Monday, December 28, 2015

Jesus' Birth Stories

The First Sunday After Christmas
John 1:1-18

Eternal God, we thank you this day for blessing us with your presence through Jesus your Son; help us to accept the assurance you offer us of your presence and love throughout our entire lives. Amen.

I love the beginning of the gospel according to John, the gospel passage for this morning. It is so beautiful and many layered. In seminary, when we studied John's gospel, we learned that John’s gospel always has many layers going on. (Like a cake, or an onion.) No passage is simply about one thing. We had a hand gesture we used any time we talked about John’s gospel. (Hand gesture. A little John's gospel dance.) In looking at the gospel passage this morning, we have to keep this many layered approach in mind. We are going to start behind the scenes of what we have heard this morning.

Two of the great literary devices of storytelling and character development are birth narratives and foreshadowing, and the two almost always go together. A character’s birth story sets the character in a place and time, a context, and in relationship to some other important characters for the story. Birth narratives are great at opening up people’s lives and feeling connected to another person. They are both unique to each person, but also common among all of us. Every one of us has a birth story, but all of them are different. I was born, two weeks late, before sunrise on a Monday morning during a snow storm in New Jersey. Immediately, you can put me into a Northeast context and you know I was born during the winter. Even though you already knew I was born at some point, because I’m standing up here in front of you, you now know the story and our relationship connections have been strengthened.

Foreshadowing is one of the most teasing of literary devices. Foreshadowing is when some element of a later part of the story comes to light earlier on in the story. It’s a hint, a teaser, something to build suspense or expectation about what will happen later. Some very simple examples of foreshadowing are in narration, the “just wait until the end,” or a suggestion that the day will be the character's “longest day ever.” More in depth and subtle foreshadowing can be seen in things like stormy weather to start a day where something bad will happen, or, since I have Star Wars on my mind, the scene where Luke sees himself in Darth Vader's helmet, which foreshadows learning that Vader is his father. Most of the time when a birth story is told there are elements of foreshadowing about things that will happen later on to the person being born.  We can’t always do this with our own birth stories, because we don’t know what will happen later on in our lives. However, we do make judgments about people based on what we know about their births. I was born in New Jersey and that makes me a Jersey girl, which is usually associated with a certain kind of attitude. It doesn't mean I have that attitude, but there is an association there. There’s no proof that those born early in the morning turn out to be morning people and those born at night turn out to be night owls, but our brains make some of those assumptions when we hear birth stories.

Keeping our knowledge about birth stories and foreshadowing in mind, can you imagine Mary telling Jesus about his birth story? The way we tell the story, as a mash up of stories from Matthew and Luke, it’s a long tale! There is the annunciation, when Mary is visited by the angel Gabriel, the uncertainty about whether Mary and Joseph would be married, Mary’s journey to see her cousin Elizabeth, and the journey to Bethlehem, the angel appearing to the shepherds, and later on the appearance of the magi and their presents. Both Matthew and Luke use their birth narratives to make us feel personally connected to Jesus right from the start. And there are a lot of examples of foreshadowing and symbolism in the events around Jesus’ birth!

Angels symbolize God at work in the world throughout the Old Testament, the fact that there are multiple angels in this story confirms God’s place in Jesus’ birth. The shepherds foreshadow many things in Jesus' life and ministry. Sheep and shepherds are images used again and again in his parables. Jesus is later portrayed as the Paschal Lamb, the lamb slaughtered for the sins of the whole world. The sacrificial lamb for the Passover, that God would have mercy on our sins and not judge us by them. Jesus shared a parable about a good shepherd and has become known as The Good Shepherd. Even while shepherds were the last of people, the lowest of the low, social outcasts for their jobs and their smell, they are the first ones told about Jesus’ birth. One wouldn't have had a socially acceptable party and invited shepherds as your guests of honor, but God did. They were the last of society, but they were the first to be shown God. The first shall be last and the last shall be first. And then the Magi came, completing the imagery. It took them a long time to come and they came because they thought they were honoring a king. And they were, just not the kind of king they expected. I mean, they showed up first at King Herod's palace. They were looking for a wealthy, royal king. And what they found was a baby boy who was not born into a rich or royal family. Yet, we know Jesus is the King of Kings.

So what does all of this, what do birth stories and foreshadowing, have to do with John’s gospel? It is not a physical birth story. In some ways, it’s hardly a story at all. The first character on the scene, the Word, is kind of vague and confusing! “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” Well, which was it? The Word was WITH God or the Word WAS God? Its both, naturally. However, it is a story, even a birth story; it’s the spiritual birth story of Christ the second person of the Trinity. We mostly hear of spiritual birth stories from born-again Christians, their conversion stories. That moment they say they knew they were saved. We, Episcopalians, talk about the development of personal faith and the maturity of taking on our relationship with God for ourselves. As human beings we have a physical birth and then a spiritual birth in this world. But as John tells the story, Jesus had a spiritual birth and then a physical birth. And while John is more interested in the spiritual birth of Jesus Christ the second entity of the Trinity, he uses the same techniques as Matthew and Luke to connect us to the story and foreshadow some of what is to come in Jesus’ life and ministry.

John starts by paralleling the beginning of Genesis, the great unfinished first line of the Bible, “in the beginning...” Jesus was the Word which was with God and was God, and through which all was created. The Word of God came before all else and created all else. Nothing was created outside of the Word. Nothing in all that we can see or taste or touch or smell or hear was created without Jesus the Word being involved. All things were created good because they have been created by being spoken by God. We learn from John that Christ, the Word, the Light, was before the beginning and so then will be long after everything else. John tells us that, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” John knows that there is sin and evil and death in Jesus’ future, but none of those things can overcome Jesus and the power of His light. John mentions the glory and the grace which Jesus has given us and which John will tell us more about later on.

John tells us that not only is Jesus in the world with us, but Jesus is in us. We are never alone. “The Word became flesh and lived among us,” the gospel reads in English, but in the Greek, the Word becomes flesh and pitches his tent among us, so to be able to go wherever we go. No matter where we go or whatever evil or darkness comes upon us, the Word goes with us, and we will hear later in John’s gospel about Jesus’ journeys around the Judean countryside to be with the people he loved. John tells us many things in his gospel, but he always makes clear that nothing can destroy Jesus and that God sent Jesus because of the great love God has for us. We have come from the one who was spoken out in love before all else.

Just as we share again and again each year the stories of Jesus being born a little baby, God in a very physical sense; we also remember each year the story of Jesus being with God and being born in us spiritually, as the light of the World, as the Word which sustains us. For this we give thanks and celebrate!

Amen

Monday, November 16, 2015

Transformation

Proper 28 B

Eternal God, heavenly Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, grant us grace to see death as an opportunity for resurrection and transformation, grant us courage to face the tearing down of walls and foundations and buildings. Help us to build anew that which sings your praises. Amen.

Did you hear what the disciple said at the start of the gospel passage this morning? 
"Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!"

After a long day of sitting in the Temple, listening to the scriptures and the teachings of the priests and Jesus, this is the intellectual brilliance that is chosen to be recorded. Look at the huge stones!

Having been to Jerusalem last year, I cannot deny that they are huge stones. They are described in the Old Testament as being 8 to 10 cubits long - putting them between 12-15 ft long. And they were all quarried, moved, built together without any of today's technology. No cranes, no trucks, no lifts. They formed the foundations of the temple and the surrounding city. For some of the disciples who were rural country or fishing men, the huge stones and the city itself would be quite the sight to see. 

The Temple was the center of Jewish religion and culture, the backbone of what held the Jewish people together. The Temple was the power and authority of the hierarchical structure of the Jewish government. It was the history of the people, the story of the people of Israel. The center of their life and identity. A big deal. And not just any big deal, THE big deal. And so they are anxious about it. There is obvious and understandable anxiety around Jesus, a man they are following, a man they are putting a huge amount of trust and faith in, a man they have invested a lot of physical, emotional, financial, and spiritual currency into, Jesus, saying that the icon of the Jewish culture is going to be destroyed. The idea of the destruction of the temple probably felt like the end of the world to them. Imagine the dismay if a major political figure said that the American flag was going to crumble to pieces, not just one American flag, but all American flags. It would be the destruction of a symbol, an icon, it would in some ways represent the destruction of the nation. And that is what the disciples want to know about. It would seem to be their story as a people coming to an end.

But, the disciples are focused on the wrong part of the story. And Jesus tries to tell them that. The story of the people of Israel will continue on long after the temple is destroyed. Jesus tries to remind them to not to go chasing after prestige, material things, and power. He tries to remind them of the real story, the full story, the fully real story of God transforming the world. That God has been transforming the world in a process of death and resurrection, in a process of forgiveness and sanctification, in a process of redeeming love. Through every story of pain and suffering and confusion in the bible, the Israelites wandering, Jerusalem destroyed and everyone being exiled, being conquered by the Roman Empire, God has been present and followed through on the promise to look after and care for His people. And the disciples are part of that story. Jesus tells them to stay true, to stay the course, because suffering is common to every age of humanity and that is no reason to despair. God is still at work in the world.

But for the disciples, anxiety and uncertainty were getting in the way. They wanted to be sure about what they thought was coming. When will Jesus overthrow the current Jewish and Roman rule and reign? How will we know, Jesus? What signs will there be so that we know, so that we are completely sure, and right, and ready? 

Jesus mentions false leaders, wars, earthquakes, and famines as things that distracted the disciples from the real story and rightfully so! How often do we become focused on the wrong parts of our stories? We forget that God is at work in our lives and transforming us and the world around us. We are immensely good at distracting ourselves with false promises, shiny things, new technology, quick laughs... even today we distract ourselves with the same old things: false leaders, wars, earthquakes, and famines! The United States has been involved in wars in every decade since its founding. We have had earthquakes every year, in fact every day since Jesus uttered these words, so much so that the National Earthquake Information Center locates about 50 earthquakes each day. And there are 15.3 million children in the US alone in food insecure homes. And then we have events like school shootings and those attacks in Beirut and Paris this week. Sorrowful horrors. They are all big deals. They make us question and wonder about our safety and the state of the world. But they still aren't the most important part of the story going on in the world right now. 

The most important part of the story going on right now is that God is transforming the world and God is calling us to be a part of the transformation. We can be a real part of God's transforming work in the world by following Jesus through all the conflicts, persecutions, and troubles. The world NEEDS this transformation. We are not perfect, we are not yet fully healed and sinless. Transformation always comes with detractors, naysayers. Haters gonna hate, as hip hop reminds us. But there has to be a clearing out of things that have not been found useful or good to make way for new good things to come. Transformation is difficult. It comes with anxiety and uncertainty. It comes with a stepping out in faith and trust in God. It comes with an eye on the goal and an eye on the process. Transformation comes with REAL conversations, discernment, and prayer about what is truly going on in our midst. 

We are being transformed as individuals and as a community. We are being transformed into the kingdom of God. We go through all the stages of life, death, and resurrection, in our transformation, and we never look exactly the same as we did in the beginning. It is not a circle. Our transformation both individually and communally builds up the kingdom of God. Our individual transformations affects the whole because we are one body in Christ. And because we are one body, even those we do not recognize or those we think of as strangers are a part of God's redeeming work.

We gather together each week to remember the focus, the important part, to remember the whole story. That God created us and loved us so much he sent His Son to redeem us and the Holy Spirit to sustain and transforming the world into the kingdom of heaven.

God is transforming the world through death and resurrection. Are you part of God's transformation of the world or are you holding back?

Amen.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Many Waters

With the junction of performing my first baptism and the rain we have been experiencing in Houston lately, I've been thinking about the place of water in our lives. There are a lot of stories in the Bible that deal with water and the Thanksgiving over the Water prayer from the Episcopal baptism service in the BCP highlights a few of them: creation, the passage through the Red Sea, and Jesus' baptism. But there are many many more, fishing stories, storm stories, rain and floods, Noah, Jonah, Peter walking on water, Paul being shipwrecked, the list goes on. Water has a huge place in the biblical narrative. I'm a huge fan of the writings of Madeleine L'Engle and one of her children's novels is called Many Waters and its about Noah's family before the flood. But interestingly enough, the title is taken from a verse of scripture not in the Noah story of Genesis. Madeleine highlights a verse from the Song of Solomon:

"Many waters cannot quench love
neither can the floods drown it."
Song of Solomon 8:7

I love this verse. It sounds like simple poetic Hebrew parallelism, the second line restates the first in a different way. Both lines deal in large water images, but I've come to realize that the lines come at the idea in two very different ways. The first line talks about the undeniable thirst that is involved in love - for greater knowledge, greater understanding, greater intimacy. God knows us completely, every vice, virtue, mitochondria, glucose molecule, every brain wave pattern. Yet, despite this infinite and intimate knowledge of us, God remains with us, still watching - with inexplicable sorrow and joy - throughout our lives. As a mother, knowing her child better than anyone else, continues to watch and delight in first and reoccurring experiences she already knows. She knows what it is to walk, but when her child does so for the first time, it is a wondrously new thing. God loves us with a thirst that cannot be quenched.

The second line speaks of an endurance and strength that cannot be swept away or drowned. Nothing can destroy love in its purity. As the apostle Paul says, "For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:38-39) Even when we stray far a field from  - when we run and deny and fight against and are indifferent to - this God who created us, God's love endures.

Thus together, love is a thirsty endurance, an enduring thirst. "A longing for the reunion of the separated," as theologian Paul Tillich says. For "many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it." Water is an amazingly powerful part of our universe, and so is love.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

All the things on the Table

Proper 22 B
4 October 2015
Eternal God, heavenly Father, we are grateful for all the gifts you have given us, even when those gifts are seen as weakness, for in you weakness is turned to strength and darkness is turned to light, with Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen. 

One of my coping mechanisms when I feel overwhelmed is to clear off a wide flat surface, my dining room table for instance, and put down all the things I feel overwhelmed about on it. I write sticky notes of what my worries are and I put them on the table as well. I spread everything out so that I can see it and find ways to move forward. As I was thinking about this morning, I got a little overwhelmed. So, I want you to envision a clean table with me. 

First, today is St. Francis of Assisi day and later we will be blessing the pets of the parish. We will put a little statute of St. Francis on our table. Second, today is part of our stewardship campaign. Put that pledge card on the table. Third, today is/was our first day of breakfast and packing backpacks for Bayou City Blessings in a Backpack. Let’s put a bag of food there too. Fourth and fifth, Mark’s gospel: questions of divorce and people bringing children to Jesus. Here are some rings for the table and a children’s toy. 

I wonder what you make of all of this. I’ll tell you what stands out to me. 

All of this involves vulnerability. Let me show you. 

St. Francis. Do you know the story of St. Francis? Francis of Assisi was the son of a rich merchant. He lived the rich kid life for a long while, but after fighting in a local war, spending a year in a dungeon, and getting malaria, his life had changed. He started having experiences that opened his heart and mind to God. He totally gave up material goods. He started the Franciscan order and it grew quickly but he lost control of it just as quickly because his strict understanding of absolute poverty was hard to maintain. He is one of the most beloved saints in the canon and yet pretty much the least intentionally imitated. What strikes me about the issue of absolute poverty is the extremely vulnerable position one is left in. With absolutely nothing but the clothes on one's back and the bowl one drinks from and eats from and begs with, one is an easy target for starvation and danger from the elements and one is hardly able to help many people, since most people want money. But Francis’ vulnerability was also his strength. He was a powerful voice in the church, speaking for those Jesus asks us to care for, the poor, the hungry, the oppressed, and the sick. 

The pledge card. Our stewardship campaign. The stewardship campaign is the church’s way of raising money to continue the programs and missions of the church. In order to continue services, visiting each other in times of need, sharing the good news through bible studies, and fellowship, we pay to operate the buildings of our campus. The church has the same mind when it comes to money as most of us. We try to store up enough to pay the bills each month and be able to support the ministries that build the kingdom of God on earth today. By giving money, time, and energy in stewardship, in service, and in prayer, we build up the strength of our community. By thanking God through sharing our gifts with each other, we open ourselves up to be vulnerable, bringing to mind questions about whether we will have enough money. Yet, our vulnerability is our strength. We open ourselves up to the community of the church, we invest in Christ’s body, and the mission of the church to the world. 

A bag of food. Each week Bayou City Blessings in Backpack sends 700 children home with a bag of food so that they will not go hungry all weekend. These children live in food deserts, where food is scarce and not always very healthy. All 700 of these children are vulnerable, they look to someone outside of their families and living partners for the very things to sustain them. Yet, their vulnerability is also a strength. Without this vulnerability, we would not be in community with them. We have the chance to share our love with them and encourage them as they encourage us. Their vulnerability reminds us of our own vulnerabilities and that is a strength.  We know that we are all together broken sinners in need of God. Our real strength comes from God, through grace, not of our own power.

What do we have next? Rings. In the gospel passage this morning, Jesus gets questioned about divorce. There are a million stated reasons people get divorced and marriages do not work. However, Jesus points to the hardness of our hearts. Our inability to be vulnerable with each other. To communicate what is really going on within us, our needs, our expectations, and our feelings. Jesus is surprisingly egalitarian for the times, stating that a woman could divorce her husband, which wasn't the custom at the time, but what I see Jesus really pointing to is the issue of vulnerability. While I am not married, I have observed plenty of people around me who are. Becoming one flesh is about being able to be vulnerable and open with each other. Yet even in marriage, we can build walls around our hearts so that we are not hurt by loving the people closest to us in our lives. It is scary to be vulnerable and we can become unwilling to open ourselves to knowing another’s sins and taking responsibility for our own feelings. When we break down the walls, when we admit how we feel, or how we have been hurt, we open ourselves to vulnerability. Yet, our openness is a strength. By opening ourselves to each other, we are better able to communicate, to recognize the truth, and to find more joy in our lives together. 

Last but not least, we have the children. In the second part of the gospel passage this morning, Jesus becomes indignant about the disciples stopping children from coming to him. The disciples do not think that it is appropriate for children to be brought to Jesus. It doesn’t fit their picture of their Messiah King. But all those children are vulnerable. And he meets that vulnerability with knowledge and appropriate love.  The children come because they pushed forward by their parents and so forth, they are not necessarily doing this on their own and they are in a vulnerable position. The disciples are showing the hardness of their hearts in not letting the children come to him. There is a connection between the first and second parts of this passage. The hardness of our hearts, the lack of vulnerability. Children cannot hide their vulnerabilities. Most of the time they don't know any better. They cannot hide the fact that they depend on those around them to provide food, structure, activity, love... And Jesus says they come into the kingdom of heaven. Their vulnerability is their strength. They are willing to accept the love of Jesus quite openly. 

This is what I see on the table. Jesus calling us to break down barriers between each other and be vulnerable. And our vulnerabilities are our strengths. When we break down the walls around us, we open ourselves up to all the pains of the world, being rejected or hurt. Yet, when we break down the walls around us, we also open ourselves up to the light of Christ, the love and grace of God. We open ourselves to each other, we build community and we know that we are loved. This is our strength. This is the hope for our future. Vulnerability. Because by being vulnerable together, we are the one body in Christ. 

Now there is a clear open table in this room. When we bring all our overwhelming worries and concerns and lay them on the Altar, we are vulnerable. Jesus gathers them all up and gives us the bread and wine of life, his own body and blood in communion. What was once weakness has become strength. What was once death has become life. What was once darkness has become light, through the creative power of the Father, the redemptive work of the Son, and the sustaining work of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Sharing the Good News in Crumbs

Eternal God, who calls to us through all the little things, help us to be sharers of your story, help us to follow and share bread crumb trails that point to you, through your Son our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.


Last fall, at our Parish Retreat, we had an activity called the Glow in the Dark Night Hike. I attached glow sticks to the trees and bushes along a circular path near our camp, so that our families could walk in the quiet darkness by following the glow sticks. In society, we have a way of describing this kind of path. Bread crumb trails. The trail is a guide to follow and every little marker is a moment along the way. It comes from the story of Hansel and Gretel. Once upon a time…the story begins, there were two children named Hansel and Gretel. While their fairy tale is rather grim, the pair is famous for their bread crumb trail. They leave a crumb trail for themselves so that they can find their way home as they wander in the woods.

The bread crumb path doesn't work though, because the birds eat the bread crumbs and the children wander around in the woods. This is how they come upon the witch's shack and are hungry enough to eat it. But, we use this label indiscriminately. It doesn’t matter if the bread crumb trail didn’t work for Hansel and Gretel, we use it for any path that come to us in small bits and encounters. Many times we find our lives are series of bread crumb trails. We are on paths of career, family, spirituality. They all come as small bits at a time. There is a normal course, a guide to follow, and each step is a moment along the way. Compared to the length of years, each small three to five minute segment seems so small, and yet many of those small things end up becoming important things. All the little things that made you want to marry your spouse. It started with a little bit of connection. A smile. A comment. And then it builds, a little bit here, a little bit there, until one day you have a whole lot between you.

Every moment, no matter how big or small, changes the course of our lives. This mornings’ gospel reading has two examples of small encounters changing people’s lives. We don’t know if what we see in the Bible is the whole story - but the two encounters this morning took probably all of three to five minutes each. But! In those minutes, a man is opened to a world of sound he never knew before, a woman’s daughter is released from a demon, and Jesus has a new revelation of the scope of God’s mission in the world. That’s a lot to pack into a few minutes!

Let’s dive into what happened.

In the second part of the gospel, Jesus heals a man who is deaf and mute. He takes him aside and opens the man to a whole new world. A little bit of spit and a word, “Ephphatha.” “Be opened.” And this man’s whole world is changed. Being open is a powerful thing. God opening us up is a wondrous opportunity and once we are open, powerful things can happen. The man’s friends asked Jesus to open his ears and mouth. They didn’t really know what would happen. They had heard stories about Jesus, but all they had to go on was faith. They were open to the possibility and they were able to receive the gift. He fulfilled their request, but he also opened them all up to something else. Something new. God present with them. The man cannot keep silent about it. The crowds, the man who was healed, his friends, they cannot keep silent about this moment, this small encounter.

The woman in the first part of this morning’s gospel takes a risk with Jesus. She desperately needs some help with her daughter and she believes that Jesus can release her daughter from a demon. However, her actions go against all social conventions. Jesus, a Jewish man, should not be talking with a Syrophoenician woman. But she takes the risk anyway. She begs him to heal her daughter. And he does. Surprisingly, the one who is most opened in this story is not the woman or her daughter, but Jesus. At first, he does not want to help this woman. But he listens long enough to recognize her faith and change his mind.

It’s an awesome story. We think so much of Jesus being God made man, knowing everything, that its amazing to have a story in which we get to watch him change his mind. And it’s a story that seminarians and theologians love to discuss. God changing God’s mind. Yet, this story is most impressive because of the way this small encounter changes who gets to hear the good news of God’s love and forgiveness. God’s gifts are for everyone. No exceptions.

All because of a small open encounter.

When we build relationships with people, there is a process of trust which grows over time. Most of us open ourselves up fairly slowly. Not showing new people everything about ourselves all at once. We build our relationship with God in this same way. When we are little, we talk to God through simple prayers. As we grow older, we learn how to pray in different ways, we learn more about God and what He has done for us.

All three major players in this passage had a small encounter with someone new which opened up their lives in some way. But they aren’t the only ones. The disciples and the crowds that saw these miracles also were changed because of these events. And when Jesus then sent them out to share the story, share the good news, they had experience with the idea that God’s gift was for everyone. They knew that what they needed was to have small, real, encounters in which they shared their story. And we know that the disciples did their job. We are in the chain of God encounters in the world. The people the disciples met and shared with became the people who passed along the stories, all the way to us. And now, we are those agents, sharing our stories of encounters with God. We share the gospel in what we do or say. And we don’t always do it all at once. We don’t have to drop the whole story on someone at once – who can handle it all of it at once? We share crumbs along the way. I encourage you in this endeavor. Leave crumbs behind you and around you. We build relationships which change our lives through small everyday encounters. We don’t need large all encompassing moments to change our lives. Small encounters with the Gospel, with Jesus, with each other, can change our lives for the better.

AMEN.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Healing Relationships

28 July 2015
Proper 8B

O God, the foundation of the world rests in you; grant us a firm foundation in all our relationships, encourage our hope and faith in you, and wrap us in your familial love, through the presence of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Last summer I attended my cousin’s wedding. Now my cousin has unfortunately been very sick off and on most of her life. She has had normal illnesses, cancer, and some uncommon ones, like Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. About every six months, she ends up being hospitalized for something. During the wedding, during the exchange of vows, her very soon to be husband started giggling. “For better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, giggle… to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death.” When he started giggling, we all started giggling. Someday we all hope that he will know what life with my cousin is like when she is healthy. 
Good, loving relationships are healing. There is healing in relationships, especially healthy relationships. While my cousin has still not been terribly healthy in the last year, her spirit and her ability to endure her illnesses has become better because of her new healthy family relationship. Being part of a family, especially one in which you are known to be loved, can be tremendously healing. 
The Gospel passage from Mark this week is rhetorically very well set up. Mark sets forth two moments of mockery to highlight relationships that are not quite healthy and in turn highlights two moments of joy in healthy relationships. He presents two stories of restoration of family, encouragement of faith, and support of hope founded in God.
The moments of mockery, cynicism from the world, are immediately overturned by Jesus restoring relationships, empowering the faith and hope that enabled the people in the story to try for what they were doing. In the first part of the story, the disciples mock Jesus by asking him about who is touching him in a crowd. “And his disciples said to him, "You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, `Who touched me?'" They seem to think that this is a silly question, there are lots of people touching Jesus at the time. However, when the woman comes forward and tells Jesus the whole truth, he lifts up her faith and calls her daughter. He shares with everyone her place in the kingdom of heaven as a daughter. He restores her relationship in society by giving her a place and a role. Not only has she been physically healed in this encounter with Jesus, her faith has been encouraged, her relationships and place in life have been restored. 
In the second story, the moment of mockery is when the professional mourners simply laugh at Jesus when he says that the girl is not dead but asleep. However, Jesus does not give into the cynicism of the world. He takes her hand, calls her to stand up, and restores her to life and her family. I can only imagine the joy of her parents when their daughter is restored to them. As before, not only is she physically healed of whatever caused her to be sick to death, but she is also restored to her loving relationships with her family. 
In Mark's gospel, Jesus has been walking around the countryside, teaching his followers about the kingdom of God, and now he is showing how it works. Both of these events are miraculous in the lives of the women. One has finally been cured, the other one raised from the dead. And both stories are restorations of relationships. Good, loving relationships are healing.
One way in which we can be in good, loving relationships is through our beliefs. The kingdom of heaven is a family. We call ourselves a church family for a reason. God calls us his sons and daughters. He loves us, he heals us, he wraps his arms around us, he gives us the ability to make our own choices and then sits with us through the consequences and saves us from ourselves. God, in Jesus, has made us family. In the first part of the gospel passage, Jesus calls the woman, names her as, “Daughter.” We are related to each other in Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul in his letters addresses the communities as brothers and sisters. In the Old Testament, God is referred to in a familial way. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of a family, our family. Our ancestors. In Hebrew, names have meaning, and interestingly in meaning, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob means the God of a multitude, of laughter, of overturning the systems of the world. All of which we see at work in our passage in Mark today. Jesus cares for the multitude of people around him, Jesus brings joyous laugher in healing the woman and the girl, and in doing so overturns the system of the world which mocks him and does not believe him. 
There are many ways the kingdom of heaven is at work in our midst through our relationships. I am reminded of the book, The Help, that was popular a few years ago. What truly starts the whole book off is the feelings that Skeeter has for her household’s former maid, Constantine. Constantine had been fired while Skeeter was off at college and no one would tell Skeeter why. But Skeeter loved Constantine, felt her to be part of her emotional family and tried to find out the whole story. Along the way, she was able to give a voice and healing to many household maids in the community through writing a book about their stories and their experiences. The good, loving relationship that Skeeter had with Constantine is the catalyst for healing for many other women and an overturning of the unhealthy relationships that had ruled the community.
Jesus offered both woman in the gospel passage this morning this kind of healing relationship with him and they both accepted the opportunity. Jesus comes to us, offering a loving relationship with the power to heal us, physically, emotionally, spiritually. And when we accept a relationship with Jesus, we are better able to have those kinds of relationships with each other. When we are in loving relationship with God, we can be in loving relationship with other people. We can lift them up in prayer, with dignity, be open to listening deeply to their stories and experiences, and to bringing reconciliation to unfortunate divides. 
Good, loving relationships are healing. Jesus offers us such a relationship with him. I hope we are all open enough to take a chance on a good, loving, healing relationship with Jesus.
Amen.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Surrounded by Storms

21 June 2015
Proper 7B
Heavenly Father, in whom darkness is light and the storms of life calm, help us to remember your presence in our daily lives, give us the peace that comes from knowing you are at work, and show us how we may shine with your grace, through your Son Jesus Christ. Amen. 
We've all been through scary situations in life. Met with some scary people. Faced the unknown in ways we would rather not have done at all. Fisherman, in particular, seem to be a group that take risks. It might just be their large tails/tales, which always seem to get bigger after the fact. I am reminded of that movie, the Perfect Storm. Or even the Titanic. Being out on the sea is putting yourself into the unknown. We do not control the wind, the water, the waves, the sea, and all its power. 
This last week, we had a little taste of this with the tropical storm that passed through. In some places it was worse than expected. In some places it was much better. We cannot ever know.  There is a reason that the sea is the metaphor for chaos in much of the Bible. The waters of chaos is what the spirit hovers over in the beginning of creation. God recreates the world through a massive storm in the story of Noah. The people of Israel pass through water on their way out of Egypt. These are just a few of the stories from the Bible where death and new life happens through water. 
Storms have a tendency to come up unexpectedly, they turn things upside down, they change the way life moves. I will never know how long any of the disciples were fisherman before Jesus called them to follow him, but I assume most of them had been through a few good storms on the windy Galilee before joining up with Jesus. How many storms had been weathered by these men in their lifetimes? I tried to put myself in the disciple's shoes as I was reflecting on this passage. I got out my pictures of the Sea of Galilee and the first century boats that fished the sea. Thought about the storms I have been through with the lightning and thunder and waves and I thought about the position the disciples were in. I don't know if this was a particularly bad storm, however, these seasoned fisherman all of a sudden don't know how to respond to the storm. It's almost as if because Jesus is now with them, they weren't expecting any storms.
And yet, there they are. Stuck between a storm, all around them, and God, in the guise of a human being, asleep on their boat floor. They are in a scary position. 
I had to wonder. What is scarier: a storm or God? The story implies that the disciples were afraid of the storm, but which is really scarier? A storm or God?
I know what a storm can do. I remember walking around my grandmother's Jersey shore hometown a couple weeks after Hurricane Sandy a few years ago. Fishing boats up in the air stuck between houses. I remember doing Hurricane Katrina clean up in Mississippi and what struck me most was the empty foundations along the shore. No need for clean up there, everything was already gone. Many of you have stories of hurricanes. Of the winds and rain and flooding, broken trees, no electricity, lack of clean water. Storms can be disastrously messy. 
But I don't know the full extent of what God can do. God can do, well... pretty much anything. The bible is full of wild stories about the power of God. 
That is downright scary.
Jesus asks them when they wake him up: “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” Why are you afraid? We don't have an answer from them in the story. The story continues with the disciples in awe of Jesus. I think that might be the moment they start to realize that God might be more scary than a storm. 
Mark writes his gospel for a community that was being persecuted. A community that was probably scared to death of the overwhelming forces of the surrounding society. They felt the waves of discrimination, the wind of nasty comments, the fear of what might happen as they venture out, the longing to get back to dry safe land. This is a story to instill faith and trust and awe. But, this story isn't comforting in the normal sense at all. Jesus takes control and changes all our understandings of order and security. We can feel the fear and awe of the disciples as they realize what Jesus can do and wonder about his identity. They are opening themselves to God in the midst of their lives, and they are losing control. When we open our hearts to Jesus, we lose control of where we might go or what we might do. The disciples had one idea of what they were doing by following Jesus. And for some of them, they kept that idea with them for a long time. But for some of them, Jesus may have calmed the storm, calmed the wind and waves, but I think he just rocked their boats. 
Jesus asks them, why are they afraid. Jesus is with them in the midst of that, and every, storm. Asking the question in some ways is the same as saying, do not be afraid. As human beings, we may be more comforted by the phrase, "do not be afraid," but sometimes we don't listen to comforting phrases. Sometimes it takes what seems to be a snappy question to really get through all our anxiety. 
Why are you afraid? Well... 
The question forces the disciples, and us, to examine our assumptions. To examine what is really in control in our lives. To examine what the big picture really is. Are we going along being rocked by the storms in our lives, or are we following the true light of Christ? The question helps us realize that we do not need to be afraid of the storms. 
This is one of the reoccurring messages of the gospel. "Do not be afraid" is basically the first and last phrase of the gospel message. Jesus' life on earth starts with the angel coming to Mary and saying, "Do not be afraid." The disciples are met at the empty tomb by the angels saying, "Do not be afraid."
Some Christians seem to think that because we have Jesus in our lives, in our boats, we will never face storms. Yet, that is not true. We will face storms. Having Jesus in our lives gives us the courage and the love to face those storms, knowing that we are not alone. 
No matter what the storm is in our lives. Be it physical, emotional, spiritual. Be it brokenness, loss, grief, struggle. Our storms are not met alone. Jesus stands with us. Sometimes calming the storm. Sometimes calming us. Why are you afraid? There is nothing of which to be afraid. God is with us.
Amen.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Nicodemus's Questions

31 May 2015

O God of infinite possibilities, you have revealed yourself in so many ways. Help us to see you in your work of recreating the world in love, justice, and peace, through your Son Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I love to ask questions. When I went to college my father looked at me and said, “I’m so glad I can finally pay someone else to answer all your questions.” Apparently I asked him a few too many questions as a kid. We all know those children, the little ones that wander around asking why every time you say something. After only a little while, How? And Why? Become the worst two words in the history of the English language. 

Some questions come about simply through curiosity. We want to know how or why something is the way it is. Some are simply practical. What time should we meet? Where would you like to meet? What do you need from the store? Some are more culturally or politically influenced. Since moving to Texas, the rate at which I have been randomly asked if I have been born again has gone up. Not exponentially, but enough to be noticeable. This morning, we read the story in the bible where this phrase, this cultural influenced question comes from. 

The whole story of Nicodemus is an example of rebirth in the gospel of John. Nicodemus starts as a self-respecting Pharisee. He is mentioned three times in the book. The first time is the story we have today. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night to ask him some questions. I imagine that Nicodemus has already heard Jesus speak or heard about what he is teaching, because he already knows that Jesus has come from God. He has also thought about some of the things Jesus has been sharing. He has questions about it. Sadly we don’t get to hear all of his questions, but the ones he does ask are important. 

Jesus knows why Nicodemus has come to him. Before Nicodemus can manage to ask a question, Jesus tells Nicodemus about the kingdom of God. Being a Pharisee, Nicodemus has been trained to be very literal. In this reply to what Jesus has just told him, he does not disappoint. His first two questions, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Nicodemus does want to see the kingdom of God and Jesus told him he needed to be born again or born from above. The phrase used in the Greek could mean either. No wonder Nicodemus asks how can anyone be born after having grown old. He wants to know if there is any chance for himself. Yet, Jesus already knows the heart of Nicodemus, he knows the rest of the story. 

We don't get to know the full rest of Nicodemus' story, but he does show up in the gospel two more times. His actions both those times show that he has indeed been changed by Jesus’s ministry, he has been born from above. In his second appearance, Nicodemus is in the meeting of the Sanhedrin and he tries a little bit to defend Jesus. They are trying to have Jesus arrested and convicted without going through all the proper legal steps and Nicodemus reminds them that the law requires people to have a hearing before being judged. He is probably hopeful that Jesus will be let go since Jesus is an innocent man. The third and last time that Nicodemus shows up in the story is with Joseph of Arimathea and they prepare Jesus’s body for burial and lay it in a new tomb. Nicodemus follows his laws still, bringing the proper herbs in great quantities, but he honors Jesus by touching his corpse on the day of preparation. Now Nicodemus will be unclean, impure for seven days and unable to fully celebrate the sabbath. Yet, he has come to believe in Jesus and to care for him. Jesus knows Nicodemus’s heart in their first conversation.

Nicodemus’s third question though… If I had three questions I was able to ask Jesus, knowing I would receive answers, I might steal Nicodemus’s third question. Nicodemus asks, "How can these things be?" 

How can these things be?

A very literal question for Nicodemus. Jesus told Nicodemus that he needed to be born of water and Spirit in order to see the kingdom of heaven. And he wants to know how this is possible. Seems very logical to me. Yet, there are deeper movements here. It’s a very broad question without context and with this one question, Jesus answers in a very deep and spiritual way. Jesus tells Nicodemus about health and wholeness, about love so grand as to boggle the mind, about mercy so deep that the whole world might be saved. 

We don’t have any more to this story than what we hear this morning. The book of John moves on into Jesus discussing purification with John the baptists’ disciples. Yet, this conversation packs a punch because at some point in our lives, we all ask this question. How can these things be? 

Christianity seeks to speak to a crazy world. Yet, from the world’s perspective, Christianity is the crazy one. One man, who is part of God, comes into the world to save and redeem all the sin and suffering of billions of people? We proclaim a God who is three in one and one in three. That love will triumph over all the blackest pain in this world. How can that be? 

Nicodemus’s doubt and question is something that ties us all together. We all have questions and things we wonder about. There is an incredulousness of what is going on here. In this room today. The working of the Holy Spirit. The working of the full Trinity. How can Jesus be fully present with us? Yet, we believe that he is. In our community, in our fellowship, in our worship, in the breaking of bread and our prayers. We believe in God who is fully present with each of us every day of our lives.

We do not always need to understand. We feel that we need the answers, but the truth cannot always be understood logically. We speak of things here that we cannot know, we can only believe. We are brought together through our questions, but we are also brought together because Jesus already knows each of our hearts.  It must seem impossible outside of these walls. Yet, we are sent forth from this building to proclaim the impossible. There are many mysteries, but we know that nothing is impossible with God. God loves us so much that God gave his only Son so that we might all have eternal life. He does more than we can ever imagine. Jesus has redeemed all our sins and forgiven us. Nothing is impossible with God. And for that, we say, Thanks be to God. 

Amen. 

Holy Spirit Episcopal School Graduation Eucharist

28 May 2015

O Eternal God, who helps us move from one place in our lives to another, bless our graduates this day as they move forward into a new place in their lives. Grant to all of us the knowledge that we can trust you to be with us wherever we go, through your holy Name we pray. Amen. 

There is a book called, All I really need to know I learned in Kindergarten by Robert Fulghum. It is a book of essays, sermons, and stories. One of the essays takes lessons we all learn in kindergarten and applies them to grown up life. One of those lessons is, “Hold hands and stick together.” Most of us know this rule under the guise of the Buddy system. For many of us in the room, the buddy system is a natural part of our day to day lives. Each of us has to work together with the other students in our classes or other adults on our teams to safely complete our projects. A great example is last week's Olympic Day or chapel buddies. Our younger students each had an older student as their buddy. Each helped the other and in the case of Olympic day worked together to compete in the games of the day. 

This idea of having a buddy to help you work and be safe is really really old. One of the early agricultural inventions was called a yoke. (More than five thousand years ago). It is made of wood usually and attaches across the necks or shoulders of two animals, like oxen or donkeys. The yoke allows the farmers to have more than one animal pulling plows or carts. Imagine with me a wooden cart. It has four wheels and two long arms in front where someone could hold on to it and pull it. In that cart are all sorts of heavy things. Rocks, weights, and logs. These are things a farmer would not want in his field when he was trying to plant seeds. But when he goes to push or pull the cart, its too heavy. So, he goes and gets his ox and uses a harness to connect the ox to the cart. But the ox cannot go anywhere, the cart is still too heavy. So the farmer gets another ox and uses a yoke to attach the two ox together. Now, the oxen can pull the cart out of the field so the farmer can do his work. The yoke allows for more power, two animals have more strength than one, and for more stability. Another wonderful thing about yokes are that they allow farmers to train new animals by matching them up with older animals that know what to do. The help each other and work together to complete their work. Kind of like our buddy system of Olympic Day. 

The buddy system works for us as people because we are community people. We live in communities called families, we work with other people, we join groups such as scouts, or sports teams in order to enjoy and play together. God created people as community beings. God does not expect us to live our lives alone. We are created to be in relationship, with each other and with God. In the gospel reading from Matthew today, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” This passage is about us being in relationship with Jesus, being in community with God. 

Jesus invites us to come to him. He invites all of us who are weary or carrying heavy burdens. That means all of us. We all have to carry things we don't want to carry. We all have to deal with things we don't want to have to deal with. Things we don't want to do. Homework, chores, moving, growing up, changing, making decisions, being responsible for ourselves and for others. All those things can weigh on us and make us feel very heavy. Perhaps what you are carrying today is the anticipation, the questions about the unknown of what is ahead, going to high school. But, Jesus invites us to come to him. It doesn't matter when we hear the invitation or when we answer it. We are always welcome to come to Jesus with our burdens, even if we have never done so before in our lives. Jesus will always be waiting for us to come. And that's not all. Jesus says come to me, and I will give you rest. Come to me with your burdens and I will give you rest. Isn't that what we all want? Rest? The rest that Jesus is talking about is the rest from all the questions and doubts, all the should have's, could have's, would have's. Rest from all the other people's expectations that drive us crazy. We come to this kind of rest in prayer. In giving over our burdens to Jesus. By bringing Jesus everything and laying it in his lap. We set everything down for Jesus and ourselves to see. We do this, but that doesn't mean all those things simply vanish. It means that we do not have to take care of those things by ourselves. The next thing Jesus says is, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.” As I said before, a yoke brings two animals together. When two animals work together the job is easier. The burden is lighter. A yoke also allows younger animals to learn from older animals. We could think about each of us being in a yoke with Jesus. If we took Jesus's yoke, we would never be alone. We are never pulling the full weight of what is happening by ourselves. Whatever it is, confusion, doubt, worries, pain, we always know that God is pulling along with us. Like oxen that are yoked together and pulling a cart full of heavy stuff, we have a partner in Jesus, who helps us with the heavy stuff that we are carrying. When we are working together with Jesus it is like those young animals that are learning from the older animals. We learn from Jesus, we learn his ways, and how to follow his path. Together, carrying our burdens is much easier to do than if we were all on our own. While we may not be carrying the same things around our whole lives, there are always things we carry. Moving on in life is exciting! And moving on means new possibilities, new opportunities, but also new worries. It may seem that everything is changing, but there are always some constants, some things that stay the same. Jesus being with you is a constant. Jesus will always be ready to help you with whatever you are carrying. 

Graduates, today is an exciting day. Moving on is exciting! Graduation day. Not the first time you have graduated from one place in your life to another, and neither will it be the last. Each of us on our journeys go through many different places in life. Here, you have accomplished much with God's love, care, and help, along with the help of your teachers and parents. Here you have done great things, learned important lessons, served the community, and created magnificent art. Where you are going, high school, you will have opportunities to build on what you have accomplished here. But there will be a few changes. No longer will you have school-appointed buddies. You may be going where you do not know anyone else. But you will find friends who will support you. No longer will you have assigned buddies, but you get to choose who will be your buddies to help you on the journey. You are going where there are many more options for activities to do than here. You are going places where new classes will beckon, decisions will become harder to figure out, but you do not go alone. God is going with you. No matter where you go, God will be there with you. You can always take your burdens to Jesus and have him help you carry them. Jesus will give you the gift of rest and help you along the way.

We give thanks and celebrate the life that we have had together in this place. We look forward to the lives that you will have going forward. I wonder what they will be like, and you may wonder what they may be like, but do not worry. God is going with you. 

Amen.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Pruning: A Spiritual Practice

God of the vineyard,
you always stand ready to prune the branches in each of us
that have withered and are useless.
You clip, trim, snip and cut back
till we have more healthy growth.
May we bloom and blossom,
precious to our true vine,
Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God for ever and ever. Amen
(preachingtip.com)

Merry May to you all!

May is always a month of changes. The end of the school year, the end of the church program year. The beginning of summer break. Up north it was usually the month we planted vegetables. As a child helping my mom in the garden, I would get very excited about the new spouts and shoots as the plants started growing. One thing I didn't understand was the reason we would cut certain plants back after they just started growing. It seemed mean almost, to cut them off when they had just started growing.  However, my mom taught me about pruning. 

Pruning is the specific removal of a part of a plant in order for new or better growth. Reasons to prune plants include dead part removal, shaping, improving or maintaining health, reducing risks, preparing plants for being moved, and both harvesting and increasing the yield or quality of flowers and fruits. The practice entails targeted removal of diseased, damaged, dead, non-productive, structurally unsound, or otherwise unwanted tissue from crop and landscape plants. (Paraphrased from Wikipedia.)

Most of you probably have already had this lesson in life and know the benefits of pruning in your gardens or lawns. Yet, it's one thing to think about pruning in a garden and another to think about pruning yourself or as a spiritual practice. All of those reasons listed, dead part removal, shaping, improving health, reducing risks, preparation for moving, increasing the quantity or quality of fruit are all reasons we need to practice pruning in ourselves. All reasons that God practices pruning among his people, and has done so for centuries.

The gospel reading today opens with Jesus exclaiming, I am the true vine, and my father is the vine grower. Jesus uses an old metaphor from the prophets and gives it a new spin, a new idea, uses it in a new way. Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Hosea all use the vine metaphor to talk about Israel or the Israelites. 

Jeremiah 2:21;
Yet I planted you as a choice vine,
   from the purest stock.
How then did you turn degenerate
   and become a wild vine?

Ezekiel 15:6;
 Therefore thus says the Lord God: Like the wood of the vine among the trees of the forest, which I have given to the fire for fuel, so I will give up the inhabitants of Jerusalem.

Hosea 10:1
Israel is a luxuriant vine
   that yields its fruit.
The more his fruit increased
   the more altars he built;
as his country improved,
   he improved his pillars.

Jesus takes this metaphor and reinterprets the scriptures and refocuses the metaphor. He sets up a relationship, in which Jesus, God, and us are all at work. We are the branches which grow off of Jesus and bear fruit. Jesus is the vine that God has planted and which God tends. We do not know the whole purpose or the plan, we don't always know what fruit we are bearing, yet we have a place in relationship and when we grounded in those relationships we are able to bear good fruit. (For a fully Trinitarian view, you can think of the Holy Spirit as the water which God gives as nourishment and follows though Jesus the vine into us as the branches.)

In this relationship, God's pruning can be very difficulty of bear, yet, it is necessary. Jesus talks about being cleansed or pruned by his Word, by his teaching. Sometimes we have parts of us that need to be pruned. Jesus' teaching through the parables and stories speak to us of things that need changing, especially the acceptance of God's love for us. The attitudes that are of and from God. We know those attitudes, those habits, joy, peace, love, faith, trust, hope. We also know the attitudes that keep us away from the love of God, those things which need to be pruned. Entitlement, jealousy, impatience, apathy, indifference. We know the people in our lives that encourage us to do bad things, the people who destroy our self esteem, the people who tell us we are unloveable. These are the kinds of things which are so difficult to let go, but we are so much better off after they are gone. Communities need pruning too, triangulation, gossip, scapegoating, shunning, not welcoming others in. Many communities suffer from these things and the lack the growth that would come from good pruning. Jesus asks his disciples to focus on abiding in him, living out what comes from Jesus. Letting Jesus be the source and power. Jesus wants us to bear good fruit. 

The theme of the Easter season is resurrection. Taking something dead, something old, something not worth anything, and making it new. The resurrection theme comes to light in this passage. Through the new growth and life that comes from abiding and living fully into our understanding of being the branches of Jesus. 

Pruning. The point is resurrection. We cut things off to allow more growth. Sometimes such cutting is very painful. The cuts have not always seem helpful, or necessary, but perhaps God has something new in mind, perhaps God is using the new space to call us into new growth. You have fruit to bear. As a community, we have fruit to bear. We are part of God's garden and we need some pruning. God is at work among us, let us be open to God work.


Trust the pruning process. God is in charge of the vine and we are the branches. We are embraced by God's loving care. We are going through things here as a community, along with things personally that need pruning or need the trust that God will grow in the right time. 

Trust the gardener. Trust God. We will be a beautiful garden.

Amen.  

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Peace like Peanut Butter - it sticks with you as you go

O God of peace, you bring tranquility into our conflicted lives. You raised Jesus from the still tomb; yet we continue to be entombed behind the closed locked doors of our fear. Open wide our doors and windows to the fresh air of new life. As Jesus showed his disciples his hands and feet, may we show ours to those waiting for our love. We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen
 
Shalom aleichem. Assalam alaykum. Peace be with you.
 
What do you think of when you think about peace? Lack of war? Lack of stress?
I would like you to close your eyes for a moment
think about your favorite place to relax.
Remind yourself of how you feel when you are there.
The happiness,
the undisturbed feeling.
The beach,
the mountains,
the lake.
The vacation home,
the smells,
the wind in your hair,
let your muscles go for a moment ...
relax
 
Now if you'll rejoin me and return to this room.
 
Was that peace?
In some ways, it was peace. But its not the kind of peace that Jesus speaks of when he speaks with his disciples. In an interesting situation, locked in from the inside, hiding, tense, and afraid, Jesus walks among the disciples and offers them peace. A normal greeting for the culture, but one with a little bit of situational irony. They wish they had some peace. But they are not feeling peaceful. They are sad, grief torn, confused. They are feeling alone. The loneliness that comes after the person they followed and put their hopes in has walked out of their existence, seemingly never to be seen again. But we know this is not the end of the story. The disciples, for all their fear, do not stay in this room forever. In this great resurrection story, Jesus fills them with his peace and with the Holy Spirit. They do not respond right away, we find them in the same place the next week. But they do respond, they don't stay locked up forever.
 
A couple of months ago, when we were preparing for my ordination to the priesthood, I had a total liturgical geek moment when I was reviewing the service plan. I realized that the first official act of my priesthood would be sharing the gift of peace, sharing the gift of God's peace that I have been given, with you. There is that line in Matthew where Jesus says, go make peace with your brother before you make your offering. Liturgically, we do the same thing. We hear the words of the bible, we reflect (hopefully) on them in the sermon, we pray for the things that come out of that reflection in the prayers of the people, we confess our sins, and having been reminded of the abundant forgiveness of God, we are asked to share that peace with everyone around us, and then! we make our offering, in money, bread, wine, to God, as a response to the forgiveness and peace that we have been given. And we share all that has been offered in the act of communion with the community of peace we now have in the room, as Jesus did. We don't always take enough time during the peace to actually make peace with the fellow members of our parish with whom we have fought, but that is the purpose. In a ritual sense and in a practical sense. Its not just about giving everyone near you a hug or handshake, its about saying, we have just been forgiven by God of our sins and now we forgive each other. Its a wonderful moment.  The Christians who put together our worship service knew what they were doing. We are here to worship God, but there is an arc, a movement of the service which also teaches and moves us. There is a reason things are in the order they are in. The service hinges on the peace, we move, through the peace that is within because that knowledge, that faith, allows us to come to the rail for communion, knowing that we are not worthy, but that it does not matter. God loves us and grants us the peace to be courageous.
 
Peace in the midst of tension is not the peace of standing on the sea shore or on the mountain trail or sitting in your bathtub. God's peace is not the peace of 'yes, I've been on vacation for a week and I have another week to go.' A wonderful peace that is, but that is not God's peace. God's peace is being able to stand in the midst of tension and say, yes, you are a human being and despite all the tension and anger and stress, I am going to treat you like a beloved child of God. I am going to look into your eyes and know that you are more than the problem at hand. That is peace of God. The peace of God is a peace that sticks to your bones, even when bad things are piled all around. A peace that endures and at the end of the day reminds you that God created and it is good. A peace that allows you to breathe deeply and remember that God loves you. That peace doesn't look for conflict, but it doesn't run away from it either. Peace in the midst of the doubt, confusion, and tension we live with. Each of us has moments, maybe many moments, when we feel trapped by our fears, by our tensions. The only peace in that moment is the peace of knowing God's grace. Knowing God's love for us. This fills us with a peace that stays with us throughout all the tension, or conflict, or fear.


 We don't sit in a locked room, but we sit locked inside of our selves. Wondering what will happen next, what is going on, why we feel frustrated. Yet, Jesus comes into our midst this Sunday morning saying, peace be with you. Not the peace of the beach, not the peace of the mountain forest, the peace which passes all understanding. The peace that walks through seas on dry ground, the peace that allows us to walk the path set before us even though we know it will be hard and will be frustrating. The peace that allows us to walk with our community in respect, no matter how much of a mess we are. With peace from Jesus, we are encouraged to step outside of our locked doors. To open ourselves up to the forces outside of ourselves, despite the risks, despite the pain, despite the vulnerability. We are the disciples in the world being sent. Jesus gives us the peace that allows us to be sent, to go. We cannot sit locked inside ourselves any longer. It may not happen right away, we may find ourselves in the same mental and emotional place next week, as the disciples did. But we WILL also come to know the peace of God. Jesus fills us with peace and sends us out. We drink in the peace that we have been given and we know that we are sent into the world to proclaim this good news.
 
Jesus walks among us, speaking to us: "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you."

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Pilgrim - God's Sacred Land


I recently wrote an article for the Pilgrim, a newsletter for friends of St. George's College in Jerusalem for those in Australia, New Zealand, and the other Oceanic Islands.

It is a reflection on my experience of the land of Israel, having grown up learning about it, wanting to visit and then getting to see it for the first time in my life.

If you're interested, the article is here.

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Tension in the Room - Maundy Thursday Sermon

"In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move." No, wait, wrong story. "In the beginning, God created." Yes, but that's not tonight's story. "In the beginning the word was with God and the word was God. And the word was made flesh and lived among us." Yes, that is the story we are telling. But, hold on a second, let's go back to the first one. It would seem rather unfortunate to be angry about existence, but many people are angry about their existence. Their lives are not how they would like them to be. For many us, truly there are things about our lives that make us very angry. Or things that we wish wasn't true. We wish that no one we knew had cancer. We wish that war was not as prevalent as it is. We wish that political fights did not strip people of the dignity and acceptance that we might have had. We live in a world where police have to tell parents their children died in tragic ways. And its not just other people. We have problems, addiction, severe illness, trauma, conflict, abuse in our midst. We share the world's worries and the weight of our sins. We live as broken people. Yet, this is the world in which the word was made flesh and lived among us. This is the world in which Jesus' story takes place. 

It would be so easy to skip this week. Holy Week. This part of the story is hard to hear. We have the triumphant entry on Palm Sunday and we have the glorious resurrection on Easter and we could go from mountain top to mountaintop without having to walk this painful valley in between. This week isn't about joy or peace, its about our brokenness, our pain, our sin, the tension. We walk in a world full of tension. We feel it, bunched up in our guts, worrying our hearts, nagging our minds. We have to live through every moment, no matter how good or how bad, and this week is one where every moment is full of tension. 

Tension, as defined in the physical world, is being stretched tight. For most things, it means being stretched tight between two objects. String is tense when it is fully stretched between two holding objects, like on a guitar or on a telephone pole. With only one side, there is no tension. The string is loose and fluid. If we apply this to our feelings, tension is when we are stretched tight between different people, events, emotions, or objects. Palm Sunday is tense because the story goes from one extreme to the other. we go from waving palms to give glory to Jesus entering Jerusalem to hearing the whole passion narrative, where Jesus is betrayed after supper and dies on the cross. There a lot of difference between those two emotional states and that stretches us, fills us with tension. We are filled with emotion on Sunday and we have a few days off in the world to think about it, and then we come back, here to the middle of the story and revisit the hardest parts. 

Tonight we revisit the part of the story we label as Maundy Thursday. There are many tensions in our story of Maundy Thursday. Myself, today, I felt pulled between the joy of working with the school students on wonderful service projects and the obstinate behavior of my phone, which decided not to accept a charger and die today. On a community level, we read The Gospel passage and we are stretched by the tension the disciples are feeling. The tension between the comfort and familiarity of spending Passover together and the knowledge and fear that someone is going to betray Jesus. Can you imagine the tension in the room? Someone is going to betray Jesus? And then, we feel the tension between the disciples knowledge of Jesus as Lord and teacher and their confusion at Jesus as servant while he lovingly washes each of their battered, bruised, and dirty feet. This is the action that speaks into the tension of the room. I love each and everyone of you his action whispers. We feel similar tensions as we gather during this service to remember and celebrate the words that Jesus spoke in lovingly washing each other's feet and sharing communion, sharing The bread and wine, Jesus' body and blood. And then, we watch the the altar get stripped, completely and utterly bare. The imagery leaves us emotionally raw. 

Yet, the real tension of Holy Week, the real tension of Maundy Thursday, the real tension in trying to remember, trying to serve, and trying to love one another, is the tension between being broken and being beloved. We know so well how much each of us is a member of a broken world and a broken people. Yet, this week also reminds us of how much we are a beloved people, a world of beloved people. Beloved to a point where God is willing to let his Son die for us and Jesus is willing to die in mercy for us. Each one of us is the object of affection. "Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another." Jesus loved everyone he met with such compassion and care and overwhelming knowledge and love. That is our example for how to love one another. It is much easier to remember, serve, and love others when we first know that Jesus remembers, serves, and loves us, more than we can imagine. We may be broken people. We may live in a broken world. Yet, we are Jesus's beloved. ​We are beloved people.

The Depths of Good Friday

Blank black space
it almost consumes the eye
daring images to appear
and leaving imprints in the memory
I wallow in the emptiness
feeling grief in waves of silence
there is nothing,

nothing

nothing

it speaks
all is naught and for naught goes
I don't believe
miracles of miracles
transforms our inner knowledge
breathe in the blank black space
breathe in the nothingness of mind
breathe in the lack of emptiness
breathe out the unspoken, the unknown,
the hope of marauding dawn

Monday, March 30, 2015

Mystery Embodied


A poem for Holy Week


the lover cries
the divine spark glows
consuming and empowering
identifying, locating, mystifying
the concepts are never reached
the symbols are encircling
being outward and visible
despite the lack of color
defining love and hunger
beyond the deceptive intelligence
our senses let us know
when what is myst is found

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Healing Power of God's Love

"The Almighty Lord, who is a strong tower to all who put their trust in him, to whom all things in heaven, on earth, and under the earth bow and obey: Be now and evermore your defense, and make you know and feel that the only Name under heaven given for health and salvation is the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen." (BOS)

“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” A very curious statement. Jesus is talking to Nicodemus, a leader among the Pharisees. They are having a discussion about who Jesus is, because Nicodemus knows that no one could do the things that Jesus is doing without being from God, but he cannot quite believe that Jesus is from God. Jesus is trying to help him understand and uses the scriptural story from Numbers to illustrate.

The way to make the parallel between the story from Numbers and Jesus’ own story goes like this: The people’s relationship with God was not quite right, they had forgotten God, so God tries to address the relationship by showing the people that he is faithful, that he loves them, that he cares for them and will heal them. In the Numbers passage, this happens through a serpent. The people were being bitten by poisonous snakes, so God tells Moses to bronze one of the snakes and lift it up in the air so that people could come see it. People who are willing are able to see it and be both physically and spiritually healed. They are made better and their relationship with God is restored through faith. I wonder how many people died after that bronze snake was created, how many people didn't trust God enough to look at a statue. I’m not much of a doctor, but it would take serious faith for me to believe that looking at a bronzed snake would make me well. And alternatively, I wonder how many people did trust what Moses said and were restored. Those that looked had faith in God's healing power. The Israelites that were healed were not only healed from their physical poisoning, they were healed in faith, they remembered what God could and would do for them.

The parallel that Jesus tries to show Nicodemus, is that the relationship with God in their time had also been not quite right and God sent Jesus into the world to show them that God is faithful, loves them and will heal them. Jesus will be lifted up on the cross so that anyone who might see and believe in him will be restored to relationship with God. They will have eternal life. The setup is the same, if we believe and look at the cross, we will be healed. However, it doesn't always seem to be that easy. We know God loves us, in our heads. We know that Jesus died on the cross for us, in our heads. But we don’t always feel wholly healed.

There is a scene in the movie Good Will Hunting where the main character, Will, who is shown throughout the movie to be absolutely brilliant at math, but because of his past has been in serious trouble and works odd jobs, is sitting in the office of his therapist talking about his past. Will doesn't trust anyone, including the therapist. However, the therapist, Sean, played by Robin Williams, is trying to get through to him anyway. In this scene Sean is trying to talk to him about the abuse he took from his foster father in the past. He holds up the thick file of stuff about Will that he has, court records, medical records, state department foster care records, and he drops it on the desk and looks at Will and says, “You see all this. It’s not your fault.” Will shrugs and says, “I know that.” Sean then proceeds to walk towards Will with open arms saying, “It’s not your fault,” seven times. “It’s not your fault.” “I know.”  “It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault.” “Don't mess with me.” “It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault.” During this quiet, open armed, loving assault dismissing Will’s blame on himself, Will starts to break down. The scene ends with them both sobbing and hugging. I find it to be a very powerful and moving scene. Will knew that the abuse he experienced was not his fault in his brain, but in his heart he blamed himself for that abuse. In some corner, he could have done something better, something different. Something about him was not right and he deserved the abuse. The onslaught of being told, “It’s not his fault,” cracks through to his heart in a way never done before and starts the healing process.

I think this is what it would take to get through to us sometimes. We know in our minds that God loves us. We all memorized the words to Jesus loves me when we were small. Yet, they are just words. The Israelites needed the repetition of healing and deeds from God to remember that God was holding them. We need the same kind of repetition, we return to this church, weekly, monthly, yearly, for many reasons, not the least being that we need to be reminded of how much God loves us. Any relationship built on love repeats that expression over and over again. We don't tell people we love them once. Usually, we say it over and over again. We need that repetition, we crave it. We feel hurt when people we normally hear it from do not tell us that they love us. Marriages, significant others, parents, really good friends, we tell each other that we love each other often, because we want to share our appreciation and build our relationship. God tells us, through word and action, how much he loves us often.

Jesus tells Nicodemus in the gospel passage, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Jesus’ healing ministry is not about making people better. It is about making people whole. Being whole includes being in relationship with God.  Through Jesus' teaching, healing, death, and resurrection, we are physically and spiritually healed. We remember the stories of Holy Week each year because they remind us to have faith in the healing power of God’s love.

God so loves us so much that he gave his only Son to heal and save us. God loves you. I can do nothing about it. We build up so much worry in our minds. We need to do this, we need to do that. We are not good enough. This is what Jesus throws out when he cleanses the temples of our bodies. All the things that keep us away from the love of God. God loves you. Right now. Has every moment in the past. Will every moment in the future.

Sometimes we have to hear something over and over again for it to sink in. Not just our minds. We grasp the language and the meaning in the first hearing, but the sense of it, the emotion of it, the reality of it. Being told we are loved is one of those things. Being told you are healed after a long illness or being told you are whole after a debilitating injury. It doesn't matter how much you understand the principle of it if your heart doesn't get it. We only fully know it when it seeps into our hearts.

God loves you.

Have faith in the healing power of God's love.

"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life."

Amen!

Monday, February 16, 2015

Transforming Our Vision

15 February 2015
Transfiguration Sunday

Eternal God, you dazzle us on the mountaintop with the brilliance of your glow. You bring light into our otherwise dark lives. At first we think we are blinded by your brightness, but you lead us down from the mountain. We pray that you may transform our very eyes, transformed eyes to be able to see you shining through everyone we meet. We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen. 

One of the major events on my college campus each year is what is called the Trashion Show. The title comes from the combination of trash and fashion. And it is what it sounds like, a show for people to style the fashion outfits they have made out of trash and recyclables. Like that well known saying, "One man's trash is another man's treasure." Bubble wrap hats, plastic bags braided into skirts, cardboard tank tops. If you watched this year's Grammy's, we are talking about similar outfits to Joy Villa's orange construction fence gown. A full gown just made out of orange construction fencing. The hope is to inspire environmentally conscious art and to get people to see trash in a new light. 

Last week, some of the church office staff went to a workshop called Invite, Welcome, Connect. We will be hearing more about it in the weeks and months to come. One of the things they came back talking excitedly about was a video they had seen during the workshop. It's a Chick-fil-a training video. No matter how you feel about Chick-fil-a, I recommend looking up the video on YouTube/online. I did. The video is called, Every life has a story. The purpose of the video is to train workers to recognize that every person that comes into a store has stuff going on in their lives that cannot be seen. The video moves around a Chick-fil-a and when the camera centers on different people, a short description of something going on in their life pops up next to them. A couple walks in the door and next to him, it says, "After years of fighting cancer, he is now cancer free." The one that really gets me is the little girl, the bubble talks about her mother dying in childbirth and her relationship with her father. When we know each other's stories our understanding of them is transformed. When we recognize that everyone is dealing with emotional parts of life, we are usually kinder to each other. There are so many ways in which people's stories impact the way that we see them. 

The gospel passage from Mark this morning is rather short. However, it is very dense. There is so many levels in this story. One of my professors told us that the bible is hyperlinked to itself... even before hyperlinks were invented. Most of it references other parts of the bible. Moses and Elijah are the great Jewish figures, one having written down the commandments that defined the Jewish community, and the other being the hope and restoration of the community. The mountain setting reminds us of the time that Moses stayed on the mountain with God and returned with his face shining. He had to wear a veil for most of the rest of his life because people were afraid of his shining face. The dazzling white robes also indicated martyrdom to the early Christians. Their position in heaven gave vindication to those who were dying in the early persecutions of the community. This is not the first, nor the last, story of Peter getting the identity of Jesus confused. Sometimes he calls him the Messiah and sometimes he calls him Rabbi. Here they are on the mountain, the historic place to encounter God and Peter doesn't make the connection at first. Last month we had the baptism of Jesus and God said, This is my son, the beloved, with him I am well pleased. We hear it again today, This is my Son, the beloved. Listen to him. And in the end, they don't just stay on the mountain, like Moses they come down and share the story, share the shining light and glory of God on that mountain. When we have mountain top experiences, those experiences that give us conviction and belief in God, those experiences of greatness in work or life, we share them with others. It makes me wonder, was Jesus perhaps always shining in dazzling white? Perhaps the disciples could not see it. Perhaps what was truly transformed was not Jesus and his clothing. Perhaps what was transformed was their vision. They could finally see what was true before them. That Jesus is God's beloved Son. That Jesus shines with God's glory, with God's light. Jesus is the light of the world. And here we see it. 

Do you ever go outside at night and look up at the stars? Here in Houston, they can be hard to see. They are shaded by the light pollution. Sometimes it is simply the full moon. It outshines the stars. Yet, when it is really dark outside, when you are out where there is no electric light pollution, no street lights and outdoor lights outshining the light from the stars, the stars shine with brilliance and amazing delight. The light pollution gets in the way. Sometimes when we are with other people we experience the same kind of thing. We have a hard time seeing other people shine, because there is too much ego pollution, too much of ourselves in the way, too much anxiety or the past or the future in the way. "When the full moon is out it is hard to see clearly the light coming from the stars. So also, when we are so full of ourselves, it is hard to see others glow, they flicker out. The paradox is that the more humble we are the more majestic we all shine. When we give other people permission to shine our own glow is authentic rather than snuffing." (Preaching Tip) In that moment, our eyes are not only transformed, but we are as well. We can see God's glory shining through other people, we can see each other as Christ sees each of us. 

The New Testament does not usually specifically come out and say that Jesus is God. It goes in round about ways to connect Jesus with God's glory and as God's Son and as Messiah, as Christ, as the suffering servant from Isaiah and the fulfillment of the prophecies. Yet, we see here today in Mark's gospel, a vision of Jesus as God, transformed in the glory of light that is God's being. 

Everyone in this room this morning is going through things that you have no idea about. Everyone in here has the potential to shine with God's glory. We need to open our eyes to be able to see each other. To let down the barriers of our egos, our own journeys, our stuff that gets in the way of seeing other people for who they are. "Every life has a story." I think every life has a story of God with them. I pray that our eyes will be transformed so that we can see God's light shining through. 

Amen!