Monday, April 21, 2014

Easter and the Heart of a Child

My son Max has fears at night.  I talked to him about mentioning his fears to you this morning.  I told him that I didnt have to share them with you. "Will it only be at the six o'clock service?" he asked.  "Yes," I answered.  "Well, that is OK," he said. "It will be mostly grown-ups and they must be really nice and really believe in God if they get up so early, so they wont make fun of me."

So please consider yourselves among the select few that Max has allowed to know about his fears. 

Max is nine. He alone of my three boys gets afraid at night. He hates to be alone in the dark.  We have tried everything: lighting candles, handling rosaries, singing songs and praying, but when he is alone in the dark, he gets really and truly afraid.

"What are you afraid of?" I asked.

"I am not sure...monsters...maybe...I dont know..." His fears are so primal, so serious and old that he cannot even verbalize them. The only thing that seems to help is when I come and sleep under his bunk bed. 

Do you remember the song The Servant Song?  There is this beautiful verse that reads, "I will hold the Christ light for you, in the night-time of your fear."

The resurrection is something that cannot be explained with rational words. So for thousands of years, Christians have reinacted this ancient service called the Easter Vigil as a way of showing what resurrection is.  The Easter Vigil used to go on all night.  It begins in the dark, in the place of all of our fears.  And in that darkness, a fire is kindled. Light comes out of the darkness, out of nothing itself, just like it did at the very beginning of creation when God said, "Let there be light."

Resurrection is light coming into the darkness. It happened when all was lost and Jesus was dead. He came back to us from out of nowhere. And he told us that there is light at the end of the dark tunnel of death, that the sun will rise again even after we die, that life cannot and will not be extinguished for those who believe.

I will hold the Christ-light for your in the night-time of your fear.

In his book, The Logic of Eternal Joy, Jerry Walls argues that the notion of heaven is dying in American culture today. Both heaven and hell are becoming obselete, he claims. No one believes in heaven anymore. We think that its a childish notion. Something that may exist but can never be rationally explained.  There is no need to prepare for something so amorphous. He writes that Americans don't believe in heaven because we are afraid that it will be boring. "Our ancestors were afraid of Hell; we are afraid of Heaven. We think it will be boring."

How could there be life after death?  How could we just go on existing?  The notion overwhelms us.  Will we sit on clouds in boring stagnation? How could God possibly make the light continue without it getting stale, old, boring?

It is true that heaven is a childish notion. It comes from the very heart of a child.  Jesus tells us that we must be like children to enter the kingdom of heaven.  For the child who is having a great time, there is no boredom in repetition. It is like the little boy, who, when bouncing on his daddy's knee, says, "Do it again! Do it again!" That is what God is like.  Every morning, when the sun rises, God says, "Do it again! Do it again!" to the sun. And every evening, God says, "Do it again! Do it again!" to the moon.  G.K. Chesterton writes, "It may be that God has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we." God is never bored, but eternally playful, eternally joyful.

Today we will baptize a man named Peter. For decades, Peter, who was a non-practicing Jew, has been wondering about baptism. For decades, he has thought about it. And on this morning, as the sun begins to rise, we will begin a new life for Peter, a new relationship with God.

Peter, this is quite literally the most radical thing you have ever done or will ever do.  A life begins today that is beyond all of our comprehending, a life that is anything but boring. And all you need to do is trust in it.  You enter heaven today.  Open your heart to the possibility that God waits for you, playfully waiting to dance with you in heaven.  The dance begins now, Peter, at this baptism.  So keep awake. Watch for signs of God's love, signs of the dance. The sun is rising and you are about to experience something totally new. This is just the beginning.

When you celebrate Easter, don't think so much about eggs or bunnies, think about the fire that is kindled in darkness, the light that comes out of nowhere.  Think about the fact that you need never be afraid again. Think of that verse, "I will hold the Christ-light for you, in the night-time of your fears."

Jesus is taking my place under Max's bunk bed, slowly but surely.  Max is realizing that Jesus is all he needs to chase away the darkness.  In fact, he has been there all along.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Hard Core Love: A Palm Sunday Sermon

Last week, I went to Richmond, Virginia to preach at St. Stephens Church.  A beautiful church, it is located in a historic neighborhood full of gorgeous homes.  The azalea bushes were just blooming and the weather was perfect. The congregation is huge, about double our size at least.  They have six services on Sunday and five full-time priests. The people are successful, hard-working, well-educated Episcopalians.  Discussion at both my Saturday workshop and Sunday forum was rich and engaging.  I could tell that they listened to my sermons.  And yet, there was something missing for me.  I missed you.  I missed my home. I missed the Cathedral.

Life here in the Urban Core is messy.  Just a few days ago, I encountered a young man who for the past year and a half has been telling me he has been given three months to live.  Deeply troubled, he suffers from schizophrenia, is chronically homeless and constantly wants to get on a bus and leave town.  He wanders in the core asking people for money and telling them that he is going to die. He smells bad and always wants to give me a hug. 

Why come here to the Cathedral?  Why come to the heart of a city that is full of homelessness, empty buildings and there isnt even a Starbucks? Why am I drawn here like a magnet?  I came to be your Dean because you were in the urban core.  Maybe its because I grew up in the inner-city of New Haven, where a gang war was going on.  I remember a lady being raped across the street from our house and my dad going out with a baseball bat at night.  I was chased by a homeless man when I was in third grade.  So why do I keep coming back?  And why do you come?

Jesus knew that something terrible would happen in the city.  He knew that his death was approaching. He rode into the city of Jerusalem with the knowledge that there was pain in front of him.  He could have stayed outside the city, roamed the Galilee, played it safe, but he didn't.  He rode into the city publicly, so that everyone could see where he was going.  He chose to come to the urban core to die.

I guess that there are many kinds of love.  There is romantic love.  There is love of life, where you find a beautiful place to live and just relish life and rest and good food.  And then there is this hard core love, the kind that propels you to go where life is hardest and do your best to help.  Mother Theresa had that kind of love when she went to Calcutta to work with the poorest of the poor.  She knew it would be hard.  She knew that she would die doing it.  And she knew, like Jesus did, that resurrection would be found on the other side.

In the Old Testament, cities are hubs of sin and suffering. Adam and Eve were originally created to live in a perfect garden.  But after the fall, after their son Cain murdered his brother Abel the first thing that Cain did was to build a city. The city was the antithesis of Eden, full of sin and darkness.  From that point on, cities are places that anger God. The people of the city of Babel tried to build a tower to touch God and this made God angry so God destroyed that city. Sodom was almost destroyed for its sin.  But Jesus changed everything when he came because he loved the city. He would sit on a hill above walls of Jerusalem and cry for its people.  For Jesus too, the city was a nexus of all that was wrong with humanity, but he chose to enter into it and suffer inside it.  Jesus died in the city for us and that changed everything.

I find it incredibly important that, in the book of Revelation, a picture of heaven itself is painted and heaven does not look like a garden.  Heaven looks like a city, a city perfected and redeemed by God, with streets of gold, where God himself is king.

There is no doubt that, in the Bible, redemption occurs in and through the city. The book of revelation does not talk about the salvation of just one soul.  It is the entire city of Jerusalem that is saved. There is no salvation without the salvation of the city.

 Jesus chose to ride into town and face the music.  He moved through agony itself only to bring us life on the other side. Now that is hard-core love. That is love at the core.  Somehow, the cross has always been most present in the city. And if you are the kind of hard core Christian that does not avoid the cross but understands that Easter can only be found by facing the cross and moving through it, then eventually you too will end up serving God in the urban core. Because here life is hardest.

Who are we?  We are a people who follow Jesus into the heart of the city.  We love at the core. We find that resurrection is only possible when we look at the cross itself, when we follow Jesus into the city and seek to love God there. Thank you for being here with me.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Praying Big

    I got scammed this week. I went online to find out about a summer camp at one of our local universities and the University asked me to complete a survey and I would get a reward. So I filled out the survey about how I was visiting the website and why I logged on, etc. And then my reward popped up.  A free trial of Cellogica Skin care products, a new revolutionary brand of skin care designed to make wrinkles disappear! Cellogica will send me the product for free. I just have to pay shipping and handling.

Well, I am in my forties.  It is a great age for the most part. I am not as naive as I was in my twenties and yet I am still able to do almost anything physically.  The only problem with your forties is that's when the wrinkles start coming. They seem to appear from out of nowhere and there they are, signs of age. And I have always wondered if these really expensive creams work or if its just a hoax. So here it was, my chance to try Cellogica for free! I ordered the stuff.

Luckily, I married a man who is much wiser than I.  When I told him about my "reward," he groaned, and looked up my order.  JD discovered that they planned to charge me $130 a month for the rest of my life! "Call them tomorrow to cancel the order" was his advice. So I did. And I found out that if I did not return the skin care product within forteen days, that they would charge me $150. The "free"trial really meant that I didnt have to pay for fourteen days. 

So I found myself driving to the post office, where the man behind the counter laughed at me and told me about goats milk cream. 

The internet is full of scams.  Companies don't tell the whole truth or they don't tell the truth at all. When I tried to argue, the man at Cellogica said that it was all there in the fine print, at about 5 point font. I would need a microscope to read it.

Today, we encounter the longest recorded conversation that Jesus had with any one human being. The person to whom he spoke was as surprising as the conversation itself. She was not Jewish. She was not married. She was a SHE. 

Men were not supposed to talk to women except their wives and relatives in Jesus' day. Women were called "GeNay" which meant, literally, Womb. They were seen not as human beings but as walking wombs, sources of potential sons, an investment, a piece of property.  So it was extraordinary that Jesus, sitting at Jacob's well, asked this woman for a drink of water. And even more astonishing is her bold question in reply, "Why do you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?"  In other words, "Why in the world are you talking to me?  Are you trying to get something from me? What is it that you want?"

This woman wants the truth. And it is only the truth that can enable you to see God, for God does not lie and God does not scam.

Jesus answers her, "If you knew who I really was, you would be asking me for another kind of product, something much better than normal water, you would be asking me for living water, water so incredible that you will never be thirsty again..."

The woman likes the idea of never being thirsty, but she does not comprehend the fullness of what Jesus is saying. She thinks about how hot she gets every day going to the well at noon, during the worst heat of the day. She had to go at noon because no one else was there at that time, when the sun beat down so severely as to kill a man. She had to come at that time because this woman was an outcast.  Not only was she a woman and a Samartian and not married, but she had been married five times before.  Whether her husbands had died or kicked her out for asking too many questions, we will never know. But a woman who had had five husbands was scandalous. She was a social praia, a monster.

All this woman wants is to be heard, to not have to be alone. But what Jesus is offering her is so much more than that, it is a love that extends far beyond her understanding and life that lasts forever.

When Jesus tells her that he knows of her husbands, she is so impressed that she cant shut up. She runs into the village and tells everyone that he is the Messiah.  And, for the first time perhaps, they listen to her. She is heard.

What was the woman looking for?  She wanted a chance to become part of the community again, to not have to walk to the well alone.  She wanted to be seen as a person and not a monster.  But Jesus wanted so much more for her.  Jesus wanted her to go down in history as the one who spoke to him the longest, the brave woman who heard him at the well.  Jesus wanted her to learn to love God so that her life would extend far beyond the first and physical world into eternal life.  Jesus was offering her the Universe and all she wanted was a little respect and a glass of water.

Often our greatest failure in our relationship with God is that we don't ask for enough. We want to not be alone and God reveals the Messiah to us.  We want some extra money and God offers us the treasures of heaven.  We want someone to hold and God wants us to have love eternal.  We want to get rid of wrinkles and God wants to give us heaven itself.

Sometimes our greatest sin is our incapacity to dream big enough for God's great goodness.

In a few weeks, on Palm Sunday, something is happening downtown in Jacksonville. For five years, I have been praying that this downtown core would ignite, that this city would begin to focus our efforts on caring for and nurturing the city's heart.  And, after almost five years, something is finally happening. We are on the brink of something new.

A fire is being ignited downtown. It began as an event last year called OneSpark.  This year, OneSpark has grown.  Last year, over one hundred thousand people attended OneSpark.  This year, more are predicted to come and walk the streets of downtown, where small businesses, entrepreneurs and artists will present new ideas and projects. And this all falls on Palm Sunday Weekend, the one holy day when churches traditionally walk out of their sanctuaries and into the streets.

Could it be that God may be answering our prayers about this Urban core in ways that surpass our very asking? There is no other church downtown that has claimed a voice, no spiritual presence at OneSpark. 

When the Samaritan woman realized who Jesus was, she dropped her water jar (an expensive thing by the way) and ran to the city.  She ran into the city to tell everybody about the man she met, the man who surpassed her every expectation.

Walk with me into the heart of the city.  Pray with me about Palm Sunday and OneSpark. And lets not make the age old mistake of praying for too little. Instead, lets dream boldly and open our hearts to the One who never scams us but instead always gives us more than we could ever even begin to imagine.

Monday, March 17, 2014

To be Born Again

When I was in college, I went to see a self-help guru. We met in his house with my then boyfriend and he told me a bunch of stuff and I needed to work on and I had no idea what he was talking about. It was one of the strangest conversations of my life. I could not tell if I was just dumb and could not comprehend his wisdom or if he actually, literally, made no sense. I left more confused than when I came.

The conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus was a bit like this. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a member of the elite group of Jewish scholars called the Sanhedrin, and he was used to being the smartest man in the room. But Nicodemus also knew when God was doing something and, unlike his fellow Sanhedrin, he recognized God in Jesus.  Afraid of tarnishing his reputation as a wise man, he went to Jesus by night, to question him about God.

What Jesus told Nicodemus was so profound as to completely stump him.  He had no idea what Jesus was talking about. But the words stuck in his mind and he kept chewing on them for years. When it came time for Jesus to be crucified, Nicodemus was there in the background to take his body down and, along with Joseph of Arimathea, to bury him. Clearly, something did sink in.

Jesus told Nicodemus that in order to be of God, one must be "born again." To this very day, Christians all over the world have wondered what Jesus meant by being "born again." All that I can offer you are my own musings, for the meaning of this concept goes far beyond anything that most of us can comprehend.

The Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor tells a story about herself in college. She was agnostic, having been raised in a home where her folks just didn't seem to care about God or think about God. She was studying one night in her dorm room and two girls from Campus Crusade for Christ came and knocked on her door. She opened it and groaned. There they were, the pests, standing there with their electric smiles, clutching their bibles, so earnest and so annoying. Barbara thought to herself, "How can I get rid of these girls fast?  I need to study!" 

The two girls asked her if she had accepted Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior. She decided that the easiest thing to do would be to just play along, so that she could get them to leave. So she admitted the truth,. "No," she said.  "I have not accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior."

"Do you want to?" they asked earnestly.

"Sure," she said.

So they came into her room. They faced her and asked her to repeat after them, "I accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior."
She said the words.  They hugged her and then they left.

Thank God, Barbara thought. Now I can get back to studying.

She sat back down at her desk and couldn't concentrate, so she went for a walk.  The leaves on the trees looked so beautiful to her in the setting sun. Something was different. Everything looked so beautiful. 

Then she realized, with a start, that maybe she actually had accepted Jesus as her Lord and Savior and maybe that's why everything looked different. And from that moment on, things didnt get easy, they got harder.  She was turned upside down and began to study religion and her parents thought she was crazy and she ended up a priest!

Something happened in that dorm room.  Something definitely happened.
Think about birth with me for a moment, from the perspective of the one who is born.  God made it so that we don't remember our birth and that is probably a good thing because it could not have been anything but painful. Getting squeezed through some tiny spot. Leaving warmth and comfort and a place where your every need is taken care of and emerging into a cold, confusing place that makes no sense at all. When we are born, we are lost at first. We cannot distinguish colors, sounds, smells. We are helpless and must learn how to do everything.  To be born again must also mean to go through something that could be quite painful or taxing and emerge as someone new, having to learn how to do everything all over again. You might need to learn to see again after being born. If this is true, then being born again is scary and I'm not sure I want to do it. 

In the first life, the physical life that we are born into, we are the center of the Universe. People feed you, dress you, change you. And, as we grow up, human beings think of our own needs and wants and we wonder what we will become in the world and what is happening to us. And our lives belong to ourselves.

To be born again means to give up your life and belong to God. Your self dies and is reborn as God's child. It is God who lives in you and directs your life. You literally give up the drivers seat and become helpless again. And this process, of dying to self, can be painful and scary and many people, even those who say that they are saved or born again, have never really done it.

In his book The Dance of Hope, Bill Frey tells the story of a teenager named John who was in an accident and lost his sight. John was so angry and bitter about becoming blind and helpless that he just went to bed and shut the door. At first, his parents and family waited on him hand and foot and he was miserable.  But, his parents got weary of his self-pity and his dad did something radical one day.

John's dad came to his room one morning and told him that he expected John to mount the storm windows around their house that day. "Winter is coming soon. I need you to do this. Do the work before I get home or else," his dad said. And then he left.

John was furious.  He groped his way to the garage where his dad kept the storm windows.  Crying and muttering in anger, he found the tools, the stepladder, the windows and felt his way around the house.  He could not believe that his dad had asked him to do this. "They'll be sorry when I fall off the ladder and break my neck," he said to himself. But he didn't fall. Little by little, he groped his way around the house and he completed the task. That was the beginning of a new life for John.  He realized that, even though he was blind, he could learn new ways to function and he could put in storm windows and he could learn.  He began to live again.

It was only years later, when he was home from college and talking with his dad one night, that he spoke of that pivotal day, the day his dad challenged him to move beyond himself, beyond his misery. He told his dad how shocked he was that he had asked John to do something so dangerous. "I could have fallen and broken my neck," he said. 

It was then that his dad told him that he had not gone to work that day.  At no point in the day had he been more than four feet away from his son. His dad had no intention of letting John fall.

    Being born again is scary.  It can often involve something painful, in which you are asked to give up your old self and become someone new. Sometimes the catalyst for new birth is suffering, illness, depression, loss of work, grief. But the suffering acts as a catalyst for the emergence of something wholly new. A new life emerges in which you are no longer asking Jesus to follow you but actually being willing to follow him. Sometimes the only thing that can bring about this kind of rebirth is the total and complete failure of the first life, a time in which you realize, consciously or unconsciously, that doing things your way just is not working. Being born again can happen sometimes suddenly and unpredictably as it did for Barbara and sometimes it takes a long and painful process before a new life emerges. Being born again is as unpredictable as the wind, Jesus said.

But one thing is clear. There are many of us who claim to follow Christ but what we really want is for Christ to follow us and help our lives be better, more comfortable, more successful.  It is only when we give our whole selves up to Him and let Him be in charge that we can be born again. You have to let go of life as usual before you can begin eternal life. Being born again is an all or nothing kind of a thing.  You either are born or you are not. And when you are born again, you are blind for awhile.  You have to grope your way around and trust that Jesus is close by, waiting to catch you.

What's it going to be, your life or God's life?  Your way or God's way? You have to say goodbye to comfort and your own way and be born to a new life of grace if you are to stand a chance of catching a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven. You have to be willing to be helpless in the face of the unknown before you can understand what it is that God has in store for you. 

 Jesus didn't die to keep us safe.  He died to help us be born again, into Him.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Conversation

Do you believe in the devil?

CS Lewis says that there are two fundamental mistakes we can make about the devil, one is to ignore his existence and the other is to spend too give him too much attention.

I knew a woman once who talked about the devil all the time. When her car broke down and she could not get to bible study, she claimed that it was the devil. So many things in her life were caused by the devil that the devil played a major role in her life. 

On the other hand, there are many people out there who don't believe in the existence of evil at all and this seems wholly inadequate. How else can we explain all the suffering in the world? 

On one Sunday a year, the church talks about the devil and we think about temptation. One Sunday out of 52. That is a good ratio. We are following CS Lewis' advice and taking the devil seriously but not giving the subject all our attention. 

On this Sunday, we pray in detail for all the pain and suffering in the world and we wonder why we have fallen so far. The prayers that we said at the beginning of this service are part of an ancient practice called The Great Litany. It is traditional, on this, the first Sunday of Lent, to pray for the pain and suffering in the world. So it seems appropriate that we read about Jesus' encounter with the devil this one Sunday. According to scripture, the Devil is a fallen angel, not an uncreated being equivalent to God, but the ultimate expression of our free will. The devil is the personification of our worst choices, the choice to run from God. That is why his name is tempter.

If we are called to model Jesus, then we must notice that the very first thing he did before ministering to anyone was to face the devil. Jesus went out alone to an empty place. He ate nothing and he prayed. And the devil came to him. He did not go to the devil, the devil came to him, and the devil comes to all of us too. On the first Sunday of Lent, we read about Jesus conversation with the devil. 

The devil offers Jesus three choices. First, he suggests that Jesus put himself first by breaking his fast and feeding himself. Second, he challenges Jesus to test God and despair by throwing himself down from the pinnacle of the Temple. And lastly, the devil offers Jesus all the kingdoms of the world if only he would fall down and worship the devil himself.

Feed yourself, kill yourself, take all the kingdoms of the world for yourself. 

The key to all the temptations of the devil are that they are all about the self.

The devil wants us stuck inside ourselves. The devil wants you to think only of yourself all the time, what you are feeling, how you are doing, whether or not people like you, if you have what you want and need. The devil talks in the language of me and me and me. Giving to others, refraining from taking everything you are offered, thinking about other people-these actions are antithetical to the devil's work. The devil does not know generosity. Not at all.

This past week, I traveled up north to New York City. I picked up my son and after seeing a friend, we drove at night into Newark New Jersey so that I could take the train into Manhattan to preach at General Seminary the next day. As all of you well know, it is freezing cold up north right now. In the mornings, the ice and snow covered the windshield of our rental car. I rented a jeep with four wheel drive just in case the weather got really bad. As we drove through the night, I kept those windshield wipers on to brush away the ice and snow so that I could see where I was going.

The devil is much like the ice, snow, sleet and rain that cloud the windows of our true nature. God created us to look out on the creation and think of others and be awake and live fully. The devil wants to block our vision, to cloud over who we really are and get us stuck inside ourselves, unable to see clearly. Think about what would have happened to me on the road down to Newark if my windshield wipers had broken. I would have been unable to see clearly. I could have been in a terrible accident and hurt myself or others.

Sometimes the devil won't completely block our vision but will skew it. Take for example a woman who was mistreated and beaten by her father as a small child. The abuse gave the devil an opening. She began to believe that she was bad and deserved to be mistreated. This false map of life, if it is not identified as false by her, will cover her windshield and she will not see the world clearly but only through the lens of her temptation to believe herself unworthy. Hence, she will only chose men who mistreat her and she will wonder why her life is broken. In reality, the temptation has colored her vision and she cannot see clearly.

Identifying temptation is key. You cannot refuse the devil if you don't know that he is there or what he sees. Get to know your temptations so that you can wipe them away.

I believe that CS Lewis was right. We should not deny the existence of the devil but we should not get consumed with him either.  We should brush off the devil like windshield wipers brush off bad weather. Wipe off his temptations, his distractions. You don't need to go to war with the devil, just say no as Jesus did.  The devil is intent on getting you to be completely and totally self-absorbed, to put yourself before God. If you close in on yourself, you will not only be miserable but you will make terrible mistakes, hurting yourself and others. So wipe off the self-absorption and say no to temptations daily.

Every day, you and I must wake up and wipe off the temptations to be self-pitying or consumed by worry or afraid for our futures. We must wipe away despair and hopelessness and vanity. If you are thinking about yourself all the time, it's time to clean the windshield. A healthy Christian should be awake, watching what God is doing in the world, listening to the needs of others and responding in kind. We ought to take care of ourselves, yes, but only so that we can serve God, not as an end unto itself.

Years ago, I came up with a new phrase which meant repent. "Get over Yourself" seemed a more accurate translation and I still stick to it. It is the main message of Lent. Jesus told us to repent over and over again. When he called his disciples, he said that the Kingdom of heaven was at hand but they could not see it because they had not repented, they had not cleaned off their windshields, they were too absorbed with themselves. 

Remember that the devil wants you to be all about yourself. Brush him off like frost, like old residue or dirty water, clear your mind. Only then will you be ready to begin your ministry in the world.