Monday, December 30, 2019

Word and Word and Word

What is a word? A word is a sound, a speech sound or sounds, that communicate meaning, but can't be divided into little bits of meaningful sound. So for example: mercy. Mercy is a word, whereas mer & Cy are not. Today on the 1st Sunday of the Christmas season, as on Christmas Day, we hear how the Word became flesh and is the person Jesus. The message if we hear it is that Jesus who has been born for us, is the indivisible communication of divine meaning. The Word of God made clear.

What else did we hear about the word of God today? In our psalm we heard that God sends out this word to the creation, and it responds. We heard that this divine word, it moves swiftly. This sacred word can stand up against the cold, and this holy word, it moves as a wind. In the Hebrew, the word for wind is the same word for breath and energy and it is ruach. For us, ruach is the Holy Spirit. This word isn’t text on a page or utterances with no impact. The strange truth uttered this morning is that this word of God is active, from before the beginning began.

Psalm 147 is nearly at the end of the psalter and it is considered to be a part of the closing finale. Behind all its triumphant security is circumstantial evidence of crippling disorientation. This is the celebration of people who have been faced with utter failure, and self-made lostness. Yet what they learned over time and through community discernment is that gruesome reality is not the end of the story. This finale of a Psalm rises into sacred hope and ponders God’s paradoxical endless presence and eternal closeness. It is God who rebuilds who gathers who heals - everywhere. It is God who loves us and calls us by our names - always. It is God who advocate for us, and who lifts up the last and the least - every one of us.

In our translation, the 12th verse of the psalm ends by mentioning God's gracious favor. This is an unusual choice. Other translations choose faithful love or loving kindness or unfailing love orr steadfast love - not a silly sentiment but an active relational promise between God and humanity. The psalms in our prayer book are an unusual work of art. Translating is always a choice and the deciding factor for the prayer book psalms is their chant ability. Furthermore, due to complicated reasons I'll explain some other time, the numbering is a bit different so if you looked up this exact passage of this psalm in most Bible translations you would be looking for verse 11. Anyways, in the word that in our BCP Psalm is verse 12 is gracious favor and elsewhere faithful love: it is In Hebrew one word - hesed. And hesed is one of the 3 Hebrew words That tell the shape and meaning of what We trust are the core characteristics of God. These are mercy, compassion and steadfast love (which in Hebrew is 1 word). Our psalm today only uses one of those Hebrew words, however, the meaning of all 3 words is illustrated in its enchantments. In this vision the one God of the universe created humanity to be in lifegiving community with God and all creation that acts from these bedrock characteristics of God: compassion, mercy, steadfast love.

Then in the Gospel of John, the sacred storyteller opens up with his mind-twisting poetry: Word was God and is God and became flesh Dwelled among us - full of grace and truth. Part of what the sacred storyteller is saying is related to our Psalmic vision - that God's shape and intention is made clear in Christ, this meaning is what is made Human, and while we cannot separate the meaning from Godself, it is also in the same movement made profoundly vulnerable, so to forever transform the dialouge with God’s beloved people.

We have crossed to the other side of the Solstice and from now on this winter the light will grow. The wider world has crossed over from the Winter Wonderland season to the Diet-and-amend-your-ways season. But we here in the church are still in the sacred mystery of Christmas. We are holding dear to us the meaning and intention of all of the words we've spoken and sung through these Advent and Chrismas seasons. Striving to keep the 12 days of Christmas, which are after Christmas: which are right now, striving to keep these as sacred isn't just stubbornness or countercultural. It's letting the newborn word of God breathe in us to shape in us the sacred truth of Christmas, one that is much more than just sweet feelings. Christmas is dialogue between insider and outsider, God and humanity. Conversations that if we hear it make the way of steadfast love - hesed - clear - this child is this clarity. If the last six weeks of study, prayer, and worship didn’t stir in you activity of compassion or steadfast love or mercy, then these last 6 or so days, are a chance to more truly respond to the mystery of Christmas. How will this wonder change you And your conversations, for the better? 

Even now in this time of hatred and division and attacks and atrocities and numbness God's word - God’s meaning and expectation Is made clear, We have a promise to keep and therefore a part to play in this ultimate story. We are called to turn back to the beginning, to be redefined as a part of the sacred mystery of God’s incarnation. As Christmas continues, let us live into God's meaning and God's intention which is summed up in the Word made human: Jesus the Christ: who is mercy, who is loving-kindness, and who is compassion for you and for all. The text does not say that a feeling became flesh. John's gospel says that the Word of God became human. A distinct communication of profound meaning - The Word of God - Was and is this child in Mary’s arms.

December 29, 2019
Christ Church, Ridley Park, PA

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Hold On

As you peer into the cave this night what do you see? Why are you here? What does it mean? As you look into this scene tonight: this isn't a barn no modern stable. It is a gap in the rocks, a cave behind the home of a stranger. The village of Bethlehem is absurdly crowded. This directive from the empire ‘Go to your hometown be counted, but mostly taxed’, it's probably a blessing for this nowheresville; market stands empty; all the rooms rented; extra coins in pockets. Tonight we hear a sacred story we can sing by heart, even the unacquainted. Beyond the ink of the shape of the letters is a white space. It holds the parts of the story, parts the tradition imagines and the parts of the moment that were so every day they weren't worthy of being mentioned.

It's a blip of an ancient town and it is full to the brim. A woman is in the loud process of giving birth. Caring for a woman in labor has almost always been the duty of women. Rest assured, there were unacknowledged women there. And there were other onlookers I imagine. Curious people built for connection and empathy. They heard and they responded. The neighbors who said no when Joseph knocked, but now.... One of the most steadfast rules of righteousness among these people - is hospitality. And you didn't make room, and so in self-judging shame, You go out to find where they landed.

There in that cave, we discover lowlife shepherds Who made it here first. Stinky sheep and grungy people speaking about angels and peace and the redemption of all the world. It is almost morning and you're awake and you're here and you look into this cave - and you wonder: why? This world-changing night it's not glamorous nor cute. It is cold and dirty and guilty while at the same time It is full of love, glowing with redemption declaring a new way for life on Earth. Godly goodness and power is right here in the mess, in the only space it could find In our fractured selfish ways. Here we see that everyday matter can bear God, can welcome God, is one with God. And this child who has been born, this Jesus is born for us - our advocate. What is it he is advocating for? How is he for us?

For me, one of the most potent ways to illustrate the mystery of Christmas is to flip the image. To reverse who holds what. Over by our devotional candles, I have placed a print of an icon that usually resides in my office. The title of the icon is Holy Wisdom. Above fiery and watery chaos a young person emerges from the Sun a person who holds the Earth as we would hold a precious child, but also in a posture that is ready to act - a body in motion. We know it is Christ by the iconography of his halo. The print has grown dark over the years but if you were to look close you might see the scars on his hands. To me the mystery of Christmas means just this - it means both: Mary holding Christ in her hands, and just the same, Jesus holding us in his hands. In both our true brokenness is made clear by our inhospitality to all that God so dearly loves. In both our true possibilities and salvation are also made clear by the deep love and hope that the images together declare. Will we hold every bit of creation as tenderly as Mary holds Our Savior and as Christ holds the world?

If you come here tonight because of a tickle in the back of your mind that there is something more than isolation and anxiety, I'm glad you're here and Christ loves you and welcomes to you. If you come here tonight because someone said you had to, I'm glad you're here and God loves you and welcomes you. If you come here tonight not knowing exactly what we are up to, but it is a tradition that sparks joy in you, I'm glad you're here, and wonder what kind of love the spirit of God is stirring up in you. Whatever reason you are here tonight we welcome you as a beloved child of God.

It is dark, but the dawn of Christmas morning has already shone forth across the earth. Tonight we sit and stand and sing in a quite glorious cave with all who do so now, and in the past, and in the future. As we gather around the Christ child, we also see Jesus the adult who said such wonderful things and did such amazing things that people followed him. Tonight as we peer into the cave at a precious scene we should also be struck by its connection to the cave in which his crucified body will be placed. Tonight as we gather around a desperate woman and a dutiful man with the vulnerable newborn and outcast strangers, we should know that this infant is the One who rose from our death-dealing ways and loves us still. As you go out from this shadowy cave this Christmas night, may the way of Jesus Christ fill your path the light, may it slowly grow and reveal his precious new world in us. Merry Christmas!

December 24, 2019
Christmas Eve Later Service
Christ Church, Ridley Park, Pennsylvania

Monday, December 23, 2019

Too Cool to Be Joseph?

It was a beautiful fall day in Albuquerque. still warm enough to sit outside at lunchtime. my friend Molly and I had gotten together for our pretty much weekly lunch meetup. I was already well into Christmas planning mode - and I was complaining a bit. Mary was cast, Jesus was cast, I had talked one teen into being a fire angel in the Christmas Pageant. But finding a Joseph was like finding someone to scrub toilets. As it happens Molly’s son George was with us that day. I don't have any idea why he wasn't in school because he certainly wasn't sick. It is worth mentioning that George had volunteered to be Joseph twice in recent years. So I asked him why do you think other boys don't want to be Joseph in the pageant? 

He replied quickly: Because they didn't want to act like a caring parent, And they probably thought it was weird and icky to have to pretend that they were in love with Mary. They think they're too cool for any of that.' After a bite he continued, 'Which is dumb,  cause Joseph Is awesome. He's all right with not being the most important person. He was a good dad and had a hard task and the whole scary angel in a dream thing - Yeah he did what he was asked and he didn't complain. Joseph is awesome.' 

Our Gospel lesson today is full of weird and discomfort. We have a grown-up story that's only barely edited in translation. A grown up story that we annually invite young people to pantomime. It's also weird and uncomfortable because the reason for turning the moment of rescue comes from the appearance of an angel in a dream. The world in which Jesus was born into was one that expected the extraordinary other to be interfering in our lives connecting to our brains healing our bodies. There's nothing shocking to the ancient hearer about angels and directed dreams. But us today in our rational conventional norms? These things still happen, but in my circle, they are shared only with trusted friends And even then in hushed voices. 

It may surprise you but we don't have a well-developed official angelology, certainly not the Episcopal Church or most Protestant churches. Most of the common depictions are not what we read of in the Bible, many common beliefs are not and have never been Christian teaching - bells and wings for example. Angels in the Bible are carriers of messages so much so that they are the message. The oldest mentions of angels in the Hebrew Scriptures have almost no description at all We are left with an impression Of strange human like visitors. By the era of the last written texts, the description of angels in Ancient Judaism sounded more like Hindu gods with lots of terrifying wings and eyes, and they act rather like greek gods, and they have names and pronouns that are always masculine. No precious moments there.

I trust that God is the creator of all things that God has made a universe that has little bits I can comprehend and a whole lot more that I'll never be able to manage. For me, Angels are mysterious embodiments of God's communications Between what I can understand And the marvelous mysterious everything else. Today an angel appears in a dream, and to me, dreams are in a similar zone. Whatever happens to some people in that stage of dreaming sleep it can be a powerful space of revelation, and an encounter with the glorious and awe-some things that are going on all around us whether we acknowledge it or not. Joseph's story of The experience of an angelic message in a dream connects this scripture to the primordial epics of Jacob and Joseph.

However, much more important to our dwelling in the sacred story is his example. Joseph makes the courageous choice to step into a strange borderland of the revolutionary thing God is doing in the birth of Jesus. Joseph had every social and legal opportunity to wash his hands and walk away. But he didn't. From the point of view of established Christian doctrine it's easy to say of course he stuck around - because this is the birth of God. But in the moment when so much is still not completely clear to him or to Mary or to anyone else… Savior, messiah, liberator - sure these revelations are proclaimed - but the truth of their promise In Jesus the Christ - no one had the full picture for decades.

So let's be honest Joseph’s choice to follow the dream, to trust the angel, to stand by Mary absolutely led to a lifetime in which he was regularly besieged by murmurs both openly and behind his back. His reputation his standing had to have been diminished - because Joseph chose this strange public duty. Christmas is almost here - but lets take a minute to clear away the mess of saccharine trappings for a minute - What would you do in Josephs’s situation? Or if you were his friend? If it is far from the best ways to live, can you bring that deficit to prayer this week?

Bravery isn't always about running into the fire, sometimes it is the measure of our candid embrace with life as it comes to us. Bravery most often bears the everyday tasks of honesty and fidelity and humility. Joseph’s courage is fullfilling his duty and doing so with a mysterious precious promise to hold at the same time. Joseph is a background player, is barely a supporting role. we see him here then as a refugee heading to Egypt, then he's with Jesus and the whole family when Jesus is about 12, and then nothing is said of Joseph again. There are two millenia of traditions and guesses that have grown up around him, but the biblical texts almost seem to forget about Joseph. What my young friend George didn't exactly say but his young words and emotion did say Is that Joseph is an example of allowing oneself to be faithful to an unexpected duty of welcoming the stranger and to do so wholeheartedly, with no reward and almost invisibly. Joseph is awesome. Let’s be awesome - like Joseph was for Christ our Lord. Humility. Service. Fidelity. Compassion. A prime example of what we now call Christian discipleship. May we be just as brave today, tomorrow and for always.
Christ Church, Ridley Park, Pennsylvania
December 22, 2019

Monday, September 16, 2019

Re-imagined Parables of Finding and Sacrifice

For many years of my ministry, I have given this flashlight to graduating seniors. Actually what I give is a water bottle filled with things like a thermometer and bandaids and this flashlight. Giving books that are never read, or pens that are easily lost seems like a waste. Instead, I give them tokens for the journey of what comes next. Tokens that are metaphors of faith AND items that meet practical needs - hydration, healing, light. 
I like this particular flashlight for a couple of reasons. It has several ways to enlighten: direct, glow, flash. It is lightweight enough to hold between your teeth when you need your hands free, And/or you can put it on a string. The flashing option is clearly intended for emergencies, And it also has a whistle: not melodic in any way, but good for getting found in a desperate situation. In a moment of unknowing and crisis, a light like this is a precious gift. 

It is easy to hear today’s parables and think of them calmly and cutely. Aw, that lost sheep got found, it was like the Poky Little Puppy - just off doing its own thing not even knowing it was “lost”. We have been misguidedly trained to approach most of the not-obviously-difficult parts of the Gospels as if they were marshmallows. However, the other time we hear these two parables of the Found Coin and the Found Sheep is in Lent, and our Psalm is Lenten, and the lamentation of Jeremiah is one to be heard during Holy Week. Jesus is headed towards Jerusalem, the people he is speaking to know that harsh winds are blowing. The powerful are fearful and lashing out, The poor are getting poorer and ready to rebel. 

All these things have happened before... so let's reimagine the parables a bit. Let us say that the shepherd is instead a delivery driver. She has to deliver so many packages in just so much time, Or she gets docked, and she doesn’t get promoted. The powers that be have set up her digital tracker so that it looks like a light-hearted video game, but it feels like the Hunger Games. And a package gets lost. The package doesn’t care that it is lost. It didn’t lose itself. Taking the time to find the lost package is a sacrifice of time and treasure. However, for the person who was expecting that precious package, The delivery driver's determination is everything. 

As for the Found Coin, imagine instead a struggling young man. He works mostly on a

cash basis and doesn’t have a checking account, like nearly ⅓ of Americans. He keeps much of his not cash money on refillable debit gift cards. Most of his ‘liquid assets’ are right now in 10 $100 cards. And as happens sometimes to the most organized of us - one of those cards goes missing. The card didn’t lose itself, It wasn’t wasted on dames and horses. It is simply missing. So he turns on all the lights, which they really cannot afford Because the electric rate went up again. He disturbs his roommates, who have long shifts at a warehouse, and they need their sleep. Yet he searches and searches - until he finds that one gift card. He is so thrilled about finding it he posts on Twitter and wakes his roommates and invites all his friends to a party to celebrate. Which maybe costs about as much as was held on that card in the first place. And this according to Jesus, is good news. It may not be reasonable, but this is a parable. It could be a wild and crazy other-kingdom kind of what ‘God is like’ metaphor where practicality doesn’t matter nearly as much as truth and love. It makes its point by the unreasonableness. Our owning up to our honest to goodness lostness is what invites us to the grace of God. And the way to grace isn’t found through our perfections, but through our imperfections and the cross and the empty tomb. 

So where are you today? Are you the sheep minding her own business? Are you the shepherd in frantic search? Could you be the grumbling scribe? Or are you a tax collector leaning into the word of love you have been denied? 

There is a long tradition that tries to make every parable a ‘God is like’ one of these human characters' lessons. Taken that way, these parables do highlight interesting adjectives when it comes to God, ones we certainly need: persistence and risk-taking and party-throwing. However, I am not so sure that this is certainly one of those - ‘God is like’ parables - at least not in the most obvious way. If we are the sheep or the coin - why are we lost to God by no action of our own? That doesn’t hold water in our tradition at all. The coin didn’t sin, it didn’t lose itself - and human sin - both our own and those of our communities - have always been the measure of failure and needing to find ourselves again in God’s arms. 

If you take the view that this is a parable of grace, and therefore a parable of death and resurrection, Then you might have to try on a different arrangement of the metaphors. Sheep are the backbone of the ancient Jewish economy and well being. And singled out sheep usually a sacrifice. If you don’t have sheep, then you might have coins to exchange for a dove, and so coins are in their own way Also a token of sacrifice. Repentance is the center of this episode - and it is the human who acts in ways that suggest repentance, all that persistent demanding action to restore what has fallen away. Maybe God is the sheep or the coin that is found and returned to human lives, maybe sheep and coin are images of Jesus himself: precious, lost, sacrifice. 

The beautiful thing about parables is that sometimes many interpretations are true. Finding and re-finding God’s awesome presence can be both frightening and enlightening. Let the celebrations of these parables shine a light on our emptiness, let that be filled with the reality that God’s grace is always present, whether or not we have a grasp on God at this moment, and even when we think we are lost from God. 
It is as if Jesus is saying all the things we pursue to try to fill our God-shaped holes, “Give it up already, God is here, ready to throw a party for you." 

I have gathered for you little bits of precious light: glow-in-the-dark beads. Keep them somewhere you choose, somewhere with some light, But perhaps somewhere that you don’t always notice. When you see them glow, remember found sheep and found coins. And that it is God whose precious light will fill the God-shaped holes in our anxiousness. The gift of grace, the token of trust, has been already given in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. Look around, look deep, shine a little light. Persist, adapt, stick together, collaborate, celebrate. This is the way of love, the way of Jesus, the way of God’s grace. 

September 15, 2019
RCL Proper 19 RCL C Track 1

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Why Keep Going Jesus: The Awkwardness of the Incarnation

I have to wonder why the aristocracy keep inviting Jesus to dinner parties. Perhaps
they were curious, and maybe they were hopeful, that this would be the one time he would not be at the center of an awkward occurrence, and Jesus wouldn't make most of the guests feel consciously uncomfortable about their way of life. Why did they keep inviting this rabbi and his companions? Jesus who embraces the lowly and he who is of seemingly inferior birth. 

There is a theory in sociological study of religions that the people who support and nurture the growth of new religous movements are the top 5%. People with enough time and resources to learn and explore when the handed down ways don’t seem to feel effective anymore - think Eat Pray Love. Folks living with back-breaking conditions don’t go looking for nirvana. The gospels suggest this same phenomenon - that it was the well-to-do that supported Jesus’ mission and kept inviting him to visit, feast, teach. 

I also have to wonder why Jesus keeps accepting these invitations to the parties of the elite. One would think that it is hardly his comfort zone. Today’s episode comes to us in the Gospel of Luke when Jesus is headed toward Jerusalem. That beautiful city that is supposed to be a beacon of our salvation, but time and again slays the truth-tellers and prophets. The city of David polishes its image on the outside and revels in sin and degradation on the inside. Jesus’ vulnerability is only increasing with each step up to Zion. Did he think there was something he could possibly say at these parties - something so movingly truthful, something that he could say in the presence of the powerful that would turn the tide write a new ending? 

There has been a tendency to imply that Jesus’ divinity made him perfect and suave. I don’t know about that. I would expect a fully human and fully divine Jesus to be well, awkward, out of place. For all the curious among each snobbish crowd, there had to have also been strange looks and overheard insulting whispers. Some people don’t notice that stuff, but research suggests, that most people do. 

You might notice if you look closely at the readings insert that the gospel lesson skips a couple of verses. Jesus comes to dinner, something happens, and then most of what we heard. What was jumped over was another healing. One so tremendously similar to last Sunday’s lesson, that I can excuse the lectionary deciders, this time. 

When imagining the scene it is natural for us to imagine tables and chairs, but that isn’t the case in most ancient homes, not even a host in the top 5%. Imagine rugs and cushions and low tables. There were certainly more esteemed seats, usually closer to the host, perhaps even on a higher platform. This is not a plated supper either, so if the host and esteemed guests are served first, then that means that those who are served last may get the bottom of the barrel nibbles. 

We pay attention differently to the people in the box seats, glance at the folks in first class. Egalitarianism and libertarianism haven’t done away with the human tribal tendencies toward valuing pecking orders. 

When I imagine this episode I imagine Jesus sitting along the side of the room. If I were in a similar situation, that is where I would want to be. Able to watch the people, notice who they are and how they interact. Today I imagine the holy voice of our Jeremiah lesson weaving through his mind as he watches the party. Love and disappointment. People jostling for higher seats like we are not all people who are just trying to find our way though the wilderness. 

What idols of self-importance and perfectionism people have set up for themselves instead of setting heart and soul toward the ways of the one Lord God of the universe. Can you even see and hear yourselves - you are making your own enemies, and sometimes that enemy is you?

Today at this sabbath dinner, at some point, Jesus leaves the sidelines and addresses the whole party. Jesus uses both logic and appeals to the ego and tells us to leave things - like the esteem we have become convinced is our salvation - to leave all that fragile detritus at the door. The only way to the peace and assurance we seek is through losing the pointless trivia we focus on and following Jesus all the way to the cross. 

Jesus, with the sacred storyteller of Luke - are telling a parable about living together within a parable about death and resurrection. That bit about moving up a seat - the word is the same as what is used in the resurrection accounts. That word about being the lowest - in the Greek the word is the same as the word for the last things - the final things - the eschaton. Not just the heavenly union with God part, but the judgment part. Judgement isn’t an in or out thing, it is a I love you and was heartbroken by your behavior thing. 

In this lesson we are invited to look from the edges of our lives and the edges of history with the long loving look of God at our “dinner party”. What Jesus is offering us in this parable of a parable at a probably awkward, but beloved, dinner party. What Jesus is inviting us into is that what we are offered in his life and death and resurrection is the big exclamation of ‘Who gives a crud !’ to all our party pecking orders. 
If Jesus was at the edge of the dinner party that is your life - what would he notice? Is his teaching easy to hear or hard to hear today? We cannot lie or cheat or maneuver our way into the top seat. This will only sink us further into sin and darkness. Our relationship with God and each other and our children’s children - all of whom are at this party with us, is one of the most crucial topics these days, one that we cannot just navel-gaze at. 

Fidelity to God and to the future of creation demands we drop our pretenses and attempts to sweep our sinfulness under the carpet. There were some who left that dinner party offended, God loves them, and waits with eager longing for their humility. There were some who left that dinner party feeling intrigued, God loves them and is luring them toward liberation. There were some who left that dinner party feeling the blessing of peaceful satisfaction and resurrected life, God loves them and sends them to share the same for the last, the least and the lost. As the venerable Robert Earl Keen croons - the road goes on forever - and the party never ends. 

Sept 1, 2019
Grace Episcopal Church
Pemberton, New Jersey

Extreme Adventures in Hyperbole: Carrying the Cross and Assessing our Readiness

I met this guy once in Santa Fe. We exchanged the usual pleasantries, which led to - what do you do and what do you do? I offered my part (minister), and Marco it turns out was an outdoor adventure tour guide. Mostly leading wilderness backpacking trips for tourists through the high desert forests of Northern New Mexico. After a bit of chatter, he said, ‘I have a side project that you might be curious about.’ What he then told me was How he led “premarital extreme adventure weekends”.

What he would do is take three or four couples at a time and they would all travel to a drive-in kind of state park campsite. For that first evening, there was teaching all sorts of wilderness survival skills. How to build a fire, what you can eat, bear repelling strategies, how to make a shelter, etc. They would comfortably camp at the drive-in site for the evening. But then in the morning, he would take each couple to a different spot in the nearby wilderness of the mountains. Marco would give them a bag of very basic and random stuff - shoelaces, gummi bears, a knife, a tin of matches. Then he would leave them there, and return in 24 hours. The couples had to ‘make it work’ for overnight and then some with almost nothing but each other, a gps beacon tracker, and what they had learned. The next day Marco would then pick them up, hopefully at the same spot, and the couples would come back to the drive in camp site to feast and debrief the experience.

I asked him, so what are the results like? He said, I don’t have any real data, and it was chosen by people who are adventurous and/or intentional about their relationship... but the outcome looks like a stop light. About 1/3 come out of the experience saying we got this - ring that bell- green light! Another third come out really clear that they have serious issues and that they should hit the brakes - red lights. And the other third were yellow lights; folks who said - we can see our difficulties more clearly, and we need to work on such things sooner rather than later.

I tell you this story because I think the intention of the premarital extreme adventure and what Jesus is asking all of us today is essentially the same. Are you ready for this? Adoration and idealism and traditions are terrific, but discipleship with Jesus takes so much more than adrenaline and good intentions. Yes, it is a light yoke, a wholehearted resurrection joy. AND It is also a reckoning with humility and a struggle with doubt. God knows how easily we pollyanna the problems, and give up when the moral demands of our commitment to a just and healthy society make us uncomfortable. This question is asked both of the disciples, and of every generation of the Jesus movement since then. Are we prepared to follow Jesus to Jerusalem?

Two of the statements Jesus offers us today are hardly rare sage wisdom. Should you make a plan before you build a building? Yes. Should you count the costs before launching a mission? Yes. The other two statements, however, are dangling the loss of all security through the rejection of your family system, AND suggesting that living in a righteous community in Jesus’ name is to bear the shame of being convicted like a criminal.

I don’t think that Jesus is predicting his fate. His being the perfect love of God made flesh was so against the grain, that it was nearly inevitable that he would be slain by human sin and injustice. Each day of his life in this world was terribly unsafe - much like the lives of so many of the most vulnerable. Manipulatively shameful and excruciating, crucifixion was a regular atrocity in the Roman Empire. The disciples would have known exactly how extreme the example is, well before Holy Week. This lesson whispers to all of us - Is there something that you need to learn - or let go of - before the next stage of your journey with Jesus to and through the cross?

The statement to carry the cross is not a prescription to endure or inflict any type of abuse. Nor is it a trivial inconvenience. That extreme premarital adventure was rather like hyperbole in action. Hyperbole is over exaggerating and intensifying a statement to make the deeper point. The reality of the relationships that Marco's guests were exploring were more complicated than those 40 hours In the wilderness. Our discipleship and lifelong formation Into a life that is the shape of Jesus’ life is a much longer and much more of a multi-hued journey than the striking impact of his gruesome question today. I trust that part of what he is saying is hyperbole: intense exaggeration to make the point.

But I also know from the beginnings of the Jesus movement right down to this day people have chosen Faithfulness and servant leadership that cost them everything. We are in a wilderness, but we are not alone. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are pushing us, are present with us as we pursue new directions to do something creative, truthful, and holy with the sacred Trinity, One God, who is as close as a potter to clay, and a weaver to her cloth.

In the life of the church and the community of disciples, there are moments that resemble that extreme pre-marital adventure. Thank goodness we have the Spirit of God as our guide and are knit together with love and wit and given a bag of Good News. So to rephrase the question Jesus is asking - Who will we be and where will we follow Jesus from here?

September 8, 2019
Grace Episcopal Church
Pemberton, New Jersey

Monday, August 26, 2019

Three Sunday Morning Questions: Creating Easygoing Holy Conversations

It took a while to name it. Relationships were healthy, interest good, curriculum fun and theologically terrific. But things seemed to move along like lugging a heavy bag up a hill.  What took a while to name was that what many people needed most on a Sunday morning was a break from demands and information and performance of accomplishment. Little league, music lessons, school work, day after day. When being at church at 9 am is the easy day of the week - that reality needs to be cared for. Plus some studies suggest that typical teenage brains are not most apt for complex learning until a bit later anyway. 

There is no way that folks are going to become world-class theological ethicists in an hour a week - no matter how awesome my plans are. What we can offer on a Sunday morning is our best imitation of Jesus: welcome and freedom to check-in or just listen; love mixed with some tickling of the sacred desire. Oh, and food. Our friends know they are hungry more than they are clear that they have questions about who we are and who we are called to be.  

This method is very simple, very intuitive if you think of ministry as a call to gather at the table, and it may not work for every setting or every settings goals.  It worked for me in one setting, and I suspect it could be a gift for others.

In the parish setting, we centered the conversation with large coloring posters (Illustrated Children's Ministry - thank you).  This gives a focus to the gathering and opens up that space of learning while hands are busy.  We colored them together - which was bonding - and about anyone can color.  Sometimes we filled in the spaces with words that were said or patterns.  Perhaps this is why some restaurants cover tables with butcher paper and offer crayons.  It somehow fosters friendly togetherness.  That butcher paper and crayons idea might be all that your friends need.  The nice thing about the posters is that they made colorful art for the walls!

We also equipped the room with a toaster oven and electric kettle (and the freezer with breakfast treats, and hot cocoa mix/tea for the kettle). I tried to get folks to premake and freeze breakfast casseroles, but that idea failed promptly - however , maybe it is a good idea for another setting.

These are cafe style questions; ways to sit together and grow together.  They were written for a wide range of young people, however, I trust that they can be adapted for adult gatherings. I imagine them as life-givers at pub theology meetings, prayer knitters groups, outdoor duty clubs (weed pullers and lawn cutters..).  They could also work as table-toppers at a dinner.

The first is always an on-board silly would you rather type game - expanded a bit. (See above to the right).  Seven items are written up, sometimes with a lead-in question, sometimes no question just there. Then you have two dice and folks roll the dice and have to choose between the two matching numbers, and if a person were to get two of the same number then that is where the x comes in. 

Then we chat through the questions which go from worldly to faith-based. Usually three, sometimes four questions. Sometimes I would let the participants choose the order of the questions.  They tended to foster other questions - the kind that could be answered with a bible dictionary or google.

This can be added to with scripture and/or theological readings and reflection. What I found was that it met people where they were and invited them toward bigger questions to be explored at another time. It is non-demanding and simple and meets a human need which can caress the hesitant into engagement.  

Here are some of the question sets:

  • List the most important rules for life together.
  • Tell about a time when you broke a rule.
  • Why is it hard for some people to choose to follow God's best ways to live?

  • Name your favorite animals.
  • What animal is most like you?
  • List jobs that are important but get no respect.
  • Jesus says he is the good shepherd'.  How does that make you feel?

  • What do you do when you need to 'look busy'?
  • Tell of a time when you should have prepared more than you did.
  • What does God want us to do to be prepared?

  • Name book/movie characters that are good friends.
  • How can friendship be risky?
  • Can you imagine Jesus as a good friend?
  • What is better: one fabulous friend or many alright friends?

  • Tell a story about needing to be silent.
  • How do you feel when it is silent?
  • Is the call to be still and listen well followed?

  • Name books/movies about disasters.
  • Which is scarier: being all alone or in a crowded mob?
  • What good things can come out of accidents?
  • Does God cause bad things to happen?

  • Weather can be lovely and terrifying.  What is your favorite type of weather?
  • How do you respond when others are afraid?
  • Find a bible passage where God (or Jesus) responds to fear.

  • What color can signify LISTEN?
  • Name a favorite sound.
  • Do you listen more or make noise more?
  • How is prayer listening?

  • What does WELCOME taste like?
  • How is welcoming difficult?
  • Find or recall a time when Jesus was welcomed.

  • Tell a brief story about finding something important to you.
  • What makes you say 'whoa'?
  • How do you experience God/Son/Spirit?

  • What are some things for which we should be more grateful?
  • Imagine yourself as another animal.  What would you be and why?
  • What does Jesus give thanks for?

  • What are some things that seem ordinary but are actually special?
  • Name ordinary things that God does amazing things with.
  • Imagine yourself in Jesus' company - what is ordinary and what is special about that scene?

  • List fictional kings and queens.
  • What is hard and what is easy about being a national leader.
  • Why might the church focus on Christ the King this week?  (Last week before Advent)

  • Name tasks you do not want to do.
  • List classic stories with trials and hardships.
  • Name some of the experiences that being 'sunk' might represent.

  • Name songs or music that lifts your spirit.
  • Tell about what you like to eat when you are sick.
  • Do you expect God to help change and heal us?

  • Tell about an object you loved when you were younger.
  • Talk about the pro's & con's of Valentines Day (as it is practiced).
  • How is God's love like and not like romantic love?

  • What natural disasters frightens you the most?
  • Tell about a time when you had to start over.
  • Do you think God gets frightened?

  • Share some of the interesting names you have heard.
  • If you could name yourself what would you choose?
  • Why does how we speak of God matter?

  • Name some rules you think are absurd.
  • Why is it hard to follow the rules?
  • What one command would you add to the top ten?

  • What do you like to do when you have no demands or plans?
  • How is sabbath helpful?
  • Why might God need rest?

  • If life was full of monsters, what would they be?
  • Tell about a time when you conquered a 'wild beast.'
  • How does God help us face the 'monsters' around and within us?

  • Tell about a fantastic party you attended.
  • Who would you like to have a party for?
  • What would a party with Jesus be like?

  • Can you share an outrageous daydream you have?
  • Name three adjectives that you hope people would say about you.
  • How do we know about what God hopes for us?

  • Share about a time when you were surprised.
  • What needs to be challenged to better care for the whole creation?
  • Which does God require more of - right words or right actions?

  • Talk about allowance, chores, 'toothfairy' money etc in your household (currently or as a child).
  • Name some things you know (or can quickly learn) about income inequality.
  • Find a parable Jesus tells that applies to 'money'.  How does it connect to your life?

  • What do you think people like about this neighborhood?
  • Name a few things that strangers do that make you leary.
  • Tell about a time you changed your mind about a place or people.

  • How is risk attractive?
  • Tell about a time you took a risk.
  • Name 3 courageous people in the Bible.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Pinwheels for Pentecost

Pinwheels for Pentecost with Fresh Fruits of the Spirit.
I have to confess that I have thought this was super obvious for ages, and am surprised it caused such delight and newness!  Some churches have practices connected to Pentecost involving balloons or kites.  Someone needs to make fireworks happen - but I will let others work on that idea.  I have been serving as an interim minister at a parish without any special Pentecost practices, so this was a chance to make a new one.

For a long long while, I have been adding pinwheels to Godly Play baptism lessons!  Doves are super scriptural imagery, but they don't offer very complex metaphorical teaching. So dove yes, but also a pinwheel.  Pinwheels are colorful and joyful and the basic ruach metaphor is all there - wind or breath move and make energy.  One of the best parts is that sometimes it takes a big breath to move it; other times when outside on a breezy day it just moves.  This pinwheels for Pentecost is teaching about some of the scriptural facets of the Spirit and summery colorful good fun.  I had enough for everyone - and folks took them for people they love.  I also encouraged folks to keep it in a place they will notice it and pray on their word, and even to take it with them on journeys and take photos #flatjesus style.  #pinwheelpentecost ??

Not pinwheels but origami cranes in fire colors on a mobile.
I ordered these multi-colored pinwheels online (Oriental Trading, Amazon...).  Only problem is that the ink on the stems rubbed off easily on hands. There were others that you could assemble yourself.  I also wanted them to be quite colorful (both a statement on diversity and it was Pride weekend (and a purple parish)), but one could order all fire color ones.  There are ways to make them with origami, and you could probably find a way to upcycle something to make them if you planned well enough in advance.  I used to make an origami crane mobile using firey colored magazine pages.

Then using the label function on MSWord I made labels with one word each - various fruits and gifts of the Spirit.  This parish has torch holders on many pews so I used those to hold sets of pinwheels.  Simple, exciting, and theologically complex.  A new way to celebrate and teach Pentecost.  Maybe next year you can try this instead of balloons.

Let's Rumble - Fresh Fruits of the Spirit for Pentecost

I received a message this week from a friend. It was a note of gratefulness and optimism in what for my friend is a time of uncertainty and commotion. One of the things that she said was 'I don't care much for the idea of a puppeteer God', but she is also wondering with awe at some of the unplannable assistance she has recently encountered. I replied that I also didn't care much for the idea of a puppet master God, but I trust deeply in the Spirit of God who is at times luring us forward and other times that same Spirit of God is nudging us from behind, almost always surprising us. 

We invoke the Holy Spirit all the time, but you may have noticed if you've ever bothered to count the lines for each subject in the Nicene Creed, the Spirit of God which is Co-Eternal and co-equal and One with God and Jesus The Holy Spirit gets only one line to itself. In our Gospel lesson today we hear Jesus naming his relationship with the Holy Spirit, which is sometimes translated as Paraclete, and here today in our lesson Advocate. Referring to the Spirit of God in this way is describing the divine activity that is shared with Jesus. Jesus is encouragement and comfort and enlightenment. Both are a companion in times of need but also a radical shaker up of the status quo. The Spirit turns over tables and parties with the ill repute too. 

Just previously in John, Jesus has uttered that sacred poetry speaking of himself as the Way the Truth and the Life. The work of the Spirit of God is to keep the truth of Jesus the Christ present in the community of the believer, and of the barely curious. The Spirit works to make the Good News tangible in ways that might feel like soft rain, or like a bolt of lightning, or occasionally both at the same time. The Spirit is pushing and pulling us, supporting and whispering to us. It is the drive beyond ourselves to become one with the way, truth, and life; and doing so just how Jesus said: love God and your neighbor as much as God loves you. 

I love love love Pentecost and have been thinking lately about Paul’s wonderful lists of fruits and gifts of the Spirit - healing, teaching, speaking... Those are good lists but they are also the quick notes of an author who was often on the run.  There is of course much more that could be said about the multidimensional experiences of the Spirit in community, and voices that were once not as free to speak as they are now about such gifts. So I wondered aloud online: what are some fresh gifts of the Spirit? Through those responses, and some other theological and scriptural and social science exploring, I compiled a list of 100 Fresh Fruits of the Spirit. (It could have been gifts but I serve at the church of the blueberry and close to cranberry bogs - so fruit).  A list of 100 is just a tiny fraction of all the tastes of all the fruits of the Spirit of God. I printed out the list of a hundred and they're on the back table and they're also online on our Facebook page... 

I want to draw your attention to three words in particular. The first is making-space If this is a fruit of the Spirit, it is how the love of God expands in our hearts and in our lives and how it creates a feeling of expansive freedom. The kind of letting go that helps us to release our clutch and grab anxieties, it the clears out the noise that we use to protect ourselves from the challenge of change. Making-space is to flip the channel and to listen to the sighs to deep for words. 

I don't think that the big deal wonder in the episode we heard about Pentecost today is that different languages are spoken. I think the startling thing is that strangers and folks with whom we totally disagree with are heard. When I ponder the gift of making-space I think of this Pentecost wonder, and of the hospitality of Abraham who made space for the three strangers. He welcomed them with the best of the best he had, invited them into his tent and heard a blessing and a message completely unexpected and possibly unreasonable. The Spirit of God is a space maker, and is not contained by our rules and assumptions. 

The second of the 100 I want to raise up is rumbling. Rumbling with the middle of our stories, wrestling with the hard parts of our lives where God is moving and it is uncomfortable. In the Book of Ezekiel there's a vision of a valley of dry bones and the Spirit of God moves over these dry bones and puts on muscle and sinews and flesh.  While this is a mystical metaphorical sketch if you've ever gone through the process of regrowing skin or bone: you know that this is not a painless process. I have experienced that one of the gifts of the Spirit is rumbling. It is keeping on keeping on and being candid in the harshness of life and death and remaining in God’s way in that disorientation. 

The 3rd of the fresh fruits of the Spirit list that I want to draw your attention to is one that caused the most conversation online: transgression. Of course, when you hear transgression you may hear buried within it echoes of the word aggression, and therefore violence. You also hear an echo of the older English translation of the Lord's Prayer where trespasses and transgression and sin are the same. However, when I say transgression I mean something else. 

Here I mean a type of divinely empowered righteousness of stepping over the line. Whatever line it is in pursuit of Justice. I'm thinking of people who sat at lunch counters and were beaten. I'm thinking of people who dare to live the full colors and truths of themselves and are bullied and hated for it. Scripturally I'm thinking of Moses. Because everything in the story of the Exodus is this kind of Spirit supported and led transgression of imperial power. The Spirit of God was an encourager with Moses, not as puppetmaster, but empowering him, filling him with valor, and providing the human and spiritual support that he needed to lead the people of God into a space of freedom. A desert space that is hard and took rumbling, and many years of trial and error that we are still working through. The Spirit is still calling you and me to make space and to rumble and at times to transgress because the kingdom hasn’t come yet and there is still so much grief across the earth.

So I wonder how has the Spirit of God been an agent in your life and agent of energy or nerve or deep listening? Is the Spirit of God something that you acknowledge and listen to? Or do you cover your ears and lock the doors? 

One of those words in the Old Testament that could be translated as Spirit of God is the word Hebrew word ruach. Ruach means wind and breath and energy, and so I send you out today asking you to choose a pinwheel. A pinwheel is an active symbol of wind and breath creating energy. They each have their own various gifts of the Spirit on stickers on them. I want you to take one with you today, but don't go around looking for the word you really want. Approach it a little bit more like a fortune cookie and discover the gift that the Spirit the God could be making space in you for this Pentecost. 

Take it home and put it in a place where you will see it and/or if you are a traveler this summer if you have the room take it with you and dare to take a photo of it and send the image out into the world in celebration of the fruits of the Spirit that have nudged or lured or comforted you. Whatever gift you carry, may it make space for God in our hearts and neighborhood so that we may rumble with injustice and act up for the common good through the way the truth and the life of Jesus Christ. 

So let us pray. 

Healing Sovereign God Overmatch our resistant ears with your transforming speech infiltrate our jadedness and our fatigue. Touch our yearning by your words and through your out loudness draw us closer to you. We are ready to listen. in the name of the Father the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Prayer adapted from Walter Bruggeman.

Pentecost RCL C 
Grace Episcopal Church
Pemberton, New Jersey
June 9, 2019

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Fresh Fruits of the Spirit

With Pentecost approaching, I have been conversing and posting and preparing and thinking about the gifts of the Spirit of God.  And thinking how wonderful the list from Paul is and how many are the attributes of the rest of Scripture and tradition, yet also how in my experience - some facets overlooked.  So celebrating living between the cranberry bogs - and the people who are so empowered day in day out to persevere, here are 100 Fresh Fruits of the Spirit.  What fruit and gift of the Spirit rises for you?  Comment below.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Austen Clergypeople, the 25th of the 39 and Is that the Way we Do This?

I pester my favorite church historians occasionally with questions about the reality of clerical life for Regency era Anglican vicars.  This isn't a random thing to do,  it always arises from my frequent wandering through Austen-shire.  Jane Austen was the daughter of a clergyman, and it is notable that almost all of her novels have clergy people, or aspirants (men who want to be clergymen) as substantial characters.  Some of these are of course shallow and laughably stupid fellas, but others are upstanding men of duty and compassion.

There are of course innumerable changes to the life of a parish priest in the 180 years since that time.  However, as a church professional turned clergyperson, I am drawn to ponder the differences. There is at least one diocese funding post-seminary formation in the way of sending new clergy to non-profit business management school. I both see the point and hope it is optional so that other areas of daily importance that are not strictly theological could be nurtured - basic digital communications, a primer in oncology, family systems, plumbing 101.  Our demands are eternally evolving - as is our discernment and understanding.  The work of the vicar of Grantchester is not the same as the Austen clerics, nor the same as mine.  I do wonder how the Reverend Chambers has time to solve the murder mysteries of Grantchester.  And how does Syndey pastorally care for the people who must be traumatized by their extraordinary scandalous murder rate?   Yet even his mid-20th-century fictional pastorate, with its cars and mass transit, it doesn't have the diocesan 'take your part in the councils of the church' time demands that we do today. 

This question about how the earlier generations of Anglican clergy were trained and questions provoked me more frequently when I was 'going through the process.'  Hard to imagine the vapid Mr. Collins writing essays on his relationship with Jesus, or even the bookish Edward Ferrars answering questions about Eucharistic theology.  What would a real life man seeking 'orders' be asked?  If I understand correctly all that was required was the 'college degree' and in that time one could matriculate without actually attending classes or reading anything (where was the scandal then?!?).  So general knowledge would have varied widely.  It seems that the studious were learned, the rest of them were not so much, and there may have been a few in-betweeners (and let us admit that this is true now as well). 

There were not commissions on ministry nor ordination exams 'back then'.  It was mostly up to the decisions of the Bishop and the financing of the local landowner.  And due to the interrelatedness of academia and the Church of England sometimes academics were ordained clergy whether or not they were focused on religious topics or pastoring a parish. What they had to do was agree to the 39 Articles, and I would assume they had some education about these 39 Articles, but how much and how deep - I hope some historian works on this sometime (for more on the 39 Articles check out what Dr. Crusty has to say as part of the #39articlesblog).  Do I imagine that the imaginary Mr. Collins could remember much less explain any of the 39 Articles? Well, not unless Lady Catherine suggested it. What about Mr. Elton, or Mr. Ferrars?  Mr. Charles Hater is an underdeveloped clergyman character, but I imagine him more scholarly, so let us say yes he could. He might have even been pedantic about them. I should perhaps not abuse the dopey fictional clergy of Austen-shire quite so cruelly, as I didn't have to answer any questions about the 39 Articles - at least not directly - in my ordination process. 

I recently joined a blog-throng of people ( writing about the 39 Articles, with the hope that the project can be useful to folks exploring and deepening their knowledge of the Anglican and Episcopal Church.  What struck me most is what might nudge some of you when watching the historically accurate adaptations with church scenes.  There are familiar patterns and styles but the church of the Regency its  orthopraxy of the church was much much more 'Calvinistic-iny' in sense and sensibility (if you like to divide things up in such a way) than nearly any current Episcopal church. As for the wider communion, I cannot say for sure, but the same is likely to be generally true. 

In the last year I have found myself at a rural bar among fabulous clergy friends having a loud but loving argument regarding the catholic-ness vs protestantness of our church.  This isn't a historical issue - it is a piece of our identity that we need to grow better at naming.   We are both/and people and we were more protestant-y for most of our history and the last 100 years have seen an external and sacramental swing towards something that might be called catholic-y.  Yet even the widespreadness of this in orthodoxy and orthopraxy would be much diminished in 1900 compared to 1950.   The history of the faith is one of change, otherwise, there wouldn't be a history to have.

I don't really put vast stock in such p and c binaries, but dualistic thinking isn't a battle we are going to resolve anytime soon either.  We are both/and people and we can love each other and pray together and serve together and think quite differently about core matters - Christology and Ecclesiology to name two.  However, we also need more clarity in our senses and understandings, that for all our liturgical science retro-innovations, the practice of the previous 400 years was much different - and you can see that in the very architecture of our Regency era naves across the world.  We follow Jesus the Christ who was always in motion proclaiming and healing, so to has been the interpretation of the Scriptures and the practice of the churches until we find ourselves in the finale.  Yes it was different, and it was good in some ways and unfaithful in others, and yes it has changed, and it also both holy and flawed.  We invite you into the #39Articles blog project as a letter from the past to help us reflect on the path of discipleship and formation that is demanded of all our lay and ordained leaders today.

I am looking forward to the reading of all those posts in the #39ArticlesBlog project.  I hope to learn more about who we are and where we are leaning, and I hope that from this examination rise mostly pride and only prejudice for the lifegiving liberating Good News.  I hope you read them too. Stay tuned - you get to hear from me at number 25 - the Sacraments; I will post the link when it happens.  In the meanwhile, stay sassy, smart, radical and holy.

The Deep Revealed Magic: Further Out and In

Julie had stopped by the church office to drop something off. She stuck her head in my door and said oh- I'm so glad you're here I'm worried about Tommy. In my head, I quickly ran through all of the mid-90’s teenage boy problems that this could be, the kind that cause slightly frantic worry in a mother's voice and reaching out to the youth pastor. Julie continued, 'a few days ago he told me that his favorite book of the Bible is Revelation. What should I DO about that?' I didn't dive into what her concerns were about the Book of Revelation, I assumed I pretty much knew them. 

Luther didn't think it should be in the Bible (at first). Thomas Paine referred to Revelation as 'a book of riddles that requires a revelation to explain it.' And it has been described in various ways as 'curiously trippy'. At the time when this mother Julie put her head in my office, the trouble in Waco at the Branch Davidian complex was not that far back. She was a mild-mannered Episcopalian who loves Jesus, classical music, regular study, and loving service as a core of her discipleship. NOOOOOO soapbox brimstone whatever. We love the mystery and the sacraments and organized processions; and we really like a solid dose of reason and clarity. We like way less firey judgy speculation, and so the book of Revelation, well, we tend to read with oven mitts on. 

I suggested that a few exploratory questions (basically conversational Lectio) so she could try to learn more. The next Sunday Julie came up to me and said, 'I talked to Tommy. The reason he likes the book of Revelation is that it reminds him of the book The Last Battle' in the CS Lewis Narnia series. And I have to tell you she was completely calmed down by that reason. Book of Revelation - yikes. CS Lewis children's Christian fantasy novel - jolly good and alrighty.  I have thought about that conversation a lot over the years, mostly because of how right Tommy was. 

If you don't know the Narnia series it is absolutely a young person’s fantasy series intended to invite the hesitant of all ages into the 'deep magic' of the Christian witness. And there's a phrase in the Last Battle - which is supposed to be rather like a last chapter of the last book - like what we heard bits of today. The Last Battle has an echoed phrase about the journey with Aslan (absolutely a Christ figure) is further out and further in all at the same time. (Actual quote is: “I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now...Come further up, come further in!”)That is the same big picture that the Revelator is trying to show us.

We are at the beginning of the last chapter of the last book of the Christian Bible. And it's reveling in the symphonic sacred conclusion of the God in Christ being further out and further in: Alpha and Omega, from the tiniest grain of sand to the furthest Morning Star.  It is all radiating with the same good news that we know in Jesus Christ. That's really what Revelation seems to be about, however, I will not deny that its intent may remain Until kingdom come, its own mystery. 

It was probably written a good 60 years after Jesus's life, death, resurrection, and ascension. It is written to the second and third generation Christians of a rapidly expanding and often threatened young church, or more accurately networked Jesus movement. Revelation is a kind of performance art, Imax before Imax, a mixtape extravaganza dance through the Hebrew scriptures. Here is a creative expression of how in Jesus so much more is revealed than just what happened in the human life. Such a truth is not explained in a simple equation or an outline. It takes art to share and open hearts to whisper -  yeah. 

Part of the way that the Revelator does this is by an massive layered and twisting and turning sampling,  mostly from the book of Psalms, as well as Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah and much the Book of Daniel. Over half of the 400 something verses in the entire text of Revelation have at least one if not multiple Hebrew Scripture allusions. For the Revelator the good news of Jesus is the good news of Jesus, but it is so much more than what is in the Gospels. It is so much older and so much more forever. 

There are three things I would like you to leave here today understanding about the text of Revelation. One - it is a text to be heard not read word by word. It has of course been translated from its not so great Greek into English, and so some of the word portraits that it's trying to cast are going to get lost in translation. Just as importantly, like most of the Bible, it was written for people in times when most people had no reason to know how to read.  Therefore most of the Bible is written to be read aloud in community. This spoken intention also means that it is certainly not a code with secret final answers.

Secondly, the Revelators primary method is not analogy it's not this equals that. The primary mode is metaphor. Over and over the equivalent of the words like or as appear, playful words we use when we're making a metaphor or a simile. This is the language that the Revelator is crafting with - it is parabolic language it means that it is literary art. Made not for the surface meaning but to pull us further out and further in into a 'deeper magic' and meaning. 

The third and final thing I hope you remember about the text of Revelation is that it is intended as wisdom and assurance for people living through fiercely troubled times. These feel like troubled times, but there are ways in which this isn't trouble that all compared to the daily trials of our neighbors who we share this globe with. Our blessing of easy-going mild-mannered security does not dismiss our responsibility to the people Jesus has solidarity with. The people for whom this revelation art is crafted were and are people whose life and death struggle with vicious adversaries and tremendous violence are all the time. They strive in the hope of Jesus who is our morning star and they persist in faithfulness through the terrible for the sake of his final call to our eternal home. 

So I wonder how is the Holy Trinity: Father Son and Holy Spirit, how are they drawing you further out of yourself into bravery you didn't know you had, and/or into solidarity and belonging that is beyond the rational or everyday? And how is the same Holy Trinity leading you further into the heart of God into glad centeredness and servant listening for every tear that is cried? If you haven’t ever responded to the call of Jesus to go further out and further in, is now not the time to try something just so brave? 

The call from the Revelator throughout the nearly two thousand years is a summons to to see and feel and know Jesus the Christ as the love of all in all. Today the Revelator pushes us to remain faithful to God, and to resist abetting the cruelty of the powers-that-be. We are to be a Jesus focused community that controls our fears and sustains our mission with the hope of the Morning Star. If that's not a story you easily find when you listen to the performance art of the text of Revelation then let me suggest to you for your summer listening or reading pleasure the accidental suggestion of my young friend Tommy (although I suppose he's not so young anymore.) 

Maybe it is time to open the Narnian doorway found in a wardrobe in a spare room - again, or for the first time. Their motives - the Revelator and CS Lewis - their intentions and approaches are very much the same - however, I am also not saying that Narnia is the same thing as studying the Scriptures. Both are a creative invitation into the life-changing love and challenge we know in the freedom of Jesus Christ.  

This Christ-event is something that is more than just that concrete life way back whenever. It is a spiritual journey for you now - our union with God in Christ will not be earned by coloring within the lines or being nice and keeping our heads down. Union with God who is Alpha and Omega it is a gift an undeserved gift due to his boundless commitment to us. The Revelator is holding open the gate, leading us further into the peace of God that is within us all; and pushing us on a path further out into the mission of Jesus that is to All All all. Further out, and further in.   Where we go in the world, what we do in the world, what we say in the world, in the name of Christ.

Grace Episcopal Church
Pemberton, New Jersey
June 2, 2019

Monday, May 20, 2019

Navel Gospel: Incarnation in the Middle of our Lives

Current good data on the sociology of religion in the United States shows that about 75% of Americans claim they are affiliated with a religious congregation. It also shows that about 88% of Americans believe in God with varying degrees of certainty. You may know already that people who have no religious affiliation are a growing portion of the religious landscape. However, I suspect that this is less of a new thing and more of a people feel more empowered to be honest about it thing.  Still, it might be interesting to know that among the folks who have no religious affiliation, around 60% of those people claim to believe in God with varying degrees of certainty. 

Now, most of the people who belong to some sort of congregation or religious group in the USA belong to one of the three Abrahamic religions. That means churches that claim themselves as Christian, that means Jewish Synagogues or Temples, and it means Muslim Mosques. All of which share the roots of belief that there is one Lord God of the universe. The survey takes that idea very much for granted. The survey takers are asking about belief in God assuming that means one unified power, They are not asking about multiple lowercase-g gods in any shape or form. But this assumption wouldn’t have flown in the historical context of all of our Scriptures today. All of them that we read: the Acts lesson, the Psalm, the section of Revelation and the Gospel all trust and believe that there is one God of the universe. Yet for their neighbors, that wouldn't have been taken for granted at all. 

The context of this Psalm is one where there was the belief in plenty of lowercase-g gods of all sorts and they were connected to places and people. You could add and subtract like comic book superheroes. Sometimes you see evidence of this in the Old Testament and even in some of the scenes in Acts as the good news mission, the Jesus movement mission moves out into the wider Mediterranean world. Now there may have been people who on their own were inspired to believe that there was one unified highest power that created the universe and loves the universe but it was by no means a majority opinion. 

So this Psalm today Is breathtakingly daring in its scope. The sky is praising Yahweh, the waters are of God, the whales and octopus just the same. All the weather, all the hills, and the deserts, and the trees: they clap their hands in praise of the One divine and all God’s critters have a place in the choir. That's world-changing revelation. We are not alone. We are to be one with each other and God. 

And then you come to the New Testament where the experience of the people around Jesus was that this one Lord God of the Universe is revealed most clearly in the life and death and resurrection of this one person - Jesus. That this God became incarnate as a backwater day laborer, that's a whole other form of stunning. Incarnation is a word you probably hear said and sung only in church circles. The basic definition is something - usually very Other - embodied in a human. In Christianity in particular, if we're hearing about the Incarnation we're hearing about Jesus. We're exploring how we know him and what it means that the material world can bear all the weight of divinity. 

For me one of the distinctive characteristics of the Episcopal church and the Anglican tradition Is its incarnational focus. What do I mean by that - well I mean that we prioritize the Gospels: Matthew Mark Luke and John, the sacred stories of how Jesus lived, what he taught, what he said was most important, how he died and how he rose again and who Jesus meant for us to be when he commissioned us as disciples. We're a tradition where you can see very clearly this priority of the Gospels and how we read it in worship. The other lessons are read from the lectern or the Psalm said altogether, but the Gospel has a special book, sometimes the book is brass covered. 

And we carry the book out into the middle of the congregation into the middle of our lives. There are churches where it is hugged tightly as it is brought out, like it is the most precious thing. And there are churches where the book is kissed and touched by the congregation, however it is more common that some people will bow or cross themselves to set their intentions to truly hear and take in this good news. We are a people who put all the special we can muster into the proclaiming the stories of the Incarnation of the one Lord of All in Jesus of Nazareth. 

Another way in which we are Incarnational is related to that  - it is that we put plenty of time and talent and treasure into our spaces and our accouterments. The practical effect of good incarnationalism is that it matters what we do with our bodies and with our material things and with our spaces. We trust that this attention to the material leads us into the mysteries of faith that words cannot express or explain. Today in our Gospel reading we heard a snippet of something we just heard during Holy Week.  Here in the very center of John, you have the special great (last) supper and the mandates Jesus gives us and the cleansing he offers. 

It might be said that John more than any other gospel is caught up in the whoa of this incarnation experience of this one God of the universe being fully human in Jesus. And today right here at the center of the work of the sacred Storyteller of John, the author reverently invites us into the center of Christology, into what Jesus means in our lives. How does the God of all greet us: with humility. How does God respond to all of our failures and betrayal: with forgiveness What does God ask of us: that we love all as much as God loves all. 

It's right there in the center at this gospel with all its circular layers right here in the center of our proclamation in the center of our nave which is like navel - as in your belly button-  so the center of yourself. And it can be summed up, all our lessons can be summed up with one of Presiding Bishop Curry's most popular quotes: if it isn't about love then it isn't about God. That is the heart of our lessons today. Proclaiming Jesus as our Lord as one and the same as the loving forgiving Lord of all creation and the healing Spirit of God. Whoa. 

Today the lessons are a summons to humility, the letting go of our expectations, and assumptions, and in that new space letting belonging and forgiveness rise up. Perhaps the task before us this week is to listen to our friends and neighbors who are in that -none zone - which here in Pemberton is over half. Listen with love for schedules and stresses, hurts and misunderstandings, goodness and commitments. Listen with love to how God is speaking because God can speak through the wind and the rain, sunshine and sharks (#finsup). God is speaking - are we listening with love? Where we go - we are to be one with the incarnate Lord of all. What we hear - we are to be one with the incarnate Lord of all - Jesus the Christ. 

Grace Episcopal Church
Pemberton, New Jersey
May 19th, 2019