"Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this." Rev. 1:17-19.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Finding the Life behind the Time and Talent Forms

Proper 16, Year A

Exodus 1:8-2:10

Psalm 124

Romans 12:1-8

Matthew 16:13-20

Grant, O merciful God, that your Church, being gathered together in unity by your Holy Spirit, may show forth your power among all peoples, to the glory of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

While flying around the globe this summer, I had ample opportunity to reflect on the life of a flight attendant. Although there is a picture of me at age four as a wanna-be stewardess in a smart 1960’s costume, giving an appropriately pursed-lipped, haughty look at the camera, I know now that the life of a flight attendant is anything but glamorous. You couldn’t pay me enough to do that job: giving out the same old drinks and snacks, day after day and flight after flight; smiling while hearing the same old complaints from stressed-out customers; explaining emergency procedures to the ceiling while everyone who is supposed to be listening is transfixed by his iPhone; living in and out of airports, coping every day with constant flight delays and turbulence … Can you imagine?! What struck me as I watched the stalwart crews do their jobs this summer, though, was the contrast between the daily grind of their everyday routine in that plane—and the complex training that they must have had in order to save lives when things go wrong. These men and women know how to handle terrorists, even though they most often deal with obnoxious customers. These men and women know how to evacuate a huge aircraft, even though they most often evacuate the trash down some chute. They have complex skills hidden under their drab uniforms and nerves of steel hidden under their weary smiles. They know how to make life-saving decisions that they rarely have to make.
When you think about it, don’t our lives as American Christians work kind of the same way? In our worship, we follow the same liturgical patterns week after week. In our lives outside of church, we navigate the humdrum chores at work and at home. We trudge through our routines.  In church, we lector or we count money or we serve on the Vestry. There are plenty of jobs to do at St. Thomas. But just between you and me …. Altar guild, don’t you sometimes feel like those flight attendants cleaning up before the plane lands? Those of you who put together the schedules, don’t you sometimes feel like you are trying to get 50 backlogged jets out of the Atlanta airport? Teachers and lectors, don’t you sometimes feel like you are pointing out the emergency exits in vain?
We check off the required little boxes on our time and talent cards at Stewardship time, most often putting down the same activities that we have done the year before. Two years ago, I had you all write down your “passion,” rather than what jobs you wanted to do at church. But then I had trouble translating those passions into jobs! Last year, we tried to stir up the routine with a “time and talent fair,” but that didn’t quite work, either. This fall, we’ll be going back to the cards. But isn’t there more to our discipleship than the jobs we have at church? What about the rich gifts and experience that lie underneath?
In the chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans that we read today, Paul makes clear that our work together as the Church has the lifesaving depth of the flight attendant’s true vocation and training:
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, through the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”
When I utter that sentence before the offertory in our liturgy, in my mind I vacillate between picturing my body drooping from the Cross and picturing us sitting piously in the pews, eyebrows scrunched and heads bowed in vague “spiritual worship.” The “sacrifice” that Paul is asking of us is indeed a bodily sacrifice. It is a sacrifice of our whole selves. Paul makes clear that in baptism, we die with Christ. We are swept under the deep waters, our sins and our self-centered hearts alive no more. When we rise from those baptismal waters, we are alive in Christ. We live no longer for ourselves but for God. We live a new life “in Christ.”  This new life isn’t some disembodied hovering on earth, however, or some pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by life that we will reach someday in heaven. That is not our “spiritual worship.” The new life that we are given is a fully embodied life on earth—a life full of grace, a life lived with Christ’s love flowing through us and from us. It is a life lived in community. It is lived out in the giving of ourselves through our actions in the church and in society. It is a life that involves acting within God’s frame of reference, rather than doing what our society or our rules dictate. It involves taking on the “mind of Christ,” letting Jesus’ image shape how we see the world. And it involves discernment, testing our ethical choices using this “new mind” that Christ has given us.[1]
I don’t have to go far today to find an example of what I am talking about. In our First Reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, we watch as the entire people of Israel is saved because of the enterprising and subversive action of 2 midwives, an enslaved mother and daughter, and a young Egyptian girl.[2] Coming from various ethnic, religious, and class lines, these five women are insignificant on their own. They are caught in lives of limited action and buried under a repressive routine. Yet they discern that life must triumph over death. This small group of women see the baby boys of the Hebrews through God’s eyes, rather than through the eyes of Pharaoh. They submit their “gifts”—their skills as midwives, their gifts of compassion, of courage, of smooth talking …--to God’s love as they perceive it moving through their world. As a poet writes in the voice of the midwife Pu’ah: “Year after year/ Shifrah and I struggled to help mothers push newborns/ out of their bodies and/ into the world./ Hour after hour/ we used the secret knowledge/ of our sacred calling,/ gentle words of encouragement,/ our own powerful hands … Besides, [Moses’ mother]/ was my neighbor:  could I/ kill her son?”[3]
Admittedly, the midwives are not Christians. We don’t even know if they are Jews. But they still use their gifts to bring life, rather than to bring the death ordered by their society.Their wits and their skills serve God's command to love their neighbor as themselves. Today, I think of the teams of medical missionaries who are serving the Ebola victims in Africa. Their daily chores must be tedious, their training arduous. Yet underneath, their sacrifice is both tremendous and life-saving.
Here at St. Thomas, as in any community, there are things to be done so that we can function together. So please do sign up for those jobs on your time and talent form. If we all chip in a little bit, then we will get the daily chores out of the way without too much hassle. Lectors, read your hearts out! Teachers, do your thing! Those who serve willingly, show us how to do the dishes and sit at hospital beds with faith and humility! Prophets, get us up out of our comfy ruts and into the world to bring about God’s Kingdom! Those who can bring in food and diapers and money for the open plate offering, show us how to give generously and faithfully! But don’t let it stop there. Don’t just use and honor your own gifts. We need to know and to honor one another’s gifts. Flight attendants and medical missionaries have natural gifts, but they work together to hone their skills so that they can save lives. Can we make St. Thomas a school for living as Christ’s Body, rather than an Institution with boring tasks that need to get done? Can we see one another and ourselves with the mind that Christ died to give us?
"I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, through the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” 

[1] Luke Timothy Johnson, Reading Romans (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2001), 190-191.
[2] Susan Niditch, “Another View,” in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (New York: Women of Reform Judaism, 2008), 324.
[3] Bonnie Lyons, “Deliverance: Pu’ah Explains” found in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (New York: Women of Reform Judaism, 2008), 328.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Jesus Sounds Like Me

          Proper 15: Genesis 45:1-15; Psalm 133; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15:10-28

          Almighty God, you have given your only Son to be for us a sacrifice for sin, and also an example of godly life: Give us grace to receive thankfully the fruits of his redeeming work and to follow daily in the blessed steps of his most holy life, through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

          Ferguson, Missouri.
Iraq … 
"O, how good and pleasant it is, when brethren live together in unity ...?!"
It seems as if hatred between neighbors has once again risen to the surface of the globe like deadly toadstools on a foggy morning. Race, religion, economic status, and nationality divide us at home and abroad. Such hatred certainly is not new. While on vacation in Geneva, I visited a museum about the Reformation and spent several hours reviewing the violence that seethed between Catholics and Protestants, as well as between varieties of Protestants, for hundreds of years, all over Europe. While the media of the day used the new printing presses to spread caricatures of opposing groups roasting in hell and sprouting demon horns, governments used religious differences to jockey violently for secular power.
          In the Middle East, the Holy Land of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, neighbors have been fighting and hating for as long as we have historical documentation. Our collect encourages us to follow Jesus as an example of Godly life, but what about the Jesus that we see in today's Gospel? Even our Lord Jesus seems to have struggled with our human drive to exclude “the other.” It is hard for me to hear his harsh and angry words in today’s Gospel lesson from Matthew. In opposition to the compassion that I admire in him—the compassion that he shows to Jewish women in need—even adulteresses and those who are poor and unclean—Jesus snaps at the Gentile woman who kneels at his feet, even when she calls him Lord and begs for God’s mercy for her sick daughter.
“Dogs!” he names her and her daughter, as he bluntly refuses to help them. Dirty, Gentile mongrels. Dogs in Jesus’ world were not the cute, tame pets that we enjoy today. While Gentiles might have let their dogs in to clean up under the table during meals, good Jews kept their dogs outside. They roamed and scavenged like the farm dogs that my daughter encountered when she lived in Peru. You would toss scraps out the door for them to eat every night, but you couldn’t go outside, she explained to me, without the protection of several hefty rocks to throw at the dangerous and snarling family dogs who prowled around the house.
“I have enough to do taking care of my own people,” Jesus grumbles. “There’s nothing left over for Gentile dogs like you.  My people are ‘children.’ Yours are animals. My people are in. Yours are out.”
It almost looks as if Matthew has made Jesus here an example of the very defiling language that Jesus himself has just condemned at the beginning of our lesson. “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and that is what defiles,” he cries. “For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder … false witness, slander.” Jesus certainly shares our common humanity with the drive to exclude, lodged within his own heart.
While we might be shocked at Jesus’ language and at his all too human reaction, the twist in today’s lesson is that it is the faithfulness in the heart of the Gentile woman that brings grace to the situation, even enlarging Jesus’ heart and mission. Because of her faith, Jesus learns and grows. What is it exactly, in the woman’s petition, that is able to breach the boundaries that Jesus sets on his mission? What is it in her that so effectively pierces the barriers that we human beings set up between us and those who are different?
Professor Karoline Lewis names all kinds of possibilities: Is it the Gentile woman’s persistence? Her determination not to give up despite the disciples’ rejection and Jesus’ ugly words? Is it that she honestly admits her need before the Lord, kneeling down and humbly pleading, “Kyrie Eleison,” “Lord have mercy?” Is it that she recognizes that Jesus is Lord and God and believes that he can heal her daughter? Is it that she is clever with her words and able to turn Jesus’ insult to win her argument? Is it because she is willing to move past the boundaries that we human beings place on others and on ourselves?[1] The Gentile woman’s faith is probably made up of all of these things, but one thing stands out to me: her lack of fear.
Just last week, we heard Jesus upbraid Peter for his “little faith,” as his fear got the better of him in his attempt to cross the waves to come to Jesus. Remember? It was the blowing winds, those turbulent winds of the world, that unnerved him, and he stumbled. He lost his focus on Jesus, and he sank. The Gentile woman in today’s story, however, is somehow able to push aside her fear. She must have been afraid. Afraid that her daughter would soon die or go mad. Afraid of the hostile disciples and their strange language, clothing, and religion. Afraid of the power and the hostility that she senses in Jesus himself. Crossing the no-man’s-land between unfriendly cultures and separate religions, she must have felt as vulnerable as Peter treading across those waves. She must have felt as battered as Peter by the hostile winds of the world around her. And yet, intently clinging to Jesus as the only hope for her daughter, she is somehow able to push through her fear. “Woman, great is your faith,” Jesus says to her. “Let it be done for you as you wish.” Unlike Peter, the Gentile woman does not sink.
Whenever I think about the faith of people like today’s Canaanite woman, or about the faith of those who defied the Nazi’s in World War II, or about the faith of the Christians in Iraq today who face exile and death rather than abjure their beliefs, I tend to hold my own faith up in limp comparison. “I would be afraid to do that,” I shrug sadly. I tend to forget that courage is not lack of fear. It is acting in spite of fear. The point of today’s lesson is not to start us picking at our own “little faith.” I believe that the point of today’s lesson is to fill us with the courage to venture, ourselves, across the scary, windy seas that divide neighbors not just around the world, but right here in our own community. As the Gentile woman transforms Jesus, she can transform us, as well.
As I was working on this sermon, I received an email from Harvey Roberts. Harvey was one of the many parishioners who attended a meeting on Monday with the principal at Zachary Taylor Elementary about our tutoring program there. Harvey told me that the group was astounded to hear that nearly one in six students at Zachary Taylor this year have English as their second language. Most of these children are Hispanic, but there are a growing number of Arabic-speaking students as well. One in six! Here, in our East End suburb. Harvey writes what I thought as I read these statistics: “I was struck by how God brought this team together.  We may not realize it from our own population [at St. Thomas], but the population of our community has changed.  We are a white suburban parish in a markedly diverse international community.  Does it surprise you that we have a little disconnect here?  Not me, not any more. The Lord is asking us to open our hearts.”
We say as a parish that we want to reach out to the community. We say that youth and young families are the priority for us. But we do we mean youth and young families like us? White, Christian, hopefully Episcopalian? People who will come to church and pledge and make other kids like ours want to come to our parish? We have enough to do helping people like us, right, teaching our own young people, without throwing our resources to people who won’t amalgamate? Arabs won’t increase our average Sunday attendance. Spanish speakers won’t want to sing our hymns. Goodness, we can’t even talk with them. How are we going to reach out if we can’t communicate? We can’t afford to pay for the staffing to meet our own needs …. Why would we want to spend money on helping outsiders? Sounds kind of like Jesus in our Gospel lesson, doesn’t it?
          We may not hate and kill those who are different like they are doing in Ferguson or Iraq or Gaza, but we still fear them. Don’t you feel your stomach churning as I talk about opening up our hearts—and most of all our meager resources—to very strange strangers? I know that mine churns like crazy at the very idea!
And yet-- the Gentile woman finds courage in her confidence that there is enough power and love in Jesus to go around.[2] Somehow, she recognizes that even a crumb of Jesus’ power is enough to save her daughter from the demon. She doesn’t ask Jesus to ignore his own people in order to help hers. She doesn’t make God choose sides. She simply places hope in the never-ending supply of God’s love and grace and power. Can we do the same? God will take care of the success; God only asks us to be faithful.[3]

[1] Karoline Lewis, “Getting Great Faith,” found at https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3298
[2] Carla Works, found at https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2145
[3] “We are not here to be successful; we are here to be faithful.” Well-known phrase attributed to Mother Theresa, among others.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Soccer, Spirit, and Connections


Genesis 25:19-34

Psalm 119:105-112

Romans 8:1-11

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

O Lord, mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, and grant that they may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

           In a few hours, many of us baseball-loving Americans will be watching the final World Cup soccer match on our TV sets. So here’s a question for you to ponder as you watch: Is life more like baseball or is it more like soccer?
Columnist David Brooks asks that question in an op ed piece this week.[1] Brooks explains that we often think of the game of life as being more like baseball. We see ourselves as involved in a series of individual activities and achievements. After all, in baseball, a team that performs the most individual tasks well, like throwing a strike or hitting a line drive, is likely to win the game.[2] In the same way, we see our collaboration at work and at home in terms of our own personal wins and losses, in terms of our own straight-line efforts to “accomplish” a day.
Brooks then points out, however, that life is really more like soccer, because life, like soccer, is a game about occupying and controlling space. It is about team formations. It is a collective game with odds that are hard to control. According to Brooks, Germany beat Brazil so lopsidedly this week because Brazil did a bad job controlling space on the field, even though Brazil’s individual players were statistically better than Germany’s. In life, we are constantly absorbing our thoughts and even our life choices from the teachings and utterances of those around us. We depend on our networks of friends and colleagues (on and off Facebook!) We depend for our financial flourishing on the structure of the economy that surrounds us. We see ourselves through the eyes of our loved ones. We live and move and have our being within multiple systems of connection.
Brooks’ article is interesting in helping us to ponder the connectivity of our lives. It struck me, though, that one could pull Brooks’ metaphor a bit further in a theological direction. Perhaps that St. Paul is suggesting in our reading from Romans that Life in the Spirit is also like playing soccer.  In Romans, when we hear Paul talking about “flesh” and “spirit,” it sounds to us as if he is separating body and soul. It sounds as if he is saying that our bodily desires and feelings are sinful and that it is only our disembodied spirits that can communicate with God. But that’s not what Paul is really getting at. For Paul, the “things of the flesh” are not necessarily only physical things. We are in “the flesh,” when we measure reality apart from the way that God structures it, when we forget that the space in which we live belongs to God.  By living our lives in a straight line, consumed with our individual plans and bound by structures of our own devising, we are living “in the flesh.”[3]
In the same way, we are in “the spirit,” not when we play around in the realm of ideas and thoughts, but when we play God’s game, in God’s structures, letting all the space around us be filled with God’s presence. Opposition to God, being “in sin,” is refusing to shape my life in accordance with God’s activity in the world.[4] So what Paul is saying is that life in Christ is kind of like a game of soccer—where God owns the field. We play the position that God has assigned to us, free to use our brains and to make our plays with others, yet understanding that the space that we are trying to control is open to the movements of our Creator. Not only do the networks of people around us influence our thoughts and our actions—God’s Spirit, too, controls structures beyond our comprehension. God’s borders dwarf our borders. Our barriers are no match for God’s pervasive love. Our limitations cannot limit God’s possibilities. The mysterious and uplifting “team spirit” that fills and inspires us as we play, drawing all of our individual efforts together, is the Spirit of Christ. It is that Holy Spirit within us and around us that gives us the power to win the game.
OK, I’ve got to be honest with you. Now that I have the attention of the soccer fans among us, I’m going to have to stop with the sports analogies before I make a terrible blunder and have you all pulling out your hair over my incomprehension of the intricacies of the game. I don’t know much about soccer at all, so I am going to carry our theme of structure and space over into an area that has been concerning ME this summer: gardening.
Plants, like soccer players and like us, live and have their being in a certain context. Root systems spread out into the space available to them. They intertwine with one another. They share water and nutrients from the soil.  It’s no wonder then that the tomato plants that I lazily stuck into some hard, unturned earth full of old ivy vines, tree roots, and invasive mint,  have dropped their blossoms and have produced nothing but leaves. For gardeners, too, the trick is to fill and manage well the space.
Or so it seems on the surface. Did you know that there are fungi called mycorrhizae? They are found everywhere, in almost every ecosystem in the world. They are invisible, living in the soil, and they live in symbiotic relationships with 90 percent of plants on earth. The fungi penetrate the roots of plants and provide them with food and water from the soil. In turn, the fungi receive food from the plants. These fungi even link plants of all different species, as they “run” through the soil from one kind of plant to another, both living plants and dead plants.[5] You might say that the fungi are like soccer players, passing the ball down the field. You might say that the fungi are like the Spirit of Christ, moving unseen throughout the world, sustaining and giving life, filling us with God’s presence, creating connection between the living and the dead. In the flesh, my tomato plants are hemmed in by hot bricks. But underneath, in the spirit, life flows forth like a stream.
In today’s parable, the Sower doesn’t worry much about where he is planting his seeds, does he? It seems as if he is not “managing his space” very well, doesn’t it? He throws those valuable little seeds out everywhere with reckless abandon: into the weeds, onto the path, into the rocks, as well as into the good soil. And yet, despite his wasteful way of planting, the Sower ends up with a harvest of extraordinary abundance. In some places, his grain comes in a hundredfold. I can’t even get that kind of return with MiracleGro! Jesus is showing us a picture of a God who is constantly pouring out God’s Word of Love into Creation—into fertile places and into dead places. God is constantly making connections that we don’t see, molding our hearts, working around and in and through the space that we fill ourselves.
On my same little patio with my blossomless tomato plants, there is another plant that lives “in the Holy Spirit.” Last year, I had my whole patio redone. I had the bricks removed, the gravel underneath scooped out, and a thick slab of concrete poured before the bricks were re-laid on top. Yet, this summer, right in the middle of that new patio, a little weed has sprung up through a tiny opening that is too small for my eyes to see. Unfertilized, unwatered, uncared for by me, this little weed is growing tall and strong through the concrete. The networks of fungi that nurture it must exist somewhere under that concrete, but they belong to the powerful and invisible networks of our Creator.
Assured by Resurrection of the love and power of a Living God, we have no need to burrow down into our hearts, looking for fertile soil. We have no cause to give up, either, when the harvest around us appears lean. We have only to strengthen our connections: our connections with one another and with our world but also our deep, unseen connections with God’s constantly creating Word.
So whether you are gardening or watching soccer this afternoon, look for the connections, the running roots and the running players, and see the unstoppable Spirit of Christ filling the field, ready to erupt in a shout of victory or a green shoot of life.

[1] David Brooks, “Baseball or Soccer,” The New York Times, July 10, 2104. Found at http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/11/opinion/david-brooks-baseball-or ....
[2] Ibid.
[3] Luke Timothy Johnson, Reading Romans (Macon, GA: Smyth and Helwys, 2001),  130.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Fred Bahnson, Soil and Sacrament (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2013), 20-21.