Thursday, June 16, 2016

Safe Places

I got to thinking about “safe places” this past week. There are those of us who take safety for granted, living lives with low risk. Those who live in gated communities or who send their children to upper-class or private schools, seek safety in their lives. Sometimes these safe places are intruded upon. Gated communities are not entirely impervious to theft and violence. Upper class schools have been in the news lately where young women have been violated and abused. We all seek safe places.


We believed our schools were safe; then came the shooting at Sandy Hook. We believed our churches were safe; then came the shooting at Emmanuel AME Church. We believed our work places were safe; then came the shooting in San Bernardino. We all seek safe places.


We seek safe places in our homes, in our churches, and in our places of employment, and sometimes we take these safe places for granted. Even Disney World is supposed to be a safe place for a child. Over the last week I learned something new about safe places. Our sisters and brothers who are counted among the LGBT community seek places to gather for safety. Not necessarily from gun violence, but from those of us in the more mainstream community, usually of white privilege and traditional family structure, who may not understand those different from us. Pulse nightclub in Orlando was one of those safe places. I should say, with the perseverance of those who are a part of that community, Pulse nightclub will be a safe place again. We all seek safe places.

When our safe places are violated, especially by the terror of a mass shooting, it is paralyzing, confusing, disorienting, shocking, scary. Therefore, I as the rector and pastoral leader of St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, declare this parish a safe place for all who come seeking the knowledge and love of our Lord Jesus Christ who did not passively tolerate those different from him, but embraced them. People of various backgrounds, races, and nationalities are counted among this congregation. This is a safe place for you. Members of the LGBTQ community and their parents and loved ones are counted among this congregation. This is a safe place for you.


In the words of my friend and Dean of our Cathedral, Barkley Thompson, “This is, I believe, part of our collective challenge. We in the United States have striven to become a tolerant society. But mere tolerance doesn’t breed familiarity, and without familiarity there is little chance for understanding. Tolerance is a passive virtue. It says, in essence, “I can abide your presence in proximity to me, but I do not want to know you. I have plumbed the depths of the Gospels, and nowhere do I find Jesus exhibiting tolerance. Rather, Jesus embraces. Embrace is an active virtue, the preeminent Gospel virtue. Again and again, Jesus embraces the one who is outcast, who exists on the margins, who is maligned. Through his embrace, which comes in the forms both of physical contact and words of acceptance, Jesus declares that, in God, there are no outcasts, there are no margins, and woe be it to anyone who maligns any one of God’s blessed and beloved children.”




In light of the horrific murders this past weekend in Orlando, we are asked by our Bishop for our continued prayers for the repose of the dead and strength and comfort for their families and friends, and for healing for those wounded in the shooting. He asks us also to pray for the first responders and for the medical professionals in Orlando, for our LGBTQ brothers and sisters and for wisdom to confront violence and hate with love.


Thursday, April 7, 2016

Atychiphobia to Success

There are some incredible stories in the world about success. Counter intuitively, the most interesting ones seem to come from stories of failure. Failure is one of our top fears. According to Jerry Seinfeld, our number one fear is public speaking. Our number two fear is death. Therefore, Seinfeld reaches the conclusion that if the average person finds themselves at a funeral, giving the eulogy would be the scarier option. But there is a third fear that I would say is pretty high on the list, and that is atychiphobia. Atychiphobia is not a fear of attics; rather it is the fear of failure. As a matter of fact, it is the persistent fear of failure, which can very well lead to a constricted lifestyle.
As with any phobia, the fear is usually irrational, having really no basis or prior experience necessarily. But with failure, there is some suggestion that fear of this issue can be overcome because of our experience with it. In other words, we may be less afraid of failure if we have failed in the past. Here are some examples:[1]
Bill Gates is one of the world’s wealthiest people, but he didn’t earn his fortune in a straight line to success. Gates entered the entrepreneurial scene with a company called Traf-O-Data, which aimed to process and analyze the data from traffic tapes. He tried to sell the idea with his business partner, but the product barely even worked. It was a complete disaster. However, the failure did not hold Gates back from exploring new opportunities, and a few years later, he created his first Microsoft product, and forged an incredible path to success.
One of the most creative geniuses of the 20th century was once fired from a newspaper because he was told he lacked creativity. Trying to persevere, Walt Disney formed his first animation company, which was called Laugh-O-Gram Films. He raised $15,000 for the film company but because of a distribution company that went belly up, he eventually was forced to close. Desperate and out of money, Disney found his way to Hollywood and faced even more criticism and failure until finally, his first few classic films skyrocketed in popularity.
Steve Jobs, I think we can agree, was an impressive entrepreneur because of his boundless innovations, but also because of his emphatic comeback from an almost irrecoverable failure. Jobs found success in his 20s when Apple became a massive empire, but when he was 30, Apple’s board of directors decided to fire him. Undaunted by the failure, Jobs founded a new company which was eventually acquired by Apple. Once back at Apple, Jobs proved his capacity for greatness by reinventing the company’s image and taking the Apple brand to new heights.
In the gospel lesson from the 21st chapter of John, the scene is at the Sea of Tiberias, or the Sea of Galilee, which is really a lake; a really big lake. Jesus appears on the beach, but the disciples didn’t know it was Jesus. The scene is a resurrection scene, the last we find in John’s gospel. It follows one failure after the next. Earlier in the gospel, the sons of Zebedee wonder who might be greatest in God’s kingdom; which we find out by Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet that the kingdom Jesus proclaims is one of servanthood. Simon Peter denies Jesus three times after his arrest; major failure there. Judas certainly fails at whatever he was trying to accomplish by turning Jesus in to the authorities.
In this scene of the resurrection appearance at the sea shore, Jesus reverses these “failures” by offering extravagant grace in encouraging his friends to be successful disciples. But it’s not just encouragement that we witness in this breakfast on the beach story. We are once again witnesses to the extravagant generosity offered by the risen Jesus. If the disciples let their failures and shortcomings fester, or if their fear of what the authorities did to Jesus caused them to recluse and quit, the world would be a darker place. If their fear of failure and rejection won, they just might have been gripped by atychiphobia. And this would not be good for the Jesus Movement; because the Jesus Movement is all about risk. It was then and it is now.
Persons afflicted with atychiphobia consider the possibility of failure so intense that they choose not to take any risk. Often these persons will subconsciously undermine their own efforts so that they no longer have to continue to try. Because effort is proportionate to achievement, the unwillingness to try arises from the perceived inequality between the possibilities of success and failure. This in turn holds the atychiphobic back from a life of meaning and the realization of potential. Unfortunately this reality is not limited to humans, but can very well be symptomatic in an entire organization, such as the church, where the risk of failure always looms. But good news for us, so does grace.
The scene in John’s gospel today is one of successful discipleship where images of abundance prevail. A large catch of fish, an untorn net, and a scrumptious grilled fish breakfast. “The appearance provides signs of Jesus’ identity”, Cynthia Kittredge writes, “in the huge haul of fish, the net landed untorn with one hundred and fifty three fish, and Jesus taking and giving the bread and fish to [his friends].”[2]
This story has great implications for the modern church. The landscape here is one of encouragement and grace. After the unspeakable tragedy that was the innocent death of Jesus by capital punishment, we see the early church founders back to life as usual. They are most likely riddled with fear coupled with all their hopes extinguished. This might explain Peter’s nakedness on the boat – I mean who puts clothes on and then jumps into the water? Peter’s nakedness is a symbol of his raw, vulnerable humanity after a harrowing couple of days.
Like the sighting of Jesus on the seashore, we are witnesses to the resurrected Christ still. We might need that unnamed beloved disciple to point him out to us from time to time, but Jesus is here, just as he promised. To offer us encouragement and grace to reach out to others in love and evangelize by word and deed the Good News of Jesus Christ to all those who come searching.
The disciples may have been fearful. They may have been borderline atychiphobes, but they were faithful. Like last week’s gospel where the disciples were locked in a room for fear of the Jewish authorities, they were faithful. Thomas was faithful. And as in other gospels where fishing is a metaphor for evangelizing, we find faithful Peter as the successful fisher.
How might we overcome our fears of telling others about our faith in Christ? As Episcopalians, we seem to be atychiphobic, fearing failure, loss, and rejection. But there is a way forward. The treatment of this phobia can take place in a few different ways: 1) drugs that raise our serotonin level and thus lower our anxiety – let’s not jump there; 2) psychotherapy and counseling; maybe, as with spiritual direction, therapy is good for all of us as we deal with life experiences that have shaped our perspectives; or 3) confronting situations or circumstances that are increasingly similar to the feared ones. I recommend starting here.
If we fear talking about our faith to others, then perhaps the cure is to talk about our faith with our spouse or partner, or close friend. Then we can eventually move on to our work places, social groups and beyond. If we fear being part of a group at church because we may feel judged or inadequate, attend a small group for a short time. If we fear helping in a ministry like worship ministry, or outreach ministry because we think we may not be good at it, try it once or twice and see that you’re probably better at it than others. If we fear, try…if we fear, try…if we fear, try.
Because there’s actually a fourth cure to atychiphobia: God’s grace. Let’s look to the scene on the beach once again. Gracious Jesus offers encouragement and second and third chances to the disciples who deserted Jesus at his arrest, denied him while he as at trial, locked themselves away out of fear, and failure to recognize the resurrected One time and again.
Like the other appearances in John, Jesus is not recognized at first as he stands on the shore. He calls the disciples “children”, recalling the theme throughout the gospel that those who believe will have power to become children of God. They do not recognize Jesus from his voice, as Mary did, or by his fishing instructions. Only the disciple whom Jesus loved recognizes him when he sees the many fish in the net.
The charcoal fire recalls the same in the courtyard where Peter warmed himself at his denial of Jesus. Like the seamless garment undivided by the soldiers, the untorn net is a picture of the unity of the church. In response to his denial and disobedience, Peter hauls ashore the abundance of fish in obedience to Jesus’ instructions.[3] Jesus also asks Peter three times if he loves him; reversing the thrice denial that Peter was guilty of.
And what does Jesus do in response? He hosts a breakfast. He returns to his disciples as flawed as they are, reverses their shortcomings, affirms that they are children of God, and serves them.
Do you not know that this is your story too? You who are out on the waters each day? Do you believe that you are alone, unacceptable, inadequate, flawed and unworthy? Today, Jesus reaches out to you and offers himself. The grace of the Resurrected One that we find in this very gathering, in the breaking of the bread and our shared meal, forgives you; reverses your shortcomings and failures, that you may have power to become children of God and successful fishers.




[1] Six Stories of Successes who Overcame Failure. www.entrepreneur.com
[2] Conversations with Scripture: The Gospel of John. 2007. Cynthia Kittredge.
[3] Conversations with Scripture: The Gospel of John. 2007. Cynthia Kittredge.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Easter Clothes

Every winter, it seems, I end up gathering with friends over dinner and drinks at someone’s house
watching the Academy Awards. Each year I think I’ll enjoy watching actors and film creators and crews accepting the coveted Oscar award, but I really don’t. I guess I really want to watch the Oscars to see what movies got the top award for best picture and best screenplay, etcetera, so I know which movies to go see. But as far as the show itself, I’m really not all that into it; except for who might be hosting the program. This year it was Chris Rock – he was alright. If you remember years ago, Billy Crystal hosted the Oscars like a few years running. If you ask me, he was the best host yet.

Then there’s the Golden Globe awards. Now this awards show I have zero interest in except for one factor: Ricky Gervais. Yes, he’s raunchy and offensive. But he absolutely cracks me up. Much of his humor I cannot and will not repeat. But most of it skids around the acceptable. If it weren’t for his English accent – especially his dialect – he probably wouldn’t be near as funny. Nevertheless, when Ricky hosts the Globes, I set the DVR. But like the Oscars, I’m just not at all that interested in the show for the most part.

What I have determined over the years of watching these sorts of programs is that they are all about an incredibly wealthy and glitzy industry congratulating itself. For me, that’s not all that entertaining. The music awards perhaps, is probably the most entertaining since I really like music and watching bands perform, but it all comes down to the same thing really: an industry congratulating itself on it’s own accomplishments. We see wealthy movie and television stars as well as music icons virtually competing against each other for best dressed, best looking, and most beautiful date – male or female.

Perhaps it’s the follow-up entertainment news that makes me yawn the most. As much as celebrating ones accomplishments as an actor, or director, or writer, or musician, the entertainment news covers just as much about what the stars are wearing. Discussing to the last detail of someone’s tuxedo or evening gown; whether Will Smith wore a bow tie or neck tie or what color Leo was wearing, or who Cate Blanchett was wearing, seems as important as their talent. I think the only thing I’m less interested in is the Kardashians!

We have a fascination about wealth and fame in our culture. We are captivated by the news of what a celebrity – actor, singer, sports icon or billionaire turned wanna-be politician – owns, wears, lives in, or drives. It used to be that we wanted a successful life and own our piece of the so-called American dream, but these days it seems financial success and wealth are not enough; we desire fame as well, so we compare ourselves to others. We fill our living rooms with images of celebrity, fame, wealth, and power and we begin to think that there must be something missing in our lives. That maybe we aren’t good enough, so we start believing that we need something more. And we begin to think that it’s probably something someone else has, rather than what’s already present within us.

At the Great Vigil of Easter, which usually takes place the eve of Easter, we begin the order of worship with a series of Old Testament readings, reminding us of God’s saving deeds in history, of how God acted in the various circumstances of his people, and ultimately the work of redemption that God promises to all. The first of these readings is most appropriately the Genesis story of creation where God creates everything in the world and calls it good. Creation – everything that we see, hear, feel and touch, God made and claimed it as good. Even the final touch of creation, humanity itself, God calls good; made in the likeness of God. We are made in the likeness of God – but both Adam and Eve ultimately started believing that their existence needed more than Eden and even God, so they ate the fruit – the only thing in all of creation they were told to avoid, they ate. They started to believe that maybe they weren’t good enough, so they started believing that they needed something more. And they began to think that it must be something someone else has, rather than what’s already present within them. So they ate.

When they were called out on their errant ways, they discovered something about themselves that they never realized before: they were naked. In their now fallen state, they discover that they are naked and fashion loincloths with which to cover up their nakedness. According to Canon John Newton’s book “New Clothes”, we have been donning loincloths ever since. Trying to find who we are, we seek almost breathlessly the loincloths of our own identity. We are so attracted to the loincloths of the wealthy, the loincloths of the powerful, the loincloths of the famous. But God created us just as we are and called us good.

I hope this is making sense so far, because in the ancient world, clothing was very symbolic. Beginning with the loincloths of Adam and Eve in the garden, to wedding garments at the great heavenly banquet that Jesus speaks of, the image of what one wears is very meaningful. Not only in the Judeo/Christian tradition do we find clothing as symbolic, but also in the tradition of Islam; of which I am reminded after our Interfaith series during Lent. Barkley Thompson, Dean of our Cathedral recounts that,

“One of the Five Pillars of Islam is the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that every able-bodied Muslim is expected to take at least once during life. The pilgrim’s first stop upon reaching Mecca is the miqat, or changing room, in which he removes whatever clothes he has on, including jewelry, and dons a stark, plain, white garment known as the ihram.

Eventually, the pilgrim makes his way to the mosque housing the Kaaba stone, believed by Muslims to have been built by our shared father Abraham and symbolizing the faithfulness of God, where the pilgrim falls in with thousands upon thousands of identically-plainly dressed Muslims to ritually walk around the Kaaba seven times.

Before he arrived in Mecca, the pilgrim might have been a peasant or a king. But in Mecca he strips himself bare, ritually divesting himself of any and all indicators of his station. He removes his world, as does everyone around him, and he gives himself over to God.”

Clothing, then as now, is a powerful symbol of who we are, what we do, and how much we matter relative to others in the world. We find the images of clothing even in the account of Jesus’ trial, death, and resurrection.

Of course, it was a mockery to dress Jesus in a purple robe and a crown of thorns at his trial and crucifixion, but what would come next has powerful overtones. According to St. Paul’s theology, Jesus becomes the new Adam for us. As the prayer book recites, “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (BCP 83). And just as Adam was clothed in his loincloth, so is Jesus; stripped bare, donning just a loincloth as he becomes at his most human and distant from God, for our sake.

After Jesus dies, Joseph of Arimathea, a leader in the Jewish council who did not agree with the decision to try Jesus, asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Accompanied by another Jewish leader, Nicodemus, he and Joseph would clothe Jesus in burial linens and lay him in a new tomb in a garden. Three days later Mary Magdalene, early in the morning before daybreak – when all is darkest just before the dawn – makes her way alone to the tomb. When Mary comes to the garden, summoning up the Garden of Eden in the creation story, she finds the tomb empty and runs to tell the other disciples. What always strikes me about the Easter story we hear from John, are the two disciples – Peter and the other disciple (that’s it, that’s all we are told, the other disciple) – who run to the tomb after Mary Magdalene runs to tell them the news. The running race between Peter and the other disciple may be a way to portray competition between two important figures in the community of John. But what I find most striking once again is what these two disciples find upon their entrance into the tomb: “the linen wrappings”. Gospel of John scholar Cynthia Kittredge observes that the “other disciple arrives first, looks in and sees the grave clothes”.

The tomb is empty because the life of God cannot be contained. The tomb is empty because a tomb is for the dead, not for the living. The tomb is empty because Jesus cannot be contained and as his "grave clothes" have been shed and left behind, he is now clothed in the splendor of the resurrection. So much so that Mary doesn’t even recognize her longtime friend and teacher. Even after she finds the tomb empty and even as she confesses her confusion to the angels, her grief blinds her. It is only when Jesus calls her by name that she understands that he’s done what he promised. Like the sheep who recognize the voice of their shepherd, Mary knows Jesus’ voice. She turns, with great excitement and says, Teacher! For a moment in time she believes everything is back to normal and life is good again. But Jesus tells her, ‘Do not hold on to me.’
It’s Easter; Jesus’ work on earth is accomplished.


And because it is accomplished, what to wear now? The freedom that Easter grants to us is that we are now redeemed and justified by this mighty act. We no longer need to fervently seek out an identity that makes us like someone by whom we were not created. The fame and celebrity that seems to surround us on all four corners need not be a distraction or even temptation for us. Because Jesus’ glorious resurrection garments are available to us. And the best part is that they don’t hide who we are; rather, they highlight who we are: beloved children of God, from whose love we can never be separated– not even by death or any other power that may be.

We no longer need to dress ourselves in loincloths of our own making, but rather grow into the splendid garment, the free garment of salvation, tailored for us at the resurrection. Then, we must search with each other for the post-resurrection Jesus, the living Christ, and listen for him to call our name and then we must run, run with excitement to tell others, proclaiming our Easter reality:

Alleluia! Christ is risen.
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Awakened

Good evening! Good evening and welcome to this celebration of the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. Yes, tonight we celebrate. We know celebration well, don’t we? We celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, home-comings, various holidays throughout the year. Sometimes we celebrate just for the heck of it. As the youngest of three sons, my older brothers would often talk about “partying”. As a kid I always wondered, “what are you celebrating?” I didn’t have to become too old to realize that people need not a specific reason to celebrate, to have a party.
There’s a lot of celebration going on this time of year – and I’m not just talking about the holiday season – I’m talking about this specific year, December 2015, there is a whole lot of celebration going on. On December 14 a new era began, as the Force, apparently has Awakened. Star Wars gear from t-shirts to costumes to bed linen sets (which I’m hoping for a king size set under the tree tomorrow) seem ubiquitous in stores across the country. This is a big deal to a lot of people (I admit, me included). I have not seen the new Star Wars movie so no spoilers will happen from this pulpit, and I bid you please don’t tell me anything! But my question going into this film is, “The force awakens?” When was the force asleep? Return of the Jedi ends with the defeat of the Empire, including the death of Darth Vader who just previously killed the evil emperor. And of course at the end of the movie, who could forget the gleeful glow of the ghostly saints of Yoda, Obi Wan and Anakin Skywalker smiling on at those at the Rebel’s celebration. It seems to me the Empire must awaken – but perhaps I need to see the movie. And I will.
So yes, tonight is a celebration. But it’s a different kind of celebration, isn’t it? Yes, it’s different because we are celebrating in a church where certain customs and behaviors are expected. This certainly isn’t the kind of celebration where we buzz around socializing with cocktails in hand. Yes, it’s different because we are celebrating a holy event in human history (I think a Star Wars junkie would most assuredly argue the same). A stark difference, however, in the kind of celebration that we encounter tonight as compared to a more personal celebration, like a birthday or New Years’ Eve, is that at least in my experience, a birthday or holiday celebration is rarely prefaced with the question: “So, how long do you think this thing will last?”
Our celebration this night is a cosmic one. What I mean when I say this is that when a child, a human child, one of the most vulnerable creatures on this planet, was born as an intentional act of God, Creator of all that is, all of creation changes. The human condition with it’s propensity to seek self-promotion through violence and control was changed. Our propensity to seek darkness (or the “dark-side) as a way of life was turned around. Love was born unto us anew this day. What more incredible thing can we celebrate?
Have you ever seen those bumper stickers on cars that say, “Keep Christ in Christmas”? Whenever I see or hear short sound bites that presumably seeks to wrap up a whole idea that is most likely a complex issue, I get very suspicious. But this little catch phrase, “Keep Christ in Christmas” has some truth to it if dig a little bit. For me the implications of such a short saying has so much more to do with the cosmic and universal impact that Jesus was born into this world than simply making sure we go to church on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day – although I highly recommend doing so.
“Keeping Christ in Christmas” for me, means making room for Jesus in our lives. Among the almost unbearable crazy rush of a holiday that our western way of life has created, we hopefully will come to realize that this chaotic rush and busy-ness of life runs counter to what we – yes – celebrate this night; and indeed for the next twelve days.
Imagine a celebration that does not include loud conversations, music, and crowded rooms, but rather the hush of a cool evening. Mystics and spiritualists say that we meet God not in the noise of life but in the silence. But there is some irony, however, to the quietness of a Christmas Eve for which we yearn, since what we celebrate is the birth of a child to a couple in challenging circumstances far from home. The outbuilding in which Jesus was born did not smell of cinnamon brooms or roasting turkey. It wasn’t decorated in lights and bows. It smelled quite frankly of animals and hay. The manger, as we usually call it, was a stable where animals ate. It was no place for a mother about to give birth. It was no place for a newborn, certainly. Mary had every reason to say no to that angel. If she had some way of seeing into the future to this cold, filthy stable where she would have to give birth to her first-born, she certainly may have taken a pass. But she did not.
Mary, our exemplar of faithfulness and obedience to the divine call, said yes. Taken from scripture literally, she said to the angel, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” This was a profound act on the part of Mary. We forget what an arduous journey this was for her. Or at least we tend to caricaturize her as someone who pleasantly went through the motions of childbirth, as if that’s ever true – remember there were no pain meds to take, no epidural, and her midwife was a carpenter. But not only did Mary’s physical surroundings make it near impossible to go through with this birth, the political climate of the time, with Israel being occupied by Rome, was very dangerous. As the gospel story from Luke’s account reminds us, there was a census taking place, and everyone had to go back to the town of their origin. Joseph, belonging to the house and line of David, returned to Nazareth in Galilee, with expecting family in tow. Under the most precarious of circumstances is our Savior Christ born.
We celebrate Christmas this year in the shadow of terrorism and the horrific loss of life that seems to happen every month. Violence, darkness and death are nothing new to the human experience as the Church remembers the slaughter of the Innocents on December 28, three days after Christmas Day. According to Matthew’s gospel, Herod, who asked the Wise Men about the location of the child who was born, became infuriated when the Magi tricked him by not telling him where the Holy Family could be found. In response, the evil Herod ordered all male children under the age of two to be killed, for fear of losing his throne. No one knows how many children were killed, but the Church has always honored these children as martyrs.
It is into this dangerous world that God enters as a human child – this is the radical grace of Christmas. Lutheran pastor and author Nadia Bolz-Weber, who regards herself as a ****, tattooed, ****, with the mouth of a truck driver, writes,
Yes, the radical grace of Christmas is that God enters fully into our existence and reality when the Christ child is born.
Christmas looks different this year, it looks different every year, but the meaning and significance remains the same. A child is born as a light in our darkness. It is no surprise that Christmas comes at the darkest time of the year. The days are the shortest as night falls earliest.
Tonight we celebrate what God has done in humanity – and what God is doing in humanity. We celebrate a cosmic shift in the history of human life where light pierces darkness, death is over run by life, truth prevails and hope endures. God becomes human, lives and dies as one of us, and raises us to himself that we too become God’s children ourselves. Ponder this truth. Don’t try and figure it out. Let the light of this Christ child glow on your doubt and reservations.
In the words of Cynthia Kittredge: [Let us] be “filled with wonder on this Christmas day, let us welcome Jesus, splendid guest. Let us be those who receive him. Rejoice that the word and wisdom of God comes in human flesh like ours. Give thanks that our fragile lives are holy and shine with the radiance of God’s glory. In communion with saints and in company of friends, celebrate the feast.”
Merry Christmas. (And may the force be with you.)

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Cave of Fear

 
Once again we hear a gospel lesson that contains elements of fear. Jesus tells his disciples what the Messiah will face: betrayal and death, the disciples are seized with fear and were afraid to ask Jesus anything.
 
There was once a town where the thing everyone feared the most was getting lost at night in the “Cave of Fear”. No one had ever returned from there, and whenever anyone got lost and ended up there, the last that was heard was a great cry of terror, followed by a few enormous guffaws. The townsfolk lived in terror that one day the monster would leave the cave. So they regularly left gifts and food at the mouth of the cave, and these always soon disappeared.
 
One day, a young man came to town, and, as he heard about the situation with the cave, he thought that it was unfair. So he decided to enter the cave and confront the monster. The young man asked for some help, but everyone was so afraid that not a single person approached the mouth of the cave with him. He went inside, finding his way with a torch, and calling out to the monster, wanting to talk with it and discuss the situation. At first, the monster had a good long laugh, and the young man followed the sound of the monster's voice. But then the monster went quiet, and the young man had to carry on, not knowing in which direction to go.
 
Finally he arrived at a huge cavern. At the bottom of the cavern he thought he could make out the figure of the monster, and as he approached it, he felt that something hit him hard on his back. This pushed him forward towards a hole in the rock. He couldn't avoid it, and fell through. Believing that he was about to die, he let out one last cry. Then he heard the great guffaws.
 
-“Darn it, I think the monster has swallowed me,” he said, while falling.
 
However, as he fell, he heard music, and voices. They got clearer, and when he made a soft landing at the bottom, he heard a group of people shout:  -“Surprise!!”
 
 
Hardly believing it, he found himself right in the middle of a big party. The partygoers were all those people who had never returned to the town. They explained to him that this place had been the idea of an old mayor of the town. That mayor had tried to accomplish great things, but was always held back by the fears of the people around him. So the mayor invented the story of the monster to demonstrate to people how such an attitude was so limiting. So the young man stayed there, enjoying the party and the company of all those who had dared to approach the cave.
And what about the town? In the town they still believe that to enter the Cave of Fear is the worst of all punishments... (freestories.com/caveoffear).
 
The two New Testament readings for today (James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a and Mark 9:30-37) point to the relationship between faith and fear. I know you’ve heard me preach on the subject of faith and fear, after all, it’s a topic that seems perpetually relevant as fear is something we are surrounded by through images, the daily news – especially political news! – as well as our own deep seated fears stemming from who-knows-what. We all have fears – and Jesus knows this and he certainly knew this about his disciples. Notice that the disciples do not ask Jesus any questions in response to his prediction of his impending crucifixion because they are afraid. And the next thing you know they’re talking about securing their place in the coming kingdom. Fear does that. It both paralyzes us and drives us to look out only for ourselves.
 
Maybe you have had the same experience as me. Over the years I’ve made some pretty bad decisions and actions because of my reaction to fear. Fear has a way of leading us to identify both threats and opportunities wrongly, sometimes causing irrational behavior, and even narrowing our vision so it’s difficult to see possibilities. I remember a priest preaching on fear many years ago who explained the difference between reacting and responding. He said, ‘we react to fear; but we respond in love’. When we are stressed or worried or even agitated over something, we can react in fear, or respond in love. This is why it’s hard to be wise, prudent, or compassionate when we are afraid. Just look again to the present refugee crisis: the imprisoning and even dehumanizing of refugees trying to make their way across Europe is not a response in love, rather, a reaction in fear. (ISIS itself is gripped by fear. They are obsessed with absolute power because of their fear of having no power. For them, power can not be shared.)
 
You see, because Jesus told his disciples that the Son of Man would be betrayed and killed, fear seized them. They said nothing, Mark tells us: “they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.” They were afraid to even ask! All of us have fears. Sometimes we don’t even realize that we are afraid. Perhaps in those moments, we become like the disciples and say or do nothing.
 
 
I’m going to take an opportunity now to share with you my own fear. Not just because I think it might make for a good sermon (although I hope it does!), but because as I was studying these readings, I came across a commentary that rang all too true about some fears that I have within the scope of my own ministry as your rector.
 
Taking on the pastoral leadership of any congregation is no small task. Sometimes as leaders we wonder why things at church aren’t going the way we think they should. This past week I had a talk with two staff members who have improved their ministries steadily since they began here at St. Christopher’s: those staff members are Resale Shop manager Aprille Williams and our Day School director, Monica Cadavid. I brought my questions and fears to them to see how we might respond to instances like why a particular Sunday such as Invitation Sunday brought such a low turnout when the opposite was expected. I asked what I can do as a leader to inspire our congregation to be more engaged and to follow Jesus a bit more closely. I asked questions around how we and our parish members might increasingly become better stewards of the gifts God has freely given. I asked them how we might be more hospitable to those seeking a relationship with Jesus through this faith community. My fear was that there must be something I’m doing or not doing.
 
Immediately after speaking with Aprille and Monica, I read a post from David Lose, President of Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and biblical scholar, who wrote on this exact topic for congregational leaders. The similarity between my discussion and this posting was uncanny. Lose writes to pastors:
 
“What fears pursue you during the day and haunt you at night? What worries weigh you down so that it’s difficult to move forward in faith? Is it the fear your congregation will shrink or die? Fear that you will not make budget? Concern that you don’t know why what you’re doing doesn’t seem to work like it used to? Or anxiety about what will come next? Perhaps it’s simple anxiousness about whether there will be conflict at the next meeting of your church vestry.
 
These fears have a way of sneaking into our very being and robbing us of the abundant life Jesus came to announce and to share.
 
Only after naming our own fears, I think, is it fair to ask our people what they may fear. (And, to be sure, they may overlap.) Fear about being alone, fear about losing a loved one or a relationship ending, anxieties about health or employment, concern for the future of one’s children or grandchildren, dread about the return of mental or physical illness, apprehension for the environment and the world we will leave behind? All these and more strip life of pleasure and joy and make it very difficult to be wise and faithful stewards of the present moment and resources with which God has entrusted us.
 
Jesus’ response to our fears and anxieties is an invitation not to faith intellectually – as if believing in God somehow prohibits fear – but rather to faith as movement, faith as taking a step forward (even a little step) in spite of doubt and fear, faith as doing even the smallest thing in the hope and trust of God’s promises (davidlose.net).
 
All of us in one way or another have a Cave of Fear that we dread and try to avoid. It is only by entering that Cave, do we end up controlling our fears rather than our fears controlling us. I believe this theology is wrapped up in our Baptismal theology and proclamation. Taking a step in faith, even a small one, in the hope and trust of God’s promises is what we just proclaimed in the baptismal liturgy: “Do you put your whole trust in [Jesus’] grace and love?”
 
Today, we renew our faith and our trust in God through the salvation power of Jesus. As I always share with the family of those being baptized, baptism is not a get-out-of-hell-free card, but rather the initiation into the life of grace; the life of grace promised by God through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is not a call into a life of fear, but rather the entrance into a life of faith, trust, and promise.
 
Talking about my fears with two trusted people on my staff helped to remind me that we are about the work of God in this place. We are not about our own work, but God’s work. Leading an Episcopal Day School is God’s work. Serving and managing a Resale Shop that benefits people beyond our walls is God’s work. Serving and leading a congregation to come to the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ is certainly God’s work – not my work or your work or anyone else’s work, but God’s work. We are simply and gracefully called into this work by our baptism.
 
Let us pray:
Almighty God, we thank you that by the death and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ you have overcome sin and brought us to yourself, and that by the sealing of your Holy Spirit you have bound us to your service. Renew in us, your servants, the covenant you made with us at our Baptism. Send us forth in the power of that Spirit to perform the service you set before us; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
 
 
 
 
 
 

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Easter Change

Easter is a natural time for change. I know we don’t usually like change, especially in our faith communities. We like stability and predictability. Although sometimes we do like and appreciate change. Take politics for instance. Have you noticed how many politicians run on the notion and promise of “change”? Maybe when we are open to change, it may be because we are expecting the change to be something like the way we think things use to be, or the way we think things ought to be.
 
Why do I begin on the subject of change? Well, because when we speak of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are professing a faith and a reality that changed everything. It changed how we relate to God and how God relates to us. Jesus’ Resurrection was a victory over oppressive political and religious power structures. Jesus’ Resurrection was such an act of love that it’s as if God fell in love with us all over again. That’s what I love about Easter. In God’s eyes, we get to start over again with a clean slate.
 
So how do we, the Church, respond to this love and newness of life? Well, first, with gratitude. Unbridled gratitude. But then this gratitude and response to God’s love for us must – must, extend from us and be passed on to others.
 
Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, calls for a “seismic shift” in the way Anglicans must carry out the work of extending God’s love to others (this is evangelism, by the way). As Anglicans and Episcopalians, we love our church. We love our history and we love our traditions. The Episcopal Church, as I have always considered it, is the “come and see” church (“Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Come and see.” John 1:46). When someone asks, “what is the Episcopal Church” or “what does your church believe”, the best answer, in my opinion, is “come and see”. Come to an Episcopal Church and hear the prayers and experience the rhythm of the liturgy and you will see what we believe in, what we stand for.
 
 
But before we begin to encourage one another to invite others to “come and see”, we have some work to do as God’s people. Archbishop Welby said a couple of things about the Church: “First”, he said, “the church exists to worship God in Jesus Christ. Second, the Church exists to make new disciples of Jesus Christ. Everything else is decoration. Some of it may be very necessary, useful, or wonderful decoration – but it’s decoration.”
 
We as Christians have our work cut out for us because the world needs so much to hear that there is a God that, through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, has fallen in love with them. We must let others know this very simple, yet profound and most important message. Welby acknowledges, “I am under no illusion as to the seismic shift that needs to take place in order for this to happen. But a seismic shift is what we need. For this country will not know of the revolutionary love of Christ by church structures or clergy, but by the witness of every single Christian.
 
I believe his words that it will take a “seismic shift” in our Anglican churches to be a church of invitation and sharers of the life-changing message of Jesus Christ. It’s because as Anglicans and Episcopalians we’ve just never really been good at this sort of thing. But we must begin a change, or a transformation from this behavior. We love our church and its people. So why not share this Good News that the Episcopal Church proclaims in Jesus?
 
My immediate plan is to bring a team of vestry and lay leaders to a 2-day Summit at Camp Allen that will inspire us to engage in the work of Invitation and Welcome. Look around in your church on any given Sunday morning and notice the number of people present. The number seems to be declining. Of course, we will never be a mega-church or a Lakewood, and few if any of us would ever strive to be that. Yet, we all want our church to reach more people. Not for the sake of just having them here, but that we will play a vital and exciting role in bringing others to the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ.
 
Another Archbishop from A.D. 407, John Chrysostom said, “To become a disciple of Christ is to obey his law of love; and obedience to the law brings joy beyond measure and description. Love means to want the best for others, sharing with them the joy of love. So the Christian feels compelled to speak to others about the law of love, and the joy of obeying this law.”
 
We are not all going to become evangelists overnight, but we can begin to address the changes we need to make corporately and individually to engage in this work for the Church of Jesus Christ that we are called to steward.
 
So, I have an easy task for you: Invite someone to church for Easter Day. (I have actually done this myself already. I invited a neighbor.) Bring someone in time to have breakfast here on Easter morning, served from 9 to 10. And most importantly, give your guest the “come and see” treatment as we joyfully worship God in gratitude and awe of Jesus’ Resurrection.
 
I conclude with Welby’s final sentences, “Jesus involves us in His work of calling people to follow him. This is the work of evangelism. However weakly, however hesitantly, He calls us to extend our hands and our hearts, to use our words and lives, to echo His call to every person to follow Him. For it is the best decision anyone can ever make is to be a follower of Jesus Christ.
 
Have a blessed Holy Season of Lent and a joyous Eastertide.

Crumbs and Grace

"Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." 
 
 
There are a lot of profound sayings or responses in scripture and for me, this response is at the top of the list.
 
 
The response comes from Jesus' initial reaction to a Syrophoenician woman whose daughter lies ill from a demonic possession. She begs Jesus to heal her daughter and Jesus - one might say callously - responds to her request by saying "Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's; food and throw it to the dogs." Immediately we want to rescue Jesus from this cold response, by dismissing it as a test or some sort of translation miscue that softens the statement. I say no, Jesus said what he said and meant it. We should hold him to it. What might be prudent on our part is to go a bit deeper. It's always a good idea for the scripture-reading Christian to go a bit deeper!
 
A traditional answer to the question of why Jesus answers her so is: He is not actually refusing her but rather testing her. That is, the rebuff, the insult, the rejection – these aren’t real at all but rather the means by which to test her faith, to see if she really, really believes in him. And, of course, she passes.
 
The trouble with this interpretation is that 1) there is no mention of testing in this story, and 2)I think it creates a rather cold-hearted picture of a God who taunts and tests us in our deepest moments of need. If not this interpretation, then what? Why on earth, that is, would Jesus react to someone in need in such a harsh manner?
 
As callous as his response was to her - I think Jesus was elevating this woman's status. Doesn't this sound more like the Jesus we know? Doesn't the thought of Jesus finding an outsider, an outcast, someone who is seen by his religious culture as a lesser human, then elevating that person's identity and humanity to be on par with his? I think it does.
 
Jesus invites this woman - this "woman; a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin" - into a rabbinic dialogue. Rabbi's argued. It's how they discussed the meaning and interpretation of scripture and of God's deeds of power. Jesus invites her. If he didn't care for her at all, he would have blown her off completely, but he doesn't do this. Rather, he invites her into a dialogue.
 
At first glance, Jesus is being cold and callous, indeed, illustrating the prevailing mindset that Jewish men would have toward such an outsider, outcast, and lesser human. He in effect tells her no. Because what he has to offer is for the House of Israel alone, God's chosen, those who will hear his teachings and his voice that Israel will be restored to God. Why would he waste his time on someone who doesn't share this faith? What is this woman really after? Is she really seeking out the Son of God, the Anointed One, to heal her daughter, or is she just desperate and looking for a quick fix? I don't know if Jesus was thinking this way, but obviously there was hesitation in Jesus' willingness to help this woman.
 
One of my favorite biblical commentators, David Lose shares that, "Perhaps, just perhaps, Jesus had not yet realized the full extent of God’s mission or the radical nature of the kingdom he proclaimed.
 
We may find this a somewhat uncomfortable conclusion to reach. We want to think of Jesus as full-bodied, perfect, and immutable from birth, right? But if we are to take Mark’s narrative seriously, never mind the incarnational and creedal affirmation that Jesus is fully human as well as fully divine, then perhaps we should not be surprised to see a development in Jesus’ own recognition of God’s vision for the world. After all, the profoundly expansive notion of a kingdom that included everyone – no exceptions! – was completely and totally novel. (And still is!)
 
If so – if we can imagine that this woman didn’t simply pass a clever test but instead, and as Jesus himself says, demonstrated profound faith – then we might acknowledge that this brave mother actually taught the Teacher something and, therefore, might have some things to teach us as well.
 
"Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." Such a profound statement, I think, should teach us all something. It should teach us something about ourselves and our own faith, it should teach us something about the stranger and those in need, and it should certainly teach us something about God's grace and the great need all of us have for just a morsel of it.
 
We are surrounded by those who would beg for such grace and indeed as we come together in this beautiful, air conditioned church, seeking comfort in our lives, there are thousands out there right now, surely pleading to God and to whomever will listen, for just a little grace; just a little relief. "Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs."
 
The present Syrian refugee crisis is beyond anything we have witnessed since WWII. Images of fleeing families with no homes to return to; refugee camps filled with career venturing Syrian and other middle-eastern workers and professionals, driven out from violence and the fear of death to find new homes; to resettle. The images of fear-stricken families, hungry children, and yes, even the most heart-wrenching of all, the Turkish policeman carrying the lifeless body of a child washed up on the shore.
 
We know that the cries of the parents and families are filled with exasperation for just a crumb of God's goodness, a morsel of God's grace. The good news is that churches in our diocese are involved and helping with this crisis and that you will hear of ways that you can help as well.
 
Yes, even across an ocean, we are able to do something, and we should. In the meantime we pray. Right now, prayer is the most powerful weapon we have. May our prayers open our hearts and our lives to all those, who are in despair, like this brave outsider and mother that we about in Mark’s gospel.
 
"Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs."
 
If you've never read the book "The Ragamuffin Gospel" by Brennan Manning, I highly recommend it. The Ragamuffin Gospel is filled with stories of God's grace. Brennan recounts an old story about Fiorello LaGuardia, who was New York City mayor during the worst years of the Great Depression.
 
 
One night in January of 1935, the mayor turned up at a night court in the poorest ward of the city. LaGuardia dismissed the judge for the evening and took over the bench himself. Within a few minutes, a tattered old woman was brought before him, charged with stealing a loaf of bread. She told LaGuardia that her daughter's husband had deserted her, her daughter was sick, and her two grandchildren were starving. But the shopkeeper, from whom the bread was stolen, refused to drop the charges. "It's a bad neighborhood, your Honor, " the man told the mayor. "She's got to be punished to teach other people around here a lesson."
 
 
LaGuardia sighed. He turned to the woman and said "I've got to punish you. the law makes no exceptions - ten dollars or ten days in jail." But even as he pronounced sentence, the mayor was already reaching into his pocket. He extracted a bill and tossed it into his famous sombrero saying, "Here is the ten dollar fine which I now remit; and furthermore I am going to fine everyone in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a town where a person has to steal bread so that her grandchildren can eat. Mr. Bailiff, collect the fines and give them to the defendant."
 
 
So the following day the New York City newspapers reported that $47.50 was turned over to a bewildered old lady who had stolen a loaf of bread to feed her staving grandchildren, fifty cents of that amount being contributed be the red-faced grocery store owner, while some seventy petty criminals, people with traffic violations, and NYC policemen, each of whom had just paid fifty cents for the privilege of doing so, gave the mayor a standing ovation.
 
 
What an extraordinary moment of grace for anyone present in that courtroom! The grace of God operates at a profound level in the life of a loving person. Oh that we would recognize God's grace when it comes to us (Manning 91, 92)!
 
 
"Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." Just a little of what Jesus offers, changes lives.
 
I repeat this statement that the Syrophoenician woman responded with to Jesus, because it is a statement of victory. As I said, Jesus may have seen an outsider in his midst, but he invited her into a conversation, literally an argument as rabbis commonly bantered, and she won the argument! This non-Jewish, non-male nobody, wins the argument with the great Teacher and Master and Jesus has no problem with it. Immediately her daughter is healed.
 
Jesus invites the least likely of all people into relationship with him and restores all people to God by his grace and favor. And we are called as well to invite the least likely of all people into this fellowship of believers. It is only when we open up our selves, both as individuals and as a congregation, to the other, are we the viable, healthy, robust people of God that Jesus calls us to be.
 
Elsewhere in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus says that only those who give away their lives will find it. I think that’s true both in our individual and congregational experience. And I think Jesus first learned just how true that is from this fiercely loving mother.
 
May we too recognize, celebrate, and give thanks for the extraordinary grace that God offers to us through Jesus…and the least likely through whom the Spirit chooses!