Sunday, November 27, 2016

Mystery Trip: Gathered Community, Trust and Truth

Two vehicles, two chaperones, a minivan packed with teenagers, and a truck that was full to the brim.  We got on the road later than I had planned, and the storms were more constant than predicted. This was the bi-annual Mystery Trip.  The adults and the parents knew where these middle schoolers were going, but the young teenage guests did not.  I must confess that the adults would enjoy ourselves by making ‘accidental’ mentions of an incorrect destination, and offer packing lists with items they wouldn’t need.  
Great Sand Dunes NP in Colorado, not NM

There was a beloved trust involved in making that Mystery Trip work.  Healthy relationships and the clear understanding that we were going somewhere.  They were so convinced of their well-being, that these smart, well-traveled New Mexico teens were not paying much attention to our direction.  When asked, I would claim that we were going to White Sands National Monument, far to the south of Albuquerque where we began.  My guests didn’t read the road signs that said so many miles to Pueblo or Denver.  Or look at the directional light on the rear-view mirror with its big green N.  Nor did they notice the hills getting steeper and the trees getting taller.  We were well into Colorado before any of our guests began to question my White Sands fibs.

I was the opposite of a prophet.  I knew exactly where we were going, prophets don’t know exact details.  Prophets strive to speak truths, and I was deliberately misleading.  In Hebrew the common word for a prophet is transliterated nabi.  It signifies that a person is called to a boundary duty. The responsibility of the prophet is to speak across the divide to name divine truth to earthly power.  What boundary speakers like Isaiah communicate is that God sees the people, sees that we have not done what we promised.  We have chosen self-satisfaction over our pledge to be good neighbors.  We have chosen a glittery sheen of happiness  that barely shrouds the fear and jealousy we share.  We have chosen to keep our heads down and our sources narrow.  The beautiful thing about that mystery trip was the love and the trust; the scary thing was the inattentiveness, and self-centeredness, and numbness to everything beyond our tiny caravan.

In the mass of wrongs and untruths that surround us, the word of God through the prophets such as Isaiah, is pointing to the ultimate healing and hope of what we know in later Christian theology as the promised reign of God.  There is a dark storm of meanness and uncaring that makes that promised reign seem distant.  I know this storm it isn’t new, and I believe that it isn’t all hype and distractions.  That disturbing highway pullover of an interracial family of two priests last summer, those are my friends.  Cruel graffiti on churches, racist yelling on the commute, hateful notes left on windshields: these things are happening to your families, my friends, our neighbors. I have had a hard time breathing when I read the news. I turn the radio off more quickly than I used to. The promise of a peaceful forever gathering in Zion seems a long long way from here.  How do I learn to breathe God’s promise?  I gather and I pray and I study.  And the judgment I am slowly hearing is this,  I believe I have been like my teenage guests on that mystery trip.  So carefully tucked in a comfy space with people I know, that I have become blind to the heartache and the storm and the misdirection right beside me.
#adventword plus #christmasword

This is the first day of the fresh season of Advent, and I began my morning with the first word of the word a day devotion #shine.  I needed that word today, and I was pleased to find that Brother Almquist of SSJE shared this shining glimmer of hope today:

Rather than experiencing the sorrows of our world as a source of desolation,
hear the news as a clarification for what we are to be about as followers of Jesus Christ:
to bear the beams of God’s love and light and life, especially to those who wouldn’t otherwise know it.

The promise of God’s love is of a holy mother hen gathering her children under her wings, the promise of a refugee rescued to a safe boat on a stormy ocean.  Advent is oriented to the final times and the final things, how we are called to gather for others and not ourselves, and to be gathered now as then: all all all.  We practice Advent prayers and studies and hymns because God’s reign is already, and oh so obviously also not yet. We have a long way to go on this journey with Christ, many miles to watch and listen to the road before us, behind us, beside us, all around us.  We watch with and for Christ, so that we may learn his ways of peace with justice. 

Scattered all around the nave are new paper stars.  I am sure if you dig in books and under pew cushions you might find a few old ones from Epiphanies past.  Here today are new stars, a symbol of the first Sunday of Advent.  A symbol for the prophets, like Isaiah.  Those holy people who stand between heaven and earth, who point to a twinkle in the sky and say look, there, is something important we can barely imagine.  From here a star is just a pin prick of light, but if you could travel to it you would find a bright blazing sun.  What prayer or teaching or judgment do these boundary dwelling prophets bring to light in you?  At communion find a star and carry it with you to the altar, and then after receiving communion as a gathered community, carry it back to the baptismal font with your whispered prayer for the hurt and numbness, and dissolving the meanness and whatever questions you bring to God’s enlightenment this Advent.  

You might recall that our Mystery Trip got off to a late start.  We should have been to our destination before dusk,  but we were running behind.  And then there was a storm.  A strange and otherworldly Rocky Mountain summer thunderstorm.  Breathtakingly beautiful and white knuckled frightening at the same time.  As we drove around curvy roads in heavy rain, a calm voice came from the back of the van.  ‘Jane, just tell us where we are going.  Tell us that we are not going camping and we are not sleeping on the ground out here in the middle of who knows where in this storm.’  I knew we were close to our destination, but in the storm and in the dark I knew the time for truth had come.  ‘Well, I need you to hear me. We are going on a camping trip. We are almost there. All your gear, everything we need, your parents snuck it to me, and is in the truck that Mary is driving in front of us.  So yes, we are going camping, and we are sleeping on the ground in tents that we must set up in the dark and in the rain.’ 
The tents, on the next day.  At a state park near Lake Isabel.

If this were cheap fiction the response would have been weeping and cursing. However, it was not.  That vessel held a beloved community on a journey together.  So, instead of bitterness and doubt the response was ‘Oh!  Ok.  That sounds like fun! I just wanted to know.’  We practice Advent because the night is stormy and our knuckles are white, and we need to be brought out of our dull numbness and narrow vision.  Christ is coming, do you see what he sees?

I invite you to consider, how is God inviting us to gather?  
How is Christ keeping us awake on the journey? 
And how is the Holy Spirit challenging you to strive for our destination?  

Recalling the desire of God to gather us in peace with justice, please repeat after me.   Be still and know that I am God.

St. Paul's Episcopal Church
Walla Walla, Washington
November 27, 2016

The link for the audio, in case the widget doesn't work...

Monday, November 7, 2016

The Sacred Circle: Pi, Communion of Saints and Jesus on the Plain

What a strange universe it would be if we had no circles.  Would it even be creation as we know it if there were no circles?  A drop of water falls and it splashes in a circle. Everything from the planets and the shape of your iris.  A universe with no circles would seem to be, at least I what I know of what we know of the universe, impossible.  Impossible is one of those words that perhaps should only be uttered by God. Circles are symbols of unity and timelessness and potential.  A circle is a never-ending sequence of points, if it is large enough, it can seem like a line from your limited point of view. But instead it just goes around and around, never-ending.  Never-ending is also one of those words that perhaps should only be uttered by God, like every, and full, and forever, and ALL.

Paul writes to the church in Ephesus, ‘God has put all things under Jesus’ feet, made Christ the head of all things, that the fullness of God fills all in all.  In the ancient Greek the letter was written in, this word for all is pas.  Pi alpha sigma.  All begins with PI.  Not the edible one, but the mathematical concept.  The symbol that looks like a shelter.  That never-ending number that is the ratio of the measurement of every circle.  It is in mathematical terms both irrational, as in we don’t understand it, and transcendent, as in it seems to be everywhere.  Every unbroken circle, everywhere we know of.  All in all, there PI is.  Pi is a constant.  It is in the shape of bread as it rises and the rim of the chalice.  Pi is as profound as the most holiest ideas we can hold and as mundane as something we encounter each and every day.

Which is rather like the communion of saints.  That irrational transcendent idea, of how faithful people everywhere,  across time,  dwell together somehow.  We who walk the earth now, those who walked with Jesus, the descendants we can barely imagine, and every lover of God in between.  ALL somehow here in the prayer of the faithful, and the mystery of the sacraments, we are somehow ALL living together in the body of Christ.  Perhaps it is like a SACRED CIRCLE. Shoulder to shoulder, with one constant: the shape of Christ in our lives.  Jesus is clear on this one.  This constant is how we are bread for neighbors, how we pursue clean water for the thirsty, how we listen to the abused.  How we ask hard questions and how we live into hard answers.  Theologian Stanley Hauerwas speaks of this hard-pressed saintliness this way,  “Only by growing into Jesus’ story do I learn how much brokenness I have stored in my soul, a fragmentation which is not about to vanish overnight, but which I must continually work to recognize and lay down.”  

If the constant shape of God is roundedness, then we have to make an effort to grow a square watermelon, or bake square bread.  Those are not wrong per say, but where in your life do you resist holy roundedness, constrain God’s wholeness with a box?  Where do I deny the neighbor who stands by my shoulder?  It is my resistance to God’s way that scrolls past the suffering of the world.  Lately it has been harder and harder to pay attention.  The darkness and chaos seems absurd and terrifying.  But the word from Jesus isn’t to step aside.  It is to tread with the saints, to live through tough times, and strive with whole hearts.

Here in this sermon on the plain, Jesus makes his mission and our shape plain.  God's path and shape and redemptive work will be recognized in its fullness from the underside.  We can spiritualize the beatitudes, we can be poor in spirit, but the more we do spiritualize Jesus demand, the poorer in spirit we become.  We may find ourselves in deep sad darkness, but God demands that we never ignore that we have neighbors whose darkness is as concrete as the circles that fill the universe.  We have promised in baptism to seek and serve Christ in all persons, to strive for human dignity.  Engaging with the suffering of the world is not a new promise, it is the fulfillment of the first one.  There is hardship and bloodshed in the company of the faithful.  Facing our challenges head on is taking our stand within the sacred circle.  

So today we celebrate the feast of All Saints.  We remember the circle of witnesses, the daring superstars and the mundane folks that fill God’s loop.  We are a part of a story that is like PI, both unique and ever repeating.  Our version may be needy and at times unjust, fearful and lost; it may also be hopeful and brave and true.  Yet it is in God’s completeness that we are being drawn back into the HOLY and sacred circle.  Jesus’ direction is ALL: it is inclusiveness and equality, both of which are symbolized a by a circle.

The communion of saints is a sacred circle across the ages, hand and hand or shoulder to shoulder.  It is you and me and stories we can barely imagine. Jesus’ life and teachings they outline possibilities that ARE defined as impossible by human insecurity.  But we are wrong because impossible isn’t our word to use, it is Gods.     Our wholeness, like the story of every saint of every age, it is outlined by the way in which it is filled and stretched to be God’s story in our story. So I offer two questions to ponder: What shall we change so that we can to live into the sacred circle?  And, how shall we make Jesus’ story our ‘pi’?  

November 6, 2016
St. Paul's Episcopal Church
Walla Walla, Washington

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Echoes of Whoa! Singalong Make Your Own Epiphany Pageant 2016

We look up on a cloudless night and we see the twinkling of glitter strewn across a deep blue firmament.  We do not see the skies as the ancients saw them.  The ancients they saw something different.  A ceiling that is dark but with paintbrush strokes of tiny glimmering and moving lights. 

When you look up at night, do you imagine the ages and ages of time that are pouring down on us? Do you wonder where it is all going? 
It came upon the midnight clear, that glorious song of old, from angels bending near the earth to touch their harps of gold;

Before the beginning began, Christ was with God, he is God.  In him is light and life and the darkness cannot extinguish the bold brilliance of this light.
  God is Love; let heaven adore him; God is Love, let earth rejoice; let creation sing before him and exalt him with one voice.  God who laid the earth’s foundation, God who spread the heavens above, God who breathes through all creation: God is Love, eternal Love.  

In the fullness of time the love of God, the word of God became flesh.  The word of God would become one with his beloved.    Angels came to Joseph, and to Mary, and whispered in their hearts, “he who laid the earth’s foundation…he will be born in love.”  You my friends, will give him shelter and comfort.  You will name him Jesus.  He will be a gift to us, the One for us, and you can be a gift to him.
  Peace on the earth good will to men, from heaven’s all gracious King.  The world in solemn stillness lay to hear the angels sing. 

They were on the road when Christ was born, led to the city of Bethlehem.  This one gracious ruler of all was born to a young woman, this one Love became humble, was made of bone and blood, breath and imagination.  Somehow it did happen that shepherds were summoned to his cradle, and they came close to gaze. 
Who were these strangers? Why did they follow?  What gifts did they bring?  Is there a gift that is truly needed these days?  Take a moment and write it on the star in your program.   In a few moments our angel host will gather these starry gifts together.  What gift would you bring to Christ our King?
 To Thee, great One in Three, the highest praises be, hence evermore; thy sovereign majesty may we in glory see, and to eternity love and adore. 

What happened next is a great mystery.  Regardless of our desire to summon ancient sages to the cradle,  we can only imagine what happened next.  Joseph was from the city of David.  If you heard your cousin was in town with a newborn, what would you do? 
How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given! So God imparts to human heats the blessings of his heaven.  No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him still the dear Christ enters in.  

Scripture tells us that they found themselves in a house, in a home.  This young and scared family, Mary, Joseph and Jesus were taken in.  Given the gift of warmth, shelter, food and water.  And yet the strangeness of the Epiphany was set in motion well before that holy night in Bethlehem.  An assortment of wise ones, prophets, sages, maybe even minor kings; they discerned a star at its rising. 

We know not how many wise ones, we know not their status or education or even hometowns.  Did their contemplations occur independently or together?  Did they just meet by chance on the road?  Whoever they were, wherever they came from they knew by a glimmer in the heavens and the writings of prophets that the new reign was to be born. 
Sages, leave your contemplations; brighter visions beam afar; seek the great Desire of nations ye have seen his natal star; come and worship, come and worship, worship Christ the newborn King, 

As logic might suggest, when seeking the new ruler, you might start at the palace.  These sages, these wise ones they went to visit Herod the King.  A man for whom history offers few kind words.  A newborn king was a threat.  He met these visitors with leading questions, and our wise friends knew something was askew.  Quickly the Magi found their way out of Herod’s court, and they continued on their way to the house where the young family stayed. 
So bring him incense, gold and myrrh, come, peasant, king, to own him; the King of kings salvation brings, let loving hearts enthrone him.  This, this is Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing; haste, haste to bring him laud, the babe, the son of Mary.  

Epiphany could be translated as ‘whoa’!  Have you ever been startled by finding exactly what you were looking for, but it not being anything like what you planned to find?  Being quite wise these friends they learned their lesson, listened to their intuition and having found the young Prince, they did not return to Herod’s court, instead they went home by another way.
  In Christ there is no east or west, in him no south or north, but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth. 

The story doesn’t end there.  The boy he takes on flesh, he becomes a child and then a teenager and then an adult.  Much of his life isn’t recorded, from which we might gather that it was rather ordinary.  Learning to tie his sandals, testing his boundaries, playing with his family and friends.  Yet beyond the ordinariness of his incarnation, beyond the giftedness of each being, this boy is an astonishing gift.  He is to be an Epiphany,  an echo of God’s first and most amazing gift, creation itself.  He who stretched the heavens is one with us, one for us, and it astonishes us still.  Whoa.

This is your story, the hope and the messiness.  This is your story, you have been called to be one with him.  This is our story, so we had best act like it is the most amazing story ever told.  In him we are the new creation, we are wise ones and sages, in him we are princes of God’s reign. 

A new creation comes to life and grows, as Christ’s new body takes on flesh and blood.  The universe restored and whole will sing: Alleluia!  Amen! 

At St. Paul's we offer a pageant on a Sunday close to the feast of the Epiphany. Anyone can be whatever they want to be, and the whole congregation participates by singing as the pageant crew move around the nave.  

January 2016