Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Close the Gap

I have to admit that I am terrified of the parable about the rich man and Lazarus the beggar.  When you really think about it, it is terrifying. 
A rich man ate well and dressed in fine clothes. Well, he didn’t just eat well, he feasted every day and he didn’t just wear nice clothes, he wore purple and fine linen.  Purple was the color of royalty and linen, so light and beautiful, was one of the most expensive fabrics in Israel. Meanwhile outside the rich man’s house, a poor man named Lazarus lay there dying. He was not only poor and hungry but he had sores. And the dogs came and licked his sores. He was degraded to lower than a dog.  He lay in the dirt.  And the poor man has a name, Lazarus. And the rich man does not.
Both men die and Jesus paints a vivid picture of what happens next.  Lazarus is taken to heaven by angels where he sits with Abraham. The rich man just ends up in Hades and we don’t really know how he got there.  But what we do know is that he is very hot. There is fire all around him and it torments him. Worse still, the rich man can see Lazarus and Abraham in the comforts of heaven. He can see them but he can’t get to them.  He must watch paradise from a seat in hell.
The rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool his tongue.  It is a small request.  He does not question his fate.  He does not yell and scream.  He does not ask for a way out of hell. All he asks is for a tiny bit of water, enough to moisten the tip of a finger, a tongue.  But Abraham answers by telling him about the chasm.
Abraham addresses the rich man with the word “child.” He does not seem angry or offended by the rich man, rather, it seems that he is trying to educate someone who knows next to nothing, someone like a child.
Abraham describes the gap to the rich man. “There is a great gap between heaven and hell and you can’t cross over.  No one can, not in either direction.” And this is what I find so hard to digest in this parable.  Heaven and hell are cut off from each other.  There is no redo.  Once you end up in one place or the other, that’s it.
And the rich man ends up in Hades because he did not see the man who sat on the ground right on his doorstep.  He did not see a person there.  He had a chance to make a connection that would have served as a bridge between him and Lazarus, but the gap that was there in life was even worse in death.  The rich man could simply not cross over.
The rich man failed to see Lazarus. Lazarus looked so different. He was so dirty, so ugly, so smelly.  The rich man didn’t want to see.  So he just walked on by and the distance that he created became the chasm that kept him from God. 
The distance that he created became the chasm that kept him from God.
Our relationship with one another is part of our relationship with God.  When we fail to see each other, when we allow the gap to exist, we alienate ourselves from God.
All over this country, there are riots going on in our cities. These riots have been going on periodically for decades.  White and black people are not seeing one another as human beings.  There is still so much blindness.  So little communication.  So much hatred.  And we all are suffering, all of us.
Lazarus was lying right in the path of the rich man, at the gate to his home.  He was right at his doorstep.  The rich man had to pass by Lazarus every time he left home and every time he returned. And even still, he did not see Lazarus as a human being. Day after day, he simply refused to see.
So how can we bridge the gap in this life?  What could the rich man have done to save himself from eternal torment?  The answer is simple. See Lazarus.  Enter his skin.  Learn about him.  Serve him.
God is not asking us to fix it the problems of the world or the suffering of humanity, but to see the people who are in our path as people.  To learn their names.  To see with God’s eyes and to ask ourselves, “What is God asking of me?”
This love your neighbor as yourself stuff, it’s no joke. We are being asked to close the gap.
It’s scary to see each other, to risk letting someone change our lives. But if Jesus is right, it is essential.  We cannot cross the gap to God if we haven’t crossed the gap to understand each other.
Yesterday, I was leaving the church after an emotionally-charged funeral.  I was walking to my car when a homeless woman came marching towards me swearing at the top of her lungs. She seemed to want to tell me something, but the swear words were so thick that I had to ask her to stop swearing so much simply so I could understand her.  She was carrying a children’s book wrapped in plastic, like the kind you get at a McDonalds drive through or a Chick Fil A.  When she slowed down enough, I began to understand her story.
It turns out that this woman had tried to give the children’s book to a little girl as she and her family were leaving the church after the funeral. And the little girl refused to take it.
“I had a present for her!” the woman cried. “And she didn’t want it!”
I realized that this woman, who was so loud and abrasive, had had her feelings hurt.  When I told her that it sounded like this hurt her feelings, she said, “Yeah it did!  That little girl…she broke my heart!”
And then, to my surprise, the woman thanked me for listening and walked on.  Turns out that all that she needed was simply to be heard.
Who is on your doorstep?  That person is an essential part of your story, a way for you to grow closer to God.
To close the gaps in this broken world is to grow to God in the next.  It is all so intertwined. We must see one another as human beings for the very salvation of our souls.

All About Money

There is an ancient Viking legend about a great warrior-king.  When the king came to power, he demanded that his soldiers immerse themselves in a river to show their allegiance. Every part of you that the water touches belongs to me, he said.  The Viking soldiers were strong, vigorous men, used to defending their families. They dutifully submerged their bodies in the cold water of the river but they held out their sword arms. Those alone remained dry, as they wanted to keep the right to defend themselves and their families should the need arise.
That is what Americans do with our wallets.  We submerge ourselves in the waters of baptism and give our lives to God, but we hold out our wallets. You can have all of me, God, but just not my money, we say.  I will pay my dues.  But my money does not belong to you, God.  In fact, I just don’t want to talk about it.  I want to live my life with prayer, service and maybe paying my dues to the church or charity and that’s it.  I don’t want to actually reflect on what money means to me or what I am doing with it in the rest of my life.  That part must remain separate.  My financial life has nothing to do with God.
But really, the opposite is true.  Your relationship with money, no matter how much you have or don’t have, is important.  You cannot separate your financial life from your prayer life.  They are interrelated. Your relationship with money effects not only yourself but the people around you. Money is a tool for the building of the kingdom of God.  It is not to be worshipped, or adored.  It is a moving thing. Money is incredibly important in the spiritual life.
When John the Baptist was asked how people should get ready for the Messiah, he told them to give away their stuff.  There is no denying the importance of money and belongings in Scripture.  Jesus talks about money more than he talks about prayer.  But when it comes to our faith, we don’t want to think of money as a part of it.  We just want to pay our pledge and move on to prayer.
When I preach about money, I can see people react. It is like nothing else.  People assume what this is really about is that I want you all to give so that the church can pay its bills but I have to talk about money because Jesus did.  I have to talk about it because it is such an important part of your life as a Christian. And I don’t even think many of us know what money really is.
Deep in the Amazon rain forest, there is an indigenous tribe called the Achuar.  For thousands of years, they have lived without money.  Generations grew up, worked, built homes, raised families and maintained communities, all without any concept of money.  They lived off the land.  When a couple got married, the village built them a hut. When a hunter killed a wild boar, the whole village ate.  Life was mostly focused on events of nature.  There was no concept of currency at all.
Chumpi was 26 when missionaries came to his village and changed everything.  Having seen other tribes devastated, they instructed the Achuar to send one of their smartest young adults to America to learn.  Chumpi was selected and he moved from the Amazon rain forest to the United States of America where he lived with a missionary family and went to school.
Chumpi learned that the land on which his village sat was worth a lot of money.  He learned that there were many different plants on the land in the rain forest that had yet to be discovered.  Many of them could have medicinal qualities. His tribe was offered a large sum of money for the land.  But he also learned that if his village sold that land, the money would run through their fingers like water and it would soon be gone. Then they would be lost.  This had already happened to other tribes.  Chumpi learned that he must value money but also say no to it and learn that there were things that were more valuable than money.  He learned that his village was rich in relationships, rich in history, rich in land. If they were to hold onto their riches, they must not succumb to the temptation to sell.  Ironically, he had to advise his tribe to say no to money in order to become rich.
Picture a river.  The water moves at different paces depending on the day, on how much water is in the river.  You can ride it.  You can take people places on it.  It can create energy. It is beautiful. But if you lose control of it, you can drown in it.
Jesus tells us a parable about a manager.  He is in charge of a man’s wealth but he uses it unwisely for his own enjoyment.  He “squanders it.” This is the same word used by the prodigal son, so it probably means that he partied and ate and drank a lot. So the master finds out and prepares to fire him.  Suddenly, the manager wakes up.  He realizes that he only has a few days left as manager of the master’s wealth.  So he begins to use the money to build relationships.  He forgives debts one by one.  He is kind.  He is generous.  He serves and loves people he hardly knows so that they in turn will care for him. It is selfishly motivated but it is good.  He uses his treasure to build up relationships.
All that we have is God’s. All of it.  I know it seems like we have stuff, but we don’t.  It is like trying to cup water in your hands.  Your hand may be full of water one moment but believe me, it will slip away.  You cannot hold onto any of this.  The only thing that lasts is love. So take your money and use it to love.  Love your family, provide for them.  Celebrate life. Give generously.  Don’t be afraid of not having enough or of having too much. It doesn’t matter how much you have as much as it matters what you do with it.  Build up the kingdom of God.  Harnass the power of money to build the kingdom of God.  Love at the core of your hearts and your wallets.
Reed Dearing passed away and we buried his ashes yesterday out here in the Bishop’s Garden. He gave his grandchildren some money when he died.   He told them that he would.  And this is what he said to them when he told them that he would be giving it to them.
“I want you to use this money to celebrate.  Celebrate that I am going to the King!”

Money is a tool of love, of celebration, of providing for the ones that you love and for the whole of humanity.  It is a moving river that can be harnessed for great good.  But the first step is just to wake up and become aware of it.  You are the steward of whatever God has given you.  What will you do with it?

Monday, August 29, 2016

Making Time

Carla was on an overnight train because her plane wouldn’t take off. She was trying to get to New Orleans for an audition.  Her career as an actress was taking off.  She had already landed a small role on a sit-com.  Her schedule was crazy, living in New York City.  She hardly ate and barely slept.  Her agent said that the must read for this part. She decided to take a train from New York City to New Orleans. She could catch up on email, study the script.  It would give her enough time to get everything done.
At first, she spent all her time on her iphone, texting friends, checking emails, Facebook. Then something unexplainable happened to her phone. It just started malfunctioning.  Oh, no!  I don’t have time for this! She thought.  She turned it off and when she tried to restart the phone it just was dead.  DEAD. Nothing.
What was she supposed to do for 28 more hours?  Sleep?  There was this baby across the aisle that was crying and driving her crazy so she looked over. A young man seemed to be caring for the baby and a little boy all alone. Was there a mother?  The dad looked tired. 
Carla listened to the baby cry a little longer and then tried making silly faces at the baby.  And it stopped crying, reaching out its arms to her.  “Can I hold her?” she asked the weary dad.  He seemed grateful.
Carla played with the baby, who wanted to chew on her hair.  Soon the little boy came over, curious about his sister’s new friend.  Slowly, Carla came to know the little family.  By evening, the baby and the little boy had fallen asleep and she found herself talking to this young father.  As the train rolled on through the night, he told her how his wife had been hit by a car and how he was doing the best he could and it was like a space opened up in her heart.  Her busy life was just shoved aside and she was present with this man as he opened his life to her.  And she was changed.
They fell in love that night on the train.  Years later, she would tell her children that she would never have met their father if her iPhone hadn’t died.

In Jesus’ time, the most precious commodity was food. You never knew when your next meal would be served.  Fish had to be caught. Bread made from scratch.  Even water was scarce.  So the best thing in the whole world was a wedding banquet.  The bride’s family would pull out all the stops, there would be meat, wine, bread, dates, and the feast could last for days.

When you went to a wedding banquet, the seats of honor were served food first.  So to sit in a place of honor was like a guarantee that you would get to eat.  And in a land where food was that scarce, that was a big deal.  Everyone wanted to sit up close and be served first.  And Jesus gave the radical message to his followers that instead of trying to sit in the front, they should sit in the back and maybe they would be invited up. Anticipate that those who have not yet come are more important than you are, he said.  Make room for them.  Make room for the stranger.

Eating meals today is not a big deal.  We all have food in this country.  But what we are running short of is time.  Technology is making us feel as if we do not have enough time.  So I would like to reinterpret Jesus’ parable to make it more relevant to our day. Instead of leaving space at the table for the stranger, I want you to consider making space in calendars for strangers and for the unexpected.  I want you to think of giving your time.
Do not neglect to how hospitality to strangers, says the Letter to the Hebrews, for by doing that some heave entertained angels without knowing it.  Make room for people that you do not know.  Make space for God to tell you something through people you may not have even met. You may meet someone who will change your life.  But you must have time to listen to that person, time for the unexpected. You must retain the ability and the space to listen to your life.
The word angel means messenger. Anyone can be an angel, a relative, a friend or even a stranger. Whether they know it or not, angels carry messages from God. But how can we entertain angels if we have no space in or lives, no time in which to meet them?  What if Carla’s phone had not broken?  She would have been texting and emailing and she would not have had time for the stranger across the aisle or for his children.  She would have missed out on love.
If you take up the prime seats in your life with your current job and relationships and obligations, how can God send you anything new?  If there is no space in your life for the unexpected, how can anything ever change?
In order to listen to God, we must not only give God time but we must give strangers time too.  We must let people in when we are driving, we must give our attention to someone who makes a request of us, we must try to give make room for God’s Spirit to move.  There is another word for giving up the central seat in your life, it is called listening.  Or another way of putting it is being present.
Make space for God in your lives.  Keep your eyes open to what God is saying and doing. Listen. Watch. Welcome the stranger into your life.

When I was in college, I spent a few summers working in Russian orphanages.  My home church gathered toys for the orphans that I would then take over with me.  This was before 9-11 before threats of terrorism.  My church was so generous that I filled a UHAUL with toys, gum, craft supplies and made my way to the airport with boxes upon boxes. I was so young. I didn’t realize that there is a weight limit on airplanes.  There was no way that I could take all that stuff.  So there I was, in a long line at JFL Airport in New York with boxes and boxes full of toys and no way to get them on the plane.
A group of Orthodox Jews stood in front of me.  When they learned what I was trying to do, they opened their suitcases.  A woman threw away a dress, a hairdryer. “Give me some of those toys,” she said.  A man shoved his books aside.  More suitcases opened.  Clothes were being thrown away, toiletries, shoes.  The news traveled further down the line.  “Give me a stuffed animal!  Give me more!’ “I can fit some,” said another teenaged girl.
The people on that airplane made room for those toys.  Every single toy made it to Moscow.  Because people made room.

Your life is like a suitcase.  It is full of appointments and obligations and errands. But you must take some of these things out in order to make room for God.  It is essential.  Leave space for God in your life.  In that way, you will be open to the message of the angels.

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.