Monday, December 31, 2007

"What Will Endure?"

This is a reflection that was given on December 30, 2007 at Trinity @ 7

I have often thought of endurance
Not to run the race
But of what will last
From age to age
Or as eternal as a flower bloom
In the timeline of history
What is five hundred years
Or a few thousand, even
In the span of humanity?

But still, I consider endurance
A family name will not endure
A fortune will not endure
A violin will not endure
A temple will not endure
This building will not endure
Cities will rise, cities will fall
Civilizations will peak and decline
Or fall ruin and be forgotten
In two short generations.

It is rather a silly illusion to think
In terms of forever
They say the Buddhist monks
Paint intricately in sand
Take a good look
And destroy their art
Because nothing lasts
And it is an illusion to think it does
It creates only more suffering
When we try to prolong
What needs to die

But, a story may endure
A cradle song, passed down unthinkingly
From mother to child
To father to child may endure
Stories themselves will certainly endure
For we are a storytelling people
And not just since the invention
Of the moving picture
Music and song will endure

But as I think of these things
I wonder,
Is there anything I can create that will endure?
Is there anything our community
Our society can create
That might endure?

But all the while my thoughts are not innocently wandering
I have a destination
And I’d like to arrive there
Integrity intact
Because I wonder about a world
Where peace is assumed as a foundation
Where disagreements are reconciled without violence
Where people have dignity, all people
And no one is left outside of justice
Not just lip service
Not the next campaign promise
Nor the next Millenium Development Goal
Not the next single actor using their power for good
Instead of evil
Not one person shouting to be heard

An entire world civilization,
Because I think to myself,
That might endure
But what is the path
That will lead us to the road
Where this can be experienced?
Because the path of tyranny does not lead there
And the path of an arms race does not lead there
And the path of my god is better than your god
Does not lead there
We walk so many paths, as a planet that do not lead there
America walks so many paths as a nation that do not lead there
New York walks so many paths as a state that do not lead there
Buffalo walks so many paths as a city that do not lead there
And you and I, even we sitting here, thinking these noble thoughts
We walk far too many paths ourselves, that do not lead
To such an enduring place

And yet, when we back up from the canvas of our lives
Tilt our head and squint a bit
What is it that we do that will endure?
Our stories?
Our cradle songs?
Certainly not our monuments
Standing back, looking at the canvas
What is it we do
Each one of us
Each day
That works toward that which endures?

For even when tyranny attempts to wipe that out
It crops up all the stronger
Like a weed in the midst of your formal garden
It seems to endure
Despite your best efforts

What can we do, I wonder, to help it along?

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Who is Jesus?

This was the sermon preached this morning, Christmas 1, Year A, 2007

Merry Christmas.

You know what I love about the season of Christmas? That it only really starts on Christmas Eve. Of course, all around us you would think that the official beginning of Christmas was the day after Thanksgiving (or is it the day after Halloween these days?), and the end is about noon on Christmas day, but this is not the case. It will be Christmas until Epiphany, which is next Sunday, January the 6th.

Now the Christmas season is about a lot of things, really. You can focus in tight on the picture and say that it’s about the birth of a child. You can take a wider view and see an ancient nation crying out against injustice from within and injustice imposed from without, crying out for someone to come and stop the madness. You can take a still wider view and see that this is the celebration of a beginning of a life that would change the landscape of global history – sometimes for good, sometimes for ill. You can take that wide angle view and call this individual God, some kind of manifestation of God, but then that opens the door for some serious splitting of hairs. God from God? Sort of God? Son of God? (Wait, aren’t all prophets ‘Sons of God’?) Mostly God, Slightly Human? Entirely God, Entirely Human? Created by God, but Created First? Uncreated and Eternal? A Completely Separate God, Bigger and Better and Nicer than that God of Moses?

And I have just named to you some of the major heresies and controversies of the Early Church. And when I say major, I mean major. People were fighting in the streets about this sort of thing, back then. …Oh wait, we still do that.

We still do that.

We still say that my god is better than your god.

We still say that something eternally horrific is going to happen to you if you don’t follow my god.

We still say that even though we follow the same god, you’re doing it all wrong, so you don’t count.

We still do this, or at least, a great number of us on the planet still do this. But there is an alternative – and I’m guessing more than one, but here’s the one that inspires me: (I like to call it, How To Be A Christian Without Tripping Over Yourself.)

I think of Jesus. (I know, this doesn’t shock you.) I think of how for Jesus, so very often, the proof was in the pudding. He cared less about what people believed, and what they purported to believe, and he cared more about what they actually did. Because what they did spoke volumes about where their heart was. You see this all throughout the gospel accounts of his life and ministry. It might not seem quite as sensational as a Fox News report to us, but believe me, for his time he was breaking social rule left and right. Let me give you a few examples.

The Pharisees and Saducees – remember them? Jesus, as a Rabbi and prophet could have been on good terms with them, but he typically said things that rocked the political and social and religious boat, so they had no great love for him. And he refused to be blinded by their so called piety as easily as he side-stepped the many times they tried to trap him in his own words. But the thing is, these were people who were supposed to be the good guys – these were the holy ones, but Jesus saw through what they seemed to be on the outside. In fact, one account has him calling them ‘whitewashed tombs’, meaning that they were pretty and presentable on the outside, but rotting on the inside.

Another example of Jesus not taking someone’s public face as the descriptor of who they were as a human being is the story of the Centurion and his daughter. Jarius, was his name. Now, in ancient Roman-occupied Israel you can imagine, perhaps just how very unpopular a Roman Centurion was. Oh yes, you’re very polite to them if you happen to meet one on the way because there are dire consequences if you’re not, but on the inside you’re seething with anger and resentment. You feel this way not because of something the Centurion has necessarily done, but because of what they represent. (Any Americans traveling abroad may have encountered this phenomena.) But this was not the reaction of Jesus. When the Centurion came to find this traveling preacher and healer so that his own daughter could be healed, Jesus saw through the armor plate of Rome to the man underneath who was suffering and who had reached out. And as the story goes, Jesus agreed to come. And then of course, Jarius stopped him, not wanting to unduly waste the master’s time, but rather told him to simply say the word, because as Jarius himself knew, as someone who had the management of many men, all Jesus would have to do is say the word, and his daughter would be healed. Jesus, as the story goes, was happily astounded, and rounded on his students and hangers on and told them all to be more like the Centurion, which I’m sure they did not enjoy. Why? Because this is one of the very few times in the Gospels where someone gets it, without having to have it explained to them. They get that it is what you do, even more than what you say.

And there are more examples all throughout the Gospels. They usually involve Jesus snubbing, or showing up someone who is in some way hypocritical, or Jesus being radically hospitable to someone who is on the margins – women, children, the sick and contagious, foreigners, prostitutes, people in typically corrupt jobs like tax collectors, people connected to the occupying force, like Jarius the Centurion.

And so, when I think, how do I be a Christian Without Tripping Over Myself, my answer is radical hospitality. Or put a different way, I consider this: I do not make my own belief a bludgeon with which to brutalize others, and I don’t respect those who do. Rather, I do pattern my life on a radical hope that peace is possible, justice can flow like a great river, and violence need not be the answer. Now, yes, these are very simple, general concepts, but they are applicable throughout all of life. In our homes, in our neighborhoods, in our city, in our nation, and in our world. And thing that inspires me toward this radical hope, and maybe it’s what inspires you as well, or maybe there’s some other facet that works for you, but what inspires me is this vision of God who loves like a parent (a functional parent mind, not a disfunctional one), this vision of God that so enraptured the man we call Jesus that he went out and lived for this God, right up until the point that he died.

And as for the controversy of who Jesus is, I take his cue there as well. In three out of the four gospel accounts of his life and ministry, (and I may say, the earliest three) Jesus was rather hesitant to put an title to himself, or a name to what he was doing, other than ‘teacher’ or ‘rabbi’. He frequently got irked when his students got uppity and tried to label him. Why did he do this? I can’t say. But in my imagination, it is because he knew, somehow, that when we label things, we tend to stop thinking about them, because if we label them, we know what they are, and we can more easily discount them, if not ignore them all together. After all, the ancient world didn’t need one more messiah. Messiahs were a dime a dozen – everybody and their brother was claiming to be the messiah. The world needed someone willing to roll up their sleeves and do some work.

The world still needs that.

Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A Christmas Collect

It's a Christmas Collect somewhat different from the one in the BCP.

O God, you make us glad by the yearly festival of the birth of Jesus the Messiah, Prophet and Son whose message and ministry provide for us light in the midst of darkness, hope in the midst of apathy, and strength in the midst of weakness: Grant that we, who see him as our inspiration in this world may hold fast to our faith and relationship with you, knowing that nothing in heaven or on earth can part us from your love; this we pray in the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier God. Amen.

"A Dream in Aramaic & English"

This sermon was given on December 16, 2007, which was Advent 3, Year A.

When I wondered what it meant when we said that we believe Jesus is the Messiah, when I wondered if that meant that Jesus was God, or that Jesus was the Son of God, or that Jesus (along with all of the other prophets of the Hebrew scriptures, as well as the angels as we have them in the Hebrew scriptures) is a Son of God, when I wondered how much of what we take for granted now has more to do with other people thought of Jesus, with their own personal and cultural spin, and less to do with what actually might have occurred in a rigorous and factual way, when I get to wondering about all of this, as I did the other day, thinking about this Sermon, I had a little daydream, which I’d like to share with you.

I start by wondering if we – we, the historical church in all of it’s branches down throughout the twenty centuries we’ve been kicking around – I wonder if we are making Jesus into someone he would have been scandalized to be seen as, when he walked on this earth. And so I have a little daydream about what would happen if Jesus and I went to a Midnight Christmas Eve service at St. John the Divine. And I have a little daydream about what would happen if Jesus and I went to the 11am Easter Sunday service at the National Cathedral – not something to otherwise miss. And assuming that I or he somehow got over the Aramaic-English thing (because really, my ancient Hebrew is terrible and my Aramaic non-existent. And really, English hadn’t been invented yet, when he was around.) So, assuming that we got over the formidable language barrier, what would we have? One flipped out prophet?

Would he be horrified to see images of himself on a Roman instrument of torture and execution, right up front? Would he be horrified that there were crosses EVERYWHERE on EVERYONE, including little golden crosses on little girls?

What do you think this Jewish peasant would make of our hymnody with organ and trumpet and choir and string section? What of the stories? His birth, a star in the sky, kingly gifts, choirs of angels, to say nothing of a virgin birth. He might recognize that motive better than we – it was the same story the Caesars got to use about their own births so they could claim that they were less human and more divine than everybody else. It was used as a way to rationalize the abuse of power. Do you think that this man, this rabbi in occupied Israel would be pleased, or even impressed by being compared this way to the head of the Roman government? I wonder.

But in my imagination, after being horrified by some of our religious imagery, I can imagine this Jesus make some inquiries of his own:

Have you managed to phase out violence?
(After all, we have had 2000 years to work on this issue, so you’d imagine we’d have made some progress, but, erm, no, not really…)

Are those with wealth and influence acting in just ways to the poor?
(Er, not so much yes as no.)

Are the powerful acting with equity for all people?
(Rarely, I’d have to reply, being as I am, at least moderately well aware of not only the politics of my own country, but of several other countries around the world. Rarely, I’d have to reply, even in those nations where the people themselves share in the ruling.)

Are the little people taking care of their own?
(Sometimes, I’d say ruefully, but it’s generally the exception, not the rule.)

Is God known universally as a source of love and light?
(That particular God doesn’t get much press, I’d report with slight embarrassment. Meanwhile, I’d hope he wouldn’t ask me about the Vatican’s sanction of the Holocaust, or the Crusades, or the Jesuits during the Inquisition, or the Protestant Witch Hunts, or the Jihads, or Northern Ireland, or the Sudan, or the KKK, or, or… really, anything.)

And this is about the time, in the flight of fancy that I’m having, that my insides are just twisted up in knots, because for every small advance our world has made toward living out the kingdom of Heaven, it seems to me that we’ve made steps backwards, sometimes larger, even, than our progress forward. And that realization is, to me, a sharp pain in the midst of this holiday season – a pain which feels at first out of place, but then upon closer examination, upon living with that pain a bit, seems to be exactly what Advent is about, even if it is diametrically opposed to the theme of commercial Christmas.

And this is about the time in this flight of fancy that I’m having, where I expect to turn to Jesus, my oddball Ancient Aramaic companion, and see condemnation in his eyes, a rod of iron in his hand, ready to beat me and the rest of the world – particularly everyone who dares to call themselves Christian – ready to beat us to a bloody pulp for this. In fact, this vision of Christ is the one I was raised with. The Lord coming in Majesty to Judge with a Rod of Iron. And when I turn to my companion all I see is a short middle eastern man who is in the process of rolling up his sleeves. When I look at him and silence hangs between us as I try to understand what is going on, actually, so different from what I’d always assumed, and I ask, my voice more timid than I want to admit to, “So then, I’m not going to hell?”

He rolls his eyes, as if to say, “Would you please get over yourself? Who says this is all about you?” But instead, he poses his own question – and really, that is the Jesus I’ve come to know: always ready to deflect someone who is on entirely the wrong track with a question of his own that will set them to thinking on the right track.

So he asks his question, as we stand in my imagination on the close of the National Cathedral, listening to the carillon and the happy shrieks of small children in their Easter best, I stand next to this peasant-wonder with his sleeves rolled up and he asks, “Well, we’ve got a lot of work to do, then, don’t we?”

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Historic Lust for Mock Unity

Hey yall.

My rector, the Rev. R. Cameron Miller, has gone and done it again. He's hit the nail on the head and if anyone is interested, please go read his blog. It may interest you to know that his latest entry is the column that got censored from our diocesan newspaper, and so the only place you'll get to see it is the blog. If you have no idea what I'm talking about - ykno the bru-ha about the Episcopal Church, the gay bishop and all the angry African bishops in the Anglican Communion? The Immenent Schism? That's what I'm talking about.

His article starts thus:

When A Church's Leadership Fails

After meeting for a week in New Orleans the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church chose a historic lust for mock unity and institutional order over the more primal values of the Gospel: radical love and hospitality. The bishops began with this woeful statement:


If you read his blog, please leave a comment and let him know. He's not a techie and doesn't understand lurkers.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

You'll fill to expand the space you're in.

This little snippet was given at tonight's evening service. Enjoy.

Do you remember the second law of thermodynamics? If you ever knew it, if it didn’t go in one ear and out the other, if you aren’t one of those poor souls who never that the opportunity to experience the Joy of Physics Class.

The second law of thermodynamics is ostensibly about the games that gasses play.

A gas will expand to fill whatever size container it finds itself in. You can squish a lot of gas into a really small container and sure, there’s some high pressure in that little jar, that small canister, but it’ll fit.

You can suck out all but a tiny amount of gas from a really big container, and sure, there’s some really low pressure air in there, which is to say, something like a vacuum, but it works. The gas evenly distributes itself over that large space…

Physical sciences aside, there’s an existential implication to this observation about the natural world. This little bit of wisdom can apply to our lives.

The human mind is a bit like a gas in that second law. It fills, it expands it finds all the nooks and crannies of the box it’s in, the series of boxes it’s in all throughout life. And if we try to cram our minds in tiny boxes, the most amazing things happens, contrary to the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics.

Habit. Habit happens. (Previously unaccounted for in any law of thermodynamics.) And comfort sets in, and before we know it the tiny box to which we’ve relegated our minds feels like a cozy little cabin by the sea (to say nothing of the fact that we keep tripping over our own feet inside of it) – and who would want to leave such a comfy little place?

But, if we dare to shed that small container and find ourselves in a bigger one, there is a moment of crisis. A moment of extra-low pressure, something almost like a pure vacuum. And this can be a liberating sensation, or a deeply troubling one. We’ve all seen people, and sometimes we’ve been the ones who, when confronted with the possibility of stepping out of that mental headspace, stepping out of that imaginary and tiny seaside cottage… we take only one, perhaps two steps out into the wider world before turning around and heading back in again.

Others take a step outside and experience that same moment of crisis but for whatever reason, and it may be simple obstinacy, they stay outside, despite the discomfort, which eventually dissipates.

Still others take a step outside and let out a happy yell – they always suspected there was more than just the cottage…

Now, we say, take time to live.

And we say, get acquainted with yourself.

Most people are saying, enjoy life.

And even say, get to know God.

But it may be that there is something we need to do before these things, because there’s something like a prelude that has been going on in the background all of this time, and it’s so familiar it’s easy to dismiss – it’s easy to ignore.

Perhaps the first step is really the step that takes us out of whatever tiny mental headspace we find ourselves, whatever imaginary seaside cottage we find ourselves in, whatever tiny little box we’ve stuffed ourselves in, or found ourselves stuffed in.

It’s a metaphor, and really, it only goes so far. But it is a place we can begin – a place where we can all meet, and begin. And so the question tonight is this:

What does it look like? What does that box that encases your mind look like? What is the shape, the texture, the feel? Where are the nooks and cranies that feel so comfortable? Where are those spaces that feel ‘outside the box’ while affording the comfort of never having to leave it? And once you’ve got this, or some idea of it, there’s one last question to consider:

What would it take for you, here, right now, to take a step outside that box that you currently find yourself in?

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Gorgeous Pictures


So, as a part of our website redesign, we're getting some new pics done of the church. The photographer, who uses a new and funky technique to get the most out of the shots, put a few of them up on her flikr site, and they are just gorgeous.

...Though, a slight word of warning: While most of the comments on the pictures are unstintingly kind and generous, both to the photographer and the location, some are not. Some are cynical, and some are immature. So please, feel free to leave comments on her site and let her know what you think of the pictures - and the location, if the Spirit so moves you.

There are a set of five pictures - one of which is a closeup of a hymnal and BCP, which is stranagely ironic, as of course, at Trinity we don't use either one. That made me laugh.

So go, check it out. It's really quite beautiful, annoying commentary aside.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

"Never argue with a guy with a chain saw"

"Never argue with a guy with a chainsaw," person A said with something like astonishment.

"I didn't argue," person B said with a totally straight face. "I turned the hose on him. But he sneaked back three days later when I was not at home and he chopped the tree down, anyway."

...This was a conversation that actually occured during staff meeting. Identities have been sheilded to preserve the innocent. You see, the city cut down the wrong tree in front of our church. As reported to us by person C, when the gentlemen who were working on our rose window, and up in one of those bucket crane things (and who, by the by, had an impeccable view of the entirely healthy crown of the tree that is no more) when those same lovely stained glass workers asked the city's workmen why on earth they were cutting down this obviously healthy tree instead of the clearly pathetic one that did not weather the October storm well that was just three trees down, the city's workmen said, and I quote:

"Never argue with a guy with a chainsaw."

Excuse me?

That sounds like the sort of threat a bully would use. Or a mafioso enforcer. And, call me crazy, I'm fairly certian that it goes against the ethos encouraged by our dear mayor, Byron Brown.

"The Grand Secret"

This little something-something was offered in the evening service on Sunday, August 12, 2007.

I have a secret to share with you
It is the way to enlightenment
It is the path of righteousness
It is the key to the kingdom
I have a secret to share with you
And it is
That there is no secret.

Just do whatever is in you
To do
Because there is something
In you that yearns to
Do this thing
Because you’d be so bloody
Good at it.
It’s like ice cream for the soul
Doing whatever it is you’re
Meant to do.

So seek it out
If it’s not already
Glarringly obvious to you
Know it
Acknolwedge it
Own it
For it is yours to use
In the service of humanity

In the service of humanity
That would be our caveat
Our bit of disclaimer
Because as much as the
Wants you to live
Your potential
That can’t happen in a really
True way
If it happens at
The expense of someone else

So, acknowledge the goodness
Of whatever it is you’re here to do
Acknowledge the sheer beauty of it
The usefulness of it

And do it.

There is no secret,
You see?
Just do what is in you to do
Be who it is you are

But perhaps that is the part
We make into a secret
Since so often we
And those around us
Seem to refuse to do, to be
What we know we are.
We seem to refuse even
To seek out in a meaningful way
Our purpose
Even as we suffer for existing
Without it.

So I prose a challenge to you tonight:
Ask yourself:
What am I here to do?
What unique talent to I have?
How can I be a help to humanity?
All the while keeping yourself
Open to hearing the response
That WILL come.

And to those who already know,
I challenge you:
Are you doing it?
Wouldn’t you be happier if you were?

"Made to Last"

This sermon was given on Sunday, August 12, 2007, which was Proper 14, Year C.

The excerpt from Psalms today that we heard was only part of one whole psalm, Psalm 33, which really, is all about God: how wonderful God is, how God made everything there is, it’s a psalm of praise. Somebody was pretty happy about God when they wrote this. But it’s got some subtle digs in there, too. More than once it points out that while no matter what we do to it, this world we live in is a wonderful world, when we do what God calls right and good (and while right and good as defined by God is not included in this particular psalm, the prophets are happy to help us out with this definition)… when we do what God calls right and good, this wonderful world we live in works perfectly. Perfectly.

I’ll quote that particular bit of the psalm, since it appears before our excerpt:

God takes the wind out of Babel pretense,
He shoots down the world’s power-schemes.
God’s plan for the world stands up,
All his designs are made to last.

God takes the wind out of the pretense?

God shoots down the world’s power-schemes?

God’s plan for the world stands up?

All God’s designs are made to last?

Now this, this is a compelling vision of God. And perhaps for many of us, this is a completely new understanding of God. The question we might be asking ourselves right now, even if this isn’t a new understanding of God for us is this: Who is this God and where can we find him?

Well, that’s the point, isn’t it? God is everywhere. But if we want to deepen our understanding of this idea of God, we can certainly look to the prophets, who as I mentioned earlier, are happy to help us redefine God. So let’s take a look at what the prophets have to say about the God that shoots down the world’s power-schemes.

Eugene Peterson, the gentleman whose contemporary translation of the old and new testament we sometimes use, and have used today, describes the prophets this way, and it may help us to put the situation into context this morning. The Rev. Peterson says this:

Over a period of several hundred years, the Hebrew people gave birth to an extraordinary number of prophets – men and women distinguished by the power and skill with which they presented the reality of God. They delivered God’s commands and promises and living presence to communities and nations who had been living on god-fantasies and god-lies.

God-fantasies. God-lies.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t find much wiggle room in that description of the prophets. In his description, the Rev. Peterson goes on to point out that the prophets, down to the last one, weren’t known for their people skills, either. Which is to say that their condemnation was as absolutely scathing as their comfort and hope was powerful and transformative. These were not people who left you wallowing in a morass of guilt from the things you’d done, the lifestyle you’d participated in along with everyone else in your culture. These were the people who, after pointing out that God’s plan looked considerably different than your life, went on to give you a vision of hope for the future:

Isaiah did it. In my little study bible, Isaiah spends 66 pages, full solid pages of pretty small print, sending a message of judgment to the people of Judah. And if you’re ever looking for some good insults, there are some humdingers in there. He then spends 32 pages sending a message of comfort to those very same people. And then he spends 21 pages sending a message of hope.

Now, the book of Isaiah is pretty long – it’s a rather solid 66 chapters, and heaven help you if you read a translation of it that isn’t a contemporary one, because it’s chock full of obscure cultural and geo-political references that can be daunting, but for all of it’s length and density, Isaiah is the biggest, baddest, most transformative prophet that the Hebrew people ever produced.

Isaiah was Jesus’ favorite prophet, if the number of times he quoted him is anything to go by.

Isaiah features pretty strongly in all of our images of Jesus as Messiah, Jesus as the one who was foretold – because it was Isaiah that was doing the foretelling.

John the Baptist and all of his intentions to ‘make straight the way, for the coming of the Lord,’ that’s Isaiah speaking.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and his brilliant oratory skills demanding that justice flow down like waters, like a mighty river? That’s Isaiah.

It goes on. There’s more than just that. But the point in all of these things was that the nation of Judah (the southern chunk of was used to be a united kingdom of Israel under David, and then Soloman) was so caught up being wealthy and corrupt that it forgot the basic tenets of what it meant to be a people of God, which Isaiah spares no words in reminding them:

To love God with absolutely everything you’ve got: your heart, your mind, your soul, and your very being.

And, in case you do get caught up in silly piety and forget the implications of actually loving God, not just saying that you do, (says Isaiah) know this now and clearly: you have to love your neighbor as yourself. Love meaning: treat fairly, not gaining at their expense, honoring their dignity as a fellow human, including and not limited to anything else you can think of.

This is, in a nutshell, what all the prophets say. They attached specifics to the circumstances, because after all, they’re sent to a particular people at a particular time. And so, they do their best to point out where that particular people are failing miserably, and once they’ve pointed that out in great detail, they get on to the business of reminding them, for the people do already technically know, the prophets get onto the business of reminding those people what they are supposed to be doing. How they are supposed to be living – and not just so God can play control freak, no, that’s not the point.

The point is that we can make our world a more beautiful place, a more hospitable place, a place kinder to those who have less by some simple choices of our own. Or, we can make the world an uglier place, a cruel place, a place full of suffering for all but those who have the most, and we can do this through simple choices of our own.

That was the message to the people of ancient Israel, and ancient Judah.

It’s still the message today.

Since I do have people skills, and so am clearly not a prophet, I will refrain from insulting us all, but the pertinent fact of the day is this: Even the poorest among us have access to more resources than a heafty percentage of the world’s population. The ladies and gentlemen of Buffalo who will be dinning tonight at Friends of Night People have access to more resources than a hefty percentage of the world’s population. Now, that aspect of the wealth of America is to be commended. But other aspects are not so commendable, and I’m fairly certain you already have an idea of what they are, so I’m not going to go there.

But I will say this: there are prophets among us. They are sociologists, they are economists, they are politicians, and the UN has listened to them. Seven years ago, the UN set the Millennium Development Goals – eight goals in which, understood from a Christian standpoint, we are able to fulfill that need, that requirement of ‘loving our neighbor as ourselves’, and in doing so, we help to change our world, we help to change the very face of our world, altering it from the uglier, cruel place full of suffering for so many to a place that is more beautiful, more hospitable, and considerably kinder.

We are, in case you were wondering, half way in the timeline to the Millennium Development Goals – It is 2007, and the target date for these goals is 2015. But we are not halfway there in terms of progress. Some of the eight goals has seen considerable progress, some of the eight goals has not only see no progress, but the situation has gotten worse. And of all of the UN member nations that have completely fulfilled their pledge of monetary aide, only three member nations have actually paid that pledge. It may not surprise you to know that neither the US, nor Great Britain, nor Canada are among those three nations.

And yet, supporting these goals – these very achievable goals – that the UN has set out, not just for the governments of the UN member states, but for their citizens as well – that’s you and me – supporting these goals is like listening to the prophets of old, and not just listening, but hearing, digesting that information, and changing (this is key) changing not only our attitudes, but our behaviors as well.

I won’t go into detail about the Millennium Development Goals, or the MDGs here, but please be aware that the latest edition of the national church’s newspaper, EpiscopalLife has a special edition this month, all about the MDGs – the progress we’ve made or not made, what the Episcopal church has been doing, and what we can do as individuals, and there are extra copies of this paper that you can pick up after the service. If we run out, we can get more.

"The Ordinary Life"

This little something-something was offered at the evening service, circa August 5, 2007.

This was a day when nothing happened
And yet it was so full of
A nameless joy
But other than that, it had no destination
I woke up early and
Got the day started
All the normal, predictable things happened
I went to work
Was completely prepared
Did all the things I needed to do
Came home to eat and daydream
Return messages and a dozen other
Little things I like to do

And it reminds me
Of Professor Tolkien’s stories
Not of the great battles,
Or the kings and heroes,
But after great adventures,
After felling dragons
And negotiating the political chaos
That ensued,
Little Bilbo Baggins spent something like
A month
Just hanging out with the elves,
Dwelling in Rivendell,
Experiencing, perhaps, that nameless joy
That he tries do describe
By pointing out
That while great battles
And tales of suffering and woe
May make a fine story
That lasts for hours
Days spent in safety, peace, and contentment
Don’t make for good stories
Because there is no drama
No suspense, no plot, only a simple beauty
That is hard to replicate
In story form
Indeed, nearly impossible
Save to evoke memories
That we each carry
Of moments from our own
Beautiful lives

And then all we can really do
Is point and say
“There! There, do you see?
It was like that time
When you were in Maine
Walking along the coastline
And everything was quiet
Except for the ocean
Which roared
And it was so beautiful
So profound
So something-you-don’t-even-have-a-word-for
That you felt something shift
Inside of you
Like a giant puzzle piece
Plopping into place
And then you felt something
If beauty, peace, and contentment
Had a physical sensation
Like hot and cold do,
That would be it,
What you felt,
Right then
Except you didn’t consider yourself
A poet, a dreamer, a sage,
A celebrity who can incite
World Peace by simply releasing
The next album.
Because yours is the
Ordinary Life.
You never thought that
Your profound moments
Could touch anything like
Gandhi’s or Buddha’s or Jesus’
But that’s what I mean,”
You say as you point to that time
Your friend stood on the coastline of Maine
Feeling both Ordinary & Special at the same time.

You point to it, and say
“Remember that?
It’s just like that.”


This sermon was preached on Sunday, August 5, 2007, which was Proper 13, Year C.

I want to talk today about greed. Greed. Examples of it, how to recognize and why to avoid it is what all of the readings today touched on. And yet, there was no clear definition that would help us along in our own lives. And since it is sometimes helpful to look back on a word that is so common to us, to take a moment to think about what it actually means, this word that we all use, with greater or lesser frequency, let’s do that.

We hear a parent say to a child whose hand grabs for too many cookies, “don’t be greedy” and we know what that parent means – don’t take too much, don’t take more than your share, make sure everyone has a cookie before you take another, only take what you need, or in this case, the two cookie maximum that you know you’re allowed.

Don’t be greedy. In those three short words, that parent manages to pack a wealth of meaning that the child will only fully understand a bit later, though it’s never too soon to start.

There’s another way to think about greed, though – maybe more than one other way, but here’s one I’ve been thinking of. I find it helpful sometimes to think about the opposite of something, when I really want to get to understand it. And the opposite of greed could be… generosity. But I don’t think so. I think generosity is part of the opposite of greed, but I think it’s too specific. I think that the opposite of greed is really a way to live in the world we hold things lightly. Holding things lightly, meaning that we’re happy to have things (whatever those things are) come to us, and we’re happy to let them go. We literally, don’t hold on to them tightly. Our friends the Buddhists have a term for something like this, and it is non-attachment. And maybe that term, succinct as it is, will work for you, but I like the thought of holding things lightly.

And so, if holding things lightly is the opposite of greed, then that would make greed grabbing on tightly to those things that are yours and those things within your grasp. And not letting go. And by things, things in your grasp, am I just talking about money, about finances? No. Think, grabbing on tightly to possessions, to love, to attention, to power, to fame, to prestige… and sure, to wealth.

Now, I don’t know about you, but when I think, am I greedy? My instant answer is, ‘no, of course not.’ But if I rephrase the question, ‘do I grab on tightly to things in my life? Is there something, or some group of things that they would have to pry my cold, dead fingers off of to get it out of my possession?’ My answer to that is less bold and confidant. And yet, that is exactly what we’re talking about. It’s what the wisdom we heard read is talking about. Because what God teaches about greed is pretty clear.

God says don’t be greedy.

God says be generous.

God says greed is utterly pointless. Pointless. Because what you have doesn’t matter, it isn’t the point, even if what you’ve got is a lot – so getting more is besides the point. (And God help you if you get more at the expense of others who have less. None of the prophets have anything good to say about that.)

So, okay. Clearly we’re not to be greedy. We are to hold onto things lightly. But that, as perhaps you have noticed, certainly I have, is sometimes easier said than done. So, perhaps in trying to figure out how on earth we go about living out this teaching (which I think is an important part of any teaching – how we’re supposed to do it), it’s helpful to consider briefly what it is we might need this teaching to begin with.

Why are we greedy in the first place?

Now, there are several answers to this, I’m certain, and I’m equally certain that they’ve all got some measure of truth in them. But try this one on for size, and keep it if it seems to fit.

If you’ll think back with me through the bible, especially through those ancient Hebrew scriptures we call the old testament, there are a few resonating themes that, regardless of what story we’re in the middle of hearing, whether it’s about creation, or Noah and the ark, or Abraham and the promises of a great nation, or Moses and the delivering of that great nation, or Samuel, or David, or the judges, or the prophets – throughout all of it, there’s this theme, this refrain, echoing over and over again, and this theme says: God is enough. God is enough. God is enough.

And there are variations on that theme:

If you have God, you have enough.

If you trust in God, you don’t need to trust anything else.

…Now, there could be several understandings of this theme. Certianly, a popular, but I think, wrong interpretation of the idea that ‘God is enough’ is that all we have to do is ‘believe’, and nothing will ever go wrong, life will always be nice, we’ll never get sick, we’ll never be hungry, and nothing bad will ever happen. This is what is prayed for, and this is what we believe will really occur, if only we believe enough. And if it doesn’t occur, it’s because we didn’t believe enough. This, I think, is a rather simplistic view of the complex universe that God has created, and knowing that this is how some people, some Christians approach religion makes me understand what Marx said when he accused religion of being the opiate of the masses.

Because let’s face it, faithful people in ancient Israel knew full well that life wasn’t nice, lots of people got sick and died, or worse, got sick and continued to live on, sick and outcast from society, half-starved and reviled for the rest of their lives. People in ancient Israel knew that if you wanted to eat, hard work was required. And yet, their stories were filled with a theme that says, God is enough.

I think the theme ‘God is enough,’ while a simple phrase, is incredibly more complex than all of that. I think it has to do with abundance, priorities, and some of the inherent laws of the universe.

Or, we can think of it this way, since what we’re really trying to understand is greed, and how to avoid it. The only thing we should be holding tightly to is God. Cling to God. Think to yourself, you’ll have to pry my cold dead fingers out of God’s hand, because I’m not letting go.

And, just to be clear, I don’t mean an image of God. This is not license to go beat up someone else because we’re holding tightly to an image of God that someone else disagrees with, or understands differently, no, no, no.

But to hold tightly to God, rather than possessions, attention, power, fame, prestige, wealth, or even love, but to God… Knowing that these other things will come. These other things will come because the nature of the universe, one of the yet to be enunciated laws of the universe is abundance. Abundance, the concept that there is not just enough, but plenty for all – and greed disrupts the balance and flow of abundance. When we are not greedy, intentionally and however fully we can manage to be not greedy, we are then active participants in God’s abundance that flows to us, through us, and to other people. Now, we don’t get all the credit for that abundance to other people, because that wouldn’t be right and it’s not ours anyway, but we become part of the system that works, we become part of the solution, instead of being part of the problem.

So there you have it – Greed. It’s like saying to God, “No, actually, I don’t trust you. I don’t believe you can provide enough when it’s necessary, so I’m going to grab on tight to everything I can reach, and to hell (maybe literally) with the consequences.”

And when we live without greed, it’s like living with an open hand that easily accepts and easily passes on, and hand that helps the flow of abundance come to us, and go beyond us.

It’s the work of a lifetime, perhaps, but I’ve always thought that it’s best to start those life lessons now.

"How to Pray"

This sermon was preached on Sunday, July 29, 2007, which was Proper 12, Year C

Teach us how to pray.

That’s what Jesus’ friends and students asked him. Teach us how to pray. But of course, not just a simple, no strings-attached statement, teach us how to pray. It also has the added flavor of one-up-manship and whining. John taught his disciples to pray – won’t you teach us how to pray?

But for whatever the reason someone asks, it’s a good question to answer.

Jesus answered by coming up with a prayer that we now sometimes call The Lord’s Prayer, and taking it out of the specific terms that some of us know so well we don’t even think about them anymore, here’s what Jesus is really saying.

Jesus starts out addressing God, first of all, but he’s doing it in a radical way – he’s talking about a God who is so loving, so benevolent, so giving, and so caring that this God could be a parent – but Jesus goes further than that. Not content, as in most of our English translations, to address God as ‘Father’, he goes so far as to call him Daddy, like a small, trusting child would look up at their father, smile, and call him Daddy. That’s the kind of relationship that Jesus is assuming with God, and it’s the kind of relationship he’s modeling for us to have with God.

Now, if the idea of God as Dad doesn’t work for you, try God as Mom. If that really doesn’t work for you, move right on along to God as Beloved. It really makes no difference. The point is that God isn’t some nameless, faceless, passionless general manager of the Universe. Rather, God is even more caring, even more loving, even more giving and wise than even your own Dad, or Mom, than even your own partner.

So this is how Jesus starts out his prayer. Our Father in Heaven.

And then Jesus reminds us of how holy God is. Now, holy isn’t a word that is really in our every day vocabulary these days, though it would have been then. But just imagine, imagine trying to come up with a word, in this instance for God, that covers just how good God is. A word that expresses just how wonderfully loving, and giving, and caring, how imaginative, how creative, how wise, how powerful. Believe it or not, ‘holy’ actually covers all of that. And the somewhat archaic version of the word ‘holy’ is ‘hallow’

Our Father in Heaven,
Hallowed be your name.

Now comes an interesting bit, because Jesus is about to start praying for the things he’s doing in his own life and work. His whole three year ministry was about the Kingdom. The Kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of Heaven, if you prefer, and about how it is our job to see that this Kingdom manifests on earth with justice and peace.

Our Father in Heaven,
Hallowed by your name.
Your Kingdom come,
Your will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.

And now, Jesus starts praying for every day life, beyond his work and ministry – he’s now going to pray for the basic necessities (which weren’t always 100% assured), for relationships, large and small, and for help avoiding those things that are troublesome.

Our Father in Heaven,
Hallowed by your name.
Your Kingdom come,
Your will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread
And forgive us our debts
As we forgive the debts of others
Lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.

And that’s where the prayer ended.

Now, I want you to think for a moment – think back. Who taught you to pray? Were you ever taught? Was it something you picked up just because you were around other people? Did you never have a chance to pick it up? Have you ever wondered if your prayers are good enough, or even heard by God?

Well, if you’ve ever had a moment of wondering, have I got good news for you.


If you’re praying a prayer out of a book, or one you’ve memorized, or someone else is praying on your behalf, it counts. God hears.

If you’re praying in desperation because you just stubbed your toe, or you’re looking for a parking space you may not get, or because the baby won’t stop crying, it counts. God hears.

If you’re praying and it sound really more like angry shouting in God’s general direction because right now, things are not going well, not at all, it counts. God hears.

If you’re praying in utter silence – an intentional silence that some traditions call meditation – praying in that way where you’re not saying anything at all, but waiting and listening for God, that counts. God knows.

If you’re praying with your hands, making something – a meal, a garment, a table, a work of art, a piece of music, and there are no words, only powerful actions, that counts. God sees.

Praying is just part of this on-going conversation between us and God that we have throughout our lives. But, it needs to start somewhere, and if you’re curious about how to pray in that formal, vocal way, remember this:

Address God as God really is: loving, caring, and just really wonderful.

Pray for what you do, and what you need.

Pray for your relationship with others, knowing that you need to be forgiven, every bit as much as they need forgiving.

Pray to have help in avoiding the things that are too much for you.

Pray for the work Jesus left us to do: this living into the Kingdom of God, the kingdom that is all about justice and peace.

Do that, and you’ll be off to a great start, if you’re not already.

"Mary and Martha"

This sermon was given on Sunday, July 22, 2007, which was Proper 11, Year C.

All who are weary and heavy-laden…
All who are stressed-out and worn down,
All who are anxious and frazzled,
All who have had it up to here and can’t take it any more…


And this, you will notice, is not an invitation that will require a heck of a lot of hardwork on the part of the weary, stressed-out, anxious, heavy-laden, worn down, frazzled persons who have had it up to here and can’t take it anymore. Because after all, if these people had to do one more thing, have one more care, one more responsibility, they’d snap.

They’d just snap.

There are moments in our lives when what we need is to be poked and prodded and challenged. There are times in our lives when we need to have our assumptions, stereotypes, and basic attitudes turned utterly and completely on their heads because our God doesn’t take injustice lightly, nor does our God take inhospitability lying down.

But before that, and sometimes even in the midst of that, we need something else, because although we are a complex people, we are not an unchanging people – we are dynamic, fluid, and what we needed yesterday may yet be different from what we need tomorrow.

There are other times when we, the stressed out and heavy-laden, get to come to the feet of the master, summarily drop all of our cares at her feet, and then drop ourselves into a cushy chair with a cold drink at our elbow. But no, not then to vege out as we might do in front of a TV, or a radio, or a video game. No, that is not quite the sort of refreshment that God provides.

No, the kind of couch potato relaxing that may seem so common and natural to us is not really what brings us back to balance, real balance, though we can pretend it does. No because when we’re really balanced we’re ready to meet those rigorous requirements of God’s that encompass truth-telling dead ahead, of taking no bribes to our back, of all manner of hospitality on our right and of all manner of openness to our left – it’s the compass rose of God, and it centered, dead centered right where we are, always, in Love. Those are actions we can easily take part in when we’re at balance. That’s a compass rose we can live by when we’re at peace.

Peace. And the way you get to this peace, the way I get to this peace is to listen to the voice of God.

Now, if that seems to you a Herculean Task, don’t worry, because you’ve already done it dozens, nay thousands of times. Seriously. You have heard the voice of God, and so have I, though we may not have thought of it as such at the time. Lemme say that again so it can sink in, just in case this is a brand new thought. You have heard the voice of God, and so have I, though we may not have thought of it as such at the time. And that’s okay – it doesn’t upset God that other people get the credit.

But how – just for the sake of argument – should we know this voice of God that brings peace, particularly when we’ve never consciously recognized that voice to be of God before? Easy. It’s the one that brings peace. Or at least, in the mist of turmoil and suffering, it brings peace. In the midst of complacency, it tends to bring rather intense challenge. But that’s another story.

But no matter the situation, the voice of God is the voice that councils wisdom, peace, healing, and love. It’s the voice that reminds you and me of what we already wish to be true, sometimes, what we already deeply suspect to be true, what we already know to be true.

But lest you think this voice –whether it comes in the garb of that little voice inside your head, or the words of a friend or a stranger – lest you think this voice is always nice, always polite, please think again.

The voice of God is not always nice, polite, or even pleasant. But it is… caring.

And how could someone be caring, but not nice, polite, or pleasant? Parents – I bet you have some insight on this question.

I know that Martha in that story from the gospel of Luke that we just heard found out the embarrassing way how Jesus could speak with the voice of God and be caring, but not particularly pleasant.

Imagine it with me – Jesus is in their home, teaching. Mary is sitting at his feet, listening to him teach. Her sister, Martha, is busy making the meal – which back then took a heck of a lot of time and labor to produce. Now, ostensibly and according to the culture of the time, it’s Mary who is out of line. After all, this is her home, too, and part of showing hospitality for a woman would have been to be in that kitchen helping Martha. And yet, that is not what she chooses to do. One imagines she had her own reasons for shucking the expectations of her culture to sit and listen to the voice of God. Like, perhaps, that is what she needed to do. And Jesus didn’t say anything about it either way. Didn’t say, good for you, Mary. Didn’t say, get up lazy bones and get into that kitchen. Jesus was busy teaching.

Now, just as Mary made a decision to do what she did, so did Martha. She might have chosen not to cook, and they might have eaten late, and worse things could have happened. Instead she chose do to as she did, and Jesus didn’t say anything about it. He didn’t peek into his kitchen and say, well done, great hospitality. He didn’t call her out and demand to know why she wasn’t listening because he had some important stuff to say. He didn’t say anything. Jesus respected Martha’s decision to do as she would, just as he respected Mary’s.

But then, oh, then… Then Martha comes out. Does she pull Mary aside and demand help? No. She goes to the master. And this is where I always cringe, because it’s like watching a train wreck – you know something awful is going to happen, and yet you can’t look away, and it happens so quickly… “Tell her to come help me!” How embarrassing for Mary, in that moment, put on the spot, to have her sister do that, and how embarrassing still would it have been to have the Rabbi reprimand her.

And yet, Martha created a situation such that someone was going to lose face – and it was going to be either her sister or herself.

And what does Jesus do? Jesus bucks convention and refuses to reprimand Mary, who sits at his feet, listening. He respects Mary’s decision to sit and listen. And honestly, he respects Martha’s decision to be working and cooking, but he doesn’t respect Martha’s need to be a proverbial martyr in the kitchen, nor does he respect Martha’s need to redress Mary for making the decision she needed to make. And since Martha has pushed Jesus to comment on the subject, he’s going to do so honestly – it’s clear from the very conversation they’re having that Mary followed the decision of her heart, and Martha didn’t. And so he says, “Martha, dear Martha, you’re fussing far too much and getting yourself worked up over nothing. One thing only is essential, and Mary has chosen it – it’s the main course, and won’t be taken from her.”

Now, I don’t think this story is here so we can vilify Martha, and glorify Mary. I don’t think this story is here so we can use it as our excuse to never be hospitable, or never cook again, or to always be sitting, waiting, listening. No, because we are a complex and ever changing people. Some days we need to do one thing, and other days we need to do the other.

This story is here – one of the many reasons this story is here – is so that we can realize a few things. One of them is this: God won’t take our choices away from us, no matter how they bring us into balance, or keep us from it, God supports every decision that we make, for ourselves. Another thing we learn is this: God does not unanimously support the bad decisions we make for others – the judgments, the condemnations, the manipulations, and all of the untruths. It seems from this story that we can learn this: God respects our right to lie to ourselves, if that is what we’re really determined to do. However, God balks when we think we have a… God-given right to lie to others, to pull others into our self-delusion.

And so we find how the voice of God can be caring, and yet unpleasant. Caring, and yet not particularly nice. Because of all those lovely and general things we learn from this story of Mary and Martha, one concrete thing we might take away from it is this: when we, like Martha, start feeling resentful about the actions of others, that would be really great time to stop and listen for the voice of God. When we start feeling resentful about the actions of others, that’s a great signal for us that we aren’t getting what we need to feel balanced and at peace, whatever that thing that we need is.

And just like our best imitations of a couch potato doesn’t bring us into balance, neither does complaining to the Rabbi and hoping they will somehow, magically, restore balance.

Reaching balance, achieving peace, like all of our own, personal decisions, is something highly respected by God. And when we tell God that that is what we want to experience next, God will listen, and God will help. But will we be willing to receive that help and take the next, maybe frightening step of doing something different that we’ve done before?


Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Just Breathe

This little something-something was given Sunday evening, July 15, 2007.

Just breathing on that veil that separates
What Seems To Be and What Is
is the very thing that disintegrates it,
something lovers and mystics,
poets and infants,
musicians and philosophers,
parents and siblings
have been trying to explain to others
and themselves
for thousands and thousands of years
– time out of mind, really –
and it turns out that the stories told of it,
it – this experience,
are as different from one another
as we are, one from another.

And yet, there is an underlying
similarity, if you can
suspend your disbelief long enough
to read between the lines of
one person’s perspective,
one person’s issues
and pain
and fears
and frustrations.

And then what you can see
– the whole picture, including all those things –
is exactly what is,
no matter whether it’s a philosophical argument,
a piece of fantasy fiction,
an impromptu jazz improv,
or the act of washing an infant.

It’s all the same.
It’s all us breathing
– like we’ve never breathed before,
and like we’ve always been breathing
since the doctor/nurse/midwife
smacked us on the butt and began
our indoctrination to this reality
(somewhat harsh, compared to the womb)
we’d been breathing just like that since then,
but this time,
it was holy,
this time we knew it -
and for a split second
that lasted a year
the very air we breathe
actually dissolved the iron-thick door
between us and God

– the door that’s really just a curtain,
the curtain that’s really just a veil,
the veil that is so barely there
it’s only in our imagination,
our imagination that is so unhelpful
it turns it into a wrought-iron fortified door –

and for a heartbeat there’s nothing.
Absolutely nothing between us and God.

And then,
there’s something again,
and our brain snaps back
like a rubber band over extended,
but we’ve got the memory,
the sensation,
the experience of that moment
that nothing can take from us –
thank God nothing can take it from us.

And so we tell someone,
or we don’t.
It inspires something that we’re likely to do anyway –
music for the musician,
poetry for the poet,
yes, all of that,
but here’s the thing.

Here’s the amazing
jump up and down when no one’s looking
ecstatic thing:

this one experience
that may be followed by others
again and again and again
has the power
– and I do mean power –
to change us,
if we let it.

We can put our foot down and refuse,
of course –
of course we can.

But we can also crack open
the door of our souls
just a smidgen
(or even throw the door wide open –
that’s great, too)
and let the fresh air flow through.

It’s always then that we realize
how fresh the air really is,
and how cooped up we’ve been all along.

And before you know it,
you’re someone different –
a smidgen better,
a tad wiser,
and it feels like you’ve done
nothing at all to deserve it,
to work for it,
but of course,
it’s all a matter of perspective,
because if you’re like most of us,
it took a hell of a lot of something
to open the door just a smidgen,
but of course,
that’s not the sort of hard work
we typically give ourselves credit
for doing, when
we give ourselves credit for doing
something well, at all.

And so it goes.

Jesus as Clint Eastwood

This sermon was preached on July 15, 2007 (Proper 10, Year C)

Who is my neighbor?

The situation is a typical one. The new teacher comes walking into town – imagine the scene with me. I’m envisioning some Clint Eastwood Spaghetti Western. The new teacher comes to town with some disciples in tow. Out strides the locals with one or two official types out in front. The guy in town with the biggest hat, or the sharpest suit, depending on the town, takes a step forward from the crowd to test this newcomer.

In the Clint Eastwood mindset, we might expect that official to be thinking, “What side of the law is this one on?”

But for our purposes today, the official is thinking something more along the lines of, “What’s that boy teachin’? Is he Orthodox, or is he a heretic? Is he a good Jew, or is he a damn Samaritan?”

So a question is asked – one of those telling questions, one of those complex theological questions, and it’s one that presumably has no easy answer.

And what does Jesus do? He does what he always does in this situation – and I say always, because this isn’t the first time it has happened, and it won’t be the last.

Jesus, who is both crafty and wise, answers the question designed to trap him with another question that demands the accusing party answer it for themselves. Which just goes to show something rather important: We already have the answer; to this question and so many others, we already have the answer, if only we will trust ourselves enough to dare to speak it.

And because it is demanded of him, the lawyer answers with what any good Jew, then or now, might say to such a query. The answer has a name, it is so common, so well known. It is called “The Shema.” It’s a distillation of the first two of the ten commandments. It is the convenient answer to any question of what it is God requires of anyone, for anything. I won’t bother quoting it in my broken ancient Hebrew. Here it is again, in English:

Love the LORD your God
With all your heart
And with all your soul
And with all your strength
And with all your mind.
And love your neighbor as yourself.

That is the answer that Jesus’ cross-examiner has given to his own question. It is the answer that is given by the Hebrew holy writings, known as “The Law,” and it is eloquent, succinct, and correct. Jesus points out the correctness of the answer and tells him to follow his own advice. But the questioner is not content with having had to answer his own question, nor is he content that Jesus got out of giving his own answer. So he asks for further clarification. After all, this Jesus of Nazareth person was a traveling rabbi, and if there is one thing that traveling rabbis did well, it was their ability and willingness to comment on the holy writings. The same thing in a Christian setting would be called preaching. In the Jewish setting, it’s called Midrash.

Now, one would think that the Shema was pretty obvious – Love God with absolutely everything you’ve got, and love your neighbor as yourself. But already, perhaps, you’ve seen a questionable bit or two? The question from our time and culture is, “how can we love our neighbors when we can barely love ourselves, or at least, when we fail to love ourselves in healthy ways?” And it’s a valid question, because the command assumes that you are in fact, already loving yourself in a healthy and helpful manner. It’s a valid question, and we have to grapple with it, but it wasn’t the question in first century, Roman occupied Israel.

No, the question that the lawyer asks Jesus the Rabbi to preach on is this: “Who is my neighbor?”

Who is my neighbor?

And now, maybe the lawyer didn’t really give a fig about actually enacting the answer. Perhaps, after all, he was just asking because he was still in pursuit of this idea that he could trap this country-bumpkin preacher in front of his own congregation. Perhaps that was the case. Certainly the story has set the scene up for us to believe that. But perhaps it isn’t the case – perhaps he really wanted to know. We may never find out. But what we do know, is what Jesus said in response.

Now, he didn’t evade the question, and he didn’t turn it right back on the inquisitor, but neither did he give a straight answer that could be argued with. He told a story that hadn’t actually happened, but was certainly true, and it was to some great measure, shocking, but then those are the three hallmarks of Jesus’ parables, his favorite method of teaching. That’s what the lawyer got: a parable.

A parable, because the actions in the story hadn’t actually happened, but it described a great truth, and it was shocking, whether or not it seems shocking to our ears.

Who is my neighbor?

Now, a straight answer to that question might be something like, “everyone you want to be neighbors with, plus everyone you want to avoid, in addition to everyone you can’t stand. They are your neighbors.” But of course, you can argue with an answer like that until the cows come home. What is much more difficult to argue with is a concrete story of personal interaction, which is what the parable outlines.

A guy lies dying by the side of the road. Three people pass by. The first two are both upstanding citizens and leaders of the community, and just the sort of people you’d expect to help out a poor guy who is bleeding to death in the dirt. Now, please understand that the story doesn’t have him as a leper or outcast, someone who is poor, and of a completely different social class than those walking by. This story doesn’t even get into issues of social class. This guy who is lying in the dirt half dead was just like the ones walking by, only he got mugged in a rather brutal way and is now… lying in the dirt, dying. Now, the first two of these gentlemen who pass by carry the full weight of honor, respectability, and the love and favor of God. And what to they do? Well, here’s shocking part number one: not only do they do nothing to help, they cross to the other side of the road to avoid the dying guy. This would have scandalized the lawyer who was asking the question, but it’s hard to argue with when we all know full well that this sort of thing does happen. We may not like to talk about it, we may not like to hear it from the pulpit, and we share that with the first century Jews, but we all know it happens anyway.

But here comes scandalous thing number two: The third person who walks by is a Samaritan. Loathed and reviled by good Jews, Samaritans were likened to dogs by the Jews, who as a group did not apparently revere the animal as we do today.

And the Samaritan does not cross to the other side of the road.

And the Samaritan cleans and binds the wounds of the man half dead.

And the Samaritan loads him on his own animal, which means the Samaritan had to walk, for probably, miles, and took him to the nearest place to help.

And the Samaritan paid for his care, his food and lodging, well over what would probably be needed.

And the Samaritan promised to come back and pay more if necessary later, when he came back by again.

Shocking, shocking, shocking. It blasts apart stereotypes of who is capable of being a good person, a loving neighbor, not because of the man who got mugged and is lying half-dead in the dirt, but rather because of the particular individual who did help him, and because of all the ones who had a chance, but didn’t. The so-called “good people” didn’t lift a finger, and the so-called “bad guy” was the one who acted in the most merciful and graceful manner possible.

This is Jesus saying that our notions of who is Good and who is Bad are utterly meaningless.

Let me say that again. Our notions of who is Good and who is Bad are notions that are utterly meaningless. We can argue our assumptions and stereotypes until the cows come home, but they’re still meaningless. And when we base our willingness to show love and compassion to someone else based on assumptions of their goodness or badness, we are in fact going about the process backwards.

And so Jesus asks the question: “Who of these three acted as a neighbor to the man in the dirt?”

And the lawyer responds, “The one who showed him mercy.” And I like to think that at this point, no matter his reasons for beginning this line of inquiry, that maybe this gentleman has learned something from the wise master, Jesus. I can’t imagine hearing this story, given what we know of the culture and the time, and not being moved.

“Who is my neighbor?”

The one who shows you mercy, no matter who you are, no matter who they are. So go, and do likewise. Be a neighbor, regardless of who you are, regardless of who they are.

Go, and do likewise.

A Decision

This little something-something was given Sunday evening, July 15, 2007

I was told at some point this week, or reminded, really,
That the main part of the experience of happiness
Was the decision to be happy.

Now, that’s just the sort of reminder that I love
Because it’s something simple
(Though of course, not everything
That is simple, is easy)
It’s something I can actually affect myself,
Something I can live into,
And it’s something that can have a bold and
Altogether significant effect on how I experience the world.

And since, even though I had heard it before
And had already attempted to incorporate it
Into my life,
yet it was a lovely reminder,
so I’ll repeat it again:

The main part of the experience of happiness
Is the decision to be happy.

And this idea does, I believe,
Tap into something greater than the isolated
Event of profound happiness
Gained by the decision itself

This idea taps into the very
Abundance of the Universe
That is already overflowing with
Joy, among other things

No longer a zero sum game
Order happiness from the menu and you have
To swap out something from
Column B, or two from Column C.

It’s more like putting your hand
Down in the water,
While sitting in a speeding boat

Just testing the water with your fingers
Provides you with a face full of happiness
As the water joyfully leaps up
At your mere inquiry.

And while perhaps you hadn’t planned
To have a face full of water,
Or Joy, at that exact moment
You can’t help but be happy about it

Because that’s the nature of joy.
And that’s the nature of abundance.
Just like exercising is guaranteed
To improve cardiovascular health

On demand, just like that,
A law of the universe, though it seems
Counter-intuitive huffing and puffing
On the treadmill, or in the park

Fully aware in that moment
Just how out of shape you really are
But you know this drop in the bucket
Will eventually fill the bucket

So it goes with any instance
Of the Abundance of the Universe.
So it goes with Love, with Understanding,
With Compassion, Wisdom, and Creativity,

So it goes with everything good
Every little thing, every big thing,
So it goes with Joy, and the rest –
Assumptions, fears, angers,

And all the things that stem from them,
Though they seem endlessly abundant
They are only in the way
Between us and the Reality

They’re the hurdle we have to
Pick out in the distance
So we’ve got a running chance
To jump over it, and not get

Cut down just as we get started.
Because all of those fears, angers,
Assumptions, those petty hatreds
And annoyances we cling to so admirably

Are really just the things keeping us
From having to trust
The Abundance of the Universe

They are really just the things keeping us
Distracted from realizing
That Truth isn’t in the smallness of
Right vs. Wrong, of my way or the highway

Truth lies somewhere else,
Somewhere at the intersection of Joy and Love
With a side of Compassion,
In Wisdom’s neighborhood cooperative

And that the directions to get there
Are blissfully simple, though not always easy,
As Mapquest won’t help,
Nor Google, for all its worth.

It requires summarily dropping
All that you carry
Tainted with anger and fear,
Injustice and intolerance,

Leaving it cold turkey,
And doing a 180,
Because so long as Fear is before you,
Love will be in the opposite direction,

And then you just walk.
Just go straight ahead,
Or more or less straight,
Keep walking, though it’s hard at first

Sometimes it’s easier to think about
Walking away from the Fear, or Anger
And work your way up
To walking toward something

That may seem foreign at first
But you’ll get there,
We all will – we’re all capable
It’s available to every one of us

This Abundance of the Universe.
All we have to do is lean over toward the water,
Reach out a hand, and feel the
Powerful wave reach right back at us.

We make our beds...

This was the morning sermon preached on July 8, 2007 (Proper 9, Year C)

We make our beds and then we lie in them. And yet, there is grace.

You have watched us reap all that we have sown;
We went through fire and through water,
Yet You have brought us through our pain and
Into your dwelling place.

That’s what the Psalm teaches us. The Psalmist – whoever he was, King David didn’t write this particular piece of music – is remembering what God has already done for the people to whom he sings. But this wasn’t just a one time thing – the Psalmist is succinctly describing a cycle of the Universe, and using metaphor to do it.

Now, the Psalmist may have been writing about any number of national or cultural difficulties – he may have been talking about the escape of the Israelites from Egypt, he may have been talking about the national upheaval in the not entirely smooth transfer of power from King Saul, the first king of Israel to King David, the second and most beloved king of Israel, against whom all other rulers were ever compared, and found wanting. The Psalmist may have even fast-forwarded through history here, and have been talking about the period of exile – when everyone who was anyone in Israel was forcibly displaced and made to be refugees in Babylonia – they didn’t take the poor people, mind you, just all of the politicians, priests, craftsmen, merchants, and anyone else who might have been necessary to the maintaining of a society, plus all the physical wealth. The Psalmist might have been singing about that time.

Regardless of what exact memory the Psalmist was trying to evoke for the people to whom he sung with his metaphor, there’s a point that is very clear here for us, and would have been terrifically clear to the people of Israel. This idea that we’ve reaped what we’ve sown. We’ve made our bed, and now we’re lying in it.

It’s an idea that, regardless of what cause to which we might attribute those historical events, the people themselves clearly understood the situation as one that they walked into with their eyes wide open.

Surely, we can identify with this.

Now, I don’t need a show of hands for this one, but who here has done something you regret? Or, perhaps, neglected to do something? Think on that for a moment. It could be large, it could be small, it could be something that happened yesterday, or earlier this morning, or twenty years ago. If there are several things to choose from, just for the moment pick one of those.

Now that you have that one thing in your head, think about the fallout from that incident. This may or may not be something you’ve ever done before, but indulge me and try it out. What happened in your environment around you because you did or didn’t do what you remembered? How did other people react? Think of it like a cause and effect chain of events. Where there effects you didn’t realize at the time, but only came to understand later, or even, now?

Now, for some of us, this moment that we regret may have had a happy ending, so to speak. It turned out okay anyway, or no one was hurt, or we went through the pain and were forgiven – and then forgave ourselves. For some of us, this moment of regret may not have had a happy ending. It was just one instance in a long line of similar ones, and still nothing has changed, or people were hurt because of that moment we regret, and there has never been forgiveness – either we have never forgiven ourselves, we have never accepted the forgiveness of others, or we have never actually received forgiveness from them.

It’s no light matter, these little regrets of ours. These little regrets, that sometimes, are not so very little after all.

And in addition to personal regrets, individual regrets, we may have regrets as a family, or as a group of friends, because moments in which we regret our words and actions aren’t just limited to how we act as an individual. When we’re in a larger group, our power to do and to be grows exponentially. Look, for instance, at how cruel teenagers can be to one another, in groups, whereas one-on-one their behavior is usually quite different. If you don’t know what I’m talking about here, just go rent a movie – Hollywood has an entire sub-genre devoted to the nastiness and meanness of adolescents, in groups, and they’re not just making it up.

But lest we start to unduly vilify teens, let’s think of even larger groups – bigger than family and friends. Let’s think of… government. Let’s think of Buffalo as a region – full of lawmakers and law enforcers, full of non-profits and for-profits, full of public schools and private schools, colleges and universities, full of citizens of every stripe and age, as well as foreign nationals and ex-patriots from many lands.

Think of this, even as I read out again that portion from the psalm.

You have watched us reap all that we have sown;
We went through fire and through water,
Yet You have brought us through our pain and
Into your dwelling place.

Please note that this reflection of reality that we find in the Psalm doesn’t end on a note of pain, or suffering, or regret. Let me repeat that. The Psalm – not this portion, not the work in its entirety – doesn’t end with regret. And neither should we. Because regret isn’t the last word – perhaps in a world where there is no God, no compassionate Beloved who created us and cares for us and inspires us, perhaps regret would be the end – but we don’t live in such a world.

We live in a world where there is grace.

Now, grace is kind of an old fashioned word, as well as a woman’s first name, but in this usage, the “Grace of God” means that whether or not we think we deserve it, we are capable of receiving love, forgiveness and blessing, even in our worst moment, even in our darkest hour.

Grace is what the psalmist was talking about several thousand years ago when this piece was originally sung out to groups of people.

Grace is what we have all experienced at one point or another or maybe over and over again whenever someone forgave us, even though we’d hurt them, whenever someone loved us anyway. And we have been the living out of Grace ourselves – every time we forgive, or love – the light of the Beloved, the light of God shines out of us in those moments.

But more than just specific incidences, Grace is that underlying presence of God – Grace means the presence of blessing in our life, as well as the invitation of blessing. All good things.

Imagine that – all good things. This is Grace.

And so, we have those moments we regret; we have the cause and the effect that can be so painful and so detrimental – whether we consider it just on our own personal level, or on our regional, or national level – and then, we have Grace, which is not a “Get Out Of Jail Free” card, but rather is the ability to heal the breach, no matter what the cause, no matter what the effect.

Think about that with me for a minute. God’s Grace helps us, allows us, enables us, inspires us, to heal the breach. The breach within ourselves, the breach between us and the ones we love, the breach in the communities in which we live, the nation in which we live, the world in which we live.

You have watched us reap all that we have sown;
We went through fire and through water,
Yet You have brought us through our pain and
Into your dwelling place

That is cause for hope.

Expectations, or Happiness...

This little something-something was given on Sunday evening, July 1, 2007.

I was thinking about expectations.

I have always thought that that there were two sorts of expectations.

There was the sort of expectations that you knew where unrealistic
Pies up there, in the sky.
Hopes and dreams for the far future.
Wishful thinking for a situation to be somehow,
Different than it is.

And then there were everyday expectations.
I expect to get up and have a cup of coffee before work.
I expect to go to work.
I expect to see a friend,
To do this or that around the house.
I expect for my dog to adore me,
For my child to greet me with joy,
For my spouse to be patient
For… well, you name it.

But when you start thinking about those categories…
Is it any more likely to expect your five year old daughter
To become a Nobel Laureate
Than to expect that your spouse will always be patient?

I was thinking about expectations.
I don’t know about you,
But when I can finally acknowledge that I have them,
They’re not terribly vague,
Neither are they terribly weak.
They’re specific, and strong and…

It turns out that I’ve been gambling
My present happiness for some future outcome.
Instead of simply existing right now
Right now
Doing whatever I’m doing
Being however I am
My poor unfocused brain
Is computing at a hundred miles an hour
Placing bets on the future
And then, God forbid, worrying about them

I haven’t finished the project yet
Will I finish it in time?
I haven’t called my mother today…
And so it goes, on and on.

But that’s not all.

I’ve been thinking about expectations.

Isn’t it funny how we blame our happiness,
Or lack thereof
On everything – absolutely everything –
Than the one thing that can decide
Whether or not we are happy,
Which is, of course, our own selves.

The butterfly may flap its wings tonight
In some jungle in South America
And two years later, next Tuesday
You’ll get married here in the City
And it will rain terribly
But not in the suburbs
And it will be terribly disappointing
But in twelve year, next Tuesday,
You’ll be able to trace it all back
All of your pain
All of your heartache
All of the marital trouble
All of the problem with the kids
You’ll be able to trace it all
Back to that terrible afternoon
Two years ago, next Tuesday
When it rained on your wedding day.

Isn’t it funny – in that dark, not actually humorous way –
How we are so adept at blaming everyone but ourselves?

Of course there is an alternative.
We could cut down on the expectations
With the ideal being that we cut them out
And meanwhile
Take responsibility for our own happiness
Or lack thereof.

Of course, that’s rather challenging.
It’s one of those things that is simple,
But not easy.
But the flip side is…

You’ll be happy.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martyr

Sermon given at Trinity Church, July 1, 2007, Proper 8

We have here some very somber readings. We have a reading from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – martyr. We have a reading from the Rev. Dr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer – martyr. We have a reading from Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah – martyr. The story about Jesus as it is told, has him on the road to Jerusalem – that final trip to Jerusalem, where in the words of the gospeller Luke, Jesus is about to be ‘taken up’, which can be read: gruesomely executed by the Roman Empire. Bonhoeffer is in a prison in Nazi Germany – he’s going to be hanged. And King has yet to make his final speech on April 4th in Memphis, where he will be shot and killed.

Everyone knows who the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. is, though not everyone has really gotten the chance to think about the fact that he did and said quite a lot more than just those four little words – “I have a dream.”

Most of us are acquainted with Jesus, so I’ll save him for the end.

Not everyone knows who the Reverend Doctor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was, so please allow me to give you a brief history lesson. The time is 1931, the scene is Nazi Germany just before the outbreak of World War II. At 25 years of age, Bonhoeffer was a priest and professor, and having traveled widely, returned to Germany. With other theologians of note, Bonhoeffer founded a new Church, and eventually a seminary to train preachers, and though small, this was one of the few Churches – and by Church, I mean, capital “c” a national organization of parishes that have something in common, and not an individual congregation alone. This was one of the few Churches that provided strong and consistent resistance to the actions of the Nazis against the Jews during the war. Indeed, Bonhoeffer always objected – loudly and annoyingly, with a similar eloquence as Dr. King – to the stances and actions of the Nazi party. The Gestapo closed his seminary, so it had to go underground. The Gestapo banned him from preaching. Then teaching. Then any kind of public speaking at all. Eventually he was arrested when it was discovered that he was aiding Jews to escape to Switzerland. But that’s not even the big part.

The big part was that Bonhoeffer was nonviolent. He preached with stirring eloquence the same nonviolence that Dr. King would later preach. Dietrich Bonhoeffer believed in nonviolence with every fiber of his being… But Bonhoeffer was also faced with the reality of …Hitler. Hitler, needlessly killing millions upon millions of innocent people, all based on mindless and stupid assumptions about race, class, culture, religion, and sexuality. I imagine it’s hard to remain a proponent of nonviolence when faced with such inhumane madness.

Bonhoeffer was in a Nazi prison for a whole year before it was found out that he was in a plot to assassinate Hitler – a plot that didn’t succeed, of course – but a plot that included Bonhoeffer, a significant portion of his own family, and a number of high ranking Nazi military officers. When this was found out, he was transferred to a death camp at Flossenburg, and was hanged in 1945, three weeks before Flossenburg was liberated by Allied forces.

Like Dr. King, our church understands Bonhoeffer to be not only a theologian and preacher of note, but a martyr as well. And that is a little bit of history about Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Now, Dr. King, in the reading we just heard speaks quite eloquently about nonviolence, and I would hazard to say that his words can stand alone. Though, I will say that his reflections about the strength and power it takes to be nonviolent stand as a very striking counterpoint to the actions of the disciples in the gospel story we just heard. Jesus and his followers are snubbed by the Samaritans, because Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem – obviously to pray at the temple, what other business could a wandering rabbi have in the city – and the very thought of praying in the temple was abhorrent to any self-respecting Samaritan. So they snubbed him, refused to offer him hospitality, refused to hear him at all, and sent his followers packing. And his followers – and we can’t even think of several anonymous faces this time, we’re specifically told that it was James and John – two of Jesus’ closest friends, the ones who after he was gone would be at the helm of this new movement we now call Christianity, who along with Peter, where making the sorts of decisions that usually are prefaced with the words, “Jesus would have wanted it this way,” we have James and John absolutely chomping at the bit to rain down a little hellfire and brimstone on the hapless village of Samaritans. Literally. They wanted to curse the village and literally call down vengeance upon in that would manifest in widespread physical destruction.

Jesus’ response is illuminating: he rebuked them. I imagine it went something like this: “Are you insane? NO!”

Ah, nonviolence. Given what we know of Jesus, it’s actually not too hard to understand his reaction. In fact, this is one of those moments where, if we see it coming down the pike, we can sit back in our chairs and smile ruefully, shaking our heads at those silly disciples who have got it wrong again, like some comic foil who is always tripping over his own shoes. We can sit back, smug, yes, but if we do so we are then pulled up short, because the next part of the story make significantly less sense to us, and our modern minds.

It makes less sense to me, too, though I suspect, like all good confusing bits of wisdom, there are actually several layers of meaning, each one helpful in its own way, each one speaking to a truth of the universe, each one completely different from the next.

And so we see three encounters in rapid succession – Jesus and potential disciples. Two of them announce their intention to join him, and in a rather roundabout fashion, he tells them no. One of them is invited by Jesus to join him, but when it turns out that he can’t leave right away it doesn’t go well for him.

So on the one hand we have Nonviolent Jesus. And on the other hand we have Rude Jesus.

It’s moments like this when I wonder if Jesus had an inkling that the trip to Jerusalem wasn’t going to be all milk and honey. I don’t think he planned to get so angry in the temple market place as to start a riot. I don’t think he planned to have only three years of teaching before he was arrested, tried, and executed, but it’s moments like this, when he was slightly less than patient, slightly less than all things good and kind that make me remember that he was human. He was only human. He was just human. He was human. And it makes me wonder if he had an inkling about what he was getting himself into.

It’s moments like this when I wonder if Dietrich Bonhoeffer thought that he might not live to see 40, as he helped get Jews to Switzerland, and preached sermons that made the Gestapo see red.

But of course, we know Bonhoeffer was only human, and we have this wonderful excerpt from one of his letters from prison, where he’s contemplating just that. Who he is, versus how he seems. He seems to other people, even in prison, all things cool and confidant, calm and wise. They say he walks out of his cell, when he’s allowed to walk out of his cell, like a country squire, or if you will, like a suburban CEO, subtly surrounded by an easy confidence. And yet on the inside he’s ripping apart, trembling, weary, empty, and faint.

I wonder if Jesus ever felt like that.

Bonhoeffer wonders who he is – the person he feels to be on the inside, or the person he seems to be on the outside. Or maybe both? Or neither? A hypocrite, or a weakling?

I wonder if Jesus ever felt like that.

But then, just at the end, he does the most amazing thing, Bonhoeffer does. He admits that he has no idea who he is, which really is something that he was making abundantly clear before, but it’s nice for him to admit to it, and he flips his all of his musings on its head. He changes the rules and suddenly he remembers the bigger picture. He stops trying to define himself in terms of a small fleeting action, and starts defining himself in terms of a larger state of being. He starts defining himself in terms of God.

I would wonder if Jesus ever felt like that, but I don’t have to, because we’re told that he did. Jesus did – he did define himself in terms of his relationship with God, and he did it all the time.

Maybe the bigger question, is, do we?