Saturday, August 22, 2009

12 Pentecost Yr B

My nephew and I are often exchanging books to read, we share the same interest in fantasy and science fiction, he’s and English major like me. The most recent recommendation he made was a book tilted The Game of Thrones, by George R.R. Martin. I went to the used book site I buy books from on the Internet, and learned that this was the first in a series of four books, so I bought them all. As they came I realized that each book was 900 pages long, plenty of summer reading I figured. I just began the third book. This is an epic story of Kings and Queens, Knights and courts and battles. Well of course the knights and the warriors don their battle armor, so I’ve actually been thinking about this image of armor and battle for quite a while now. In the fantasy stories there seems to be much romance in knights doing battle. The armor these particular knights put on shows their status, the armor is inlaid with gems, it shows who they are, the house they belong too has a symbol that is represented in the armor, and it shows their allegiance, the king they serve. Putting on this amazing armor however also means they go to do battle on their King’s behalf, and more than likely die in the process.

The people in Ephesus, the audience for this letter, were mostly Roman Gentiles, not Jews. They were warriors and familiar with putting on armor and going to war. These days we aren’t so comfortable with going to war for Christ, there’s been so much abuse in our history. Nevertheless, here it is, and there is a wonderful juxtaposition as well. Paul instructs them to put on their feet whatever will make them ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. What can we claim from this for ourselves?

The belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, shoes that will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the spirit. For Paul this is not as much about protection against the powers of darkness as it is dressing in the strength of Jesus. It is not so much about insulation from the evils of the world as it is about taking on the church’s holy calling of reconciliation. I think we must dress ourselves so that we may be ready, protection is not the point, being ready in truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, and spirit is the point. How do we get ready? How do we dress ourselves with truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation and spirit?

We engage in ways that help us learn about where we’ve been, so that we may know where we are going, so that we may know what the work is that we are called to do. In dressing ourselves we engage in theological reflection, which is a fancy way of saying that we must reflect on our life and make faith connections. Theological reflection is simply wondering about God's activity in our lives. Asking ourselves where is God present? What is God calling us to do? By taking time to ask questions about what happens to us—seeing our experiences through the lens of faith—we become clearer about our connection to God. We all ask questions about relationships, our work, our children, our government, and our situation in life. We all reflect, wonder, analyze, think, assess, and discuss with friends as ways of trying to understand our life. Theological reflection simply refocuses all that thinking to encourage a stronger sense of relationship with God, asking, "Where does God fit into the picture?"

Part of this wondering process is to find ourselves in the biblical story. You’ve heard me over and over ask the question, I wonder where you are in this story? This is a way to get you to see the biblical story as your story, but in order to find ourselves in the story, we must know the story. So dressing ourselves is to read and study scripture, so that we have a framework for wondering about how God fits into the picture. I encourage you to take the opportunity to study scripture here at St. Andrew’s. There is already a bible study at 5:30 on Tuesday nights, there is an intensive course called Education for Ministry that also meets on Tuesday nights, if these don’t fit for you, I’d be happy to find a time for another group to meet together for study.

Another part of dressing ourselves is prayer. In one sense, the whole reflection process is prayer, because it is intentional quiet time when we are conscious of God's presence in our lives. Yet concluding with an explicit prayer draws our whole reflection into an expression of our deepest hope. It takes all our hurts and joys, all insights and lingering questions into an intimate conversation with God. I have found that people using this process as a personal spiritual journey have deepened their prayer life or sometimes even discovered a prayer life if they had not experienced one before. It also takes the process of reflection from the posture of thinking about God to one of being with God, whether we do that alone or in a group.

And what is it we are getting ready for? We are standing ready as agents of resurrection, we are standing ready as people who are marked as Christ’s own forever for the purpose of being bearers of the kingdom in all places and at all times. Our job then, or the work that we are called to do, dressed in word and prayer, is to proclaim with our lives God’s presence with us.

If we were actually wearing armor, people would know right away we were warriors. We aren’t wearing armor, we are dressed in word and prayer, do people know right away who we are? Do people know right away that we live our lives as agents of resurrection? Do people know right away that we carry God’s presence with us? How would they know that to see and hear us? Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is about healing and reconciliation. As agents of the resurrection, as co-workers with Jesus in enacting the kingdom, it is our job to participate in activities that bring healing and wholeness to this broken and fragmented world. It is our job to give ourselves away in radical acts of service and compassion, expecting nothing in return.

This way is not an easy way which is why it takes preparation. That’s what’s in John’s gospel today. Many of Jesus’ disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. Dressing ourselves in our armor and going out to do what we are called to do is not easy work. And it involves risk, a warrior risked death, we risk life. The life that John is all about, the life that is abundant and amazing. The life that brings healing. The life that is the good news, good news that spreads in our families, our communities, our country.

Clothe yourselves in word and prayer, and go forth into the world to be the good news that the world yearns to hear.

Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness: Come let us adore him.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

11 Pentecost Yr B

I had bananas falling out of my freezer yesterday morning, with more ripening by the second on my countertop. I decided it was time for banana bread. I make some good banana bread, nice and low fat, but my mom makes awesome banana bread, not low fat, but not as bad as banana bread can be, so I called her to get her recipe. Of course, in talking to her we caught up on stuff, compared notes on Willie getting to her house to stay before he heads to college, the weather, the usual. Isn’t that the way it usually happens, you go looking for a good recipe, and in return you get wisdom, maybe it also happens the other way around too, you share a good recipe, and you share a bit of wisdom as well.

We have the same pairing in our readings today, wisdom and good food; maybe there is not one without the other. Wisdom in scripture is not just about being wise, as opposed to being foolish; God has built wisdom into the fabric of the cosmos. And we learn from wisdom that there are certain ways of living in which people thrive, and other ways of living which lead people to death. Ordering your life to wisdom is what we read about in these scripture passages today. We begin with the reading from Kings, King David’s son Solomon is now on the throne, at the ripe old age of 12. You and I know that Solomon is famous for being wise, and it is already evidenced at this young age in his prayer to God, give your servant an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil. In Ephesians we hear about wisdom as right living, be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise. Do not be foolish, but understand what the will, which also may be translated desire, understand what the desire of the Lord is. Sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, giving thanks to God the father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. The last two weeks now you have heard me talk about Christianity as intentionality and spiritual practice, not morality. I believe that intentionality, spiritual practice and our prayer together, or common prayer, forms us into the people who God desires us to be, not a perfect people, but a wise people, a people who can love one another. Paul’s words for the Ephesians are about wisdom as right living, and that God’s desire for us, God’s people, is to live wisely.

In John’s gospel, the wisdom tradition is applied to Jesus; Jesus now is the embodiment of wisdom. We continue to hear about the living bread, the bread that is Jesus. John is making a claim about the radical presence of God in Jesus, essentially John is saying that in Jesus, God provides everything; God’s abundance is made real in Jesus. We are invited to be present in God’s bounty. We are invited to feast on wisdom; we are invited to eternal life, all contained in this loaf of bread.

What does it mean for us that God has built wisdom into the fabric of the cosmos, that ordering our lives to wisdom brings abundant and bountiful life, that Jesus is the embodiment of wisdom, and that we feast on wisdom? I think it means that even like the ordinary bread, our ordinary lives are made extraordinary by God’s abundant love. I am reminded of the movie Chocolat. The story is about a young mother who with her young daughter blow into a rural French village on the first Sunday of Lent. She opens a Chocolate shop, and prepares amazing confections that seem to transform those who eat them. She has opposition however by those in the town who live by a certain set of rules that don’t allow for the ordinary pleasure of chocolate, especially during Lent.

Our main character in the movie dispenses wisdom along with chocolate and other confections. Entering her chocolate shop through the ordinary front door results in extraordinary nourishment. And yet, there remain those who will not cross the threshold for fear of what may happen and how they may be changed.

We are changed by the ordinary bread, into an extraordinary community. We are changed by the wisdom feast into the body of Christ teeming with extraordinary life. Through the practice of Eucharist, through the practice of Thanksgiving, through the practice of eating together around the table, we become the community God desires for us to be, filled with the Spirit, singing and making melody to the Lord and giving thanks at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus.

What was comfort food becomes radical presence. And we are filled with God’s soul food, rather than the fast food that only satisfies us briefly. We are filled with God’s radical presence in Jesus, and we are sent out into the world to practice God’s wisdom, we are sent into the world to show forth the Good News, we are sent into the world to live intentionally, sacramentally, as agents of resurrection and reconciliation.

Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness: Come let us adore him.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

10 Pentecost Yr B

Last week I said the Christian life is much more about practice than it is about a set of rules, it is more about intentionality than it is about morality. All week long at Vacation Bible School we practiced a life of being baptized. We were reminded of our baptism by getting wet again and again, and we listened to stories that helped us remember our baptismal promises of prayer, respect, forgiveness, loving our neighbor and proclamation. We affirmed that we are all children of God, the delight of God’s life and we are marked as Christ’s own forever. Before us today is this letter of Paul to the Ephesians, helping us once again to remember what the practice of the Christian life looks like.

Paul says let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. Put away all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander and malice, be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians was as important to the Ephesians as it is for us today. The purpose of Paul’s letter was to build up the community of emerging Christians in Ephesus.

I think what is so very important in all of this, and you’ve heard me say this before, is that to be Christian is not to be perfect, but to be forgiven, to be Christian is not to be perfect, but to be healed, to be Christian is not be perfect, but to be reconciled, to be in unity with God. This is what Paul is so good at pointing us to. The people of Ephesus lived in a broken and hurting world; you and I live in a broken and hurting world. But we also live in a beautiful, joyous world. It is never one way or the other way, it is always both. Your words may give grace to those who hear.

I believe that our words make real what is in our hearts. We must practice grace, we must use graceful words and actions, and when we do so, we become the agents of new life, of healing and reconciliation in our little piece of the world. And we build up the community; we create with God the new world that God promises for us.

Perfection is not the goal. Success is not the goal. Prosperity is not the goal. Despite what we see and hear and read all around us. Even the removal of disease is not the goal, no matter how much we want that. We all know people who we love and care about that we would like God to just remove the disease right here and right now. Disease just isn’t fair, especially when it hits good people; it’s only bad and evil people that should get disease, right? But we forget that the joys and pains of this world are all of a piece. It is in the midst of all of the joy and the pain that our words may give grace to those who hear, it is in the midst of all the joy and the pain that we can live the reality of resurrection.

During this last week of Vacation Bible School, I would go home in the afternoon and put my feet up, and inevitably take a bit of a nap, but one afternoon I caught a little bit of Oprah. Her guests were famous people who were telling their stories of disease and healing. She interviewed Scott Hamilton, the figure skater, who told his story of being diagnosed with testicular cancer, and then on the heels of that having a brain tumor. He spoke about the joys of his life being so sweet because he experienced the pain of disease. I am never one to suggest that any disease is God’s will and I am never one to suggest that some are more blessed by God than others. But I am one to suggest that we can find Jesus walking with us through it all, if only we open our eyes and ears to see and hear. And we have the words of grace for each other that help one another see Jesus. You have all sorts of stories like this to tell, we have stories to tell right here at St. Andrew’s. The reason I bring this one up and remind you of your own is that these are stories we must tell so that we give grace to those who hear. These are stories of pain and suffering, of death to life as we have always known it. These are stories of resurrection.

Healing is not the restoration of the body exactly the way it used to be. Healing is not the resuscitation of a dead body. Healing is the gift of new life, in ways that we could not and can not even imagine. This is what Paul is talking about. In a broken and hurting world, our words and our kindness to one another, our practice of being tender-hearted, and forgiveness of one another, show forth God’s goodness and effect God’s grace.

What would the world look like if this were our practice? What would our church look like if this were our practice? What would our little corner of the world look like if it were our intentional practice to say words that may give grace to those who hear? I think if we were intentional in our practice of loving, of tender heartedness and of forgiveness, we may come closer to the mission of the church which is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ. Our work is not only here in our church; it is even more importantly outside the walls of our church. Our witness in the world is to God’s abundant and amazing love, love that heals and forgives, love that brings wholeness.

You are the agents of resurrection; you are the people who can proclaim by word and example the love and forgiveness that brings about healing and wholeness in the world. If you don’t proclaim this Good News, it won’t get done. We have Good News for the world to hear, Jesus is the bread of life, whoever comes to him will never be hungry or thirsty again. Jesus contains all of our longing, all of our dis-ease, all of our pain and suffering. And Jesus creates new life out of what the world deems dead.

And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness: Come let us adore him.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

9 Pentecost Yr B

The back door would slam and I would shout, Mom, I’m home. I would enter our kitchen and soak up the aroma of freshly baking bread. Mom would slice off a chunk and slather it with butter and peanut butter, and I would be in heaven with my after school snack. My belly was full, I was content, and there was nothing in the whole wide world that could harm me. Full, safe, and protected, my mom never had to say I love you, I knew that in the loaf of bread.

Jesus said to them, I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. Last week I said that this feeding is a massive picnic in the wilderness. Not only is the bread Jesus’ body, but it is manna from heaven, the bread of angels. The wine is not just Jesus’ blood, but the free-flowing drink at the messianic feast, the substance of joy. Word and table are brought together by the image of word as bread.

A loaf of bread is as practical as it is mysterious. Being Christian is as practical as it is mysterious. We make a huge mistake when we think that being Christian is to assent to a certain set of rules. Being Christian is much more about practice and much less about morality. We are a people who take in this bread of life and whose lives flow from the sustenance and the nurture that the bread of life provides. Being Christian is not about assenting to certainty, but about living a certain way, and becoming what God intends for us to be. We come here week after week, and week after week we take into our bodies the bread of life, we ingest the Word over and over again. In this practice, we become the people of God, we become a community of faith, we become who God creates us to be.

Part of the mystery is that the loaf of bread teaches us who we are as well as transforms us into whom we may be. Our practice and prayer surround the loaf of bread with word and action. There are books upon books about Christian spiritual practice as well as practice from many other spiritual paths. But we already have a book that invites us into practice that feeds us and nourishes us, that gives us life and enfleshes hope. It is our Book of Common Prayer. When we enter into the practice of prayer that our Book of Common Prayer shows us, we may be formed into Christian community, we are formed as people of scripture and people of love and care for one another, and the Good News of God in Jesus may be enfleshed in our midst.

I again commend to you this most wonderful book, filled with prayer, filled with practice, filled with song and psalm and worship. Our prayer book offers the practice of daily prayer, morning, noon, evening and night, alone and in community. This daily prayer teaches us and forms us. These are the words we speak at the break of the day, Lord open our lips, and our mouth shall proclaim your praise. Morning prayer forms us in a way that these words become the first words that are on our mind and our hearts as we begin each day. And at noonday we may pray, Heavenly Father, send your Holy Spirit into our hearts, to direct and rule us according to your will, to comfort us in all our afflictions, to defend us from all error, and to lead us into all truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord. I am so thankful for the opportunity to practice prayer and love for others often in my day, because I so rarely get it right. In the evening we pray, O Gracious Light, pure brightness of the everliving Father in heaven, O Jesus Christ, holy and blessed. Now as we come to the setting of the sun, and our eyes behold the vesper light, we sing your praises, O God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. You are worthy at all times to be praised by happy voices, O Son of God, O Giver of life, and to be glorified through all the worlds. And lastly, before we go to bed we pray compline, Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous, and all for your love’s sake. And we finish the day with Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping; that awake we may watch with Christ, and asleep, we may rest in peace. Each of these opportunities to practice prayer brings us deeper into a relationship with God in and through Jesus Christ and by the work of the Holy Spirit. Each of these opportunities binds us together in the community of faith.

We are formed and shaped by our practice of prayer with the Word as bread at our center. I came across a great piece of writing this week that I would like to share with you. It is from Episcopal CafĂ©, a web site that offers many things including a daily reflection. A priest at a cathedral was presented with a question from a potential new member about where the cathedral stands on the question of same-sex blessings. This priest struggled for a while trying to discern what the questioner really wanted as an answer, until he decided he would just answer the question and not try to guess how the questioner wanted him to answer. His answer, There are people in this congregation who are fully supportive of the Church’s blessing of same-gender unions. There are people in this congregation who are opposed to the Church’s blessing of same-gender unions. While the Episcopal Church as a denomination is on record as calling for equal protection under the law for all citizens, if you’re looking for a congregation that is of one mind on this issue, you’re going to be disappointed with this one. We don’t have agreement internally on this particular - or many - issues. Instead, we just agree to pray and worship together. We don’t agree with each other. We pray together. The writer goes on to say, as an Episcopalian of catholic leanings and ecumenical enthusiasm, if there’s one thing that argues for the continued existence of an Anglican witness in the Universal Church - it’s our charism of holding firm to praying with those with whom we disagree no matter how hard that is to do. (Thank you to The Very Rev. W. Nicholas Knisely who is Dean of Trinity Cathedral in Phoenix Ariz, found at Episcopalcafe.com) We don’t agree with each other, we pray together, we practice together, we eat together.

Our practice, each time we gather to celebrate the bread in our midst, forms us. We gather in the Lord’s Name, we proclaim and respond to the word of God, we pray for the world and the church, we ask forgiveness for that which we have done and left undone, we offer one another peace, we prepare the table at which we each, we make Eucharist; the Great Thanksgiving, we eat together and there is enough for all, and we are blessed and sent out into the world to do the work that God calls us to do. Practice means that we acknowledge that we need to do it over and over because we don’t get it right the first time, and maybe not even the bazillionth time, and we are humble enough to know that we will need do it all over again.

All of this practice may arise out of our fundamental activity of baptism. We baptize not because we know it all and are perfected, we baptize because our practice of getting wet and slathered with oil helps us to remember who and whose we are. We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit. And together we are fed by the word and the bread, for Jesus says to us, I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness: Come let us adore him.