Sunday, September 9, 2012

Haiku-ing Life at Seminary of the Southwest

By way of an Introduction:

God has been gracious in bringing me home to Seminary of the Southwest, where I will be spending at least the next two years of my journey through life and faith. In the last two+ weeks, I've met and made so many new friends here during the New Student Orientation (NSO), and have done more discerning as to God's plan for me.

During the last week of August, the seminary finished providing us newbies--MDivs and MARs constitute the full-time day class of which I am so happy to be a part--with all the nitty-gritty information we needed and sent us to Mo Ranch in the Texas Hill Country for a retreat. I will share (or not) those experiences in prose form somewhere else on this blog, but for now suffice it to say that some moments during those three days inspired me to return to writing haiku--one of my favorite poetic forms. Much of the last four years has been spent in the depths of academic writing, so doing some creative writing is such a release! I've now written four, though one will not be posted here; and today, decided that perhaps I will haiku my way through seminary; setting in time and text reflections on my experiences here in thanks to God for all these blessings. 

I hope y'all enjoy them!

From Mo Ranch:

partners in spiral joy
butterflies dance, two plus one
dark-clad trinity

How cold is my beer?
Thirty-two degrees Ashley
says--hotly debated

From today:

hummingbird studies

me; theology waits on
a moment of faith.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

7 Pentecost July 15, 2012--Object Lesson

Again this time, what I'm posting is from my notes as I didn't write an entire script for myself, so this won't be totally verbatim. Experimenting.

Good morning! I think I would call what I'm giving you today more of a reflection than a sermon, but I'll let you be the judges. I may get a little longer than I originally intended.

I have to say that when I saw the Old Testament and Gospel readings for today, I was excited as I considered all the literary and pop culture references I could possibly make use of regarding David, the ark, and, of course, Salome, though she's not named that in scripture--it's Josephus and tradition who give her that name. In both Mark and Matthew, she's known by the same name as her mother, Herodias (depending on the translation), but is more often simply referred to as "the girl," as we've heard today. 

I love the these narratives--the intricacy and intrigue! As Jerry can attest from our EfM classes--I began year one, which is the study of the Old Testament--and would get very excited, especially when reading about David, who I found out is more than just a character who fought Goliath and united Israel and Judah. 

And so I reread an essay our friend Samuel wrote a few years ago about his method for teaching Oscar Wilde's play Salomé,* which was the first thing that had popped into my head upon reading the Gospel lesson. One aspect Samuel discusses is the idea of objectification--the making of people into objects--when I read that, I knew what I wanted to talk about.

That's a large part of what's going on in today's OT and Gospel readings. We see David making an object of himself, dancing, cavorting, and celebrating his blessings in front of the ark as it is brought down into Judah. That's why David's wife, Michal, who is Saul's daughter, despises him. If you read a little further into 2 Samuel, you will find her asking David why was he dancing and making a fool of himself in front of all the people? 

We see the ark being made an object, the seat of the name of the Lord, something that needs to be protected and venerated so much so that in next week's OT reading, a permanent home needs to be constructed, a home that will itself become The Temple, an object that assumes paramount importance to the Hebrew people up until the present day.

Of course, we see Salome made into an object of desire by Herod and an object of manipulation by her mother as she dances for her stepfather and his friends and pleases him so much that he is willing to give her anything. And she asks for an object--the head of John the Baptist, who as pointed out in Samuel's essay, has been made an object by being separated from Word and flesh. Herod, though, had also made him an object of fear and veneration just as at the beginning of today's reading, he and his advisors make Jesus an object by saying that he is Elijah, a prophet, or John the Baptizer raised from the dead--no possibility that he is simply himself.

We, in turn, objectify those in these stories. They have become objects of familiarity and comfort to us; they help affirm our faith.

As much as I could spend more time this morning indulging the academic in me, taking these stories and characters apart and analyzing them even further, there were several stories in the news this week that I think relate very well to this idea of objects.

We're all familiar, as I've said, with the names of David, Herod, Salome, and Jesus, but how many of you are familiar with the name Najiba? No one? I wasn't either until I heard about her story this week on the CNN website. She is the young Afghani woman, in her 20s, who was killed by the Taliban. According to one story, she was an object of desire and dispute between two Taliban commanders who had been having relations with her. In order to "save face," they accused her of adultery, which is indeed a crime in Islam, but needs the matching testimony of four witnesses, gave her an hour-long trial, convicted her, sat her down on the ground, and at nearly point-blank range, shot her nine times from behind. All the while, nearly 100 men stood around on the hillside, laughing and cheering, "God is great!" All because she was considered nothing more than an object.

And what about the Sandusky case and the Penn State cover up? I know that Sandusky is human with failings, but it seems he considered the boys he molested as objects, as apparently did officials at the university, not as humans to be treated as such and protected.

I'm sorry for being so depressing. We do have good news this week in terms of no longer considering those in the LGBT community as objects as the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies at our Episcopal National Convention passed a resolution allowing the blessing of same-sex unions within our churches. That's up to each diocese/bishop, but it's a step forward.

And let us not forget how the poor, needy, and others on the margins are being used as objects in the political campaigns this year--discussed in broad terms, derogatory terms, not given voice though--as each side tries to influence voters. Certainly not often discussed as humans in need of help.

This is where Paul enters in; today's New Testament reading is all about our adoption by God through Christ, who sees us as human, as individuals, and who loves us as such.

My prayer this week, then, as we all go forward in our journeys is that we remember that Christ on the cross is not an object to be only gazed upon, still and silent, but also the Son of Man who adopted us ALL as his own. As we act as his hands and feet in the world, let us also remember that none of us, as God's children, are objects either. I hope we will treat each other as such, but also help others to see this, too. Amen.

Today's lessons from the Revised Common Lectionary:

*Gladden, Samuel Lyndon. "Unveiling Salomé: The Word-Made-Flesh Undone." Approaches to Teaching the Works of Oscar Wilde. Ed. Philip E. Smith II. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2008. 180-187.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Third Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 6) 2012--Family Tree

This post isn't going to be my sermon proper, so to speak, because I took a risk this morning with the kind folks at St. James who have been patient with me in my learning to preach process. They put up with me using my computer as my script when I couldn't get my sermon printed out a couple of times. Today, I decided to trust myself and trust God--I didn't use a script at all! I meditated and prayed with the scriptures all week, and today said what was in my heart. I had made a couple of notes, which I left at my seat and just took up my copies of the readings. I wasn't sure how well I would do, especially since my emotions have been close to the surface this week, partly because one of my closest friends is leaving for Houston soon and he had emailed me yesterday about getting together for a meal before he goes. He's the one who introduced me to my home church of Trinity in Waterloo four years ago, which in turn led to this path of discernment. I mentioned him in my "Across the Universe" sermon. I knew that no matter what I preached on today, I would get teary, which I did.

So I'm not going to write much here, because I don't recall all the exact words I used; I'll just give the basics.

I took as my basis the idea of family trees--I've been preparing for a class titled "Images of Salvation: The Scriptures in Medieval Art" that I'm leading at our diocesan Summer Ministry Retreat. Sue Ann, the deacon at St. James had asked me to share a little of that for the parishioners since no one there was going to the retreat. I chose to discuss the medieval concept of the Jesse Tree, since it had some bearing on the readings today. And that idea found its way into my sermon.

I gave some background about the Jesse Tree and compared it to a family tree of Christ and the Church. I said that family trees are complicated, and that we generally think of them in terms of our biological relatives. The Jesse Tree extends that metaphor because images of the prophets, Mother Church, apostles, abstract concepts, and the synagogue are often pictured as offshoots of the tree. I added that I would consider adding my church family to my own, especially my friend, Samuel.

I told a story about my father and that up until recently, he had been an agnostic. In the last year, though, he was the one who suggested to my mom that they go back to church. He'd grown away from religion while a college student despite an upbringing in the Methodist church. We never went to church while I was growing up (though my sister and I were encouraged to explore on our own), unless we were visiting my grandparents. Then we'd go to my maternal grandmother's Lutheran (now ELCA), for which her side of the family had donated land. My father now initiates saying grace before meals, something I thought I'd never see.

I wondered about Jesse's part in David's call, which is what the OT lesson was about. How did he feel about his son being chosen by God to be the king of the tribes of Israel? How did Jesse raise his sons, raise David?

After that, I related the idea of the family tree to Jesus's parable of the mustard seed in today Gospel reading; how that tiny seed grew into a huge plant capable of housing all. We're all one family, human, brothers and sisters in Christ. All human--I reminded the congregation of Paul's words about us knowing Christ first as human.

My prayer was that while so many are spending their lives in intolerance and hate toward others, that we, as followers of Christ, remember that we are all one family, one community, one body in Christ.

                                                      --given at St. James Episcopal Church, Independence, Iowa

                                        Today's readings from the Revised Common Lectionary:
                                       1 Samuel 15:34-16:13; Psalm 20; 2 Corinthians 5:6-17; Mark 4:26-34

Sunday, May 20, 2012

7 Easter 2012--Acting

Well, here we are on the last Sunday of Eastertide. For me, the time since Easter Sunday has passed quickly―these last weeks have been eventful, both in my personal and professional lives, especially with just finishing up the semester at Hawkeye; I had 20-some portfolios to read. I imagine you all may be feeling some amazement, too, that only a week separates us from Memorial Day weekend, and more importantly, Pentecost. The world, too, has been eventful, of course―a new president in France, the financial woes in Europe, violence and oppression still ongoing in Syria―I know that we can add more to the list. During this last week I’ve wondered whether the disciples were amazed at how quickly their time in the world went by―both their time with Christ, and afterward. Did they ever stop to notice how fast it went while they were wrapped up in the events in which they were involved?

In these last, fast-flowing weeks, the lessons have shown us some of those events in the disciples’ lives, both in readings from Acts and in John’s Gospel. The readings from Acts, especially, intrigue me as a student of narrative, because in the weeks leading up to Pentecost, we’re actually hearing of the events that take place after Pentecost, after the disciples have received the Holy Spirit and been sent out into the world. It makes me consider how we tell, and re-tell, our stories. But that, I think, is a sermon, or a paper, for another time.

What has struck me this week is Christ’s prayer concerning his disciples, which we’ve heard this morning. Twice Jesus says “they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.” I’ve thought about this phrase most of the week. What did Christ mean? Part of me was thinking of being totally otherworldly, thinking in terms of the metaphysical, at least regarding Christ and his part in the Trinity. Although, in looking at some of the medieval art that I am using for my track at the upcoming ministry retreat—I have to put in a plug for that--that many, then and now, have been accustomed to looking at the disciples in this way, too. The illuminations of St. Peter, St. James, St. Matthew, and the other disciples--except for Judas--and of course, Christ, certainly exhibit human qualities, but also have that otherworldly aspect, too, most obviously seen in the halos with which they are depicted.

But part of me felt this was problematic―which amazed me, because I tend to be drawn to mysticism; or at least I felt that there was more to what John was reporting as Christ’s words to God. I knew that I was looking at the words too literally―thinking of the physical world, thinking of the planet. I was working how to reconcile those words with the actions of the disciples, with the idea of taking action in the world. After all, Christ does also say in today’s reading that he is sending his disciples into the world.

And then, yesterday at the Food Bank, I saw things more clearly folks from Trinity, St. Tim’s Lutheran in Hudson, and CenturyLink worked together to pack boxes of food for the elderly, taking time out of busy lives. We were in the world and yet not belonging to it. In the world because we were doing a physical job, and helping those in very real, physical need—facing hunger and lacking means to buy much food. It finally occurred to me that Christ was talking about the disciples in terms of the culture that made up their world, not simply their physical, general surroundings, but the social, economic, and political aspects of the Roman world. They weren’t of that world―they were counter to that culture. Because of Christ, and their belief and faith in his words, Peter, James, John, Thomas, and the others acted in ways that took them out of that large world, and also their own individual worlds―away from fishing, tax collecting, and more. 

At one point this week, I wondered what would have happened if one of them had refused Christ, but that is not part of this narrative and speculation for another time. In any case, each disciple no longer belonged to the world; Christ was sending them out. I would say this is the reading in which Christ transforms his disciples into “apostles”--which in Greek means, “envoy” or “sent out.” Christ, via the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, the Companion, will send them out to share God’s words, God’s testimony, with the rest of the world.

And so, let us remember that we, as followers of Christ, are not totally of this world, either. I don’t mean that we walk around with halos or an otherworldly glow, though I do think we see that glow every once in a while. I simply mean that if we follow the commandment that Christ gave us, which we heard again in last week’s lesson, we set ourselves apart, to some degree at least, from those in our world who perpetuate violence against others, who are caught up in making money only for the sake of making money, from those in the mainstream, fast-paced, secular culture. We are in the world, too, for by loving each other, we need to act and spread the word of God’s love, just as the apostles did.

My prayer is that as we approach the end of Eastertide and the beginning of ordinary time after Pentecost next week, that we take some time this summer to take ourselves out of the world to listen to God’s testimony in our hearts. Maybe take a moment for prayer at Disney World or Adventureland or while fishing or camping or before seeing the latest blockbuster movie (I plan on seeing a few this summer) and remember that we belong to Christ and to God and Act accordingly. Amen.

                                          --given at Trinity Episcopal Parish, Waterloo, Iowa
                                         Today's readings from the Revised Common Lectionary:
                                         Acts 1:15-17, 21-26; Psalm 1; 1 John 5:9-13; John 17:6-19

Sunday, May 13, 2012

6 Easter 2012--Across the Universe

Happy Mother’s Day! What a lovely day this promises to be, though we really could use the rain.

I was fortunate enough to have spent time yesterday in Steamboat Rock with my family—my mom’s side—my aunts and uncles, cousins, my grandmother, my parents who came down from Wisconsin, and my middle child, who is my first daughter and mother to two of my grandsons. All told, we had FIVE generations present, and I feel grateful that my grandsons have gotten to spend time with their great-great grandmother. I feel thankful to God for the time spent with my family.

On my drive home, my thoughts ranged from my family (and friends) to this week’s lessons, upon which I’ve been meditating all week, especially the Gospel and the reading from 1 John. As you may or may not have figured out about me as I’ve been preaching among you for the last few months is that one of my passions is looking for the spiritual in pop culture and literature sources. And so, being my parents’ child and a product of my time, lyrics from a Beatles’ song popped into my head after reading the Gospel, which uses the word “love,” a total of nine times and contains Christ’s greatest commandment to his disciples, and through them, to us, part of which is to “abide in my love.”

Now the Beatles’ song that popped into my head is not the one that you might think is the obvious choice: “All You Need is Love,” though a line from that song has been in my head for other reasons that I won’t go into today. No, the lyrics I’ve been playing, both in my head and on my car’s CD player, are from “Across the Universe” and they go like this: “Limitless undying love / which shines around me like a million suns/ and draws me on and on / across the universe.” As this song was written while they were in their Maharishi phase, John Lennon, who wrote the lyrics, quite possibly was not thinking in Christian terms. But he captured, for me, a large part of the essence of the words Christ uses: “abide in my love” and “love each other as I have loved you.”

And so this week, I’ve been amazed by the intensity of this love and how many ways in which it manifests itself—echoing over and over. When I first listened to this song a couple of months ago on my trip to Texas--I actually hadn’t been really familiar with it prior to then other than knowing it was a Beatles song; the cover of it I’ve been listening to is by Rufus Wainwright, who has a marvelous voice. But I digress. When I listened to these lyrics, I thought in terms of that all-encompassing love from God, but a higher, abstract love—an epic love, if you will. However, over the last months, including yesterday, I considered all the more concrete, down-to-earth examples I’ve seen recently: a friend who is busy, stressed, angry, and tired from the situation in his department and on campus at the university where he works and from an intense job search, yet willing to answer texts sent at inopportune moments and to “scheme” (his word) in order to help me see a way along the next stage of my path; parents who show their love and support, even offering to come up and help me go through all my stuff—a daunting task; children who take the time to worry about and support their siblings; cousins and parents who drive five hours ONE way just to spend a few hours with family. I hope and pray that you are all finding examples of this in your own lives as I’m speaking. THIS is limitless undying love shining around each of us, in so many little ways; that in which God, through Christ, is calling for us to abide. In one of this week’s meditations in the Forward Day-by-Day, the author noted that the word “abide” (a word we don’t use much any longer) is not quite the the best translation of the original Greek word, which apparently conveys a sense of intertwining, of intimate connection.

I don’t know if anyone here is familiar with Julian of Norwich, whose feast day was this past Tuesday (and I’m sure I’m not the only one referencing her in a sermon today). She was a fourteenth-century mystic and anchoress, who was possibly the first woman who wrote a book in the English language—I love her. I think she got it right in many ways when she expanded on others’ ideas of Christ being as a mother to us. I’m still working on understanding her writings, but I believe that she could see, using our limited language and ways of seeing, that the metaphor of motherhood made for an excellent, easily understood way of sharing her vision of our relationship with Christ, with God—that limitless, intimate connection that we share with our mothers. Julian was a wise woman—I would highly recommend reading her work.

As we consider today’s Gospel and Christ’s command to love one another, as he has raised us to be friends, brothers, sisters to himself and to each other, as we go forth, let us remember this joy. This faith in God’s love, that he is father and mother to us all, is that which helps us to conquer the world, not in terms of violence, not in epic ways, but by conquering our own little and big fears with that knowledge of God’s love, shown in so many aspects through those who love us. Then we can carry that love forward to others, whether biologically related to us or not; this is what draws us on and on—across the universe. Amen.

                                           Given at St. James Episcopal Church, Independence, Iowa
                                            Readings from the Revised Common Lectionary: 
                                            Acts 10:44-48; Psalm 98; 1 John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17

Sunday, April 22, 2012

3 Easter, April 22, 2012--Peace be with you.

Good morning--

Have you all had a good week? This has been a fairly difficult week for me for many reasons. I spent a good deal of time wrestling this week with today’s scripture—the first and second lessons especially. Perhaps I am reading too much into them—though I don’t think so—but both what Peter says in Acts and John’s words seem even more theologically complex than I felt capable of preaching about at first. I wished at least that we were further along in I John, at Chapter 4:1-8 because then I could have talked about my call story.

So I read lots and prayed and I found some great ideas—I envisioned this great, very scholarly and powerful sermon. I could talk about this being Eastertide (I love the old Anglo/English ways of naming time) and that we’re not not finished with Easter by any means just because we’re now two Sundays out from the celebration of Christ’s resurrection. I though about connecting that idea to the Jewish spiritual practice called Counting the Omer, where they count 49 days from Passover to Shavuout, the day upon which the Israelites received the Torah, thus becoming spiritually liberated through God’s grace. I could see connections between the Jewish observance, today’s readings with their references to the laws of Moses and the fulfillment of scriptures, and of course, the fact that we observe 50 days between Easter and Pentecost. Pentecost—when the apostles are given the blessing of the Holy Spirit and are liberated from the command to stay in Jerusalem and sent out so that they may spread the news of Christ and salvation—themselves liberating all those who hear and believe. I even thought I could be clever and tie in this week’s episode of 30 Rock, which was especially meaningful to me.

I had ideas about how the Revised Common Lectionary has jumbled the narrative arc of the Book of Acts. The lessons during Eastertide show us the effect, but not yet the cause, of the apostles’ works. The gift of the Holy Spirit takes place in Chapter 2, but the lessons we read between now and Pentecost are from later chapters. I wondered why, and was reminded of Steven Spielberg, whose movies frequently contains scenes showing the effect before showing the cause (I’ve been showing War Horse to my Comp. II students this week).

So I sat down yesterday after a good morning at the Food Bank, intending to put all these ideas into a coherent form, which I could almost see. And then I couldn’t write because life happened (my brief reference to 30 Rock). A friend had called and left a voicemail, asking for some powerful pain medication, which I had from a recent surgical procedure. My friend didn’t have any, was in moderate pain, and for some reason couldn’t get the prescription refilled for a couple of days. I was even offered money for the pills. I felt put in a bad position in so many ways—ethically and because I have a hard time saying “no” and standing up for myself, especially with people I love. I also felt slightly put out because I was trying to work on my sermon and didn’t need an interruption, which made me think about a different friend and understanding. It also made me consider that this is what I’d face as a priest—juggling life, pastoral care, and sermon-writing—which led me to consider clergy I’ve known and gave me a greater appreciation for them as well as making me wonder if I can do that. Many thoughts, spiraling down.

I did say no to this person, who didn’t totally understand and who thought I was worried about my possible future as clergy, but I was trying to follow my ethics and not enable what seemed to be to be an addiction (there is more to this story than what I've told here). In any case, though I knew I did the right thing, I still felt bad for the rest of the afternoon because I care about this person and didn’t want to lose a friend. I let my anxieties get the best of me and wasn’t able to finish my sermon. I went to bed later in the evening after watching TV and set my alarm so that I would get up early, praying for peace of mind so that I could put my ideas together, because I wasn’t truly feeling it and worried about doing a poor sermon.

At about 5:30 this morning, before sunrise, and before my alarm went off, I was awakened by the song of a white-throated sparrow—the first bird to sing in my yard this morning. Usually, it’s a robin or a cardinal. I don’t know if you are familiar with these birds, but right now a small flock of them has adopted a pile of dead branches in my yard as their shelter. I’ve been enjoying watching their antics as they do the finding food dance in the mornings and evenings when I leave and come home. And in that simple, cheerful song (my fave after that of a chickadee), I heard God saying, “Peace be with you.” And just like that, I knew how to approach this sermon, that things were going to be okay, don’t be afraid. I even considered truly winging it this morning—to just use a few notes and have faith in God and myself for the rest. But, as you can see [holding up handwritten papers], I didn’t quite do that; I just listened to my heart and started writing.

“Peace be with you”--Christ’s words in today’s Gospel. Words spoken to the agitated, excited apostles, who weren’t quite sure yet that Jesus had truly risen from the dead as he had promised them. These words have become one of the centerpieces of our liturgy, probably one of the favorite parts. In quite a few Episcopal churches I’ve attended, the passing of the peace has always taken a fair bit of time as folks range around to greet each other. And while I know that some priests get frustrated by this tendency, that’s it’s time to get back to the service, I believe that this part of the liturgy serves as important reassurance that we are a community of Christ-followers, simply that we are a community. Saying “peace be with you” to each other is our continuing in our belief that we should act as the hands and feet of Christ in the world by offering comfort to each other from the agitation of the cares and worries of the world that we each experience. It isn’t merely a social opportunity for us to greet folks we love or we haven’t seen in a week or longer. It’s a spiritual practice through which we repeat Christ’s words and remind each other that we are, as John says, God’s children, known to him through Christ. We are loved and we need not be afraid. We are joined in the breaking of the bread.

My prayer this week is simply that when you are worried or anxious, you will think about, or say to yourself, or to someone else who needs it, or even hear God saying these words and have faith that all will be well. “Peace be with you.” Amen.

                                                                   --given at St. James Episcopal Church
                                                                                      Independence, Iowa

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Fourth Sunday in Lent--Sick of Manna

Good morning! I have to admit to you all that this week’s readings gave me difficulties as I considered about what to write my sermon. After all, the Gospel, especially, has been discussed so often that I wasn’t sure what I could bring to the conversation; and so I ask you to imagine that you have just survived a devastating natural disaster, such as a hurricane, tsunami, or tornado. One minute you’re living a comfortable life—you have a nice home with nice furnishings, on which you can rest; appliances with which you can cook your favorites foods; and some luxuries, such as a television, possibly with cable or satellite programming. In the next instant, you have nothing of that left—it’s been taken away by winds, rain, floods. What happens next? What do you do? Well, in most cases, recently, the government and other agencies, such as the Red Cross, step in to help find temporary shelter and provide needed sustenance for those afflicted. Do you refuse it?
Yesterday, I was working at the Food Bank, in the salvage area, which means shelving items that have been donated by various stores, churches, and other places. The shopping carts that we unloaded contained a whole bunch of MREs—Meals, Ready to Eat. Have you heard of these before? If not, they are ready-to-go meals, in plain—actually ugly--brown, sturdy plastic packaging. They are survival packs—containing not only food, such as chili and beans, chicken and dumplings, or tuna—but also water, tableware, and the means with which to heat up the food. Many survivalists stock up on them so that they’re prepared—not for natural disasters so much, but for the next big war they’re sure is coming soon or for the end of the world, again, which they’re sure is near at end. The MREs also given out, in many cases, to survivors of natural disasters.
Seeing them reminded me of a conversation concerning Hurricane Katrina among members of my EfM class. One of the members related a story, telling of the sense of entitlement that some survivors seemed to have—some refused the MREs offered to them, saying that it wasn’t good enough—they wouldn’t eat that. These folks were used to being able to satisfy their appetites with food of their choosing, prepared how they wanted it, when they wanted it, in the amounts they wanted. And because they weren’t able to gratify their needs exactly as they desired, they refused the gifts offered to them freely by those wishing to help. These folks then complained and moaned about the lack of help they were receiving.
This EfM conversation reminded me of the Israelites in our Old Testament reading today. MREs are not manna, which according to post-Biblical legend took on whatever flavor the consumer desired, and the circumstances are different, but not quite so much. The Israelites become impatient with God and with Moses on their way to Mount Hor, asking why God had brought them out of Egypt, only to let them die in the wilderness. They moan about the lack of water, and they are sick of manna—all they can think about is the comforts they had in Egypt, while forgetting the oppression they suffered. This is actually about the tenth time since being delivered that they have complained in this way, not counting Miriam’s and Aaron’s rebellion; I reread both Exodus and Numbers this past week. And if you read the entire book of Numbers, it becomes apparent that God is getting frustrated with this. He has given them the gift of freedom and has been providing them with food in the wilderness, and water, when they asked for it, though sometimes with consequences. Now, he afflicts the people by sending poisonous serpents, which bite them, causing death for many. In the pattern repeated throughout the forty years of wandering (and indeed throughout salvation history) as we have heard, the people confess their sins, in this case to Moses, and ask him to intercede with the Lord on their behalf. And so YHWH has mercy and instructs Moses to make the image of a serpent in bronze, then lift it up before the people so that all who see it might be saved and not die.
Tied in with this reading, then, is the Gospel reading from John which contains the verse that is arguably the most famous quotation from Scripture, known to Christians and non-Christians alike, if for no other reason than Tim Tebow’s placing of it on his cheeks; or the signs at sporting events—do you remember that guy with the rainbow-colored wig--which predate Tebow: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Often folks look at this verse in a vacuum and not at the circumstances in which Christ says this.
As we heard today, Christ is speaking to Nicodemus. Nicodemus is not one of the disciples, rather he is a Pharisee. I love that this scene is so vividly set by John—Nicodemus is a leader of the Jews. He comes to Jesus by night—so it’s in relative darkness that they are speaking. This is not a daytime conversation in front of a large crowd, it is most likely a secret discussion, with perhaps the disciples present, spoken quietly. It is God offering a gift through Jesus—needed sustenance, even for the Pharisee, who is from a group rejecting this gift of “immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus”, to use today’s words from the letter to the Ephesians.
And so, I think that’s why Jesus makes the allusion to Moses and the raising up of the serpent. He’s reminding Nicodemus and through him, the Jews, about what happened to the Israelites in that story. He hopes they will accept this gift, even if it takes them out of their comfort zones―Christ is not the food they’re used to, but he is necessary for not simply survival, but for life everlasting. Jesus urges Nicodemus, the Pharisees, and all of us to come to the light out of the darkness.
Christ and Ephesians reminds us that like the Israelites, we were dead “through our trespasses and our sins”―a natural disaster of sorts, since we, as humans, tend to follow our nature and look for those comforts and instant pleasures―but that God loves us, despite any frustrations, enough to have send his light, his son into the world. Christ asks us to follow him, to believe and have faith in God’s grace, which saves us. It is a gift, one which brings us into the light, but that may take away from comfort and all that we have known. Through Christ’s gift we gain comfort of another sort. My prayer for us is that we accept it, gracefully. Amen.
                                              --given at St. James Episcopal Church
                                                                 Independence, Iowa

Sunday, February 26, 2012

First Sunday in Lent, 26 February 2012

I’d like to begin today by reading a poem for you, one with which some of you may be familiar. It’s the first thing that came to my mind upon reading today’s Old Testament reading (well, actually, the second—the very first thing was an image of Kermit the Frog singing a song called “The Rainbow Connection.”) In any case, this poem has always been one of my favorites, by one of my favorite poets, William Wordsworth. It’s called “My Heart Leaps Up.”
My heart leaps up when I behold
a rainbow in the sky:
So it was when my life began;
so it is now I am a man;
so be it when I grow old,
or let me die!
The Child is the father of the Man:
and I could wish my days to be
bound each to each by natural piety.

How many of you experience a similar feeling when seeing a rainbow appear? Do you take a moment to stop and look? Do you have a sense of hope, of wonder? Or is that sensation something that you left behind in childhood, with no time now, as an adult, to pause and admire God’s handiwork? I would imagine those of you with children and grandchildren look, if only because your youngsters are fascinated by the phenomenon of misty colors appearing in the sky. Given the photographs of rainbows that appear frequently on the Weather Channel, I would say that a large amount of people still take that time, still feel that sense of wonder.

After all, the rainbow remains in our culture as a symbol of hope, as well as of community. I mentioned Kermit the Frog’s song, “The Rainbow Connection,” from the original Muppet Movie from the late 1970s, in which he sings: “Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection, the lovers, the dreamers, and me.” This, too, has always been one of my favorites, as the lyrics appeal to the dreamer and mystic in me.

However, in light of today’s readings, I’m thinking about both Wordsworth’s and Kermit’s lyrics. I think that Wordsworth is pretty spot on, but Kermit’s song implies some future date—a state of existence that hasn’t yet occurred, but will. The words also say that it’s the lovers and dreamers who will find this connection—that one needs some special or different quality to find it or make it. And while perhaps those lyrics are simply speaking to that sense of childlike wonder that Wordsworth speaks of, I can’t help but feel that the song’s writers got it wrong by using the word “someday.” I think I know why they used the word—in hope of better days, where everyone lives peacefully together—the Kingdom of God, if you will.

But as we have just heard, the verses from Genesis relate the establishment of the first covenant. This covenant is not just between Yahweh and Israel as it will be with Abraham and Moses, but actually encompasses the entire world. As a sign of this, God puts his bow in the clouds as “a sign between me and the earth” that when the bow is “seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.” This sign is a reminder to himself of this covenant, and by extension, a reminder to us. How many of us, when we stop to gaze at a rainbow, remember this part of the story? And while scholars suggest that the story of the flood may be just that, a story that the writer of that part of Genesis took from a much older tradition—it is nonetheless a story that illustrates God’s interaction with his creation. This covenant between Yahweh and his creation is ongoing, and it is an act of God’s grace. It’s not “someday,” it’s now. Wordsworth, I think, knew this; he felt that a love of nature kept us spiritually connected with God, and perhaps with that first covenant. He hoped for that “natural piety”--an uncomplicated sense of devotion to God. How many of us, when we stop to admire that rainbow, take a moment to reflect on God’s continuing patience with us, his love for us?

That is, I think, the message running through the readings today, the first Sunday in Lent. We began the season earlier this week with the very somber Ash Wednesday service, in which we are reminded of our origins in dust, we lament our sins, and we ask for God’s help in creating in us new and contrite hearts. This is a time when we remember Christ’s suffering in the wilderness and his temptation by Satan by giving up some of our own physical comforts and things that tempt us away from our connections to God. We often focus solely on the penitential part of this season.

However, these readings are meant to give us a sense of hope, too. I know we associate hope with Advent, with the birth of Christ, but I think we should remember to look at Lent that way, too. The word Lent is actually from the Germanic for spring, which is traditionally a season of hope, and of course, rebirth. That’s why we should be hopeful. The reading from Peter speaks of baptism, which he says was prefigured by the flood because Noah and his family were saved through water. So many people look at the flood as destructive, which it was, but it was also, in essence, a re-creation, a re-birth. God, despite knowing we would return again and again to our violent ways, did not totally wipe us out—he could have done so, I suppose, and created a new humanity. But that’s not how our salvation history goes—that saving by water was necessary to offer us the hope of baptism and rebirth in Jesus. Peter reminds us that baptism is not the literal removal of dirt from the body, but rather the appeal to God for a good conscience—that new and contrite heart.

Hope is also the theme, I would say, in the selection from Mark—the scene of Christ’s baptism by John, the appearance of the Holy Spirit—and we could take time to unpack the symbolism of the Spirit descending like a dove and how that might relate to the dove in Noah’s story. If nothing else, that paradoxical image of the heavens being torn apart, which seems violent and agitative, followed by the Spirit descending as a dove, which we associate with peace, seems worth pondering for a moment. I love the both/and tension in that moment. Christ’s life is going to change in a big way—he will proclaim peace but certainly agitate a lot of people. Gives me chills to think about.

In any case, hope is present in this moment, and in the fact of Christ’s time in the wilderness, when he says no to the temptations offered by Satan, on which the Gospel of Mark doesn’t elaborate. He says yes to his call, and goes to Galilee to begin his ministry and proclaim the Good News of God. And while Jesus was Jewish and his message was initially for the Jews, through his apostles, I believe that message fulfilled that first covenant symbolized in the rainbow. In many Middle Eastern cultures, the rainbow did symbolize the weapon it looks like--the bow—the word used in the NRSV translation. The notes in the New Oxford Annotated Bible, NRSV, suggest that God points it upward so that he won’t ever use it against us again. This may sound corny and I’m still thinking about this analogy, but Christ replaced that bow, that upturned weapon, as a symbol of that first covenant with the world. I think of the scientific explanation for the occurrence of a rainbow—light shining through water—and I think of Christ, who is the light of the world, saving us through the water of baptism.

And so, I believe that today we are called to remember that Lent isn’t necessarily a dark time—that at the end comes the hope of the Kingdom of God as proclaimed by Christ who makes us alive in the Spirit through his resurrection. God loves us! I pray and hope that your days this season and afterward are bound each to each by natural piety. Amen.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Third sermon--given at Trinity, Waterloo, October 16, 2011

My third sermon; the Gospel from Matthew was the scene in which Jesus responds to the Pharisees with the famous and much-pondered line about giving Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.  I'm glad that Rev. Maureen gave me this challenge.

On Friday, I spent about twelve hours here at the church; and at the end of the day, I realized that despite being physically tired, I felt spiritually renewed and refreshed because of having watched, as many church members came early in the day, giving of their time to care for the Phelps’ family by providing a reception as the family celebrated a memorial of Ginny’s life. Afterward, most of them stayed, or came and went throughout the afternoon and into the evening to set up for the Fall Bazaar, sponsored by Chat & Sew and St. Margaret’s Circle, an annual event that raises money, which is then given to various mission projects around Trinity. For example, last year Chat & Sew paid for our subscription to IRMS, which enables us to have access to expensive curricula, which means we have Adult Ed programs such as Saving Jesus Redux and Living the Questions 2.0. St. Margaret’s gives to many missions, but most especially works with the Salvation Army’s Adopt-a-Family program to provide Christmas presents to a needy family. Many folks donated their time and talents to this effort by knitting, crocheting, sewing, baking, and making delicious sloppy joes, not to mention setting up all the donated items for Saturday’s sale. They gifted their time and talents to make sure that a grieving family felt welcome and comfort as they bid farewell to a loved one. The spirit of love and fellowship that pervaded the church was palpable, amazing, and energizing.
Today’s Gospel reading is one that appears to have been problematic right from the beginnings of Christian history. In it, Jesus has entered Jerusalem; and the Pharisees, who, according to Matthew’s account, have made common cause with the Herodians (apparently that wasn’t a natural union, according to scholars), continue in their attempts to entrap Jesus; this time hoping for a Catch 22. Either response to the question asked: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” should cause his downfall. If he responds with a “yes,” then they can denounce him as a collaborator; if “no,” then they can accuse him of being a rebel and hand him over to the governor.
Jesus’s reply is what has been problematic for many. After asking whose image appears on the coins used to pay the taxes, however, come the often-quoted, often-pondered words, “give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Many over the ages have debated Christ’s meaning in these words. His response amazed his inquisitors and begs the question: What belongs to the emperor and what belongs to God? A large part of that debate has focused on the authority of temporal governments and the paying of taxes. I would like to leave that discussion for another time and for people more qualified than me. Let’s instead reflect on what may belong to God.
How do we know what belongs to God? Theologians such as the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, point to the question Jesus asked of the Pharisees: Whose image and title is on the denarii? In a sermon given in June 2010, Williams says: “Give Caesar what belongs to him, says Jesus. And how do we know what belongs to him? It has his image on it. Then: give God what belongs to God. The implication isn’t spelled out, but it’s clear enough. What belongs to God can be identified in the same way; it has his image on it. Human beings, who are made in God’s image, ‘belong’ to God.” We’re not his property, but we carry his authority, just as the coins carried Caesar’s, in other words.
I would like to suggest an analogy for consideration: perhaps we should think of ourselves as God’s coins, then. Or perhaps at least the gifts and the talents we are given, or the time we have on earth, if nothing else. I know this is an imperfect image, but it’s one that’s now stuck in my head, perhaps because of our culture’s focus on money and material wealth. We are God’s image, and because we carry his authority as coins, we need to consider how we spend ourselves and our time. If, as many have argued over the centuries, Christ was suggesting that those coins be “given unto Caesar,” and the taxes be paid, then we need to remember to give ourselves to God, use ourselves and our time and talents for God’s glory and for each other.
Indeed, in today’s Old Testament reading, Moses says to God, “Show me your glory, I pray,” and God agrees, but says he will cover Moses’s face until God has passed by; Moses may not see the Lord’s glory—God says that “my face shall not be seen.” However, as we ourselves are images of God, I believe we see a part of that glory each and every time we act as the hands and feet of Christ in the world and give to God the things that are God’s—namely our time and maybe even our lives.
My prayer for this week is that as we consider how to spend ourselves as coins of God, we should be offering that time from our first fruits, rather than the leftovers, so to speak, just as we are asked to do when we are tithing the coins that belong to the emperor when pledging to the church. That may require sacrifice on our part, as it did on God’s in Christ. We may not be God’s property, but nonetheless, we are his, and he is ours, as we were reminded in last week’s readings. As we enter this season of stewardship, consider the ways in which you can give your time and talents to help your church family and your community. Come to the Food Bank on a Saturday morning, teach our children and adults, join chime or chancel choir, bring snacks for social hour, become an usher/greeter, gives rides to those who can’t drive themselves, be a pastoral visitor, get involved with our youth, preach, lead services; there are a myriad of ways to use your time and talents. When you give of yourselves in this way, I know that you will be spiritually renewed and feel like a newly-minted coin. Amen.

Second sermon--given at St. James in Independence, Iowa, on August 21, 2011

Here is my second sermon, and these are the readings from the RCL for that Sunday: Exodus 1:8-2:10 Psalm 124 or Isaiah 51:1-6 Psalm 138 Romans 12:1-8 Matthew 16:13-20
I am very thankful for Fr. Sean, Rev. Sue Ann, and the congregation at St. James for giving me and others a chance to practice our skills as we journey through our processes.

What image appears in your mind when you read or hear the noun “rock?” Do you picture something small, more of a pebble that fits in your hand? Or is it large, something you can stand on, maybe even mountain-sized? Is your rock rough, rugged, sharp-edged? Perhaps you see one that's smooth, like the river rock often used in aquariums and gardens. Possibly all of these images vary in your mind as you consider the word, and may depend on the circumstances in which you're in when you encounter it. I think, though, that it's safe to say that we all share the idea that a rock is solid, stable.
I have a friend who loves rocks. She's not a professional collector or a geologist, but when she is out walking, she will pick up an interesting one and keep in her pocket, often using it as a worry stone. When I questioned her about her choice of rock, I assumed that she always chose one that was smooth. After all, the worry stones sold in stores are smooth and nicely polished, and pretty to look at. However, she responded that no, the rocks she picked up generally had rough, uneven edges, and had simply caught her eye for one reason or another. I paused and reflected about this, questioning my assumption about her preference, and why I apparently valued a smooth, pretty stone more.
In our Gospel reading today, Jesus blesses Simon Peter, son of Jonah, because God revealed to him that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Jesus says, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church,” using the profound, at least in my mind, play on words, since Peter in Greek means “rock” and Cephas is “rock” in Aramaic.
And this is why I asked, at the beginning of this sermon, what you envision when you hear or read this word, because that will affect how you envision both Peter and the church. I have to be honest and say that as I began thinking about this Gospel reading, one of the first things that came to mind were the many jokes about St. Peter and the Pearly Gates. I did stop to consider whether this was an appropriate subject for a Sunday, but in being true to myself as a literature person fascinated with all sorts of texts, I felt challenged to find some significance, some relevance. And I thought that for quite a few people, who don't read Scripture, this is their only image of Peter—the gatekeeper who decides who does or who does not enter Heaven. After all, he has the keys to the kingdom. These jokes show a very literal interpretation of these keys and the man who holds them—a smooth and solid character, if one-dimensional.
However, as we can see in the Gospels, Peter is very complex and not perfect—he is not a smooth stone and doesn't appear very solid. In a just a few more verses from today's reading, Jesus is rebuking him, saying “Get behind me, Satan,” when Peter says that Jesus shouldn't be subjected to the suffering and death he is foretelling to his disciples. We all know of Peter’s fear in the courtyard, causing him to fulfill Christ's prophecy, that he will deny his teacher, his Messiah, three times before the crowing of the cock. How can he be “the rock” upon which Christ will build his church?
However, I think that Jesus didn't necessarily want someone who was smooth and polished to lead his church. Smooth and polished is comfortable, and doesn't allow for much more in the way of change and possibility. I would venture to say that the Pharisees would have seen themselves in terms of smooth rocks. They were solid and obeyed the laws, and they didn't feel the need for change; they were comfortable as they were.
But a rough rock can be uncomfortable, whether you're holding it in your hand or standing on it. If you're climbing one, however, it's easier to find a purchase; smooth can be slippery and treacherous. Jesus was willing, as a good teacher, to work with Peter, maybe smoothing some of the edges, but knowing that this man, whose faith enabled him to receive the revelation that his mentor was the Messiah, but whose flaws were a reminder of his humanity—Isaiah bids us to remember the rock from which we are hewn--would make things uncomfortable for the powers that be. Jesus, I would say, knew that Peter would take his lessons to heart precisely because he was not perfect. Christ had faith in his servant, that he would be the foundation of a church that would not become too smooth, too comfortable in itself and forget its purpose—which was to help bring about the kingdom of heaven through God's love.
So my prayer is that, as we're presented with a world in which people are being marginalized, having their rights denied, and going without basic human needs such as food and clean water, we be reminded that today's Gospel is not about Peter being given a literal set of keys in order to decide who gains entry and who doesn't, but a charge to perhaps not let ourselves or the Church only reach for those smooth stones, when events make us uncomfortable, but to speak up. This Gospel is also a reminder that we are all rough rocks with our uneven edges, but that God loves us in spite of them, or actually, as with Peter, I would say, because of them. This should be a source of great comfort. Amen.