Sunday, July 28, 2013

Amos, What do You See?

(This was a sermon I preached a few weeks ago at the local congregation while I'm doing Clinical Pastoral Education up in Missouri. It has been an intense summer so far, and I apologize for not being active in posting. I hope you are having a blessed summer!) 

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
            Amos, What do you see? Or, to use the language of King James, Amos, what seest thou? This passage was a key point of inspiration for Bishop John Hines, former presiding bishop and founder of my seminary, the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas. In the seminary chapel there is a metal sculpture of a modern city skyline with a plumb line suspended above it. The plumb bob dwarfs the one dimensional buildings that it hovers over. In front of this sculpture is a Bible, perpetually open to this very passage of judgment in Amos as a reminder that all ages, both ancient and modern, are measured by God’s plumb line.
Before the trees outside the seminary chapel grew, one could see the skyline of downtown Austin through the clear glass windows to the south: one could see the buildings of the University of Texas, the state Capitol building, the banks and commercial centers. The chapel even has its cross outside – the cross is on the other side of the stained glass, not inside. The juxtaposition must have been powerful for the first classes at the seminary, and served as a reminder that Christ was crucified out on a hill, not inside the Temple.
            In his vision for the seminary, Bishop Hines saw a need for clergy to be trained for the world outside the seminary walls. The formation that goes on in seminary, in class and in chapel, must always be oriented toward the outside. Bishop Hines saw that vividly during his tenure as Bishop of Texas and as Presiding Bishop as the Episcopal Church faced the issue of race and racism within our congregations and within American society during the 50s and 60s. When people were being attacked and rejected for the color of their skin, he refused to let the church stand idle. His actions infuriated many people who wanted the church to be an oasis from these issues, to be a refuge from social storms. He was accused of injecting politics into the church. Some of the modern arguments in the Episcopal Church about social issues bear the legacy of those turbulent times of social injustice.
            How can the Church stand idly by when the world outside is in such turmoil and pain? The instinct to make the church a refuge is not wrong; in the confusing, alienating world we inhabit, who doesn’t want to have a safe place to go, where the wars and fighting and hatred of the world fall away to be replaced the holy silence, the majestic music, the sacred prayer of the Church? Who doesn’t want to have a safe ship in the storm, guided by the light of good teaching? This instinct is a good one. The world needs the Church. The world needs the prayer, wisdom, and servanthood of the Church because the world is a confusing place.
            This instinct, though good in desire, ultimately fails. It fails because the world does not come into the Church but rather the Church goes out into the world. At the end of the Holy Eucharist, the deacon dismisses the congregation with the words, “Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord”; those words are a solemn charge! GO! Get out there, in other words. As you have eaten at the table of God and been refreshed for the journey, now go out into a world that needs to hear the proclamation of the Gospel in thought and word and deed. The world is a confusing place, and it needs you.
The world needs you as the Body of Christ and it needs you as a member of the Body of Christ to care for it and guide it, but the world is not going to beat down the church’s door no matter what slogan or advertising we do, no matter what awesome program we put on, no matter what changes we make to the liturgy. The world is not coming here looking for the answers to the questions about meaning and hope and God that they don’t even know they’re asking. The world continues on in confusion, doubt and pain because it can only recognize the Gospel when you share it.
The Gospel is known through experience. Look back on times in your life when someone was there for you and walked with you in a time of pain. Maybe a time when you mourned the death of someone near to you. Maybe a time when you felt guilt over something you did that hurt someone. Who was there at your side? Who embodied the love of God for you, who became your neighbor, to use the image from the Gospel reading today? The nourishing and transforming love of God is known through people.
            When the lawyer stood up to test Jesus, he asked him a good question: “What do I do?” And the lawyer gave the right information: “Love the Lord with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.” You’ve got to love God, and you have to love your neighbor, and that includes loving yourself. In fact, love of God and love of neighbor feed and enrich each other. As you love God with your whole heart, then love dwells more deeply in you and flows out to your neighbor. As you love your neighbor, then you feel the immense love of God for the entire world. God loves this neighbor, this child of God, with all their gifts and flaws, just as God loves you with all your gifts and flaws.
            Since you have found the transforming love of God in this community of Christ Episcopal Church, is it not an act of love to share it with your neighbor? How has being a member of this community of believers helped you grow in the knowledge and love of God and of His Son Jesus Christ, and how have you been renewed through the power of the Holy Spirit? How would you share this experience with someone else? How would you share this transforming love of God with someone who is curious? With someone who thinks Christianity is about judging the world and wanting to control it? With someone who has been hurt by us, by the Body of Christ? The world out there desires the transformative love of God, and God has appointed you, yes, you, to take it outside of these walls to them.
This is a sermon on evangelism in the Episcopal Church. Evangelism is not about filling pews and financial support of the church but about taking the healing love of God that we know in the Gospel out into the world. Sometimes you aren’t even taking anything; sometimes you’re pointing out where you see the love of God already is, and this is a powerful gift of love for your neighbor (or your fellow parishioner or for yourself)! Do not be afraid of evangelism.
Is there fear that people will see us as quirky for our religion? We kind of are a quirky bunch, with our Book of Common Prayer and our blend of Protestant theology and Catholic tradition. Is there fear that people will see us as judgmental people? That is hard if we spend our time loving instead of judging. Is there fear that we have secret motives, such as filling a church building or getting more money to be pledged during stewardship season? That might be something we need to be honest with ourselves about. Is there fear that people will reject us? Some will, yet being honest about ourselves and our needs, fears, and stories will invite other people to turn to God for refuge from the confusion out in the world when we show how we have experienced the transforming power and love of God. Invite people to partake of the love of God that dwells in your heart. 
The Church is not this building. These four walls, these windows of colored glass, this altar, these things do not make the church.  You do. You are the Body of Christ, you are the Church. The love of God dwelling in you can be a place of refuge for the world.
To return to our plumb line, do you see the cross? That is our plumb line, our way of measuring. God did not wait for us to come to him; God came to us. God created us, God sees our every need. God the Son is incarnate from the Blessed Virgin Mary to be so very near to us. God makes himself our neighbor that we might become closer to God. Make yourself a neighbor to the world and, in everything you do, share the Good News that God loves us all, no exceptions. Amen.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Sermon on Missiology

For our class on Church Mission we were asked to write and preach a sermon explaining our own personal theology of mission. The following is what I wrote, and I hope it gives you some food for thought whether or not you agree.

Psalm 105: 1-4

Give thanks to the LORD and call upon his name; make known his deeds among the peoples.
Sing to him, sing praises to him, and speak of all his marvelous works.
Glory in his holy name; let the hearts of those who seek the LORD rejoice.
Search for the LORD and his strength; continually seek his face.

            In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
            Give thanks to the LORD and call upon his name; make known his deeds among the peoples. In this one phrase the psalm is pointing out both a key strength and a key weakness of the church. In our prayer life, in the regular offering of the Great Thanksgiving that is the Eucharist, we continually thank God for what God has given to us. We give our praise, we give our thanks, and we give ourselves with a grateful heart. We are very mindful of God’s great loving-kindness for us. We know that God is with us in our joys and in our struggles. We call upon the name of our God with deep reverence and affection.
            It is a bit harder, though, to be honest about making God’s deeds known. I’m not just talking about the great mysteries of the Christian faith; I’m talking about the many beautiful, little ways that God has been present in your life and has blessed you in your journey. We sometimes hold back for fear of being wrong in our interpretation, of being seen as a weirdo for our devotion, of being thought of as pushy about our religion. Why else would “evangelism” have such a bad reputation? It’s a little scary to talk about what we believe in, doubly if we’re going into a life of ordained ministry in the church. Trust me, that is a perpetually awkward conversation to have when you’re a gay man trying to date and you get asked what you’re doing in school. “Hi, I’m Joseph. I’m studying to be a priest. Want to get a cup of coffee?” Suddenly the conversation switches from “Your eyes are beautiful” to “Wait, you’re doing what? Can you do that?” Those are fun conversations to have.
            But it’s also been a wonderful conversation starter. A fair number of guys have found it a way to talk about their own spirituality, whether or not they even consider themselves Christian. A practitioner of voodoo in Boise keeps in touch with me, and I’ve had interesting dialogues with a neo-pagan and a few atheists. There is a deep desire in the human heart to talk about religion, about meaning. It just so happens that the phrase “gay and Christian” is a way of opening those lines of communication. It all starts awkwardly, but the conversation gets started. There’s plenty of God-talk and mutual listening, even if it also involves my own emotions about having to defend Christianity or having to explain what I believe more clearly because I am failing at communicating. It is an opening up of self to share and to listen.
            But along the way of me talking about my sexuality and my faith, something gets told: I have to say what God has done in my life and how God is at work in the world today. I can’t help it. It just happens. I have to give a personal account of my own relationship with God as part of a wider body of believers also making their journey in Christ. It can be scary to do; it means risking my own story and my own understanding of God’s acts in the world in order to share it with someone else. I have to risk rejection or ridicule. I have to risk miscommunication or failure. I have to run the risk that in my story some of my own fears, my own needs, and my own weaknesses will become known.
I also have to risk that the other person will have things to share. They might indict me with the failures of Christianity in the world. They might share deep pain from their own past with me. They might share a need with me that God calls me to address. Once that door is opened and I share of myself, then the other person has an opening to share, too. They might need to tell their story. They might want to make those same risks, risk telling their own story, risk sharing their own needs.
The door gets opened and God asks us to be fully there with others, but that mindful presence makes us transparent so that the glory of the Lord might shine more fully. We tell our story so that God’s praises might be sung. Through the Christian story we see how God is at work in the world, and we can give thanks to God. Our Christian story is like a set of eyeglasses: the story helps details come into focus, but people are not blind without that story. People can see glimpses of transcendent majesty in the natural world and in human beings, whether or not they talk about God, creation, or redemption. The beauty of the natural world, the distant cosmos and the forests and the deserts are enough to take your breath, but, when we talk of the Eternal Word through whom all things were created, we are pointing to the details of the “Why?” and “How?” of the natural world. The creation was made good by God and is called to return to God. And when we feed the hungry, visit the lonely, care for the sick, and stand against oppression and injustice with our lives, we point to yet another truth behind the readily apparent worth of human life: there is a larger life in God that becomes more visible when we follow our Lord Jesus, and this we call the Kingdom of God.
The conversation I have with another person is a sign of the openness that God creates in the heart. We get to share our joys and burdens, rejoicing and lamenting as one human family. We see the teachings of the Church written in the creation around us and we can see it in the human soul. How beautiful! How worth the risk of sharing the praises of God’s name!
This is where dialogue and conversation with people who are different from us can help us to see more clearly whether we are speaking and living the truth or if we are proclaiming ourselves instead. We have to ask what other people see and hear, to borrow their eyes and ears and hearts and minds to understand God more clearly. The eyeglasses of the Christian story may let us see details, but there is still plenty that we might fail to see because of our sinfulness, our self-delusion, or our willful ignorance. For my own part, I can testify to you today that God has made good use of my own spiritual wanderings from my younger days. My Mormon roots, my practices in Wicca and Buddhism, my conversion to Jesus in the United Church of Christ, and my homecoming to the Anglican tradition have all influenced me and helped me to see more clearly how much God is with us and guiding us toward all truth in Christ. God worked in all of those religious expressions to mold me to become a better disciple of our Lord Jesus Christ, so God can certainly work outside the Church to help us see the truth more clearly. The Christian story is truthful, and Jesus Christ the Incarnate Word is the Way, the Truth, and the Life; this I proclaim. It would be a mistake, however, to say that we cannot learn from others who do not share our tradition. It would also be a mistake to say there is nothing they can learn from us. It would also be a mistake to neglect the depth of your tradition; drink deeply of the living water of Christ. In our praising and sharing, we have to keep searching for God. Look for Christ’s hidden wisdom drawing all, including you, into deeper love in the Trinity.
Let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice! People want to talk about religion and faith, but sometimes the hurdle to conversation is hard to jump over. People are seeking. People seek meaning in their lives. They want to see more clearly, and they want to understand what they see. The whole creation longs for the wisdom of Christ, yet sometimes that wisdom needs to be soft so that it may be heard. We should give praise to Christ and tell the world about the works of God, but that witness needs to be written in our hearts and lives. The wisdom comes from Christ and it is only thanks to Christ that we can say it, but the heart of the person hearing the wisdom needs to rejoice, they need to be built up, not condemned or rejected. Go out there to serve God and to serve those made in God’s image, even if it means being a gracious and humble recipient of their hospitality and service, too. Feed the hungry person who comes to you. Serve the homeless person who comes to you. Share your wisdom with the questioning person, and listen intently to what Christ has to say to you in their words back. Sometimes your mission in the world might be more passive; maybe God sends you to be quiet and to listen.
Just as we seek to proclaim the Gospel, praise God’s holy Name, and tell the whole world about what God has done, we must also be seeking God’s face. We have to keep seeking! Our own journey is not over, and we cannot stop and assume we are done. We cannot assume we know the truth perfectly and that there is nothing left to do. Our own souls need to hear again and again about the glory of God. We build up each other with the proclamation and testimony of what God does every day in our own lives, and even more so we need to build each other up by being redeemed and renewed by God’s immense grace every day. Mission is not just to the other; it is to each other.
So in a convenient summary form, what am I saying? I am saying that Christ is sending you on mission to proclaim God’s deeds and to invite everyone into the pilgrimage to ever-deeper knowledge and love of God. God has done great things, and God is doing great things in you already, and God is doing great things in others already, so help each other to see more clearly. Give thanks to God, serve God by serving and by being served, and point toward God and proclaim, “Behold! God is faithful and true to creation, and all are marvelously alive to God in Jesus Christ our Lord! Thanks be to God!” 

Friday, March 29, 2013

Desire, Confusion, and Power

As is my annual tradition, I watch the film "Jesus Christ Superstar" on Good Friday. Each time I find something new to meditate over, and this year I noticed a handful of themes running through the film and through the Passion of Christ.

Firstly, desire. Judas desired Jesus to behave a certain way, the merchants in the Temple lived on the desires of others, and even the lepers were motivated by desire to be well. The religious authorities desired order and "peace" in their occupied country, and the political authorities desired obedience and order. Desire! It become so easy to desire, and the powers that be already tell us what to desire (safety, wealth, fame, power, education, prestige, and so on). We become characterized through our desires. Even good desires (caring for the poor and marginalized, harmony, peace) can become perverted and demonic when they feed on themselves and they feed on us. Desire is a dangerous thing, and it is entirely possible to substitute our own vision of God and the Kingdom of God in place of God (or what we can sensibly call idolatry).

Second, confusion. Jesus is a confusing person in the Gospels. He can never be pinned down to behave a certain way, and in the film you could get a sense for the confusion of his disciples. What is he doing? Who is he? How do I love him, and can I still love him when I think he's wrong? Does he love me? The Christian tradition understands that God communicates to us the Truth even in the midst of confusion. It can be hard to see, and it is even harder to see when our desire is clouding what we see. When we are confused, our desires sometimes push their way into the driver's seat. Our confusion can, on occasion, be a fruitful land (though it feels like a desert) that reveals to us deep truths about ourselves, and God will be with us in the midst of that confusion. The world will not fall apart if we get it wrong; God is the creator, the Lord of all things, and our failures do not destroy his kingship.

Finally, power. You can attribute it to detailed study of Scripture, but you can see the role of the powers and principalities in the Passion. Who doesn't hold to power tightly to preserve one's own vision of how it should be? Rome wanted it one way and used its power to make sure that there was "peace" even while they oppressed others. The religious authorities had limited power but wanted to keep things orderly so that the world would not fall out of control. America, too, has its priorities (safety, wealth, etc) and will use power to maintain them.

Now add all these together. We have desires that push us toward satisfying some goals, we have confusion about how to reach those goals correctly, and then we have the power to carry out our plans.

Jesus pushed back against all these. What should we desire but God? Why do we stumble around when love of God with every fiber of our being and love of neighbor should be our guide? Who truly is the powerful One, who is the Lord God Almighty?

Even in our confusion, let us hold fast to the love of God, the desire for God. Even in our powerlessness, let us desire that "God's kingdom come, on earth his will be done as it is in heaven" by God's own power, not our power.

Peace be with you at this moment and forever.

Monday, January 28, 2013

How Shall We Sing the Lord's Song Upon an Alien Soil?

For the closing of the January class we were tasked with writing a reflection paper that integrated Scripture and our experienced with the course material and visitations.

Along the road the connection between the immigrant experience of leaving their homeland and the experience of exile in Scripture was made in my head, and the Psalm with the most cruel and brutal of language popped into my head: Psalm 137.

Here is a link to the text: (by the way, is a fantastic resource for Scripture and liturgy!).

The anguish and anger in that Psalm encapsulates the exile experience. Ripped from one's homeland and taken to another, the exile becomes an alien on foreign soil.

The immigrant experience has some similar elements. What drives an immigrant to leave the homeland? What forces at play push this person or family to leave what is familiar for a foreign place?

Political persecution. Economic collapse. Oppression. Starvation. Opportunities denied at home.

There is something missing, something lacking in the homeland to push someone to leave behind what they know and seek something new. Even if it's a general feeling of "I don't belong here," the lack of a sense of belonging is pushing them out.

Idaho gives me the same feelings of being pushed out at times. It's hard not being of a particular conservative stripe (let along being a liberal!), not being of a handful of religious traditions, not being straight. It's made me capable of living as a minority. Being a minority can be powerful; I can be free to say what I'm thinking because those in power aren't going to share or listen. Being a minority can be disheartening in its limitations; those in power aren't going to share or listen.

Growing up in Idaho I always knew that my fate was going to lead me out of the state. I was not going to be satisfied staying there. I never developed pride in my state as a collective entity. I love its geography, of course. Mesa Falls and Craters of the Moon are extraordinarily beautiful, and looking up at Taylor Mountain in the mornings filled me with joy! But the entity of "Idaho" and "Idaho-ness" do not hold the same appeal for me.

Here in Texas, it astounds me how much people take pride in their state. They take pride in being Texan and having grown up here or moving here. They are living in their homeland.

Who doesn't want to have a place where they belong and feel at home? Other than in the Kingdom of God, what else can I proudly call my homeland?

Remembering that people around the world still desire that Heavenly Country where all are welcome and all are loved, let us pray for exiles and refugees, for immigrants and travelers, for the lonely and hungry. May God's Kingdom come soon! Amen.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Sent out as Wolves among Sheep

This following sermon was written and delivered today as part of the Eucharist at the conclusion of the seminary's January "Encuentro" course on Latinos, Latino culture and history, and intercultural ministry. The work referenced is Eric Law's "The Wolf Shall Dwell with the Lamb."

Joseph Farnes
Sermon for the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul (End of January Encuentro)
Seminary of the Southwest
January 25, 2013
Acts 26:9-21
Matthew 10:16-22
Psalm 67
“Sent Out As Wolves Among Sheep”
            In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Today we have come to the end of our January Encuentro. A journey that started on what was to some a chilly Tuesday morning with Brother Dahlman’s reflections on waving like a madman to Queen Elizabeth, a journey that is now drawing to a close on this feast of the Conversion of St Paul, a Jew who was sent out and who converted Gentiles.
            For me, this January Encuentro has resulted in more questions than answers. Has it been that way for you?  The more we have learned, the more I see a complicated and interwoven human reality and am faced with the sobering reality that mission is more multifaceted than before.
            The stated goal for Encuentro is to learn about the culture and history of Latinos and to understand the present. Mission and outreach become a little more complicated when remembering the mixed history of the Spanish missions and presidios. Looking back on a history of injustice makes the tongue pause when it tries to preach justice and the Gospel. There is pain in the present due to injustices in the past. Truth-telling is painful.
             Yet as we have also discussed in class, there is pain in being frozen in history. The sins and errors of our forebears can be a powerful summons to modern-day action, but guilt, shame, and self-loathing can destroy the very person who is called to act. Guilt and shame can paralyze even though God calls us to use our gifts and strengths as ministers in the world.
            In our studies we have encountered a tapestry of counter-stories to compare to the tapestries of stories each of us has brought to this place. We see new depictions of familiar stories and ideas and sometimes we become uncomfortable, as if we were witnessing fingers pulling and plucking thread after thread from our tapestry, leaving scars and empty spaces in the colors. In seeing our own stories deconstructed, our stories that make us proud to be who we are and give us nourishing roots and depth and color, it may seem that we, too, are being deconstructed. The story does not have perfect heroes and perfect villains, but human beings who devoured each other and human beings who were devoured.
            The devoured and the devourer. Wolves and sheep. Jesus and Eric Law both use this imagery to frame a duality of the powerful and the powerless. Jesus sends out the powerless among the powerful, and Eric Law cautions the powerful to face their own wolfish characteristics.
            Are we sheep, or are we wolves? What if I am a wolf, not a sheep, and what if I’m prepared to face wolves but find sheep instead?
            Even more questions came to mind as that image was drawn in my brain.
            Firstly, to bring up what Eric Law points out, how do we avoid hurting when we only mean to help? How does the wolf not rule over the sheep, even if it is meant to be a benevolent rule? Like the well-meaning but powerful giant in a children’s story, we might end up using our power wrongly and hurting the community we seek to help. We might silence other voices by our talking; we might insist on our own way and insist that our way is God’s way. Power is hard to wield well. So what do we do with our own power, our education, every privilege we’ve been given? How do we share without taking over?
            Secondly, where does the wolf get its food except by eating other animals? To say it another way, how do we as priests and future priests live except by the generosity of those we serve? A popular negative image of a pastor is the one who fleeces the flock, enjoying wealth and prestige by convincing the poor to give their hard-earned money in the hopes of an eternal future. Father Alejandro in Houston mentioned that in some Latin American countries the church charges for holy water while we give it away here. Are we seeking to share the Good News of Jesus Christ, Son of God and God the Son, or are we seeking to keep the parish doors open and the pledges up? Or both? Are we afraid of scarcity in the pews or are we overjoyed at the outpouring of God’s love? Father Alejandro talked about the practical, financial issues of building up his Hispanic congregation. You have cultural differences about giving to the church, and you have annual reports for the diocese that wants to know numbers. Pledging units, average Sunday attendance, budget figures! What drives us to share in the work of reconciliation?
            Finally, what does a sheep need from a wolf? Does the sheep need the expert hunting skills of the wolf or need to learn how to participate in wolf pack politics? Sounds crazy, but are we teaching others about how to be more like us or how to be more like Christ? In a world that loves measuring by tangible things, how do we measure whether we are doing what is good and right? And what do we do with our neighbors and friends who find no need of our spirituality or even our relationship with God? Do we convince them that there is an unseen, gaping hole in their lives that only God can fill? How do we reach out to those who are different from us and care for them as they are yet still witness to Jesus Christ?
            Yes, that was a list of questions. I hope you might have answers for them because I don’t, and the Episcopal Church and the wider Church need those answers.
            Questions are good. A good question pokes at the limits of our knowledge. A good question guides us along and helps us seek truth; however, Jesus gave us a command.  Go out there, go proclaim the Gospel, persevere in the hope that the Holy Spirit will work in you and guide you along!
Christ sends us out. He didn’t command just the perfect ones to go out. He didn’t command only the ones who had the answers or who had the right program for parish growth. He sent out his apostles, and they had their own issues they were still working out. I am sure they still had questions about themselves, about what Jesus was asking them to do, and about how to do what Jesus was asking. Oddly enough, those are the same questions we are asking ourselves even today.
Jesus sent the apostles out, and he sends us out, too. The apostles didn’t get complete answers to their questions but they managed to muddle through it. We have to proclaim the Gospel. There is no choice in that. We may not have all the answers. We may not be perfect. We may not have what it takes, but Jesus is still sending us all out.
            When Paul was knocked off his horse, he asked one question: “Who are you, Lord?” And then he was sent out. No church manual on evangelism or a strategic vision for outreach – just his own, flawed, slightly privileged self.  In fact, I think Paul might have been a bit of a wolf, come to think of it. Educated, male, astute at navigating politics …
            Whether you are sheep or wolf or both, do what Jesus tells you to do. Go out there, go proclaim the Gospel, persevere in the hope that the Holy Spirit will work in you and guide you along!

Thursday, January 3, 2013

By the Light of the Phone in the Morning

(This was a meditation I drafted for an online publication that I decided not to send in)

Those first five minutes of the day command a lot of power over the rest of the day. When I wake up, the first thing my technology-focused brain will do is reach for my cell phone. My thumb flies to the email button, and my eye runs down the list of new mail with just a touch of anxiety.

Some of the new emails are good; I get a daily email from the Society of St John the Evangelist (an order of monks in the Episcopal Church) with a thoughtful meditation.

Some of the new emails are not-quite-so-good. Retailers are always present to encourage me to buy another thing I probably don’t need.

But my eye always scans for the unfamiliar email, the one I wasn’t planning on receiving. Why? It might just be good news from a friend! But it might be an email with bad news, with a reprimand for something I failed to do, or with some other text that might just start my day with a bit of anxiety.

That warm glow of my phone sure has a lot of impact in the morning. From bed to breakfast table, the light that seems to influence my day the most is not the Sun risen in the sky or the Son shining in my heart but rather the familiar glow of an ever-present phone.

Why does the phone have such power in the morning? Because for some hours I stepped away from our world and went to a world of dreams, leaving my deeds done and undone.

Each day might be a “fresh new day” in some ways, but it always contains the fruit of the days before. What I did yesterday will be reflected in what happens today, and that can be scary. I can never “start over” as if the day before never happened; what I said, what I did will continue on.

Instead of being cause for anxiety, though, that can be an invitation to honesty and truth. Honesty and truth with others, but, most of all, honesty and truth with myself.

Looking back, I can see what I did that has made me the person I am this morning and I can decide whether that is the person I want to be. I can be honest with myself in that warm glow of my phone.

Am I living out the values of love, honesty and generosity that God asks me to embody? Am I taking the risk in sharing myself with others and being open about who I am, what my needs are, and what flaws or difficulties I am struggling with in my journey to be the person God calls me to be? Am I loving God? Am I loving my neighbor, my friend, my enemy? Am I loving myself?

I am not perfect; my phone reminds me of that as it reminds me of my projects left undone and all the other ways I haven‘t lived up to my call of discipleship. Neither is the world perfect; my daily news alert reminds me of the turmoil and pain in the world.

But I can be honest. I can admit my mistakes, certainly, but I can also admit that I am a child of God. Me! A child of God! Me, a heavy-set gay man in his mid twenties, a child of God! Me, a guy who finally embraced my sexuality just eight years ago and embarked on a journey of  heartache, personal growth and much deeper love.

By becoming more and more honest with myself, all those parts come together more and more. The good, the not-so-good, the stuff-waiting-to-be-transformed. All wrapped up in an untidy package with a humble yet beautiful tag: A Child of God.

In those first five minutes, honesty can guide the rest of the day. One of the most startlingly true statements is that all are loved by God. It can be hard to believe that statement, but it is one of the truest statements that can be made.

If I may be so bold to be so direct, YOU are loved by God. YOU, the one reading this on the glow of a computer screen or the pale light of your phone in your hand. Loved as you are now, and  loved as you will yet become as you are led by God’s grace to even greater heights of joy and love.

Be honest, be yourself, be the Child of God that you are now and are called to be. It calls for just a little bravery and boldness, but smile at the face lit by the glow of this very screen, especially if it is the first five minutes of a new day.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Song of Mary, Song of Hope Fulfilled

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Since the end of the world prophecy of the Mayan apocalypse didn’t happen like the media had been talking about for weeks now, I guess I’m stuck with “Plan B” and will have to preach this morning. But hey, maybe this will be more exciting than the end of the world would have been anyway!

Studying Scripture takes different forms and different techniques, all of them with different fruits. Some of you may be familiar with Lectio Divina, a Benedictine technique where you read a small passage of Scripture over and over again and let God speak to you directly.

Another technique of Scripture study is to sit with the Bible and just start reading, trying to understand what was going on. Knowledge of history helps; the Bible doesn't tell you directly what had just happened sometimes. Scripture very rarely gives the context for the letter or the prophecy, and that context is a big help in understanding what Scripture is saying.
Why is Micah giving this prophecy? What's happened in Israel to make for all these prophecies of a Messiah? This way of studying Scripture is a big part of seminary life.

When we come together in Morning Prayer or Eucharist, we listen to the Scripture being read and, if you're a very visual person, try to imagine the scene or imagine what situation Paul is having to write to yet another congregation about. Imagination as study? Oh, yes, imagination is important. When you know some of the context of the passage and you've read it a few times, you can imagine yourself in Scripture and imagine what it would feel like to hear these words for the first time.

Imagine being the congregation assembled to hear Micah's words, to sing this Psalm, to hear the recounting of Mary's song for the first time. Something powerful must have been revealed for these words to have been passed down to us by our ancestors in the faith. Imagine that!

Our Scripture readings today, though, make that imagining a little harder. The people who wrote our Scripture readings were living under oppressive conditions that are a bit harder for us Americans to understand. What is it like having people from a foreign country show up with powerful armies and conquer your country, leaving your people and your family in poverty? What is it like seeing people betray their own nation in seeking power? What is it like seeing powerful people parading around while murdering and imprisoning people who dare challenge their tyranny?

Even though we in modern America can hardly imagine what it was like to be a first century Jew under the tyranny and occupation of yet another empire, we do share with them a prayer for God to come and set us all free.

While we might fret about the tyranny of money and the threats of overworking ourselves in the pursuit of so-called success or fame or becoming callous in the face of human need, Israel faced a different situation. Israel had lived under the occupation of – let’s count them – Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome, all in quick succession. Save for a few years of self-rule and for a few years of being ruled by minor dictators, Israel had not been free politically or economically for a long, long time.

No wonder that they were eagerly hoping for someone, someone to set them free. Maybe God would send a new king to kick those rotten Romans out! Maybe God would send a priest or prophet to bring the people back to God! Or maybe God would just bring this sad human story to an end and close the book in a magnificent display of judgment.

As it was, though, the whole world seemed stuck. Those people in authority flaunted their power and hungered for more and more, the people on the bottom had to scrape out a living with less and less, and nothing seemed to change. You can only hear tales of apocalypse or upheaval so long before you dismiss them. You don’t find the world changing and you find yourself stuck.

So what did Mary and Elizabeth find in our Gospel reading today? They could feel something was different. Some wheels had finally started turning. Things weren’t stuck.

Slowly, haltingly, moving as quickly as a baby growing in the womb, something was happening. Why shouldn’t Elizabeth greet this cousin, this herald of a new world waiting to be born? And why shouldn’t Mary sing out praise to God for this promise kept to all Israel?

Mary’s song has long been a treasured part of Christianity. In fact, it’s so beloved you can find it printed in one form or another in five different places in our prayer book. Open the prayer book to page 441 or to any of the morning or evening prayer services.

What does that say? Mary's song is the song all our hearts sing. We want to see God set the world right. But notice the verb. Mary is singing that God has already set the world right. The hungry are filled, the powerful cast down from their thrones. Mary’s song makes it sound like God’s already set everything right. Everything's done.
Did you read the news today? Are there still hungry people in Idaho Falls, Asia and Africa? Are there still politicians in power to satisfy their own desires and not to serve the people? Are people still murdered for being who they are or for speaking words of truth? The world still aches and yearns for it all to be different.

So what is Mary saying? She isn’t even cradling this baby in her arms yet and she already knows that the world is different and that God has set the wheels in motion to free all people from slavery to sin, selfishness, death, destruction, tyranny, injustice.

In short, it’s all done. Game over, as my liturgy professor would say. How can any person of power and privilege, whether it be president or priest, celebrity or scholar, businessman or businesswoman, not tremble a little knowing that God is king and high priest, source of all wisdom and might, and creator of much more wealth than any could dream of? And God had all of that done long before even our earliest ancestors were born.

Any position of privilege and power we have is overshadowed by God’s might and wisdom. Any power I have comes from the one who sends me, and God is the one who sends all of us out into a world to take the lowest place, to be servants in a world waiting to be transformed.

What a message of hope! It seems a little excessive, a little too much, really. Can we hope that the future will be different? That we will stop hurting others, that we who have will share with those who have little, that we will recognize that the world belongs to God and not to us? Yes, we can hope that.

We can hope because we can see glimpses of it. Mister Rogers once said, "When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.' To this day, especially in times of 'disaster,' I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world."

What did he mean by that? Look for the humble people, the salt of the earth people, the people grounded in God, and see glimpses of the Kingdom of God breaking into this world. That's Jesus at work.

It can be hard to stay hopeful in the face of the suffering going on around us and inside us. Injustice still persists, sin still acts to keep us away from God, death and destruction still assault God’s creation. But a little infant born in Bethlehem is our priest, our prophet, our king, our eternally beloved Lord.

We are already seeing the end of the world. The mightiest king has walked among the poor people of Galilee. The greatest prophet has taught in the Temple at the age of twelve. The high priest of all creation has offered himself as the supreme sacrifice to restore earth and heaven to God. And you have been made free to love and serve God and to love and serve your neighbor as yourselves. Our hope is being fulfilled!

Stay faithful, keep watch, and remain courageous. Our King is returning soon! Amen.