Sunday, March 31, 2019

Gather the Lost: Coins, Sons, A Rancher, A Samaritan and some Green Green Grass

Imagine a lovely open field of fresh green grass, beside a clear flowing stream. In the middle of this field, stand two able-bodied men and their aged father. A few steps away, yet within easy hearing distance is a woman and many of her friends: and they are in a good mood. Also a few steps to the other side of the father and sons, there is a rancher and his sheep, a few wooly ones by his side and one across his shoulders. A bit further away beside the stream, is a Samaritan man, you know it by looking at him, and beside him sits a weak stranger, bruises on his face and his arm is in a sling. There is heartbreak and recovery, panicked despair and reckless happy abandon, and people trying to do the right thing. Why do they stand in this field at this moment? Because Jesus heard his detractors grumbling and trying to slander him by mentioning again that this man Jesus - he FEASTS with the most low life traitorous pirates of ill repute - how could he be of God? 

His response is first to tell about the rancher - well - shepherd, who loves and cares for his sheep.  Just the other day he is counting them, And whoa - one is missing. So he goes and searches over hill and dale to find that lost and poky sheep and bring it home where the rancher rejoices. Next, Jesus tells of the woman who is checking her change purse and discovers that a coin is missing. So she lifts every bit of furniture and shakes out the rug and lights a lamp to search high and low, so that she might find the coin that she has lost. When she finds it she calls all her friends and throws a party to celebrate. The point of the sheep tale is that the sheep was found and there was rejoicing. The point of the coin tale is that the coin was found and there was rejoicing. And to me lost and found should be understood as teachings about death and resurrection and eternal life. 

In today’s selection, Jesus continues the lost and found, death and resurrection series. There were two sons. Two sons of a man who has given over his life to his sons. The word that is used to speak of inheritance isn’t the bank account - the word it is substance - it can be his assets, but it can also be heard as his life. And since this is about death and resurrection - let's go with life. This man, this father, is at this point, all but dead having given away his life. The crucial point is not the division of assets or pig sty. The point is that the second son gets lost. So lost that he too might as well be dead. 

One scholar suggests that this parable should be called 'the father that forgot to count.' The rancher counted. The woman counted. The father had two sons. The older son, who stayed home and did his duty, may have been just as lost as his playboy brother, but it was harder to notice. Being responsible and sticking to the estate are good things, but not if we forget we belong to something greater than the task in front of us. And so while rejoicing that the younger son was found, the father forgot t o look around the estate and seek out and find and celebrate his older son too. 

So why you might wonder, why are the stranger and the Good Samaritan are in this field with us. It is because of the all but deadness of the lost sheep and the all but wasted of the lost coin and the all but gone father and the lost sons. The Good Samaritan is about a man who is all but dead and the entirely outcast savior - it is another lost and found story. The Samaritan goes out of his way to rescue this stranger who was left in a ditch. The question that that parable began with was who is my neighbor - which of these people do I have to love and how much do I have to love them. The answer is there is no us and them, and how do you love - you lift the lowly and safeguard the vulnerable. 

So if you gather together this whole field of lost and found things and creatures and you ask what is God’s reign like and how show we live into it - What answer do you discover? In all of the gospels, none of the stories where Jesus encounters all but dead things does he ignore it. There is judgment here, but it isn’t about lives of ill repute or numbness, the judgment here is whether or not we accept that God is raising us from all the deadness we can concoct. 

For Lent, I have been preaching through the five job descriptions of the baptized life. Continue Return Proclaim Serve Strive. This week we are on the fourth - serve.  The promise to love and serve is not just saying will be good scouts and will tolerate others because it is nice and polite. We are invited by Jesus to be making our lives an example of the love and forgiveness that is already given in his life, death and resurrection. It is a celebration of how God loves us and will send people like you and me to find all the lost. Loving service to all neighbors is the grateful response, it is the greatest command. Our loving practices and actions and attitudes for all neighbors and therefore serving Christ in all persons responds to real human needs, not just with small change, or kind thoughts.  It is instead like a rancher seeking a sheep and a woman finding a coin and a father rejoicing when his lost sons return. 

It is love that persists in following Jesus by belonging to his community and growing in Jesus by serving with his community. Imagine a field of soft green grass And clear flowing water Where all the countless lostness becomes foundness. Who and where are you in this field of lost and found, Death and resurrection? What might move you from fragmented loss to connected wholeness? 

Holy Week is coming - I invite you to come face to face with all our lostness. Easter will follow- Jesus is Sending us out To love and serve. How and with whom will you go? God’s soft green field is one of unearned foundness, selfless forgiveness, and resurrecting love. All of those stories, Good Sam and the Found Sheep and the Found Coin and the Two Sons, they are pictures of who we are supposed to be as people who follow Jesus into the lostness of the cross, and who we are to be as we go where he sends us beyond the empty tomb. Go be found by Jesus, the good shepherd. Go, Find, love, serve, and gather.  What is lost can be found.

March 31, 2019
Grace Episcopal Church

-the one where i had to offer it from memory cause i pushed the wrong buttons on the tablet

Monday, March 11, 2019

Infinite Ways to Pray: Pi, Promises, and Lent

If you were stuck in the middle of the ocean on a lifeboat with an animal, what animal would you choose? It is the life of pi question. A book about a young man who finds himself stranded in a lifeboat in the wilderness of Pacific ocean with a Bengal tiger in the same small boat. The part of the story I want to offer today is that what undergirds the boy in the face the danger and temptations of the 227 days in the wilderness of the ocean was his life of prayer.

Back at his home in India Pi had a childhood a lot like mine we were free-range children, and what he was doing during the day his parents had almost no idea. Pi had a deep curiosity about God and in his part of India, he was able to practice Roman Catholic Christianity and Islam and Hinduism quite freely. They all have different holy days so nobody knew about his holy hobby for a while. Pi’s bravery saves his life on the boat with the tiger in the middle of the ocean. Pi’s creativity was absolutely the tool that provided sustenance in his wilderness trial. But it is the practice of prayer that keeps him going and anchors his sanity in his extraordinary passage.

The season of Lent was originally shaped to prepare people who'd been on a journey to baptism. Each Sunday this Lent I will focus on one of the five active baptismal promises, promises that we have prayed and committed ourselves to. The renewal of baptismal vows begins with a renunciation of evil and renaming the ideas and concepts that we trust in when we say we believe in God the father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. This is followed up with five questions that are the word pictures which fill in what it means for us, as a community of people who trust in the things we just declared. It is easy to remember in five words: continue return proclaim serve strive.

The 1st of the 1st promise is will you continue in the apostle's teaching and fellowship and breaking of bread, and in the prayers. Continuing the apostle's teaching and fellowship means that you keep diving into the learning and reflection of scripture, tradition, experience, and reason in a community that is a community across time. The breaking of bread is clearly gathering for communion constantly and consistently. And the last part of the first promises is prayer.

The regular daily active life of prayer. The easiest and simplest way to think of what prayer should be is it is you and god looking at each other face-to-face it is, it is intimacy, it is candor, it is love, it is challenging, it is a relationship. Now our friend Pi the boy on the boat with the tiger in the wilderness of the ocean his relationship with God was so complex that he used 3 completely distinct traditions of religion and prayer to satisfy his longing to look at God face-to-face.

In the Christian tradition, we have dozens and dozens of ways that are real and true and holy methods of prayer. Some of them involve body movements, some of them involve reading and/or listening. Some of them working in the soil or the kitchen and some others are focused on sitting still and some of them involve lots of silence and some of them involve singing and lots of noise. If for some reason you've always thought of prayer as ___ and that fill in the blank has not held you in a regular relationship, has not invited you into that experience where you regularly look at God and God looks at you, then this Lent I challenge you to try a new kind of prayer.

The last thing I want to point out about our lesson and prayer today is that if you notice it is the spirit of God that leads Jesus out into the wilderness. And it is the Spirit of God that is calling us and leading us into challenges and the prayerful encounter with the great unknown paths that lay around of us. Prayer that is a conversation with the Lord of life will be about living more lovingly, more freely and not being stuck in temptations or selfishness or loneliness. Prayer is a deep breath of God when we are paralyzed by anxiety and fear of the future. Prayer can be the life of Jesus coming alive in you. Prayer is about living a life together in humility and reconciliation and mercy not only for yourself and others but for time and reality itself.

We promise to stick to prayer not because we get it not because we understand how it works but because we experience it as a deepening of the promises of our pledges to be with God who is here for us. Whatever your wilderness is God is with us. Whatever your ocean is, there is a practice of authentic prayer that can sustain you. Whatever the tiger in your lifeboat is, God calls us to live together in peace, whatever that takes. Continue return proclaim serve strive. Our promises are responded to with the promise of God: that we will live into this way of love with God's help forever and ever. Amen.

Grace Episcopal Church

Pemberton, New Jersey

March 10, 2019

RCL Lent 1C

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Flour to Flour: Sin and the true Center

In the late 80’s I went to one of the largest schools in the country. 7th - 12th graders in one ¼ mile long school in a rapidly developing part of Fairfax County. If every student, staff, and teacher was in the building it would have been nearly 10k people. That is bigger than most colleges. When I was in 7th grade the half of the 9th-grade biology students were given a 2-week long assignment. They had to carry around a 5lb sack of flour and attend to it as if it was a child. You had to have the sack of flour with you at all times. The sack had to make it through the two weeks mostly intact and holding most of its original contents.

Some of the students decorated their bags or drew faces on them, which you could do, but you couldn’t just put it in bubble wrap. The other half of the class were given an empty real eggshell. The rules were the same. An eggshell has slightly different challenges. Where the flour was heavy and bulky, the egg is small and forgettable. Both of which are intended to highlight the difficulties of parenting. 14-year-olds sometimes need a strong reminder that they are powerful and creative, but that they are not the center of the universe.

Self-centeredness is an important developmental stage - but it is intended to be a stage. We are not supposed to stay there. ON the last day Of the assignment In a moment of adolescent merriment and jubilance, Some of the 9th graders hurled their bags of flour or eggshells at the floor of the hallways. It was quite the mess of shell and flour and paper bag shreds. It became an utter unbelievable mess. Suffice to say we didn't get any version of this assignment two years later.

Sin is a rather misunderstood word. We are quite accomplished at it, yet we don’t quite understand what it really means. We tend to think of it as little slights and large cruelties, we may have heard that sin is about perfectionism or the letter of the law. Yet in the Old Testament sin isn’t as simple as a list of don’ts. Sin is an act or attitude that betrays God’s intentions for life together. Sin is a turning away from the covenant promises - the big ones - Love God, Love all neighbors as much as God loves you. There are a million acts and attitudes that betray God’s intentions, that rebel against God. Crookedness and abuse and gluttony and isolationism. When we say that Jesus did not sin we are not saying that he never did x y or z specifically. What we are saying is that he never turned his back on God and he never turned his back on being fully human - of practicing humanity as it was intended. It is Jesus’ life and death that exposes our unfaithfulness and sinfulness.

The sin of my older classmates wasn’t the jubilant silliness of smashing egg shells and bags of flour. It was forgetting that someone had to clean that mess up. That people put their whole lives into growing and harvesting that wheat - and it was wasted. Love all others as much as God loves you. The judgment of sin isn’t a lash It is a mirror that demands our humility That we are the creature, we are not the center, that God is God. And the well being of all is the intended center. To repent and return means we turn around from the worst of our self-centeredness And embrace the humility of putting our promises of fidelity to God and therefore neighbor at the center of our lives.

We mark our foreheads with ashes of mourning and death and destruction, But we mark them in a cross. Not the cross of cruel empire But the empty cross of Easter Because ash and sin and destruction is not the end of the story. The mess is overcome by the victory of God over death and selfishness at Easter. Our hallways are a mess of broken shells and tattered sacks and dust and dirt and muck of self-centered death and destruction.

If you feel like you are the smashed bag, the flour being walked over, or the shell that will never go back together again - your message today is that God loves you and the healing presence of the Spirit is with you, and Jesus is beside you in your grief. If you feel more like the people who made the mess The call of Ash Wednesday and Lent isn’t to wallow in the worst or shame and blame, But to see the whole picture of the goodness and to confess our personal role in the messes, pursue forgiveness and to grab a broom and a mop it up with Jesus - he is here with us, for us, in the middle of the mess.

The opposite of sin is loving God and loving all neighbors with heart and mind and soul and muscle and voices. Ashes to ashes. Flour to flour. Egg shells to egg shells. Dust and messes are not the end of the story. Eternal life turning toward the center, The love of God is the center and the start and the end of the story. God’s grace is more powerful than any mess we can make.

Ash Wednesday


Grace Episcopal Church

Pemberton, New Jersey