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

Monday, May 6, 2019

Texas or Tatooine: Conversion of Paul and New Landscapes

I still miss the wildflowers in the springtime.
When I was 14 going on 15 We moved from northern Virginia To San Antonio Texas. Moving wasn't that interesting of a thing growing up in the military moving was normal. Maybe you remember the advertising campaign Texas: like a whole other country. From my experience, we might as well have moved to Tatooine. Lizards and live oaks were strange. Fajitas were tasty, but it was my classmates and their lives and their stuff - that blew my mind. There were these expensive leather backpacks with monograms - and not just the girls had them. I think I expected the cowboy hats and the big hair but so much else was alien.

Rewritten memory suggests that I had the social awareness to not have spent the whole first month of school with my jaw wide open. Yet I will say that I often wondered if I was dreaming that I was in a movie of what high school in Texas was like. Early moments of a substantial conversion can be like that - hard to comprehend.  There is the desire to retreat, to dismiss it. You thought you knew who you were and where you were going but now your horse is gone and you are walking out of Ananias’ house and you may not feel like you are breathing real air. 

For Paul who was also Saul - everything has changed he was (and remained) a Jewish man, a Roman citizen, a person of privilege and authority. And suddenly the living Jesus comes to him in what bible scholars call a theophany. It changes every sense and thought and duty and aim. Everything must have felt unexplainable flipped upside down - an alien landscape. What Paul is to become is an agent of light, a swashbuckling proclaimer of the God who is nothing but Love; the one God who in Jesus was slain, who rose, who lives. 

All of his life experiences feed into the person he is going to become. Both his Hellenistic life and his pious Jewish expertise. Yet where he was once inwardly focused and resistant to change Paul now takes on an outward and adaptable trajectory. This person of power and esteem becomes a tradesperson, a tent maker which also meant leatherworker. The kind of employment that his home of Tarsus was known for, and the kind of work that can help sustain what matters most - the Mission of Good News for All. 

There is a good little book called something like Saint Paul, the Apostle Everybody loves to Hate. The title is sensational. It is a clear attempt to sell books - both to those who adore Paul, And those who think they don’t. The book resembles my push and pull relationship with Saint Paul. I love him because a little bit of his story feels like my story Early righteousness and a lucid moment and a mission in Jesus’ name to places and duties I would have laughed at in my old ways. I can see that he was trying to do the best he could with this mash-up of an ancient tradition and a new revelation. Paul was trying to shepherd small communities that were feisty and complicated and spread out over wild distances. 

My difficulties with Paul I think have more to do with things he says that are not love God, love neighbor. And I have to remember that my discipleship is imperfect and hope no one is reading my correspondence in worship in a thousand years. My frustration with Pauline things, however, is more about the way at times we manipulate him - pull out single sentences and hurl them at each other. Use his writings to let ourselves off the hook from the parts of being justice making good news people that are tiresome or might turn our world upside down. I don’t expect Paul to be consistent or perfect - he wasn’t and how could he be? Yet still - overall I find his gifts to our mission to be lifegiving again and again. 

Sometimes I say my conversion went from 0 to 60 but that's only part of the story. And while I didn't fall off a horse blinded by Jesus’ light, yet the way in which my path was rerouted and completely changed - yeah - I feel a sense of connection with Paul today. Yet it is the trickle of my story, like I suspect most discipleship stories, it is the everyday nudges and questions asked and patience shared in the community before and after that made this discipleship real, this way with Jesus what it is. The faith isn’t a box to check off it is a building of trust, moments of falling upward and exploring new partnerships so that we may become a people who look and sound and act more like Jesus. 

I believe that the living risen Jesus is present with us in our doubts and anxieties and stubbornness too. Sometimes I wonder if Jesus had been luring Paul for a long time, But it took this push off his high horse to set him free. We are invited to love the past and adapt and change for the mission and the future, and I hope you will step out in courage and candor following the Spirit of God.  I hope you will keep asking questions and digging deeper and loving as Jesus loves. Will you go feed? Will you go tend, go love?

Jesus helps us up from our fallenness- but he does not leave us there standing still. The constant motion and drama of Acts, the otherworldliness of Revelation, the direction of the Gospel of John it is all outward, yet also centered in communities of discipleship like Grace Church. Further out and further in.  

It is the living resurrected Christ that scattered all of Paul’s deadness In the dust on the ground that day. And now - in baptism - God has filled and compelled and sustained this person to foster Good News living communities that are clearly a cast of the imperfect and the misfits - just like you and me. Paul was sent to the people that Jesus invites to his table - all all all. And to tell the good news with such daring and creativity - that the world has absolutely been changed for the better by him. However- he didn't do it alone and he didn't do it by pretending nothing had changed. Let’s go - Jesus is sending us out to do the work he has given us to do.

Easter 3  RCL-C
May 5, 2019
Grace Episcopal Church
Pemberton, New Jersey

Wonder and Trust: the Early Jesus Movement and Forgiveness

That one time, at Golden Road, at FORMA...
Sometimes I wonder I wonder why in the world did the followers of Jesus after his arrest and trial and crucifixion why didn't they flee? If the person that I was following whose teachings about the abundant love of God had reshaped my life and if that person was executed as a revolutionary indicted and put down in a conspiracy of nervous leaders, I would be scared and preoccupied and anxious - ready to run. I understand hiding out for a night I can see sticking around long enough to properly care for this body that has been shamed. But otherwise I have to wonder why didn't they split up why didn't they get out of town? You and I all know plenty of people including possibly ourselves who would have flown the coop. Yet the disciples did stick around. 

From the story that John is offering us today of those days after the crucifixion and the resurrection this set of people who were steadfast - they were probably laying low. Still they need to go out at different times to get provisions to talk to safe acquaintances. On one of those days, it is Thomas who goes out carefully cautiously with a mission. While he's gone Jesus appears to this group of disciples in this room. I think a lot of us have been in a similar situation to Thomas. That fantastic epic day that all of your family or friends experienced and they're telling stories about the day and they're really excited about it And they forget you were not there. You were sick or you had to work. Maybe you've been the other way around where it's you who had the great conversion experience and you keep forgetting that your one friend Toni, she wasn't there. This huge world turning over shift has happened in your lives and you don't necessarily understand it, and your one friend Thomas who you love isn't sure he even can believe what you are going on and on about.  

It was probably an awkward week on top of a scared and confused time. What I love is that they remain in the community even with a difference of experience. It is their commitment to each other in Jesus name which is a way of love and reconciliation that way of life prepares them for the complex mission of the Jesus movement that is ahead of them. Within this story today is a story of finding forgiveness, signs of Easter reconciliation that are rooted in the testimony of the crucified and resurrected Jesus. Jesus who appears to Thomas, this is the holy one who is present with these disciples knows their strengths and their weaknesses is well acquainted with our dreams feels our disappointments, and loves us and forgives us remains with and for us in all of this complexity. 

Our readings also have an interreligious complexity we must pay attention to with the love for all we promise Jesus when we say we will follow him with God’s help. I went to sleep last night with news trickling in of another shooting at a place of worship. A hate crime by a person who attacked a synagogue in southern California because he belived that those people - killed Jesus. We must always remember that in the texts of the New Testament references to the Jews are just like if I were to be quite mad at megachurch pastors. The anger and frustration is with people who were co-religionists who experienced things very differently. Yes! I get frustrated and vitriolic at so-called fellow Christians who claim that if you are perfect and sweet and buy their slick pastors helicopters and mansions that God will fill your pockets just a bit more. That is not the Good News of Jesus. And to me they make the work of union and rescue that much harder.  References to the 'jews' require digging deep and smart contextualizing, and the command that they are our siblings and neighbors who we are called to love as God loves us.

Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ - his priority is releasing the oppressed and welcoming the last the least and the lost with all we have. Jesus teaches that eternal life isn’t a golden gate in the sky but made real right here by letting go of all our whithering securities and exclusions. Eternal life is seeking union with the love of God and all creation. Pray for the people of this nation and the world. But also speak up when you see and hear hate crime sparking language. The way of Jesus is steadfast love for all, even those I disagree with. 

Jesus Christ is always leading his disciples toward New life - one that turns everything upside-down and towards union with God and all others. The disciples and the apostles are our elders and they passed on their experience they didn't stay in that room They didn’t ignore the complexity Keep it to themselves or get stuck in nostalgia - because that is the way of death. The way of life of Easter people is one of trust and courage, a way of wonder and paying it forward. I trust that God has a mission prepared for Grace Church and that Easter life will not leave you where it found you. Alleluia, Christ is risen!  

We are supposed to be Easter people and we are being led out of our tombs and toward being the Jesus movement of today. The sacred Storyteller of John is telling us a story about the first days of the Jesus movement, about a time of uncertainty that could barely imagine the reality that John's community was living in at least 60 years later. AND that storyteller told this Good News to us so that that this community of disciples could trust and serve and love as Jesus said. God calls us to trust the signs, trust each other, trust the Spirit. Doubts are fine. Questions are good. Lying in our graves, refusing to rise to the mission of lifegiving liberating love is not. Trust, share, welcome, go, and forgive in Jesus name. 

April 28, 2019
Grace Episcopal Church
Pemberton, New Jersey

A week later the amazing author and blogger Rachel Held Evans died at a young age.  She did so much for so many and in her memory my commitment is to post more sermons and write more blogs for a world that is searching for Easter.  Thank you Rachel, we needed you and hear your love for us from the further shore.