Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Rubber Shoes

We don't know much about this disciple named Nathanael. He was a friend of Philip who was from Bethsaida. He probably lived on or near the Sea of Galilee. And Nathanael seemed to have strong opinions. He knew his own mind, that's for sure. 

In fact, Nathanael was skeptical and even prejudiced. When Philip comes to him claiming to have found the Messiah, Nathanael does not believe that Jesus can be anyone special because he came from Nazareth. 

Nazareth was a rural backwards area in Jesus' day. It had a population of no more than 500 and could not be compared with the civilization of Jerusalem. About 16 miles southwest of the Sea of Galilee, it was not near the Mediterranean Sea and was not on normal trade routes. In the eyes of an educated Jew, it would have been seen as a place full of ignorance and simple-mindedness.

Nathanael was prejudiced and he was blunt. He did not believe that the Messiah could possibly come out of a backwater place like Nazareth. So he asked, "Can anything good come from Nazareth?" Nathanael was blunt but he was also honest. And when Jesus sees him, Jesus does the exact opposite thing to Nathanael than Nathanael did to him. Instead of being critical of Nathanael, Jesus points out the best in Nathanael. Jesus says, "Here is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!" In other words, "Here is an honest man!" And Nathanael knew enough about himself to realize that Jesus had just nailed it. Jesus knew him. Nathanael is converted to believing in Jesus because Jesus knows him and edifies him. He points out Nathanael's best quality.

Have you ever had someone give you an honest word about one of your best qualities? Have you experienced that feeling that someone really sees you and values who you are? I think that is the way that Nathanael felt. Someone really saw him. And he could be a better man because someone knew him.

In his Letter from a Birmingham jail, Dr. Martin Luther King wrote to some of his fellow clergymen.  They had openly criticized him for demonstrating in a city that was not his own, for demonstrating in a way that was "unwise and untimely." He said that if he were to respond to all the criticism that crossed his desk, he and his staff would have no time for constructive work, for the work of God. So most of the mail or communications that he got that were critical, he simply chose not to respond. But these were his fellow clergy, and he believed that they were faithful people, so he wrote them a letter.

In the letter, Dr King honors and even compliments his critics. He calls them men of "genuine good will." He holds them to their best selves and argues with them about their interpretations of his actions. He turns the tables on them, reminding them of their best qualities, and calling them to be better people. He uses all his gifts as an orator and writer to convince others of his perspective. 

In my family, there is an evening ritual which has to occur. We have no choice about it. Someone has to walk Ella the dog. This chore rotates around but we often go in pairs or threesomes because it is a great time to visit. When Max was about five, he was walking Ella in the rain with my oldest son Luke and my goddaughter Ashley. Both Luke and Ashley are a lot older than Max and a whole lot taller, but he was walking in between them when a thunderstorm erupted. Max immediately grabbed both their hands and said, in a very clear voice and without any fear, "Don't be afraid! I have rubber shoes!"

Max was not afraid of being struck by lightening because he had rubber shoes and those rubber shoes, in his five-year-old mind, would keep him safe. God would protect him because of his rubber shoes and if he grasped the hands of his loved ones, God would protect them too. In Max's mind, his rubber shoes were his saving quality.

The writer of the Psalms says, "You (God) knit me together in my mothers womb. I will thank you because I am marvelously made." 

God has carefully made you and deep down inside each one of you has tremendous gifts, rubber shoes that can get you through anything. There is something that reflects God in each one of you, your greatest gift. It is important that you come to identify that gift, for if you use that gift and join hands with others, you can change the world.  But we become so consumed with criticising ourselves and others that we forget our gifts. We forget our best selves.

If Jesus were to see you under the fig tree and call out to you and name your best quality, your rubber shoes, what would he say? Would he say that you, like Dr. King, can speak out against injustice and evil? In our world gone crazy with violence crossing the globe, if you have this gift, then we need you. 

Are you a quiet person who can cook and clean and help others with practical aspects of their lives? Can you make a quiet difference by mentoring a child? Are you an artist who can give a glimpse of something infinite to the rest of us through music or dance? Do you have an inner strength and tenacity that can get you through the worst ordeal or are you, like Nathanael, incredibly honest? God knows what your rubber shoes look like but God doesn't often call them out to you as Jesus did with Nathanael. Often God waits for you to discover them.

God also asks each and every one of us to be like Jesus and to take the time to notice and point out the best qualities in others. Where are their rubber shoes? Did you see someone do something incredible, and not point it out? Be sure to edify and see each other. Speak about the gifts of others, for often they cannot see them clearly for themselves.

Dr. King had a moment of revelation late one night as he was sitting at his kitchen table. He had just received another threat to his life, a telephone call that came late at night. He went to the kitchen to heat up some coffee and he pleaded with God. What should he do? He was putting his wife and baby at risk. But the answer came to him over his coffee. He was told to use his gifts, the gift of speaking and writing. And not to worry. Those were his rubber shoes. God would do the rest.

A storm is coming. It is already in Europe. Human beings are being slaughtered across the globe. Even Europe no longer seems safe. It is time for us all to join hands and to find our voice, all of us who believe in the sanctity of human life. It is time for us to speak about the great gifts of every human being and the evil acts that would destroy human life. Why are we afraid to speak? Some Americans are afraid to speak because we want to be compassionate and understand the poverty and suffering of the people that commit these acts. But there is never a reason to slaughter innocent people in the so called name of God. Why do some of us have a problem calling this evil? Jesus told us to pray, "Deliver us from evil." Is this not the time for such a prayer?

We are a people of faith. Jesus knows and loves us. No amount of violence or hatred could ever hurt our souls now that we have found our Lord. So let's find a way to speak out together. Find a way to use whatever gifts God has given you. You are part of an incredible faith tradition that honors the intellect and reason while still holding to belief in God, Jesus and heaven. We believe that every human being is wonderful and marvelously made. Let us not stop until we convince the world that this is true.

King wrote, in this Letter from a Birmingham jail, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." God has given each of you immense gifts to serve justice and truth. How will you use them?

Grace Upon Grace

John, author of the Fourth Gospel, begins with a beautiful hymn about the Word of God. Towards the end of the hymn, there is a tiny phrase tucked in there. But this tiny phrase possesses immense wisdom and I would like to focus on it with you today. John wrote, "From his fullness, we have all received grace upon grace."

Grace upon grace.

It is hard for me to admit this but I think that, after almost twenty years as a priest, I am only just beginning to understand what the word grace means. I remember speaking to a Methodist Sunday school at my father-in-laws church right after I was ordained. An elderly gentleman raised his hand after my talk. "Yes?" I asked him. "Thank you for your talk," he said, " but what I really want to know is this, 'How do you feel about grace?'" 

Well, the truth was that I felt nothing about grace. Grace hadn't really occurred to me at all. For me, leading a church was all about bringing in new people and making sure that the parishioners were growing in their spiritual lives, if that is at all possible. I had no concept of grace at all. I was approaching my ministry as a good workaholic New Englander. Work your tail off and make sure attendance is always increasing. If you struggle, pray harder, give more. Earn your way to pleasing God. So when this Methodist man asked me about grace, I thought, "Those darned Methodists! They are always talking about these sweet Christian words that don't really mean anything at all."

But his question bothered me and my lack of ability to answer it bothered me. I began to notice how much the Bible talks about grace. Paul talks about it today in his letter to the Galatians. In fact, Paul began almost all of his letters with the words, "Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and The Lord Jesus Christ." And St John writes, "We have seen his glory, the glory of a fathers only son, full of grace and truth." Full of Grace. I had to admit, there might be something essential to this word, grace. So I began to pray about it, think about it, read about it. And here is what I learned.

There are two ways to look at your life. You can see yourself as a sinner trying to earn your way to God-that is the first perspective. If you see yourself this way, then you work hard to try to please God. You are constantly trying to do better, be a better friend, spouse, parent, to do the very best job you can at work and at home. You try hard to say your prayers and come to church and manage your life. And you probably suffer from anxiety and a sense of inadequacy. When something goes wrong in your life and there is a mess, you blame yourself and try harder.

There is another way to live, though, another way to see your life. You can try to absorb the fact that you are a new creation, made anew by God at your baptism. You are beloved and good and you are even made perfect through God's grace. There is nothing that you can do to earn God's love. It has already been given to you. This is the grace perspective and it is hard to absorb but it is the true identity of every Christian and a path to joy and peace. It is not your job to earn God's love, rather you are to surrender to God's love and let Christ live in and through you.

When I was in college, a hypnotist came to do a performance on a Friday night. He hypnotized four of my classmates. When they were under, he told them that each one of them would wake up convinced that he or she was an animal. Then he woken them up. I'll never forget that my friend Matthew was among them. He woke up convinced that he was a rooster. He ran all around the auditorium crowing at the top of his lungs! Another girl was a cat and kept trying to crawl on people's laps. I laughed so hard that my side was sore the next day. When the hypnotist broke the spell and my friends truly woke up, they went to their seats puzzled and shy. And later, when we told them how they acted, they were really embarrassed. Matthew's face turned bright red, like the rooster's comb that sticks out from the top of its head.

My friends acted like animals because they were hypnotized into believing a lie about their identities. When they were taken out of the trance and experienced reality, they began to act like the people that they really were. 

You are holy. God made you holy by grace. But the world will hypnotize you into thinking that not only are you inadequate but that you must try to make up for your inadequacy by trying to prove your worth. Christians fall into this trap when we try to succeed at our faith and try to please God. You must earn grace, that's what so many believe. But grace cannot be earned. It has already been given. It pours down upon us like that beautiful piece of art that hangs in Talliaferro. Someone who feels inadequate and is constantly trying to earn God's favor will be always on the defensive. But someone who understands what grace really is will understand the depth of God's love and will then be able to go on the offensive, to be creative, to be truly alive.

Imagine that a King decided that he was doing to pardon and free all prostitutes. If you were a prostitute, this would come as great news! It would liberate you. But would you change your behavior? Maybe, maybe not.

But what if they King then took you as his wife? Would you change your behavior then? Absolutely, for your were given a better identity, something to become. When you were baptized, your sins were forgiven, but you were also made the bride of Christ. Your whole identity was altered. There is no longer a need to earn salvation. God has married you. You went from being a caterpillar to a butterfly. Now all that you have to do is spread your wings.

The grace perspective begins when you realize that you have nothing to prove and instead you allow God's love to live in and through you. We do not do good words to earn God's kudos. We do good works because they flow from us naturally, because it is who we are. It is the truth about you and me. We are full of grace and truth.

I wish I could go back to that Methodist Church. I would tell the old man that it took me twenty years to begin to understand what his question meant. And I would thank him for asking.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

A Wedding of the Spirit

I wrote in our E. Newsletter this week about what happened to me in San Francisco, how I flew out to officiate at the wedding of my nephew and came down with Influenza A. I did the rehearsal and had everything ready, but I felt worse and worse. So on the morning of the wedding, I went to one of those traveling doctors offices and tested positive for the flu.

How do you call your beloved nephew and tell him that he has to decide, on the day of his wedding, as to whether he would like to expose his bride and himself to the flu and possibly be sick on their honeymoon, or find another priest. He opted to find another priest.

So I found myself lying alone in some random California hotel room feeling like I had been hit by a train while my family and friends celebrated a wedding without me. This was the first time in my life that I had the flu and I have never gotten so sick as to miss something this important. It was devastating. It made me realize what a profound privilege it is to be part of weddings, to be part of a celebration of love, to stand there while people vow to be faithful to each other for their entire lives.

In today's gospel, Paul comes to the city of Ephesus where he encounters some new disciples who have been baptized. But Paul quickly realizes that something is missing. They have become followers of Jesus but they have not fallen in love. They are not in a living relationship with God. They seem lost. So Paul asks them about the second but equally important part of baptism. He asks them if they received the Holy Spirit when they were baptized. It turns out that they don't even know what the Holy Spirit is. They say, "We have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit." They were baptized but they didn't receive the Holy Spirit.

Did you realize that all baptisms have two parts? In the first part, I pour water over the child's head and they are washed from sin and become part of the church. But there is a second part. In the second part, I take this holy oil called Chrism, which the bishop has blessed, and I make the sign of the cross on the forehead of each child. And I say to the child, "You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ's own forever." 

In other words, the Holy Spirit comes down and owns you. Forever. You belong to God. In the book of Revelation, it says that Christians bear this mark of the Holy Spirit even in heaven itself. It is something that stays with a person forever.

Being baptized without the Holy Spirit would be like getting married without your spouse present. You could say you were married but there was no one to be married to. In baptism, you form the most important relationship of your life. It is more important than your relationship with any human being, more important than your parents, your best friend, even your spouse. In baptism, you enter into a relationship with God through the Holy Spirit. God claims you forever. God takes up residence inside you.

And the secret to all this is hard to comprehend. If you can realize that your first and most important relationship is to God, then all the other ones will go a lot better. You will be a better father, mother, son, daughter, wife, husband, if you are first and foremost a child of God.

My friend in Seminary had a little girl named Marlo. She was six at the time when he found her staring down her own throat in the full-legnth mirror in their bedroom. "Marlo," he asked, "what are you doing?" 

"I am looking for God!" She said.

"Do you think that God lives down your throat?" my friend asked. 

"Well, the Bible says that God lives in I just wondered if I could see..." She explained.

When these babies are baptized, the Holy Spirit comes down upon them like it came down upon Jesus. And from this moment on, there will be this someone else in their lives. Often a quiet presence, the Holy Spirit will live within them, full of wisdom and insight and ready to be listened to at any time. They will be loved forever and this love will live inside them. All they have to do is access it. They will NEVER BE ALONE. No one can be there for them in the way that the Holy Spirit can. No one even comes close.

The problem is that it was not just those early disciples who forgot who they were. We forget that we married God in our baptisms. We forget that God waits for us, lives in us, ready to heal us and listen to us and adore us. We listen instead to all the noise of this world that tells us we have to prove our worth, that we are not enough, that we must work harder or become thinner or get smarter to be loved. The Spirit whispers something else, something radical and hard to absorb, that God lives in you and will never leave. And only God could live in you without pressuring you or making you feel claustrophobic or crazy. It has to be a God thing.

As these babies grow, it will be your job to teach them who they are. Teach them that Jesus is right there with them, listening and understanding. Teach them to listen to God and not just talk all the time. Teach them to look around, to look outside themselves and ask, what is the Spirit trying to tell me? Teach them to wonder what they can do to serve God? To understand that you are married to God means to understand that you are not alone. There is always someone beside you, always.

What an incredible gift to give your child, to tell them that they will never be alone. To know that the Holy Spirit has come to them and will never leave, that is quite something. It means that they will be capable of doing more than they think. They will have God with them. When Paul anointed the disciples with the Holy Spirit, they spoke in tongues and they prophesied. They did stuff that surprised themselves and others. They become more than they thought they could be. To recognize God's presence is kind of awesome and scary. It means you can do anything.

When I got to the hotel and realized that I was going to miss the wedding, I talked to God and I cried. I told God that I did not understand why this happened, that I was angry and disappointed. I listened for the calm and peace of that Spirit and I got frustrated when all I felt was sick. Then I called my husband and cried to him. The poor guy upgraded my flights home, maybe because that was the only thing he knew how to do to help me feel better. But what he didn't know was that I was just grateful to hear his voice.

I never was alone. Even when I flew all night sick on the plane. I knew that God was there. That's what got me through. These babies are going to grow up in a world full of pressures that we cannot even begin to imagine. They will need the strength and fortitude that comes only from the presence of God. No matter what storms or sicknesses they encounter, they will belong to God from this day forward, marked as Christ's own forever. God will live in them. Always.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Running Down the Dirt Road to Us: A Christmas Sermon

My friend Chris is one of the best dads I know.  He is a doctor but he always finds time to take his boys on scouting expeditions. His Facebook page is chock full of his two boys, always doing some activity or other, with the same smile on their faces. Those boys are well loved.

Last summer, Chris sent his oldest Mark, to a camp in Missouri. Chris lives in Texas, so this was the first time that Mark would have been away from home, far away from home. Mark had just finished fourth grade. Well, Mark was miserable. He sent a letter home every day. "I want to stick it out," he wrote, "But, dad, I just can't wait for you to come and get me." The camp was just two weeks long but it felt like an eternity.

Chris planned to fly to Missouri, rent a car and drive his boy home. He was so afraid of his airplane being delayed that he flew a whole day early, arriving on Thursday. He was supposed to pick up Mark on Friday evening at 5. He stayed in a hotel and drove around aimlessly all Friday morning. He ate lunch at some diner in the small town near the camp and then drove out arriving about 3 pm. There was a rope across the entrance to the dirt road that led to the camp. A sign on the rope read, "Parents are not allowed to pick up their children before 5 p.m. Please stay behind the rope." 

Other parents had already gathered, looking anxious and tired at the same time. They exchanged pleasantries, how old is your kid, is this his first year at camp, etc. All the questions were perfunctory because none of the parents were listening to each other. They all had their eyes glued to the dirt road. 

By about 4:30, the parents had grown in number. Chris realized that some of them had inched their way to the rope, so as be the first ones to make their way down the dirt road to their kids. Chris subtly moved himself in place. A woman behind him looked a bit overwhelmed by the crowd, but he didn't offer her his spot by the rope.

At 5, two counselors came out. They had enough sense not to step in front of the rope and get trampled by the stampede of desperate parents. Instead, they just stood at either end of the rope, untied it from the poles and let it fall to the ground.

And the parents were off. Chris said he started running like a maniac, all the way down that road. He was not in the greatest shape and got a large stitch in his side. He would do whatever it took to see his kid.

God feels the same. God will do whatever it takes to see his children, to take us home. Gods desire leaves us in the dust. Chris took a plane, rented a car and stayed in a hotel.  God gave up the glory of the cosmos to become a tiny child. Theologians like Saint Paul called this kenosis, the self-emptying of God. God had to bind the Divine self to earth, become finite, small, contained. God went from the infinity of heaven to the dirt of a tiny stable in the Middle East.

I often wonder why God was born in Bethelehem. Why did God chose to come to us in a dirty place where the animals slept, in a land where the ruler was willing to kill children just to make himself feel more secure? Why did God chose a land so violent? Mary and Joseph were so alone. Scholars have realized that not only was there no innkeeper in the gospel story, but the word for inn really means guest room. All we have is this one sentence in the gospel of Luke, "There was no room in the inn" but a better translation is "there was no room in the guest room." Joseph would have been knocking on the doors of people's homes, not of inns. And some of these people would have been his relatives since he was descended from the line of David. These people rejected a woman in labor and someone from their own family! Bethlehem was not a fairy tale. The evening of Christ's birth was beautiful because God made it so, but never forget for a moment that Jesus was born in the dirt, in a dangerous and violent world.

My next door neighbor in Kansas had a son who was diagnosed with leukemia. His treatments were terrible and he was just four. His dad looked like hell warmed over. I remember seeing him in the yard and asking how things were. "Kate, I can't make it better for him," he said. "That is the hardest part. I can only stay with him, hold him, just be there. But I can't fix it. He must fight this cancer himself to live."

I think of Chris, running down that dirt road to see his son.  I think of my neighbor holding his suffering child. We cannot fix the pain that our children have to endure, but we can be there for them, in the midst of it all, we can be there.

That is what Christmas is all about. It is about the gift of presence. Not presents. Presence. Being there with someone when things are hard and life seems almost unbearable. Have you ever noticed that if you try to fix your friends problems or give them advice that you really don't help them at all? God knows that we must struggle to find our way on this earth, that if God were to just fix the worlds problems, that we would learn nothing at all.  Jesus came to save us just by being with us. God became a helpless child just to be with us.

And if God was born in Bethlehem, then God is with us whenever we struggle. God is here with my neighbor and his four-year-old boy as he fights for his life. God is in Peshawar, Pakistan when children are killed in a school. Jesus is right there beside a baby girl who is abandoned in China just because she is a girl.  Jesus is there and when the world seems so awful that we cannot make sense of it. God says, here I am.  I am willing to run down that dirt road into the mess of this world just to hold you. Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Imagine This

When I was four, I had my first role in the Christmas pageant. I was not even baptized yet and someone decided that I should carry a teddy bear down the center aisle and put in in the manger beside the baby Jesus. My mom was really nervous that I would not be able to make it up the aisle. She thought I might chicken out or just start crying or something. But instead,  I grabbed that teddy bear by the leg, dragged him up the center aisle, and proceeded to dump that bear in the manger. I then marched, with determination and all seriousness, back to my seat.

Only in years later did I get to play Gabriel and announce to Mary that she would have a child. 

This year, we have some new developments, like two female Wise Men and someone gave us pig costumes so we have lots of pigs along with the sheep. But I believe that each child will never forget their part in the story. Just as I have never forgotten being in the Christmas pageant.

Why do we do the same thing every year? Why do we reinact the event of Christ's birth and let children be the players? Why do we tell the same story over and over and over again?

Carl used to work at Belk before he was ordained. One day, a young man came in to buy a cross. He pointed to a crucifix under the glass and said, "I would like to try that one, the one with the little man on it." 

The little man?? The little man? Could it be possible that we now live in a world where people don't even know who Jesus was? Now he is just the little man?

St Ignatius was a Spanish knight who lived in the early 1500's. He was critically wounded in battle and almost died. When he was recovering, Ignatius had to lie still but his mind could wander. Ignatius had an active and vivid imagination. But he began to notice that when he daydreamed about being a saint, he felt better. When he daydreamed about winning wars or making money or finding romance, he just found that the end result was that he felt more lonely. So Ignatius began to imagine the best things of all, that he could be part of the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

He imagined what it would be like to be a shepherd on that holy night when Jesus was born.  Was it cold? What did it look like when the angels appeared in sky and sang glory to God in the Highest? Did their wings cover the skies? Did they blend with the moonlight? Was it terrifying? Could the sheep see it too?

Lying in bed, Ignatius discovered a profound kind of prayer. He discovered that by daydreaming, by putting yourself inside the story, you can find yourself there. And you can see things more clearly.

Why do we reinact the pageant every year? Because children are born with both an innate sense of the spiritual and with healthy imaginations. And why should we not encourage them to imagine that they too were there on that holy night? Why should they not imagine this? Doesn't God want them there? Isn't that exactly where they should be?

And also, a child will never forget who Jesus is if he or she acts out the story of Jesus' birth. That child will never refer to Christ hanging on a cross as "that little man," if they remember that God was born in human form. 

Much of what the Bible demands can be simply put in one word: Remember. Remember God and what God has done for you. It's when we forget that our hearts wander and we are lost.

Time and again, Moses begged the people to Remember. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. Remember the Sabbath day. The great danger for the people of God, even before Jesus came, was amnesia, the danger of forgetting who they were. It is like a woman with amnesia who has lived a long and happy life and who loves her husband above all others. But when she begins to wander away from home, he finally has to move her into assisted living facility. Over time, to his shock and grief, he watches his wife. She forgets who she is and becomes more and more emotionally attached to a man who lives in her unit. As she forgets, her heart wanders.

And so we as a people are called to fix our love on God and remember who we are and who God is. And we remember by inviting our children to live into the story of Jesus' birth, to BE the angels and the shepherds and the camels and the innkeeper...and we pray that as they dream and play, they remember who they are and what God did for us in sending us Jesus.

When Martin Luther, the great church reformer of the 1500's, was under attack or began to doubt his work, he would mutter to himself, "Remember, Martin Luther, you are baptized!" He would blurt this out at the oddest times, to get himself grounded again, to focus on what was really important.

And all throughout our lives, when we are on the verge of despair, let us repeat the same... Remember, that you are baptized...Remember the holy child. Come to the manger once more and remember who you are!

Imagination is a great form of prayer. Imagine what it was like on that holy night when God became a human being. Imagine if you too were there, sitting in the shadows in that tiny space with animals and dirt and a poor homeless couple, worn out and cold. Imagine that you could see the face of that baby. And for just a moment, glimpse the inconceivable fact that God would limit Himself to such a degree, to become helpless, just to be with us. Sit in that tiny space on that cold night. Be there with him. That is what Ignatius did. That is what we are inviting our children to do.