more pomp & circumstance–why process for the Gospel…

As we gather for worship this morning, I’m going to paint you a picture of our life together; something that might—or might not—help us understand and imagine how we work together as one body, how we are God’s hands and feet in the world.

Somewhere near the middle of our Eucharist service, we read from Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John together.  When this happens, have you noticed that a lot of people move?  The deacon, or the celebrant, in the Keenan Chapel services, walks into the middle of the nave, right into the heart of the congregation, if you think of us all gathered here as a “body.”  Once the deacon is there, she proclaims the Gospel to us all.  She’s not just reading what’s written on the page; just like there’s something special about singing together and praying together, as we do when we gather here, there’s something special about listening together—most of us learned about that in kindergarten: we learned how important and transformative it is when we all listen to the same words and instructions at the same time.  Not least, it’s easier for our teachers and leaders to help do their jobs if we’re all paying attention to the same place at the same time.

Many of us turn to face the deacon as she or he shares the Gospel with us from the middle of our gathering.  This is a great and beautiful symbol—someone who has been appointed by God to spend all their time taking the Good News of Jesus’ resurrection into peoples’ everyday lives does that on Sunday mornings, too, in order to remind us that God belongs in the middle of our lives, in the middle of our relationships, as the focus of our attention and our bodies—God is the one toward which we turn and orient ourselves.

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come!

The Original “Lean In”

Sheryl Sandberg has stolen from Jesus.  As usual, Jesus is pretty gracious, and as far as I know, Sheryl hasn’t yet been struck dead, but you hear the words of Sheryl’s best-seller in our Gospel text for this morning: “if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile” (Matthew 8:41).  Sandberg is the COO of Facebook and author of the book “Lean In.”  Her message is more specifically about women in the workforce and in society, but she’s tapped into something much larger, deeper, and more important than how to narrow the gender gap in Fortune 500 companies.

Part of what made her words so popular is that they don’t quite line up with the messages that we’re used to hearing from secular sources.  She challenges her readers that when doors start to close, you should stick your foot in them before they shut completely, when someone won’t answer you, knock harder instead of walking away.  Women throughout history have been known as the necks that move the heads of state; gaining ground through unofficial back channels–there are plenty of examples in the Old Testament alone.  To face problems head-on and refuse to back down is how Sheryl asserts women should tackle the last hurdles toward gender equality.  This is not the way that most women have been taught to respond to resistance; giving away a shirt is not the way most people have been taught to respond to someone who demands your coat.

Of course her audience is women in the workplace, and the dogged ambition that motivates the message might raise some concern, but I wonder why we don’t approach God’s message with the same ruthless determination.  Through Jesus, God teaches us a new kind of math in this Sermon on the Mount: meant to awake in the hearer the story of Moses and Mt. Sinai, Jesus gives a new summary of the law here in the fifth chapter of Matthew.  You hear again and again the refrain, “You have heard it said… but I say to you…”  Jesus is painting the picture of the Gospel as clearly as he can: when someone wrongs you, lean in.  When someone steals from you, lean in.  When all sorts of evil comes your way, batten down the hatches, turn your face toward the rain, and let it do its worst.

The strength to face these trials comes not from ourselves but from God, through the Holy Spirit.  It is only when we’re leaning on God that we can lean in to the kinds of lifestyle that Jesus is outlining for us in the Gospel lesson today, and that’s what the whole of Scripture is about.

In our Old Testament reading today (Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18), we hear about the ways that God set out for his people, the Hebrews, to behave.  They were to avoid corruption and deception, they were to be generous and fair to each other, to the less fortunate, and to the strangers in their midst.  At the end of each exhortation or law, there is a refrain, “I am the LORD.”  It refers back to the beginning of the passage, where God says to Moses, “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2).  It’s a sort of shorthand, you see–every line, every law that’s being laid out by Moses to the people on God’s behalf is about holiness.  It’s about living in a way that imitates God, that makes the world holy like God is holy.  That’s what being “sanctified” is–being made holy.

Even back in Leviticus, God knew that we humans weren’t quite capable of being holy on our own.  God says that his people will be holy because of his own holiness–the promise that God made back in Leviticus came true when Jesus arrived on the scene.  That’s part of the reason why Matthew’s gospel draws so many lines back and forth between the Old and New Testaments–he wants his readers to see clearly that God is fulfilling his centuries-old promises in the person of Jesus Christ.

So, how do we live these words that God has given us today?  How do we “lean in”?

The truth that we know deep down, that we see witnessed to in the pages of Scripture, and that we hear in our prayers every Sunday, is that we can’t “lean in” on our own.  We can’t make ourselves do any good thing apart from God’s power through the Holy Spirit.  We’re helpless to our selfishness, our desire to keep our coats, to do the bare minimum required, to ask for our possessions back as soon as we lend them out.

And so, we pray.  We use the words that God himself taught us through Jesus in the Lord’s Prayer, we use words that faithful people throughout time have used in our Book of Common Prayer, we use our own words, offering up our souls and bodies to be used by God.

What does God do?  He sent his son, our Lord Jesus Christ; we disciples take this gift into our own bodies in the Eucharist every time we gather here together.  He sent the Holy Spirit to transform us into holy people, to give us strength to lean in when we have got nothing left.  From the beginning of God’s relationship with people, he’s always told us that he is only as far away as we push him; he’s always standing just as close as we’ll let him, ready to give us the strength we need to face whatever evil may throw at us to try to destroy us.

“You have heard that it was said, `You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:43-45).  No matter how hard evil and violence push, God pushes back with peace and love.  Through his strength, which we gain in prayer and in our sacraments, we can push right back, too.

We have learned through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ that when death–the greatest evil–does its worst, God’s power is still stronger.  Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God; this is the truth upon which each of us may stand–and when we do, even the gates of hell cannot prevail against us (Matthew 16:16-18).

Amen.

To Be, Rather Than to Study

A few weeks ago, there was a mindfulness retreat in Asheville, led by the yoga teacher who made it all click for me last summer, and though I desperately wanted to learn more from her, I couldn’t go (you know, occupational responsibilities, like, Sunday morning).

After the retreat, she posted about the weekend on facebook, commending mindfulness as “where it’s at.”  I lay in bed with my phone very early Sunday morning, wishing I could have been there and learned something with that community, and I commented, “what should I read to learn more?”  I could almost see my teacher smiling compassionately as her comment appeared, “find a quiet place, sit comfortably, breathe, let go!”  I rolled my eyes–of course!–I wanted to study the practice of meditation and to learn about mindfulness, but doing the actual thing?  Learning by practicing?  No, no, that was too hard.  It was much easier to let my mind just run about while I dove into a book, or let my thoughts wander around while I discussed the theory.

That’s what Paul’s telling us this afternoon about the cross (1 Corinthians 1:10-18).  For many reasons, we’ve become a people who believe that knowledge is power.  We’ve seen how our medical advances save, or at least prolong, life.  We pay lots of money for diplomas on our walls that symbolize years of reading, writing, and testing.  Our obsession with study and learning, while they are goods, can begin to blind us to the Gospel.  I do not believe that being a “thinking church” or the “church where you don’t have to check your brain at the door” is a badge of honor; it is a condemnation.

God did not come into the world as a scholar, though he has all knowledge.  When God the Father sent his Son to be among humanity, and to be human himself, he did not set his kid up in the hotbed of intellectualism, or in the most prestigious city in the world.  God showed by his example in Jesus’ life that knowledge is not the core of our faith.

A former rector of mine always used to say that, “the Episcopal Church is David dancing before the Lord.”  We understand grace; we depend on it–we dance because of it!  What a beautiful gift for our brothers and sisters in other denominations in Christ’s regrettably divided body.  However, as Paul said elsewhere, though everything is permissible, not everything is beneficial (1 Cor. 10:23); sometimes our deeply-held belief in the grace poured out for us, we think that we decide to believe whatever else we want, because of the grace safety-net.  We can slurp up the newest theories of Jesus’ wife, or find the “real person”-Jesus behind the text, we can obscure the view of Jesus’ death on the cross all together with the more pressing, more important matters of social justice.  Again, Paul says, “while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:8).

Our first charge as disciples of Jesus is to sit at the foot of the cross.  Jesus’ sacrifice of love through his death on the cross is the foundation of our faith.  “The wisdom of the cross stands against worldly wisdom” (Feasting on the Word Commentary, Year A, Volume 1, pg 282; Timothy F. Sedgwick).  We understand God’s love not by reading about it, or by studying the details of the Gospel accounts; we learn by practicing. We sit, and stand, and bow, and kneel in front of the altar, the most-ancient symbol of sacrifice.  It is at the altar, the table–the cross–where God, through Jesus shows us the Good News.  The Gospel is that we are no longer helpless to evil, there is no longer any reason that we should drown and die in our sins.  The one person in the history of the world who had the power to fight evil from the beginning, the one person who lived a perfect, blameless, sinless life–he died a violent death for each of us.

Jesus taught using words on the Mount, in the Temple, on the road, and on the sea, but we do not spend every Sunday remembering any one of those places or moments.  The most important moment was not when disciples’ minds were being given a work out, the most important moment was when Jesus gave himself up to death, even death on a cross, because of God’s great love.

When the church tries to argue its way into converts, it will always lose.  Our world doesn’t set us up to understand the Gospel as making sense and as the respectable thing to do.  Our world is a place of division and dissension; just as Paul talks about in the Epistle lesson today–how the church in Corinth was prioritizing their spiritual lineage over their identity as Jesus’ disciples.  I wonder how much we prioritize our lineage as Episcopalians, or as Methodists, or as Roman Catholics above our identity as belonging to Jesus Christ because of his life in backwoods-Nazareth, his death on the cross and sacrifice on the altar/table, and because of his resurrection from death, the complete triumph over evil on Easter Day.

Each time we celebrate the Eucharist, we gather together, sitting quietly at the foot of the cross, waiting for God to reveal himself to us again, to enlighten our hearts with his saving grace.  May we be ever-humble, knowing that we do not have the whole picture, eager for the reunion of all the disparate pieces of Jesus’ body, the church, throughout the world, and placing our trust and faith in Jesus Christ alone.

Fumble! (too soon, Duke fans?)

Only about 30% of people even make New Year’s Resolutions anymore.  Of them only 20% manage to make a lasting change, having kept their resolution for 2 years (newrepublic.com).  On this, the third day of the new year, we’re probably already struggling with the resolutions, or intentions, or goals we’ve set for ourselves in this auspicious year of 2014.

What happens in our minds when we fumble?  When we eat  that extra helping of dessert we didn’t really quite mean to eat, or binge-watch shows that make us feel like we’d like to dip our minds in some bleach; what we say to ourselves when we fail?

Most of us (me, for one!) live under a very stressful fallacy that we can perform perfectly.  That we really can not-fail, not-fumble, not-trip-up.  We fail.  To focus on failure and on shortcomings can be debilitating.  What if we brushed the mistake off instead, took a deep breath, and bravely turned around to do something else?  So much energy is wasted in lament and guilt and self-punishment–what if we learned that we would indeed fumble and that when we fumbled, we should simply pick up the ball and try again (I think that football analogy doesn’t quite work…)?

Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

Our Deepest Gratitude

Around many tables this afternoon, probably at the table where you’ll be sitting, a moment will come when each person will be asked to reflect and recount the things for which she or he is thankful.

Some people do this all year round, a friend of mine thinks of three specific things he’s grateful for before he lets his feet hit the floor in the morning.  I know a few people who keep gratitude journals, jotting down events, or people, or moments during the day.  The journals let them look back and remember these treasured moments in the following weeks and months, which makes them feel grateful again–because they’ve probably forgotten those little fleeting gifts in the interim.

It seems that for us humans, it’s often much easier to remember negative things than positive things.  Look at the ancient Hebrews–I don’t mean to pick on them as exemplary in this area, because they certainly aren’t–the Bible is made up of common life examples, situations in which any person would do the exact same thing.  As God’s people are wandering around in the desert, they complain to Moses–do you remember those stories?  They’ve just seen God’s protection of them at the Red Sea, cutting off the Egyptians from pursuing them, and with the image of the great waves crashing over the heads of their enemies still burned into the backs of their minds, they turn to Moses and say, “Are we there yet?!  We’re going to DIE out here!!  This is absolutely HOPELESS.  We should go back to Egypt.  Let’s take a poll–who wants to go back to Egypt??”  It sounds a little like the back of my mom’s minivan on the way to summer vacation.

Do you remember what happens next?  Our Gospel lesson alludes to it; God provides food for them in the wilderness by raining down manna on them.  The manna is something that can be baked into bread which the Hebrews gather up every morning when they wake up–it falls and rests on the ground overnight, like dew, the Bible says; maybe something like the frost we experienced on our lawns this morning.  The word “manna” in Hebrew translates as, “What is it?”  Its substance is mysterious, we don’t know exactly what it is, even today.  But in another way, we, as well as the Hebrew people, know exactly what it is–it’s a blessing, it’s a witness to God’s love and care.  So the Hebrew people gather up these little scraps that remind them how much God loves them and cares for them.

What is our gratitude except Manna?  The journals my friends keep are proverbial baskets full of manna, pages and pages of reminders of God’s goodness and love toward us.  Our greatest gift which God sends from heaven as a symbol and reminder of his love is Jesus Christ, his only Son, God incarnate.  In today’s Gospel lesson, some people ask Jesus, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you?  What work are you performing?” (v.30)  Do you recognize the skepticism?  Maybe first-century people aren’t so different from people today.  “How can you prove that God exists?”  “How do you know that Jesus is God?”

Jesus responds to his interlocutors that it was God who was behind the manna their ancestors ate, as they well know; and besides, God has provided for them the true bread which is standing right in front of them.  They’ve already seen signs–their ancestors witness to them about the manna provided in the wilderness.  The actual eyes beholding Jesus in first-century Capernum didn’t see the manna falling, or ingest it into their own bodies, but their very existence was evidence that their ancestors hadn’t starved in the wilderness, but that they’d been sustained by something–by manna, the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren were told.  And so, these children generations later knew and trusted that the manna had fallen and had been a tangible testament to God’s care for His people.

It’s the same for us.  We haven’t seen Jesus in the way that the people in our Gospel lesson today did; we haven’t seen Jesus the way that Paul did on the way to Damascus or Jesus’ disciples did after his resurrection.  But we know Jesus came, and lived, and died, and rose again because we have our ancestors’ witness to those events.  We stand on the shoulders of our great-grandparents in the faith, trusting their testimony about the God made human in Jesus Christ.  Further, because we exist as Christians and children of God, we ourselves are witnesses, we are a testament to God’s love and power.

Our great-grandfather-in-the-Faith, G.K. Chesterton said, “The test of all happiness is gratitude; and I felt grateful, though I hardly knew to whom.  Children are grateful when Santa Claus puts in their stockings gifts or toys or sweets.  Could I not be grateful to Santa Claus when he put in my stockings the gift of two miraculous legs?  We thank people for birthday presents of cigars and slippers.  Can I thank no one for the birthday present of birth?” (Orthodoxy)

A Novel Leader: Is Francis New News?

Pope Francis

(via Photograph: Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters)

Excerpts from a Guardian article on the Pope:

“‘A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?'”

We’ve heard that sort of answer somewhere before, I think.  Answering a hostile person’s loaded question with another question, gently and compassionately ridiculing the supposed boundaries of the combative question being asked (Luke 10:25-26; Luke 20:3; John 18:33-34).

Explaining his decision to live in “The Casa” (where he was housed during the discernment and election of the new Pope last spring) at the Vatican instead of the tradition Papal apartments: “I cannot live without people.”

What do the first chapters of Genesis lay out for all humanity to read, but that God himself committed in the beginning to never live without people?  Where people are, God is in their midst; God is present.  This is the story of Scripture, this is the Gospel–because of God, incarnate in Jesus Christ, we are never alone.

On women as part of the church body: “The feminine genius is needed wherever we make important decisions.”

Didn’t someone else speak out by word and action about women’s important place in society and in communities of faith?  This other man spoke to women of impure blood, and allowed a prostitute to touch him (John 4:7).

 

Pope Francis is a man deeply steeped in prayer and Scripture.  He is not upsetting the whole of the Roman Catholic Church, he is not reversing the tide of Roman Catholic theology, or doctrine, or practice.  By the examples above, he’s sticking just about as close to the classic Christian game book as a person can!  Francis is, for whatever reason, someone that our media and our wounded and our skeptics can hear in a way that we haven’t been able to hear and to listen for many, many years.

Isn’t it a beautiful wonder that simply stealing pages from Jesus’ playbook is still, thousands of years later, considered radical and exciting and irresistable?

What is it, do you think, that makes him someone to whom the world is willing to listen?

Mary and Martha and a heart problem

Today’s Gospel lesson is the well-loved account of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42), which is used to blast both those who find their spiritual fervor in serving the Lord through activity, and to rein in those who would love to sit forever without lifting a finger.

This video, about a woman who suffers a life-threatening heart condition, communicates a bit of what Jesus might be getting at in today’s parable; she hasn’t stopped doing anything since her diagnosis, but her attitude toward her life,  accomplishments, and activity has changed completely.

How does this video, and Jesus’ call to the “one thing” inspire you?