Saturday, August 21, 2010

13 Pentecost Yr C

I don’t have much time to watch TV, but in the evening I do sit down and watch some. I think we can learn a lot about ourselves by the commercials. If I were one to believe anything I see and hear on television, these are the things that I think are important to Americans, in no particular order: I have to take some sort of drugs to sleep better, to feel better, or to have better sex; I have to have a sexy car; I have to have financial security; I have to drink but do so responsibly; I have to wear the right clothes; I have to buy the right toys, etc. etc. etc. On some level, consumerism has become the dominant world faith, and we freely hand ourselves over to it. And, when we believe in the religion of consumerism, it is quite easy to believe that you, or me, or any one of us is the most important person in our particular universe, and fulfilling our needs is the most important endeavor we can be about.

So how is it we find ourselves in this place today? Why is it that you get up on Sunday morning and come to church? Why is it that yesterday some of you were here at church all day cleaning, and many of you spent your whole Saturday at the civic center giving away the clothes we had purchased for kids to begin school? Here we are, honoring the Sabbath; here we are, worshipping God. Here we are, listening to stories of faith in Jesus, we are not at home, watching TV drinking our coffee. Here we are, consuming the bread and the wine, being made into the body of Christ, why do we do it? Why do we come here?

I think it is because we are the same as the woman in our gospel today. This woman whom Jesus set free. This woman who was bound us, enslaved, for all of her adult life. This woman who Jesus released. This good news we hear today is true. You and I know it is true because it describes our lives, each one of us is set free, each one of us is released from the bonds that hold us at a distance from each other, we are released from the bonds that keep us believing that ultimately our needs, real or perceived, are the most important needs in the world.

We find ourselves here today not because we have to be here, or we are obligated to be here, but because we are free. We are free from the bonds of selfishness, from the bonds of self-absorption, and egotism. We are free from the religion of our culture that preaches you must buy, you must have, you must consume because it helps the economy and it is the patriotic thing to do. The religion of our culture that preaches you can rest when you’re dead, where people work more and more and wonder why they are so exhausted and why they feel more behind.

Keeping Sabbath is important, your being here is important, because you are free to be healed, and in your healing and reconciliation, you are freed to show compassion. And in reaching out, showing compassion, you participate in God’s bringing healing, freedom, joy and peace to those in need, and that is a rejuvenating path to experiencing those things more fully in our own lives. You are free to be transformed into the person you are created to be. What’s really important here? Healing and reconciliation are God’s purpose in the world. Keeping the Sabbath is about keeping God’s purpose the main thing. It is about the nearness of the kingdom.

The woman in our story today was released from the bondage of her ailment. We too are released from bondage, but you and I both know that we tend to choose to stay in bondage. We tend to believe the religion of our culture that says to us either “you are God” and deserve to have anything and anyone you want, or “you are worthless” and deserve only what happens to you, both of which are lies.

The truth is so very different from any of that. The truth is that we are God’s beloved creation, and that God loves us whether or not we love God, that is our choice, and that God came to be part of creation, to live, love, suffer and die, so that we may be reconciled, or joined together with God, and with one another so that we may be free. The truth is that the story is not about any one of us, but the story is about God’s relationship with us, and our relationship with God and our neighbor.

That’s the main thing, and what flows from that main thing, what flows from God’s amazing and abundant love for us is the freedom to love others, regardless of approval or disapproval, regardless of whether or not they deserve our love, regardless of whether or not they brought life’s circumstances upon themselves or if they are a victim of circumstances. What flows from God’s amazing and abundant love for us is mercy and compassion.

Mercy and compassion cause us to look at length and with open hearts into the eye of those who are ignored, those who are very old, those who have no one to care for them, those who cannot speak for themselves, those who cannot move on their own, those who are homeless or ill or in pain, those who are lonely, angry, grieving. Mercy and compassion cause us to care about people even when their vulnerability reminds us of our own.

Watching TV shows us not only the values of our American cultural religion, it also lets us into the living room, and the back yards of people all over our world. And we have seen floods and fires, earthquakes and hurricanes. Sometimes we suffer from “compassion fatigue,” we can no longer feel because it seems overwhelming, and we know how close we are. Sometimes we hear ourselves say, “that could have been me,” and we can no longer listen or watch, we can no longer be compassionate. We will not feel at peace or be at rest when we are frantically running away from something.

So this week as we reflect on the gospel, it might do us some good to linger where Jesus lingers, to begin in a moment of Sabbath, to start from a quiet place within, and remember the main thing. The main thing, that it isn’t about me today, it isn’t about any one of us, it is about meeting others with God’s compassion, God’s mercy, and reminding ourselves of the dignity, the freedom, the blessing that is God’s desire for each of us as God’s child.

Today we celebrate a life well lived, Bernice Holland Jones. Bernice shows us what mercy and compassion look like, she shows us what dignity and freedom look like, she shows us what servant ministry looks like, for almost 100 years. Bernice would tell you that she surely did not expect to be walking this earth at 100, and yet she is.
Today, that is a celebration.

The kingdom of God is near.
Thanks be to God. Amen. Alleluia.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

12 Pentecost Yr C

Fire is one of the most powerful forces of nature. Fire threatens people and property. Fire threatens forest and hillside. Fires are destructive, fire burns, fire kills. Fire is energy and force that consumes until it burns itself out. And yet fire is necessary for a forest to be reborn.

The fire that Jesus came to bring to the earth is a fire of transformation. It is a fire that does not destroy but that refines, renews and purifies. We know that not only does fire destroy, at the same time fire is the very thing that provides the energy for seed pods to open to create new life. You can see that so clearly in a place like Yellowstone. The new growth that has resulted from fire is amazing. Wildflowers, trees, that would never have grown if it weren’t for fire. This is like the refining and purifying fire that Jesus brings. This is the fire that has the strength to create something new out of something old, something alive out of what seems dead. This is the fire that molds liquid into solid, and solid into liquid. This is the fire that transforms a lump of clay into a beautiful pot.

In JRR Tolkein’s story, The Lord of the Rings, the premise is that a ring that was forged from the fires of the earth holds unbearable power for the ringbearer. The bearer of the ring is always corruptible, and will, eventually, succumb to the power of the ring. The only way for the ring to give up its power is to be thrown back into the fire. The journey of the ring bearer and the fellowship is a journey of transformation and refinement. It is a journey away from individualism and concern only for oneself, toward unity of purpose and shedding of selfishness. On the way, the dwarfs, men, hobbits, and elves, are faced with their own mortality, their own limitations, and realize the journey is about much more than each of them individually, and is much more about who they are together. They were challenged to use their gifts in ways they never thought possible. When the mission was accomplished, something new had been created, out of the fire that refined, molded, melted, reshaped.

Fire transforms, fire refines, fire purifies. Fire is powerful. Jesus came to bring fire to the earth. Jesus came to transform and refine us. Nothing is the same after the fire. Nothing looks the same, nothing smells the same, everything is different. What was old has been reshaped, reformed. Jesus came so that nothing is the same as it was.

One of those things that is transformed is relationships. Remember that the gospel writer Luke claims that part of Jesus’ mission was and is to redefine kinship. Nothing is the same with Jesus and after Jesus, especially kin relationships. Nothing is the same, including the assumptions that have always been made about the natural order of family relationships. What I think Jesus is saying here, and it is probably one of the most difficult passages in the gospel to hear, is that kinship is not the most important relationship, but our relationship to God is our most important relationship, our primary relationship. This is not different from the message of Luke that we’ve been hearing for some weeks. Our relationship with God is our primary relationship. But this transformation of relationship causes division. When all the members of a family are not in relationship with God, family relationships are stressed, families can become divided.

In order to form a relationship, we must spend time in that relationship and pay attention to the other in the relationship. When we are in relationship with God, we must spend time with God in prayer, we must learn about God through reading scripture, and we Christians understand God who is one of us, Jesus Christ. We are an incarnational people. God is made known to us in the flesh, Jesus Christ. We say we know Jesus Christ through others, we say we know Jesus Christ through the breaking of the bread. So one way we are in relationship with God is to be in community, we participate in the body of Christ, we are made into the body of Christ.

Each one of us must be in relationship with God through prayer and study, and all of us together as church must be in relationship with God through prayer and study. That is part of what makes us a Christian community; and what results from prayer and study in Christian community is that we may end up in different places, we may disagree. God created us all different, unique; we all have different lenses through which to see.

In a little book by the Rt. Rev. Neil Alexander, the bishop of the diocese of Atlanta, called This Far by Grace, Bishop Alexander makes an observation, he says,
“In the Anglican tradition, we got over the need to agree with one another centuries ago. One of the glories of our way of being faithful is to hold together, in creative tension, a cacophony of diverse voices, a rich continuum of temperaments, and almost as many ways of knowing as there are things to be known. It’s often tense, but never boring.”

I think this is the kind of fire of creativity that Jesus calls us to in this gospel passage. The fire that creates in each of us something new, something different, something that was only a seed pod before, but now can grow and flourish and be who and what it was meant to be. We are not created new to be the same; we are created new to be who we are called to be.

The fires of transformation and refinement are not about making us all the same. The fires of transformation and refinement are about making us unique and beautiful; the fires of transformation and refinement are about making us in God’s image. And in that uniqueness and in that beauty, all of us together come closer to being who God creates us to be. We are transformed into the people, not individual people, but a people, not just fathers and sons, not just mothers and daughters, but a people, from different tribes and different nations, which belong to God. We are transformed into a people who show forth their gifts. A people who love one another as we have first been loved. A people who offer dignity and respect to all. A people who together are better than they are apart. A people who are fed, who feed one another, and who go forth into the world giving thanks and praise to our God.

Amen, Alleluia!

Saturday, August 7, 2010

11 Pentecost Yr C

Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid God assured Abram, the angel assured Mary, do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Do not be afraid we must be assured as well, do not be afraid.

Fear is a powerful motivator, for good or for ill. It seems that the world in which our sacred stories originated, and the world in which you and I live are not so different. Our ancestors were afraid of the same things we are afraid of, not having enough, not having enough food, water, clothing, housing. They were afraid of persecution, afraid of being teased and bullied for being different. They were afraid of death, afraid of the unknown, afraid of the dark, afraid of mortality and absence, afraid of natural disaster and human made disaster. They were afraid of those who seemed a threat, those whose ways are so different from our ways, those who believed in a God who seemed so foreign.

Today we live in a culture of fear. We are afraid of not having enough, and we are afraid of those we think may take away what we do have. We are afraid of reading the newspaper because we don’t want to read that our stocks are doing poorly and our retirement is gone, or we don’t want to read of the sadness, violence, and tragedy around us. We are afraid of getting sick because we don’t have enough health insurance to cover the hospitalization. We are afraid of getting old because we are unsure of what our bodies will become and what they will do, and the value of our lives until we die. We are afraid of people who think and do and believe differently from ourselves. We are afraid of dying because we wish to be immortal.

We are afraid of losing, losing our money, losing our lives, losing our house, we are so afraid of losing we hold on tight, we become greedy, we worship idols. We heard all about greed and idols in the parable we heard last week of the Rich Fool. Fear leaves us insecure and paranoid. Fear breeds intolerance and suspicion. Fear causes our relationships to be conditional and abusive.

No fear. Be not afraid. These are words of comfort, and they are words of action. How do we follow Jesus in a culture of fear? What is the fitting response, the ethical response to fear? Now, fearlessness is not a good thing. But that is why God chooses to be known to us, so that we may stop being afraid of the wrong things. Putting fear in its place is being freed from fear to being empowered to love. The quieting of fear is required in order to hear and do what God asks of us, and yet in our culture, fear seems to have the loudest voice.

Quieting our fear is not easy, but these overwhelming fears need to be overwhelmed by bigger and better things, by a sense of adventure and fullness of life that comes from locating our fears and vulnerabilities within the larger story that is ultimately hopeful and not tragic. The story of God’s abundant and amazing love that resides with us in the life and love, the pain and suffering, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And only by facing death, our most primal fear, can we move ahead to embrace life with the great nevertheless that is God’s gracious word to a broken world.

At our baptism, we were united with Christ and marked as Christ’s own forever. Through baptism we have already faced death, and seen it overcome. Every time we gather together here to celebrate Christ with us we acknowledge the work that God does in Jesus on the cross.

Following Jesus in this culture of fear is to offer hospitality, and then we are no longer strangers. Following Jesus in this culture of fear is to be compassionate instead of safe. Following Jesus is to transform this culture of fear into a culture of hope.

And this is the work of discipleship, it is our work as baptized people. Bringing the kingdom near, for the gospel writer Luke, is all about the amazing grace of God. We are disciples who express openhanded mercy to others, especially those in need. Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, extend hospitality to those who cannot reciprocate, give without expectation of return. Such practices are possible only for those whose dispositions and convictions and commitments have been reshaped by the transformative encounter with God’s amazing grace.

Be not afraid, because the chief competitor for God’s focus stems from the rule of money, in forms of life designed to keep those with power and privilege segregated from those of low status, the least, the lost, and the left out.

And we continue to hear, Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. How do we live as kingdom people and live without fear? Sell your possessions, and give alms. In other words, be generous, give to the poor. The call of discipleship is to live as if we mean it, not as if we are afraid of it. The call is to live as if God is our priority. Eugene Peterson’s translation in The Message is, Steep yourself in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. Don’t be afraid of missing out.

The call is to live our transformed lives in the world, and when we do that, we can change our world, we can transform our world, and the kingdom will be near. The call of discipleship is to no longer be afraid to be yourselves, to be the person God created you to be, to live your life as the beloved of God. When God is the priority, when God is our treasure, there our hearts will be also, and there will be no fear. There will be courage, we will be dressed for action and have our lamps lit. There is nothing we miss out on, instead, we are emboldened and encouraged to live our lives as agents for change, we are participants in bringing the kingdom near.

I’m remembering a fairly recent movie, Evan Almighty, which if you haven’t seen yet you may want to netflex. Evan, who has just been elected to congress, prays for his family and his relationships. As a result, God tells Evan to build an ark. Near the end of the movie Evan figures out that God doesn’t necessarily give what it is we ask for, but gives us opportunities to engage in what we need. So when Evan prayed for better family relationships, God gave Evan an opportunity to engage in relationships, by building the ark together.

God gives us opportunities for discipleship, God gives us opportunities to minister with the least, the lost and the left out. God gives us opportunities to live boldly and courageously. God gives us opportunities to live as if we mean it, to live with no fear, and to witness to the nearness of God’s kingdom.

Be not afraid.