Monday, August 15, 2016

The Race

Have you ever just had one of those days? Thursday was one of those days for me.  I started the morning at 7 trying to find a baby who had been born prematurely.  I had the last name wrong of the mother and the nurse would not let me into the NICU.  Thankfully, a supervisor intervened and I was able to bless the little one.
Then traffic. And more traffic. Oh, and our internet and phone service at the church just stopped cold turkey.  It took two days for Comcast to find the problem.  Someone had put a sign in the ground and severed the chord.  Two days without internet and I was so afraid someone might be dying…Routing the office through my cell phone.
Then a man in the parish came home from the hospital only to find his 42 year old son dead on the floor.
And I am sitting in traffic and those thoughts start.
God, what did I do wrong to deserve this day? Have I messed up somehow?  Am I being taught a lesson?

Did you know that Jesus actually got stressed out?  Well, the word was larger in the ancient language of the New Testament but stressed is a decent translation…distressed, weighted down, feeling the burdens of life…
He says in the gospel “I have a baptism with which to be baptized and what stress I am under until it is completed!”
He has come to wash the world of sin and he is stressed out…under pressure, until it is done.  The chord from God to humanity was severed and he wanted to restore the communication but he was under great pressure and the pressure just kept on mounting until his life was over.

Funny isn’t it?  We Christians follow a Savior who suffered, gave away all that he had, healed the sick and ministered to people until he was dead tired, and even died on a cross for love and we say that we want to follow him.  We are baptized into his life.  But when our days go bad or things get hard, we worry that God is mad.

We are prone to thinking that difficulty and suffering are signs of God’s displeasure. That is one of the chief myths that Jesus came to dispel.  You are not struggling because God has left you.  God is WITH YOU. 

I have come not to bring peace but division, Jesus said.  Life will be hard for my followers.  Hard. Swords and conflict and houses divided.  Look at Moses.  Look at Samuel, Elijah even David.  Serving God is HARD.  It is not easier to follow Christ.  It does not make your life easier.  It makes it harder.

In his incredible novel, The Great Divorce, CS Lewis writes about people who are transitioning from Hell to Heaven.  Hell is a place of ghosts, eternal twilight and rain, where people live in imaginary homes and there is no substance or physicality to anything.  People are nothing more than their neuroses and selfish obsessions.  They are ghosts.
A bus takes a man up to heaven.  Heaven is gorgeous but there is one problem for the ghost.  To walk in heaven is painful.  The ghost needs to become solid.  Everything in heaven has substance and, for the ghost, it is as hard as diamond. The blades of grass bite into his feet. A leaf brushes his leg and bruises him. He is in pain.
But the angels tell him to continue to walk anyway.  The pain is part of making him more real, readying him for the journey to God.  He will get stronger.  The pain will lesson but he must leave his self-pity and obsessions and worries behind. He must take the path to giving his life away.

Remember the children’s book, The Velveteen Rabbit? The rabbit wants to be real but the process of becoming real is painful. It hurts.

I cannot tell you how many times people have come to the church ready to devote their lives to Christ.  And at first it’s all excitement and joy, but then they begin to suffer roadblocks. Someone in the church is rude to them.  They lose their job. Money is a problem. They don’t have a good response when they try a ministry.  And often they come to me ready to quit.
This is hard, they will say.  I must be doing it wrong. God is not answering my prayers.
But following Christ IS hard.  It just is.
Suffering is part of the race, part of the journey to God.

This world that we live in is not heaven.  It is not designed to be heaven.  God is not mad at you if you suffer.  It is part of the fabric of life.  And for those who follow Christ, the suffering is even more.  But the reward is also greater.

Run with patience the race that is set before you, writes the author of the Letter to the Hebrews.

My husband used to compete in Ironmen triathalons. The majority of the race was sheer pain and I found it hard to watch.  But people could be incredibly supportive of one another, particularly because everyone knew how hard it was.
But the best part happened at the very end.  In order to become an official Ironman, a person had to complete the race in 17 hours.  That’s 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of biking and a marathon.  The cut-off time is midnight so everyone comes back to cheer on the final few who are struggling to make it across the finish line.
In Idaho, we went back to the finish line at midnight and there was this woman who had just hit a wall.  She was so tired and in so much pain that she couldn’t walk.  She was crawling, on her hands and knees, trying to get up, taking a few steps, falling and then crawling again. From a distance we saw her struggle. So we began to cheer. We screamed and pounded on the bleachers with our feet. We hoped that by the sheer force of our enthusiasm, we could carry her over the finish line.

She crawled over just in time, tears streaming down her face.  It was so hard, but she made it.

When things are difficult for you, instead of imaging that you have done something wrong and that God is angry with you or abandoning you, think of Jesus along with all the great saints of old and even the people who you love who have died and picture that they are cheering for you.  They yell even harder when things get really rough and you can hardly walk. They cheer and stomp and scream and shout.
For you.  Its all for you.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Essence- A Sermon Preached in the French West Indies

How does prayer work?
A lot of people come to me with this question.  I have given it a lot of thought.  I don’t have all the answers but I do have some insights to help you understand your relationship with God.
Most of us Europeans and Americans are used to a consumerist culture.  We ask, we pay, we receive.  When you go to a nice restaurant on St. Barth’s, you order…you tell the waitress or waiter what you want and they prepare the food and bring it to you.  Like the small vending machine at St. Jean that was installed just off the beach this year, we put in our order, press the button, and get what we asked for.
Most people who come to me asking about prayer come because they expected that their relationship with God would be similar to the consumer relationship.  We ask God for what we want and God gives it to us.  When I explain about waiting for the answer, that God does not work on our timetable, people understand that, but they still think that the relationship is similar to all others in their consumerist life.  They want to put in a request to God and expect God to grant that request and when things don’t work that simply they wonder…
A.     If God cares at all
B.     If God is punishing them
C.     If there is no God
But the fault lies in the understanding we have of prayer.  Prayer is not a one sided relationship where God has promised to bring us whatever we ask for.  We are not the boss of prayer.  We are not the consumer. We are not the customer. 

God does promise us that if we ask, we will receive.  But God likens us to a child asking for something that it believes it needs.  God is like the parent, wanting to make the child happy but also wanting to keep the child safe and understanding so much more than the child. In other words, God knows a lot more than we do.  A lot more.  And God will answer our prayers from an eternal perspective, not a perspective of instant gratification.

Let me say that again because it is important.  God will answer our prayers from an eternal perspective, not a perspective of instant gratification.

On Friday night, Louise and Herb Rust invited us to their villa for scrabble and ice cream.  No sane person could say no to such an invitation.  Jacob, Max, JD and I were thrilled to come. 
When we arrived, we were greeted by the most beautiful little dog.  A Pomeranian named Dasher, the tiny dog had a leg that just stuck out straight.  Louise explained to us that the dog had been abused as a puppy and had to have multiple surgeries before they adopted him.  He seemed so happy and so friendly that all of this was hard to believe.
When we went to the table to play and eat snacks and ice cream, the little dog came inside too.  Louise explained that when they first adopted Dasher, he would not come to the table when they ate. So her friend advised her to give him what she called “an essence” of food.  Just a taste, not too much for Dasher is tiny and can’t handle too much food. But a small taste, to let him know that he is safe and he is welcome.  And now, when he comes to the foot of the table, he waits patiently for his essence.

If you read the gospel carefully, after Jesus says Ask and you will receive, Seek and you will find, he says…If you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him…

If you pray, you will receive the Holy Spirit.
If you pray, you will receive the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is not a tame answer, it is living answer.  It is ever changing and evolving.  You could say that it is the essence of God, a taste of something much greater than anything that you can ask for.

I apologize for comparing us to dogs but when we think of our conversations with the Maker of the Universe, it is not such a bad analogy.  Like Dasher, we can’t understand very much about what’s good for us and we may ask for something that won’t do us any good at all.

How does prayer work?  It is mysterious relationship that develops between you and God when you come to God’s table again and again, asking for a wild variety of things, and God gives you His essence.  And, though we may not understand it in this life, I think one day, we will see that God gave us exactly what we needed.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Obedience to the Voice

The word stress was originally used to refer to the amount of weight that a beam or physical support could bear without breaking.  It was a term used in the field of construction. How much weight can a material bear?

Today we use the term stress to refer to mental and emotional pressure that comes when there is too much put upon us, too many activities, too much uncertainly, too many demands. 

A chair is built to be sat upon. It is designed to bear a certain amount of weight.  If it is used properly, it will last forever, but if it is overloaded, it can crack or even break. In the same way, we human beings were designed to face adversity, to bear a certain amount of challenge in this world. The problem comes when we face more weight than we can carry.

The word stress was not used in Jesus’ time.  Nevertheless, in the teachings of Jesus, there is a clear message about stress.  Jesus teaches his followers to behave in a way that completely reverses the messages of this world and results in the ability to rise above stress. Jesus intended for his followers not to operate in the same way as the people of this world. If we could only understand what he was telling us, we would no longer suffer from stress.  We would know peace.  Jesus taught us how to rise above all stress.

In the Book of Acts, Peter is called to the bedside of a woman who has died.  Her name was Tabitha but people called her Dorcas and she was something else.  Wealthy and powerful, she was well-respected in the early church and had been instrumental in helping the poor.  At her deathbed were widows who were dressed in clothes that Dorcas had made for them.  She was a generous, devout woman who believed in Jesus.

Peter is called to her bedside and Dorcas is already dead.  Peter speaks to her body and says the same words that Jesus used when he raised the daughter of Jairus from the dead. He says her name, “Tabitha, get up.” Or literally, “Tabitha, arise.”  And she opens her eyes and gets up.

It was Peter’s voice speaking in the same way that Jesus did.  Tabitha just obeys his voice and her obedience carries her from death to life.  If obedience to the voice of the Good Shepherd can carry her over the threshold of death, surely it can help us with stress?

In Peter’s words, Tabitha heard the voice of Jesus. Jesus says that he is the Good Shepherd.  His sheep hear his voice and he knows them and they follow him. 

The Good Shepherd gives us the key to release us from all stress.  Obedience.  Listen and Follow.  That is all.  It is so simple.  Listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd and you will overcome everything.  You will not suffer under stress, you will rise above it.  Sure, the world will continue to be chaotic and full of challenge and injustice, but you will be able to arise above the fray and follow Christ with peace in your heart.

So how do we do this?  How can we listen and follow the voice of the Good Shepherd?  Most of us think that this means some major alteration of our lives immediately and this thought scares us and makes us hide from God.  But I have found that most often the Good Shepherd speaks gently and in the very moment.  The Good Shepherd prompts.  The Good Shepherd nudges.  The voice of the Good Shepherd operates in each moment, simply reminding us of what is right and true and good.

Think with me about how a shepherd operates.  I know that most of you have never actually seen a shepherd but they are all over the Sea of Galilee today just as they were in Jesus’ time.  They mostly nudge in the moment. No, don’t head that direction, they poke with their staff, they redirect.  And the whole point is to keep the sheep safe, right?  God does not want you to walk off a cliff.  God wants to take care of you and lead you to the fullness of who you are.  The Shepherd does not ask the sheep to run a marathon or cook a five course meal.  The Shepherd wants the sheep to be themselves and to be safe.

In order to combat stress, begin to invite God into the everyday aspects of your life, into the small stuff, into each and every decision that you make.  Ask God, “Should I go to the grocery store?  Should I rest?  Should I write that letter now?” I know it feels petty, but obedience begins with the moment to moment, with the small stuff.  And you may not always be clear on the way that God would want you to go, but the very fact that you asked will lift you above your stress.  You do not need to begin by asking monumental questions about the direction of your life.  Instead simply begin with the moment to moment decisions that need to be made.

God nudges and prompts.  God operates in the fruits of the Spirit that Paul so beautifully articulated: in patience, kindness, joy, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.  If you are operating in these ways, you are walking with the Good Shepherd. If you find yourself short-tempered and frustrated, you have gotten lost.  When you are able to yell at a loved one or do something stupid, often there is that small nudge, that inner voice that tell you to slow down, to stop talking, to pause.  Just do what it says.  Follow the Good Shepherd one step at a time, one moment at a time.

My sheep hear my voice, Jesus says. Let every decision that you make be made with God and for God.  Ask God every time you can, consult God, speak to God. God will lead you in the small stuff that can one day amount to the big stuff.  After all, sheep don’t operate with long-range plans.  They need to be nudged every moment.

Ignatius of Loyola was born in 1491. He was a ladies man and a great soldier but in battle he was wounded in the leg.  He had to lie in bed at his brothers house for months and the only books that his brother had were religious books.  He felt a nudge to read the religious books.  And he was captivated.  Ignatius began to imagine himself saving people in battle or winning the heart of a beautiful woman. But soon he felt the nudge to imagine serving God and when he imagined this, he felt this peace.  So he would pick up another book and another. The peace came with each small decision that he allowed God to make for him and with him.  Eventually, he would found the order of the Jesuits.  All from following the nudge to pick up a book.

What is stress? It is fear disguised.  It is the feeling that you don’t deserve what you have to do or that you are overburdened.  But all that you have to do is give it all over to God. It is God who made you. Your life belongs to God.  Get up, says the Good Shepherd. I will live in you and you need not be afraid. I will lead you through every little moment of every day if you would only follow me.  Let it be my life living in you and you will in turn find peace.

Who would have known that the antidote to stress is obedience?  Who knew?

Living Spirit, Living Word

Last Sunday, one of our parishioner asked me a question that stumped me. It happens a lot that I can’t answer your questions.  You guys are smart.  At the end of Basic A, our class for new members or refreshers, I often let the class ask whatever they want.  I end up saying I don’t know a lot…
So the question was this: why does Passover fall so far away from Easter this year?  And I couldn’t answer.  Usually, the two are very close together, in fact, the Last Supper is a Passover meal in John’s gospel.  Easter is a lunar date, the Sunday following the full moon after the spring equinox. If you are me and you are not so good at calculating equinox dates there is chart of Easter dates in the back of the Prayer Book lasting until 2030 or so.
So, I went to the Internet.  Turns out that the Jewish lunar calendar inserts a whole extra month every two or three years to get itself back in sync with the solar calendar and the seasons of the year.  And since Easter fell early this year, the two ended up very far apart.  Who knew?
I have wondered for years about Peter’s wife.  She would have been a good Jewish wife.  We know that Peter had a wife because Jesus heals his mother-in-law of a fever.  Does Peter’s wife die?  If not, Peter is a rather bad husband.  He takes off on a walking tour with Jesus for about three years leaving his wife to fend for herself and then he travels more after the resurrection.  Peter goes from being a simple Jewish fisherman to being a bishop in the church.  Talk about an adjustment.  Where was his poor wife in all this? Was she OK with the changes?
Peter was a devout Jew.  He followed all the kosher laws and dietary restrictions.  His wife would have cooked in such a way as to never mix meat and dairy.  They would have only eaten the meat of animals with cloven hoofs who chewed their cuds, like cows and sheep and lamb.  Pig were off limits for sure.  And not birds of prey, only chicken and turkey and ducks and geese.  All the animals would have to be slaughtered in just the right way so as not to cause the animal any pain.  It all made good sense and Peter would have known no other way to eat.  It was more than a diet, it was a way of life, a way of being obedient to God.
But once Jesus rose from the dead, things began to really change.  Jesus sent down this presence of God called the Holy Spirit, a presence that not only lived in and among the disciples, inspiring and motivating them, but a presence that communicated to them, leading them and guiding them.  With the Holy Spirit, all bets were off.  Things changed fast and furiously.  Everything changed.  And everything is still changing today.
Peter was busy telling the Jews about Jesus when the Holy Spirit gave him a vision. All this food that he had never been allowed to eat, it all came down from the sky in a big sheet and God told him that he could eat it.  All the dietary laws that his wife and he had spent so many years following, all went out the window with that vision.  It must have seemed crazy. But, as Peter later explained to those who asked him, “Who am I to hinder God?”
The coming of the Holy Spirit made the followers of Jesus into a new kind of religion.  No longer were they Jews who followed Jesus, they became a new kind of disciple.  The rules all changed.  The relationship with God began to trump the rules. They went from strict obedience to law to a living, breathing relationship with God.  No wonder Jesus breathed on them when he gave them the Holy Spirit.  They became living members of a living relationship. 
I drive through Dunkin Donuts on the way to church early on Sunday mornings.  A number of months ago, I felt a nudge from God to ask the sleepy young woman at the drive through window if she needed me to pray.  She did.  Ever since then, I have offered prays to whoever is working that window.  I have prayed for everything from weight-loss to healing a sick child to making more money.  And every single Sunday, I feel awkward.  I am an Episcopalian!  Who am I to offer spontaneous prayer? Why did God ask me to do this?
That’s the really scary part of what happened to Peter.  God was basically saying, I can change the rules.  Heck, I made the rules!  Just listen to me and I will take you step by step, day by day.  But you can’t just assume you know what I am asking of you.  You must be in a living relationship with me. And I may surprise you by what I ask.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t like surprises. If God asked me to leave my family and follow Christ, I’d probably rent a UHaul and bring them along.  If God asked me to eat different food, well, that would not be such a stretch. But if God asked me to heal someone, well, I might pretend that I didn’t hear.
I think sometimes that we are limited not by the power that God gives us but by the fear we have of moving beyond our limitations.  We say to God, No, I can’t do that.  No I can’t do that.  But it is God who gives us the ability.  It is God who makes the rules and who breathes into us the breath of life.  Don’t you think that God knows what you are capable of?  The only reason we lead small lives is because we are limiting our own potential.  But, as Peter said, who are we to hinder God?
In the beautiful movie, Mr. Magoriams Magical Emporium, Mr. Magorium runs a magical toy store. It is time for him to die and give his store to a young woman named Molly Mahone.  But there is only one problem, Molly does not believe in herself.  So Mr. Magorium, on the night before he dies, says something profound to Molly.  He says…Your life is an occasion, rise to it.
Your life is an occasion. Rise to it.
Listen to the living God.  If you are worried about what God may ask of you, there is really only one guiding factor.  Love.  Whatever God asks of you, it will be love.  You will be asked to love.

Now, go forth and listen for that living spirit.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

God Calls Bums

He was killing people in the name of God. He stood by and watched as a man was hit over and over again with rocks.  He smiled as the air left the man’s body, bruises becoming bloodied.  He looked on and he smiled.  He really believed that it was right to kill for God.  He just stood by and watched as a man died.
Saul wasn’t just wrong, he was cruel.  He was arrogant. He felt no compassion.  He was a bad guy before God turned him around.  I don’t think that he was the kind of guy you or I would have liked.  He was like a hitman for Judaism.  Kill the people who believe in Jesus, that was his conviction.  He believed that he should murder people because they didn’t believe the right way.
Saul was so arrogant that the first thing Jesus does is blind him with light.  Blind him.  Let him go about completely unable to see.  Make his dependent, humble, lost.  When he realizes that he can see nothing without God, then restores his sight, but only after he listens and does exactly what God tells him to do.  God knocks him off his horse, blinds him, gets him to listen, obey and finally heals him again.  God takes an arrogant, self-assured jerk and makes him into a humble servant.
Most of us think we can’t do much for God.  Heck, we can hardly get our own lives together.  It’s hard enough to raise our kids or pay our mortgage or stay married.  How can we do anything for God?  God will have to wait until we can get our lives together.  After all, who are we to try to help other people when our own lives are such a mess, right?
But God doesn’t wait for you to get your act together.  God doesn’t wait for you to become wise or smart or peaceful or less confused. God wants you to serve now, before you figure it all out.  God just wants you to listen and do what you are asked to do.
If you wait until your life is all put together well before serving God, you will never serve God.  No, God calls people whose lives are a mess to serve other people whose lives are a mess.  God does not wait for you to be all fine before you must follow Christ.
In fact, before Saul begins to serve Christ, he is blinded.  He realizes that he can’t see clearly, can’t see anything at all.  Certainty is taken away from him completely.  The first criteria for Saul to become Paul is for Saul to get totally lost in the darkness.
You might ask yourself, how can I serve God when I have doubts?  Or how can I help other people when my life is not very well put together?  How can I help the poor when I barely have enough money myself?  How can I counsel people when I can’t stop fighting? How can I help others find God when sometimes I don’t know how to talk to God myself?
I remember this beautiful scene in the movie Beaches.  Bette Midler plays this middle-aged singer/actress named CiCi whose best friend has died.  Her best friend left a six year old daughter and asked that CiCi adopt her little girl.  After reading the will, CiCi comes to the bedroom of the little girl to tell her that she is going to become the girls new mom.
“Your mother said that she would like for you to come and live with me,” she says to the little girl. “And honestly, I don’t know what she was thinking. I can be incredibly selfish, I am a slob. Sometimes I have mean thoughts…honestly, I don’t know what she was thinking?”
The little girl looks up at Cici, shocked by her honesty, and says, “But do you want me?”
“Of course I want you!” CiCi says.  “More than anything!  But I just can’t imagine what your mother was thinking…I am not a good enough person to be your new mom.”
The little girl moves over to the middle-aged woman and begins to snuggle with her, comforted by the woman’s agonizing honesty.  And the little girl asks, “Can I bring my cat?”
“You can bring any old thing you want…” 
Jesus is going to ask you to serve the world for him.  My people are hurting, he will say to you.  And you, no doubt, will say, “But God, you can’t possibly want to use me? I am such a wreck. Don’t you want to find someone better?  Someone who can balance their checkbook?  Someone who has more patience? Someone who can do it better?”
And Christ will say, “No.  I chose you.  I chose you will all your foibles and faults. In fact, I may even use your foilbles and faults if you are humble enough to be honest about them.  I will use your mistakes, your arrogance, even your failure.  That is the stuff I work with.
I will ask you to follow me as I asked Paul, as I asked Peter, as I asked Abraham and Jacob and Esther.  I won’t wait for you to be brave or to get your act together.  I don’t have time for that.  My world is broken.  I need you to follow me now.
There is only one question that I will ask of you.  It is the very same question that I asked of Peter. It is this…
Do you love me?
If you do, then do not think of yourself.  Do not think of your gifts and abilities, the things you have done wrong.  Stop looking at yourself and look to me, says the Risen Christ.  Look to me.
Do you love me?  IF you do, then your way forward is clear.  Feed my lambs.

If you love me, then take care of my little ones. All who come to you for help and assistance, serve them, love them, help them.  And in the midst of your service, I will transform your life and fill you with joy. You will become my disciple, like Peter, like Paul. You will become great.  Because of me.