"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, November 15, 2014

A Children's Message for R-Rated Scripture

 Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18; Psalm 90:1-12; I Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25: 14-30

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

PART ONE: Before the 1st reading

       Like those “parental advisories” that come on TV before a violent program, I’m going to have to say a few words before we hear our first reading for today. On this Youth Sunday weekend, we are about to share with you some R-rated images from the Hebrew prophet Zephaniah. This “word of the Lord,” is not one that I would choose to share with you today, believe me. I would certainly not choose to share it with children. It makes me uncomfortable. It messes with my theology. It will probably make you uncomfortable, too. We are all going to be digging in our pockets for some Zantac as we “inwardly digest” these words. But that is both the blessing and the curse of our Lectionary. By being given a wide variety of texts to read each week, both you and I are nudged out of our comfort zones. You are not going to be formed only by what I as your rector like to talk about. We are both going to be challenged by the heights and depths, length and breadth, of God’s Word.
          Kids, have you ever seen your parents or your teachers “lose it?” You know: you do something wrong, and they just get carried away in their fussing? Before you know it, they are telling you ridiculous things: like you will be grounded until you are 25, or you are the worst class that they have ever taught, or you will be spending the whole weekend in your room… Their faces probably get red, too, and they shout, and they are just, well, scary.
         Parents and teachers, we all know that this can happen to the best of us, right? It usually happens when we are afraid for our children, afraid that they are doing something that is truly going to harm them: Our toddler is determined to chew through every electric cord in the house, for example; or our class is goofing off so much that students are not going to learn what they need to pass the test; or our child just let a stranger into the house while we were at the grocery; or our teen is hanging out with people we know will lead him astray. "Oh no!" we panic. We are afraid for our children, and so we exaggerate in our response to their actions. We are so desperate for them to hear us, that we yell! We are so desperate for them to listen to our wisdom that reasonable language is no longer enough.
        That’s what is going on with Zephaniah. The words that we are about to hear today are not—and were never meant to be—a prediction of the future. I don’t care what the televangelists say. These are loudly emphatic words of poetry--poetry that is meant to stir the people of Israel from a course that is going to lead to their destruction as a people. Prophets are not fortune-tellers. They are preachers with one eye on society and one eye on God. Their job is to speak words that will get us to change when we are destroying ourselves, when we are ruining our relationship with God. Their job is to root out injustice and stir us out of complacency. Their job is to wake us up, whatever it takes. Apparently, milder words have not worked on the people of Israel, and so Zephaniah is pulling out all of the stops in the poetic vision that we will hear today. Just as when we overhear a parent yelling to save their wayward child, it is not pleasant to hear. But sometimes change requires a fierce response. Like Flannery O’Connor said as she wrote shocking Christian novels about cruel and violent characters, “to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”[1]
          As you listen to today’s first reading, hear then the desperation of a frustrated leader trying to shake us out of dangerous, life-sapping complacency. Find in Zephaniah’s words a fierceness for God’s justice, not just an angry cruelty. Don’t start worrying over signs of the End. Don’t get all distracted and indignant about a wrathful God. Instead, look inside your heart and ask yourself what it will take for you to wake up and truly love God and your neighbor again. And then, after the Gospel, we’ll talk about Jesus.

PART 2: at sermon time
(On the chancel steps, I have chocolate gold coins on top of weights covered in aluminum foil in the top of the heavy marble baptismal font, which I unscrewed from the base.)

          In Jesus’ story, talents are not things we do, like being good at math or soccer or playing the piano. Talents are a weight of measure. We might talk about an ounce of gold or a pound of iron, but in Jesus’ day they would measure precious metal in talents. A talent of gold or silver was heavy. It weighed about 50-75 pounds. Here on the chancel steps, I have a talent of gold for the kids. We don’t want to put on airs, so let’s assume that we aren’t the super-clever slaves who get either five or two talents of treasure from the master. How would we even move 200 pounds of gold out of here to trade it, anyway? Yes, God’s gifts can seem pretty oversized and unwieldy for us, can’t they? So much abundance can be overwhelming. We’re just a small parish. We like to keep things simple. So let’s say that we at St. Thomas get this one talent from God.
         So what are we going to do with our St. Thomas treasure? Jesus has entrusted it to us to keep for him, so we had better not eat any of it, even if it does involve chocolate. As a matter of fact, we’re supposed to make more treasure out of what he gives us. How are we going to do that? (Get ideas if there are any.)
          Well, why don’t we try moving it into the sacristy? We can lock it up in there with all of our other holy things, since a gift from God has got to be kept holy, right? (Invite small child to come and move it. It will be too heavy.)
         Shoot! Why are God’s gifts so heavy? If we can’t move it, maybe we need to cover it with something?  If we leave it open here, some greedy grown-up might come and slip a piece or two into her pocket on the way up to communion…. We wouldn’t want to tempt anybody like that. (Give kids a chance to try to cover it.)
          If only we could get it outside and bury it. It would be safe then …. Oh, but wait! That’s what the slave did in Jesus’ parable! And he got in big trouble. If we bury it, it will be safe, but it won’t grow, and nobody will even be able to enjoy it.
Gifts from God are strange things. Have you ever noticed how we’re not ever supposed to hoard them? It’s like the manna that God gave to the ancient Israelites when they were starving: If they tried to put the extra pieces in jars to keep until the next day, they became nasty and inedible. Even though God rained down the manna upon them like crazy, they weren’t allowed to save any for later, for “just in case.” God expected them to trust that God would always send whatever they need. God’s gifts seem to have to flow into us and back out again. You know, God gives us life, and then we are expected to live to God’s glory. God gives us love, and we are expected to love our neighbor in turn. God creates beauty in our world, and we are supposed to create beauty, too. God forgives us, and we are supposed to forgive others. God’s gifts are like light shining on us. If you bury light, or as Jesus said, cover it up with a bushel basket, then it is gone. You have to let it shine if you want it to light up the room.
         Did you notice that our treasure here is sitting in the top of our baptismal font? I bet that there is more than chocolate hidden in this heavy talent of divine gift. In baptism, we are given huge gifts like hope, joy, promise, eternal life, justice, reconciliation, grace, Jesus’ own body and blood …. Surely, we can’t bury such important gifts. Surely, they are bigger than anything we can control.
         As I was thinking about those wrathful words from Zephaniah this week, I had a terrible ear-worm playing in my head. I was cursing Rob for picking a hymn for Sunday that is such a terrible ear-worm (hum, “I want to walk as a child of the light.”) …. All of a sudden, though, I realized what I was singing:
         “I want to walk as a child of the Light, I want to follow Jesus. The Lamb is the     light of the city of God. Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus.”  
          I was singing the words of our reading from Thessalonians! And then it hit me: The Light of Christ is the gift, the gift that cannot be buried in the ground, the gift of love and grace and forgiveness that lives as it is passed from heart to heart like the candle flame on Christmas Eve. No matter what mess we get ourselves into in this world, no matter how dark it looks and how tempted we are to curse and yell, the Lamb has suffered that darkness and yet has risen in Light eternal. The Light will continue to shine … Now if only we would dare to live in the freedom of knowing that Love and Light always have the last word.
         Children, at the Peace, I invite you to come forward and take generous handfuls of chocolate gold and hand them around to all of the grownups as you share with them the Peace of Christ. And keep one for yourself! Such treasure is God’s gift to us all.

[1] Found at http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/80562-the-novelist-with-christian-concerns-will-find-in-modern-life

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Dressed in Christ: A Children's Sermon for Adults to Overhear on All Saints' Day

Who went trick-or-treating on Friday? Did you wear a costume? (Have kids call out what they were). It was fun to be kind of hidden in that costume, wasn’t it? Maybe other people didn’t even recognize you? Maybe you could act scary or have superpowers or be fancy like a princess?
For the kids who are going to be baptized in just a few minutes, they are going to put on new clothing, too, kind of like you did on Halloween. They aren’t going to put on a costume over their clothes, though. They aren’t going to look any different on the outside. But they are going to be changed on the inside! They are going to put on Jesus. The new clothes that they are going to receive are going to dress up their inner hearts and souls and minds. Just like you are still Maggie and Alex and Keira when you put on your Halloween costumes, Ethan is still going to be Ethan when he is baptized; Paul is still going to be Paul; Valerie will still be Valerie; Isabela will still be Isabela …. They won’t look any different to you and me, but they will each be wrapped in the Light of Christ on the inside.
Thank goodness, we don’t strip down to our underwear in church to be baptized anymore, and we don’t jump into a big pool and stick our heads under the cold water, but that’s what we pretend that we’re doing when we lean over that little baptismal font and get our heads wet. When I pour water on Ethan, Paul, Valerie, and Isabela’s heads, we’re going to imagine that they are taking off their old, dirty everyday clothes and stepping into the bathtub to get all clean. They are scrubbing away everything that is old and are getting ready to put on their new costumes. After they are clean, I’m going to make a little cross on their foreheads with special oil. I’m going to say: “You  are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” That’s my favorite part of every baptism. Being marked as Christ’s own forever is like getting dressed in their new clothes—putting on Jesus’ clothes that will change them forever and ever on the inside. From then on, they will be dressed as saints of God, holy men and holy women just like the rest of us who are already clothed in Christ in baptism. They will join us as part of the Body of Christ. When they first put on their new “inside” clothes, those clothes might be a little big, and they will need to grow into them. Someday, those clothes might get a little tight, and they might have to squirm a little bit until the cloth stretches out enough to be comfortable again. Sometimes Ethan and Paul and Valerie and Isabela will forget that they have on those clothes. But it doesn’t matter—like you and me, they will wear Jesus’ clothes forever. Nobody can take them off or have  them stripped away from them. Nobody, no matter what.
Now, all of us celebrate our birthdays, right? Who has ever gotten a birthday card or had a birthday party? Raise your hands! It is good to be remembered and loved on our birthdays, isn’t it? When we remember the famous saints who have died, though, have you ever noticed that we don’t remember them on their birthdays? When we celebrate good St. Francis on October 4 or beloved St. Nicolas on December 6, we aren’t observing the day that either one of them was born. We are celebrating the day that they died! Why would we remember their deaths instead of the days that they appeared on earth? It’s because death doesn’t matter when we are clothed in Christ. Actually, when we die, we can better see the glowing light that we wear as holy sons and daughters of God! Even death can’t remove us from who we are as Christ’s Body.
Kids, when you went trick-or-treating in your costumes on Friday, it was fun to be going out with your family and friends, wasn’t it? Dressing up just to sit by yourself in your room wouldn’t be nearly as much fun. There wouldn’t be anyone to show your costume to. You couldn’t see what everyone else was wearing. Today, on All Saints’ Day, we take the time to celebrate all of the saints together for the same reason. We need to take the time to remember that in baptism, we Christians are not only clothed in Christ forever, but we are also joined together forever.
In explaining some of the differences between Jewish and Christian readings of the Scriptures, Jewish New Testament scholar Amy Jill Levine once explained in a lecture I heard that Jews don’t get worried when there are many interpretations of the same text. Rabbis love to brainstorm meaning after meaning from a text, piling up multiple interpretations, without anyone getting nervous about disagreements or contradictions. Jews can do that, Levine said, because one is born a Jew, and there is nothing that one can say or do to change that fact. It is both a race and a religion, and that gives people a sense of connectedness that disagreement cannot ultimately threaten. Christians, on the other hand, become Christians through belief—belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ—and through baptism. We worry about our opposing interpretations of scripture because we feel that we might “interpret” ourselves out of a place in the community! However, All Saints’ Day reminds us, too, that in baptism, we are all Christ’s Body, whether we agree with each other or not. If “the Church” unites heaven and earth, present and future, near and far, in Christ, then we too should not have to worry about our interpretations of scripture or our politics, or anything else, making us “in” or “out.” By our Baptism, we are one, and we should be able to search for God together, without fear.
 In our baptismal clothing, we belong together forever: together with the outcast and the vulnerable. Together with the saints who founded this parish over 100 years ago. Together with the abiding love of deceased friends and family members, the saints whom we can no longer see and touch. Together with the Christian saints in the developing world who praise God with increasing numbers and unwavering voices. Together with Ethan, Paul, Valerie, and Isabela, our newest saints. As we sing in our favorite All Saints’ hymn: “We all are One in thee for all are thine. Alleluia. Alleluia.”

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Ebola, Fear, and Holiness

Proper 25, Year A

Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18; Psalm 1; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46

Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

          I mentioned to a couple of people this week that I was going to preach on Leviticus, and each time I heard groans all around. Leviticus is that book full of obscure laws, that book that tells us that God forbids us to eat shrimp and to wear polyester-cotton blends. Leviticus is that book that seems to speak against many of our modern understandings about sex. It decrees death for all kinds of infractions, including death to the one who merely insults a parent. The book of Leviticus is the place at which many a well-intentioned Christian gives up her vow to “read through the whole bible.” After romping pleasantly through the exciting stories of Genesis and Exodus, the happy reader suddenly gets bogged down in these alternately boring and shocking priestly law codes.
          Why preach on Leviticus? What do we modern Christians have to do with all of the primitive boundary-making that fills this book?  Weren’t the ancient Israelites just making laws to define themselves as a people, to set themselves apart from the nations who threatened their identity? What does that have to do with us?  Didn’t Jesus show us that we have a loving God, not a fearsome God who needs to be placated with obscure rituals? And we’re not obsessed with purity anymore, certainly? We don’t talk in terms of things being ritually “clean” and “unclean …” We’re too sophisticated to fear what seems out of place in nature. We’re no longer frightened beings who see lightning strikes as acts of God. We have science to light our paths. We don’t need to obey a detailed list of rules in an attempt to control a universe that we don’t understand….
          Or do we? How about this headline from the news just this week: “Infection Protection: New CDC Ebola Guidelines Stress Gear Ritual.” After those two nurses came down with Ebola in Dallas, the Centers for Disease Control created “an almost ritualistic approach” to protect health care workers. "We need to increase the margin of safety," they pronounced with gravity. All healthcare workers must undergo rigorous training in exact ways of putting on and taking off gear in a systemic manner.[1] Reading about the new regulations, they sound an awful lot like those detailed instructions in Leviticus.
          Indeed, Ebola is bringing out the fear of contagion in all of us. The idea of this disease that infects us through disgusting bodily fluids, that oozes blood and melts our organs—it reaches us in the deep, dark places of our fears. They say that there are three kinds of universal human disgust: 1.) the primary disgust that is triggered by bodily fluids (sharing spit in the communion cup, for example, or stepping in dog poop); 2.) the socio-moral disgust for strangers, for those people who are “different,” who don’t belong in our circles; 3.) the strong animal-reminder disgust that occurs when we are reminded of our own deaths.[2] All three of these kinds of disgust are triggered in us by the Ebola virus. Blood and guts, foreigners, and death: they stir up deep repulsion in us—the kind of repulsion that naturally leads us to purify, to set boundaries, to try desperately to make things right and clean again.
 David Brooks described this week the parents in a Mississippi school who kept their kids home just because the school principal had traveled to Zambia, an African country untouched by the Ebola outbreak.[3] There are all kinds of people turning up in public places in crazy homemade hazmat suits. We are now quarantining people who arrive in the United States from infected countries. I’m not saying that many of these precautions aren’t necessary. I’m merely pointing to the link between fear, rules, and boundary-making. As Brooks writes: “[What we are experiencing with Ebola] is a fear you feel when the whole environment seems hostile, when the things that are supposed to keep you safe, like national borders and national authorities, seem porous and ineffective, when some menace is hard to understand… People seek to build walls, to pull in the circle of trust. They become afraid.”[4]
Can you admit to your fear—or at least your disgust—over Ebola for a moment? Let it float around in your mind as you join me in giving Leviticus another chance. First of all, let us understand the Israelites' picky little laws in the light of our own attempts to save ourselves from contagion. When we are facing death and disgust, we all clean, and we all circle the wagons. But more importantly, today’s section from Leviticus points to a deeper reality than the uncleanness of shrimp. Today’s reading from the Holiness Code is about living out a proper relationship with God and with others in the midst of the very kind of fear and disgust that we are feeling. It’s about creating community stability in the face of our human struggle to control the dangers of this world.
“I am Holy,” begins the Lord God in our reading. “I am different, set apart! I am different not just in my power, but in my love. In the power of my love, I “brought you, my people, out of the land of Egypt” when you were slaves. I am the God who frees every captive, the God whose Love never ends. And because you are made in my image, you are holy like I am. As you are in relationship with me, you will set others free, as well. That is who you are. You will love one another and all of the creation that I made, as I love you.[5] This divine self-definition and command is at the center of the Hebrew Scriptures. It is no wonder that the rabbi Jesus quotes it as the center of his own Good News. We are to act justly with one another because God is just. We are to be in relationship with one another because God’s very self is relationship. We are to love our neighbor because loving the other is the very essence of our God.
Moreover, this love that we are to have for our neighbor is not some kind of vague, abstract love. This holiness that we are given is not some hazy, saintly aura. According to our text, we enact God’s holy love when we pay fair wages to those who work for us, when we don’t profit off of the backs of the poor, when we forgive a grudge, when we give away part of our earnings to those who are hungry and alone. As one modern rabbi writes, an example of the holiness of loving neighbor can be as simple as promptly writing a check to the plumber who has just fixed your leaky faucet, aware that in so doing, you are participating in God’s love for the world.[6] Leviticus brings home to us that love and holiness consist of small, real, and tangible practices. It’s like Pastor Walt Wangerin’s story about the time that he was trying to profess his deep and abiding love to his wife. “I don’t need all your grand words,” she told him. “If you love me, just make up the bed every morning!”[7]

          When Ebola came to Dallas this month, one Christian congregation was given the chance to act out of the freeing holiness of God.[8] You see, Louise Troh, the fiancĂ©e of Ebola victim Eric Duncan, had been coming to church at Wilshire Baptist in Dallas. When she was put in quarantine, waiting to come down with the deadly disease, the people of Wilshire Baptist decided that the holiness of God called on them to reach out to her in love, not to withdraw behind safe boundaries. They agreed that it was OK for their pastor to visit her. They made her casseroles. They were not afraid of letting their pastor go to her and then come to shake their hands at the church door. “This is what we do,” everyone agreed. “We reach out in small concrete ways to our neighbor in need.”

          Leviticus does not have to be used to bind and to belittle.[9] Fear’s need for rigid boundaries and self-preserving purity does not have to control us. The call of our loving God for us to be Holy as God is Holy can free us from the fear that imprisons us. One loving act at a time.

[1] http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/ebola-virus-outbreak/infection-protection-new-cdc-ebola-guidelines-stress-gear-ritual-n230206
[2] Richard Beck, Unclean, found at http://www.christiancentury.org/reviews/2012-06/unclean-richard-beck.
[3] David Brooks, “The Quality of Fear,” found at http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/21/opinion/david-brooks-what-the-ebola-crisis-reveals-about-culture.html?_r=0.
[4] David Brooks, Ibid.
[5] See Fred Gaiser’s interpretation of this passage, found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1004.
[6] “Holiness is Where You Find It,” found at http://www.beliefnet.com/Faiths/Judaism/2000/05/Holiness-Is-Where-You-Find-It.
[7] Walt Wangerin, Jr. As for Me and My House: Crafting your Marriage to Last (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1990).
[8] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/george-mason/when-ebola-comes-to-church_b_5971124.html.
[9] Gaiser, Ibid.