is in the woods again " they would whisper to each other. As he agonized over the imminent death of his order, it occurred to the abbot at one such time to visit the hermitage and ask the rabbi if by some possible chance he could offer any advice that might save the monastery.

The rabbi welcomed the abbot at his hut. But when the abbot explained the purpose of his visit, the rabbi could only commiserate with him. "I know how it is," he exclaimed. "The spirit has gone out of the people. It is the same in my town. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore." So the old abbot and the old rabbi wept together. Then they read parts of the Torah and quietly spoke of deep things. The time came when the abbot had to leave. They embraced each other. "It has been a wonderful thing that we should meet after all these years, "the abbot said, "but I have still failed in my purpose for coming here. Is there nothing you can tell me, no piece of advice you can give me that would help me save my dying order?"

"No, I am sorry," the rabbi responded. "I have no advice to give. The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is one of you."

When the abbot returned to the monastery his fellow monks gathered around him to ask, "Well what did the rabbi say?" "He couldn't help," the abbot answered. "We just wept and read the Torah together. The only thing he did say, just as I was leaving --it was something cryptic-- was that the Messiah is one of us. I don't know what he meant."

In the days and weeks and months that followed, the old monks pondered this and wondered whether there was any possible significance to the rabbi's words. The Messiah is one of us? Could he possibly have meant one of us monks here at the monastery? If that's the case, which one? Do you suppose he meant the abbot? Yes, if he meant anyone, he probably meant Father Abbot. He has been our leader for more than a generation. On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas. Certainly Brother Thomas is a holy man. Everyone knows that Thomas is a man of light. Certainly he could not have meant Brother Elred! Elred gets crotchety at times. But come to think of it, even though he is a thorn in people's sides, when you look back on it, Elred is virtually always right. Often very right. Maybe the rabbi did mean Brother Elred. But surely not Brother Phillip. Phillip is so passive, a real nobody. But then, almost mysteriously, he has a gift for somehow always being there when you need him. He just magically appears by your side. Maybe Phillip is the Messiah. Of course the rabbi didn't mean me. He couldn't possibly have meant me. I'm just an ordinary person. Yet supposing he did? Suppose I am the Messiah? O God, not me. I couldn't be that much for You, could I?

As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one among them might be the Messiah. And on the off off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect.

Because the forest in which it was situated was beautiful, it so happened that people still occasionally came to visit the monastery to picnic on its tiny lawn, to wander along some of its paths, even now and then to go into the dilapidated chapel to meditate. As they did so, without even being conscious of it, they sensed the aura of extraordinary respect that now began to surround the five old monks and seemed to radiate out from them and permeate the atmosphere of the place. There was something strangely attractive, even compelling, about it. Hardly knowing why, they began to come back to the monastery more frequently to picnic, to play, to pray. They began to bring their friends to show them this special place. And their friends brought their friends.

Then it happened that some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk more and more with the old monks. After a while one asked if he could join them. Then another. And another. So within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order and, thanks to the rabbi's gift, a vibrant center of light and spirituality in the realm.

This story came from The Different Drum, by Dr. M. Scott Peck, M.D. 

The audio of the sermon is available on the right sidebar PodBean Player.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

We are Family - Jesus says So

Did you all hear me take a long, deep, cleansing breath earlier this week? I am so excited that we are back in Mark – with plain language – unclean spirits & crowds who get who Jesus is – scribes and disciples who can’t even seem to buy a clue… it’s good to be back on track again. Today’s gospel is Classic Mark – a story within a story – all pointing us to who Jesus is and how we are to be.

Today in the inner story, we get a lesson about the Unforgivable Sin – insulting the Holy Spirit. This one always worries me a bit – how about you? Here’s the deal – if we are worried about it, we are not doing it. Resisting the Spirit, refusing to repent, regarding God with contempt or rebellion, refusing forgiveness = that’s what Jesus is talking about. The scribes were refusing to believe in who Jesus was and instead insisted on attributing his divinity to a demonic association.

In the outer story, we get a lesson on family. This reading is troubling to some people because it seems as though Jesus is being disrespectful to his family of origin, especially his mom – which would be breaking a commandment. However, there is no evidence that Jesus’ real family was actually there. This translation says mother and brothers, but it was probably cousins or extended family members. Since Jesus later answers specifically about mother and brothers, the translators carried that into the story. This reading is also comforting to some people because Jesus gives us permission to shed the unhealthiness that some of us might find in our families of origin and surround ourselves with healthy, loving, new families. Jesus expands what “family” means. He then goes onto to equate those who do God’s will as family.

This is where we get the language of Church Family. In some ways this could be very unhealthy – just as all families can be very unhealthy. In an ideal church, this can be very healthy. It becomes a way for us all to care more deeply about each other – more than co-workers or acquaintances. We can invest time and energy getting to know and care about each other. We have the privilege of having the hard conversations and higher expectations of each other. This is church at its best and healthiest – doing God’s will together: feeding people, housing people, helping people – inside and outside of these walls. Today, the first volunteers for the Habitat for Humanity fundraiser will begin volunteering and we will do that for an entire eight days. Next week, we will feed 60 or so of God’s Beloveds who will stay at Faith Mission for the night. We are living into doing God’s will and being a healthy family.

I have placed an empty piece of paper in your bulletin. One of our family members needs help. You all know Luke. He is struggling with addiction. His parents are going to leave directly from here to go visit him today. I want his church family to send him notes of encouragement. Before the service is over, we will bless those notes and his parents as they leave on the journey – taking our notes and best wishes for his health with them.

God as Parent to us all, bless this your family. Amen. 

The audio will be on the PodBean Player on the right sidebar.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Alleluia! The Lord is Risen!

This is the end of the Gospel of Mark. 16:8 is the end of the story – over time, people have been so troubled by this ending that they added on other bits and pieces. But this was it – the women fled and said nothing because they were afraid.

We know this cannot be true –otherwise, we would not be here. We would not know anything beyond the death of the most perfect human being who ever lived. We would think that God had died then and there. We would not know the rest of the story, as the great Paul Harvey used to intone.

We will spend lots more time in Mark over the summer in Ordinary time. Today we are at the very end – no resurrection appearances, no road to Emmaus, no Ascension. This is the end – and this is the gospel dealt to a preacher this Easter morning. I could have gone the easier route, but that seemed to be cheating in year B.

If you remember, it was not that long ago when we talked about the birth story in Mark. Remember? “This is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.” Mark’s entire birth story – right there. In Mark, Jesus arrives on the scene as a grown man, ready to be baptized by John. Maybe Mark’s whole intention is to only begin the story – and this ending is merely the end of chapter 1. Maybe Mark intends us all to complete the story with our own lives?

The women went to the tomb to honor the body of Jesus. With the news of the resurrection, they fled in fear. Fear of the supernatural? Fear of a love so great that even death could not restrain it? Fear of a God who loves us so much that we are all welcome – any time – no matter what? How about the fear that may have crept in when they had time to think about it all? The fear that Jesus meant what he said about healing and caring for the least, the lost  and the last? The fear that his words about the last supper on Thursday night were true? This is my body, this is my blood: they went to honor the body, and maybe realized that they were meant to become the body.

We are Resurrection people. We believe Christ was raised from the dead – conquering death forever. We believe he walked around among us again bodily until he ascended into heaven. We also are Eucharist people. We believe that every time we eat the body of Christ and drink his blood, Christ is resurrected in us – he lives through our hands and feet and actions in this world. We are the uprising of hope and healing to this hurting world.

On this day, I challenge you all to get over your fear of being Christ in the world. I challenge you to tell your story of meeting Christ. I challenge you to heal and tend to the least, the lost and the last that God has placed in your path and in your heart. Go be Easter People! Amen.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Tidying Up - Sermon for Lent 5B

 You know I’m going to do more teaching than preaching when I begin a sermon this way: Please turn in your Book of Common prayer to the Catechism, page 845. If you did not know about this section of the BCP, I highly commend it to your study. If a sermon is particularly off-base, you can always fact-check it here, or even just start reading on another topic altogether. The Catechism is the Outline of our Faith; it is what and how we believe as Episcopalians.

We’ve been talking about the Old Covenants, the Ten Commandments, the New Covenant, the Summary of the Law, and the New Commandment throughout Lent. You can read more about all of those in the Catechism – it’s all there in question and answer form for you to refer back to and study.

In this week’s readings, we have some more of the language about covenants in the reading from the prophet, Jeremiah. There’s an echo in the Psalm also. The Hebrews reading reminds us that we are ALL priests – all of us are capable of direct communication with God for prayers and supplication and confession. In our gospel reading, we get a glimpse of the level of obedience that is expected of us all as brothers and sisters of Christ.

As you all know, this is my first call as a solo priest in a parish. I have been an intern, or a deacon, or an associate before – always on staff at a large church. There are some things that haven’t occurred to me yet that I just do not know. For instance, at this time of year, in each of the churches I have served, the rector always puts a blurb in the bulletin about making appointment times available for Confessions. OF course, confession is offered all the time, but some people make it part of their Lenten discipline to seek the Sacrament of Reconciliation, so priests often bring it to our attention during Holy Week in case we feel so moved. It did not occur to me until this last week that I have never asked how that went for each of the rectors for whom I have served. I have no idea if they had fifty people for whom to hear confession, or five, or none. I realized I did not know what I did not know! Eek. I have of course received the Sacrament of Reconciliation with a spiritual director, so I know how it goes from the side of a Penitent Person. I have also heard confessions at times other than Holy Week, usually in a less formal set-up. Mother Mo happened to call on an unrelated matter last week, and she was gracious enough to allow me to grill her for her wisdom and experience. I think I’ve got this.

So back to our Catechism – page 858. What are the two great sacraments? Baptism and Eucharist. Those are the two we believe are necessary for all persons. Now flip to page 861 and look at the list of the other five sacraments: confirmation, ordination, holy matrimony, reconciliation of a penitent, and unction. None of these are strictly necessary for all persons. For some of us, some are very necessary, but the church leaves it up to us to discern which are ours to claim. Not everyone has to be a confirmed Episcopalian, married, ordained, completed confession or received laying on of hands for healing (or Last Rites as some call it). Even though we are all priests in the order of Melchizedek, we are not all ordained priests in the Episcopal church – so don’t run around getting in trouble with the Bishop! Conversely BECAUSE we are all priests in the order of Melchizedek, you may say your own confession at any time to God and feel forgiven – God says in the Jeremiah reading today that you will be forgiven – no ifs ands or buts. Says so right there.

So then why do we have the sacrament of the Reconciliation of a Penitent? Look at the answer: so that a person “may confess [their sins] to God in the presence of a priest, and receive the assurance of pardon and the grace of absolution.” Sometimes there are things we confess over and over and are not sure of forgiveness. Sometimes we need to hear another person – someone who has received the sacrament of ordination – assure us that God has forgiven us and that God loves us. Sometimes we need to shut the door on that sin forever – not take it out and play with it ever again. Sometimes we need a penance to do to feel as though it is done and finished in our lives.

The church, and I, leave it up to you to discern if the Sacrament of Confession would be helpful in your spiritual journey. If it is something you need, please let me know and we can talk about how to go through it all. If it is something you do not feel would be helpful in your journey of faith, then do not worry about pursuing it further.  Either way, please know that you are already loved beyond measure and completely forgiven by our God who is the origin and eternal pool of love and forgiveness. Amen.

Audio in the right sidebar PodBean player.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Snakes on a Stick

Snake on a Stick – sounds like something that would be served deep-fried at the State Fair of Texas – maybe served with a fun Cajun spicy sauce. Yum!

This OT reading is odd-sounding to my ears, for many reasons. So imagine my surprise to find it in the beginning of our Gospel reading in John today. Jesus Christ himself is compared to the Snake on a Stick. “Curiouser and curiouser” as our friend Sheldon Cooper would say.

So here’s my take on it all. John is reminding us that just as the snake in the Numbers reading would “save” those who gazed upon it, so will Jesus Christ “save” those who gaze upon him. You see, in John’s Gospel, one only has to believe to be saved. Once Jesus comes among us, according to the author of John, the world get divided into those who are saved and those who are not. But I do not think John means it is the evangelical, Texas-style phrasing of “Brother have you been saved?” If we look closely at John 3:17, that particular verse changes what many of our evangelical brethren think about judgment and being saved.

As we get closer to Easter – my first one among you all – I want to talk a bit about judgment and being saved. I believe Jesus saved the world merely by entering it. God loved us so much that she sent her only-begotten son to live among us, teach us, show us how to BE God’s believed people in the world that whosoever believes in Jesus will have ever-lasting life.  At the core of that statement, is what I was taught as a child growing up Southern Baptist at 1st Baptist Church in Archer City, TX – 25 miles from here. But my journey has been ever so much longer than that. God could have “saved the world” in any infinite number of ways. Jesus could have lived a long and happy life, surrounded by family and friends and the world would have been saved merely by his existence among us. The circumstances of the fateful week dictated otherwise. I’m NOT saying there is no value in Jesus’ actions concerning the crucifixion, but I am saying it did not have to happen THAT way. You will never hear me glorify the violence of Holy Week. Instead you will see and hear me continually point out the actions of Jesus and his followers – what they did and how they handled what was happening.

The Stations of the Cross are difficult for some of us. It is a Lenten discipline I practice – not because of the re-hearing of the violent actions, but because every year I enter into the story from a different place. There is a different bystander I can empathize with or learn from: compassion from Veronica, service from Simon, empathy with Mary… there are many ways to enter into the story – and for that reason, I find value and devotion there to strengthen my own spiritual disciplines.

Now before you think I said it’s all good – we’re all going to Heaven, so we can just live our lives however we choose with no accountability to God and our neighbors, I am not saying that at all. What I am saying is that this is all much harder than it seems – we cannot just say the words of a Believer’s Prayer and make our reservations in the Father’s House. We actually have to believe. We actually have to love God with all that we are, and all that we have to offer, & love our neighbors as ourselves. I believe CS Lewis is onto something in the Great Divorce: we have to choose to be saved. We have to give our consent. We can refuse the grace that God offers – that is part of free will. So I am not saying that this is all good, we’re all going to Heaven, go about your business and be happy.

I am saying that God loves you so much that there have been numerous covenants made – that God loves you so much that Jesus Christ as one of the Godhead came to dwell among us in human form and ascended into heaven in human form – that we are loved THAT much and even more than we can imagine.  Amen.

I put a new battery in the recorder, so the audio is on the right sidebar PodBean player.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Covenants and Temple Cleansing

Exodus 20:1-17 : Ten Commandments
Gospel: John2:13-22
Lent 3, Year B

Collect:  Almighty God, you seest that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul – it is a lovely collect for the day and a great summary for the readings today.  Today is one of those glorious days when all the  readings and the Collect inter-weave beautifully.

I don’t know if you have noticed or not, but throughout this Lenten season, we have had Covenant readings in our Hebrew Testament first readings.  The First Sunday of Lent, we had God making a covenant with Noah: “Never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”  A flood is certainly an adversity which may happen to the body – and God promises to protect us from an earth-encompassing flood.  What do we have to do to uphold our end of the bargain?  Nothing – the rainbow is the sign that reminds God.  There is no Rainbow Bat signal that we have to flash – it just happens – God makes the rainbow happen and restricts the flood.  Who does this covenant affect?  All of us – every human on the earth.  Some may perish periodically in floods, but never again has there been a flood that covered the entire earth.  When I first saw the previews to Evan Almighty a few years ago, I wondered if the writers had forgotten this covenant.  “Defend us from all adversities which may happen to the body.”

On the Second Sunday of Lent, last week, God made a covenant with Abram and Sarai, who became Abraham and Sarah. Abraham became the father of the three major religions who worship the same God: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity: “you shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations…to be God to you and to your offspring after you.”  And three major world religions followed, which I sometimes wonder if all three remember that we are siblings.  What do we have to do to uphold our end of this covenant:  nada.  “Almighty God, you know we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.”

This is the Third Sunday of Lent, and we have more covenant language: the Ten Commandments.  This is a covenant between God and the Hebrew people.  As Christians who descend from the Jews theologically and scripturally, we inherited this covenant.  The Quran does not have the Ten Commandments – it has similar teachings, but not in this form like we have it in both Exodus and Deuteronomy.    Do you see how the field is narrowing each time?  All people with Noah; Jews, Muslims and Christians with Abraham, and now Jews and Christians with the Ten Commandments.   And this is where we got to the question: How do we uphold our end?  What is expected of us?  Jesus later narrows it even further for us as Christians as we hear in our opening proclamation every week in Rite I, “Love God with all your heart and soul and mind, and love your neighbors as yourselves” – the Summary of the Ten Commandments – simplified.  That’s all we have to do to uphold our end of this covenant – simple enough - ha.  “Keep us from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul.” 

So what does all this have to do with Jesus getting angry in the Temple?  God could only be found in the Temple in those days – it was where God lived for the Hebrew people.  We have no concept of how pervasive that thought was for them – God lived there and they went to visit God there as a show of obedience and sacrifice.  Only certain people were allowed to be in the same space as God.  What we know that they did not, was that Jesus incarnate is God.  When He was walking among them, God was out of the building (maybe God had never truly resided there for long), but now God walked and talked and got angry.  I actually like this portrayal of Jesus because I can so clearly see both the fully human and the fully divine here.  Jesus sees the gauntlet people are expected to walk through to get to God, and knows that HE is right there.  Jesus tried to tell them that HE was the temple – the body for God – but they would not get that- really get it – until after his death.  When the curtain of the Temple is torn in two later – it signals that God has left the building, once and for all.  The Holy may visit there, but will no longer ever be thought of as living there.  Ironically enough in John’s gospel, Jesus turning over tables, driving out the money changers, and proclaiming to be the Temple is what made the powers-that-be mad enough to start conspiring to kill. 

We know that God walked in the body of Jesus – we also believe that the Holy Spirit lives in and moves among every person here.  We know that God is not only in a building or a room.  We believe that God loves us and covenants with us – that God will defend us from adversities of the body and evil thoughts that hurt the soul.  We can look historically and faithfully to see how much God loves us – the covenants point us there.  What kind of clearing out have you been doing in your Lenten discipline?  What have you driven out of your life to make room for the Holy Spirit to dwell more fully there?  What practice have you chosen to help you see God more clearly in this season?  The psalmist reminds us that God’s laws are perfect and sure and clear, and pure – sweeter than honey.  I know that when I pressure myself to exceed God’s laws, I stress myself out.  God does not do that to me – I am reminded that God loves those foolish enough to believe as Paul reminded us today – and that the strength of God is enough to keep and defend me.

And why?  Why does God keep us, defend us, and bind the holy to us – as human beings, as people who believe in Jesus Christ, as spirit-bearers in the world?  Why would God do this?  I’m giving you the soap opera ending - That answer comes next week – you’ll know it when you hear it… Amen.

There is no audio for this one - dead battery :(