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. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Home Away From Home

Now I am in Austin, TX for seminary, and I'm very excited to get started. It's been a long week of traveling and a few days of getting acclimated to the Texas heat.

This morning I met with a potential spiritual director to do some preliminary work. My bishop is asking me to meet with a spiritual director while I'm in seminary, and it's important to find a good match when it comes to spiritual directors. No two clerics are alike, and the same is true with spiritual directors.

As I met with her, we just had some light chit-chat about Austin, the move, what a sense of being 'called' means, the point of spiritual direction. When she asked me some pointed questions about my own spirituality, though, she latched right onto a word that I kept using without really thinking of it:


Home didn't just refer to the place I grew up; it is a spiritual term. Home. It is loaded with power. It's a place of safety, of comfort, where things can just 'be.' It's a place where you have your bearings and know where you are. Sometimes, at home, you even know WHO you are. Home is also where you can be challenged in a good way and grow from that challenge.

As I journeyed down here, I stopped in Omaha to visit old friends. Driving in on I-80, I felt a sense of 'home' as I hit the city limits. I could see familiar street signs, I passed businesses I knew on Maple, and I smiled wide as I got into the Benson area. I had driven this area frequently in visiting some homebound parishioners.  It felt familiar and friendly. When I'd driven into Omaha to start my internship I was hitting rush hour and was scared to death; this time I was hitting rush hour and knew what to do.

Now that I'm in Austin, I feel kind of the same way. I know if I get to Lamar or Guadalupe or 38th Street, I can get home. I'm starting to get my bearings. And with my classmates I feel I can be myself so far. Not open about everything, of course; it's a rare friend you can be completely open with, but I don't have that same fear and apprehension I had when starting college or my internship. Maybe it's lurking around the corner, maybe it's not.

My spiritual director pointed out that home isn't really a place. It's really only in God that we are truly home. It is in God that we can be ourselves, our whole selves, and sometimes our holy selves. In God we can be challenged, our flaws pointed out, our sins laid bare, our heart made new in God's love.

Slowly, I'm coming home to God. It's a lifelong journey but I get to have homes along the way, too.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Communion without Baptism

(Following is a post I made on the Episcopal News Service article about the General Convention debates about Communion without Baptism. The article can be found by clicking here)

I find it interesting that the article is written to lean toward those who favor abolishing baptism as a precursor to admission to the communion table. Which side starts and ends the article?

Question: when will we also abolish baptism and confirmation as requirements to holding church office? What, then, is the role of baptism, and does it confer any spiritual grace or actually incorporate someone indivisibly into the Body of Christ?

At what point will we recognize that God can be worshiped and adored outside the context of the Holy Eucharist? I'm glad that we as a church have returned to the ancient practice of celebrating the Holy Eucharist each week and sharing the Body and Blood with even infants who have been baptized, but now have we neglected our rich heritage of Morning and Evening Prayer (which, oddly enough, have never required baptism) because "worship won't happen without bread and wine and a priest"? Those who have not been baptized are also called to prayer and devotion to God - hence why Paul has that whole conversation in Acts about the altar to the "Unknown God". Those who have not been baptized are still loved deeply by God and God graces and blesses those whom God so chooses. God is Love, and God sends blessings and love to all the corners of the world. Those who are not baptized can still pray, even if they do not really know who they're talking to. How many people are there who aren't really sure who God is but pray anyway? God hears their prayers.  Baptism and the Eucharist, however, are special sacraments that God has entrusted to the Church for nourishing those whom God has called into the Church. If God calls someone into the Church, then they are incorporated into the Mystical Body by means of Baptism. The Holy Eucharist, then, is the sacred feast of the Church where Christ is mystically present - it is God's gift to the Church to observe with love and reverence.

Honestly, I fear that this entire debate about "welcoming" is a way to avoid having real conversations about real issues. When the debate is kindly framed "welcoming / open table" and "exclusivist  / gatekeeping / baptism before Eucharist" we have already tried to paint people into a corner.

Do I oppose communion without baptism? Yes, because I hold Baptism in the highest regard as the means by which we proclaim the reality of what we celebrate in the Holy Eucharist. Why would someone partake of the Body and Blood when they haven't decided that they actually believe in the Good News which the sacred meal proclaims? And why would they believe in the Good News and not be baptized?

The issue, for me, is not that people "don't understand" the Body and Blood. I confess I really don't, either, though I do trust that Christ is truly present in the Sacrament. The issue is that "being welcoming" is taking precedence over really wrestling with the mysteries, with what we live and proclaim (Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again - now what is it that we are baptized into, again?). People are not excluded from God's grace because they are baptized or not (God is free to bless those whom God chooses), but this is not just "some" wafer and wine we're eating. It's participating in a real, holy mystery which is part of deep spiritual preparation and finds its deepest roots when the soil is well-nurtured.

(And if those who favor ending the requirement want to say that I'm unwelcoming and excluding others, I'd like to remind them that they and I are already bound together by the vows we have made in baptism. If they want to doubt my love for others who have not been baptized, if they want to say I'm being "exclusionary", then I'd like to ask them this: if you'll treat someone who is bound to you in baptism with dislike, then how will you treat who are not bound to you in baptism? Can one member of the Body say to another, "I have no need of you"?)

Saturday, June 30, 2012


This past week the Daily Office lessons from the Old Testament have come from Numbers. Quite an interesting book and full of drama! The story of Korrah and the Levites who were unhappy with not being priests is actually some good comedic material.

Basically, the story is that some Levites are unhappy that they don't get to make sacrifices. Their rally cry is that all the congregation is holy and therefore there is no need for a special priesthood. "Everyone is equal and everyone has the right to offer the sacrifices," goes their line of thought. How does the story end? God gets upset and Korrah and his comrades are destroyed. There's also a plague that is minimized by the intercession of Moses and Aaron. The two men whose ministry was targeted by Korrah are the ones who end up saving the day.

The episode is a little funny, or at least can be interpreted that way as can much of that part of Scripture. The Israelites complain that they have no food, then God gives them manna. Right after that, they start to complain about not having meat and God then sends them mountains of birds to eat. The cycle is Israel complains / God gives solution with consequences / Israel finds another thing to complain about. I guess that's not the pinnacle of comedy, but God surely has to be throwing hands up in the air wondering aloud to the host of heaven, "What am I to do with these people?"

Where's the comedy in this episode? Israel is complaining that some people are made special when they themselves are special in comparison to the nations. Remember, God chose Israel to be a special, holy people. Out of all the nations, God chose the descendants of Jacob to receive a parcel of land and to receive the covenant and the Law.

The chosen people complaining about some of their numbers being chosen for a special service is a little ironic, isn't it?

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Sermon for Father's Day, 2012

Joseph Farnes
Third Sunday after Pentecost
June 17th 2012

Year B
Ezekiel 17: 22-24
Psalm 92: 1-4, 11-14
2 Corinthians 5:6-17
Mark 4:26-34

Father's Day

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Christ speaks through stories, miracles and signs. He guides us through images and pictures and the occasional sermon. He says little about the Kingdom of God directly; we get to piece it together through his images and through his commandments. Jesus' first disciples were lucky since he pulled them aside afterward and explained what he said. We, on the other hand, rely on the witness of the first disciples. We rely on reading Scripture, on coming together week by week to break bread, and on the prayers. We have to look to Scripture and tradition to help us make sense of the Kingdom of God.

Frequently all the talk about the Kingdom of God is confusing. Jesus didn't make it easy to comprehend. Jesus didn't just write out a booklet on “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Disciples” or a commentary on Scripture. He didn't write out a political platform about the Kingdom or pen a memoir. Instead, Jesus met with people and he loved them. He taught them and sent them out to the world. He gave them rich images and stories to draw people into the Kingdom of God.

How many parables start out “The Kingdom of God is like...”? Jesus doesn't say outright what the Kingdom is. He compares it to stuff we can know or imagine because it draws us into the image. We have to set the scene -- we have to see the mustard seed or see a farmer scattering seed which will grow. We have to dream up that old woman searching for a lost coin or the father welcoming back a son. By involving our imaginations, we start to see little details. These little details flesh out the parables and give them life. Sometimes we see a detail in our imagination that we hadn't noticed before and we breathe in and say, “Ah ha!” In fact, imagination is so important that St Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order, included it as part of his Spiritual Exercises. Our imagination can be a vehicle for the Holy Spirit to make the parable or story more real for us. We start to see ourselves in the story -- and we start to understand what Jesus is telling us.

These images, parables and comparisons do have limits, however. The mustard seed may grow up into the greatest of all shrubs, but should we then compare the mustard seed to the sequoia which is much, much bigger? No. By comparing the mustard shrub to a sequoia we'll probably miss the fact that the Kingdom of God grows from humble beginnings. The stories draw us in, but we should be careful not to get lost or miss the bigger picture.

Similarly, we can't push the image and language of God as Father too much or we risk talking about God as literally a father -- and that literal view paints a picture of God as a bearded old man sitting on a glorious throne. It suggests God is like the stereotypical picture of a 1950's family: children romping in the yard, the wife in the kitchen making a pot roast, and God walks in from a long day in the office as a patent attorney. Yeah, that image doesn't really make the Gospel much clearer. Let's look at the “God the Father” language more closely.

In what way is God our father, then? God is our father because God loves us dearly and because God calls us to be a holy people, a nation of sons and daughters sanctified in the Spirit. Jesus tells us to call God our Father because it shows how important we are to God. Calling God 'father' is our way of showing how important God is to us.

The richness of these parables and images is rooted in our experience. For example, a good father shows us glimpses of God's own love and guidance. A good father will pull us aside and explain to us what we've done wrong and encourage us to be better because we're capable of it. That experience helps us make sense of how God is our Father. God wants us to live up to our fullest potential and to use all our gifts.

On the other hand, if someone is a bad father, then we see how God's love for us and our relationship with God are so crucial. Our most important relationship is not with a person who mistreats us but with God. Of course, dads and other human beings are mixed: not just good and not just bad, so we have glimpses of both God's fatherly goodness and our need to cultivate a good relationship with God our Father.

Relationships are not frozen in time. They grow and change and sometimes wither. Our relationships with our fathers -- and with our mothers and siblings and friends and children -- change over time. The dad we saw as children changes as we ourselves change.

Imagine your father or a very close friend, spouse or child. How has that relationship changed over time? What are the habits and traits that you love, and are those the same things that made you like this person in the beginning? How do you spend time together now, and do you do the same things now that you used to do? Is it necessarily wrong that things have changed? Of course not.

Let's imagine a positive father and child relationship. It's a happy start. The daughter is born and crawls and walks, always eager to see her daddy's face. She hears the back door opening and flies in its direction, wondering if daddy brought home a present. As a little kid, the daughter looks up to dad. Dad knows everything – from why the sun goes up and down to why the grass grows. It doesn't matter if dad is right in his facts because it all makes sense. Dad keeps the monsters at bay and he somehow manages to make burned hamburgers from the grill taste great. Dad keeps her safe, fed, happy. Dad makes everything right.

As a teenager, the daughter now sees her dad differently. His explanations no longer work. The sun does not rise and set because it's racing against the moon. His explanation was just silly and now it embarrasses her to think she ever believed him. Now she's being asked to take on more and more responsibilities in school and at home. Dad doesn't just provide everything like a servant. She's struggling to decide who she is, and dad's advice is unappreciated. Doesn't he understand how hard it is to be alive in this world today? She doesn't know what she wants to be when she grows up but she sure doesn't need dad telling her what to do. She questions, she tests her boundaries. She looks at her dad and sees a very different man than the one she saw as a kid.

As an adult, she now starts to see what dad was talking about. Apparently he knew something after all! She starts to sympathize with the guy; she now has a child of her own and she dreads those teenage years. She's also juggling so many responsibilities now. She has work, church, family. She wants to do it all but can't. The energy and time and money just aren't there. She has to make a special effort to pick up the phone and talk to her dad, much less muster up the effort she needs to go visit him.

At this point, can we see how our relationship with God can be like these stages? Sometimes we just trust in God and everything seems right. Sometimes we question what we were taught and have to struggle through doubt and fear. Sometimes it takes a whole lot of effort just to remember God's there. None of these stages are right or wrong, and none is better to another. They just are. Our relationship with God changes over time. Sometimes it's easier to trust. Sometimes that trust feels childish. Sometimes we question, and sometimes we understand.

It's most important that we have a relationship with God and that we nourish it. We spend time with God and let the relationship grow and change. There's no way we can dictate what kind of relationship we'll have with anyone; it is formed by the time we spend with that person.

How, then, do we maintain and develop a relationship with God? How do we spend time with him? Franciscan priest Dan Horan talks about different ways we keep in contact with God. He describes volunteer work, worship in the church community, Scripture reflection, theological study, and personal prayer as different ways of spending time with God and getting to know him better. You set aside time for God and God's people and God's work, and through that you start to see God in different ways. The relationship changes as you change, and it changes as you learn more about God and listen.

What does Scripture say? What does the Prayer Book teach you? What do you see when volunteering at the soup kitchen? When praying by yourself, what do you feel the Spirit doing? How did it feel when we were listening to the readings earlier today? You were spending time with God by listening to St Paul and Ezekiel and hearing about their relationship with God the Father. The Holy Spirit is working through them to tell us more and more about God. Sometimes it feels like listening to one of dad's stories over and over again, but sometimes you hear something you hadn't heard before.

God wants to spend time with us. Let's make that happen. Pick up the phone ... or, better yet, why not invite God to dinner tonight? Like dear old dad, God doesn't want anything fancy for Father's Day. He just wants to be with you.

Happy Father's Day! 

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Who Should I Trust?

I was originally writing a sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany (Jan 29 2012), but I was told that the canon to the bishop would be present at my parish to preach instead. Thus, these are some jumbled thoughts mixed together with some things I've been struggling with

The readings for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany can be found here.

 "A new teaching... with authority!"

With authority! It wasn't just a new teaching that took his listeners by surprise; that new teaching was accompanied by authority. In other words, Jesus wasn't just babbling on about love and God and the Son of Man and forgiveness. He was backing up his words with authority.

How could his listeners tell he had authority?

How can we tell that he had authority?

Right now it's not so clear who we can trust for anything. With all the different drugs out there that get recalled for being unsafe, who can I trust to take care of me when I'm sick? Who can I trust to tell me what's going on in the world around me? Who can I trust with the fate of my future and my soul?

Who do you trust?

Who do I trust?

Sometimes I don't really know. There are people who tell me wonderful things about myself, and sometimes those are the people who hurt me the most. Then there are people who tell me wonderful things about myself but they don't make me hurt. There are guys who've told me that I'm wonderful and attractive and everything, but then they cast me away or make me feel completely unlovable. Then there are friends who tell me that I'm wonderful and attractive, but then why am I still single?

Who can I trust to tell me the truth?

In my discernment process (which, for me at least, has been going on for a few years, even if I haven't been actively moving forward toward ordained ministry) I've doubted on multiple occasions my call. I've refused it. I can't do it- I'm not smart enough / kind enough / strong enough for it. I'm just deluding myself with it. But then I have moments where I see it, and then I have moments when others see it in me.

Who do I trust?

Not only do we need to hear the Truth, but we also need to hear the Authority behind it. We can't just hear words and have their Truth ring in our hearts, but we also need to know, to trust, that there is a power behind that Truth.

But then who do we trust? Who can I trust with my deepest self, my dreams, my goals? Who can I trust with my very future, my soul, and my well-being? Who will tell me the truth but do it with the authority of God, the authority that is the Love that creates, redeems and sanctifies us?

Add in the fact that God says there will be both real and false prophets. There will be truth-tellers, and there will be those who proclaim something as truth which is not fully true.

Back to my examples. There have been guys who have told me I'm wonderful, attractive, etc. Some of them have hurt me deeply and others who have not. Some who may have been lying. Some who were not. The content of their message may have been mostly the same, but not all of them had the authority because they may have said it for their own gain or for some other reason. Sometimes even the right message will lack the authority behind it to make it the Truth.

That's why we can trust Paul. For all his flaws, we see in his letter the love he has for the people he's writing about. There are no gods but God, and idols are just statues without power. To eat meat sacrificed to them was no sin because the idols were nothing real, but to hurt another believer who couldn't see that or truly believe it was a sin. His motivation wasn't to be dogmatically correct at all costs nor was it to placate believers who couldn't just give up the old ways. Where do we see that now? Some who insist that they are the only ones who are right, and others who demand every concession be made to them.

Look to the Truth. Look for the prophets with Authority. See it in their eyes, in their moments off-guard, see it in their hearts and lips. What guides them?

And look to yourself. By whose authority do you act? Are you a true prophet to yourself, or are you a false one?

Who do you trust? Who can you trust? Most importantly, who will you trust with your heart and soul, who will you trust to tell the truth?