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.

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.

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. 


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.