Monday, April 30, 2012

Wait Upon the Lord a Little Longer

How long are you willing to wait on the Lord? Maybe a better way to ask it is this: how quickly do you give up on God? Today’s OT reading in the Daily Office (Exodus 32:1-20) is a terrible tale of Israel’s impatience and unfaithfulness. Moses has gone up on the mountain to speak with God, and, when he is delayed, the people rebel. But my favorite part of the story isn’t the people’s impatience—it’s how quickly they look for their own answer to their predicament.

Moses went up on the mountain for 40 days and 40 nights. After a while, the people gave up on him. The text doesn’t tell us what made the Israelites impatient; it simply says that since Moses was delayed they took action on their own. The people gather around Aaron and say, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” In other words, after 40 days, God’s people, who had been rescued from Pharaoh through the most dramatic of divine interventions and who had been sustained in the wilderness by the God of heaven,  abandon course and look for new gods to follow. That change is so complete and comes so quickly that I wonder what had been going on in their hearts all along.

One doesn’t simply switch gods. That’s not the sort of life-decision that one makes lightly. I can understand why a wavering convert might leave the faith during a difficult spell, but I don’t see why a whole nation of God’s people suddenly switch to worshipping a golden calf. Apparently, their religion had been less heartfelt than it had seemed.

And that’s the real point here: real faith weathers storms; shallow faith crumbles in the face of adversity. If we really believe that God is God and we really trust that he will take care of us, we aren’t easily swayed when God seems absent for a while. But, if we’ve only been going through the motions of faith, we might be in trouble.

“Easy enough,” you say. “There’s no chance of me switching gods. I’m in this for the long haul.” That might be true. The threat of you deserting for another religion might be small, but how long are you willing to wait at the foot of the mountain before losing hope? Sometimes God’s people are asked to wait a lifetime or more before the answers come. Sometimes God feels absent for several generations. Are we willing to wait on the Lord through that kind of drought? I think our faith is usually built on the expectation that God answers our prayers in the short-term. But, if those prayers go unanswered for our entire life, are we able to remain faithful?

The story of the Israelites’ unfaithfulness involved a 40-day delay. But the story is about much more than that. Are we faithful enough to wait for God through an indefinite delay? That’s where we live—waiting for God. It isn’t easy, but it’s what we do. Faith is waiting. Faith is hanging in even when we don’t know whether we’ll live long enough to see the answer.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Feast of St. Mark--My Favorite

Near the top of my list of biblical thanksgivings is St.Mark’s gospel account. I’m a firm believer in the importance of a 1x4 gospel, so I will admit that the other three are necessary to tell the whole good news of Jesus Christ. But Mark is definitely my favorite. He doesn’t mess around with apocryphal birth narratives (Luke) or get lost in the esoteric importance of genealogy (Matthew). He doesn’t open with some highfalutin prologue that clergy only pretend to understand (John). Instead, he starts right at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and tells it like it is.

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” I can’t think of a better place to start. As “Son of God” suggests, Mark might give us a pretty straightforward gospel account, but he doesn’t leave out important Christological details. For example, he continues with a quote from Isaiah, which was a favorite way to talk about the coming of the messiah. He is putting all of the pieces together, but he does it subtly and gently. There’s an understated quality to Mark’s text that I find very appealing.

The opening lines of any story are important. Even though the reader may not remember them by the time he gets halfway through the tale, they have shaped the way the whole work has been received. Mark is no exception. If I asked a Christian to summarize the faith in one or two sentences, I’d bet there would be words about cross and tomb and resurrection. And yes, of course, those are indispensable. But I like how Mark pulls it all together. He sets the stage with John the Baptist’s message of repentance and then passes the baton to Jesus, who, after being tempted in the wilderness for forty days, returns and says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.” That’s a summary of the faith—one that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is a part of but that, while containing all of that, says even more.

Why did Jesus die? Why did he rise? Why did he do everything he did? What’s the point? Mark tells us right here that the kingdom has come near. The time is fulfilled. We aren’t waiting anymore. The kingdom is now. This is it. Everything else that follows—the miracles, the teachings, the conflict with authority, the cross, the grave, the empty tomb—all of it testifies to the fact that with Jesus God’s kingdom has drawn near.

I think that we Christians lose track of this. We get lost in the wonder of the miracles or subsumed by the drama of Holy Week and forget that all that Jesus did points us to a central truth—Jesus has brought the kingdom of God to us and has invited us to be a part of that kingdom. During his life and ministry, the world thought of God’s kingdom as something distant and future—something defined by divine justice over God’s enemies. Jesus showed the world that God’s kingdom is here and now and that it is defined by justice for the weak and the oppressed. The religious authorities thought that a relationship with God was only possible through personal holiness. Jesus taught that a relationship with God is possible because God has made all of us holy.

If we aren’t careful, we find ourselves right where Jesus’ contemporaries were—defining the kingdom in terms that don’t reflect Jesus’ life and ministry. That’s what happens when we forsake the forest for the trees. Get back to the roots of our faith. Listen to Mark’s testimony and rediscover what’s important. 

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

A Special Houseguest

Last week, I had the honor of being a guest in someone’s home for dinner. It was a big gathering, and I had offered to help out with the preparations, so I showed up an hour early. That’s a joke, really—to show up an hour before dinner and offer to help. Clearly, this family had been working to get ready for the party for hours—maybe even days. At one point, right before the first (other) guests arrived, I asked one of the two young daughters of the hosts, “Do you enjoy being at home when your family is getting ready for a party?” Although she eventually shook her head in the negative, I knew from the look in her eyes what the answer was even before she moved a muscle.

How do you get ready for a party? How do you get ready to entertain a guest? Well, it depends on who is coming over. If it’s your boss, there is a different level of frenzy than if your parents are to be your guests. If it’s a large party of people whom you (subconsciously) want to impress, the importance of every detail is magnified. But, if you’ve only invited one or two close friends, perhaps dusting the blinds can wait for another time. What happens, then, if God himself is coming to be your guest? How would you prepare for that?

In today’s reading from the Old Testament (Exodus 19:1-16), God tells Moses that he is coming down for a visit: “I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after.” I remember as a child being ordered around by my mother as the family prepared for the arrival of an out-of-town guest. I can only imagine the intensity with which Moses ordered the Israelites to get ready: “Tidy up! Wash your clothes! Refrain from impurity! Stay vigilant in prayer!” Even though the preparations for an important guest can be chaotic and frenetic, there is an attractive energy to getting ready. There must have been a buzz that reverberated through the crowd when they heard who was coming to visit.

Sometimes I think we have gotten so comfortable with God that we forget who he really is. That is the issue of immanence and transcendence. Is God readily accessible to us? Is he approachable? Can we relate to him? That’s immanence—God manifesting himself in the world we live in. Or is God completely other? Is he unknowable and unapproachable? As one Eucharistic prayer puts it, is he “dwelling in light inaccessible from before time and forever?” That’s transcendence—God remaining apart from the world he created.

Our God is both. He is the “dense cloud” who comes to Mount Sinai and who commands that any person or animal who touches the mountain while he is there shall be stoned or shot with arrows. And he is the good shepherd who calls each of his flock by name and holds them in his bosom. One isn’t supposed to make sense of that paradox—just accept it and be amazed.

As Christians, we believe that God the incomprehensible came down to dwell among us in the person of Jesus Christ. In the Incarnation, the truly transcendent became purely immanent. That made it possible for each of us to invite God into our hearts in a way that would not have seemed possible before the life, death, and resurrection of God’s son. Because God has made himself accessible, we have the opportunity to invite God into our lives in a real way, but that doesn’t mean we should take his visit for granted.

God comes to dwell in our hearts through the gift of his Spirit, and that Spirit calls us to a life of discipline. Just as Moses commanded the Israelites to purify themselves in order that they might receive God’s presence rightly, God’s Spirit leads us to a life of daily preparation so that we might receive God’s indwelling fully. In our case, that has less to do with washing our clothes and tidying up our appearance than with cleansing our hearts and purifying our consciences. That God is willing to come and stay with us is something to celebrate and not take for granted. How might you get ready each day for his visit?

Monday, April 23, 2012

4 Easter B - Rescuing the Good Shepherd

I've been in my current cure for almost six months. Our parish is admittedly an aging parish, but I still think I've seen a disproportionate share of funerals in these six months. As a priest, I've heard that some individuals who are near death during an interim sometimes cling to life long enough for the new rector to arrive, but I'm not sure that is true. I mainly think that the cycle of life in our parish these last six months has been weighted toward the latter end.

I like to preach at funerals. I do not like to eulogize, and I consider it a real success if I've managed not to mention the name of the deceased during the funeral. Sure, the good news should be articulated in the context o the dead person's life and witness, but a sermon is about Jesus--even at a funeral. (More about that at another time.) At these funerals, I've preached on a variety of texts, but the one that seems to come up most often is the story of the Good Shepherd, which we have for our gospel lesson this Sunday (4 Easter B).

I think it's about time to preach a sermon about the good shepherd for an occasion other than a Sunday. Still, it's hard for me to separate the iconic words from the casket-context: "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep..." I know that I'll look down from the pulpit and expect to see weepy eyes huddled in the first few rows and a pall-draped casket or urn positioned in the nave. But that won't be the case. How can I redeem this beautiful story from its funeral context we've become accustomed to in recent months?

Maybe I should focus on belonging to the good shepherd. Or maybe I should preach about those of the other fold who need to be brought in. Or perhaps I should talk about Jesus, David, and God and how Jesus manages to take an image of a lowly shepherd and make it something we all want. Shepherd, of course, weren't anyone's favorite company, but now we hear this passage and want to cuddle up next to the stinky, lice- and flea-infested sheep herder that is Jesus.

Or maybe since it's Easter I'm not supposed to stray too far from death and resurrection. We are still proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus. Perhaps I am supposed to preach a funeral sermon even though no one is dead. But maybe that's the point after all.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Little Brown Box

Today’s gospel lesson (John 15:1-11) is oddly familiar to me. I don’t think I’ve ever preached on it. I’m sure I’ve passed through it in one bible study or another. For me, the real connection with this passage is the service known as “Communion Under Special Circumstances,” which begins on page 396 of the Book of Common Prayer. If you’ve never been a part of this service, it’s the one that clergy or Eucharistic Visitors use when bringing Communion to a home-bound or sick individual. Because of that, my whole understanding of what it means to “abide” in Jesus is shaped by those visits.

When I come to a living room or a hospital bedside with my little brown wooden case, I feel like I’m bringing a small piece of our church to a person who can’t physically get there on Sunday morning. I can’t remember ever taking Communion to the home of someone who is in no way limited in his or her mobility, so the act of coming into someone’s domicile with consecrated bread and wine is a real way to bridge an often uncrossable gap between that person and the church. I’m not doing anything fancy or special, but the fact that I have Jesus with me makes all the difference.

As we gather, I pass out a little Communion card that I have preprinted with the service on it in large type. I usually explain very briefly how the service will unfold, and then we get right down to it. And right near the beginning of the liturgy is this reading: “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.” I’ve said those words to people enough times to give me a chance to think about them. What does it mean to say to someone who cannot physically join her church family that God is inviting her to abide in himself? How might this small act of worship shared between two or three people help remind this person that she really is abiding in the vine so that she might bear fruit? What does it mean for a bedridden woman who passes all her days in lonely quiet to bear fruit as a disciple of Jesus? These are powerful questions that touch me at my core.

Every one of us—young and old, busy and relaxed, mobile and home-bound—to abide in the Lord. God invites us to remain within himself—to live there, in that place where God dwells. And it is by staying and inhabiting that space that we bear fruit—that we live the life God is calling us to live. It may be counterintuitive to think that someone who passes the time in a nursing home without ever speaking to anyone could possibly bear fruit as Jesus’ disciple, but that is exactly what Jesus declares to us, and that is exactly what this Communion service is designed to do. We all bear fruit in our own circumstance. We all have a part to play in the fellowship of the saints. How might one of our oldest, least mobile parishioners remind us of what it really means to abide in the one who calls us his own?

Monday, April 16, 2012

With Unmoistened Foot

Today’s OT reading (Exodus 14:21-31) is one of those texts that just belongs on the big screen. Walls of water stretching on either side of the Israelites as they pass through the Red Sea. Egyptians struggling with clogged chariot wheels, unable to steer as they pursue the people of God. Then, when the Egyptians realize that Yahweh is fighting for Israel—the same Yahweh who sent all the plagues upon Egypt—they give up their pursuit and turn back. But it is too late. Moses stretches out his hand over the sea, and the water comes crashing down, drowning the Egyptian army.

It’s good to have someone fighting for you if you need saving. I don’t often think about God doing battle on my behalf, but that’s a useful image for me to hold on to. There are forces in this world—some human, some spiritual, many of my own creation—that fight against me. I like knowing that God sticks up for his people. Although the work he does in my life rarely (if ever) belongs on the silver screen, the fact that God is doing anything on my behalf is noteworthy.

Why does God bother? Why does he stick up for anyone? He’s God. He doesn’t need us. He isn’t contractually obligated to defend the cause of a particular person or group of people. He’s above all of that, yet he comes down right in the middle of it. Our God is a personal, loving, self-disclosing God. That’s who he is at his core. And the greatest gift he gives us is an awareness of that.

Do you remember those Warner Brothers cartoons that featured the two dogs walking down the city street? One of them was big and powerful (Spike) and the other was a little jumping yappy dog (Chester) who followed Spike around everywhere and clearly considered it a privilege to be associated with the larger, protective dog. I think we’re supposed to be like that smaller dog. We’re supposed to be bouncing off the walls because we have a God who loves us and who protects us. Like the Israelites, we forget that pretty often. We get mired in the problems of today and forget how God has always saved us from our troubles in the past. Instead, we’re supposed to remember that God does things like deliver his people from captivity in Egypt and save us from our own trials. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Tuesday in Easter Week - Into the Light

I love the collect for today, Tuesday in Easter Week:

O God, who by the glorious resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ destroyed death and brought life and immortality to light: Grant that we, who have been raised with him, may abide in his presence and rejoice in the hope of eternal glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be dominion and praise for ever and ever. Amen.

It’s pretty simple. There’s not a lot of flowery language to it. But it gets Easter in a great, distilled way. Resurrection = destroyed death + [life & immortality] à light. As a chemistry major, I can’t bear to see that silly little scribble, but I love how the collect just says is. Jesus’ resurrection has destroyed death, and it has brought life and immortality to light.

It’s as if life was lying in the shadows, waiting to be brought out into plain view. When Jesus was raised from the dead, he brought immortality out of the darkness of the tomb with him and shares it with all of us. That which was hidden is now seen. Perhaps it was there all along in our created image, but we got to the place where we couldn’t even see it. Now that Jesus has passed from death to life, we see what was near us but inaccessible all along—immortality and life.

As Mary Magdalene looks into the empty tomb, weeping, she is standing inches away from God’s victory over sin and death, but she can’t see it. It brushes past her face, and she can tell that something is going on but knows not what. But, when Jesus speaks her name and she hears his voice, the reality becomes clear. All her fear and sadness are blown away by a realized encounter with the risen Lord. In that moment, as she hears her name said by Jesus, she experiences Easter. The tomb may have been empty before, but she didn’t know the resurrection until it found her.

We’ve got fifty days to hear the call. Actually, we’ve got longer than that—perhaps a whole lifetime. When will Easter become real to us? When will we experience the victory of the empty tomb as a personal encounter? When will we behold the life and immortality that have been brought into the light for us to see?

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Wednesday in HW - Dr. Evil

Today’s gospel lesson (John 13:21-32) goes one sentence further than I expected it to. But by doing so, it’s made all the difference.

In John’s gospel account, there isn’t as much secrecy about who will betray Jesus. In the other versions of the story, who the betrayer isn’t as public. In this account, Jesus tells John that the person he gives this piece of bread to is the one, and then he clearly gives the piece to Judas. For whatever reason, though, the disciples at the table still don’t completely get it. They think that maybe Judas got up and ran out to go and buy some provisions for the Passover feast. Or maybe they just can’t believe what Jesus has just told them.

When I get to the last line of this gospel lesson, however, I’m as clueless as the disciples. As soon as Judas has left the room, Jesus’ response is to say, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.” For Jesus, the connection is clear. Judas’ departure and betrayal are the means by which God is glorified. That is, Jesus’ upcoming passion and death are the way that God will glorify himself and his son. That makes sense, but I wouldn’t have been so bold as to say that the betrayer himself makes that happen.

I like to look for evidence of God’s will in a particular circumstance, but that doesn’t mean I’m always able to find it. In this story, however, Jesus shows a remarkable ability to name the instrument of treachery as the instrument of God’s glorification. In this gospel lesson, God isn’t just sitting back, waiting on us to give him our worst so that he can then take it and transform it by his will. Instead, he is directing and guiding each action—as if every move on the chess board of life is his plan.

The early church had to figure out what to do with Judas. There would have been a lingering question: “If Jesus really was God’s son, why would he have picked Judas to be his disciple?” This story is the answer. For God to be glorified through Jesus’ death, someone must have given him over to death. Judas is that someone. We can denigrate his memory by saying he used to steal from the purse or that he went out and hung himself. But Jesus himself seems to redeem even his betrayer.

Does God have his hand on evil acts? Maybe a better question is this: what is evil, really? Or maybe an even better question is this: can anything—good or bad—escape God’s will?

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Tuesday in HW - Superhero Jesus

One of our Lenten speakers, the Rev. Callie Plunket-Brewton, spoke to us about how God reveals God’s self to Moses in the burning bush. One of her comments has stuck with me ever since. Drawing our attention to the odd combination of God’s attributes, she mentioned that superheroes (like gods of the ancient world) rarely possess BOTH awesome powers and gentle kindness. That’s right, of course. How many comic book superheroes or ancient Mesopotamian gods do you know who are both super-strong and super-sweet?

If you were going to design a character who would save the world, whom would you pick? Superman comes to mind. He was fairly gentle. Or maybe I’d pick Batman, who has always been one of my favorites simply because he invents his own greatness—no super powers, just ingenious and hard-working. God, however, picked a man who was executed on a cross.

As Paul writes in our lesson from 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, the cross is “foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” The foolishness of the cross is a concept familiar to me because of Paul and what he writes in this passage, but I’m not sure I’ve ever really done it justice. Just how foolish is it? Well, I think part of the point is that our salvation doesn’t come in the form of a superhero saving us from a burning building or a sinking ship. Instead, our salvation comes through death—not as an escape from it. In other words, if you’re about to drown and you think that superhero Jesus is going to save you, that’s a good thing—but I hope you can hold your breath for a really long time because Jesus’ idea of salvation and our idea of salvation aren’t always the same thing.

The foolishness of the cross is supposed to be a challenge for us, too. It is a stumbling block to those of us who expect God to reveal his unabated power. And it is foolishness for those of us who think God will always save the day. God doesn’t work like that. And neither does our faith. God sent his son to be our savior by dying on the cross. That gift has saved us ultimately from the power of death. That means there is no limit to his saving power. But it also means that evidence of that salvation comes in less than glamorous ways.

We don’t worship a hero with a long red cape. We don’t bow down to a god whose power is expressed in terms of earthly might. Instead, we follow a teacher who showed us how to love, and we worship him as Lord. 

Monday, April 2, 2012

Monday in HW - Mary's Faith

Keeping the Mary’s straight can be pretty difficult. When we read John, however, we pretty much need to forget all the other Mary’s and start over with what John gives us. He takes other traditions from other gospel accounts and makes them his own, telling his own story. They don’t always line up.

In today’s gospel lesson (John 12:1-11), Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, join with their brother to give a dinner for Jesus. These are the sisters who had their brother raised from the dead by Jesus in John 11. This is the Mary who stayed at home when Martha went out to meet Jesus and tell him, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

For John, Mary plays an important role as a proto-Christian, and John 12 is a pivotal chapter for the gospel account. In John 13, Jesus will wash the disciples’ feet, showing them what servanthood really means. Mary already understands. Her gesture of anointing Jesus’ feet with the costly perfume demonstrates her knowledge both of Jesus’ upcoming death and of the ultimate expression of servanthood that that death will represent. It will take the rest of the disciples weeks to figure that out. But Mary—cool and calm—has already embraced the faith that Jesus came to espouse.

Not many of us are Mary’s. I’m usually the last one to get it—to have my heart fall into place. I spend too much time analyzing and questioning and doubting. Mary shows us what it means to be faithful from the start. She shows great faith and substantial leadership in the pre-Christian community. As we journey through Holy Week, how can might we respond to God’s call with faith right from the start?